Thursday, April 30, 2009

In Mourning

April 30th, 2009
New York, NY


Good morning public. Sorry for the radio silence, but Mr. Black was in mourning yesterday. The New York Rangers were eliminated in Game Seven, and frankly I didn’t have the heart to write a well thought out piece, and it would have just been angry gibberish aimed at a choice few. Rather than “write angry” I took a day off to enjoy a nice spring New York afternoon.

But the sports world doesn’t stop turning, so I have a ton to catch up on, so getcha popcorn ready. Here we go:

RIP Glenn Gondrezick
Many of you have no idea who this is, but Mr. Black does. Gondrezick played for the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks in the early- to mid-1980s, and was a 10th man at best. His passing hits me a little harder than most fans, since I had a personal experience with him.

Now, in spite of my fancy ability to write in full, coherent sentences, I didn’t grow up going to a fancy prep school. My school was in a neighborhood that, while not quite dangerous, was definitely not the kind of place an NBA player wants to spend an off evening. But my Catholic League basketball team’s coach somehow knew the Gondrezeck’s and asked Glenn to stop by our practice sometime. Quite randomly on a Wednesday night, he did surprise all of us (including the coach) by stopping by for the last half hour of our practice. He gave a quick talk about hard work, playing hard, winning as a team and the NBA. He then proceeded to give us some tips on shooting form (not that any of us were able to emulate his form), and did a short demonstration.

Being the smart ass kids we were, we decided to count out how many shots he made in a row:

Baseline shot from the corner. Swish. “One.”
Stepping over a foot. Swish. “Two.”
Over one more foot. Swish. “Three.”
Back a foot and over. Hits the back of the rim, up and in. “Four”

And so on and so on. He proceeded to hit 43 straight jumpshots. Now, these weren’t 15-footers, but all between 20-and 24-feet. He just has a rhythm. Shoot, hands up for the pass from coach, set, shoot, swish. It was mesmerizing and for an elementary school kid, 24-feet seemed like a mile away.
At the end of the performance he had gone 47 for 50. At that point I realized two things. First, this guy was better than anyone I’d seen in person. Second, as good as he just showed us he was he could barely get any playing time. So although I played organized sports for another 10 years, I quickly put aside any aspirations of going pro.

He passed away on Monday at 53, of heart failure. He received a heart transplant last fall and apparently, it just didn’t take. As a college player, he was in a Final Four in 1977 and had his number retired at UNLV. As a pro, he was at best a role player but always a fierce competitor and he was the kind of guy who showed inner-city kids how to shoot a basketball. Which in my world gets you a ticket to heaven and a starting spot somewhere.

Gondrezick is survived by a daughter and two sons. Mr. Black’s thoughts and prayers are with you.


New York Rangers Season Wrap Up
The Blueshirts were bounced from the playoffs two nights ago after an amazing start to the series. For those of you not following the series the Rangers jumped out to a big lead and then couldn’t finish it, losing three consecutive series clinchers.

In a way, this series was a lot like the season. Early on, the team overachieved, and the fans started to believe the team was better than it really was. A quick does of reality set in with a tough loss, and the team started to lose confidence and play was inconsistent. Finally, struck by a lack of leadership, the wheels fell off. Pretty much what happened from September to March.

Looking at the season overall, it’s amazing that the team was able to finish as strong as they did and make the playoffs. With Florida, Carolina, Montreal and Pittsburgh finishing strong the team was still able to hold onto a playoff spot and win lots of big games down the stretch. With great play by Henrik, they were able to put a scare into Washington, but in the end Henrik, and the team just ran out of gas.

So taking stock of the past, here are some thoughts on the future.

Keep Tortarella
Coach still has the “interim” tag on his title, but the team would be smart to remove it as soon as possible. Without a true on-ice leader, the team needs his fire and by keeping him they give the team some badly-needed consistency. This is a young team that for the most part responded well to Tortarella, and his style of coaching and forcing players to take responsibility would be good for the team.

The Redden Albatross
The Rangers have another $33 million dollars tied up in Wade Redden over the next five years. Read that again. $33 million, five years. You probably just threw up in your mouth a little if you’re a Rangers fan.

So the theory is that the Rangers are stuck with him. No team will take the contract, and so the team has to be content to let him steal money from them. Even though he showed flashes of decent defensive play in the playoffs, there were enough lapses (including the series-winning goal) that the team should give serious consideration to letting him go. As in release and eat the contract.

The Rangers young defensemen (Staal, Girardi, Mara) really grew up in the playoffs and rather than give Redden more ice time, hand over his powerplay duties to Staal and Mara and call it a day. We can continue to train defensive linemen on the job or hopefully find a free agent bargain. At this point, all Redden does is keep young talent off the ice.

What To Do With The Rentals
Derek Morris and Nick Antropov were rental players. Morris didn’t do much in New York, and I’m not even sure he got off the plane. He was quite invisible in both regular season and playoffs. No need to resign him then.

Antropov needs to get resigned. He’s one of the few players we have who can play around the net. With his size and soft hands, he turned into a good scoring option for the team and was solid no matter who was on his line. When he plays with a mean streak (like in Games Six and Seven) you see the potential for him to be one of the three best players on the team. With Tortarella coaching he might really excel.

Nik Zherdev
In college, I had to take Economics. For some reason, I just couldn’t get my head around the practice, although I knew all the theory inside and out. So when we had weekly quizzes, which were really low pressure and on specialized subjects I always pulled an ‘A.’

Mid-terms and the finals were a different story. With so many different theories and so much coming at me, I’d never get it right. Every big exam was the same story: ‘D-.’ So at the end of the term, I had a ‘C.’ Knowing I was smarter than this I took two more Econ classes with the same result. Awesome grades on quizzes, epic fail on Mid-terms.

Nik Zherdev is economics. The Rangers are me. Cut bait now.

Free Agents
We need a couple decent defensemen and someone that can score. Not much is out there and we have no money. So let’s be careful on this and only sign on player…we need to save money to keep Dubinsky, Callahan and Staal around.


The New Yankee Stadium™
I’m sure you’ve all seen the story. The Yankees announce 50% price cuts on the unsold Legends Seats at the new stadium. It’s nice to see greed bite a franchise in the ass, even if it’s one of my favorites. If you want to know how I feel about the new stadium, read my earlier post.

Even with these seats filled, the Yankees still sold their tradition, and even though it’s early in the season, I feel like the bullpen is too weak to finish better than third in the brutal AL East. Having A-Rod back will hurt more than help, since our only wins are close games, and he’s approximately 0 for life in big situations. Wang seems to be truly damaged which means we lose a stud pitcher.

If we do finish third, here’s what I imagine happening at the Steinbrenner Compound in Tampa, FL.

It’s late October, George, Hank and the family are all seated at the dinner table. It’s the long, ornate table like in bad movies. George and Hank are seated on opposite ends.

George is showing his age, so he’s slightly out of it, hard of hearing and his eyes are squinty.

GEORGE (yelling): Hank! How’s the team doing this week?

HANK (slightly sheepishly): Well, Dad. We we’re not playing. We finished third, I thought I told you.

GEORGE (yelling): What? We’re playing right now and it’s in the third? Let’s put the game on, I love watching my boys! Who are we playing, is it Detroit?

HANK (Louder): No. We’re NOT playing, we finished third in the division.

GEORGE (yelling, in anger) WHAT! How? What happened? This is inexcusable?

HANK (sheepishly) Well, we were a few games out and the Rays were in NY, A-Rod was hitting and it was s quiet in the new Stadium that everyone could hear the Kaballah chants Madonna taught him. Fans started to chuckle and it got in his head. He went 0-44 for the last two weeks of the season. That and we had to pitch Nick Swisher as a set up man. At least his ERA was in single digits.

George throws a glass at Hank, which hits the wall. Brian Cashman comes in to quickly clean it up and replace it. He never makes eye contact with George or Hank.

HANK (panicking now) It’s just that …. Wellthenewstadiumisreallyemptythefansaren’trowdyandballsflyoutallthetime.

GEORGE: DAMMIT! WE MOVED? WE’RE THE NEW YORK FREAKING YANKEES! MOVE THEM BACK TO THE REAL YANKEE STADIUM.

HANK: But Dad, we can’t it will cost….

GEORGE: Cost? Cost? I said WE’RE THE NEW YORK FREAKING YANKEES! YOU’RE FIRED! WE’RE MOVING BACK! CASHMAN! GET ME MY PILLS!!!

Yankees move back and win 115 games and the 2010 pennant. The End.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Has It Really Come Down To This?

April 27th, 2009
New York, NY

So we roll right along into Game Seven in the Rangers and Capitals series, and the on-ice ugliness hasn’t reared its head quite yet. The Blueshirts simply aren’t gritty enough to engage with the bigger Capitals team and have been pushed around like George McFly in Back to the Future for the last three games. This series hasn’t exploded as I thought it would, but there is a definite feeling of ill will among both players and also among the fans. Has this become the rivalry I thought it would? No, but there's still some excitement.

By their nature, any Game Seven is a cliffhanger and this one shouldn’t disappoint unless Your New York Rangers roll over early.

The NHL went a long way to keeping this game tight by suspending Donald “The Skating Ogre” Brashear for six games after his shenanigans before and during Game Six. No need to rehash his boorish behavior, as everyone knows the suspension was well-deserved. (SIDE NOTE: Honestly I’d expect someone who has been on the receiving side of a cheap head shot to be more respectful, but what can you say? The NHL Goon is a strange and dying creature.)

The suspension will force Commissioner Bettman to have the referees call the game tight. This creates an interesting dynamic, which the Ranger’s can play to their advantage. With inconsistent and poor officiating so far, players have had a problem defining the line between good, hard-nosed play and something illegal. So far the Rangers haven’t really looked for that line, but that’s another story and will be the theme of the post-season wrap up.

As the more aggressive team, and one spurred on by a hometown crowd, the Caps can easily incur a couple pentalties early just trying to find the line between right and wrong. They will no doubt have high intensity and judging by thier pre-game comments look for the entire team to step up physical play. Think about a power pitcher coming out for a Game Seven. Almost universally they are too amped and walk a few batters early. The same type of thing can happen here.

If the Rangers play aggressive hockey and out work the Caps in the corners, they’ll definitely draw some early penalties. The team made some good strides in the last game on the power play, putting some pucks on net early and getting some offensive-zone faceoffs.

With some pressure on a rookie goalie on a game Seven, grabbing an early lead isn't out of the question. As the less talented team, this has really made a huge difference for the Rangers because it allows them to play a tighter defensive style and protect thier goalie better. In this game, a one goal lead won’t be enough, however as the Capitals will remain aggressive no matter what. The bare minimum to win is a two goal lead coming out of the first.

The danger, obviously, is being out hit early and being pushed around the ice. The key tonight is hard work in the corners early and blocking early shots, not hits. I'm a bit worried that we have the moxie to even come out and work in the corners because MSG has turned into an arena of silence.

So far, all the talking between games has been by the Capitals, which really scares me. Brashear has defended his hit saying it was a great hit that “takes a guy out of the lineup, forces them to change things around.”

Mike Green has noted that the Caps will all need to step up phyisical play without the Ogre. What about from the NY Locker Room? Crickets.

The current Rangers team is missing is a any team leadership without Jagr and Shanahan. They evolved to team led by Henrik Lundqvist and it takes a special kind of goalie to be a vocal team leader because that player’s words have to instill confidence and keep the team loose. For far from Henrik? Crickets.

This team desperately needs some attitude and swagger. We need Henrik to say, “Just get one guys, and I guarantee a win.” That's putting your balls on the line as a goalkeeper, but we have no one else with the gravitas to put it all on the line.

Game Seven is his to steal, so step up and grab it, Henrik. This team is set up to go only as far as you will take them.

Tonight’s Numbers
A look at the numbers, from MSG.com:

A look Inside the Numbers as the Rangers and Capitals prepare for a decisive Game 7:

* The Rangers will play their first Game 7 since the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals against Vancouver. In franchise history, the Rangers have played seven Game 7s, with the home team winning every game:

1. 1939 at Boston – L, 1-2 (OT)
2. 1950 at Detroit – L, 3-4 (2 OT) (Stanley Cup Finals)
3. 1971 at Chicago – L, 2-4
4. 1974 at Philadelphia – L, 3-4
5. 1992 vs. New Jersey – W, 8-4
6. 1994 vs. New Jersey – W, 2-1 (2 OT)
7. 1994 vs. Vancouver – W, 3-2 (Stanley Cup Finals)
Overtime goal scorers: Mel Hill (1939), Pete Babando (1950), Stephane Matteau (1994)

* The Capitals will play their seventh Game 7 in franchise history. Five of the previous six have been played on home ice:

1. 1987 vs. NY Islanders – L, 2-3 (4 OT)
2. 1988 vs. Philadelphia – W, 5-4 (OT)
3. 1988 vs. New Jersey – L, 2-3
4. 1992 vs. Pittsburgh – L, 1-3
5. 1995 at Pittsburgh – L, 0-3
6. 2008 vs. Philadelphia – L, 2-3 (OT)
Overtime goal scorers: Pat LaFontaine (1987), Dale Hunter (1988), Joffrey Lupul (2008).

Jim Schoenfeld has been the head coach for two of the Capitals' previous six Game 7s: 1988 (with New Jersey) and 1995 (with Washington).

John Tortorella is 2-0 in Game 7s, both in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning:May 22, 2004 vs. Philadelphia – W, 2-1; June 7, 2004 vs. Calgary – W, 2-1 (Stanley Cup Finals).

One bright spot is that we have slightly better numbers in a Game 7. Still, the Capitals are a mentally and physically tougher team, so look for them to win unless the Rangers get two early goals. But a man can dream, right?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

It's On, Part Deux

April 26th, 2009
New York, NY

Mr. Black woke up to a brutal hangover and a Tortarella suspension. Both were expected since an 88 degree in New York means a marathon of outdoor drinking, and when you read the Washington, DC coverage of the incident in Game 5 it was fairly apparent that Tortarella was out of line. Let's face it, NHL doesn't like videos of a coach trying to get into the stands with a stick and had to do something.

Also the NHL policy is very clear. Any player or coach that has a physical altercation with a fan, including squirting water or throwing objects into the stands, will be suspended. No fine, no discussion. Fan altercation = suspension, no questions asked.

Now, don't think I'm condoning what Coach Tortarella did. He should know better, and there's no excuse for throwing things at fans. It didn't show much class and he's shown no remorse for losing his cool. Now the team is without it's greatest motivator and head coachmand I can't begin to guess how this team will respond, since calling Your New York Rangers neurotic is an understatement to say the least, but their track record of responding to adversity as a team is poor at best.

My hockey consigliare, The Greek, had an interesting observation on how the fans will respond, though. Now that it's public NHL condones unruly actions from fans, the Garden Faithful will be raining everything not nailed down onto the Washington bench. After all, the onus is on the Capitals to
ignore the fans and if anyone reacts, they get a Game Seven suspension. Although the policy is in the right spirit, the wording is really problematic and will do nothing to protect the players and coaches, especially in this case. What the policy does is foster a mob-mentality, and so look for the debris to be raining on the bench.

It's not right, but the fans will respond and don't expect it t be pretty. For the rest of the fans who don't act like hooligans, thier focus will be on the ice, and they need to step up and supply some energy for a team that never seems to generate thier own.

Jim Schoenfeld is perfectly capable as a coach, and has a fiery temper of his own, but with only two player who bring energy to the ice, but the team will need more help from the fans than usual. Without a loud and slightly unruly crowd, I doubt the team outside of Avery and Callahan will respond by stepping up and coming out with energy of thier own.

So c'mon guys, let's get ready to hit the Garden today and scream ourselves hoarse. To get everyone excited, Mr. Black had the Rangers go the pregame talk early and taped it for everyone to watch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMZUvDqBSh0


Imagine Naslund, Zherdev and Dubinsky all fired up like that.
Let's show them our support.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

It’s On!

April 25th, 2009
New York, NY



Well, the Rangers/Capitals series has definitely moved into rivalry territory, but in a completely different way than Mr. Black imagined. With the benching of Sean Avery, Coach Tortarella removed the catalyst for the rivalry, and unfortunately the catalyst for The Rangers last night. Things still got ugly with plenty of ill feeling all around and a renewed sense of drama brought on by the decisive Caps victory. A few key players helped bring this up to rivalry level:

Donald Brashear and John Erskine
The Capitals goon and slightly more talented goon both helped notch up the intensity. With the game well in hand, Bruce Bodreau gave both big minutes in the third period and these guys didn’t disappoint and did their best to intimidate the Rangers. With Ryan Callahan, Lauri Korpikoski and Brendan Dubinsky on the ice for most of this period, the team could have folded and backed down, but the kids didn’t and instead stepped up pushed back. Most notable was Brendan Dubinsky, who mixed it up with both Erskine and Brashear, obviously putting the fear of God into Mama Dubinski, because if there was a fight between him and either of the goons he’d be hospitalized (think the first half of Buddy Revell and Jerry Mitchell in Three O’Clock High).

Luckily, Colton Orr was called in as reinforcements to provide to get the big dogs to back down. Luckily for the Rangers he didn’t hurt himself, or any teammates.

John Tortarella
There should have been an announcement last night that “the role of Sean Avery will be played by John Tortarella,” since Coach benched Sean the Menace and put the kibosh on my vision. However, every play needs a villain, and Coach filled it to a “t”. Almost immediately he lost his cool, as the team lacked fire and discipline, quickly taking dumb penalties (I’m looking at you Gomez) and losing all momentum.

As the game wore on, his lack of composure drew the attention of the crowd to the point that he threw a water bottle over the glass and grabbed a stick, seemingly to go after a fan. With images of Bruins vs. The Ranger fans (or Slapshot) in their heads, stadium security quickly stepped in, but the damage has been done. Coach is public enemy #1 in Washington and will be a target as long as he’s behind the bench. Which leads up to the key player last night:

Matt Bradley
Light-scoring Matt Bradley provided the hero in act five of the drama. After scoring five goals all regular season, he scored two in the first period, including a soft goal against Henrik Lundqvist that no one expected to sneak in. Bradley provides the Capitals a Rudy-like figure to rally around, and was really the key figure in game five. Although they’ve easily outplayed the Rangers in three and a half games but still find themselves down in the series but still came out flat. They were lucky to get two quick goals that helped energize the crowd.


The Washington Fans
Loud, boisterous and incredibly active, they gave the Capitals the kick in the pants they needed in this game. From the chants of “Lund-qvist!” to the loud ovations for minutes after evey goal, they energized and supported a team that really started out slowly and very obviously got under the skin of the Rangers and their coaching staff.

Of all the parties involved the Washington fans are most responsible for ratcheting this up into rivalry territory, I have to pay my respect to them.

So what’s waiting in Game Six?

It’s an afternoon game, which can be a blessing or curse for the teams. In this case, it seems to really favor the Capitals, since throughout the series they’ve been the more level-headed team, and like I said earlier, have outplayed New York.

Pressure all falls on the Rangers, as a sixth game with the lead puts requires them to close out the series NOW and not go back to D.C. Add on being home with a hard-to-please crowd at MSG, and the pressure goes through the roof.

New York’s youth and many neuroses have all come to the surface this series, whether it’s a lack of confidence by key players, a Jekyll and Hyde work ethic, lack of a cool head on the bench or ice. After being soundly defeated by the Capitals, who have been down in a series before, the Rangers now find their backs against the wall.

Here are the keys to winning:

Henrik Lundqvist
This is a no-brainer since Henrik is the backbone of the team. But many times this year, Henrik has looked human and the tendency has been for him to play himself back in to form. But by being pulled last night he won’t have that luxury. With little scoring support, he has to come out and stand on his head. If the Rangers give up two or more goals, they have next to no shot of winning, unless:

Markus Naslund and Nik Zherdev Show Up
During the first two games, Markus Naslund was making a concerted effort to play more physically and own his area of the ice. This really added to the Rangers forecheck and created some offensive momentum, which led to Theodore being pulled after Game One. That Naslund needs to show up at The Garden, not the invisible forward of the last two games. In three games, we’ve only put minimal pressure on Simeon Varlamov.

Another big step in that direction is Nik Zherdev just showing up, period. Over the course of the season, he was a second in goals scored and total points for the Blueshirts. Without a powerplay of any kind, the Rangers need him to create scoring chances even strength and put some pressure on the Capitals goaltender. He’s incredibly skilled, and a couple solid chances can lead to a misplay or cheap goal which would be a huge momentum changer.

Finding The Right Combination of Drury, Avery and Voros
One of the three needs to be a scratch, and this decision really affects the team’s mental makeup, which as I mentioned is fragile at best.

Drury biggest contributions have been off the ice, as he seems to provide a sense of security (or perhaps aspiration) for the younger players, as he’s won a Cup and is a battle-tested playoff veteran. However, at the moment he’s been very quiet on the ice as a center man that can’t take a face off or shoot hard with his bad hand/wrist. So he’s really half the player he usually is. He needs to be more vocal at the very least and give the youngsters the motivation to make plays.

On the ice, he tends to come up big in key moments. If you think he has been a bust this series, remember his Game Four goal. His first shot is about the hardest he can shoot, which is aenemic, but he shot through a perfect screen and created a rebound, which he was able to put off the back of the goalie for a key-two goal lead. That goal was huge and tilted momentum to the Rangers for almost a full period. If you’ve ever played hockey, you know the difference between a one and two goal lead isn’t huge, it’s massive. In my eyes, Drury becomes a must-play, with a charge to be more energetic on the ice and vocal on the bench.

Avery brings a fire and energy to the team that you must have in the playoffs. It was fairly obvious that without him on the ice, the team is a little lost and less confident. But unlike the regular season, he hasn’t gotten under the opponent’s skin and has drawn bad penalty after bad penalty. I find it hard to believe that we can continue to kill the Capital’s powerplay as effectively as we have, so it’s a real stretch to say that the pro’s outweigh the cons with Avery.

Voros is healthy and can fill in some real minutes. He definitely doesn’t bring as much skill, and was -2 last night. However, against a team as fast and skilled at Washington, he might be able to eat up minutes and add to the forecheck without taking penalties.

If were Tortarella, I’d play Voros and Drury in Game Six, and if it goes to a Game Seven, I’d play Avery and Drury there. With the Garden crowd urging him on, Avery will have a four penalty night, and that’s just too much power play time for the Capitals for the next game.

The Rangers Power Play Must Shoot
The Ranger’s Power Play has to start shooting the puck, even if it’s from the blueline. It’s gone from sad to pathetic, and the team looks completely lost a man up. No one has the confidence to carry the puck, and we simply aren’t getting the play set up, much less getting scoring chances.

At this point, hoping for scoring from this power play is like hoping to win lotto. The opportunity now is to get any additional pressure on the goalie. Shoot every chance you get, and hope we can get attacking zone face offs. At least here there’s an opportunity for set plays and who knows, maybe a soft shot or two can be mishandled and we get in the Varlamov’s head….

Tortarella Can’t Get Suspended
It’s a very hazy story of what happened yesterday when Tortarella threw a bottle into the crowd. There isn’t a clear video of the incident, and depending on who you listen to he was provoked or just completely lost his cool. Either way, the NHL can’t ignore the incident and has to levy some punishment. Here’s hoping it monetary, and not a suspension because the team needs coach on the bench more than they need any player outside Lundqvist.

So here comes Game Six. Lots of pressure on the Rangers, and hopefully we’re up to it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Do I Smell Rivalry?

April 25th, 2009
New York, NY

Tonight is game five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between Your New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals and there’s an interesting subplot brewing. With the incredibly talented Capitals on the edge of elimination, many hockey writers inside and outside of The Beltway are already penning the articles about them underachieving, only waiting for a final score tonight to declare the Caps a postseason bust. That’s the main plotline, and you’ll be able to follow it on Vs, ESPN, NHL TV, The Washington Post and New York Times. The New York Post will run a trite headline like, “Ovie and Out!” but the story will be just like all the others.

The subplot that interests me is that a rivalry that may have started to simmer over the last couple weeks between the teams. It hasn’t manifested yet, but the ingredients are all there: A much more talented team being upset by a less talented one. A fiery personality that’s capable of terrible things in Sean Avery, and a potential Hall of Famer on both teams in Ovechkin and Lundqvist that fans will either deify or vilify, depending on your ZIP code.

Also, we have a perfect stage in the Verizon Center. Intense, anger-filled and fully absent of any NY Ranger fans. The angry mob will see their potential champion about to be eliminated, and the perfect foil in Sean Avery will be the focus of their hatred. The loud and angry crowd will help focus the Rangers and give them a bunker mentality. Perfect for throwing blows.

The NHL Playoffs: We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.

Here’s what we see tonight: A high-scoring first period with the Rangers leading, followed by a tight, hard-hitting second. Sometime during the second Ovechkin and Avery go hard to the boards and blood is spilled. This will touch off a huge brawl (the real kind, not the fake playoff kind without punches) and a new hockey rivalry will be born.

This will no doubt be a dirty play by Avery, and he will probably get some sort of suspension. Hell also be skewered in the press (with the exception of the Daily News, they love miscreants). To me, this isn’t a bad thing since he is completely off the reservation at this point. His play this series has bordered on embarrassing for the Rangers, but because he’s essentially our fourth-best player we can’t bench him. I’ll worry about the implications of suspension in the next series.

The point is that Avery is capable and willing to do something that will fire up this budding rivalry, and tonight he will.

The great news is that both teams are young, and none of their stars are going anywhere for a while. So we’ll have years of trash talk and every time they meet, hopefully in the playoffs for many years to come. The Broncos/Raiders, Avalanche/Red Wings and Rangers/Flyers all had similar storylines.

Time for a new one. Let’s go, Sean. Put some lumber in their teeth and let ‘em know you’re there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Playoffs Make People Do Strange Things

April 22nd, 2009
New York, NY

“Well, everyone talks about how classy or un-classy I am, and fatso there just forgot to shake my hand I guess. . . We outplayed him. I outplayed him. We’re going to the second round.”
- Sean Avery

Well, it's NHL Playoff time, and the excitement and pressure can make people do strange things. Take above quote, for example. It's not strange that Sean Avery would say or do something stupid, he's proven many times over that just about anything can come out of that mouth and he will do anything to get under a team's skin.

What's surprising is that in this case, a "classy" case like Martin Brodeur essentially started the whole issue by refusing to shake Avery's hand in the lineup after the series. One of the great traditions in sports is the hockey post-series lineup, and to snub someone is usually only reserved for truly classless individuals. Be a winner and take the high road, seriously.

Which was why it gave me great pleasure to watch last night's Carolina/Devils game. Not only did Carolina win, but they did it with real style. After losing a three-goal lead, they won on a tip-in with .02 seconds left. Not only was it great to see an exciting end to a game, but seeing the ever classy Marty Brodeur throw a little girl-style hissy fit was awesome. Marty, Marty, Marty if you're going to show poor sportsmanship, at least break your stick. Don't just stomp your feet and threaten to hold your breath.

Video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRq_OyMkibU at about 1:45 in there's the start of his little fit and the apologies by the TV crew.

My friend Amy did have the quote of the night, which needs to be made in to T-shirts, bumper stickers and signs immediately. Her response to the whole play?

"Suck it, fatso!"

Indeed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jay Cutler, Take a Look Into Your Future


April 22nd, 2009
New York, NY

John Elway left the NFL to own a chain of successful auto dealerships, restaurants and a professional sports franchise (yes, it's Arena Football, but people pay admission).

Jay Cutler, look to Jim McMahon for a peek into your future.

Memorandum


April 21st, 2009
New York, NY


To: The New York Rangers
From: Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner
Re: April 20, 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal


It has come to the attention of the National Hockey League that last night the New York Rangers Hockey Club had a promotional giveaway for their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal game. The League encourages giveaways as a reward to fans for their loyalty through a long season, however we cannot endorse last night’s promotion.

Reports confirm that the giveaway wasn’t a playoff towel, as in previous years and was instead a set of Thunderstix noisemakers. Giving away such a product at a hockey game represents poor judgement by the organization, a lack of respect for the great tradition of the National Hockey League and a marginalization of the pursuit of the oldest trophy in professional sports.

In light of the type of giveaway must take action.

We have no choice but to revoke your status as an “Original Six” NHL franchise. This is not a permanent measure, and the organization’s status can be restored after a probationary period to be determined. Please understand that is sanction isn’t based on subjective measures, but on the following facts:

  • Thunderstix do not make fans louder, but actually more passive since they can’t clap.
  • Thunderstix similar to sushi bars at arenas, rally monkeys, Chardonnay, and salads have no place in North American sports.
  • The brand of Thunderstix given out last night included a blue light, which changed the pre-game dynamic from “electric” to “electronic” . . . we’re a hockey league, not a rave promoter.

In the meantime, we are temporarily transferring your “Original Six” status to the Philadelphia Flyers based on style of play, fan loyalty and the level of professionalism of the organization.

We sincerely hope that The New York Rangers organization fix their promotional giveaways and return to their proud traditions soon. Upon a return tradition, their status as a premier NHL franchise will be restored.


Signed,
Gary Bettman
Commissioner, National Hockey League

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Were They Thinking: #2

April 19th, 2009
New York, NY


So I’ve been posting to the blog a fair amount more than initially planned, partially because the world of sports gives me so much to work with. Between playoffs, NFL free agency, greedy owners, complete ineptitude and overall boneheadedness, I actually have way more stories than I know what to do with.

But with so many things to write about, I forgot “What were they thinking?” last week. So better late than never, here’s this weeks post:


Jay "Chicken" Cutler
In only our second week, we have our first repeat honoree. But first, the good.

You were surprisingly classy and poised after the trade. In fact, you said all the right things by playing the “hometown boy” card, acting surprisingly contrite and thanking the Broncos, and paying the proper amount of respect to the Bears organization. In fact, you acted quite humble. Smart move considering you’re the new franchise QB in the third largest media market in the US.


But, Jay buddy, look at this as a fresh start and think before you act out there in Chicago. You know what’s not smart? Not examining WHY the Broncos happily let you go. If you’d read the Denver papers/blogs on the way out of town, you’d have known about the rumors of a teensy little drinking problem and a lack of “football sense,” which is sports code for a thick skull. If you had done that, you might have reconsidered spending a good portion of your first week in Chi-town getting hammered and being photographed like the shot above.

Also, you might have reconsidered canoodling up with the fame-seeking Julia Allison, who calling a celebrity might be as much of a stretch as calling you mature.

Stay home, learn the playbook and grow up. Your new coach and organization isn’t noted for babying star QBs. And there's a writer in Chicago, who's last name sounds like Maserati, that loves to remind people about these indiscretions on "Around the Horn" after a three-interception game.


Louis Admunson
Louis, I like you.

First you’re ballsy enough to scorn the whole "culture of bling" in pro sports and ride a bike to work. That’s very down-to-Earth and frankly, really cool.

And after having noted prankster, Shaq, hide your bike every day this season, you decided to get back at him. As much as I like you, and it was smart to wait until late in the season so you’re not looked at as a rookie so that the repercussions aren’t magnified, it's never, ever, ever a good idea to mess with Diesel. For a few reasons:

  • First, he’s way better at pranks than you are. Never, ever get into a prank war with someone that does this as a hobby. It will never end well for you. As an athlete, you should know that by now.
  • Second, don’t mess with a man’s car. A shoe filled with shaving cream is funny, and quickly forgotten. A guys car, especially a guy who loves cars like Shaq, is more than a little sacrosanct. A good rule on what to target in a prank is, "if he wouldn’t let you borrow it, don’t mess with it."
  • Third, don’t do it at the VERY end of the season. Get him with a week or so left, because now he has nothing but time to think of something to do to get you back…and good.

Take the above three points, recall Shaq isn’t noted for his off-season work ethic and has more money than Wells Fargo. Now, what are the chances you don't get hit so bad with a prank that it costs you literally tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s not wise to fool with Shaq. Like he says, “You mess with the Shaqtus, you get pricked.”


Lori Epperson/Heather Anderson
I have to go back to high school to get our first group winners. A couple things allow me to group these two together.

First, they are both high school coaches. Second, they both had to resign last week. And third, they did things that no one in their right mind would think was smart and would be conducive to keeping a job in education.

Lori Epperson resigned from her teaching position at Edgewood High School outside Dayton, Ohio, after taking four female students — three 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old — to Club Masque, a strip club that features exotic male dancers. Yes, that’s dumb. But what’s even dumber is that the club is 18+, so it was a felony to take the 17-year old. But take the cake is that one of the children was her daughter, which not only makes her guilty of bad judgement, but also bad parenting (for some people at least).

And it gets better, her defense is that the children’s parents had to sign a permission slip before the kids should go. Now, I’m wondering which is more naïve: announcing this little trip to parents, or thinking the kids would legitimately have parents sign the form.

Compared to Lori, Heather Branum of Anderson County high school is a genius. While on a road trip with the softball team she coached, the 29-year old allowed a hazing incident where the freshman players had to swim nude/semi-nude of 15 minutes in the pool at the private house the team had rented. As an authority figure, nothing should make her more worried than the word “hazing” unless it’s the word “sexual predator” (since Miss Heather felt she needed to supervise the proceedings). No matter how you spin it, half naked high school girls in a swimming pool isn’t something you should be involved with, unless you’re a half naked high-school boy.

The good news is that somehow, Heather got to keep her teaching job. Hopefully it’s math. She can teach her class the following equation:

Adult + Hazing + Under Age Kids + Partial Nudity = No Job or Jail Time


Carlie Christine
And like Isiah Thomas, we’re still back to school.

Casa Roble High cheerleading coach, Carlie Christine, thought that no one in the school she coached at would ever see her “Cyber Girls” layout on Playboy.com. I can understand why, I mean, what are the possibilities that some teenage boy would google “cyber girls?”

And if someone did stumble across the photos online, it’s not like anyone would say anything. I mean, there’s no group that’s nicer than a gaggle of teenage girls on a cheerleading squad. They're totally level-headed and would never hold a grude. What are the chances that someone on the squad would be angry for being disciplined and do something rash?

The odds of someone telling parents or the school about the photos couldn’t be more than 99% or 99.5%.

But Carlie wasn't the only one who learned something, the parents learned a few things too, "I was in shock that the girls had seen it and knew about it," a parent told CBS13. "The whole football team has seen it," says one parent.

Wow. High school kids hide things from their parents and look at nudie pictures, including mature leaders like the football team. I had no idea.

See you next week when I review the Denver Broncos free agent signings. Let’s hope the GM doesn’t make “what were they thinking.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Behold, The Genius of Nick Swisher

April 17th, 2007
New York, NY


So before leaping into the latest entry into the blog, Mr. Black wants to clarify something to my dozen or so readers.

I love baseball. I love the Yankees. I love free, corporate seats to sporting events.

But I hate where the business of baseball is headed. No other sport holds the emotional place in my heart that baseball does. My fondest memories of childhood and family revolve around the game, so it pains me to see a franchise mortgage their mystique for money. Plus, taking my kids to their first Yankee game shouldn’t costs more than a Rolex, which it will if I want to sit in the front row. And I will, that's how I roll.

But as wrong as all the business of baseball is, Nick Swisher is all right. Let’s take a look at the genius that is Nick Swisher:

He keeps things loose, in fact if he saw the Facebook ad to the right, he’d probably blow it up and leave a copy in each locker. After all, we love the Yankees and the Yankees love the Yankees, but not THAT way. Who the hell art directed that ad?

He plays music in the normally serene Yankee clubhouse, within a week the press noticed.

He doesn’t care if he starts, just that he plays well.

He’s statistically, the Yankee’s best pitcher (0.00 ERA, 1 IP)

He’s also their hottest hitter at the moment (.406 BA)

He fries up all the chicken fingers before games (OK, that’s not true, but chicken fingers were the best thing to eat at the old stadium and I hope that’s still the case. If it isn’t, I want Swisher on the case).

The motto on his website (nickswisher.net) is “work hard, play hard.” And he has an ode to his Grandma on the site…which you have to read. Right. Now.

If you ever been part of any team, you gotta love this guy.

He’s the baseball equivalent of a puppy dog, excited to do ANYTHING associated with the game. And you just can't help but like him. Seriously, read an interview with him, check out his site, google him, whatever. You can't help but like him. He’s everything A-Rod isn’t: emotional, exciting, genuine and fun.

Mark my words, he’s going to be the clubhouse leader with Jorge Posada and will be absolutely clutch this year.


Hip, hip, Jorge!
On another note, the Yankees played seven great innings of baseball yesterday to open up The New Yankee Stadium™. The good news is C.C. Sabathia looked solid, the defense made some great plays and the crowd was loud and raucous (to he honest, I was a little surprised by the last one). The bad news is that major league games still last nine innings and when the bullpen took over, the wheels fell off. In the end, it was a 10-2 Yankees loss to launch "The House That The Need To Pay A-Rod Built," a division of the YES Network.

The one ray of sunshine is that Jorge Posada was the first player to hit a home run in The New Yankee Stadium™. It was an inside fastball off Cliff Lee that he hammered into monument park in right-center, and was absolutely beautiful. There's a photo of the swing above you can enjoy for posterity sake.

Jorge is one of the few Yankees to be very vocal about the need for the team to carry the tradition of the old stadium to the new, so thank goodness he’s the guy that went yard. Hopefully people will talk about his home run when the Third Yankee Stadium™ is built on Saturn by Hank Steinbrenner IV.


Upcoming Post
So I’m working on a post “Who’s a Real Yankee,” where I run through the current team player-by-player and decide who’s worthy of the pinstripes. I’m interested in what you all think (really, I am -- seriously), so shoot me an email with some thoughts. I’ll use the best submissions as part of my post.

Feel free to forward to friends as well. I want to hear what as many people think as possible.

Oh, and join Mr. Black's Facebook group and invite friends. Let's talk some sports, people.

Secret Identities II



April 16th, 2009 New York, NY

Mike Francesa (right) and The Fabulous Sports Babe (left).

Mike and The Mad Dog came on to the YES Network in 2002, right around the time that the Fabulous Sports Babe went off the air. Coincidence? Mr. Black wants to know.

I'm guessing it IS a coincidence since the Babe was one of the best and most well-versed sports radio personalities of all time, while it's becoming more apparent than ever that Mike knows nothing about sports. The Babe followed every sport and did her homework on every topic she covered, and seemed ready for any question. She was a treat to hear during drive time when I lived in Denver, and to this day I totally rip off her "score more points" line when someone complains about losing to an inferior team based on a late game call.

Mike on the other hand, covers nothing outside the New York region and his best move is screaming at callers and hanging up. Or talking about movies he never sees.

But looking at the pictures maybe, just maybe . . .

By the way, can we all petition XM/Sirius/NASA satellite radio to give The Dog back to Mike Francesa? The show is absolutely awful without him. One of life's little pleasures when taking a day off work was being able to watch or listen to Mike and The Mad Dog. Now it's just sad.

Dog. Some back! You're my boy, Blue!

For Trade: 86 Years of Tradition For A Luxury Box


April 16th, 2009 New York, NY


"I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park.”
– Babe Ruth

Today the Yankees officially open the New Yankee Stadium.™

It’s a sad day for fans of the Yankees and their great tradition, because we lose not only the Grand Dame of all sports venues, Yankee Stadium, but a huge edge.

In 1923, Yankee Stadium was the most spectacular stadium in sports. Before the original Yankee Stadium, teams played games at parks and fields. Seating over 70,000 fans, it was the first “stadium” in baseball and boasted three decks of seating, a 15-foot copper façade almost all around the stadium, a near-total enclosure to keep out prying eyes, a whopping eight toilets, a cavernous center field that only the best players could hope of covering and a short porch to right custom-made for the Yankees new star, Babe Ruth.

It was a monument of hubris for a tradition that did not yet exist, a true cathedral of baseball. And the Yankees christened it as holy ground almost immediately. Ruth hammered the first homer and a crowed cheered so loud “the building felt like it would come down,” and the Yankees won the first of 26 titles in the first season.

As the game evolved, so did the stadium. It went from state-of-the art to timeless. Updated in 1967 to be more comfortable for fans and totally rebuilt in 1973. It still kept its unique character while hosting more World Series’ than any other stadium. Yankee Stadium aged, the mystique grew and it became a stage that could make or break legends. Playing on hollowed ground is what made players “real” Yankees. The mystique was about creating a moment of your own in the stadium:
  • Reggie’s three home runs in Game 6
  • Rag’s July 4th no-hitter
  • Gehrig’s speech.
  • The Mick hitting a home run off the façade
  • Fans swarming Chris Chambliss as he rounds the bases in 1976 ALCS
  • Jeter’s dive into the seats versus the Sox
No other stadium is filled with so many emotional moments and joy for the fans.

So why tear it down?

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

Rhymes with "honey"....

Yes, money. The organization sold its home field advantage for luxury box revenue.

"Fans? Fuck the fans, pay me," is what the Steinbrenner family say.

The Yankees organization bamboozled the fans more than the Baltimore Colts did when they left town under the dark of night. Before fans really knew what was happening, the new stadium was half built. The Yankess announced the new stadium will all the fanfare of a September call-up.

No discussion about losing the mystique of the franchise, no talk of what the emotional the cost would be. No talk of a Fenway-like revitalization. Nothing.

What was the biggest moment of the stadium move? A heartfelt speech after the last game in the old Stadium by the captain, Derek Jeter:

"… although things are going to change next year, we're going to move across the street, there are a few things with the New York Yankees that never change -- it's pride, it's tradition, and most of all, we have the greatest fans in the world.

"We're relying on you to take the memories from this stadium and add them to the new memories that come to the new Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation. On behalf of this entire organization, we want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world."

Touching, Derek.

Perhaps you should have run this by the Yankees, though. Because as fans, our thanks was this:
  • A home without a lower-level seat less than $350 between the foul poles.
  • A stadium where a prime season ticket costs $850,000 per year.
  • Home field with fewer seats for a franchise that sells out 90% of its games.
  • Home field bleachers with obstructed views (how can you obstruct a bleacher seat – that’s truly great architecture).
Yup, that' a salute. Of the one-finger variety. So much for passing along seats from generation to generation, unless your Donald and Ivanka Trump.

But the news isn’t all bad. The training facilities, 30,000 square foot clubhouse, PCs in the lockers and spas seem to be excellent. The players are raving:

"There are screens in your lockers, lockers that are three times the size of other places. Cubby holes. We have a chef. It's just crazy stuff. It's the best venue in any sport, I guarantee you that," said Brian Bruney

"I think everyone is going to be a little bit spoiled," Jeter said.

"Amazing, they did a great job," Andy Pettitte said. “I'm just thankful to have an opportunity to play here. You feel really spoiled."

I hope there's room for the ghosts of DiMaggio, The Babe and Thurmon Munson.

Yes, fans. We’ve tore down the Sistine Chapel. What was once a franchise with a legendary park full of tradition just another money-grubbing franchise with a faux-throwback stadium. Forget the fans, bring on the luxury boxes.

Roll call will be a little quieter this year, and not because there are few fans, but less passionate ones. The Bronx-bred lovers of the Yankees are priced out, and the corporate fans have taken over. A proud franchise loses its mystique today.

What does mystique mean? It’s an edge…and without that edge, the onus is on the team to bring over a winning tradition immediately. Because from today forward, they don’t have the passion of fans, they don’t have teams that dreading to come to the Bronx. Let’s hope the Yankees look around and decide they should earn these comforts and win a title -- now. And 25 more, because that’s what it will take to replace the Original.

Here’s what we’ve lost, from someone who had everywhere:

“This was the place, the number-one place in baseball. The stadium was like the Empire State Building or the Grand Canyon of baseball, and every time I stepped inside of it I had to pinch myself!"
- Mel Allen, the Voice of the Yankees (1946 - 1965)

Goodbye Yankee Stadium. We’ll miss you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back to School


April 14th, 2009 New York, NY

There’s an empty office in The Garden today. Noted franchise-ruining President and coach Isiah Thomas is packing up his wrecking ball and heading to the NCAA. It’s expected that he’ll be announced as head coach of Florida International University in Miami, FL.

Even though he was locked in a closet (or sent to scout Khazakstan’s pro league) for much of last season, he was still collecting a check from the Knicks so Mr. Black is glad see him go. No single person has done more to embarrass the New York Knicks, Stephon Marbury included.

In four short years as President and/or coach, Isiah:
  • Lost over 60% of his games
  • Racked up the highest payroll in NBA history
  • Brought in noted cancer Stephon Marbury
  • Traded for or signed the All-Underachiving team of Zach Randolph, Steve Francis, Jerome James, Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, Malik Rose and Nazr Mohammed
  • Ran off Larry Brown in less than a year
  • Cost MSG $11.6M in a sexual harassment lawsuit (only 1/2 of Starbury's annual salary)
  • Blamed an overdose on his teenage daughter
  • Ran off one of the most rabid fan bases in pro sports

So thankfully, he’s gone and we’re no longer paying him. Mr. Black is hoping that we exorcize all the Isiah demons and Donnie Walsh keeps moving the team in the right direction.

Enjoy the NCAA Zeke, please stay there.

A Sad Day for Baseball

April 14th, 2009
New York, NY


There’s an old saying that death comes in threes.

After the sudden and tragic passing of Nick Ardenhart, he baseball world lost two more yesterday in Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych.

Most of you have already heard about Harry Kalas, the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, who collapsed in the press box before the game and died at the hospital. Even if you aren’t a Phillies fan, you probably heard Harry’s voice on NFL Films. More than likely 90% if sports fans under the age of 50 enjoyed Harry’s work, and we were blessed to have such a talent as part of our life. There was a time when a group of voices defined the sports landscape: Harry Caray, Mel Allen, Chick Hearn, John Facenda and Harry Knowles all were part of that group. Over the last few years, we’ve lost them all and only a few remain.

As a friend of mine said yesterday afternoon, “I feel like a good portion of my childhood died.”

Shane Victorino and the Phillies paid a fitting tribute. After hearing of his passing, they asked themselves what he would have enjoyed. Well, it seems he enjoyed a quiet smoke at the yard when no one was around, so a few guys (including some non-smokers) had a quick cigarette in the clubhouse before going on to win on a game winning home run by Shane Victorino. A touching and non-PC homage, and I’ve immediately become a Phillies fan.

Rest in peace, Harry. I think God has a doubleheader tomorrow you need to call.


Lost in the news about Harry was the news that “The Bird” Mark Fidrych passed away at 54 in an accident on his farm.

For those of you that don’t follow baseball, Bird was the 1976 Rookie of the Year with the Detroit Tigers and but only pitched five seasons. During that short career, he thrilled baseball with a sublime rookie season, dominating the AL with his pitching and entertaining fans with his personality. Carrying the torch of slightly-off center 1970s baseball players he groomed the mound with his hand, talked to the ball in his glove and celebrated big outs with high-fives to team mates all around the diamond.

Growing up we played baseball with joy and abandon because one of our heroes did.

Mark, there’s an army of high-fiving, baseball-conversing, Tiger hat-wearing kids from the 1970s who want to thank you for showing us how to have fun.

Here's hoping the old saying is true and baseball holds onto some of its characters a little longer.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Secret Identities



April 13, 2009 New York, NY


Yukon Cornelius (top) and Paul Mara (bottom), have never photographed together. Coincidence?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

If It's Going To Be That Kind Of Party

April 12, 2009
New York, NY


Happy Birthday to Ted Ginn, Jr. That man knows how to celebrate.

This last weekend he threw a big party in his hometown, Cleveland, OH. Many of his closest friends were there, including Buffalo CB Donte Whitner. Ginn and Whitner happened to go to school together in Cleveland at Glenville High and even went to Ohio State. Needless to say, they have remained close.

So back to the party. What could go wrong? Two pro football players, in their hometown, celebrating with a big party at a big public club. I mean, nothing dumb happens when alcohol and celebrities are involved.

Yes, you see where this is going.

Cut to 3am, where after a fight in the club involving Whitner , there’s a near-riot in the parking lot. Still feeling the burn from the fight inside, Whitner is battling with some bouncers outside the club when the police arrive.

Yes, you see where this is going.

Rather then cut his losses, Whitner proceeds to take on the police. And gets tasered. After Darrent Willams and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones, Ginn still has to throw a party at a club. I’m not saying that football players should stay home, but at least get a private venue and your own security. You have too much to lose.

But on the bright side, at least Whitner has someone to pick him up at the police station:
http://www.buffalonews.com/sports/billsnfl/story/375809.html

NHL Regular Season Wrap-Up

April 12, 2009
New York, NY


This weekend marks the end of the NHL Regular Season, so it’s time for a look back at this year’s surprises and a post-season review Mr. Black’s Favorite NHL teams. Back in the fall, things weren’t looking good in Mr. Black’s World. The Avs and Rangers, my hometown teams, weren’t expected to be contending mainly because both were relatively young and untested. However, being the optimist that I am, I expected both to be playing postseason hockey.

Well, one out of two isn’t bad.


This Year’s Eastern Conference Surprises
#1. The Devils Playing Better Without Tubby
Before his injury, if I told you that the Devils of the Turnpike might be better without Martin Brodeur would you believe me? Probably not. In fact, you’d say, “Mr. Black, perhaps you might like to lie down and rest.”

With a six game winless streak at the end of the season and four of the last ten, something seems to be wrong over the river. Like a lot of teams, the Devils seem to relax a little with Brodeur in net, thinking Fatso (Sean Avery’s words, not mine) will bail them out.

Be careful, Devils. After the injury Brodeur is giving up goals in bunches and you can’t just turn effort on and off like a switch. You’ve lost three of four to your first round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes. An early exit, perhaps?


#2. Pittsburgh and Tampa Underachieving Spectacularly
What happened to the Pens and Lightning?

Pittsburgh added some veterans to improve a young group that was a Stanley Cup finalist. What happens? They fall out of the playoff race by February, only the scramble back in after a coaching change.

I blame Sidney Crosby. First, I want to say that he’s an immensely talented player. I enjoy watching him in the same way I enjoy watching A-Rod. They are both thoroughbreds, blessed with immense physical gifts and ability. On the other hand, they both seem like terrible teammates since they attract so much attention that all sense of team is lost. And they never seem to deliver in the clutch.

They have no idea that they are constantly letting the team down, and never simply take over when needed. Nothing is more annoying to teammates than a talented player who doesn’t rise to the occasion, and attracts all the attention.

This is why I don’t want A-Rod back…can someone send some steroids to Tampa so he’ll get busted?

On to Tampa:

Loaded with young talent. Check.
Well known, high-profile coach. Check.
High expectations. Check.
Coach fired almost before the end of training camp, leading to shopping of aforementioned young talent? Check.

A bit of a surprise for the one-time Stanley Cup Champions to lay an egg like this. What they need is a strong coach that could properly motivate their young talent. Like say, John Tortarella. You remember him, right? He’s the guy who USED to be the coach.



#3. Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals
Is it possible to be the best team in the league without a stud goaltender?

Maybe not the best, but definitely the most entertaining. With the best player in the league, Alex Ovechkin, playing the game like a kid and lighting up the lamp, the Caps have been the most fun team to watch this year. Ovechkin is awesome, and slightly off center in an Eastern European way so look for some fun goal celebrations if he plays well in the playoffs. With Theodore in net, look for some 5-4 and 6-5 wins.

The Rangers will play the Capitals in the first round, and I’m none too happy. These guys are the most dangerous team in the league.



New York Rangers Regular Season Wrap Up
Which brings us to the Blueshirts. After an incredibly wild ride, the Rangers ended up exactly where most preseason polls put them, in the middle/lower level of playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

Rewind back to the beginning of the season and you can understand some of the frustration of the Garden Faithful. After sprinting out of the gate with a 10-2-1-1 record in the first month, the Rangers were looking like the team to beat through November.

Young players like Nik Zherdev, Fredrik Sjostrom and Lauri Korpikoski all were playing lights out hockey, which really helped hide how much the veterans like Gomez, Drury and Redden were under performing. By the way, did anyone REALLY expect Redden to be the top defenseman on this team? Honestly, the guy has maxed out at “above par” in his career and the Rangers give him a massive contract.

YOUR NEW YORK RANGERS….spending themselves into mediocrity. Again. (Let's all take a deep breath and hope Redden's contract was an abberation.)

So after a quick start, the cracks started showing as the kids started to play inconsistently, and a poor powerplay contributed to a loss of momentum. By the holidays malaise had set in, and the Garden crowed was in open revolt. By the All-Star break everyone was screaming for Renney’s head, and the worst thing that could happen to a team with a conservative system happened…the team started playing tight.

The team eventually gave up on Coach Renney, John Tortarella came on the scene and immediately put his stamp on the team. With up tempo play, and a strong forecheck, and an oddly supportive attitude for some underperformers (I’m looking in your general direction, Wade Redden).

After key additions of Nik Antropov, Derek Morris and Sean Avery at the deadline, the Rangers were complete. Antropov supplied some size and soft hands around the net, Morris supplied some solid defensive depth and a cool head and Avery, well he does what a miscreant does. But he does it for us and we love him.

Hiring Tortarella was a brilliant move (one that at the time I was admittedly skeptical of), the new, nice Tortarella stroked those who needed a little ego stroking (Drury, Redden and Gomez) who all responded by stepping up their play. Also, he was hard on the lazier players (looking your way this time, Zherdev) which will hopefully pay dividends in the playoffs.

So, look for the real John Tortarella to come back on Wednesday. No more ego stroking, not coddling. Just an expectation of hard play every shift. With a few lucky bounces, they are equipped to make a long run…but they need a little bit of luck to get past Washington.


This Year’s Western Conference Surprises
#1. The Tanking of the Dallas Stars
Who would have thought that the Stars would lay this egg? Something had to be amiss in the Big D, since they turned it around after suspending Avery, but it was too little, too late and they’ll miss the playoffs. Shocking, since I expected them to be a fifth seed this year.


#2 The Re-Emergence of the Chicago Blackhawks
After spending about eight years as one of the most embarrassing franchises in hockey, the Blackhawks started to turn it around a few years ago. Smart drafting brought them Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and a great trade for Martin Havlat made them respectable. The two-headed Christobal Huet/Nikolai Shishkebabiboolin monster in goal pushed them over the top, to a number four seed and get 102 points this year. I for one, am shocked, this happened about two years too early.

Still, the franchise gets the penalty box for dumbest giveaway in NHL history (video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPaFkdEneWY) and having cheerleaders. Yes, cheerleaders in hockey.


Colorado Avalanche Season Recap
This is painful to revisit.

I had the pleasure/pain experience of seeing the Avs come to The Garden play the Rangers a few months back. As I watched them get absolutely destroyed in a 6-1 shelling, I had two thoughts:

First, I haven’t seen a team look this bad since the New York Islanders from 1986 to today. Of course, they don’t really count because, well, they’re the Islanders.

Second, there is way too much talent on this team to be the second-worst team in the league. (Second, of course, to the New York Islanders – sorry, I can’t help it.)

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised since the Avs weren’t expected to do much. Most preseason polls had them missing the playoffs, but going into the season, I optimistically thought they would be able to sneak in. After watching them knock off a few five game winning streaks early on I was feeling good.

But then the wheels came off. Capable of winning five in a row, they were also capable of losing eight straight just as easily. Over the course of the year extended losing streaks were the case all too often.

Too many injuries, too much inconsistent play from their youngsters and yet another season where perennial “goalie of the future” Peter Budaj added up to a horrible year I’d rather forget. So look for some changes this offseason, I’ve already called Kroneke:

#1. Fire Tony Granato
Coaches make great scapegoats (See Melrose, Barry), but in this case he’s a big part of the problem. For example:

"Hey, we've dealt with some things that nobody wants to deal with during the season" You also understand that it's part of the risk going into it, that you might have to face situations like this … At the start of the year, there was the excitement of Joe's return, and of building it as a year of maybe being Joe's last year. That was a tremendous way to come through training camp and the start of the season. With him going down first with the injury bug, or a long-term injury, kind of knocked us off course a bit.”

So basically, losing Joe Sakic took the wind out of your sails. Rather than challenge the young guys to pick up the slack so they are still in the race when your star gets back, you roll over? He failed the first time, and was an epic fail the second time. He’s a really nice guy, and was a hardworking hockey player, but lacks the fire and competitiveness that a young team needs.

Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, Tony.

#2 The Return of Pierre Lacroix
In the heyday of the Nordiques/Avs, there were tons of things that Pierre Lacroix did which drove me insane. Trading away young talent, not re-signing Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle, Mike Ricci and Adam Foote and his French-Canadian haughtiness always upset me.

But during his reign, the Avs always had a stocked farm club with exciting players like Milan Hejduk constantly restocking the forward lines. Also, no one was more capable of making more one-sided deadline trades.

To a certain point, Lacroix is partially responsible for the problem by trading too much young talent, but he’s also the only guy that might be able to fix the team quickly. Time to come out of your semi-retirement and clean up your mess. Which starts with…

#3 Fix the Defense
There will be a strong temptation to draft Canadian forward John Tavares. Don’t. Milan Hejduk and Paul Statsny aren’t going anywhere, so draft Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman.

We have no goaltending, so do all you can to stop the offensive bleeding. In fact, don’t draft any offensive players for a few rounds, your defense is worse than the Broncos.

#4 Convince Sakic to Come Back
It was sad to see that Joe Sakic couldn’t get back for the last three games as planned. Whatever you do, do not let Joe retire this year. First, he's still one of the top 20 forwards in the game, and that's being conservative.

Second, he can’t end his career on the IR, because he’s the older, steadying influence this teams needs. Young guys like Statsny will learn more just being around him that most coaches will teach them, plus no one has worn the Avs sweater with more class and distinction, so bring him back and let him finish his career on the ice.

Finally we need him emotionally. Nothing encapsulates the Colorado season as much as this clip from last week: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsvy9lguQeY

We’ll need SOMETHING to cheer next year, I think it will be a long one. Bring on the Sakic Farewell Tour!

Mark Down the Day

Mr. Black was wrong.

After railing on the course changes earlier in the week, The Masters were blessed with an easy layout the first two days and perfect weather. Low scores (but not too low) ensued and there was madness to be expected on "Moving Day."

The madness yesterday didn't happen, but in true Masters form, today is shaping up to be great. Lefty (Mickelson for you once a year golf fans) is charging and currently in third. Tiger, who happens to be his partner is charging right along with him. Playing aggressive golf and pushing each other along, this could be a round for the ages.

The secondary players in this drama are Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell and Angel Cabrera. All of them need to shoot below par to hold of the superstars and win the tourney. Right now, Cabrera is looking the most aggressive, which to me says he's the guy to watch. With the back nine left to play, he can really ring up a low score if he settles down and starts striking the ball.

So is the Masters back? Let's hope so . . . the course is still a little too long, but the course set up this year was really spectacular. A little bonus golf maybe? Three or four man playoff? Here's to a photo finish. And mark down the day, I'm not often wrong.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spring Has Arrived -- The Masters Start Today

April 9th, 2009
New York, NY


The Masters
Today is the first day of The Masters. This has always been a little bit of an annual milestone in my life, because my brother, my father and I were all golfers. The Masters are a rite of spring and symbolize the impending arrival of prime golf season, the NHL playoffs and the start of the baseball season.

Historically, this tournament have been the most entertaining of the major golf tournaments (unless they played the British Open at St. Andrews – more on that some other day). A
When Alister MacKenzie designed Augusta National he had to know it was for tournament play because he designed it for high drama. Holes used to reward aggressive play all around, and the back nine was custom made for come-from-behind victories. Like the old ABA was about making basketball more entertaining, Alister must have decided that spectator entertainment was going to be really important.

At the old Augusta golfers could put up great scores, but you had to really be aggressive off the tee and on your approach. If you placed some shots well, you’d be seeing tons of red numbers being put up. If not, you were scrambling out of the rough and staring down some long par putts. Either way, it was high drama as golfers shot up the leaderboard and dropped like a rock when they hit “Amen Corner.”

No one defined this better than Greg Norman. When you hear his name, you remember his losing The Masters for 25 straight years after leading going into the final round. OK, I’m inflating that a bit, but think about it: Greg Norman was a golfing machine well before Tiger hit the scene, but we’ll only remember his never winning The Masters. He actually holds the course record, a 63, and has finished second three times. Not a bad record for anyone, much less someone who’s won the other three majors. But all people remember is the action packed finishes where he came up short. Proof history is written by the winners.

Old Augusta created legends, whether it was Arnold Palmer in 1960, coming back from two strokes down to beat Venturi or Tiger lapping the field and winning by 12 in 1997.

Note: If you grew up watching The Masters in the 1980s, you saw the clips of Palmer’s win in 1960 so much that his swing and strut up the fairway is literally burned into my memory. I still imagine I’m him when I’m playing well, and he STILL has the same walk when he smokes a long iron or drive. Arnie is awesome.

Anyway, those were the good old days. After 1997, they tried the alleged “Tiger-Proofing” of Augusta National. First, they lengthened the course, and then made the rough higher, lengthened it again and finally made the greens faster. The result is a course that resembles a U.S. Open layout more than the action-filled Augusta.

Rather than an exciting sprint/shootout to the finish where any number of hot players might win, we have a plodding chess-style game of golf. Players pick their spots to take calculated risks, hoping it gains a stroke, or maybe two. The tourney usually comes down to a two man show, and they grind it out head-to-head on opening day. Not as exciting for the fans, but I guess it makes better TV. Either way, the magic might be gone from The Tournament, but it still marks the beginning of spring.

On the bright side, they have developed an absolutely killer (and free) iPhone app. It’s awesome for keeping track of the tournament if you are away from a TV, or as an accompaniment. It has leaderboards, history, course maps and live video from all over the course. Technology may indeed save us all, other majors, take note.

One last note on Greg Norman. I'm pulling for you buddy! You're too good to have never won this one. Plus, there's a poetic justice to giving it one last shot and winning when your son is on your bag.

In other sports news:

Your New York Rangers
The Rangers can clinch a playoff berth on a game against the Flyers tonight at Madison Square Garden. This is a huge game, since if the Blueshirts don’t win they go on the road and have to play the same team again Saturday. The Flyers are playing for home-ice advantage in the first round so the game has lots of meaning for them, too. Rangers/Flyers games are always intense and hard-hitting, so expect more fireworks than average tonight. That may ultimately be the Rangers’ undoing, since Sean Avery will be tempted to stir things up too much and take a dumb penalty. Here’s hoping coach Tortellini gave him a nice talking to after the fiasco against Boston.

Also, here’s hoping that the last two periods of play against Montreal will continue. It was the first sustained period of quality hockey for the Rangers in three or four games.


The New York Yankees
The Yankees put up eleven runs today for their first win of the season. I was a little worried they’d go 0-162, so I’m quite relieved.

After two games, I have to admit they look pretty good.* Matsui looks like he was never injured and continues to be a hitting machine, moving Jeter to leadoff seems to be a smart move and Posada’s arm looks strong. Historically, the Yankee’s are always slow out of the gate so no worries here. Also, as a bonus Nick Swisher seems to be a complete nut job and might be my new favorite Yankee. Stay tuned, I think I’ll be writing about him regularly.

* NOTE: to Red Sox fans and “the sky is falling” Yankee fans. Yes, I saw C.C. Sabathia and Chien-Ming Wang pitch – just relax, it’s early. C.C. is not Hideki Irabu, so call me in July if they still look bad.

Nick Ardenhart R.I.P.


I just read that Angels pitcher, Nick Ardenhart and another member of the California Angels organization were killed in an auto accident last night. Just hours after a six-inning outing, his car was hit by a minivan that ran a red light. It was a hit and run accident, and the driver of the minvan fled the scene, but was later captured.

The effect on a team aside, this kind of thing is a tragedy for his family and friends. Mr. Black's sincerest condolences go out to them.

No jokes today, people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The All-DNA Hall of Fame

April 8th, 2009
New York, NY


One of the things I genuinely miss about living in Denver is the incredible amount of sports coverage in the city. The print and TV news outlets cover all the hometown teams in amazing depth, and also manage to cover every sports league on a national level well. No other city I’ve lived in comes close. Even New York sports coverage pales in comparison, here you get five different spins on the same story, where Denver gives you five different story lines.

This week I was dying to be back home to follow the news that Jack Elway was leaving Arizona State’s football program. Not because I wanted to hear about a story of his fall from grace, but because there would be multiple stories about the Elway family, its football tradition and at least one thoughtful piece about why Jack walked away from a game that by all accounts, he was quite good at. After all, this is a kid that was a top-flight recruit and all scouting reports say has a tremendous arm strength and football sense.

Not much news on the subject hit New York, and the little bits on the internet covered the same ground over and over. But it got me thinking about how incredibly hard it is for the kids of top-flight, professional athletes to be successful.

Even money, privilege and connections the sheer pressure of competing in “the family business” must be a no-win situation. You will never be judged against your peers, but instead against your mother or father’s entire career.

As a teenager, how could Jack Elway be considered a success when he’s measured against a Hall of Famer who won two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP, nine Pro-Bowls, five All-Pro selections and grew to personify, grace and composure for an entire city?

There’s a very small list of athletes on their way to greatness, even more so than their legendary family.

Here they are, the first All-DNA Hall-of-Fame:

#1 Peyton Manning
#2 Eli Manning
Number one and two respectively. Eli does seem to be a better clutch player and honestly seems to have better physical skills, and both guys are as humble and grounded at their father. Both have been proven winners. Still, if I was going to draft anyone in the league as my QB, it would be Peyton.

Which is one of the reasons he gets the nod as #1. He shows more focus and consistency game after game. Additional bonus points go to him for his leadership, since everyone on the Colts defers to him first and he’s nearly always the first to shoulder responsibility for a loss.

Finally, Peyton’s the better actor, as his performance in ads shows great comic timing and the ability to not take everything so seriously.


#2 Ken Griffey, Jr.
Griff rolls in at number three. His father was a Hall of Fame baseball player and by most accounts held his son to amazingly high standards. It would be easy to rebel against that (see Marinovich, Todd), but instead he embraced the challenge, maximized his natural skills and truly enjoyed playing baseball with the reckless abandon and joy of a child. If I wanted to show my son why you play sports, I’d show him Griffey’s seasons from 1996 to 1998 seasons and say, “you play because it’s fun.”

But losing and injuries make you grow up, and the game becomes a business. He left Seattle, but in an interesting twist went to Cincinnati where his father was legendary. This made an interesting challenge, because expectations were sky high, and this really set him up for failure. Add in the fact he showed flashes of a spoiled, petulant athlete and you can almost feel the anticipation of his failure.

Except for a few temper tantrums, he was a really good player and better citizen. Not able to carry an average (to sub-par) team single handedly, especially because he was really hit by injuries, he still averaged about 25 HR, 100 RBI per year.

Now he’s back in Seattle, and his career is winding down. If he can gracefully be the face of baseball in Seattle, play well on a losing club, get to 700 HR and teach the kids how to be professionals he’s capable of moving up to #2 on my list.


#4 Leila Ali
For Leila, it would be easy to simply enjoy life and take it easy. Her father was the greatest boxer of all time and a political icon to boot. But no one in her family seems to want to take the easy route, and we should all be thankful for it.

I’m not a women’s boxing fan, but you have to respect that Leila Ali has put the sport on the map. While doing this, she dealt with purists who look down on women’s boxing as a sideshow, and did it with class.

Perfect score on all counts. She’s has excellent skills that are keep her matches from being a sideshow, and has fought most of the best women’s fighters. Outside the ring she has conducted herself with grace, style and intelligence never rarely allowing herself to be dragged into a bad argument, or being baited by a fighter looking for ink in a sport that isn’t as classy as it once was.

She’d rank higher, but she can’t come close to meeting her father’s accomplishments. Also, in the last few years she’s pulled out of a few fights, and some truly tough fights haven’t materialized. Still, there’s no way to put those shortcomings fully in her lap. Her father has to be proud.


#5 Brett Hull
He kind of flies under the radar on this list, but think about it: His father was one of the best players to put on skates, was part of one of the most iconic teams in league history and is “The Golden Boy,” hockey royalty. That’s tough to live up to.

Brett wasn’t expected to be good, much less great. But at the end of his career, he had 741 career goals, a Stanley Cup-winning goal and was one (if not the best) American player for years. Also, he was one of the most vocal leaders of every team he’s played for (on and off the ice). As he aged he was less of the high scoring, oft-shooting forward to a player that picked his spots and excelled in the post season. He also had a short-lived career on NBC, possibly because he was too entertaining and honest.

His one black-eye in my book is the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Hull led a team of hard partying and light hitting Americans on the ice to an epic failure, where they didn’t even make medal contention. Still, he gets number five based on maximizing talent alone.


Not on the list
Here are a few that didn’t make the cut:

Kobe Bryant
Yes, he’s one of the best to play basketball. Yes, his Dad is a pro. But he’s disqualified for a few reasons:

First, questionable moral character. I don’t need to go into this, but in my book no matter what you paid, it’s not cool to be accused of violence against women.

Second, I don’t care how much money you have, you can’t rap, so just stop it. It’s embarrassing.

Third, to make this list, your parent has to be great. The reason Kobe knows Italian is because his Dad was working in Italy. ‘Nuff said.


Brian Griese
I’m only putting him on this list to remind everyone he has a weak arm, drinks too much and teammates hate him. Yes, Brian, deny it but we all know you didn’t get the black eye from tripping. You dropped a racial slur and Trevor Pryce knocked you the hell out. God, I miss Trevor Pryce.


Kellen Winslow, Jr.
Stop talking. Start playing. Man, your Dad has to be embarrassed.


Ones to watch
I hope we can revisit this list in a few years and add some names. Like these

Marcus Jordan
Michael Jordan’s youngest son just led high school team to the state title in Illinois. A senior, he’s committed to University of Central Florida, partially because he wants to contribute immediately. That shows some of his father’s competitive drive, which is great.

The other reason is that his best friend is currently on the team, which isn’t exactly showing strong leadership ability. Hoping he can crack this list and make pro basketball interesting again.


Chris Simms
A bit of a jouneyman QB, he has a good opportunity to beat his father’s pro accomplishments. A Super Bowl win and a few Pro Bowls can do it, so not the highest bar in the world. I know some Giants’ fans will disagree.

But in his favor is that he doesn’t the seem to have Dad’s penchant for whining (how can we forget the Monday Night Football game where the Giant’s retired his number and he threw management under the bus for his retiring), and shows real grit by playing hurt. I genuinely like Chris Simms, so here’s hoping he pulls a Brett Hull.

Admittedly, this is a total homer pick. He’s on the Broncos, and I want him to come in and compete hard for the starting QB job. If he doesn’t win it, the competition will make Kyle Orton will play better. If Simms wins it, he deserves it.

With a decent offensive line and some weapons, he can show he’s a legitimate pro QB and rack up some Super Bowl wins (especially if we use those picks we have on defensive talent). OK, I got carried away there. I admit it.

A guy can dream, right?


SIDENOTE: About a month ago, the Rocky Mountain News shut down. A moment of silence, please for the best sports section ever. I’ll miss you RMN.