Sunday, January 24, 2010

Interview with Rhode Island GM Rob Merrills

1. What about the game of hockey draws you in as a fan?

It can be enjoyed on so many different levels - if you're feeling lazy,
just take in the speed, impacts, skill and physicality of the action on
the ice in its purest form - or take a little more interest and look at
the tactics, try to second guess the coaches, imagine how you'd counter
the defensive set up or protect your goaltender if you were wearing the
suit and tie during a game. And then - as with any US sport - there's the
stats (which is obviously where the fantasy interest comes in) - take a
couple of hours to watch a game, and then take the rest of the week to
make your analysis of it based on the figures. The way that the figures
are so integral to the TV coverage is great - everything's expressed in
numbers, in real time, no speculation or vacuous opinion - gives you the
chance to add so much more depth to what goes on if you're prepared to
take it all on board.

2. You mentioned that you played at the University level. Can you tell us
a bit about that (where, what position, fondest memories)?

Hah well - it was *while* I was at university, rather than at a level
anything approaching the US university programme - used to skate by way of
exercise at a rink near to campus and happened to be there as the local
semi-pro team was practicing one evening. Joined in to make up the
numbers, got thrown a mask and goaltenders stick as everyone else hated
going in nets, and took it up from there - loved it from the off. I was
part of the squad for just over a year - a National League team called the
Medway Bears - the standard was not good, so poor, in fact, that I managed
one appearance in a British League game when the first choice minder
deflected a puck up in to his face and went off to hospital, and the regular back up
was missing for some reason - took over for almost the entire third
period, and finished without conceding a goal. That was it in the senior
team, though, left University shortly after, and never picked up a stick
in anger again !

3. Favorite hockey smell?

same as with any other sports event - the stewed onions at the food
concession stands !

4. Does pro hockey exist in the UK? How is it viewed, in general?

It does exist, but is barely viewed at all, which is the problem. The
various leagues have never had much credibility in the media and get so
little coverage as to restrict it to very much minority sport level. There
is a national league, but the set up and teams seem to change on a regular
basis, which doesn't help to give it any sort of stability or lasting
profile. It might be different if the national team had any sort of
success, but it has made little or no impact on the world scene over the
years, and so there are no aspirational figures for young people to look
up to and hope to emulate, which kills the grassroots of the game. There's
a concerted effort to relaunch the game over here usually once a decade or
so, with a fanfare of high-level sponsorship and coverage on some minor
cable or satellite tv channel, but it invariably dies the death after a
season or so, and the game returns to its moribund state. Was - by all
accounts, very much more popular in the 1950's and 60's, but failed to
compete with football when TV sport became the big thing, and has never
regained significant popularity again

5. What are some of your favorite NHL moments?

the first winter classic was fantastic - got to see it live on tv over
here, and it was just great - the setting, the snow - everything (well -
other than the sabres losing - but that didn't really matter, in the
context...) - Other than that, Hartford beating the Nordiques in the mid
1980's for their one and only play-off series win - that was before
internet, satellite tv and any sort of coverage over here, so I had to
follow it on American Forces Radio and via three day old write ups in USA
Today !

6. Better movie - Mighty Ducks or Miracle?

Miracle by a country mile - it's next to impossible to get any sort of
feel for the history of the game over here, so anything that puts it in
perspective is great, even if it - errr - could have been slightly more
objective !

7. Daniel Carcillo, Sean Avery, Derek Boogard. Steel cage. Who wins?

Boogard only fights with kids, Carcillo only fights outdoors, and Avery is
a "jerk" (© Don Cherry) who messes with goaltenders: Pat Kaleta takes
the lot of 'em

8. You get to change one NHL rule. Go.

Get rid of the shoot out and go back to tied games - if two teams are even
over 60 minutes and overtime, then they're even, and don't need any circus
ring behaviour to artificially conjure up a "winner"

9. Your Stanley Cup prediction. Be bold.

Buffalo over San Jose in six; Sabres are down by at least three at one
point in all four games that they win...

10. You're in last place. What is it about your team that still brings
fans through the gate? Do you have a message for your fan base regarding the future of the

It's not necessarily the make up of the team per se that'll get fans
pouring in to the controversial new Cocumcussoc Auditorium when it's
complete - it'll be a continuation of the franchise's contrary attitude
that sets them apart from the rest of the WHL.

Take the name for starters – deliberately chosen to evoke (and probably
provoke) that deep seated colonial antipathy rooted in the Revolutionary
War, in the same way that the Columbus Bluejackets are unlikely to secure
too much market penetration in downtown Nashville and Atlanta, only
looking for disapproval on a non-exclusive nationwide basis. The Redcoats
are an unconventional, coldly analytical hockey club, with little loyalty
to underperforming players and an apparent predilection for inexplicable
trades that leave fans and hockey purists alike wondering exactly what is
going on.

It is, however, this outwardly shambolic lack of direction that appeals to
the fans - take your chances, make mistakes, hold on for the ride - the
one thing that there's not going to be is any predictability !

Undoubted future club captain Tyler Myers epitomises the club's ethic -
sure, the kid can play hockey with the best of ‘em, but why do the usual
dour, defenseman thing for twenty five minutes a game, when you can go on
rampaging forays up the ice, slipping the puck through the legs of other
guys and flailing slapshots to all parts - it's what the fans want to see
! Same with Del Zotto – fine two-way skater, but defensively flawed and
primarily an aspiring power-play quarterback – the emphasis is all about
outscoring an opponent, not blanking them. Milan Lucic, hey, a marquee
forward who’s not a natural goalscorer or skater, but can hold his own
when the gloves come off, and overpower a defense – he’s a Redcoat !
And Dustin Brown – probably the most gifted hockey player on the roster
and the leader on the ice – but no-one’s 100% certain exactly where
his lead may take the team….

It'll be a club made up of similar loose cannons when the recruiting is
done - maybe one or two regulation big names to fulfil the obligations
that a modern club has to the marketing and media sectors, but
predominantly, hard-nosed hockey mavericks with a more flair than tactical
savvy - more determination than delicate touches and probably twice as
many penalty minutes as points - the only thing that you can say for sure
about Redcoats hockey is that Lady Byng's Trophy will not be heading to
Rhode Island anytime soon....

As for the future, well, this half-season is just a cameo – a
scene-setting pretence of hockey playing normality on the back of
intransigent league-wide management and a waiver wire bereft of suitable
talent. It’ll be the 2010 draft that marks the real instigation of the
new order, and the season that follows will see a squad of Redcoats
players making their mark with Redcoats hockey. And no newts.

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