Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Red Wings' Scoring Mule Wallops The Avs Once More

Back in the days when not all television programs were broadcast in "living color", and before remote controls were grafted onto the hands of 90% of the male population in this country, there was a TV show called Francis The Talking Mule. You can probably guess by the title that it wasn't exactly an Emmy Award candidate. But it had a cult following.

The Red Wings have Franzen The Scoring Mule. And he may not be an award winner, either, unless you count the Conn Smythe Trophy that he may pick up in about a month from now.

I'm right so rarely, it seems, when it comes to soothsaying, so allow me to indulge myself and remind you all that before the playoffs began, Johan Franzen was depicted in this space as being one of the Red Wing players (Henrik Zetterberg being the other) whose prowess would be needed the most in the post-season. I don't blame you for not believing me, so you can read it for yourself HERE.

Franzen, aka The Mule, has been kicking the Colorado Avalanche in the lower body area ever since this conference semi-final series began. He did it to them again last night in Game 3, scoring the go-ahead goal some 58 seconds after Pavel Datsyuk tied the game at 1-1. This after Franzen roughed up the Nashville Predators in Round 1. He has a mind-boggling eight goals in the playoffs. He has Smythe (given to the MVP of the playoffs) written all over him.

No team, so far, has had an answer for Franzen, who's Tomas Holmstrom with hands. He's a player built for post-season hockey. He reminds me of the great Tim Kerr, or Cam Neely. Power forwards who pitched camp in front of the net and ate the other team's picnic basket.

Goalie Chris Osgood won't win the Smythe, but he's playing like he's on a mission, which of course he is. He's ten years removed from his last Stanley Cup, and if you think it wouldn't be sweeter for him this time around -- having begun the regular season and the playoffs as the backup only to emerge as the go-to guy in goal -- then you're delusional. He's 35 now, and would be a remarkable story if the Red Wings pick up nine more wins. He's supremely confident, and watching him in post-game interviews, I can't help but notice that he's extremely focused. He made an outstanding stop late in last night's win, stoning David Jones after the Avs forward used his speed to split the Red Wings defense. And Osgood made the stop look so easy, just as he's made all his stops look.

Speaking of missions, the one in Denver was simple for the Wings: place skate on throat and press firmly. Deny the Avs any of that thin, mile-high air. Erase any thoughts of momentum and getting back into the series. Come home 3-1, if not with brooms in hand. Mission accomplished. The Avs are done like dinner -- injured, deflated, and helpless. They're a parody of a horror movie villain, like in one of those Scary Movie deals. They may wear the Colorado Avalanche cloak, but they're to be laughed at and pitied, not feared.

What a way to end a rivalry, eh?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Crossing Over To The Dark Side: OOB Teams With WDFN

I've been a critic of the sports talk radio blabbermouths, which I figure I can do, as a card-carrying member of that bottom feeding club, aka bloggers and riff-raff journalists. I'm both of the latter, and an occasional member of the former; guilt by association.

Today, OOB joins other salacious curmudgeons like Big Al at Wayne Fontes, and is partnering with WDFN radio. "The Fan"'s clickable logo appears on the sidebar now, and OOB postings will coincidentally appear on the WDFN site from time to time, along with stuff from the sister sites, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? and Spoiled Sports.

Thanks to WDFN Program Director Rona Danziger for extending the invite, no matter how cruel I've been to her jabberjaws in the past. It's all good. Like she says, if you can't laugh at yourself, you can't laugh at all. Plus, she's good people -- as are the folks at 'DFN, despite what you may have read here previously. :-)

Pistons Star In "24", And Earn Top Drawer Reviews

It was the Pistons' version of 24.

At halftime of yesterday's Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, I gave the team -- and by extension, coach Flip Saunders -- 24 minutes. Twenty-four minutes to show me that they were either still to be taken seriously as a championship contender, or a franchise about to undergo a bunch of upheaval. Twenty-four minutes that would, I surmised, go a long way toward either being the first of many dominoes to topple, or making the world right again at the Palace. Twenty-four minutes to show me that you can stare a 1-3 series deficit in the face, on the road, down by ten points, in an extremely hostile environment against an athletic, young, care-free team that was having entirely too much fun at the experience-rich Pistons' expense. Twenty-four minutes to, perhaps, save their coach's job -- and their status as untradeable.

This is it, I thought. This might be the most important, crucial 24 minutes of basketball any Pistons team has played in years, because of its implications on their season -- and their off-season.

And, like Jack Bauer, the Pistons ended up heroes. Test passed. For now.

It's amazing how often the team that takes control at the start of the third quarter in any given NBA game ends up the winner. The Pistons had Game 1 halfway in their back pockets after the first two quarters, but a lightning-quick 8-0 run by Philly to begin the third turned a 51-38 laugher into a 51-46 dogfight in about 100 seconds. The game ebbed Philly's way after that. In Game 2, the Pistons came out of the locker room for the third quarter refusing to let the Sixers back in after another impressive first half by Detroit. The Pistons won, in a cake walk. In Game 3, the Sixers ran away from the turnover-ridden Pistons to start the second half, and won in a landslide.

Last night, the Pistons scored the first 11 points of the second half, turning a ten-point deficit into a one-point lead. The Sixers then showed why they're still not quite ready for prime time. And the Pistons again showed why they can be among the most maddening teams in sports.

Why, oh why, must this team dangle one foot off the ledge before yanking it back? Why must it give away momentum and energize its opponents? Why does it only feel urgency after creating it by its own lollygagging?

These questions will probably never be answered, because we've been asking them for four or five years now, with no real satisfaction.

Regardless, the series with these pesky 76ers is now knotted at two, and things would appear to be back in the Pistons' control. They appear to have slapped the Philadelphians back into their rightful place as first round victims. They appear to have had their moment of angst for this round, and are prepared to move on -- where they'll no doubt putsy around and tempt danger in Round Two, natch.

The Sixers had the Pistons where they unanimously would have agreed would be lovely, had they been polled before the game: down by ten, the Wachovia Center rocking. Doubts, perhaps, creeping in. An uncertain summer looming. Seemingly drained of energy. Confidence waning.

That Maurice Cheeks' team couldn't close the deal -- not even remotely close to closing the deal, in fact -- is an indictment of his club's inexperience and why the Pistons should now win the series in six games. And why Saunders' job has been saved -- for now.

I was saddened by the death over the weekend of longtime Free Press sportswriter George Puscas, who passed away at the age of 81. Puscas was one of my inspirations to write about sports, and I had an awesome experience with him a couple years or so ago, that I'll share later this week. Fitting and also bizarre that he's being viewed at the same funeral home, at the same time, as former MSU football great Sonny Grandelius, who also died over the weekend at age 79.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Izzo Better Served To Resist NBA’s False Allure

There is no manual. There is no preparatory course. There are no numbered dots to connect. There is no online degree.

There aren’t any of these, none that can properly prepare one to become a head coach in professional basketball. But there IS an almost sure-fire path to take to be an UNsuccessful one.

Be a college basketball coach first. Now you’ve got a recipe for failure!

This is the time of the year when NBA teams go in search of new sideline leaders. The regular season finished, pre-season hopes dashed. An 82-game journey filled with losing, sniping with players, and working under the constant siege of sports talk radio blabbermouths and riff-raff sportswriters. Who needs it, anyway?

Inevitably, the hordes of unpaid advisers start tossing names around. The usual suspects turn up in these made-for-radio discussions – the recycled coaching veterans who themselves have been, at one time or another, let go after their own seasons of dashed hopes.

This spring, it’s Rick Carlisle. Deposed former coach of the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. He’s one of the mentioned – rumored to be a candidate for the vacant job in Chicago. The Bulls, incidentally, are looking for a coach after giving the ziggy to Scott Skiles in December. Their interim coach, Jim Boylan, didn’t stand a chance of being Skiles’s permanent replacement. Skiles, right on schedule, has resurfaced as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. And Carlisle is the hot name for the Bulls job. Or maybe the Knicks. New York is looking for someone to clean up Isiah Thomas’s mess. Carlisle has been mentioned for that job, too.

Another name is being bandied about – again. And he’s one of ours.

Tom Izzo, perhaps the greatest basketball coach in the history of Michigan State University (with apologies to Jud Heathcote), has been mentioned as a possible Bulls coach. He’s telling friends and the media that, yes, he would listen if the Bulls ever called. And no, they haven’t called yet, says Izzo. Back in 2000, on the heels of the Spartans’ national championship, Izzo reportedly turned the Atlanta Hawks down – a generous offer, by all accounts.

Consider this yet more free advice from an unasked, but for goodness sakes, Tom – Just Say No.

“I still consider (the NBA) the ultimate level of basketball,” Izzo said the other day when the Bulls purposely came up in conversation. “Something about (the NBA) makes me intrigued.”

Well, Izzo is right about one thing: the NBA is, absolutely, the ultimate level of basketball. Don’t let any of those college freaks tell you otherwise.

But Izzo coaches at the highest level of the college game, currently. His teams routinely appear in the NCAA tournament, and in a good year they tease us all the way to the Final Four. Usually they win at least one game, sometimes two or three in The Dance. He has built the MSU program as one to be envied, just as the football they play in Ann Arbor is looked at wistfully by the folks in East Lansing. They even have something in the Breslin Center called the Izzone – a section of crazies who pride themselves in acting like buffoons, all in the name of the sis-boom-bah that goes along with the college game.

But Izzo should reject the Bulls, turn them down flat, if it should ever come to that. He should run as far away as he can from any overture to take his game to the next level. For history – that unbiased bastion of prognosis – says that college coaches consistently get chewed up and spit out by the pro game.

Izzo will be no different, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.

There isn’t any specific reason why college coaches simply cannot make it in the NBA, but here are a few: a) they’re too intense for the pro players; b) their x’s and o’s don’t work in the pro game; c) they cannot suspend players who don’t buy into their message; d) pro players look at college coaches cross-eyed from the moment they blow the whistle for their first practice.

Most of the good pro coaches today were former NBA players. Just about every one of them eschewed the college sideline; they, instead, latched onto an NBA team as an assistant. Some didn’t even do that; they were hired as head coaches without any prior coaching experience. Usually that’s not a recommended way to go when it comes to plying a trade, but in the NBA it’s not all that bad.

Some of the greatest coaches in NBA history weren’t players, of course. Some were, in fact, products of college campuses. But not before they apprenticed as pro assistants first – and for many years. Maybe I’m the first to break it to you, but the Pistons’ Chuck Daly was once a very successful coach at tiny Penn University, way back in a decade called the 1960s – some twenty years before becoming a genius at the pro game. But Daly was an assistant with the Philly 76ers, then a broadcaster, then an assistant again, when the Pistons came calling in 1983. He didn’t make the near-impossible leap from NCAA to NBA in one fell swoop.

Izzo, like so many college coaches before him, figures himself to perhaps be the one who can buck the trend. He looks at the allure of the pro game, sees that “ultimate level” of basketball, and wonders. And for that he’s not to be blamed. It’s human nature to ask oneself if he has what it takes to cross over to another level in his chosen field.

But Bobby Knight never acted on that notion. John Wooden never did. Dean Smith never did. But Jerry Tarkanian did, with the San Antonio Spurs some 15 years or so ago, and the abbreviated experienced nearly caused him to bite clear through the towel he famously chewed on during games. Other college stalwarts like Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and PJ Carlesimo have tried and failed. I could dwarf your typical grocery list with more examples of this kind of failure.

So don’t do it, Tommy. Stay on campus. Tell those Bulls no, if they bother to ask. Better yet, pretend you’re not home. Out of sight, out of mind. And you won’t have to lose yours.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ware Just Another Example Of Lions' Draft Day Misfiring

The TV cameras were set up in the young quarterback's living room, the best to catch the certain feeling of elation and exultation when his name would inevitably be called over the loudspeakers in New York City. And the one-eyed monsters didn't miss a trick; the NFL commissioner made the announcement, and the gunslinging QB from the gunslinging state of Texas -- the University of Houston, to be specific -- raised his arms in triumph.

"Yes! Run-and-shoot baby!", he cried.

Andre Ware was grinning from ear-to-ear.

Somewhere under the Silverdome's circus tent, Lions coach Wayne Fontes's moon face was lighting up, too.

Ware, the hotshot quarterback from Houston, who had obliterated school records while running the college version of the run-and-shoot, was headed to Detroit, where Fontes was trying to shoe horn the pro version into the woeful Lions offensive schemes.

It was April, 1990, and the Lions had a superstar running back, Barry Sanders, and a boat load of receivers. Some were able to properly catch a football; others were there because the Lions favored quantity over quality. All they needed was a QB familiar with the frantic run-and-shoot -- the offense where the ball is snapped, and a quartet of receivers scatter all over the field, with the theory being that the more of them that are out there, the QB is sure to find one man open. The Houston Oilers were running a rather successful version in the gunslinging state. Though their quarterback and receivers were lower on quantity and higher on quality.

Long story short: Andre Ware, on the surface, seemed to possess the physical qualities of a prototypical stud NFL QB: he was tall, athletic, and young. But it turned out that he lacked one key ingredient: the ability to throw the football anywhere near a potential receiver.

Ah, but it is still my contention, some 18 years later, that had Ware not missed all of training camp due to a contract dispute in his rookie year, things may have turned out differently for him and the Lions. Guess we'll never know for sure.

Andre Ware today, still showing his face despite his draft bust

They're holding another of those draft circuses this weekend, and the Lions are still ones to err on the side of quantity than quality. They love to stockpile draft picks, never minding that they rarely know how to use them wisely. This year they have the 15th player off the board, a departure from the norm, where the Lions are usually possessors of something in the top five. And because of their lower-than-usual pick, the mocksters with their pretend drafts have the Lions selecting any one of five or six different players. History says it may not even matter.

But it's still exciting, the draft. It's kind of like spring training in baseball; every team feels a jolt of optimism over the players they've selected. All things seem possible in April -- the reality of December be damned.

Today, Andre Ware is an analyst for college football games on network TV. He's had to wear the label of "draft bust" ever since 1992 or so, and the reality is that he'll never shake it. But he's not hiding; being on network TV is no way to do that, even if you are commentating on the less stellar matchups every Saturday.

I wonder what goes through Ware's mind every year around this time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things Overheard When Jim Leyland "Lost It" At His Team Last Sunday)

Things That Former Avalanche Players (and coaches) Are Doing Nowadays

7. Marc Crawford (coach): in addition to his duties as coach of the Los Angeles Kings, Crawford (who famously jawed with Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman during the '97 playoffs) is slated to star in the upcoming Michael J. Fox Story, playing Fox.

6. Uwe Krupp (defenseman and dog sledder): landed small role in new Brady Bunch series in the remake of that episode where that guy tries to bilk the Bradys out of money by wearing a fake neck brace. Originally played so well by Jackie Coogan.

5. Curtis Leschyshyn (defenseman): has made a good living off the royalties of his surname being the only name in the world that rhymes with "precision"

4. Sandis Ozolinsh (defenseman): donated his name to the nation's police, who now ask suspected drunk motorists to say it as part of a sobriety test. *Note* It's a trick question, because even sober people can't pronounce it without slurring.

3. Mike Ricci (forward): appears in sideshows during the off-season as The World's Ugliest Hockey Player.

2. Claude Lemieux (forward and coward): is national spokesperson for new line of Hanes turtleneck shirts

1. Patrick Roy (arrogant, hot dog goalie): returned to school and recently finished third grade, but not before being suspended for challenging fellow third grader to fight at "3:30 p.m. sharp behind the old Miller barn"

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wings Would Be Wise To Leave Avs History For Everyone Else To Drudge Up

The Red Wings have played the Colorado Avalanche five times in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Twice have they won -- and both years they did, the Wings captured the Cup. In two of the three years that the Avs beat the Red Wings, Colorado won the Cup.

And I have just wasted about five seconds of your time with that first paragraph, unless you believe in omens and history repeating itself and all that other superstitious nonsense. Oh -- I forgot. We're talking hockey, a sport with playoff beards and "upper body injuries" and so rife with players' quirks and routines all designed to bring good luck that its logo might as well be a rabbit's foot. So maybe there is something to what I pointed out, after all.

It's Detroit-Colorado, Part VI in round two -- the first meeting between the Motor City and Ski Town since 2002. Call it the Snow Tire series.

But seriously, folks -- the truth is, there probably isn't much truth in the notion that anything that happened between the Red Wings and the Avalanche in playoffs past (1996, '97, '99, 2000, and '02) will have any bearing on what happens this spring. Only a few key characters remain from each squad. The big Colorado villains, Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux, are long gone -- though Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg remain. The Red Wings don't have Brendan Shanahan or Steve Yzerman anymore, but Darren McCarty and Kris Draper are still around -- as are Kirk Maltby and Nick Lidstrom. And Chris Chelios, who was around for the great Red Wings-Canadiens rivalries of the 1950s. Just kidding, Cheli.

Oh, I suppose it might be a little fun, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see that God-awful logo on the Avs sweaters skating around JLA again, but other than that, the Avalanche are merely another team on the Red Wings' checklist of clubs to be dispatched before they can hoist Stanley once more. To treat them as anything more than that runs the risk of that dreaded playoff malady: losing one's focus.

But worry not. These Red Wings are a cerebral bunch. They're good at not getting caught up in things that others -- namely bottom-feeding bloggers -- tend to pay attention to. I'm sure that the Red Wings appreciate the history of the rivalry and what it's done for hockey -- and they might get a little more juiced up as those memories flutter through their brains occasionally -- but they idealize more what awaits them at the end of this yellow-bricked road. My guess is that Lidstrom, Draper, McCarty and the rest will merely smile politely as the past is brought up again and again, vis a vis Red Wings-Avs playoff matchups.

This is not to say Colorado should be taken lightly. No team should, when hockey games are played while regular season baseball games are occurring. The Avs, sixth-seeded, upended the no. 3 Minnesota Wild, and while that's hardly an upset of shocking proportion, it's not to be dismissed casually. Forsberg's late-season return has impressed several, including Sakic. The Avs aren't as tight defensively as they used to be (oops, there I go, mentioning the past again), but they're formidable. They have some good, young talent. It should be a fun series.

The Red Wings will win it, of course. They'll win them all, I reckon, all the way thru May and into that first week of June. How could they beat the Avs and NOT win the Cup? History says so.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Too Good Not To Share

I don't usually do YouTube here, but you MUST check out this clip of former Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg, trying to get mad at LB Barrett Green for a penalty Marty thought Green committed:

Mischievous Sixers Play While Sleepy Pistons Nod Off

The comparison is tempting, but it's slightly inaccurate.

The temptation is to call the Pistons' 90-86 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their first round series a wake-up call. You know, because now the Pistons, it's presumed, are up-and-at-'em, ready to dispatch the 76ers swiftly thanks to the unfriendly alarm. The image is of the 76ers standing above the Pistons' bed, swirling a bucket of ice water, ready to pour it on the no. 2 seed.

Well, why in the heck would the Sixers want to do that?

Wouldn't it be a better analogy, for Philly fans anyway, if you were to compare the neophyte Sixers to that kid who wakes up early on Saturday morning and eats chocolate cake for breakfast and watches R-rated movies on DVD while his parents snooze? The LAST thing a mischievous kid wants at that point is a wake-up call for his folks.

Even Sixers forward Andre Iguodala said as much.

"That's Detroit. Sometimes they fall asleep."

Wow. Already being dissed by the seventh-seeded opponents after just one game.

But you can't get too mad at Iguodala's comment, as brazen and brash as it might seem. Because he's right. The Pistons do, indeed, fall asleep at times, and not always do they wake up in time.

Rasheed Wallace, for one, wasn't among the snoozers. Wallace played like a man possessed, especially in the first half, combining scoring prowess with octopus-like arms, batting away Sixers shots like a camper swatting flies at a picnic. It was sadly ironic, then, that it was 'Sheed who missed a potential game-tying "bunny" (his word) in the waning seconds, because if anyone kept his team in the game, it was Wallace.

The Pistons guards were outplayed by Philly's tandem of Andre Miller and U-D's own Willie Green. The shooting was frigid. The second half was almost as incomprehensibly bad as the first half was stunningly good. Give Philly credit. They were down 13 at the half, the Palace rocking. But this fuzzy-faced group (at least when it comes to playoff experience) looked at the deficit, looked around their locker room full of playoff first-timers, and must have collectively went "HA!", because they came out in the second half with a vengeance. As the Pistons nodded off again, the playful Sixers scored eight quick points to start the third, and before many in the crowd had returned to their seats with their nachos and beer, a basketball game had broken out.

And already the Pistons are forced to trot out their "we've been here before, we'll be fine" sound bites, after just 48 minutes of post-season ball.

The truth of the matter, though, is that they probably WILL be alright -- BECAUSE they've been here before. Unfortunately. I just think that over a seven-game series in the NBA (especially in the first round), the best team wins. And the Pistons are clearly the best team. But this won't be a cakewalk. It's kind of like the Red Wings and the buzzsaws they've run into in recent playoff history -- teams who've been in playoff mode for some time, fighting to even make the party. The Sixers fit that description, and they've picked up some big regular season wins in the past couple of months. This was an 18-30 team at one point. But a 22-12 closing run landed them in Auburn Hills Sunday. And the Pistons weren't much better than 22-12 in their final 34 games; then again, the Pistons weren't really playing for anything, either.

I agree with the trotted out sound bites. The Pistons will be fine. The pesky Sixers had their Saturday morning fun while mom and dad slept. They got away with a little. But the folks will eventually find out what mischief the kid has wrought, and will ground them -- in six games.

By the way, kudos to Danica Patrick for her first Indy win on Sunday. I've always been a big Danica fan (and NO, not for THAT reason!), and I was wondering when she'd finally break through into the win column. Give the lady her due.

I'll have my thoughts on the Red Wings on Wednesday (first round recap, second round forecast, etc). As you might have noticed, OOB takes Tuesdays off now -- just like the NFL players do during the season. I stole their idea.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pistons THIS Close To Being Victimized By Isiah The Exec

When a basketball player arrives for a press conference on crutches, you pretty much have your lead for the early editions when the story is the next day’s game.

_______ WON’T PLAY, the ensuing headline should scream.

But the name in the blank was Isiah Thomas’s, which means that all bets were off.

When a team is down by ten points with about a minute left in a playoff game, you’d think that you could start pounding out the beginnings of your opening graph for the editor.

“The Pistons fell last night, to the New York Knicks ...” it would say.

But the leader of the team was Isiah Thomas, which means such an opening sentence wasn’t necessarily fait accompli.

When a basketball player limps up and down the court, grimacing in pain, you’d figure that he’s soon to be removed from the game.

But the limping player was Isiah Thomas, and the contest was Game 6 of the NBA Finals, so leaving simply wasn’t an option.

Truth? I’d rather remember Thomas in this manner – as the shrimp-sized leader with the lion-sized heart who practically willed his team to victory. I’d rather recall him as the little dude who proved all the experts wrong – those who said you can’t build a championship basketball team around a point guard.

I’d just as soon remember all that, rather than what he is today, which is a cartoonish symbol of all that is wrong with basketball in New York.

I’ve been watching professional basketball for 38 years, and no one – NO ONE – was a tougher son of a bitch on the floor than the Pistons’ cherubic Isiah Thomas. He was a smiling assassin – a mighty mite of a player who liked losing as much as getting a root canal without anesthesia. There were nights when the Pistons won solely because of Thomas’s will; there were nights when they lost despite his best efforts, because his teammates failed him. But never did they lose because of him.

That’s what it was, when Isiah Thomas was a player. When his work attire was Nike, not Armani.

Today, Thomas is out of work for all intents and purposes, given the ziggy by the Knicks as their coach. Weeks ago, Thomas lost the first part of his hyphenated job – when the Knickerbockers hired longtime NBA man Donnie Walsh and thus displaced Thomas as team president. But Isiah remained as coach, until the season was over, and Walsh looked at the mess the 23-59 Knicks had become, and confirmed his status as a basketball genius by canning Thomas. The second half of the hyphenated job was now also pulled from Isiah’s grasp.

It’s what happens, though, when you have a year that included being confirmed as a sexual harasser by a former employee and then got worse, if you can imagine. There were feuds with players and nightly chants of “Fire Isiah” coming from the loge seats at Madison Square Garden. And there was losing, always the losing. Unlike when he played the game, Isiah was now the cause of the losing. Walsh didn’t earn his reputation as a brilliant basketball man by not being able to discern such things.

The list of gaffes Isiah has made in Armani is nothing if not impressive in its variety: the failed attempt to guide the Continental Basketball Association, the failed attempt to guide the Toronto Raptors, the failed attempt to guide the Indiana Pacers. And now, the biggest and blackest eye: the soiling of basketball in New York.

It’s a New York game, basketball is. It starts on the playgrounds with the chain link nets and continues into the grammar schools and proceeds clear through until high school, where legends of the court have grown like corn does in Iowa. Upon graduation, the hoop stars are recruited into any one of the multitude of colleges within a puddle-jumping plane ride away from each other: Syracuse, Seton Hall, Rutgers, St. John’s. The elite, superstar high schoolers have the entire continental United States at their feet, begging them to enroll.

But the Knicks are still the straw that stirs the New York basketball drink. And Isiah has, in about four years since being handed the keys to the executive washroom, made that drink go flat. The Knicks are now a national joke, and that’s so unlike it used to be, when New York’s NBA team performed for the Garden patrons through the haze of cigar smoke and, along with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia Warriors, carried the league on their shoulders.

It used to be every New York kid’s dream to play for the Knicks – even though the league championship hasn’t called The Big Apple home since 1973. There was still an aura about the New York Knicks, even through some lean years. But it’s not an aura any longer; it’s a stench.

We might chuckle at Isiah’s Knicks from our comfy seat in Detroit, where the Pistons contend annually for NBA supremacy. But lest we not forget that had it not been for some loose Isiah lips, the Pistons very well could have been Thomas’s first post-playing career victim.

When Isiah retired in 1994, he helped leak a story: that he would become an integral part of the Pistons front office upon hanging up his sneakers. He encouraged the talk, and it was duly reported – even as, heaven forbid, actual fact.

This did not sit well at all with Pistons owner Bill Davidson, a fierce guardian of loyalty and trust. Davidson saw Isiah’s bragging as a breach of unwritten contract. For Thomas was not to have said anything until Davidson deemed it OK. So the man who traded the legendary Dave Bing over a contract dispute – Davidson never understood those, either – disowned Isiah Thomas. Never would Isiah, as long as Davidson was alive, be allowed to sit his fanny in any sort of leather chair in the Pistons front office. End of story.

So Isiah went elsewhere to scratch his basketball itch. He left a path of destruction in his wake. The New York Knicks are just the latest ruined entity. The Pistons could have been among them, had Thomas not opened his mouth too soon.

Happy Thanksgiving, seven months early!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Panic? No, Babcock Just Coaching For The Moment

I just can't seem to read Dominik Hasek correctly. First, I go and write this back in October in my Chicken Little fashion, regarding his slow start. He proved me wrong. Then, on Monday, I write this, scolding myself for my hysteria back in October, declaring that he'll be just fine. Unfortunately, he proved me wrong again. So I give up on trying to figure him out.

Hasek is out, and Chris Osgood is in for Game 5 of this suddenly spooky first-round series with the Nashville Predators. This, after Hasek proved that a Czech in Music City must not be a very good mix; Dom was mediocre in Games 3 and 4.

How dare a coach change goalies during a playoff series! At least, that's what most media types would tell you. They liken it to letting a genie out of a bottle. You can't win Stanley Cups that way, they say. If you have two goalies, that means you don't have one -- trying to borrow from the NFL's supposed creed about quarterbacks. You can read one of the doomsayers here -- the Free Press's resident curmudgeon, Drew Sharp.

But here's the thing: last I checked, nobody's ever won the Cup after losing in the first round. Even the great Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers teams couldn't pull that one off. So that said, I don't blame Red Wings coach Mike Babcock one bit in trying to do what he feels gives his team the best chance to win THIS series. You worry about Round Two when -- and IF -- you get there.

Some of the worriers of this decision wonder what this will do to Hasek's supposed fragile psyche. Well, I think if anyone is qualified to know that answer, it must be his coach, no? If Babcock thinks that won't be an issue, then that's good enough for me.

Look, Babcock is trying to win this series, right now. He's coaching for the moment, with the short-sightedness that is sometimes required in the playoffs. Worrying about one game at a time is cliche, but it's what you need to do, really.

Besides, the wives tale that says you can't win Cups by swapping goalies in and out is a fallacy. Teams HAVE done it. One that comes to mind is the 1972 Boston Bruins, who gave almost 50-50 time to Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers throughout the regular season, then continued the practice in the post-season. Of course, that Bruins team was loaded with offensive talent, so much so that whatever was going on in net was the least of their opponents' worries. Still, it happened, and I don't know why it can't happen again. Where does it say that "thou shall have one netminder throughout the playoffs"?

Osgood may be the guy that gets the Red Wings through this series, but that doesn't mean he starts in the next round. It would seem foolish to change at that point, but it's not etched in stone. I think Babcock is best served by doing what he's doing right now: playing it by ear. Keep Ozzie in net until he falters, then consider another switch. Isn't that why the team bragged about having two formidable goalies on its roster? For situations such as these? Just think if the no. 2 guy was an unproven, fuzzy-faced rookie.

Mike Babcock has a luxury no other coach in the NHL possesses: he has two goalies on his team who have each won a Stanley Cup. He'd be derelict in his duties if he didn't call upon that luxury when he senses things going sideways.

One round at a time, folks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Ten Things I'll Never Forget When It Comes To Red Wings Playoff Runs)

Things Overheard When Jim Leyland "Lost It" At His Team Last Sunday

1. "This ain't TV; I can say those 'Seven Words', you know! I'm THIS close!"

2. "$%&! &%$ #@!* !#$%! See? That's four of 'em, right there!"

3. "I picked a bad week to cut down to three packs of Marlboros per day"

4. "Can't anyone around here throw a G**damn first pitch strike?!"

5. "Or work a F***ING ball three count?"

6. "The next guy who grounds into a $#!@ double play, I'll have Gene Lamont sit on you!"

7. "Or has to step in against Dontrelle Willis"

8. "Cy Young is dead! And you guys keep reincarnating him"

9. "Those Geico cavemen can hit better with their $#@! clubs!"

10. "Just kill me now and get it over with"

11. "Even Andy Van Slyke doesn't find this funny"

12. "Keep this up and I'll bring Bonds in here. Don't think I won't!"

13. "We got more stiffs in here than the Wayne County morgue"

14. "We need Shaun Rogers on our pitching staff. At least he has no trouble locating a plate"

15. "You guys could take batting practice in a china shop and we'd owe them nothing"

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Predators' Two-Goal Blitz In Game 3 Soon To Be Long Forgotten

One of the Nashville Predators' beat writers called the Preds' two-goals-in-9-seconds blitz on the Red Wings late in Game 3 the high point in the franchise's 10-year history. It's not OK to snicker. It took the Pistons nearly 20 years to have their "high point" -- a Chris Ford steal to seal a mini-series win over the Bucks in 1976.

But that's fine; the Predators can feel good about the duo of goals that lifted them over the Red Wings and, temporarily, also back into the series. Let them enjoy it. But chances still are that the watershed moment will remain the Preds' high point until at least next season. Chances still are that we'll look back at those horrific nine seconds, two or three series from now, much how we looked at the chilling goals that Chris Osgood gave up from the blue line and beyond during the 1998 Cup run: that is, awful at the time, but not so bad in retrospect -- as we bathed in the sunshine of a June parade.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are rife with these kinds of moments. It's tempting to feel like you're in the depths of a valley when they happen to your team, and equally as tempting to feel like you're on top of the world when they go your way. The correct reaction, of course, is somewhere in between -- which is where the players and coaches reside, thank goodness.

Yes, there is a trend in this series that has repeated in Games 2 and 3: the Preds' ability to score goals in pairs, and quickly. And yes, it ought to be corrected, just as quickly. But this quick-strike fluke is no reason to declare the Red Wings in trouble in this series. A Detroit win tonight -- a likelihood, by the way -- and those "two in 9" don't look so important anymore, do they?

It doesn't really matter, after all, HOW you lose a playoff game. Nor does it matter how you win. Just do the latter 16 times, and the Cup is yours. How hard can that be?

But seriously, folks, the Predators had their moment, and they got the home crowd rocking and maybe the Red Wings were, indeed, a little rattled. But if the Nashvillians think that this is some sort of recipe for success, then their goose is already cooked. I'd hate to hang my hat on the notion that my team can keep scoring goals in lightning-fast pairs. Not going to happen again. It's already happened once too many in this series, in defying the odds.

One of the keys to the Red Wings' success in 1998 -- and any Cup-winning team's success, for that matter -- was Osgood's knack for bouncing back, like a rubber ball, the game after giving up one of his wretched longshot goals. Never was that more evident than in Game 6 of the conference final, when he stonewalled Dallas the game after giving up Jamie Langenbrunner's OT goal from center ice to give the Stars temporary life.

Dominik Hasek has that mindset as well. He takes these things personally, which is what you want from your guy in net. Don't be floored if the Preds get goose-egged tonight.

Shutout or not, the Red Wings will take a 3-1 series lead, and those two goals in Game 3 will be as relevant as a lieutenant governor.

Bounce back!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hasek Done? My October Worries Were Misplaced

It was only six months ago, but it may as well have been six years ago, for as inaccurate as it was. Yes, I, Greg Eno, in a fit of over-reaction, banged out these words in this blog about Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek. The date was October 17, 2007:

But this season, early on, Hasek looks more like a 42-year-old playing goalie than a goalie who happens to be 42.

His GAA is 2.94, with an unsightly save pct. of .874.

...already, I've seen pucks bounce off Hasek's helmet, off his shoulder, through his pads, and they've all ended up in the net. He's been a mediocre netminder, truth be told, in his 306 minutes played.

It hasn't been mentioned, and perhaps it's too early to do so -- especially with the Red Wings doing alright with a 4-2-1 record -- but I don't think it's overreacting to suggest that we need to keep an eye on Hasek to see whether this bumpy start is an anomaly or the start of a trend downward. Again, how quickly does a 42-year-old goalie start to go downhill?

Hasek keeps himself in marvelous shape. Few, if any, goalies work as hard as he does -- on and off the ice. But at what point does the calendar overtake the reflexes, the instincts, the peripheral vision? Working hard isn't the only prerequisite.

Yes, I know; I ought to be paddled with Hasek's goal stick for leaping to such conclusions barely three weeks into the freaking season. While it's true that his start wasn't the best, in retrospect my suggestion that Hasek was perhaps done seems fraught with Chicken Little.

Hasek is not done. Not even close, I'd even say.

Hasek, maybe more so than anyone, was responsible for the Red Wings' 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 2 of their first-round series. He was his old self -- and by that I mean his Cup-winning self -- in the first period, especially, and at the end, with the Preds up two men due to a penalty and an empty net. Hasek stonewalled the Preds' furies, and his numbers reflect his play: 1.50 GAA and .932 save pct. after two games.

But one of my concerns still holds, and that's, how DO you know when a 43-year-old goalie is about to collapse like a house of cards? Does it happen suddenly, or do his talent and reflexes dissipate slowly? Is Hasek going to be great during this playoff run, then not good at all next season? Or will he simply retire, thus saving me all these questions?

Dominik Hasek was stellar against the Predators in Game 2. He was pretty darn good in Game 1, though not as busy. He's making my October worries seem ridiculous in their embellishment.

I'm enjoying this crow, though. I could even get into chowing it through June, if you know what I mean.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

McLain Could Make It All Back As A Professional Cautionary Tale

Denny McLain is broke, evicted, and has just been arrested again. This hardly qualifies as earth-shattering news. In fact, I’d place it in the same, getting-fatter file of shenanigans like Britney Spears’s latest personal train wreck. Denny’s stuff would be in that file, too.

The latest McLain mug shot appeared in the papers this morning. You could wallpaper a small room with the variations over the years. Denny’s been getting arrested since 1985, you know. And he keeps getting broke. And he keeps reappearing, on the radio, or on TV. Then he gets broke again. And arrested. And reappearing. He’s been running in place for 23 years.

Some Oakland County sheriff’s deputies showed up at McLain’s door in Livingston County’s Hamburg Township on Friday, to finalize an eviction due to a foreclosure judgment that went against him. Then they discovered that Denny had an outstanding warrant, from failing to appear in court on a civil charge back in January. Back to the hooskow went Denny. Another mug shot to add to the collection.

I blame Mayo Smith for all this. It’s always convenient to pick on the dead.

Smith, McLain’s manager in the salad days of 1967-69, let his star pitcher run rampant. It was OK for Denny to flit off and play the organ between starts, and fly his plane to the cities the Tigers were in, and otherwise break team rules, as long as he kept winning. That’s one version, anyway – one that I tend to believe the most. You can find the truth about McLain somewhere, as long as you don’t resort to asking him to tell it.

Smith, and Tigers management – usually a stiff, staid bunch – liked to turn the other way when McLain acted up. After all, Denny did win 92 games for them from 1966-69, including 31 in the World Series year of `68. He took home two Cy Young Awards (’68 and ’69). Maybe they just thought he was a flake – that wink of a baseball term for the fresh, the funny; the oddball. Whatever, it wasn’t until Denny dumped a bucket of water over some sportswriters’ heads in 1970, then was caught with a gun later that year, that he was suspended by the team, and eventually the league.

Oh, there was more that went largely unreported. Jim Northrup once told me of a business idea that McLain hoodwinked some of his teammates into, involving paint manufacturing and distribution. Sportscaster Dave Diles said on an ESPN piece about McLain: “Denny is the kind of person who would stab someone and explain that the victim ran into his knife – sixteen times.”

The sordid history of McLain, off the pitcher’s mound, begins in 1967. He complained late in the season of a mysterious foot injury. The Tigers, his teammates, were in a dogfight with three other clubs for the league pennant. But Denny, thanks to his bothersome foot, was largely unavailable to pitch in September, the race for the pennant in its last leg. The Tigers lost the flag – it being torn from their grasp on the last day of the season. There’s no telling how much a healthy McLain could have changed things.

One of the most understated book titles in publishing history

But here’s the rub. It eventually came out that McLain, in trouble with some gangsters over a bad debt, had his foot stomped on by one of the thugs late that summer. Again, it’s one version. But after what happened since ’67, it’s probably not all that far off the mark – despite Denny’s frequent denials.

So you have that, then the suspension in 1970. Then a disastrous season in 1971 with Washington, to whom the Tigers traded Denny in one of their best, most lopsided deals ever. He was washed up by the end of the 1972 season, at age 28.

There were failed business go-rounds, but that’s no crime. From ’72 to 1985, Denny McLain was simply a sad tale of a once-great player who lost his mojo quickly and whose career went down in flames at a tender age. Usually, that tale is sad enough. But McLain added to it, thickening his file, so much so that I wonder why he never went on the lecture circuit, giving speeches with the theme, “Don’t do what I did.”

Really. If Denny chose to, he could have made a living flying around the country, warning anyone in the crowd – anyone – to not do the things that he did. That’s all. Not even any writing involved. Just an easel, listing his boneheaded decisions, and a big circle to the right with one of those lines through it – the international symbol for NO.

“Don’t do the following...”

He could have made a mint. Of course, he would have maybe needed two easels, come to think of it.

Racketeering and other federal crimes in 1985. Convicted. Released after the verdict was overturned, due to prosecutorial misconduct. Another chance at life. Another chance to get it right.

Bought a meat packing plant in Chesaning in 1993. Charged with embezzling from the pension fund – actually, the WHOLE fund. Convicted in 1995. Thousands of families left holding an empty bag and staring at broke futures. Released in 2003. Yet another chance to get it right. Instead, McLain refused to show any remorse or acknowledge the big deal that his actions caused. He couldn’t care less.

In between, there were more failed business endeavors and several stints on talk radio and television. Someone kept hiring Denny. He wrote a book last year, belatedly titled I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect. Although I don’t remember Denny ever telling us that. I DO recall, however, his frequent cries of “not me” and “well, ME, but here’s why.”

Denny McLain has spent most of his life telling us that things just didn’t happen the way that they appear to have happened. He was a victim, just like those that he screwed.

Well, he’s a felon and a liar. And he STILL could have made it, if he only would have told everyone that, and cautioned them to be his antithesis.

He’s the only weasel I know with nine lives.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Look At Me! I'm Three!

OK, time for some shameless self-aggrandizing. Tomorrow marks the third birthday of OOB, and since that's a Saturday and I don't do Saturdays, I'm making my plug now.

As usual, this blog -- as any blog -- is nothing without an audience. And for those of you who click over here on any sort of basis -- regular, occasional, rare -- I am truly grateful. I'm also thrilled to consider myself part of a really cool network of Detroit sports bloggers that are second to none, as far as I'm concerned. I don't dare start listing them, because I'm sure to leave someone out. But their links appear on the sidebar, and if you haven't checked them out, you're missing out, big time.

So thanks again for keeping me from feeling like I'm writing in a vacuum.


Red Wings' Cup Chances Squarely On Hank & Mule's Backs

If it's too harsh to say that the Red Wings' hopes of winning a Stanley Cup ride squarely on the shoulders of a Hank and a Mule, tough. Sugar-coating it isn't going to change things, anyway.

The Red Wings, 3-1 winners last night in Game 1 of their first-round series with Nashville, are only going to go as far as forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen will take them. Sorry. It's not going to be anything erratic from goalie Dom Hasek that will do them in. Not going to be another ill-timed injury to defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Not going to be the absence of scoring from the so-called secondary forwards. It'll be -- and mark my words -- a catastrophic lack of production from Zetterberg (Hank) and Franzen (The Mule) that will send them home early.

Notice no mention of Pavel Datsyuk, or Dan Cleary, or Tomas Holmstrom. No foolish thoughts that Darren McCarty can pull a Joey Kocur and step up from retirement to be some sort of "x" factor. No, the hopes rest with Hank Z and The Mule, and if that makes you frown, it can't be helped. The Red Wings are nowhere without Zetterberg creating something out of nothing and assailing the net with one scoring chance after another, and without Franzen outmuscling opponents for the puck and making himself a nuisance in front of the goal.

Some might say those duties are also those shared by Datsyuk and Holmstrom. This might be true, but they are secondary now to what Zetterberg and Franzen are capable of doing.

Those two were at it again last night.

Zetterberg (top) and Franzen hold their team's Cup
fate in their hands

Franzen scored first, and Zetterberg broke a 1-1 tie in the third period for the game-winner. He added an empty-netter for two goals. Franzen, especially, has been on a roll. He's averaging a goal-a-game for the past 12 or so contests. And his hot streak has continued into the playoffs, a place where streaks, good and bad, have been known to disappear. Sometimes the NHL playoffs seem to have some sort of weird force field around them that makes whatever happened from October to April moot.

Which is my point. If Franzen and Zetterberg are not scoring, if they are not leading the team in points once we're several games into the post-season, then there's trouble brewing. Do not count on a Fernando Pisani to save the day. Remember Pisani? He went ballistic in the 2006 playoffs, vexing the Red Wings and two other teams before almost leading his Oilers to an upset over Carolina in the Cup Finals.

This is taking nothing from the dazzling Datsyuk, the tireless Cleary, or any other of the competent Red Wings forwards. But every team has its cream, no matter how many stars it might employ. Typically, a team wins the Cup because its best players are, well, its best players. It's been true in Detroit, and it's been true in other cities. The opposite? A seemingly well-oiled team has many times gagged because its best players ended up being more appropriately displayed on the side of a milk carton than in the game program. That's happened here, too.

Hank and The Mule. Saddle those guys up. Sorry to break it to you.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things The Tigers Can Do To Improve Their Bullpen Until Fernando Rodney And Joel Zumaya Return)

Ten Things I'll Never Forget When It Comes To Red Wings Playoff Runs*
*Note: I'm leaving winning the Cups out of this list because those are too easy

10. Goose loonies
. In 1988, several Red Wings players were seen partying until the wee hours at the Goose Loonies bar in Edmonton, on the eve of Game 5 of the Conference Finals. That incident -- which was followed by a lackluster performance in the game -- cast aspersions on coach Jacques Demers' control over his players, and followed him until he was fired two years later.

9. John Brophy's choke gesture. Maple Leafs coach Brophy was caught on camera looking at the Red Wings bench and making a choking gesture during the 1987 conference semi-finals, mocking them while his Leafs charged to a 3-1 series lead. The Red Wings came back to win the series as Brophy's team gagged.

8. An unexpected ovation. I attended Game 4 of a first round series against the Blues in 1984, with the Red Wings facing elimination in the best-of-five go-round. The Red Wings lost in overtime, but after a brief groan by the crowd, they suddenly erupted in ovation, saluting the team's first playoff appearance in six years. It was quite a moment that I obviously haven't forgotten.

7. Upsetting the Canadiens. The Cinderella Red Wings faced the mighty Canadiens in Round 2 in 1978, and after losing Game 1, came back to stun the Canadiens in Game 2, squaring the series. The Red Wings came home to a raucous Olympia crowd, but lost the next three games.

6. Dino's declaration. After Claude Lemieux disfigured Kris Draper's face in the 1996 Conference Finals, Dino Ciccarelli stewed after the Avs bumped the Wings out. He spoke of the post-series handshake with Lemieux, saying, "I can't believe I shook his f***ing hand."

5. Yzerman returns from knee injury. It happened in Game 3 of the Conference Finals in 1988 against Edmonton. Steve Yzerman, out since early-March with a severe knee injury, showed us yet another example of his toughness and dedication when he returned after only two months, the Red Wings down 0-2 in the series. The ovation for no. 19 was thunderous.

4. Yzerman goes down. Game 5 of the 2004 conference semis. Yzerman is felled by an errant slapshot, taking it directly in the eye. All I kept thinking was, "PLEASE don't let his career end this way." Thankfully, it didn't, but it was a horrific injury.

3. Bill Lochead's goal. I wrote about it extensively here, but it bears mentioning again. Lochead's goal late in Game 2 of the 1978 first round put the Red Wings ahead against the Atlanta Flames, and they held on for their first series win in 12 years.

2. Yzerman's OT goal vs. St. Louis. It was sheer relief that I felt when Yzerman scored on a slapshot from the blue line to beat the Blues in double OT in Game 7 of the 1996 conference semis. The Wings won 62 games, then struggled to dispatch Winnipeg in Round 1. After taking a 2-0 lead on St. Louis, the Blues won the next three games. The Wings won a gutsy Game 6 on the road, then finally eliminated the Blues, 1-0, in Game 7. I remember pounding the carpet, screaming, "Thank God! Thank God!"

(TIE) 1. Larionov beats the 'Canes. Game 3, 2002 Cup Finals. It went into triple OT, and I watched this one in my car, at a drive-in theater, on one of those six-inch TV screens plugged into my cigarette lighter. As my wife and child dozed off, I watched silently. When Larionov scored, I stifled a scream, and I could hear others in their cars yelling. It was wonderfully surreal.

1. Wings come back against Caps. Game 2, 1998 Cup Finals. A wild one. The Red Wings fall behind by two goals twice, then rally to tie late in the third period. Washington's Esa Tikkanen misses an open net, with the Caps still up by one, opening the door for the Wings. Draper wins it in overtime. One of the most exciting playoff games you'll ever see.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Nashville's Trotz A Rarity Among Coaches

When the NFL granted the city of Dallas a franchise in 1960, it was the Big D's second chance at pro football. The first try, the woeful Texans, lasted just one season -- 1952. They were the typical expansion football team -- a motley crew of other team's rejects who were prone to stumbling and bumbling and with a fetish for being beaten handily every Sunday. By the midway point of the season, the Texans became wards of the league and didn't even play any home games. Players' paychecks bounced like rubber balls with regularity. Yet strangely, several players from that Texans team made up the core of the great Baltimore Colts (the Texans moved to Baltimore in '53) teams from later in the decade.

So it's doubtful that the new Dallas team -- the Cowboys, they'd be called -- made any splash in '60 with the news that their first head coach would be a young secondary coach from the New York Giants named Tom Landry.

Yet Landry and his fedora would remain on the Cowboys sideline for 29 seasons.

Quick, now -- name me the original coach of the Nashville Predators, now in their 9th NHL season. (cue the "Jeopardy" theme)

It's a trick question, of sorts. Sorry about that.

The man who stands behind the Preds bench today is the same one who did so when the puck was first dropped back in October 1998. None other than Barry Trotz.

Trotz, like Landry before him, is among the most rare of coaches: the leader of an expansion team who survives longer than a couple of wretched seasons.

Of course, I still think Landry's achievement is more impressive. The Cowboys went 0-11-1 in 1960, and didn't put together a decent season until 1966, their seventh campaign. The odds against expansion teams in the '60s and '70s, in all sports, were terribly skewed. Only in the last 10-20 years have new teams been given more of a fighting chance, with more equitable rules for filling their rosters, and more money to work with to attract free agents.

Still, the fact that Barry Trotz remains the Predators' only coach in Year Nine is pretty impressive. Certainly more impatient ownership would have found reason to can him sometime in the early 21st century. It's not like the Predators came out of the womb with 90-point seasons.

Trotz: rarely precedented job security for an expansion coach

But the playoffs are becoming less of a novelty in Nashville lately. This appearance against the Red Wings in Round 1 is the Preds' fourth straight post-season. Still, they've never won a playoff series.

Landry's Cowboys, by their ninth year, had already won three divisional titles and had played in two championship games. They put it all together and won Super Bowl VI in their 12th season.

Barry Trotz has had highly unusual job security as the coach of an expansion team. But he'd better start winning some playoff series soon. There's no telling how much more time he'll buy if his team upsets the Red Wings this month. Heaven forbid.

Monday, April 07, 2008

NBC's McGuire Needs More Proof Of Red Wings' Goaltending Chops? The Nerve Of Some Folks

Dominik Hasek has 389 career NHL victories. He has a lifetime save percentage of .922. He's won an Olympic Gold Medal, and a Stanley Cup. He is the possessor of 81 shutouts. Lord knows how many more he's had ruined in the final few minutes of games already in hand. Even today, at age 43, he's stopping pucks at a rate of .902 with a 2.14 GAA, and five shutouts.

Chris Osgood has 363 career NHL victories. He has a lifetime save percentage of .907. He's won a Stanley Cup. He is the possessor of 47 shutouts. Today, at age 35, he is stopping pucks at a rate of .914 with a 2.09 GAA, and four shutouts. He made the All-Star team, in a year in which he was supposed to be a backup who was going to play in perhaps 25% of his team's games.

For those of you not keeping score at home, that's 752 victories, 128 shutouts, two Stanley Cups, and GAAs in the low 2.00s. And some 81,000 minutes played between them.

So it makes one wonder if NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire took one too many pucks to the head while reporting on the games this season from his location at ice level, between the benches. Because McGuire went on record with this curious statement.

The Red Wings, McGuire says, "are in trouble (for the playoffs) because their goaltending is unproven this year."


Coach Mike Babcock posed something else, far less curious.

"Didn't we just win the Jennings (Trophy for least amount of goals allowed)? Ozzie's led the league in goals-against average. I don't know."

Me neither.

It's true that goaltending is still the fulcrum upon which every team's playoff chances are supported. And it's also true that bad goaltending is as much of a factor, if not more so, in a team's chances than good goaltending by the opposition is.

But come on, Pierre; unproven?

Just what IS proven, then? What do a team's netminders have to do to convince blabbermouths like McGuire that they've got the goods? If allowing the fewest amount of goals than anyone in the league isn't enough, then what is?

To give McGuire, a former coach, the benefit of the doubt here, I'm going to presume he means that, because of Hasek's injury troubles this year -- and I must reveal that Dom's save pct. this year was the lowest it's been in 15 seasons -- it's been difficult for him to get into the pre-playoff groove that Hasek prefers to be in. But that's not what he said. Regardless, I'll let Pierre slide a bit here.

Is it a legitimate concern? Goaltending is always a concern, but less so when you have the experience between the pipes that the Red Wings have. And let's not forget that the Red Wings were only a fluke goal and an ill-timed giveaway away from perhaps reaching the Cup Finals last spring -- largely because of the solid netminding that Hasek provided them.

Oh, well -- it's the eve of the playoffs, when even the mighty have to be dissected and presented to the public with possible concerns. Real or imagined.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Lochead’s Heroics 30 Years Ago Was It For Red Wings In ‘70s

Psst – don’t tell this to today’s Red Wings fans born after 1980, those spoiled whippersnappers that they are, but there was actually a time when their team didn’t compete for the Stanley Cup annually.

And if you’re one of those under-30s who’ve been used to nothing but fabulous regular seasons and the occasional long post-season run, topped off by three Cups, you people make me sick. I was in the war, cupcake. Otherwise known as the 1970s and half of the 1980s.

My fellow oldtimers are smirking and curling their lips up in disdain at those newbies with their Zetterberg and Datsyuk jerseys. You know whose jersey we would have been forced to wear – if they HAD jerseys for fans back then? Names like Bloom and Korney and Hogaboam and Bergeron. And no – there were no Scotty Bowmans or Mike Babcocks behind the bench. We’re talking Billy Dea and Larry Wilson and Ted Garvin.

Ahh, those were the days.

The Red Wings qualified for the playoffs after the 1969-70 season. Then they qualified again in 1984. In between, they had a Cinderella-ish year, in 1977-78. That’s 12 times missing the playoffs in 13 seasons, cupcake. And in many of those years, the NHL invited 16 of their 21 clubs into the playoff party. Yet the Red Wings constantly managed to be one of the 24% who missed the cut.

They were the days of Darkness With Harkness (named after the team’s inept GM of the early-‘70s, Ned Harkness) and when the team was known as the Dead Things.

But leave it to our old friend, the irascible Terrible Ted Lindsay, to provide a little spark.

It was late in the 1976-77 season, the Red Wings on their way to a 16-55-9 record, including an 0-18-1 finish. Did I just see one of the newbies dry heave? Anyhow, the team was awful, and ownership turned to Lindsay for help. It wasn’t the first time Teddy came out of retirement to help the club.

In 1964, needing another able body up front, GM-coach Sid Abel convinced his old linemate to get back into shape and help out, after four seasons out to pasture. So Teddy did, and the Wings made it all the way to the Cup Finals.

Now here came the Red Wings again, on their knees, pleading with Teddy.

Be our GM. Turn this thing around. Please.

So Lindsay settled his personal affairs and signed on. At his first game as GM, staring down from the press box at the mess below, it was reported that Lindsay simply shook his head in disgust, and left midway thru the third period.

All that changed shortly.

Lindsay hired a successful coach from the WHA, Bobby Kromm. He brought in gritty, unheralded players. He ushered in a new slogan, “Aggressive Hockey Is Back In Town.” They printed up t-shirts and bumper stickers with those words splayed on them. Then he drafted a kid center named Dale McCourt from the Ontario League.

All that, and it was still uncertain how improved Teddy’s new product would be.

Turns out, not too shabby.

The team won some games early, then slumped. Then Lindsay pulled another rabbit out of his hat, taking a cue from his own personal history, as he convinced former Blackhawks winger Dennis Hull to not retire and sign with Detroit instead. Hull did, and he contributed some more veteran leadership. By the end of the season, the Red Wings doubled their win total from the previous year, to 32, and made the playoffs.

Aggressive Hockey WAS Back In Town.

The NHL used to practice what the NBA originally made fashionable in their playoffs: the cute mini-series. They were best-of-three, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them affairs. And the Red Wings were matched up with the Atlanta (now Calgary) Flames, with Game 1 in Georgia. The Red Wings handled the Flames, and suddenly were on the verge of winning a playoff series, no matter how short and cute it was.

Bill Lochead (pronounced La-HEAD) was one of the players Lindsay craved: tough, grinding, and hungry. He was a forward whose blond locks curled from the bottom of his helmet. He wore no. 23, which I won’t forget. Even less chance of me forgetting is the goal he scored on April 13, 1978. Because until the Red Wings would make this town go wild, under Jacques Demers and Steve Yzerman some ten years later, Bill Lochead’s goal was the lone gem in the entire decade of the 1970s, and for most of the 1980s.

It didn’t take much to make us go crazy in 1978.

Bill Lochead

Late in Game 2, the score tied, the Red Wings dumped the puck into the Flames’ zone. Atlanta goalie Dan Bouchard, for whatever reason, was possessed to wander from the net to try to clear the disc, some 20 feet from the crease, near the boards. But Bouchard’s clearing try went off Lochead, who was blanketed by a Flames defenseman. The puck squirted into the corner. Lochead, his momentum increasing, managed to wrangle the puck, but by that time he was almost directly behind the net.

There’s no way, I thought, that Lochead can put that puck into the now-vacant goal.

Somehow, Lochead pushed the puck to his forehand, and as he was literally behind the net, he tucked it behind the goal line just before falling into the boards. There were maybe two minutes remaining.

You’d have thought the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. The Olympia Stadium crowd went berserk. The players streamed onto the ice, as if the goal had come in overtime. After surviving a Flames onslaught at the end, the Red Wings won, and had swept the mini-series.

They even managed to scare the mighty Montreal Canadiens in Round 2, splitting the first two games in the Forum before being bumped out in five games.

After that delightfully surprising season, the Red Wings went back to their old ways. A few years later, Lindsay had been fired and the team went up for sale. A pizza pie guy, Mike Ilitch, was the sucker who bought them.

So it was little-known Bill Lochead who turned Detroit on for the only time in about 20 years. Go figure.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Race Is Soon To Be On: LB Against Isiah For Another Coaching Job

OK, so who'll get another NBA coaching job first: Isiah Thomas or Larry Brown?

Brown is acting like a strung-out morphine addict. He was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer thusly: "I've got to figure out if I can get a coaching job. I want to get back so bad. I'm so bored."

Geez. I don't know whether to laugh, feel sorry for him, or order him under a suicide watch.

There's more.

"I just miss it. After my last experience (with the Knicks in '05-'06), I just want to go where I can do a better job and move forward."

I haven't seen a lobby for an NBA coaching job this brazen since Dickie Vitale ran around Detroit, telling anyone who'd listen (or even those who didn't) that he wanted to coach the Pistons, some 30 years ago. Vitale's campaign -- aided conveniently by the Detroit media -- was successful, a lot more so than his actual coaching stint.

Should Brown be allowed back onto an NBA sideline? Well, professional sports are filled with enough stool pigeon owners that this is certainly a possibility. The ironic thing -- and what isn't good for Brown's aspirations -- is that the kind of team he'd fit best with is a veteran-laden club that is oh-so-close to a championship; so close that they can taste it. But this is also the kind of team that Brown could do the most damage to; he's likely to barge in and start fixing things rather than tweak them. He's a human double-edged sword, Larry Brown is.

Brown: he just loves this SOO much

And a young team would be foolish to hire Brown, if only because the coach might commit Hari Kari before the year was done.

So the verdict, Mr. Eno?

Brown finds a sucker someday and gets something, anything. His coaching thirst will be quenched. He'll do more damage than good, but at least he wouldn't be bored -- until he gets canned less than two years later.

Thomas will soon be out of work, too. If Donnie Walsh, the Knicks' new Lord of The Hoop, is even one-eighth the genius he purportedly is, he'll can Zeke. If he doesn't, then Walsh should have his stripes yanked off his Armani suit. Only dumb-dumbs keep odiferous reminders of a losing tradition when they're hired with the expressed directive to blow things up and do "whatever's necessary" to right the ship.

Strangely, I think Thomas might actually find a coaching job sooner than the desperate Brown, who he fired from the Knicks two years ago. Isiah can actually coach a bit, and an expulsion from New York would be a good thing for him, frankly. He's the opposite of Brown; Thomas would fit well with a younger, smaller market team that is more apt to listen to him with wide-eyed eagerness, as opposed to eye-rolling disdain, as the Knicks players tend to do with him.

There was a time when I was certain Thomas would surface in Bloomington, Ind., as the coach of his alma mater Hoosiers. That's now not going to happen, with IU hiring Tom Crean the other day.

Thomas and Brown will both be back in the NBA, coaching someone someday. But Isiah should never be allowed the keys to another team's executive washroom ever again. After his shenanigans with the Raptors, the CBA, and the Knicks, you'd think that would be a no-brainer type of declaration.

You'd THINK.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things That The Pistons Are REALLY Thinking About While They Plod Through The Rest Of The Regular Season, Unable To Change Their Playoff Positioning)

Things The Tigers Can Do To Improve Their Bullpen Until Fernando Rodney And Joel Zumaya Return

1. Let Jason Grilli wear his road uniform during home games

2. Pray for rain-shortened games

3. Score. A lot.

4. Does anyone know what John Hiller is up to nowadays?

5. Designate Justin Verlander as "all-time pitcher"

6. In the same vein, make opposing hitters call their field prior to every at-bat

7. Have Chuck Hernandez work on a new strategy, called "get them to hit it to Polanco"

8. Ask the Surgeon General for a special waiver for Jim Leyland and his Marlboros

9. Starters fined heavily if they don't make it through eight innings

10. New Comerica Park promotion: free pack of Rolaids with every ticket purchased

11. Replace ballpark's merry-go-round with community prayer circles

12. Did we mention score a lot?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Stuckey's Growth Is Great, But Will He Stay In Detroit?

First, there was Dave Bing. Then Isiah Thomas. Then Joe Dumars. After a gap, there came Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.

And now, Rodney Stuckey?

The Pistons' reputation for superb guard play over the past 30 years or so -- with some breaks for mediocrity -- seems to be adding another link to its chain, with the wonderful maturation (so far) of rookie Stuckey. He scored 27 points last night, starting in place of the resting Billups -- including 12 in the fourth quarter -- in leading the Pistons to a comeback victory in Minnesota.

Stuckey seems to have all the goods: court awareness, high basketball IQ, a jump shot, and more. He may actually be benefiting from his hand injury, suffered late in training camp that kept him on the shelf for the first few weeks of the regular season, because he might be fresher now than if he was playing from Game 1. He should be, along with Jason Maxiell, one of two very interesting "X" factors for the team in the playoffs.

That's all fine and dandy for right now, but if Stuckey continues to progress exponentially, it spawns a question.

Where will Rodney Stuckey play, going forward -- say, two or three years from now?

It may not necessarily be in Detroit. Billups is only 31 and just signed a long-term extension. Hamilton is 30. Will Stuckey be content to be the team's apprentice and third guard, a la Vinnie Johnson? Or better yet, will he be too good to not start somewhere else? Might he be a blue chip prospect that GM Dumars can use to wrangle another low-post scorer onto the roster?

Stuckey is special, folks. I think we're seeing a star NBA guard blossoming before our very eyes. And the Pistons could do a lot worse than to bring someone of his caliber off the bench, or start in case of injury or rest. Yet it might not happen for him here, only because of the quality of the dudes he's playing behind. Neither Billups nor Hamilton is close to retirement. This isn't 1993, when Thomas was on the verge of calling it quits, and thus trained rookie Lindsey Hunter as his successor, while Dumars did the same with Allan Houston. It's not far-fetched to say that Billups and Hamilton could both stay in Detroit for another five or six years, barring trades or free agency issues.

So where does that leave Stuckey?

Certainly Dumars had a plan for his rookie guard when he drafted him last summer. No doubt it included spending time under Billups's wing. But that can only go on for so long. Sooner or later the kid has to fly on his own. Whether that happens in Detroit, we can only guess. I hope it does. The Pistons won a couple of championships with a three-headed guard, you know.

Stuckey isn't ready yet to assume anyone's mantle. He, like most rookie point guards who've been used to scoring big in college, has to walk that fine line between distributing the ball and shooting it -- and knowing when to do what. But he's growing fast. He appears to be a quick study. He might be, when all is said and done, Dumars's best draft pick ever -- even better than Tayshaun Prince.

Ahh, but where will Rodney Stuckey be playing basketball as the century's first decade comes to a close?

Detroit isn't a slam dunk, sadly.