Face-Off

Welcome  to the new 1-on-1 “Face-Off” segment here on Murph On Ice! We will bring you Murph’s conversations on a regular basis with some of the best hockey minds in the business!

Murph had the pleasure of chatting with the driving force behind hockey excellence in Belfast recently for this first feature. Enjoy his interview with Giants legend Todd Kelman.

Todd Kelman has been the full-time General Manager of the Belfast Giants since  April 2007. He also had a great career as a player in Belfast, and is the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, appearing in 419 games and is the top scoring Giants defenceman of all time.

Todd Kelman has brought an exciting product to the ice in Belfast as the Giants GM.

Murph On Ice – Thanks for joining me to chat hockey here on the new website Todd!

Todd Kelman – No problem Murph, my pleasure!

MOI – As a GM in the Elite League, what are the biggest challenges you face in keeping the product on the ice in Belfast at the highest level possible?

TK – The biggest challenge right now is getting the bums on seats in order to maintain the top level team we have had over the last few years.  People are very selective about how they spend their money these days and there is no second chances for grabbing those valuable entertainment £££’s that people are willing to spend.  We have to ensure that we provide high level entertainment with top quality professional players that makes it worth the price of admission. If we lose a customer or send someone away with a bad experience, it is unlikely they will be back to give us another chance.

MOI – When you talk to foreign players about coming to play in Belfast, what is the reaction you get about hockey in the UK Elite League?

TK – A few years ago we used to get the usual reaction of “they play hockey over there?”, but now I think we have done a good job of putting our league on the international hockey map.  We had NHL players come to the Elite League during the lock out and we hosted the Boston Bruins last season, so now players know about this league before they get here.  Players nowadays have the opportunity to research the place before they arrive, and we make it easy for them.  We have a special website for incoming players to show off everything that Belfast and the Giants has to offer.

MOI – When you look back on your career as a player on this side of the pond, what are your favourite memories from your Giant days?

TK– Definitely my biggest thrill as a player was winning the playoffs in 2003.  That was the best Giants team in history and probably my favourite group of guys I ever played with.  After that, the 2 league titles I won as a Giants player were awesome, and as a GM, winning the playoffs in 2010 was a big thrill.

Todd Kelman had a great career as a player in Belfast, appearing in 419 games for the Giants.

MOI – Of all the guys you played with in the Elite League over the years, who are the top 3 guys to have played over here?

TK – Theo Fleury, Jason Ruff and Paul Kruse.  All 3 of them for different reasons were probably too good to be playing in the UK, but for whatever reason they ended up here. Theo was my hero when I was a kid, Ruff was the best player on our team when we were the best team in the Superleague and Kruse was the best Captain I ever played with.  He knew how to lead, quietly but with authority.

MOI – You mention Theo Fleury, he was of course a high profile addition to the Giants in 2005/06…Any special memories of his time in a Belfast jersey?

TK – The whole season with Theo was magical.  Playing with him made me understand why he was able to play in the NHL and dominate for so long.  He was so talented, and remember we saw him at the end of his career.  He did things with the puck then that the rest of us couldn’t fathom.  His stories were great, it was a surreal experience playing with him.  So many guys hear stories about Theo and what type of person he is or was.  We got to know him as one of the boys.  He was committed, he worked hard, he pushed all of us and made us better players.  He was the most intense player I have ever seen.  We won the league because of him, no doubt but besides the championship, it was so much fun getting to hear his stories all season.  He can tell a good story and he has a lot of them.

MOI – The Odyssey is a fantastic rink, for those who haven’t been to a game there yet, give us an idea of the experience in Belfast on game night?

TK – We are lucky to have such an amazing building to play our home games at.  We have tried to market our games as an entertainment product because we know not everyone understands our sport, but we know people all like to have fun.  You are going to have a good night out at a Giants game, because there is plenty going on besides the game itself.  We have prize giveaways, cheerleaders, great music, video screens and a great atmosphere because of the passion and enthusiasm that our fans bring to the Odyssey every home game.

MOI – The fans in Belfast are a passionate bunch! What’s the hockey community like overall in Belfast?

TK – Very committed and very supportive.  Most teams talk about how their fans are loyal when they win and lethal when they are losing.  I know our fans expect us to win, but they understand that we aren’t going to win every game, they just want us to compete and put the effort in.  It makes a difference when you have a great support behind you and I think we have awesome fans.

MOI – And finally, how has the season been thus far, and what can the Giants’ fans expect the rest of way in this campaign?

TK – Hopefully we can keep winning and someday soon get back to full strength. It seems like every year we have a load of injuries right from the start and the same has happened this year.  We have yet to play a game at full strength, so hopefully when we do, we can get on track and continue the way things have been going lately.

MOI – Thanks again Todd, good luck the rest of the way, and I’ll see you at the Odyssey for a game soon.

TK – Thanks for having me Murph! Take care.

“Face-Off” is a regular feature here on Murph On Ice. Keep an eye out for Murph’s next 1-on-1 as he talks all things hockey with TSN Radio Host James Cybulski.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

 

Leaf Nation

Well Leaf fans – you wanted it you got it! Your Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a pretty darn good start to this 2011-12 campaign.

The Buds currently sit atop the Northeast Division at 4-0-1 for 9 Points. This has been a team effort if you believe the talk from the Blue and White dressing room, but truly the story has been Phil ‘The Thrill’ Kessel.

Phil Kessel was chosen last in the 2011 All-Star player draft - the way he's playing now he might be 1st overall pick!

Kessel has 7 goals and 5 assists for an NHL leading 12 points. He has looked tenacious, and focused. His 5-on-5 play has been superb and his speed is noticeable each and every night.

As relieved as all you fans are with the Leafs and Kessel, the most relieved man in the whole of Leafs Nation is Coach Ron Wilson. Many of my Canadian sources have been saying that Wilson needed the Leafs to come out and click straight away. Rumour was that a bad start would have been the death march, and Brian Burke may have been urged into action. Despite all his bluster and bravado protecting the beleaguered Wilson, Burke is the GM of a club that is on a streak of futility…eventually Burkie would have had to think of a shakeup if the Leafs had indeed been 0-5 perhaps.

“There’s no way Burke can keep saying Wilson’s job is safe,” my CBC source told me on the phone, “if they come out and limp through October then something would have had to happen. You can’t fire the whole team, and Wilson has had a long time to get this team going.”

Luckily for Wilson, Burke, and Leafs Nation that’s not the case at this point! They all can thank Phil Kessel for that. They just need him to keep playing like a man possessed, and maybe, just maybe, make things interesting in the East for a long suffering fan base.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

NHL Premiere Stockholm

Stockholm is a beautiful city – throw in a few NHL games and you’re on to a winning weekend! I was fortunate enough to be on hand at the Globe Arena from October 7-9th for the NHL’s annual opener in Europe. Hockey is back

The Kings, Ducks and Rangers were on the menu in Sweden and the product on show was top notch. Henrik Lundqvist was the busiest guy in the entire hockey world here! He patiently stood and gave more interviews than the other teams combined, and did so with a smile. He also had a truck load of family and friends along for the ride, and his time was precious.

“It’s kind of nice to get on the ice and forget about all the distractions this weekend,” King Henrik told me, “when I’m at the rink I can just focus on hockey, and all the other stuff goes away.”

Henrik Lundqvist was a fan and media favourite in Stockholm.

On the ice Lundqvist continued to be busy. He kept the Rangers in their season opener versus the new-look Kings. His 27 saves were the sole reason the Broadway Blueshirts salvaged a point on the Friday in a 3-2 OT loss. Without his stellar performance there would have been no way the Rangers would have gotten to overtime. The same fate awaited him Saturday as Corey Perry and the Ducks were next up on the schedule. Once again Lundqvist was beyond busy. The Ducks first line of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan  and Perry were a thorn in his side all night. Again his colleagues relied heavily on his steady presence between the pipes. He was responsible for the team salvaging another point in overtime and his shootout stops were nothing short of fantastic. Sadly for Lundqvist the Ducks would take the win on a Bobby Ryan goal.

“He was great tonight for them,” Ryan said of Lundqvist, “we couldn’t seem to buy a goal, he was the best player on the ice tonight.”

So the Rangers headed back to New York with two out of a possible four points on their European adventure. New Captain Ryan Callahan was optomistic that his club could grow on their efforts overseas and come together for a successful campaign.

“We will take the positives away with us from here, obviously we wanted two wins, but we got two points and can go back home and get to work,” Callahan said after the shootout loss to Anaheim, “everyone in this room wants to win and we won’t be satisfied with OT losses, but we can’t get down about this weekend.”

Rangers Captain Ryan Callahan speaks to the media in Sweden.

So with a 3-2 OT loss Friday, and a 2-1 shootout loss Saturday, the Rangers will have to wait a week to get in the win column. They can get their first ‘W’ of the year against their Long Island rivals on Saturday October 15th.

It was a brilliant few days of NHL action here in Stockholm. It’s a great hockey city with great fans who are both knowledgeable and passionate. Lundqvist may be their favourite son in Sweden, but all the players here were given great support and receptions everywhere they went. The NHL Premiere is a great event that brings the best hockey league on earth to the people of Europe. Hopefully the NHL and it’s clubs will continue to participate, grow and expand this annual tradition.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

 

 

 

Cruel Summer

Murph reflects on a tragic NHL offseason, and has a word with hockey colleague Barry Melrose.

As a fan of any sport, we only want a few things from our chosen favorite’s off-season. We want expediency. We want our team to improve, we want things to be smooth and without drama. We need to have the feeling that the next season is coming and that things will be back to normal soon in our sporting lives.

This is every summer for me. I wish that hockey was back, I dream about it, as I get anxious for the physicality and speed which makes up the most exciting game on the planet. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy baseball, and love the summer, but hockey is what fuels my sporting passion.

This summer started upbeat. It seemed that the offseason would be full of fantastic stories from the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup parties. They ran up a $150,000 bar bill at a casino back in June and we just knew they would enjoy the dog days of summer, and provide us with some off-ice entertainment.

There were of course a few questions we all wanted answered too! How was Sid, and would he play again? Would the Leafs make some big moves to break the playoff slump? Would greats like Lidstrom and Selanne come back for one more year? Fun questions, things that tickled our off-season hockey brains. Nothing serious, just things at the back of our collective hockey heads.

But all these nagging questions and fun thoughts to pass the summer were nothing compared to the events that would crop up and sink our spirits throughout the summer of 2011. The worst summer of all for the hockey community.

We actually had a glimpse of what was to come. It was to foreshadow a long period of sadness and grief for everyone around hockey.

Derek Boogaard (1982-2011)
RIP: Derek Boogaard (1982-2011)

A sad reminder of the frailty of life. The frailty of people no matter how tough they may be. May 13th will long be remembered as a shocking and sad date. It was the date that a larger than life player was lost to us forever.

Derek Boogaard the ‘Boogy Man’ was as big and as tough as they come in a hockey player. At 6’7 and 265 pounds, there weren’t many larger on the ice than Derek. Boogaard had a tough year in New York battling concussion and maybe his inner demons. Many surrounding the giant knew of his addictive personality and his past troubles. Despite these warning signs, no one could have predicted his death on May 13th after a night of drinking and drug taking.

His death was ruled ‘accidental overdose’ with the cocktail of booze and pills he had consumed before returning to his Minneapolis apartment that night. It was a huge blow. Derek had just returned from rehab, and seemed in high spirits to get back to his career and be healthy after the concussions and issues he battled last season. His death seemed pointless and unfair. It was indeed a wake-up call that life is precious, and we should always be on the lookout for friends and family who may have similar problems to the ones Boogaard bravely fought.

The hockey world mourned Boogaard. Life went on though. The NHL playoffs got more interesting, and the on-ice battles and triumphs helped us all move forward from the May tragedy.

In an eerie bit of coincidence, the Canucks were to be vanquished in seven hard fought games against Boston. They lost this fight without one of their toughest battlers.

Rick Rypien was a tough guy. He wasn’t as big as Boogaard, but at only 5’11 and 180 pounds Rypien packed a punch. He was missed by his teammates against the much more physical Bruins without a doubt in that final series.

Rick Rypien (1984-2011)
RIP: Rick Rypien (1984-2011)

Rypien was not with the Canucks to fight their battles because of his own demons. He was on leave from the club to deal with ‘personal issues’ away from hockey. The Canucks had granted him that time. He had in fact been on a similar break a few years ago (2008-09), again in the midst of a hockey season. His ‘personal issues’ were well known to his employers and teammates alike. Rypien had been dealing with a life-long struggle with depression.

It’s one of those taboos in the professional sports world. These men are larger than life heroes who are tough as nails right? They surely have no emotional problems or personal issues right? Well the whole system couldn’t be more wrong. Rypien’s death on August 15th was ruled a suicide, after a shocked family member discovered his body in his Alberta home. Despite the warning signs, despite the past history, no one could help Rypien. He had ended his life and his battle with a force none of us could possibly understand. He was no coward, we know that. But he was sick with a disease that is not supposed to prey on professional sportsmen in our macho psyche. He lost a battle off the ice that no one could help him win.

The hockey world again mourned the loss of one of our own. We thought that surely this was it for the tragedy this offseason. We thought it couldn’t get worse. We were wrong.

There was no one in hockey more liked than Wade Belak. Despite his years as a tough guy in the NHL, even the guys he fought liked him! Wade’s smile and self-deprecating humor were legendary. He had just retired as a player, but had many opportunities lined up. He had a wonderful wife and family. It appeared that Wade had so much going for him. Wade was another behemoth, at 6’5 and 230 pounds, there surely was nothing he was afraid of or couldn’t handle.

Then on August 31st our beliefs and our faith were once again destroyed.

Belak was found dead in a condominium he was staying at in downtown Toronto. He had been there preparing to appear on a Canadian Television show Battle of the Blades. The police said the cause of death was not ‘suspicious’ and the case was treated as a suicide. After the death had made the news, the truth started to come out. Belak had hidden his depression for years. Only those close to him knew about it. Unlike Rypien who had a more public battle, Belak had hidden his affliction with a big smile and a fantastic wit and sense of humor. How bad were his inner problems that all the success and love in the world could not stop him from wanting out? It was a sucker punch of epic magnitude. A death that shook us all and continued the horrible trend of hockey’s darkest summer. The loss of Belak proved that we could not possibly understand his disease. It was something that was immeasurable and left us all empty.

For all the sadness we had poured out for Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, we could never have been prepared for September 7th.

I was waiting for a flight in Lisbon, Portugal. I had been at an affiliate meeting for ESPN America. It had been a successful few days, and I was looking forward to getting on my flight back to London. I received a text from a hockey colleague in Toronto. The words on my phone will stay with me a long time “KHL team killed in plane crash, what are you hearing?” I wasn’t hearing anything. I was in shock. About to board a plane myself, and pretty much punch drunk from the summer’s earlier tragedies, this one took my breath away. I was a zombie. I did not tell my colleagues of the news. I didn’t want to speak of a plane crash as we were about to board one. It was surreal and I felt empty and confused about all the horrible news that had transpired since May.

The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team was taken that day. Every one of them has perished. It is not a hockey tragedy. It was a world tragedy. They were on their way to a game in Minsk and the start of the KHL season. Excited about the start of a new campaign, and full of hope with new Head Coach Brad McCrimmon at the helm. McCrimmon was a fantastic NHL player and was an assistant coach in Detroit. He wanted to be a head coach and took his opportunity in Russia. It’s unbelievable.

Other former NHL players on the plane that fateful day were – Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Alexander Yasyunov, Alex Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev. All gone far too soon. All pursuing their love of playing hockey. If there is kind sentiment for their families it is indeed that fact – they died being what they loved – hockey players.

We all mourn in our own way. We all feel for the families of all those lost this dark summer. We pray that we will not have another period like this in hockey or otherwise. It has been a cruel summer.

In search of answers and maybe even some wisdom to make sense of it all, I spoke with my NHL colleague Barry Melrose about all the summer’s tragic news. His wise words summed up a lot for me.

“For those of us that love hockey, the start of this NHL season can’t come fast enough. I don’t think the hockey world has ever had a summer like this past one,” Barry told me. “Every bit of news was bad and every story was worse than the last one ending with the terrible plane crash in Russia. We need good news, good games, good stories and good thoughts.”

“The great game of hockey will help in most of these areas and our great athletes will do the rest,” Barry continued. “Make sure we don’t forget the stories of this summer, but from now on let’s focus on all the great things this time of year has to give us.”

Amen Barry … I think we can all agree with that.

Murph has been covering the NHL for five years. He also covers other sports and special events. Any comments or questions are welcome.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Murph wraps a fantastic 2010-11 NHL Season

Well NHL fans – what a ride this 2010-2011 hockey season has been for us all! From my time in Prague way back in October covering the Coyotes and Bruins, to the All-Star Game in Raleigh in January, and of course being in Boston for Games three and four last week – this has been a phenomenal journey.

Tim Thomas speaks to media in Prague
Tim Thomas in Prague

I had a weird feeling back in Prague that Tim Thomas and the Bruins had some plans up their collective Black and Gold sleeves – but I had no idea of how grand those plans were!

Tim Thomas had a season for the ages. This guy has had to scrape and fight for his job, and ultimately respect from NHL fans and media alike. Will this Conn Smythe effort finally bring him into the talk of the greats in our game?! Thomas will surely win the Vezina trophy in Las Vegas next week, and no one can take away this playoff run. His 798 saves in the playoffs this season is the best total in history – enough said! Oh I guess his numbers were ok too – a .940 SV%, and a 1.98 GAA with four shutouts – superhuman.

I remember at the All-Star game that Bruins captain Zdeno Chara seemed restless when asked about his team and the issues they had against the Flyers in the last playoff run. He had a steely look – a look that said he had unfinished business and that he would attain his goal. It’s funny looking back now how focused and business-like both Chara and Thomas were. I guess Chara’s resolve paid off in this run – his plus-16 led all players. He was physical night in and night out, and a pillar of strength for Boston on the penalty-kill…he was a true leader – the definition of a Captain.

Zdeno Chara in Raleigh

The Canucks had a great run – make no doubt about it. Beating the Blackhawks in seven in the opening round and showing great character after blowing a three game lead to advance. The Predators played hard against them, but they found a way to win, and the Sharks went all out. Ryan Kesler was on fire against the Preds and the Sedins got it going against San Jose. They seemed to be able to find a hero throughout to get the job done. Kevin Bieksa’s big goal will be remembered amongst Vancouver fans for years to come. The shame here is that there had to be a let-down for someone in this final. Canada’s Stanley Cup drought continues – going back to 1993.

The B’s are the first team in NHL history to win three game seven’s in one playoff run. They went the distance with bitter rivals Montreal, Tampa Bay, and of course again in the final. They swept the Flyers in round two to avenge the crushing defealt Philly handed them last season. You could say that the loss in round two of the 2010 playoffs – blowing a three game lead to lose at home in seven to the Flyers, was a galvanizing moment for the Beantowners. They knew they were better than that…they knew they had to make up for it.

The acquisitions at the trade deadline of Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly were also shrewd moves by Boston General Manager Peter Chiarelli. Both played huge parts in this incredible story – proving that depth – not big names wins championships.

The fans I encountered in Boston last week were hungry for a Bruins’ result. They had tasted glory with the Patriots, the Celtics and of course their beloved Red Sox all in the past seven years. I spoke with plenty of NHL fans who were calling it ‘the Bruins time.’ Well it has arrived – with a 4-0 Game seven gem. They have taken their place in Boston sports folklore. They have attained the top prize.

“You’ve been waiting a long time, but you got it,” Tim Thomas said to the fans, “You wanted it, you got it. We’re bringing it home.”

For the Canucks this could be their galvanizing moment. Falling just short of their goal must be beyond tough – but they know how good they can be. Losing Aaron Rome and Mason Raymond was hard on their lineup. Roberto Luongo’s struggles in Boston also a blow. But that team is a great team. That team – if they can re-group and come back strong and focused next season – could once again be Stanley Cup Contenders. We just have to hope that the riots in Vancouver in the aftermath of the loss Wednesday can soon be forgotten.

Murph on the TD Garden Ice
Murph on the TD Garden Ice

Bruins ‘grey beard’ Mark Recchi will leave the game on top as he announced his retirement after the win at age 43. Recchi is a testament to hard work and mental focus. While his younger counterparts on the Canucks – the Sedin brothers – struggled statistically in the series, Recchi had seven points in the seven games. ‘Rex’ as he is called by his teammates, leaves the NHL with three Stanley Cups (Penguins, Canes and now Bruins).

Well it was a pleasure to cover the NHL and some key hockey events in the 2010-11 season! Murph On Ice is back this year bringing you along again for another great NHL run.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

Murph On Ice Stanley Cup Journal – June 6th

The Bruins took to the ice here at TD Garden this morning looking like a hungry bunch. It also seemed that familiar surroundings were just what the doctor ordered for the club, and there were smiles and the odd joke between the players as they went through some shooting and one-on-one drills.

Coach Claude Julien was tight lipped about lineup change possibilities, and the defenseman were in black and forwards in white, thus line combinations were not a factor.

No doubt about who will start in goal tonight for Boston. Tim Thomas took limited work and left the ice well before the rest of the team. Mark Recchi did not take the skate this morning and was just getting some more rest ahead of tonight’s contest.

The Bruins skated for about 45 minutes before opening the dressing room to the awaiting media. The thought on all our minds – what do the B’s need to do to get to Roberto Luongo?

Michael Ryder knows the Bruins have to get some big goals tonight in Game 3.

“We need to get traffic to the net,” Michael Ryder said, “we need to find ways to score and get some bounces to get them off their game.”

Indeed the Bruins would love to get a few early tonight, with only two goals in two games thus far a bounce-back effort would be huge.

“All year we’ve battled and bounced back,” Ryder stated, “we did it against Montreal, and if we win tonight then it’s a whole new series here.”

No doubt that a loss tonight pretty much seals the Bruins fate, and puts Vancouver just one win away from glory. A big factor being talked about here in the Garden is the home-town crowd and noise tonight for Game 3.

“We expect it to be pretty rowdy and loud,” smiled Brad Marchand, “our fans have been great all year, so looking forward to that tonight. We have a great crowd to feed off, so I think it’s going to be a crazy game.”

If the Bruins can pull off a big home win tonight, then we have the makings of a great series here in the Stanley Cup Final. A loss and we’re just looking at damage control. From what I experienced in the Boston dressing room here this morning, it looks like the team has no intention of giving up after two tough losses in Vancouver.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce