Sunday, July 24, 2011

Is Tiger Woods Still Relevant?

No one wins a golf tournament so much as they don’t lose it. It’s 72 holes of survival of the fittest, and he who makes the fewest mistakes comes out on top on Sunday afternoon.

It’s a sport with no teammates and only one person who understands you—the caddie. You spend four days trying to avoid about 17 miles worth of land mines and it can all blow up on you in the final few feet—or even inches.

Does the collar get any tighter than it does for the professional golfer on the tourney’s last day, when he starts the morning with a four stroke lead and looks behind him and sees a gang charging after him, making birdies and sinking 25-foot putts, all while looking cool and collected?

It can be the loneliest place on Earth—being the leader of a major golf tournament in its waning hours. The pressure has gotten some of the game’s greats, and a whole lot of its goods.

The pro golfer can’t duck into the showers and hide out after the 72nd hole and then sneak out the back door of the locker room, avoiding reporters. He can’t point to an error by his third baseman or an errant pass by his point guard or a strange play called by his coach as a contributing factor to his loss.

Golf tournaments aren’t won, as a rule. They’re just not lost.

No one can snatch a tournament in come-from-behind fashion without a conspiracy involving the leader. The followers can make all the birdies and eagles that they want, but they’re useless unless the leader is three-putting or slicing a drive into the woods or hitting a fat fairway wood into a bunker on the approach.

The caveat here is that none of this was true when Tiger Woods was on top of the golfing world.

Tiger won tournaments. He didn’t not lose them.

Woods was the exception to the aforementioned corollaries. He was the exception, no matter if you wanted to throw Hogan, Nicklaus, Jones and Nelson into the mix. Woods was better than them all. He played in a league of one.

Golf was a game that Tiger Woods owned, more than Muhammad Ali owned boxing and more than Pete Sampras ever owned tennis. Tiger didn’t come from ahead to lose, and when he came from behind to win, the leader never had a prayer.

Woods became one of the world’s best known athletes, traveling the globe in his red shirt and black pants and all those magic wands in his bag. He had a smile that could light Broadway during a blackout.

Woods was the prodigy golfer—swinging clubs that were taller than he, when he was still diapered. Other kids had a playground; Woods had a driving range.

Golf was forewarned. In the years leading up to Tiger joining the PGA tour, the stories of his prowess on the links were told the same way wide-eyed bank patrons of the 1930s talked about Dillinger’s jobs.

Golf was forewarned. Tiger Woods didn’t sneak up on the PGA. His presence was announced beforehand, like a tornado—and no one can do anything about those, either, except weather them.

Woods won tournament after tournament—with more than a few majors sprinkled in—and when he wasn’t winning he was often scaring the bejeebers out of the guy who did win. From 1997-2009, Woods was the tour’s no. 1 money winner nine times out of 13.

Almost $100 million Woods has won, slapping that tiny, dimpled ball around like no one else.

Woods owned golf. He won as a teenager and he won as a young man and he won as a veteran and he won off the course, with endorsements and a gorgeous wife and a beautiful family.

There’s irony—and maybe a cruel joke—somewhere in the fact that the demise of Tiger Woods began on a Thanksgiving weekend.

It was November 2009 when the story broke of Woods being involved in a bizarre car wreck near his home. It wasn’t long before the facts began to ooze out: Woods had been a naughty boy, cheating on his gorgeous wife, former model Elin Nordegren.

Then out of the woodwork came women who also claimed to have had sexual relations with Woods.

Divorce soon followed and golf was put on the back burner while Woods sought help for his destructive, deviant behavior.

The road back for Tiger Woods has been pocked with injury and poor play. He’s an also ran now; just one of the guys to fill the field. He hasn’t won a tournament in two years, not really coming close, in fact.

He lost his wife and his family and his endorsements. He lost his edge on the golf course and his aura. No one fears Woods now; it’s as if the PGA tour has been freed from his bondage.

The majors are being won by first-timers and Cinderella stories. Woods has abdicated his throne and a bunch of paupers are getting the chance to sit in it.

The latest news about Woods came earlier this week, and like all news about him since November 2009, it wasn’t uplifting.

Woods announced that longtime caddie Steve Williams, Tiger’s best friend on the golf course since 1999, was being canned.

“I want to express my deepest gratitude to Stevie for all his help, but I think it’s time for a change,” Woods said, not explaining why a change was needed.

Speculation is that the relationship between Woods and Williams chilled like champagne on New Year’s Eve after Tiger and Nordegren split.

Williams joins swing coach Hank Haney as ex-Woods employees turned scapegoats for their boss’s poor play.

Since caddies get paid based on the success of the golfers for whom they work, the past two years have been lean times for Williams, who nonetheless stuck by Woods.

All it got Williams was kicked to the curb.

In an interview with Television New Zealand following his firing, Williams said, “Obviously, working through a scandal, he’s had a new coach, a swing change, the last 18 months has been very difficult and I’ve stuck by him through thick and thin. I’ve been incredibly loyal — and then to have this happen, basically you could say I’ve wasted two years of my life, the last two years.”

Williams will probably be better off in the long run, because it’s becoming apparent that Tiger Woods simply isn’t relevant anymore. He’s a broken man with Achilles and knee injuries who fights himself on the course something fierce, and loses.

It’s not overly dramatic to suggest that Woods, at age 35, is in the sunset of his golf career.

And, as usual with the pro golfer, he has no one to blame but himself.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Osgood's HOF Worthiness to be One of Hockey's Greatest Debates

The sure-fire Hall of Fame goalie was beginning to show his age. At 43, the Red Wings' netminder was battling the puck something awful, and the puck was winning. Too often the vulcanized rubber disc was finding its way over the goal line and tickling the twine.

It was another playoff season in Detroit, aka "Hockeytown", that self-named moniker smacking with arrogance. The Red Wings were six years removed from their last Stanley Cup and in between were many post-season disappointments.

The 2003 first-round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Mighty (then) Ducks. The 2004 second round upset levied on them by the Calgary Flames. The 2006 first round shocker suffered against the Edmonton Oilers. The heartbreaking 2007 Western Conference Finals loss to the just plain Ducks.

Now it was 2008 and after four games of the first round series with the inferior Nashville Predators, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made, in my book, one of the gutsiest moves authored by any coach in this city. Ever.

"The puck is going in the net," Babcock complained to the media after the Predators beat the Red Wings twice in Nashville to square the series at 2-2.

The puck went into the Red Wings' net in the first two games in Detroit, too, but Babcock's bunch was able to overcome that with its high-powered offense. Not so much in Nashville.

So, just like that, Babcock pressed the "eject" button and Dominik Hasek was vaulted out of the Red Wings cage and in went Chris Osgood for Game 5 in Detroit.

I'm still amazed by Babcock's moxie in making that move, because I'm convinced that he's one of few NHL coaches who would have pulled the trigger---maybe the only one at that time.

My belief was supported later in the playoffs, when Colorado coach Joel Quenneville failed to show the same guts and left bedraggled goalie Jose Theodore as his starter when a goalie change could have given the Avalanche a much-needed boost.

Osgood was magnificent in Game 5, despite surrendering a goal late in the third period that tied the game. The Red Wings won early in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. It gave me chills when Osgood was announced as the game's no. 1 star and he skated out and raised his goalie paddle while the Joe Louis Arena crowd chanted "OZZ-IE!! OZZ-IE!!"

The Red Wings won the series one game later and eventually captured their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 years, thanks in no small part to Osgood's goaltending.

Babcock went with his gut in switching from the Hall of Famer Hasek to the hardened veteran Osgood and the reward was the greatest.

That moment is dripping with irony, because indefinitely we will debate whether Chris Osgood belongs in the Hall of Fame, despite his clutch work in 2008 in relief of a no-brainer HOFer in Hasek.

Who should or shouldn't be in any sport's HOF makes for the best arguments and liveliest debates. It's great bar talk, a wonderful complement to a cold one and some pretzels.

Osgood retired yesterday at age 38, unable to assure the Red Wings that his troublesome sports hernia injury and suspect groin won't go "pop" sometime next season.

Osgood leaves the playing ranks with 401 wins and 50 shutouts, and two Cups as a starter, a third as a backup. And one game away from a third and fourth, respectively, in those categories.

He leaves with 15 playoff shutouts and a 2.16 GAA and .916 save pct. in the post-season.

For comparison's sake, the great Martin Brodeur---another sure-fire Hall of Famer---has 23 career playoff shutouts, a 2.01 GAA, a .919 save pct, and three Stanley Cups.

Not all that different, is it?

But the HOF debate, when it comes to Chris Osgood, isn't just about numbers. If it was, then there would be little debate at all.

Fellow Bleacher Report Red Wings featured columnist Matt Hutter, on the sports podcast I co-host, "The Knee Jerks," addressed the Osgood/HOF talk earlier this year.

Osgood, Hutter fears, doesn't have that "wow" factor that other HOF goalies have.

Guys like Patrick Roy, or Brodeur, or Hasek.

Matt's right.

Osgood achieved his 401 wins and his 50 shutouts as quietly as one man can get them. The 400 wins were upon us before we knew it, or could squawk too much about them.

Osgood got his 400 wins and now he's retired, just like that. We're starting the debate flat-footed.

Osgood will be one of the most interesting players in recent years to discuss, post-retirement. His worthiness of HOF status can be expertly argued, both ways. Depending on the talking points of the plaintiff, you can walk away certain that he is or isn't a Hall of Fame goalie.

Maybe Chris Osgood is the Jim Thome of hockey.

Thome, the left-handed hitting slugger, is closing in on 600 home runs. In past years, such a milestone would earn the achiever a punched ticket into Cooperstown, no questions asked.

No more.

There are those---and I'm one of them---who aren't convinced that Thome is a Hall of Famer, despite the 600 dingers. Again, Thome supporters could wonder why there's even a question.

The Osgood topic is made even more volatile because Osgood himself has gone on record expressing his intense desire to be in the Hall of Fame. This isn't some guy who is taking a "que sera, sera" attitude about his worthiness. Osgood wants to be in the Hall---badly.

There's a three-year waiting period after retirement before a player is eligible for election into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Osgood is on the clock. That's great news for the beer and bar industries.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Writing Is On the Wall, But Will Osgood Read It?

If Red Wings GM Kenny Holland were afforded the luxury of managing his roster strictly by heart and by emotion, there's no question that Chris Osgood would be the team's backup goaltender for 2011-12 until proven otherwise.

If the black-and-white characteristics of business weren't involved, Osgood would be welcomed to training camp in Traverse City in September, his no. 30 jersey hanging in his locker stall, freshly laundered and ready to go.

If Holland didn't have to operate with the inconvenience of a bottom line or the harsh realities of the toll that age takes on players, especially goalies, the GM's focus would be on acquiring another skater---forward or defenseman---and the likes of Joey MacDonald and Thomas McCollum would have to wait yet another year to get a crack at the no. 2 job behind Jimmy Howard.

But that is a fantasy land.

One thing you can say about old Red Wings---with apologies to General Douglas MacArthur---they don't die, they just fade away, albeit at times very, very slowly.

The old Red Wings don't make things easy for Holland. Their modus operandi hasn't been to voluntarily raise their hands and ask to be lopped off the roster in order to make room for the kids.

Rather, their tack has been to stick around until they're asked to leave.

You saw it with Chris Chelios, who was closer to 50 than he was 40 when the Red Wings finally cut ties with the defenseman in 2009. You saw it with Kirk Maltby, just last summer, who didn't exactly go kicking and screaming out of uniform, but Holland almost had to hit Kirk over the head to get him to retire.

Those are just two recent examples, and they keep coming.

No doubt that Kris Draper, 40, will have to be forced to read the writing on the proverbial wall, indicating that his role of defensive whiz and penalty killer with wheels has been assumed by Darren Helm.

So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard's backup are over with.

Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin---a goalie's worst enemy.

Osgood is another who isn't making things easy for Holland. Ozzie hasn't offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it's doubtful that he will.

But Osgood's reticence hasn't stopped Holland from carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Draper) that a new contract wouldn't be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.

Last winter, as he was recuperating from his groin injury---an injury he never did return from---Osgood sat in with Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond during a telecast from Florida.

Osgood was asked if he felt like he had some hockey left in the tank.

Unsurprisingly, Ozzie said yes, he had.

"I'm not ready to join the Red Wings Old-Timers yet," Osgood cracked.

But he also spoke of life post-playing, and how he'd like to somehow assist the current and future Red Wings goalies, whether as an official coach or a training camp instructor.

The preference, of course, was to keep playing.

The Red Wings are unique in that I don't recall seeing, in my 41 years of following Detroit sports, so many longtime players stick with a franchise for so long, who were productive almost until the very end.

We're talking, in the cases of Draper and Osgood, ties to the 1997 Stanley Cup champs, for goodness sakes.

I remember Osgood as a 21-year-old, tearfully facing the media after his ill-timed giveaway to San Jose's Jamie Baker cost the Red Wings a goal and the series to the Sharks in a stunning seven-game upset.

I recall thinking at the time that it wouldn't be a surprise if we never heard of Chris Osgood again after that horrific blunder. That mistake was the kind that can ruin a kid's career.

Ozzie could have been a footnote---the answer to a garish trivia question.

Instead, he ended up as a three-time Cup winner in Detroit---two as the team's starting goalie in the playoffs, once as its savior after replacing the great Dominik Hasek midway through the first round in 2008. And Osgood damn near won another Cup a year later.

I've gone on record saying that the Red Wings ought to raise Osgood's no. 30 to the rafters---a discussion that I won't venture into now. Neither that nor the one about his belonging in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Both debates have been done to death.

Reports say that Holland's search for Howard's new backup might end with one-time Red Wing Ty Conklin, 35 years old.

Those same reports indicate that where the search is unlikely to drift is to Osgood, 38 and with a questionable groin.

Chris Osgood isn't likely going to make becoming an ex-Red Wing easy for Ken Holland.

But the old Winged Wheelers never do, do they?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Mr. Hockey’s Genes As Penetrating As His Elbows When it Came to Mark Howe

Mark Howe and Jesus Christ have a lot in common; they’re both sons of gods who did pretty well in carrying on the family tradition.

On April 14, 1955, Gordie Howe skated off the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium as a Stanley Cup champion for the fourth time with the Red Wings. One month and 14 days later, Gordie and Colleen Howe welcomed their second son, Mark, into the world.

Forty years and some change later, Mark Howe and his Red Wings teammates engaged in a futile Stanley Cup Finals series against the New Jersey Devils, won by New Jersey in four games. Unlike his dad, Mark Howe skated off the ice for the final time as a player, Cup-less for his career.

1955, the year in which the Howes added to their family, remained the last time the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Mark Howe retired shortly after the Cup Finals in 1995.

How can Mark Howe be a Hall of Fame hockey player, when he wasn’t even the best player in his own family?

Easy—when your dad is Mr. Hockey. Easy to be forgiven for coming up short when you’re part of such a lineage.

Murray Howe, the way I figure it, was the only Howe boy who had any sense. Murray became a doctor. Mark and oldest son Marty put on skates against all odds. There’s a reason Rembrandt’s kid never picked up a paint brush.

You’ve seen this played out before. Sports legend’s son gives the game a go and finds that greatness isn’t hereditary. Pete Rose, Jr., anyone?

There would have been no shame at all if Mark Howe would have dedicated his young life to 5:30 a.m. practices and blisters on his feet and blackened eyes and teeth extracted by those mad dentists on the other team with hockey sticks, and then found that he couldn’t continue the family business, after all.

No shame whatsoever.

But a funny thing happened as Gordie’s kids persevered in the game of ice hockey: They turned out to be pretty damn good at it. The blood they spilled on the ice had enough of Gordie in it to make Mark and Marty standout players in their own right.

Mark, especially, with apologies to Marty, who was no slouch.

As dad finished his Red Wings career during the 1970-71 season, Mark was playing—at age 15—for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings and leading them to the US Junior Championship as a sometimes forward, sometimes defenseman. This was no case of preferential treatment due to legacy; Mark Howe was by far the Jr. Red Wings’ best player.

A year later, Mark was playing for Team USA in the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, and, at the tender age of 16, he and his teammates won a silver medal, making Mark the youngest hockey player to ever win an Olympic medal.

Gordie was retired at this point, stuck in a dead-end job with the Red Wings as a pretend vice president, getting what he famously called the “mushroom treatment.”

“Every once in awhile they opened my office door and dumped manure on me,” Gordie said in a version that is decidedly censored for this column.

Mark Howe kept playing hockey, and kept getting better. His was a shining star that was bright even in the enormous shadow cast by his dad.

In fact, Mark Howe was so good that Gordie came out of retirement to play with both Mark and Marty when the two boys were young pros with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.

It was in the summer of 1973 when Gordie asked a stunned Bill Dineen, his old teammate and coach of the Aeros, if he’d like to have a third Howe on the roster.

The WHA wasn’t the NHL, though it had many former NHL players scattered throughout the league. The WHA was NHL Lite, a saccharin version. But Mark Howe was so brilliant as a WHA player, even among competition inferior to the NHL, that NHL teams stumbled over themselves to acquire his rights.

It never mattered, because the dying WHA merged four of its remaining teams with the NHL in 1979—and one of those teams was the Hartford Whalers, where the Howes were now playing, still a trio of father and two sons.

In 1979-80, Mark Howe proved what grizzled hockey observers long suspected: He could, indeed, play in the NHL—and play at a high level. Mark scored 24 goals and registered 80 points in the established league, while Gordie had one more go around in the NHL as a 52-year-old. The Whalers even made the playoffs.

Gordie retired for good in 1980 and Mark was the new hockey playing man in the family. Marty was still around, but his career paled when compared to what his kid brother was doing.

Marty’s last game in the NHL was in 1985 with the Whalers. Mark was just getting started, really.

Having been traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982, Mark Howe became a three-time Norris Trophy finalist as the league’s best defenseman (1983, 1986, 1987), while helping to lead the Flyers to the Cup Finals in 1985 and 1987—losing to the Edmonton Oilers on both occasions.

Injuries to his back and knees derailed Mark’s career after 1987, and by 1992, he was a 37-year-old hanging on in the chase for the hockey player’s white whale—the Stanley Cup.

It was in the summer of 1992 when the Flyers bought out Mark’s contract so he could be a free agent and sign with a team with a chance at the Cup. That team just happened to be the Detroit Red Wings.

This was a script with Hollywood’s fingerprints all over it. Local kid, son of a legend, returns home to join his father as Stanley Cup champion.

But the New Jersey Devils were cast in the role of villain in 1995, and Mark never did win his Stanley Cup—as a player.

Today, Mark Howe has four Cup rings—all achieved while working in the Red Wings scouting department, where he is now Director of Pro Scouting for the team.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Mark is part of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011, a final testament to his outstanding 22-year career as a professional hockey player.

Mr. Hockey, Jr., and Howe!