The Bruins – Canucks Series

It was great watching Boston battle back to win these Stanley Cup Finals after losing close games in Vancouver and enduring a lot of provocation from a Cancuks’ team prone to cheap-shotting and embellishing. But I have to admit, I’m stunned at the result. Watching the first two games, and having seen the Hawks – Canucks series in the first round, it seemed clear as crystal that the Canucks were a better, fitter team. Boston was very good, and goalie Tim Thomas could produce miracles in net, but it was telling to me that when the Canucks got control of the puck, there was almost no stopping them. The Canucks lost this series by abandoning the game that made them the best team in hockey.

Vancouver is a team with a ton offensive weapons, good skaters, and a pair of stingy goalies (although Luongo is prone to astonishing collapses). They racked up 3rd period and overtime wins against Boston because they had more staying power and could continue to play a fast, dynamic game long after Boston had worn themselves out by trying to keep up and pressure Roberto Luongo. When their top-scorers were out of the game, Vancouver’s fourth-line players could frustrated the Bruins by playing keep-away, and disrupting Boston’s attempts at getting an offensive attack set-up. Boston’s top lines would have to rest just as the Canucks sent their best players back out.  That was a winning formula.

Unfortunately, there was another side to the Canucks, what Trib columnist Steve Rosenbloom calls the “cheap and gutless Canucks.” The Canucks could skate around their opposition, but they repeatedly chose to mix it up. Raffi Torres would finish hard checks on near-defenseless players. Alex Burrows taunted and bit Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, and the officials didn’t see it and the league didn’t do anything about it. Aaron Rome crushed Nate Horton with a blind-side, open-ice hit well away from the play.

These were bad, needless provocations. They were opportunistic and retaliation was slow to come, but Vancouver was letting the series descend into a slugging match, and that is the last place they should have wanted to go against the Bruins. And they should have realized that officials tend to let hockey teams play the game of their choosing.

This is one of the things I find truly fascinating about hockey. It is a sport of negotiated violence, perhaps because there are so many gray areas, so much that can be left to interpretation. Some hits are obviously clean or illegal, but a lot of them could go either way. In general, the officials seem to exist to keep the game at a level both teams are comfortably playing at. Some teams get into fistfights and the officials will let them go at it, but other teams avoid brawling and officials generally respect their wishes, penalizing opponents who attempt to start something. Hitting seems to fit this mold as well. Officials seem to give hitting teams less leeway with their checks when they are going after a skating team that’s more interested in playing the puck than the body. Players know that rules enforcement does not exist in a vacuum, and that’s why they put so much effort into persuading officials to make calls. It’s all part of a continuing effort to define the boundaries of the acceptable for a given game. The process is even more elaborate within a series, where each game carries baggage from its predecessors.

So back to the Canucks, then. Torres, Burrows, and finally Rome gave away all the protection and sympathy the officials might have extended them and their teammates. Burrows never got any calls to go his way after biting Bergeron, and he made it worse by blatantly embellishing in an attempt to draw penalties. Rome’s hit basically cemented Vancouver’s reputation as series villains. Together, they had successfully painted a target on the backs of every one of their teammates. Officials, who had missed some important calls early in the series, decided to let Boston balance the accounts. By the start of Game Six, it was open season on the ice.

The Canucks were in a street-fight along the boards when what they really needed was room to skate and the confidence to take passes and play the puck. The Sedins had never had the impact on these playoffs that they were supposed to, but they completely checked-out of the series once it got too brutal. You could see, in game seven, Canucks turning as they approached the puck, expecting to get hit, rather than playing it. Quarter-second hesitations, players stopping short or slowing down… they were not the same team they’d been in Games One and Two. They were not playing their game, the one that left opponents winded and demoralized late in the game.

A few Canucks players changed the tone of the series, but despite Boston’s victory, I’m not sure I’m entirely happy. Game Six was a melee that saw one Canuck, Mason Raymond, taken out of the game fractured vertebrae. I don’t think the hit was dirty, and I certainly don’t think Boychuck added anything extra to his hit in an attempt to hurt Mason. It was an awkward play. But in hockey as in football, the sport will only get safer when players themselves start passing on opportunities to drop the hammer on one another. Officials play a part in that process by demonstrating they will protect players and punish excesses. In this series, the officials seemed to back away slowly and let the enforcers go to work. That’s how escalation happens, and that’s when people start getting carted off the ice. By not taking a firmer hand early in the series, NHL officials left every player more exposed to injury.

Happy Hour – June 10

Since before the Memorial Day Rabbitcon through today, I’ve been working at a fairly brisk pace. It’s gotten to the point that I actually need to go over my books and Friday and make sure I’m remembering all my invoices. It also means, as I have mentioned before, that it is harder to find things to say here. I write 5 columns a month, and most of what I play is either for review or 3MA, so there’s no need to opine here about any of that stuff.

God, what a boring person I seem to be becoming. “Sorry, guys, all I talk about is games, and I do that for other places.” My original frustration with a lot of games writing was that it was so rarely in dialogue with broader culture and history. Now I am gunning out reviews and columns while a stack of unread books and unwatched films piles up behind me.

Still, this is perhaps the wrong week to complain about this. I finished E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks and Susanne Collins The Hunger Games this week, and The Waterworks is nothing if not inspiring to a writer. I read the first and last dozen pages aloud, because the prose is so completely perfect and evocative. Not just of the time and place, but of the narrator’s character and the people who surround him.

And then I went out to the indie film multiplex a few blocks from my apartment to see a Woody Allen film in a theater for the first time, Midnight in Paris, and a few nights later had a near-religious experience with Steve Gaynor and Chris Remo when we went to see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Actually, scratch that. I’ve had religious experiences. A few dawn Masses when what the Church had to say and what I needed to hear perfectly aligned, or just those days that make pagans of us all, when the perfection and glory of creation seems sufficient proof of God, and spending a day under the open sky seems like the truest act of worship.

Tree of Life wasn’t near-religious. By design, it is explicitly religious. Through the death of a child and the life of a family, Malick is addressing our relationship with Heavenly and earthly Fathers and Mothers. It was about as powerful a film as I have ever seen, the sort of film that lead to an unself-conscious conversation about what it is we are supposed to be doing with our lives and talents. What will make us proud in the twilight years to come.

I guess I had things to say, after all. Maybe the danger of neglecting this space is not that I abandon my audience or become boring, but that I stop believing my mind is engaged with anything other than the workaday tasks for which I spend my Fridays editing and invoicing. That games become all there is, because that’s all I’m bothering to process.

Anyway, I have hopes of this being a grand weekend. The Bruins play in just a moment. F1 is running at Montreal, one of my favorite tracks because it is so ridiculously fast with some truly devilish chicanes and turns that force drivers to the very edge of recklessness. Then there are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I will be trying to watch in between a number of podcast obligations. On top of all that, I will likely be playing The Darkness on my 360 and Pride of Nations on my PC.

Not to mention catching up on my reading. My pal J.P. Grant did a great profile for Kill Screen on Greg Kasavin, who is working on one of the very few upcoming games for which I am genuinely excited: Bastion. The few minutes I spent with it suggested that it might be one of the best-written games of the year, and John does a fine job of showing why Kasavin is just the sort of person to make such a game.

I also finished L.A. Noire and was finally able to start reading over the reviews, including Kirk Hamilton’s justly-praised Kill Screen piece. Kirk has an alternate-take on the game, and badly do I wish the game’s central conceit were as interesting and well-thought out. Team Bondi ultimately seemed to reach the same conclusion about Cole Phelps’ character, but the story is too slowly-developed, too literal to draw out Phelps’ real dilemma.

Happy? Hour – May 13

As if readying for the arrival of a vast and distant hurricane, I have been fortifying myself for the impending loss of my car and girlfriend. Yes, my life is one dead dog or jail bid away from being a bad country song as of tomorrow, when MK takes off for a summer internship. By midday Saturday, I expect I will be adjusting to a strange, old way of life.

The last time this happened I put on twenty or so pounds that I still, sadly, carry. With no one to cook for, and nobody to serve as a check on my limitless appetite for pizza and hard liquor (like a vagrant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I am), it was not long before I found myself drinking a grenadine, orange juice, and vodka clusterfuck at six in the morning on the stoop of my apartment after playing Take Command: 2nd Manassass all night.

Hopefully this summer will not see similar dissolution. To keep myself in the proper frame of mind, I will watch costume dramas and begin every day with the question, “What would Mr. Darcy do?” Then I will remember that I’m a sodding freelancer, and that his excellent itinerary of riding, fencing, and managing his vast holdings does not give me much guidance as to how I should spend my day.

To start this summer with the right foot forward, I will hopefully be playing some multiplayer Portal 2 shortly after MK leaves. Then I will move on to Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, and play around with some serious time-sinks in the Elemental, Civ V, and Victoria II vein.

For those of you who need something worthy to do with your weekend, may I direct your attention to this piece on strife and mutual distaste within nerd culture. Oh, and Quintin Smith and I deconstructed tower defense games over on Three Moves Ahead this week.

Now, to go make sure the bar is fully stocked and my “Christ, I’m So Alone” playlist is fully up to date.

Happy Hour – May 6

It’s another busy weekend here. I just shut the door behind J.P. Grant after hours of great conversation and drinking, although I’m not sure I sold him on NHL 11. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure NHL 11 sold itself to him. The bottom line is that J.P. was dropped into a game with a huge number of controls and almost no explanation of how the pieces are supposed to fit together. And honestly, there was no easy way for me to explain what he was supposed to be doing.

I’m still climbing NHL 11′s learning curve, and it took me several hours with it before I began feeling comfortable with the controls.  This is not ideal for a game you’re trying to show to a friend and a fellow hockey fan after several rounds.

If there were not so many damn menus and sliders, I would have liked to set up a game where we were locked to our positions, maybe wing and center or wing and wing. Instead, we just dived right into a game where controls kept passing to whoever had or was receiving the puck, or whoever was closest to the puck carrier. That is a jarring shift, especially when you’re just trying to understand how to do something as simple as slap a pass across the ice. It also illustrates why I may never really outgrow Be a Pro: constant flipping between players just doesn’t feel like hockey to me. It breaks up the flow of my game, and tears at the edges of the illusion. Hockey isn’t like football, where you can break plays and positions apart. Hockey is too fluid

Anyway, this weekend is likely to involve more board games with friends, the Turkish Grand Prix, and some Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword for a review. That doesn’t leave much time for other gaming, or setting up the next 3MA, which I desperately need to do.

My Tuesday column for Gamers With Jobs struck a more reflective note as I try to figure out what I want to do with myself over these next few, crucial years. This week’s Three Moves Ahead covers Revolution Under Siege, a surprisingly solid wargame about the Russian Civil War. And finally, I just saw that GamePro published a piece I did for an ongoing series in which writers advocate on behalf of their favorite series. Mine was, naturally enough, Civilization.

Communism Works

War in the East was one of those wargames that sent me across town to the local library so that I could grab a stack of books on the Eastern Front. I finally finished off the last of them, Leningrad 1941: The Blockade by Dmitri Pavlov, yesterday morning. In many ways it was the most unexpected of the books I read, because so much of its subject was both new (t0 me) and uniquely presented.

Pavlov was a Party bureaucrat who helped managed the distribution of food supplies to the Leningrad Front during the German blockade following Operation Barbarossa. His book is, in some ways, nothing more than a simple report on the food situation in Leningrad during the siege. He describes the city’s pre-blockade food consumption and supplies, the impact of the German advance, the rations provided during the siege, and finally how the city was resupplied by water and, after Lake Ladoga froze, by ice.

The book is full of tables and detailed calorie counts. Just from a mechanical standpoint, the work of maintaining a defensive force and a large civilian population during a near-total encirclement makes for fascinating reading. The type of things I don’t really think about, like how much food an office worker needs to sustain himself as opposed to a front line soldier as opposed to a longshoreman. This was the stuff of life and death in Leningrad as Pavlov and the Soviet officials he worked with cut rations to the bone.

But it’s also an amazing story of endurance and ingenuity, and one of the threads running through Pavlov’s account is a nostalgia for this brief moment when the ideals of the Revolution were manifested in the people, soldiers, and government of Leningrad. He describes how, as the food supply dwindled, researchers in Leningrad were furiously trying to find new ways to stretch the food supply. He goes into detail on how the loaf of bread was reinvented with other grains and low-quality food products, and then reinvented again with cellulose once the other grains ran out.

While Pavlov is no naif (he describes how ration-card fraud required some brutal measures and regulations that were often unintentionally, unavoidably cruel), he is struck by how often the siege brought out the best in people. Order never broke down, even when things were at their most desperate. He draws pictures of starving people holding down a man who attempts to start a bread riot, or standing guard over an overturned bread truck in the dead of a winter night until the authorities can collect the shipment. He frankly admits that when the road over Lake Ladoga first started running, theft was rampant on the part of the drivers and loaders. The operation was so haphazard, the packing materials of such poor quality, and the pace so fast that there was literally no way to police the supply line. But after a week or so, as drivers realized just how desperate things were in Leningrad, supply loss stopped almost entirely.

The suffering on display is also astonishing. During a chapter simply titled, “Hunger”, Pavlov writes:

Cold had settled down to stay in the unheated apartments of the city. Remorselessly it froze the exhausted people. Dystrophy and cold sent 11,085 people to their graves during November, the first to fall under death’s scythe being the old men.

…More and more adults and children died every day. First a person’s arms and legs grew weak, then his body became numb, the numbness gradually approached the heart, gripped it as in a vise, and then the end came.

Death overtook people anywhere. As he walked along the street, a man might fall and not get up. People would go to bed at home and not rise again. Often death would come suddenly as men worked at their machines.

Since public transportation was not operating, burial was a special problem. The dead were usually carried on sleds without coffins. Two or three relatives or close friends would haul the sled along the seemingly endless streets, often losing strength and abandoning the deceased halfway to the cemetary, leaving to the authorities the task of dispoising of the body. …There was not strength enough to dig into the deeply frozen earth. Civil defense crews would blast the ground to make mass graves, into which they would lay tens and sometimes hundreds of bodies without even knowing the names of those they buried.

–May the dead forgive the living who could not, under those desperate conditions, perform the last ceremonies due honest, laborious lives.

Over 600,000 people died of starvation-related causes during the blockade.

Well, I’m Back

Weekend gaming was a huge success. It’s always good to come back from a game break knowing how to play four of five new games, all of them ranging from good to excellent. Oddly enough, this time it was the lighter games that really caught my attention. No Thanks!, a quick card-passing game, and Abandon Ship!, a Knizia joint where players try to guide a pack of multicolored rats off a sinking luxury liner without betraying which colors they are backing. We played some heartier fare that was quite good, but I think I was just in the mood to kick back with a beer and play a counting game.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a trip to Rabbit’s warren without some reflection. I wrote about some of the things I’m working out over on Gamers With Jobs.

Reading that you might ask what I’ve got on my mind, what I intend to be pursuing next. I guess there are three things that have been bugging me on and off for the last few months. The first is whether my work adds up something to greater than individual reviews and features. Am I accomplishing something beyond meeting my deadlines?

The second is my general ignorance, particularly about matters spiritual and religious. My concern here is not that I am an agnostic and I view that is a problem. It is that I am an agnostic without having given the matter much thought. I think I would rather begin working out the puzzle of existence and the soul right now, when I am in good health and have the future before me, than later when those answers become of immediate existential import.

The third is my own health and physical well-being. A few days in the country and I am invigorated and in the throes of wanderlust. I come back to the city, and I’m back to my sluggish, sedentary self. Yet I’m discontent with that. I’m out of shape, yes, but not as much I as believe myself to be. Wandering the hills, I am surprised by how fast I get used to the steeper trails and the broken ground. I’m young enough that I could, if I made the effort, get in shape enough to enjoy the sports and activities I used to, or have always promised to try.

In a word, I know I will, one day soon, no longer be a young man. And shortly after that, I will be middle-aged. I would like to enter that phase of my life in good mental, emotional, and physical health. But I sense that the best way to guarantee that is to put these late 20′s turning early 30′s to good use.