In the NHL, October is the coolest month
Thursday, 4 October 2007
The leaves are turning brown and the nights are getting colder. But NHL hockey in October always seems livelier than any other time of the year.
It’s nice to think the peak excitement occurs with the Stanley Cup finals, but in June, when you’re down to two not necessarily beloved teams and it’s hot enough to fire up the backyard BBQ, sometimes it seems a little anti-climactic. Even the first round of the playoffs doesn’t carry October’s vibe of looseness and jacked-up optimism.
Right now, the players are incredibly fresh, both mentally and physically, and that was evident on the opening night of the 2007-08 campaign in North America.
Antoine Vermette was flying like Marian Gaborik when he scored Ottawa’s first goal versus Toronto with a super rush at the Air Canada Centre. By March, he’ll look more like the rich man’s Ryan Kesler.
It almost makes you wish the NHL season could go in reverse, sort of like Christopher Nolan’s film Memento.
Remember, the best hockey ever played in any league or international competition was the 1987 Canada Cup final–and that was in September.
In October, you see things you may not see again this season. Again, look at opening night. Wade Redden fighting twice in one game? That’s a lot of calories. Even Sens enforcer Brian McGrattan might not replicate that feat.
Or how about Todd Bertuzzi zipping around versus his former Detroit mates, racking up two points in his Ducks debut, striving to justify that profoundly wrong-looking #4 on his back? (Sure, Bertuzzi’s always had talent, but he ain’t Jean Beliveau or Bobby Orr. If he hadn’t shed 20 pounds before the season, he could have worn #444 instead.)
Then there’s Dominik Hasek, stoning Corey Perry in the shootout to earn the Wings their first win. (Eerie thought: the Czech netminder will be 45 when the 2010 Olympics kick off in Vancouver, and that looked like him warming up for a repeat of Nagano ’98. And if Hasek pulled it off again, that would make him the greatest villain in Canadian hockey history. You chuckle at this ludicrous speculation–but don’t forget Chris Chelios will captain Team USA at age 48.)
In October, you see such exuberance from Saku Koivu when he one-times home the OT winner versus Carolina. Unfortunately, history says the gutsy Montreal captain will be closer to 60 or 70 points come playoff time than his initial two-points-a-game pace.
No wonder Koivu told IHWC.net in 2003: “For us as players, 82 games with all the travel, playing almost every second day for seven months, it’s tough. People are paying a lot of money, and a lot of times they see two teams that are really, really tired and just can’t give their best effort. I’d like to see more days off and have the season maybe three weeks longer. With that, I think the level of games would be a lot higher.”
More like October, in other words.
Travel back in time one year via YouTube, and it’s astonishing how many memorable highlight-reel goals are tallied in October.
October 17, 2006: Maxim Afinogenov burns around Derian Hatcher
October 24, 2006: Evgeni Malkin goes all Mario on Martin Brodeur
October 28, 2006: Alexander Perezhogin shocks Toronto with his speed
October 30, 2006: Peter Forsberg dipsy-doodles past Patrick Sharp
If I’m a fan, that October electricity is what I’m paying to see. Not guys dumping it in, keeping it simple, and sticking to the system. Don Cherry and Jacques Lemaire are free to savor that brand of hockey.
Yet if the previous two seasons are any indication, the NHL will average about six goals per game in October, and then it’ll go down, as players start to feel the grind and coaches preach defense to save their jobs.
The potential introduction of an 84-game schedule next year would add excitement with more out-of-conference games versus unfamiliar opponents. But it would also oblige the players to pace themselves even more from Day One in October.
And that would rob the coolest month of some of its flair.