The Monday Mumble: RIP The Locker Room Of Memories

Northern Italy is an incredible place. Caught between heaven on earth and George Clooney’s playground, it is one of the most beautiful destinations on this glowing sphere with cultural subtleties that rival virtually any other area of Europe including it’s Southern counter-parts. On the quaint, calm, and incredibly Swiss portion of Lake Lugano lies a hotel that I once had the privilege of residing in for nearly a week. Mid-90’s, with my father touring the globe on a consulting endeavor, I had the privilege of making this neck of the woods my own personal “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. It was a glorious week, and the moments of sheer pleasure still bathe my dreams.

Memories of architecture. Homes jetting upward, old-fashioned in a gray scale hue, seemingly emerged from the earth over timeless Swiss-Italian decades. Inside they were the complete opposite. Curtains in windows over 20′ tall, wooden tables with matching chairs that likely exist only in this particular home, in this particular area of the world. The churches were drastic, cold, and ominous. The local eateries colorful, friendly, and familiar.

However, as it is in most cultures it’s the people that make or break you experience, and the crepe-filled smiles of the Italian-Swiss-Italians were incredibly endearing.

One cool night, mid-summer, I wandered through a weekend street party that was apparently a local tradition. The smells were intoxicating, the music atmospheric, and my grin widened by the whole mess of things. I was quickly welcomed under a tent where park benches had been turned in to make-shift conversing cubicles. The young quipped with the old. The men chatted with the ladies. The kids playing at a distance. My affection for Europe, and this part of the world, was quickly heightened. Loving someone you’ve never met, falling for their ways, and embracing them full force had been a rare occurrence in my young life. Boy was it pure elation.

Fast forward to 2014, and I’m reminded of communal happiness, but in an entirely different mode. Hockey.

Announced last week, the Oklahoma City Thunder are planning to upgrade the Chesapeake Center for the upcoming NBA season. The millions of dollars being poured into that building are rightly justified, and good for business. The building is over ten years old, and is starting to show its age. This also means that it is being used heavily, and that is a great testimony to the strength of the downtown OKC area. Good news.

Included in the revamp is one particularly saddening piece of nostalgia. The former hockey locker rooms will be molded into an office of sorts for travelling users of the building.

Per the Oklahoman:

Plans call for more than doubling the space set aside for players’ families to about 2,600 square feet. Used during games, the room includes televisions and a play area for children. The project includes converting a former minor league hockey locker room into office space for tour managers, promoters and others who come through the arena with events such as concerts and need a place to work. The cost estimate was $600,000; the four lowest bids ranged from $822,000 to $870,000. The city council awarded the contract Tuesday to W.L. McNatt & Co.

Long gone are the Oklahoma City Blazers, but so to is the thought of any type of hockey being played in the Peake in the future. Which is fine. After all, WE STILL HAVE THE MIGHTY MYRIAD!

I’m getting misty just reminiscing about the bloody faces that passed through that room. The coaches who screamed profanity a plenty. The mustaches that were groomed. The pucks handed out for exceptional performances. Long gone are the players, and the glass-breaking memories, but I’m sure the stench of minor minor league sweat remains. I mean, really, did you think it would ever go away? What hasn’t left is the community of minor league hockey fans. Believe me, they don’t show up to games, but they exist. And they may not be stick, puck, pad fans in general, but they were once completely faithful.

In the mid to late 90’s and beyond the Oklahoma City Blazers owned the Myriad and then the eventual Ford Center. Although their final years of existence were tumultuous behind the scenes, and bumpy on the ice, the community of hockey appeared to be alive and well. There was no fuss. Not competition with NBA basketball. Just a minor league city hosting minor league hockey with a sense of pride. The irony here lies in the buildings initial purpose, and that was to hopefully steal the gaze of the NHL, and thus bring a team to Oklahoma City. Instead, fast forward many years later, and even the locker rooms will become a distant memory.

I bring you this humble mumble today because we are embarking on a new adventure of hockey in Oklahoma City. Not since, well, season one of Barons play have we embarked on such a highly entertaining group of prospects (supposedly), and so I kind of get antsy a bit when considering the state of hockey (not to be confused with THE state of hockey). I want the successes of the past to bolster the future. I want the community to grow, and feel genuine once again. So forgive me when I complain just a little about the inattention given to the Barons these days. There, that’s all you get, one sentence of complaining. I’m done. Go back to your NBA League Pass and ESPN Goal Line (I will too).

As the waves of hockey continue to pound the shoreline of Oklahoma remember that it is of utmost importance to remember the past. It ’twas a sweet sensation. Let’s do it again, shall we?

About Those Four Linus Omark Goals…

Photo by Steven Christy

Buried in a busy week of call-ups, injury news, and other hockey related tomfoolery was a four goal night by Linus Omark against the San Antonio Rampage. The Oklahoma City Barons would go on to win, 5-4 (Matt Ford scoring the additional one), but it wasn’t before Sir Linus had a wild and woolly four game night. He was due a good night, and a good night was had. The Rampage had no answer for him, and continued to play softball defense allowing him too much time with the puck. They quickly adjusted the next night, and successfully hogtied his offensive awesomeness.

In this particular game it was an early gaff that really spurned Omark to greatness. After a clearing attempt gone awry by Omark, the Rampage’s Bobby Butler scored an easy first goal of the game. The moment did not sit well with Linus, and he buried himself in a fantastic remainder of the game. Well done.

To the goals, in gif form.

You are going to see a trend developing in these gifs, and it involves the Rampage defense giving the Swede way too much room. As the puck moves up the ice no one challenges any of the three players who touch the puck including the trailer, Omark. Too easy.

This is probably the easiest power play goal Omark will ever score. The first goal was had streaking up the left wing, and this one on the right. The kid is gifted on both sides, and that makes him continually deadly. However, with that much room and time, I could have scored a power play goal here with a soup ladle. Nonetheless, goal number two (on the PP) was nice.

I apologize for not showing the take down that led to the free gift of a penalty shot, but it was a pretty garden variety penalty shot creator. When you have already given up two goals to a guy like Linus, you are probably in big trouble when it comes to one-on-one skills comp. The head/shoulder/wrist fake that Omark lays on the camera man is pretty sweet, but it doesn’t appear to have rattled Dov Grumet-Morris. But the shot is still excellent, beating the tender on the lower stick side. The puck barely comes off the ice, but it’s a thick wrister. Love.

A great pass during a really ugly penalty kill by San Antonio allows Omark to stand at the face-off dot, fully wound, and ready to fire. This, the fourth and final goal, was deadly accurate. That is an NHL-like goal if I’ve ever seen one, and this is what the Oilers need to see more often.

In all, it was another memorable night by Omark. Call it a breakout game if you would like, but it is certainly a showpiece for the Swedish goal scorer as he marches towards playing NHL hockey again. Through consistent performances like these, and not necessarily four goal nights, Omark will be heard loudly. Statements are what the Oilers are looking for. This is a statement.

(All gif’s courtesy of AHL Live. Capped by Neal!)

Monday Mumble: Defense. Heavy. Sigh.

Checkers vs. Oklahoma City Barons 1-13-13
Wait, where is everyone else? Photo courtesy of Rob Ferguson.

I’m well aware that this season was going to be both a fabulous ride through Space Mountain and a painful drift through It’s A Small World. And now, with NHL training camps in full swing, I really just want to go counter-clockwise on Dumbo where it’s a good mix of excitement and doldrums (after the fifth spin). I  just want things to be normal. Is that too much to ask?

The Oklahoma City Barons have now played four games without the heavy hitters, and  one without the training camp foursome. And, as no surprise to anyone, the team has struggled. In that span the team has been outscored 20 to 3 despite having out shot their opponents 140 to 108. Two things cause me to sigh heavily. One obvious in those four games, the other obvious since early October.

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Monday Mumble: Angry Mailbag Of Edmonton Hate

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy. All rights reserved.

It’s a weird feeling knowing that people are reading this site, my words, and my attempt at digital scrivening. I know, I know, what a terribly self absorbed comment to make given the great amount of interaction that you, the fine readers of TtF, have given in such a short time to an Oklahoma-based blog NOT about college football or Jesus (two things I love). And I’m eternally grateful that people read, enjoy, share, interact, and sing-along to a site that I’d write whether no one read or not. But something happened this week that hasn’t happened all season. I got hate mail. I feel I’ve arrived as a hockey writer.

Well, the hate mail wasn’t necessary sent my way, so I’ll slow my roll on the having arrived comment. Yes, it hit my inbox, but it wasn’t directed at me. Rather it was directed at a team, and a folk, and a place, and an organization that this site doesn’t completely cover. Of course, I’m talking about the Edmonton Oilers.

The hate spewing from individuals that read or glance at this site is quite unique. It’s not a huge portion, but rather a very very small minority. But it’s entertaining, and so it’ll get some exposure in this space in the coming months (unless unicorns and rainbows overtake our psyche). And this particular arrival of hate mail is even more noteworthy in a locked out season, because hatred for success runs deep — even in the minors.

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Monday Mumble: Blackwell, Oklahoma Is The Key To Ending The NHL Lockout

I’m a little worried about the ongoing non-negotiations of the NHLPA and a league of extraordinarily wealthy gentlemen. Not because talks have been put on hold, or that the Winter Classic has been canceled, or that a foreseeable agreement is about as readily available as a pair of Nike Mags from the Michael J. Fox collection. My worry runs much deeper.

I didn’t become a hockey fan by default. As a matter of fact I was raised on a steady stream of collegiate and professional football. I loved football because it was readily available in mass quantities in my home from the earliest moment I can remember. And to this day, Saturday feels the most right when I’m with my family watching the Big Ten, and Sunday when it’s church and the Packers. It was written in stone, I was immersed in it, and it became the mainstay sport in my life. And that continues to this day.

For most Canadians, not all, they could weave a similar tale. Albeit not about the NCAA or the NFL, but instead for various tiers of hockey. The “national” sport is a part of every day life. If you live in Toronto and hate the Maple Leafs you likely still know their home schedule. Whether you’re planning a business dinner or a trip out with the family, you know that doing things on a hockey night might greatly impede your plans.

As an Oklahoman, I never should have fallen in love with hockey. It was completely foreign to me. Weird rules. Weirdly named players. No team near my zip code. It just didn’t make sense. That all changed when Joe Nieuwendyk scored a game four, three overtime, questionable goal. Oilers fans, no doubt, will groan as they read this. It’s a highlight they know all to well.

What it was about that moment that sold me on the game I’ll never really know. Maybe it was the curiosity of a team in Texas. Maybe it was a casual emotional investment. Maybe it was dumb luck. But that goal, and the subsequent Cup win Dallas made, changed my hockey persuasions forever.

In an article by Jesse Spector from a late-October edition of the online Sporting News, the reporter finds himself in Northern Oklahoma for some unknown reason. Blackwell, Oklahoma to be exact. There, in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma he points out just how deeply buried and unimportant the National Hockey League is within hyper-non-markets.

“I saw when the Sacramento Kings won the Stanley Cup,” said Barek Street, who noted that he only likes professional sports, a key distinction in an area where college football is supreme. But even for Street, the NHL makes so little of an impression, he named the wrong city as home of the league champions.

It’s easy, being wrapped up in following the NHL’s labor negotiations, day in and day out, to get the idea that what is happening in hockey is earth-shattering stuff that could forever alter the sports landscape of North America. It’s not. What’s actually happening is that a league of marginal importance to the general population is pushing itself further to the fringe.

“I don’t think around here people care about the lockout,” Taylor Rutledge said while gassing up her car. “I don’t know many people that actually watch hockey.”

I empathize with Mr. Street. The NHL is a vacant wasteland in the psyche of most in the United States. This isn’t the fault of ESPN for not making a more palpable effort to broadcast rights, or necessarily the greedy parties on both sides of a labor dispute. Instead, it’s the whole thing.

You and I, as ardent fans of the game, can look past the indiscretions. We can look pass the unglamorous, often subtle nature of hockey players. We can wade through the endless need for the league to insist it’s still a viable product when it really isn’t even close for most of the population in North America.

The root of league failure is also the key, and it’s found in Blackwell, Oklahoma.

Spector, in that same article, continues:

New York is a long way from Blackwell, but the palpable apathy for hockey is the same in the city and country. Instead of working together to grow a game that should sell itself, the NHL and NHLPA have spent months trying to win the hearts and minds of exiting hockey fans in a public relations war that has only served to alienate everyone. Fans might have an opinion on who’s right and wrong in the labor dispute, but the bottom line is that they just want to see world-class hockey.

I’ll take that sentiment one step further. The league and its players have alienated everyone for a very long time. They can’t help themselves. Instead of growing a ground swell through the player and the plays that they make, they give us a gimmick in the Winter Classic which quickly becomes irrelevant faster than it caught fire. Or a glowing puck. Or a lockout. Or a Sid vs. Ovi rivalry. ______ (enter complaint here).

The focus for the league should be Blackwell, Oklahoma where good people would attach themselves to any sport if it inspired and entertained. If it were a sport about players instead of paychecks. Magical goals instead of marginal gimmicks.

In 1999, I fell in love with the game in another Northern Oklahoma town where no rink existed, and I could get a poor pair of hockey skates two hours away. How’d it happen? I really don’t know. But what I do know is the NHL we see now is not the NHL I loved. It’s now one I tolerate. The key is Blackwell, and demanding the attention of the other uninterested masses by simply giving us the game.

Monday Mumble: The Fair & Balanced Equation

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy. All rights reserved.

November is now here. And there is a lot to mumble about in the world of Barons hockey. I’m not a pessimistic person, and if I were, these mumbles would be more frequent and more seething. Instead I’m an optimistic thinker to a fault. I bring this to your attention for one reason, and one reason only – I wholeheartedly believe the Oklahoma City Barons are the best offensive team in the American Hockey League. See what I did there? Not the best team, but the best offensive team. And those two things are very different.

The Barons are now a team with a healthy knack for scoring points. There is no denying this. The problem is that the rest of the team is much farther south of them, that it’s an incomplete equation for winning. And here’s what I mean.

The Offense + The Defense x Execution = Winning

There are nights where the Barons have great offense, score a bunch of goals, look amazing, but lack the defensive stoutness to win impressively. We’ve yet to see the opposite, where the defense is so good that it negates the offensive bailout. But keep in mind the “X” factor in this equation, and that’s execution. The equation for execution is as such.

Gameplan + Preparedness + Health x Hardwork = Execution

Gameplan, preparedness, health, hardwork are all the recipe of successful execution. And this is where the American Hockey League becomes so so important. It’s a league of young men and old men. And despite their various ages, they all have one goal in mind and that’s to get better. Whether the prize is an NHL spot or simply to have a strong career, the goal is always the same — to get better. But what happens when your team is really good at the top end, and really prospecty at the bottom? You have a team that’s barely over .500 through ten games when they were expected to be infinitely better. The expanse between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Martindale is so vast that the game time peripheral is thrown out of wack. Do I believe that the top half should be closer to the bottom half? Certainly closer, not the same. Things like speed and overall skill are much greater at the top, and subsequently lesser at the bottom. Imagine a hefty kid on one end of the see saw, and a thin and sleek one at the other – the weighty kid holds back the slight of build one. Rocking isn’t much fun.

I hate math. I hate equations. And I hate losing. But I think there is a correlation to a balanced team. The Barons don’t seem to be balanced. They aren’t balanced offense for defense nor are they balanced in terms of raw talent and works in progress. Just too much to overcome. Can it be fixed, yes. But it requires the fat kids to lose some, well, fat.