From March 8, 2006 - A Night With the Brass
I had a golden opportunity tonight to enter the inner sanctum of the hockey world when just before the game started, Stars GM Doug Armstrong asked me if I wanted to watch the game in his booth with assistant coach Andy Moog. Despite the fact that I knew going in that it would be a tense endeavor, I could not pass on a chance that may never come along again.
So I pounced.
I wasn’t really sure what Stars brass does up top the arena during a hockey game after all of these years. You always see the assistant coach on the bench who appears to have a headset on, but you never knew what he was doing or what purpose was being served.
Now I know. Andy and Doug saved the final seat for me, last night during the Stars 4-3 Overtime/Shootout win in Edmonton, and here is what I remember from it all.
- Every play is the most important play in the history of hockey (I think). Wow. I looked at my calendar and saw it was March 7th, but from the tone of the room it felt like early June. I am not kidding. I still have a headache. I was as nervous about the outcome of a Stars game as I can remember being in years. This game meant the world it would seem, although I knew the whole time it was only one of 82. I swear, these guys must have amazing blood pressure readings because the intensity of the game and the intensity of the GM’s box was enough to give me the feeling of eating an ice cream cone so fast that you get “brain freeze”. Every shift was scrutinized, every player critiqued, every official was barbecued, and on and on.
- Every score around the league means something. I wanted to fit in, so I tried to convince myself that Chicago vs. Columbus was really a big deal. Of course, inside, I knew that there was no sporting event in the world that meant less than that abomination, but like I said, it was my job to fit in tonight. And man, when word made it around that Detroit had lost at home to Phoenix? Well, we all knew that this left two points on the table for the Stars to seize if they could win.
- Every Player is expected to perform perfectly. I am sure if I was around this environment more I would understand that there is room for understanding and the realization that nobody is perfect, but when the game is going on, it is quickly noted that each player has a job to do. If he fails to support the puck over here, or get the puck out of the zone over there, well, Armstrong and Moog make a mental note (and, at times, a very demonstrative verbal note). I am not sure what they do with these notes, but I assume they go in the file for future reference. The thing that got me thinking was this: When you watch a game this closely, you notice every single wart of every single player. For instance, a guy who I thought was infallible with this franchise was Mike Modano. Surely the most loved player in franchise history would be allowed to make a lazy pass once in a while, right? Trust me, that is not the case. The tone was similar throughout the lineup, but as the saying goes, “your best players must be your best players”. So, make your mental list of who the best players are on the Stars, and those are most likely the players who were most heavily critiqued for questionable decisions or performance. It would seem that over a season or several years of this, you would learn a player’s tendencies inside and out, and as a GM, the temptation would be to only recognize the warts of a player. Over that course of time, you may talk yourself into believing that he cannot get the job done for you. Would you then trade him away for someone that you only see in the highlights? Another player who is only obtainable because his GM also thinks his warts are too much to overlook? (Erskine for Niinimaa) Surely, if you look with the close eyes of these player judges, you can find the negatives in everyone’s game. I guess the job then becomes to also see those positives, and realize that every player alive is a combination of strengths and weaknesses, and try to find the combinations that you can live with.
- Cheering is allowed in the press box. As long as you have the door closed on your box, when Jussi Jokinen buries a penalty shot, feel free to pump your fist and say, “yeah!” This game means a ton to these guys, and when they score there is much rejoicing.
- When scored upon, remain quiet. I am not sure this is actually a rule or proper protocol, but when Edmonton mounted what seemed like an inevitable rally in the third period, I was not about to say a word until several minutes had passed. In the meantime, the uncomfortable silence was deafening. It is tough to compare it to anything else, but know this: It was tense, and it was not just another game.
- Here is what Andy Moog appears to be doing. He talks down to Derek McKinnon and Mark Lamb about the forecheck strategy of Edmonton and how the breakout execution is working. Edmonton employs a ferocious forecheck as all 3 forwards will go as deep as they please to try to create turnovers. Moog describes them as “horny” on the play, and if they get too horny, the Stars will get odd man rushes the other direction. Anyway, Moog tells McKinnon, who handles the video for the team, what scenarios need to be clipped for intermission viewing by Dave Tippett and his staff (I believe).
- Armstrong, on the other hand, is watching the game as closely as he can, watching the out of town scoreboard, watching the minor league scoreboard, watching the transactions, and offering red licorice to Moog and me. How he can be this wired all season long is amazing. He appears caffeinated to say the least, and aside from his players, the refs, and Edmonton’s players, everything is going well in the game.
- As the lead is disappearing in the 3rd, frustration is growing in the box. By the time it is tied, the brass is begging the boys to hang in there (even though no one can hear them but me), as this arena is trying to push the Oilers over the top. You can’t believe how cool the whole scene is. My head is pounding because the nerves are being asked to carry so much stress. Once again, I am reminded this is one of 82 regular season games. Win or lose, this is only important tonight, because Thursday there is another game either way. But tonight, it is game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
- We get to the overtime, as pucks whistle by Turco and nearly miss, while the Stars’ chances are becoming fewer and farther between. As Guerin charges the net and the puck is sent in by Stu Barnes perfectly, the boys upstairs think the game is over, but somehow the puck goes wide as Guerin is shoved into the net. Close call, game on. Time runs out on the game, but the shootout exists, and the result is a given, right? I felt it, I could sense they felt it, and after Jussi Jokinen’s feature on the front of the Edmonton sports page yesterday, the Edmonton crowd knew that taking on the Stars in this new shootout is like trying to out ride Lance Armstrong in the Alps. Zubov scores, Turco saves, Jussi scores, Turco saves, handshakes, smiles, fist-pumps, and on to Calgary.
- I sat there, tried not to say anything stupid, and observe what life is like when every game means so much. You can rest assured in knowing that your hockey franchise’s top spots are occupied by guys who are 100% committed to making sure this team does whatever it takes to win every time they drop a puck. Does it always work? Nope. But, it is sure an intense ride with these guys this week. It is a lot less stressful watching the game in Dallas with a walkman and a coke.