The War On Hockey Ignorance: Picking Apart Jonathan Liew

So, an article has appeared in the Telegraph today about ice hockey. Written by Jonathan Liew, who judging by Google appears to be quite famous in the world of online journalism (well, he won Columnist of the Year in 2007 for the Guardian, anyway AND Young Journalist Of the Year in 2011-either they must have been lean years for quality or the award results were decided by Asian betting syndicates*), it considers ice hockey on TV.

So, is it positive? Um…no. But it’s also clearly written by someone who hasn’t looked beyond a football pitch for his sporting fix in all his life. Or, probably, darkened the doors of a changing room in any other capacity then maybe a twenty-minute session on the running machine.

Aside from the fact that a quick Google reveals fans across three sports (football, golf and cricket) being more vitriolic than anything about both his writing ability and knowledge of the sports he claims to write about, the whole article (which you can read in full here) is basically a journalist saying “I don’t understand a sport, therefore it’s crap”.

Now. if I were like Jonathan I’d respond in a manner he judges appropriate of someone who writes for a respected national newspaper, and just yell “YOUR MUM” at people on Twitter while occasionally making obscure references to show how much cleverer I am than the proles who I allow to read my nuggets of literary gold, even in the knowledge they won’t understand them because I WAS A YOUNG JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR IN 2011 and I’m WAGING WAR ON SUBJECTIVITY! (copyright my  Twitter bio), in between my hunting for the latest pirated mobile-phone conversations while whining about free speech and simultaneously hurling abuse at anyone who disagrees with me. And watching sport on TV, of course.

But since I’m merely an uneducated ice-hockey blogger, I’ll just have to look at his article and have a discourse about it instead.

Let’s look at some choice nuggets, shall we?

The first befuddlement was this: where was the puck? A hockey puck, you see, is just three inches in diameter and can travel at speeds of over 100mph. When it is not zipping across the rink like a photon leaping at superluminal velocity from the violent fission of a radioactive nucleus, it is lost in a whirr of flailing limbs and flying sticks, obscured by large angry men, padded and wadded as if carrying out essential maintenance work to the sun.

That’s just horrendous writing, in which Liew is trying to show off his science knowledge while at the same time use the fact that a playing implement travels fast as a genuine argument that hockey is unwatchable. I’d love to see him watch football-presumably he thinks it’s some sort of human chess game since the ball spends most of its time either in the air, “whizzing across the pitch” or, y’know, moving.

But then again, balls or pucks moving is something that TENDS TO HAPPEN in sport, my dear Jonathan. Given that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world seem to have no trouble locating a puck at hockey games both live and on TV at first glance even if they’ve never seen a game, maybe you should have tried harder.

Great Britain, meantime, were 3-0 down, which was predictable enough for a country in which ice denotes a potential lawsuit rather than a potential sporting surface. Perhaps they were having trouble locating the puck as well. Perhaps they were being distracted by the frequent blasts of funfair music that accompanied any break in play.

You’d have noticed, Jonathan, with those superhuman powers of observation you have, that Team GB were often in possession of said puck, which kind of destroys the argument you’ve just made. Had you done any research at all you’d also have realised that GB were playing at the elite level of international sport, which means that a) they might be a bit good and b) it might not be surprising that the other team (France, by the way, since you unaccountably failed to notice or mention who the teams involved were at any point, thus giving us no surprise that you may have struggled to locate the puck) were also quite good.

So I turned to the commentary for guidance. This proved equally baffling. I didn’t catch their names, but the main commentator was an American or a Canadian who had evidently been dared to use as many household objects in his commentary as possible.

American OR Canadian? The accents are quite distinct. Also, two seconds of Googling (I assume being a journalist you know how to use Google, just like I did to find out who you were) would have told you who the commentators were. It would also have told you the game and who the opponents were. Or can you win Columnist of the Year Awards without knowing how to use the Internet now?

The expert summariser was a Briton who clearly had long-standing ties to the sport, but was so devoid of insight as to be practically unlistenable — a sort of Niall Quinn of the rink, if you will. “GB have got to get themselves in this, and that means scoring a goal,” was just one of his many phrases that will ultimately fail to get printed on a commemorative tea-towel.

Because, of course, the football journalism you love is a veritable riot of unique and colourful characters with piercing insight into the game, isn’t it? Think you’re not making much sense here…

“Penalty to GB!” the commentator cried. Some good news at last!

Unfortunately, despite its ostensibly tantalising purport, “penalty to GB” meant it was Britain being penalised. Apparently one of the British players had been found guilty of “slashing”, whatever that meant, and had to leave the ice. Off he went to buy himself a toffee apple, and possibly a ride on the whirling waltzer.

Now, come on, Jonathan, son. You’re just trying too hard to be controversial and snarky now. You’ve already made it abundantly clear that if the sport doesn’t involve people running around chasing pig’s bladders you’re not interested, but I’m sure you’re aware of the basic concept of “penalties” in a sport beyond the ones that always seem to get awarded when a millionaire decides to fall over his own feet in the right part of a grass field. After all, you’re a Young Journalist of The Year. You SHOULD know these things.

(again, you should also know the importance of coherent, researched, well-written articles that don’t get verbose and try and show off the writer’s own intelligence by using big words, but maybe you skipped that lecture at journalism college. To watch a football match on TV and write a lazy snarky column about how crap it all was for the student paper, probably.)

Then Britain scored. It happened as abruptly as that. Such is the blinding speed of the game that the naked eye is often ill-equipped to keep pace.

All I can tell you is that they were playing ice hockey, just like normal, when all of a sudden the British guys started throwing their arms in the air and embracing. Even after the third replay, I was still none the wiser.

(pro tip. The puck went into the net. Try starting there. I’d love to read your analysis of football matches. “Well, they were running around, just like normal, and suddenly they weren’t any more and they were throwing their arms up hugging each other and it was a goal”. That’s Journalist of the Year quality right there).

I admit that I’m just a part-time unpaid writer and you get paid to watch sports on TV on a Friday afternoon, Jonny boy, so you probably have some sort of amazing journalist reason why you didn’t see the blindingly obvious which isn’t available to us mere mortals, but I’d venture that if you’re paid to watch sport on TV and you’re still not able to work out that GB scored because the puck went into the net after watching the third slow-motion replay and third different replay angle, then I’d tentatively venture that maybe it’s not the “blinding speed of the game” that’s the only problem here).

Likewise, I was content to plead ignorance of the sport as a whole. In an ideal world, I could devote hours and months to studying and appreciating the game: its nuance, its lexicon, its characters. Should ESPN continue its ice hockey coverage, I could even become a regular spectator one day.

Ah, you see? So you do appreciate that sport requires effort to watch, whatever it is? That’s the first coherent point you’ve made. It’s like an atom of burnished gold floating freely and lost in a storm-tossed sea of literary faeces**

But it will never happen, and for this we can blame the dizzying array of choice that modernity has provided us. In this cash-poor, time-poor, post-Olympic landscape, every sport claims to be the best possible use of our time. This has benefits. Never has it been easier to find sport. But by the same token, never has it been harder to discern the indispensable from the inessential; to tell the difference, as it were, between minced beef and minced horse.

I hear you, fella. But as long as most of that sport is indispensable football, that’ll be fine with you, right? It’s all those icky other sports that you don’t already understand that are the inessential ones.

And that, for a sports journalist, is an attitude so frankly tragic and embarrassing in a way that even British hockey can’t hope to match.

*hey, look, Jonathan-I can make snarky topical references that everyone else has already made to make me look clever in an introduction, too!)

**(I wrote that, Jonathan, because Young Journalists Of The Year like you like to use convoluted and unnecessarily complicated science metaphors to show how clever they are, and I want to show the judging panel for this year that I can play that game too in the microscopically likely event of me being nominated. Don’t tell anyone.)

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Road to Sochi Part II: France

After an opening loss against a VERY strong Latvia side, the GB squad have little time to rest, as they’re straight back in action against France for the afternoon game tomorrow. The French, who are ranked 14 in the world, are themselves reeling from a loss to Kazakhstan and will see the British game as a must-win before they face Latvia in their final game. So what can we expect from the French?

Overview

Most of the French team play in the domestic Ligue Magnus, a league which many say is comparable to the EIHL in standard. However, French teams have consistently beaten the EIHL squads in Continental Cup competition over the past few years, with Grenoble, Amiens and Rouen all recording success against UK opposition. However, there are more and more French players playing in the top leagues in Europe, with captain Laurent Meunier playing in Sweden and other players in the squad who ply their trade throughout the Swedish, Czech, Swiss and Russian leagues. They will probably be of a slightly lower quality than the Latvians, but not by much.

GOALIES

The biggest name in the French squad will start in net. Former LA King, Montreal Canadien  and Chicago Blackhawk Cristobal Huet is their starter. At the age of 37 he’s nearer the end of his career than the beginning, but is still strong positionally and will be very tough for the GB forwards to beat. You don’t play over 200 games in net in the NHL without being able to stop some pretty high-level shots. He’s backed up by fellow veteran Fabrice Lhenry, with Florian Hardy in third spot, both of whom have spent the majority of their careers as starters in the Ligue Magnus.

DEFENCE

The French defence bucks the stereotype about French defences-it’s pretty strong. Stand-outs include Kevin Hecquefeuille, who has spent much of his career in the DEL, Switzerland and KHL, the smooth-skating Baptiste Amar, the hard-hitting Antonin Manavian, who’s a big lad at 6’4 and 223lbs and the shifty little Maxime Moisand. They’re useful enough, but have few genuine stars among them..The gaps can be found if GB play to their potential…

FORWARDS

The French captain Laurent Meunier  has done it all. He was captain of Grenoble for donkey’s years (including 2005, when they met Coventry in the Continental Cup) now plays for Straubing in the DEL, and is the old head around which France’s forwards are built. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is a lethal goalscorer along with his ex-Rouen partner-in-crime Julien Desrosiers-the two scored for fun before Bellemare left for Skelleftea in Sweden. Loic Lamperier is the top-scoring native player in the Ligue Magnus at the moment, but the major player to watch out for physically are Sacha and Yorick Treille, who at 6’5 and over 200lbs each are a pretty intimidating pair of brothers on the forward line and can certainly cause all sorts of problems in front of the GB net.

HOPES

Despite the difference in ranking levels, GB can beat France. They have to eradicate the discipline problems that saw the Latvians pick them apart through the powerplay, as the French are a similarly skilful puck-moving team. 5 on 5, though, the two teams are well matched if GB play to their full potential.

PREDICTION

I fancy GB to nick a win in this one. Maybe in OT, but both France and Kazakhstan are beatable, the worst is out of the way, and if GB do beat France and the Kazakhs pull off a win against Latvia tomorrow, then Sunday’s game between the two sides will see the winner go to Sochi. But GB have to win their game first.    

Road To Sochi Part 1: GB v Latvia

Great Britain start their Olympic final qualifying tournament today with the toughest opponent of them all in the host nation, Latvia.

The Latvians are the class of GB’s group, no doubt about it. They present an extremely tricky proposition, containing several ex-NHL players. There are no players on the current roster from NHL teams, with the majority playing either for Latvia’s biggest club Dynamo Riga or other teams in the KHL or eastern Europe-only forwards Ronalds Kenins and Roberts Yekimovs play outside Eastern Europe. Here’s the breakdown on them.

STYLE

The Latvians, like most European teams, play fast, skilled hockey. However, they are a fair bit less finesse-laden then a lot of Eastern European squads, and have usually been outskated by opponents at full Olympic level, finishing last in the last three. They do like to get in amongst the opposition, with Raitis Ivanans providing the physical muscle. GB will have to skate as hard as they ever have before to keep up with them, and find a way to move the puck back and forth fast, because they won’t get much time on the puck in their own zone.

GOALIES

The name Ervins Mustokovs will be familiar to EIHL fans from his year in Sheffield several seasons ago-however Mustokovs will likely be backup behind Edgars Masalskis. The 32-year-old has been the starter for his country since 2006, and has already played in two Olympic Games. Masalskis is short at 5’9 and relies on speed and agility to make his saves. He has played mainly at KHL level and equivalent, and is consistently among the top three performers on his team at big events.

DEFENCE

The two big names on Latvia’s defence are 40-year-old Sandis Ozolins (over 800 NHL games for Anaheim and Colorado amongst others, one Stanley Cup) and former Philadelphia Flyer Oskars Bartulis, both of whom will be relied upon by the Latvians to drive them forward from the blueline. The rest of the Latvian D squad are all KHL regulars, whether it be in their own country or elsewhere, with the pick of them probably being Arturs Kulda or Georgijs Pujacs, who was a captain in the KHL last year. Smooth-skating and sharp positionally, they’ll be the best unit the British forwards will face by some distance this weekend.

FORWARDS

They may be lacking the NHL’s Kaspars Daugavins or junior prodigy and NHL pick Zemgus Girgensons, but the Latvian forward corps still has a good mix of speed and toughness. Raitis Ivanans is the muscle-the former Phoenix Coyote hardman will make space for Janis Sprukts and Juris Stals at centre. Goal-wise the main sniper is likely to be Martins Karsums, ex of the the Providence Bruins. With four strong lines, though, the Latvians have goals all over the ice at this level, and will be a tough test for the GB D. They need to be stopped from getting into a passing rhythm and given no space, otherwise it could be a long night for Stevie Lyle.

HOW TO BEAT THEM

A win for GB v Latvia is a massive ask. There’s no question they’ve been given the toughest possible opening to the tournament. However, they can be beaten by sound positional play and not being allowed to get into a passing rhythm. Ozolins is key and will need to be prevented from weaving his transitional magic at every opportunity, while in the offensive zone, the GB forwards may get some joy from fast passing and last-second screens on Masalskis. It’s a game that is winnable…just. But the ten-place gap between GB and Latvia in the rankings tells just what a tough task this’ll be.

HOPES

Realistically, the best GB can hope for is to take the Latvians to OT. Get that far, get a point, and anything can happen in the OT and penalties. But a loss will set the Latvians off to the best possible start and mean the Brits have to win their next two games in regulation to have a decent hope of progression.

Prediction:

Given the right bounces, GB can beat Latvia. But they’ll need ALL the stars to align. Win this game, and anything is possible for the Lions.

Realistically, though, the Brits will be happy with an OT loss to the hosts to start the tournament.

Roar of the Lions: Come On, GB

This morning, 23 men boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport. Their destination is Riga in Latvia, their hopes sky-high, and their mission already dismissed as impossible by many.

From Cardiff and Glasgow, Basingstoke and Sheffield, and even Sweden and Kazakhstan they come, coming together with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders and the chance to achieve something impossible.

The Team GB men’s ice hockey team face one last hurdle before possibly getting their chance to represent their country in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Standing in their way are Latvia, France and Kazakhstan, all ranked higher in the IIHF rankings (Latvia are 11, France 14 and Kazakhstan 17).

The Latvians are the big dangers. They have NHL quality on their roster in several players, such as Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators, and have played at the Winter Olympics before as recently as 2010. France and the Kazakhs, too, have beaten the Brits before, although GB ran the Kazakhs close last time the two met.

Over the next few days Chasing Dragons will provide a preview of all three games, including who to watch, the dangermen for the opposition, key points to the game and indeed what GB’s chances are.

Ashley Tait has said the GB team will have to play the three best games of their lives to qualify-and there is no doubt whatsoever that they face a MASSIVE task, particularly as their first game is against the hosts.

Things don’t look hopeful, at least superficially. Even many British hockey fans are adopting the attitude of “well, this’ll be a nice weekend out”. The odds are well and truly against the Ice Lions.

But so what? Let’s dream a little, UK hockey.

We British are a nation who have always performed best with our backs against the wall and heavily outnumbered by much stronger opponents.

Nobody realistically expected the British to win versus the French at Agincourt. Or versus The Spanish Armada. Or at Trafalgar. Or  Waterloo. Or The Battle Of Britain. But there, British pride, hard work and sheer bloody minded will carried the team through against overwhelming odds. And it can do so again against the combined power of the Latvians, the French and the Kazakhs.

The pressure is all on the opposition to win. Nobody outside of this little island gives our men a prayer.

Sure, hockey in Britain is a minority sport, chaotic in administration, full of icon fusion and infighting between leagues. Sure, the wider sporting public probably knows very little about the efforts made by the GB men, although there is now a little more publicity for them.

But in the veins of these men, there runs the blood of men and women like Owain Glwyndwr, William Wallace, and Queen Elizabeth I. We British are a nation who have a history of facing an almost hopeless fight against much stronger opposition and winning. We may only be a little rock in the North Atlantic, but the people of this little rock have a history of doing great things. We’ve even already won an ice-hockey gold at the Olympics, which is more than any of our opponents have done. (and so what if it was won in 1936?)

Thirty years ago, a team full of amateurs who no-one gave a chance took on the powerhouses of the world game and won. That team was the Miracle on Ice USA squad.

The tournament in Latvia can be Team GB’s own miracle. All the rhetoric up until now has focused on the impossibility of the task they face. It’s time to switch the perspective.

When the GB Lions step out onto Riga ice tomorrow to confront twenty opposition players and the 14,000-strong horde of Latvian fans, there will be a small island of red, white and blue in the crowd…a swell of English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish under the screams of Latvian.

But invisible alongside them, tens of thousands of GB ice hockey fans. From Braehead to Basingstoke, Belfast to Bracknell, or Aberdeen in the north to Gosport on the Isle of Wight, anyone who spends the long, dark nights of winter inside a British ice rink will be with the Lionhearts, roaring them on. Steeler will join with Panther, Capital with Flyer and even Blaze with Devil, because whatever our club affiliation, we’re all proud to call this little rock in the North Atlantic home. 

It’s time to make history. Skate for Shakespeare,  Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Burns. Fight for  Cúchulainn, Rabbie Bruce, Churchill and Victoria. 

And men of Great Britain, in the icy cauldron of Riga Arena, may the hockey gods be with you this weekend.

Good luck, boys.