Archive for sports
He was wearing a smart leather jacket, hair still damp from a post-practice shower. It was one of the last team workouts before the playoffs began. Spring hockey, the best kind of hockey, was on the horizon.
But first, there was the matter of a nod to history.
Nicklas Lidstrom and I stood as spectators in the Joe Louis Arena concourse, as the Red Wings were about to unveil the new sculpture of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. The date was April 10, 2007.
We were scrunched together, players and media alike, awaiting the drapery to be pulled from the white bronze piece of artwork that depicted Howe in follow through after a shot.
Lidstrom, unassuming in his version of street clothes, kept his eye on me, even though I was slightly behind him and to his right. He appeared to not want to lose sight of me.
Moments earlier, in the Red Wings’ dressing room, I had asked Lidstrom for a few words. I was writing for a local sports magazine at the time, and my assignment was to get a feel for the team’s mindset as the playoffs beckoned.
Lidstrom, ever the gentleman, apologized, but with a rider.
“I can’t do it now, but right after the ceremony,” he told me.
We all were herded upstairs, near the Gordie Howe Entrance. The way Lidstrom kept looking at me, I got the feeling that he was more concerned about our chat than I was.
Not long after the unveiling, Lidstrom approached me and the brief interview began, as he promised.
He didn’t know me from Adam, although I’m sure he’d seen me in the locker room before—and would see me again.
But the point is, Nick Lidstrom made good on his word, even to an ink-stained wretch.
They’re going to have another ceremony tonight at the Joe, and this time Lidstrom won’t be merely a spectator. This time, the nod to history is a nod in his direction.
Number 5 gets hoisted to the rafters tonight, taking its rightful place next to 1, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19 as retired Red Wings jersey numbers.
1. Terry Sawchuk, the best goalie ever and the most dour. Perhaps, at the same time, the best at what he did and the most unhappy while doing it.
7. Ted Lindsay, who had the most appropriate nickname for his on-ice persona and the most inappropriate for when he was off it—Terrible Ted. Never has the NHL seen someone who so lived up to his moniker as a player and so lived down to it as a person.
9. Gordie Howe, who is still one of the few hockey players any man on the street can actually name. The bumpkin from Saskatchewan who made good.
10. Alex Delvecchio, who played the game with quiet grace. Fats wasn’t spectacular, but somehow he always ended up with 25 goals and a bushel of assists every year.
12. Sid Abel, who centered the Production Line between Howe and Lindsay. Old Bootnose, who served the Wings so well as a coach, GM and TV commentator in addition to his years as a Hall of Fame center.
19. Steve Yzerman, who immediately comes to mind in Detroit when anyone says “The Captain.” Never has the Red Wings franchise employed a player who played with more grit and heart than Stevie Y.
Lidstrom joins these greats tonight, his jersey settling in nicely way up high. It won’t be out of place.
If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.
The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him ”a Genius in Spikes.”
Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”
Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.
Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.
As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?
In the mostly inglorious history of Thanksgiving football in Detroit, the Lions have dragged themselves onto the field with a variety of emotions.
They’ve been prohibitive underdogs, the Turkey Day game their only appearance on national TV, where they’ve been the Washington Generals to their opponent’s Harlem Globetrotters.
They’ve come in as hopeful spoilers, trying to be the scrappy group of rejects that ruins their more formidable opponent’s playoff run.
They’ve run onto the field with false bravado, perhaps even with a winning record, determined to show the nation why they deserve respect.
They’ve laid eggs, played the game of their lives and suffered stinging and sometimes cruel defeats.
They may as well play these games on February 2, because there’s a Groundhog Day aspect to Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit.
Every fourth Thursday of November, Lions fans wake up, wash and stuff their bird, jam it into the oven, flick on the parade on the tube (or traipse downtown to see it in person), and can’t wait until 12:30 p.m. to arrive. As if last year didn’t happen.
This is because a myth has been propagated for decades: that the Lions always turn in a fine performance on Thanksgiving Day.
The facts don’t bear that out, and recent results are finally starting to hack away at that Redwood of a myth.
The Lions, in the past 11 years, have won one Thanksgiving Day game, and that came way back in 2003.
Just call them the Myth-Busters.
But of all the emotions the Lions have carried with them onto the gridiron on Thanksgiving, only once have they strapped on their helmets with sheer, unadulterated rage.
It happened 50 years ago to the day of this year’s holiday game.
November 22, 1962.
The Lions played the Green Bay Packers that day, and never before or since did they take the field with such a chip on their shoulder, regardless of the date, regardless of the situation.
The Lions’ crankiness could be traced to their first meeting with the Pack in ‘62, about a month or so prior, in Green Bay.
In the rain, on a muddy field, the Lions let one slip away—literally.
Nursing a 7-6 lead and with the football near midfield in the closing minutes, the Lions had the undefeated Packers on the ropes. Perhaps one more first down, just one more, would salt the game away in the gloom of Green Bay. The date was October 7.
Then the Lions made their slip-up.
The Lions defense mauled the Packers that day, limiting the defending NFL champs to two measly field goals all afternoon. And that defense was on the sideline, watching its offensive counterparts about to commit football harakiri.
Football 101 says that in the situation the Lions found themselves in—a lead late in the game, with the football—the course of action is to keep the ball as grounded as a wayward teenager.
In that moment, only a loon would call a play requiring quarterback Milt Plum to fade back and dare a forward pass. Only a stark, raving madman would suggest anything other than a nice, safe running play—especially in the unsure footing that day.
As the Lions defense looked on helplessly and in horror, Plum shot a pass toward the sideline, where intended receiver Terry Barr slipped in the mud. Plum’s throw was easily picked off by cornerback Herb Adderley, who galloped downfield, deep into Lions territory.
Moments later, Paul Hornung booted a field goal in the waning seconds and the Packers shocked the Lions, 9-7.
The Lions trudged off the field, losers of a game they had in their hip pockets, that is until someone—it wasn’t initially known who it was—foolishly called for a pass. Even if the Lions hadn’t made that first down on the ground, they could have punted and pinned the Packers deep, with not much time remaining.
That loss divided the team, maybe for years—certainly for the rest of that season. In the locker room afterward, it was demanded of Plum which birdbrain called for that pass. Plum didn’t give the inquisitor—it may have been Alex Karras or Joe Schmidt—a satisfactory answer.
Karras’ helmet flew past Plum’s head and smacked against the wall, hurled by its enraged owner.
Defense vs. offense.
The Lions played on after the game in Green Bay, dropping a tough one to the New York Giants a couple of weeks later. The Packers kept winning, and they were still unbeaten when they squared off against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Green Bay was 10-0; the Lions were 8-2, though both teams knew that the records should have been an identical 9-1 for each side.
Raging with anger, the Lions defense tossed the Packers offensive line around like rag dolls in their relentless pursuit of quarterback Bart Starr. Karras, Schmidt and the rest of the defense played the game of their lives that Thanksgiving, sacking Starr 11 times (the stat was unofficial back then) in front of a national TV audience.
The Lions roared to a 26-0 lead and won, 26-14. The champion Packers didn’t have a prayer.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The Packers finished the season 13-1; the Lions, 11-3. No Wild Cards back then. The Lions finished in second place; the Packers returned to the championship game and beat the Giants for the second year in a row.
Had the Lions not let that game in Green Bay slip away, both teams would have finished 12-2 and met in a divisional playoff contest.
And never in the past 50 years have the Lions played any Thanksgiving Day game with the fury they displayed against the Packers on November 22, 1962.
Disrespected? Yes. Dismissed? Yes. Hopeful? Yes. Enraged? Not for a half-century.
But they sure have caused such rage, haven’t they?
The world according to LeRoy Neiman could be captured very efficiently.
The painting artist Neiman, famous for his bushy handlebar mustache and his ability to create art on the fly, died Wednesday in New York at age 91.
Neiman painted people in action; Neiman’s art was what the world would look like if a still camera could snap impressionism.
There was no such thing as a Neiman “still life.” He painted people doing something—playing poker, boxing each other, engaging on the gridiron. And he did it rapidly.
It wasn’t unusual for the TV networks to commission Neiman, especially during Super Bowls, to produce “on the spot” works—the prior action as Neiman saw it. Then the cameras would show Neiman at work, producing yet another work of color, ambience and activity.
Neiman painted life like a photographer shot it, but with the editorializing that the painter gets to do, that the photographer can’t. Neiman’s works had the ability to capture the human condition with brush strokes instead of a lens.
Neiman, foreground, and Muhammad Ali, background, as the artist saw him
You could even call Neiman a journalist, for that’s how vividly he was able to tell a story with his paints.
Sportswriter Nick Seitz, in a story at CNN.com, said Neiman had “the journalistic talent, as well as the artistic ability, to convey
the essence of a game or contestant with great impact, from the Kentucky Derby to Wilt Chamberlain, from the America’s Cup to Muhammad
Ali, from the Super Bowl to Bobby Hull.”
You can thank Hugh Hefner, of all people, for hooking Neiman up with the world.
It was Hefner who hired Neiman to produce a series of paintings called “Man at His Leisure” for Playboy magazine. Neiman did it, for 15 years, beginning in the 1950s. The world took notice of the way Neiman would so succinctly and efficiently capture the essence of such iconic events as the Grand Prix in Monaco and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Neiman was as colorful as his paintings. The handlebar ‘stache was just the tip of his iceberg.
To hear the artist tell it, the creation of Neiman was every bit as important as the creation of his art.
“I guess I created LeRoy Neiman,” he once said, according to the biography on his website. “Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I’m a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work.”
As big as LeRoy Neiman was, however, his work is still bigger. And, obviously, it will live forever, unlike the mortal artist who created it.
Ding, dong the warlock is dead.
One down, how many to go?
The demise of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is a blow struck—a blow struck for honesty, decency, ethics, and playing the straight and narrow. That much is true.
But if you think now that Tressel is gone—having resigned in shame from OSU—we have eradicated cheating in college sports, well, I just hope you’re not that naive.
Tressel wasn’t the only cheater, and he won’t be the last to be caught. You’re also naive if you think that the other cheaters are now scared straight. As nice of a thought as that is, it’s just not realistic.
College sports are just pro sports without the players salaries. And without the integrity, steroids be damned.
Tressel had himself an amazing 10-year run in Columbus, and now we suspect that at least part of that success was due to his being able to play the system like Perlman with the violin.
Now we see quarterback Terrelle Pryor driving around in cars that would make a multi-millionaire pro athlete blush.
Who knows how many ineligible athletes the Buckeyes played with over Tressel’s decade of Big Ten dominance? Who knows how many were on the take? This isn’t over with, by a long shot—the discovery of grisly stories of largesse and hubris flowing from Columbus.
It may turn out that Tressel was operating a football factory in the Third World sense—full of corruption and disregard of labor laws. Only, this was no sweat shop. OSU’s football players were taken care of, it seems.
Combining Tressel’s decade at OSU with the revelation of what happened with Pryor and other players last year begs the question, “Do you HAVE to cheat to win big in college sports?”
It’s tempting to say, yes, you do.
It’s also tempting—and I’ve been one of these to say so—to strongly suggest that athletes get compensated while making their institutions lots of money. Those opposed say that it’s not just athletes who make the dough—the best and brightest students do, too, via research grants and other forms of money that are bestowed based on academics.
And those eggheads don’t make a dime, either.
And what about the free room and board and training facilities and medical care the college athlete receives? Isn’t that “compensation,” too?
Well, yes, it is.
But it’s not enough. My opinion.
Let’s please be real. Let’s stop pretending that college athletes—of the money programs like football and basketball—are just some kids passing through town for a few years who should be thankful for the opportunity, while the institutions rake in piles of cash using their likeness on TV, in magazine ads and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the athletes risk injury, just as the pros do, and work every bit as hard at their craft as the eggheads do at theirs, if not more so—physically, at least.
The athletes should be paid, plain and simple. And with a compensation system comes a wonderful opportunity to establish new rules and regulations that are easier to monitor and harder to look the other way from.
Don’t buy the argument that paying athletes is “throwing money” at a problem that money can’t solve. Don’t buy the notion that with salaries comes more greed and corruption.
Do NFL teams have to cheat to get personnel? NO—because they have an equitable compensation system.
As far as how MUCH to pay college athletes, that’s part of the regulations that would arise with the advent of such a system.
Sure, there’d still be some cheating initially, as less-than-ethical schools decide to test the system. But if the NCAA does it right, and tweaks it as necessary, they should be able to create a good enough filter to catch the scum.
I know that the mere thought of paying college athletes draws the ire of many and strikes at the core of what lots of people believe college athletics to be.
But tell me, how is that idealistic, doesn’t-really-exist-anymore model of college athletics working out for you nowadays?
Jim Tressel is just a symptom. Getting rid of him has solved nothing, other than making the Big Ten winnable again in football for 10 other schools.
The following is a guest column from Sterling Heights Stevenson High School sophomore Ryan Wietchy, a young man I got to know a few years ago during a freelance assignment. His columns will appear here periodically. I think he makes a very strong case.
By Ryan Wietchy
Contrary to what many people may believe, not every talented high school athlete will become the next LeBron James-type prodigy. In today’s talent-seeking sports society, many kids are already focusing on their future sports careers as early as middle school, committing to their future college coaches as if everything will come their way without having to work for anything they earn. Go on YouTube to find a five-year-old’s amazing dribbling skills and elementary students already committed to playing football at USC.
What most of these up-and-coming athletes don’t realize is that sports may provide a living for some people, but not most. Society is becoming more focused on whether or not a kid can complete a pass on the football field rather than completing a sentence in the classroom.
The term “student-athlete” often takes a different meaning than it should, often with the “athlete” coming first. For “star” athletes, academics often become a mere hindrance to their athletic career. Showing up to class is just a chore that needs to be done before the actual important part of their day, which is staying after school for practice.
According to the NCAA website, only .03 percent of high school boys basketball players will be drafted into the NBA. And for those planning to be the next Tom Brady, only .08 percent of high school football players will make it to the NFL.
Any person with basic math skills knows that the chances of making it big are as likely as finding a needle in a haystack. Down the line, that leaves a cluster of people who thought they were destined for glory, but now have a frail education with only the question of “What if?” lingering in their heads. Our district’s academic eligibility standards does not help this either. The Utica Community Schools Code of Conduct for Student Athletes states that “a student athlete must meet the Michigan High School Athletic Association minimum requirement of passing four classes at all times.”
This is way too lenient as many players barely scrape by getting D’s and F’s and still are able to play. The UCS Board of Education needs to change their policy to something that will put academics as the forefront of their priorities and make the standards more rigorous.
Not all student-athletes don’t care about their grades. Many of them put in long hours of hard work both on the field and in the classroom. But there are a handful of athletes that are brain-washed, growing up thinking that they will make it big, when in fact, they may not get as far as their dreams. There has to be something to fall back on if their careers don’t pan out or they get injured.
The whole point of sports is to provide an outlet after school that teaches teamwork, responsibility and dedication. It should not be the only thing that matters throughout someone’s high school experience. Because when the glory fades and the Friday night lights dim, a points-per-game average, not a grade-point average, will be the only thing they have left to their name.
Raise your hand if you’d heard of Fennville, Michigan prior to last weekend.
That’s what I thought.
We didn’t know Wes Leonard, certainly, but we didn’t even hear about his hometown, either.
Now Fennville is stamped onto our brains, and Wes Leonard is in our hearts.
We didn’t know Wes Leonard personally, but we know who he is.
He’s that great kid you’d like your daughter to marry. He’s the athlete who turns the fans on and pleases his coaches. He’s that good-looking boy who is morphing into a man and doing so with little drama or maintenance.
You know him. I know him. Perhaps you’re even lucky enough to know him personally, or, bonus, be his dad or uncle or brother or friend.
You didn’t have to know Wes Leonard personally to know who he was, or how tragic his story is.
Leonard is the 16-year old boy who collapsed and died moments after hitting the game-winning layup for Fennville High School, giving his team a perfect 20-0 record.
Fennville is the Michigan town along Lake Michigan where everyone knows everyone. You know that place, too.
Wes Leonard being hoisted by his teammates, moments before tragedy struck Friday night
Leonard died from an enlarged heart, which I always found horribly ironic, if you think about it.
It’s among the scariest of conditions, because it’s the heart and it is usually undetected until it strikes fatally. It waylays you and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
There’s really not more to add to this awful story that you haven’t already read, but it strikes me, whenever something like this happens, how it doesn’t matter that it’s happening to a stranger.
That’s because when something of this magnitude happens to someone so young, we relate it to our own situation, our own loved ones and friends.
Wes Leonard is merely a name. You can substitute, in his place, any number of young men or women in your life, past or present. Besides, we were all 16 years old once, so there’s that common thread, too.
Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart didn’t give any medical folks or Wes himself a fair chance. By all accounts, Wes was afforded prompt attention and yes, there was a defibrillator in the house and it was used.
He was gone, for all intents and purposes, from the moment his body hit the basketball floor. A floor on which, minutes earlier, he had triumphed.
Sure, it’s messed up. And you didn’t have to know Wes Leonard personally to understand that.
That’s because we really do know Wes Leonard. Just look around you.
With a coach like Gerard Kemkers, who needs competition?
By now you may have heard of poor speedskater Sven Kramer of Holland, whose gold medal was torpedoed by his own coach, Kemkers.
Kemkers, who admitted later that he had been momentarily distracted, nonetheless barked out an order to his skater late in his 10K meter race to change lanes, a gaffe that caused an illegal move by Kramer and thus disqualifying the young man.
Kemkers, distraught, tried to comfort Kramer immediately after the race but the skater angrily brushed him off, making wild arm gestures and slamming his glasses to the ice.
Kemkers is lucky that Kramer didn’t blend him into Hollandaise sauce.
“I was on my way to making the right decision,” Kramer said later. “Right before the corner, I changed my decision. I changed my decision on the advice of my [coach].”
Coach Kemkers (left) tries to console the destroyed speedskater Kramer
Kemkers was distraught afterward. “My world collapsed,” he told Dutch reporters. “This is the worst moment of my career. Sven was right. I was wrong.”
The worst moment of HIS career?
Kramer won’t want to hear it, but it’s stories like this that make the Olympic Games so compelling. Every Olympiad, we are regaled with stories of triumph, tragedy, and the overcoming of personal hurdles and bad odds.
Lee Seung-Hoon of South Korea finished second to Kramer, some six seconds back. But thanks to the DQ, Lee became the gold medalist.
That makes two victims, as far as I’m concerned. There’s Kramer, of course, and there’s Lee, who surely can’t look at his gold medal without feeling like it’s tainted. Who wants to “win” that way?
Kramer, the next day, had simmered down and accepted his fate. He said that his performance might have been the best 10K he’s ever skated, but that there’s pretty much nothing that can be done now.
Nothing, except for making a voodoo doll of Kemkers and poking it on a daily basis.
That might help a little bit.