OF ICE AND THEN

Monday, December 20th, 2010

It would be easy to be amused at all the fuss and furor over the Monday Night NFL matchup that was held in cold, snowy TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, but there is that little thing known as the Winter Classic that the hockey world goes all ga-ga over.

Due to snow buildup on top of the Metrodome, and the subsequent collapse of the inflated roof, the Vikings and Bears moved their Monday nighter outside onto the frozen tundra of Minnesota, the day before the official start of winter.

Fans of the Green Bay Packers, the Buffalo Bills, and most of the teams in the Canadian Football League, probably yawned when told of the adversity the Vikings and their fans would have to face.  The irony is a football team based in the state of Minnesota is now considered a warm weather team, due to the comfy embrace of the Dome.

If anything, an outdoor Vikings game every so often in late December is akin to a skinny dip in the lake on New Year’s Day; crazy yet invigorating, a reminder of whence we came.  Maybe this will become the NFL’s Winter Classic.  Maybe they’ll move the game to New Year’s Day.

We have become disconnected from the outside world.  Heading to work this evening, I was able to almost completely avoid having to step outside into a frosty Toronto night.  Most northern cities have a series of underground walkways, and Skyways, and Plus 15’s, that almost completely shelter the commuter/consumer from the elements.  Shades of the film waydowntown.

The roots of sports such as hockey and football are in the great outdoors.  Even though life was shorter and tougher circa the 1870’s, your great grandfather and great grandmother did not enjoy sitting outside in the frigid cold, watching their sarsaparilla turn to ice.  Almost from the start of organized hockey, there were calls for a covered arena.

If only to keep the snow off the ice; most of the early covered arenas were rather chilly.  Which is why the wave was invented by one Mr. George Zachariah Smith, a resident of Saskatoon, during a late November game in 1873.  Fans sitting next to Crazy George Zee mistook his repeated attempts to stand up as a cue to partake in the latest mania sweeping this exciting new sport called ice hockey.

It’s generally accepted that the first indoor hockey game took place March 3rd, 1875 in Montreal.  The Victoria Skating Rink was the site of this monumental occasion, though the game was almost delayed for a couple of days because of a conflict with a touring Dora on Ice show.

Much was made of the new surroundings, particularly the paring of the rosters down to nine players aside.  Afterwards, open line telegraph shows were flooded with complaints about the Americanization of the game, and there were calls for an outdoor game to celebrate the roots of hockey.

Nonetheless, hockey developed into an indoor game, which makes it even more difficult to understand why the coaches of the 1972-73 Medical Centre Monarchs of the St. Albert (Alberta) Hockey League still insisted on holding half of our practices on the outdoor rink at the top of Seven Hills, and the occasional 8 am January Saturday morning hockey game at the very same very much not indoor arena. 

During that chilly childhood in Northern Alberta, it came to our attention that the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh had a retractable roof.  We all thought it would be super cool for the Penguins to live up to their name and play a game under the stars during the winter.  This obviously never came to pass, not counting that crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Talk about a missed marketing opportunity, particularly during those dark days when Doug Shedden was leading the team in scoring.

When the taxpayers of the Province of Ontario were paying through the nose to build the SkyDome during the late 1980’s, a baseball/football stadium that was going to feature a retractable roof that would actually be used, many called for the Toronto Maple Leafs to hold a game in the concrete convertible, with the roof rolled back.

This was years before the advent of the Winter Classic, even before the first NHL modern era outdoor game between the Oilers and Canadiens in frigid Edmonton in November of 2003.

Except even that wasn’t the first modern NHL outdoor game.  There was that insane attempt in 1991 to play an outdoor exhibition game outside in Las Vegas, of all places.

Look, everyone knows NHL exhibition games are dogs; they really only exist to pad the pockets of the owners.  Still, whose bright idea was it to play outside in Vegas, in September.  In a parking lot.  Rangers versus Kings.  Rangers and Kings versus bugs.

With the ever improving technology behind ice-less ice, in the not-so-distant future the NHL will finally be able to stage the outdoor Winter Classic that hockey fans really want to see, the Florida Panthers at the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Cold weather will no longer be an issue.

George Zachariah Smith would have loved it.

- Mick Kern

Winter Classic Autopsy

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

The Curse of the Locusts is over.

Way before any of these much-hyped Winter Classic outdoor NHL games, the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings faced off in the great outdoors for an exhibition match in September of 1991.

The game was held outside of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and at one point, they had to stop things to deal with an infestation of locusts, as if the Hockey Gods were signalling their displeasure with how Their Game had be reduced to a Vegas sideshow…and the coming expansion of the NHL into the Sun Belt.

With the Boston Bruins’ 2-1 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the snowy confines of Fenway Park, we finally have a notch under the win column for the home team.

The way things were going, the home town had to accept the inevitability of a defeat in exchange for the privilege of hosting the gala affair.

Maybe the Hockey Gods finally approve.

In November of 2003, in bitter cold weather, the Montreal Canadiens upended the hometown Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in the Heritage Classic.

Two years ago, during the first Winter Classic, held in the snow globe commonly known as Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Pittsburgh Penguins edged the hometown Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout.

Last year, the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings defeated the hometown Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 at Wrigley Field.

Of course, back during the dawn of professional hockey, they played outdoors on a regular basis, though that feels like two centuries ago, so that doesn’t count.

As for Winter Classic Mark III, I think this proves that actual goals are important in hockey.

Yes, I can hear the old fogies now, and I was once in lockstep with them.  A good game is not contingent on the number of goals, it’s the number of chances and the overall flow of the game.

To those points, I still agree, though I think both are trumped by the actual scoring of goals.

For it’s when they light the lamp that the crowd really gets into the game.  Sure, a good body check, or a great save, or even a fight, will all elicit excited responses from the crowd, but the goal of the game is still, well, goals.  Score more than the other guys.

The ice conditions at Fenway were as probably favourable as they’ll ever be for one of these outside dances, meaning both the Flyers and Bruins were able to play a game resembling an everyday  NHL contest, albeit with the heating broken and some wind to contend with.

Though maybe that’s the problem, the fact they could play a reasonable facsimile of an indoor NHL game; maybe that speaks more of a continuing tightening of defensive systems and the resulting anti-surfeit of scoring in the league.

The Flyers held a 1-0 lead for a sizeable portion of the game, and though the quality of play was arguably superior to that in Edmonton and Buffalo, there was an underlying feeling the game hadn’t nearly reached its entertainment potential; well, that was the sentiment in my basement.

Early on, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Carcillo exchanged late Christmas cards to each other’s face, which instantly made them the answers to a trivia question.  The bout in unto itself was not particularly noteworthy, so the game was still searching for its signature moment.

There were a couple of breakaway chances that Tim Thomas turned aside, and you could go a number of games during any given week in the NHL and not see a guy sprung free, so that was nice.

But the game needed a goal, if possible, a big goal.

The Flyers scored first, thanks mainly to Thomas deciding to go all Ron Hextall on Scott Hartnell just as a point shot was threading its way into the back of his net.

The reigning Vezina Trophy winner more than made up for that gaffe, providing visual evidence why U.S.A. Olympic Team general manager Brian Burke made him one of three goaltenders on the American hockey squad for Vancouver.

Still, this game came to life when old pro Mark Recchi scored to tie it with 2:18 left in the third period.

That’s when the game came to resemble an NBA game.  You know, you only watch a basketball game for the last two minutes.

The offensive thrusts into the zones were numerous, and both teams created scoring chances, if only from the hurried nature of those last 120 seconds.

Naturally, the game went into extra innings, and the home team got the extra point, and as importantly, the extra style point, for winning it, sending the Bleacher Bums home happy.

If the game had ended 1-0 Flyers, much of the talk would have been about Tim Thomas, and how he let his mask slip, and a goal resulted as a result.  If that score had stood, I would have nominated him First Star for creating the best offensive chance of the game.

Thankfully, this was not to be the case, and the 2010 edition of the Winter Classic will probably go down in most people’s books as indeed a classic.

It wasn’t.

It was a good game, not a great game.  Like most good games, it had moments, though those moments only served to whet the appetite for more such moments.

The build-up to the game was nicely handled, as were those TV commercials with Alex Ovechkin and his Caps’ taking on the Flyers on the frozen tarmac of what appeared to be Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington.  Now that would be a Winter Classic.   Best goal of the day was Ovechkin’s shot into the bulldozer.

After a couple of hours of reflection, I still think the NHL should keep to one Outdoor Classic a year.  Yes, the Canadian franchises want to share in the fun, and yes, NBC wants two American teams participating on TV.  Which means as it stands now, the six Canadian teams won’t get invited to the party.

And that’s how it should be.  Despite all the overwrought prose about kids playing hockey outdoors, this game is one big novelty.  A little sugar with the medicine for all those non-hockey fans who are sitting on the couch on New Year’s Day.  It’s tailor-made for the sports tourists, who can gasp at all the pretty pictures from the blimp.

This is one thing NHL that should remain south-of-the-border.  It won’t.  There will be two Winter Classics a season very soon.  Which will take away somewhat from the feeling of being or watching a special event.

Be the first on your block to own the latest toy, before all the nerdy kids get one too!

The Hockey Gods may look down and yawn.

As long as they don’t send the damned locusts again.

- Mick Kern

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

Winter Classic Was A Blast

Monday, January 5th, 2009

The NHL’s Winter Classic was a blast. It is very difficult to compare it to being at last year’s snow-filled, majestic afternoon in Buffalo where Sidney Crosby scored in the shootout to win the game for Pittsburgh in front of 72,000 passionate fans.

This outdoor classic at Wrigley Field combined everything. It started with a village. A community. Addison, Clark and Waverly. It started out with old-time hockey bitterness, as Detroit’s Dan Cleary was hit cleanly by Brent Seabrook of the Hawks. Cleary ended up in the Hawks bench. That set the tone. The day was a great one. The Wings showed why they hold the Stanley Cup.

It was a pleasure to be there, an honor to be a part of the two outdoor games in the USA. The Blackhawks, Red Wings and the NHL could not have been more organized or looked so good.

OK, that’s over with now, and the season really begins.

How will the Hawks respond? They have been the talk of the NHL, along with the Bruins, and they have been preparing for the Classic all season long, only to lose the game and consecutive games against the team they emulate, the Wings.

Will they have gas in the tank to challenge for the Central Division title? Or, will this deflate them? Can they dig down deep enough for the rest of the regular season?

They sure played well in their next home game after the Classic, beating a tough team from Calgary, 5-2, on Sunday night.

They are a young and hungry organization that is lead by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but there is much more to this team than just two highly-skilled players. The Hawks have underrated Patrick Sharp to go along with speedy Martin Havlat, a potential UFA. They have a Calder candidate in Kris Versteeg as a top-six forward, and he is a good one.

They have a future Selke Award candidate in David Bolland, a former second-round pick from the London Knights that has been patient in developing an NHL game and a role that gets the trust of his coaches. He and the Coyotes Martin Hanzal will be contenders for that award for the next 10 seasons, in my opinion.

On the blue line, they have a great tandem in Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Keith does the skating and when he gets in trouble he dishes it to Seabrook, who has some good hockey sense. They complement each other very well. They signed Brian Campbell to a huge UFA deal, and he adds an element of offense, flair, and hockey sense to go along with a great deal of experience in the playoffs.

Before the season began, the question I asked Hawks General Manager Dale Tallon was a simple one: “What are you going to do with $13 million worth of goalies and who will play?”

Dale told me both Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin would play. I will never be that naive to think he really figured that in the early days of January that would be the case. Heck, they told Khabibulin to stay home during training camp at one point. They thought he may even work out a deal in Russia.

Just goes to show you, patience and timing are essential. The best goalie is Khabibulin. That is simply my opinion. He has presence in the net. He can carry a team. He has shown that, although there have been injuries and inconsistent times in the past with Khabby. He was also on a losing team in a losing environment at the time. When he signed there originally, he thought they were going to be winners. They were not even close then, but the building blocks had started. This core of players lost a lot of games together, and now they are eager to be winners … together.

The Blackhawks locker room at Wrigley Field. Cristobal Huet is a solid goalie. He can get on a roll, as he did last season with Washington late in the season. He can also get into funks, and sometimes takes a long time to get out of them. He is a quality person that works hard though, and they are a darn good tandem.

The Coyotes and Hawks will play in Glendale on Tuesday, Jan. 6, in a re-match of a December game in Chicago, in which the Hawks gave the Coyotes a thumping. Versteeg fought Kyle Turris in final seconds of the game and got a one-game suspension for it.

It will be an enormous game for both franchises after the Coyotes lost a four-point game in Anaheim on Sunday night in a battle for second place in the Pacific Division. They didn’t compete hard enough against a team that was without Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin and Kent Huskins.

What team will have the most gas in the tank as the real season begins? It begins on Tuesday in the desert. I can’t wait.

- Panger

Voice of Winter Classic II

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

The Phoenix Coyotes were well represented at the recent Winter Classic with both Darren Pang and Dave Strader joining the NBC Sports broadcast crew.  Take a listen to this feature I did with Dave on his experience calling the game at Wrigley Field.

Click to play:

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Audio courtesy of NBC Sports.

- Todd

FSN Arizona & Phoenix Coyotes Television/Radio Host
Visit:  FSN Arizona

A Special Place

Monday, December 29th, 2008

I am on the plane, heading to the Windy City for the Outdoor Classic, and am getting more and more excited about the game!  I felt the same way last year, nervous, excited, not sure what to expect, broadcasting outdoors.

But this one IS different. Yes, I now know what to expect from the elements of an outdoor game, but this is closer to my heart. The Windy City. I lived in Chicago for 20 years. My son and daughter were born there. Loyola Medical Center in Maywood Illinois, saved our son,Tyler’s life. Twice. How can this not be a special place? We have some of our best friends still in this city. It will always be a special place.

I have been in broadcasting since I retired from the NHL in 1990. I played my last NHL game in the 1989 playoffs as a member of the Hawks, as we went all the way to the Western Conference Finals against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames.

My career ended a year later. I was 26 years old.  I tore an ACL before game 5 in practice vs Calgary in 1989 and re-habbed it with current Hawks trainer Mike Gapski.  He was awesome. We went hard at it and I came back to the ice in roughly 4 1/2 months. My surgeon was Dr. William Clancy, a man and surgeon that was way ahead of his time. We were aggressive and proactive and they did a great job of getting me back on ice in time to re-join the organization in time for the 1990 IHL regular season ending and the Play-offs with the Indianapolis Ice.

I had the pleasure of playing for Darryl Sutter, one of the very best Hawks leaders, as we won the Turner Cup Championship.  I was back in Chicago for the summer and training hard as I really thought I could get back in the NHL for the next season.

I hit a major road bump. I re-injured my knee a month before training camp. Should never have been playing tennis on clay courts!  Back to the Alabama Medical Center for repairs, and my career was in serious jeopardy. I hurried back from Alabama, where Dr.Clancy performed his 2nd surgery on my left knee, and 3rd overall on that same knee. I had to get back as the Hawks were having a going away party at Butterfield Country Club, for the recently traded Denis Savard.

Savvy is truly one of the very best. Love the guy. He deserves a lot of credit for this great young team in Chicago. He put his heart and soul into the franchise.  He was a great teammate and friend. He was my neighbor and we drove to the Stadium for many practices. Full of life. Smoked a lot of cigarettes. Still had great energy. He loved getting on the ice. He loved to dangle, laugh, deke you out of your jock strap and then do it again.  He was just traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios, a Chicago native that grew up loving Stan Mikita, Dick Butkis and the Chicago Bears.

As I get ready for the Outdoor Classic, I remember these things.  I remember how great a man Bill Wirtz was. He was loyal. He loved his players. He was a tough businessman. He taught you about loyalty and doing the little things the right way.  My 1st position with the Hawks when I retired was with WBBM News Radio 78, as they were the flagship station of the Hawks, the Mighty Blackhawks…you know the song.

Our studio before and after the game was in a small room, with a small bathroom in it. One night the Hawks weren’t very good and my partner, Brian Davis, started the show by having his mic nearly in the toilet, and he flushed it as we started the show….. ” Well….that about sums up the Hawks play tonight….”  We answered phone calls after games and tried as best we could to explain why Mr Wirtz wouldn’t put the Hawks on home TV. Tough to explain, but we did the best we could. Mr Wirtz would personally call me and say I was doing a ‘fine job’ with the callers. He always said, “I know it can’t be easy…”

Now its the Outdoor game in Chicago.  Wrigley Field.  Mark Grace and the boys. The Cubs. The summer sun beating down on the most loyal fans in all of sports. The ivory and bricks.

This morning I get up and look out the window of the Drake Hotel and for miles I see the shore and the Gold Coast. Oak Street beach is right below my window. A classic winter day as I get ready for the game.  I step outside and the brisk wind grabs my attention. It is the wind. Its not that cold, only 3 days before the game, but the wind will be the challenge for sure.

NBC did a great job last year in Buffalo letting the elements tell the story. The game was the story. The snow coming down. The players were cold and constantly wiping their eyes, face and visors if they had one on. Darryl Sydor started the game with one on, but ended the game without it. Too much maintenance, and dangerous as well as it was tough to see, even a few feet in front of you.

Our producer, Sam Flood, is an experienced hockey player himself, and makes sure the game is the main topic of conversation on the air. He allowed us, as broadcasters, simply tell the story. What is the wind like? What adjustments do the coaches have to make? Are the goalies able to see the puck? These are every analyst dream position to be in. Just relay the story to the audience. What a pleasure it was to be in that environment and hopefully the weather let’s us just tell the story.

Last year there were 72,000 passionate fans that wouldn’t leave their seats, all bundled up and trying to be as warm as they could be. It was truly a sight to behold. At one point, singing Neil Diamonds “Sweet Caroline”…and it sounded good!  Between the benches with skates on made it unique, as I hopped over the boards many times to interview a player, show the viewers the built up snow on the ice and how they have to battle the elements. I even tossed a snowball at the main men behind the mic’s, Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk, a former teammate of mine with the Hawks, before he was traded to Toronto.

The fans love this stuff.

Casual fans love to see an outdoor stadium with grown men playing the sport they love. The same way most of these guys competed as kids. We all started out on outdoor rinks or ponds when I was growing up. In the elements. In the snow. Facing adversity. Laughing. Competing.  I can’t wait to get to Wrigley.

Several years back, I was up in the scoreboard and my duty was to change the score as the Cubs were struggling. I had to place the old tin #’s in the right spot. It was hot and muggy. It was so cool to be up there. What an experience that was.

In a few days I am able to see the 1st NHL game played at Wrigley and I can’t wait. No need for anyone up in that old scoreboard.

The Wings and the Hawks. The defending Champs vs the Contender, a real legitimate contender. Datsyuk and Zetterberg against Kane and Toews.  Outdoors.  Let the temperature drop and let the game begin!

- Panger

Our Own Winter Classic

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

Christmas came and went with astonishing speed, as it does every year, leaving behind a jumble of packages and boxes, ripped paper and the spectre of New Year’s bills.

By the time Boxing Day rolled around, we all needed a break from the festive cheer, so the wife trooped us outside into the backyard for a game of hockey.

Two years ago, during a consistent stretch of frigid weather during February, we iced the backyard and fashioned ourselves a rather ragged rink for about three weeks, before the first stirrings of Spring took it away.  Last year, the weather was too unreliable to even consider undertaking such a task.

As for this Winter, no-one seems sure how the season will unfold.  Here in Toronto, we got hit with three major snowstorms in the ten days before Christmas, which not only guaranteed a Bing Crosby Yuletide, but also resuscitated the wife’s romantic notion of having a backyard rink.  The trouble is, the forecast for Saturday, December 27th was for rain and more rain, which gave us a window of only one day to prepare, flood, freeze and enjoy our own Winter Classic.

Time for Plan B.

Around 2 pm that afternoon, the whole crew moved into the snow-covered backyard, shovels-in-hand, and proceeded to clear a sizeable area, large enough for our regulation-sized net and three hockey players.  The wife supervised the work, assigning herself to the snow pick, while I cleared the debris.  The four-year-old quickly lost interest in the proceedings, and instead practised his Bill Barber dives into the nearest snowbank.

After about a half-hour, we had the semblance of a backyard rink…minus the ice.  The only effective way to pat down the surface of snow into a consistent packed base was to tread on it.  The four-year-old and I began a game of keep away, and I’m not embarrassed to say I kicked his ass!

Yes, I know, how sad is that?  A grown man in his mid-forties bragging about outplaying his four-year-old son.  But c’mon, Father Time was sitting on the snow-covered picnic table, taking notes.  I know my window for channeling my inner Rick Nash, going around some pylon defenceman, is very narrow.  With each passing season, the pylon will grow and gain more confidence.  Sooner than I think, we will have switched roles.  Heck, he’s already got a better shot than I had at that age, or when I was eight.

Okay, it’s still sad.  And the boy let it be known he didn’t appreciate it, either.  He enlisted his mother, and suddenly my puck handling skills were put to the test.  I still ruled!  Everyone knows girls can’t play hockey.  Right?  Right?

The wife would exact her hockey revenge later.

As for the puck, we were using one of those bright orange street hockey jobbies that I picked up from Canadian Tire for a buck each.  Loaded up on about a dozen two years ago, and after banging a bunch of them off the goalpost during that deep freeze, we only have a couple left.  My wrist shot will never strike fear into the heart of any goaltender, still it was rather satisfying to watch the puck explode into two pieces after rattling it off the crossbar, allowing me to pretend I was some backyard Kent Nilsson.

After about twenty minutes of action, the snow surface under our feet was finely packed down, in perfect condition for the wife and I to later lay down the first layer of water from the trusty old garden hose.  But the weather forecast hadn’t changed.  Today it was a perfect late December day.  Tomorrow, it would look like March 29th.  There would be no need to use the hose.

But that was all in the future; at the moment, the three of us were immersed in a serious game of shinny.  One game pitted me against the wife and child.  The objective was to see who could score on the unguarded net.  Sounds easy, but you’d be surprised how difficult that can be when one has to navigate two hostile bodies, a finite amount of space, and an unpredictable playing surface.

At one point, the wife had possession of the puck about halfway towards the net, and my only recourse was to bodycheck her into the snowbank, tie up her stick with mine, and then extract the puck with my boot.  This was going rather well until the four-year-old saw that his teammate, his Mommy, was in need of help.

With all the speed he could muster, he slammed into me, which resulted in me losing the puck, and the little guy falling to the ground.

Suddenly, we snapped back to being concerned parents.  As we went to help him up, he brushed away any helping hand, and picking himself up off-the-ground, muttering something to the effect that I had knocked him to the ice.  If there had been a referee on duty, no doubt the kid would have made his way over to him, petitioning for a penalty.  And he may have been right; maybe I did knock him down.  How sad is that?

Then again, if one adheres to The Gospel According To Bobby Clarke, I was innocent.  The four-year-old entered the scrum, and got what was coming his way.  His mission was accomplished; I lost possession of the puck.

The boy showed that everything was alright by dropping his plastic stick, and his winter gloves, and charging at me, gleefully shouting out “Hockey Fight”.  The fight was a draw; he got in a few good left hooks, while I managed to sneak in a noogie before the wife separated the combatants.  I’m not a big fan of hockey fights, nor do I let the kid watch The Loud Man, as he calls Don Cherry.  Somehow, he just knows that hockey guys drop the gloves every so often.  Apparently, a four-year-old understands The Code.  Make of that what you will.

The sun was beginning to drop low on the horizon, and thoughts turned to supper and hot chocolate.  But first, time for Showdown.  Mano-a-mano, or, in this case, Mano-a-Womano.

I went to the mudroom and retrieved my old Mike Richter goaltender stick.  Last used it on-ice as a pickup goaltender way back in June of 1995.  Lovingly taped it to perfection, and then took to the ice on that steamy late Spring evening.  Which meant that my glasses steamed up terribly, which meant I battled to stop even the most rudimentary shot, which led to the spectacle of me violently chucking my goaltending equipment, piece-by-piece, into the corner, accompanied by every swear word I ever learned in the playground during grade school.

Since that day, I haven’t played ice hockey.  Do I miss it?  Sometimes very much.  Then again, after a while, I grew tired of fighting over a black piece of rubber.  And fighting was the word; often, the action would grow far too heated for a friendly pickup game, and the fun would be drained out it.  This even happened during our weekly Sunday morning ball hockey game, which I used to live for.  A person can only take so much testosterone-fueled macho crap before he’s had his fill.

I used to marvel that most of my friends in Ottawa stopped playing hockey during their mid-20′s.  A couple of these guys were very good, having played Junior “B” hockey, and when we’d organize a pickup game, they looked like Bobby Orr and Mike Modano out there, cutting through the rest of us scrubs.

Why weren’t they playing in a recreational league?  One friend explained that, while he missed the competition, what he didn’t miss were the guys who came straight from work, loaded up on beer, and then took to the ice in an effort to work out whatever frustrations they were experiencing with the wife or the boss.  It wasn’t worth the chippiness and the petty violence.  They’d much rather slum it with wannabee’s such as myself.

The trouble was, soon they grew bored by the lack of competition, and invited a few acquaintances who were also pretty flashy on a pair of skates.  Within weeks, the ringers began to crowd out the ankle-skaters.  While the level of play rose accordingly, the original purpose of getting all the guys together to have some fun soon was forgotten.  And before you knew it, many of the guys stopped showing up.  In my experience, this dynamic happens every time, another reason I don’t play ice hockey anymore.

These days, my hockey playing is reserved for when the two older neighborhood boys knock on our door, and invite the four-year-old and I to play street hockey.  The kid puts on his Pavel Bure Rangers’ jersey and I usually slip on my Canucks’ sweater, though this Christmas the wife got me a very nice Washington Capitals road jersey circa 1985, so I can now channel my inner Pat Riggin.

Which is another way of saying, I’m terribly out-of-shape; most my exercise these days consisting of running for the bus in an effort not to be late for The War Room.

Which brings us back to Backyard Showdown, Husband vs. Wife.  Me in net, the wife with her Sidney Crosby yellow stick.  Three shots.  Winner gets bragging rights.

Sometimes I’ll throw on the old goaltending equipment, in part because the kid loves it, but also because I love it.  Today, no such protection, not even a jock.

First shot, the wife unveils her world-famous move…stand about fifteen in front of the net, and hack at the orange puck, missing it completely the first time, which sends me into a twisted, body-protecting position, which frees up a good portion of the net.   She then reloads, takes a second swipe at the puck, and sends it towards my exposed shins.

I stop the first stop with my right leg, the brighly coloured orange frozen plastic puck feeling like a shot from Bobby Hull.  Regardless, I stopped it.  One for the good guys.

Second shot, the wife follows the same game plan.  She whiffs on the first attempt, which again sends me into a spasm of body protecting motions, which leaves most of the net uncovered, which allows her to deposit the puck into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.  One for the bad guys, err, girls.

Next shot would determine everything.  If there had been a crowd watching, they would have been on their feet, particularly since all of our lawn furniture was buried beneath the snow.

I clenched my teeth, gathered up my Mike Richter goaltender stick, and vowed to not flinch this time, summoning up the courage of yesteryear, when getting hit with a puck or an orange street hockey ball was a badge of honour.  This time, I would be ready.  Thou Shalt Not Pass.

At this moment, the four-year-old, having had enough of this middle-age drama, enthusiastically reinserts himself back into the action, steals the puck and sends it sailing towards my unprotected shins; this time the puck looked like a Dennis Hull slapshot.

Luckily for me, it skittered wide left, and it was time for hot chocolate.  The Showdown grudge match would have to wait until tomorrow.

Correct that; it would have to wait until the next extended cold snap and snowstorm.  Turns out the weather watchers were right.  It rained all day Saturday, and the next.  By Sunday afternoon, it would have been more appropriate to play football in the backyard.  The leaves I never got around to raking were exposed, mocking me from beyond the grave.

Our hockey net looks out-of-place on this muddy field, where once it was the crowning glory on a modest backyard hockey “rink”.

The three of us stared out the back window, a little sad at how things turned out, but very grateful we went outside on Boxing Day.  Maybe it was the first in what would become a family tradition.

Weather permitting.

- Mick Kern

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

Winter Classic II

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Take a listen to our Winter Classic preview with hockey expert, Darren Pang.  Darren will be heading to Chicago for another outdoor classic hockey game with NBC.  I sat down with Panger to get his thoughts on being a part of another special hockey moment … this time at the famed Wrigley Field.

Click to listen:

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Be sure to watch this classic on New Year’s Day.

- Todd

FSN Arizona & Phoenix Coyotes Television/Radio Host
Visit:  FSN Arizona

Winter Classic II

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Wrigley Field is a great venue for Winter Classic II

Last year I was fortunate to be able to be a part of the NBC broadcast in Buffalo and the NHL’s 1st outdoor game in the United States.

Working alongside Ed Olczyk, Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury and Bob Costas , I was doing what I enjoy doing the most. I was rinkside. I put skates on between the benches and I believe for the 1st time ever in broadcasting, I was able to skate on the ice and do interviews, picked up the snow on the ice when there was some build up, and had the chance to be close to the players and the coaches during the heat of battle, in the cold!

It ended up being perfect. A close game, not a perfectly played game, and why would it be? It really didn’t matter. It was perfect and fans wanted to be a part of it, both at the venue and watching on TV.

It had all the elements. It had sun, snow, close to rain for awhile, clouds, and Sidney Crosby scores the GWG in the shoot out.

Now we move forward.

Chicago is hosting Detroit.

And it will be at venerable Wrigley Field.

When I played for the Blackhawks in the mid to late 80’s, one of the 1st things all of us players wanted to do in training camp was go to a Cubs game. It is no different today.

NHL players will often head to Chicago in the summer and hang out. They take in Lake Shore Drive and the beaches along the Gold Coast. They play golf some of the great golf courses in the world, tracks like Medinah, Butler National, Chicago Golf Club and Shoreacres, just to name a few.

And they all end up seeing the Cubs play. They go to Wrigley. They hang out in the neighborhood and take it all in. It is a special place to see a game. It is a destination. It is something they never forget.

It wasn’t much different than the ball players heading to old Chicago Stadium and seeing the Hawks play in front of a rowdy, energetic and sold out building that was also the place to be.The Bears, Cubs,

The Blackhawks may have earned the Comeback Franchise of the Decade with all of the smart moves they made this past season.

It has forever been a challenge for the NHL to get the Hawks late owner, Bill Wirtz to put home games on TV. I had many interviews and conversations with Mr. Wirtz while I was beginning my broadcast career in Chicago. I was the analyst on pre, during and post game shows before I left full time for ESPN.

There were many nights I listened to ticked off Hawk fans because there was no TV for the local fans when the Hawks played at home. Mr. Wirtz was consistent at all times with his response. It was always about preserving the season ticket “subscribers” and making the home games the place to be. He was right. It did make it special to be there. It could hold around 19,500 and I bet there were 16,000 season ticket holders.

They made sure they got there for the National Anthem, sang by Wayne Messmer, and had a couple of cold beers right with them.

But when the team moved across the Street and popular players were moved with regularity, the fans failed to show up, with regularity. And then they just stopped caring about this once beloved franchise.

Now he has passed and Rocky Wirtz is in charge. Years ago I was told by one of the Wirtz family members that either they get “into the race” or step aside with dignity and pride, and “get out of the race.” There was clearly no effort to improve the fan base, the team nor the chance to compete for the Cup, which they have not won since the glory days of Hull, Mikita, and Hall in 1961. That has now changed. Rocky Wirtz is a good man and he cares about winning and he cares about the game. His son Danny grew up playing hockey, in fact he was a goalie. Pretty sharp kid, no doubt.

With some shrewd moves by Dale Tallon and the green light to go spend from Rocky Wirtz, the Hawks are a team and a franchise back on the rise.

Because of all the positive moves, home games on TV, a great young team led by Calder Trophy winner Pat Kane and finalist Jonathon Toews, this was an easy decision for the NHL to have the Hawks host the Wings at Wrigley Field. There was no resistance to help out this once very proud franchise, instead it was the opportunity by the NHL to help out this market and rivalry with the Wings.

The NHL had many choices and clearly Yankee Stadium would have been great. There is no denying that, especially after watching the recent MLB All star game that was there.

I am looking forward to experiencing the walk into Wrigley. I just want to see the boards and the ice and the look on the faces of the players as they step onto the ice. It won’t be the 24 steps it once took to reach the ice surface from the locker room at the Stadium, but it is going to be darn close, I’m sure.

I am looking forward to seeing the Blackhawk Alumni, one of the best in all of sports. The Hawks will make sure they are a part of the festivities and the old players have been looking forward to being a part of a special hockey event in Chicago for some time. After all, for years they were the ones that had to answer all the negative questions and criticism from the dwindling fan base. They lived there and stayed during the off season, when most of the players were all long gone, taking the lost season elsewhere.

It is certainly going to change for the better and the Winter Classic II will be a defining moment for the organization and the City of Chicago.

They have high expectations after the Sabres and Penguins show last year. It may not have the same ending, the same timing for snow and 71,000 fans,that never left their seats, but it will have plenty of history, ambience and that grid iron feel that you can’t manufacture. It will be Chicago and Detroit.

I can’t wait.

Panger