Monday, June 22, 2009

John Tavares, Reggie Bush redux and the Gretzky no one remembers

One question du jour is whether Garth Snow will really take someone whose name does not rhyme with "avares" for the New York Islanders with the No. 1 overall pick.

Actually, it's three questions, posed the way Homer Simpson did when he and Apu met the head of the Kwik-E-Mart: Are you really not going to take John Tavares? Really? You?

Ours is not to divine the intent of Snow, who has warned he "won't be ruled by popular opinion." (Newsday.) One point that might not have been as emphasized as it should have been is that what's happened with Tavares over the past several weeks also goes back to something a young Wayne Gretzky pointed out 30 years ago.

The rules in hockey for players under the age of 20, which tend toward the one-size-fits-all, make sense for 99.9 per cent of the players. As you know, Tavares ended up with four seasons of junior before becoming eligible for the draft, instead of the standard two. He had an extra season at the front end, when the OHL let him into the league as a underaged 15-year-old in 2005. The OHL acted logically. There was no budging the age cut-off for the NHL draft, even though Tavares was clearly one player who had overcome early-year bias to become regarded as Everyone's First Overall Pick.

You likely know that Gretzky turned pro at age 17 in 1978, signing with the World Hockey Association, which folded a year later (the Edmonton Oilers and three other teams from "the Waaaaaaah" joined the NHL in an expansion which the league called a merger, but was really an expansion). What is less remembered is Walter Gretzky's version of how that came to pass, as he told it in Gretzky: From the Back Yard Rink to the Stanley Cup, a memoir published in the mid-'80s.

As the elder Gretzky put it, Wayne suggested going after his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, made a mid-season coaching change. He called home and asked his father to call the late John Bassett, Jr. Bassett, who owned the Birmingham Bulls, was a bit of a precursor to Jim Balsillie, a rich guy from Southern Ontario who was not above firing a shot across the bow of the NHL. In Bassett's case, that meant signing players before they were old enough for the NHL draft (at the time, the league drafted players at age 20)
"... in the very year the two leagues had agreed to go ahead and keep hands off under-age players, he'd gone and signed Ken Linseman, an 18-year-old playing for the Kingston Canadians. The way Wayne had it figured, if Mr. Bassett would sign one under-age player, maybe he'd sign two.

"He was really upset. I tried to clam him down and said I'd call Mr. Bassett. Twenty minutes later the phone rang again. 'Did you get him?' Wayne asked. 'What did he say?'

"Now, I had no intention of calling Mr. Bassett. I just let on I had while I tried to settle Wayne down. 'Stay in junior,' I said. ... 'You've got three more years of junior. You can play one year as an over-age ... In four years ou can go just about wherever you want and name your price!'

" 'If I stay here four more years," he said, "I'll never play pro. The longer you stay the more fault they'll find. Call Mr. Bassett! Please!" (Emphasis mine.)
That seems to shed light on what's happened with the public perception of John Tavares. The two extra seasons in junior gave everyone a longer window to conduct their fault-finding mission, pick at his skating, his dedication to defensive play. They simply had a better chance to build a case that he's less The Franchise than a premier offensive talent.

(It's also fair game to ask what playing a half-season for the London Knights, whom some call "The U of junior hockey," did for Tavares' rep. The Knights, in certain puckhead circles, are a bit like the Miami Hurricanes in college football back in the day. They're talented, but tend to let people know it, which doesn't play well in hockey.)

The point Gretzky made 30 years ago is something to consider as background to whatever you have/will read about Friday's NHL draft. Everyone has just had so long to size up Johnny T. the way one would an apple, and start paring off pieces. For pity's sake, even an estimable hockey writer such as Pierre LeBrun stresses, "I really don't know the gap between Tavares, (Swedish defenceman Victor) Hedman and (Brampton Battalion's Matt) Duchene other than what NHL scouts tell me," so who really knows with certainty which of them should be the first pick?

Like LeBrun says:
"The average hockey fan has been hearing about Tavares for a few years, the same way fans were warned repeatedly of the eventual arrivals of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane in recent years.

"If Snow doesn't select Tavares, he better be sure of himself. The backlash in his market, I think, would be sizable; Isles fans have been talking up Tavares since Christmas."
One does wonder how analogous this might be to the lead-up to 2006 NFL draft and what happened with USC teammates Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. The average football fan heard more than her/his fill about those two from 2004 through '06.

There was talk Leinart might have been a No. 1 overall pick after his junior season. In the fall of 2005, as he led USC to a 12-0 regular season, it became evident Leinart was little more than, "a gutsy Heisman winner who doesn't have the physical ability to succeed when the guys on defense get bigger and faster." (Josh Lewin, Slate, Oct. 17, 2005.)

The talk became that Bush, who ran like like the second coming of Gale Sayers for three seasons at USC, was the drop-dead No. 1 pick. The above-linked article concluded, "in a few years, the accountants will be lining up outside Reggie Bush's door." All the wiseguys were making Bush Bowl cracks when the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, who were vying for the worst record in the NFL, met in a late-season game.

You know the rest of the story. The kneejerkers howled when the Houston Texans took Mario Williams, a pass rusher from North Carolina State. Doing so meant passing on Bush, not to mention a Texas Longhorns QB named Vince Young, who was a Houston native. (Leinart, meantime, dropped all the way to the 10th overall pick.) Meantime, three years on, Williams is an All-Pro defensive end. Bush, who went No. 2 overall to the New Orleans Saints, has gained fewer rushing-receiving yards in his first three seasons than the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson has in his first two. Young is a head case. Leinart is a punchline.

That might be an apples-to-pears comparison. Different sport, eh. There are a few common threads. One is that fans and by extension the media had heard a lot more about one player than another. Another is that both involved a franchise struggling to build an identity and brand awareness. The Houston Texans were (and are) an expansion franchise which has never made the NFL playoffs and they share a state with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Islanders are so lost in the shuffle in the New York media market that, as George Vecsey reflected in a great piece for The New York Times last month, it's reasonable to wonder if "hockey has come and gone on Long Island."

Anyway, who knows what Garth Snow is thinking going into the final 96 hours for draft night. Chris Botta, the team's former public relations staffer turned blogger, has been a first explainer, hinting that something crazy might go down on Friday night. Again, who knows. The point is the obvious, the longer a player is in the spotlight, the greater chance to disprove the hype. It will probably happen next season with Kingston's Taylor Hall, who like Tavares had to wait an extra year to be drafted due to where his birthday falls.

That is why it keeps coming back to what Wayne Gretzky supposedly told his dad three decades ago. It turned out No. 99 had nothing to worry about, but he sure was on to something about the folly and wisdom of talent evaluators, though.

(As for the NHL draft, the main interest for this site is when the Kingston Frontenacs' Ethan Werek is taken. Bob McKenzie has him ranked 41st.

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