Three Stars of Comedy
The third star: Patrik Laine. I admit that I ignored the first dozen or so gushing references to Laine's post on the Players' Tribune that showed up on my Twitter timeline. That site was fun the first two or three times you read it, but by now we know the drill: the players don't write their own stories, and everything that gets posted is the same treacly clickbait written in a voice that doesn't sound anything like how real athletes talk.
And sure enough, Laine didn't write his either. But it's still worth reading, because Laine—despite apparently being asked to offer some sort of noble defense of Winnipeg's honor after other players made fun of it—instead spends the entire article talking about how he's better than Nik Ehlers at Call of Duty. Seriously, he leads with that and then keeps coming back to video games over and over. I have no interest in some ghost-written tripe about a city's wonderful architecture or whatever they thought Laine would give them. But a guy repeatedly ripping on his roommate's gaming skills? I'm in.
The second star: This explanation of how goalie interference works. Pretty much nails it.
The first star: The Pittsburgh Penguins. It's been a good week in Pittsburgh. First, Evgeni Malkin gave us this:
Next came Marc-Andre Fleury's return, which brought us this cute fake:
But the real highlight came after the Pens' win over Vegas. The Golden Knights' Twitter has been, it's fair to say, a divisive addition to the hockey world. Some fans love it, some hate it, many think it's hit or miss. One of their early-season hits was a tongue-in-cheek tweet comparing Vadim Shipachyov to Sidney Crosby. It didn't age well, since Shipachyov was a bust. And apparently the Penguins did not forget.
Damn. I've seen Canadian team rebuilds that weren't as patient as Pens Twitter when they're nursing a grudge.
Outrage of the Week
The issue: Major League Baseball is in the middle of an ugly dispute between players and owners, as a stagnant free-agent market has led to calls of collusion and even (briefly) the suggestion that players could refuse to report to spring training.
The outrage: Wait, that has nothing to do with hockey.
Is it justified: Or does it?
To be clear, what's happening in baseball right now isn't directly tied to anything we see in the NHL. Part of the issue is baseball's luxury tax system; hockey has a hard cap. MLB's dispute involves superstar free agents; the NHL almost never has any. And while hockey has had plenty of work stoppages, it doesn't have a history of proven collusion like baseball does.
So no, this exact situation won't ever play out in the NHL, but some of the underlying issues do sound familiar. A big one is that baseball front offices are starting to realize that paying the biggest dollars to veteran players who have probably already had their most productive years doesn't make much sense. The NHL doesn't have many stars hitting free agency, but that's largely because teams instinctively rush to hand out max-length deals to veterans who are already past their prime. Does that still make sense? What happens if teams decide that it doesn't?
There's also the issue of tanking; MLB players are realizing that having a third of the teams in the league all trying to lose will really mess up the market. One prominent agent has even called rebuilding teams a "cancer." That's a touch extreme, sure, but his larger point isn't wrong. And as you may have noticed, the NHL has had its share of tanking, too.
None of this means that the NHL is heading for the same sort of showdown that MLB is embroiled in, but there are enough parallels here to make you wonder. The NHL's CBA can expire as soon as 2020, and we're all used to it being the owners who inevitably push for the next work stoppage. But what happens if the players watch what's going on in another sport and start asking questions?
Remember, NHL players are guaranteed a certain share of the revenue pie no matter what—that's what the escrow is all about. So if the owners decided to stop handing out big contracts to 30-year-old stars who are already in decline, it wouldn't cost the players any money as a whole, but it would sure shift a lot of it around, and change the way teams approach contracts for younger players.
The more you look at MLB's current problem, the more it feels like some sort of change is inevitably coming to the NHL's system, too. If so, some teams will figure it out faster than others, and some players will benefit while others lose out. That makes this whole baseball fiasco worth watching, even if you don’t have the slightest interest in the actual sport.
Obscure Former Player of the Week
This week's obscure player is journeyman defenseman Jeff Norton, for reasons that will become clear in a little bit.
Norton was an American high school star who was picked by the Islanders in the third round of the 1984 draft. He headed to college, playing three years at the University of Michigan before joining the US national team in 1987. That gave him a chance to suit up at the 1988 Olympics, where he played six games and recorded four assists; the Americans failed to qualify for the medal round.
Norton made his NHL debut later that season, joining the Islanders for 15 games at the end of the year and then earning a full-time roster spot for the 1988-89 season. He'd spend six seasons with the Islanders before being traded to the San Jose Sharks. He played one full year in San Jose, then started a pretty amazing streak: from 1994-95 through 1998-99, Norton was traded during the season for five straight years. That journey took him from the Sharks to the Blues to the Oilers to the Lightning to the Panthers and then back to San Jose, where he finally broke the streak by spending the entire 1999-2000 season with the same team. But he was dealt at the deadline in both 2001 and 2002, meaning he was involved in a mid-season trade in seven out of eight years.
In all, Norton played 799 NHL games for eight different teams, including three stints with the Sharks and two with the Panthers. He was traded eight times in all, to go with a pair of free-agent signings. He was never an All-Star, but he was a solid player and he was clearly in demand, even if the main thing you remember about his NHL career is the time Trevor Linden did this to him.
As for why he's this week's obscure player, well, meet me down in the YouTube section to find out.
Be It Resolved
The best moment of the week came on Tuesday, when Marc-Andre Fleury made his return to Pittsburgh as a member of the Golden Knights. After three Stanley Cups as a Penguin, Fleury was welcomed back with an emotional ovation.
It was a great sight. Well done by everyone involved.
While we're on the topic of former players returning, now seems like a good time to talk about the reception that a lot of them get. Not everyone deserves a Fleury-esque hero's welcome, of course, but to many fans, it seems like there are only two options: a loud ovation, or outright hostility.
I'm a Leafs fan, and I've watched Toronto fans boo guys like Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel when they returned with new teams. Most markets have a few guys like that—players who didn't really do anything wrong other than not play as well as the most optimistic fans might have wanted, but get a rough reception anyway.
Knock it off, hockey fans. Save your boos for the guys who deserve it. A former player getting savaged by his one-time fans should be a big moment. We need to stop wasting it on every third-liner you thought was vaguely overpaid.
Here's my suggestion: Be it resolved that there are three scenarios where it makes sense to boo a returning player. The first is if he actively orchestrated his own exit from the team, by demanding a trade or signing an offer sheet or obviously dogging it because he didn't want to be there anymore. This category doesn't include guys who just left as free agents—taking more money to work somewhere else doesn't make you a bad person. But if they made it clear they wanted out, fine, let them have it.
The second situation would be a player who trashed the organization or its fans (or both) on his way out the door. If he made it clear that he hates you, you're allowed to hate him back.
And the third is if he was legitimately a horrible person off the ice.
But that's it. If he was just a bad player, fine; he tried his best and now he's someone else's problem. If he suddenly improved once he moved on, be mad at your own team for not making the most out of what it had. And if he made too much money, boo the GM who signed the deal, not the player who took it.
If he was a beloved star, go ahead and give him the Fleury treatment. If he was just OK, polite applause on his first shift will do. And if you just never liked him for whatever reason, that's fine, too. Just watch the game and cheer for the guys you do like. Not everyone who once played half a season for your favorite team needs their own "thank you" video and crowd response. As with life, utter indifference is often an acceptable reaction.
Just don't boo the player unless you have an actual reason. At least make him earn your animosity.
Classic YouTube Clip Breakdown
The Winter Olympics are here, and since the NHL isn't sending its players, we've been looking back at some of the older pre-NHL tournaments. Last week, we did the 1994 gold-medal game (in Swedish). This week, let's go back to 1988. No, not the Soviets' gold-medal-clinching game. No, not Team Canada's tense round robin tie against the Swedes.
No, we're going to look at Jeff Norton. That's it. Just Jeff Norton.
- So yeah. This is a three-minute video of nothing but Jeff Norton highlights from the 1988 Olympics. I don't mind telling you that I'm vaguely fascinated by it.
- The clip itself is a little more than four years old, and as I'm writing this it has well under 1,000 views. It has two ratings—both positive—and one three-year-old comment, in which some pedant wants to argue about the music credit. The account that posted it has only two videos; the other is about the 1949 NCAA hockey championship.
- I have no idea if this person made the clip themselves or ripped it from some other source. More important, I have no idea why this would exist. Jeff Norton didn't win a medal or score a goal at the 1988 Games, so I'm not sure why he would need his own sizzle reel. But somebody made one anyway. Who? Norton himself? His parents? Somebody trying to win a bet by making the least interesting Olympic highlight clip imaginable? I don't know, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know. I'm just happy it's here.
- So our first shot is a dramatic pan of a crowd that ends with a zoom-in on a "GO USA" sign. Who's pumped? I'm pumped. Let's get to the action on the ice.
- And we do, as our very first shot of Norton is him, uh, hooking a guy, I guess? That's followed by him checking a guy, kind of. Look, when you commit to making a three-minute video of Jeff Norton highlights, you work with what you have.
- Our next clip is Norton arguing with a referee, which is highlighted by the ref waving his arms around so much that he almost KO's a random American player skating by.
- And yes, the "Granato" in the ref clip is Tony Granato, future NHL 30-goal scorer and head coach. He's one of several players from that year's Team USA who went on to NHL stardom, including Brian Leetch, Kevin Stevens, Mike Richter, and Craig Janney. The team also included current Predators coach Peter Laviolette, as well as Obscure Player alumni Dave Snuggerud and Todd "Son of Mean Gene" Okerlund. I think we can agree that all of them probably deserve their own personal highlight videos more than Jeff Norton does, but here we are.
- We get several more shots of Norton hooking, holding, and hitting guys, including one at about the 40-second mark where he seems to be setting up for an epic hip check but then leads with his face instead. There's also a clip of what appears to be Norton leaving the puck for a linesman during a stoppage in play. I think whoever made this video literally took every single Jeff Norton clip from the entire Olympics and just played them in order. And I think this is becoming one of my ten favorite YouTube clips ever.
- About a minute in, we get out first actual highlight, as Norton gets the second assist on a Team USA goal. It's a nice play. So nice, in fact, that they just slip it back into the mix a few plays later like we won't notice. Is that allowed? What do you think, world's scariest referee?
- That would appear to be a no.
- We get a shot of No. 6 making a nice toe drag move to get a shot on net, which seems like a nice Norton highlight until you realize that's not Team USA. Instead, the real Norton shows up seconds later to punch a dude in the head. That leads into a sequence of Norton slashing Soviets, interspersed with a confused-looking Viktor Tikhonov. We're with you, Vik—we're all making the same face right about now.
- We get the longest single clip in the whole video, which is just the San Diego Chicken dancing. That's immediately followed by Norton going back to touch the puck on an icing call against France. I feel like this is the exact point where the guy making this video realized that three minutes was a massive over-commitment and just went into survival mode.
- By the way, inspired pick on the video's music choice, " The Theme from Earl Weaver Baseball."
- We get a rapid-fire sequence of Norton passing, slashing, existing in the background, and eventually taking a penalty. I know what you're thinking: How does this end? We're obviously building to a big dramatic crescendo. But what?
- If you answered "Fifteen seconds of Jeff Norton skating over to the bench during a line change," you win.
- And that's it. I honestly have no idea what I just watched, or why I felt the need to make you watch it, too. Good luck to all the players getting ready to compete at the 2018 tournament. Here's hoping you play the best hockey of your life and make many memorable plays. But if not, don't worry—maybe 25 years from now, somebody will stitch together a highlight reel of you not doing anything, just because.
Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org.