The year of 2011 brought a lot of good into the NHL; but not everything was good and exciting in the NHL. Tragedy hit the NHL and the sport of hockey in numerous ways and brought to light some serious questions as to what happens to players once their life as a hockey player ends. SportsRantz is counting down the Top 10 Stories and Moments as some are good and other are tragedies that we remember and carry with us as 2012 takes light and center ice.
10. The Summer Acquisitions —This is when the magic happens in the NHL’s salary cap world and franchises are made or destroyed. Two teams in particular made huge moves in the summer and those two teams were the Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers. The Wild swung a deal to land Devin Setoguchi from the San Jose Sharks for Brent Burns. The Wild swung another deal with the Sharks that landed them Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. Of course their biggest summer acquisition might have been the hiring of head coach Mike Yeo. Whereas, the Panthers took on Brian Campbell’s big salary from the Blackhawks in exchange for Rostislav Olesz. That kicked off a wild spending spree that lasted through free agency and the core of the team that’s in first in the Southeast was built just like that. Like the Wild, they also found themselves a new coach who has returned big dividends early in Kevin Dineen. Other huge moves? Brad Richards found a home with the NY Rangers, Jagr and Talbot snubbed Pittsburgh and now call the Flyers home; but the most intrigue was on the restricted front where Steven Stamkos’ future was wildly speculated before re-signing with the Lightning and Shea Weber stayed with the Predators after the biggest arbitration award ever.
9. NHL Realignment– A top story in 2011 mostly due to the original dislike for such a purposed move to take place next season. While the fruit of this labor will be seen starting in 2012, it was a large conversation for the entire second half of the year, spurred by a development that appears further up this list. I don’t know if there was a person in hockey — both within the game and covering it — that didn’t have their own idea for how the realignment should be done. In the end the six-division format was blown up, an effort that was from all accounts led by Gary Bettman himself.
8. 2011 Winter Classic, Washington at Pittsburgh — It was a marquee matchup of two high-profile teams from the East with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps eventually prevailed in a game that might be the most memorable Winter Classic thus far for a variety of reasons, one of them makes an appearance later on this list. But mother nature had her own way of helping make this one of the top stories in 2011 with the rain and poor ice conditions. Needless to say, the Winter Classic is always a top story in the NHL!
7. A Tragedy Across the Universe, Lokomotiv plane crash — As I said before, not everything was good in 2011 for the hockey world. This tragic event proves that and we honor the victims and their families everyday as we remember these brilliant players, coaches and staff.
The KHL is to the NHL as the NHL is to ESPN. That is to say the only time we ever seem to hear about the KHL is when something bad happens. Unfortunately, that was the case this summer when the airplane carrying the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team barely got airborne before it crashed, killing everybody on board except a member of the flight crew.
The tragedy was already tough enough for the hockey community in North America simply for the fact sheer sadness of the lethal error. But what made it really hit home in the NHL was the number of former NHL players who died in the crash. Among those who died in the crash were Josef Vasicek, Karlis Skrastins, Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra and head coach Brad McCrimmon, all of who were in the NHL at some point in their careers. In the case of McCrimmon he was a member of the Detroit Red Wings coaching staff as recently as last season before he took the chance to be a head coach in Russia.
Nothing from the ordeal was more chilling than the sad, sad story from a professional driver in Dallas who was tasked with picking up the family of Skrastins to drive them to the airport hours after the tragedy. Honestly, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it again. It was truly a horrible day for hockey.
6. The Brendan Shanahan Take Over! — There has been no bigger overarching story in the second half of the year than what Shanahan has been doing as the new head of player safety having replaced Colin Campbell. His arrival on the job has coincided with the attempt to expand and clarify Rule 48.1, the one dealing with headshots. The focus has also been ramped up on boarding. His impact has been felt from the get-go. In the preseason he was very busy and then really sent some shock waves through the league when he suspended Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski for eight games. And he makes videos explaining the suspensions…clearly Shanahan is a clever guy.
5. RIOTS!! Rioting in Vancouver — For the second time in as many Stanley Cup trips for the Vancouver Canucks, the hockey-crazed city erupted into a violent storm following its team’s loss in the decisive Game 7. A similar eruption happened in 1994 after the Canucks fell to the New York Rangers. The unfortunate part (OK, one of them) was the fact that the riot completely overshadowed what was really a great postseason and season for the Canucks. Vancouver was the best team all regular season long and as fine of a year as they ever have.
4. Winnipeg Jets are Back in the NHL — This wouldn’t be the Top 10 Moments and Stories of 2011 without mentioning the return of the Winnipeg Jets. The push was one to rename the team the Jets like the old franchise in town and after much debate, the fans won out, although a new logo would be introduced. Not lacking in flair, the Jets showed off their new uniforms in an unveiling at a military base with the players wearing the new duds walking out of a cargo plane.
The first game of the Jets. 2.0 came in their new home at the MTS Centre and they fell in defeat to the Montreal Canadiens, but you couldn’t tell. The great hockey city that is Winnipeg was happier than a pig in you-know-what just to have the NHL back. When Nik Antropov became the first player to score for the new Jets, the roar was deafening. Maybe the best way to measure the city’s appreciation and love for having hockey back would have been with decibels.
3. Crosby’s Concussion — As stated earlier in the list, we’ve come to the other factor from the 2011 Winter Classic; Crosby’s concussion that sparked debate, fear for hockey and questions for the Penguins Organization. For literally almost a year, the hockey world sat and waited for word on Crosby returning. There was speculation he could come back for the Penguins’ playoffs games. There was talk that he might retire. None of that happened, but what did do was bring another reminder of the seriousness that are concussions.
It’s not good business for the NHL when the top players aren’t on the ice, let alone the best player. I’d like to think it isn’t the case, but you have to wonder if Crosby’s absence didn’t go a long way in facilitating the NHL’s actions on trying to remove bad hits as well as enacting strong concussion protocols. And now, Crosby Watch 2011 is now Crosby Watch 2012.
2. Deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak — The NHL’s summer of sorrow began in late spring when the tragic news came down of New York Rangers and former Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard’s death. The autopsy concluded he died of a lethal mix of alcohol and Oxycodone. Later in the offseason the NHL was then shook by the news of deaths of Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, separated by only two weeks. Both players were fighters themselves, each suffered from depression and both apparently committed suicide (Rypien’s was classified as such, Belak’s death treated as such by Toronto PD). The news of their deaths was sad and shocking in their own right. These were all players 35 or younger who all shared a role in their hockey careers. It was also a catalyst for the discussion of fighting in hockey. No tie can be drawn between each of their deaths and fighting, but it at least begged the question. I sit here remembering these great men and how they have touched the sport of hockey and would have loved to thank them for their time spent on the ice. Rest easy boys, for you are loved and missed everyday.
1. Bruins Win the Stanley Cup — If he didn’t already have the designation by all before, Tim Thomas certainly earned it in the playoffs. He is the best goalie in the world. Thomas pretty much put the Bruins on his shoulders and carried them past the Vancouver Canucks in a great seven-game series that led to the Bruins hoisting their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Of course Thomas topped it off with a shutout in Game 7 and took home the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP, an incredibly well-deserved award.
When remembering the 2011 NHL moments and stories take time to pay tribute to the lives we lost in the KHL and NHL this past year and be thankful for every player that laces up those skates everyday to play the game of hockey which we have all grown to love. May 2012 be filled with more great things from the NHL and hopefully less tragedy. You may be gone but you will never be forgotten! Your spirits live on the ice with every stride those players make and we will always cherish the time we’ve gotten to know each player lost.