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The Pistons teased Bob Lanier when he played in Detroit.

Lanier, the greatest big man in franchise history, got teased from the moment the Pistons chose him first overall in the 1970 NBA draft, out of St. Bonaventure.

Lanier was flat on his back in a hospital bed, his leg immobilized in a cast, when the draft took place. A serious knee injury suffered in his last college game made him a temporary gimp.

Yet the Pistons, for too many years a team that was a doughnut (a hole in the middle), had faith in the 6’11” Lanier and, despite his knee injury, snatched him off the board.

Lanier combined with young point guard David Bing to create an inside-out presence that the Pistons had never known. And the Pistons got off to a 9-0 start in Lanier’s rookie season.

One can only imagine the sugar plums going through Lanier’s head. Rookie year, undefeated after nine games. How many championships will I win in the NBA?

Teased!

Lanier and Bing were great, but the supporting cast was always a work in progress. Some pieces were contributory, but others weren’t a great fit. The result was that the Pistons were frequent playoff participants in the 1970s but only once did they get past the first round (1976).

More teasing for Lanier.

Lanier played for eight coaches in his nine-plus years as a Piston. The revolving door was letting in the stench of organizational dysfunction.

There was no free agency in the NBA when Lanier played. Even now, only speculation can be used as to whether he would have bolted Detroit if given the option.

There wasn’t free agency in Lanier’s day, but there were trades. And finally, late in 1979, Bob Lanier, the face of the Pistons franchise once Bing was traded in 1975, demanded to be relocated.

The Pistons were going through turmoil, yet again, when Lanier approached new GM Jack McCloskey and all but begged to get him out of Detroit.

Lanier was 31 years old and he wasn’t in denial about that. The calendar wasn’t his friend and he wanted so badly to compete for an NBA championship.

The Pistons in 1979 were a mess. As usual.

The team had changed coaches. As usual.

Bob McAdoo, another great big man, had been added to the roster but McAdoo was unhappy, uninspired and unwilling to play nice.

The Pistons were stripped of draft choices thanks to the brief but ruinous era of Dick Vitale and the future looked bleak. The team was winning once every six games or so.

Lanier had had enough of the Pistons, though it pained him to ask for the trade. Any success he was going to have in the NBA, he wanted to have it in Detroit.

But that clearly wasn’t going to happen in the near future with the Pistons, who weren’t even bothering to tease Lanier anymore. They had now moved on to being just plain bad.

McCloskey pulled the trigger on the deal in early-February, 1980. Lanier was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks, who knew how to win, and the Pistons got Kent Benson, who was no Lanier, but they also received a coveted first-round draft choice.

The Bucks teased Lanier, too.

More playoffs. More post-season heartbreak, though Milwaukee once made it as far as the conference finals with Lanier at center.

Greg Monroe is no Bob Lanier but neither is he a stiff, by a long shot.

Monroe is a left-handed shooting big man, just like Lanier. He has played for a lot of coaches in Detroit, just like Lanier. Monroe has seen organizational dysfunction, just like Lanier.

But where Monroe differs from Lanier is in two respects.

One, Monroe has never played in a playoff game in the NBA. He was never teased by the Pistons.

Two, Monroe can be a free agent and shop his talents around the league.

Monroe doesn’t have to sidle up to Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy and beg to be relocated. Monroe’s expiring contract will do that work for him this summer.

There was a brief moment this season where the Pistons flirted with playoff contention. They moved on from Josh Smith and a 5-23 start and clawed their way into the picture for spring basketball.

Then Brandon Jennings got hurt and Van Gundy made some trades at the deadline and whatever fragile chemistry the Pistons had was ruined.

Through it all, Monroe has been healthy and doing his thing on the court. One can only imagine what’s going through his head off it.

When the Pistons were in the hunt for the playoffs in February, Monroe’s comments to the press didn’t even attempt to hide his giddiness at such a scenario. Even the notion of being in the mix tantalized Monroe.

But now that’s all gone by the wayside and the Pistons can’t use a playoff berth as a means to entice Monroe to sign with them long term before or after July 1.

Van Gundy will have to use a full court press to convince Monroe that the SVG Way is the path that will lead to competitive basketball in Detroit.

Monroe will have to feel good about the direction in which the Pistons are heading, or else he is sure to get big bucks elsewhere. Unlike Bob Lanier, Monroe isn’t tethered to the Pistons and he doesn’t have to beg for a trade.

Monroe can simply peel off his Pistons jersey after Game 82 this season and move on from them.

Unless he wants to stay.

Greg Monroe has leverage in today’s NBA that Bob Lanier could only fantasize about, 35 years ago.

Today’s Pistons are much closer to contention than the 1979-80 team (16-66) that Lanier begged to be removed from. But Monroe still has played five years in the NBA and all he’s known is losing, coaching changes and chaos.

The Pistons will be asking Monroe to take a leap of faith that, heretofore, has little basis on which to positively refer.

At least the Pistons haven’t teased Greg Monroe.

We’ll see if that’s good or bad.

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Mar
14

Austin’s Coaching Chops to Be Put to Test, Sans Suh

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In 1962, the only “sack” was something filled with potatoes. The word certainly wasn’t used in the same sentence with “quarterback,” unless you were directing your signal caller to go to the market.

The term “sacking the quarterback” was coined by Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones, sometime in the mid-1960s. Prior to Deacon’s creativity, on the quarterback’s stats line, what we know as a sack today was called “times tackled for loss.”

Yawn.

There were no sacks, per se, on that Thanksgiving Day in 1962. But Bart Starr’s body didn’t know the difference.

The Detroit Lions, on one of their most glorious days since their 1957 championship, brutalized and punished Green Bay’s Starr on national television while the nation feasted on turkey. Eleven times Starr faded back to pass and was “tackled for a loss.”

Sacked!

The effort was payback for the Lions letting the Packers off the hook in Green Bay a month earlier.

The Lions’ defensive line in those days were the “original” Fearsome Foursome—several years before Jones and company got tagged with that moniker with the Los Angeles Rams.

Darris McCord and Sam Williams at the ends. Alex Karras and Roger Brown in the interior. Those four collapsed the vaunted Packers offensive line—filled with future Hall of Famers—all afternoon on that Thanksgiving Day of ’62. Sometimes the linebackers, like Joe Schmidt, would get into the act.

The Lions won, 26-14, and it was Green Bay’s only loss of the season. The Packers would go on to repeat as NFL Champions a month later.

But the Lions, on their way to an 11-3 season in ’62, had their day against the Pack.

The Lions defense in the early-1960s was a force. All eleven men worked in unison to be among the league leaders in fewest yards and points allowed from 1960-62.

The architect of the defense was a young former NFL defensive back for the Cleveland Browns who soaked up the teachings of the legendary Paul Brown.

Don Shula was hired by the Lions after a couple of seasons of coaching in college ball. George Wilson made Shula his defensive coordinator, though that wasn’t the term used in 1960.

Under Shula, the Lions terrorized opposing offenses. There was that great line, Schmidt and Wayne Walker led the linebackers, and the secondary had Night Train Lane, Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary and Gary Lowe, all ball-hawking defenders and in Lane’s case, head-hunting. Schmidt, Lane and LeBeau are enshrined in Canton.

In Shula’s three years running Detroit’s defense, the Lions were 26-13-1. But there was no wild card back then so there were no playoffs, thanks to the Packers winning the West Division all three years.

Shula was 33 when Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom tabbed the Lions assistant to be the Colts’ new head coach.

Shula thus became the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.

Wilson stayed head coach of the Lions through 1964 before resigning in protest. The person he was protesting was new Lions owner William Clay Ford.

Had Shula not been pilfered by the forward-thinking Rosenbloom, he probably would have remained on Wilson’s staff, and maybe Don Shula would have been the next Lions head coach instead of the unsavory Harry Gilmer.

Speaking of unsavory, during this Ndamukong Suh free agency mess, my thoughts turned to Shula’s time with the Lions.

I thought of Shula because right now the Lions have a young, up-and-coming defensive coordinator who has been getting some play as a possible future head coach.

Teryl Austin put together a defense in 2014 that was among the league’s best. He interviewed for some head coaching positions in January. The Lions, though happy for him, heaved a sigh of relief when Austin was bypassed by those teams.

But Austin’s defense was anchored by Suh, the destructive defensive tackle who signed with Miami last week—Shula’s old team, if you like your irony cruel.

Austin will have to answer the question going forward: Was he, not Suh, the real reason the Lions had a superior defense, by the numbers, last season?

We’re about to find out.

It’s a defense not without holes.

Even with the trade for DT Haloti Ngata, the line is a shell of its former self. Suh is gone and so is the inconsistent but potentially dominant Nick Fairley.

The secondary could use another top-flight cornerback. Or two.

Austin’s coaching chops will be put to the test in 2015.

Is he another Don Shula?

That’s a loaded question but this is the NFL, which one former sage coach once said stands for Not For Long, if you don’t get the job done.

Last year, Teryl Austin was a darling among defensive coordinators. He looked like head coaching material after just one year of running a defense.

But Austin had Suh last year.

The NFL is a league of adjustments and no D-coordinator in the league will have to adjust as much as Austin in 2015, and not just because of losing Suh.

In fairness, in Shula’s days with the Lions, there was no free agency to speak of. Shula didn’t have to fear losing Karras or McCord or Schmidt or Lane to another team.

But while he had those players, Shula drew every ounce of performance from them in three years.

It’s no coincidence that after Shula left for Baltimore, the Lions defense wasn’t quite the same even though most of the players were.

 

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Someday in the future, a defensive player as destructive as Ndamukong Suh will enter the NFL. Maybe.

It’s highly unlikely that if such a player will ever exist, that he will play for the Detroit Lions.

It’s really just a matter of odds.

The second coming of Dick Butkus has yet to play in the league, and Butkus retired over 40 years ago.

Has there been another Joe Greene? Who has filled Lawrence Taylor’s cleats?

Players like Suh, the enigmatic force of nature that he is, come down the pike with the frequency of Halley’s Comet.

They are not only franchise players in the present, they’re names that should be forever linked to one football team.

Jim Brown with the Cleveland Browns. Butkus with the Chicago Bears. Taylor with the New York Giants. Greene with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Barry Sanders with the Detroit Lions.

There should be no good reason to allow someone like Suh, a probable Hall of Famer, to ever slip into another team’s uniform.

The Philadelphia Eagles made that mistake with Reggie White, and there are some fans who forget that White was anything before he was a Green Bay Packer, a franchise for which White helped win a Super Bowl—something the Eagles have never done.

Yet here we are, with Suh on the verge of signing with the Miami Dolphins, as he keeps his vow to sign with the highest bidder in his very brief foray into free agency.

The Lions, as has been their wont, bungled this one. They got the money messed up over the years with Suh’s contract and they couldn’t cough up enough dough in the end to keep him.

In the weeks and months leading up to Suh’s free agency, Lions President Tom Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew talked a tough game, another thing for which the Lions have been known to do, though it’s usually the players who have blown the hot air.

Lewand and Mayhew talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk, and now the one who is walking is Suh.

I don’t want to hear about financial prudence or that no one is worth the kind of money that the Dolphins are throwing at Suh or how losing someone of Suh’s magnitude is actually a good thing because the Lions now have $17 million of salary cap space.

Bullpucky!

The Lions are not a better team without Ndamukong Suh, just as pizza isn’t better without cheese and a golf bag isn’t better without a driver.

But it goes further. The Lions are a worse franchise for this.

It’s true that Greene and Butkus and Brown and Taylor played their careers before the advent of true free agency. But there were trades, and none of those players were ever off-loaded in the name of saving some cash.

That’s because they were game-changers and brilliant at their craft, and because their respective franchises knew that players of that degree of excellence come along once in a generation, if you’re lucky.

The Lions, whose last championship is creeping up on 60 years ago, are a worse franchise for letting Suh go because if they are truly serious about delivering a pro football title to the long-suffering fans in Detroit, you are either all in or you’re not.

It’s not enough to say that you made Suh a “competitive offer.” It’s not enough to throw your hands up and cry about the financial landscape of today’s NFL.

It’s not enough.

Those three words might as well be emblazoned on team headquarters in Allen Park.

When you have a player like Suh land in your lap, as he did when the Lions drafted him second overall in 2010, you make him a member of your franchise for life. You build around him.

The Lions never let Barry Sanders sniff free agency, and the fact that the team could never make deep playoff runs while Sanders played in Detroit is not a case study against keeping him as a Lion for life.

Suh should have been the defensive version of Sanders—a player who would forever wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver, for good or for bad, til death do us part.

The pleas for financial reason and letting Suh walk should fall on deaf ears because while he is one player of 53 on the roster, he is a genuine building block. You pay the big boys and fill in with draft picks and second tier free agents.

Ahh, that’s the rub.

The reason there was hand-wringing over Suh’s status after that playoff game in Dallas is because the Lions haven’t been very good at finding capable NFL players beyond the second round of the draft.

Had they possessed the track record of, say, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots—teams that always draft low but always manage to keep their rosters replenished with mid-to-late round picks, the argument to pay Suh would be much easier to make.

But because the Lions have been so bad for so long, they have consistently drafted in the top five, which means they have lots of money tied up in just a few players. And that would be fine if they were adept at finding good players on the cheap, or better at prioritizing their needs smarter.

Suh leaving the Lions isn’t just another case of a pro football player chasing the almighty dollar and leaving for greener (literally and figuratively) pastures. Players come and go all the time in the NFL, and lots of times it’s all about money. And why shouldn’t it be?

The average length of an NFL career is about three years. Three! I say let the players make all the money they want, as fast as they can.

Suh leaving the Lions the way he did, with his former team holding the bag, is yet another indictment on a franchise that has quite a rap sheet.

It doesn’t matter that Suh can be a perplexing, frustrating, weird dude. It doesn’t matter that he has been, at times on the exterior, cool to the city of Detroit and distant with the football fans within it.

Professional sports these days is more about financial stability and less about loyalty and warm and fuzzies. I get that. But the Lions didn’t need Suh to wear his love for Detroit on his sleeve—they just needed for him to suit up and wreck offenses on Sundays until he retired.

Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive tackle to be drafted into the NFL in years, and will likely be the best to be drafted for years to come. He is without question the most dominant player on the D-line the Lions have had. Ever. Short of defensive back Night Train Lane, Suh is the most feared Lions defender of all time as well.

And the Lions let him go.

But hey, they made him a competitive offer.

It’s not enough.

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Mar
02

Crafty Holland Plays It Safe, Smart Just Before Trade Deadline

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The 36-year-old defenseman arrived in Detroit, a moving piece in one of those NHL trade deadline deals, toting his equipment bag and maybe a bottle of Geritol. It was a chance for another “kick at the can,” as the hockey people like to say about the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The aging blueliner, booed out of his previous city, had already won two Cups by the time he was traded to the Red Wings in March of 1997. He gained those rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in consecutive years (1991-92).

Larry Murphy was already on his fourth team and was 11 years into his NHL career when he helped lead the Penguins to glory, but that was five years ago and he had added a fifth team to his travelogue when the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs swung a deadline trade.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf fans funneled their frustration with the team’s proclivity to spin its wheels on Murphy.

They booed whenever he touched the puck. They jeered him at every turn. If there ever was a player who needed to be moved, it was Murphy from the Maple Leafs in 1997.

The trade is listed on Hockey-Reference.com as Murphy to the Red Wings on March 18, 1997 for “future considerations.”

Murphy was an offensive defenseman who rocked the NHL as a rookie, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. He was 19 years old when the season began.

Sixteen years and two Stanley Cups later, Murphy was still known as a good puck-moving defenseman, except that the fans in Toronto used him as a figurative pinata. It is still a mystery as to why the Maple Leaf faithful turned on him so.

Regardless, Murphy jetted into Detroit on March 18, 1997 and there was one mission and one mission only: to win the Stanley Cup for a third time.

I asked Murphy about the treatment he got in Toronto. We chatted as we watched the Red Wings play Anaheim the night Steve Yzerman’s jersey went up into the rafters. It was January 2, 2007.

The brutality he went through in Toronto didn’t seem to have bothered Murphy all that much.

“Fans are fans,” he told me. “They pay their money.”

So it didn’t get to you?

“I thought it was kind of funny, actually,” Murphy said.

Murphy switched his Toronto blue for Detroit red and the results were palpable.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup the next two springs. Murphy was again on a team that won two straight Cups, the only player in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

The Larry Murphy trade is among the best the Red Wings ever made at the deadline. And they’ve made a lot of them.

Two years after Murphy, the Red Wings made a big splash at the deadline, acquiring forward Wendel Clark, goalie Bill Ranford and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Chelios in a whirlwind of trades.

But despite the pomp, the Red Wings were blasted out of the playoffs in the second round in 1999 by their arch nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes deadline deals make all the difference in the world; sometimes they don’t do a lick for your Stanley Cup chances.

In 2002, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, by that time a five-year veteran of the art of the deal, landed veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr at the deadline. It wasn’t looked at as much more than a move for depth. Slegr wasn’t expected to contribute too much.

Slegr didn’t play in a single playoff game for the Red Wings that spring, except for one: Game 5 of the Cup Finals.

In Game 4, fellow defenseman Jiri Fischer got suspended for a game after taking some liberties in Carolina.

Slegr, who was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season, got the call for Game 5. The Red Wings led the series, 3-1.

Slegr played 17 minutes that night at Joe Louis Arena as the Red Wings won their third Cup in six seasons.

You never know.

Holland, who inexplicably has never won an Executive of the Year Award, gathered his scouts and coaches at the Joe on Sunday and Monday. It’s a routine that gets played out every year on the eve of the trade deadline.

The list of potential acquisitions gets bandied about. Holland listens to input, takes notes, asks some questions. His money people are in the room, too, because it’s a salary cap world now and the contracts have to fit, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Holland was under no real urgency to do a deal. His team is playing well and while you can never have too much depth, the Red Wings didn’t have to go crazy and mortgage the future. If something made sense, Holland said he would do it. But it was felt that a move wasn’t a prerequisite for this spring’s playoff run.

There would be no 1999-like splash.

On Sunday, Holland got on the phone with former assistant Jim Nill, now the GM in Dallas. Two good friends talked trade.

When the cell phones closed, Holland had acquired 36-year-old forward Erik Cole for some lower level prospects. Cole can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future in Detroit beyond this season is uncertain to say the least.

On Monday, Holland fulfilled coach Mike Babcock’s wish for a right-handed shooting defenseman with some offense, getting Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky is 38 and he, too, is unrestricted come July 1.

These were old school Holland moves but with a new school team: bring in veteran guys who might be considered “rentals.” Only this time, the core of the Red Wings is more young than old, a reversal from the Cup-winning years.

But the price for Cole and Zidlicky was hardly steep, and in today’s NHL, these moves might be good enough to catapult the Red Wings.

The NHL post-season is a two-month roller coaster ride. It’s hockey’s version of March Madness, in that the eventual champion could be one of half a dozen (or more) teams. It’s not the NBA, where only a select few teams have a legitimate shot at the championship. You never see any six or seven seeds make it very far in pro basketball’s playoffs.

Whether you call it parity or just plain unpredictable, the NHL’s post-season is a crap shoot, like baseball and football’s.

For that reason, why unload a bunch of high-level prospects and front line players for someone who likely won’t improve your team’s Cup chances all that much?

This was Ken Holland at his best—accurately gauging his team’s current state and making smart, prudent moves without giving up the farm, literally.

Will Cole and Zidlicky do for the Red Wings, in their own way, what Larry Murphy did for them in 1997?

No one knows for sure, but again Holland has seemed to have improved his team without weakening its core.

One of these days, those who determine such things will name Holland the NHL’s Executive of the Year. It might be like when Paul Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for a movie that wasn’t his best work. But one day the voters are going to get smart.

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Feb
25

Heat Index

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My first experience with spicy food came when I was a youngster.

I was a latch key kid, and that included lunch. My grade school was literally across the street from the house, more or less. So I would let myself in and prepare my own lunch, as early as age 11.

This was circa 1974-75.

Nobody reported my mother to Child Protective Services. I managed to not burn the house down. I’d fix my lunch, eat it, and be back in class on time.

Somehow along the way I have lost that efficiency in my life, but that’s another blog post entirely.

The point being, my first encounter with spicy foods came in the form of those Vlasic hot pepper rings in a jar. Again, I was 11 and I started nibbling on those tangy, vinegar-encased yellow rings, usually combining them with a sandwich of some sort.

That was some 40 years ago, and it was way before I discovered Szechuan Chinese food, Indian cuisine and Thai delights.

It was also way before fast food joints and snack manufacturers discovered anything remotely on the warm side, spicy food-wise.

Today everyone is pushing spicy food.

Jalapenos are all the rage now.

Everyone from Frito Lay to Applebee’s to Burger King are putting jalapenos in their offerings.

Spicy food is everywhere. Buffalo style (fill in the blank); “bold” menu items; Cajun everything; Thai this and Thai that.

Not that I’m complaining.

My yen for bold, spicy and tangy foods clearly started with those latch key lunches in the mid-1970s. Vlasic hot pepper rings was my first experience. I remember it like a woman remembers her first kiss.

But I eventually had to eat something other than hot pepper rings to satisfy my growing craving.

My mom and I used to eat Chinese food a lot but it wasn’t until I went off to college and started working in Ann Arbor that I realized not all Chinese cuisine was of the Cantonese variety.

Spicy Chinese food? Really?

Some co-workers were getting take-out at a Chinese place down the street and it served something called Szechuan, they said. Never heard of it, I replied.

Oh, it’s good, they said. Very spicy and hot.

I probably cocked my head, like a bemused dog does.

But I for sure said that I was in on that!


Part of nature’s nectar


The food arrived and I’m surprised my taste buds didn’t all drop dead of a heart attack.

Never before had they seen anything like Szechuan Chinese food come down my gullet.

What a taste sensation!

So that’s when I got hooked on spicy Chinese food (circa 1982). That would change from Chinese to Asian when I discovered Thai cuisine, some five years later.

If I thought Szechuan (and Mandarin) was hot, I had no idea when it came to Thai food.

Thai food was invented for people like me. Intense heat, but still adjustable for individual taste.

Siam Spicy, on Woodward in Royal Oak, gave me my indoctrination to Thai food. I foolishly ordered it “extra hot” on my first visit. I dismissed the sweet waitress’s warning.

I should have listened to her.

But that painful (literally) experience didn’t dissuade me. I had discovered a treasure trove.

In the early-1990s I found out about Indian food. More delightful salivating ensued.

So here we are today, 40 years after I lost my spicy food virginity, and only now is the food industry catching up.

It’s a generational thing, I’m sure.

I was born in 1963. Today’s target demographic was born some 20 years after that, and they, as a whole, are more in tune with hot and spicy food.

They are less afraid and more adventurous eaters than the generation preceding them.

The products and menu items today reflect that shift in taste bud stamina. Although when the so-called spicy offerings first started to appear, they weren’t nearly hot enough for my liking. Now the heat level is increasing as the demographic is getting younger.

The easiest bet I ever won came some 30 years ago, when a friend wagered that I couldn’t eat an entire bag of extra hot potato chips without drinking anything.

I won a case of Molson Brador beer. Like taking candy from a baby.

I still eat hot pepper rings, by the way. Today I call it comfort food.

Categories : Enotes, food, society
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The two goalies were 79 years old between them. Their captain was 36. Their best defenseman was 36 as well. One of their top centermen was 39 years old. Another defenseman was 40 years old.

The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t a hockey team, they were a senior center. The official team drink was Geritol.

This gang of grizzled veterans surprised the hockey world 48 years ago and won the Stanley Cup.

It was the last season of the Original Six before expansion doubled the size of the NHL for the 1967-68 season.

The ’67 Maple Leafs, with their aging legs, managed to plow through the Chicago Black Hawks in six games in the semi-finals before dispensing of the defending Cup champions, the Montreal Canadiens, also in six games.

Terry Sawchuk (37) and Johnny Bower (42) shared goaltending duties. Captain George Armstrong (36) didn’t contribute much offensively (nine goals, 24 assists) but he was practically Mr. Leaf. Marcel Pronovost (36), a former Red Wing, led the Toronto blue liners in savvy and smarts. Another former Red Wing, Red Kelly (39), who was a defenseman in his Cup-winning days in Detroit, had turned into a center in Toronto and chipped in 14 goals. Allan Stanley (40) was a defenseman who did the team’s dirty work in a very clean way (20 penalty minutes).

The 1966-67 Maple Leafs averaged over 28 years in age, by far the oldest team in the league. Yet they wheezed and gasped their way to the Cup.

The story of the ’67 Maple Leafs comes to mind because they are still the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup, and that 48-year drought doesn’t seem to be nearing an end anytime soon.

Today’s Maple Leafs are stumbling through the NHL. They recently experienced a 12-game winless streak, which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL of parity.

Toronto, at the time of this writing, is 23-29-5 and seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division, ahead of only the wretched Buffalo Sabres, that once-proud franchise on the other side of Lake Erie from Toronto.

The nearly half century that has elapsed since the Maple Leafs’ last Stanley Cup is grating on the nerves of fans in Toronto. The only other NHL teams that have a Cup-less streak nearly that long are the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, still looking for their first Cup since becoming members of the league in 1970.

But the Canucks and Sabres are relative NHL newbies compared to the Maple Leafs, who started playing in the league when ice was something folks used to keep their refrigerators cold more so than skated on.

The Maple Leafs not only haven’t won the whole thing since those old men did it in 1967, they haven’t really come close.

The Leafs made the NHL’s Final Four in 2002, losing to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals. And they made it that far in 1993, bowing to the Los Angeles Kings, but aside from those two years, the Stanley Cup has been as elusive for the Maple Leafs as the Nobel Peace Prize has been to Al Qaeda.

From the slapstick days under the ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s and 1980s to the futility of today, the Toronto Maple Leafs long ago supplanted the Red Wings as Original Six team-turned-laughingstock.

In the 1970s it was the Red Wings that couldn’t get out of their own way, missing the playoffs every year but once between 1970 and 1984.

Today the Maple Leafs are that Original Six team with the iconic logo that have become the Chicago Cubs of hockey.

The Maple Leafs and their fans are finally getting sick of having snow sprayed in their faces by the rest of the league.

As each day passes with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock not signing a long-term contract extension (his current deal expires after this season), Toronto’s hockey fan base and media gets more sugar plums dancing around their heads with the thought of Babcock bolting Detroit and coaching the Maple Leafs.

Babcock, for all the success he has had in Detroit, is a borderline hero in Canada, from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia.

The hockey fans in Canada love the Olympic Gold Medals (two) Babcock has won for their country. He’s also won a World Junior Championship gold medal while coaching Team Canada, as well as an International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship for the country with the Maple Leaf on its flag.

And, of course, Babcock is a Stanley Cup champion coach and a three-time Finalist.

Nowhere is Babcock more idolized from afar than in Toronto, a city whose hockey fans would be delighted to see Babcock not only coach a team wearing the red-and-white Maple Leaf flag, but also one sporting the blue-and-white Maple Leaf on the jersey.

The Toronto media is perhaps even more smitten with the idea of Babcock coaching the Maple Leafs than the fans.

Column upon column has been written, touting the benefits of a Babcock-coached Maple Leafs team. The Leafs fired Randy Carlyle after a 21-16-3 start and his replacement, Peter Horachek, has gone 2-13-2 since taking over.

Babcock is the one man, the scribes in Toronto think, who could deliver the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. The fans mostly agree.

But Babcock’s tardiness in re-upping with the Red Wings shouldn’t be confused with a desire to coach elsewhere. He has it good in Detroit and he knows that. He works for a terrific owner, has a good relationship with his GM and his family has firm roots in Northville.

In Toronto, Babcock wouldn’t be hired to just make the playoffs a few times. He’d be brought in to win the whole shebang, and sooner rather than later. Patience is already razor-thin in Toronto; even someone with Babcock’s name and resume wouldn’t be given a very long leash. It would be the shortest honeymoon since Cher and Gregg Allman’s.

Whether Babcock would choose to turn his cozy home and hockey life upside down to work in the pressure cooker of Toronto, which is Canada’s New York when it comes to hockey, is highly debatable. In fact, it’s worse—it’s damned unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs continue to wander around, lost in the NHL’s frozen tundra with no Saint Bernard in sight to rescue them.

The Original Six have taken turns acting the fool over the last 20 years or so.

First it was the New York Rangers, who went 54 years (1940-94) between Cups. Then the Red Wings took over, going Cup-less from 1956-96. The Boston Bruins didn’t win a Stanley Cup between 1973 and 2010. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 1961 but not again until 2010.

Even the venerable Montreal Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs are now firmly entrenched as the Original Six team with the most ignominious past.

Babcock joined the Red Wings when the team was rich with talent, very used to winning and was a Cup champion as recently as three years prior to his hiring.

If he went to Toronto this summer, none of the above would apply to the Maple Leafs. Not even close.

The Maple Leafs need help, no question. But they’d better look elsewhere than Joe Louis Arena’s coaching room for it.

 

 

 

Categories : Hockey
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Feb
13

The Justified Bully

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In the 1980s, HBO presented a comedy series called “Not Necessarily the News.” In it, pretend anchors used real news clips but altered them for laughs.

Cleverly inserted shots that the HBO show produced, interspersed with the actual clips, would be used for gags.

Of course, the notion of fake news on TV was hardly new at that time. “Saturday Night Live” began the trend in earnest with its signature Weekend Update segment not long after “SNL” debuted in 1975.

While “NNTN” was playful and Weekend Update was very sarcastic, always delivered with a wink and a smirk, there was still further to go in the fake news genre.

Enter Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Where “NNTN” was produced sporadically and Weekend Update was weekly (during the “SNL” season), “The Daily Show” was exactly that—daily.

But that’s hardly where the delineation ended.

“TDS”‘s Jon Stewart was not part of a host rotation, like Weekend Update’s, which helped make stars out of everyone from Bill Murray to Dennis Miller to Seth Myers.

Weekend Update has always been presented in a breezy five minutes or so, while “TDS” has always been 30 minutes in length.

Stewart is one of two hosts that “TDS” has ever known (Craig Kilborn began when the show began in 1996 and Stewart took over by 1999), and he stunned his audience with the announcement this week that this will be the year that he steps down.

Kudos should continue to go to Kilborn, the ESPN grad whose smarmy delivery would forever brand “TDS,” but it was Stewart’s intellectually sharp, biting humor and longevity that cemented “TDS”‘s perpetual place in television comedy history.

“TDS” has been guested by a gaggle of political figures and other celebrities over the years, many of whom have been eager to share the stage with Stewart and engage in the ensuing repartee.

Such was the popularity of Stewart’s show that it spawned spin-offs, like Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” and “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”

Stewart never hesitated to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics, social issues and celebrity. He used his host’s chair as a bully pulpit, but it always seemed that those he bullied deserved it. Stewart possessed the incredibly difficult knack of being biting but not mean-spirited. He never tweaked anyone just for cheap laughs.

I believe that the ability to jab someone in a pointed way but sans brutality added to the humor of “TDS.” Stewart was no insult comic—he wasn’t Don Rickles sitting behind a desk.

Stewart was so entrenched as “TDS” host that it was easy to forget that he wasn’t one of the mainstream news anchors, but instead a gifted comedian and an actor/director whose career on the big screen is nothing to sneeze at either.

Comedians will tell you that the beauty of their craft turns up when their material practically writes itself.

Stewart didn’t have to try very hard to pull laughs from the daily headlines; so much of what goes on is good fodder. But that doesn’t minimize his contribution to television comedy.

Jon Stewart’s “TDS” not only poked fun at the news and newsmakers, it illuminated the injustices, ridiculousness and shamelessness bubbling just below the surface of them both.

Stewart pulled no punches, but at least those he tattooed had it coming.

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Dave Bergman didn’t win the World Series for the Tigers on that Monday night in June of 1984, but there might be as many folks who purport to have been at Tiger Stadium then, as claim to have been there when Larry Herndon squeezed the final out of Game 5 on October 14.

I was at Game 5, by the way, but I would have loved to have been in the stands on June 4, 1984 as well.

Dave Bergman is gone. The defensive specialist for the ’84 World Champs. The man whose acrobatic plays saved Jack Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago in April. The man whose face was in the dictionary under “role player.”

Bergman lost his battle with cancer at age 61. That rotten disease whose won-lost record is maddeningly successful.

Bergman was sick and fighting the cancer in his bile duct when he showed up last summer as the Tigers honored their 1984 heroes at Comerica Park. You could see it in his face and body that Bergie wasn’t right.

But he managed to participate in one last double play, when he was on the receiving end of an Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker twist as the CoPa crowd roared.

Bergman was brought to Detroit for his defense, but as the Toronto Blue Jays found out, there was about to be great irony on June 4.

The glaring lights of “Monday Night Baseball” shined on Tiger Stadium on that June night  in ’84, and Tigers fans knew that when “MNB” came to town, special things could happen.

It was eight years prior when Mark “The Bird” Fydrich mowed the mighty Yankees down on national television at the Old Ballpark, also on “MNB.”

Now here was Bergman, taking over the spotlight against the Blue Jays.

It was a lovely night in a lovely year for baseball in Detroit.

The Blue Jays weren’t about to anoint the Tigers division champs, despite Detroit’s 35-5 getaway. Toronto played good baseball as well, and the Jays were keeping the Tigers in sight.

When Toronto came to town to start a four-game series, the Tigers were 38-11 but still just 4.5 games ahead of the 34-16 Blue Jays.

Toronto jumped out to a 3-0 lead on that Monday night, but the Tigers tied it  in the seventh, thanks to a three-run bomb from Howard Johnson. Bergman was part of that rally as well, having singled, but the best was yet to come.

The game moved into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Roy Lee Jackson replaced Jimmy Key with a man on second and one out. Jackson induced a comebacker from Rusty Kuntz. Chet Lemon walked, placing runners on first and second with two outs.

Bergman was up next.

Less than three months earlier, Bergman wasn’t even a Tiger. He was finishing up spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a time when all teams’ rosters appeared to be set for the upcoming 162-game regular season.

But then a Roman candle was fired from Lakeland, FL. The date was March 24, 1984.

Looking for a late-inning reliever and possibly someone who can close ballgames, Tigers GM Bill Lajoie struck a deal with the Phillies, an unexpected trade.

The Tigers dealt young outfielder Glenn Wilson and veteran 1B/C John Wockenfuss to Philadelphia. Detroit would be getting lefty Willie Hernandez, who was the center of the trade. Hernandez was the guy Lajoie really wanted, to give manager Sparky Anderson another reliable arm in the bullpen. The Phillies, to make things square, also relayed a defensive-minded first baseman named Dave Bergman to the Tigers.

The trade was stunning, in its timing and in its scope. Tigers fans didn’t know much about Hernandez and Bergman. There was no Google back then.

A couple weeks later, Bergman demonstrated why he was known for his nifty defense. He made at least two plays that clearly saved Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago.

But Bergman wasn’t necessarily known for his bat. He was a part-time player, nothing else, in his nine previous years as a big leaguer.

You don’t win anything of note in June. Each of the season’s 162 games may, technically, count the same, but June’s games are played with little pressure. They’re played in warmth and laziness, not in the chilly air amid September’s electricity.

But this June Monday night in 1984 was different than a typical June Monday night.

The Blue Jays represented the Tigers’ only apparent serious threat to having their magical season ruined.

The four-game series was the first time the Tigers and Blue Jays played each other in 1984.

Bergman stood in the batter’s box against Jackson in the tenth inning on June 4, the winning run on second base, a meaningless runner on first, and two outs. There was no margin for error. Either Bergman did something to win the game or keep the inning alive, or the game would move into the eleventh.

Jackson went to work.

Bergman fouled off the first five pitches, living on the edge of an 0-2 count for three of them.

As ABC’s Al Michaels, Howard Cosell and Earl Weaver looked on from the broadcast booth, Bergman finally worked the count full in between foul balls. Twelve pitches had been thrown when Bergman settled back into the box, several minutes after the at-bat began.

Jackson reared back and threw pitch no. 13.

Michaels has been behind the microphone for some iconic moments in sports history, not the least of which were the USA hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and the earthquake during the 1989 World Series.

Cosell called some of the most famous (and infamous) boxing matches in pugilistic history, and his tenure in the “Monday Night Football” booth certainly reverberated.

Bergman provided another such moment.

“Long fly ball! Way back in right!” Michaels yelled as Cosell and Weaver reacted in the background. “She is…..gone!”

Bergman’s three-run homer stunned the Blue Jays and won the game for the Tigers. It was a stinking Monday night game in early June, but the atmosphere belied that.

I was there when Kirk Gibson sealed the 1984 World Series with his three-run blast off Goose Gossage, and I can tell you that the roar of the crowd was greater in that moment than when Herndon caught Tony Gwynn’s fly ball for the series’ final out.

I wasn’t there when Bergman beat Jackson and the Blue Jays, but video evidence and my own recollection say that Tiger Stadium rocked every bit as hard as when Gibby did his thing.

Dave Bergman was the very essence of role player with the Tigers, especially in 1984, a year in which everyone contributed, from Bergman and Kuntz to Trammell, Whitaker et al.

Bergman battled cancer with the same fury and determination as he did Roy Lee Jackson on June 4, 1984.

But cancer doesn’t hang breaking balls. It doesn’t leave a pitch up at the letters for cranking.

In Detroit, we are still blessed to be graced by many members of the 1968 World Series champions, many of whom still live in the metro area.

We’ve lost a few 1984 heroes before their time (Aurelio Lopez, Dwight Lowry and Sparky) but losing Bergman at age 61 is a toughie. Not only did he have his moment on June 4, but he was a good Tiger who knew his place, didn’t bitch and was a terrific teammate.

“He was a leader,” Parrish told the Detroit Free Press. “A very intelligent man who played the game the way it is supposed to be played. He played very hard and I just loved being on the field with him.”

In describing his signature moment in baseball, the home run that beat the Blue Jays, Bergman was characteristically brief and to the point.

“I just happened to hit it right on the button,” he said.

So long, Bergie. You had your moment, and that’s what any athlete ever wants.

 

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Jan
30

Death in the Slow Lane

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Traditions are terrific things. Whether they run in families, bring together communities or even entire nations, there is no mistaking the notion that honoring tradition is a noble and cozy thing to do, when not misguided.

But let’s do away with the funeral procession, shall we?

In simpler, less crowded, less rude times, the funeral procession, particularly when done using the horse and carriage, was a fine way of respecting the newly-deceased.

Today, it’s more along the lines of a nuisance and, frankly, it can be dangerous.

The journey from church (or other nonsecular place) to the cemetery or mausoleum can certainly be a somber one. There isn’t a limousine leading the way with cans and string attached, with a hand-painted sign that says “Just Died.”

So I get it that commuting during an occasion of burial isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world. And I have nothing against respecting and honoring the dead.

But the funeral procession has worn out its welcome.

Today, with roads packed more than ever with vehicles, the idea of stringing together dozens of motorists and allowing them to pass through intersections and running red lights with impunity, simply isn’t very bright.

It’s nothing against the processioners, per se, although there does always seem to be one car that lags behind the rest, creating a potentially dangerous gap. It’s more about the rude, disrespectful motorists who aren’t part of the procession.

I just don’t think we need to drive en masse to a burial.

I think you can give folks the target address and driving instructions and say “We’ll see you there.”

An exception would be for something more stately, such as the funeral of a police officer or political figure.

If one of the purposes of a funeral procession is to show, in a very visual way, how beloved someone was, I am reminded of some sage words uttered by a wise person.

“The only thing that is going to determine how many people show up to your funeral is the weather.”

My inspiration here isn’t because I was recently inconvenienced by a funeral procession, though Lord knows that I have been. Nor is it because I have encountered strange and exasperating moments whilst driving in a funeral procession, though I once drove the entire way behind a car with no functioning brake lights (that was fun).

In fact, this really has nothing to do with inconvenience. It has everything to do with practicality and safety.

I don’t have the numbers, and maybe they don’t bear me out anyway, but I still think that you increase the chances of an accident anytime a funeral procession rolls on by.

Besides, they’re depressing.


Enough.


What’s a more in-your-face reminder of mortality than watching 30 cars drive slowly by, following a hearse?

I see enough images of death and destruction on TV and the Internet to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.

Would death be any less significant and the occasion of a funeral be any less morose or somber if we stopped traveling to burials in herds?

I recall a stand-up comedian once remarking that as a show of life’s cruel irony, the only time you get to drive through red lights and stop signs is when you’re dead and can’t enjoy the gratification.

Besides, in my non-funeral procession fantasy world, if I really want to drive miles and miles in a tight-knit pack while pumping my brakes, I have that opportunity, twice a day: my commute to and from work.

Categories : culture, Enotes, laws, society
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The non-contact injury is the scariest of them all.

Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that joints were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.

But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.

Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.

Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.

The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.

Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.

Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.

Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.

Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.

Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.

Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.

It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.

But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.

Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.

Non-contact injury. Not good.

You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.

The worst: a ruptured Achilles.

Prognosis: out for the season and then some.

Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.

It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.

Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.

Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”

The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.

Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.

The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.

So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.

During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.

Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.

So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.

Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.

And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.

As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.

As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.

Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.

It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.

Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.

It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.

Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.

Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.

 

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