Monday, October 28, 2013

Picking on PK (and other Monday musings)

Whether or not it's true, there's a perception that Canadiens defenceman and reigning Norris Trophy winner PK Subban is targeted by NHL referees.   Ample anecdotal evidence exists to suggest officials are more inclined to call penalties on Subban or overlook infractions against him because they don't appreciate being shown up his vocal and demonstrative demeanor.  In the same way that hockey sinks to the carnivalesque standards of pro wrestling by interpreting the rulebook differently at different times of the game or the season, there's no credibility in applying the rules in a vindictive context designed to satisfy a referee's ego.   For the sake of its own integrity, the NHL has a moral and ethical obligation to remind its on-ice officials to place principles before personalities - even larger than life personalities like PK Subban.

It's a difficult concept to wrap your head around given their decade-long domination of the CFL East, but the Alouettes are officially in transition.   There's no other way to describe a team that's used two head coaches - one of whom isn't even a coach by profession - and trotted our four different starting quarterbacks en route to a 7-10 record.   That said, the CFL's open house postseason format and the one-and-done nature of playoff football mean even a team in transition can win the Grey Cup.

Forty years after its introduction, the designated hitter rule remains anathema to most baseball purists, but without it, whither David Ortiz?   On his own, Ortiz doesn't represent a slam dunk case for the DH, but there's no denying it extended the career of a guy who has provided some of the most dramatic and memorable October moments of the past decade.

America's love of patriotic fervor and abiding respect for military tradition were on full display prior to Game 1 of the World Series in Boston, where pre-game ceremonies included the introduction of three recent recipients of the Medal of Honor - the country's highest award for battlefield heroism above and beyond the call of duty.    Meanwhile, there weren't enough Medals of Honor to go around for a capacity crowd whose conspicuous gallantry was sorely tested during Mary J. Blige's roadside bomb version of the Star Spangled Banner.

If 1980s pop singer Juice Newton married former major league baseball pitcher Burt Hooten, left Hooten for Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Fedor Tyutin, won the lottery, became a cheerleader and went on a gluten-free diet, she'd be high-falutin' rootin' tootin' Juice Newton Hooten Tyutin, sans gluten.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The case for Koivu and retiring #11

   It is a never-ending source of bewilderment to me that many of the same people who so reverentially embrace Saku Koivu when he returns to Montreal as a member of the Anaheim Ducks recoil at the thought of the Canadiens ever honoring Koivu by retiring jersey number 11. 
   The standard argument against raising Koivu's jersey to the rafters is that he doesn't have the personal statistics or Stanley Cup rings to warrant elevating him to such elite company.  If you want to play the comparison game, Koivu has 300 more career points than Bob Gainey, whose number 23 is retired, but Gainey had much better timing, having joined the Canadiens when Sam Pollock was putting the finishing touches on the CH dynasty that dominated the latter half of the 1970s.  Koivu's first season was the same year Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay were handed the keys to the franchise and promptly steered it into an abyss of mediocrity from which it's still struggling to emerge.
   But this isn't about tearing down Gainey or anyone else to build up Koivu, because when it comes to Koivu, there are no comparables.  On their own, neither his statistics nor his successful battle against life-threatening illness justify retiring Koivu's jersey, but the combination makes for an argument as powerful as it is improbable.  He's the second longest-serving captain in team history after Jean Beliveau.  That alone is testament to Koivu's place in the Canadiens pantheon, even before you factor in goals, assists and disease.  Summarily dismissing the notion of honouring him because of his record as a player is not without statistical merit, but it pays short shrift to someone who was dependable, productive and a stabilizing leadership presence in the locker room during an extended period of mismanagement by the front office. managing editor Arpon Basu needed fewer than 140 characters to accurately express what Koivu represented even without taking his illness into account.

   Koivu is not just a hockey player who got cancer and beat it.  He was already a franchise fixture and fan favourite when he was diagnosed.  His strength and courage during his health struggles and the commitment to community born of that battle provided moments of emotion and drama unprecedented in the history of a franchise already awash in legend and lore.  No Stanley Cup championship celebration was as powerfully uplifting as Koivu's first public appearance at the Bell Center after his diagnosis, or his return to the lineup after his recovery.  No one - not Beliveau, not the Rocket, not the Flower - has represented the Canadiens on and off the ice with more honour and dignity.  No one.
   When most former Canadiens players return to Montreal in another uniform, they hear at least a smattering of boos.  The unanimous and unequivocal admiration and respect the Bell Center crowd showed for Saku Koivu last night is reserved for players whose legacies transcend petty competition because of what they meant to the CH - the Lafleurs, Robinsons, Savards and Roys.
   Their jerseys hang from the rafters.  When the time comes, so should his.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Price books early and often for Sochi

Even without knowing the subtleties of goaltending technique, it's abundantly clear that Carey Price is playing with much greater efficiency early this season than he did for most of last year.  To my eye, one difference is that if he's not actually going into butterfly mode less often, he's at least spending less time on his knees before popping back up into a more tenable position.  What's certain is that his body language bespeaks the confidence of someone who's finally found his comfort zone.  And while it's far too soon to start talking about a Vezina Trophy, it's not premature to tout Price as the early favorite to start for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics.

People who think Don Cherry is a buffoon have every right to that opinion, even if it is out of step with the greatest player in hockey history.  Bobby Orr's new autobiography devotes an entire chapter to Cherry, whom the legendary defenceman says belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  That's not an empty platitude from a Don Cherry crony.  It's a ringing endorsement from a universally respected icon whose hockey credentials dwarf the combined credibility of all of Cherry's media critics.

Outside of doctors and immediate family members, it's no one's place to tell Anthony Calvillo whether to give up football, but neither is there a good reason for anyone to urge Calvillo to return to the Alouettes next season.  He's a proud man, but having overcome more personal adversity in the past several years than most people face in a lifetime, Calvillo is also humble enough to recognize and accept circumstances beyond his control.  If this is the end, it might not be the end Calvillo was hoping for, but it doesn't make him any less of a champion.

Apropos of nothing in particular and because the commercial keeps playing during the sports highlight shows, if you ever see me wearing a pair of Zoomies, wrap me in my Snuggie and transport me to the nearest in-patient psychiatric facility, posthaste.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gibson schmibson

Sorry to crash the Kirk Gibson 25th anniversary love-in, but I wouldn't be true to myself as a baseball fan if I didn't address the longstanding illusion that Gibson authored one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history on October 15th, 1988.

Not that it was without drama.  Gibson was nursing hamstring and knee injuries when he hit a pinch hit, two run homer off Dennis Eckersley to give the Dodgers a 5-4 win over Oakland in the 1988 World Series opener.  That's Game 1 of an otherwise forgettable Fall "Classic" that the Dodgers would take in 5.   Thanks to the game's willing media mythmakers, baseball lore practically preaches that Gibson won the Series with that one swing of the bat while playing with two broken legs, multiple gunshots wounds and advanced leprosy. 

Never mind one of the sport's most dramatic moments - it wasn't even one of the 15 greatest home runs in baseball history.  That list, in no particular order, includes:

Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning walkoff HR . October 13, 1960.
Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world".  October 3, 1951.
Carlton Fisk waves it fair.  October 21st, 1975.
Bernie Carbo setting the stage for Fisk's heroics. October 21, 1975
Joe Carter "touch 'em all." October 23, 1993.
David Freese Game 6 walkoff . October 28, 2011
Dave Henderson 9th inning stunner. 1986 ALCS. October 12, 1986
Kirby Puckett Game 6 walkoff.  October 26, 1991
Blue Monday. October 19, 1981
Bucky Fucking Dent. October 21, 1978.
Chris Chambliss walkoff wins ALCS. October 14, 1976.
Aaron Boone walkoff wins ALCS. October 16, 2003
Mickey Mantle puts the Yankees ahead in Game 7 WS. October 7, 1952
Henry Aaron career HR 715.  April 8, 1974
Roger Maris 61 in '61. October 1, 1961

I respectfully submit that each and every one of the home runs listed above had a greater impact on events at the time or more historical significance than Gibson's Game 1 clout in 1988.  What they didn't have was a "crippled" hero and a Hollywood backdrop.

I'm not here to denigrate Gibson or the highlight of his career.  It was truly historic.  But in the annals of the grand old game, greater achievements and more dramatic moments have been afforded far less attention.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Therrien pushing all the right buttons

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien takes a lot of fan and media grief - some of it good-natured, some more visceral - for his forward lines and defence pairings and how he distributes ice time.  While some of his past tendencies have been puzzling, Therrien's personnel changes in the wake of a 3-2 loss to Calgary last Wednesday provided the Habs with a spark in every phase of the game.  Splitting up the team's best line seemed dubious at the time, but putting Tomas Plekanec between Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher got Plekanec out of his early season funk, and moving Lars Eller with Max Pacioretty and Daniel Briere roused Pacioretty (though not Briere) from his slumber.  On the blue line, pairing Andrei Markov with PK Subban has reinvigorated Markov, who looks less like the leadfooted liability of last season and more like the former All Star of previous years.  Saving Carey Price for a Vancouver homecoming and giving Peter Budaj the start in goal in Edmonton was a no-brainer, but Therrien still deserves a nod for not out-thinking himself.  It's only October and slumps and injuries will necessitate more adjustments on the fly as the season progresses, but for one week, at least, Therrien made all the right moves.

It was great to be behind the mic again as host of the Merson Drive/Week in Review on Montreal Hockey Talk.  Don Scary seemed to enjoy being freed from the shackles of mainstream corporate radio, and I even got to use my favorite John Malkovich clip from "Burn After Reading" in the show intro.

Nice to see Opie from Sons of Anarchy get some at bats for the Red Sox in the ALCS.  Not bad for a guy who was beaten to death in prison last season.

With the New York Giants suffering from stage 4 incompetence, I need to find a secondary team to cheer for to keep my NFL interest alive.  My son, Sam, developed an affinity for the Chiefs a couple of seasons ago and his loyalty has been rewarded with a 6-0 start. but I'm loathe to be a bandwagon jumper.  I've always had a soft spot for long-suffering also-rans, so I've got it narrowed down to the Cardinals, Lions and Browns, which is a bit like deciding whether to take my own life by clorox poisoning, self-immolation or giving Mom Boucher a wedgie in the exercise yard at Ste-Anne-des-Plaines

Rob Ryan is what Jesus would have looked like if he were middle-aged, overweight and out of miracles.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Where were you, Dad?

At this point, I have more questions than I have sympathy for Adrian Peterson, whose two year old son died after allegedly being beaten by the boyfriend of the child's mother.

What was the nature of the relationship between Peterson and the mother?
How long has Peterson known he had a two year old son in another city?
What moral and financial commitments did he make when he found out the child was his?
Was Peterson aware that his son was living under the same roof as a man who has a documented history of physically abusing women and children, and if not, why not?

Early indications are that Peterson only recently discovered that the boy was his son, and some of his comments since the toddler's death suggest there was little or no emotional bond between the two.  No loving, doting father I've ever met would show up for work two days after his son was allegedly beaten into a coma, and pronounce himself "ready to roll" for a football game.  Neither his words nor his demeanor spoke of a father in deep distress or mourning.

Peterson is not the criminally guilty party in this case, but as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that he was resting on the rich athlete's sense of entitlement to being a non-custodial sperm donor and/or ATM machine.  That's not child abandonment according to criminal law, but it is an abdication of a father's moral responsibility. 

An absentee father cannot protect his son, and Adrian Peterson's son clearly needed protection. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Joe Thornton's cock

There was a time - perhaps as recently as five years ago - when I would have fallen off my chair after reading Joe Thornton's quote on how he would celebrate were he to ever duplicate San Jose teammate Tomas Hertl's four goal game.  It wouldn't have surprised me that Thornton said it.  The shock would have been that something of that nature was actually reported.

There's long been an unspoken understanding between athletes and sports journalists about what is and isn't on the record.  Historically, profane dressing room banter from a player who's not the one being scrummed by a group of reporters would never see the light of day in a mainstream media publication or broadcast.  But the lines between traditional and "new" media are becoming increasingly blurred, as newspaper writers and sports broadcasters jostle for press box and clubhouse elbow room with officially accredited internet content providers.  The comparative absence of regulation allows internet media to go places traditional media won't or can't go, and when social media picks up the scent, a relatively innocuous quote or incident quickly goes viral and becomes a cause celebre.

Ironically, it was a traditional media journalist who first put the Thornton quote out there, although Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province reported it on his blog, lest Uncle Basil or Aunt Effie suffer a coronary reading about Joe Thornton's masturbatory ambitions in the morning paper.  Botchford later defended himself on Twitter, saying Thornton made the comment to a group of 20 reporters, so if he (Botchford ) didn't report it, he'd be called onto the carpet by his editor. 

Few of Botchford's peers have waded into the debate on an ethical level, although one of the deans of Canadian sports journalism, Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun and National Post, says a line was crossed.  That might have been true a few years ago and there's nothing wrong with old school journalistic ethics, but in the Internet age, they no longer apply.  Botchford recognized that and made a judgement call, and by 21st century media standards, he got it right.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Was ist los mit der Olympic jerseys?

I already knew we were a nation of self-proclaimed hockey gurus. I had no idea that our collective armchair expertise extended to hockey haute couture. 
 The considerable distress that greeted leaked photos of Team Canada's Olympic hockey jerseys a few weeks ago and was echoed when the design was officially unveiled today is at once puzzling and predictable. It's no surprise that any element of something as crucial to the Canadian identity as Olympic hockey should be fodder for national debate, but the criticism of the 2014 jersey design almost seems gratuitous. If the designers had invoked tired stereotypes with a logo of a moose in a Mountie hat or pandered to political correctness by incorporating a multicultural melange of Mandarin collars, harem pants and turban-shaped helmets, that would be legitimate fodder for debate. But an understated red and white pattern with a simple maple leaf logo is strongly representative of the way Canadians traditionally like to see themselves: quietly proud and confident without the arrogance that comes with excessive jingoism.  If less is more, the main Canadian Olympic jersey design is a fashion metaphor for infinity. 
As for the black-with-red-stripes third jerseys, they're a bit over the top, but I'm not comfortable with comparisons to SS uniforms - at least not until Himmler, Heydrich or Sepp Dietrich make the team. Then we'll talk.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Eller is the real deal (and other Monday musings on a Sunday night)

It's disappointing when people who know better downplay Lars Eller's terrific start for the Canadiens because it doesn't suit their personal agenda.  That Eller has been the Canadiens best forward to open the season shouldn't be eye-opening to anyone who's been paying attention for the past three years.  His development as an NHL player has been solid and consistent, and taking it to the next level this season is part of a natural progression.  Eller's skating ability and willingness to go to the dirty areas were never in question, and with added muscle on his 6 foot, 2 inch frame and the confidence and poise born of experience, Eller will be a pillar of strength down the middle for the Canadiens for years to come.  Pretending otherwise because you didn't like the Jaroslav Halak trade at the time is disingenuous, self-serving and lacking in credibility...I've been watching hockey for the better part of 50 years, and only this week did I learn than there's a "code" that forbids NHL coaches from chirping opposing players.  What a crock of shit.  This isn't peewee.  If Colorado coach Patrick Roy objects to his star rookie getting run in a 6-1 game, good for him for giving the other bench an earful - even if he did come unhinged, but that only added to the entertainment value.  Besides, he's Patrick Fucking Roy.  He doesn't have to abide by a code dictated by guys who couldn't carry his lunch when it comes to championship credentials.  Carry on, Patrick...The ability to single-handedly control the universe can be an awesome burden, as I learned this weekend when I recklessly used my Twitter account to jinx Carey Price's shutout, Justin Verander's perfect game and Tony Romo's valiant but ultimately ill-fated showdown with Peyton Manning.  The Twitter backlash from the high priests of irrational folklore was sufficient to remind me that with great power comes great responsibility.  Henceforth, I'll confine the use of my mystical powers to more trivial and inconsequential endeavors, like sowing mutual mistrust between nations and manipulating the global economy...I was supposed to be at yesterday's Eagles-Giants game with my son, but we had to cancel the trip and sell our tickets after I lost my job last month.  If the benevolence of my former employers in arranging to spare us the embarrassment and humiliation of watching our favorite football team fall to 0-5 isn't shining testimony to the corporate culture's limitless compassion for the working man, I don't know what is.