Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Stanley Cup Playoffs - A Reason To Love April

April is my favorite sports month of the year. This evening begins one of the primary reasons for this month’s greatness. Yes, it’s time for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As an avowed puckhead, I eagerly await this time of year. For the next two months, 16 teams will take to the ice in four rounds of playoffs, hoping to bring home the coolest trophy in sport: the Stanley Cup. Even if you’re not a big hockey fan – and many of my best friends are not, sadly – I bet that once you give it a chance that you will find yourself watching intently to see who scores that game-winning goal. Back when I was in college, I can recall many a night when my non-hockey fan friends and I stayed up to watch Cup playoff games that went deep into overtime. We all were glued to the screen, eagerly awaiting that one shot that got past the goalie to give a team a momentum-changing win or would clinch a series, allowing a team to march on to the next round. Give it a chance, folks. Trust me. It’s probably the most passionate, intense and exciting playoffs of any in the four major North American sports leagues. Not saying the NBA Playoffs, which begin next week, aren’t intense or worth watching. I just find the NHL Playoffs more exciting and a better show.

Alas, this year’s NHL tournament does not feature my favorite team, the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts were eliminated from playoff contention on the very last day of the regular season with a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The result also lifted the Flyers, a long-time rival of the Rangers, into the chase for Lord Stanley’s silver chalice. Missing the playoffs by a single point in the standings. That is just painful. So instead of seeing my favorite goalie Henrik Lundqvist trying to carry his teammates far into the playoffs, I’m resigned to just watch the action as simply a hockey fan. It stinks, but it’s not so bad. The Rangers, honestly, have a lot to work on and probably wouldn't have lasted long as an 8-seed in the Eastern Conference.

This year’s playoffs should be very interesting. The top teams in both conferences look great, but the teams that didn’t win their divisions will be formidable. The Washington Capitals, led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin, won the Presidents Trophy for the league’s best regular season record. They figure to be on a mission after losing in the second round of last year’s playoffs. The team that ousted them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are back as well, seeking to win the Stanley Cup for a second year. While superstar Sidney Crosby, a legend in his native Canada before his 23rd birthday, is hungry for another championship, he will be tested with a cast that’s probably not as good as the one he played with last year. The Detroit Red Wings, America’s most successful NHL franchise, has rebounded from its pre-Olympic woes and looks ready to do damage in the Western Conference. Their rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, are enjoying great success on the ice with young stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. They’re also continuing Chicago’s hockey renaissance. After years of being awful, the Blackhawks, an Original Six team, are good again and worthy of the Second City’s love and affection. They’re also odds-on favorites to take home the Cup, according to many hockey experts. (Including ESPN’s Barry Melrose.)

Speaking of the Cup, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing it up close during a visit to Toronto three years ago. It looks just as beautiful in person as it does on television. Ask my brother just how giddy I became upon sight of the Cup, which is housed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto. Talk about a kid in a candy store. Even my brother, who is not a big sports fan, appreciated the greatness of the Cup.

So many things make the Stanley Cup so cool. For one, there’s only one Cup. Other sports leagues give out a different trophy at the end of their playoffs. Not the NHL. There is just one silver chalice and the championship team gets to hold the trophy until the start of the new season. Another cool feature is that the trophy has the name of every NHL champion engraved into its panels. And in most cases, the names of the players on the winning team are also included. A lot more lasting that a T-shirt, I’d say.

But the best thing about the Stanley Cup is that every member of the winning team gets to spend a day with it to do whatever he chooses – within reason, of course. A player can bring it to his hometown and show it off in a parade, much like Crosby did last year when he took the trophy back to his hometown Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Others have taken the Cup on fishing trips. Some have eaten cereal out of its bowl. And if you believe the story, members of the 1994 champion New York Rangers brought the Cup to a strip club in Manhattan. Cruise the Internet if you’re curious and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of funny stories about players’ celebratory adventures with the Cup.

Now that I’ve told you that, let’s drop the puck. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and I’m ready to enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Hate Is Well Worth It

As I begin writing this column, the Duke University Blue Devils are only hours into celebrating their 2010 NCAA men’s basketball national championship. The Blue Devils barely edged the Butler University Bulldogs 61-59 to take the crown, ending the NCAA Tournament. It was a scintillating, close game the whole way through and the victory was in doubt until the very last shot. Had a half-court heave by Butler’s Gordon Hayward been a few inches shorter, the Bulldogs and all of Indianapolis might be celebrating that school’s first championship.
The result would probably have made many basketball fans, die-hards and casuals alike, much happier. Most fans, it seemed, were pulling for Butler. Or rather, they were rooting against Duke.
That Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team ended up winning the event commonly referred to as March Madness is not sitting well with many fans. After all, the Blue Devils are the “true devils” for plenty of college hoops fans. Duke’s win was poorly received by folks on Twitter as “F—k Duke” became a trending topic less than an hour after the championship game went final. Message boards were filled with angst and anger that Coach K’s crew was able to hoist the trophy, the fourth in Duke’s history. I’m pretty sure that if you talk with your friends in the office this week, at least one will tell you how much he hated seeing the Blue Devils take the title. Or you might be that guy (or lady).
People have their reasons for hating Duke, of course.
Some reasons I’ve heard:
- Coach K “looks like a rat.”
- Duke “gets all the calls from the refs.”
- The Cameron Crazies, the loud mass of Duke students that fill Cameron Indoor Stadium for Blue Devils home games during the college basketball season.
- Former players like Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Steve Wojciechowski, a.k.a. Wojo, are unlikable (or dirty).
- Duke is a team of “spoiled, privileged white guys” that can’t possibly be as good as the black-dominated teams fielded by other schools. (Never mind that there has rarely been a Coach K team bereft of a black player. This year’s team had Nolan Smith and Lance Thomas starting.)

Regardless, it is clear the Duke basketball squad is now one of those polarizing teams in American sports. They’re right up there with the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots, Detroit Red Wings and the University of Notre Dame football team as outfits that America loves to hate. With rare exception, opinion of those teams is pretty cut and dry: either you love them or you hate them. And those that hate them make it known to the world that they’ll take great pleasure in seeing those teams lose – badly.
Here’s the thing, though. If a team is hated and so many people aside from fans of the primary rival, they must be doing something right. Aside from an anti-New York sentiment, the Yankees would not be hated too much nationwide if they only had two championships instead of 27. (Yes, I smiled as I wrote that.) The Cowboys would not have as many detractors sans the five Vince Lombardi Trophies in Jerry Jones’ trophy case. The Lakers are not seen as some big, bad purple and gold menace if they have five titles instead of the 15 they’ve collected. Success breeds haters.
It also breeds viewers. For as much as fans hate certain dominant teams and players for “winning too much,” they also love to watch. Check out Safeco Field in Seattle the next time the Yankees are in town to play the Seattle Mariners. Who wants to bet the place won’t be packed? And it will be filled not only because Mariners fans support their team. It will be because they want to see the Yankees – and they want to see if their team can knock them off. Have a look at any NFL game where the Cowboys are the road team. Even if it’s against a team down on its luck like the Cleveland Browns, best believe Cleveland Browns Stadium will be filled with Browns fans lusting for the chance to see their team take out the guys with the stars on their helmets.
The ratings for those teams’ games also bear out the interest in watching the big-name teams play. And you can bet that Tiger Woods, back from his hiatus due to issues in his personal life, will attract a large television rating as he returns to the course for The Masters golf tournament this weekend.
A few new teams are entering that “love to hate” discussion. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending NHL Stanley Cup Champions and a frequent television presence thanks to superstar Sidney Crosby, are getting more hatred tossed their way. The Boston Red Sox, a team I dislike simply because of their rivalry with the Yankees, have become more loathed since winning a couple of World Series championships last decade. I’m pretty sure that LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are in the crosshairs of hate now, simply because LeBron is seemingly everywhere. (Heaven knows how much hate he’ll get if he leaves the Cavaliers for the New York Knicks. By the way, LeBron. If you’re reading this, consider New York heavily. But ignore your friend Jay-Z if he keeps bringing that Nets nonsense your way.)
I’m confident the ratings for Monday’s national title game will be solid because it’s usually an appealing event. It’s more attractive when you have this David vs. Goliath story in Butler vs. Duke. (Even though true college hoops fans will tell you that Butler is a damn good team and not really worthy of the Cinderella label that fit George Mason University perfectly as GMU made a run to the Final Four in 2006.)
We love to see Goliath, even if we don’t necessarily want to see him win. One thing’s for sure. Reggie Jackson was right on when he said, “they don’t boo nobodies.”
So congratulations, Duke. Your team won a great game and deserves to hoist that trophy. And frankly, I don’t hate Duke and don’t mind seeing them win once in a while. (Unless they’re playing my beloved Syracuse University Orange. In that case, I’m a major Duke hater.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fool’s Day: Not A Big Fan

Yes, April has finally arrived. I am happy that this fourth month of the year is upon us. It’s my favorite sports month of the year because so much is about to happen. You’ve got the NCAA men’s and women’s Final Four, the NCAA Frozen Four hockey championship, the start of the Major League Baseball season (Go Yankees!), the Masters golf tournament (which would still be a great watch even if we didn’t have to deal with the circus that is Tiger Woods’ return), and the start of the NHL and NBA Playoffs. From a sports standpoint, it’s great.

It’s just that the first day has to get in the way. The first day of the month is, of course, April Fool’s Day. Which means folks are ready to trot out all kinds of jokes to mess with their friends, colleagues or whoever’s watching or reading.

Naturally, April Fool’s Day is heavily celebrated on the Internet. If you’ve checked your email, Twitter, Facebook or any active message board today, you’ve probably come across links to stories that sounds so ridiculous and out there that they can’t possibly be true. And lo and behold, they’re not. Because too many people are already gullible enough to believe that anything on the Web is true. Not surprisingly, some folks didn’t bother to check their calendars to see that the day of the big joke is here along with the sun and warmth of springtime.

Maybe it’s me getting older. Or maybe it’s because I’m a journalist. But I’m not the biggest fan of fake news. After all, there’s enough of them floating around the Web on days before and after April 1. But today, you’re going to see these stories many times over. One sports message board I visit regularly is a breeding ground for fake news on this day. So far, I’ve seen posts that former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Another post supplied the “breaking news” that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, already the subject of heavy NFL off-season trade talk, was going to be traded to their NFC East division rivals, the Washington Redskins. No links were provided to these “news items,” thankfully, and everyone moved on.

The YES Network, broadcast partner of the New York Yankees, joined the party through its River Avenue Blues blog. A “story” published today read that Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden, MSG Network, the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, are still interested in purchasing the Yankees, a pursuit that began back in the 1990s when Yankees games still aired on MSG Network. Of course, the end of the blog post had a postcard indicating it was a ruse. But plenty of Yankees fans that didn’t realize it was a joke were up in arms. After all, we know the Yankees have excelled under the Steinbrenner family (please save your hatred, Yankee haters), while the Knicks and Rangers have largely floundered under the Cablevision regime. Given that the story took some pretty sharp digs at Cablevision’s James Dolan, who oversees the Knicks and Rangers and is being held responsible for the failures of the teams in the last decade, it will be interesting to see how MSG bites back.

But here’s when keeping a joke can go all kinds of wrong. A few years ago, when Dan Patrick was at ESPN, he had a segment on his radio show with longtime baseball writer Peter Gammons. Gammons said on air that he’d heard from sources that former Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose, barred from consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame for betting on games, was going to be reinstated, therefore making him eligible for enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y. The “news” was cause for celebration among Reds fans and Rose fans anxious to see Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader enter the Hall of Fame. But once Patrick revealed that it was just a joke, he was deluged with angry calls and emails for the duration of the show. Sometimes, a joke can go too well.

I know some of you reading this will tell me to lighten up. After all, most logical people know what today is about and no one will really be hurt by it. True, most of the jokes are harmless and at the end of the day, smart people will figure it out, have a laugh and say, “Man, you got me!” But for folks who pride themselves on presenting the truth to people, it’s not a lot of fun. Especially if you’re the poor sap who has to make calls or go to the scene of what turns out to be nothing but a joke. Or if the credibility of your agency is called into question because someone decided to join with the crowd and be part of the fun of April Fool’s Day.

All this said, I still have a sense of humor and can have a good laugh when someone gets fooled. But at least make your scenarios somewhat plausible. Better yet, leave the fake news to The Onion and The Daily Show.