Friday, April 20, 2018

Thank you and farewell

I did not finish publishing my thoughts about notable events in the 2017-18 NHL regular season when I intended to, meaning before the playoffs started. And now that the playoffs are happening, I am not about to go back and beat a dead horse by opining about the regular season.

But there is one non-playoff event I have to comment on, and it is the retirement that was announced on April 2nd.

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Have there ever been two players who were simultaneously celebrated and criticized as much as Henrik and Daniel Sedin?

These identical twins from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, entered the league almost 18 calendar years ago and have played their entire careers for the Vancouver Canucks. And with their somewhat last-minute announcement that this season was their last, it is fair to say that many of us did not appreciate them as much as we should have over these 18 years.

Each of the Sedins is an elite player in his own right and destined for the Hall of Fame. Each of them would have still turned in a Hall of Fame career if they played on different teams, instead of on the same team as each other. However, they played on the same team from day one, and on the same line, so it is damn near impossible to talk about them without it sounding like you're talking about a single being rather than two.

Hockey has had many famous brothers over the years, but the Sedins are the only ones to have both finished with more than 1,000 points. In fact, their numbers are so eerily similar as to be a statistical tie. Despite playing for so many years that variables such as injuries would be expected to cause a natural separation in any two athletes' output, Henrik finished with 1,070 points in 1,329 games played and Daniel with 1,041 in 1,305.

From a franchise-specific perspective, eleven all-time Canucks records are held by one Sedin or the other, and the Sedins rank 1-2 in three different statistics (regular season points, regular season assists, and games played). Plus, they rank 2-3 in at last four different statistics for which somebody not named Sedin holds the top spot (playoff points, playoff assists, playoff power play goals, and playoff games played).

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As you would expect from Swedish hockey players, the Sedins' game is driven by tons of skill and quickness and also by an undoubtable work ethic. However, what really sets them apart is their penchant for dominating possession time and cycling the puck around the offensive zone, thus wearing down opponents and creating the most optimal scoring chances en route to putting the puck in the net.

Watching them skate across the blue line and set up shop, expertly moving and passing the puck between points A and B and C and D and eventually orchestrating its being rifled into the twine, is (I hate to say was) mesmerizing and exciting.

Yes, that telepathic twin thing -- just knowing where the other one is on the ice, and more importantly, where he is going to be one or two seconds from now -- undoubtedly had something to do with how prolific the Sedins were, but do not for one second assume that it explains everything. Henrik played center with Daniel on his left wing, and considering how long their careers were, a number of different teammates played right wing on their line at various points in time, and those right wingers seem to have always experienced their best playing days while skating with the twins.

In a round robin interview with Sportsnet this season, Nicklas Jensen, who played with the Sedins from 2012 to 2015, said this: "The thing I got told by pretty much everybody on the team: 'Close your eyes, get to the net, keep your stick on the ice and they'll hit it.' I mean, they're amazing passers." He also remarked that "they really make you feel part of everything...they right away take you aside to go over stuff with you and make you feel part of that line."

In that same round robin, Ryan Kesler (2003 to 2014) said: "Really all you have to do is get open and they are going to do their magic, and when they see you they put it right on your tape."

And do not assume that their vaunted passing abilities mean that they overpassed and were hesitant to shoot. Far from it. They both have lethal shots (especially Daniel, which makes sense since he's the winger) and they enjoyed pulling the trigger.

Finally, I have to add that despite their all-business approach and low-key demeanor, the Sedins proved they have a sense of humor when they embraced a certain nickname that I happen to think is one of the best in hockey history: In the 2005-06 season their linemate was Anson Carter, who is black, and their line was called The Brothers Line. I also think it's worth noting that that particular season was, up to that point in time, the most productive that any of those three players had had (it was the twins' fifth year in the league and Carter's ninth).

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So what gives? How can guys like this be criticized just as fervently as they are celebrated?

Well, it happens because some people like to take what is arguably the twins' greatest strength -- their composure -- and portray it as a weakness.

The Sedins do not have fiery personalities and are not the kind of people who smash sticks over crossbars and shout down opponents when things aren't going well, nor are they the kind of people who get goaded into committing retaliatory penalties. They are the kind of people who keep their wits about them and their noses to the grindstone and stay on task.

Some people look at that pacificity and mistake it for passivity. They are the same people who amplify their mistake by pointing to the fact that the twins end their careers without a Stanley Cup, and connect that true dot of "no Cup" to the false dot of "passivity," and conclude that the twins are "soft."

You know the people I'm talking about: You have heard them refer to these soon-to-be Hall of Famers as "the Sedin sisters," and you have heard them ridicule these soon-to-be Hall of Famers for "disappearing in the post-season" and "not coming through in the clutch."

Something you will not hear these people say (because it's something they don't know) is that each Sedin averaged more points per playoff game over the course of his career than Teemu Selanne and Igor Larionov did over the course of theirs. And since most of the Sedin critics are big fans of thug punks like Brad Marchand, I feel compelled to mention that the Sedins' points-per-playoff-game averages (.743 for Henrik and .693 for Daniel) are better than Marchand's .658.

Look at the 2011 post-season, when Vancouver met Boston in the Stanley Cup Final, and you will see that the Sedins finished 2-3 in playoff scoring among all of the NHL players who participated in that post-season. Henrik had 22 points and Daniel 20, coming in just ahead of Marchand's 19 and just behind David Krejci (23), so why say that Marchand ways are better than Sedin ways?

I've said it before and I will say it again: Hockey is a team sport in which teams dress 20 players and rotate four different forward lines throughout a game; and therefore, when evaluating a player's personal stock, why are we expected to place so much emphasis on whether his team won the whole kit and caboodle?

While the Sedins' line may have often gotten more ice time than the Canucks' other lines, it was still only one of four lines and they couldn't be out there when the other lines were on the ice. Also, seeing as how the Sedins are forwards, they could not protect the back end because that's the defensemen's job, not the forwards', and they obviously couldn't play goalie.

Their lack of a Stanley Cup should not be held against them, just like the lack of a Stanley Cup has never been held against Henrik Lundqvist, Dino Ciccarelli, Cam Neely, Marcel Dionne, Borje Salming, Dale Hawerchuk, Carey Price, and God knows how many other hockey greats.

And more to the point, the allegation that the Sedins are "soft" is complete and utter hogwash. They were far from the biggest players in the league, and because they were such stars they spent most of their careers with gigantic X's on their backs, with opponents taking runs at them and often hitting them hard and cheap. Players who are "soft" would not be able to withstand that barrage and would likely not last long in the league, yet the Sedins withstood it across 17 full seasons and remained impactful players the whole time. Even in this, their final year, at their advanced age and with very little supporting cast, they both turned in 50-point seasons with Daniel finishing with 55 and Henrik with 50. If you ask me, that is the very definition of tough.

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But as great as all the hockey stuff is, what matters at the end of the day, when the arena lights have been darkened and a man on Earth is being evaluated by the man above, is not the wrist shot or face-off but the man himself. And each Sedin is a man who will be evaluated well.

In the twins' early years they were coached by Marc Crawford, who to this day says there was only one time he ever became mad at either of them. That was when he thought Henrik had missed a face-off assignment and he verbally undressed him in front of his teammates. Henrik accepted the tongue-lashing and took it like a man. Then, after the players went back out on the ice, Daniel pulled Crawford aside and said "I just want you to know that was me who took the face-off, it wasn't Henrik." That right there encapsulates everything you need to know about them: They didn't push back at their coach, because he was correct about the face-off even if his urge to embarrass was not good; and they didn't draw attention to him misidentifying them, because they didn't think it would be proper to embarrass him in front of his charges; and Henrik took the fall for Daniel; and then Daniel owned up that it was him who should have taken the browbeating.

The Sedins always signed for identical salaries and thus they closed their careers each having been paid an identical $74.1 million USD. Canadian tax rates no doubt took a big chunk off of their top line, and their generosity did the same when you consider how much money they donated to the BC Children's Hospital and their own charitable foundation (to which they also donate their time), but they earned healthy identical sums and they are responsible men who don't spend foolishly, so it is safe to speculate that they have set their families up for life at the same time they have extended a big helping hand to others who are not so fortunate.

They and the Canucks previously came to a gentlemen's agreement whereby the Sedins said they wanted to retire as Canucks and the Canucks said they would keep re-signing them to contracts (presumably one-year contracts) until they were done. Since they have remained 50-point producers, the Sedins are no doubt good enough to have kept going after this season. Nonetheless they decided not to, and decided to announce their retirement with three games remaining before season's end, in an open letter to Canuck fans which read, in part:

Being part of the Canucks family for 18 seasons has been the best period of our lives. But it's time to focus on our families and life after hockey. It's time to help with homework every night. It's time to be at every birthday party and to stand in the cold at every hockey rink, soccer game and riding lesson on weekends. It's time to be at home for dinner every night. We're saying it now because we want to share these final three games with you. We also want to share these games with our families, friends, teammates, coaches, trainers, staff and everyone at the Canucks who have supported us... It's time to let the next generation of young players lead the Canucks... We plan to be part of this community long after we retire. Vancouver has given us so much and we've tried to give everything we have in return. That won't change.

TSN's Frank Seravalli summed it up best on the day of their announcement: "The only shame is that the Sedins did not announce their decision earlier, to give each NHL stop on the tour a chance to say thank you, like so many of the other greats have done. Henrik and Daniel earned that opportunity. That just wouldn't be their style, one uniquely their own, intertwined with each other and a city -- now forever."

Three days after their announcement, the twins played their final home game, against the Arizona Coyotes... 33 seconds into the second period, Daniel scored a goal off an assist from Henrik. And by the way, 33 is Henrik's jersey number, and the goal was Daniel's 22nd of the season and his jersey number is 22... Eventually the game went to overtime, where Daniel won it with yet another goal off of yet another assist from Henrik... Is your flesh rippling with goosebumps? And if not, what is wrong with you?!?!

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In the English-speaking world, we say thank you and farewell. In Sweden they say tack and farval. Both of those appreciations apply to them.

In hockey, talking is done by your actions on the ice, and in life talking is done by how you comport yourself and how you treat others. In both hockey and life, the Sedins are a standard to which our children should aspire.

Tack och farval, broder!

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