Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It can be slippery at the top

There's plenty of hand-wringing going on among Bruins, Rangers and Thrashers fans today, not to mention a fair share of sweaty palms among Flyers and Canadiens backers too.

That's because of those five teams, only three will still be playing hockey once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin two weeks hence. As of this morning, any of them can finish as high as sixth in the conference. We could go on and on here hashing and rehashing possible playoff scenarios, but the one slot I'm focusing on is eighth place -- the final playoff berth in the East. Much energy, emotion and blood will be expended for the privilege of landing in that spot and the right to face Alex Ovechkin (above) and the Capitals, regarded by many to be the best team in the NHL.

A fait accompli, you say? One and done? As easy as an empty-netter? Just delaying the inevitable tee time by a few more days? Granted, finishing with the best record in the conference over an 82-game NHL season is a pretty accurate barometer of how talented a team is, and a team that good should be rewarded in the playoffs by getting home ice against a team that, well, isn't as good.

But the top seed advancing into the second round of Lord Stanley's playoffs isn't as much of a cakewalk as you might think. Since the NHL adopted its current 16-team playoff format in 1994, there have been eight instances in 32 first-round series when the eighth-seeded team forced the the No. 1 seeded squad to melt their home ice much earlier than expected.

That's a 25-percent chance for a first-round upset, which might not be enough to make Alex and the Caps shake in their skates, but certainly is enough to give them pause. Here's a rundown of such occurrences:

1994 - Sharks (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
1995 - Rangers (8) def. Nordiques (1), 4-2.
1998 - Senators (8) def. Devils (1), 4-2.
1999 - Penguins (8) def. Devils (1), 4-3.
2000 - Sharks (8) def. Blues (1), 4-3.
2002 - Canadiens (8) def. Bruins (1), 4-2.
2006 - Oilers (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
2009 - Ducks (8) def. Sharks (1), 4-2.

You'll notice a few things here; in every case, each series lasted at least six games -- at least the higher-seeded team never went down without a fight. Also, the Devils and Red Wings were each victimized in this scenario twice, with the Devils unfortunate enough to suffer a stunning elimination in two successive seasons. The Sharks actually pulled off the coup twice, but are the only team to have the tables turned on them -- by the Ducks a year ago.

You may be wondering how well eighth-seeded teams fared after securing their opening-round shockers. Ultimately, not that well. The 2006 Oilers came within one game of becoming the only eighth-seed to win the Stanley Cup, but they fell in the Finals to the Hurricanes in seven games.

All of which means Ovie and the Caps better keep their heads up, else they could find themselves trading in their sticks for five-irons.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The bad seed

Admit it. When you were filling out your brackets before the Madness of March officially began, you really didn't want to hand one in that had all four No. 1 seeds headed to the Final Four. Because if you did, you'd be banking on something that has happened only ONCE since the NCAA began seeding tournament teams in 1979.

Sounds logical, doesn't it? You'd think choosing ostensibly the best four teams in the land to reach the Final Four would be the way to office pool superstar.

Fact is, we all know the only way to have a shot at ascending to that atmosphere is to be lucky enough to nail those upsets we know are coming (see Butler, Northern Iowa, Cornell and St. Mary's). It's just that nobody knows where and when the sneaker will drop. One reason is because it's simply so rare when the top four seeds in the tournament are that much better than many of the other 60 teams playing for the national championship. Also, every opponent will be playing in the biggest game of their lives, and every time a top seed takes the floor, everyone's looking to knock them off.

At least the Lehighs, Vermonts and Arkansas-Pine Bluffs made it to the party this time, which is more than can be said for the likes of frequent dancers UConn, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana and Arizona. But that's another story for another time.

The only year all four top seeds made it to the Final Four was 2008, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA all survived their regions, with Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks eventually winning it all.

With all the upsets in this year's tournament, it got me thinking about Final Fours that didn't feature ANY top-seeded teams. Had Baylor hung on to oust Duke in the South Region Final last night, it not only would have clinched winning the bracket pool I entered (sorry for digressing), but it would have marked the third time since 1979 that the Final Four contained no top seeds. It happened in 2006, when UCLA (2), Florida (3), LSU (4) and Cinderella George Mason (12) made it, with the Joakim Noah-led Gators winning it. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1980, when Louisville (2), Iowa (5), Purdue (6) and UCLA (9) vied for the title, eventually taken by Darrell Griffith and the Cardinals.

So, hard as it may be to believe, it's statistically more likely that the Final Four will be comprised of NO top seeds (twice) than it is to have ALL top seeds (once). Chew on that when you're handed your empty bracket for the 2011 Final Four.

As it is, the Dukies are the only top-seeded team headed to Indianapolis, a scenario that has occurred 10 times prior. Of those 10 Final Fours, the lone No. 1 seed has won the championship five times (Michigan State in 2000, UCLA in 1995, Arkansas in 1994, Duke in 1992 and UNLV in 1990). So statistically speaking, the Devils have a 50 percent chance of cutting down the nets a week from tonight.

We'll see what Michigan State, Butler and West Virginia have to say about that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Three you later

I was all set to write this morning about how the common script usually unfolds during the NCAA Tournament: Inspired, nothing-to-lose lower-seeded team takes early lead against higher-seeded, playing-on-their-heels higher-seeded team. Lower-seeded team, forgetting what got them to this point, gets greedy and begins to fire up a barrage of misguided 3-point shots that find nothing but rim. Higher-seeded team grabs rebound, ignites fast break and scores in transition, cutting into lower-seeded team's lead.

Repeat until higher-seeded team collects itself and wins.

Quick digression: I'm reminded of a scene from when I covered the Pat Riley-led Knicks in the mid-'90s. The Knicks were playing the Sixers in Philly, and our media seats were on the baseline, about 15 feet from the Knicks bench. Greg Anthony, now a commentator on ESPN and then a sometimes-undisciplined point guard, dribbled the ball up court. With about 19 seconds left on the shot clock, Anthony threw up a ridiculous 3 attempt that bricked off the rim. The Sixers got the rebound, flew down court and scored on the fast break. Riley immediately called time. As the Knicks sat in front of him, Riley said nothing, glaring at Anthony. Finally, with the 30-second break about to expire, Riley screams at Anthony, "What the f--- were you thinking?!?" With that, the buzzer sounded and the Knicks quickly retook the floor.

Back to the present. The scenario at the beginning of this post unfolded twice Thursday night; Xavier connected on only 12 of 28 from 3-point range in a double-OT loss to Kansas State (8-for-19 from 3), and the erstwhile-Cinderella Cornell was only 5-of-21 as it was ousted by mighty Kentucky (only 2-of-16 from 3).

Leave it to someone to buck the trend, though. The Butler did it.

The Bulldogs shot 6-of-24 from beyond the arc against Syracuse, but the Orange -- taking its usual bracket misstep -- fell prey to Butler's defense and was outscored 11-0 down the stretch on the way to a 63-59 elimination. Syracuse, the best 3-point shooting team in the NCAA during the regular season (7-for-19 on Thursday), thus joins Kansas as top-seeded tourney teams that will be watching the Final Four from their living rooms.

So keep a keen eye on the 3-point numbers on Friday -- especially from upstarts Northern Iowa (vs. Michigan State) and St. Mary's (vs. Baylor).

And we'll see if these longshots keep shooting short from far away.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flipping out over overtime

This should have been easy. This shouldn't have taken hours of meetings, blocking the schedules of NFL owners and staffs for a month and reporters chasing down those same harumphing owners down hallways of hotels to get sound bites.

The new NFL rule changes regarding overtime were finally voted on by the owners between harumphs Tuesday, and passed 28-4. So what does it all mean in Week 4 of the 2010 season, when, say, the Giants and Cowboys finish regulation all tied up?

Not a thing.

For years, we heard about how the team who wins the coin flip for overtime usually wins in the NFL -- and over the past 10 seasons, that's happened about 60 percent of the time. The most common scenario is a team receiving the kickoff to start OT, drive about 40 yards or so and kick a winning field goal.

So with a chance to level the playing field, so to speak, and make OT a fairer proposition, the NFL decided to change its overtime rules, allowing the above scenario to not end games from now on. Instead, the team scored upon will then get a possession to try to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown (if the team with the first possession scores a TD, the game is still over).

But that will only happen in the POSTSEASON. The regular season will still be same-old, same-old, nothing to see here.

One reason given by some owners for the status quo was that they didn't want to see the chances of injury raised by adding more time to regular-season games, but that skirts the real issue.

The NFL had a great opportunity here, and quite frankly, they booted it wide right. The obvious way to go was a direction that I've seen little written about around the internet, except just mentioned in passing on a couple of random blogs I saw.

As Lee Corso says in my favorite video game of all time, NCAA 06, "I love overtime in college football." The only argument you'll get from me here is that the NFL should have adopted the same rules used to break overtime in the NCAA since 1996 -- give each team a set of untimed downs from the opposing 25-yard-line, with ensuing possessions until the tie is broken. Starting with the third set of possessions, teams must attempt a two-point conversion rather than kicking the extra point.

Overtime in the NCAA is exponentially more exciting than the NFL variety, and remains so even after all the time and energy spent by the NFL to simply tweak their current rules. The significance of the NCAA coin toss is that the winner will most often choose to play defense first in order to get "last licks" and know exactly what they have to do in order to win on the opening possession. In succeeding possessions, the order is swapped.

I tried to research it, but couldn't find any tangible reasons why the NFL didn't simply adopt the far superior settlement of OT games used by their collegiate counterparts. Could it simply be that doing so would have made the NFL admit the college way was better all along? I really hope there's more to it than that.

The fear of injury? Over adding one or two more series a game? Come on.

There was no reason the NFL couldn't easily split the uprights on this one. But somehow, they shanked it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Diving into "The Pacific"

As a huge fan of the genre of war movies, I eagerly restored my HBO service in advance of Sunday, when the premiere of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries "The Pacific" begins. If this is half as good as the last Spielberg/Hanks production on HBO -- 2001's "Band of Brothers" -- then we're in for something to remember.

Quick aside: This is the first time since "The Sopranos" that I've felt there was something on HBO to be a must-see, and I'm not expecting to be disappointed.

Just saw a report on CNN previewing the series. Hanks was asked if he feels the project will be a fitting tribute for the ever-dwindling numbers of surviving vets of the Pacific theater, and he said he hopes it will, given the authenticity the producers are vowing to convey to the audience.

Let's hope so. A brief preview of the series published in the March issue of Esquire warned of excessive dramatic music and a barrage of cliches.

"Band of Brothers" (a stepchild of 1998's "Saving Private Ryan") certainly did not lack for realism, taking us into the wartime lives of an entire company from their stateside training to V-E Day and beyond. "The Pacific" narrows the approach, focusing on three real-life soldiers. One is Eugene Sledge, played by Joe Mazzello (pictured above).

If you're a fan of military documentaries, Sledge's name will sound familiar -- his story was featured in Ken Burns' "The War." A native of Mobile, Ala. -- one of the four American towns on which Burns based his film -- Sledge's wartime memoirs, With the Old Breed, was part of the basis for "The Pacific." His harrowing and haunting memories of the savage and inhuman conditions at Peleliu and Okinawa -- in particular the gruesome fate of many Marines that fell into the hands of the Japanese -- are too graphic to be recounted here; we'll soon find out how authentic the producers were willing to go to tell a story that to a large degree has been historically overshadowed by films featuring the war in Europe.

Comparison to "Band of Brothers" are inevitable, but perhaps a fairer one would be to Clint Eastwood's 2006 "Letters from Iwo Jima" (a far-superior "sister film" to Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," based on the outstanding book by James Bradley). "Letters" told the horrific story of that battle from the Japanese perspective and showed the hopelessness of their soldiers, who lived their last days in tunnels and caves knowing they were expected to die with honor for the Emperor.

Sixty-five years later, that war will enter our living rooms again beginning Sunday night. I'm feeling pretty good that Spielberg and Hanks will do it justice. The remaining Marines who did the fighting hope so, too.


An odd segue, I know, but the Mets just found out that shortstop Jose Reyes will be sidelined somewhere between two and eight weeks with an overactive thyroid gland. In all likelihood, Reyes will be on the disabled list along with Carlos Beltran when the Amazin's open the 2010 season April 5 against the Marlins at Citi Field. Not exactly a great way to turn the page following the forgettable end to last season. Doctors say the long-range prognosis is good, that Reyes' thyroid levels should return to normal with rest and diet (he isn't able to eat seafood, which contains iodine, which in turn affects the thyroid).

Let's hope the Mets aren't 10 games out by the time Reyes returns.

Monday, March 8, 2010

How to Fix the Oscars

It's amazing, really. In Hollywood, you have the best and brightest in the world of entertainment, but there's apparently nobody who can figure out how to put together an awards show.

OK, I'll go beyond amazing. How about mind-boggling?

I really gave this year's edition of the Academy Awards a chance. Even though, admittedly, I had only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture -- Inglorious Basterds, which I loved -- I was still looking forward to the show, especially when it was announced that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin -- both always hysterical -- would be co-hosting.

For the first 15 minutes, it looked like we had a winner (though I could have done without Doogie Howser's dance number). Martin and Baldwin were spot-on in their mini-roast of luminaries throughout the audience, with predictable humorless reactions from many of their targets, most notably the stone-faced George Clooney, who looked like he was fighting a bout with food poisoning.

On that note, the Oscars would be so much more entertaining if Hollywood didn't take itself so damn seriously. It seemed like Martin and Baldwin were the only ones having fun -- until they inexplicably disappeared from the set for what seemed like an hour, giving way to a parade of presenters, many of whom I've barely or never heard of (and what, exactly, was Miley Cyrus doing there?), trudging out to hand out awards for best animated short film and best documentary short.

And by the way, can anyone tell me where I can even see the best animated short film or best documentary short? I never see any of them featured at the multiplex, and you sure as hell can't get them from Netflix, Blockbuster or On Demand. Has anyone seen them? Or are they just produced to send to members of the Academy at voting time?

True, there was the tribute to John Hughes, another to horror flicks and the annual recognition of those who've passed this year -- with a poignant performance of the Beatles' "In My Life," by James Taylor -- but this show seemed to lack the personality of years past. There was little to no reference of the history of cinema, no vignettes of famous scenes or actors and almost no historical perspective. It was almost as if Hollywood's time frame began in 2009. The good news was, there were no painful performances of each entry of the "Best Songs" category, usually a "see-what's-in-the-fridge" moment.

I guess the takeaways were that I do need to see "The Hurt Locker" and "Precious," probably a good thing. But the bottom line was, the show was just too damn boring. I have to admit I didn't even make it to the Best Director, Actor or Film categories, and spent a fair portion of the evening switching between The Oscars and "Saving Private Ryan," airing at the same time on TNT, thankfully with "limited commercial interruption."

Quick digression -- for me, "SPR" is one of those movies, like "The Godfather Part II," that once you see it's on, you have to watch it (even though Godfather II is on seemingly every other week). I still think "SPR" should have won Best Picture in 1998 instead of the vastly-inferior "Shakespeare in Love," but that's another story for another tine.

The big quandary last night was -- did I want to watch Private Mellish being stabbed to death for the 30th time or see who won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay? Hmm. This year, the Oscar show was clearly FUBAR.

The Oscars are Hollywood's biggest night, but it can be a hell of a lot more entertaining for the audience. My wife came up with a proposal to make the night more Oscar-worthy, and I think it's a pretty good one -- show the Red Carpet ceremony from, say, 6 to 6:30. Then take a national break till about 8 or 8:30 for either local programming or perhaps airing the Best Picture from the previous year. During that time, behind closed doors, the Kodak Theatre can host the part of the awards that most of us don't care about, like Costume Design and Editing. Then, from 8:30 to 11, air a tight, entertaining show that focuses on the major awards (Film, Producer, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress), show more lengthy clips of the nominees and delve more into Oscars history.

I'll bet right now that more time to devote to the awards that most of the audience cares about would add up to a better, must-see show.

Now THAT would be entertainment.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Meet the Mess

Being a Mets fan can be a nasty business these days. As a transplanted New Yorker (OK, New Jerseyite -- or is it Jerseyan?) living in the Boston area, at least folks allow me into the conversation when I let them know I back the Metropolitans instead of the reviled Yankees.

It's been a rough several years for those of us who don orange and blue (and reluctantly black) and worship a mascot with a giant baseball head. In 2006, the Mets came within one game of the World Series, but have not even made the playoffs since, thanks to unthinkable collapses in each of the next two seasons. Then came the disaster of 2009, when the less-than-Amazin's seemingly lost their entire team to injuries and came up on the wrong side of the box score a mind-boggling 92 times. Clearly, there was nowhere to go but up.

I was actually starting to feel good about the prospects for the upcoming season. The core of the team looked to be healthy again (Carlos Beltran's knee surgery notwithstanding), and I had just finished Lee Jenkins' piece on David Wright in the latest issue of SI, which honed in on Wright's determination to rediscover the power missing from his swing last season, and the admission he was often trying to hit to the opposite field, as per the mantra from the Mets' misguided coaching staff. I even read that the outfield fences in cavernous Citi Field will be shortened from 16 feet to 8 feet, which can only help Wright and the Mets make that ancient apple rise a lot more often this season. After only 10 dingers last season (after 27, 26, 30 and 33 in his previous four campaigns), there was nowhere to go but up. I thought I could wear my Mets camp without listening to snickers -- particularly after Wright belted a homer in his first spring training game this week. Springtime, when a young man's fancy can turn to thoughts of a pennant race.

Or so I thought.

Then came the news yesterday that shortstop Jose Reyes, who missed all but 36 games last year with a hamstring that refused to heal, was heading back to New York for tests after he was found to have a thyroid imbalance.

The fact Reyes was cleared to play by doctors on Friday was encouraging, but a major concern nevertheless, considering how much Reyes means to this team when he isn't nursing an injury or being "retaught how to run," as he was during the woeful tenure of Art Howe.

Perhaps the tests will confirm something minor that can be controlled with medication. For Reyes' sake -- and the sake of springtime -- let's hope so. Or else football season could arrive a lot sooner than Mets fans want it to.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Olympic stars still shine

NOW THAT THE NHL is officially back in business following the two-week Olympic break, I wondered whether the players who stood out in Vancouver would be able to do the same once they returned to the nightly grind, away from the world spotlight, and whether they would be able to channel the same intensity and focus.

In many cases, they seemed to pick up right where they left off. On Tuesday, Ryan Callahan of the Rangers (pictured above) scored two goals in a 4-1 win over the Senators; Mike Richards scored a goal for the Flyers in a 7-2 victory over the Lightning, and Marty Brodeur, after losing his starting job in goal for Team Canada, returned to the Devils and had to make only 17 saves in a 4-3 triumph over the Sharks.

On Wednesday, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo -- who wore different uniforms during the Olympics -- both put on their familiar Canucks garb with positive results. Kesler scored a pair of goals and Luongo made 28 saves as Vancouver beat the Red Wings 6-3.

Not so fortunate, however, was the hero of Team USA, goaltender Ryan Miller, going in net for the first time since the Olympic gold medal game, played well and made 37 saves for the Sabres, but still wound up on the short end of a 3-1 loss to the Caps.

It was an interesting scene the night before in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins hosted Buffalo. Miller -- who didn't play -- got a louder ovation then hometown hero Sidney Crosby, who not only helped win the Stanley Cup for the hometown Pens last season but scored the OT goal that gave Team Canada the gold on Sunday. Guess national pride runs thicker than the local variety.


LeBron James has made it known he intends to change his familiar No. 23 to No. 6 next season -- whether he re-signs with the Cavs or not (the feeling here is that you'll be seeing plenty of No. 6 jerseys trudging around downtown Cleveland next season). It's no secret that King James has made it known he'd like to see the NBA retire No. 23 for posterity in honor of Michael Jordan, as Major League Baseball retired No. 42 for Jackie Robinson. There are several players in the NBA right now toting No. 23, with James easily the most notable.

A future Hall-of-Famer (I think we can safely assume that), James would wear his new number well, joining HOF residents Bill Russell and Julius Erving as superstars known for their No. 6.

Unlike collegiate and high school basketball, the NBA has no restrictions regarding what numbers players wear. Rules are in place at the amateur levels that only numbers in the ranges of 1-5, 10-15, 20-25, 30-35, 40-45 and 50-55 are to be worn, to make it easier for officials to signal fouls -- as there are only five digits on each hand. Thus, a foul on a player wearing No. 23 would be signified by the referee holding up two fingers on one hand and three on the other. Pretty simple stuff.

There have always been examples of oddball numbers in NBA lore. George Mikan, the league's first superstar, wore No. 99 with the Minneapolis Lakers. Ron Artest wore No. 91 at one point in his career as a tribute to Dennis Rodman. Artest has also worn Nos. 15, 23, 93, 96 and 37 as well, for reasons too convoluted and time-consuming to go into here. Drew Gooden donned No. 90 with the Mavericks to combine the No. 9 he wore with the Magic and the 0 he wore with the Grizzlies. Shawn Bradley wore 76 because he stood 7-6 and also happened to play for the 76ers. And the since-maligned Gilbert Arenas wore 0, because he was told that's how many minutes he would play while at the University of Arizona.

But I think my favorite example of sports numerology has to do with baseball, specifically Japanese baseball. Players there universally refuse to wear No. 4, pronounced "shi," the same pronunciation as the Japanese word for death.

Talk about a rally-killer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Divine rod

THE FLOOD OF MEMORIES from my table-hockey (or rod-hockey, as some folks call it) post yesterday was too much for one sitting, so as promised, another glide down the slots of plastic pucks past continues.

The Coleco "New York Rangers" hockey game we played incessantly wasn't actually my first table-hockey game. I did have another, smaller version when I was small, which featured the default Canadiens-Leafs matchup, the metal players actually brandishing yellow plastic sticks (as pictured in my blogpost from yesterday). The other feature was a battery-powered actual red light that ignited when a goal was scored. Very cool.

I mentioned that I owned every team at the time; I just read somewhere that the Oakland Seals and Los Angeles Kings players are highly sought-after. Like my old baseball cards, I wish I still had the metal table-hockey players that gave me so much joy as a child. Oh well ...

The preferred offensive strategy -- and one of my favorite moves -- was the centering pass from the wing to the center. If you controlled the puck with your right wing, say, the opposing player's defenseman had to commit to either blocking the path for a centering pass or defending a sharp-angle shot from the wing -- not both. So either way, there would be a scoring opportunity. I found the best way to attack would be to get the puck past the defenseman in the general direction of the slot, while giving the center rod a good shove. Ideally, the flying center would smash the puck toward the net, an almost impossible play for the goalie to defend.

And how about the times the puck would sit tantalizingly on the lip of the goal line? The only way to get it out would be to gingerly try to move the puck toward the post, using the metal post that supported the goalie, and then attempt to clear the puck away by applying just enough pressure to slide it out of danger without accidentally pushing it backward and into the net. All of that while the opposing center would harass the goalie by twisting back and forth at high speed, smashing metal on metal, causing a great deal of noise.

Which is probably why my mom relegated us to the basement.


Random thoughts: The last word on destiny pertaining to the Canadian men's hockey team (and the women's, for that matter) -- I never made the connection for some reason, but a couple of days ago I realized the first four notes of the Olympic Theme and "O, Canada" are exactly the same ... So LeBron James has already put in the paperwork to change his uniform number next season from 23 to 6, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer he wanted to do so as a tribute to Michael Jordan. The more cynical among us might think it a way for the Cavs -- or whomever LeBron plays for next season -- to sell more jerseys, much the way the Lakers happened to sell more Kobe Bryant jerseys when he switched from No. 8 to 24. By the way, LeBron, the Knicks have No. 6 available.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Putting it all on the table

As if the on-ice hockey competition at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver wasn't exciting and inspiring enough, what I saw during the closing ceremonies made me feel warm and fuzzy, transporting me to another time and place.

And it had nothing to do with the kinda-creepy Up-With-People-esque kids with snowboards, the opera diva flying through the air wearing a maple leaf or William Shatner -- who's always funny (but I have to admit here I didn't know he was Canadian -- sorry. Speaking of apologies, I didn't realize they were inherently Canadian, either). But I'm going off on major tangents here. Sorry, eh?

What I'm talking about were the giant table hockey players that floated around the floor at BC Place, and the simulated game that took place, featuring that little kid dressed up as a puck. For those of us "of a certain age," that unleashed a flood of memories and nostalgia. For me in particular, it took me back to my basement as a kid in Rockaway, N.J., when my friends Mark and Steve would come over and we'd play for hours on my Coleco New York Rangers table hockey game.

The game itself was huge; the end boards hung over the edge of my mom's card table, and a huge scoreboard hung over center ice. You would drop the puck through a slot in the top of the scoreboard for each face-off, and the scoreboard included a standings board for each conference. There were slots and cardboard nameplates for each city, which could be moved around depending on the "real-life" standings.

These weren't the molded plastic players you'd see at arcades, but rather the flat, metal variety, proudly smiling and wearing the uniforms of every NHL team. The Rangers' fiercest rivals at the time were the Bruins, so my game came with those two teams (I came to realize later that the default pairing was the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, which Coleco would modify depending on what part of North America the game was sold). But I took it a step further, buying players from every NHL team. We would spend as much time changing the teams between games as we did actually playing. When I wasn't using the Rangers, I would gravitate toward the Flyers -- though I hated the "Broad Street Bullies" as a kid, I thought the Flyers' orange uniforms with the flying "P" epitomized coolness.

We'd have tournaments, keeping all three of us involved. We'd play five-minute periods, timed with my mom's egg timer, and rotate through the two player seats and the third at center ice, which belonged to the PA Announcer/Referee -- an extremely important role. We would "broadcast" the games on my white plastic Panasonic tape recorder, after playing the national anthems of the U.S. and Canada, and religiously tallied the results of the games on a dog-eared yellow legal pad.

One of the best features of the game was the plastic "red light" that would signify a goal; when a puck entered the net, it would fall into a hole behind the always-grinning goalie and hit a plastic lever that would push up the "red light" through a cylinder behind the net. The player who gave up the goal would then react by slapping the red light back down, thus ejecting the puck from the net.

As referee, the third wheel would watch for those rare occasions when the puck would go "in and out" of the net without igniting the plastic lamp and rule a goal, often the tie-breaking vote in such situations. Funny how the vote was almost always 2-1, going against the one scored upon.

The more I write, the more I remember. But the time is short, so I'll continue my glide down the slots of memory lane tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 1, 2010

An instant classic, on and off the ice

The greatest hockey game of all time? That's up for debate, but I think Canada's 3-2 triumph over Team USA for the gold medal last night in Vancouver can certainly be included in the conversation of most meaningful sticks-and-blades matchups ever.

Certainly, the Canadians had that extra inner intangible that simply came from wearing the Maple Leaf (not the Toronto one) on their jerseys. It was their game, played in their nation, the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup Final all combined into one. To win would have been their birthright, their destiny, the scripted finale for this NHL All-Star Team put together to achieve nothing less than a golden moment.

There were similar parallels in Team USA's storyline; the Americans, while evoking memories of the Miracle on Ice in 1980 (more on that in a minute), hadn't lost a game in this tournament. Their roster was also made up of NHL players, but more of the bump-and-grind variety rather than simply the most talented names available. But for Team USA, a loss in the finale would not have the same far-reaching impact it would have in Canada.

Of course, to come so far, play so well, inspire a country that sorely needs inspiring and lose in the final -- especially after Zach Parise's goal with an extra attacker sent the game into OT -- is difficult to deal with. US defenseman Jack Johnson said, "It's devastating. It was the biggest game any of us have played in." Understandably so. And you could see that devastation in Ryan Miller's face during his TV interview just moments after Sidney Crosby's OT goal won it for Canada.

But in time, that will pass. The wounds of defeat will dissipate, and the silver medal will come to mean just that, not a loss in the finals. As Chris Drury said, "No one knew our names. People know our names now." And you could see signs of healing already at the closing ceremonies, just a couple of hours afterward. There was Ryan Miller, silver medal around his neck, with a camera, the beginnings of an actual smile on his face, taking it all in.

But for Canada to lose on that stage? Crushing? Devastating? Humiliating? There may not be a word in the English language to describe what such an unthinkable event would have meant north of the border. Especially when considering the depth of what hockey means there.

And when that puck, propelled by Crosby, already anointed "The Next One," beat Miller and hit nothing but the back of the net, all of Canada erupted in glee and exhaled in relief at the same time. The same could be said for Crosby in particular, who carried that weight and expectations on his 22-year-old shoulders. Not only has he won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold eight months apart, but in Canada, he now shares a pedestal with Paul Henderson, who scored the winning-goal in the classic 1972 Summit Series, as well as his boss, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who scored to defeat the Soviets in the 1987 World Cup.

And how about the parting shot of the Canadians posing for their championship photo while Team USA quietly filed off the ice behind them? Classic.

Certainly, the party atmosphere that was evident during the closing ceremonies inside and outside of BC Place would have been much different if, say, Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner or anyone else in a Team USA uniform had scored in OT. I wonder how the choreography of the hockey-heavy tongue-in-cheek tribute to Canada would have been modified for a silver medal, rather than gold (how great was the re-creation of the table-hockey game on the BC Place floor?).

It was as if it were meant to unfold no other way. Pretty damn close to perfectly, I think.


Some, in the excitement of the moment, were prepared to call it the most important hockey game in the history of Canada. Hmm. The Summit Series triumph, smack in the middle of the Cold War, might have been bigger. I'm not sure you can compare the two -- different circumstances, different time, different things at stake.

For us in the US, a gold medal in hockey at Vancouver in 2010 would have been exciting and memorable, but it never could have touched what happened at Lake Placid in 1980 -- a bunch of no-name college kids beating the vaunted and feared Soviets at the height of the Cold War period on American ice. That game transcended sports, and may have been the most meaningful sporting event ever.

The proceedings in Vancouver will certainly claim a spot as one of the best live sporting events for those who were there.

For me, there are two. One was Robin Ventura's grand-slam single that gave the Mets a 4-3 victory over the Braves in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS. I was there as a fan, about four rows from the top of Shea Stadium. I remember the wave of humanity cascading down the exit ramps of Shea, chanting "Mets in seven." It didn't go that way; two nights later, Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run at Turner Field, giving the Braves the pennant.

Then there was the night Michael Jordan, wearing No. 45 in his NBA comeback, dropped 55 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 1995. I covered that one. That doesn't stand out for any particular shot Jordan made, but just how he dominated in every way. Oddly enough, the game-winning shot was made not by Jordan, but rather Bill Wennington, on a pass from Jordan.


One last thought on the Olympic hockey experience -- the dynamics of playing for your country one night and, literally, going back to work the next and banging heads against the same guys you just went to war with are fascinating. Consider that Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, less than 24 hours after winning the gold medal, will be coaching the Detroit Red Wings against the Colorado Avalanche tonight when the NHL schedule resumes. One player on his bench will be defenseman Brian Rafalski, who had to watch the celebration as a member of Team USA. Paul Stastny, Rafalski's USA teammate, will play against him as a member of the Avalanche.

Similarly, Parise and Langenbrunner of Team USA will reunite with Team Canada goaltender Marty Brodeur with the New Jersey Devils. The same for Patrick Kane of the USA and Jonathan Toews of Canada with the Chicago Blackhawks. And for Crosby, the Team Canada hero, and USA defensemen Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney with the Penguins.

And I'm sure that in all those cases, along with the many more I didn't mention, it will be as if the Olympics never happened. Hockey players are a humble, hard-working lot. Like the old adage goes, the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.