In praise of Bobby Ryan

In praise of Bobby Ryan
"The biggest thing is just his poise and his hands are unbelievable. I played with [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby, and those guys are probably the two best in the league. Bobby's hands are right with those guys... He's a superstar in the making, it seems."
---Ryan Whitney, former Ducks defenseman

Monday, May 20, 2013

The sad story of Matthew Lombardi

"So... why Matthew Lombardi? What's the deal with that?"

Based on the very few games Ducks fans have seen Lombardi play with this team, you might wonder why I would target him as a favorite player.  I mean, he hasn't exactly had a chance to show what he's capable of... and it doesn't help that he's been playing with an injury since the week after we acquired him!

But actually, my history with Lombardi goes way back, even before Bobby Ryan got his big break.

When I first started going to Ducks games, I didn't know enough about the team to have favorite players.  I mean, I recognized certain players' names from off the radio - Scott Niedermayer, Giguere, Teemu Selanne - but I couldn't watch games on TV (long story for another day) and radio doesn't give you much more than play-by-play and audio interviews.

So my first Duck games were, ironically enough, against the Calgary Flames.  I don't know why, I guess those were just the tickets that happened to be available.  I only saw two games during the first half of the '08-'09 season, and they were both against the Flames.  As thrilling as it was to see the Ducks live, my eye was also caught by a speedy little forward in a Calgary Flames sweater.

I watched him score on us on a breakaway, and I watched him speed around our defenders, deftly handling the puck like it was glued to his stick. '#18 is pretty fast, who is he?'

According to the program, #18 was Matthew Lombardi.  Hmm!

Over the next couple of weeks, I curiously Googled and YouTubed the Montreal native, and learned he had been quite the rookie sensation.  Drafted in the 3rd round by the Flames in 2002, he scored a hat-trick and multiple shorthanded goals his rookie year, and was a Calder nominee.  He was the Canadian point leader (6 goals, 6 assists) in the 2007 IIHF World Championships, helping Team Canada win the gold.

I also learned that he was the recipient of a nasty elbow to the head, thanks to a Red Wing during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs.  The injury kept him off the ice for many months.  Sadly, it would be the first in a long line of concussions and upper-body injuries. 

In interviews, he was reserved, but warm... engaging, good-natured, with a sweet smile that melted my heart.  Just a really honest, hard-working guy with a skating finesse I'd never seen before.  I instantly took a liking to him.  

And later that season he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes, a mere 6-hour drive from the Ponda.  I adopted the Yotes as my second team, and drove out to my first PHX game in the fall of 2009 (home opener vs CBJ). 

In March of 2010, I met Lombardi for the first time, thanks to a Phoenix friend who offered me a VIP ticket to the Coyotes Carnival, an annual fundraiser that got rescheduled to the weekend that I just happened to be in Phoenix for a Ducks-Yotes game.  I remember shaking as my friend introduced me to him: "She's from California, but she's a Coyotes fan and you're her favorite player."  He smiled shyly, signed the picture I'd brought, and posed for a picture with me.  My friend teased me afterwards, but I didn't care.  I was on cloud nine!

Lombardi had a great year with the Coyotes, centering the top line with fellow speedster Scottie Upshall and captain Shane Doan.  Together, Lombardi and Upshall were unstoppable.  Lombo had one of his best seasons, going 19-34-53 in 78 games played, topped by a run in the post-season.  Undoubtedly his success helped him land a lucrative contract with the Nashville Predators when he hit the market as a free agent that summer.

Of course, I bought tickets to every Ducks-Predators game at the Ponda that season, even though I hated the Ducks chances against the Preds.  Remember, this was the season following the Ducks departure from the playoffs at the expense of one Pekka Rinne... the last thing I wanted to do was see more of him!  But I did it for Lombo.

And then he suffered another horrible hit which cost him the entire season after playing just 2 preseason games with Nashville.

It was never as easy to follow Lombo outside of Phoenix.  Nobody had anything to report, except that he wasn't playing.  When he got traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and scored the game-winning goal in his first game with them, I hoped he'd found his was back to on-ice success.  When Toronto traded him back to Phoenix, I was ecstatic.

He's back!!!  Thanks to the lockout, the newly-formed condensed schedule allowed me to spend five days in Yotes country, with three ANA-PHX games to enjoy.  There was another injury, a shoulder that would have him out 4-6 weeks.  I held my breath and was thankful when he recovered faster than projected, which meant he'd be playing during those ANA-PHX games.

It had been three years since our first and only "conversation," but this time I was able to tell him how happy I was that he had returned to Phoenix.  He was thankful, and happily signed the Coyotes jersey which bore his number from his first stint in PHX.  He was now wearing #8 (ironically, Scottie Upshall's old number), but signed my jersey with the appropriate #15.

The Yotes won the two games played in PHX in overtime (Lombo scored in the first and assisted on a goal in the second), and the Ducks won the game played back in ANA.  But even with those points, Lombardi wasn't playing nearly as well as Phoenix had hoped he would.

Surprise of all surprises, the Ducks acquired him less than a month later in a trade that sent Brandon McMillan to PHX.

I knew the Ducks were looking for a second-line center, and I had even jokingly tweeted about picking up Lombardi the day before, but I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would actually happen.  I was looking through the clothing racks at Marshalls for discounted hockey threads when my phone blew up with texts and tweets.

It was actually quite overwhelming.

Looking back now, I sorta wish I had been alone in my excitement.  I'm pretty sure 99% of the Twitter Duck fan attention given to him and his subsequent play wouldn't have happened if these fans hadn't already heard of him through me.  It made it difficult to handle his slow start in Anaheim, but it was more difficult watching the Ducks coaching staff attempt to fit a round peg into a square hole.

The Ducks play a grinding, dump-and-chase game.  Forwards dump pucks into the offensive zone and chase them down, battling in corners to try to regain possession.  I can imagine this system is particularly frustrating if you're not a physical forward.  If Lombardi had ever been a grinding, cycling, hitting forward, he definitely wasn't anymore with his injury/concussion history.  His game is one of speed, puck-handling, finding open ice and dashing into the offensive zone while controlling the puck.  Nowadays, he goes out of his way to avoid contact.

And while Lombo usually held his own in the faceoff circle, his percentages were pretty abysmal those first few games in Anaheim.

It didn't help that my Ducks had all but clinched a playoff berth and were playing some of the laziest offensive games ever.

It didn't help that the defense couldn't seem to connect a stretch pass through neutral ice if their lives depended on it.

It didn't help that Lombo's shoulder either didn't heal properly, or was reinjured, only one week after his acquisition--which would help explain his faceoff slump.  I had suspected he might have been injured, because every time I happened to catch him after morning skate, it was because he was the last player to leave.  Must've been receiving treatment.

He had been excited about coming to a team in playoff contention, but he spent the post-season watching playoffs from the press box as a scratch.

Either way, I know he's not happy here.  As much as I want him to stay, I would rather he be with a team that knows how to utilize his skills.  I've said before that he has maybe five years at most, left in the NHL... and I want those to be happy years for him.  He's a hockey player, he wants to play, and I want to see him play.  I thoroughly enjoyed Lombardi's time as an Anaheim Duck and I'm glad I got the opportunity to see him play here and to spend time with him at a charity event.  I'll always remember that!

*bottom photo by Jenelyn Russo

Wherever you're off to next, Lombo, I'll be cheering for you.  And I'll see you the next time your team passes through Anaheim.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Closure, sweet closure

So... it's been a while! I've played with the idea of coming back to write in this blog more times than you can imagine, but... well, I'm a perfectionist. And I'm also really lazy. So if I can't write something pretty close to perfect on the first draft, I'm unlikely to write anything at all.

Yes, excuses, I know.

But things have been happening in my little hockey world that I'd love to be able to look back on and remember. Things that might not matter to most people, but to me, on that day, they are my world.

Then I start thinking about the things that happened say, a few games ago, and how I would have loved to have written them down. And then I start thinking that I shouldn't make my first post in over a year a gigantic recap... cuz who really wants to read or write that?? And well, you see how it goes.

More excuses.

So let's just jump right in here. With the great little hockey things that happened today. And just today.

My Ducks are out of the playoffs. Detroit beat them in a game 7, and it wasn't even close. Like many of my hockey friends, I was stunned. It's that thing that happens to every sports fan at some point: the team you've rallied behind all season, the team you've rearranged your work and social schedules around, the team you were so looking forward to watching in the playoffs... they lose. And it's over. And your offseason begins.

And you wake up the next morning feeling like everything has just become so pointless.

What tears me up most is watching the players on the bench, on the ice, in the handshake line. Even if it isn't my team, I get teary and emotional because you know how hard they worked to get there. In the case of my Ducks, they put together such a fantastic regular season. So many franchise records matched and broken, so many guys trying to be the hero. I wanted to give each one of them a hug and thank him for giving us fans such a treat.

Especially the veterans. Don't even get me started on what I felt for Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. Or guys that I'm fairly certain won't be back with us next season; my favorite Matthew Lombardi, in particular.

I needed to do something about the horrible feeling of despair that was so much more intense this time than in seasons past. So I made some signs.

Yes, they might be considered silly, but I do these for me as much as I do them for the players.

And I taped them up on the cyclone fence that borders the construction site at the South entrance of the Honda Center. My hope was that the guys might see them as they came in for exit interviews the next day. The Bobby sign actually didn't go up that day. I had run out of poster board and made it on paper instead. Upon arriving at HC, I realized the sign wasn't going to survive unless it was a poster board.

You bet I thought about it all day at work and pondered the possibility of going back the next morning with a poster board. I rescheduled a doctor's appointment so I'd be able to go before my work shift. The things I do for Bobby. Seriously!

As it turned out, it was a good thing I went back!! There was a small group of people hanging around the usual spot, waiting for players. I wasn't initially planning to hang out, but I took my Bobby sign and the gift I'd made Teemu Selanne (JUST IN CASE) cuz you never know. I parked, taped Bobby's sign up with the others, and then turned around... right into Matthew Lombardi.

Stunned. Speechless. The usual, only worse considering I completely wasn't expecting him.

"Hey there! How are you? How's it going?" Lombo is always so kind when he sees me. I always forget the multitude of things I want to say to him. All I can manage is a hi, I'm good, and how are you back. I wanted to ask if he was injured cuz, well, I'd been wondering...


"Kinda sucks with playoffs over, but you know, hanging in there," I try to put together a few coherent words. He nods and looks as uncomfortably shy as I feel. The usual.

"Well," I push on, not wanting him to leave. "I wish you'd gotten more ice time, I mean, I really wanted to see you play... do you think... you might want to stay?"

"Nah," he looks down at his feet, "it didn't work out... But I know I'll see you around," and he gave me a shy smile.

"That's too bad, I loved having you here for what, like 3 games?" I joked and he laughed, "yeah." "But you know I'll see you in the next city."

He smiled, "for sure," and gave me a hug.

"Oh, and if I'd known I was going to run into you today, I would have brought the jersey!"

*sigh* It almost seems a tease to have him here for such a short time. But I want him to be happy. And I know he isn't happy being benched all the time. The dump and chase, cycle and grind system doesn't work for him. So, I hope Lombo returns to Phoenix, where he has fans and a coaching staff that knows how to utilize his talents. And good friends like Shane Doan, whose family I know is close with his.

And I'll still be able to see him, unlike when he went to Toronto.


I visit Bob, bringing him some Starbucks I'd picked up along the way. Don't get a chance to chat long, but that's okay, I'm not staying. I wander outside for a few minutes, watching Viktor Fasth, Daniel Winnik, and a few others make their way out. I try not to be seen by players that I'm not actively wanting to interact with... just something I've noticed I do.

And then I hear someone say, "Teemu!" Perfect. A small line of fans forms next to him, allowing him to make his way from person to person, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Teemu is always so sweet about this, giving everyone a few seconds of his time. I stand at the end of the line, and as he finishes with the person in front of me and his eyes focus on mine, I smile and hand him his gift.

"I made this for you," I say, steadily and evenly because Teemu has never made me tongue-tied. Don't know why. "It's just a little something to say thank you. I hope you come back next year, but if you don't, thank you so much, for everything."

A grin slowly spreads across his face as he looks at the gift, probably remembering exactly when those pictures were taken. I understand he has a great memory for those things. "Thank you," he says, and then reaches over for a hug. As his left arm draws me in, I feel him give me a kiss over my right ear. "Thank you for this."

You're so welcome, Teemu. These are the moments I love. To make them as happy as they've made me... you can't put a price on that.

After Teemu leaves, I contemplate if I should stay any longer. Mission accomplished, so to speak. And then I see Bobby Ryan heading my direction, signing a few things for fans. He sees me and his face lights up, "Hey Christina!"

Even after nearly four years of friendship, it's still exciting that he knows my name.

He gives me a hug and asks how things are. I know he doesn't usually like to talk hockey, so I don't bring it up. "Getting close," I tell him, "Five more months!"

 "Wow, that is close! So you know, I think it's gonna happen this weekend. I'm gonna do it this weekend."

"Oh my gosh, really?? That's so great!"

"Yeah, I just can't figure out... like, I'm trying to plan it. Should I pop the question here or in Idaho?"

"Idaho would be nice," I said, "Quiet and you guys can soak it in..."

"That's what I thought, but then I know she's gonna want to be on the phone telling everyone... and reception isn't that great out there... And I'd like her mom to be there..."

"In that case, do it here. Before you guys leave for Idaho," I say. "I'm so excited for you! Does she have any idea?"

"No, she doesn't, so mums the word! But it's been hard cuz she keeps asking about it... and I'm avoiding it even more cuz I already know I'm gonna do it, you know? I think she's going to be surprised." Bobby is all grins as he's telling me this. I love how excited he is.

I wink at him, "you know, I've always liked her. I'm glad you're puttin' a ring on this one!"

"Yeah," he jokes, "she's good for me."

"Well, let me know how it goes!" He gives me another hug and is on his way.

I'm just getting over Bobby's news as Luca Sbisa comes through. Another big hug. I only get hugs from certain players, but those are the special ones that I know remember me. Today Luca smells like heaven, by the way. "Thanks for such a great season!" I tell him. "Ah, thank YOU for all of your support!"

That's what fans do, Luca.

And what do I find out later in the day? Team injury pressor: "Trade deadline pickup Matthew Lombardi may require surgery on his left shoulder after being diagnosed with an ailment a week after he was acquired by the Ducks."


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