Richard Loat

Feb 072011
 

It is not a well known fact, but the moment that inspired the birth of Five Hole for Food was actually a game during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Amidst the widespread patriotism and 14 days of straight celebration it was a road hockey game that planted a seed that would one day grow to be a cross-Canada trip.

During the Olympics there was a ball hockey game played outside the Molson Canadian Hockey House. To the left was a giant screen on the side of the Ontario Pavilion which broadcast the Women’s Gold Medal hockey game. To the right was the Hockey House itself and it was there in a court that 25 guys got together to play a Team Red vs. Team White Olympic Road Hockey game. As Canada’s women won the gold medal, so ended our game as well and the number of people that had walked by and asked to get involved just demonstrated the power of hockey in Canada as the ultimate ice breaker, and one of the strongest bonds we all share as Canadians.

When we heard that they were shutting down Granville to try and recreate some of those Olympic memories we were first to ask about the road hockey. Lets be honest, it wouldn’t really be a commemorative street party if there wasn’t any road hockey now would it?

On February 12th we’ve teamed up with the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association to bring back to Granville one of the things that made it so special when the Olympics were in town. Remember the pick up games of road hockey that would break out in the middle of the street? The goals that would just appear and the group of guys that would start playing hockey just because the sport is that awesome? Well it’s coming back and we want you to come out! We’re recreating Center Ice on Granville!

Come and join us as we commemorate the first anniversary of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games on Granville Street and join us in a game of hockey. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society will be on site collecting donations so bring your hockey stick, don’t forget your red and white and get in the action!

Jan 272011
 

We often get the mainstream media’s analysis of the Canucks, the on-ice product, and in some cases, the off-ice product. In many cases, we see franchise owners that are only concerned about the on-ice product because that’s what affects their bottom line.

Last week, the Vancouver Board of Trade put on a luncheon with Canucks President and General Manager Mike Gillis, owner Francesco Aquilini, former player Stan Smyl, head coach Alain Vigneault, and Canucks Chief Operating Officer Victor de Bonis and allowed an insight into some of the team’s operations off-the-ice.

Canucks fans are fortunate that the team is doing well on and off the ice. Because the team is doing well on-the-ice, they haven’t had a problem putting butts in seats. Because their dollars aren’t tied up in filling seats, they’re able to spread those extra dollars around to improving the fan experience.

Canucks fans are even more fortunate to have an ownership group that isn’t consumed entirely by the bottom line (in part because, with this team, it seems to take care of itself). The Canucks are in a unique situation where, after over 300 consecutive sell outs, they’re able to focus on engaging fans in what Francesco Aquilini referred to as the “virtual arena”.

What Aquilini referenced as the “virtual arena” is his way of encompassing all the fans outside of the 18,810 fans that fill Rogers Arena every night. This includes the online streaming of games and use of Twitter and Facebook. This includes Twitter giveaways for this inside and outside the arena. The virtual arena fans brings fans all across the globe from Sweden to New Zealand to the United Kingdom and even those in Vancouver together. Their goal is not only to connect fans to the game within the city, but strive to create an experience that comes a close second to being at the game.

Now while this may seem impossible, the attention to detail in every decision clearly has the fans in mind.

de Bonis made that clear when asked about the logo choices for this season: two very contrasting team symbols in the Orca and the Stick-in-Rink. He explained the choice was a way to bridge the generational gap between fans from the team’s inception, and the ones just attaching themselves to the organization.

And speaking of the team’s history, de Bonis mentioned it was a particular reason that the team picked up the Vancouver Millionaires trademark. The Millionaires were the only Vancouver team to win the Stanley Cup to-date, and despite their age still hold a relevant place in the hearts and minds of Vancouverites.

The team’s commitment to history is one that unites fans despite their generational differences. When the puck drops, they all see the same team. It was an aspect of their 40th Anniversary the Canucks felt was important and we’ve seen them integrate it into an anniversary celebration like none other we’ve experienced as Canucks fans.

By now, you would have already seen some of the aesthetic changes at Rogers Arena. The Canucks’ Blue and Green lights illuminate the concrete pillars of its friendly confines, but that’s just one step in a string of things to heighten the fan experience. Also this year, Markus Naslund’s #19 joined Trevor Linden’s #16 and Stan Smyl’s #12 in the rafters, and Orland Kurtenbach, Kirk McLean and Thomas Gradin became the first inductees onto the new Ring of Honour. They already unveiled the interactive “Hall of Heroes” in the 300 level concourse, but also, Stan Smyl shared that there was going to be another concourse addition called “Forever a Canuck”, which will include a portal with increased fan interaction and allow fans to control each section’s content.

As the questions rolled on, it was interesting to hear de Bonis comment about taking in the experiences that road teams had for their fans and picking out elements they thought were unique in their endeavor and include them in the development of the Canucks fan’s experience. With this and the promise of more Ring of Honour nights in future years, it’s easy to see Canucks management’s overwhelming commitment to the fan and it’s truly rewarding to see an organization concerned about their off-ice product as it is about their on-ice product.

Jan 232011
 

In celebration of Hockey Day in Canada and in support of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, the South Arm Community Center’s youth group, Mosaic, will be hosting its fourth annual 24-Hour Hockey-thon. From 12pm Friday, February 11th 2011 until 12pm Saturday, February 12th Lower Mainland residents of all ages will be participating in a non-stop game of floor hockey in the South Arm gymnasium.

Registration for the event is by donation with each participant securing pledges for their efforts in the 24-hour game. Proceeds from the pledges will be donated to Canuck Place, to assist children in recovery. Over the past three events, participants have helped raise over $7500 and this year Mosaic has made a goal to raise $3500. Participants are encouraged to collect pledges from family, friends, local businesses, and associations. Each participate will be eligible to win prizes – including tickets to an upcoming Vancouver Canucks’ game – that will be raffled throughout the 24-hour hockey game.

The game itself will be a five-on-five contest, including the goalies. The players on each team will alternate and rest about every hour or so. Registration forms and pledge sheets available at South Arm Community Centre as well as on http://www.facebook.com/24hourhockeython.

Mosaic is a local youth group at South Arm Community Center. Made up of Richmond youth, Mosaic is responsible for hosting several youth-oriented special events throughout the calendar year. For more information regarding this event, or to schedule an interview with Ryan Weber, you may call him at (604) 718-8071 or email him at [email protected]

Jan 192011
 

With the Canucks near the top of the NHL, it’s no surprise that they’re always facing teams playing their best hockey and trying to beat them. If the Canucks want to sustain their current pace, they have to match this intensity and play their best hockey as well.

The Canucks have played some of their best hockey of their 40-year history in the last 39 days, during which they captured the fans’ undivided attention. But now, the Canucks seemed to have come down to earth a little. With that in mind though, the real measure of how far they’ve come since last season is their ability to play consistent hockey and play at the new level they’ve set. In other words, they need to prove they have the ability to rebound after struggling for a few games and being shut out in two of the five games in their road trip.

With the All-Star break approaching and the trade deadline just under six weeks away, it’s an opportune time for the Canucks to re-evaluate what they have. It’s not a secret that the success of this team lie in their depth and the ability of the supporting cast to complement its stars. It’s not a coincidence that their record-setting point streak ended when production from guys like Raymond, Tambellini and Samuelsson dried up. The Sedins, Kesler, Edler and Ehrhoff are still going to lead this offensively, but the rest of the guys need to figure out what’s affecting their game and start making an impact again.

The Canucks are in a place where they don’t need to think of “must-win games”. Even after last night’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche, they still have a sizable lead in the Northwest Division, and thus, have the opportunity to work on the finer things and focus on staying healthy for when the playoffs roll around in April. That said, if they want to finish first in the Western Conference, and even win the President’s Trophy, they need to go back to playing their best hockey.

In the last 39 days, the Canucks have gone from hunter to hunted. From contender to favorites. For the rest of the season, they should expect other teams to bring their best game against them, and everyone, from the stars to the secondary scorers to the role players, need to bring their best games back.

Jan 132011
 

If asked who the Canucks most versatile player is, a lot would quickly jump to suggest it’s Alex Burrows, an undrafted player who found his niche in the East Coast Hockey League before making the jumps to the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose and finally to the Vancouver Canucks. With the Canucks, Burrows started on the fourth line, and shortly thereafter, adapted to his different roles, moved up the depth chart and found his place on the first line of the best team in the NHL.

But while Burrows is a good answer, the guy that jumps to my mind right now is Jannik Hansen. After being on the bubble for most of the last two years, Hansen was finally awarded a one-way NHL contract and he’s given the club a reason to keep him on the big team. With the Canucks shuffling forwards due to its logjam and talent and a some injuries, he’s moved up and down and around the lineup. Burrows’ injury at the start of the season gave Hansen the opportunity to skate alongside two of the best Swedish players in the league and his speed allowed him to skate with the NHL’s best. Since Burrows’ return, Hansen has found himself moving between the second line – the “Need for Speed” line alongside Ryan Kesler and Jeff Tambellini – and the bottom-six.

To stay with the team, Hansen has had to become versatile, and despite being given limited ice-time on some nights, he’s found ways to contribute. In Raymond’s absence he notched three points playing with the second line. When called upon, he can grind it out. He’s also one of the Canucks’ top penalty killers. (He’s usually on the first or second PK group with Manny Malhotra.) Despite his modest success on the first two lines Hansen won’t be confused a top six forward, but he’s found a way to make an impact from night to night despite an ever-changing role.

One thing that stands out to me is Hansen’s hit count. Now while the standards for tracking hits is completely bogus, you can’t take away from what Hansen’s done – he briefly took the team lead in hits though Andrew Alberts, who lead Philadelphia and Carolina in hits during his stints there, has since passed him again. Hansen and Alberts play two different roles but Hansen is doing a bang up job of keeping up with Alberts at the thing he does best.

While Burrows has worked hard to make himself a staple in the lineup, and at his bargain basement contract he’s not going anywhere. He may have been the Canucks’ most versatile player at one point, but credit Hansen for managing to forge a name for himself with his own versatility. Hansen, who from season to season was unsure of still having a job in Vancouver let alone get the opportunity to move up the pay grade and depth chart, has found a way to take his skill set and apply it to the Canucks system in a way that benefits the team night in and night out.

Once next season rolls around, the Canucks should really look at keeping him because he’s a combination of Torres’ grit, Raymond’s speed, and the heart you see from Kesler and Burrows on the penalty kill. Now we just have to get him Jeff Tambellini’s hands.

Jan 112011
 
Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra

Photo credit: Global TV BC

After Willie Mitchell signed with the Los Angeles Kings, Canucks GM Mike Gillis moved to pick up a guy that was a younger, faster, and better replacement. His name landed on Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis, and as they say, the rest is history. But this post isn’t about Dan Hamhuis, at least not directly. It’s about Kevin Bieksa or what I like to call the Hamhuis Effect.

If there’s one player who’s seen both sides of the media spectrum with everything from praise to criticism to daily trade rumours, it’s Kevin Bieksa. He’s been in the spotlight for his game-winning heroics, under the gun for underperforming, and in the dog house for boneheaded plays.

And that’s usually just within the span of a week.

I don’t think there’s a player more simultaneously loved and hated than Kevin Bieksa. This season, however, he’s started to turn things around. Some argue that he hasn’t been consistent since signing his contract extension three years ago while many believe he’s playing well because he’s in a contract year. Both are valid points to which I may point out he hasn’t had a chance to be consistent because of the two tendon laceration injuries he had between his breakout year and this one.

Fortunately for Bieksa, the fact that he’s playing so well coincides with his contract year. But just as notable, Bieksa is fortunate that Gillis signed Hamhuis when he did.

When Kevin Bieksa had his breakout year in 2006/2007 – after which the Canucks gave him an 800% raise – his offensive numbers were directly attributable to his defensive partner, Willie Mitchell. As an offensive defenseman with a defensive game that struggles and the ability to be mistaken for a forward on most nights Bieksa’s biggest struggles have come when he’s forced to shift the onus of his game from offense to defense. Now while that seems coutner productive to the role of a blue liner, that’s just how Bieksa operates. After his breakout season, the Canucks’ back end was hit with a barrage of injuries that then forced Bieksa to assume different blueline partners, especially in the last couple of years. He’s played with everyone from Alex Edler to Shane O’Brien to Andrew Alberts to Aaron Rome – none of whom have been the defensive rock that Willie Mitchell was. (At least Edler at that stage of his career wasn’t.)

Like Mitchell, Hamhuis is rock solid at his own end of the rink and he has allowed Bieksa to make his forays into the offensive zone without being caught. Hamhuis is so good at covering the gap that it’s allowed Bieksa to take those high-rish, high-reward offensive opportunities. The regularity of a defensive partner as defensively sound as Hamhuis has given Bieksa back the ability to play his Jovanovski-esque game; consequently, Bieksa has built a confidence which further improves both aspects of his game.

There is no doubt this season Bieksa is playing better this season. Part of it may be because he’s stayed healthy this season or perhaps it’s partly because of the pressure of performing well in a contract year. Maybe it’s because he now sports an ‘A’ on his jersey – appointed by Henrik – and is expected to play better and play a leadership role. I don’t doubt that these are all influences which have brought out the best in Bieksa.

But we also can’t deny that Hamhuis has had a positive impact of Bieksa’s play. Somewhat unexpectedly, Hamhuis has quietly come in and assumed the role of the departed Mitchell. He’s been playing big shutdown minutes and his calming influence on the blueline – in a way similar to the defensive calm that Salo brings when he’s playing – has allowed BIeksa to excel. Without Hamhuis, maybe we would still be expecting more from Bieksa and Bieksa would still be underachieving.

Jan 102011
 

In the Canucks recent stretch of games they’ve managed to climb to the top of their division, their conference and the league all while going about their business and not changing a lot. This hasn’t been because one player has carried the load, or because of a few lucky bounces. If the Sedins aren’t lighting the lamp, the fourth line is stepping up, and you can’t get enough lucky bounces in 21 straight games to have a 17-1-3 record in them. When the forwards aren’t winning games, the team is playing tight defense and Luongo and Schneider are giving the Canucks a chance to win every night.

Amongst all the success and record point streaks, the Canucks have managed to stay focused. They’re playing Canucks hockey with an air of confidence right now. Whether they’re leading or trailing on the scoreboard, they’re dictating the play. In their last 12 games the Canucks have only given up the first goal of the game once. They have a game plan and they’re sticking to it.

What’s been most noticeable in this recent string of success has to be the way in which the Canucks have forced other teams to play their game. Too often we’ve seen the Canucks chase the other team, or even worse, play to their level. It’s been most obvious against teams that have been struggling as the Canucks would have typically played down to them.

Against the Edmonton Oilers on Boxing Day, they came back from a 2-0 deficit to win; Kevin Bieksa’s goal late in the third period in a 3-2 scored the game-winner. Against the same Oilers last Friday, the Canucks built a 3-0 lead in the second period and never took their foot off the gas; they scored another 3 goals in the third period and won 6-1.

The Canucks aren’t skating to the tune of any team no matter what the score.

The Canucks aren’t playing flashy hockey. They’re not trying to wow. They have a system and a game plan that they’re executing to perfection in all zones that’s allowing them to capitalize on nearly all the chances they create for themselves. The 3-1 win against Calgary last week was nothing short of textbook. For the most part it was a boring game, but the resounding takeaway is that the team is buying into a brand of hockey and winning games together from the net out.

I questioned whether the Canucks would have any gas in the tank down the stretch with the way they’re playing right now, but I don’t think that’s even a question. Every team has to play 82 games and ultimately winning is a lot easier on the squad than losing. That’s going to pay off come playoff time.

Jan 062011
 

Year after year we, at one point or another, hear either from Roberto Luongo or management that Luongo needs to play a lot of games to play well. This year there was the radical notion that Cory Schneider was going to play as many as 25 games and all of a sudden there was worry that Luongo was going to suffer. Regardless, Gillis was determined to put the final touches on the Canucks this off-season, make the right tweaks, and take the team well past the second round; one thing he addressed: Luongo’s games played.

In his first four seasons with the Canucks, Luongo has averaged 68 games played in the regular season. In each season, we would then see him worn out going into the playoffs. On the one hand, the Canucks want to give him some rest in the regular season. On the other hand, Luongo would sometimes perform poorly after long breaks and then everyone resorts back to the point that he only plays well when he plays a lot of games.

True to Gillis’ plan, this season already seems different. Luongo was given the majority of work at the start of the season, even starting 9 consecutive games at one point. However, the emergence of Cory Schneider as a legitimate goaltender has lessened the pressure on Luongo. (The Canucks are still to lose a game in regulation in which Schneider has started.) Further to the point, when Gianni “Canuck” Luongo was born, Schneider played in 3 games in four nights instead of forcing Luongo to play after several trips to Florida and a few nights off.

While resistant to change at first, it seems that Luongo’s finally learning to play a different way. Starting what seems like an absurd amount of games per season is something Luongo has been doing since his days in Florida; he just didn’t know how to play any other way. It’s something that affects the mental side of the game as much as the physical side of it. That said, the addition of Rollie Melanson and the foresight Mike Gillis has really made a noticeable impact on Luongo this season. Luongo’s mental game looks drastically improved. Case in point was his 31-save performance in a gritty 2-1 win over the Avalanche. Whereas Luongo’s family issues have at times affected his play in the past – I speak directly to the birth of his first child which we saw affect his play down the stretch when the Canucks missed the playoffs – he managed to deal with them this time around, step back onto the ice and quell a Colorado storm that at one point had seven attackers bombarding him with shots.

There’s no doubt that Luongo is a top-notch goalie. But for all his accomplishments in the NHL and on the international stage, he’s still waiting to add that one piece of hardware to his collection and winning it all is what’s driving him more than anything else. We’re seeing a new Luongo this season. He’s more receptive to rest and looks more relaxed. In that regard, Schneider’s play has helped considerably. If an overworked Luongo can get the Canucks to within two wins of the Western Conference final, how much farther can a relaxed, more rested Luongo take them?

Jan 042011
 

Kevin Bieksa is playing his best hockey since his breakout season in 2006/2007.

After being hampered by two unfortunate tendon lacerations, it looks like we’re finally seeing the Bieksa the Canucks gave a 3-year, $11.25 million contract to. Alberts never panned out as the team’s scapegoat after taking leaps and bounds in the off-season so fans seem to have defaulted to Bieksa. That said, night in and night out I see Ehrhoff and Edler make similar gaffes in quality and quantity to Bieksa and he doesn’t deserve all the heat he’s getting.

While the Canucks need to free up cap room for Sami Salo’s return, Gillis is a calculated man and moving Bieksa to take a gamble on Salo doesn’t seem like a Gillis move. If anything, it’s probably more likely the Canucks free up cap space for Salo by sacrificing one of the many forwards they’re managing to juggle at the moment. That said, it would be foolish to think the Canucks are going to go injury-free from now until the regular season ends. Most likely, I think the cap issues will sort itself out.

Whether Bieksa’s putting up points or not, there’s one thing you can’t deny — Kevin Bieksa is part of Mike Gillis’ plan. If you look at what Gillis is trying to put together you see a team that’s defensively responsible at every position. If you look at the core of defenseman he’s assembled, it’s by far the best set of defensemen across the league – including Salo, the Canucks have six top-four blueliners. No other team (except maybe the Flyers and Penguins) has that abundance of blueliners.

Trading Bieksa now undoes all the work he’s done to assemble this group of top tier, NHL defensemen. Sure Bieksa may not be the most reliable at times, but to any other team he’s easily a top-four defenseman (see all the teams that inquired about him) and that in and of itself is reason alone why he should stay. When you’re a contender, why would you trade away a top-four defenseman?

Jan 042011
 

With Rick Rypien having left the team indefinitely to take care of personal issues we’ve had several games to see if his presence has really been missed. Has it really? I wouldn’t say so.

Before we go any further, let’s make it clear that I feel for the guy and hope he can get back on track as soon as possible. He’s not in a good place and no one deserves to be there. That said, can the Canucks afford to keep a guy like him in the dressing room? Do they have to afford keeping him? I can’t even imagine what’s going on with him but we all know that what makes the media is just the tip of the iceberg.

I love Rick Rypien’s energy and David-vs-Goliath-like mentality as much as the next guy, but since his leave of absence from the team, it’s become clear that that aspect he brought to the team isn’t key to the Canucks’ fourth line. We already knew that of course, and since his absence, the likes of Jonas Andersson, Joel Perrault, and now Aaron Volpatti have been able to hold the fort just fine. If anything, the logjam of forwards and the chemistry the Canucks have had lately has only served to make management’s decisions even harder – a good problem to have.

With Rypien gone, the onus on fighting seems to have disappeared. Or when it’s been necessary, guys like Volpatti and Tanner Glass have stepped up. Even Kevin Bieksa seems to have remembered his mean streak and is starting to get grizzly in games. We wanted Bieksa to get a little more fired up, we wanted him to get physical be it with his hits or his fists and it seems like the exodus of Rypien has created that. It’s likely a coincidence that the two were best friends and that this turn in Bieksa’s play is unrelated altogether, but Bieksa’s been playing some of his best hockey since Rypien left the team.

One thing Rypien’s absence has done, however, is push this team to take another step towards being a skilled team through four lines. Darcy Hordichuk was brought in by Gillis because he wasn’t just a one dimensional goon. As Gillis said at the time, Hordichuck could skate and had hands on top of his knuckle chucking abilities. That turned out to be far from the case (at least it was last season), but Gillis has worked to create a fourth line that is responsible in their own end, can handle the heavy duty assignments, but can also contribute offensively. This season the Canucks’ fourth line has already chipped in with 8 goals; last season, they combined for only 6 goals. The Canucks have managed to test their depth by rolling through the likes of Andersson, Schaefer, Perrault, Desbiens and Volpatti. Meanwhile, Tanner Glass, who has been able to contribute in different ways (he already has 3 goals, 8 points and also gets regular shifts on the PK), has made himself a mainstay on the fourth line.

In Rypien’s absence, Gillis and Vigneault have worked to create four lines that are more multi-dimensional and not easy to shut down. The Canucks can play a finesse game, but just as easily, they can go to the gritty areas and can crash and bang with the best of the league without sacrificing skill. The best example of this is Jannik Hansen. While Mason Raymond was injured, Hansen fit in comfortably on the 2nd line; however, with Raymond’s return it looks like he’s heading back to the fourth line. While Raymond played his first game back on the fourth line, if you swap those two out you still have a very talented checking winger that can provide offense playing on your fourth line.

The Canucks are on a roll right now, there’s no doubt about that. What’s impressive is they’re managing to win games in all shapes and forms. They came back against Edmonton, they blew out Columbus, they can win the tight games as they did against Colorado. As a team confidence is at an all time high, but they’re also built so that every line is a threat. Colorado saw first hand that even the Canucks fourth line can burn you as it was the fourth line that earned the Canucks two points. The Canucks logjam at forward and the depth they have created only serves as an advantage come the postseason.

As much as I love Rick Rypien, his leave of absence may have helped shape the Canucks into a deeper, more balanced and more versatile team.

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