Monday, September 21, 2009

Ruined Video Game Worlds

Another world. Another time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good. Until the Crystal cracked...

If you're a fan of Jim Henson movies (or the Crystal Method) you'll undoubtedly recognize those words as evoking the image of a world gone wrong. This list is about video game worlds and lands that were once good but have become corrupted and ruined either before or during the course of the game. There's nothing quite like being immersed in a nightmarish hellscape to increase the tension of a game or to evoke feelings of loss, hopelessness and despair. There are definitely more places I thought of than could fit on the list but the following are the ones that I think have the greatest impact either because of the sheer magnitude of their downfall or the atmosphere and feel of their ruinous nature. Honourable mentions go out to Fallout's world and Chrono Cross' Dead Sea.

5. Dark Land - Super Mario Bros. 3

Don't let the fact that this is in an 8-bit Mario game fool you, Dark Land is a veritable hell on earth. It's especially jarring given the overall benevolence of the rest of the Mushroom World. Here the Koopa tribe's weapons of war roam the land, sea and air. The country is filled with skulls, fire, lava, ash and consuming darkness, and some environments are entirely drained of colour. Basically, it's like the Mario version of walking into Mordor. However, in the final screen of the map, you are confronted with Bowser's castle, looming over the ruins of mushroom people structures. That's right; evidently, Bowser did not originally own the land he lives in. He invaded this area from wherever he came from and literally built his empire on the bones of his enemies. This is the horror that will befall the rest of the lands should you fail. It's even worse given that the mushroom people are non aggressive so this is basically an act of genocide on par with the Roman invasion of Dacia. Bowser seems to have lost his touch in later games but in this entry he was a vicious and cruel tyrant. When you fought him it was friggin' frightening as he throws himself about the room spitting fire, attempting to crush or immolate our hero. In the end, the only way to kill him is through a relentless torrent of fireballs or to let his murderous rage consume him and bring about his own downfall, much like Satan's attempts to escape hell cause him to be trapped there in Dante's Inferno. Epic and terrifying to say the least.

4. 2,300 A.D. - Chrono Trigger

Although you could say that the idea of this was lifted from Terminator, I still feel that this is pretty cool. In the year 1999, Lavos emerges from the depths of the earth and brings annihilation upon the planet. I think it was an interesting move to establish Lavos as a being beyond human comprehension so there is no way of knowing exactly what its motivations for this act are. It simply appears to be a fathomless act of genocide. 400 years later, the shattered remnants of humanity are still fending for themselves in the rubble. The feeling of loss is especially great as Chrono Trigger is a time traveling game, so you get to see the entire scope of the the world's history and see that it will all end in ruin. It's almost akin to a nuclear war: all the plans and dreams of humanity amounted to nothing because of a senseless act of colossal violence. It's also really cool that humanity is locked in a fight with a machine civilization (much like it was with reptiles in the beginning) but this is ultimately a pointless struggle. Especially in light of the fact that Lavos' spawn are wandering Death Peak, waiting to enter into space and inflict a similar fate on other worlds. It's a hopeless situation where all your actions are fruitless. No matter how many machines, mutants or Lavos spawn you kill, the world is still damned and no matter how many times you sleep in an Enertron, you're still hungry.

3. The Dark World - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Compared to the lush, green forests and fields of Hyrule, the Dark World was a blighted place, filled with withering grass, polluted water, lost souls and bizarre and monstrous creatures at every turn. Nothing was normal or peaceful and everything was hostile and grotesque. Apparently, this place once was the Golden Land: a divine and imperishable realm that has been corrupted by Ganon's acquisition of the Triforce and mastery of its power. One can only imagine how far it has fallen, and leaving the nature of the Golden Land to the imagination of the player was a brilliant move on their part. For all we know, it might never have born a resemblance to Hyrule and only took that on once Ganon's heart and mind shaped it. In this regard, the Dark World also proved to be a very interesting method of giving the player an understanding of the antagonist. This environment is a reflection of Ganon's heart and thus, you are basically walking through the mind of the villain during your quest in his kingdom. Fittingly, it is not over-the-top and completely demonic and horrifying. After all, Ganondorf may be evil but he's not a psychopath or Satan's spawn or anything. The Dark World is an appropriately dark, harsh, twisted, sick and diseased version of Hyrule. It's really telling of Ganon's nature when you are inside the Dark Palace and you see all the statues of his pig-like form grasping the Triforce. It's self-aggrandizing but also accepting of his true nature, and I like the idea that Ganon does not resist the change of form that he and the Golden Land underwent. Your prolonged stay in this nightmare really draws you further into the world and mythos of Hyrule, and (although I love the Ocarina of Time to death) delivers an experience that I would argue is more dark and disturbing then that offered by any of its successors.

2. The Demise of Nosgoth - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Although some of the games have found commercial success, the Legacy of Kain series seems to have only reached cult classic status as a whole. However, I count myself as a member of the cult, so the majority of you who haven't experienced these games will just have to take my word for it. The feel of Nosgoth in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is truly like no other. The background to the story is that Kain chose to plunge the world into darkness at the end of the previous game and began an empire of vampires that ruled Nosgoth for a thousand years. During this time human civilization had been completely obliterated and most populations had been enslaved for food. However, this is not where the game begins. Oh no. You begin playing as Raziel, the resurrected specter of one of Kain's lieutenants, centuries after Kain's empire began to decline. In other words, things aren't going right for anybody. Humans, vampires and animals are all pretty much doomed. Since the fall of the empire, the humans have regained some strength and have built a solitary fortress from which they attack the languishing vampires. However, it's simply too late.

Wandering alone in a ruined and decayed land sparsely populated by mutated and decrepit vampires scavenging for food on a violent and mindless quest for vengeance is a uniquely lonely, perverse and enjoyable experience. Like in the Zelda games, the world is filled with structures and ruins that give a feeling of depth, history and richness to the environments. It's especially great when you meet the bosses, the freakishly deformed and often insane vampire brethren of Raziel. His conversations with them only serve to heighten your feelings of foreboding as you hear the boasts, curses and lamentations of Nosgoth's vampiric masters, twisted in mind and body by the ravages of time and isolation. Your experiences are also punctuated by your meetings with Kain, whose calmness, clarity and acceptance of the situation make things even more creepy. As an unmoving centre to this spiral of madness, I honestly didn't know if he was either supremely enlightened or the most insane of all of Nosgoth's denizens. If you play the other games in the series you get a sense for how Nosgoth's dark history has inexorably led it to this end, which only gives the sense of corruption more depth . In the words of Ariel: “Ghastly past. Insufferable future. Are they one and the same?”

1. The World of Ruin - Final Fantasy VI

I won't lie, I almost created this list for the sole purpose of putting Nosgoth and the ruined world of Final Fantasy VI at the top of it. One of the most powerful aspects of the World of Ruin is that the cataclysm happens during the progress of the game. At a point that gamers understandably assumed to be the climax, the true antagonist was revealed, the quest was failed and the world was plunged into chaos. The world has been utterly reshaped by the cataclysm: the location of most cities and landmarks have shifted with many areas completely destroyed or missing, and new geographical formations being raised. All plants, water and land have taken on a sickly hue and it is much more difficult for the planet to support life. However, the full gravity of what has happened doesn't hit you until you play for a few more hours and see how Kefka's actions have affected (or killed) every single person you had ever met in the game. Finally, at some point it occurs to you: this is it. There is no going back and there is no chance of the world being fully healed (at least not during the course of the game or the lifetimes of the characters). The only thing left to do is pick up the pieces and try to do the best you can in this sad state of affairs.

Unlike Zelda's Dark World, the ruined world is not some alternate dimension you can escape from. It is also not some horrible future that can be prevented. Nor is it like Nosgoth or the world of Fallout where the state of decay is immediately accepted because it is all the player knows. The only thing that I find to be close is the world of Xenogears when things get totally destroyed and virtually everybody on the planet is cannibalized to feed the resurrection of a god. But here, the ruin was more of an apocalypse. It happens towards the end and is part of the game's conclusion. Xenogears is awesome but it does not force you to live in the aftermath and go about your business, making you long for the return of a time and place that will never be again. Final Fantasy VI does exactly that. Moreover, it is the resolve that the protagonists find, to keep going in this world of ruin, that defines them as truly heroic.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Best NHL Teams To Never Win A Cup

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard. It's widely accepted as the most difficult trophy to capture in all of pro sports. You've got 82 regular season games played in 30 different cities all over North America. Fourteen teams don't make it to the playoffs. Once there, a team must win four best of 7 playoff series to win the big prize. Sixteen wins. Of course, it hasn't always been that way. There used to be less teams (a lot less if you go back far enough) and seasons were shorter. The playoff format has changed over the years as well and sometimes it featured series that were best of 5 and even some best of 3s. Sometimes top-seeded teams even earned a bye that sent them straight to the second round. But still, I'm pretty sure it was just as hard in the old days.

This list's title makes it fairly self-explanatory but I will mention a few things. Firstly, that I suppose if you did the research and tallied up wins totals and how far each team actually traveled in the playoffs, you might discover that my list is out of order. That's if we're reducing hockey to simple stats. But we all know there's a lot more to the game than that so trust my amazing instincts and intuition.

Also I'll point out that one rule I had was to only include teams that were at least 5 years removed from a Cup win in either direction. So possible dynasties that were interrupted (see the 1970-72 Bruins who were shocked by Ken Dryden and the Habs in 1971 to break up their chance at 3 straight, the Oilers in 86 and 89, etc.) or were simply drawing to a close (see 1985 Islanders, 1961 Canadiens, etc) won't be seen here. Because those teams DID win cups in that at least most of the same players were present during the championships.

Further to that point I'll just say that I am actually including one glaring exception to the rule just stated above. When we get to it, you will understand why I had to break it that one time.

Here are the absolute best losers in NHL history.

5. St. Louis Blues 1998-2002 (Pierre Turgeon pictured)
Since entering the NHL in its first year of expansion (1967/68), the Blues have been one of the most consistently good teams (some very early appearances in the Final and from 1980 to 2004 they made the playoffs every single season). But a Stanley Cup has eluded them so far. Since the lockout of 2004/05, they've actually been pretty lousy but only a few years before that they were at their very best.

The Mike Keenan years of the mid nineties caused a lot of turmoil and the 1996 acquisition of Wayne Gretzky didn't work out. Their nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings sent them packing from the playoffs as usual and the Great One signed with the Rangers that offseason. By the 98/99 season, superstar and face of the franchise, Brett Hull was gone. But that was ok. Pavol Demitra and Chris Pronger were both coming into their own and Pierre Turgeon, acquired from Montreal the year before, was showing he was quite happy to be the hell out of Montreal. In goal, veteran Grant Fuhr ran out of gas after being overplayed but Roman Turek stepped right in and performed great. And Al MacInnis was...Al MacInnis.

But the damned Wings sent them home again in 98. The 99/00 Blues set a franchise record for wins and points, finishing best in the league with 114 points (thus winning the President's Trophy). Pronger won not only the Norris Trophy but the Hart as well. It seemed like they had finally surpassed Detroit. So then what happened? They were stunned in a 7 game upset in the first round against the eighth-seeded San Jose Sharks.
The next year featured an out of nowhere 40 goal season from scorer Scott Young and they at least made it to the second round but as usual, that was as far as they'd go.

By the 01/02 season, Turgeon was gone but he was ably replaced by two Americans: sniper Keith Tkachuk and playmaker Doug Weight. They helped keep the Blues powerful until 2004 but the playoff failures continued. As balanced and talented as the Blues were from 1998 to 2004, they never once made it past round two.

4. Boston Bruins 1987-1994
(Adam Oates pictured)
After years of, to use the proper term, sucking, the Bruins were an absolute powerhouse in the early and middle seventies featuring teams stocked full of immense talents like Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Derek Sanderson and, of course, Bobby Orr. The fact that they only won Cups in 1970 and 1972 speaks volumes about just how amazing the Montreal Canadiens teams of that era were, even stealing a Cup from the Bruins in 71 when mostly overmatched.

By the eighties the Bruins had changed quite a bit but they remained a strong team, making the playoffs every year. Ray Bourque was probably the best defenceman ever after Orr (sorry, Doug Harvey) and, just like Orr, he was Bruins' property. Along with guys like Brad Park and Rick Middelton they were pretty good. But in 1986 the Bruins were the beneficiaries of one of the most lopsided trades in league history, landing Cam Neely (AND a first round pick) for Barry Pederson ("who"? - exactly).

As Neely became one of the best goal scorers and power forwards in the game, the Bruins went from pretty good to really good. In 1988 they made it to the Final. But this was the eighties and you know what that means - the first half belonged to the Islanders and the second to the Oilers. And it was the Oilers that the Bruins now faced. They were swept in four games (well, four and a half - look it up, it's cool). 1990 saw the Bruins meet the now Gretzky-less Oilers in the Final once again. This time they took one game but still were beaten.

Ex-Oiler goalie Andy Moog was a great stopper for the Bruins and the cerebral Craig Janney's slick passing skills only further complimented Neely's scoring ability. Bourque, their leader, remained one of the league's elite blueliners. And 1990 was to be the mighty Oilers' final Cup. The problem for the Bruins was, they'd gone from coming up short twice against one dynasty team in the West to having to deal with an emerging one in their own conference, the East. Ron Francis proved to be the final needed piece for the puzzle that was Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins. In 1991 and 1992, the Bruins made it to the Conference Finals. Both times they were met and defeated by the Penguins, who would go on the win the Cup both times as well.

1993 saw one of the most shocking playoff upsets of all time with the Penguins, in their bid for a third straight Cup, being knocked out in the first round by the plucky New York Islanders (and their only real star, Pierre Turgeon was hurt and couldn't play!) You'd think this meant that the way was now clear for the Bruins, who had finished second in the league after the Penguins. But no, they were out even faster - having been swept by the Buffalo Sabres.

Players like Adam Oates, an even better playmaker than Janney, and super rookie Joe Juneau (who would decline in every season) kept the Bruins powerful in the early nineties but playoff success still didn't happen. A devastating injury eventually ended Neely's fantastic career far too soon. He'd managed an astonishing fifty goal season in 93/94 despite only playing FORTY-NINE games (and he actually hit 50 in his 44th game) but missed the playoffs altogether. After that season the Bruins would slide into mediocrity, eventually missing the playoffs in the 96/97 season. It was the first time in 30 years they wouldn't play into the spring.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs 1992-1995 (Doug Gilmour pictured)
Favouritism? You decide. The Leafs were a very strange up and down team throughout the eighties. But the ups hardly amounted to anything besides frustration and the downs were extreme. In 1990 that bastard Harold Ballard finally died and things immediately started looking up for the Blue and White and their fans even though their playoff appearance that year lasted only five games. They'd also miss the post season in the next two seasons.

But with Ballard at long last gone it was Steve Stavro who was in charge and he wasn't a crazy control freak like the previous owner (I'll have to do a list on the biggest assholes in pro hockey just so I can rant some more about Ballard) and knew he should put the team in the hands of people who actually knew something about hockey. He hired Cliff Fletcher, the man who'd built the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames. By the time the 92/93 season (which was INSANE - I could write several lists dedicated to it) started, Fletcher had taken drastic measures to rebuild the Leafs into an immediate contender. This was of course highlighted by the massive 10-player trade with his old team the Flames. The crown jewel of this blockbuster move was the Leafs landing Doug Gilmour, who was about to become one of the biggest heroes in the history of the franchise. Fletcher also hired Pat Burns as head coach.

Incumbent hero and team captain, Wendel Clark played 66 games that season which was a lot for him (his kamikaze playing style led to tons of injuries) and his most in many years. And yet he was a disappointment, scoring only 17 goals and 39 points. But this was glossed over by the fact that it was still an extremely successful regular season for the team as a whole. The Leafs finished with a then franchise record 99 points. Because while Clark disappointed, Gilmour skyrocketed, scoring 127 points (team record) with 95 assists (team record). He also won the Selke Trophy that year as the game's top defensive forward (impressive plus/minus of 32) and finished second in Hart Trophy (league MVP) voting.

If you're wondering how Gilmour racked up so many assists with Clark finding the back of the net only 17 times, the answer lies with another move by Fletcher. As rookie goaltender Felix Potvin proved he was the real deal with his absolutely stellar play highlighted by flashy, acrobatic saves (he probably would have won the Calder Trophy if not for Teemu Selanne's insane 76-goal season), Fletcher found he could afford to move veteran goalie, Grant Fuhr and get something substantial in return. That something was scoring winger, Dave Andreychuk, who meshed perfectly with Gilmour, scoring 25 goals in the 31 games he played after arriving. This would give him 54 in total. It was the first time he reached the 50-goal mark and it made him one of the very, very few players in NHL history to be traded during a 50-goal season.

I know I'm being wordy so let's fast forward to the playoffs. There, the Leafs dispatched the Red Wings and then the Blues, both in dramatic seven game series. At the same time as providing offence, Gilmour checked Steve Yzerman and then Brett Hull, keeping the stars from lighting up the Leafs. Led by Gilmour, the Leafs were playing out of their minds. They seemed to be a team of destiny. When they reached the Conference Finals to face the Los Angeles Kings, most fans were already looking ahead to the Final where a possible matchup with the Montreal Canadiens awaited.

But it's very unwise to overlook Wayne Gretzky. Like Clark, 99 had had a somewhat disappointing regular season. But the playoffs are what really matters. In another dramatic, back and forth series, the Leafs had the upper hand heading into LA for game 6 with the chance to eliminate the Kings. It was the second-most heartbreaking game I've ever experienced. Clark, who was making up for his season with an outstanding playoffs, scored a hat-trick. With the score tied late in the third period, Gretzky high-sticked Gilmour in the face. It was blatant. It was obvious. It even cut Gilmour so it should have been a four minute penalty instead of a regular two minute minor. Referee Kerry Fraser missed it. Moments later, Gretzky himself scored the winning goal.

Game 7 was back in LA. Gretzky scored a hat-trick of his own and the Kings prevailed, ending the Leafs' best run since 1967. Gretzky has said the best game he ever played was a 5-assist performance against the Russians in the 1987 Canada Cup. He's also said a short-handed overtime game-winner against the Flames in the 1988 playoffs was the greatest goal he ever scored. But for best playoff series, he said it was that one against the Leafs. The best series ever played by the best player ever and he had to save it for my Leafs.

The Leafs had another great season the next year and made it back to the Conference Finals again. Another 100 points for Gimour. Another fifty goals for Andreychuk. Clark bounced back with a career-high 46. But they were eliminated by Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure, Kirk MacLean and the rest of the Vancouver Canucks.

The lockout shortened 94/95 season saw the departure of Clark and the arrival of Mats Sundin. The young Swede was a point a game player in the season and dominant in the playoffs but Ed Belfour worked his magic to help the Chicago Blackhawks knock off the Leafs in the first round. A few years of mediocrity and playoff misses would follow as stars like Gilmour, Andreychuk and Dave Ellet were traded away. From 1998 to 2004 the Leafs would again be a strong team and they made it to the Conference Finals again in 1999 and 2002 but the early to mid nineties teams just had a certain magic about them that gets them on this list.

2. Philadelphia Flyers of the 80s (Brian Propp pictured)
Using a unique blend of skill and toughness the Flyers of the seventies managed to win back to back Cups in 1974 and 75. In a decade ruled by the Guy Lafleur-led Canadiens and the Bobby Orr Boston Bruins, this was no small achievement. By the eighties the Flyers no longer possessed talent or toughness as great as what they'd had. But they were still good. Damn good.

Although their teams in the eighties didn't feature any dominant superstars like they'd boasted before, they were just top to bottom good. Players like Brian Propp, Tim Kerr, Ken Linesman, Mark Howe and Dave Poulin performed wonderfully and made the Flyers a force to be reckoned with throughout the decade.

In the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, seventies veterans Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber, who were all instrumental in their Cup wins, almost got it done again but they wound up falling to the New York Islanders in six games. Everyone knew the Isles were good by that season, even before the playoffs, but no one really knew how good. They would win 4 Cups in a row from 1980 to 83. But it was really only that first year that they were the problem for the Flyers. Throughout the first half of the decade, the Flyers would make early playoff exists, losing to teams they probably should have beaten.

By the 84/85 season, the players I mentioned at the top were entering their primes. And goalie Pelle Lindbergh was becoming a star. The Flyers finally made it back to the Final that year. Of course they ran into the Edmonton Oilers who had taken the torch from the Islanders the year before, defeating them for the Cup and becoming the decade's new dominant team. The Flyers actually managed a very impressive 4-1 win in Game 1 but the Oilers would storm back to win the next four straight and capture their second Cup.

Early into the next season, Lindbergh would die in a car crash. But the Flyers still managed to carry on as an elite team without him.

In 1987, led by a sublime performance from rookie goalie Ron Hextall, they would meet the Oilers in the Final once again, only this time they took them all the way - seven games - before losing once more. Hextall was so good he still won the Conn Smythe.

How good were the Flyers of the eighties? Well, in the 79/80 season they went on an unbelievable run of 25-0-10 - by far the longest undefeated streak in league history. They had 53 wins in 84/85 and then again in 85/86. That year Kerr scored 58 goals and the defence pairing of Howe and Brad McCrimmon led the league with eye-popping plus/minuses of 85 and 83 respectively. In his rookie season (86/87) Hextall won the Vezina Trophy before his Conn Smythe performance in the playoffs. He'd also become the first goalie in history to score a goal by shooting the puck into the opposing net. He did this in the regular season and then later in the playoffs as well. Propp would top 90 points four different times. Kerr would score at least 54 goals for four straight seasons and only injuries kept him from doing it again. Howe, an offensive defenceman, would average over 60 points a season since arriving in 1982/83 till decade's end.

By 1988 and 89, the Flyers weren't quite as formidable as they'd been but they still made the playoffs each year. Looking back on the decade you'd have to think they were good enough to have perhaps won multiple Cups and would have had 3 if not for two different powerhouse dynasties.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs 1933-1941 (Joe Primeau pictured)
We've reached the top of the list. And here's the big exception to my five-year rule. In the midst of the Great Depression, the city of Toronto was actually seeing some progress and modest prosperity. Using some impressive economic smarts, team owner Conn Smythe built the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens in only six months in 1931. He bought land on the northwest corners of Carlton and Church streets for well under market value then convinced unionized construction workers to accept preferred shares in the Leafs instead of hourly wages. The building was constructed for $1.5 million. Despite the economic climate, the Gardens drew good crowds. Dubbed the "Carlton Street Cashbox", there was boxing, basketball, concerts and wrestling.

And there was the Leafs. The city fell in love with them and flocked to see them. Smythe, a visionary for his time, had every game broadcast on radio (by now legendary voice Foster Hewitt). In very short order, the Leafs had become Canada's team.

They played like it too. In their very first season in the Gardens, 1931/32, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. They were a speedy, high-scoring group with superstar defenceman, King Clancy as the centrepiece. Two other Hall of Famers were on the Leafs' defence as well - Hap Day and tough as hell Red Horner. Opposing forwards had no fun playing against those guys. Up front they were led by the famous Kid Line which included centre Joe Primeau with Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson on the wings. In the Final, the talented lineup defeated the New York Rangers in three straight games (best of five). With a young hungry team assembled, the future looked bright for the Leafs. They were sure to be a strong team for years to come. And they were. They appeared in the Final in 1933, 35, 36, 38, 39 and 40. They lost every single one.

The possible reasons for such unheard of failure are intriguing. Something certainly worth noting is that during the 1933 regular season, forward Ace Bailey, emerging as a great player, was injured so severely that he almost died. Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins - a superstar but also an incredibly violent and ill-tempered one - mistook Bailey for Clancy and hit him from behind. Hard. Bailey fell and bashed his head off the ice, fracturing his skull. Surgery saved his life but his hockey career was over. The team soldiered on and played through an exhausting playoffs complicated further by a very cruel schedule. By the time they met the Rangers in the Final, they had nothing left and lost three games to one.

Another possible factor was Smythe's decision to get rid of goaltender Lorne Chabot, one of the great forgotten goalies of the NHL and the man who had backstopped their Cup win in 1932. Smythe disapproved of Chabot's lifestyle even though his play was stellar. So out he went. Former Montreal Canadiens great, George Hainsworth replaced him but it's likely that he was past his prime by then.

In 1935 the Leafs finished first in the regular season standings for the third season in a row. Things finally seemed to be going right again as they cruised through the playoffs. They met Montreal in the Final. No, not the Canadiens but the Montreal Maroons (it's a misconception that the Maroons were a previous incarnation of the Habs but this isn't the case. The two teams coexisted for 15 years). The Leafs were heavily favoured in the matchup. They lost in three straight. The next year they were back in the Final again, only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings.

By the next year, Smythe knew some changes were needed. Day, Clancy and Hainsworth were all sent packing. Joe Primeau retired somewhat prematurely. So in came Turk Broda, Syl Apps and Gordie Drillon. All good players, particularly Apps and Broda who have to be considered among the greatest Leafs of all time. They finished first in their division for the 37/38 season and rolled through the playoffs to reach the Final once again. They met the Chicago Black Hawks there (before the seventies, the name was separated into two words). A team that had finished a dismal 14-25-9. Even though the Hawks went up two games to one in the series, they were such underdogs that the NHL didn't even bother to ship the Stanley Cup to Chicago for Game 4. So when they won that game I guess it was pretty awkward to not have the Cup present to give to them. Leafs lose again.

The 1939 Final was the first ever to be a best of seven series. That didn't help the Leafs any as the Bruins beat them in five. They managed only 6 goals in the entire series. Further insult to injury came when the Stanley Cup-winning goal was scored by Flash Hollett. Hollett had played for the Leafs in the 34/35 season showing a great scoring touch with 10 goals and 26 points in 48 games. But early into the following season he was gone, dealt away by Smythe because of some stupid personal feud between the two. He went on to be one of the highest scoring defencemen of his era.

The cycle of futility was complete when the Leafs fell to the Rangers in 6 games in the 1940 Final. From 1931/32 to 1939/40 the Leafs were a powerhouse, always finishing high in the regular season and making it to the Final an amazing 7 times. And they only came away with one Cup.

The forties would be a great time for the Leafs. Between 1942 and 1951 they were in the Final 6 times. They won every time, becoming the NHL's first true dynasty. But in the thirties the Leafs were arguably just as good and will always be remembered as the dynasty that never was. By those that actually remember anyway.

Korean Foods I Will Totally Not Miss

The only rule I applied to this list was that I must have tried the food, even just a little. So as much as I disagree with eating dog meat, I didn't partake, and you won't find it here.


5. Dried Seafood
To be completely honest I've come to enjoy squid in a variety of foods. It makes for some interesting side dishes, and deep fried in batter is also surprisingly tasty. However, dried strips of fish, squid, and other seafood does not agree with me whatsoever. My stomach does flips when I see kids sharing a bag of squid legs. I think I hate all dried meats. What is it about a jerky that makes everything reek? Koreans seem to love chewing on strips of this stuff and they even sell it as a snack at the theater.

Also dried fish seems to pop up in unexpected and unwanted places. You might find dried anchovies in your bag of peanuts, and tiny dried shrimp inside unassuming corn snacks. I just can't support that.

4. Ramyeon
Woah, what's wrong with instant spicy noodles, you ask? Okay, let me explain. Ramyeon itself is a cheap and delicious meal. It may have about a million grams of sodium, but what instant food doesn't? What I find curious is that ramyeon is sold at virtually every local restaurant. And it's not like they're selling some homemade recipe, they literally open a bag, boil it, crack an egg into it, and that's it. And people must love it. Plus I see people eating ramyeon everywhere anyway: at school, at home, at the park, on the sidewalk, in convenience stores, while hiking, you name it ... and still they order it at restaurants? "Oh man, I'm tired from a long day at work. I can't possible cook for myself and boil this. I think I'll go out and have someone else boil this for me."

And trust me, I get it. It's a cheap meal; it's comfort food. In Canada we restrict our Kraft Dinner eating to basically home and college. Nobody thought to sell it at a restaurant. Why is ramyeon a Korean food I won't miss? Because it's served perpetually here, and I can easily recreate the conditions of noodles and hot water in North America.

This is one of the most popular snack foods in Korea, sold by street vendors everywhere, and adored by children and adult alike. It's made with plain rice cake, fish cakes, and other ingredients broiled in a broth of gochujang (red pepper paste). I know I said I like rice cakes on my previous list, but you have to understand that gochujang oppresses all other flavours. This is good example of a flaw I find in many Korean dishes, where a slathering of gochujang leaves the food a burning red pile of spice and salt.

I've given this snack a fair shake. I've tried it multiple times hoping to "acquire a taste". It never happened, and I'm still left wondering why children happily munch it down, sweating profusely and gasping from the spiciness.

2. Feet
Chicken and pig feet are commonly sold and eaten in Korea. I've been to many a market and seen piles of each. I didn't eat much of either, I can assure you (it was more of a mistake actually). A foot seems like the sort of part you should throw away; not deep fry and serve with beer. I wonder if some people believe that all the best flavours of an animal travel to its feet with gravity?

Actually people have told me that eating chicken or pig feet is very good for your health. I've been told that eating dog meat can increase your stamina. Whenever someone tries to feed you something questionable, you can bet they'll have something to say about it's healthful benefits. Foods that are bad for your health are delicious, and apparently foods that are good for your health have toes. Ugh.

1. Beondegi (Roasted Silkworm Pupa)
Another popular (what!?) snack food you can find sold on the street. Usually steamed or boiled in a wok of its own juices the .... you know what, I need a minute.

Where was I? Right.... bugs. Okay, so as you can probably tell from the list I'm open minded enough to give most foods a shot. I figure it's a bit of life experience, and an interesting way to haunt all my future meals. I tried the silkworm pupa with a friend on a two way dare. How did it taste? Well, exactly as bad as I imagined. Look at the picture yourself and imagine how it might taste. Guess what? What you imagined is exactly correct!

I will not miss beondegi in any way, shape, or form. And I disliked it so much, I would be happy to banish if from the realm of food completely.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Korean Foods I Will Miss

Since I am a mere week away from my departure from Korea, I figure I would reflect upon my time here. And what better topic is there to cover besides food? I certainly have done the most research in this field.

I've tried to show a range of foods here, so anything goes: snacks, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and so on. Also, you can expect a sister list of Korean foods I did not enjoy in the coming days. Here goes.

5. Ddeok (Rice Cakes)
Made mostly from a glutinous rice flour, and coming in a plethora of flavours, colours, and shapes, this snack/dessert is good anytime. Depending on what kind you choose, it may make for a quick breakfast, something to cap off a meal, or to compliment tea. Admittedly, I found most ddeok to be bland at first. Over time I began to enjoy the subtle flavours and textures (mmm....chewy to the max). The more I tried them, the more I enjoyed them. They can be made with many sorts of things like honey, sugar, nuts, dates, sweet red beans, persimmon, peaches, apricots, etc. Also, sliced bits of plain rice cake added to soups and other dishes is great.

4. Mandu (Dumplings)
Man, I love me some mandu. It's basically the Korean equivalent of a pierogi, but filled with meat, tofu, veggies, or spicy ingredients. Once I ate a mandu so spicy it gave me hiccups for a solid half hour. There are several varieties, and you can get them steamed, pan fried, or boiled in a soup. While a large sized mandu is practically a meal itself, I prefer a mixed selection of freshly made dumplings with a little soy sauce for dipping.

My boss and his wife were nice enough to invite me to their home one Sunday to show me how to prepare mandu and we enjoyed a mandu stew that achieved a level of deliciousness I could scarcely believe. Despite having participated in making them, I'm pretty sure it would take years for me gain the skill to make them well. But I'll have to learn fast since any frozen style mandu I discovered in Canada came nowhere close to the real thing.

3. Patbingsu
More than a year ago on my blog I wrote about this dessert and how it was a ridiculous hodgepodge of ingredients that made me think of groceries spilled in the snow. I still think that way, but I also fucking love it. The dessert starts simply with a bowl of shaved ice topped with sweet red beans. I know you're thinking, beans?! I'll pass, thank you very much. But trust me that these are not beans for a chili. These beans are more akin to candy.

Anyway, it seems everywhere I go restaurants are trying to outdo each other with elaborate toppings. I've seen patbingsu served while it towered more than half a foot out of the bowl. But the toppings are always different; you got condensed milk, cereal, syrup, yogurt, fresh fruit, candy, cinnamon, ice cream, bits of rice cake, nuts, sprinkles, the list goes on. It's refreshing, delicious, a sno-cone on steroids and I will do my very best to duplicate it in Canada ... or go mad trying.

2. Kimchi
I could hardly make a list of Korean food without mentioning this. It's the quintessential Korean food, and represents a huge part of their food culture. If you don't know, kimchi is a spicy pickled vegetable side dish (basically like a sauerkraut) and has a staggering 187 documented varieties. The most common type is made with Chinese cabbage, and that's the one I know best. It really is a delicious addition to any meal. I love having it with steamed or fried rice, in soup, or Korean style pancakes. Some westerners have let me know that when cooked alongside beef on the BBQ, it makes for a hell of a good burger.

Due to the variety of seasonings, spices, ingredients, preparation methods, and fermentation times, the taste of kimchi is always different. Sometimes spicy, salty, sweet, sour, or a mix, it always adds something unique to a meal. As a bonus, it's widely recognized as being great for your health, and has even been listed in the top five "World's Healthiest Foods".

1. Bibimbap (Mixed Meal)
Easily my favourite meal from Korea. This dish is basically a bowl of rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables and usually a fried egg, red pepper paste, and dark sesame oil. When mixed all together and eaten along with soup and side dishes, it becomes a savory delight. It works well as a summer meal, or if you want something to warm you up in the winter, you can get dolsot bibimbap which comes sizzling with meat in a stone pot. It's just fantastic.

Like so many other Korean foods, like the ones I've mentioned above, because of the ever changing ingredients and recipes, the taste is never quite the same as before. And although it's usually a heaping bowl of food, it doesn't sit in your gut like a greasy weight making you long for a nap, but instead leaves you feeling energized and satisfied. I wonder if airport security will notice when I fill one of my suitcases with everything I need to make this dish for the next several months?