Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thoughts on the NHL Skills Competition

Haha, tonight was fun.

It's extremely improper to start something off with "haha", but I just got done telling someone else, one of the reasons I'm not an English major anymore is because I felt like they wanted me to write like a robot. No expression. No feeling. Just good grammar, the way Charles Dickens would have wanted it to be. But I've got news: nobody in their right mind wants to read "Oliver Twist" anymore. Seriously, if it's between that and a root canal, give me a shot of Novocaine and drill. At least I know THAT will eventually end.

Before I begin, I'm listening to "Skeletons on Parade" by Ludo right now. It's a song about a town gathering to worship the dead, and then the skeletons rise from their graves to terrorize the town. I love stuff like that. Songs that tell a story are the best. Not only this, but it's the only song I know that goes from folk, to free form jazz, to semi-metal. It's worth a listen. Ludo's singer, Andrew Volpe, shows off his range as a convincing lounge singer, metal singer, and showtune artist. Really good stuff.


Tonight wasn't only fun for the excellent party. I needed it, though. No b.s., nobody flipped out. Just a lot of music (I rocked the AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, etc upstairs) and a lot of fun. For those who are wondering, answer your question yourself: am I, or am I not typing in coherent fashion. Good? Great.

Tonight was the NHL's skills competition. There are a few "holidays" in the NHL's schedule each year. There's the trade deadline (February 27th, 3 pm....I'm gonna be giddy, to say the least), the start of free agency in the offseason (July 1st, even more giddy), the Stanley Cup playoffs (mid April-June, completely INSANE), and finally, the skills competition. 

The all star game has become secondary to the skills competition. It is an honor to be nominated and go to the game, but honestly...who remembers who won the game between team Lidstrom and team Staal last season? Nobody (team Lidstrom, 11-10). If you ask a fan, "who holds the record for hardest shot", most will say "Zdeno Chara". They might not be able to tell you what team he plays for (Boston), but they know that when it's time to fire some pucks, the big man is bringing the howitzer.

Tonight, the skills competition was what everyone knew it would be: largely gimmicked up, and a ploy for the NHL to make some sponsorship dollars. Don't be fooled by the incoming (or prolonged, depending on who you ask) loss of the Phoenix Coyotes, or the recent loss off the Atlanta Thrashers. Don't be fooled by the NHL's spot on the NBC Sports Network instead of ESPN. The NHL makes serious money. They could just use a bit more. The Skills competition and All Star weekend in general, in addition to the Winter Classic, does just that.

The league made some changes to some events, and kept some bad ideas from past events. They ruined the wildly popular breakaway challenge by giving the shooters one-on-one attempts to beat the goaltender with some measure of creativity, rather than the past 60 seconds of "whatever you want, DO IT", that they had in the past. Tonight, it was "screw up, and sorry, have a seat". Big mistake. Also, they kept the tiny nets for the skills relay, which, just as last year, left some people stranded trying to hit a 6 inch net from 50 feet away.

But the hardest shot competition. That remained real.

They couldn't ruin it, could they?

The fastest skater competition has been lost. The record set in 1996 by Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Gartner, of 13.3 seconds will not be beat in the current format, as it was once a full lap around the ice. Now, it's a head to head race, in a half loop of the ice, which is completely different. The numbers don't compare. They may be the same numbers, but the feat is different.

The accuracy shooting is now a timed event, rather than one based entirely on accuracy. It used to be that 4 for 4 meant something. Now hitting 4 for 6 in 13 seconds is a big deal. Going 4 for 4 is impressive, but if it isn't fast, it means nothing.

But the hardest shot competition, that's still real.

Grab the best stick you've got, and fire. Skate up, bend your knees, put your weight into it, follow through, catch all of the puck, and blast it. Make your Easton, CCM, Bauer, or whatever else you use bend to the breaking point, and then snap forward in defiance of the pressure it's been put through. Crush it.

It cannot be changed. You can't time it, you can't add in any wacky gimmick. It's one guy, one stick, and one puck. It's a kid in his basement, trying to shoot a puck so hard, he has to get on his hands and knees to find it under whichever couch it ricocheted under.

That's why I'll keep watching.

I'll watch year after year, to see if Chara will beat his record. I'll watch to see if Shea Weber will challenge him (106 mph, no shame in that). I'll even watch the preliminary rounds to see if a dark horse like Dion Phaneuf of the Maple Leafs will blast a 105 mph slapper.

In the end, I know what will happen. The big Slovakian they call "Z" will break his last record, and nobody will really come close. But I'll still watch, and the crowd will still go nuts over the superhuman feat of a man making a puck go faster than my beat up old Chrysler could on even its best day.

Go Weber, but really, anybody will do. Just keep firing away, and I'll enjoy it.