Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: These Five Sports Things Aren't Coming Back

It’s Memorial Day weekend—a time to reflect on those who’ve served our country and to honor their memories of lives lost on the field of battle.

And to grill sausage, of course.

Really, I don’t take this holiday lightly, especially these days, with our boys all over the globe, it seems, trying to restore peace and spread democracy and freedom—and risking their lives on a daily basis in the process.

Nor am I one of those who compare sports to war, which I’ve always felt cheapens what our soldiers have done and continue to do. Nothing that happens on a gridiron or on the ice or on a court even remotely compares to war in the literal sense.

But this can also be a time to be reflective about sports.

There are so many random memories I have about things and people and just plain stuff about sports—all that will never return to our great games.

So without further ado, in honor of Memorial Day, here are five things about sports that I miss, and why.

Helmet-less hockey players. When I first started following hockey, the sport was full of bare heads. Those wearing helmets were the ones who stood out like teeth in a player’s mouth. Then the NHL, in 1979, suddenly recognized that skating recklessly on the ice on a surface that was surrounded by hard wooden boards, without a helmet, was at the very least foolish and at worst insane.

So the league instituted a rule that said that any player who entered the league from 1979 on would have to don a helmet. Those who signed contracts prior to ’79 would be grandfathered in and thus would have the option of wearing buckets or not.

So as the years went on, the helmet-less players dwindled, like an endangered species. Gradually, it was the bare head that was the exception.

The last Red Wing to play sans helmet was Brad Marsh, in the early-1990s. The last player, overall, to do so was Craig MacTavish.

I forget how much I pine for the bare head until someone in today’s game inadvertently loses their helmet during a shift. Suddenly there’s a head of hair on the ice!

It doesn’t last long—maybe 15, 20 seconds, tops, but my eyes become glued to the helmet-less player. I could care less about what’s happening on the ice. For those precious seconds it’s 1973 again, when the helmet was for wimps—or Europeans.

Exterior chest protectors for umpires. This one kind of slipped past me, until I woke up one day and realized that the likes of Nestor Chylak weren’t umpiring anymore.

The American League umps continued to use the exterior chest protectors behind home plate after their National League colleagues went to the sleeker version that fit inside their shirt or jacket, like bulletproof vests.

The exterior chest protector, to me, screams umpire.

They hung around the umpire’s shoulders—those big black padded shields. They’d dangle there, until it was time for the pitcher to make his delivery, at which point the ump crouched and shoved the chest protector into position, as it cupped his chin and covered him from head to waist.

Not sure why I miss that, but I do.

Twenty-four second clocks on the floor. Whenever I happen upon old NBA footage, say circa 1972 and earlier, the first thing I do is to look for the 24-second clocks.

Back then, they weren’t located on top of the backboard—which makes perfect sense, by the way.

No, in those days, the shot clocks were placed on the floor, angled, usually in one of the corners—which made imperfect sense.

I don’t know what it is, but to me there’s a certain cozy simplicity to those old NBA and ABA films that feature shot clocks on the floor.

Again, having the clocks perched up top makes all the sense in the world. But shot clocks on the floor make me think of Afros and shorts with belts and smoke-filled arenas and players with names like Erwin Mueller and Hawthorne Wingo.

Good stuff.

Quarterbacks with one face bar on their helmets. I believe Joe Theismann might be the last of this ilk.

I like the idea of a singular face bar on a football helmet, anyway—and they were mainly worn by place kickers and punters, naturally.

But every so often you’d see a wide receiver wear such a skimpily-equipped helmet, or better yet, a quarterback.

Joe Kapp, anyone?

Billy Kilmer did the one bar thing, too, along with several others. You gotta love a quarterback who’s willing to pull that off, because the one bar helmet may as well have been the no bar helmet, for all the protection that single bar—which was usually somewhere near the chin—provided.

Today the QBs wear facemasks that used to be reserved for linemen—cage-like apparatuses that were worn by players named Otis Sistrunk and Vern den Herder.

Here’s to Theismann, the last of his breed, who wore the Horst Muhlmann-style, one-bar headgear.

Straight on kickers. Back in the days of the 40-man pro football roster, teams didn’t necessarily opt for the luxury of carrying a player whose only purpose was to lay his foot into the pigskin, be it a place kicker or a punter.

Did you know that Lem Barney, the Lions’ Hall of Fame cornerback, also moonlighted as the team’s punter in his first three years in the league?

Barney was no exception. Kickers and punters were also everything from tight ends to quarterbacks to linebackers to linemen.

And the kickers used their toes to thwack the football, not the sides of their insteps. After all, Hall of Fame kicker Lou Groza's nickname was "The Toe," not "The Instep."

Ahh, the straight on kicker!

Mark Moseley was the last one, and his final year in the NFL was in 1986.

The straight on kicker wasn’t conspicuous by his puny size, like today’s sidewinders, or “soccer style” kickers. The straight on kicker was big and beefy and his jersey was dirty, too—because he was a real football player, not strictly a specialist.

He wore numbers like 76 and 55 and few things, to me, say old school football like a straight on kicker with his squared off shoe, readying himself, arms gently swinging by his side, as he glances at the goalposts—which were on the goal line, by the way and shaped like an H.

Then the moment—when he steps into the kick and swings his leg gloriously like an American football kicking leg should be swung, like a pendulum, not a tennis racket.

Yeah, I miss that.

And many other things, too, but this is a column, not a book.

I hope these memories are ones you share, too. If you’re over 45, the chances are good.

Happy grilling.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

For Red Wings and Sharks, Game 7 No Longer a Figment of Imaginaiton

It's now the thinkable.

The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the '51 Giants, the '78 Yankees. They're the '68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.

The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy's hold.

This isn't happening, but yet it is. Even Disney's Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.

The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?

A 3-0 series lead for the San Jose Sharks. The Red Wings looked as dead as Osama bin Laden.

But we never saw bin Laden's corpse for 100% proof, and the Sharks haven't been able to produce a body, either, despite having three chances to do so.

The NHL has been around for over 80 years, and the Red Wings are only the eighth team to force a Game 7 after falling behind, 3-0. Only three have come all the way back to win the series.

Funny thing is, it's happened three times in the past two years---where a team down 0-3 has won three straight games. The Red Wings aren't even the first team to do it this spring.

But make no mistake, this is big doings.

It's tempting to look at Game 7 and say, "Well, they came back this far. They have nothing to be ashamed about."

That works until they drop the puck in San Jose Thursday night. Then you'll say, "Come on---they can't come this far and lose it at the end!"

Just ask Chicago Blackhawks fans what that feels like.

But indeed, the Red Wings have shown mettle and heart that fits right in with the team celebrating 20 straight years of playoff appearances.

Think back to all those playoffs since 1991. We thought we'd seen it all---the heartbreak, the disappointment, the triumph. We've been thrilled and we've been chilled.

The epic Game 5 win in San Jose and the even more epic Game 6 win in Detroit has sealed it: we hadn't seen it all.

How can you say that we had, when this is going on?

Frankly, most of us thought this would be a seven-game series. We just didn't fathom it would happen in this manner.

Those fickle hockey playoff bounces, which were all going the Sharks' way in the first three games, are now going the Red Wings' way. An inch here, and inch there. That's what this series has come down to.

Danny Cleary inexplicably whiffed on a breakaway last night, clanging the puck off the goalpost after deking Antti Niemi out of his you-know-what. Henrik Zetterberg had a wide open net and a one-inch stick shaft thwarted him. Tomas Holmstrom looked like he had one buried but he went head-over-heels, literally, and the puck somehow stayed out of the net.

This all happened with the Red Wings tilting the ice so badly, you half expected Jimmy Howard to come sliding down into the Sharks zone, too.

Yet it was 0-0, and a few minutes into the third period it was 1-0---San Jose!

Another of those playoff goals---where the puck has a mind of its own and slithers through pads and past sticks and slides ever-so-slowly over the goal line, like a curling rock coming to rest.

Well, you might have thought, at least they forced a Game 6.

But the Red Wings, as they did in the third period of Game 5, showed why their players have beating hearts of multiple Stanley Cup champions.

Damn the torpedoes, the Red Wings seemed to say. Full speed ahead!

A Zetterberg tip in with under 10 minutes to play knotted the game. Then, just a couple minutes later, Val Filppula glided into the Sharks zone, unbothered, and rammed home a pass from Pavel Datsyuk, who is only the best player in the world right now.

The Red Wings know the way to San Jose.

For the final 16 minutes of the third period, the Red Wings played maniacal hockey; lose-and-go-home kind of hockey. No one felt like going home, apparently. The golf course doesn't beckon quite yet.

The flukey Sharks goal didn't deflate the Wings; in fact, it almost seemed to tick them off.

In retrospect, the Sharks didn't have a chance, though it didn't look like that at the time.

And what would a steely win over the Sharks be in this series without a late Justin Abdelkader penalty?

"Oops, I did it again" shouldn't be the name of a Britney Spears CD, it ought to be Abby's mantra in this series.

Abdelkader, the abrasive kid from MSU, has the timing of a telemarketer.

Once again the Red Wings had to kill off an Abby penalty, this one a blatant hold on Dan Boyle with about six minutes left. In Game 5, it was a blatant elbow with about five minutes to play. There have been others in this series that have put the Red Wings behind the 8-ball.

Bottom line: there WILL be a Game 7. The Sharks have to play the unthinkable, which now may be the unmanageable.

For Red Wings fans, it is the unbelievable.

Game on!

Monday, May 09, 2011

Captain Nick Keeps Us Guessing re: Retirement

I wonder how many of the 20,000-plus throng at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night were aware that they may have just missed an historic moment. Or rather, dodged a bullet.

The Red Wings won, 4-3, thanks to some late heroics by that bottomless pit of energy, Darren Helm. This keeps playoff hockey alive in Detroit, as the San Jose Sharks missed out on their chance to sweep the Red Wings into the Detroit River and out of the post-season.

But as the mostly red-clad crowd whooped and hollered, both after Helm’s goal with 1:27 left in the third period and after the final horn sounded, how many realized that they did not just see Nicklas Lidstrom play his final game?

The fans may have been just that 1:27 and some overtime hockey away from Lidstrom skating off the ice for the final time, had the Red Wings lost.

You’d like to say that Nick Lidstrom is not allowed to retire, just as Monday is not allowed to come after Friday, and a red light is not allowed to come after green without amber in between.

You’d like to point to Lidstrom, who’s 40, and argue that he can’t call it quits because as efficiently as he’s played during his career, his 40 is a 40 in number only and Nick has the body of a 30-year-old, tops. His is the only birth certificate that could be categorized as fiction.

You’d like to say that a guy can’t hang up his skates after a season in which he was nominated for the Norris Trophy, yet again, as the league’s best defenseman. Somewhere there surely must be a by-law against that.

You’d like to scoff and say, “How can a guy quit when he has 44% of his team’s goals in this series with the Sharks?” Yes, Lidstrom has four of the Red Wings’ nine markers in this tussle with San Jose.

The thought of Red Wings hockey without Nick Lidstrom is, at the same time, sad and downright terrifying.

But Nick is 40 and we’re at the point now where every summer, the question gets bandied about. Will Nick retire, or will he come back? Will he abscond to Sweden and leave us on our knees, sobbing and crying out, “NIIIIICK!!!”

Or, will he report to Traverse City in September, like he has since 1990, pull on the sweater with the big “C” on the right breast and declare himself ready for another “kick at the can,” which is hockey talk for trying to win the Stanley Cup?

This isn’t like when the previous captain, Steve Yzerman, retired in 2006.

Yzerman, at age 41, had a body that had been ravaged by injury, mostly below the waist and above the ankles. The stories of the pain he put himself through were both legendary and gruesome. And who can forget when he was felled by a shot puck in the eye against Calgary in the 2004 playoffs?

We could see Yzerman’s retirement coming like the next train at the People Mover station. The word “imminent” comes to mind.

But Nick Lidstrom hasn’t suffered the kind of injuries that Yzerman endured. In fact, Lidstrom has hardly suffered any injury, period.

Save for a few more whiskers, Lidstrom looks pretty much the same as he did in 1990, when he was a rookie. Lord knows he pretty much looks the same on the ice, too.

Check that: he’s immensely better than he was in 1990.

So Lidstrom’s retirement doesn’t have that same feeling of inevitability, because the guy still looks damn good. His body hasn’t been wearing down, like Yzerman’s did.

Yet here we are, possibly—again—on the verge of seeing Lidstrom play his last game as a Red Wing. His team trails the Sharks, 3-1 in the Western Conference Semi-Finals and Nick’s career is either hanging on by a thread or it’s in no danger whatsoever of being finished.

No in between.

Lidstrom, as usual, isn’t tipping his hand about whether he’s returning next season or not. Some might wink and say that he’s got a face for poker. But can you imagine Nick at a poker table? He couldn’t keep a smirk off his face if he was holding a pair of twos, let alone a royal flush.

Lidstrom is too nice, too down-to-earth, to fool anyone at poker. So it’s not a poker face he’s giving us; I truly believe he hasn’t made up his mind yet. Simple as that.

This has been going on for years now. First, the consideration was whether Nick wanted his kids to attend school in the States or in his homeland, Sweden.

Now it’s simply, does Nick want to play again?

Lidstrom has said that there are two main factors to his continuing to play: 1) that the Red Wings are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders; and 2) he still enjoys playing.

Whether the Red Wings survive the Sharks series or not, the answer to No.1 would appear to be, YES, they are. Here’s Lidstrom himself, quoted in the Free Press on Friday.

“Looking at the lineup we have, looking at the depth we have and the core group that are in their prime right now, I have no doubt they’re going to be a successful team.”

I say that’s a YES to No. 1, though leave it to Lidstrom to send mixed signals; first he says “we,” then he says “they.” Oh, Nick.

As for No. 2—whether he still enjoys playing—I don’t see where he’s not enjoying playing. He had one of his best offensive seasons, he’s got that Norris nomination, and he speaks glowingly of the talent level on the team. Doesn’t sound like someone with a sour puss to me.

If you held a gun to my head and forced me into a prediction, I’d say that Lidstrom comes back next season, at age 41. But it’s not for sure, and that’s what could drive people batty if they dwell on it too long.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the Red Wings’ current streak of making the playoffs for 20 years in a row began when Lidstrom’s career in Detroit began? Hell, not even Gordie Howe had such a streak, though Yzerman came close—Stevie made the playoffs in 20 of his 22 seasons.

The Red Wings won on Friday night in dramatic fashion, the Hockeytown denizens boogied in the aisles, and everyone is waiting to see what happens in Game 5 in San Jose on Sunday.

And Nick Lidstrom’s splendid career hangs on by a thread.

Or not.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lions Get it Right with Drafting of DT Fairley

It’s one of the most indelible images in Detroit Lions history.

You’ve likely seen the photograph, in black and white. An angry, vengeful-minded group of Lions holding a defensive meeting on the Tiger Stadium turf, with Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr being used as the table.

Some of the greatest defenders in Lions history are in the photograph.

Joe Schmidt. Darris McCord. Alex Karras. Roger Brown. Sam Williams. Only Starr’s helmet and a portion of his jersey are visible.

The photo was snapped on Thanksgiving Day, 1962. The Lions were in a foul mood on a fowl day, still grumpy over losing a game to the Packers earlier in the season on a muddy field in Green Bay.

The ’62 Lions were one of the best teams the NFL ever saw that didn’t qualify for the post-season. They finished 11-3. Trouble was, the Packers were 13-1. There were no wild cards back then; you either won your division or you didn’t.

The Lions coughed up the game to the Packers in October, which would eventually cost them the West Division title, and they, to a man, vowed that the Pack would pay on Thanksgiving Day.

Did they ever.

All afternoon the Lions defensive front spent a considerable amount of time in the Packers backfield. Starr was sacked 11 times, his normally impenetrable offensive line reduced to mush.

It was the defining moment for a Lions front four that, in the early-1960s, was as good as any. Ever.

Time was when the defensive front for the Lions was traditionally a strength. Even when the offense was plodding, the Lions defense, anchored by the big uglies in the trenches and flanked by cornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau, was no picnic for the opposition.

There was a drought in that area until the early-1980s.

They called themselves the “Silver Rush.” They were Doug English and Al “Bubba” Baker and Dave Pureifory and Bill Gay. They were veterans acquired from other teams like Curley Culp and Mike Fanning and Joe Ehrmann. And they caused sleepless nights for offensive coordinators.

What’s happening now with the Lions is warming the cockles of my heart.

Right now, for the first time in close to 30 years, the Lions are creating a defensive line corps that is nasty. And for once, when it comes to the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver, I mean that in a good way.

The first-round draft pick of 2011, one Nick Fairley from Auburn, is a defensive tackle. A very GOOD defensive tackle—perhaps the best available off the board. That he fell to the Lions at pick No. 13 was both fortuitous and unexpected—and with the Lions, we’ve gotten plenty of the latter but not so much of the former.

Fairley, playing alongside Ndamukong Suh in the middle of the Lions defensive front, with ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril—and with veteran tackle Corey Williams being shuttled in throughout the game—means one glorious thing.

The Lions aren’t going to be anyone’s punching bag anymore.

No more should there be back-breaking, clock-chewing drives against the Lions late in games when the football is needed back into their possession. The depth the Lions have up front is ridiculous.

I can hear you now: Where’s the “shutdown cornerback?” Where’s the linebacker? Where’s the offensive lineman?

A front four that can potentially pressure the quarterback like the Lions have can make me a decent cornerback, and I run a 7.5 40-yard dash, downhill, and have the cover ability of white paint over a black wall.

Besides, there’s the later rounds on Saturday, and free agency—and trades. Lions GM Martin Mayhew likes trades. He’s already made plenty of his colleagues look silly as he’s fleeced them.

The Lions drafted to a strength, and that’s just wonderful. Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz are big on winning the majority of the battles that take place a yard or two on either side of the line of scrimmage, which occur some 120 times per game.

The drafting of Fairley falls right in line with the team’s philosophy. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is going to be a kid in a candy shop with his unit of d-linemen, rotating them in and out, keeping them fresh for the later stages of football games.

Oh, and those maddening double teams of Suh, which occurred on just about every play last year? Gone! Fairley is an excellent pass rusher in his own right, for a guy who plays between the guards. You gonna leave him to double team Suh? Go ahead—I dare ya.

Fairley was introduced to the Detroit media on Friday, another big man wearing a suit that most of us would use as a tent.

The subject of quarterbacks was brought up. The questioner referenced Suh’s comment last year at this time that he doesn’t like quarterbacks.

Fairley shrugged his granite shoulders and said, matter-of-factly, “I don’t like ‘em either.”

It should be noted that Karras, perhaps the greatest defensive tackle not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was notorious for his dislike of the game’s signal-callers, too.

Suh is a wonderful young man with a bright smile and who has a chance to be the NFL’s next Michael Strahan—a defensive lineman with a personality as large as his frame and who will appear on your television set more often as a celebrated pitchman and league ambassador.

Fairley might not be a Suh type off the field. My first impression of him is that he is more withdrawn, more subdued. Less gregarious. But he shares a distaste for quarterbacks. Even his college teammate, Cam Newton, didn’t escape Fairley’s wrath on Friday.

“I don’t like him, either,” Fairley said of Newton, drafted first overall by Carolina. “Not anymore.”

The Lions’ first two, first-round draft picks in the Martin Mayhew era have been relative no-brainers. There wasn’t a lot of thought process needed to point to Matthew Stafford (2009) and Suh (2010) and say, “I’ll take HIM.”

This year was different. The Lions drafted 13th overall, not first or second. This first-round pick took some thought, took some soul-searching. It took some self-assessment of where Mayhew and Schwartz want to take their football team.

They chose the front four. They chose to make the rich, richer.

Nicely played, gentlemen.