Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Great Expectations

Photo by: St. Petersburg Times

The end of the 2010 baseball season is proving to be more and more like watching Space Mountain. Tonight's loss against the Orioles was like going down a huge drop where your stomach falls through your torso to your toes and the wheels nearly come off your little rocket ship. The more the Sox seem to flail, the more my mind turns to the approaching NHL season. According to the NHL's facebook, it is only 37 days until the puck drops on the new season. Even less time before training camps begin and we start to get answers to a lot of questions about who will do what and where. And if the NHL will ever give approval on a new contract for Ilya Kovalchuk.

If the last few hockey seasons with the Lightning have taught me anything it's that change isn't always good. OK hockey's time in Tampa Bay was a gigantic failure both on and off the ice. I saw my team plummet to the bottom of the standings and become the laughing stock of the league. So, it's understandable that I am a little hesitant to be one hundred percent on board with the new ownership, General Manager, and head coach. All of the skeletons have been cleaned out of the closets at the St. Pete Times forum, though. To quote the song: It's a new dawn, It's a new day, it's a new life.

I am trying to hold everything in check, but it's getting more and more difficult. I mean, our new GM is Steve Yzerman. I have not disagreed with any of the moves he has made in the offseason and things just keep getting better and better. He pretty much finagled Simon Gagne coming to Tampa for Matt Walker and a bag of pucks. Mr. Vinik seems prepared to spend the money and the time to improve the facility and seems to actually care about how the team does. A new glass/boards system has been put into the arena bringing it up to date. We have new zambonis, which are not cheap. We have a new system to maintain the ice surface. We have a very talented new draft pick in Brett Connolly. We have Steven Stamkos whose game continues to mature and who has turned into a scoring dynamo. We have Marty St. Louis back under contract.

We have a lot going for us. I'm excited and nervous for the start of the new season. But really, it can't get here fast enough.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Growing The Game

Late last week I read a great article by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. Burke was also the GM of this year's USA hockey team that competed in the Winter Olympics for the non hockey crowd.

The full article can be read here: Brian Burke: The World Awaits

In the article, he discusses some of his thoughts on how the game of hockey can better promote itself by growing even at the smallest levels. I am not going to pretend I am a hockey genius like Mr. Burke, but I have to say that I like a lot of his ideas. Being a fan in a non traditional hockey market, I think some of his ideas can be implemented in growing hockey not only abroad but in some of the sun belt teams.

I also liked his idea bout resurrecting the World Cup of hockey, but with more promotion and hype added to it. The last World Cup was played in 2004 and you were hard pressed to find any games outside of the USA ones on any sort of media outlet. The USA games were shown on ESPN, but that's about it. I believe it was the game that Canada played against the Czech republic in the tournament several years ago that was finally shown on ESPN. The game went into overtime, the coverage did not.

The World Cup for soccer could be seen as a good model for how the World Cup of hockey could be presented. I mean, look at how many people watched the World Cup and became obsessed with vuvuzelas this summer when they don't follow MLS or international football. It is definitely something I think the league should explore, especially if they decide to stop participating in the Winter Games. In a lot of parts of Europe, the demand for hockey is huge.

Recovering from a bit of a stomach bug, so I leave you with a quote from Mr. Burke's article that pretty much sums up my love of hockey:

"We are blessed in our game. While our players are the greatest athletes in the world, they are also the greatest ambassadors in sports. They are gracious, courteous and accommodating with fans and the media, active in their communities and patriotic. They make the game special."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Justifiable Fisticuffs

With the Red Sox dusting up with the Indians when they were in Cleveland and then this week's bench clearer between the Reds and Cardinals, it got me thinking about fighting and it's role in my two favorite sports.

Hockey is a sport of almost constant motion. Passing the puck, checks into the boards, players flying off the bench to change on the fly. So much of the sport is about fast, aggressive action. Often times, all of that aggression spills over into actual punches being thrown. For me, it's difficult for people to cast a negative light on fighting in the sport when most injuries don't occur when two players drop the gloves and go. It can be a slapshot to the face (or lower regions.. sorry, Sami Salo), or a check into the boards or a clean hit on the open ice. When the gloves do come off, you usually have a sense that it's been building up to that point. Whether it's from a questionable hit on one team's star player or just the chippy way the game has been played. Fighting has it's role. Frankly, I love it. I'm not going to lie. Do I think the sport should be nothing but fighting? No. If you want to see two dudes hit each other in the face, I recommend just watching boxing as ice skates can make it long winded and pretty clumsy.

Now, baseball is another issue all together. I love the sport, but I can see how non fans might think that it's boring. Just as hockey is about action, a lot of baseball is about inaction. Or little actions so small it's easy to miss them. A single or catching a sacrifice fly isn't as flashy as a top shelf goal in the last two minutes of the game. Baseball is a slower pace. A lot of it is nuance. Unless it's a tense game that goes back and forth, and unless it's been just about any of the games the Red Sox have played this season, a lot of times it is a much easier pace. So when someone gets hit by a pitch and players start coming out of the dugouts and bullpens, excitement levels rise pretty fast. A lot of times, punches aren't even thrown. Maybe some shoving and harsh words. But, if you're someone like Josh Beckett, words might be all you need. It's very, very rare you see people actually come to blows.

The point? Well, I guess there isn't really one. Yahoo's Puck Daddy posted an update this weekend stating that the most sissy hockey player could beat up any baseball player. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this, especially given Alexander Semin's combat style. I guess the point is that sometimes fighting has a place in my two favorite sports. More prominently in one than the other, but I definitely understand it. Doesn't hurt that I also kind of like it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sports & Estrogen

I came across an interesting read today, discussing how women have been some of the most enthusiastic fans of baseball pretty much since the start of the game:

Women & Baseball

"Once a woman becomes a fan, she is the best fan in the world." - Bill Veeck

It's encouraging to read things like that as even in today's world, the hardcore female sports fan seems to be viewed as a bit of an oddity. I come across people who are surprised that I watch almost every Red Sox game and that I have season tickets to the Lightning. My question is usually: why are you surprised?

It has been documented in studies that women are the primary purchasers of sports merchandise, and I'm sure some of that is done for their families. But I take a look around my apartment and see my memorabilia, my jerseys, my trading cards. They haven't been bought for anyone but me. And I know there are others like me.

I often wonder why more leagues don't do more to cater to the female sports fan. Not by selling bedazzled pink jerseys or mini dresses with your favorite NHL team logo on them ( Alyssa Milano, I am ashamed of you). The Lightning used to hold an event called Hockey & Heels. I was never able to make it before I moved to Tampa but it seemed like a great event where women could interact with players, discuss nuances of the game, and experience some of the behind the scenes aspects of the game. I would like to see something like that be brought back. Bring more women into the stands.

Men will always show up to sporting events, that''s just a fact of life. If you get the women, you get their loyalty and you get them to open up their wallets. You get the women, and you have them for life.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I see PRIDE! I see POWER! I see a bad-ass mother who won't take no crap off of NOBODY!

Borrowed the screen grab from Surviving Grady.
Broadcasted by NESN

A lot of times, sports are filled with many small moments that add up to something larger. Sometimes, something happens that eclipses all of those little moments and you can point to it as a defining moment of a season. For me, a few of those moments happened in the Red Sox game versus the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night.

It was a hard day for members of Red Sox Nation. Kevin Youkilis suffered a thumb injury that ended his season. They were staring up at the Yankees and Rays and facing an even wider gap between them and post season contention. And after a late inning rally the night before just wasn't enough, everyone was feeling a bit down on our boys' chances. And then... well. Two of my favorite moments of the season happened.

Mike Lowell, who has been the subject of umpteen trade rumors and has spent most of the 2010 season riding the pine, was put in to fill Youkilis' spot at first base. He had a number of pretty amazing defensive plays, but the biggest moment was when he his a 2 run homerun on the first pitch he saw to put the Sox ahead in the second inning. I mean, we've all seen the movies. The aging player who many people doubt it healthy enough to keep going comes in and is the hero. We saw exactly why he was the World Series MVP in 2007 and I for one am glad that Mike Lowell is still around. He plays hard and has been infinitely classy about his situation this year. I was so, so happy for him. And the way his teammates greeted him in the dugout after his HR, you could tell they were too.

The other defining moment was the bench clearing after Willis threw behind Beltre. There had been some beaning by the Red Sox pitchers, and later the Indians threw behind David Ortiz in an at bat later in the game. I guess the Indians have missed Beltre being a human wrecking ball this season, against opponents and his own teammates, so they didn't get the memo that he is one bad ass mother.. well, you get the idea. Both benches clear and then came the memorable line by Don Orsillo:

"Things appeared calm until Beckett arrived."

Josh Beckett was a man possessed. He had Trot Nixon-esque craziness in his eyes and it really makes me wonder exactly what Shelley Duncan said to him to make him go off. But frankly, I don't really care. I saw all of our guys, even the injured ones barely off of crutches coming out to settle the score. Everyone was fired up and you could tell they have not written off their chances yet, even if they have to bring every single guy up from Pawtucket.

In spite of the slow start and in spite of the freakish rash of injuries, the Red Sox have not given up and they have not given in. They are sacking up, cowboying up, and putting on the foil. After all of the hardships, they are only five games back, and as 2004 proved a Wild Card spot is all you need. Let's do this.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Never too hot for hockey

It's been a blistering 95+ degree weather here in the Bay area for the last week, so it makes absolutely no sense that hockey has been a large topic of discussion among my friends and I. Outside of a lull in the Kovalchuk contract debacle and the whole thing where Max Talbot called Alexander Ovechkin a douche, the Lightning have had a few signings this week that addressed at least one of the issues that I was concerned about.

This week they signed three defensemen: resigning Vladimir Mihalek, and signing Mathieu Roy and Mike Vernace. Mihalek has been in their system since he was drafted in the first round in 2005. He seems to be filling out a bit more, which given his 6'7 frame was really needed. Defensemen usually take longer to mature into their position play, but that size is something we could definitely use on the blue line. Especially if he has that mean streak that was so highly touted when he was drafted. It all comes down to training camp, I'll guess we will have to see what happens. With departures and new signings, the look of the opening night roster could be very different than last year. And I think that might be a very good thing.

The Bolts also signed center Dominic Moore to a two year deal. They got him at a pretty good price, and his numbers for the Panthers and Canadiens last season were respectable for a lower line guy. Not too much to say beyond that, as always I would love to be dazzled come October.

On that note, I am leaving you with my all time favorite hockey song. Apparently Kevin Smith likes it as he is making a movie based on it: