Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Now it's personal: Real, live NHL beats heck out of being a fan from afar

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Winnipeg hockey fans did not disappear between 1996 and 2011. The truest of them were there for the Manitoba Moose. Many continued to immerse themselves in the NHL. Many did both and only a very few ignored the game as retribution for a deep hurt inflicted long ago.

But now re-engaged up close and personal with the NHL, some things stood out more than others with this season's live experience. Here's our top-10 list of "Things We Learned About the NHL" in the Jets' return season:

THE FOG IS NOT CLEARING

The concussion epidemic is real. The tolerance for head shots -- the so-called less-lethal ones in the scrums, the sucker punches, the Brad Marchand and Brian Boyle speed-bags that are far more than face washes -- is astounding, given what the NHL "says" it's trying to reduce. Yes, the game is faster, more intense than it was 10 years ago, so of course there are more collisions. It still doesn't answer why contacting the head is allowed. You can doctor the reporting and incident statistics any way you want but when the league itself won't punish a WWE-turnbuckle style head-ram -- hello, Shea Weber -- we're to the point where we believe it's legitimate to at least ask this question: "Have the NHL's own medical experts compromised their sacred oaths, complicit with a league that allows this to go on?" And the Raffi Torres decision doesn't change a word of this.

40 IS THE NEW 60

Steven Stamkos (above) is the NHL's reigning goal king after filling nets with 60 pucks this season. Evgeni Malkin -- with 50 -- was the only other player this year able to hit the magical single-season goal mark. In fact, there were just four players to register 40 goals or better with Marian Gaborik (41) and James Neal (40) rounding out the Top 4 goal scorers. Now let's compare this to the last year the NHL was in Winnipeg before the Jets were reborn: in 1995-96 Mario Lemieux led the NHL with 69 goals and there were eight players who eclipsed the 50-goal mark -- including the Jets' Keith Tkachuk, who hit 50 on the nose. And get this: 18 different players had 40 goals or more. Further to the scoring drop-off: 12 players had 100 points or more in '95-96; this past year only Malkin -- with 109 -- was able to crack the century mark. Why did this happen and what does this trend mean? (see below)

TWO MINUTES FOR CLAUSTROPHOBIA

The speed, size and strength of players has increased by leaps and bounds in the last 10 to 20 years. We're almost numb to that reality but more than ever, there's so little room left on the 200-by-85 sheet that so much of the flair has been surgically extracted from the game. (Pay no attention to the sideshow that is the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.) Now, near-mechanical players skate at high velocities for 40 seconds employing the X's and O's approach designed to make their own net inaccessible and reduce the number of legal options left for opponents. Some teams aren't consistently good at it -- welcome to the Jets 2011-12 -- and are therefore doomed. Factor in the 2005 rules crackdown and you are left with a nightly collision-fest, which some fans love, and flair largely relegated to the Hockey Hall of Fame or ESPN Classic.

PA$$ION COMES $ECOND

There was plenty of little-children-style squealing, all with glee, about the warm and fuzzy feeling created by the passion of Winnipeg's hockey fans in the NHL's return to the city. It was and is surely to remember. But never, ever forget what makes the league go round -- cash. The NHL is pleased with its fairly bold decision 11 months ago to relocate a franchise back to Canada because the dollars have been delivered by the Jets and True North Sports and Entertainment. Including your dollars. While fan support and enthusiasm is important (especially as a mechanism to get you to open your wallet) it is a distant second on the priority list of what earned the city another franchise and what will keep it here. We know, a little cynical, but it's always good to keep your eye on the ball.

BIGGER IS BETTER

A hockey net's dimensions are 6 feet by 4 feet, so basic physics tells us that the bigger the man guarding the goal, the harder it will be to slip a puck past him. Further to that, consider this: Of the 30 netminders who started the most games for their respective clubs, only three -- Boston's Tim Thomas, Florida's Jose Theodore and Jaro Halak of St. Louis -- were under 6-foot in height and that trio all measured 5-foot-11. Of those 30 goaltenders, the average height was just a shade under 6-foot-2. By comparison, in 1995-96, half of the 20 goaltenders who finished among the NHL leaders in goals-against average were under 6-foot. Yes, it seems long gone are the days of the diminutive puck stoppers like Rogie Vachon (5-foot-8), Arturs Irbe (5-foot-8), Mike Vernon (5-foot-9) and John Vanbiesbrouck (5-foot-8).

YOU'RE JUST WHISTLING DIXIE

NHL officiating is not as poor as it appears on a particular night. How do we know this? That there are 30 different cities with conspiracy theories on this matter speaks to some equality. But (and there's always a but on this topic) officiating has not been as good as hoped. Errors are frequent -- we're still shocked that some NHL referees don't know that a followed-through shot or pass is NOT a high-sticking penalty or how it is that players who set picks suddenly become invisible -- and the overriding impression is that tolerance abounds. Whether that's enabled by the general managers or the commissioner is a conspiracy topic unto itself, as is the local belief in more than a few corners that the Jets were easy to pick on this season because they are new, because they have not earned any "benefit of the doubt."

ABSENCE DOES INDEED MAKE THE HEART GROW FONDER

So it surprised no one in our fair burg that the story of the Jets' return would be monumental. And the fact the MTS Centre was packed every night with 15,004 strong became a given when all the tickets were gobbled up in minutes last June. Get used to it, as a building now considered the loudest in the NHL will be filled with loud and proud Jet fans for at least the next three years. But some historical perspective here about history that cannot be rewritten: In the Jets' lame-duck final season in '95-96 the team averaged just 11,316 in the old Winnipeg Arena. Even in the year Teemu Selanne electrified the hockey world, the Jets averaged just 13,556 and played to only three home sellouts all season. The point here is this: Before Jet fans get high and mighty about what has happened here -- and it is a wonderful, heart-warming story -- let's not get smug about it all while comparing ourselves to struggling markets. Stay classy, Winnipeg.

WOE CANADA

Brace yourselves as we open up an old wound... a Canadian-based team hasn't captured the Stanley Cup since the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens, nearly two decades ago. The Vancouver Canucks are hanging tough with the L.A. Kings and the Ottawa Senators are battling the New York Rangers tough, but the prospects of that drought ending this spring are teetering on the edge. Two of this country's most-storied sporting institutions -- the Habs and the Toronto Maple Leafs -- continue to decay, what with Montreal cleaning management house again this spring while Leaf Nation, still hearing chants of "1967" have missed the playoffs for seven straight springs. There's more... the Calgary Flames have been absent from the playoffs for three straight years, the Edmonton Oilers for six. And the Winnipeg Jets have brought the Atlanta Thrashers' post-season woes north -- the franchise has missed the playoffs for five years, played in just one series in 12 seasons and being swept in its lone appearance. Consider this, just to hammer home our point: In an 18-season span from 1976-93 Canadian teams captured the Stanley Cup 12 times (Montreal, 6; Edmonton, 5, Calgary, 1). Since then, nada.

AND THE PRESIDENT'S TROPHY IS AWARDED TO... WHO CARES?!

Quick question: what do the Canucks, Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators all have in common? Answer: they've all captured the President's Trophy for regular-season supremacy over the past 10 years and didn't get a parade. In the 25 years this team honour has been awarded, the winner has advanced to capture the Stanley Cup just six times (Edmonton, 1987; Calgary, 1989; Rangers, 1994; Colorado, 2001 and Detroit (2002, 2008). In fact, three of the last six President's Trophy winners have been eliminated in the first round, with this year's Canucks candidates to make it four of seven. Our conclusion: The regular-season remains ridiculously long. It's akin to telling a marathon runner, exhausted from a full-contact 26.1-mile-run, to take a breath and do it all over again. And this time, for real.

HOCKEY FAN HEAVEN

Step into most any Winnipegger's shoes, those who have spent 15 years away from the live NHL (it's just not the same as printed words and pictures from afar) and it's easy to see that the new norm of having every single game played available somewhere on television, is the single greatest fan advancement for the game. Of course, it also comes with risks, among them that you've got far more "experts" roaming the streets. Another is that with the myriad of talking-head coverage, some programming is bound to lose its way. Declining Hockey Night in Canada is but one example, what with its host who's forgotten how to host and prominence for such clownish voices as Mike Milbury and some guy named P.J. The best part is that you now have the choice to watch, or not.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 C4

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