Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On Jean Beliveau

Jean Beliveau

August 31, 1931 - December 2, 2014

I think you didn't mean to be a god
when first you knew that blades would be your wings.
In stolen, silver moments you were free,
as steel carved ice in runes of what would be.
While those who worship blades as sacred things
so envied you that flight, when they must plod.

The river's freedom melted under lights
within the boarded confines of your stage.
As river dreamers spoke your name in sighs
their elders watched with judgement in their eyes;
celebrity a comfortable cage,
through sparkling days and legendary nights.

You shouldered all you must, though in your soul
you never yearned for more than was your lot.
But worship is a blade as sharp as steel
re-carving idols out of men once real.
A gilded name, a dream by many sought
Immortal now, regardless of the toll.

Sleep well, Mr.Beliveau. Your game and your country are poorer without you.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Have you heard the one about the Habs PP?

The Habs power play is so bad, they're going to change the goal song to "Hallelujah" if they ever score.

The Habs power play is so awful, P.K.Subban is getting an audition for The Walking Dead.

When the Habs practice their PP, the orange cones on the ice usually kill it off.

The Habs power play sucks so hard NASA has added it as a known black hole.

You know a hockey team has issues when the jokes start to flow, and the laughs at the Canadiens' pathetic power play are flooding in like high tide. Sixteen games into this season, it ranks 28th in the league, with a whopping 7.1% success rate. Compare that to Pittsburgh's league-leading 35.6%, and you can see things in Montreal have passed "needs tweaking" and gone straight to "needs a complete overhaul."

Part of the problem, of course, is the never-changing personnel. Almost without exception, every PP starts with Andrei Markov, P.K.Subban, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and whatever winger is currently on their line. Right now, that's P.A.Parenteau. Pacioretty and Desharnais get 2:25 of ice time per game with the man advantage. That's a grand total of 37:45 so far this year, which is 53% of the total 71:11 the Habs have spent on the power play. In theory, that's a good idea. Last year those guys were first and third in team scoring. Unfortunately, however, you have to shoot to score. And neither Pacioretty nor Desharnais shoots the puck on the PP.

Pacioretty leads the Canadiens with 57 shots on goal. Desharnais is third on the team with 47. Yet, on the power play, they've taken a combined five shots...three for Pacioretty and two for Desharnais. That's in nearly 40 minutes each. Pacioretty puts up 19% fewer points on the PP, when you average points per minutes of play, than he does at even strength. In fact, he's got more points shorthanded. If, as the myth goes, opponents key on Markov and Subban, limiting their point shots, then the forwards should be firing every chance they get. Instead, we see them passing the puck around until it gets intercepted and cleared.

The other problem is net presence. Aside from Brendan Gallagher, who now gets less PP time...and none on the first wave because he's not playing on the Desharnais line anymore...nobody on the ice goes to the net. On many nights, the puck is on the stick of a guy behind the net, with both wingers standing along the boards. Power play goals are often scored on a big point shot. If chances from the point are limited, teams score by shooting a ton and crowding the crease. If they don't do those things, they're not going to do very well.

Right now, the Habs are winning despite their lack of PP success. That won't last. Of the top fifteen highest-scoring teams, all but two (Kings and Rangers) score between 20 and 40 percent of their goals on the power play. The Canadiens are at 8.3%. If the opponent has a working PP, they have an instant advantage in any game against Montreal. While the Canadiens are strong on the PK, eighth in the league, they're also 28th in the league for penalties taken. Sooner or later, a good PP will score, given enough chances. If the Habs can't reply, they're going to start losing games.

The lack of scoring with the man advantage doesn't just hurt the team on the scoreboard. It also causes bigger problems. If you've got a popgun PP, opponents will take liberties, knowing they can intimidate without concern about paying the price while they're shorthanded. Milan Lucic isn't one to hold back when he wants to hurt someone at the best of times. Knowing nothing will happen to him if he does can only make his behaviour worse. That kind of thing puts the Habs at a psychological disadvantage because Brandon Prust can't fight everyone, and the rest of the Canadiens end up thinking about the other team's tactics instead of just playing.

Michel Therrien has had nearly a year of watching this powerless PP and has yet to address the problems. His insistence on always using the same lines that play at even strength doesn't work with the man advantage. Alex Galchenyuk, for example, is arguably the most creative player on the team. This season, he's also willing to crash the net. Those are two skills not overly visible in Pacioretty that could conceivably help create goals. Yet, Galchenyuk gets less than two minutes a night on the PP. Dale Weise gets none, but he'd go to the net and stay there bothering the goalie if he did. He'd at least offer the opposing defencemen something to do other than block Desharnais' passes. The point is, changing personnel can't actually hurt this PP and is, at this stage, the sensible thing to do.

It would also be worth experimenting with a formation other than the 1-3-1 that hasn't been working for a year now. One thing's certain: the time for hoping the situation will miraculously correct itself is over. A coach's job is to make sure a team is functioning to the best of its ability. The Canadiens have skill, and the PP should be a good chance for them to use it to advantage. That they're not means Therrien isn't doing his job.

On the "For Dummies" website, there's a page called "Controlling a Power Play in Hockey For Dummies." It says:

"A good power play is a deadly weapon, and no team can win a championship without one. The basic idea is to move the puck among the five offensive players until one of them has an opening and can shoot. Crisp passes are essential, and so is making use of the man advantage. Get the two-on-one situations. Get the puck to the open man. Get off the shots. And be sure to take what the other team gives. If a defender comes to you, then one of your teammates is open somewhere. Try to find him. And even if you don't have the puck, make something happen. Get in the goalie's way. Look for rebounds. Keep the puck in the zone if a defender tries to shoot it out."

That's written for coaches just starting out, who are instructing kids. Basic hockey, but it's sound advice for a coach and a team that seems to have forgotten simple truths.

One way or another, something's got to give. At this point, if the Habs PP is a joke, it's not very funny.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

System Upgrade

Imagine you run a hockey team and your number-one centre is a decent player who puts up 60 points a year, doesn't take many dumb penalties and wins more faceoffs than he loses. You'd probably be happy enough with that guy. Then, imagine it's free agent time and a big, strong centre who dominates on the draw, skates like the wind and puts up 80 points a year hits the market. You have cap space enough to sign him, but if you do, you then have too many centres on your team. So, you have a decision to make. Do you trade your 60-point man and sign the new guy, or do you let the 80-point guy go to the leafs because you don't have a roster spot available for him? Assuming the more productive player isn't a jerk, most of us would go for the upgrade.

It's the same for any position on a team. If Dustin Tokarski is ready to play, you trade Peter Budaj. If Daniel Briere isn't productive, you move him and bring in P.A.Parenteau instead. If you can somehow acquire Thomas Vanek at the deadline, you go for it. Marc Bergevin's job is to make sure he's got the best person available in every position because a team only gets better by wisely and opportunistically upgrading its personnel.

That mindset should be the same for coaching staff. The old saying that a coach is "hired to be fired" is inevitably true for every guy behind the bench, whether he lasts a year like Tortorella in Vancouver or fifteen like Barry Trotz in Nashville. Sooner or later coaches get fired, and most of the time it's because their teams aren't getting results. Rarely does a team can a coach just because there's a better option available, but perhaps they'd be better off if they did. At least they'd be choosing an upgrade versus dumping an underperformer or scapegoat mid-season and being stuck with whomever is available at that time.

There's a chance Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings will part ways this summer. The rumour mill says the coach wants more money and team management doesn't want to pay it. Of course, there's also the fact that the Wings core is aging and they're no longer perennial contenders. Or Babcock may simply want to rejuvenate his career by taking on a new team whose Cup window is just about to open. One thing is certain: if Babcock becomes available, Marc Bergevin should court him.

Michel Therrien was hired for a second go-round behind the Habs bench because Bergevin was a brand-new GM who needed an experienced coach. He was also one of the few francophone options available. In his time as Canadiens coach, the team has achieved some good results, winning their division in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and making the Eastern Conference final in last year's playoffs. Even so, the Canadiens powerplay is dreadful and its possession stats alarming. If they'd made the Finals last year, they would have been crushed by the Kings. They don't score much, and they allow much too much pressure on Carey Price. The coach's insistence on overusing veterans who don't produce and limiting the minutes of young players who do is not a great winning strategy. Nor is benching some players for making mistakes and forgiving others.

Of course, no coach is perfect and the scrutiny Montreal's coach receives exposes his flaws in a way most of his colleagues don't experience. Therrien isn't a terrible coach. He's also not the best in the league. He makes mistakes, but so does every other coach. The question Bergevin needs to answer is, if there's a better option available, which may happen this summer, will he be willing to replace Therrien, even if his results aren't terrible? If he's the proactive GM the Canadiens need to build the best team possible, he must consider it.

Babcock is a rock star in the coaching ranks. He comes from an organization that knows how to win. He's got a Stanely Cup, two Finals appearances, a World Championship and two Olympic gold medals on his resume. He's consistently coached the Wings to playoff berths and kept them competitive even when dealing with injury and retirements. This is the kind of coach the Montreal Canadiens deserve.

Michel Therrien deserves some respect as a guy who's coached more than 600 NHL games. Yet, if there's a chance to hire someone who's had more success at his position, the Habs would be wrong not to explore that. These are the Montreal Canadiens, not the Columbus Blue Jackets. Habs fans have been waiting for 22 years for a Stanley Cup win, and they're tired of hoping in vain. Part of creating a winner is making sure every position is filled with the best possible person. That includes the coach.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

The hockey gods are a cruel society. They'll steer a game-winning goal into a post or turn a ref's head in time to see retaliation, but not the original infraction. They can frustrate a guy who's trying and elevate another who isn't. And, they can make an average team's record look impressive with fluky tying goals late in games, good goaltending and shootout luck. Then, just when a team starts believing its own hype, the hockey gods laugh and drop the glamour that concealed some painful truths.

This is what we know today: the Canadiens have big problems and the fragile success they have experienced early in this season has glossed over the worst of them. Among the issues are the complete lack of spark on the power play, the softness of a D-corps that routinely backs in on its goalie, the slow starts and poor discipline. Add to those issues a coaching staff that appears to believe shuffling lines while refusing to call down reserves from the press box will fix things without fundamental style changes, and a picture of how much this team has to change begins to emerge.

The powerplay is a serious issue. It hasn't clicked since last Christmas, yet nothing changes. When a team doesn't score very much, the man advantage needs to be an actual advantage. The other day, speaking with Hockey Canada incoming CEO Tom Renney, I asked "How do you fix a 10% PP?" His answer: "Quick puck movement is important, but most important is net presence. You have to create chaos in the crease." Brendan Gallagher has the heart of a lion, but one short guy in the crease isn't exactly chaos. Yet, with this glaring problem continuing into a new season, the coaching staff continues to send the David Desharnais/Max Pacioretty unbreakable duo out to start every power play. In the face of all evidence saying this doesn't work, it continues. Perhaps Therrien and company need to ask for volunteers. "Who'll make chaos in the crease? Okay...you're on the PP." What's certain is somebody has to do it or nothing will change. And, if nothing changes, this team won't be winning too many close games.

The defence is another huge problem, and it starts with P.K.Subban. Subban's putting up a respectable number of points for an offensive-minded blueliner, with his eight in 12 games. Unfortunately, he's also taken the most minor penalties (ten) in the NHL. Although only two of the seven PP goals against the Habs happened with Subban in the box, his lack of discipline is indicative of a team-wide problem. Subban, by letter on the sweater, by long-term expensive contract and by pedigree should be the leader of the team's defence. Instead, Andrei Markov, the old workhorse, continues to shoulder the bulk of the load as Subban's play is often spotty, with bursts of energy interspersed with black holes of mediocrity. The Canadiens need better from Subban, and they need a better approach to defence as a whole. Right now, the D give up their own blue line too easily and they're too vulnerable to odd-man breaks and stretch passes. Despite the change in personnel from last year to this, the same defensive problems exist. That's on the coaches, particularly the coach responsible for defensive structure.

The one advantage the Habs have when they're playing well is a team speed that pressures the opponent and forces penalties and mistakes. We've yet to see that out of the gate this year. The team began the season with entirely different lines and defence pairs than it used last playoffs, so one would imagine they'd need time to make connections with each other. That doesn't explain the lack of jump they've shown to start every single game so far. If the players can't find the energy they need within themselves, the coaches need to do a better job at preparing them. Shuffling lines and keeping a struggling Rene Bourque and slow Brandon Prust and Travis Moen in the lineup over young, hungry players like Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival seems counterintuitive for a team that needs speed and energy. That's on the coaching staff too.

It's not a promising thing when you realize that five of the Habs eight wins came in OT or shootout. It's not good to know the team has a -4 goals for/against differential, or that it's last in the league for penalties taken versus powerplays granted. The team has been on the PK 30 minutes more than it's been on the PP; half a game more they've played shorthanded than with a man advantage. When a team takes that many penalties, it breaks any rhythm or momentum it tries to build up and it means players who don't kill penalties cool on the bench. The lack of discipline comes from lazy, slow play that forces the players into bad decisions. When the Habs are skating in mud, it also means the other team has little reason to foul them. Stats can mislead, but in this case, the numbers are a true reflection of what we've seen on the ice so far this year.

The hockey gods are capricious. They allow players to believe in a fragile illusion of success. Even as the music of victors blares in the dressing room and the player-of-the-game boxer robe is handed out, players know deep down when they didn't deserve to win. When the smoke and mirrors disappear, as they have in the last four games, the reality of what needs to be fixed is glaring.

The Habs, on paper at least, are a better team than the one we've seen for most of this young season. They're lucky to have collected the points they have, and they have a lot of work to do if they're to fulfill the potential to which they have yet to live up. That work starts with leadership, both on ice and behind the bench. Neither group is doing a good job this year, and without improvement at that level, the hockey gods will make this a long, cold winter.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Smote By the Butterfly, Sting In the Knee

Let's try a little experiment. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Okay, now pull your knees in together, without moving your feet. Now, drop to the ground, knees first. How does that feel? Not too bad? Well, then, get up and repeat the operation about fifty times in a row. If you can pull that off successfully for days and years on end, and you have no fear of being hit by flying rubber or bowled over by large men, you might have what it takes to be a butterfly goaltender.

The butterfly position, originally used by luminaries like Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, became the de facto style for the vast majority of goalies after rookie Patrick Roy burst onto the NHL scene in 1986, winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies with his twitchy, on-his-knees way of getting the job done. A generation of Quebec-born goalies who idolized the young Roy copied him, and coaches, who saw the advantages of covering low shots with the spread pads, leaving the upper body free to protect the high part of the net, encouraged them.

Now, nearly thirty years after the explosion of kids taking on the butterfly, the first wave of them is retiring from hockey. J.S.Giguere, who hero-worshipped Roy as a young goalie, and later grew up to train with Roy's coach, Francois Allaire, decided to pack it in this year. In the 20 years since he was drafted in the NHL's first round by Hartford, he's seen his name etched on the 2003 Conn Smythe as one of only five winners whose team lost out in the Stanley Cup Finals. He made up for that by leading his Ducks to the 2007 championship. He's played a lot of hockey and now, he says, his joints are paying for it.

"It's not great," he admits. "I already had a hip surgery about ten years ago on my right side. From meeting with the doctors at the end of the year last year, it looks like I might need a hip replacement in the next five or six years. We'll see. I can still function day to day, but running is out of the question and any big physical activity is tough."

Giguere is 37 years old. He says even though his joints hurt all the time, he found the pain of playing goal bearable with therapy. Ironically, it was the constant therapy itself that he feels started to take the fun out of the game for him.

"It gets to be redundant, coming into the rink every day and having to do so many exercises," he explains. "Being on the medical table every day for 25 minutes and working with the trainer, that became very hard. I didn't even play that much in the last couple of years and I still had to do that, so imagine if I played more games. It's very typical of goaltenders in our day. You can't just come to the rink and go on the ice. You have to maintain your body, you have to work a lot with the therapists, the massage therapists, the conditioning guys on  your stretching and your recovery, making sure your core, your glutes and your groin are strong to minimize the effect the position has on your body."

If it's tough to be the guy on the table, the person treating a goalie has his work cut out for him as well. That's where Dave Green comes in. He's with Cove Sport Therapy in Halifax and he frequently assists his friend, Habs trainer Nick Addey-Jibb, with the Canadiens in Montreal. At this year's training camp, he spent many hours with the goaltenders, particularly Carey Price. He sees first-hand the effects the butterfly is taking on the player.

"I just think about Price in the first week of the season. You go on the road, you play, you're in the plane or on the bus and you don't get the proper treatments on the road like you do at home. Maybe by the fourth game, he was worn out. No doubt his knees were stressed," he says. "At 27 years old, he's still really young, but he's not bouncing back like he used to. I remember Price as a rookie at his first camp. It just seems like yesterday, but you put ten  years on that body, 50 or 60 games a year, and all of a sudden, he's in the clinic all the time now. Whereas, when he was 22, 23, 24, I did almost no work on Price in his first three or four camps. This time, I spent an hour a day with him. In my experience, I can see he needs more work than he did in the past."

The strain on a goalie's body is different from the physical toll the game takes on skaters. As Green says, there are five guys trying to score and only one trying to keep the puck out of the net. Goaltenders are playing an entirely different game, physically and mentally.

"When you go knee-knock, it's called a valgus stance in therapy, so you're putting an extreme pressure on your medial collateral ligaments, when they're in a stretch position," Green explains. "You and I, if we were to fall to our knees,  your heels will hit your bum. That's natural. Basically, everything from your belly button to your knees is in a wonky position when you're in the butterfly."

When you look up "valgus," which is the technical term for people whose knees touch, you'll often find it followed by the word "deformity." That's because the butterfly position isn't natural for humans. The repetition of the position, Green says, is what really causes the long-term joint damage butterfly goalies often sustain.

"When you drop, you have 200 pounds of your body falling onto your knees and ankles, and sometimes the pads don't save you from your ankle hitting. And there's also pressure from the ice when you hit. Goaltenders go down in a butterfly more than thirty times a game with a lot of shots. It's the overuse, the continuous impact. Every time a goaltender goes in the butterfly, he's putting a little strain on those ligaments because the position isn't natural."

Add to that the extra stress of having large men moving at high speed fall on a goalie in that vulnerable, stretched-out position, and it's easy to see why knee injuries like those Price has sustained in the last two playoffs happen.

"Let's compare to baseball," Green says. "A pitcher throws 70 or 80 pitches a day in a rotation, then they rest for four days. They have little micro tears in their muscles from the repetitive motion of pitching. When a goalie is going down in that repetitive motion, then someone lands on him, it can cause contusions, bleeding internally, inflammation, anything with impact."

That's why, he believes, goalie careers aren't lasting as long as they used to and younger players who play more games, practice more and attend more hockey camps at a younger age are feeling the pain earlier.

"I think the curve is starting to change. How many goaltenders in the last decade have been good for five or six years, then all of a sudden they're not that good anymore?" he asks. "It may be they're just not as agile in that position because their knees have taken such a beating and their ligaments are stretched and strained.
They're probably doing more maintenance before and after games. That's what I've noticed in the last few years. You can keep them in the game a little longer with that...extend their careers. Zach Fucale, who I work with here with the Mooseheads is a 19-year-old kid, but his hips and his knees look like they're beginning to wear down already. He needs more therapy than he did as a 16-year-old here in Halifax."

Green thinks if teams invest long-term in a franchise goaltender like Carey Price, they're going to have to change the way they view the position. Goaltenders, he believes, need more rest than they get now, and dividing ice-time more evenly between two or more goalies would help prolong the career of that star netminder.

J.S.Giguere agrees more rest would help a goalie last longer, but when asked whether NHL teams are ready to go back to a platoon system, he laughs.

"Good luck! It sounds good in theory. I think, at the end of the day, winning a game has become so important that everything else, they forget about. They might say they'll rest the number-one guy, but as soon as a must-win game comes up...and we see those in November now...the coaches forget about all that stuff. There's so much money involved. I can't say they don't care, but they're not going to think that far ahead. I can't see it happening. I think you're lucky if you have a team where your number-two goalie can play 25-30 games at the right time, and you're not afraid to play him in difficult games. That's a luxury."

So, goaltenders continue to absorb the pain of their joints rebelling against repetitive, unnatural movement. Giguere says most butterfly goalies of his generation...including his idol, Roy...are paying the price after years of abuse.

"I know Patrick had tough hips when he played. That was one of the reasons why he did retire. A lot of the guys are tight and feel it in their groins and hips. It's pretty common. It's something we just learn to deal with.
You get up in the morning and you're stiff walking around, but you get used to it. If my pain would stay like this until I die I could cope with it, but you don't know what the future will bring."

Giguere is pretty sure his future will bring a hip replacement surgery before his 45th birthday. Many of his colleagues will experience the same kind of premature aging of the joints too. For today's players, therapy and building up muscles that balance out the strain on ligaments will help them prolong their careers. It means they have to invest long, boring hours in the training room as part of their daily routines. Even so, that help can only go so far. Teams banking on a Cup window with a star goalie in net have to realize the player's longevity is compromised by the job's requirement to twist his joints into unnatural shapes and pound them into a solid surface repeatedly.

It seems a lot to ask of a player, especially one already dealing with the technical requirements of playing a difficult position and the mental strain of the spotlight in which goalies live. That they continue to do so, despite the pain and long-term damage to their bodies is a testament to the competitiveness of pro goaltenders.

As they say in hockey, goalies are different.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Tomas Plekanec has built himself a reputation in the NHL. He's the guy who drives Sidney Crosby crazy every time they meet, shutting him down offensively and distracting him to trash talk. He's the player Brad Marchand freely admits to hating. He's also the guy who shows up first at practice every day and demonstrates for his younger teammates how to be a pro. They all admit he doesn't say much in the room, but he's respected enough to be one of the recognized leaders for the Canadiens.

One thing you never hear about Plekanec, and has never been part of his reputation, is that he's a particularly light-hearted kind of guy. Sure, he's happy when he scores, but he doesn't bubble over with exuberance. Or, at least, he didn't used to. This year...at least three games in...things are different.

Plekanec is having fun. He's smiling. He's jumping up and down when he scores, and chest-bumping his teammates. Yes, chest-bumping. The 31-year-old newly-minted Habs alternate captain has a spring in his step and a glint in his eye we haven't seen through the long seasons of his exile to the defensive-zone faceoff circle. Whether it's because Manny Molhotra is now taking some of those d-zone starts and killing penalties, or because the stone handed Travis Moen has been replaced by rapidly-improving Alex Galchenyuk on Plekanec's wing, the Canadiens are the better for it.

That's not to say the team hasn't exhibited some problems in the early going. The slow starts and early deficits are not habits a consistently good team practices. The defence has positioning issues while breaking in young players, and it's feeling the loss of Josh Gorges' minute-eating presence in his own zone. Despite those weaknesses, the team is showing it's got a certain uplifting spunkiness and belief in itself. Carey Price has said after a couple of the team's early come-from-behind wins that "you're never out of a hockey game." That seems to be a philosophy the Canadiens, as a group, have adopted and it's paying off. The absolute dominance they displayed in taking control of the game against the Flyers was pure fun.

In a day when analytics are trendy, systems dictate the style of the game and "it's a business" is as common a cliche as "giving 110%," sometimes it's easy to forget that fun is the point. Nobody in the NHL started playing hockey because he believed in his atom coach's system. And not one of them kept at it through injury and adversity because he hoped to improve his Corsi number. They played the game then and play it now because it's fun. And nothing is more fun than winning for both the players and the fans. We watch because the game is entertaining and we like to see the players crank it up and fight for a win.

So, if the Canadiens have some flaws to work on, they're also remembering why they're doing it. The points they're gathering now will be important, but the fun they're having is what they'll draw upon when times get harder. This is team bonding of the lasting kind. And for fans, there's nothing nicer or more fun than seeing a pro like Tomas Plekanec jumping up and down and chest-bumping...like a guy who remembers what it's all about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Farm Boys

It's an unseasonably warm October afternoon and a bunch of kids, off school while their teachers have an in-service, gravitate to the local hockey rink. Though the weather is distinctly un-hockey-like, the unmistakable feeling of the game in its nascent autumnal incarnation vibrates in the air here. The smell of yesterday's arena fries mingles with the frosty scent of the freshly-resurfaced rink and the always-present funk of musty hockey gear. The gunshots of a couple of dozen pucks bang the boards in the mostly-empty building. The kids hang out in groups near the glass, starry-eyed attention riveted on the exhibition just a pane away.

The Hamilton Bulldogs drift through warm-up drills, their half-speed faster than the watching dreamers can muster on their best day. They look, to these kids, as impressive as the NHL's Canadiens must have looked to them in Montreal a week ago. Only a few days separate the crowded adulation of the Bell Centre from the echoing rural rink the 'Dogs hopefuls now overwhelm with the sheer size of their presence.

After a bit, the pace of practice picks up and the watchers outside the glass notice the players who begin to pull away from the crowd: the ones who are a little bit faster, a little crisper on the pass, a little smarter. In a red practice sweater with the bulldog on the front, the Swedish kid with the number 32 on his white helmet skates with a powerful grace. The kids whisper and point him out. Magnus Nygren tried Hamilton last year, but retreated back to Sweden, disillusioned with the city and the hockey after just 16 games. Today, dancing over the ice surface, forward and back, back to front, crossing over effortlessly, he moves with a surety he says is the biggest difference in his game between last season and this one.

"Mostly, I think, my confidence is better. I played for Sweden in the world championships. That was a good experience," he reflects. "I played against a bunch of NHL players during that tournament and it gave me good confidence back here now. It was a lot of fun."

Nygren isn't at the 'Dogs camp for fun. He's here to work, and when his Hamilton stay ends this time, he wants to move on to Montreal, not back to Sweden.

"Of course I want to be the name that the coaches tell the Montreal leaders was great out there. I want to be the first guy called up. I don't want to wait too long. Things can happen fast, and if you get a chance you have to take it," he explains, Nordic blue gaze snapping with an intensity of feeling. "I'm fighting for a spot there, and trying to work as hard as I can every day and get better. I want to help the Hamilton team to win. Even...That's a lot of D up there in Montreal. A lot of good ones. I'll just keep fighting here and see what happens."

He's already eyeing the Habs roster, imagining where he'll fit in when that chance comes.

"I'm an offensive D-man. I have to play well down here. Things can't go so well for people up there if I'm to have a chance, I know. Still, there are so many good D-men on one-way contracts, it's tough for us with two-ways to have a chance," he admits. "I'm going to show up on every shift and make sure I'm good enough on 5-on-5. PP is important to me and I'm going to use my shot and my offensive skill, but 5-on-5 is just as important."

The kids at the rink drift away as the players make way for the Zamboni after practice. The Bulldogs' bus idles in front of the building and the quick-showering guys pace as they wait for their more leisurely teammates. They ooze vitality in their dress shirts and open jackets, still-wet hair slicked back, with fluffy bits of beard betraying their youth. If Magnus Nygren is all business, some of his camp mates are actively living the dream.

Hours after practice ended, night has fallen and it feels like autumn has only been dressing up like summer all day. The small rink has just released a sell-out crowd, thrilled to have been treated to one-step-below-the-NHL hockey. The Bulldogs are a loose-limbed bunch of relaxed jokers. They're still competing for jobs, but the build-up to their first exhibition game has culminated in victory and the knowledge that they can do no more for today.

Mac Bennett, sporting two-days' growth of stubble and one button too many open at the neck, spent the last four years at the University of Michigan. He toiled on the college blueline while prospects like Nygren were sweating it out in the pro leagues, trying to climb. Bennett emits a kind of glowing energy, eyes snapping as he tries to summarize the feelings after his first pro game.

"It was a good first experience. Good to get that first game of pro under my belt. I think there were some little pre-game jitters, but after the first five minutes they go away," he says.

The words are banal enough, but the vibrating posture and chattering speech betray a deeper emotion. All the same, even in his excitement, the 23-year-old knows he's got to make up some pro development time on his younger rivals.

"Faster. The game is a lot faster," he says. "The decisions with the puck are a lot faster. The players are a lot more skilled. I have to just keep it simple and wait to adjust. You just play. Eventually those decisions come quicker, just because you're forced to make them quicker. Everything for me is just simple at this point. I'm still kind of adjusting. When I get the puck, just move it. Be strong on my stick and in the corners. When I get the puck, make sure I'm skating. The players out here are a lot more skilled, so when you make a mistake, sometimes your teammates can make up for you, which is really nice."

Nygren, at this point, is accustomed to pro hockey and the idea of working toward a job in Montreal. For Bennett, it's all still a bit magical.

"What the Habs are to Montreal, the Yankees are to New York. There are Habs fans everywhere. It's pretty special. It's a huge honour to wear that crest. It's an organization with a ton of history, so I'm proud to carry on that tradition," he enthuses. He knows all about history, aiming to become a third-generation NHLer. "It's kind of crazy to think about. My grandfather was a goalie and my uncle played in the NHL. It's kind of cool to help carry on that tradition."

The Bulldogs filter out of the tiny rural Newfoundland arena in twos and threes, into the visible cloud of the bus exhaust. They stow their bags and find places that will, before the year is out, become "theirs." The fans have vanished to home and bar in the darkness between the orange-haloed street lights. On the bus, some of the young men who have split their very atoms to make it as pro hockey players, are only a day or two away from having their dreams cut short. Others...the Mac Bennetts of the group...are floating, their first pro points just around the bend. Some, like Magnus Nygren, can almost touch the NHL and will go to sleep with the scent of it.

The bus coughs and sighs into motion, easing out of the abandoned parking lot. The sidewalks roll up early here when the game is over. The kids of the morning are long asleep and the day for the dreamers is done.