Monday, June 30, 2008
The Red Wings, perhaps rolling the dice a bit, nabbed Bertuzzi from Florida at the trading deadline in 2007. It was a risk, for sure, as he had missed most of the season with a bad back. A back injury is one of the few maladies that professional athletes suffer that common folk can relate to. Most of this country, I'm convinced, has a tricky back in some way, shape, or form. And those who do -- imagine lacing on a pair of skates. No -- I mean, just lacing up the skates. Forget about playing hockey, right?
Bertuzzi wasn't anything near his old self with Detroit, though he gave it a shot. There were brief moments of the Bertuzzi who terrorized the NHL six, seven years ago while playing for Vancouver. But mainly he was a laboring, one step-too-slow forward who was no more than a fourth liner at best. Yet the Red Wings didn't give up too much to get him, so there really was no harm, and thus, maybe not that big of a risk to begin with.
But Todd Bertuzzi didn't "dog it" while he was in Detroit. He just wasn't physically capable. So let's get that straight, from the get go.
Bertuzzi left for Anaheim last summer, before the Red Wings really had a chance to seriously discuss bringing him back -- which they were willing to do, if the price was right. His back got better, and he scored 14 goals with the Ducks in '07-'08.
Now Bertuzzi has been waived by the Ducks, making him an unrestricted free agent beginning tomorrow, when the NHL's free agency extravaganza opens its doors first thing in the morning (actually, at 12:01 a.m.). The Red Wings, it's suspected, might be an interested suitor.
This is a polarizing issue, I can tell already. The early retorts are either brimming with optimism about a second Bertuzzi term in Detroit, or run along the lines of, "Ugh -- do you REALLY want to go down that path again?"
I guess I fall under the first category.
A rare, "vintage" Bertuzzi moment during last season's playoffs (ironically, that's Brad Stuart he's crunching into the boards)
There's no such thing as having too much depth, or of being too hard to play against in the playoffs. Or of having too many guys who can put the puck in the net on occasion. Or of having a veteran or two on the roster who's never won a Stanley Cup and is famished.
Bertuzzi fits all of the above.
Let me also insert here some words about super Swede Mats Sundin -- also a free agent, and who's being courted openly by Montreal. The Red Wings are rumored to have interest in Sundin, too. The whole Swedish connection and all. Once, the Red Wings were a haven to Russian-born players. Now they've shifted that to the west a little bit, to Sweden.
But forget about Sundin signing with the Wings. I just don't see it happening. He may not even leave Toronto, if you really want to know. Some say he might consider Montreal because it's a Canadian city. The lure of all the Red Wing's countrymen appears to not be enough. The riches one can earn from playing hockey in Detroit may not, for a change, be persuasive enough for a star to leave his former team. How dare he!
So back to Bertuzzi.
For what it's worth, Bertuzzi enjoyed his brief time in Detroit; he has family in the Windsor area. He was treated well by the fans. And the team was a fluke goal away, perhaps, from appearing in the Cup Finals. Maybe from winning the whole thing.
It didn't work out last year -- Bertuzzi and the Red Wings. But it was no one's fault, really. And it certainly wasn't because the player "dogged it."
Good thing we don't place our teams' personnel decisions in the hands of those with cell phones cruising down the freeway.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Danielle is probably pushing 40 by now. Perhaps married, with children. That is, if she was able to get enough sleep in order to grow up to be a healthy woman.
My apologies once more to Mr. Makowski and for waking his daughter up at all hours of the night. But the Nerf ball and plastic bat were just too intoxicating. Cut me a little slack, huh?
Or maybe it was the tennis ball, pounding away against the curb that would bring Mr. Makowski out, flashing the “time out” sign with his hands, forming the “T” that you typically see coaches use during basketball games.
Mr. Makowski –
My friend Steve Hall and I developed this nifty little game using a Nerf ball and a plastic bat – and my driveway. We’d each assume a big league team, complete with lineups. The key to the fun was to also use the same batting stances as all the players used in real life – even if they batted left-handed. The driveway was conveniently divvied up into sections, thanks to the way the concrete had been poured and divided. So it was natural: all balls must go at least as far as the first divider to be considered fair. On the garage roof: home run. Off the garage wall on the fly: triple. Off the garage wall on the bounce: double. Any other ball bobbled and not fielded cleanly: single.
You doubled as batter and fielder, actually – for when a batted ball was fielded cleanly, you had to toss the bat aside and be ready for the ensuing throw. And we’d come to mutual, gentlemanly decisions as to whether the imaginary batter or base runner was safe or out, based on the sequence of events.
The garage roof was just far enough away from the “batter’s box” to need a good poke to reach it for a four-bagger. And a batted Nerf ball could travel at a fast enough speed to get by you occasionally for those extra base hits.
And you’d be amazed at what you can do to a Nerf ball whilst pitching it.
We had three or four pitches – just like the real-life hurlers. There was the straight fastball, of course. First and second fingers gripping the ball – which was about the size of a grapefruit, by the way – and chucked straight and as fast as you could throw it. Nothing fancy, just raw strength. Joel Zumaya type stuff.
We had a curve, too. Same grip, but with the arm extended further to the right (we were both righties) and the ball released in a more sweeping motion – the wrist flicked at just the right moment, right before the release. That, believe it or not, actually produced a curve effect. And you could strike a guy out who was over eager, because the curve was about half the speed of a fastball.
There was a knuckleball – honest. The grip: thumb at the bottom of the ball, the knuckles digging into the Nerf. The release: PUSH the ball toward the plate rather than throw it, creating that knuckleball flutter. I’m telling you, it was some scientific stuff.
Maybe we’d fool around with a knuckle-curve, or a bastardized slider. You had to have some good stuff, because the offense was explosive. No lead was safe. Not when you’re clubbing at fat Nerf balls with a whip-like plastic bat.
This was the size ball we used
We didn’t have the advantage of a large Jumbo-Tron scoreboard, so it was up to us to summarize the game situation. Usually it was the pitcher’s responsibility.
“OK...second and third, two outs...top of the fifth...I’m leading, 4-2,” the pitcher would say as he rocked back in his windup.
But oh, how we screwed up poor little Dani’s sleeping regimen.
We couldn’t get enough of Nerf baseball during the day, so we’d often carry on after nightfall. A flick of a switch in the kitchen, and the harsh beam of an outdoor light near the garage would be enough to illuminate the driveway so we could have a passable game.
But no matter how hard we tried to be quiet – and I swear we gave it our best shot – it was inevitable: Mr. Makowski would come outside, exiting his front door and padding over to the driveway. But he wasn’t mad. In fact, it was almost like a game: let’s see how long we can play before Makowski comes out, flashing the time out sign. Often he was grinning, knowingly. And we would plead no contest, apologize, and that was the end of the action. Until the next time. Occasionally we’d make a half-hearted effort to tell him that, hey, there was NO WAY we were too loud. But Mr. Makowski’s word was as final as Judge Roy Bean’s, boy. He was judge, jury, and terminator of Nerf fun.
When Nerf baseball was tiresome, we’d shift the action to the curb.
Curb Ball was the game. Two people. One tennis ball. The “batter” slams the ball against the street’s curb, trying to find the right angle, depending on whether he wanted to produce a ground ball, line drive, or fly ball. The ball would fly into the air, or roll along the ground, and the defender’s job was to either catch it, or keep it from hitting the opposite curb or worse: landing on the grass beyond the opposite curb. You guessed it: that was a home run.
Mr. Makowski caught us playing that, too, on a few occasions.Who said he could have kids, anyway?
Friday, June 27, 2008
Then Herman Moore tried some contact lenses. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Moore, it was revealed this past week, is one of the Class of 2008 for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF). Well-deserved, and even more of a no-brainer if his last coach hadn't largely ignored him toward the end of his career in Detroit.
But Moore didn't even have a lock on a roster spot with the Lions in '91, much less being considered a Hall of Famer in anything related to NFL football. He was drafted with high hopes from Virginia, yet had a propensity for dropping almost as many passes as he caught. Consequently, he wasn't utilized all that much, mainly because he couldn't really be trusted. Then Moore switched to a different set of lenses and his pass catching skills improved tremendously.
Before long, Herman Moore became the most sure-handed pass receiver I've ever seen in Detroit. Even today it's true, some seven years after he played his last game.
I saw Charlie Sanders extend his body and grab them, when he had no business doing so. I witnessed Leonard Thompson with his spectacular receptions of bombs. And I saw the potential of other young receivers like Germaine Crowell, TE David Sloan, and others -- players who flickered brightly but only for a short period of time. But never did I see anyone whose hands were as reliable as flypaper as when Moore was at his peak.
Moore was a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time First Team All-Pro. In the three seasons from 1995-97, Moore caught 333 passes (111 per year) for 4,275 yards (1,425 per year), and 31 TDs. It's mind-boggling, I know, but it's true.
Moore hauls another one in with his soft hands
But it wasn't just the numbers; after all, we know how they can be inflated in the NFL misleadingly. It was simple: when you threw the ball in Herman Moore's direction, he was going to catch it. Period. He used his hands, not his chest, to catch most of the passes. He had the length (6-foot-4) and the reach to snag those alley-oops in the end zone, when the ball was inside the five-yard line. I could have thrown some of those touchdown passes; all I would have had to do was heave the ball, like a hand grenade, and watch Moore outmuscle some poor little CB for the football and six points. Out of 670 passes that he caught in his career, Moore fumbled five times. Five. That's less than one percent.
Yet it could have been so much more for no. 84 in Detroit. I'm not sure what Moore did to piss off coach Bobby Ross, but it must have been something, because Ross treated Moore like dog doo-doo in Moore's final seasons here. As Crowell emerged as the potential new go-to guy, Moore's role diminished -- and in a way that's like saying letter-writing diminished upon the arrival of e-mail.
Suddenly Moore was persona non grata. After starting 15 games in 1998 and catching 82 balls, Moore was mostly a rumor in Detroit from 1999-2001. Even when he played, the ball was mysteriously not being thrown in his direction. It was weird. It was as if Ross was intentionally freezing out the best receiver to ever wear Honolulu Blue and Silver.
So Moore ended his career with a whimper, not a bang. He suited up for one game with the Giants in 2002 before retiring.
No telling where he would have ranked all time had Ross not kicked him to the curb so soon.
Herman Moore is going into the MSHOF this year. Even Ross won't be able to kick him out of there, once he's in.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Assistant coach Todd McLellan latched on to the San Jose Sharks as their new coach; good for him. And everyone in the Red Wings family wishes him well. His promotion leaves a void on the Wings' coaching staff.
Wings head coach Mike Babcock said the other day that he's been flooded with phone calls, as you can imagine, from men seeking to join the Detroit staff. It's not a bad resume booster, you know. Babcock wasn't committal to any certain individual, but he did say this: "Do we hire a former (veteran) defenseman? We have a lot of young defensemen."
I'd be tickled if Larry Murphy was one of those who placed a call to Babcock.
I pump for Murphy against my selfish reasons for wanting him to stay in television -- because I think the Red Wings' old no. 55 is simply terrific when it comes to analyzing games and breaking down videotape. He makes those nights when Mickey Redmond doesn't work for FSN very bearable, indeed.
Murphy in action during the 1998 Cup Finals
But this isn't about me; it's about Murph being a great fit for the Red Wings behind the bench, handling Babcock's blue liners.
I don't have to list Murphy's qualifications, but I will anyway. He's never coached, but he's a four-time Stanley Cup champion, a nearly 20-year NHL defenseman, and has been close to the team ever since he retired -- even more so during the past several years as he's been doing more and more FSN work for Detroit. So he travels with the guys a lot, and talks to them often as he prepares for broadcasts.
Hey, if Barry Melrose can chuck the good life at ESPN after 13 years for a return to the grind, then why not Larry Murphy?
One thing Murphy hasn't done much of is play hockey, or even put on some skates. He told me as much, when I cornered him the night they retired Steve Yzerman's jersey, back in January 2007. A few pickup games here and there, but that's about it, he told me. No burning desire to lace them up.
But that doesn't mean he wouldn't be amenable to a coaching try. It hasn't been an issue since Babcock arrived in 2005, because there's been stability on his staff. Heck, there's stability throughout the Red Wings organization; it's a big reason why they win Stanley Cups in Detroit more often than in any other NHL city. So maybe Murphy has entertained the thought, but felt it useless to pursue, as long as McLellan and Paul MacLean were in place.
But McLellan's gone now, and Babcock has the Help Wanted sign outside Joe Louis Arena.
Only qualified applicants reply, though -- and you can get plenty less so than Larry Murphy.
Monday, June 23, 2008
But I'm still saddened at his passing yesterday at age 71, because, well, he was one of the comedians I grew up enjoying. Plus -- and this is why he's relevant to OOB -- he did a wonderful bit comparing football to baseball.
He would describe the objective of football in a baritone voice, with the drama of a war movie voice-over, then switch to a frilly, child-like voice in describing baseball.
Perhaps the most famous line was, "In baseball, the object is to go home! I'm going home!"
In football there's the "two minute warning" and in baseball we have "EXTRA innings! We don't know HOW long it will last!"
And so on. Good stuff.
I still think of that Carlin bit from time to time, and decided to use this occasion to look it up on that video version of Google known as YouTube.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
The strongest man to wear a Tigers uniform since they employed someone nicknamed Big Daddy is quiet, unassuming, and the closest thing to Clark Kent you’ll find in a big, black man from Mississippi.
Not like Big Daddy at all. Or the strongest man before him – Willie Horton. Those brutuses once owned
Big Daddy’s son, Prince, is all grown up and swatting them out of ballparks for the Milwaukee Brewers. That Big Daddy and Son don’t get along at all is a sad postscript to Cecil’s temporary ownership of
Today’s Most Powerful Baseball Man in
Marcus Thames doesn’t have a catchy nickname. He doesn’t say anything interesting, really. He’s been twice rejected by other big league organizations, including Ruth’s Yankees. He’s been traded from the Tigers by the media and the sports talk radio boobs and the smug bloggers for the past two years, yet here he is – leading the team in home runs.
He leads the Tigers because he has just completed one of the most impressive displays of power that ever happened within one week’s time.
Big Daddy never did that. Willie Horton never did that.
Those are, indeed, Greenberg and Ruth-like numbers – and on par with Big Daddy’s rate at his zenith.
Marcus Thames carries that big stick that Teddy talked about, and if he spoke any softer – as Teddy also recommended – he’d make Calvin Coolidge look like Barack Obama.
Yet for all his exploits in a Tigers uniform, manager Jim Leyland is only now getting around to declaring
There was always someone else keeping that position warm. Working backwards from this season, you had Carlos Guillen; Jacque Jones; Craig Monroe; Rondell White. And that’s just off the top of my head; that’s not including all the young studs from
“What did you think of being lifted like that, against a lefty?,” I wondered, as he (quietly) dressed.
“It was for defense,” he educated me. “Skip (
“So you weren’t upset?”
“Nah, man. It’s all about winning, you know?”
That was when the Tigers were frolicking through the American League, on their way to the World Series.
Ahh, that big stick.
There are no roofs at
Just a home run every 13 at-bats. You got a problem with that?
Friday, June 20, 2008
And still, some nine years (can it be that long?) after his self-ziggy, reports trickle in from those who knew him best -- folks who admit that they didn't have a grasp on Sanders, after all. Kind of like the would-be tacklers who thought they had him wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, only to be left clutching air and spitting out a mouthful of grass.
Former Lions head coach Bobby Ross can now be added to the list of the head scratchers.
Quoted, believe it or not, in the tiny Petoskey News-Review, Ross said, "I don't know if Barry really loved the game, but he worked hard at it. He did what he was supposed to do. I always wanted him to be a leader, but he really didn't want that role."
It seemed that so many of us spent too much time deciding what WE wanted Barry to be, and not enough time just accepting him for who he was.
The coaches did this most of all. They didn't trust his whirling dervish style near the goal line, and thus removed him from the game when the Lions had the ball inside the five-yard line. No telling how many touchdowns the Lions may have missed out on -- settling for field goals instead -- because of this cowardice thinking.
They didn't trust his blocking skills, and removed him during obvious passing downs. They didn't have any real screen packages directed toward Sanders to speak of -- plays that would have best accentuated his unscripted open field skills. As a defensive coordinator, I would have woken up in a cold sweat during "Lions week" with thoughts of Sanders catching screen passes all afternoon, zigging and zagging through and past my linebackers. In fact, one of my most-remembered Sanders plays was a little humpty-dumpty screen run near the end of the first half against Tampa Bay -- one of Barry's favorite victims -- during his 2,000-yard season of 1997. Sanders took the impromptu pass well behind the line of scrimmage, near midfield, and -- I swear I do not lie -- ran thru the entire Bucs defense on his way to the end zone.
Even some of his own coaches -- mainly the defensive ones -- expressed frustration with the explosive Sanders, complaining that the Lions were "scoring too fast" with their frantic run-n-shoot offense featuring their jitterbug running back.
Some of the fans wished Barry would let loose more. We nodded in admiration that he simply handed the football to the official after a touchdown. Classy, we all said. But some tired of that quietness and wished Barry -- just once -- would have just spiked the damn ball. It would have been nice for him to have shown more emotion on the field. Of course, the Lions didn't win much when Barry was here, so we don't know how he would have reacted after a big playoff win. But when the Lions dispatched the Cowboys in January 1992 -- their only playoff win since 1957 -- I don't recall Barry doing much more than he did after any victory, or any game, for that matter. That game, of course, contained another signature Barry moment -- his long touchdown run after the play seemed to be bottled up. I can still see poor Tony Casillas of the 'Boys, his back turned, almost stopped -- and the utter look of surprise in his body language as he saw Sanders sprint past him, when he undoubtedly thought no. 20 was buried under a pile of bodies.
Ross's admission that he wanted Sanders to be more of a leader doesn't surprise me (who wouldn't want his best players to be team leaders?), nor does his revelation that Barry didn't really want that role. Sanders was a clock-puncher; he was content to be an Indian and leave the chiefly duties to others. Football was what Barry Sanders did, it wasn't what he was. For some, the opposite was true. No crime in being either of those kind.
The fans thought they had all the answers, of course -- mainly when it came to how best to deploy Sanders on the football field. There were never so many offensive coordinators in this state as when Sanders played for the Lions. But even those wise, super-duper smart fans were left holding the bag when Barry abruptly quit in 1999.
All Barry Sanders wanted to do was run the football, go home, and come back to do it again the next week. Oh, he wanted to win -- make no mistake -- but when he saw that that wasn't in the cards here, he decided to punch out for good. Didn't even ask for a trade to a contender. That kind of tells you how much football meant to Barry, at least at the end. He tired of it -- the Lions' losing ways no doubt accelerating those feelings.
Nobody knew what to do with Barry while he was here. The fans tried loving him, even when a lot of that seemed unrequited. The coaches tried hiding him and changing him to suit their needs, even when that was obviously fool-hearty. His teammates tried engaging him, even when he was content to just blend in.
Nothing wrong with being an Indian. Trouble was, the Lions had too few good chiefs with which to surround him.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Things That Are Good About Tiger Woods Missing The Rest Of The 2008 PGA Season Due To Knee Surgery
1. Public now finally to be introduced to rest of the PGA Tour
2. Las Vegas golf odds makers who had been laid off, soon to be called back to work due to sudden increase in workload
3. Young golfers previously discouraged about wanting to join the tour now re-charged, knowing Woods might have a bum knee on occasion
4. Some lucky knee surgeon about to have his watershed moment
5. Young daughter to get a break from being a "golf brat"
6. Phil Mikkelson just hired marketing firm to promote him as "The Left-handed Tiger"
7. Absence finally opens a door for Hillary
8. Buick Open in Grand Blanc, MI now has openings for graduation parties and large group outings; call for details
9. Takes us back to the simpler times of 1996, when the economy was great, the housing market thrived, and we loved making Bob Dole jokes
10. General public about to be educated enough about knees to qualify for online medical degrees
11. An already sagging job market won't be flooded by ex-pro golfers seeking work elsewhere!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
The next few sentences are nothing you don't already know, but they should be repeated anyway for the purposes of context. Game 3, 2002 Stanley Cup Finals. Red Wings in a somewhat unexpected dogfight with the Carolina Hurricanes, who stole Game 1 in Detroit in overtime and who led Game 3 until the final minute, when Brett Hull deflected a shot past Arturs Irbe to tie things up. Now this 1-1 series would drone on into what would be multiple overtimes in Carolina.
And I watched it in the most surreal environment that I've ever watched a playoff hockey game.
Sometimes being daddy and hubby means taking one for the team come playoff time, and I had promised my wife and 9-year-old girl that I'd take them to the drive-in movies on that Saturday night, regardless if there was a hockey game to be played that night or not. Oh in case you're one of those who don't recall, drive-in movies were these neat things where you'd go to see a movie from your car, with a tinny speaker hooked on to your rolled-down window. Good stuff, actually.
Anyhow, I figured out a way to be daddy, hubby, AND hockey fan at the same time -- without sacrificing too much of any of those things. I toted along a portable, six-inch TV, with the all-important plug for the cigarette lighter. And some headphones. I think you know where I'm going with this.
We depart for the theater in the first period. So I listen in the car -- nothing unusual there. The 'Canes take a 1-0 lead, but by the time we arrive at the Ford-Wyoming (it's still there and open for business with its 10 screens), the Wings have tied it.
Then it's an evening of headphone listening, TV glancing, and movie watching. The tiny screen glowed in the car while wifey and daughter enjoyed the movie, forgiving hubby and daddy his little Cup Finals fetish.
My only concession was that I not cheer audibly -- so as not to: a) attract attention to our car, and b) disturb others' listening to the film. Reasonable, right?
And it was fairly easy to do that. But eventually I got caught in a pickle.
The movie ended, but not the game. Usually we'd stay to at least see the start of the second feature before passing out and waking up in a half-empty theater parking lot. But there was no passing out on my part this time. The game was going into overtime, and though my family was now sound asleep, I was presented with a dilemma: drive home, thus possibly missing the end, or stick with the portable TV/headphone set-up?
Before you say it, I'll address it: no, listening to the radio on the way home wasn't an attractive option. The only thing more nerve-wracking than watching an overtime hockey game is listening to an overtime hockey game. It's absolutely tortuous, when you can't SEE what's going on, and you have to rely on the voice inflections of Ken Kal to tell you if something good -- or, worse, BAD -- is about to happen. It gives me the creeps.
So I wasn't relishing a 20-minute drive home right smack in the middle of an overtime period. I thought about skating out during the first OT intermission, but that was risky; by the time I herded the sleepy women into the house and packed them into their beds, several minutes of the second OT would have been played.
I opted for staying at the drive-in, no matter how long it took. Fortunately, drive-ins play the first feature a second time, meaning they're open for business until 3 or 4 in the morning at times.
I settled in and watched the thrilling match play out, on my tiny TV and listening to my little headphones, scrunched in the driver's seat of my Mustang. And still I was condemned to silence; didn't want to startle everyone with my oohs and aahs.
Dominik Hasek repelled a 'Canes power play; in fact, Hasek made one great save after another. The mighty Red Wings were being outplayed, at times, by the pesky Hurricanes. And Hasek was saving his teammates' bacon.
Finally, the third overtime arrived and there are only a handful of cars with me. I wondered how many of them were now moviegoers or hockey game listeners/watchers. The women were sound asleep, peacefully in slumber, not giving a hoot about who won the damn hockey game. Sometimes I envy such blissful ignorance.
Then, it happened. I can see it now, the play happening in slow motion.
It really was in slow motion. The players were dog tired when Larionov got loose in the Carolina zone. Nearly 15 minutes of the third overtime had been played. He took control of the puck near the right circle and held onto it for what seemed like forever, moving it to his backhand and keeping it there until Irbe committed himself and flopped. Teammate Mathieu Dandenault even had to jump out of Igor's way. Then Larionov finally flipped the biscuit into the basket, and the Red Wings had themselves a 3-2 win and a 2-1 series lead.
And I couldn't cheer. That whole condemned to silence thing.
Others did, though. I heard howls coming from other cars. Apparently there were hockey fans with me, after all.
I did some silent fist pumps and that thing where you open your mouth and "scream" but nothing comes out, purposely. I rocked the car so hard with my gyrations that an onlooker with his mind in the gutter might have thought something else was going on in my vehicle.
Then, and only then, was it time to unplug the TV, start the engine, and drive home -- safely and unrecklessly. It was a very sweet ride.
Larionov is a Hall of Famer now -- it's official, as of yesterday. So it's impossible not to think of that goal in '02.
Funny, I can't remember what movie we saw. Honest to God.
Here's the goal:
Monday, June 16, 2008
That's OK -- we've all spurned the truth when it suits our needs. We've all fibbed -- or told one stinking whopper -- either out of desperation, spite, or convenience.
But few of us have spoken into a microphone and lied so blatantly as Mediate did yesterday after watching his dream of winning golf's U.S. Open take a severe hit. Mediate was grabbed by the NBC folks, just moments after Tiger Woods sunk a 12-foot birdie putt to force an 18-hole playoff today. And he was asked if he was rooting for Woods to miss the putt, thus making Mediate the champion.
"I never root for someone to miss," Mediate fibbed. "You can never root for a guy to miss a putt," he then added -- the stinking whopper.
Um, for that kind of purse, that kind of first-place dough -- you bet your Big Bertha you can root for a guy to miss.
I know, golf is supposed to be a gentleman's game. It would, therefore, appear to be unseemly to wish a cup-lipping or a skate past the hole on your opponent.
But is it, really, with that kind of notoriety and cash on the line?
Second-place finishers don't go home with an empty wallet -- I know that. But at the same time, no one -- NO ONE -- remembers much about who Placed more than a day or two after the event. Mediate might be different, only because if Woods wins -- maybe better said when Woods wins -- it will have occurred in a playoff, and that might buy Rocco some more love. But he will still have lost -- and that's pretty much all that matters.
Mediate is 45 and his time for winning a major is dwindling. Not that Woods cares. Woods, apparently, is no liar -- no Rocco Mediate in that sense.
When asked if he felt even the least bit sorry for Mediate, Woods had a one-word, honest reply.
"No," he said flatly.
Gentleman's game, indeed!
There was at least some shred of truth to something Mediate said. As NBC replayed the tourney-tying putt and the aftershock, one of the clips was of Mediate, with sound.
"I knew he'd make it," Mediate said, his mouth tightening.
"He's Tiger Woods!" someone chimed in.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
The new coach of the Detroit Pistons couldn’t score 20 points as a player unless you gave him a week to do it.
I like him already.
Those who can’t do, teach – and that’s especially true in professional sports, where it seems that a prerequisite to being a great coach/manager is to NOT have been a great player.
Or, to reverse fields to prove the theorem, some of the greatest players in sports who’ve tried their hands at leading teams on the sidelines or in the dugout have been some of the most wretched generals you’ll ever see.
Take Teddy Williams, Hall of Fame hitter – some say the best ever to swing a bat. Eccentric Washington Senators owner Bob Short hired Teddy Ballgame to manage his ball club for the 1969 season. Williams had never coached before, let alone managed. But the moribund Senators needed something, anything, to breathe life into their franchise. Somehow, Short managed to lure – no pun intended – Williams from his dream life as a retired ballplayer/turned fisherman and into the Senators’ dugout.
The experiment looked like a stroke of genius, when Williams was named Manager of the Year and the Senators turned things around and had a winning season. But the success didn’t last, and before long, Williams’s rough-hewn personality was rubbing just about everyone the wrong way, especially the pitchers, who he detested and had no clue how to handle. His teams regressed yearly, until he went back to fishing after the 1972 season.
Williams (right) fizzled after a fast start as manager
The list goes on. Isiah Thomas. Bart Starr. Magic Johnson. Maury Wills. Oh, for an entire Sunday I could throw examples at you – superstar players who just couldn’t transfer their glory days as a player into any sort of success as a coach. Have there been exceptions? Yes. But they are best described with that depressing combination of the words “few” and “far between.”
Michael Curry was hired by the Pistons last week, just days after Flip Saunders was given the ziggy by GM Joe Dumars. He’s a recently-retired player, and was never a star – not even close. His claim to fame was playing tough defense and surviving ten-day contracts and being a cerebral player who was the president of the NBA Players Association.
Perfect coaching material.
Let’s take a look around.
Phil Jackson, with almost enough championship rings as a coach to fill the fingers on both his hands, is the Grand Master of cerebral. He’s a former hippie, playing for the Knicks in the late-1960s and early-1970s as a rarely-used backup forward and center, more likely to read up on Kant and Freud than the Celtics or the Lakers. Yet he parlayed a nondescript playing career into a Hall of Fame shoo-in as a coach.
Scotty Bowman, who I don’t even know where he came from. I DO know that he wasn’t an NHL player; not even close. He might have come out of the womb coaching, for all I know. You can make a case – and I have – that he’s the greatest coach of any sport, in any era, for any amount of money.
Sparky Anderson, who spent one mediocre season as the second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies before turning to teaching because he couldn’t do. He piddled around in the minor leagues before becoming a 36-year-old manager for the Cincinnati Reds, though Sparky never looked a day younger than 45 in his life. His likeness is etched onto a plaque in
Vince Lombardi, who was a decent enough college lineman for
Red Auerbach, who chomped on cigars almost as vigorously as he chomped on winning in coaching the Boston Celtics through their dynasty years of the 1950s and 1960s. Red was no hoops star as a player, yet he made so many of them Hall of Famers as a coach.
There’s more. Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll in football. Glen Sather in hockey. Tony LaRussa and Connie Mack in baseball. None made any significant impact on their respective sports while part of the rank-and-file, but all are held as standard bearers when judging the merits of others with chalkboards and whistles.
Curry's administrative side is far more impressive than his playing history
I remember also Charlie Lau.
Lau was the preeminent batting coach of his day – and we’re talking the 1970s and ‘80s – having taught the science of hitting to the likes of George Brett, Hal McRae, and others with the Kansas City Royals, when KC was known for good baseball. Hitters swore by Lau’s techniques, supported by new-fangled methods such as videotape and computer programs. He was a hitting “guru,” that overused word.
But Charlie Lau couldn’t hit a lick as a player. His exploits as a big league hitter wouldn’t have filled up a 3 x 5 card. Those who can’t do...
The Pistons haven’t tried this route in a long time – hiring the recently-retired player who’s devoid of any significant coaching experience, as they’re doing with Michael Curry. The high-profile, coaching veteran route hasn’t worked the last three seasons – an eternity in pro sports.
In fact, the last time the Pistons did this, giving the coaching job to one of their former players who wasn’t far removed from donning a tank top and shorts himself, the year was 1972.
After his first full season on the job, Ray Scott won the NBA Coach of the Year Award. Ray could play, though. He was one of those exceptions.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Harvey, the seven-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, played in the neanderthal days of the league, when the number of franchises was six and a "western swing" meant games in Chicago and Detroit.
I feel like I know of Harvey's skill set because of my late father, who would go on and on to me about the chubby blue liner who played mainly for Montreal.
"He'd get maybe one, two goals a year," my dad would say, always giving me the same litany about Harvey. I'd heard the case over and over -- but all was good. "He could block shots, defend in front of his net. He was just a good defenseman," he would go on, emphasizing the word as if to besmirch those who "claim" to play the position nowadays. There was nothing fancy or flashy about Doug Harvey, my dad would drill into me. He was just a good defenseman.
Today, Harvey is one of only two defensemen who have won more Norrises than the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom, who picked up Norris No. 6 last night in Toronto. Harvey has seven; the all-time leader, someone named Robert Orr, has eight.
I've written in this space that Lidstrom is modern day sports' answer to the Tigers' Mechanical Man, all-world second baseman Charlie Gehringer, who owned the position in the 1930s. Plenty has been written about how Lidstrom is never out of position, and rarely gets burned, and always seems to make the right play, etc.
He's just a good defenseman. Of course, he can produce points, too -- something defensemen didn't start doing until the late-1960s. Thanks to one man, that all changed.
Orr thrilled us -- and yes, I DID see him play in his prime -- with his revolutionary method of defending, which was based on the theory that you can't score if I have the puck, and you can't beat us if we overpower you with our offense. No defenseman had come up with the end-to-end rush until Orr came along. And no defenseman had come close to leading the league in scoring, until Orr did that, too. But his knees betrayed him, or else Orr would have won maybe 10, 11 Norrises.
It's plenty likely that Lidstrom will catch and surpass Harvey, thus tying Orr. And it's not bad money if you'd like to wager it on Lidstrom, when all is said and done, surpassing both of them and standing alone as the most-winning Norris defenseman of all time.
Which begs the question -- and you probably saw this one coming paragraphs ago.
Is Nick Lidstrom the best defenseman ever?
Actually, you're too late; I've already asked this, and answered it. In that same rant about Lidstrom being mechanical, I came to my own conclusion: Yes, Nick Lidstrom will go down as the best defenseman to ever lace up an NHL skate.
But you haven't seen Doug Harvey!!
No, but even dear old dad might agree with me here. He died in 1996, in the middle of Lidstrom's sixth NHL season. Not long enough to fully appreciate how good No. 5 is now. I mean, we all knew Lidstrom was good back in '96, but you can't tell me that he hasn't gotten better in the 12 years hence. Lidstrom does the things that had my dad mesmerized by Harvey. The only thing Harvey might have on Lidstrom is the propensity to block shots with his body, but some of that is because the difference in eras. Besides, I haven't seen where Lidstrom's infrequency in this area has cost the Red Wings anything to speak of.
I'm not normally one to declare today's star athlete better than those of yore. I can be curmudgeonly that way, I admit. But I'm just not seeing where Lidstrom -- who I've seen from the get-go -- could possibly not be doing something that someone else did -- which would, in turn, make that someone else better than he is. Forget the shot-blocking thing. That's nitpicking, and you know it. Who else has played this game, night in and night out, with the same monotonous level of excellence as Nick Lidstrom has? I'm talking every night.
Don Cherry's favorite: Bobby Orr
Sometimes these post-season awards can be handed out based on reputation. Multiple winners, regardless of sport, aren't always worthy. That's something else you already know.
But being a six-time Norris winner isn't the same as being a six-time Pro Bowler. Not even close. Lidstrom wins the Norris every year, because every year he's the best defenseman the league has to offer. Simple as that. What's more, he wins it every year because no one else is even close to him; no one to even challenge him and maybe break his streak, if even to keep things mildly interesting. He's not only the best, he's far and away the best.
Orr dominated his position for a time, but mainly because he was a pioneer of sorts. No one else did, or could do, what Orr did when he sprang his offensive skills on an unsuspecting league. And Orr would occasionally leave his position vulnerable, being caught up ice more than once. Of course, before his knees went bad, he had the speed to compensate at times.
Mr. Norris -- I mean, Lidstrom
Lidstrom dominates now in a league that is filled with offensive-minded blue liners, and tough stay-at-home ones, too. No disrespect to Harvey, but when he played, there were perhaps 24-to-30 defensemen who played every night in the NHL. Lidstrom plays in a league where 180-to-200 defensemen play regularly. So is it more impressive to be first among 30, or first among 200?
Harvey dominated in his own way. Orr dominated in his own, revolutionary way. And now Lidstrom dominates, in his mechanical, robotic, perfect way.
The only thing Harvey and Orr have on Lidstrom, in my opinion, is more Norris Trophies to their credit. Soon, they won't even have that.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Other Things Disgraced NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Claims Happened During His Tenure
1. Rims mechanically expanded by remote control whenever Michael Jordan shot the ball
2. Refs promised free large order of fries from McDonald's whenever total fouls called in a game reached 60 or higher
3. Annual pig roasts at home of Lakers owner Jerry Buss filled with loose women, liquor, and promises of promotion to calling NBA Finals games in which Lakers participate
4. Golden State's name picked out of hat prior to 2007 playoffs to be Cinderella team that an entire nation -- and officiating crews -- would rally around
5. Highly detailed and convoluted plan to orchestrate a stunning Clippers-Hawks NBA Finals matchup in 2003 collapsed late in negotiations
6. Commissioner David Stern founder of cult NBA religion known as Jordanism
7. One of three refs on crew during Pistons games assigned personally to Rasheed Wallace
8. High-tech whistles able to be remotely disabled whenever second string players drive lane against league stars
9. Officials routinely slip scoreboard operator "a twenty" in exchange for "an extra point tacked on here and there" for Lakers during intense playoff games
10. Officials attended Tarot card readings to help them determine winners of mundane regular season games -- like a Clippers-Hawks matchup -- that weren't worthy of full-blown manipulation based on significance of standings
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Yet Donaghy isn't going gently into the night.
In a filing made Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York thru his attorney, Donaghy alleges that certain referees conspired with the league to force a seventh game in the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. While the series itself isn't mentioned by name, its identity has been fairly easy to deduce from the details Donaghy provided. Game 6 of that series was highly controversial to begin with, and Donaghy's allegations have re-stoked that fire.
Here's a portion of Donaghy's statement (Team 5 is Sacramento and Team 6 is Los Angeles):
"Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be "company men," always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6. Personal fouls [resulting in obviously injured players] were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the referees. Conversely, the referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players. The referees' favoring of Team 6 led to that team's victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series."
The Lakers attempted 40 free throws to the Kings' 25 in that game, and in the fourth quarter alone, Los Angeles made 21-of-27 from the line while Sacramento converted just 7-of-9.
It nags that Donaghy's accusations are more than just the desperate bleatings of a condemned man.
The timing of all this couldn't be worse, either -- the NBA Finals droning on, and in the very same city where Donaghy alleged the wrongdoings happened back in 2002.
I must admit to believing there might just be something to Donaghy's words -- some shred of truth to what he's alleging. And the Lakers-Kings thing is hardly the only act of impropriety Donaghy makes reference to. You can read the laundry list here.
Let's not give the NBA a free pass here, either. Shame on them if even a quarter of what Donaghy alleges turns out to be fact, not fiction. Don't automatically brand Donaghy the pathetic, desperate man and the league a besmirched innocent. Where there's smoke there's fire, the line goes, and Donaghy is blowing more smoke here than a greasy grill on Memorial Day. Again, it causes one to shift uncomfortably in his chair to think of the ramifications, the domino-like effect, that some of this stuff would cause if it actually occurred the way Donaghy claims.
So what to do?
Nothing, really -- except to let the legal process take its course. No doubt the NBA office's spinmasters are working overtime, preparing for counterattacks to the onslaught of bad press and bad mouthing that is sure to deluge them. Some of it already has, of course. The NBA has to be prepared should this nastiness grow some credibility. We simply would not be able to watch another NBA game again in the same way as before anyone ever heard of Tim Donaghy. How could we? How could we walk out of an arena, or turn off a TV, NOT thinking that other, grander forces were at work if our team didn't come out on top during a close, crucial game?
This is bigger than just Tim Donaghy. He's not the only one facing legal and public opinion judgment. This is about an entire league and its foundation.
So, back to the Finals, huh?
Not so easy to do.
Monday, June 09, 2008
The Pistons lost a coin toss in 1966, a toss that would have given them the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft -- a pick they would have used on Russell, the talented gem from the University of Michigan. But the coin didn't come up right, so the New York Knicks got Russell, and the Pistons were left with Bing, the smooth guard from Syracuse. The Pistons felt slugged in the gut. They dreamed of box office success, if nothing else, with Russell playing for them. One night at Cobo Arena, Russell still in college, the few thousand fans at that evening's Pistons game rose to their feet and went crazy as they saw the Michigan senior walking to a seat, a guest of the Pistons for the night. EVERYONE drooled at the thought of Cazzie Russell as a Piston.
The Pistons got Bing, and he eventually went from sloppy seconds to being beloved in Detroit. He, along with Bob Lanier, turned the team into contenders and playoff visitors.
In 1979, Bing could have changed the fortune of the Pistons yet again, but unlike when he was drafted, this time he wasn't given the opportunity.
The Pistons had fired Dick Vitale and were looking for another coach. The job was given, by default, to assistant Richie Adubato in one of those interim deals.
Dave Bing had an idea.
What if he, Bing, stepped into the coach's chair? What if he was the one to return the Pistons back to respectability after the clowning achievements of Vitale? Bing was 34, not quite two years removed as a player himself. He had the hunger. He wasn't yet a steel magnate and civic leader. Basketball was still his first love and interest.
Bing as the unwanted senior from Syracuse, circa 1966
So Bing wasn't shy about letting the TV people and sports columnists around town know that he was interested in becoming the Pistons' next coach. It was a tactic that had worked so well for Vitale in the spring of 1978, when he launched a marketing campaign at the behest of some of the journalists in town.
Maybe owner Bill Davidson was once bitten and twice shy about such campaigns. Perhaps he was still sore at Bing for a contract holdout in 1974 that led to his eventual trade to Washington in 1975. Whatever the reason, despite the swelling of support for Bing as Pistons coach, Davidson would have none of it. He never gave Bing even a sniff. No interview. No returning of phone calls. Nothing.
Adubato finished out the 16-66 year and was replaced by Scotty Robertson.
The Pistons today, if you believe the rumors, are set to hire Michael Curry as their next head coach. Perhaps an announcement will come no later than Wednesday. Curry, like Bing in 1979, is not far removed as a player. The Pistons have tried this before, when they hired Ray Scott not long after Ray retired, back in 1972. And Ray was a pretty good coach here. They didn't try it with Bing, though -- and haven't gone to the "recently retired as a player" well since Scott, in fact. Lately, the Pistons have latched onto high-profile coaching veterans whose playing days were in college, and when the shorts were tight and the socks droopy. Doug Collins and Rick Carlisle were former NBA players, but not for quite some time when the Pistons hired them as coaches.
It's futile yet intriguing to wonder how the Pistons' fortunes would have gone had Bing been hired as coach in 1979. Robertson was fired after three seasons, replaced by Chuck Daly. That ended up working out pretty well, if you recall. But would Bing have been fired after three seasons? Would he have accelerated the rebuilding process faster than Robertson, thus earning more time? Would there even have BEEN a Chuck Daly Era in Detroit?
We'll never know, of course. Then again, maybe Bing wouldn't have become the business and socio-economic leader that he turned out to be, either. So maybe it was for the best, after all.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Sidney Crosby is gone for the summer. School’s out. His final exam performance wasn’t good enough to win the Stanley Cup. And all his young Pittsburgh Penguins schoolmates – those early-20-somethings who did their best to make the Red Wings’ lives spooky during this year’s Cup Finals – are gone with him, perhaps to gather together and raise a cold...soda (Sid’s only 20, don’t forget) and figure out a way to return to the championship round next spring.
The Penguins have the goods to do it, you know.
The Red Wings have sent four teams from the inferior Eastern Conference home for the summer since 1997.
There were the heavily-favored Philadelphia Flyers of ’97 – a big, supposedly fearsome team with a line called the Legion of Doom: wingers John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, and center Eric Lindros. How would the less physical (again, supposedly) Red Wings handle such beasts coming at them in droves throughout the Finals?
Easy. Coach Scotty Bowman just made sure defenseman Nick Lidstrom was on the ice, along with Larry Murphy, whenever the frightening Legion of Doom climbed over the boards. Bowman chose the finesse of Lidstrom and Murphy over the brawn of Vladimir Konstantinov, surprising those experts who had the Flyers winning the series rather handily. And finesse totally shut down the Legion. In fact, that line was so ineffective, the Flyers could have been considered to have Legionnaire’s Disease. The Red Wings swept. The Flyers haven’t been back to the Finals since.
The next year, the surprising Washington Capitals, who seemed to need a couple of games to simply explain their presence in the Finals, were flicked away in four straight games, though it took a classic comeback in Game 2 to assure that. But those Caps were a collection of has-beens and not-quites and fluked their way into the Finals. That team was never heard from again.
In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes showed up in the final round, and while everyone was still asking, “Who ARE these guys?” the ‘Canes had stolen Game 1 in
But these Penguins, these young, high-scoring, physical Penguins, are sure to break the string of vanquished Red Wings opponents in the Finals who are never heard from again. In fact, don’t be surprised if by next Memorial Day we’re around our grills talking about a Red Wings-Penguins rematch. And continue to not be surprised if the other team wins it in 2009.
Crosby is the face of the NHL -- the closest thing to Gretzky since, well, Gretzky
There’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn’t have the best game of his career in Game 6 but who was the reason there was a sixth game to begin with, thanks to his 55-save performance in Game 5’s epic battle. He’s young, as all the Penguins seem to be, and there’s no reason why he can’t keep it up. There’s Evgeni Malkin, who was terribly disappointing in the Finals but who was terrific leading up to it, and actually showed some signs late in the series against Detroit that he was just a player in a slump at the worst possible time, and was about to break out of it. It gives me the creeps to think of what he may have done in a Game 7.
No need for me to rattle off other names from the roster. The ages are the first thing you should look at if you happen upon a listing on the Internet. Lots of 20s under the age column.
These Penguins more closely remind me of the Edmonton Oilers of 1983 than any other Cup-losing team since then, if you want to know. The ’83 Oilers lost in the Finals to the New York Islanders, who by beating
If I was Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien – who must dump some of the whining and crying if he’s to raise his game to another level, by the way – I’d be sure to remind my players of how they turned what was looking to be a snoozer of a Finals series into one that won’t be forgotten for a long time, if ever. I’d affix it into their skulls that after being shutout in Games 1 and 2 in
Yes, I’d say these Pittsburgh Penguins did more than just scare the bejeebers out of the Red Wings and their fans during the past couple of weeks. They arrived. And they’re not just passing through, like so many of the pretenders who’ve fluked their way to the Finals and lost, never to be heard from again. Uh-uh.
Friday, June 06, 2008
11 Things I'll Remember Most From The Red Wings' 2008 Stanley Cup Run (One for each Cup the franchise has won)
11. Wondering if the run would end before it really got started when the Wings were forced into OT by an inferior and totally outplayed Nashville team in Game 5 of the first round
10. Johan Franzen practically outscoring the Colorado Avalanche by himself in the second round sweep
9. ESPN's Barry Melrose predicting the Avs would take the Red Wings out in six games in what would be a "nasty" series. Instead, it was a Detroit sweep in a series that, if it were football, would have been two-hand touch
8. Wondering why the hell Avs coach -- now EX-coach -- Joel Quenneville didn't start goalie Peter Budaj in Game 3 in Colorado after Jose Theodore stunk up the joint in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit
7. Realizing, after the Red Wings dumped out the Predators in six games, that we probably weren't going to see Dominik Hasek step onto the ice as a Red Wing again -- not for the rest of the playoffs, and not for the rest of his life
6. Nicklas Lidstrom's goofy, done-on-purpose misdirection shot from center ice that beat Nashville goalie Dan Ellis in the clinching Game 6 -- and everyone saying it was a good omen, because of a similar shot Lidstrom made in 2002 against Vancouver
5. Delighting in Dallas goalie Marty Turco's lack of success in Joe Louis Arena as an NHL player, which continued thru Games 1 and 2 in the conference final
4. Cursing Turco's timing as he finally won a game in Detroit in Game 5 to turn what was once a 3-0 series lead into a 3-2 nailbiter
3. As the Final Four played out, looking across to the Eastern Conference and knowing that the Red Wings are going to win the whole deal, because neither Pittsburgh nor Philadelphia scared me -- especially Philly
2. Walking out of the press box in Joe Louis Arena after Game 1 of the Cup Finals and turning to Jerry Green and asking, "Are the Wings that good, or are the Penguins that bad?" He said, "Well, you didn't see the first half of the first period" -- and I hadn't, because I was late. But I asked the same question after Game 2, too -- and I saw ALL of that one
1. Standing up, keeping one eye on the clock and the other on the action on the ice, near the Red Wings management cubby of Steve Yzerman, Ken Holland, Scotty Bowman, and Gordie Howe, wondering how they'll react when the Cup is won at the end of Game 5. Then experiencing what it's like for 20,000+ folks to have their guts slugged at the same time.
1a. Nearly tearing up when Lidstrom handed the Cup to 39-year-old Dallas Drake and watching Drake's pure joy in finally realizing his dream
Thursday, June 05, 2008
That goal, which gave the Red Wings a 3-1 lead, wasn't immediately evident until the referee's right arm went chop, chop, chop, pointing vigorously to the back of the net, and even the Wings players on the ice seemed as surprised as someone who just found an old $20 bill in their pants pocket. They lifted their sticks and gathered into a group hug, perhaps still not certain how Henrik Zetterberg's marshmallow shot finagled its way through Fleury's pads, sweater, and legs and how an "innocent-looking play" -- that marvelous hockey term -- could end in such a happy manner. In fact, probably those of us watching at home knew before the Wings themselves did, how a 2-1 nail-biter turned into a 3-1 mini-exhale.
The replay was in slow-motion, but I think they could have run it in real time and there wouldn't have been any discernible difference in the vulcanized disc of rubber's speed. But as I watched the videotape roll, I kept thinking that that goal symbolized everything that has happened since the first week of April, when 16 teams started on a journey that each of them believed would end the way it ended last night, with their team captain lifting that 35-pound chalice. It symbolized the long, sometimes excruciating path that simply cannot be avoided if you want to call yourselves NHL champions. Inching, inching toward the finish line. All it needed was a nudge.
In a playoff run where Tomas Holmstrom's butt supposedly caused goaltender interference, waving off a critical marker in Dallas, it's only fair that the Red Wings get their Cup-winning tally because an opponent's posterior betrayed him. Butt, butt, nudge, nudge.
Of course, that wasn't the only drama, nor the only metaphor, nor the only symbolism. You could point to so many things: the 86-second 5-on-3 penalty kill in Game 4. The final, furious moments of Game 6, when the Pittsburgh Penguins scored to move within a goal -- again -- and the clock showed 1:27 remaining. 87 seconds. 87 -- same as Sidney "The Next Great One" Crosby's uniform number. Those 87 seconds finally clicked off, the clock finally showed that glorious trio of :00.0, and 87 was gone for the summer, too.
Gone too was Pens coach Michel Therrien, and I wish I knew where he kept his pacifier, bottle, and bankie, because he was, by far, the biggest crybaby coach of this post-season. But his bleatings worked to a degree, getting the officials to look harder at all that annoying obstruction that Therrien said was going on, and getting a few more calls along the way. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock didn't get sucked in, and wonderfully once referred to Therrien as "the other guy" when he allowed himself a degree of complaining. "I'm just trying what the other guy has been doing," Babcock said at one of the between-games pressers. Zing.
So it's over -- another two-month long playoff run in the books. Red Wings champions, as I predicted they'd be wayyyy back at the beginning of April. Granted, it didn't happen the way I suspected it would -- Chris Osgood in net; a brutal sweep of the once-mighty Colorado Avalanche; a scary 3-0 lead turning into 3-2 against Dallas; being 35 seconds away from the Cup in Detroit and letting it slip through the ice cracks. No, none of that was I clairvoyant enough to forecast. Nor would I have wanted to. Part of the fun of winning the Stanley Cup is that it's never the same every time. Each run is different. Someone said on the radio that you should treat all your teams' championships like your children: separate but equal in affection. Right on.
Now, about that baseball team of ours...
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
"When you get to where we were," Dumars said yesterday at the press conference announcing Saunders' ziggy, "you never feel like you're not good enough to get to the Finals. Nobody gets to the conference finals and wonders if they're good enough to move on."
Dumars used those words to deflect any heat he might face from firing a coach with a winning percentage of over .700 in Detroit. What Joe D was saying was that the Pistons didn't luck themselves into these last three Final Fours. Yet they couldn't take that next step, falling in six games three straight times -- kind of like Groundhog Day, only with a different groundhog each time. First, it was the Miami Heat, on their way to an NBA title behind the nearly flawless Dwyane Wade. Then it was the Cleveland Cavaliers, behind the nearly flawless LeBron James. Then it was the Boston Celtics, a team that went from 24 wins to 66, and a team that Dumars chided.
"They got some very good players, and didn't have to give up much to get them," Dumars said of the Celtics' acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett over the summer. "It's not like they had to give up depth. I would have liked to have done that, too," he added with a wry grin.
So now Dumars may have just set a record for firing the most coaches with 50+ win seasons than any GM in history. He let Rick Carlisle go in 2003 after two 50-32 campaigns, it being hinted that Rick simply wasn't all that nice a guy to team employees, and wasn't all that nice to his bosses, either. Dumars replaced Carlisle quickly with the mercurial Larry Brown, who was shown the door after a title and two Finals appearances and two more 50+ win seasons, largely because owner Bill Davidson found Brown despicable toward the end, with the coach's wandering eye and career restlessness always taking center stage. Again Dumars acted quickly, and brought in Saunders, a coach with some success in Minnesota but none to speak of in the playoffs.
Ahh, the playoffs. That's where you can start tracing the fan base's distrust of Saunders -- and maybe even the players', too. I, for one, wasn't all that giddy about the Saunders hiring three summers ago, mainly because I looked at the standard being set in Detroit -- the team was coming off another Finals appearance -- and then I looked at the results Flip was getting in Minnesota (there were a lot of early exits with good teams) and I felt a little squeamish. But I also subscribed to the In Joe We Trust mentality, and figured that Saunders must have something for Dumars to commit four years of Davidson's dough into him.
Then the Pistons went out and started 35-5 in Flip's first season, and they looked damn near invincible. The second half was a bit more disjointed, and the team had to scramble to beat the Cavs in seven games in the Elite Eight before being melted by Wade's Heat.
From there, it was dicey, as far as overall belief and trust in Flip Saunders in Detroit. While I hate to give the sports talk radio jabbermouths too much credit, they and their often misguided callers seemed to unite under one common belief: the Pistons win in the regular season despite of Saunders, but will never get back to the Finals -- mainly because of Saunders.
Saunders was, by far, the least embraced coach in Detroit -- ranking below even the Lions' Rod Marinelli, who has largely been judged as more of an innocent bystander than anyone with losing blood on his hands. There wasn't any sort of true affection for him. We never knew much about him, for starters. We knew he had a kid who played at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, and that he coached the T-Wolves all those years. And that he narrowly missed being a victim of that bridge collapse -- also in Minnesota. Maybe he was just too much Minnesota for our liking. Regardless, there wasn't any of the lovable gruffness and supposed genius that Tigers fans found so alluring about Jim Leyland. There wasn't the quiet calm and confidence exuded by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock that hockey fans find reassuring. There wasn't even the "Aw, shucks/pound the rock" affability projected by Marinelli. With Saunders, he was like the outsider who was just keeping a seat warm until Dumars decided to satisfy his fetish again. No real connection. No real affection. No real empathy about what would ultimately happen to him.
Fair? Probably not.
I think that Flip Saunders became the Pistons coach at a very difficult time in team history. And all his regular season success couldn't wash away the film that the disappointing playoff endings always left on the organization. He had to win another championship, Saunders did -- or at least make it to a Finals or two -- to continue to coach here. He was the victim of the expectations built first by Carlisle and then reached by Brown. And in the end, for whatever reason, Saunders simply didn't have enough moxie to achieve those lofty goals.
There was his relationship with Rasheed Wallace, for one. Sheed is a reminder that coach killers are still a long ways away from becoming extinct in the NBA. They're alive and well, and Sheed contributed, more than any other player, to the decision Dumars reached regarding Saunders's status. Ironically, Wallace himself may also be gone -- but not before having plunged a knife into Flip's back. You can't kill a coach killer, but you can get rid of him. Maybe Wallace will be some other team's headache.
Dumars spoke -- and with some definite agitation -- of the final ten minutes of the Pistons' season, those final, ghoulish minutes against Boston in the fourth quarter of Game 6. The ten minutes that put Saunders in the coffin and lowered him six feet under the daisies. The ten minutes that saw the Pistons turn a 10-point lead and a raucous crowd and an imminent Game 7 into yet another ugly, gut-churning, cold ending to a season. The ten minutes that gave Wallace one more chance to show why he's one of the least clutch starters in the league, and why the Pistons didn't have the heart or the guts to beat back the Celtics, even on their home floor, their crowd behind them and their opponents about ready to gag.
The Pistons coughed up two hairballs in the Final Four: Game 3 and the final ten minutes of Game 6 -- both at the Palace. They were 58 minutes of basketball that are now the first domino of a summer of change in Auburn Hills. Flip is gone, just as we all suspected he might be. But this isn't a fire-the-coach, keep-the-players sort of thing. Not even close.
"I'm open for business," Dumars declared of his personnel plans. "No one is a sacred cow."
No; they're four fatted calves -- you know who I mean -- and at least one of them is about ready to be slaughtered.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Of course, I'll have more on this breaking story tomorrow, in this space.
In Game 4, the magic number was 86, or 1:26 -- however you choose to look at it. As in, 86 seconds of a 5-on-3 that the Red Wings killed in the third period, helping to seal their 2-1 win.
In Game 5, first it was :35, then 4:00, then :36, then 49:57. And none of those four figures were friendly to the Red Wings, who now must drag the weight of winning the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh to play a Game 6 less than 48 hours after a triple-OT loss in Game 5, 4-3.
That was how much time, officially, was left in the third period when Maxime Talbot poked a tantalizingly loose puck past Chris Osgood, tying the game at 3. Sitting upstairs in the JLA auxiliary press box, I could literally feel the rumble begin beneath me as the time wound down and the Stanley Cup would be made public. The roar grew in girth when the puck was bounced out to center ice in the vicinity of Henrik Zetterberg, who looked poised to slide it into a yawning, empty Penguins net. That was with about a minute to go. But the puck got chucked back into the Detroit zone. And even though Talbot's goal only took a split second to occur, watching it unfold from my vantage point -- almost directly in line with the goal line to Osgood's left -- it seemed to happen in slow motion. It was one of those moments when you could see what was going to happen but was powerless to stop it from doing so. You wanted to yell to Ozzie, "LOOK! To your left! He's going to start slapping at the puck near the goal post!" It was like watching a two-year-old who's about to spill his glass of milk, but observing it from across the room, never able to get there in time.
May God strike me down, but as soon as Jiri Hudler was whistled for a four-minute high-sticking penalty, I looked at my watch and muttered to myself and my sleeping wife some 15 miles away, "Well, honey, looks like I'll be leaving the arena soon." Because as much as I adore the Red Wings' penalty killers, I knew there'd be no damn way they'd erase 240 seconds of power play time, fatigued in a third OT. I didn't even see the penalty. There was an icing, and I looked up at one of the monitors in the press area, and the camera is on Pens coach Michel Therrien, and he's holding up four fingers. Then the boos started to cascade, and I see Hudler skating to the penalty box, perhaps the loneliest man in the world at that point. Then the look to my cell phone for the time, trying to gauge when my car would be hitting the freeway. There was never any hope, and I'm almost ashamed to admit that. But I doubt I was alone.
That's all it took for my fears to be confirmed. Again, it was slow motion: watching Petr Sykora receive that pass near the left face-off circle, wide open, eons to fire up his lethal wrist shot -- well, it wasn't a very good feeling. I could see traffic in front of Osgood, in the corner of my eye, and I did what I've been doing at hockey games for decades: I simply looked toward the red goal light for confirmation of what I believed was about to occur. And it flashed a bright, ugly red.
The amount of overtime put in by the Red Wings and Pens. More numbers to make you cringe: the Red Wings had 58 shots on goal, the Pens 32. So you know, that works out to be about 31 for every 60 minutes for Detroit, and less than 19 for Pittsburgh. Typical.
OK, so how did we get here? How did a game get broken down so conveniently into bite-sized increments of time?
The Red Wings came out nervous to start the game. Either that, or someone told them that their families were all being held hostage and would be harmed if any Red Wings player showed any sense of urgency. The Penguins stormed out of the gate and cobbled together a 2-0 lead before the Red Wings finally realized that, you know what, the Stanley Cup isn't just going to be given to us; we have to actually do more than flash our Red Wings crest and hope the Penguins scurry away, like cockroaches when the lights get turned on.
But the boys in red mounted a terrific comeback, and when they took that 3-2 lead and played very well with it, you were still a little scared, but also confident that the sands in the hourglass would eventually run out and so would the Penguins' season. Yet time never moves so slow, clocks never tick backward with such molasses-like speed, as when the other team's net is empty and the puck is being furiously directed toward your goal. I used to think 60 seconds were an eternity only during infomercials. But that ain't nothing compared to an assault on your goalkeeper while trying to hold on to a lead by a thread.
Overtime play was mostly the Red Wings delivering punch after punch, and let's give a shout out to Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was outstanding. I mean, really. He was the reason there's a Game 6 tomorrow night.
But OT was also when the Red Wings had to kill off three penalties, the Pens one. The first two Detroit penalties, for goaltender interference, were suspect. Zetterberg's was maybe 50/50, but the one on Dan Cleary, whose momentum caused him to gently bump Fleury as he crashed the net during a one-man rush, was despicable. Yes, the Red Wings escaped those calls, but the penalties forced the team to expend extra energy and effort that wears on you as a player in such a grueling game.
So there'll be a Game 6. The Cup gets put back into storage, and will also make the trip to the Steel City. And still only one team can win it. But now we're just one Penguins home win away from not only bringing the Cup back to Detroit, but making it accessible to both teams. Scary, eh?
Monday, June 02, 2008
If it happens -- and it almost certainly will, and likely tonight -- it will be the first Stanley Cup hoisted by a Red Wings team since 1955 that didn't have Steve Yzerman in uniform or Scotty Bowman behind the bench. Both men are still a part of the Red Wings family, of course -- Yzerman as a V.P. and Bowman as a consultant -- but neither of them are making it happen on the ice.
It's Nick Lidstrom and Mike Babcock's team now. And so it will be the two of them, more than anyone else, who should get the credit for the return of the Red Wings to glory. Lidstrom probably won't win the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoffs MVP, but no matter. He's the captain, and his steady play is sometimes his own worst enemy when it comes right down to it. He's never a league MVP candidate despite his perennial winning of the Norris Trophy. And he is a dark horse candidate for the Smythe, behind Chris Osgood and Henrik Zetterberg. Lidstrom is taken for granted, that's why.
Babcock took over in 2005 and has churned out three straight 50+ win seasons, and the team has improved steadily in the post-season, from a first round exit in 2006 to the Final Four last season to champions in 2008. Yet he'll never win Coach of the Year. He, too, is taken for granted.
Bowman and Yzerman. The latter learned a lot from the former, but Scotty would tell you that it went both ways, too. No one knows for sure how serious Bowman was about trading Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators in the mid-1990s, but the scare helped convince the captain to become more of a two-way player. Yzerman entered the league as a scoring machine and left it as a Selke winner. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings' two most dynamic offensive players, are both Selke finalists this year. Zetterberg proved the validity of his candidacy in 86 heart-stopping seconds in the third period of Game 4 -- which will go down as the most famous penalty kill in franchise history as the Wings beat back a 3-on-5 against the Penguins.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk's Selke status is a descendant of the Bowman/Yzerman era. Bowman's Cup-winning teams in Detroit prided themselves on their defense, and so did Yzerman, eventually. And that spirit carried over when Babcock arrived, following two disappointing playoffs under Dave Lewis, another Bowman disciple. It's chic to be a defensively proficient scoring forward in Detroit. Do you ever see Sidney Crosby killing penalties?
Tonight, the Red Wings will probably add the 11th Cup to their franchise's collection. They will have done it without Yzerman and Bowman. But Nick Lidstrom isn't exactly new to all this, and Mike Babcock knows when to push and pull back with his veteran-laden roster. Those two -- captain and coach -- are merely putting into practice what this team has been all about during the past 13 years or so. It'll be four Cups in 11 seasons after this one is secured. Yes, there have been some head-shaking playoffs in between them; the latest of which was just two years ago. But just when you get a little annoyed by that, along comes another Cup to provide the best of salves.
Edmonton WHO? Dwayne WHO?
The Stanley Cup causes amnesia in the best way.