Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling and the right to be wrong

     As new sherriffs in town go, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver doesn't exactly cut the same figure as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but frontier justice was never so decisively dispensed as it was yesterday when Silver banned LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined Sterling 2.5 million dollars.  Even in the wild west, the outlaws sometimes got a fair trial or at least the courtesy of a showdown at high noon, but Sterling fell under the "wanted dead or alive" category, and Silver delivered his still-warm carcass posthaste.
     The racist recording attributed to Sterling and leaked by TMZ caused an unprecedented mainstream and social media uproar, and little wonder.  The voice and comments alleged to be Sterling's depict a despicable and deeply offensive attitude towards minorities in general and specifically African Americans - an attitude more befitting a 19th century slave owner than a franchise owner in a sport dominated by black athletes.  Demands for Sterling's immediate and permanent expulsion from the NBA were pretty much universal, and Silver delivered Sterling's head on a platter.
     But justice and the law don't always intersect.  While there are laws against discrimination in America, there's no law against being a bigot.  Free speech trumps hate speech.  Even if Sterling made hateful comments, his right to do so is protected by the U.S. Constitution.  The methods used by an opportunistic gold digger 50 years his junior to set him up were also suspect and outside the bounds of common decency, if not unlawful.
     The are several lessons to be learned here, and that you can't be racist without risking serious consequences is only one of them.  We've also learned that there's currency in baiting someone in what they believe is a private conversation, that the internet paparazzi has been embraced as a go-to source for credible news, and that social media wields a disproportionately powerful influence on society's decision-makers.  NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabaar says it here with greater authority and credibility than I could ever muster.
     There's no excuse for what Donald Sterling said, and he got what was coming to him.  But woe betide us all when entrapment, mob mentality and summary justice become acceptable substitutes for due process. The best weapon to use against someone like Sterling is the one that's most readily available: shame.  It doesn't rob him of his riches or make him any less despicable, but the one punishment Sterling can't escape is that he has to live with himself.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Habs-Bruins, awards snubs and more dumb things sportscasters say

So, it's the Canadiens and Bruins again in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and anyone with an emotional investment in either team will insist they wouldn't have it any other way.  Don't believe it for a second.  Detroit would have been a significantly less formidable obstacle to the Conference Final for the Canadiens, and Boston would have much preferred Tampa Bay as a second round opponent because the Lightning don't live rent-free in the Bruins' heads like the Canadiens do.  Intellectual honesty aside, there's a lot to be said for a post-season showdown between two arch-rivals whose bitter antipathy transcends the teams and takes visceral root among the two cities' respective fan bases and even the media.  In hockey terms, Boston-Montreal is personal in every way, and that's what makes it the most desirable matchup even when it isn't.

There was moderate grumbling among Canadiens supporters after the perceived snub of Carey Price in the Vezina Trophy nominations, and while Price was unquestionably Vezina-worthy this season, so were the three goaltenders who were named as finalists.  Price is still a legitimate candidate for a Hart Trophy nomination as NHL MVP, although the award itself is considered a slam dunk for Sidney Crosby.  In a best case scenario, Price will have to console himself with a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup.

A lesser individual slight saw Tomas Plekanec overlooked as a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward.  That's a tougher case to argue because the relative absence of related statistics makes it difficult to measure if you're not schooled in the subtleties of good defensive play, which in turn makes it that much more puzzling that the Selke is voted on by hockey writers instead of players, coaches or general managers.

Memo to too-hip-by-a-half sportscasters: they're the Avalanche, not the Lanche; the Oilers, not the Oil; the Canucks, not the Nucks; the Coyotes, not the Yotes; and the Rangers, not the Rags.

I'm Ed Ird.  Or Tird.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hack Night in Canada

    By any objective measure, the three stars of the Canadiens four game sweep of Tampa Bay were Rene Bourque, Carey Price and take your pick from among PK Subban, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec.
     By Hockey Night in Canada's standards, the three stars were Ginette Reno and French Canadian referees Francis Charron and Francois St. Laurent.
     Ron MacLean's ill-considered suggestion that francophone refs harbour a tribal bias towards the Canadiens was only the most ludicrous example of anti-Montreal sentiment, and coming from MacLean, it wasn't entirely surprising.  This is the same guy who compared hockey players to 9/11 first responders and invoked the Arab-Israeli conflict when Rogers CEO Nadir Mohammed shook hands with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on a new broadcast rights deal.  MacLean is a fundamentally sound show host, but his editorial judgement is terrible, and last night he managed to offend an entire linguistic group and insult the intelligence of the rest of us.
     Meanwhile, lead play-by-play announcer Jim Hughson's blatantly pro-Tampa agenda was beyond obvious when Steven Stamkos was spared an additional minor penalty despite punching Alexei Emelin in the face after Stamkos was penalized for hooking.  Said Hughson, "Well, the good thing about this is they only gave him 2(minutes)."  Hughson, Glenn Healy and PJ Stock couldn't get over how much Lady Luck smiled on the Canadiens while the Lightning couldn't catch a break.  Don Cherry might have only been the fifth-most biased announcer on the Hockey Night in Canada crew during the series, and to Cherry's credit, at least he doesn't pretend to be neutral.
     Bias and homerism are normal in sports broadcasting, but they should be confined to local broadcasts.  A national broadcaster has an ethical responsibility to present fair and balanced coverage.  Hockey Night in Canada routinely falls short of meeting that responsibility, and that's something Rogers needs to address when it takes over the show next season- assuming Rogers cares about professionalism.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ball busters, crotch grabbers and other Easter weekend musings

As tiresome as Hockey Night in Canada's pro-Tampa theme has become three games into the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was at least one element of Sunday's coverage that gave Montreal its due.  Toronto-based filmmaker Tim Thompson's game-opening musical montages have become as much must-see as Coach's Corner, but certainly not because of the train wreck factor that draws a substantial portion of Don Cherry's viewers.  Thompson's montages are carefully crafted works of art, and for a non-Montrealer, he demonstrated uncanny touch with Sunday's opening segment.  Set to the strains of local chanteur Michel Pagliaro's "Some Sing, Some Dance", the two minute and 10 second homage tapped perfectly into the relationship between the city and its hockey team, and was a welcome departure from Hockey Night's usual insincere and ham-fisted attempts to feign respect for the Canadiens.

After six days and nights of edge-of-your-seat Stanley Cup playoff fare, I'm more convinced than ever that the comparative dreck that passes for regular season hockey is criminally overpriced.  Hundreds of dollars for a pair of good seats to a mid-January snoozefest is a rip-off, but by today's economic standards, the same money is well worth it for an overtime barnburner in the post-season.  Therefore, I propose a business model whereby ticket prices are determined AFTER the game by an impartial arbitrator with equal amounts of expertise in hockey and economics who can decide what represents fair value for the dollar.  I get one percent of the gate for coming up with the idea.

It doesn't matter that the five thousand dollar fine assessed to Bruins thug Milan Lucic for spearing Detroit's Danny DeKeyser in the groin is pocket change for Lucic.  What's important is that by getting caught on camera pulling the same stunt twice in the last three weeks, Lucic has been exposed as a serial offender of the most despicable act one man can perpetrate on another.  Karma and the hockey code (such as it is) will take care of the rest.

Remarkably, while Lucic was only fined 5 grand for a vile and deliberate attempt to injure, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was docked 25k for the obscene but relatively harmless act of grabbing his own crotch during a loss to St. Louis.  Comparisons aside, both gestures added a new phrase to the hockey lexicon: if you can't beat 'em, scrotum.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Habs an easy pick vs Lightning

   In the mug's game of Stanley Cup playoff predictions, it doesn't get much easier for the mugs than the Canadiens' opening round series with Tampa Bay. 
   The injury to Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop makes Montreal the clear favourite. Bishop's Canadiens counterpart and Vezina Trophy co-frontrunner, Carey Price, is coming off a breakthrough season that included career-bests in goals against average and save percentage and an Olympic gold medal. Never mind the Vezina - Price a frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, and anyone who thinks his suspect post-season history is cause for concern hasn't been paying attention. The way Price has embraced pressure situations this season, it wouldn't be surprising if he actually lifts his game to another level in the playoffs. 
   With Tampa pinning its goaltending hopes on journeyman backup Anders Lindback and/or 21 year old rookie Kristers Gudlevskis, the Canadiens have a decisive advantage at the most important position on the ice. Everything else being equal - and there's not a lot else that separates the Canadiens and the Lightning - the smart money says the Habs take the series in fairly short order. 
   Montreal in five. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hats off to tradition

                                        That's not a baseball hat....

                                         THIS is a baseball hat.

     By definition, a uniform is the distinctive and identical clothing worn by members of the same organization. In team sports, there are common and acceptable minor variations to uniforms.  Some football players like their sleeves cut off at the shoulder, others prefer longer sleeves.  Major League Baseball gives players the option of wearing their socks inside or outside their pants.  The NHL became the biggest stickler for the in-game dress code when it began enforcing the rule forbidding players from tucking their jersey into their pants a la Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Ovechkin.
     None of the aforementioned breaches of uniformity strikes me as offensive, but one that does is the oversized, flat-billed, noticeably askew baseball cap.  Rightly or wrongly, it's a look associated with hip hop culture, and rightly or wrongly, hip hop culture is associated with street gang violence.  I'm not saying every major league baseball player who wears a flat-billed sideways cap is gang-affiliated.  My blond-haired whitebread West Island teenaged sons have adopted the look, and that I'm aware of, they're not involved in running gun battles on the mean streets of Beaconsfield.
     Besides the obvious sociological connotations, there's the more fundamental issue of professionalism.  At the major league level, you should look like a ballplayer.  To my mind that means hat straight and bill curled, and if you insist on being a little bit different, stain that bad boy with some infield dirt and tobacco juice.  And while you're at it, take the stickers off the underside of the brim.  It's your hat now.  Wear it like you own it.  And don't make me come over there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Whole lotta separated at birth (and other Monday musings)

As playoff wild cards go, it doesn't get much wilder than Kristers Gudlevskis.  The 21 year old Latvian, who famously stopped 55 of 57 shots in a memorable performance against Team Canada at the Olympics, turned aside 36 to beat Columbus 3-2 in his first NHL start for Tampa Bay Friday, and could be a compelling choice as a playoff starter against the Canadiens in the absence of the injured Ben Bishop.  At the very least, Gudlevskis gives the Lightning an interesting option with proven big game chops in the event that journeyman backup Anders Lindback falters. 

Every time CBS showed Robert Plant look-alike Miguel Angel Jiminez at the Masters, I'd hum Whole Lotta Love to myself until the next time they showed Jiminez and another Led Zeppelin song started running through my head.  Jiminez took me through the entire Zeppelin discography with a six under par 66 Saturday, but his 71 yesterday barely got me through side 1 of Houses of the Holy.

Unless he's discovered a youth elixir and undergone a spiritual transformation, the Alouettes' flirtation with Chad Ochocinco is tantamount to a publicity stunt.  Ochocinco is on the far side of 36, hasn't played professionally in three years and his character flaws are well-documented.  As a former All Pro and marginal reality TV star, Ochocinco might sell a few tickets, but he's no longer a football asset. 

Formula One fans are in for shock and disappointment at this year's Canadian Grand Prix.  The switch from V8 to V6 turbo-charged engines has radically changed one of the most important and appealing components of the sport: the sound.  The longstanding signature scream of the F1 cars now sounds more like your grandmother put a turbo-charger on her sewing machine.  Still impressive, but nobody goes to a Black Sabbath concert to hear an acoustic set.  F1 needs to find a way to turn it back up to 11.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

PK vs. the Coach

     There's been a shift in the public perception of the relationship between Canadiens coach Michel Therrien and star defenceman PK Subban - not a seismic shift, but enough movement that it's noteworthy. 
     The benching of Subban for all but 37 seconds of the first period in Ottawa two games ago was greeted by the usual knee jerk incredulity on Twitter, with fans and media alike clamoring for Therrien's head on a stick.  But after Subban delivered another lacklustre effort Saturday against Detroit, sober second thought took root, and people not blinded by the residual gleam of last year's Norris Trophy started giving current events priority over marginally recent history.  Subban hasn't been the same player this season, and at some point, he has to be held accountable. If Therrien is coming down harder on Subban than he is on other players, it's because more is expected of Subban.  Blaming coaching or defence partners doesn't wash with a player who has the natural gifts to adapt and excel even in the most extraordinary circumstances, and there's nothing extraordinary about what Therrien is asking of any of his players. 
     Subban's talent is beyond dispute.  What's being tested now is his professionalism, and how he responds to what the coach demands of him in the playoffs will speak volumes about his character development.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

That's one way of getting Murray out of the lineup

     It's a foregone conclusion that Montreal defenceman Douglas Murray will be suspended for elbowing Tampa Bay's Mike Kostka in the head last night, and the running gag among Canadiens fans is the more games, the better. 
     Murray's graceless and laborious style makes him an easy target for criticism.  Like a good offensive lineman, nobody notices him when he's at his best.  At his worst, he's a spectacular train wreck.  Murray must be doing something right, because he's been in the NHL for nine years, has taken a regular shift wherever and whenever he's played, and is a significant contributor to a Canadiens penalty killing unit that ranks third in the league.  He's never been suspended and probably faces a maximum of three or four games for last night's incident, which was more circumstantial than it was deliberate and which Murray probably regrets more than anyone. 
     If you think the Canadiens are better off without Murray, be careful what you wish for.  He might not be poetry in motion, but properly utilized, his experience, size and defensive awareness make him more of an asset than he is a liability.