Sports

Down Goes Brown's Grab Bag: Late Hits and Draft Lottery Conspiracies

Finishing your check isn't an excuse for obviously late hits; the NHL hasn't rigged the draft lottery; and a look back at Wendel Clark and the 1985 draft.
May 6, 2016, 6:27pm
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Welcome to Sean McIndoe's Friday grab bag, where he writes on a variety of NHL topics. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Three stars of comedy

The third star: Shane Doan—Oh snap.

Shane Doan on the movie 'Miracle': 'When you're Canadian and you win a gold medal you don't need to make a movie about it.'

— Craig Morgan (@craigsmorgan)May 4, 2016

(He's not wrong.)

The second star: Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole—The 24-year-old all-star got a little worked up cheering on the Penguins.

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Nothing like Gerrit Cole booing the — Amanda Jupena (@AmandaJupena)May 5, 2016

An usher eventually settled him down.

The first star: Patrik Laine—Auston Matthews may be the presumptive top pick, but Laine stole the show at the draft lottery with this live interview.

He's, um, a laid-back kid. Some people get thrown onto live TV in front of a million views and clam up. This kid doesn't even bother to sit up. Pretty sure he'll be able to handle the intense big-market pressure of Winnipeg just fine.

Be It Resolved

Hockey fans were treated to yet another round of "How late it too late?" this week, thanks to a pair of controversial hits in the Penguins/Capitals series.

On Sunday, Brooks Orpik was suspended three games for this hit on Olli Maatta. The next night, Kris Letang delivered this hit on Marcus Johansson, one that earned him a one-game ban. Both hits were high, both caused an injury, and both led to a furious round of fans defending their own and accusing the league of being biased.

READ MORE: Watching Auston Matthews and the Leafs Will Be Fun, Even If They're Bad

Both hits were also late, delivered against a player who didn't have the puck anymore. That's a hazy section of the rulebook, with nothing actually written down anywhere that defines when a clean check becomes interference. And it all leads to what seems like an obvious question: Why do we allow any late hits at all?

This isn't a new thought. Ken Dryden has been banging the drum for years, as have others. And they're right: When you think about it, standard hockey thinking doesn't make much sense. If you hit a guy a microsecond before the puck arrives, that's dirty, but if you hit him well after it leaves, that might be OK? Why?

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The answer, of course, is found in that old hockey cliché: just finishing my check. It's the go-to excuse on these sorts of plays, and it speaks to an old-school mentality. You've got to go out there and finish your check. Everyone knows that. It's what Brian Boyle was doing Tuesday, when he smoked Thomas Hickey in overtime. There was no call on the play, and the hit led directly to the winning goal being scored seconds later. Boyle won the game by just finishing his check.

But here's the problem: Finishing your check implies that you've actually started one. None of those guys were doing that. They weren't finishing anything.

And, yes, there are some cases where you line a guy up, commit to the hit, then he dishes off the puck when it's too late to avoid contact. That's what happened on a pair of big hits this week, on Jonathan Drouin and Daniel Winnik.

The timing on those hits was clean. After all, if you've already started delivering the hit when the puck leaves, you have two options: Finish your check or bail on it, which is often even more dangerous for everyone involved. In that case, absolutely, finish your check. That's hockey.

But you shouldn't be able to see a guy without the puck and decide to hit him anyway. That's not finishing a check. It's starting one.

So be it resolved: Let's stop letting anyone get away with trotting out "finishing the check" on obviously late hits. Words have meaning, and it's time to stop sugarcoating reckless hits with noble-sounding platitudes.

Obscure former player of the week

Penguins' rookie goalie Matt Murray has been the breakout star of the playoffs, going 6-1 while leading Pittsburgh into the second round, despite having just 13 career regular-season games under his belt at the NHL level. For today's obscure player, let's look back on a fellow goaltender who had a comparable résumé, similar playoff run, and even shares Murray's initials: former Bruin Mike Moffat.

Like Murray, Moffat was a top prospect by the time he arrived in the NHL. He'd only been an eighth-round pick in the 1980 draft, but by 1982 he'd earned the starting job for Team Canada at the world juniors, where he won gold and was named the tournament's top goalie. With their veteran starting tandem of Rogie Vachon and Marco Baron slumping, the Bruins called him up at the end of the season. He made two starts, winning both.

Matt Murray has been Mike Moffat-like good. –Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

That was enough for the Bruins to make him their starter heading into the playoffs, and he helped them to an opening-round win over the Sabres while drawing comparisons to Ken Dryden's rookie debut of a decade earlier. But in what could be a bad omen for Murray, Moffat's run ended in the second round with a seven-game loss to the Nordiques. Still, he was very briefly the toast of the Boston sports world.

That's essentially where Moffat's NHL story ends. The Bruins traded for Pete Peeters in the offseason, and Moffat spent most of the next season in the minors. He played only 17 more NHL games over the following two years, none in the playoffs, and the 1983-84 season marked the end of his NHL career. He was out of hockey altogether by 1987; he'd later acknowledge that he didn't enjoy the mental side of the game. As of a few years ago, he was playing in an over-40 league, one where most of his teammates didn't even know he'd been in the NHL.

Trivial annoyance of the week

The draft lottery was held Saturday, with the winning teams unveiled in a made-for-TV special that featured representatives from all 14 teams. The actual drawing takes place behind the scenes. But for the second straight year, to the NHL's credit, it recorded everything and made it available online.

The whole thing is kind of a letdown, one that's more awkward than entertaining. The actual draw is over quickly, and then everyone has to stand around while two guys furiously try to look up the winning combination off of a printed table. Nobody's allowed to react, and then a visibly annoyed Gary Bettman (as if there's any other kind) thanks everyone and we're done.

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It's not really necessary—any thought of the league rigging the lottery went out the window last year. But the league releases the footage, anyway, and it deserves credit for that.

But there's one especially weird moment in the video that I have to ask about, and it comes at the very beginning. The first thing we see is Bettman holding up that day's newspaper, as if this is some sort of proof-of-life hostage situation. This isn't new; Bettman did the same thing last year.

Yeah, that's right, the lottery isn't rigged. –Photo by Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Why? Who is this for? I realize they're showing the paper to prove that the footage is being filmed on the right date, but why? Who is the fan out there that a) believes the league would intentionally rig the draft lottery, and that b) Bettman and a room full of league executives would all be on it, but c) can't imagine them doing it on the same day as the actual announcement?

How does that conspiracy theory work? "Yeah, I mean obviously the league is going to rig this thing. I mean, open your eyes, sheeple. But they'll have to do it days in advance, because the sheer logistics of just filming the fake lottery that afternoon would be too cumbersome. The post-production alone would take at least a week, given the awesome production values. So, yeah, if they could ever somehow offer proof of the current date, my whole theory would crumble."

This bothers me more than it should. Sorry, I'm a Leafs fan, I'm not used to watching a hockey broadcast and then having to grasp at things to be upset about it.

Classic YouTube clip breakdown

So the Maple Leafs went on to win the draft lottery, as you may have heard if you watched the event or looked up the results online or live in a neighborhood with a Leafs fan who's been driving up and down the street honking his horn for six straight days.

Barring a trade, the Leafs will have the top pick for the first time in 31 years. So today, let's go back to June 15, 1985, and enjoy an NHL draft that was… well, just slightly different from the one we're used to today.

  • So this is an hour-long clip taken from Pittsburgh TV, which seems to be the only footage of the 1985 draft that's available. It's hosted by a young Mike Lange, and is definitely worth watching in its entirety. But we won't do the whole thing here, because I've been known to spend 800 words analyzing a three-second clip of a fan wearing an ugly sweater, and nobody wants to see what an hour-long version of one of these breakdowns would look like. Skip ahead to the 18:30 mark, where we cut over to the CBC broadcast as the draft is about to begin.

  • We start with a rundown of the draft order, with the Leafs leading off. A few of the picks have been traded, including the Blues sending their pick to the Canadiens in the only draft-day deal involving a first rounder. The main piece going to the Blues in that deal: current Maple Leafs draft guru Mark Hunter. This means something. I have no idea what.

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  • By the way, that full Hunter trade was incredible. In addition to Hunter and Michael Dark, the Blues got a second, third, fifth and sixth pick, while the Habs got a first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth. Nine picks from the same draft in one deal! I'd kill for a recording of that trade negotiation, as two frustrated GMs continually throw one more draft pick onto the table in an attempt to get the last concession.

  • We got to the podium, where NHL president John Ziegler welcomes us to Toronto. In a confusing turn of events for modern-day fans, nobody is booing him.

  • Ziegler says a few words and then quickly vanishes so Brian O'Neill can take over. This was standard procedure any time there was a draft and/or a coach had just assaulted a referee.

  • O'Neill and Ziegler are wearing the same ties, aren't they? I'm not sure why that's upsetting, but it is. Brian Burke may be on to something.

  • O'Neill sends it down to the Leafs for the first pick, at which point we realize how much things have changed over the last three decades. There's no boring speech. No thanking the host city, congratulating last year's champs, or sending a hello to three dozen people attending the draft party back home. Instead, Leafs GM Gerry McNamara just leans in and makes the pick. Somewhere, a young Tim Murray takes note.

  • We cut to a sea of tan sports coats. Somewhere in there is Wendel Clark, who's been seated dead center instead of near an aisle because the NHL was exactly as good at making decisions back then as they are today. Everyone shakes his hand, in what would be the last known instance of anyone touching Wendel Clark without having their skull punched into the upper deck.

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  • This pick was a minor surprise. Clark was a highly-rated prospect, but the consensus best player in the draft was Craig Simpson, and there was also talk of the Leafs taking defenseman Dana Murzyn. Instead, they went with Clark, a converted defenseman whose former coach said "needs teaching." Did it work out? Yeah, I think I'd say it worked out.

  • Clark is interviewed by Don Wittman's bright orange jacket. The interview isn't all that enlightening, but it's notable for the way Clark keeps walking as they talk, at one point just wandering right off the screen. Why doesn't anyone tell him not to do that? BECAUSE NOBODY STOPS WENDEL CLARK, THAT'S WHY!

  • [Watches that "All Heart" video from the last link ten more times.]

  • This is fun: If you're a Leafs fan who can't imagine the mid-80s without Wendelmania running wild through Toronto, skip back to about the 14:00 mark of this video. Our two Pittsburgh hosts have some breaking news to share: the Leafs have apparently traded out of the top spot, sending the first overall pick to the Islanders. They spend a solid three of four minutes talking about the ramifications of the deal. Then they cut to the start of the draft, and the Islanders thing is just forgotten.

  • Clark finally arrives at the Toronto table, pulls on a Leafs jersey for the first time, and briefly wonders why the stench of purest evil is emanating from Harold Ballard. Some of the local Toronto fans try to applaud, but they're interrupted by the Penguins making their pick.

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  • Penguins GM Eddie Johnston works in a line about Pittsburgh being "the number one city in the United States," which is weird because I didn't remember a time when the US only had one city. The Pens take Simpson, who I think we can all agree would go on to become one of the better players ever drafted while wearing a sweater vest.

  • We won't do the rest of the draft, since at this rate the whole thing will last for another seven or eight minutes. Also, almost everyone else in the first round was terrible. But if you stick around for the whole thing, suggested highlights include: The married couple bickering over the laundry at 33:15; Jose Charbonneau's suit at 44:10; and the Simpson highlight video at 52:45 that's set to the most 1985 music possible.

  • For what it's worth, only two future Hall of Famers were in this draft: Joe Nieuwendyk, who went to the Flames at No. 27 overall, and Russian legend Igor Larionov, who went 214th to the Canucks but wouldn't make it to the NHL until 1989, when he was about to turn 30. The most productive player from the first round was Ulf Dahlen, who topped out at 655 career points.

  • To this day, experts still debate whether Clark or Simpson should have gone first. Some argue that, in hindsight, Clark's physical style, leadership and massive popularity in Toronto made him the clear No. 1 choice. Others start to make the case for Simpson, at which point their heads are punched into the upper deck.

Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at nhlgrabbag@gmail.com.