Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Looking Back: David Volek

Ask Islanders fans what their favorite moment as a fan of the team is and you will get a wide variety of responses. The history of the team is rich enough that there are wealth of legitimate candidates from which to choose as one's top moment. In my experience, the determining factor in this choice is age.

First, you have the old timers who have followed the team since its inception. They are the ones with the toughest job simply because they have seen so much. If these fans are fixated on the early days, as is their right, they might go for the symbolic choice of Ed Westfall's first goal in franchise history against the Atlanta Flames on October 7, 1972.

Perhaps others would prefer to mark the moment that the team arrived as a legitimate contender in the league: J.P. Parise's goal at :11 of overtime on April 11, 1975 that eliminated the Rangers and gave the Islander their first playoff series win.

I imagine, however, that most would select Bobby Ny's goal at 7:11 of overtime in Game 7 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals. Nystrom's goal, in addition to setting the course for the defining era in the history of franchise, is the first of these moments that I consider to be cross-generational. Fans like myself who were too young to witness the early years are fortunate to count the greatest era of the Islanders as our introduction to the team.

Getting just a little younger, you might see a fan point to the Easter Epic and Pat LaFontaine's goal at 8:47 of the fourth overtime to defeat the Washington Capitals in the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals.

And the newest generation of Islander fans? They seem to gravitate toward Shawn Bates's penalty shot goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

Well, that was a brief, but fun, trip down memory lane. Ah, but something is missing you say? Yes, we have left out an era. Let's fill in that gap.

For a certain generation of Islanders fans, the greatest moment
they witnessed in the history of the franchise was produced by David Volek.

On May 14, 1993, the Islanders faced the heavily favored, two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Patrick Division Final. The Isles coughed up a late 3-1 lead and the game headed to overtime. At 5:16 of the extra session, Volek took a feed from Ray Ferraro on an odd-man rush and one-timed a slap shot past Tom Barrasso to put the Isles in the Conference Final.

For all intents and purposes, Volek's NHL career has been reduced to that one great moment. One almost never hears him spoken of in any other context. I didn't even recall that Ferraro set up Volek on the Isles' second goal that night, too. So let's at least take the time to look back at a little bit more of the story.

Volek was a 10th round draft choice of the Islanders, 208th overall, in 1984. He couldn't have been anything more than a speculative pick at the time, as were nearly all Eastern Bloc draft choices. The Islanders had no way of knowing if Volek would ever step foot in North America.

In the summer of 1988, Volek received permission to visit his parents in West Germany. On July 25, with the help of agent Rich Winter, the Czech star and his fiancee defected to Canada. By the end of the summer, he was an Islander.

For the next four seasons, Volek was a productive forward. He made the All-Rookie Team in 1988-89 on the strength of 25 goals and 34 assists. He followed up that 59-point rookie campaign with seasons of 39, 56, and 60 points while spending time on both wings.

By the magical 1992-93 season, the Islanders had grown quite deep at forward, featuring Pierre Turgeon,
Steve Thomas, Derek King, Benoit Hogue, and Ferraro. Volek found himself with fewer quality minutes and was also significantly limited by injuries for the first time. At one point, he requested a trade. It didn't come and his production diminished to 13-8-21 in 56 games.

Volek did not even play in the playoffs that year until Game 3 of the Pittsburgh series due to a sore back. Yet, there he was soaring down the wing alongside Ferraro with a chance to etch his name on a little piece of hockey history. Call it "The Shot Heard 'Round the Northeast." And a generation of Islanders fans had their all-time greatest moment.

One year later, Volek's NHL career was over. He had not yet reached his 28th birthday. A herniated disk ended his 1993-94 season early with only 5 goals and 9 assists to show for 32 games. He attempted or rehab the injury but retired in September 1994.

Volek did make a brief return to his Czech club, Sparta Praha,
during the 1995-96 following surgery. He was able to play only five games. Over the next ten years, Volek spent time as a European scout for the Sabres. He became an assistant coach with Sparta Praha before the 2005 season, but he's not currently listed as such on their official site.

As we learned this past season, the Islanders will be hosting an annual alumni weekend to honor different teams over the course of the franchise's history. I have to believe that the 1993 Conference Finalists will be fairly high on the list of groups to invite. Perhaps, then, we will see David Volek on the Coliseum ice one more time.

The drama of his greatest moment, the brevity of his promising career, and the speed of his demise only serve to make him a more intriguing figure.

Thanks once again to
hockeydb.com, islesinfo.com, and HockeyDraftCentral.com for serving as sources for this article.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Looking Back: Mikko Makela

I was going to title this post "Remembering: Mikko Makela," but then I thought people might think he had died. Mikko is very much alive and well. Anyway, with little news of note from the Islanders (Tomas Marcinko notwithstanding), I thought it might be time to take a look back at Islanders of the past to see where their careers took them and, if possible, where they are today. If the off-season drags on for as long as it feels like it's going to right now, perhaps this will be a regular feature.

So, why Mikko Makela? For me, he played a very important, though unfulfilled role in my life as an Islanders fan. He was a bridge from the Cup teams to the modern era. However, there was more to it than that.

As it became more and more obvious that Mike Bossy's angry back would prevent him from putting the proper exclamation points on his Hall-of-Fame career, I had an opening to fillalbeit with sorrow and reluctance. You see, Mikko Makela was also the heir-apparent to the role of my favorite Islander. Hoo boy.

Those were big skates to fill. Bossy wasn't just my favorite Islander, he was my favorite athlete. The fact that he actually was a legend in everybody else's eyes, too, certainly wasn't going to make it easy on the next guy.

But there was something about Mikko. He and Bossy were similar in stature, though give the edge in size to the young Finn. More importantly, Makela had a sniper's touch. He was a goal scorer with a quick and accurate shot. Who better to follow in the strides of the greatest sniper of them all? It also didn't hurt that his name was fun to say.

In my eyes, the defining moment for Makela as an Islander came in the 1987 Patrick Division Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the Isles having lost the first game at the Spectrum, Game 2 was winding down with the teams tied 2-2. The Isles received a golden opportunity when the Flyers were called for too many men in the final minute.

In what felt like the stuff of legends at the time, Makela snuck a well-placed shot by Ron Hextall with three seconds left in regulation to send the Isles back home with a split. (For a trip back in time21 years ago tomorrowread a recap here.) The momentum was shortlived as the Flyers took Game 3 by the score of 4-1 and went on to win the series in seven games.

Overall, Makela shone brightly and briefly for the Islanders. He played on Long Island for four seasons before being traded to the L.A. Kings for Ken Baumgartner and Hubie McDonough part way into his fifth season in November 1989.

That 1986-87 season was a major step forward for Makela, as he tallied 24 goals and 33 assists for 57 points. He followed that season up with a true breakout year in 1987-88 when he put up impressive totals of 36-40-76. Makela led the Islanders in shooting percentage on more than occasion and even found himself among the league leaders in that category.

It all went south quickly. Makela never again scored more than 45 points in an NHL season. He was out of the league by the start of the 1991-92 season except for an 11-game cameo with the Boston Bruins after the lockout in 1994-95. Surrounding that stint, he did achieve some success playing in Finland, Sweden, and Germany. He retired as a player in 1999.

In the years since his playing days ended, Makela has stayed in the hockey scene, perhaps in ways you wouldn't have imagined. He served as an assistant coach for Lethbridge of the WHL (where he met his wife while competing in the 1987 Canada Cup) for the first few months of the 2002-03 season before taking over as head coach in December 2002. He remained in that position until January 2004. Makela also spent time as a junior coach and GM in Finland.

In 2007, Makela established Mikko Makela's Hockey Program, a hockey skills and strength and conditioning development program also based in Lethbridge. He serves as owner/director/instructor for the program, which has four other staff members.

My hopes that Mikko would become the Islanders' next perennial 50-goal scorer never were realized. Despite that disappointment, I do have fond memories of rooting for him and was pleased to find him still involved in the game.

hockeydb.com, islesinfo.com, and HockeyDraftCentral.com served as additional sources for this article.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Instituting the Golden Rule for Web 2.0 and Beyond

I'm primarily an Islanders writer. Since joining Bleacher Report, I've been excited about the idea of tackling other areas, particularly the Mets, MLB at large, fantasy sports, and perhaps a few others. I've been wading into those waters slowly (they're still a bit nippy this time of year). In the meantime, the hockey season, by strict definition, is over.

That's not to say that the Stanley Cup Playoffs won't provide appropriate material for posts to Islanders Outsider. We'll see what unfolds. Otherwise, the offseason is spent wondering where the next story will come from. Today, it comes from my Blog Box colleague, Dee Karl, of The 7th Woman.

Over the weekend, she posted an article on Bleacher Report about Sean Avery's latest foray into the absurd. She was fully aware when she posted it that the article could cause a firestorm. The number of article views and comments clearly indicates that the storm's arrival was swift and surly.

I have an opinion on what Avery did (unsportsmanlike, clownish), as well as an opinion on Dee's contribution to the story (a valid statement of one person's reaction). This story isn't about those things. It's about the comments that readers attached to Dee's article, and how they finally tipped me over the edge to write about the disintegration of decency online.

My greatest, and perhaps only, discouragement to applying for a position in the Blog Box was years of reading Internet message boards and blog comments. I deplore the base level of cynicism, hate, and childishness that flows so frequently online to such a degree that I hesitated to participate in anything even remotely related to it. I'm glad I overcame that hesitation. But the ugliness is still there. And it really makes me wonder...

How can there be so many people out there who are so comfortable with disparagement and denigration as tools of debate?

Do they hope to gain in the argument from the use of vulgarity and name calling?

And, if not, what do they gain? Is it a feeling of triumph, pleasure, or joy at having verbally thrashed someone with little chance of reprisal?

How did we arrive at a place where a significant portion of our population engages in this shade of communication?

This is not a call for censorship, by the way. I'm not offended outright by language. It's the sentiment behind it. The question here isn't, "What gives people the right?" It's, "What gives them the motivation?"

Was this negative energy sitting latent all those years before widespread Internet access was available? Or were people regularly so unkind to each other and I just didn't notice?

We are in the midst of an attack-oriented era of entertainment. You can see its underpinnings in the comments on Dee's article. Some of the commenters are so focused on the attack that they have not even noticed that the author is a woman, despite a prominent byline and picture. Others point to her bias as a justification for telling her to give up writing or that she's not really a hockey fan. This was quite obviously an editorial piece. Having a bias is not grounds for being discredited.

Here's an anticipated reaction to what I'm saying: "If you don't like the comments, don't read them and you won't have anything to complain about."

Here's my pre-emptive response: "If you don't like the article, don't insult the writer and your criticisms will carry more weight."

The truth is that the offending responses in this case weren't all that bad on the spectrum of nastiness. But this easy willingness to launch personal attacks happens all over. Just a few days ago, Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog, one of the most popular and successful sports blogs out there, was forced to hold comments in limbo because the integrity of the site was being damaged by offensive remarks. Here's some of what Matt had to say about it:

…thanks to recent activity in Comment’s Section of MetsBlog.com, i fear my blog will soon be known as the place for angry, violent, fringe fans who are only interested in spewing hate and venom…

…so far, a small, but very loud group of fans have essentially hijacked this site’s comment’s section with mean, disrespectful and angry banter…

Can't we do better than that? It doesn't have to be about raising the level of discourse (but it can be). It is about opening the issue of why anger, hate, and disrespect are acceptable forms of entertainment and social interaction.

Some of you will agree that this is important, and some will argue that you have the right to say whatever you want and take satisfaction in it. If it's true that some people really get enjoyment out of such an approach, then there's not much I can say except that I don't get it any more than I get Sean Avery.

Perhaps that's as far as it goes. I still think a little good nature goes a long way.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Garth Snow's Vote of Confidence for Ted Nolan

When I saw the headline of Greg Logan's article in today's Newsday, I thought, "Ah, there it is: a vote of confidence for the coach." Surely, I was about to read quotes from GM Garth Snow that would settle the rumblings about Ted Nolan's suddenly murky future with the Islanders. Truth be told, said murkiness was speculation and analysis fueled by Nolan's worry over entering the final year of his contract without an extension having been discussed.

I never took seriously the notion that Nolan might not return for the 2008-09 campaign. That would require a catastrophic disagreement over Nolan's ability to coach effectively on the final year of his deal, or a personality conflict involving that dangerous word, respect.

Either way, it just seems unlikely. Both men were granted an opportunity that likely wasn't going to come from another team anytime soon. They will give this opportunity their best shot.

So, considering that Nolan is as good an option as anyone to helm the bench, and that he deserves to continue as coach, a vote of confidence at this juncture was a wise next step in the transition to next season.

The only issue is, after reading the article, I can't quite classify the remarks made by Snow as a vote of confidence. Instead, let's call them a note of confidence.

Snow characterized his relationship with Nolan as "good, great." In response to a question on the circumstances under which Nolan wouldn't be coaching the Islanders next year, Snow said, "I don't see any reason. He's our coach."

It wasn't exactly, "Ted Nolan is a terrific coach and remains a critical component for the future success of our organization." It was, however, a solid enough statement that things behind the scenes have not gone terribly awry.

Snow goes on to describe his vision of developing a winning team, which centers around an injection of youth. This could be a potential source of friction between the coach and GM (with Jeff Tambellini as the poster boy), but Snow believes that any disagreements they have are part of a healthy working relationship.

I would certainly like to see this duo succeed together. And, yes, no small part of that is the chance to see one guy who was ridiculed and another who was blackballed come out on top. They also happen to be easy to root for. I'm also a believer that Nolan's talent as a coach should be equally effective with youthful players as it is with veterans.

Speaking of easy to root for, Logan's blog had a surprising revelation about Wade Dubielewicz. Logan used his blog to publish a slew of information that didn't fit in the original Snow article. Snow revealed that a contributing factor to Nolan's heavy use of Rick DiPietro early in the season was that Dubielewicz didn't report to camp in great shape.

Dubie has never seemed like type of guy to slack off over the summer because he finally scored his first one-way deal. Whatever caused him to lack fitness, his subsequent high quality of play in the second half may not be enough to overcome the perception that he let the team down early on. In that light, the signing of Joey MacDonald takes on new meaning.

For what it's worth, Snow said that the future of Dubie as an Islander could still go either way. I've seen all I need to see to be satisfied with him backing up DiPietro again next year.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Wang Speaks Out on Contracts, Coach

Charles Wang spent the last days of his hockey club's season opening up to the media about the status of his head coach. On one occasion, he said exactly the right things. On another, his words may have been better left unsaid.

During the broadcast of last Thursday's home finale, Wang appeared in a taped interview with play-by-play man Howie Rose. Among other topics, the owner of the Islanders opened up on his feelings about the season, the progress of the Lighthouse Project, and the team's development philosophy.

When asked about the uncertainty surrounding head coach Ted Nolan as he enters the final year of his three-year contract, Wang held fast to his beliefs. He told Rose that Nolan's contract situation was an internal matter that he was not inclined to discuss in public.

Regarding the question of whether Nolan should receive an extension before his current deal runs out, or at least an indication that an extension may be forthcoming, Wang firmly stated that all contracts have a final year; if not, there's no point in having a contract.

Wang is correct in taking both of these positions. While the media may feel it is their job to ask these questions, ownership and management are under no obligation to answer them. Discussing such matters publicly undermines the internal processes that a club uses to evaluate its staff. When you consider that Nolan has an entire year left on his contract, expecting Wang to comment on a possible extension now is unrealistic.

Furthermore, the expectation of an extension at this point is premature. Yes, Wang could add a perceived measure of stability to the Islanders by signing Nolan on for two to three more years right now. However, it is not unreasonable for an employer to require an employee to fulfill his commitment before receiving another contract.

The argument for extending now is that Nolan enters the 2008-09 season as a lame duck. If this were any other coach, that might be a problem. But when NHL players are surveyed, Nolan's name often lands at or near the top of the list of coaches for whom they would most like to play. Nolan is not likely to lose the locker room simply because his status for the following season is unsettled.

If there is a worry, it is that the pressure of trying to earn his keep will affect his decision making. The decisions of a coach may very greatly depending on whose future is foremost in his mind: the organization's or his own.

In his term with the Islanders, Nolan has presented himself with impeccable professionalism. He has also earned a reputation for sticking with veterans to a fault. It is on this issue where Wang took his misstep. In talking to Greg Logan of Newsday, who was instrumental in sparking the public discussion of the coach's future, Wang called for Nolan to learn from his mistakes:

The best thing about this non-playoff season, in Wang's view, was the prospects' performance. "If you look at what has happened - and it certainly has changed in the last two months or so - they've proven him wrong," the owner said of Nolan.

"We all may have a predetermined way of looking at something. But what we should do after the season is look in the mirror and say, 'What have I learned from this thing?'"

Wang's point about Nolan being wrong has merit, but stating it in public seems like an unusual way to foster harmony within the organization.

Logan also noted that Nolan has expressed concern about the team's commitment to him by leaving him with only a year and no promises beyond that. Of course, Nolan should remember that it was Wang who surprisingly dismissed Peter Laviolette after the 2002-03 season when Laviolette seemed to have all the security he needed. Thus, a perceived measure of stability may still suffer from the harshness of reality.

In the end, Nolan certainly deserves the chance to return for the final year of his contract and demonstrate why his term should continue. The Islanders, in turn, reserve the right to a longer period of evaluation before they make decisions about leadership that will be in place for the 2009-10 season.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jack Hillen Makes His NHL Debut for the Islanders

I'll say this: for two games that have no playoff implications for the Islanders, this home-and-home with the Rangers to close out the season has a surprising and worthwhile amount of buzz for the Long Island faithful.

First off, we have the NHL debut of defenseman Jack Hillen, straight from being eliminated from the NCAA tournament as a member of the WCHA's Colorado College Tigers. Unlike Kyle Okposo, Hillen has four years of college hockey under his breezers. Also unlike Okposo, Hillen was an undrafted free agent, so none of that pesky first-round draft choice pedigree stuff to live up to. What he does come with is a track record of continuous improvement that was appealing enough to spark a competition for his services.

When I found out that Hillen had signed with the Isles, I was immediately pleased that the team had added a solid prospect in an area in which it lacks depth. But it's awfully funny how surprising news such as this can make you react as you being to gather facts about the player. Here's a sample of my reactions:

Fact: An offensive-minded defenseman.
Reaction: Excellent! They are in desperate need of a power play quarterback!

Fact: Doesn't like to take slap shots from the point on the power play.
Reaction: What?! *confusion* You can't run the power play without a slap shot!

Fact: Has a knack for getting his wrist shot through from the point.
Reaction: Phew. I'll take it. I've seen enough point shots not get anywhere near the net this year.

Fact: Highest scoring defenseman in Division I this year.
Reaction: Excellent! I think I'm currently the highest scoring defenseman on the Isles. Or maybe it's Schuerlein.

Fact: Scored 37 points on 6 goals and 31 assists this year.
Reaction: Hmm...that certainly demonstrates a knack for creating offense, but only six goals? Wouldn't the dominant offensive defenseman in the NCAA put a few more pucks in the net? That's what we're looking for. Oh, yeah, he doesn't have a cannon. On the other hand, six goals in 41 games projects to 12 over an NHL-length season. Not quite Mike Green numbers, but at least we're in the ballpark. And if he really is as good of a puck mover as they say he is...

And more of that. But it's at this point that I rein it in and say: He's only 22, the idea that he'll step in next year and lead the power play is pie-in-the-sky thinking at this point, and let's just be excited about getting a look for two games. The Islanders did a good job in locating a needed asset and securing it. I'm just looking forward to watching what the future may bring. In April 2008 (and at lots of other times, unfortunately), that's what it means to be an Islanders fan.

The other sources of buzz? Finishing the season with back-to-backs against the rival Rangers still means something even if the Islanders only have pride for which to play. At stake? Bragging rights to end the season, and the Metro Ice Challenge. Perhaps one day the Metro Ice Challenge will equal the Mayor's Trophy game in luster. Then again, that one went on a good ten years after anyone stopped caring about it. At least this one involves games that actually count. If a sponsorship must be involved, maybe next year it can be the Bloomberg Mayor's Metro Ice Challenge. Of course, this competition involves only one team that plays in New York City. Foiled. That's what happens sometimes when you write out loud.

Finally, then, there is the question of where the Isles will finish in the standings and how much of a shot they will have at the #1 pick in the draft. I wonder how the top prospects of the past two years feel knowing that this year's draft lottery is getting the Crosby treatment, while theirs was broadcast to the world using one of those horns from the Ricola commercials.

It's not in my nature to root for the Islanders to lose, and I wish they were going into this home-and-home with a more accomplished lineup. But I am not above rooting for the teams the Islanders are jockeying for position with to win, just in case the Isles do come out with a couple of victories themselves.