Information Age has turned NHL front office work into a growth industry

( Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Wayne Fish

Most of us seem to enjoy living in the Information Age, but some, like the growing number of people employed by professional hockey teams, have to work hard to reap the benefits.
There’s so much data out there and not enough time to figure out what is useful and what isn’t. From a technological standpoint, it can be dizzying.

Imagine – or remember – what it was like 20 years ago at the dawn of cell phones and digital video. There wasn’t a need for large staffs, mainly because so much of scouting, training, medical treatment and the like were done the old-fashion way, i.e., by the book. But when the book gave way to the Internet, everything changed.

Take a team like the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1995-96, the hockey operations staff – from owner down to equipment guys – totaled 21 people. Ten years later, that number jumped to 32. Today, the hockey ops roster has reached 43.

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WHL will take backseat at draft to Penticton Vees and their two can’t-miss prospects

Ryan Kennedy
Tyson Jost. (Garrett James Photography)

The 2016 draft shapes up to be very unique, and not just because an American kid playing in Switzerland is poised to go first overall. Another intriguing wrinkle concerns Western Canada, where the WHL is going to take a backseat for once. The top two players from that region play Jr. A in the British Columbia League.

Center Tyson Jost and defenseman Dante Fabbro both play for the Penticton Vees, a real heavy outfit that has scorched the BCHL this season and put together some insane streaks. “It’s pretty special when you go 23 games without a loss,” Jost said. “It’s nice to experience all that winning, but you have to keep focused and keep getting better.”

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How St. Louis has turned into a youth hockey hotbed full of top prospects

Matthew Tkachuk. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

You can’t always get the narrative you want. The St. Louis Blues spearheaded an effort to get their city the world juniors in 2018, but fell in the final round to Buffalo, which has quickly become a hub for big events in the hockey world thanks to Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s building spree.

The Sabres will again do an excellent job with the WJC, just as they did in 2011. But when you consider how good grassroots hockey has become in St. Louis, it’s too bad the U.S. doesn’t have another event for the Gateway Arch city.

Take a look at this year’s draft rankings and you’ll find Missouri flavor. Matthew Tkachuk leads the way as a top-five prospect, while fellow first-round hopefuls Logan Brown, Clayton Keller and Luke Kunin, plus potential second-rounder Trent Frederic, all hail from the area. Drafted natives include goalie Luke Opilka (St. Louis) and Ryan MacInnis (Arizona), both of whom play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Simply put, it’s getting hot in there.

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With a special needs child to raise, a nomadic hockey life has been tough on Jason Labarbera and his family

Jason Labarbera with wife Kodette and sons Easton, left, and Ryder.

By Jason Buckland

The email arrived after the first day of school. Kodette LaBarbera sank into the couch to read it.

It had been a milestone morning for her and her husband, Jason, the longtime NHL goalie, who was in his fourth and final season as a Phoenix Coyote. It was September 2012, and the couple had sent their first born, three-and-a-half-year-old Ryder, to his very first day of class.

What was a happy occasion quickly soured. Kodette recoiled as she scanned the note in her living room that night, a tersely worded directive from an official at Ryder’s new school that the boy had already been considered a poor fit. “They basically told us,” she said, “that Ryder was a freak and he wasn’t welcome back, that there was something wrong with him, that we should get him to a doctor.”

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Backchecking: No one knows what it’s like to be traded better than former NHLer Brent Ashton

The Hockey News
Brent Ashton.

By Joshua Kloke

Players looking for advice on dealing with trade deadline fallout should call Brent Ashton. After all, he was dealt a remarkable eight times over his 14 NHL seasons.

Ashton began his NHL career with the Vancouver Canucks in 1979 after going 26th overall in the 1979 draft, then was shipped to the Colorado Rockies two years later. From there, Ashton’s rollercoaster of a career took off as he would play for four teams in the four seasons to follow.

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Cam Janssen revives hockey career in England as Sheriff of Nottingham

The Hockey News
Cam Janssen. (Karl Denham)

By Jason Buckland

In the English city of Nottingham, inside a white brick building that rests against the soft sandstone of Castle Rock, there is a pub named Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. It was founded in the 12th century, and while one of its newest patrons is no giant, the tavern is so old, its doorways and corridors recalling a time so far away, even he must duck his head each time he enters.

Cam Janssen, all six feet of him, likes to sit there now, in his new city, the latest stop in a long and perhaps unlikely career. Last August, with no immediate pro suitors in the U.S. or Canada, the longtime Devils and Blues bruiser signed with the Nottingham Panthers of the British Elite League.

He was uniquely suited for the destination. Janssen has always devoured tales of European history, and he can’t help but grab a stool in his new favorite pub and wonder about it all, to envision living in the Middle Ages, or what it would have been like to make it under the rule of King Henry VIII.

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People come over and say hi to the tough American, a leader of the local pro hockey club that even Janssen can’t believe is so popular in town. The crowds at the Panthers’ arena howl for their team, up to 7,000 roaring fans packed on top of the rink for home games. Nottingham promotes Janssen as a star, the fans chant his name and the small-town boy from the Midwest can’t help but crack a smile. “I get a kick out of it,” he has to admit.
Not that Janssen isn’t everything a rowdy English sports fan likes to root for. In the NHL, where he played 336 games over nine seasons, Janssen was a tough guy’s tough guy, a brawler and grinder content to drop gloves at the first sign he was needed.

Sometimes, his fists were tools of survival. Janssen’s most infamous NHL moment came on March 2, 2007, in New Jersey, when his runaway shoulder caught the head of Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle and sent him spinning to the ice. It was a late blow, Janssen can concede now, and something he felt bad about. He had hurt Kaberle, who was laid up for three weeks after the hit.

But almost as soon as medics wheeled onto the ice to deliver a stretcher to Kaberle, each Leaf seemed to be circling his calendar. The Devils would have to visit the Air Canada Centre just 18 days later. The chance for revenge was baked right into the NHL schedule.
Janssen was only 22 then, in his second season in the league, though it was his job as enforcer to handle these kinds of dust-ups. On March 20, Toronto’s crowd cried for blood during the rematch, and sure enough, nine minutes into the first period, Janssen heard his name.

He turned to see Wade Belak cutting a towering figure, 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, with no mistake in his eyes. Of course it would be Belak. Janssen always knew it would be him.
The arena began to erupt. “It was so loud,” Janssen said, “ I almost had a heart attack.”
Janssen skated toward Belak, his fists in the air. It was time to make this right.

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Janssen is in a fine mood on this Friday evening late in November, happy to dig back into it all – the Kaberle affair, his improbable rise through the youth hockey ranks in rural Missouri and the latest turn in his long career.

As other ex-NHL fighters labor in minor leagues across North America, Janssen decided last summer to seek employment elsewhere. He is just 31 but knows he is almost certainly done in the NHL. If it were up to him, he said, playing in the U.K. would be his final hockey destination.

England is a long way from Eureka, Mo., not only in distance but in culture, too. “There’s not too many hillbillies (in the U.K.),” Janssen cracks, “if that’s what you’re asking.”

He kids, but Janssen is very proud of his home, 45 minutes outside St. Louis. Eureka is the town he owes everything to. It’s where he played minor hockey at a time when the only career options for kids there seemed to be in construction or the military. In high school, those gifted enough played football. Failing that, they sure didn’t play hockey.
But Janssen, under the counsel of his father, Dennis, and his mother, Amy, insisted the sport was for him. He first reached the OHL, yet his scoring (never more than seven goals in either of his three seasons) was not what turned heads. Instead, Janssen had an obvious grit to him. He was physical, always clearly among the toughest players on the ice, and he soon caught the eye of the Devils. New Jersey picked him in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2002 draft.

In 2005, after a season in the AHL, Janssen made his big league debut, proving almost immediately to be one of the hardest hitters in the game. He never put up many points, but he wasn’t really supposed to, either. Janssen was there – for five seasons (over two stints) with the Devils, four with his hometown Blues – to be physical, to put fear into his opponents, to embolden his teammates.

He was a fighter, though he considered himself more than that. Janssen created space for teammates to skate freely, and that was a badge he wore proudly. “A guy like Cam,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, who played with Janssen in New Jersey, “takes care of all the stuff nobody wants to.”

Janssen3

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Everybody has their favorite stories, though even Janssen knows today he is best recalled for that night back in Toronto, nine years earlier. Belak, who loomed nearly half a foot over Janssen, won the fight in defense of Kaberle, according to voters on hockeyfights.com, but Janssen got his shots, too. (Belak, in fact, dropped to the ice first.) Most importantly, Janssen had faced the music. It told his teammates he wouldn’t back down from anybody. “I went in there and stood my ground,” he said. “And you never really heard anything about it since.”

A willingness to mix it up is now endearing him to new fans  in the U.K. A good tilt, Janssen has found, translates just fine to British hockey.

Janssen is playing more minutes in England and scoring more than he ever did in the NHL, but in many ways his role is the same as it has always been. “I still do my thing,” he said. “I’m still crushing guys. I’m fighting. I get my respect.” He continues, chuckling now: “I’m hitting guys pretty hard.”

The checks did not take long to arrive. On Sept. 19, during one of Janssen’s first regular season games with the Panthers, David Clarke, Nottingham’s captain, looked on as Janssen lined up an opponent along the edge of the ice. Clarke was struck by the crunch made by plexiglass and boards. “The noise was just deafening,” he said. “Thank goodness that player turned (to see Janssen), ’cause if he hadn’t it would have been lights out.”

Janssen has clicked with the Panthers as the patriotic American his British teammates, Clarke among them, love to rib him about.

Perhaps he has fit in even better in Nottingham. Janssen has taken kindly to England, and the rich history across all of Europe has provided him an unending tapestry of churches and monuments to explore. In his off-time, Janssen and his fiancée, Kate, have already visited London and Paris, and any chance the Panthers get to play road games in Scotland makes Janssen grow fond. Edinburgh Castle, in particular, has captured his heart.

Janssen has it made, he said, with the Panthers. The team pays his rent and taxes, and even provides a car to use. While the cheques are of course smaller than they were in the NHL, after all the team comps Janssen said his net compensation compares with what he could make in the AHL. He’d like to stay with the Panthers for four, maybe five seasons. However long his body holds up, he said. There are worse ways for he and Kate to live.
He looks back toward the NHL, but Janssen doesn’t do so wistfully or with regret. He’s pleased with his time in the league, proud that he was able to play for so long in the role he held. “Not many guys made more out of the tools he had than Cam did,” said Peter DeBoer, who coached Janssen in New Jersey.

His career churns on, an ocean away, but in the end he will be remembered for what he did best in the NHL. For Janssen, there will be no forgetting the hits, the fights, big Wade Belak coming fast toward him. “No one,” he said, “will ever be able to take those years away from me.”

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the February 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Packing a punch: Artemi Panarin has gone from KHL obscurity to first-line minutes in Chicago

The Hockey News
Artemi Panarin. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Dan Marrazza

When the 2012-13 lockout ended, the effects went way beyond the NHL, NHLPA, players and fans. They were felt as far away as Russia, where Artemi Panarin was languishing in anonymity on HC Chekhov Vityaz, the KHL’s version of the Bad News Bears.

Chekhov’s leading scorer during a good portion of Panarin’s four seasons with the team was ex-NHL enforcer Chris Simon. One of his coaches was former NHL goon Andrei Nazarov, whose KHL coaching career has been marked by a series of ugly incidents, including when he attacked an opposing team’s fans with a stick and hospitalized his team’s doctor following a physical altercation in the dressing room. Panarin never had more than 12 goals in any season while playing for Chekhov, based in the Russian industrial city of Podolsk. He bounced back and forth between his team’s top scoring lines and its bottom six, as Chekhov finished at or near the bottom of its conference four straight years.

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Future Watch 2016: the NHL’s top 10 falling prospects

Matt Larkin
Jacob De La Rose. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The glass was decidedly half full last week when I revealed the top 10 rising prospects in THN Future Watch 2016. It’s half empty now. Every year, dozens of youngsters rise in their farm development, and countless others are drafted into teams’ systems, so it’s inevitable, then, that some prospects tumble down the overall rankings.

To recap the Future Watch ranking process: we start by consulting scouts from all 30 NHL franchises, who rank their organizations’ top 10 prospects who are not yet full-time NHLers, creating a pool of 300 players. We turn that list over to our scouting panel, which typically consists of 15 executives, head scouts and GMs, with the number fluctuating slightly year to year. Each member ranks the top 50 players from the group of 300. We then assemble the votes to create an aggregate top 50, which expands to the top 75 players who received top-50 votes.

Stefan Matteau and Brandon Gormley plunged the most last year. Who took the biggest dives this time around? Here are the top (bottom?) 10. Keep in mind no player drafted in 2015 was eligible, nor was any player who graduated to full-time NHL duty since last season.

Read on at your own peril, Canadiens fans. Don’t shoot the messenger.

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