Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yzerman, Like Ilitch, Took the Path of Greater Resistance

The home of Michael Ilitch has become an historic landmark for high-profile departures.

It was almost 20 years ago---June, 1990---when Ilitch, the Red Wings owner, placed a phone call he dreaded making.

On the other end of the line, Jacques Demers was summoned to the Ilitch pad.

Shortly after Demers arrived, two grown men had a good cry.

Ilitch had bad news for Demers, who had then just completed his fourth season as Red Wings coach.

They call it the "ziggy" in Detroit. Our word for canning a coach. You can thank the old Lions coach, Joe Schmidt, for its creation.

Schmidt rendered a self-ziggy in January, 1973---the loser of a power struggle in the Lions' front office with GM Russ Thomas.

Inside Ilitch's home on that June day in 1990, the ziggy wasn't self-inflicted at all.

Ilitch, ever the gentleman and consummate professional, could have told Demers over the phone that he was being released. He could have delivered the news via his agent. He could have mailed a certified letter---no e-mail or text messaging in those days.

Ilitch would have none of that. He had made a very difficult decision about a man who he adored, and so he was going to break that news in person, mano-a-mano.

Jacques Demers said he'd never forget the courtesy Ilitch gave him, the day the owner fired him as Red Wings coach.

Ilitch had a relationship with Demers that never was replicated with any other Red Wings coach, before or since. Just four years prior to the 1990 meeting at his house, Ilitch and his lieutenants had bent the rules in order to poach Demers from the St. Louis Blues. They're still crying about it in St. Louie.

But in 1990, two years removed from Final Four status and after having missed the playoffs completely in 1989-90 (still the last time the Red Wings missed the post-season), Ilitch had come to the hardest decision---to that point---he ever made as Red Wings owner.

So he told Demers, in person, that the Red Wings were letting him go. Bryan Murray was pretty much already hired as Jacques' replacement.

Demers's respect for Ilitch, already off the charts, grew even greater in the wake of how Demers's cashiering was handled.

Twenty years after that teary meeting, another took place in the Ilitch home.

Steve Yzerman---Stevie Y, forever a Red Wing---was telling the owner, practically a father figure, that he was accepting the Tampa Bay Lightning's offer to be their new GM.

It's a safe bet that the eyes of Mike and Marian Ilitch and Yzerman were far from dry.

But Yzerman, who has learned so much from so many within the Red Wings organization, proved that he learned something from the old man owner.

Yzerman could have taken the less uncomfortable path to deliver his news, just as Ilitch could have, when he fired Jacques Demers.

Nothing doing.

Yzerman had made a big decision in his own right, and so it would have to be delivered in person---even more impressive considering all the ways people can be gotten ahold of in this digital age.

No e-mails. No texts. No hurried-through calls from a cell phone.

In person. Face-to-face. Man-to-man.

That's the only way Steve Yzerman would have it. Reports say that Ilitch wasn't the only one Yzerman met in person, saying goodbye.

Yzerman wasn't raised by Mike Ilitch or the Detroit Red Wings.

But this is where he became a man.

Even better.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Yzerman Should Say Yes to Tampa's Crummy GM Job

From the moment Steve Yzerman sat in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena that day in early July, 2006, you knew this time would come.

As Yzerman reflected on his 22-year playing career—every second of which was spent with the Red Wings—as he spoke of what it would be like to not have to lace up skates and put himself through physical Hell to get through another season, you knew this time would come.

The Red Wings eased Yzerman into the front office, a move that was as academic as moving yourself from the table after dinner.

They gave him a vice president’s title, but it was no joke. It wasn’t a ceremonial nod. This wasn’t Gordie Howe, circa 1971, when the Red Wings of the Bruce Norris ownership gave what Gordie called the “mushroom treatment.”

“They put me in a dark office, opened the door occasionally and dumped blank on me,” Gordie famously said.

Mike Ilitch is no Bruce Norris—thank God. When he promoted Yzerman, it was with a purpose. He was seamlessly moved from the rank and file to management. Then he started learning the ins and outs of running an NHL team from up high.

You could do a whole lot worse than to learn from the likes of Kenny Holland, Jim Nill, and Jimmy Devellano—the front office Goliaths who’ve been running the Red Wings for about 15 years now.

It was like interning in government and being surrounded by Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Yzerman watched. He learned. He kept his mouth shut—which for him is as natural as breathing—and his eyes and ears open.

You knew this time would come.

You just knew, when Yzerman switched from hockey sweater to Armani suit, that someone would, one day, try to poach him from the Red Wings.

You knew it especially when he was named the director of hockey for Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics. You knew it when he started to display, unsurprisingly, the adroit skills of putting together a hockey team from scratch.

You really knew it when Team Canada skated away with Olympic Gold, despite a rocky road to glory.

It was just a matter of time, when others would notice.

That time has come.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, an unremarkable franchise that, for all its unremarkableness, nonetheless stumbled onto a Stanley Cup six years ago, is courting Yzerman, reports say.

The Lightning wants Stevie Y to be their new GM, the scuttlebutt is.

This isn’t the brass ring of GM jobs. It’s beneath Yzerman, frankly, to go to work for a team that didn’t exist until 1992—when he was starting his 10th season as a player.

Going from the Red Wings—as solidly run of a franchise as any in pro sports—to the Lightning is like stopping midway through a lobster dinner and switching to Spam.

It’s beneath Yzerman to work for such a Mickey Mouse franchise, which needs three home dates to fill its arena, in a city that is as much of a hockey hotbed as Hades.

Someone of Yzerman’s stature deserves much more than being the GM of the Tampa Bay Freaking Lightning.

Yet, as much as this pains me to say it, he ought to take the job.

If Yzerman truly wants to run his own team—and he’s been on record more than once saying that he does—then he’s going to have to go somewhere else. There’s no opportunity for that in Detroit.

Holland ’s not going anywhere. Nill is the GM-in-waiting, anyway.

Yzerman ought to go to Tampa Bay precisely because it’s an insignificant franchise.

If the Lightning dropped off the face of the NHL Earth tomorrow, no one would notice, or miss them.

It’s a can’t-lose situation for Yzerman.

If he succeeds, great. If he fails, then what the hey—it’s the Lightning.

He’ll get another chance, no matter what happens in Tampa .

I suspect Yzerman is considering the Lightning job—possibly quite seriously.

He hasn’t dismissed the notion out of hand.

His latest remark was hardly a denial, when asked about the prospects of leaving an organization that’s been his hockey life for 27 years.

“My response is the same, and that is no comment,” Yzerman coyly said the other day.

If he wasn’t mulling it over, he’d have given an unequivocal “no.”

Yzerman’s mulling it over. It’s not a small decision.

His wife, Lisa, and their three daughters have only known Detroit as home, as a family. The oldest girl, Isabella, is 16. As the father of a high school sophomore, I know how popular it would be to announce a move from friends at that tender age of a girl’s social development.

Yzerman will forever have the Winged Wheel emblazoned on his chest. No matter how many jobs, no matter how many years go by, Yzerman will be a Red Wing. It’s what he is. Any GM job he takes will be what he does.

But it’s not easy to leave an organization that drafted you, nurtured you, and provided you with a lifetime’s worth of thrills and chills and spills—for 27 years.

Yzerman could do the polite thing, and continue to work for the Red Wings. There’s plenty more he can learn and do wearing a suit.

But he’ll never be the GM here.

If that’s what he wants, then he ought to leave. He ought to take the Tampa job.

But why not wait, you might ask. Why not see if something better, frankly, comes along?

It might. And it might not.

You think just because he’s Steve Yzerman, that he can write his own ticket?

It doesn’t always work that way.

How privileged we’ve been in Detroit . We’ve gotten to see Yzerman grow up twice.

We saw him as an 18-year-old rookie and laughed and cried with him for 14 years before that first Stanley Cup—the best one—in 1997. We saw him as a grizzled 37-year-old as he lifted Cup number three in 2002. We gasped as he went down like he’d been shot when a puck struck him square in the eye in 2004.

Now we are seeing him cutting his teeth as an executive.

The Lightning job isn’t much. But it’s there, apparently, if he wants it. By all accounts, Yzerman is the Lightning’s frontrunner. He might be the only runner.

It’s not much of a GM’s job. But he ought to take it.

You just knew this time would come.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dumars' Non-Midas Touch Must End Soon


What Will Joe Do?

They're going to have another of those NBA Drafts next month. Another day where a bunch of man-children's souls are sucked into the darkness of pro sports. The NBA allows the nation's teenagers to get drafted. Someday, someone will stop them.

But that day is far from being here. So it is that the Pistons will, with the No. 7 overall pick, take their chances on a likely-to-be immature, underdeveloped project. Heaven forbid you draft a senior. Heaven forbid a player stay in college that long, period.

There isn't going to be, at No. 7, a cure-all player. No panacea will be ripped from a college campus and plopped into the laps of the Pistons in Auburn Hills.

The ping pong balls didn't cooperate, nor did one of the U.S. mint's coins.

The Pistons lost a coin flip at the end of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers, and it apparently cost them the No. 2 overall pick. The ping pong balls put the Pistons where, mathematically, they suspected they'd be: seventh.

So now it's up to Pistons president Joe Dumars to turn water into wine.

He's been less-than-miraculous in that area over the years.

The beauty of pro basketball is that, since one new player represents 20 percent of your on court presence, improvement can come in a hurry.

The evils of the NBA Draft say that, unlike the NFL's, first round picks are hardly guaranteed starting positions and a legitimate shot at success. If you're not a Top 5 pick, the odds take a nosedive that you're going to be an impact player. Sometimes.

Dumars is the rare president/GM, in that he's now being given the chance to do a second rebuild.

The first came in 2000, when Dumars officially took over the Pistons' front office and inherited a mess. He had himself a superstar (Grant Hill) who wanted out, and a questionable coaching situation. There were precious few talented players on the roster outside of Hill.

A few trades and free agent signings later, plus the hiring of Rick Carlisle as coach, and the Pistons were back on the map.

Rebuild No. 2 is just beginning, and this time the mess is of Dumars's own making.

But like I said, Joe D is a rarity; not too often in this win-now society in which we live does a GM get the chance to even stick around long enough for a second rebuild. Usually they're canned somewhere in the middle of the first one.

Yet here Joe Dumars is, ten years and six coaches later, with a roster full of shrimps and the big men he does have play like shrimps.

The Pistons haven't had a center who could score with men guarding him since Bill Laimbeer. And Bill was most comfortable 15-20 feet (or more) away from the basket.

Don't come at me with Rasheed Wallace, who isn't a true center.

They haven't had a low post threat with the ball since Mark Aguirre, and Mark was a shrimp, too.

If you want the awful truth, the Pistons haven't had a true center to whom they could toss the ball in the post and make something happen since Bob Lanier---and Bob last played here in 1980.

Yet the Pistons have won three championships since then, playing with perimeter-happy big men and being served by guard play par excellence---and a bench that was among the league's best, both in the Bad Boys days and in 2004.

Today the Pistons are a bunch of crooked jump shooters with no affinity for defense or rebounding. It's a team lacking heart, leadership, and anyone taller than 6'10" who can insert the basketball into the hoop.

No one plays close to the rim, except for Ben Wallace, who just happens to be the least talented man on the team. But he's the hardest worker, which has kept him in the league for over a decade.

To this hodgepodge Dumars will add two players from this year's draft---the Nos. 7 and 36 overall picks. The pie in the sky hope is that those youngsters will somehow invigorate a stale bunch and the relative newcomers---guard Ben Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva---will rebound from lousy seasons and the whole unit will start to come together.

Yeah, and they used to hope that New Coke would take the nation by storm.

Forgive my lack of confidence in Dumars presently. He's on a bad streak that's now in its fourth year. It's as if the soul he sold to the Devil early in his tenure is now a marker that Satan himself is calling.

Joe D needs a great draft in the worst way. He also needs a whole bunch of "ifs" to come true.

If Dumars has a plan left in him, now would be a wonderful time to break it out.

Friday, May 14, 2010

LeBron Needs to LeGo if He Wants to Win a Ring

When Jim Brown, pound-for-pound the best running back in the history of the world, retired at age 29 from the NFL's Browns, just one year removed from a league championship, the city of Cleveland should have known it was in for it.

Forty-five years later, it's not getting any better in Cleveland.

Ahh, Cleveland. The Mistake by the Lake. A city that exists so that we in Detroit have something to make fun of.

Cleveland, where none of the pro sports teams have won a championship since Brown's Browns in 1964.

Cleveland, where the teams are either God awful or very good---until the playoffs roll around. Then they turn God awful again.

Cleveland, where it's always cloudy. A city with the charm of Freddie Krueger and the culture of yogurt.

Save the e-mails and nasty comments. I've been to Cleveland. It's a great city, if you need to spend a weekend but only have a couple of hours.

It wouldn't be such a bad place to hang your hat if the teams won every now and again. Kind of like having a chaser to go with your NyQuil.

Since '64, Cleveland has seen the Indians blow the 1997 World Series and the 2007 ALCS; the Browns gag away playoff games in consecutive years to the Broncos in 1987 and '88; and the Barons NHL franchise flee once they realized they were playing in Cleveland.

Oh, and now LeBron James and the Cavaliers are adding to the torment.

I don't think this is what LeBron had in mind when he exhorted his followers to "Witness."

We "marvel" at championships. We "ogle" the money players. We "gaze" at the stars.

The only things you "witness" are crimes. And car crashes.

James and his Merry Band of Basketballers have, once again, careened out of control.

LeBron and his Crash Test Dummies.

For two years in a row, the Cavs have owned the NBA's best regular season record. Better than Kobe and the Lakers. Better than Garnett and the Celtics. Better than everyone.

And, for two years in a row, the Cavs will be watching the NBA Finals from their living rooms, if they have the stomach to watch it at all.

Heck, this year they'll be watching the Eastern Conference Finals from afar, thanks to the 4-2 series loss to the Celtics in Round Two.


Or maybe it's witless.

The first sacrificial lamb has been tossed to the masses. The Cavs have fired their coach, Mike Brown. That's what 127 regular season wins in the last two seasons get you in Cleveland: a size 12 in the seat of your pants.

Brown is out because the Cavs haven't been able to parlay all those wins and perennial MVP candidate (sometimes he wins it) James into a world's title.

The Cavaliers did make the Finals in 2007 after upsetting the Pistons in the Eastern Finals, but were swept away by the San Antonio Spurs before everyone was seated.

Now James might do what so many others before him have done with various degrees of success: make himself a former Cleveland athlete.

No world titles in Cleveland since 1964. It was already a helluva streak the day LeBron was born.

You can pin this loss to the Celtics in six games on James all you want. He had a miserable Game Five in Cleveland. He had a triple-double in Game 6 but also committed nine turnovers.

Blame LeBron to your heart's content. But if he's not the one to end the championship drought in Cleveland, then it just can't be done.

Brady Quinn, Grady Sizemore, be duly warned: you can't win it all in Cleveland. If LeBron James can't do it with teams that went 66-16 and 61-21 the past two seasons, then forget it.

James has the option of cutting ties with the Cavaliers this summer. When it's 12:01 a.m. on July 1, and James hasn't re-signed with them, the Cavaliers return to the days of 33-49. Or worse.

If James wants to win a ring, he best hightail it out of Cleveland, which is always good advice but never more so than now.

Whether it's coach Brown, or the supporting cast, or the dreariness of the city in which he plays, James can't overcome it. Clearly.

It's not like he hasn't tried. Not like he hasn't won MVPs or scoring titles or anything.

Michael Jordan transformed the Bulls from also-rans to champions with less to work with than what James has now in Cleveland, Scottie Pippen be damned.

But MJ had Phil Jackson. And a real city.

James needs to take his act elsewhere. Either that, or he's cursed for more of the same: regular season success and playoff meltdowns. Team management clearly has not been able to figure out how to build a champion around arguably the pro game's greatest player.

In fact, they're regressing.

What's on tap for next year? A first round knockout?

What can management possibly say to LeBron to convince him to establish permanent roots in Cleveland?

We fired Mike Brown?

We'll kill Mo Williams and no one will ever find the body?

Cleveland needs LeBron James a whole lot more than he needs Cleveland. Then again, Cleveland even needed Buddy Bell more than Buddy Bell needed Cleveland, so I guess that's not really saying much.

If I'm James, I take a good look at New York and take my chances with the Knicks.

It's not going to happen in Cleveland. Clearly.

Then again, what does?

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Tasers Not Needed When Curtis Was on Duty

Of all the cheap gin joints in the NFL, that drunken buffoon had to run onto Mike Curtis’s.

I think of Curtis, the half-man, half-linebacker, half-Tasmanian Devil of the NFL from 1965-78, whenever I read or hear of some loony who runs onto the field of play in pro sports.

Yeah, I know I assigned three halves to Curtis. If anyone was one-and-a-half of anything, it was Mike Curtis, who flattened an alcohol-soaked moron into a pancake in Baltimore back in 1971.

Curtis came to mind as I read of that lovely cesspool of rotten fans, Philadelphia, which was in the news this week. On successive nights, the baseball field at Citizens Bank Park was littered with two loose cannons who rushed the diamond.

Some controversy ensued on the first night, when the perp was a 17-year-old who was tasered by Philly’s finest, in front of some 30,000 witnesses.

He’s lucky he wasn’t Curtised.

Mike Curtis was a linebacker for the Baltimore Colts from 1965-75, for the Seattle Seahawks in 1976, and for the Washington Redskins in 1977-78.

Correction: Curtis wasn’t a linebacker; he was a tsunami.

People make a big deal about Dick Butkus, and that’s OK. But Curtis entered the league the same year as Butkus of the Chicago Bears and he was every bit as nasty, mean and demented as old No. 51.

Curtis wasn’t for his team—he was against the other.

He had the temperament of a bear rousted early from hibernation. If you played for the other side, Curtis hated you. If you played on his side, he tolerated you. He didn’t even get along with Johnny Unitas. Curtis once said so himself.

Curtis played 14 seasons in the NFL in a pissy mood. He was drafted as a fullback, believe it or not, but didn’t have the skill or the patience for the position. So they moved him to linebacker, where he could waylay opponents and save a bundle of cash on anger management classes.

“I play football,” Curtis once said, “because it’s the only place you can hit people and get away with it.”

1971 was an especially bad year to get on Curtis’s bad side—which for him meant crossing his path.

The Colts were defending Super Bowl champions, and you’d think that would make a guy who played for them at least a little pleasant.

Not Curtis.

The Colts’ win over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V only made him madder.

Curtis, you see, still wasn’t over his team’s upset loss at the hands of Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.

Curtis wrote about it in his autobiography, Keep off My Turf, one of the more appropriately-named pieces of literature since they started binding books.

The Jets, who were 18-point underdogs, “were lucky that day,” Curtis wrote. “We were twice as good as the Jets,” he added.

I saw Curtis being interviewed by NFL Films some 12 years after that day in Miami, when Namath led the Jets to a stunning 16-7 upset of the 13-1 Colts.

Curtis was still pissed off.

“We should have been champions twice,” he growled.

So winning the Super Bowl in 1971 didn’t make Mike Curtis happy or relieved or satiated. It only served to re-open some wounds.

Such was the back story when Curtis and the Colts were taking on the Miami Dolphins at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

In between plays, here comes the bozo onto the field, soused and delirious with soused happiness.

The fool grabs the football from the turf.

He’d have been better off sticking his head inside a lion’s mouth at feeding time.

Curtis wasted no time. He motored to the poor fool and slammed him into the Memorial Stadium turf with a vicious hit normally reserved for running backs and scrambling quarterbacks.

You may have seen the footage. The guy is so wasted that even after Curtis leveled him, he was still laughing hysterically. Being drunk probably saved him a world of pain.

Curtis acted instinctively, as wildlife tends to do.

For those instinctive actions, Mike Curtis became a hero to football fans. He did what a whole lot of others would have paid money to do.

As expected, Curtis was unapologetic about his recourse.

“The way I see it, he was invading my place of business,” Curtis said.

Teammate Bubba Smith, no Dale Carnegie himself, told Curtis on the field that he shouldn’t have hit the guy so hard.

“He shouldn’t have been on the field,” Curtis told Bubba—and the world, in subsequent interviews.

The use of the taser on the teenager in Philadelphia has drawn some criticism.

Too harsh! Overkill! He’s just a kid!


Nothing good can come from a nut invading the field or court or rink of play. I don’t care how old or young he or she is.

At best, it’s a needless delay in the proceedings. At worst, well…we haven’t seen the worst yet, and that’s what is terrifying.

Need I bring up Monica Seles?

You remember it when Seles, the tennis player, was stabbed in the back during a match by a crazed fan/stalker.

In 2002, Kansas City Royals First Base Coach Tom Gamboa was brutally attacked by a father-and-son act in Chicago. A knife was found on the ground near where Gamboa lay when the police and players rushed to Gamboa’s defense.

You still think it’s cute and harmless when some wacko runs onto the field?

It’s amazing that we haven’t seen something worse occur.

And we won’t, if extreme measures of incapacitation, like tasers, are continued to be used by stadium security.

I’m all for it.

When Henry Aaron finally clobbered home run No. 715, passing Babe Ruth, capping a run that saw everything from hate mail and death threats targeting Aaron as well as kidnapping threats against his daughter, his wife Billye’s heart leapt to her throat.

As her husband rounded the base paths, two overzealous fans had joined him. They wanted to offer nothing more than congratulations—to immerse themselves in history. But no one really knew that at the time—especially Billye Aaron.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to get him now, as he’s running around the bases,’” Billye said about that briefly terrifying moment. “They’re going to get him NOW.”

They didn’t, of course.

But they could have.

We can’t have Mike Curtis at every stadium or arena, but we can have tasers.

I’m all for it.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sharks and 3-0 Lead Someone's Idea of a Joke

The NHL does have a sense of humor, after all.

A cruel one, perhaps, but a sense of humor just the same.

OK, so who's the prankster who has left the San Jose Sharks, the greatest playoff chokers of the 21st Century, with this 3-0 lead over the mighty Detroit Red Wings?

Surely this must be the work of one of those cut ups who slices the laces off your skates or puts Ex-Lax in your chocolate bar.

Look around the Sharks dressing room at Joe Louis Arena. Follow the sounds of the snickers and muffled giggles. The prankster is hiding somewhere; no doubt he wants to bear witness to his practical joke.

Someone gave the Sharks a 3-0 series lead and told them to have at it?

It's like giving Charlie Brown a football to see whether he seeks out Lucy to hold it.

The Sharks? A 3-0 series lead? Really?

Where's Allen Funt? Or Tom Bergeron? Someone must be recording this for one of those "America's Dumbest Crooks" shows.

The San Jose Sharks have a 3-0 series lead. Let the fun begin.

This is going to be a doozy. Better grab hold of your sides because they're gonna be a hurtin'.

They gave the 1964 Phillies a 6-1/2 game lead with 12 games to play and hilarity ensued. The 1969 Cubs did pratfalls. They say the '69 Mets were a Miracle. But they didn't win the East Division that year---the Cubs lost it.

Now they're handing the Sharks a 3-0 lead and Vegas has no idea what to do with such a development.

The San Jose Sharks and the playoffs, in any year beginning with 20, have been like oil and water. Or maybe more like vinegar and baking soda.

This has never been the Sharks' time. They've played like they're allergic to hockey in any month that starts with May.

Now they have a 3-0 lead over the Red Wings. Not only is this a chance to eliminate a team, it's a chance to eliminate a dynasty.

Who's writing this stuff? MAD magazine?

The Sharks and a 3-0 lead is theatre of the absurd. It's off the charts wacky. It's giving a heroin addict $500 and expecting him not to blow it on blow.

The Red Wings can't win four games tonight. Even against the Sharks. But if they win tonight, just one measly win, get ready for some fun.

There'll be 17,000-plus tight fannies in HP Pavilion on Saturday night. Just one win by the Red Wings and all the pressure will be on the Sharks. And they have just the lineage to become the 21st century version of the 1974-75 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Those Pens were the last NHL team to cough up a 3-0 series lead.

If the Red Wings win tonight, they'll be like Jason in those "Friday the 13th Movies," still alive and twitching. If they swing out west to San Jose and steal a win there in Game Five, they'll be like Freddie Krueger---showing up in the Sharks' bad dreams.

By then the Sharks' legs will be like cooked spaghetti and their throats as closed as a bank on a Sunday.

The San Jose Sharks with a 3-0 lead.

That's a real knee-slapper. Those crazy folks at the NHL---what are they going to come up with next?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fear Not, Red Wings Fans: It's Still a Series

Which is the biggest game of any playoff series?

Answer: the next one.

The playoffs are like that old kids' game, Kaboom. With each game the balloon gets pumped more and more with air---until you can only look at it with one eye opened, one eye closed and with a wince, wondering when it's going to go KABOOM!

It's Game Three tonight for the Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks, who lead two games to none. Cue the cliches of foreboding.

There's no tomorrow. The backs are against the wall. It's do or die. Must-win. Big game. Gotta have this one.

You don't want to go down 0-3. We need a win to get back into this series. They held service, now we have to do the same.

They're all true, of course.

I remember when the 2005 Pistons fell down 0-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The Pistons came home and won Game Three. ABC's Al Michaels blurted it out shortly after the final horn.

"A series has broken out!"

Did it ever. The Pistons, playing three straight at home, won two of them (should have won all three, but I digress) and the series ended up going seven bitter, angry games before the Spurs finally prevailed.

Something tells me that a series is about to still break out between the Red Wings and the Sharks, starting tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

No one goes up 3-0 against the Red Wings, first of all. It's only happened four times in the last 14 years, and two of those were courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche in the heyday of that rivalry, when the Avs were annual Cup contenders.

Secondly, the Red Wings can't possibly be as bad in the faceoff circle in Game Three as they were in San Jose. In Game Two, the Red Wings didn't take faceoffs, they conceded them. It was like Marty Mornhinweg was the faceoff coach and he kept telling the Red Wings to take the wind.

Thirdly, Joe Pavelski has to stop scoring sooner or later, right?

Sunday night, Pavelski became the first player since Mario Lemieux (you heard me) to score two or more goals in three straight playoff games.

Pavelski and Lemieux? The only other time those two names were in the same sentence was when some hockey scout likely said, "Well, Pavelski's OK, but he's no Mario Lemieux."

Fourth, if the Sharks manage another 10-4 advantage in power plays, they'll have to call the National Guard down to JLA to fetch the refs. Not gonna happen.

The Sharks find themselves in unchartered territory. They have a 2-0 lead in a playoff series. But that's not the REAL unchartered territory, which is that they're in the second round, period.

It's impressive that the Sharks hold that 2-0 lead, because by this time they're usually gripping a golf club, not a hockey stick.

Oh, and there's that record of the Sharks' in Joe Louis Arena.

Since their dorsal fins first poked out in NHL waters, the Sharks have won just eight of 44 games played at The Joe, regular season and playoffs included.

The Sharks aren't just going on the road here, they're crossing enemy lines, with land mines all around them.

Eight out of 44? Even Gerald Laird's batting average has that percentage beat!

You're not going to get rid of the Red Wings this easily. The hockeyniks who believe in ABD (Anyone But Detroit) because they're sick of seeing the Red Wings in or around the Stanley Cup Finals, I'm sorry to disappoint you.

If the Red Wings are going down, they're not going to do it by falling into an 0-3 hole to the San Jose Sharks.

Truth? I wouldn't be surprised, not one bit, if the Red Wings slice and dice the Sharks tonight and move back from the table with a belch.

A series is about to break out. Count on it.

No one goes up on the Red Wings 3-0. And no one named Joe Pavelski should remain in the company of Mario Lemieux for more than 48 hours.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

"One Last Chance" to Play Motivates Trenton, CC Alums

No one will ever know if the Trenton Trojans hockey team would have completed the comeback that night. But momentum was on their side. A three-goal deficit had been erased. Their building was thumping with noise.

Then just like that it became eerily quiet.

“I knew I was in pain, like full body pain,” Kurt LaTarte said as he recalled the moment. “But no one knew how bad it was until I went back to the bench, and the trainer looked under my chin.

“His eyes got real wide and the last thing I remember was seeing a lot of blood.”

LaTarte , Trenton H.S. Class of 1999, gazed out onto the ice at the Kennedy Center in Trenton as he told me the story. We sat in a tiny set of bleachers in the frigidness of the rink. The temperature matched his tenuous relationship with what happened to him.

LaTarte knew it would be this way. He knew he’d have trouble opening up about the night an errant skate slashed his throat, which led to his collapsing at the bench moments later. Hence the eery quiet.

It’s obvious that LaTarte still isn’t quite ready, even 11 years later, to embrace talking about the incident that, for all its horror, has now become the source of a unique reunion of two storied high school hockey programs.

His voice trailed off several times as he took me through that night in Trenton, in 1999, when a fierce rivalry turned into a makeshift mass prayer circle in a heartbeat.

Trenton and Detroit Catholic Central owned Class A high school hockey in the 1990s. They were the Lakers and Celtics of their sport. One school would win the state title, then the other would win the next year. Their games were intense, exciting, dramatic.

Then one night it got way more dramatic for anyone’s liking.

Earlier in 1999, Trenton beat CC, 1-0, in Redford. Andy Greene, who now plays for the New Jersey Devils, scored the game’s only goal.

Later, the teams met again, in Trenton. Their records were both 11-1 in the conference. The CC Shamrocks got off to a great start in the game, racing to a 4-1 lead.

Then the Trojans scored, and scored again. The building got louder. The tradition of Trenton hockey isn’t like it is in most cities. They are the Detroit Red Wings of high school hockey. As LaTarte told me, “The whole city gets behind you when you play for Trenton.”

The city was behind them that night, as usual. Especially when the Trojans finally tied the score, 4-4.

LaTarte went chasing for a puck in the noisy din of the Trenton arena. His teammate laid a terrific bodycheck on a CC player who went after LaTarte.

“It was a textbook check,” LaTarte said.

And almost deadly.

The CC player’s skate was suddenly where it wasn’t designed to be—off the ice, dangerously high in the air.

The out-of-control blade caught LaTarte as he skated by, the “wrong way,” he said.

LaTarte’s throat got it. Good.

He managed to skate off the ice on his own power, in terrific pain.

His coach, Mike Turner—who’s still the coach today—didn’t think LaTarte was the worse for wear.

“The action moved to the other end of the ice,” Turner told me. “The next thing I know, the CC principal, who was also a priest, was leading both teams in prayer at center ice.”

LaTarte was wheeled away on a stretcher, his jugular cut. In a building in which moments earlier you couldn’t hear yourself think, you could now hear a pin drop.

LaTarte, in his semi-consciousness, urged the game to continue. His first question upon awakening in the hospital was, “What was the score?”

They told him the game had been suspended. The players didn’t feel like continuing.

“I know players get hurt all the time, and games continue,” LaTarte said. “But at the same time, I understand why it didn’t continue. Everyone was pretty shaken up.”

That year’s Trenton squad, in a program traditionally competing for state titles, didn’t even make it out of regionals. And that 4-4 suspended tie with their arch rival Catholic Central hung in the air like a bad odor.

That odor is about to waft away.

Thanks to a TV series sponsored by Gatorade called “Replay,” in which high school teams get the opportunity to replay rivalry games, those 1999 Trenton and Catholic Central squads will get it on next week, some 11 years later, to replay their game, from scratch.

Ironically, LaTarte, who still wrestles with the memories of that horrific accident, was the one who got the ball rolling for the reunion game.

“I saw the commercial [for the series] on TV, and I was near my computer and brought up the website,” he said after practice last week. “I just started filling it out. I knew sooner or later I’d have to open up about [the injury]. But I knew my teammates would love the opportunity. When I weighed the pros and cons, it became a no-brainer.”

Over 2,000 applicants submitted their stories to Gatorade. The human drama of what happened to LaTarte, combined with the Trenton-CC rivalry of the time, proved too much for the show’s producers to resist.

The game will be played on Sunday, May 9 at the Compuware Arena in Plymouth.

And as if the game needed any more pomp and circumstance, the Gatorade folks, who routinely bring honorary coaches into their series, are placing ex-NHLer Brendan Shanahan (Trenton) and legendary coach Scotty Bowman (CC) behind the benches to assist the team’s regular coaching staffs.

Shanahan was present the night at Joe Louis Arena when Red Wings teammate Jiri Fischer had his career ended thanks to a scary heart-related collapse on the bench in 2005.

“When I saw the video of what happened [to LaTarte] in 1999, I thought of Jiri,” Shanahan told me. “I know what it’s like when a teammate is in a situation like that, when the game becomes secondary for that moment.”

For LaTarte, he has no doubt both teams will be ready to play on May 9.

“In 1999, we didn’t think it was going to be our last game,” he explained. “But now, we know that this is the last full-contact, competitive game of hockey that we’re ever going to play. I have no doubt that it will be extremely intense.

“Everybody better be ready to play, or it won’t be good.”

The Trenton-CC replay game will air on Fox Sports Detroit later in May.

“It’s great to reunite,” Turner said, “and get one more chance.”

No one would second that more than LaTarte, whose life hung in the balance that night in 1999.