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Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.

He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.

The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?

Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.

Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.

He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.

He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.

His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.

But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.

Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.

There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.

Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.

But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.

It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.

The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.

So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.

Babcock qualifies.

The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.

In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.

That bottom feeding blogger was I.

The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.

The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.

The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.

Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.

So that was your turnaround.

You want some winning against all odds stuff?

How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?

All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.

That’s OK.

Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…

When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.

Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.

So that was one side.

The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.

And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.

I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.

Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.

Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.

Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.

“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.

He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.

 

Categories : Hockey, Out of Bounds, sports
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Apr
17

Mustang, Untamed

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Our daughter just turned 21. And, parked in front of our house as I write this, is the car in which we drove her home.

I remember strapping her tiny, 4-lb. body into her car seat and securing her in the Mustang’s back seat that day in June, 1993 in front of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. She was born two months premature, and thus weighed just 2-lb, 14-oz. when she was born via emergency C-section.

The Mustang was purchased in September, 1992, just before my bride and I were betrothed. Little did we know that some 21-plus years and 115,000 miles later, we’d still own the car.

But that’s OK. It’s been a good car. How could it not be, if it’s old enough to legally drink alcohol?

It’s starting to come apart at the seams now, which is to be expected. Rust is spreading like cancer.

But the Mustang still runs and it gets me front Point A to Point B. We just make sure that the distance between those two points isn’t too far. We have a 2003 Mercury Sable for that.

The Mustang almost bit the dust some two years ago. It’s a two-door, which means the doors are very heavy and put great strain on the hinging mechanism. It got to a point where you would have to do a lift-and-yank maneuver and then slam in order to properly close the driver’s side door.

One day in 2012, I slammed the door shut after getting gas and the driver’s side window shattered from the impact. It scared the bejeebers out of me.

So I took it to the collision shop and the proprietor delivered bad news. He could fix the door but it would be a job of monumental labor, because of where things were located and the work it would take to get to said things.

He suggested that I put the Mustang to sleep, due to inordinate repair cost.

Well, this was the Mustang. You don’t just put a Mustang to sleep without getting a second opinion.

Collision shop #2 had a brighter outlook. Second opinions are good because you can always play the doom and gloom of the first opinion against the second. Often, the second opinion person likes to play the hero. And, stealing business away from a competitor is never a bad thing.

So second opinion guy said he would give it a whirl, and for a reasonable price.

Over two years later, the repaired door is still working. The Mustang was saved from euthanasia.

I still get compliments and inquiries about the Mustang. Usually it’s at a gas station. Another customer will ask me if I am interested in selling.

Mustangs have a mystique.

Some seven or eight years ago, on a Saturday night, I drove the family to Royal Oak, ostensibly to get some food at our favorite Thai restaurant, Siam Spicy. We took the Mustang.

It was evident as we got closer to the city that something was going on. Traffic was very heavy. By the time we got to Woodward Avenue, it was all too apparent what I had done.

I had driven us right into the Woodward Dream Cruise!

I had no choice but to turn north onto Woodward. The bystanders and lookers-on assumed we were part of the Cruise, tooling around as we were in a Mustang.

They urged us to beep the horn and shouted words of encouragement from their lawn chairs, tipping their beer cans in honor of the great American Mustang.

I tried to tell them that I was just trying to grab some dinner with the family. Nobody heard me.

And, Siam Spicy was closed that night. So the trip was all for naught.

But the Mustang got one of its last moments of glory.

It’s seen its days in various mechanic shops over the years. It has had brake jobs, new starters installed, new exhaust systems and sundry other work. It’s been the Joan Rivers of cars.

But it still turns on when I stick the key in the ignition. And it still is the car we drove our daughter home in, and you can’t put a price on that.

You probably couldn’t sell it now, but it never was for sale anyway.

Long live our ‘Stang!

Categories : cars, culture, Enotes
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Some 43 years after Gordie Howe got it, looks like another Detroit sports legend is about to get the “mushroom treatment.”

Old-timers will remember this one. The Red Wings, after Howe retired in 1971, gave him a job title—Vice President—and an office inside Olympia Stadium.

Gordie didn’t find the new “job” all that enthralling.

“They give me the mushroom treatment,” Gordie said to reporters back in the day about his new role, in words that reverberate to the old-timers—yours truly is guilty as charged—to this day.

The mushroom treatment, Gordie?

“They keep me in the dark and every so often they dump (manure) on me.”

The Red Wings’ pathetic effort to keep the franchise’s—and perhaps the sport’s—greatest player in a meaningful role lasted just two years before Gordie got tired of the mushroom treatment and came out of retirement to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons, Mark and Marty.

Gordie would play professional hockey for seven more seasons—six in the WHA and one last go-round in the NHL.

So now it appears that the mushroom treatment is being dusted off and brought back out of the dark office, so to speak.

Joe Dumars’ tenure as Pistons president and GM effectively ends at the final horn of Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City. His contract, which officially expires at the end of this dreadful (again) season, will apparently not be renewed.

But that’s not all.

Dumars, it is being reported, will take an advisory position with the Pistons. It is shaping up to be a do-nothing, strictly titular job that will have no influence over the thinking—and I use that term loosely here—of owner Tom Gores and his Platinum Equity minions.

The Pistons are going to be giving Joe Dumars, one of the team’s iconic players, the mushroom treatment.

Let’s hope he doesn’t put up with it for two years, like Gordie Howe did with the Red Wings.

Maybe this will be Dumars’ way of slowly fading from view and from our consciousness. Maybe there is method in his madness. Frankly, if I were Joe, I would have told Gores to take his adviser role and shove it where a basketball doesn’t fit.

That, of course, isn’t Dumars’ style.

Maybe we’ll see Joe on TV sometime soon, perhaps as a studio analyst for NBA TV or ESPN. The cast of characters on those two networks is filled with ex-players but not really any executive types. Joe is both, but his playing days ended some 15 years ago. He’d bring a different perspective.

We’ll see.

But today isn’t so much about Dumars’ future as it is about his recent past.

As the Joe Dumars Era, Part II winds down this week, it’s easy to do the “What have you done for me lately?” thing. I’ve been guilty of it already, in the wake of the news that broke last week that Dumars likely wouldn’t be coming back as team president/GM.

But then I got to thinking about what it is that Dumars is leaving. And he should be thankful that he’s going.

In too many horrific ways, current ownership reminds me of the Pistons circa 1978.

Bill Davidson, still finding his way as Pistons owner—he bought the team out from a group of investors in 1974—was clueless about the sports ownership thing in ’78.

Davidson moved the Pistons from Cobo Arena downtown to the cavernous Silverdome in Pontiac in time for the 1978-79 season.

To help augment the move from a PR standpoint, Davidson took leave of his senses and bowed to pressure from local riff raff, such as sports columnists, and hired Dick Vitale to be coach and de facto GM in the spring of 1978.

Vitale fed Davidson—and those same columnists—a line of bull and miraculously, his suspect stomach, which supposedly forced him to resign his gig as U-D’s coach in 1977, all of a sudden got all better in time for him to take the Pistons job.

Davidson bought the bull and, dazzled by the allure of hiring Vitale—who at the time could have been elected mayor of many cities around town—the owner gave Dickie the keys.

Of course, it all blew up in Davidson’s face just 16 months later and Vitale got the ziggy, but not before leaving a path of destruction to the franchise in Dickie’s wake.

The Pistons were a circus in those days, and Dickie Vitale was the leading clown under the big top.

The Pistons are back to being a circus again, but this time the owner is the biggest clown.

The Pistons, right now, are beneath someone of Dumars’ stature, and I have been one of Joe’s harshest critics in recent years. In fact, I was browbeating Dumars before it became fashionable to do so.

The Pistons are a joke, being run by an absentee owner who directs his Platinum Equity Dweebs—Phil Norment and Bob Wentworth, Detroit’s PEDs—to keep an eye on the franchise in Detroit while the owner hobnobs in TinselTown.

The Pistons were absentee-owned by Fred Zollner, who was based in Florida, when Davidson bought the team in 1974. Forty years later, they are again owned by someone who barely sees the team play in person.

Dumars, I have a feeling, may be somewhat relieved that his run as a Pistons executive has ended. The difference between Davidson’s personality and style, and that of Gores, couldn’t be much further apart. I also have a feeling that Dumars knows that what Tom Gores knows about sports ownership could fit into a thimble.

All this being said, Joe Dumars is certainly not without culpability for what the Pistons franchise has become since their last appearance in the NBA’s Final Four in 2008. There is blood on his hands, for sure.

But that’s what it has become on the basketball court. And the Pistons, today, are more than just broken on the court. They are broken upstairs, and the confidence level as to whether Gores can hire the right person to fix things from the top down can’t be terribly high among the fan base.

Nor should it be. Gores is a clown under a big top.

But the owner can stuff those words down my throat and reverse his image if he somehow, by hook or by crook, makes a good hire (or two) this off-season.

Pistons fans are pretty united that when it comes to turning points in team history, the biggest came on December 11, 1979, when Davidson, stung by Vitale’s turbulent tenure, hired Jack McCloskey off the Indiana Pacers bench (assistant coach) to be the team’s GM.

By the end of the next decade, the Pistons were starting a three-year run in the Finals, winning two of them.

Gores could make a great hire this summer. Because you know what? Davidson hired McCloskey off a recommendation.

The recommendation came from Dick Vitale.

So you never know.

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So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?

Isn’t that what they do every year?

It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.

The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.

The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.

For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.

Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.

The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.

So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?

Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.

There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.

There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16  of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).

But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.

These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.

Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.

The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.

This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.

The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.

Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.

Springtime hockey in the Motor City.

The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.

This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.

Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.

The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.

The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.

Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.

So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.

But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.

And where is Dennis Rodman these days?

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Apr
11

Utash: We Can Only Hope

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Sometimes the 24-hour news cycle gets extended.

Sometimes it’s a 48-hour or 72-hour news cycle. And, on occasion, a story manages to stay in the public’s consciousness for a week or more.

News stories anymore are like pieces of pasta thrown against the wall. Only some stick.

The Stephen Utash beating has beat the 24-hour news cycle, by far. Now the question is, Will it matter?

The Utash story is right out of a novel or a made-for-TV movie.

White suburbanite hits a young black boy with his pickup truck, in the city. The suburbanite stops to check on the condition of the boy and is then beaten senseless, perhaps to death (that’s a part of the story that has yet to be resolved), by a mob of black men.

It’s a story that almost had to happen, to provide the most recent litmus test of where we are as a society, particularly when it comes to violence and race relations.

The elements are all there, and if they weren’t, the story wouldn’t work as well. It would be a flawed test.

The driver was white, the hit boy was black. That’s the only way this can work. Any other combo would either not tell us anything we don’t already suspect, or it would be less newsworthy.

The white man is beaten by a mob of black men. Again, reverse it, and it’s just another example of what so many people already suspect, and what so many other people vigorously try to defend.

The person who intervened and got the mob to stop beating the white man was a black female nurse. Author, author!

The white man lies in a medically-induced coma as the suspects are rounded up. Score another for the fiction writer.

Oh, and whites and blacks come together in churches around town and try to pray the violence away. Money is being raised for the white man’s medical bills. Not bad, not bad at all.

And Detroiters did it all by themselves. They didn’t need anyone to zoom into town to rally the troops.

The author did a bang up job on this one.

Ah, but it’s all true.


Steve Utash

The Utash beating has a shot—an actual, legitimate shot—at bringing white and black folks together in an effort to take a collective look in the proverbial mirror.

Thankfully, the words “vigilante justice” have been rinsed off this story, revealing it to be what it really is—senseless, animal-like violence that wasn’t advocating for anyone or anything, other than an opportunity to take something out on a poor man. A chance to get your licks in, for whatever reason.

Unlike others, though, I’m not convinced that the mob saw a white man and decided to go to town. Maybe we will never know for sure. Maybe the five (so far) suspects that have been arrested—four have been arraigned—will start chirping, even against each other. Maybe a motive will trickle out.

Maybe had the driver been black, he would have been beaten, too—once identified as the man who hit the boy. Again, we may never know. But we may, eventually.

The fact that no one in the beating mob—according to witnesses’ recounting of the incident—appeared to show any concern for the boy’s physical condition before they started whaling on Utash, is the most damning piece of this horrible crime.

And that’s why the vigilante label doesn’t fit and has been ripped off, rightly so.

You can’t have vigilante justice if you don’t know what the heck you’re justifying.

The facts, of course, weren’t all in when the mob sprang into action. They didn’t know—or didn’t care—that the child stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. The boy was 10 years old—certainly old enough to know not to step into the street without looking both ways.

But that’s another discussion entirely.

It’s terrible, but often it takes something terrible to finally drum something into people’s heads.

We can only hope that Steve Utash—and let’s hope he survives and regains his wits—evolves into a turning point of sorts. He will not only be a man but a landmark.

Then again, the beating of Vincent Chin didn’t necessarily change anything.

But that’s the thing about hope. You’re willing to throw the history books out the window and say, “Maybe THIS time.”

Maybe this time.

Categories : crime, culture, Enotes, society
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They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.

Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.

Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.

The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.

Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?

But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.

Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.

The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.

The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.

So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.

Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.

“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.

But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.

Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.

After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.

Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.

Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.

But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.

That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.

Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.

“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”

I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.

So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.

No. 14 in red and white.

 

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Apr
04

Later, Dave

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It’s not easy to be a trailblazer when so many of the trails have already been blazed, but David Letterman somehow managed to blaze one anyway.

You may think that late night television was an already-mined resource by the time Letterman, 66, came along in 1982, hosting “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.

It’s true that TV at the witching hour was nothing new in 1982, having been first attempted some 30 years prior and being refined for 20 years by Johnny Carson when NBC gave Letterman a late night slot, following Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

But it turned out there was still plenty that Letterman found to do that not even the iconic Carson managed to discover.

Letterman announced today, somewhat shockingly during the taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” that 2015 will be the year of his retirement.

“This (retirement) means Paul (bandleader Shaffer) and I can finally get married,” Letterman said to a crowd that seemed to need the laugh to digest the news. But Letterman was serious—about the retirement part.

The longtime late night host said he had a phone conversation with CBS president Les Moonves not long before tonight’s taping and informed Moonves that 2015 would see the end of Letterman’s run on “The Late Show.”

Letterman was a morning loser when NBC gave him a mulligan—a big time mulligan—and put Letterman where his milieu clearly was, in late night.

Letterman’s morning show, which lasted just a few months in 1980, was a critical success of sorts (two Daytime Emmys) but a ratings disaster.

But he was back less than two years later, after midnight.

Where Letterman was able to forage—and where Carson either chose not to go or simply never thought of going—was in the mostly unexplored forest of pulling life’s non-celebrities into the party.

While Carson would occasionally interview folks like an old lady who collected potato chips that looked like people and animals, Johnny’s genius was in his gregarious chats with the famous and in his sketch comedy bits.

Letterman made 15-minute celebrities out of the every man with bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks.” He also made Larry “Bud” Melman—real name Calvert DeForest, a little-known actor but his day job was working for a pharmaceutical company—famous with Larry Bud’s strangely humorous appearances, which many times made it seem like the joke was on Melman.

While Carson ventured into the crowd for bits like “Stump the Band,” Letterman took it one step further and blended crowd games with cameos from comedic actor Chris Elliott, with hilarious results.

And while Carson had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsome leading the “Tonight Show” band and functioning as occasional kibitzing partners, Letterman and Shaffer formed almost a tag-team comedy duo, chatting during the first 10 minutes of each show like they hadn’t spoken with each other all day.

It’s no coincidence that pretty much every late night show after Letterman’s employed a band with a leader who tried to be Paul Shaffer Light.

Sid Caesar and company started doing “Man on the Street” bits in the 1950s (something Carson never really did), but Letterman again turned it up a notch, beseeching the regular folks to partake in stunts and pull pranks on other unsuspecting folks—their colleagues, so to speak.

There are many other directions that Letterman took late night comedy and talk, but they are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that while the genre had been discovered, Letterman took that block of clay and molded it.

“The time has come,” Letterman said today in announcing his retirement a year hence.

He wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t melancholy. He sounded like a man comfortable in his place and with his timing.

It was as if he was saying, “My job here is done.”

Which, it is.

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The most consistently successful franchise in pro sports today is located in a city where they beseech you to remember the Alamo—not to mention George Gervin, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore.

It’s in a town where there isn’t any other major pro sports team. It’s the Green Bay of the NBA.

The San Antonio Spurs started playing seriously for the NBA championship in the late-1990s, and they haven’t stopped since.

Other NBA franchises, some steeped in history, have been made over—sometimes several times—in the past 20 years.

The Boston Celtics, who in the 1960s were as reliable every spring as the first robin and who won several more titles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fell on hard times in the late-1990s, early-2000s before regrouping and becoming champions again in 2008.

The Los Angeles Lakers, by the mid-1990s, had become impostors wearing purple, like a bunch of department store Barneys. Then Phil Jackson arrived from Chicago and got the Lakers wearing championship belts again.

The Chicago Bulls sank like a stone after Michael Jordan “retired”, their six championships in the 1990s becoming distant memories almost overnight.

The Detroit Pistons…well, you get the idea.

But the Spurs? They’ve never dipped, really, since center David Robinson finally joined them in 1989 after serving two years in the Naval Academy following his drafting in 1987.

The Spurs’ won/lost records over the past 20 years have been as consistent as a working clock.

The Spurs win 50+ games every year, make the playoffs, and they’re typically one of the last few teams standing in June. Four times since 1999, they’ve been the only team standing.

Their coach, Gregg Popovich, has a career winning percentage of near .700 in over 1400 games. Popovich could win 50 games every season in his sleep.

The blossoming of the Spurs under Popovich came in 1996.

The Spurs had Robinson but hadn’t been able to put the right parts around him. Much of that was on Popovich, who became the team’s GM in 1994.

You have to be lucky to be good, and that was certainly true of the Spurs in 1996. The team got off to a 3-15 start, and Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and replaced him with…Gregg Popovich. I know—it doesn’t sound lucky so far. Give me a moment.

Popovich had been an assistant with the Spurs under Larry Brown for a few years starting in the late-1980s and he figured, what the heck—I’ll coach the team myself.

Robinson broke his foot during that 3-15 start of 1996 and missed all but six games of the ’96-97 season. Other key Spurs players missed significant time with injuries, and it all ended with a 20-62 record.

Popovich didn’t fire himself as coach. He kept wearing the dual hats of coach and GM.

Here’s where the good luck kicked in.

Because of all the injuries, not the least of which was suffered by future Hall of Famer Robinson, the Spurs ended up with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and drafted a big man from Wake Forest named Tim Duncan.

Duncan’s insertion into the lineup and Robinson’s return from injury put the Spurs back in familiar territory with 56 wins in 1997-98.

One year later, with the Spurs’ version of the Twin Towers manning the paint, the Spurs won their first NBA title in 1999, beating the New York Knicks in five games.

Popovich shed the GM label in 2002 to concentrate on coaching, which was like Frank Sinatra quitting acting to focus on singing.

It worked, though, as the Spurs won their second championship in 2003, overcoming the New Jersey Nets in six games. It was Robinson’s swan song as a player.

David Robinson retired, but the Spurs kept winning, which is their—and Popovich’s—genius. Players have come and gone, including Hall of Famers, yet the Spurs have never bottomed out.

The Miami Heat won the championship in 2006, and two years later, despite having Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, and a Hall of Fame coach in Pat Riley, Miami won 15 games.

Of course, the Heat rebuilt themselves in a hurry, but they had to occupy the outhouse before getting back to the penthouse.

The Spurs don’t do that collapse-before-you-can-get-better thing.

Another NBA crown was won in 2005, and again in 2007. The Spurs’ key trio then, as it is now, was Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili. The latter two are fine players, but probably not Hall of Famers.

That’s another thing. The Spurs rosters haven’t been filled with iconic names, like the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls’ championship teams have been.

The Spurs win about 70 percent of the time under Popovich, but there have been no Bird, McHale, Parish or Kareem, Magic, Worthy-like combinations that Popovich has coached.

The Spurs draft well, trade cunningly and they have Popovich, 65 years old, a two-time Coach of the Year winner (2003, 2012) and four-time world champion.

The Spurs have been relevant for 15 years in a league where literally no other team of the NBA’s 30 franchises can say that.

OK, that’s the NBA, but what about other sports, you might ask.

Let’s look at other sports.

In baseball, even the mighty New York Yankees haven’t won as many World Series as the Spurs have won NBA championships since 1999. The Yanks have won three WS (1999, 2000, 2009) to the Spurs’ four NBA crowns.

In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, perhaps the Spurs’ stiffest competition when it comes to consistent excellence in pro sports, have won two Stanley Cups (2002, 2008) since 1999.

In football, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004) during the Spurs’ reign of terror.

Yet the Spurs are rarely mentioned when it comes to which franchises are the best in pro sports today.

Well, now they are, right here.

The beat goes on this season. At this writing, Popovich and the Spurs are 56-16. Another 60-win season, which would be Popovich’s fourth, beckons.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t getting any younger, but it doesn’t appear that it will matter going forward, as Popovich has a deft ability of adding key players from the draft or free agency that is unmatched by any basketball man in the NBA—including execs like Pat Riley.

Popovich won with David Robinson and he won without David Robinson. It’s likely that in the near future he’ll win without Tim Duncan, who is going to turn 38 during the playoffs in April.

On second thought, forget the Alamo. Remember Gregg Popovich, the best coach in pro sports who has been hiding in plain sight for 15 years.

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Mar
26

Sugar, Spice and Puppy Dog Tails

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Timberlake Christian School (TCS) in western Virginia buried the lead in their letter to the guardian of eight-year-old Sunnie Kahle. The last sentence was the most true and the most telling.

“We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained indentity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.”

No kidding, it’s not the best place for Sunnie’s future education.

Like, I’d pull that child out of there yesterday.

Sunnie is an eight-year-old girl, but by her own admission and her grandmother’s (Sunnie’s legal guardian) own acknowledgement, Sunnie likes a lot of “boy stuff”—such as autographed baseballs and hunting knives, according to CBS-TV affiliate WDBJ.

But Sunnie also digs jewelry and stuffed animals, too.

“It’s fun,” Sunnie says of her varied interests—some of which don’t seem to fit TCS’ characterization of what a little girl should be.

Hence the letter, apparently quoting school policy, sent to Sunnie’s grandmother, Doris Thompson.

The letter began ominously.

“You’re probably aware that Timberlake Christian School is a religious, Bible believing institution providing education in a distinctly Christian environment,” the letter started, and nothing good usually follows a sentence such as that in a letter sent home from school.

And, nothing good did.

Sunnie Kahle

Why is it, that supposedly Christian entities—organizations based on ideals that are supposed to espouse and embrace inclusion rather than exclusion—seem to be the least tolerant?

And, from an educational standpoint, what happened to encouraging children to broaden their horizons and open up their worlds a little bit?

So an eight-year-old girl is sometimes confused for being a boy, as Sunnie told WDBJ. Is that the worst thing in the world?

For their part, school administrators told ABC 27 that they have not accused Sunnie of any wrongdoing; they just want the family to follow all guidelines set for students.

Good thing that the TCS folks are educators, because they certainly think we’re all pretty stupid.

“Sunnie realizes she’s a female but she wants to do boy things,” Thompson told WDBJ.

How ironic that TCS is discouraging that, because it seems like a pretty damn good life lesson to me—that girls can do “boy things.”

I mean, heaven forbid Sunnie grows up to be a CEO or a soldier or a fireman or something.

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Back in October, when the Pistons were slogging through the exhibition season, a game was won at the Palace when Detroit’s Josh Smith hit a three-point shot at the final buzzer.

It was a meaningless game, as all exhibition matches are.

Yet running onto the court, celebrating as if his team had just won a playoff series, was Pistons owner Tom Gores.

Gores slapped it high with a few of the players, hooted and hollered, and clapped his hands, a big grin on his face.

It was a stinking pre-season game. Even some of the Pistons looked at their owner cross-eyed, as if to say, “What’s with this guy?”

It’s a question that haunts the team to this day, some five months later.

What’s with this guy, Tom Gores?

The Pistons have 12 games remaining. They won’t be making the playoffs. They play now to protect their lottery pick, though you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone within the organization to admit it. But it’s true.

Gores, the Hollywood owner whose Flint roots have been supplanted by Tinsel Town, was quizzed about his team on Saturday night, when the Pistons were halfway through losing to the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.

Specifically, Gores was asked about the firing of coach Mo Cheeks, which came just 50 games into Cheeks’ tenure as Pistons coach.

“I feel good about it,” Gores said, which tells you something right there. There ought to be some humility and consternation when firing someone. But Gores feels good about giving Cheeks the ziggy.

“I didn’t feel like the young players were developing,” Gores continued in explaining away Cheek’s cashiering.

The Pistons, at the time, were 4-14 after Cheeks was canned and replaced by interim coach John Loyer.

“I think John’s doing a great job,” Gores said about the dead man walking coach Loyer.

Cheeks’ winning percentage was .420. Loyer’s, albeit in a smaller sample size, was .222 at halftime of the Clippers game, which LA won, 112-103.

Gores’ comments at the Staple Center smacked of an owner who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

The words were a mixture of rah-rah and phony, canned exuberance.

“We’re going to get it done,” Gores said. “I believe in this team. I believe in Detroit.”

Then this, perhaps the most damning quote of them all.

“The team is better than its record,” Gores actually said. “It just is.”

The Pistons will play out these remaining 12 games, after which will follow perhaps one of the most important and anticipated off-seasons in franchise history.

How Tom Gores steers the ship this summer will go a long way toward determining the future of the Detroit Pistons for the next 10 years.

That declaration ought to give you the willies.

When pressed about the future of GM Joe Dumars on Saturday in LA, Gores, as expected, didn’t tip his hand. It may have been the smartest thing he did and said that night.

But what Gores chooses to do about Dumars will speak volumes about the owner’s lucidity.

If Gores brooms Dumars, as expected—and as should happen—that’s only half the deal. The other, and far more important half, is what the owner does in terms of picking a replacement.

Gores’ assertion that the Pistons, a mish-mash of parts that simply don’t mesh—how’s that for alliteration—are better than their 26-44 record, is disturbing.

It plainly proves that the owner doesn’t know a basketball from his rear end.

What Gores needs to do is dispatch Dumars, who probably is ready and even eager to be let go, and go in search of a sound basketball mind to run the show while the owner hob-nobs on Rodeo Drive.

The answer is not Isiah Thomas, who has been rumored to be next in line for the keys to the executive washroom. Isiah was in LA on Saturday, and he chatted with Gores, in plain sight.

“I’m a fan,” Isiah said when cornered. “I’m in no position to critique the team. I hope they play well and win every night.”

The Pistons will be honoring Isiah and the other members of the 1989 Bad Boys championship team on Friday night, when they gather for a 25th anniversary celebration at the Palace. Gores will have to fly to Michigan and face the media. He’d probably rather have a root canal.

Presuming that Gores doesn’t take leave of his senses and hires Thomas, it is up to the owner to settle on a basketball man and let him do his thing. Because it is apparent that Gores’ grasp of professional basketball is shaky at best.

The Pistons could do worse than Troy Weaver.

Weaver is a vice president and assistant GM with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is regarded as a supreme talent evaluator, and has already been considered for the GM position with the Utah Jazz in 2012. Weaver turned Utah down and chose to remain with the Thunder.

Weaver held the position of Director of Player Personnel for the Jazz in 2007-08. He spent three seasons (2004-07) as head scout for the Jazz before his promotion.

Prior to joining the Jazz, Weaver was an assistant coach at Syracuse University for four seasons (2000-04), working under the great Jim Boeheim.

The man is steeped in basketball knowledge.

In a way, Weaver is the Thunder’s Jim Nill, albeit in a shorter time span.

Nill is the GM of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, but prior to that, he spent almost 20 years in the Detroit Red Wings organization, most of those years in the front office as GM Ken Holland’s lieutenant.

It was accepted that Nill would eventually leave the Red Wings to run a team of his own.

Troy Weaver is ready for such a challenge in the NBA. Tom Gores would be derelict in his position as owner of the Pistons if he didn’t make a run at Weaver.

Weaver wouldn’t be the big name that Isiah Thomas would be, but Weaver would be at least twice as smart of a choice over Isiah—and cheaper.

Gores has displayed his utter lack of basketball prowess. But he can erase all that if he makes a smart hire after Dumars is released.

Whether the Pistons owner is capable of such a hire is ambiguous in its likelihood. But he’s the one making the calls, so all Pistons fans can do is hope.

 

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