Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top-10 Moments from the Past Decade

The end of the decade has everyone trying to wrap up the previous 10 years in convenient top-10 lists.

The NHL’s previous ten years were tumultuous. The first half of the decade may well be the league’s nadir, while the latter portion of the decade saw the NHL slowly rise from its ashes (unfortunately that doesn’t include the Hamilton Coyotes rising from the ashes of the Phoenix Coyotes). Hopefully, the last five years in the NHL are a harbinger for a successful 2010s. Remember, this is a league that less than 15 years ago was infinitely cooler than the NBA. Gary Bettman ruined it and, unfortunately, that’s reflected in a lot of this list.

Here are the top moments that defined the decade.

10. The Return of Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu

Mario returned to the NHL on December 27, 2000 after being retired since 1997 and scored 76 points in only 43 games. Anytime one of the top-3 greatest players comes back to the league it is a momentous occasion. There was an energy to the league after Mario’s return and it helped save the Pittsburgh franchise from imminent doom. Although, the team didn’t fully recover until Sindey Crosby completed the rescue five years later.

The return of Saku Koivu was even more impressive since he battled back from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Mario recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 90s). Koivu was diagnosed in September, 2001 and missed nearly the entire 2001-2002 season. Miraculously, Koivu returned on April 9, 2002 and received a large standing ovation from the Montreal fans. It was a truly remarkable event and even drew a smile from a Montreal hater like me.

9. Gaborik scores 5 goals in one game

On December 20, 2007 Marian Gaborik is the first player since Sergei Fedorov a decade earlier to score 5 goals in one game. This offensive explosion represents the direction the league is taking after the boring trap-style NHL became chic after the Devils 1995 Stanley Cup win. Today’s game does not necessarily have more dynamic scorers than it did 10 years ago, but it does finally allow them to flourish without fighting through 15 hooks and 3 elbows. The game is much more exciting because of the rule changes and Gaborik's 5 goals reflects this.

8. Bertuzzi-Moore

The Bertuzzi-Moore incident is easily the ugliest event of the decade. Todd Bertuzzi at the time was one of the game’s premier power forwards and Steve Moore was a 4th line checker who laid out Canucks captain Markus Naslund. No penalty was called on the play and the league deemed it clean. The Canucks thought otherwise and sought revenge against Moore the next time the teams played. On March 8, 2004 Steve Moore fought Matt Cooke in the first period which should have been the end of it. Unfortunately, Moore won the fight and the Avalanche were cruising to a 8-2 victory before Bertuzzi followed Moore down the ice and punched him in the back of the head. As Moore fell to the ice Bertuzzi and other Canuck players fell on top of Moore. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, stretching of the brachial plexus nerves, and facial cuts. To date, Moore has not appeared in another professional hockey game and the issue has yet to be resolved in civil court. The league’s image was already battered and this didn’t help. Everyone chimed in with their opinions, even the hens on The View. It was ugly.

7. Stevens on Lindros

It’s one of the most infamous checks of all-time and a cautionary reminder for players of all ages to never cross the middle of the ice with your head down. Lindros returned to the Flyer line-up for game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final after missing 10 weeks with a series of concussions. He was certainly rushed back as the 3-1 Flyer lead in the series was quickly evaporating. Lindros would never be the same player again after the hit. Injuries were already derailing the career of a player who was once the most feared player in the league, but the Stevens hit effectively ended his reign. Lindros never really recovered and his point totals dropped in each of his next seasons until his retirement. The hit is relevant now as the league debates the issues of head shots. While I believe it was a clean hit, it is still hard to watch, especially in slow-motion. It’s like those animal videos where the unsuspecting deer is devoured by the waiting crocodile, except even a deer would see this hit coming.

6. The 2005 Draft Lottery

The Sidney Crosby lottery. Following the lockout there was confusion on how the year’s draft would work. Since no one actually played during the year the league would have to find a new means of allotting draft picks. They eventually settled on a system where teams were assigned 1 to 3 balls based on their playoff appearances and first overall draft picks from the past three years. The draft was held on July 30, 2005 and was pretty exciting. I was convinced that even if the Leafs won the lottery the league would throw away the ball as if it never happened. In my mind that’s what happened as the Penguins grabbed the number one pick and in a somewhat surprising move selected Sidney Crosby. Bobby Ryan went second to the Anaheim Ducks and Brian Burke quipped, “I can’t believe he was still available.”

5. Ovechkin scores 60

On March 21, 2008 Alexander Ovechkin becomes the first person since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr 12 years previous to score 60 goals in one season. Ovechkin eventually scored 65 goals and 112 points in a dominant regular season. Ovechkin’s season demolished any lasting remnants of the dead-puck era in the minds of fans and made it seem possible for a man to reach 70 goals again (not done since both Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne hit 76 in 1992-1993).

4. Canada Ends 50-year Olympic Gold Drought

I debated putting this on here at the risk of sounding like a homer, but you know what, I am a homer, so it stays. This was big. Canada started off terribly with a 5-2 loss to Sweden and only managed to defeat Germany 3-2. I recall tons of people at school blasting the team and basically renouncing their Canadian citizenship. Wayne Gretzky gave an impassioned speech, an ‘us against the world’ battle cry, that rallied the team to reach the Gold medal game against the United States, playing on home ice in Salt Lake. Canada dominated the finals and made the nation proud, while exorcising demons from 1998. This was the event where Jarome Iginla solidified himself as one of the NHL’s best players and both Mario Lemieux and Joe Sakic added to their already illustrious careers in distinct style. The game was also the highest rated hockey game in the U.S. since the Miracle on Ice in 1980. Also, 2006 never happened.

3. The Winter Classic Part I and II

Although the second winter classic may have had a bigger impact in the United States, the first one was the one that started it all. It’s true that this wasn’t the first outdoor game played by the NHL (that belongs to Edmonton-Montreal), but it was the first played on New Year’s Day featuring two American teams. The game was played in Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium and marked the first time since the early 90s that two real sports teams actually played there (heyo! take that Bills fans). Essentially, the game promotes hockey to the United States. If sports was like Full House, then the NHL is Kimmie Gibbler in the eyes of the U.S. sports fans. Like Gibbler, the NHL desperately wants their acceptance and maybe a little action from Stamos. Thankfully, the players have yet to disappoint and the first Winter-Classic was no exception. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the home-town Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shoot-out. The shoot-out winner was scored by the face of hockey himself, Sidney Crosby. It even snowed. Perfect.

The second annual Winter Classic took place in historic Wrigley Field. It featured the old-guard versus the new-guard. The veteran laded Detroit Red Wings versus the young, dynamic Chicago Blackhawks. The Red Wings eventually won the game 6-4 after falling to the Hawks 3-1 early in the game. The game drew an average of 4.4 million viewers on NBC, making it the most watched NHL game for the network since early 1975. The game was a tremendous success and certainly solidified its position as an annual event. The two Winter Classics are a major reason for the quiet resurgence of hockey in the U.S. Hockey is back in both Chicago and Boston, two fantastic sport cities, and the Winter Classic is one of the reasons (apart from two young and exciting teams).

2. Crosby-Ovechkin Quarter-Finals

Easily the best playoff series of the decade and it wasn’t even the finals. The series featured the NHL’s two premier players (and heated rivals), plus a handful of the league’s best (Malkin, Green, Semin, Backstrom, Gonchar, Fleury). The series lasted 7 games and went back and forth for an incredibly exciting series. Both players dominated the series, scoring 8 goals each and Game 2 on May 4, 2009 featured a hat-trick by both Ovechkin and Crosby. Ovechkin’s third goal electrified the Washington crowd as it was the eventual winner in a 4-3 game. The series was a NHL wet-dream and hopefully repeats itself in the years to come. I’m sure Gary Bettman prays for a Washington-Pittsburgh conference final, followed by the winner playing Chicago in the finals.

1. The Lockout

On February 16, 2005 Gary Bettman cancels the 2004-2005 season. The prospect of a season at this point was bleak, but everyone still held hope for even a shortened season. After the announcement that there would be no hockey Canada was lost and turned to televised poker (I still don’t understand why) and America’s waning interest in hockey all but disappeared. The lockout was the most important moment of the decade because it enabled the league to implement a salary cap linked to league revenues. It also allowed the league to make a number of rule changes that greatly benefitted the game (crack down on obstruction, no-change icing, quicker games) and resulted in a faster and more fan-friendly sport. Unfortunately, it killed interest in the sport in America, thanks in large part to ESPN opting out of their coverage. However, the league is stronger because of it and there are quiet rumblings that suggest ESPN will come back to broadcasting hockey once the current Versus deal expires.

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