31 Thoughts: Olympic roster decisions starting to take shape

As the parent of a five-year-old, my interest in minor hockey has grown exponentially the last few years. He’s a decent skater, but isn’t sure he wants to play. Despite that, you’re trying to learn everything you can.

Toronto is a funny place for minor hockey. A friend of mine who used to coach always said governing the area “was like herding cats.” Normally a mild-mannered guy, he admitted to dressing three goalies one season, because it opened a loophole where he could dress fewer skaters. He had a loaded team and played those kids like crazy.

“We won that year, too,” he said with a smile, as I rolled my eyes at the lunacy of it all.

Right now, the Ontario Hockey Federation is fighting with one of the city’s fiefdoms — the North York Hockey League — over the decision to make cross-ice play mandatory in practices and games for five- and six-year-olds. The decision was announced by Hockey Canada last March. (We’ll get to that later.)

It’s a great idea. Auston Matthews agrees, telling reporters last week, “That’s what I grew up playing on. It definitely helped me out with stickhandling in tight, making quicker plays, just trying to process the game a little faster….It’s a lot more fun than being a six-year-old hauling down 200-foot ice back and forth.”

“Should have happened a long time ago,” Mike Babcock added.

A chunk of their fan base disagrees, throwing up a litany of excuses rivaling a teenaged boy trying to avoid making his bed. They have complained about the cost of the barriers, the lack of space to store the barriers, that the new rules were not explained to parents in a timely fashion and/or that it wasn’t clear these would affect kids on select/elite teams.

Meanwhile, anywhere this story has appeared in the media, online commenters trash parents paying $1,500 to place their six-year-olds on a “select” team.

Monday night, I spoke with Chase and Amy Amyot, and their friend, Mike Kirby. They each have a son, Ashton Amyot and Kohen Kirby, who, last spring, tried out (and made) the Tyke MD age-group Owen Sound Junior Attack.

“I’m a coach,” Chase Amyot said during our conversation, “And I had no idea. At work last Tuesday, I got a call from our vice president. He asked me if I was sitting down. I told him, ‘I’m pretty sure I can handle whatever you’ve got.’ He said they learned Monday night our kids would have to be removed from the team.”

Since then, Amy (his wife) has spent the week “not settling for the answer that nothing can be done.”

There’s an announcement on Hockey Canada’s website dated March 27, 2017 outlining the changes. Several organizations fighting the ordinance say that still didn’t go anywhere near far enough towards getting the word out. Critics also say there’s nothing indicating this change affects select teams, although the governing body’s position is that this is about age, not skill.

Where there is some grey area is what happens when a six-year-old makes a Novice team, which is one age group higher. The Ontario Hockey Federation is considering what to do, including the possibility of suspending implementation everywhere for a year. It held a meeting last weekend, but has not announced a final decision.

Whatever it decides, that loophole will soon close. Seven- and eight-year-olds must practise and play on half ice by 2019-20.

“All we are asking is those kids who made the teams, don’t ask them to leave. Let them play out the season,” Amy Amyot says. The Amyots and Mike Kirby also point out that they will not be able to fully recoup money they’ve already spent.

There is a compromise to be made.

The parents I spoke to say they agree with the cross-ice idea. “From a development point of view, I do get it,” Chase Amyot said. “We’re going to practise on the half-ice twice a week this season.”

If I were a parent, I’d be thinking of Adam Schiff gruffly telling Jack McCoy: “Make a deal.” Tell the hockey overlords to give you this year in exchange for a written agreement that everyone goes cross-ice next year. No one will be thrilled, but that’s what makes compromise fun.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Word out of Wednesday’s Board of Governors meeting is that the possibility of an $80-million cap was floated for the 2018-19 season. A bit more context: this year’s cap could have been close to $79 million had both the NHL and NHLPA applied the full inflator. Other factors — Canadian dollar, revenue projections, escrow/inflator — will affect the final outcome, so it is impossible to pin down at this early time. But cap-strapped teams and GMs will like that possibility.

2. Another candidate who makes a lot of sense for the NHL’s Player Safety Department: Mike Modano. He fits what they are looking for, and it wouldn’t be a stunner if he were in the mix.

3. One coach on the rule change that makes it a two-minute penalty if you get an offside challenge wrong: “If you are behind, you probably risk the challenge. What do you have to lose? If you’re tied or up one goal, and not certain about the chances of (review) success? Well, then it’s how much you trust your penalty killing.” I also wonder if we’re going to see more “Are you sure?” conversations between linesmen and coaches, kind of warning them they might not want to challenge.

4. Not a ton of gossip this week. Injuries, waivers and the performance of young players will undoubtedly shape movement over the next seven days. Among the most interesting storylines: Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen (Vancouver); Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton); Mark Jankowski (Calgary); Logan Brown (Ottawa); Tucker Poolman (Winnipeg); Victor Mete (Montreal); Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil (Rangers); Owen Tippett (Florida); Alex DeBrincat (Chicago); Michael Rasmussen (Detroit); Samuel Blais, Tage Thompson and Jake Walman (St. Louis). Philadelphia’s got some very interesting decisions to make. Greg McKegg is a little older than the rest (he’s 25), but has made the most of an early opportunity in Pittsburgh. As one executive noted, “Every 10 games throughout a season, the NHL gets harder.” Teams will weigh that in their decision-making. How much will it affect a player to sit at the NHL level or be sent down?

5. It’s possible that, for the first time ever, the majority of games could be played by people under the age of 27. One GM had a pretty interesting theory on young pre-NHL players and training camp. “I think you’re going to see this more and more every year. They are so well-trained now. Their seasons end earlier, their bodies aren’t as beaten up. They can go harder. The NHL vets, they need their rest. They are taking more and more time off-ice in the summer, and it’s not a bad thing. So, when camp begins, it’s likelier the younger players are more ready and make a better impression. It’s another reason the league is going younger.”

6. St. Louis is a situation to watch. Robby Fabbri is out for the season — a terrible outcome for a talented young player. Alex Steen is to be re-evaluated at the start of the season. Jay Bouwmeester’s update is scheduled to come approximately one week later. Patrik Berglund and Zach Sanford are out months. The Blues have gone the “update” route before, with Alex Pietrangelo in February 2016. They announced he’d be re-evaluated three weeks after suffering an injury. He was back in the lineup 22 days after getting hurt. Other GMs love to pounce when they see vulnerability, but the Blues may need short-term help, at least.

7. In Columbus, a lot of the contractual attention is on Josh Anderson, but I’m very curious about Cam Atkinson. Doesn’t sound like there’s been much talk. He’s a 35-goal scorer making $3.5M who can be unrestricted on July 1. The Jackets created some flexibility in the summer, so even if they re-sign Jack Johnson — which would surprise no one — there’s space. Atkinson told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline last week that there would be no discussion during the season, but we were told the same thing three years ago with Sergei Bobrovsky, and he got a deal done in January. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. As an organization, Columbus is a tough negotiator and is basically saying, “How we do this year is going to determine who gets what and where we go.” Atkinson scores 35 again and he can write his own cheque.

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8. In a similar vein, Edmonton and Patrick Maroon sure made it sound last week that there is mutual interest in getting something done. The term and cash won’t be as high as T.J. Oshie, but the philosophy could very well be. An extra year or two in exchange for a lower average annual value. Makes a lot of sense.

9. Thought Colorado did a really smart thing by keeping the A on Matt Duchene’s jersey. If you want him to be professional while he waits for a fresh start, the road must go both ways. Stripping the letter only makes things worse.

10. Olympic teams have to get their “long lists” submitted to the International Olympic Committee by Oct. 1. (This has to do with getting potential players into Olympic doping compliance as much as anything.) Team Canada GM Sean Burke says his list will have close to 200 names on it, just about anyone who could be a possibility. I asked him if he has a depth chart on his wall at home with a more streamlined roster. “I have it on my phone, my computer and on a board in my house,” he laughed. “We do have a group of about 30 we’ve identified, including two lines and four defenders that are probably our core group. But it doesn’t mean others can’t still pop back on.” Burke, head coach Willie Desjardins and Hockey Canada vice president of hockey operations Scott Salmond have scouting trips scheduled soon, and, as Burke says, “The biggest evaluations will come in the pre-Olympic tournaments we play.” Those include the Karjala Cup in November and the Spengler Cup, one month later.

11. Burke said that if the world championships taught him one thing, it was to inject some youth. “We took that line of Travis Konecny, Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. They were great for us.” He wouldn’t comment about it further, but that is going to be a gentle negotiation for both Canada and the United States. Will CHL and NCAA teams be willing to release players for the Olympic tournament? It becomes even dicier if those same players already miss time for the World Juniors. My opinion is you have to let them go, but you know there’s going to be pushback — especially in February. Team USA just had the University of Denver’s Troy Terry at its Olympic seminar, a selection that makes a ton of sense. I could see Canada taking a long look at Cale Makar (Colorado) and/or Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia), if available. I’d assume the kids would love to go, too.

12. Again, Burke wouldn’t confirm, but two other young players Canada will apparently be monitoring are OHL Sarnia’s Jordan Kyrou and NCAA Bemidji State defenceman Zach Whitecloud. Kyrou’s had a strong camp in St. Louis, where Martin Brodeur, part of the Team Canada executive, has his day job.

13. I did ask Burke about Jarome Iginla. He said he’d reached out, but was told Iginla’s first priority was the NHL. Burke said he respected Iginla’s position and will leave the next steps to the future Hall of Famer.

14. In a similar vein, Brian Gionta is considering an AHL-only deal with Rochester. Allows him to stay close to home, and makes him eligible for the U.S. Olympic Team.

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15. A Western Conference exec joked last summer he was worried “the Jets would stop taking bad penalties and get more consistent goaltending, because then we’d all be in trouble.” Spoke to him earlier this week. “My comment stands. They have great young talent, and those players are ready to take the next step.”

16. So, how was the trip to China? “I expected it to be good, but it was even better,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said on Monday. “The most important thing is that we keep doing it. You don’t build a good business in one try. Get a bunch of NHL Alumni and go three, four, five times a year. Get more games televised.” ORG Packaging Chairman Zhou Yunjie, who played in last January’s All-Star Celebrity Classic, has sponsored two summer visits by the Boston Bruins. “It reminded me of watching hockey in a new market in the United States,” Robitaille added. “You get a group of skaters who know each other and are enthusiastic.” How talented were the Chinese children/teenagers at the clinics? “There were some good skaters,” he replied.

17. Robitaille said the arena in Beijing had more space outside than in Shanghai, which created a better atmosphere. “That felt more like a game in North America.” He liked the crowds, too. “Every shot, there was a roar. Even when someone shot from the red line and the goalie stopped it, there was a ‘Woah.’ I’m sure some fans traveled, but you saw a lot of jerseys. Kopitar, Doughty, Quick. For the Canucks: the Sedins. Pavel Bure. There was a Wayne Gretzky, too. We also saw more press than we see for a lot of games in the NHL. We’re all going to look back at it and say, ‘I got to go to China for a couple of games.’ Very special.”

18. Does Robitaille think regular-season games can be part of the package? He paused to think. “I’m not against it, but I’m not sure I’m ready to push for it totally. The planes were excellent, and made travel very comfortable, but it would still be very tough with the time change, even if you had five or six days before your next game. You would probably have to do what baseball did when it went to Australia or Japan, go a week before the season. But I don’t know if we’re ready for that.”

19. The trip reminded me of one of the summer’s most interesting rumours, that Carolina’s sale involved Chinese investment. Alas, that was debunked. Would have been a fascinating story.

20. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of worry among interested parties that Joffrey Lupul will pass his physical and be forced onto Toronto’s roster. Clarity in his situation — and Marian Hossa’s — is expected before the regular season begins. However, an acquaintance in the insurance industry (who does not deal with the NHL) wondered if the league’s insurers are going to take even greater interest in long-term injuries. It has headache potential for NHL clubs. You know insurance companies, they love to take your money. They just don’t want to return it.

21. One of the biggest questions during the first week of exhibition play: who wanted the faceoff crackdown? David Backes came clean last week, telling The Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy that it was the Competition Committee. (Backes is a member.) “The intent was that all the faceoffs tended to be scrum draws, where it’s not ‘win the draw’ but ‘don’t lose the draw and we’ll get the wingers in there’ and everything works like lacrosse, where it’s bash each other and we’ll get some help in there and figure it all out,” the Bruins’ forward said. Another member of the committee agreed. “Faceoffs were being won by knees and heads. It’s time to put the skill back in.” What several different sources agreed with was that the message didn’t get out properly. Everyone knew about the slashes, not so much the draws.

22. Doesn’t sound like we’re going to see much of an easing on slashing calls to the hands and wrist. It remains a major emphasis heading into the final pre-season weekend, as it should be. However, they are not going to fret as much about slashes to the pants and pads. Those areas provide much better protection than the gloves.

23. When Filip Chytil was drafted 21st overall by the Rangers in June, he shook the hand of New York’s European Scout, Jan Gajdosik, and reminded him of their conversation in a pre-draft interview. In that meeting, Gajdosik said he could see Chytil in a Rangers’ uniform. As he walked up on stage in Chicago, the 18-year-old smiled, “I’m here!” That’s a terrific story, and the rookie forward is pushing hard to continue “being here” into the season. He also told the Rangers he did not expect to go that early, as his agent told him to prepare for a late-first, early-second selection.

24. I’m really interested in the physical research teams do with their draft picks. In the summer of 2015, Chytil was five-foot-eight, playing in a Czech league labelled similar to Junior B. The Rangers looked at the genes around him. His mother is five-foot-10 and a good athlete. His father is six-foot-four, also very active. His brother, who is 20, is six-foot-five soccer goalkeeper. Now, Filip is listed as six-foot-two, with the possibility of adding a little more. It really helped that he jumped from his previous stop into the Czech Elite League, where he played very well. But it’s clear the Rangers invested a lot of time in making the best possible projection of his growth. Very intriguing prospect.

25. The Rangers are quietly thrilled their 21-year-old goalie prospect, Igor Shesterkin, is making a strong case to be Russia’s Olympic starter in South Korea. I’d pencilled in a different up-and-comer, the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin (who is 22) for that job. But Shesterkin, who had a .937 save percentage last season, is at .951 so far for St. Petersburg. His coach there is Oleg Znarok, who doubles as the Olympic team’s bench boss.

26. Speaking of Russian goalies, when Columbus took Daniil Tarasov 86th overall last June, a couple scouts advised, “Watch where this goes.” Apparently, a ton of stealth work was being done to determine the extent of a leg injury that wiped out his 2016-17 season. Tarasov burst onto the scene with an excellent performance the year before at the Under-18s, but his absence sent clubs scrambling for information. “He kind of disappeared,” one executive laughed. Tarasov is tall with good bloodlines, as father Vadim was drafted by Montreal in 1999. The Blue Jackets had an excellent connection, as Bobrovsky is from the same hometown. Word was Chicago, St. Louis and Tampa Bay were also among those chasing every detail. He plays for Tolpar Ufa, a .500 team in the Russian junior league.

27. If the pre-season is proof of anything, it is that the three-forward, two-defenceman first-unit power play is going the way of Ramsay Bolton. Nashville still does it, Anaheim too. I’ve seen Montreal do both. Chicago is changing. It’s quite the evolution.

28. Auston Matthews electrified the Ricoh Coliseum crowd with a hat trick Monday night against Montreal, but you know what else did not go unnoticed? There were a couple of occasions in the second period where he chased down Canadiens on the backcheck. “Very hungry for the puck,” one Canadien said. “It was noticeable.”

29. Got a text this week from someone I haven’t seen in years. It read: “I’ll never bother you again if you get me tickets for Toronto-Vegas on New Year’s Eve.” Get in line, pal.

30. There is one story that makes my sides hurt no matter how many times I hear it, because Ed Olczyk tells it so well. On Nov. 10, 1990, Olczyk’s wife went into labour in Toronto. Nurses at the hospital said there was a phone call for him from the Leafs, but, busy with something a little more important, he relayed the message that he’d still be there for the game that night. But the team kept phoning, insisting to speak to him. They wanted to let him know he’d been traded to Winnipeg with Mark Osborne for Dave Ellett and Paul Fenton. I am not going to do this justice but he tells it like this: “My wife sees me come back and, while in labour, yells, ‘Where to?’ I try to tell her not to worry about it now, we’ll talk about it later, but she yells, ‘Where?! Just don’t tell me Winnipeg!!!’ Of course, the Olczyks loved it there, and it became a huge part of their lives. Can’t wait to hear Ed tell us that story again. All the best, Edzo.

31. As I watched Pittsburgh celebrate its Stanley Cup win over Nashville, I wondered how on earth the Penguins would go to the White House. While it was reported owner Ron Burkle had a falling out with the Clintons well before last November’s election, he has a long history with the family and raised millions for them. President/CEO David Morehouse began his political career as a volunteer in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, joining the White House staff during Clinton’s first term. He later worked on presidential campaigns for Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry. Things seemed nowhere near as noxious then as they do now in the nexus of sports and politics, but I couldn’t imagine Burkle and/or Morehouse wanting any whiff of it. Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posed the question and got an answer on June 13 — in the form of a statement. “The Pittsburgh Penguins would never turn down a visit to the White House and, if invited, we would go as a team,” Morehouse wrote. “We respect the office of the presidency of the United States and what it stands for. Any opposition or disagreement with a president’s policies, or agenda, can be expressed in other ways.”

I have a theory about what happened last weekend. Things exploded with Donald Trump’s “You can’t quit, you’re fired!” disinvitation of the Golden State Warriors, and LeBron James called Trump “a bum.” Reporters, knowing the Penguins still had the opportunity to go, asked what they were going to do. In the eyes of the organization, the position taken three months ago hadn’t changed, so out went their statement. I don’t know if it happened because it was a Sunday or if it was because they were overly focused on the American version of Hockeyville, but what the Penguins lacked was someone to say, “Time out. Things are insane right now, and, even if we do decide to go, this is not the day. Everyone take a deep breath, let’s really think about this.” I don’t think the Penguins are evil. You can make a case that given Burkle and Morehouse’s experiences that they are honest when they say that the office of the presidency is above Trump. That said, I can only judge people how I judge myself. Last year, I refused a politician’s request for a photo during the Eastern Conference Final, because I didn’t want it used on social media or being placed in a manner that in any way gave anyone the idea I endorsed them. He said, “Once I take the photo it is mine,” so I declined. I didn’t know his policies, but I am so distrustful of politicians that I wasn’t taking the chance. I would just say to the Penguins, think about how that photo is going to be used and ask yourself, “Am I really comfortable with that? Will I regret having to explain it for years to come?”