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An interview with Eric Duhatschek

On Tuesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to conduct Illegal Curve’s first ever interview with long-time Calgary Herald and current Globe & Mail hockey writer Eric Duhatschek. Duhatschek, along with former Calgary Flames head coach Dave King, have co-written a book called “King of Russia: a Year in the Russian Super League.” The book, just released earlier this month, chronicles a year in the life of a hockey coach in Siberia. It is fair to say that coaching over in the Russian Super League is nothing like coaching anywhere in North America. You can purchase a copy of the book through the following link. King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super Leagueir?t=illecurv 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0771029128

Here is my interview with Duhatschek:

Richard: What are your thoughts on the proliferation of hockey blogging on the internet?

Eric: I think it’s a great thing. I started working at the Globe when they started becoming a 24/7 website in 2000. At that time, the newspaper industry didn’t know what to make of the internet. They were trying to figure out a way of making a profit and a lot of the start-ups in those days, after about two year’s time, started to falter. The people who went to work for and all kind of lost their jobs and there was no clear sense of how to fully utilize the internet. I think it was really the onset of hockey blogging is what, certainly on the sports side, gave it a lot of momentum because there are really a lot of interesting voices out there, and those of us in the mainstream media, there are really only a handful of us in Canada; so you really didn’t get the variety of information or opinion. Now, there are so many voices out there that it means that every opinion in the spectrum can be reflected. I get emails all the time from fans, bloggers or what not that have really unique ways of looking at things, and it is a valuable resource to have.

Richard: Speaking of hockey blogs, much has been written in the blogging world about the waning attendance numbers in the NHL and with Buffalo’s home sell-out streak coming to an end last night and Detroit and Colorado having attendance troubles, what is your take on the NHL’s early season attendance problems?

Eric: I think it is an issue. If you went to the NHL, this seems to happen every year in October, and if you noticed, there are very few games being played this month. In fact, if you take a look at the schedule, it may be the lightest week of the season. I think that, especially in the United States, you have a conflict with the baseball playoffs, the middle of the NFL season, college football is getting really interesting and I think that in non-traditional markets, attendance has a tendency to pickup after December 1st, when “winter” arrives. I think that ideally the NHL would like to do away with as many October and November games as possible and I think next year you will see that they will start the season a little bit later and try and play more games in the final four months of the season. In every market there is a different explanation. For example, in Detroit I think attendance is down because of the ticket prices are a big issue and the economy is a big issue. In Denver, it is most likely because people are distracted by baseball and there are only a finite number of dollars that they are prepared to spend on sports entertainment and right now the baseball team is probably getting money that the NHL might otherwise get. Also, a city like Nashville, attendance is absolutely critical to saving the franchise, and yet there are still thousands and thousands of empty seats there every game. So yes it’s an issue and it is one that the NHL wants to downplay but it won’t go away and it doesn’t ever change and it always speak to the fact that hockey is still lower on the totem pole than the other three major sports.

Richard: Moving on to more on-ice related questions, actually about a team that does draw extremely well with their attendance, and that is the Minnesota Wild. Last season they were everyone’s sleeper pick to upset the Ducks in the first round and were ousted in five games. So far this season they have looked terrific, did hockey fans and media underestimate the capabilities of this team?

Eric: When I gave my predictions for the Northwest Division I had Minnesota atop the division at season’s end, followed by Colorado, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton in that order. Actually I was 7-1 in the 1st round last year and the series I missed was Minnesota/Anaheim. I did think that Minnesota was on the verge of something, mostly because I love their goaltending with Niklas Backstrom in net. He has come in and done what Miikka Kiprusoff has done for Calgary, just a complete about face for the franchise; as good as Roloson/Fernandez were in the expansion years, and they were really good goaltenders but Backstrom takes them to another level. If you’ve got a goaltender of that calibre, close to being in the Brodeur/Luongo range, and the reason he is not in that class yet is because he hasn’t had the staying power, I mean he has only been the number one for the better part of half a season. But if he continues to go on and play the way he is right now, suddenly the Wild have enough offense, and I think they have demonstrated that they have enough grit, which was an issue obviously against Anaheim. That was really the worst possible first round opponent for Minnesota last playoffs. So yes, I think the Wild are pretty much where I thought they were going to be, I thought they were a team going onwards and upwards in the second half of last year and they have just picked up where they left off; they are getting better all the time.

Richard: While Backstrom has done a great job of establishing himself as the unequivocal number one in Minnesota, over in Ottawa things are a lot less clear. With Ray Emery pronouncing himself healthy and ready to go, do you see a goalie controversy brewing in Ottawa between Martin Gerber and Emery?

Eric: It is possible, but I think that what they have to do is they have to get Emery in because he was their go-to guy last year. They have said that they will work him in, but I also don’t think that Gerber will become an afterthought either which is what happened last year. I mean Emery got his chance because Gerber was playing so poorly and when Gerber got opportunities again to win the job back last season, or at least become part of the mix, he did a poor job of picking up the torch. Whereas, now because he Gerber) started so well, I think he is going to be part of the mix from here on in. With Emery, it is going to take him a little while to get comfortable and I think that he is like Backstrom, in that, he has had a real good start to his career but isn’t there yet. Also, Gerber does have some history of being pretty good. Having two goalies that can play will create pressure on both of them, and that is not necessarily a bad thing for the Ottawa Senators. Their issue in the past has been that their goaltending hasn’t been good enough, but if they can demonstrate they have two guys that can play then, hey, no problem.

Richard: Still on the topic of goaltending, you wrote a column yesterday about Los Angeles sending Jonathan Bernier back down to juniors and giving J.S. Aubin the opportunity to play in between the pipes. I was wondering if you see Aubin keeping the job or if you see the Kings trading for a goaltender in not so distant future?

Eric: I don’t see them making a trade for a goaltender because I think that as much as they would like to win in the present, Dean Lombardi’s (Kings’GM) history is to try and show patience. They’ve got nice pieces of the puzzle there with and Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson and you just can’t fast track that development. Kopitar, in two years time, will be better than he is now and same with Johnson and Bernier will probably be ready to play in two years time. You also have Dan Cloutier in the minors eating up a lot of cash and you have two other guys in Labarbara and Aubin that you want to give a look to; to bring a fifth goaltender into the mix right now, I don’t see that happening. I have heard some people speculate that maybe Los Angeles would be a nice soft landing for Martin Gerber because he did spend a lot of time in Anaheim backing up J.S. Gigure years ago but I don’t see the Kings committing those kinds of dollars to it. I think Aubin should get a chance because he has the reputation of a guy that can get hot, and if he goes on a run like he did in the spring of 2006 for the Maple Leafs, he can fill that spot for them. If not, they also have to monitor Cloutier’s progress in the minors. I spoke to Cloutier when I was down in L.A. about a month ago and he acknowledged that his game wasn’t where he wanted it to be and there are some people who wonder if he’ll ever get it to where it was. He was a good goalie for Vancouver for a number of years, and if he can get his confidence back in the minors, and L.A. still hasn’t solved their goaltending issues as of November 1st, I’m sure they will give Cloutier one more chance to get his career back on track. They are actually committed to him this year and next year contract wise, so they have to give him the opportunity to prove that he can’t play in the NHL and if that is the case, then you are looking at a buyout at the end of the season. If all that fails, then you may have to be more open to a goaltending move and become more proactive in the market, but until that time I just don’t see the value of moving for a quick fix; I think you have to stick to the long-term rebuilding plan.

Richard: Los Angeles does have a lot of good young talent and should be interesting to watch the next couple of years. I also wanted to ask you about the play of the Thrashers recently. I have watched them on a number of occasions and have read the rumours about Bob Hartley possibly being let go, but after evaluating their entire roster, does as much or more blame fall on the shoulders of Don Waddell? Is there a possibility of a shake-up in Atlanta?

Eric: Bob Hartley is a real tough coach, in the same vein as a Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman, and I think that what ended up happening is that that approach works, if you are winning. That is why it worked in Colorado as long as it did; he had the Sakics, and Forsbergs of the world so I’m not sure if he has had the same situation in Atlanta. He did have an emerging Kovalchuk, but I’m sure Kovalchuk has to be a frustrating guy to coach, he has all the skill in the world, and they wanted him to evolve into a better two way player and a more consistent producer. Kovalchuk is one of those guys who will have three goals and an assist one night, then go weeks without registering a point; he is somewhat like what Jaromir Jagr was in Washington. As a coach it would drive you crazy because on the basis of his salary, he has to be the go-to guy and you want your go-to guy to be a model of consistency. Whose fault is it? When Kovalchuk was threatening to stay in Russia a few years back, Don Waddell wanted to play hardball but the ownership there decided they didn’t want to do that and they ended up giving him the money he was looking for. So, I’m not sure you can really blame that on Waddell and certainly when Kovalchuk was coming into the league, if they hadn’t taken him they would have been subject to quite a bit of criticism. Although now it is looking like Jason Spezza was the pick there. However, if things continue to go sour then it is possible that both of them could actually lose their jobs but I don’t think anything is imminent now as we speak.

Richard: One of the reasons I wouldn’t want to see Hartley go is that, in this day and age of trapping hockey, the Thrashers actually play one of the more exciting brands of hockey in the NHL today.

Eric: I agree with that, they are an exciting team to watch. On one night they win 8-1 and on the next night they can lose 8-1. I don’t mind that unpredictability, that is the nature of professional sports, isn’t it? From one night to the next you don’t know necessarily what you are going to get. Although I think that as a Thrasher fan that must be frustrating, because you want to see signs of them turning into a consistent winner after all the time they have invested in the building process; you would think at some point, they would become one of the upper teams in the league as a result of the even flow nature of professional sport. It doesn’t seem to be happening there, and if last season was the peak and they are regressing, that’s not a very long period of time to be in the playoff picture. I think that you could probably, in hindsight, question a couple of those moves at last season’s trade deadline.

Richard: With our website having a number of contributors who are Oilers fans, they are wondering whether Kevin Lowe is looking to make a move after claiming this off-season that he was not going to stand pat.

Eric: From what I can gather, just by talking to a couple of general managers, is that things are very quiet right now. We are so early in the season that even the teams that are off to slow starts aren’t panicking yet. Most managers don’t think that your team truly emerges until a month has passed; especially when you have made changes and the Oilers have made quite a few. They still have to integrate all those guys on the blueline. If you think about it, Pitkanen wasn’t there before, Souray wasn’t there before, Grebsehkov is back from Russia and Tarnstrom played overseas last year too. A lot of guys who are playing a lot of important minutes for them are trying to find chemistry with the goaltenders and forwards as well. Even though they are in the midst of this losing streak, it is so soon into the season that it is too early to say that they are not going to be good enough. I don’t even know if they themselves think that they can suddenly go from the very poor finish that they had last year and then back to playoff contention this year. They may need a one year transition in order to get to that point. I don’t see anything happening anytime soon with the Oilers. It may be that when we get to December 1st and they are still having trouble scoring goals then they may need to look at their options. But the big thing is– you need a partner. You need two teams that are ready to do something and I don’t have that sense right now that there is anybody out there.

Richard: I think inactivity may be the best course of action for the Oilers. In my opinion, the Oilers are probably just better off letting their youngsters play the season out and develop. I’m not really sure what a rash trade would do at this point in time; most likely, it would just throw the chemistry out of whack again and set them back to training camp.

Eric: It is really interesting because obviously the Oilers are going to have to make a decision on Sam Gagner within about ten days time. They took him out of the line up for the game against Minnesota and they were shutout. The next game back, he picked up points again; and while a lot of his points are coming on the powerplay he can probably play at the NHL level. If you decide to send him back to juniors, will it feel like a demotion to him? Maybe what you have to do is bear with him; the assumption being that if you let him play a year in the NHL it will allow him to be an effective player three years from now. I don’t know the answer to that because I think that there are pros and cons when it comes to young players. There is a distinction to be made between him and Cogliano who is older. Certainly on the basis of what they have right now, he has earned his position on merit not because they are trying to push him in there. There is a part of me that thinks that if you don’t think you can win this year and this guy isn’t being intimidated and looks like he can handle heavy going, because he is slight, then stick with him. Pittsburgh had a similar decision to make last year with Jordan Staal, but he was physically a different guy and as a result of that I think they felt more confident in their decision. It is tough when a player is 18 or 19 years old, even at forward which is probably the easiest of the three positions to adjust to. I don’t see Edmonton being a playoff contender this year and if it is a transitional year in which you are concerned with developing your younger players and you deem him ready to play, then by all means keep him.

Richard: I think that Gagner’s offensive contribution is definitely an asset to a team that has received so little offensive production from its forward corps.

Eric: Absolutely. If Hemsky, Penner and Horcoff were scoring and the pressure was off the kids, I think that would be a really good situation. If their top players get their games going then Gagner and Cogliano can become a nice complimentary line. However, right now they are out-producing the nominal number one line and that shouldn’t be happening.

Richard: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask where you think Peter Forsberg’s top three preferred destinations are if he chooses to come back?

Eric: I’ve always been of the belief that Colorado is his destination of choice because I think that if he comes back, then money will be around the fourth most important reason. He wants a situation that is comfortable for him, a chance to win, and he wants to make sure that he is healthy and that he can contribute because he is one of those guys that is very proud and if he were to comeback as an average player, he probably wouldn’t comeback at all. Most reports are that he is feeling pretty good and that he is practicing with a team in Modo, and at a certain point, if he is convincing that he can play at the high level he is used to, he will then turn to his agent Don Baizley and say let’s start talking to various teams. If you ask me, there would be a comfort level with him in Colorado, there would be a comfort level in Detroit because of all of the Swedes they have there and there would be a comfort level in Vancouver. All three of those teams have a chance to win. I’m not convinced that Dallas has enough to win four playoff rounds; whereas, I would suggest that Vancouver, Detroit and Colorado all those teams, you could argue, have a chance to win four playoff rounds. Those are the three places I think are most likely for Peter Forsberg.

Richard: The Second last question I wanted to ask you is if you are going to be appearing on the Hot Stove on Hockey Night in Canada this season?

Eric: As of now, no. What happened was, they contacted both Pierre Lebrun and I at the beginning of September to say they have changed the programming and are not going to use journalists on the Satellite Hot Stove; instead they are going to use ex-players. The first two weeks it has been Scott Mellanby both times, and Sean Burke joined Mellanby last week. The new executive producer did leave the door open slightly for a possibility of something later on in the year. I think that part of the problem for me, being stationed in Calgary, was that they were trying to do away with the Satellite component of the broadcast. There were a lot of production issues with the old format that I had been on for the past ten years. People take for granted how difficult it was coordinating that format which, on many nights, had four people in four different places. I think by taking their show inside the CBC studios they eliminated a ton of their production problems. Also, there is a new regime at CBC sports that promised changes and to update the programming and Satellite Hot Stove had been on for 10-12 years. I guess it is like any series that has a good run, people wanted to stop and try something else. I mean it is kind of disappointing to not be able to do it but I have had a great relationship with the CBC in the past and hope at some point it continues; although it doesn’t seem like it would be in that particular format.

Richard: I will say this, people I have spoken to definitely miss you on the Hot Stove. All of the contributors of Illegal Curve are wishing the old format was back.

Eric: Well, it appears to be more of what you already get. That would be my only thing. I don’t want to say anything bad about the CBC because they have been really good to me for a long time but I had this discussion with Nancy Lee once or twice that in a six and a half hour programming block, devoting eight minutes to your hardcore, really knowledgeable audience is not a bad thing. At the end of the day, we were calling general managers and agents on daily basis getting really good information and a lot of the information we had been getting the past couple of years was solid. A lot of the thing we said at the trade deadline and year end show ended up happening. It wasn’t just gossip that was mostly wrong; it turned out to be information that was mostly right. I’m not sure that they have that in the new format and it may be that they decide they need it and they’ll try something different as they move along but I’m not privy to those decision right now so I don’t really know 100% what they are thinking.

Richard: Before we go, I wanted to ask you one last question. You covered the Flames for twenty years, is there one story or experience that sticks out in your mind over all the rest?

Eric: The very first thing I did was I tried out for the Flames while just starting my sports-writing career in Calgary. The managing editor of the paper wanted me to try out for the Flames and do a piece for the paper. I was 24 at the time and hadn’t played organized hockey in a while and I didn’t even own a pair of skates because I had just moved to Calgary. So I started doing some running with the Calgary Wranglers, a junior team in town, and was in okay shape. I did fine in the testing, finishing 9th out of 13th in the run and did more sit ups than Paul Reinhart. Although, I finished dead last in the strength testing by a lot because I am a tall, skinny guy. The next worst guy was 1/3 better than me. But what sticks out is I remember being on the ice the first time and being behind Kent Nilsson. A player I was aware of, but didn’t really know much about. The drill required you to start at your own blue line, cross the red-line and fire a shot from the far blueline. The idea being that you give the guy a gap and you took off. As I did this drill, I realized that I had to take off almost right after Kent Nilsson took off because this guy accelerated like I’ve never seen before and shot the puck like I’ve never seen before. It was unbelievable; at the end of one day Al McNeil said you can come out for a couple more practices and I told him I was just too far in over my head. Nilsson was unbelievable and of course later on that year he scored 130+ points, finished third in the NHL in scoring and Wayne Gretzky called him maybe the most talented player who has even played the game. I didn’t know that at the time and it was just so eye opening to see where the NHL was compared to what a very, very average player was. It was mind-boggling to me to see how good this guy was. I’ve tried to never lose that when I’m writing because the gap between the average person who plays shinny and the highest level at the NHL is extraordinary and you can really only see it when you are on the ice with them.

For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.