30 Thoughts: Remembering greatness

Many of the legends of hockey reminisce about the life and career of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

What a week.

My United flight to San Francisco had The Dish Network, so there was an opportunity to watch ESPN’s live coverage of Muhammad Ali’s memorial. The channel also paid tribute to Gordie Howe during a break between the procession and ceremony.

Born in 1970, I missed the greatest moments of both men’s careers. My earliest memory of Ali is being disappointed by his stunning loss to Leon Spinks in February 1978. His 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (written with Richard Durham) is the first “big book” I finished. I also owned a copy of the 1978 Superman vs Muhammad Ali comic book, which was tossed in the garbage by my parents when I misbehaved.

(Spoiler: Ali figures out Superman’s secret identity.)

My earliest memory of Howe is the 1980 All-Star Game, where he was honoured with a massive ovation during the pre-game introductions. It was held at Joe Louis Arena, and after Detroit’s Reed Larson skates out, everyone knows who’s next. “And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey with great distinction, number 9!”

No name is needed. The cheering lasted more than two minutes.

There were opportunities to see both men up close later in life. Ali came to Toronto in 2002 for a Parkinson’s Disease fundraiser at a CFL game. The event was chaotic, the passion unmistakeable. His limousine was swarmed entering and exiting the stadium, so he signed as many autographs as his strength allowed.

In 2013, days before Detroit and Toronto played the magnificent outdoor game at Michigan Stadium, the Howes allowed Hockey Night in Canada to spend a few hours at their family Christmas celebration.

There are moments in your career you never forget. This was one. I barely moved from the main door of the house. It was such an honour, but came with some discomfort, almost as if we were in the way of something deeply personal. At the time, the Howes wondered if it would be their final Christmas together, and they wished to have it chronicled. I spent a lot of time thinking about what we witnessed.

In February 2015, the city of Saskatoon honoured Howe. It was similar to the Ali/Toronto event, bursting with passion and pride — but much more organized.

Our cameras were there to capture his arrival at the airport, but it was delayed nine hours. It was late, cold and windy when he arrived. Everyone was worried if he’d be okay. Son Murray joked it was past Gordie’s bedtime and Mr. Hockey pretended to fall asleep. He was tired, but no problem.

The next morning, Wayne Gretzky wiped away tears as Mark Howe described his father’s poor health prior to stem cell treatments months earlier. The evening, however, was a huge success. If you weren’t affected by the emotion as Mr. Howe walked through the packed ballroom, you had no soul.

On the surface, you wouldn’t think of many similarities between Ali and Howe. Witnessing these moments gave different perspective. Years after their athletic careers ended, they still commanded great loyalty and respect. Their presence electrified people of different ages and eras.

Even though both men battled health issues later in their lives, they weren’t defined by those limitations. Their legions of fans chose only to remember them at their best.

Ali may have been 60 years old walking through Rogers Centre in 2002. But in the eyes of those in attendance, he was still 32, taking down George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle. Howe was 87 during last year’s celebration, but the only person attendees saw was a powerhouse who became the first to score 800 goals.

Greatness remembered. Never forgotten.

30 THOUGHTS

1. Bob Cole had a great Gordie Howe story. One summer, Mr. Howe went to Newfoundland to visit former teammate Alex Faulkner. The three men spent some time fishing, and, laughing as he told the story, Cole said “the whole island was watching. We couldn’t even go bowling in peace.”

“Who won?” I asked.

Bob looked at me like I was an idiot. “Gordie won (bleeping) everything,” he replied.

2. After the NHL Scouting Combine, the Columbus Blue Jackets invited several prospects to Ohio for more in-depth interviews. Among them: Jake Bean, Logan Brown, Clayton Keller, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk.

The Blue Jackets are picking third. Puljujarvi is right there. Tkachuk is close. Brown (who also visited the St. Louis Blues) is in the next wave. Bean and Keller are going high, although where depends on who you are talking to.

No doubt the Blue Jackets are covering all their bases, but you can’t help but wonder what all of this means. At the very least, GM Jarmo Kekalainen is making it interesting.

3. There were some Scott Hartnell rumblings around the trade deadline, but nothing came to fruition. The ask was high. There is something going on now, though. According to sources, Hartnell, who has a no-move clause, has agreed to waive it for several teams. Kekalainen and agent Matt Oates would not comment, but word is it’s a decent-sized list.

Hartnell is 34, and I think potential trade partners are a little concerned about that third year remaining on his contract. If it was one or two, I’m not sure there’d be much worry. But, it’s clear he’s willing to move on, which will have him motivated to make an impact.

4. Early prediction: Toronto takes Auston Matthews. Patrik Laine to Winnipeg. Columbus selects Jesse Puljujarvi. Edmonton goes for Matthew Tkachuk. Pierre-Luc Dubois heads for Vancouver.

I’m very curious about Calgary. For a long time, we assumed if anyone was going to move down, it would the Oilers. The Flames might be a good bet, too. Arizona, picking right behind them, is on-record saying it wants to add defencemen. So is Buffalo — particularly on the left side. Would the Sabres want to leapfrog the Coyotes? Or is there someone further wanting to climb? Sounds like Calgary is willing to consider it.

5. Another team testing the possibility of moving up: Montreal. The Canadiens pick ninth.

6. Some rumblings the Canucks prefer Logan Brown. At this time of year, I refer to the Isiah Thomas rule. As a young reporter, he said to me, “Around the draft, everyone lies.”

There is a connection, however, that would provide Vancouver good intel on Brown. Logan’s father, Jeff, coached the USHL Indiana Ice when director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett was the Ice’s head scout two years ago.

7. A GM on the Vancouver Canucks: “One of the free-agent wingers is going there. Just have to figure out which one.”

Word out of the combine was Boston and Loui Eriksson would take a final run at a deal.

8. On the salary cap: This year’s number is $71.4 million. Before the calendar turned to 2016, the expectation was an increase to the $74M range. Before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly changed that prediction, indicating next season’s ceiling would be “relatively flat.”

At the NHLPA meetings last week in Chicago, the players were told that if they did not vote to raise the salary cap by five per cent — as is their right — the number might actually drop to approximately $69.5M in 2016-17. That would place an incredible squeeze on teams who need their belts loosened like someone who just ate the 75-ounce steak at Sullivan’s in Raleigh.

It’s also murder for free agents and potential arbitration cases. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but the decision comes with a penalty: increased escrow payments. They are putting approximately 15 per cent of their paycheques into purgatory and are tired of it.

What’s going to happen? One of two things: They will hold their noses and vote for the full five; Or, the NHL and NHLPA sit down together and hammer out the new limit. The choice isn’t nothing or five per cent — you can find a happy medium. So, when Daly says the cap will remain “relatively flat,” it’s possible he’s discussing this outcome. A number that means no drop, but not a maximum increase.

Remember, NHLPA leadership pushes for the max. Agents push for the max. Recent history indicates the brotherhood grumbles, but does the right thing. That would bring the cap to just under $73M. We should get a clearer picture in approximately a week.

9. From 2008-09 until 2013-14, the NBA salary cap stayed between $57.7M and $58.68M. Is that what we’re looking at, several seasons in the same area?

10. Dale Hunter declined the opportunity to interview with the Anaheim Ducks, but do not underestimate his chances for that job if he had. When these coaching searches end, I surmise we’re going to find out the interview pool was deeper than we realized. My suspicion is the finalists in Anaheim and Calgary include some unfamiliar names. For the Ducks, my guess is that list includes Randy Carlyle, Travis Green and Rick Bowness. Word is they are getting close to a decision. For the Flames, it includes Glen Gulutzan and Mike Yeo.

11. Yeo and Craig Berube are also in the race for the St. Louis openings. This one is interesting. There’s obviously an opportunity to replace Ken Hitchcock next summer, but I’m not sure there is any kind of guarantee. I get that, because you never know what can happen in one year.

No doubt the interviewees would prefer some level of security. Remember the current/previous assistants were only offered one-year contracts. I could see Yeo, for example, wanting to wait on Calgary before committing to St. Louis. Berube’s had other interviews, too.

12. There’s a lot of expectation Tyson Barrie gets traded, but would Colorado move him if it cannot add some significant defensive help first? The Avalanche are hot for Jacob Trouba, but that’s easier said than done. Talented, young defencemen are a hot commodity and the price would not be cheap.

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff proved last season he will be patient until he gets his specific ask. Also, it’s unlikely Colorado would be alone in this pursuit. I could see Detroit thinking about this, too, especially with a local boy. As for Barrie, if the Avalanche can’t find a potential replacement, they could always buy time, going to arbitration and seeing where that lands on a short-term basis.

13. Arizona is covering all its bases with Martin Hanzal. The Coyotes have asked for his “trade list,” so they know where he would go. They are also discussing an extension for the centre, who is one year from unrestricted free agency. So, it could go either way. It sounds like Arizona would like to add at least one defenceman, maybe two. But, if Hanzal fetches one, they will also be looking to replace him down the middle.

14. Detroit’s meeting with Pavel Datsyuk was scheduled for Wednesday, but has been postponed for Gordie Howe’s funeral.

The Florida Panthers/New Jersey Devils trade involving Marc Savard’s contract removes the Devils from the Datsyuk derby should the Red Wings need to move his deal. That leaves two likely scenarios: Arizona and Carolina.

Knowing the history between Peter Karmanos and Mike Ilitch, will the Hurricanes help the Red Wings?

15. Removing Savard’s hit gives Florida room. An extension is coming for Vincent Trocheck. The hope is to follow suit with Aaron Ekblad and Reilly Smith, although those won’t take effect until 2017-18. The Panthers will have flexibility. Some Devils fans worried adding Savard removed their team’s dexterity, but that’s not the case. Even if New Jersey hits the ceiling, it will have almost $9M in injury relief with Ryane Clowe and Savard. You can also go 10 per cent over the ceiling in the summer.

16. A couple of questions for Logan Couture, whose blunt answers are always appreciated. First, has anyone ever asked you to dial it back a bit?

“Nope.”

Never?

“Nope.”

That’s good to hear. Second, does it bother you at all you don’t get more Team Canada love?

“No,” he answered. “That’s a tough team to make.”

He did say that Doug Armstrong, who is running the World Cup team, called before the announcement to tell him even though he didn’t make it, Couture was considered.

“I really appreciated that,” the Shark said. That’s a tough call for Armstrong to make, since it took place two days after his Blues were eliminated by San Jose.

17. After Game 2, Marc-Edouard Vlasic said the Pittsburgh Penguins altered their usual style of play specifically for the San Jose Sharks.

“They are coming at us to block shots more than they usually do,” he said.

Pittsburgh averaged 13 per game during the regular season. That average is up to 21 in the Final, including 38 in Game 3. Penguins players privately admitted Vlasic was right, that the coaches asked them to do less “fronting” and aggressively attack the points.

“So much of their offence comes from there,” one said. Those players added the Sharks look to pass from low in the offensive zone towards the blue line, and their coaches wished to disrupt that.

18. That’s one reason Joe Pavelski struggled to produce, since he’s one of the best tip-in artists in the NHL.

Another is Pittsburgh’s swarm, wreaking havoc on San Jose’s cycle game. The Sharks like to get in deep and slow the game down, but the Penguins won’t let that happen. It was an adjustment on the defensive end, too. Roman Polak noted the Penguins are a little different in that when they forecheck, they don’t hit you as often. So, if you turn/brace for contact, they outnumber you and go for the puck. Polak said you have to move it before the pack gets to the next man.

19. The Pittsburgh blueliners love themselves some Sergei Gonchar, added as a coach this season. I asked him if he’s ever thought about becoming a head coach and his surprised reaction indicated no. Gonchar admitted it took him awhile to come to grips with the fact the Penguins wanted him as a coach, and not a player. His family stayed in Texas, so a decision looms this summer.

“They love it there,” he says, “that’s where they want to stay.” State taxes don’t hurt either, right? Gonchar just smiled. Rick Tocchet, also on the Pittsburgh bench, didn’t want to talk much about his future since they are in the middle of the Final. But he did say he’d like another shot at being a head coach. He spent two years as Tampa’s bench boss during a difficult time.

20. As much as we’re talking about Steven Stamkos (and for good reason), some of his peers are wondering if Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman tries to get Victor Hedman done first. Nothing can be announced with the Swedish defender until July 1 — the day Stamkos becomes available — but you can chat. Hard to see Yzerman wanting Hedman talk to dominate 2016-17 like Stamkos talk dominated 2015-16, although no NHL team in Ornskoldsvik should calm it a little. Figuring out Hedman’s number allows Yzerman a better idea of how much higher than $8.5M he can go with Stamkos, should he wish to do so.

My position on the matter is unchanged. Stamkos’s first wish is to stay with the Lightning, just don’t know if it would be possible.

21. The Bryan Rust/Conor Sheary impact on the Penguins will lead to even more searching for those who slip through the cracks.

One possible target: free agent Matt Lorito, who played at AHL Albany. Some similarity to Sheary, played four years of NCAA hockey before going to the American League despite being undrafted. Lorito is two years older (he will be 26 in July) but certainly is skilled. Let’s see who takes a chance.

22. Kurt Kleinendorst, back for a second run as head coach for AHL Binghamton, tells a great story about Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello recruited him to NCAA Providence in 1979, one year after older brother Scot joined the Friars. It was the beginning of a tight friendship. Lamoriello hired him as an assistant coach with the Devils in 2001, then made Kleinendorst the club’s advance scout for the 2002-03 Stanley Cup season when Pat Burns took the bench.

“I told (Lamoriello) I wanted to coach in the AHL, and he made me wait four years,” Kleinendorst said with a laugh. “But he always has a plan.” He got the Lowell Devils’ job in 2006. Three years later, he knew time had run its course and New Jersey wanted John MacLean to learn there. Problem was, he still had one season left on his contract.

“It was time to go my own way, but that was very hard to say to him,” Kleinendorst said. “He told me, ‘Go home this weekend, and do this: put on a Devils jersey, but for this time only, put the logo on the back and your name on the front.’ He was telling me it was time to make the decision not for the team, but for myself and my family.”

Kleinendorst left for the US National Team Development Program. Good to see him back. His time win AHL Iowa wasn’t easy and he was very happy to return to Ottawa.

23. Now that the NHL is starting to disseminate information about an expansion draft, details are seeping out. One of the biggest changes from where things started to where they finished is players with a no-move clause will have the option of waiving it. Another is that players with NMCs expiring by July 1, 2017 do not have to be protected. This will be a huge relief to a team like Arizona, which won’t have to waste a spot on Chris Pronger.

Other rules we are learning (and credit to Francois Gagnon of RDS, who was the first to get many of these details): Teams must offer at least one defenceman and two forwards who are under contract for 2017-18. Those players must have played a minimum of 40 games in the NHL in 2016-17 or at least 70 games in the NHL from 2015-16 through 2016-17. Current clubs will also have to offer a goaltender who’s under contract for 2017-18 or an RFA-to-be in 2018. Of the 30 players selected, at least 20 must be under contract for 2017-18. There is a minimum per position. For example, the new entry/entries must pick at least three goalies.

The NHL also tried to pre-empt various shenanigans. While the new team(s) can trade anyone taken, none of the players can go back to their previous club until January 1. There will also be no buyouts of anyone selected until after the first expansion season. Finally, there will be a guaranteed spot in the draft lottery for four years.

24. One other interesting wrinkle Gagnon reported: if Las Vegas is a financial disappointment, any “negative fluctuation in global revenue of the NHL attributable to the eventual losses of the new team won’t be accounted for from here to the end of the current collective bargaining agreement, which will expire in six seasons.” (Two notes: the above phrase is translated from French. And, the two sides do have the right to re-open the CBA in four years.)

That’s… quite a pact between the two sides. I’d like to know more about it, but I’m not sure how much more information we’re going to get until this process is closed.

25. Commissioner Gary Bettman was on SiriusXM NHL radio one day after Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting. Asked about expansion, he said, “The process stands, that the committee will make a recommendation in due course.”

A couple of sources warned a vote may not have taken place that day, and Bettman’s quote validates the possibility. There’s time. The full Board of Governors meeting is June 22 in Las Vegas. Final approval would come there, and it’s hard to see the NHL Awards overshadowed by a “No.”

Personally, I believe Bettman’s decided to support expansion to Las Vegas, with the team going into the Pacific Divison for the 2017-18 season.

26. Where does that leave Quebec City? One week ago, Brian Mulroney, Chairman of Quebecor’s Board of Governors, told LaPresse that city’s bid is “not for tomorrow.” It is expected Bettman will ask Quebec City to wait as Winnipeg did, while Carolina sorts out its ownership situation and Ottawa continues negotiations for a new arena. Bettman again threw cold water on the Hurricanes moving and people will wonder why Ottawa is even being mentioned, but a smart commissioner always keeps his options open — just in case.

27. Looking at those expansion rules, can’t help but wonder if that is the long-term solution for Los Angeles and Dustin Brown. The Kings have told Brown his contract is untradeable. He is not listed as having an agent, and that’s a step he needs to take. This is where a good one can really help a client, using their own connections to see if anything shakes loose. If not, an expansion team in Vegas could be the right fit, assuming the Kings provide it with proper incentives.

28. Meldonium, which just got Maria Sharapova suspended for two years, is not on the list of NHL banned substances. The league and NHLPA discuss this before every season, so its newfound notoriety will create an attempt to make it illegal before 2016-17.

As Damien Cox reported, that’s led to questions about draft eligible German Rubtsov, who was on the Russian team pulled from the Under-18s for Meldonium use. The biggest question here is how long the drug stays in your system, since it varies from person to person. Rubtsov should be a first-rounder, and one question was if he faced any penalties now. That’s a no.

29. Another interesting overseas story to watch at the draft: that of Anatoli Golyshev. He had 44 points in 56 games for KHL Yekaterinburg. He would be a free agent if he was 22. But he’s 21 and hasn’t spent at least one season in North America. There’s some buzz. He’s not going in the first-round, but he’ll be a second-day guy and teams are playing coy about their interest. Curious to see how high he goes.

30. There’s one other person I’d like to mention this week. When I arrived at the University of Western Ontario in September 1989, Jim Kernaghan was the lead sports columnist at The London Free Press. Years later, as I prepared to leave school and try to make a career of this, I reached out.

Kernaghan didn’t spend a ton of time covering university sports, but we’d briefly met and he took the time to give advice. Prior to London, he’d had a great run covering the Maple Leafs, but you’d never know it. There was no big-time attitude about him. He was a professional in every sense of the word — didn’t crave attention, just did the job. His brother John covered the Toronto Raptors for The Hamilton Spectator during their inaugural seasons, and he had the same approach. The Celebration of Life is today (June 11) and I’m sorry I can’t be there.

31. Eating breakfast at San Francisco airport last Tuesday morning, Glenn Healy had a suggestion for this week’s edition: “Why don’t you try to make it interesting for once?” Hopefully, some success.