According to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rat begins on Jan. 25, although Matthew Tkachuk apparently wanted to celebrate early.
One of the NHL's most preeminent pests, the Calgary Flames forward threw two (legal, but predatory) checks into Edmonton Oilers ruffian Zack Kassian, and eventually Kassian popped off and started wailing on Tkachuk, who was an unwilling participant in the fight. It earned Kassian 14 minutes in penalties and a two-game suspension.
"If he doesn't want to get hit, then stay off the tracks," Tkachuk said after the game.
Insult to injury. It's the way of the Pest.
Tkachuk is a special one. He hits. He yaps. He once stole Brent Burns' stick and brought it to the Flames bench, earning a penalty for the malfeasance. He's a mortal enemy of Drew Doughty, and was once asked why he wasn't more respectful of a Norris Trophy winner. "I show Gio respect," said Tkachuk of teammate Mark Giordano, "he's a Norris Trophy winner."
In full disclosure, I love Pests. The first jersey I ever owned had Claude Lemieux's name on the back. As a Devils fan, I secretly loved that Sean Avery stick wave in front of Martin Brodeur that necessitated the NHL to change its rulebook on the fly to cover his antics. No, I can't condone the knees and spears and slew foots and other injurious cheap shots doled out by decades of miscreants like Bryan Marchment. But, if I'm being honest, I'm sometimes in awe of that level of depravity.
Is Matthew Tkachuk the NHL's best agitator? He has many of the essential traits of the NHL Pest. And here they are:
Know your role
The Pest is a role, no different than a penalty killer or a backup goalie, only with more trash and insults thrown at you from the stands. The role entails disruption, agitation and disturbance, by any means necessary. The role asks for brutality, intimidation and mockery. If performed correctly, the Pest is a vital role, because it changes the dynamic of a game, either through becoming a magnet for ire or, from a tactical standpoint, the removal of another team's player from the ice.
Let's go back to December 1995. The Buffalo Sabres were playing the New York Rangers. At the time, Matthew Barnaby was to the NHL what the grain weevil is to a silo. In that game, he slammed Rangers forward Adam Graves' head into the stanchion. That enraged Graves, who hammered his right hand into the helmet of Barnaby ... and injured himself to the point where he had to go to the hospital for X-rays.
Colin Campbell, then the coach of the Rangers, had praise after the game ... for Barnaby. "I don't mind what he did. He's a pest and he does what he's supposed to do. He took a good player [Graves] off the ice. That's what he's supposed to do. That's a good trade for them. I just wish we had reacted better. We put ourselves in a lot of tough situations out there," he told the Buffalo News.
(Twenty-five years later, this man is in charge of sportsmanship suspensions in the NHL.)
Said Barnaby: "I have a role, and if I'm able to get a guy off his game and it helps us, then I've helped in my role."
It's essentially what Tkachuk said when Kassian pounded him: "If he wants to react like that, we'll take the power play and we'll take the game-winner and we'll take first place."
No matter the decade, there's always going to be an easy mark ready to take that bait.
Know your boundaries
When does a Pest become a Thug? It's a thin line, and once you cross it, it comes to define you. Claude Lemieux crossed it with that boarding of Kris Draper. Dale Hunter crossed it with that attack on Pierre Turgeon. Matt Cooke crossed it with that elbowing of Ryan McDonagh. Ulf Samuelsson crossed it by ... generally being Ulf Samuelsson.
The best Pests do what Tkachuk did to Kassian: physically assail him within the established boundaries of the NHL rulebook. Kassian got a phone call from the Department of Player Safety's George Parros explaining what not to do when he gets hit. Tkachuk never got a call regarding his hits.
The key is to stay within the rules as best as a Pest can, and keep the heat off. Cross the line too often, and you end up with fines, suspensions and eventually the kind of probation Tom Wilson is on.
Know your targets
The best Pests are like invasive Facebook ads: They know who you are, what you are, and personalize their pitches to a frightening extent. Everything is on the table, save for kids and (usually) other loved ones. As Nick Cousins, master chirper, once said: "I don't get into anything too personal with people. That's pretty gutless."
So the best chirps are like Max Domi taunting Zack Smith with "waivers!" after the latter cleared them earlier in the season. Or Kevin Hayes calling the obscenely tall Tyler Myers a "leaf eater." Or Brad Richards telling Tom Sestito that the NHL was "fantasy camp" for him because he'd last only one day.
Lines are, of course, crossed. Things get personal. Sometimes, that'll result in an escalation. Other times, the line will be reestablished: Former referee Kerry Fraser wrote in his book that he used to have players apologize to each other for out-of-bounds taunts, like when Tyson Nash mocked Theo Fleury for his substance addictions. (Nash could call it a pivotal moment of his life.)
Knowing your targets means also knowing their stature. Sean Gordon of The Athletic had a terrific story last year about the art of the chirp, as players new and old discussed the nuances of trash talk. It included a reminder of the time Avery, as a member of the Red Wings, attempted to chirp Joe Sakic. Brett Hull grabbed Avery and said, "You are not allowed to speak to Mr. Sakic."
Some players, it would seem, are chirp-protected.
The zombie kid said it best: "I like turtles."
I know I shouldn't. I know The Code dictates that if you dish it out, you should take it, which was Kassian's message to Tkachuk: "If you're going to play big-boy hockey, you have to answer the bell sometimes."
But I also know that an essential part of a Pest's act is that of a cowardly heel. Your job is to make someone miserable and take them off the ice. "Answering the bell" gives someone satisfaction and takes you off the ice. What's the sense in that?
Finally, success is the greatest agitation
Pests open wounds with their antics. It's when they're also really good that they pour a pound of salt into those wounds. Claude Lemieux might be the best case here: an infamous pest, a nefarious thug and yet also a four-time Stanley Cup champion with a Conn Smythe award and 379 career goals. He was as likely to infuriate you with a cheap shot as he was to beat you with a slap shot.
It's about power dynamics and bragging rights. It's about always having the last laugh, even when everyone's laughing at you. Isn't that right, Brad Marchand, who followed the worst shootout attempt in recent memory, and the taunting that followed, with this reminder of his prowess?
Now that's a Pest.
From Daniel Miles in Winnipeg:
As the saying goes, the couple that Fouls together, stays together.
Meanwhile, in the desert:
As you know, Pavel Datsyuk was traded to the Arizona Coyotes along with Detroit's first-round pick in 2016 (which became Jakob Chychrun!) for a first (eventually Dennis Cholowski!) and a second (Filip Hronek!) from the Coyotes. Or, rather, his cap space was traded, as Datsyuk left for the KHL. Still, he was technically a member of the Coyotes. Cheeky, but not a Foul.
Three things about that new 3-on-3 league
1. 3ICE is a new 3-on-3 pro hockey league that's scheduled to launch in summer 2021, running from the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs through the end of August. I wrote a news story on the league after speaking with founder E.J. Johnston, son of former Pittsburgh Penguins coach and general manager Ed Johnston.
The most interesting aspect of the league? That there are no city-designated teams. The "league" is essentially a series of eight-team tournaments played in different cities, with each team named after a title sponsor. (So, like Team Ford, Team Red Bull, Team Chico's Bail Bonds.) They play a bracket-style format to determine a champion at each tour stop, and games are fast-moving: a running clock for two eight-minute halves. Johnston said the traveling road show concept has the DNA of a slew of other events: Rugby 7s, the PGA, Formula One, Professional Bull Riding, even cricket from India. It also has some of the DNA of 3-on-3 video-game play from EA Sports' NHL titles.
"I used to go to the PBR, the professional bull riders, events here, at Madison Square Garden. And I was like, this is actually kind of cool. Like, I'm never going to be into bull riding, but it's such a great way to spend the evening with some buddies, you go down there and you do it," said Johnston. "But you have a tour and the model is something that we really believe in, you know, borrowing from Formula One or PGA Tour to PBR or those other events that are out there. It's a great way to spend the night -- in our case it will be the late afternoon and early evening -- but it's just a great way to have some entertainment. We're going to pack in over the course of about a three-hour evening."
And a lot of breaks for adult beverages. Let's not forget about that.
2. This thing is going to be intensely fan interactive. It'll begin with the process of figuring out the tour stops. "In our marketing campaign, which we're going to break in about another three to four weeks, part of that is going to be asking the fans to actually have some input on the cities, where they could be a nice sway or be a tiebreaker for us," said Johnston. (Many of the stops are expected to be hockey-mad but pro league-starved Canadian cities.)
But the fan interaction bit is also going to be found during the tournaments. "One of our mantras is that we want to create the biggest locker room in the world, and invite the fans into the process on everything on the business side," he said. Like, for example, having the fans vote on the second-round matchups they want to see, rather than having the brackets determine them. (Could you imagine this for the Stanley Cup Playoffs? I could, until I realize the process would be corrupted by Leafs fans flooding the voting process with bots in order to get a seed as far away from Boston as, like, Honolulu.)
Another innovation: Having the fans vote on whether a controversial goal should count. "We'll throw it on the JumboTron and see what the fans think. I'd love to have that survey as part of the equation," he said.
3. Every startup league needs a character, and Johnston is one. Fun fact: He was the executive producer of the NBC reality show "Fashion Star" that ran for two seasons in 2012-13, the one that Elle Macpherson hosted and where Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie were "mentors." If that doesn't sound like a venture for a hockey guy, well ...
"When I left Fox Sports up in Boston, IMG hired me. They had just purchased Fashion Week, and financially it was in some challenges. So I sat down in front of the boss and he asked me what I thought. So I said, 'Look, the runway is the ice. The fans are called fashionistas. The coaches are the designers. The models are the players. And the media is the media. Let's go,'" he recalled saying. "He said, 'Wow, you're hired.' I got the job in the room. So I looked at it that way. We re-engineered the entire thing. And then it started making money. I always viewed it as sports."
That model was adopted around the world for Fashion Weeks spanning from Miami to Milan. How did that lead to "Fashion Star?" It was when he was inspired by the show "Dragon's Den" (which in turn had inspired "Shark Tank") to create a show that NBC instantly purchased. "It was a perfect storm: My hockey background led into my fashion background and led into my TV background," he said.
Hockey and fashion: It's not just for pregame outfits.
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Emily Kaplan and I broke down the firing of Ray Shero by the New Jersey Devils, and explored the ridiculously close wild-card races. Our guest was a good one: Josh Smith, the man behind Scouting The Refs, on the state of NHL officiating. Listen here, and make sure to review and subscribe.
Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: Computer Boys & Girls
If you're to believe co-owner Josh Harris, GM Ray Shero was fired by the Devils last weekend for a lack of on-ice success following an "all-in" summer. "The reality is we are now in our fifth season and we've made the playoffs once," he said. That checks out.
But there's a lot going on under the surface here. Keep in mind that Harris and David Blitzer run a sports and entertainment company that also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and Crystal Palace F.C., an English Premier League team, among other interests. The businesses are, in many ways, intertwined, especially when it comes to a belief in analytics. According to sources, the Devils' development as a contender was seen to be lagging behind where it should be, at least from the rest of Harris/Blitzer's portfolio, including the Sixers. That's after the Devils hired Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane, two highly respected members of the advanced stats community, to run the analytics side for hockey.
There's a prevailing thought that the analytics side was an influence in Shero getting the boot. According to Rachel Doerrie, who worked for the Devils under Shero, there was dysfunction.
"Quite honestly, ownership decided that the team either really had no direction or there were differing directions from what the owners or what Tyler Dellow believed where they should be going vs. where Ray believes. And nothing ever gets done. You end up going in circles. People have to be removed. And it's probably not going to be the people that are like-minded to the owners. I have to think this has a difference in philosophy between ownership and hockey operations," she said on the Staff and Graph podcast.
That sentiment was echoed by TSN insider Darren Dreger on TSN 1040.
"There's a lot of speculation around that organization about what happened. I think there was an internal tug-of-war between the analytics department and Ray Shero. I'm not saying that Ray Shero is anti-analytics. But the analytics people had considerable influence and maybe had the ear of ownership as well," he said, adding that the expectation was that Shero was going to be fired at the end of the season and that perhaps someone pushed ownership to do it sooner.
So, it would appear the Computer Boys, in and around the Devils, won out.
Loser: Ray Shero
Shero was dismissed from the Devils after one playoff appearance in five seasons that required an MVP campaign from Taylor Hall and three weeks of the best goaltending of Keith Kinkaid's life. Otherwise, Shero inherited a team that appeared primed for a rebuild in 2015 -- one that had such up-and-coming prospects as Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr filling roster spots -- and five years later the team is ... basically right back into a rebuild, with a prospect pool that's not among the NHL's deepest, despite the team's lack of success. Perhaps we'll look back at his tenure more fondly if it turns out he helped lay the foundation of a contender. But that boomerang back to a rebuild is not why the owners hired him.
Winner: Peter DeBoer
The last month for Peter DeBoer: Gets fired from the San Jose Sharks because the roster is aging and downgraded; watches as his replacement finds similar results as the team lingers outside the playoffs; gets hired by the Vegas Golden Knights, a team in a wild-card spot, taking over a deeper roster with a solid collection of assets with which to improve it, and a team whose underlying numbers all point to it regressing to the mean and being a contender in the West. Not a bad rebound right there.
Loser: Golden Knights players
Like in any in-season firing, one of the messages GM Kelly McCrimmon wanted to send was that Gerard Gallant is gone because his players let him down. Gallant was well-liked, a one-of-the-guys type. And it was clear the Knights got the message. "You're taking it upon yourself like you let him down. Not playing to our potential. Everyone loved playing for him. We came up short for him. And cost him his job," said defenseman and original Knight Deryk Engelland.
Winner: Dude Perfect skills competitions
The NHL All-Star Weekend isn't for everyone. A lot of fans care about it less than many of the players do. But hear me out: If a competition where some of the best men's and women's hockey players in the world are shooting pucks from the stands, over the heads of fans and at targets on the ice doesn't get you to tune in, I don't know what to tell you. There's a frozen puck where your hockey heart should be. Because this sounds either gloriously incredible or like an utter train wreck; either way, a must-see.
Loser: Mini nets and gates
If there's one constant in the All-Star Game events this season, it's the idea that they should, you know, be things the players aren't going to actively hate. So gone are those infernal "mini-nets" that the players needed 100 pucks to complete a pass into them, and gone are the abominable "gates" that players had to carry pucks through when they lit up. RIP. You will all be forgotten, painful gimmickry.
Winner: Women in the All-Star Game
Introducing the roster for the Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by @adidas! American and Canadian All-Stars will face off during the #NHLAllStar Skills competition on Jan. 24.— NHL (@NHL) January 16, 2020
🇨🇦: @Sportsnet pic.twitter.com/Byo1rP06hY
There's no better selling point for women's hockey than the Canada vs. USA rivalry. This 3-on-3 challenge is going to be a great spotlight platform for some of the best players in the world, but there's more: One Canadian and one American player will take part in the aforementioned "shooting pucks over the crowd" gimmick. (And due respect to all involved, give us Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin.)
Loser: Women of power and influence
As we mentioned on the podcast, "The Hockey News" top 100 list of "people of power and influence" in hockey featured 96 men and four women. No Alex Mandrycky, director of hockey administration for Seattle, or Cammi Granato, the NHL's first female pro scout (also for Seattle); Noelle Needham, amateur scout for the Maple Leafs; Jayna Hefford, former CWHL commissioner and influential women's hockey figure; Meghan Chayka, co-founder of Stathletes, who made last year's list; Jennifer Bullano, VP for the Penguins; Emilie Castonguay, agent for presumed No. 1 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere; AJ Mleczko, NBC analyst; Barb Underhill, one of the league's top skating coaches. The one name texted to me more than any? Kim Pegula, president of the Buffalo Sabres. But her husband, Terry, made the list.
Its list of 15 non-NHL executives didn't feature a single woman, despite Dani Rylan running the only women's professional league in North America. (They did run a list of 15 prominent figures in women's hockey, separate from the other lists.)
It's a shame there wasn't more than four women on the top 100. It's an arbitrary list that literally anyone can be on if its creators deem it so, no matter their presumed "power and influence" in comparison to general managers and CEOs.
I should know: I was on it three times.
Ilya Kovalchuk gets candid about why it didn't work in Los Angeles: "I'm useless when I play seven-to-10 minutes a night. Some guys are used to it, and they do a great job of it and that's why they're in the league, but I used to play a different kind of game and role."
Cool interview with new Bruins creative director Mark Majewski.
Max Domi gets benched. Said Claude Julien: "I don't have to explain it more. It's not the first time he's taken a bad penalty. There's consequences and sometimes those messages go a lot longer than the situation right there."
How a 7-year-old helped take down the NHL patriarchy.
Making the case for Artemi Panarin as MVP: "In many ways his impact has been similar to that of Jagr back in 2005-06, as he's propelled a team that wasn't expected to do all that much. The overall circumstances and overall roster composition is vastly different, and that's something that really plays in Panarin's favor,"
Why goalies are hard to analyze and the importance of the eye test when critiquing the position. ($)
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
The wave of 3-on-3 hockey appears to be hitting the International Ice Hockey Federation as well.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN