Sunday, January 22, 2012

Franzen’s Play Not Pretty, But it’s Pretty Important to Red Wings

Ice hockey, the world’s fastest sport, is played at blinding speed by powerful men gliding along the rink on razor-sharp blades fastened to their boots, swinging fiberglass sticks at a vulcanized rubber disc.

It’s polo played on ice, sans the horses.

The thrills and chills come from the long, effortless strides of a puck-carrier as he bores down at the goalie from the wing, at some 25-30 miles per hour. Until he loses the puck, and the same thing happens, going the other way.

It’s a sport whose stoppages of play can come in rapid-fire fashion or as few and far between as an apology from Rush Limbaugh.

The typical rink is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. That’s 17,000 square feet of frozen fun.

Yet despite all that area with which to work, an Italian-Canadian named Phil Esposito made his living operating within a fraction of it.

Esposito was a center man, or, to be true to his Canadian roots, a centre man. But he played the position as if he was employed by the Boston Celtics instead of the Boston Bruins, for whom he toiled in his heyday of the 1970s.

If the NHL had a three-second rule in front of the goal crease, Esposito would have led the league in violations.

The Bruins led the NHL in goals in the 1970-71 season, scoring nearly 400 in 78 games. Esposito scored 76 of those, by far a new NHL record. If you measured the distance the pucks traveled, those 76 goals likely traversed no more than the 200-foot length of a rink, combined.Esposito was immovable in front of the opponent’s goal. He never took a slap shot in his life. He didn’t shoot the puck, per se—he shoved and poked and pushed it past the goal line.

The single-season goal scoring record that Esposito shattered was held by Bobby Hull, who ONLY took slap shots. The two players’ styles couldn’t have been any more different.

Hull skated; Esposito planted.

As for their shooting skills, if they were pitchers, Hull was Nolan Ryan and Esposito was Phil Niekro.

Yet both hockey players made it into the Hall of Fame by scoring bushels of goals. It’s just that Hull did it from afar and Esposito did it from the goalie’s doorstep.

Esposito comes to mind as I watch this man the folks around town call The Mule play hockey for the Red Wings.

Johan Franzen wears No. 93, a number never considered to be worn in Esposito’s day. Hockey players back then didn’t wear a number higher than 35, and that was reserved for the goalies.

If a player was sent to the minors, his replacement simply took his number—kind of like a hockey doppelganger.A hockey player wearing No. 93 in Esposito’s time might as well have been all green with one eye in the middle of his head.

Doesn’t matter. Franzen plays Esposito-like hockey.

They call Franzen The Mule because, well, you ever try to move a mule that doesn’t want to be moved?

Like Esposito four decades ago, Johan Franzen takes a vast majority of his cracks at the net a stick’s length away from it.

Franzen is the bull to the goalie’s china shop. He has the finesse of a caveman and the grace of the town drunk. His goals have the beauty only a mother can love.

But hockey doesn’t award style points. Like its brethren, hockey is a bottom-line, end-of-the-day sport. Wins are doled out to the team with the most goals, not the most oohs and ahhs.

Every team should have a Johan Franzen. Yet not every team does.

It may seem that all Franzen does is throw himself at the net like a blind squirrel in search of a nut, hoping to pick up a few. But Franzen is a strong, powerful forward with a will to match. He is maybe the most purposeful player in the NHL.Especially come playoff time.

Since he’s been a regular with the Red Wings (seven seasons), Franzen has been his most lethal when the buds begin appearing on the trees and you can start smelling the charcoal and lighter fluid again.

In 83 career playoff games, Franzen has 37 goals—about 10 more than he averages per the same amount of games in the regular season.

An injury reduced him to just eight playoff games and two goals last spring, his effectiveness neutralized by his poor health. It was one major reason why the Red Wings couldn’t advance past the San Jose Sharks and the second round for the second year in a row.

Franzen is 6’3”, 225 pounds and doesn’t take no for an answer around the net. He plays like a bulldozer, but in reality he has hands as soft as rose petals. Often, you need to see the replays of his goals to appreciate his dexterity in such close quarters in the crease area.

Franzen has 18 goals this season in 47 games. On that pace, he’ll register about 30 for the year, which would be second to his career-high of 34, set in 2009. Of his 18 tallies thus far, all but a few have been scored while breathing down the goalie’s neck.

Franzen plays on a very intriguing line with center Pavel Datsyuk and right wing Todd Bertuzzi. I say intriguing because few lines in the NHL can match theirs in terms of creativity (Datsyuk), smarts (Bertuzzi) and sheer strength (Franzen).The line is becoming a beast in the league. All three of them are playing some of their best hockey right now. It’s a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.

Johan Franzen isn’t likely to get a sniff of MVP talk, probably ever in his career. His play isn’t glitzy or glamorous. His goals don’t find their way on any of the ESPN highlight montages.

But try playing chunks of games without him and see how the Red Wings fare.

Not that I’m suggesting it.

Forget Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg et al—how Johan Franzen goes will pretty much determine how the Red Wings go. They are, after all, the only team that can saddle up a mule.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

NHL “Iron Man” Wilson Deserved Better Upon News of His Passing

He was the NHL’s original Iron Man—a man of perfect attendance, whose offices were located in six Taj Mahals of indoor sports venues.

Long before the tentacles of corporate sponsorship wrapped themselves around the naming of stadiums and arenas, the NHL of Johnny Wilson was played in a half dozen barns, each wonderfully devoid of anything remotely corporate in name, though several were botanical.

Chicago Stadium. Maple Leaf Gardens. The Boston Garden. Madison Square Garden. The Forum. Olympia Stadium.

The names of the arenas screamed hockey.

And Wilson screamed hockey by showing up to work everyday—580 consecutive times, to be exact.

This was the Original Six era—14 games played against each of your five opponents, for a 70-game schedule.

Which means that Johnny Wilson, playing for the Red Wings and Blackhawks in the 1950s, suited up for eight straight seasons without missing a game.

It was hockey without helmets, with shoulder pads smaller than those on today’s women’s attire and with cages around the rink, not Plexiglas.

Travel was by train, sometimes on the same cars as your opponent, if the teams were playing a home-and-home set. That made for some interesting commutes.

It was a race to see which would happen faster: players losing their teeth, or their faces being sewn back together.

All the players were Canadian.

The 70 games were scrunched together between mid-October and late-March. There was no two-month run of playoffs. Everything was wrapped up by mid-April, in time for the baseball season to take center stage.

Wilson joined the Red Wings late in the 1949-50 season, a 20-year-old from a town called Kincardine in Ontario. That was another constant—not only were all the players from Canada, they all hailed from towns that you needed a map to find.

Wilson, a left winger, picked a great time to debut in the NHL, because just weeks later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

Too young to crack the Red Wings’ talent-rich lineup on a consistent basis, Wilson bounced back and forth between Detroit and the minor leagues until midway through the 1951-52 season, when he got called up yet again.

That’s when he started his streak of 580 consecutive games played. No more minor leagues for him.

Three more Stanley Cups followed (1952, ’54, and ’55), with Wilson popping in the odd goal, and skating up and down his wing, dutifully, every night.

EVERY night.

The bottom line was this: Johnny Wilson got called up to the Red Wings in 1951 and didn’t miss a game the rest of the decade, despite a trade to Chicago in 1955 and back to Detroit in 1957.

The original NHL Iron Man.

Johnny wasn’t the only Wilson kid playing in the NHL—he just played in it longer. His brother, Larry, made it with the Red Wings for a time.

Larry also followed his big brother behind the bench as Red Wings coach.

More about that later.

Johnny Wilson died in Metro Detroit on December 27 at age 82, after an illness.

You’d hardly have known it, judging by the shameful under-reporting of his death by the Detroit newspapers.

Wilson was one of those Red Wings alumni who stayed in the area, hung around the team and who was always eager to talk hockey.

I should know.

In fall 2006, I moderated a roundtable discussion about hockey, comparing eras and talking about how the game has evolved since the 1950s.

The panel consisted of Ted Lindsay, Shawn Burr and Johnny Wilson.

Wilson was 77 at the time but he was as sharp as a scalpel, talking hockey and, more importantly, listening.

It was a wonderful hour.

Before we sat down and talked, I told Wilson that I thought he got a screw job, when he was fired as Red Wings coach after less than two seasons in 1973, and right after missing the playoffs by two measly points. I had wanted to tell him that ever since it happened.

He grinned and said, “Darkness with Harkness,” referring to GM Ned Harkness, who rendered Wilson's ziggy.

About four years after Johnny was canned as Red Wings coach, brother Larry came along and tried coaching the second half of a 16-55-9 year in 1977. Two years after that, Larry dropped dead of a heart attack, at age 49.

You may know Larry’s son—and Johnny’s nephew—Ron Wilson, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Johnny Wilson was a great Red Wing. He wasn’t a prolific scorer; there were plenty of those on the roster. He won no MVP Awards nor had any remarkable seasons, statistically.

But he was there every night, in the lineup, for those 580 consecutive games. He won four Stanley Cups. And he kept himself closely aligned with the Red Wings, being active in the Alumni Association.

Wilson was also a pretty damn good coach who won a championship in the AHL before coaching the Red Wings.

He was a true gentleman who represented the Winged Wheel with class, dignity and respect.

He died on December 27 and his death barely got a sniff from the local fish wrap. Maybe everyone was too giddy about the Lions clinching a playoff spot just days earlier.

It was a shameful example of under-reporting, because Wilson was among the greatest of Red Wings.

As a player, he was as solid—and reliable—as they come. As a coach, he was innovative and settled the team down from the upheaval that existed when he took over.

As an alumnus, Wilson was active, involved and you knew there was a Winged Wheel tattooed on his heart.

He deserved better from the local papers, which should get a game misconduct for virtually ignoring his legacy.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Lions' Playoff Loss is Mayhew's Mulligan

They say you should never bring a knife to a gunfight.

Well, the Lions didn't; they brought a shotgun. Trouble is, the New Orleans Saints have a howitzer.

The Lions, 45-28 losers on Saturday night in New Orleans, didn't get blown out because they don't have a good offense. The Lions lost big because the Saints' offense is better, and the Lions' defense is still a work in progress. If the Lions defense was a freeway, three lanes would be shut down and it would be filled with orange cones.

Did you notice any glaring differences between the Lions and Saints, when it came to having the football?

Don't look at the quarterbacks; Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees are pretty comparable.

Don't look at the receivers; the Lions have the best one on the planet, but the Saints have a cache of good receivers in their own right.

Did you happen to notice that the Saints have something called a ground game?

Oh, what the Lions offense could look like, if they had someone to run the football with any consistency.

My kingdom for Stephen Jackson of the St. Louis Rams.

But we'll just have to settle for a healthy Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure; which should occur next season, if Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside recover from concussion and Achilles injury, respectively.

The Saints gashed the Lions' supposedly dominant defensive line with the run all evening, as if Brees needs any help.

And as if the Lions' could have stopped him, even if your Aunt Mary were running the football.

Brees' surgery on the Lions secondary was complete. The Saints quarterback wielded his scalpel to the tune of 466 yards passing and three touchdowns. He left the Lions looking like Gerry Cheevers' goalie mask.

Now it's up to GM Marty Mayhew to make sure another scene of carnage never happens again to the Lions in a playoff game. This was Mayhew's Mulligan. He's allowed this implosion, because his team is still just three years removed from 0-16.

But next year, and the year after, and the year after, it will no longer satiate the fan base to simply qualify for the playoffs. We've fallen for that once before, in the 1990s, when the Lions went one-and-out in the post-season five out of six seasons in the decade.

That won't cut it, with a franchise quarterback and an All-Universe Receiver.

Mayhew's charge, in a way, gets simpler with the more success the Lions find, yet it also gets harder.

It gets simpler because the holes are fewer on the roster, thanks to Mayhew's astute drafting and slick trading and signings.

Yet it also gets harder because expectations have now been ratcheted up.

The Lions got carved up on Saturday and 626 total yards later, they were nothing but a carcass, the bones licked clean by the Saints' well-balanced offense.

Mayhew has to draft for secondary help this spring, and he needs to find a new center and left tackle, to be on the ready when Dom Raiola and Jeff Backus retire.

There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.

This was no fluke loss. You can't blame this one on the crazy bounces of an oblong pigskin.

The Lions were beaten, and beaten good, by the Saints, who are legitimately elite. The Saints are what the Lions would like to become, in short order.

The Lions can now check off "Make the playoffs" on their to-do list under the Mayhew/Jim Schwartz regime.

Next is, "Advance beyond the first round."

The biggest challenge yet for Maywartz.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Detroit Lions: Team of the 2010s?

So here they come marching into New Orleans, this previously bedraggled pro football franchise, in seek of something which has eluded them 53 of the past 54 years.

It’s funny, in a way, that the Lions will be looking for just their second playoff victory since 1957 in New Orleans, a city that has vexed them and which has been the scene of many a crime against football humanity.

The Saints are winners now, and almost annual Super Bowl contenders these days. But from their inception in 1967 to nearly the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century, the New Orleans Saints were the Los Angeles Clippers of the NFL.

The Saints were slapstick, back in the day—a laughable franchise with a beaten down quarterback named Archie Manning, and with yearly won/loss records like 3-13. In 1980, the Saints managed to go 1-15.

The Saints were the ones getting their shirts and wallets lifted, like those audience participants at a magic show. Teams came to New Orleans for some gumbo, a little fun in the French Quarter and a 27-10 victory. The city’s nickname, The Big Easy, was perfectly apt—for opponents.

The Saints were the league’s coupon to a free victory.

Yet despite the pockmarked nature of the Saints franchise, the Lions suffered perhaps their most inglorious defeat of all time in New Orleans, on November 8, 1970, when Tom Dempsey thwacked a 63-yard field goal at the final gun to lift the Saints to victory.

In keeping with the times, the dramatic—and record-setting—victory was one of just two wins the Saints had in 1970.

The Lions haven’t won much in New Orleans, and just last month, the Saints ran away with a 31-17 victory.

The Saints have shaken their losing image like a caterpillar doing its butterfly thing.

No longer do teams fly down to Louisiana for a Big Easy win.

The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, and the scoreboard rings up like a pinball machine when they get into rhythm.

The Saints are 11-point favorites in Saturday night’s Wild Card game, and the NFL rarely sees those kinds of point spreads in the playoffs.

The game could turn into a disaster for the Lions, who have precious few players on their roster who’ve stepped onto the field for an NFL playoff game.

So the Lions will use that lack of experience to their advantage, or so they’ll try.

They’ve already talked of enjoying the underdog role, and that they have nothing to lose and that all the pressure is on the Saints.

The typical things teams who run the risk of getting run out of the building say as their execution approaches.

I look at the Lions now, just three years removed from the ignominy of 0-16, and I can’t help but think of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, the Team of the 1970s, were a wayward franchise in the 1960s, usually an also-ran and finding that football games were harder to win than a husband’s fight with his wife.

The bottoming out came in 1969, when the Steelers won on Opening Day for their bright young coach in his first season: Chuck Noll.

Then the Steelers lost their remaining 13 games.

From the ashes of 1-13, the Steelers drafted their franchise quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, in 1970. This was one year after the Steelers selected a brutally dominant defensive tackle named Joe Greene.

The Lions, just months removed from 0-16, drafted Matthew Stafford in 2009. In 2010, they added DT Ndamukong Suh.

The Steelers got better, and with defter drafting, they built a defense that became dominant, and an offense that could compete, too. By 1972, just three years from 1-13, the Steelers were in the playoffs.

The Lions are in the playoffs, just three years after 0-16. They’ve managed to do it with good drafting and smart free agent signings.

The Steelers began arming Bradshaw with weapons, adding a tough and fast runner, Franco Harris, in 1972 from nearby Penn State. They drafted a gazelle receiver in Lynn Swann in 1974.

The Steelers, via the draft, added pieces yearly. Trades were few and free agency didn’t really exist.

From the ruins of 1-13, the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s—from 1974 thru 1979.

The Steelers won a miraculous playoff game in 1972—the famous Immaculate Reception game against Oakland. From that experience, the Steelers, with all their smart and brilliant draft choices, parlayed their Super Bowl credentials.

That’s how winning, perennially successful NFL franchises are built—through the draft. It has been the blueprint of the Steelers of the ‘70s, the 49ers of the ‘80s, the Cowboys of the ‘90s.

It says here that this same blueprint will be the success of the Lions of the ‘10s.

Lions GM Martin Mayhew is a smart man who learned from a dumb guy.

Mayhew, longtime second in command under the dunderhead Matt Millen, was promoted to GM after Millen’s firing early in the 2008 season. Quickly, Mayhew proved adept at the job. It was obvious that Mayhew took everything that Millen did, and did the exact opposite.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall in meetings that Millen held with Mayhew in attendance?

I can only wonder how many of those meetings Mayhew emerged from, shaking his head.

The 1970s Steelers didn’t take the NFL by storm right away. It took a couple of playoff losses before they found their footing. You know the rest.

The Lions have no business winning a playoff game in New Orleans, of all places, on Saturday night. They are three years removed from 0-16. Their quarterback is very good, but he’s all of 23 years old.

The Saints won the Super Bowl two years ago and could darn well do it again this year.

Only a delusional optimist would think the Lions can win this game.

And they probably won’t.

The Steelers needed a miracle play to win their first playoff game of 1972. Then they stumbled, and eventually learned how to win.

The Lions will likely lose on Saturday night, blocks from the French Quarter. It will be a necessity, almost, in their learning process.

The Team of the ‘10s?

Why the hell not?