Tuesday, October 29, 2013

This Time, Babcock's Hand Wringing is Warranted

Back in the day, it used to be difficult for Mike Babcock to find anything wrong with his Red Wings.

How could there be, when the other team never had the puck?

Babcock's players would throw the Winged Wheel onto the ice on the blood red sweaters, play tic-tac-toe with the puck, bury a few pretty ones behind the enemy net minder and skate off the ice with another two points in their back pockets.

Not that Babcock didn't try to find something amiss. He'd stand before reporters after another night of toying with the opponent, set his rock jaw and nitpick. Nobody was buying it. The Red Wings were elite, and the other teams didn't beat them so much as the Red Wings beat themselves, which wasn't very often.

Babcock doesn't have to pretend these days. It's not a tough sell when he puts on his concerned coach face and rattles off reasons why his team isn't very good.

"We're facing some adversity here," he said the other day.

And this: "If I saw our team play from the outside, I'd say that we don't have a coach. And that hurts my feelings."

Now, Mike Babcock is not a guy whose feelings you want to hurt, if you're one of his players. It's like waking up a bear, mid-hibernation.

Babcock has never sugar coated things since he arrived as Red Wings coach in 2005. He wasn't always easy to believe, when his team was having its way with everyone every night, but when the Red Wings have stumbled in recent years, "Babs" tells it like it is, complete with odors.

He won't throw a player under the team bus, but he doesn't have to. Babcock just won't play him, or he'll demote the offending player. And if he's asked about it, he'll tell you why, and it won't be a spin job.

Scotty Bowman, when he was in Detroit, had a reputation for playing mind games with his players. Babcock cuts to the chase. He doesn't do the passive/aggressive thing.

So here we are, the Red Wings on a four-game losing streak, and about to play four games out west.

"A west coast trip is exactly what we need," Babcock said after the Red Wings let another one slip through their hockey gloves, 3-2 in overtime at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

Babcock says the Red Wings are in search of an identity. He said that the four-game winning streak of a couple weeks back was "fool's gold," with the way they were playing.

Mostly, he said the team isn't playing with the puck enough. And it's surrendering far too many shots on goal.

"I look at the stat sheet and I see 40 shots against," Babcock said after the Rangers game. "That's way too many shots. Twenty-eight is too many."

It's not difficult to see why the coach is aghast. It used to take the other teams two games to get 40 shots on the Red Wings, and half of those would be fired from near the blue line. Remember when we fretted that the Red Wings goalie du jour would get rusty or bored during a game?

Now, it's all Jimmy Howard can do to swat pucks away as if they're being fired from a batting cage machine.

The Red Wings are still a talented group---they've been talented since Reagan was president---but the talent and skill isn't so much that it separates the Red Wings from the rest of the NHL like it used to. You could drive a Mack truck through the gap between the Red Wings' skill and their brethren's. Now, you can barely slip a credit card in there.

So what do you do in hockey when you can't just show up and grab two points? You work hard and you are hard to work against. Neither has happened too much in this young season, and that's why Babcock's jaw is set even firmer these days. That's why the post-game comments are dripping more with disdain.

Babcock never did look happy behind the bench, even when the Red Wings were waltzing through their schedule. But back then, he looked concerned just to be polite to the other team.

Then again, what hockey coach does look happy, mad or sad? Bowman's expression changed as much as Mona Lisa's.

These are tough times for Babcock's bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can't be, due to injury---like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.

Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven't been yet---Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.

Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.

And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn't need to give us a hard sell on it.

"Right now, with the way we're playing, we have no chance," he said after the Rangers game.

No eye rolling from anyone this time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Suh's "Dirty" Reputation a Cash Cow for the NFL

The video still exists, if you nose around You Tube long enough. The craggy old basketball announcer screams into his microphone, crying of the humanity of it all to his radio listeners, in the same vein as Herb Morrison did in describing the explosion of the Hindenburg.
“Oh, the way they do things here!” Johnny Most screamed to his Boston listeners. Video cameras caught Most, pounding his hand onto the press table.
The Pistons had committed another rough foul on the Celtics. It was during a tense (weren’t they all?) playoff game at the Silverdome.
“Oh, (Bill) Laimbeer! What a gutless, despicable player!” Most shrieked.
Pistons thuggery!
These were the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, and this was Johnny Most, riling up his listeners with another embellished version of what actually was happening on the basketball court. Fortunately for radio announcers, there isn’t a video screen accompanying the words.
The Bad Boys Pistons of Isiah, Laimbeer, Mahorn, Rodman et al wore the black hats in the NBA, and with pride. There was the Rolling Stone magazine cover, featuring Laimbeer and Mahorn, squeezing a basketball into deflation and terrorizing a rim for the photographer.
Everywhere the Pistons went, bad press followed them. They came to your town like the villains in a Spaghetti Western—daring local law enforcement to do something to stop them. They were the Dirty Dozen, literally.
The joke was on the critics and the out-of-town radio announcers. The more people complained about the Pistons’ style of rough, physical play, the more it steeled the Bad Boy—and the more steeled they were, the better they played. And the more games they won.
The Bad Boys won two straight NBA championships, even though Isiah Thomas declared the Bad Boys an expired moniker in the White House in celebrating the first title in early-1990.
The Bad Boys Pistons aren’t alone when it comes to Detroit athletes who have earned the scorn of others around the country—and in Canada.
Bob Probert, goon extraordinaire, was the NHL’s heavyweight champion, but in the way that the wrestling people do it. Probert was the NHL’s heel, to use a pro wrestling term. He was the guy everyone was gunning for. He wore the belt.
There were the Red Wings, and there was Probert. He was in a league of his own. Probert ruled with his fists. He took on all comers. Such was his reputation of fighting prowess that when the home town goon even landed a punch, that guy’s fans went wild. Then Probert would get an arm free and moments later, the fight was over.
Probert wasn’t considered dirty, per se, but he wasn’t always clean, either.
Probert reminded some old-timers of Gordie Howe, because Gordie wasn’t above slipping in an elbow or a face wash when the guys in the zebras weren’t looking. Even when they were looking, Gordie still managed to inflict some extracurricular pain.
Ndamukong Suh is the latest Detroit sports star who is on the top of his league’s Most Wanted list.
Suh plays the game of football with an angry edge. He’s a rules bender. He’s another football player whose personality is that of Jekyll and Hyde—sweet as pie with kids, soft spoken with the media, but diabolical and maybe a tad deranged on the gridiron every Sunday.
That’s what they said about past mad men like Alex Karras and Dick Butkus—that off the field they were the nicest guys, humble even, but for 60 minutes every Sunday, they turned nasty.
Suh’s reputation precedes him like a man who had a Limburger and garlic sandwich for lunch.
Suh hits someone and the play gets analyzed like it’s the Zapruder film. Surely there must be something wrong!
The league has fined Suh almost continuously since he came into the league as a  rookie from Nebraska in 2010. Some of the disciplinary action—suspensions and fines—have been warranted. Others have been “reputation” punishment.
“I think there’s always going to be a microscope on me,” Suh said recently.
More like a Hubble telescope.
Suh’s latest fine, a $31,500 debit for hitting Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden last Sunday, is laughable. But it’s not really funny.
Suh rushed the quarterback, as he does so well, and while he led with his helmet, kind of, it was Suh’s body that slammed Weeden to the turf just after the Browns QB released a pass. It was a hit that defines professional football—clean and hard, with no malice other than to put the quarterback on his keister.
There was no penalty flag on the play, even though it occurred right in front of the referee.
For that hit, the NFL fined Suh.
The telescope got brought out again.
The league has its Jason and its Freddy Krueger, in Ndamukong Suh. And don’t think that they don’t love that idea.
Pro sports are often as much about who fans root against as it is who they root for. No doubt that the NBA profited from the Bad Boys, financially and from a publicity standpoint. There was more licensed merchandise derived from it, and more tickets were sold in enemy arenas, when the Bad Boys rode into town.
The NFL and those who cover it decry Suh on one hand, and can’t stop talking about him on the other. They want Suh to go straight publicly, but privately they are terrified of that.
So what you get are fines that wouldn’t be levied on other players. The fine for the Weeden hit was a disgrace.
Suh is having an exemplary year. His play on the field has been fierce, as usual, but even better than what we’ve seen since he entered the league. He tosses around blockers like rag dolls and opens up space for his teammates to make plays.
He is also the NFL’s biggest villain, as cooked up by the league’s marketing department, working in conjunction with the disciplinarians.
Lots of what has been done to Suh’s pocketbook hasn’t been fair. Some of what he’s done on the field hasn’t been, either.
But nobody should want, honestly, for Suh to change the way he plays. The fans shouldn’t, the press shouldn’t, and the NFL shouldn’t.

Where’s the fun—and the money—in that?