Monday, May 03, 2010

The Dangers of Smugness: What the Blackhawks Have in Common with the WCE-Era Canucks

Hockey players will often tell you they don't follow the media. It's bullcorn--of course they do. Remember Ed Jovanovski, calling in to the radio station every now and then, like a random listener, just to prove a point? Trust me. You can't avoid the media, and most of the time, I think it fuels the players' motivation to hear what the media are saying.

But not today. Lets hope the Canucks are as out of touch as I am when the Shaw signal drops out, because the city of Vancouver is way, way ahead of itself. The current Team 1040 poll question: If the Canucks win tonight, do they win the series?

Well, no. That's just simple math.

Overconfidence and smugness are the reason the Chicago Blackhawks gave up home ice advantage without much of a fight, and the lack thereof might be the Canucks' greatest weapon going into every single game of the playoffs.

Let's not forget that the Vancouver Canucks of the West Coast Express were known far and wide as a smug team, and it cost them. The WCE era was a great era for the Canucks for 82 games a year, but that's as far as it went. They never made it past the second round of the playoffs, they were shocked and embarrassed by a Minnesota Wild team that they underestimated (remember Bertuzzi's pompous mockery of Minnesota fans? after the collapse, he was mocked by a ten-year old kid with a sign that read, "Hey Bertuzzi, have a nice day"), and they were brought to their knees and eventually dismantled by an arrogant unwillingness to play two-way hockey. The Vancouver Canucks team of the early aughts was smug and overconfident, and while they were good enough to accrue wins aplenty in the regular season, playoff success never came, partly because they couldn't step up the work ethic.

The Chicago Blackhawks are suffering from a similar attitude, and it's not hard to see why. Their core is remarkably young, and they've seemingly all been NHL superstars since they laced up the skates. Everything's come easy to this group so far, and they've nearly admitted as much. "Maybe we thought this was going to be an easier series," Kane said after game 1. As Jason Botchford said in today's Province article, "Easier than what, we're not sure." It's a stupid thing to say.

Pat Kane has shown through his actions and his soundbytes that he's still got a lot of growing up to do. Even his playful playoff mullet betrays a character deficiency, in my opinion (it's about team unity whether or not you can personally grow a beard). Add this to the fact that the Blackhawks play a high octane offensive style, heavy on the flash and skill, and that they were joined this season by disloyal, team-hopping, Marian Hossa, and you have a recipe for a disease of arrogance. Even Quenneville's unwillingness to admit they were outplayed in game 1 by a competent team speaks to this. ("Self-inflicted wounds?" Henrik has 112 counterpoints. 113, if you count the trophy.)

The Canucks, on the other hand, have gone about everything the hard way. When Mike Gillis took over this team, he preached a desire for a roster imbued with such qualities as integrity and character. Mind you, the job was half-finished by then.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin have had to scrape and claw for every inch of respect they've ever gotten. They've been manhandled by defensemen and the media since day one (Recall, "Sedin is not Swedish for...", etc.).

Alex Burrows is the consummate story of hard work, maybe second only to Rudy in terms of storybook heart.

Ryan Kesler earned his respect as a player by playing a dedicated defensive game, confident that the offense would come if he just worked his tail off and stuck to what he was good at.

Roberto Luongo toiled on bad teams for years, desperately trying to carry them, and has been publicly questioned ever since he landed in Vancouver. He's had something to prove since 2006.

These guys knew what it took, and Gillis added skilled players with everything to prove after the bubbles of their early-career success burst. Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Shane O'Brien--each one of these guys was questioned for a lack of work ethic and refashioned as a lunchpail guy with a role expected of him. Pavol Demitra's had to work through injury troubles. Ryan Johnson was signed for his willingness to put his body on the line and really nothing else.

Then Gillis added Mats Sundin last season, perhaps more for his experience than his skill, and Mikael Samuelsson this season for the same reasons.

Even Canucks rookie Michael Grabner has been toiling away in the AHL, coldly held back until he improved his defensive deficiencies and consistency.

Maybe the Canucks don't go on to win this series, maybe they do. But one thing is for certain: They are smart enough to know not to get ahead of themselves. The Chicago Blackhawks team? The Vancouver media? The jury's still out on them.

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