Why I root for the New York Rangers

Wayne Gretzky closed out his career in New York and nearly played with Joe Sakic

Why I root for the New York Rangers

Why does a Toronto native root for the New York Rangers, the original six franchise with the least number of Stanley Cups?

There’s countless reasons, but I’ll attempt to keep this brief.

Seven years before John Tavares signed with the Leafs and renewed Stanley Cup aspirations in Toronto, I recall being ecstatic upon hearing the news that high-priced free agent target Brad Richards had agreed to sign a nine-year, $60 million dollar contract with New York Rangers.

Richards embodied what I wanted in a first-line centre; tremendous vision, the ability to hit the 20-goal mark plateau, and less importantly, a left-handed shot. He spent only three seasons with the Rangers, but he helped lead the team to a Stanley Cup appearance in 2014, which saw the Los Angeles Kings win the cup in five games.

Despite having to buyout the rest of his contract the following offseason, the initial move of signing a veteran star to a long-term deal was a pretty typical decision for New York, unlike for most NHL teams. The Rangers are never afraid to take big swings in free agency, despite the fact that they’ve signed some of the worst contracts in NHL history.

My love for the Rangers is intertwined with my affinity for history. Mark Messier broke the team’s 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994; in the early ’90s, Alexei Kovalev wore white skates in a similar style to fellow Russian star Sergei Fedorov; not to mention New York was the last franchise that Wayne Gretzky played for.

The 1994 Stanley Cup winners even had a University of Toronto connection behind the bench with head coach Mike Keenan. A decade prior, Keenan led the Varsity Blues men’s hockey team to our most recent national championship.

Here’s a fun late ’90s story from Rangers lore that sums up the Blueshirts experience. Fittingly enough, it happened the year of my birth.

In July 1997, longtime Rangers captain Mark Messier — the greatest player in Rangers history — departed New York to join the Vancouver Canucks. His exit left a 36-year-old Gretzky as the team’s best centre.

Desperately in need of youth to play alongside Kovalev and ensure any possibility of contending for a Stanley Cup, the Rangers signed star Colorado Avalanche centre Joe Sakic to a three-year, $21 million USD offer sheet — a deal that would pay him a $15 million USD signing bonus up-front.

The Avalanche was a small-market team that could not financially compete with New York, and relied on a fortuitous outcome to ensure that Sakic wouldn’t play for the Rangers.

Then owned by Ascent Entertainment Group, the Avalanche fell back on on profits from the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One to sign Sakic; the team’s primary owner Charlie Lyons had produced the film with his production company Beacon Pictures.

To sum it all up, Harrison Ford prevented New York from solidifying their future.

And while it would’ve been cool to see Sakic in a Rangers uniform, 36-year-old Gretzky still managed to lead New York to 91 points, fifth-best in the league for the 1997–1998 season. It’s no wonder they call him ‘the Great One.’

Why I root for the Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017

Why I root for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Canada’s game is back and, for a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, this season couldn’t come soon enough! Growing up in a hockey-centred household and being from Toronto, I was raised a Toronto Maple Leafs fan but soon discovered the joy in team rivalry. My brother and I have been fans of the Penguins for as long as I can remember. From collecting hockey cards to playing street hockey and not missing a single play, you could say that hockey became less of a game and more of an identity for me.

The Penguins have had a rough start to the 2018–2019 season and are currently in last place in the Eastern Conference. Here in Toronto, my dad doesn’t hesitate to remind me that the Leafs are in second, with 14 wins and six losses.

There’s plenty for Penguins fans to be optimistic about, though. The team is led by star captain Sidney Crosby, and only a few years prior, in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins became the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 19 years.

I have no doubt that our time is coming soon and that the cup will once again be held by the Penguins. Sharing in your team’s victory and having bragging rights is hands down the best feeling as a fan. But all that aside, I think that love for a team goes deeper than the jersey you wear to moments you share with fellow fans. The ability to celebrate a team as fans and stand connected through our love for the game is why I truly believe that hockey is a game that unites people.

Why I root for the Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks almost won the Stanley Cup in 2011

Why I root for the Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks were in Game 7 in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, facing off against their archrivals, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks had tormented the Canucks for the past two years, defeating them in the second round of the 2009 and 2010 playoffs in six games both times.

But this year was different for the Canucks. They won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best record in the regular season, while Chicago barely snuck into the playoffs and found themselves pitted against the top-seeded Canucks in the first round.

The series started off well, as the Canucks took a commanding 3–0 lead. However, Vancouver was blown out in Games 4 and 5, and Chicago won Game 6 in overtime to send the series to Game 7. “Here we go again,” was the mindset of every Canucks fan.

Early in the first period, Alex Burrows scored a one-timer off a great pass from Ryan Kesler to give the Canucks an early 1–0 lead. However, for the remainder of regulation, Chicago’s rookie goaltender Corey Crawford stood on his head to keep his team within one. With three minutes and 17 seconds left in regulation, Chicago took a penalty. It looked like the Canucks would have a great chance at getting the insurance marker, or at the very least, they would be able to take two minutes off the clock.

In typical fashion, though, that isn’t what happened. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews scored shorthanded to take the game to overtime.

The stage was set for the best regular season in Canucks history to end in the first round, especially with Burrows taking a penalty early in overtime. With the man advantage, Toews set up a perfect centring pass for Patrick Sharp right in front of the crease, but Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo slid across to make the save.

Around five minutes into overtime, Chicago defenseman Chris Campoli made what looked to be a routine breakout pass, but it was intercepted by Burrows. He walked into the slot and fired a shot over the right shoulder of Crawford to win the game for Vancouver. The Canucks bench all came onto the ice to mob Burrows.

Towels were waving across the stands of Rogers Arena. “Finally,” CBC commentator Jim Hughson exclaimed. “After three seasons and 19 playoff games against Chicago, for Vancouver, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.”

Why I root for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Auston Matthews represents a new era for the Leafs

Why I root for the Toronto Maple Leafs

With the Toronto Maple Leafs full of young talent and viewed as a top contender to win the Stanley Cup, fans have a lot to be excited about.

This feeling of enthusiasm is an unfamiliar one, as adrenaline-filled moments for Leafs fans prior to this year were few and far between.

Nevertheless, this has made the moments that were cause for celebration even more memorable.

Growing up as an avid Leafs fan, one of my first moments was watching my hero, Leafs centre Mats Sundin, net his 500th career goal in dramatic fashion.

With the game tied 4–4 in overtime, Sundin, already with two goals on the night, picked up the puck at the Leafs blue-line, raced down the ice, and unleashed a slapshot over the shoulder of Calgary Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and into the back of the net.

A fitting entrance to the exclusive 500-goal-club for a Toronto sports legend.

A more recent memory that stands out is Leafs star Auston Matthews’ unforgettable first game.

In the 2016–2017 season opener, all eyes were on the rookie phenom. After scoring two goals in the first period, Leafs fans around the country erupted in celebration of our newest star.

But then, the unthinkable happened.

Matthews continued his offensive explosion, scoring a third goal early in the second period for the hat-trick. Already breaking records as the first top-ranked draft pick to score a hat-trick in his debut, Matthews scored another goal in the second, making him the first player in league history to score four goals in their regular season NHL debut.

Although these memories are great, nothing would be more memorable than the Leafs bringing Lord Stanley home to Toronto.

The NHL needs a domestic violence policy

Austin Watson’s case highlights the league’s glaring failure

The NHL needs a domestic violence policy

Last week, news broke that Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson would see his 27-game suspension stemming from domestic violence charges dropped to just 18 games. Watson pleaded no contest back on July 24, stemming from an incident on June 16 at a Franklin gas station, in which multiple bystanders witnessed an altercation between him and his girlfriend. News of the suspension’s reduction drew ire from the NHL, which released a statement saying the league was “disappointed” in the decision of arbitrator Shyam Das, who cut Watson’s suspension by a third.

Watson’s case started a conversation around the merits of domestic violence policies in major sports leagues. As many have mentioned, unlike other major men’s sports leagues, such as the NBA, MLB, or NFL, the NHL has no official domestic violence policy, instead handling each case on an individual basis. And while it may be true that a constitutional policy is the first step toward holding certain athletes accountable, ultimately, it is important to understand Watson’s case in the bigger picture.

A wider problem at hand

Male athletes in North American professional leagues enjoy the benefits of power, wealth, and celebrity. This can certainly deliver positive benefits, such as being idolized by young children just starting out in sports. However, in a patriarchal society like ours — where a woman is killed every six days by her intimate partner in Canada — male athletes who commit acts of domestic violence and sexual assault often find themselves above the law.

Because for every LeBron James, opening a school centred around equity and opportunity, there’s a Ben Roethlisberger or Patrick Kane, who have been accused — multiple times, in Roethlisberger’s case — of sexual assault. When you consider how government officials Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and Rick Dykstra have all been accused of sexual assault, none of whom faced punitive sentences but actually career advancements following accusations — the bigger picture becomes clear: power and status allow men to be above the law in our misogynistic, patriarchal society.

Patriarchy breeds the value of prioritizing men’s careers over women’s lives and safety; we can see this clearly in a collective yet unfounded fear of false accusations, and the framing of domestic violence or sexual assault as more damaging to the man’s life than his victim’s. Watson’s case illustrates this well.

Jenn Guardino was found bloodied and with a bruised heel, and told police that Watson “sometimes gets handsy”; Watson actually admitted himself that he caused scratches found on Guardino’s chest the night of the assault, and witnesses further testified that they saw Watson “swat” his girlfriend to prevent her from exiting the vehicle.

Despite all this, Guardino apparently urged police not to “say anything,” for fears his career would be jeopardized. Alarmingly, she released a statement days after Watson’s suspension reduction apologizing for the incident, claiming it was “not an act of domestic violence,” and that “Austin Watson has never, and would never hit or abuse” her.

Survivors have every right to choose how they heal from abuse — including, if they wish, to forgive their abuser. But it is also important to remember that survivors defending and protecting their abusive partners is a symptom of a broader problem of misogyny and gender-based violence in our society.

Sports are just a microcosm of this, and there are plenty of examples that exist — Janay Palmer calling NFL player and husband Ray Rice’s assault against her a “mistake,” for instance. It is imperative that the NHL, like other sports leagues, hold their players who commit such disgusting and terrorizing acts of violence accountable. Female fans comprise a sizeable majority in most of the major men’s professional leagues, making up about a third of NHL viewership and nearly half of the NFL’s.

How should they feel when they see these athletes commit such acts of violence against women unpunished — with very little support offered to the people who look like them?

An honest assessment

The NHL is the only one of the four major men’s sports leagues without a policy or “standard of conduct” addressing domestic violence. They instead opt to evaluate cases of domestic violence individually. In this regard, it would be beneficial for the NHL to move forward and catch up.

However, men’s professional sports leagues need to be honest with themselves, and if they are serious about paying more than lip service to tackling the problem of domestic violence, they need to move beyond performative policy and take more proactive initiative.

Consider the NFL, for example. This is a league that, despite having a formal policy, employs 44 players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault.

Consider the fact that it took until 2014, with surveillance footage showing Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, for commissioner Roger Goodell to implement a policy ­— and even then, Goodell’s original punishment for Rice was a mere two-game suspension. It was only after backlash from the public that he was compelled to do something.

What good is a domestic violence policy when it carries no weight of punishment, no rehabilitation efforts to prevent the problem in the future, and no support for the survivor? Perhaps, though, we should not expect much of a league that takes peaceful, anti-racist protesting as a more offensive act than physically endangering women’s safety.

NHL fans, consequently, need to reflect carefully on the merits of a domestic violence policy and what effect it might actually carry. Recall the case of former Los Angeles Kings player Slava Voynov. Voynov served two months in jail after a domestic violence charge back in 2014. His contract was terminated and he was effectively returned to Russia following the charges.

However, he is now considering a return to the NHL and was granted a roster spot in this year’s Olympics. NBC commentator Mike Milbury reflected on the situation as an “unfortunate incident [that] left the Los Angeles Kings without a great defenseman.”

How insulting to Voynov’s spouse Marta Varlamova, who said it was not the first time, with an officer noting that her “blood [was] all over the bedroom.” If an incident like that — where an athlete actually serves concrete time in jail for an assault — does not warrant a commitment to the NHL toward tackling violence against women, I question the merits of a league policy implemented now, four years later.

So all this begs the question: what would be an effective strategy for going beyond words and springing into action? Sports leagues like the NHL must be better at actively combatting and preventing situations of domestic violence by education and empowering male players to be more aware of what constitutes abuse, as well as its widespread prevalence, and this can be done, as exemplified by the BC Lions of the CFL.

The Lions’ Be More than a Bystander program is a collaboration between the team and the Ending Violence Association of Britsih Columbia, “aimed at substantially increasing understanding of the impact of men’s violence against women.” Guided by an advisory group of women, the Lions players use their “status and public profile” to educate others on the subject, through school visits, public ads, and other acts of outreach.

Ultimately, this is not just an NHL problem, and policy — much like laws in our legal system for the general population — will not be a one-step solution to significantly addressing domestic violence. Policy is certainly a start, but more importantly, an urgent conversation must be held about the widespread problem of violence against women in our society — and furthermore, the lack of accountability imposed on the men who do commit such violence.

Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

John Tavares looks to spark a deep playoff run

Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

With the start of the 2018–2019 NHL season only days away, it’s time to make one thing crystal clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs are good — in fact, they are very good.

After the team broke the record for franchise wins and points in the 2017–2018 regular season, the Leafs again lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Boston Bruins in game seven of the first round of playoffs.

The offseason saw the departures of Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and older General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoreillo. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Leafs history, with the promotion of 32-year-old Kyle Dubas to the GM chair and the acquisition of homecoming superstar centre John Tavares.

Leafs fans will undoubtedly be hoping for this new chapter to end with the hoisting of the Stanley Cup in June, and a parade down Yonge Street.

Tavares joins a team with high hopes for the upcoming season. Auston Matthews is a budding superstar of the league, who, despite dealing with nagging injuries last year, managed to score 34 goals in 62 games. Nazem Kadri is coming off consecutive 30-goal campaigns, and with the majority of opponents focused on shutting down Tavares and Matthews, we can expect Kadri to dominate any matchups he faces.

While the Maple Leafs forward corps is among the most dangerous in the league, their defense is more of a question mark. Boasting 50-point defensemen Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, who is in the final year of his contract, the Leafs have two players who can put up points from the back end.

In the second year of a seven-year extension, Nikita Zaitsev is looking to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign. Ron Hainsey will presumably play as a dependable defenseman as always. The final two spots on the blue line are less clear.

Travis Dermott, Calle Rosén, Connor Carrick, and Igor Ozhiganov are all vying for the the last two spots in the opening lineup. Dermott played in 37 regular season games last year, as well as all seven of their playoff games. He appears to have a leg up on the competition, but as we know with head coach Mike Babcock, nothing is certain.

That leaves one spot up for grabs, and it will likely go to Ozhiganov. The 25-year-old Russian will be an NHL rookie after spending the last few years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Babcock was heavily involved in his recruitment and was happy with his performance in camp this year.

When it comes to goaltending, every Leafs fan’s favourite Dane will be looking to continue his winning ways. Posting 38 wins in the regular season, Frederik Andersen has had historically shaky starts in October. He will no doubt be aiming to change that narrative this season. The backup position will likely find Curtis McElhinney resuming his role as Andersen’s deputy.

So, what should Leafs fans expect from this team? With a handful of players genuinely talented enough to win the scoring race, one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench, and a young GM determined to think outside of the box, the Maple Leafs should find themselves with one of the most potent power-play units — a terror to match up against in a five-on-five and above average in league goaltending.

Seemingly one of the most talented in the entire league, this team has genuine cup-contending aspirations.

The Leafs have failed to make it out of the first round of playoffs in the past two seasons, losing to Boston in seven games last year, and to Washington in six games the year before that. The team was pardoned, chiefly due to their youth and how unexpected their success was. But a first round exit this year would be considered a failure, and rightly so.

The 2018–2019 Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup and bring a level of success and excitement that this city has not seen in years.

How good is Auston Matthews?

Answer: really good

How good is Auston Matthews?

“At what point do [the] Toronto Maple Leafs have to start playing Matthews one versus five to make it fair for other teams?” asked Brad Marchand, after Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ centre-man and the NHL’s 2016 first-round draft pick, finished on an incredible end-to-end effort against the Montreal Canadiens.

This question is warranted. Matthews has been off to a rapid start this season, netting 12 goals and 21 points in 19 games while leading the Leafs to second place in the Atlantic Division.

If you aren’t already a member of the Matthews fandom, I suggest you join now.

Following his 40-goal rookie season, Matthews has quickly proven himself as a prolific, exciting, and timely goal scorer. That lofty total was enough to tie him for second in the league, a feat comparable only to that of Alex Ovechkin in his rookie season, arguably the greatest pure goal scorer in the league, with 52.

Yet the NHL has taken a dramatic shift since then, with scoring generally on the decline. To put things into perspective, 11 players in Ovechkin’s rookie year had 40 or more goals, while that number drops to just three in Matthews’ year.

In addition, this admirable output is produced in less than ideal circumstances.

Matthews does not skate on the first power play unit, which can often be a dramatic goal boost for many players. Instead, he led the league last year with 32 even-strength goals, which is not only incredibly difficult, but valuable in the playoffs where less power plays take place.

Further, one player alone cannot win a game, despite what Brad Marchand suggests. In the case of Matthews, he plays a majority of his shifts with two very talented and hardworking players, William Nylander and Zach Hyman.

Despite their success, these players are still learning and developing their game, finding their place in a relentless league. In comparison, other leading centers such as Steven Stamkos have the privilege of centering a line with Nikita Kucherov, who has been utterly unstoppable this season. Similarly in Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are proving to be a perfect pair.

Respectfully, Matthews plays with very capable players, but they unfortunately aren’t comparable to Draisaitl or Kucherov. Yet this does not stop him from producing goals like he plays with those stars. One can only imagine what his assist total would be if he were passing to players who converted like those two.

Understandably, there are always cases against star players — seeing as they garner so much attention, their inconsistencies are highlighted just as much as their accomplishments. A case can be made that Matthews fails to provide the same opportunities for his teammates as he does for himself, leaving a sub-par assist total and players working for him rather than with him.

Yet, as per Sportsnet, the Leafs’ top line is among the best in the NHL in high danger chances, scoring chances on net, and passes to the slot. Essentially, the chances are there, and they aren’t all for Matthews.

Regardless, it seems that a respective shooting percentage thus far of 10.9 per cent and 6.2 per cent for Hyman and Nylander are not up to par. In comparison to Matthews’ 16.7 per cent chance shooting, he seems to be able to convert on his chances. Still, there is little concern that these players won’t begin converting soon, as their play advances.

Granted, his output is impressive, but there’s another side to the ice, and the defensive play will frequently distinguish the elite from the complete. As for Matthews, he has been superb in the defensive end as Chris Johnston from Sportsnet notes, “Matthews has only been on the ice for one goal against in 128 minutes at 5-on-5 this season”.

That is wildly impressive considering Leafs head coach Mike Babcock refuses to coddle his young superstar, putting him on for defensive zone face-offs more than half the time, where they must battle to shift the direction of play.

The added level of difficulty is not showing, as Matthews currently has the fifth highest plus/minus in the league (+14), and again as Sportsnet notes, “He has been stripping opponents of the puck at the same rate as Patrice Bergeron.” To say he routinely makes defensive plays comparable to former Selke Trophy winners is impressive at the least.

It’s easy to see how Matthews can be ranked among the best two-way forwards in the league and it’s also intangible which can solidify him among the ranks of the best. McDavid and Stamkos may very likely finish the season with more points and gather a surreal amount of attention. However, Babcock refuses to let his star players run amok and rely solely on talent.

He wants a balanced style of play and is molding Matthews in this image of balance. This image is one of consistency, hustle, and intelligent hockey that few will find anywhere else.

In other words, Matthews is elite and on his way to being complete.

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Line changes and new acquisitions in store for the Leafs’ upcoming season

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Soon after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row, the General Managers (GM) of the National Hockey League (NHL) got on their phones and looked for ways to improve their teams.

The 2017 NHL Entry Draft saw Swiss-born Nico Hischier go first overall to the New Jersey Devils, while Canadian teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who selected Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren, and the Edmonton Oilers, who took undersized forward Kailer Yamamoto, found themselves with later draft positions thanks to their regular season success.

The Leafs got to work in free agency, signing veterans like Dominic Moore, recent Cup champion Ron Hainsey, and a 37-year-old Patrick Marleau. Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock kept his players busy over the summer, regularly checking in on them wherever they were training. Babcock even called his top defenseman, Morgan Rielly, telling him to start preparing to play with Hainsey.

With a year that saw them make the playoffs and push the Washington Capitals to six games last spring, as well as a summer of prepping behind them, the Leafs are looking to improve upon their last season. The boys in blue are hungrier, more confident, and better prepared to skate with the best of the best in the NHL.

Calder Trophy recipent Auston Matthews is centring Toronto’s top line in between Zach Hyman and William Nylander. That line will play against the NHL’s top shutdown pairings and defensive lines, but with the firepower of Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman’s brute strength and shot, the top line is expected to produce well.      

Leafs fans can also look forward to seeing Marleau on a line with Nazem Kadri and possibly Connor Brown, whose 20 goals as a rookie were only overshadowed by virtue of being on a team with rookie phenoms Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner.

For what seems like the first time in a long time, the Leafs have a solid top four on the back end. Jake Gardiner seems to be playing with Nikita Zaitsev in Reilly’s old spot, while Reilly plays with Hainsey. Hainsey, a serviceable defenceman, is over 35 years of age, which begs the question of whether he can keep up with this young Leafs team.

Around the league there are plenty of storylines to follow. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets just have a fluke season, or are they the real deal? Can Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers go all the way, seeing as they’re the Vegas favoured team to win it all? Speaking of Vegas, how will the Golden Knights do in their inaugural season? Is it possible we will see a Penguins three-peat?

But the most important question on the minds of Toronto sports fans will always remain whether or not the Leafs are good enough. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.