Sochi notes: Pressure is a factor, but it’s not always THE factor

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Hello from the other side of the world. The Russian team has a press conference here shortly. In the meantime, here are some Sochi notes:

—- If you thought all this pressure talk was overblown, I asked Ken Holland yesterday if he’d ever seen pressure get to a team, and he said, “Oh yeah, absolutely.”

Granted, he also said, “Any time you get into sports, there’s pressure. You want to win and the people you’re playing against want to win. I think when you’re involved in sports, you go into a cocoon. When we were in Vancouver, for two weeks you’re down in the locker room, you worry about practice. You have to come out occasionally to talk to media and you go back in.”

Somewhat unconvinced, I asked if that was easier said than done, for players to “go into a cocoon,” making specific reference to Alex Ovechkin, the face of the Sochi Games, who may not be able to hide out in the locker room the whole tournament.

Holland clarified.

“Does everyone here understand the significance of the tournament? Absolutely,” he said. “But do I think they wake up tomorrow morning and they’re thinking about that? No, they’re going to do the same thing tomorrow that they did in Washington or Detroit or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh or Chicago. They’re creatures of habit, and that’s how they perform at their best.”

Holland also warned against the assumption that, if a team doesn’t win, it’s because the pressure got to the players.

“Sometimes that it is the case,” he said. “Sometimes…these are good teams.”

And only one can win gold.

(Related: Are expectations too high for Russia?)

—- I really liked this answer from Mike Babcock about the keys to scoring on the bigger international ice.

“It’s so easy to be stuck on the outside on the big ice and think you are doing something because you are standing in your zone and you are just standing there,” he said. “In the end you have got to get on the inside to score.

“You have got to be inside the dots. If you hang out, open on the wall, in North America you still might be able to score, but here you are not going to.”

Apparently Ralph Krueger – Team Canada’s big-ice consultant – has been telling reporters the same thing.

And that’s why size is still important on the big ice, even if speed is the factor that gets the most attention.

—- Funniest quote of yesterday’s media blitz goes to Ken Hitchcock, responding to a question about how Canada’s coaching staff – which features four NHL bench bosses – works.

Surely it’s not a democracy, the reporter said.

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” said Hitchcock.

Tito Babcock. That’s his nickname for the rest of the Olympics. Deal? (Look it up.)

—- Pavel Datsyuk just said that he’s going to play Thursday versus Slovenia, but I have no idea how effective he’ll be with what’s believed to be a left knee injury. (It’s also been reported as a groin injury.)

Whatever the ailment — maybe it’s both those things — if Datsyuk can’t be Datsyuk, the Russians have a big problem. When healthy he’s one of the best two-way forwards in the game. When less than 100 percent, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to keep up with the most dangerous non-Russian scorers in the world, of which Canada, Sweden, and the United States have their fair share.

—- Lots of talk yesterday about adjusting to the time change after arriving in Sochi. Babcock semi-joked that Team Canada practiced in the evening so the players wouldn’t go to bed.

“Keep the players up,” he said. “It has been a long day, so we thought if we did some exercise at this time of night we would have a better chance of staying up until midnight.”

American forward Ryan Callahan said something similar after skating even later in the evening than the Canadians did.

“Yeah, it was a long day,” he said. “But to get adjusted to the time change, you’ve got to get on the ice and get the blood moving a little bit, and make sure you’re not sleeping. But the legs felt heavy out there.”

For the record, I’ve been here over a week now, and my inner clock is still a bit off. Though, granted, I may not be a good comparable to use. Discipline is not my middle name, and I’m not a finely tuned professional athlete. I had pretzels for breakfast this morning.

National Hockey League had humble beginnings 100 years ago

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MONTREAL (AP) The five men who met on Nov. 26, 1917, to form the National Hockey League could not have dreamed of the 31-team, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is a century later.

That day the owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators and Quebec Bulldogs, along with league president-to-be Frank Calder, drew up a document at the posh Windsor Hotel in Montreal that established the NHL out of the ruins of the strife-torn National Hockey Association, which had been founded in 1909.

World War I was raging and most of the best young players were serving in Europe. Professional hockey had not yet eclipsed the amateur game in popularity. Top players earned about $900 per season.

The owners had met twice earlier in the month and announced they would suspend play due to scarcity of top-level players, although it turned out the real plan was to form a new league that did not include Eddie Livingstone, the combative owner of the Toronto Blueshirts who had repeatedly been in disputes, even lawsuits, with other clubs over rights to players or arena leases.

Elmer Ferguson, sports editor of the defunct Montreal Herald, was the only journalist at the Windsor that day. When it ended, he asked Calder what had happened and was told “nothing much.”

But Canadiens owner George Kennedy told Ferguson the new league was “like our old league except that we haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it.”

Livingstone filed for an injunction and tried unsuccessfully to start another league, but it was hardly smooth sailing for the NHL in its early days.

Before the season started, Quebec announced it didn’t have the resources to begin play until the following season, so its players were divided up among the other clubs. Toronto took the Bulldogs’ place under a more cooperative owner, Charles Querrie.

On the new league’s opening night, Dec. 19, 1917, only 700 fans were on hand as the Wanderers beat Toronto 10-9.

It was to be the only victory for the team founded in 1903 out of clubs that stretched back to 1884. After only four games, the Westmount Arena that housed the Wanderers and the Canadiens burned to the ground, destroying all their equipment.

The Canadiens were able to replace their lost gear and moved into the 3,200-seat Jubilee Rink, but the Wanderers folded, leaving only three teams. The Canadiens had won their opener, officially the first NHL game because it started 15 minutes earlier, on five goals from Joe Malone, who had been picked up from the Bulldogs.

It took less than a month for the first rule change, which allowed goalies to drop to the ice to make saves where they previously had to remain upright. The new rule was inspired by Ottawa’s Clint Benedict, a master at “accidentally” losing his footing when shots were being taken.

The game was different in many ways that season. There were no forward passes or lines on the ice. Minor penalties lasted three minutes instead of two. Goaltenders served their own penalties, leaving skaters to guard the net.

And the Stanley Cup was not NHL property. Toronto got the O’Brien Cup for taking the first league championship, then had to win a five-game series against the champions of the rival Pacific Coast league, the Vancouver Millionaires, to claim the Stanley Cup. It did not become an exclusive NHL trophy until 1926-27.

By then, a rapidly growing NHL had reduced the Pacific Coast and Western leagues to insignificance. While Quebec City had rejoined the league, moved to Hamilton, and then folded, the NHL was booming in the United States.

Boston joined in 1924, the same year the Forum was built to house the Canadiens and the new Montreal Maroons. The New York Americans joined in 1925-26 along with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Teams in Chicago and Detroit soon followed. In Toronto, Conn Smythe bought a team called the St. Pats and renamed them the Maple Leafs.

In New York, promoter Tex Rickard was angling for a franchise and the local joke was they would be Tex’s Rangers. Rickard liked the name and the New York Rangers were born. His coach and general manager was Lester Patrick, who brought stars Bill and Bun Cook from the Pacific Coast league.

More iconic rinks were built. The Detroit Olympia in 1927, Boston Garden in 1928, Chicago Stadium in 1929 and Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931.

Player salaries shot up.

But the Great Depression was too much for some clubs and after 1941-42, when the Americans folded, the league was down to what came to be called the Original Six, even though the 1930s had brought major rule changes to speed up play and boost offence, including forward passing across lines, icing, penalty shots and flooding the ice between periods.

Then came an extended period of stability, marked by the rise of powerhouse teams in Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and then Montreal again. Massive stars emerged like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe.

A year after Bobby Orr debuted with the Bruins in 1966-67, the league finally expanded by six teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota North Stars (now Dallas), St. Louis, Los Angeles and Oakland. Then came Buffalo and Vancouver in 1970; New York Islanders and Atlanta (now Calgary) in 1972; Washington and Kansas City (now New Jersey) in 1974; and four clubs from the defunct World Hockey Association – Edmonton, Quebec (now Colorado), Winnipeg (now Arizona) and Hartford (now Carolina) in 1979.

San Jose joined in 1991; Ottawa and Tampa Bay in 1992; Florida and Anaheim in 1993; Nashville in 1998; Atlanta (now Winnipeg) in 1999; Columbus and Minnesota in 2000; and Las Vegas in 2017.

Since 1917, when teams were valued in five figures, the NHL has become a business with an estimated $4.5 billion in revenues in 2016-17 and three teams – the Rangers, Leafs and Canadiens – worth more than $1 billion.

Where players were once almost exclusively Canadian, now there are nearly as many Americans and many others from Europe.

And there will likely be at least one more team coming soon.

As Ottawa boss Tommy Gorman said on that day in 1917: “Now we can get down to the business of making money.”

For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: Bob blanks Rangers; Sabres drop fourth straight

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Player of the Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bob made 36 saves and recorded his 21st career shutout in helping the Blue Jackets to a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers. The win was the Blue Jackets’ third in a row while New York was blanked for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night: Bob was on his game:

MISC:

• Despite the loss, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for the Rangers in stopping 40 shots.

Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in the third period put the game out of reach:

• New York has dropped two in a row since their six-game winning streak.

Tomas Tatar snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and Dylan Larkin added the insurance tally as the Detroit Red Wings beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

• The Sabres, who have now lost four straight, had their chances, but Jimmy Howard stopped 19 of 20 shots and was thankful for one of his posts:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Columbus 2, New York Rangers 0
Detroit 3, Buffalo 1

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Matthew Tkachuk suspended one game for inciting line brawl (Update)

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The Detroit Red Wings felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime as Luke Witkowski received an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that line brawl with the Calgary Flames. How will they feel about Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk receiving a one-game suspension for his “crime,” then?

Tkachuk had a lot to do with the brawl, as Witkowski returned to the ice because of his actions.

This marks the second time Tkachuk’s been suspended by the NHL, as he sat two games for this hit on Drew Doughty, which ultimately served as the first chapter in his hate-fest with the Los Angeles Kings:

It’s fitting with such an agitating figure like Tkachuk that the decision stands as polarizing. Some are stunned that the NHL would tack on a one-game suspension after he was ejected for his actions during the 8-2 win for the Red Wings:

It wouldn’t be surprising if, meanwhile, the Red Wings believe that it wasn’t nearly sufficient. After the game, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports that Tkachuk said that Witkowski was looking for an excuse to return and that he just gave him “a poke.”

Apparently, this time, Tkachuk also poked the bear and will have to sit one game in timeout as punishment.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL GMs pleased so far with crack down on slashing

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MONTREAL (AP) — If there are any misgivings about the NHL’s crackdown on slashes to the hands, they are not shared by the general managers.

Teams are scoring about half a goal more since officials made the quick tap to the hands or the top of the stick the NHL’s most frequently called minor penalty. The rule was aimed not only at protecting players after some gruesome hand injuries last season, but also to eliminate it as a tactic to cause skilled players to lose control of the puck.

”It’s still a work in progress but in general I think the standard has been very positive,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman said after a three-hour meeting of the league’s 31 GMs.

The meeting was held at the former Windsor Hotel, where the NHL was founded in November, 1917. It was one of several events this weekend to mark the league’s centennial.

There were no major decisions made. The GMs and league officials discussed issues in the game like goaltender interference reviews, offside challenges and the crackdown on faceoff violations.

The talks helped set the agenda for a more in-depth, three-day meeting in March, where rule change proposals are usually made.

The slashing crackdown has seen a parade to the penalty box, but the calls look to be here to stay.

”I think people are a little frustrated when you’re getting those penalties and power plays against, but hopefully it smooths out and everybody adjusts to it,” Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”I think that’s what everybody is anticipating.

”It’s frustrating going through the process, but hopefully we get to the point where it’s effective and it’s not being done anymore and there are not as many calls.”

Former enforcer George Parros, the new director of player safety, made his first presentation at a GMs meeting and much of it dealt with slashing. He is mainly concerned with violent incidents, like the ugly finger injury suffered by defenseman Marc Methot last season and Johnny Gaudreau‘s hand injury. He said the more common ”love taps” can be handled by the officials on the ice.

”I focused on slashes that are done intentionally, behind the play, and landing on the hands-fingertips area,” Parros said. ”It’s a new standard. Everyone’s getting used to it. If it’s behind the play and it’s intentional and there’s some force to it, then it’s a warning. The variable is force.”

Overall, Parros likes what he’s seen on the ice.

”I gave them an update on numbers and stuff from last year and in general, the trends have been downward,” he said. ”We’ve got less suspensions, less injuries, all things like that. ”The game is being played in a great fashion right now and we hope to continue to do that.”

Colin Campbell, the league’s director of hockey operations, said the rise in scoring may spring from more than just a slashing crackdown.

”I think it’s a reflection of younger players in the league,” he said. ”We’re down to an average of 23 and 24 being our biggest segment of players. I think our players in rush reads and down-low coverage are faster and more talented, but older players are more defensive and have more patience. Younger players make more mistakes, but is there anything wrong with that? We always say if you want more goals you need bad goalies and more mistakes.”

Offside challenges is a contentious issue. When brought in last season, there were complaints that coaches were using them too often and were slowing down the games. This season, if a challenge fails, a minor penalty is called. That has cut down challenges dramatically.

But Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said: ”I think the sentiment is generally positive on putting that minor penalty in and reducing the number of challenges.”

Goaltender interference challenges also were discussed, but pinning down a consistent standard in judging whether a player has interfered with or been pushed into a goalie is elusive.

They were also to discuss making penalties called in overtime last only one minute instead of two to boost 3-on-3 time.

One thing there appeared to be no talk of was trades.

”You never see any of that here. There’s not enough time,” Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello said.