With the 2017 Kelly Cup Finals starting Friday night, we are reminded of just how much players sacrifice and how grueling the process is to have their names engraved on Mr. Kelly’s Cup. Looking at it in a broader perspective, whether one strives to be a league champion or successful in life, you will be challenged to depths you never thought possible and respond in ways you never imagined.
So, imagine my surprise when I read this incredibly homer-ish piece by David Briggs of the Toledo Blade, which essentially gives Toledo Walleye CEO Joe Napoli a print forum to sound off on why the Toledo Walleye will be yet another Brabham Cup champion that failed to win the league’s ultimate prize.
Right away, you are greeted with the fanboy in Napoli, by his use of the words “angered, bullied and cheated.” It’s not long till he goes into why he thought the Walleye lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Colorado Eagles, and the primary culprit, according to Napoli, is because the league reverted back to more physicality and less of the open-ice play.
According to Briggs, Napoli spoke with ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna and discussed Toledo’s playoff run, among other things, in a 90-minute conversation.
“The purpose of the phone call with the league was to understand what will it take to win a Kelly Cup,” Napoli told Briggs. “Do we continue to do the things we do or do we have to resort to things that haven’t been done in a decade? It just seems like this year teams decided they could not beat us playing hockey so they decided they were going to beat us up.”
As the article continued, it goes into the “near-felony” assault of rookie defenseman Simon Denis during the Kalamazoo series, and how officials seemed to have let bar brawls break out at the end of every game.
I tell you, this article was so rife with homerisms, it was like someone wrote this in the handshake line of game six.
Several key points arise from…well, whatever that was.
First, anybody who knew one iota about how the ECHL was shaking out this year knew that Toledo would have a helluva hard time getting through the gauntlet of the Western Conference. I wholly believe Dan Watson is a smart enough Coach to see that there was a toughness deficiency in his lineup and he had every chance in the world to fix it. Acquiring Landon Oslanski and Justin Agosta at the trade deadline didn’t help fix that. While I believe “pure fighters” (the Erick Lizon type players) no longer serve a purpose in the game, I do think a player like Derek Mathers serves to keep the opposition honest and open up space for the upper-end players. Since the Walleye did not have that this year, they are golfing, rather than skating for a Kelly Cup.
Second, the “near-felony” assault on Simon Denis by Wings Captain Ben Wilson was paid with a four-game suspension. While I was not there to watch the game in person, I did watch the incident on video and can say I don’t know what Briggs, Napoli, or Walleye fans wanted the officiating crew to do in that situation?
Blow the play dead? That was done when the Wings won the puck battle in the corner.
Kick Wilson out of the game? They did that.
Offer up their account to match the video of the incident? Check that off the list, too.
In that situation, the officials did everything but call Ben Matlock and have Wilson throw in the slammer with the key in the middle of Lake Erie.
Napoli then goes into the lack of calls in the triple overtime game five of the West Finals in Colorado, where neither side got a power play in the more than forty minutes of sudden death.
“It was mayhem. I don’t know how else to describe it. There wasn’t a single penalty called in three overtimes,” Napoli said. “You’re the coach, you’re the player, you know they’re not going to call penalties, what would be the next natural behavior to occur? I think the league knows this. Everyone is embarrassed by it. We’re counting on there being a cure. We let the league know this is not going to be a couple of phone calls and we’re going to forget it.”
First of all, as a fan of deadlines, just end the game as quickly as possible. Second, I don’t want officials mucking the game up. Look, it’s fair that Napoli wanted the stripes to call everything and then some, given the power play that Watson had constructed. I applaud officials for letting the players decide the game during sudden-death situations, only to make the most obvious of calls. Having watched that game, I didn’t see anything in the three overtimes that gave me cause for slamming the officiating. Sorry, Joe, but you’ve gone begging, again.
Look, I’m as hard on officials as anyone else, these guys have an incredibly thankless job made worse because the owners in this league refuse to shell out the money to get instant replay in arenas. That aside, the ECHL serves as a development league for officials, too.
Would it be nice to have playoff games refereed by a veteran staff? Sure.
Do officials and the league get calls wrong? Absolutely.
But, openly blaming officiating as a reason why your team didn’t win a series is ludicrous. Go look at the players.
Which leads me to my third and final point.
What Joe Napoli said to the Toledo Blade Thursday discounts everything the Walleye accomplished this season and makes one of the most well-run franchises in the ECHL, one of the most hated. Rather than taking a punch in a mouth from a better team, the Walleye came off as a dabbing collection of cocky, chest-puffed-out-four-year-olds in the neighborhood and when the new kid on the block didn’t take any of their shit and punched back, they went home and cried to mommy. What’s worse is that there is zero mention of the competition the Walleye faced in the playoffs or how Jake Paterson and the Walleye defense barfed up five straight goals to the Eagles as the Walleye’s season coded on the table.
What Napoli and Watson should do this offseason is shut up, build a team that can take a punch and play playoff hockey. The league should not have to kowtow to you because your players didn’t get time and space to play their game. Adjust your game to the tighter style of playoff hockey, or next year, we will be having this conversation all over again.
For once, have some humility and tip your cap to the opposition. You can even do it with a little dab.