Sunday, October 01, 2006

Saturday was the first time Michigan would be playing in Minnesota since I moved to Minnesota, and needless to say, I was excited to finally get to see Michigan in action again. By the end of the the Michigan State-Illinois game, I couldn't wait any longer, so my girlfriend and I headed up to Minneapolis, nattily attired in our new MGoBlog shirts. I had a yellow New Math shirt, while she had a blue I heart Hart shirt.

We ran into some heavy traffic on 494 because construction had closed one of the left lanes, backing up traffic for a couple miles. I realize signs indicating this construction weren't placed back for enough, but it amazes me how many people see three lanes of gridlock traffic and an open fourth lane and think "I'll just be smarter than everyone else and go in the empty lane." There needs to be some sort of an instant death penalty for motorists who make it all the way to the merge point during highway construction without getting into the right lane.

We got off the highway and went for an alternate route. We ended up driving through downtown Edina and my car felt shamefully out of place. I swear the exhaust on one guy's car actually shot out $5 bills.

After working our way through the detour, we finally arrived on campus. The Minnesota website is crap in terms of telling people where to park, since it's an off-campus stadium. The lot I had originally planned to park at was closed because two hours earlier, it had undergone the ceremonial ground-breaking for the new on-campus football stadium. I found a different lot with one side labeled for Gophers, and the other labeled for Wolverines. The lot was pretty much empty, though it was still about 2 and a half hours before game time. The sign in front said event parking $9, but the gates were up, so we didn't have to pay.

Next issue was finding a shuttle bus. We were sort of on the outskirts of campus, so it was basically a ghosttown. After waiting about 15 minutes and not having a bus come by, we decided to head more towards campus. After walking about one block towards campus, we found some shuttle officials who told us we were at the right place for a shuttle stop. An empty bus picked us up and we were the only two to get on. The next stop was closer to campus, and we picked enough to fill up the rest of our bus. It was mostly students, except for one older guy who sat behind us and was wearing way too much cologne. We tried to keep a low-profile, and we weren't hassled too much for cheering for the other guys.

We got to the Metrodome and I was not impressed at all with the Gameday atmosphere. We saw some Michigan fans tailgating, which was nice, and I guess there were some Minnesota fans tailgating in another parking lot(and they have a different tailgating area further away that they shuttle people in from), but overall, it didn't really have that gameday feel to it.

I picked up our tickets and waited in line to get into the stadium. They didn't open the doors until an hour before gametime, rather than the usual 90 minutes because they were still busy converting the stadium from baseball to football. Plus, they had to hang all those banners around the stadium to let people know who was boss in the Big Ten back in the 1920's and 30's.

They finally let us into the stadium at 6, and I convinced an usher to let us into the lower bowl for warm-ups. I saw Morgan Trent out there and he had a cast on his hand. He was able to go through the warm-up without shoulder pads just fine. His cast looked pretty big, but he had no trouble catching the balls that were thrown to him. Who knows what that means for the future, but I really hope he comes back. He wasn't out with the first or second team defense later in the warm-up and obviously didn't play. He was definitely missed though.

After that, we went to our seats. We were in the upperdeck endzone, right between the uprights, in literally the last row of the upperdeck. Other than the long haul to get to the seats, they were actually great seats for watching the game. Sometimes it was a bit of a strain to see numbers on jerseys, but you really get a great feel for how plays develop. I wouldn't mind sitting there again.

The main Michigan section was about three or four sections over to our right, and there was a smaller group of Michigan fans(including someone with a sign that said 86=1 on one side, and I heart Hart on the other) a section to our left, so we weren't totally surrounded. Our section was mostly Minnnesota fans, but they were all pretty tame. I ended up sitting next to a high school football coach and his young kid. They were both really knowledgable about the game, and most of their observations were pretty well spot on so they were enjoyable to sit next to. My girlfriend was next to an older couple who didn't seem like they really followed the Gophers. The old guy next to her was confused by my shirt and asked her why 86 equaled 1. She explained, though I still dont' think he got it. Anyway, after that, any time Mario did something, he felt he had to point it out to us that Mario was the one who made the play, like we wouldn't have noticed.

I was surprised at what a late-arriving crowd it was. The lower bowl didn't really fill up until late in the first quarter. But the lower bowl did fill up and the upperdeck endzones were full. The tops of the uppderdeck sidelines were about half full. The reported attendance was 50,000 or so, which is believable. I wouldn't call the stadium noisy, since I don't think people were making that much noise, but because of the roof, it sounded a lot louder. Before the Gophers come out of the tunnel, they absolutely blare this rock song over the PA system that I think was just slightly shorter than Stairway than Heaven. Michigan came out of the same tunnel as Minnesota, which I guess they don't nomally do, but since the White Sox had there stuff in the baseball dugout, that was sealed up.

I haven't been to a Michigan football game since the 2003 season opener against Central Michigan, which wasn't really much of a game. Before that, my last game was the Phil Brabbs game against Washington, which was great, but a distant memory. It felt amazing to be back at a game. There's a certain undefinable energy you feel when you're at a game that you can't get through a TV set. There's nothing better than getting that excited/nervous feeling in my stomach before a game. I haven't played competitive sports in a few years, and that feeling is as close as you can get to actually playing a sport.

And now for the actual game itself...

Our opening drive really set the tone for the entire game. Michigan opened up with 6 straight zone running plays to the left, all away from Steve Davis. Michigan was dominating Minnesota at the line of scrimmage and Mike Hart had plenty of nice holes to choose from. Michigan's first passing play came on third down when Chad Henne hit Steve Breaston on the sideline. I'm not sure if the tape will show it, but if Henne threw a better pass there where Breaston could catch it instead of having to drag his feet to stay in bounds, he probably scores because there was no coverage within 15-20 yards of him. Michigan did cap off the drive though with a nice pass to Adrian Arrington. Again, he was absolutely wide open.

The next offensive drive, Henne had Mario wide open for an easy touchdown by laid it out just a little too far. I think it's obvious though that that play is there any time we need it. Minnesota was getting dominated at the line and had to risk leaving our receivers in single coverage to help with the run. Zoltan had a beautiful punt on that drive, which was really the only one all day he had to put his full leg into. Though really, he kicked it 54 yards, but Michigan gave up a 12 yard return, so a 42 yarder with no return would have been just as effective.

That was the story pretty much the whole day on offense. We could pass whenever we wanted to, but Hart was running the ball so well that we didn't really need to. The 28 points doesn't look impressive, but we could have scored as many points as we wanted to. Michigan just wanted to make the game as short as possible and keep their offense off the field.

In regards to Kevin Grady, watching him from above, he doesn't seem to have that same instinct that Mike Hart does. It seems like Hart hits the optimal hole every time when we run those zone running plays, whereas Grady only seems to hit the optimal hole about half the time. I'm not exactly a football expert, so maybe I'm wrong about what the optimal hole is, and maybe Hart is just a freak in terms of picking the right spot, but Grady is definitely way behind Hart. Grady also had the fumble, which nobody likes seeing. It was one of those helmet on ball things that I don't know think you can do much to prevent. Breaston made a nice play to recover the ball, but as Astute Guy next to me pointed out, Breaston also missed his block which allowed Grady to get popped.

Rueben Riley deserves some credit for how he played against Steve Davis. Davis still made some plays, and there was that one holding penalty, but Davis was pretty quiet while the game was in doubt.

Michigan has kind of brought the waggle, but I dont' like it as much. Instead of having the TE line up on the left side of the line and come across the field, they have Massey line up on the right side of the line and Henne dumps it off to him. That play just seems so much easier to defend, and doesn't have the big play potential that the old waggle did.

Our defense didn't look as dominating as they have this season, or at least it wasn't as obvious. The real beauty of the defensive performance was Michigan was able to get Minesota to go away from what they wanted to do. Minnesota's offense is predicated on running the ball, and then working in the deep pass. Michigan did a great job of stopping the run, and Minnesota was afraid to go for the deep ball because they wanted to neutralize Michigan's pass rush.

On the surface, it didn't look like Michigan had a great pass rush, but they were only rushing four most of the game, and they were still getting at least a little pressure. Alan Branch in particular destroyed Cupito a couple times after he released the ball. If they had tried to go down the field more, there would have been a lot of sacks.

I don't recall too many blitzes, but like I said, Michigan really didn't need to. There were a couple times they did come with the blitz and Minnesota dumped it off to a receiver coming across the middle for a nice gain. You could tell Minnesota was expecting a lot of blitzing and it was a great adjustment by the coaches to counter that.

The other big thing that really helped our defense was just bad Minnesota's passing game was. For the first three quarters, it seemed like every pass was either poorly thrown, or on target and the receiver just dropped the ball.

Stewart was the goat on defense, and for good reason. Minnesota definitely tried to pick on him all day. I can't fault him for the first TD though. He had good coverage that was just a perfect throw and a nice catch. The second TD on the other hand was just ugly. When Payne caught the ball I said "Keep him in bounds". I assumed the "but still tackle him part" was implied but i guess not. Morgan Trent's hand can't heal soon enough though.

Special teams was ok. Zoltan had the one beautiful punt, and two pooch kicks that were excellent. The ball we (almost) downed on the one was on the other side of the field, so I couldn't see it, but it seemed like he put it in the right place. The other one was inside the 10 yard line. I don't think we've had a punter be that accurate in a while. He was certainly better than Minnesota's punter who was just terrible. The highlight was his 21 yarder in the fourth quarter. I suppose that's one way to neutralize Breaston. I have no idea what was up with Ross Ryan's one kickoff. I guess he just shanked it. Rivas didn't inspire much confidence. Maybe it's harder to kick at the Metrodome, because Minnesota's kicker was comically bad in warm-ups as well.

I was amazed at how much the stadium emptied out before the game had ended. People started filing out when it was 21-7 in the fourth quarter, and our fourth touchdown sent another, bigger wave. I guess I can understand some of it because it was a night game, and anybody not from the Twin Cities metro area has an hour and a half to hour drive to get to any other city in the state, but the student section also really cleared out. By the time Minnesota scored their second touchdown, the stadium was probably less than half full and there were only a couple hundred students left. After they got the onside kick and were driving, I joked that maybe they should start letting people back into the stadium.

I was a little worried about something weird happening at the end of the game, but it was nice to see the defense come up with that stop, and then Hart had that huge third down run on the following drive to ice the game. Overall, Michigan's win was much more functional than fashionable. They could have thrown the ball around and lit things up on the scoreboard, and they could have tried to keep Minnesota out of the endzone late, but at the end of the night, Michigan did what they had to do to grind out a win on the road. As long as they keep winning games, it's not gonna matter how they do it.

It was interesting to see the team get the Jug back. They just sort of sauntered over there, got the Jug, raised it in the air once, and then walked off the field. I doubt the Jug will be focal point of our school's exhibit at the State Fair like it was this past year. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the game though. Get the win, get the hell out of there, and then it's on to bigger and better things.

Leaving the stadium was just bizarre. As we filed out to the upperdeck concourse, we saw nothing but Michigan fans. It was just weird to see that many Michigan fans and not a single Minnesota fan. I was a little worried about having to take the campus shuttle home with a bunch of drunken Gopher students, but luckily, we saw pretty much all of their students on the first wave of buses, since they left the game early, and we were able to hop onto the bus with about 4 students, and a bunch of old people who looked like they had to be woken up at the end of the game.

It was a great experience. The MGoBlog shirts were mostly met with confusion, especially the 86=1 shirt, but it was fun wearing them. One Michigan fan we saw outside the Dome was impressed that I had a Mario Manningham shirt. It was great to get to see Michigan play live again, and it was great to see them get the win.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Everyone knows that there is no crying in baseball. But apparently there’s quite a bit of it in women’s basketball, especially if you choose not to pretend that it is the greatest sporting event in the world. I fully recognize that this year’s women’s Final Four was a huge success and many people found it very entertaining. That doesn’t mean that I would ever desire to watch it though, and according to some, that makes me a bad person.

Earlier this week, the writer Brent, from the Paradigm Blog created a lot of controversy when he questioned NCAA President Dr. Myles Brand for giving an interview discussing why women’s basketball is given so little respect. Brent was widely criticized by many female basketball players for his remarks, but I don’t think he was too far off in his assessment.

Brent said, “People don't hate or disrespect women's sports. What they hate is having something shoved down their throats that's not entertaining and not played with a high skill level.”

That sums up a lot of people’s feelings about women’s basketball. The only problem is that they aren’t allowed to feel that way because any time someone dares to express that opinion, they get a dozen people screaming at them about what a great game women’s basketball is and how the women competing are such fine athletes.

I’m not going to question that the girls that compete in college basketball don’t work hard and aren’t fine athletes, because I’m sure they are. But that doesn’t mean it’s played at a particularly high skill level or that I find it in any way entertaining.

Part of what makes sports entertaining is watching athletes do something that you’re unable to do. I love watching basketball players throw down huge dunks, or go spinning and twisting through the lane to make an impossible lay-up. I love watching hockey players fire a blistering shot past a goalie. I love watching a quarterback throw a 40 yard into the arms of a leaping receiver. I’ll never be able to do any of those things, and watching someone else do them is exciting and entertaining.

The same can’t be said for women’s basketball. I can’t say for certain how a top women’s college basketball team would fair against a boy high school basketball team, but I’ve got a decent idea of how I would fare. I used to attend a small Division I school and in my spare time, loved to go down to the campus gym and play pick-up basketball. On a couple of occasions, members of the school’s women’s basketball team would come out and play. Most of the guys were afraid to guard a girl because they didn’t want to risk the embarrassment. I took the risk a couple of times though, and while I can’t say I was dominant, I can say that I more than held my own, often outscoring my female counterpart. That’s not to say that those female players, and their teammates were bad basketball players. In fact that team went on to make the NCAA women’s tournament later that season. It’s just saying that even though their skill level is high for them, it’s not high enough to arouse my interest.

The same goes for other women’s sports such as tennis. While I enjoy watching the amazing athleticism and contrasting styles of men’s tennis, I think watching two over-sized women stand glued to their respective baselines having a who-can-scream-louder contest to be incredibly boring.

The other, more important issue with women’s basketball is the way it is marketed. I understand that ESPN wanted to get a piece of the March Madness pie, and had to settle for the version where a back screen is a foreign concept and nobody has to jump to get a rebound. But I don’t need to hear Liz Phair sing about it during every commercial break on ESPN for three straight months. What’s wrong with just letting the game sell itself instead of loudly telling everyone how they need to watch this sport, and then yelling even louder when they say they don’t like it?

Nobody is trying to deny women the right to compete in sports. They have every right to have the same opportunities as men do. But the idea that every person needs to watch and appreciate their sport is ridiculous.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

There's been a lot of excitement in Minnesota over the past couple days ever since the State Legislature took the first steps towards getting the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers their own on-campus outdoor football stadium. Take a mental note of all the excitement and happiness that university reps and fans are showing about their new stadium. Ten years from now, it will be a great answer to the rhetorical exasperation "What on Earth were they thinking when they built this thing?"

Make no mistake, I've long said that the Gophers desperately needed to move out of the Metrodome and build their own football stadium. College football shouldn't be played inside a dome, and no college football game should be moved to Friday night because a baseball game has first priority. The stadium proposal is certainly better than continuing to play at the Metrodome, but then again, scheduling games in a corn field in Darwin, Minnesota, right next to the world's largest ball of twine would have been a step up from the Metrodome. But the new stadium proposal is still tremendously disappointing for the future of Gopher football.

You really can’t blame Gopher fans for being optimistic. If you feed a starving man gristle, it’s still going to taste to filet mignon to him. For years they’ve heard people say that all they really needed was a new stadium to draw in recruits and turn things around for their program. But the proposed stadium plan won’t be what they need, and a few years from now, Gopher fans will be begging for another meal.

The biggest problem with the new stadium is that it looks beautiful in the preliminary drawings, but is pitifully lacking in size. The proposed design has only 50,000 seats. That’s shamefully low for a Big Ten football program. A stadium of that size would the second smallest in the Big Ten, and only about 750 seats bigger than Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Field. While that may not seem like a big deal, the size of the stadium will keep Minnesota from achieving the goals they hoped to gain by building a new stadium.

The biggest reason that fans wanted a new stadium for the Gophers was that they felt the horrible conditions at the Metrodome were keeping Minnesota from landing top recruits, especially within their home state. But if players were choosing against going to Minnesota before because of their stadium, there’s that will keep them from leaving in the future. Yes, the new stadium will be better than the Metrodome, but it won’t be better than the other stadiums of top programs around the country. Minnesota may be closing the gap between themselves and college football’s elite, but they certainly won’t be surpassing them.

If anything, the new stadium could be used as a recruiting tool against Minnesota. It’s no stretch to imagine Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis telling a player “Why would you want to go to a school that has so little confidence in their program that they’re building themselves a smaller stadium?” or Penn State’s Joe Paterno asking a player “Why go to Minnesota when you can play in front of twice as many people every home game?”

The second goal Minnesota fans had was to grow their program with the new stadium. But with a 50,000 seat stadium, there’s no room for the program to grow. Perhaps the small stadium will save them some embarrassment when the team struggles through miserable seasons and nobody wants to show up, but if the program becomes successful like people want, they won’t be able to put nearly as many fans into the seats as they potentially could. It will be incredibly difficult for Minnesota to make the jump to being an elite program when they can only generate about half of the ticket revenue that other elite programs can generate with their monstrous stadiums.

The proposed new stadium for the Gophers may seem like a great idea now, but unless someone steps in and finds a way to get them to build a bigger stadium, it’s going to leave people wondering what the University of Minnesota was thinking when they decided to build it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The poor guys just can’t win.

Last summer, the NBA’s dresstapo came down with a ruling saying that all players would be required to wear suits to the arena on gameday. It seems commissioner David Stern got tired of watching ESPN and TNT’s favorite 5 second five pre-game clip of the team’s star player walking through the tunnels of the arena to the lockerroom, and seeing those players dressed in less than business casual attire. There were players in t-shirts and jeans, players wearing throwback jerseys of basketball legends, and in hilarious instance that will now have to only live on in legend, Rasheed Wallace wearing his own jersey to the game. It was all just a little too thuggish for Stern’s liking, so he made the rule.

It wasn’t a popular decision. There was a lot of grumbling from the players, and a lot of disappointment for the makers of Sean John clothing. The league decided to appeal to the players’ competitiveness by deciding to out a “Best Dressed” award on their website every week this season. In the end, the players gave in and the suits are here to stay.

They even decided to one-up the commish. Not only did they stop wearing their gangsta-wear to the arena, they took things an extra step further by wearing the absolutely least gangsta thing you could possibly wear: tights.

If you’ve happened to watch an NBA game this year, you may have noticed star players like Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson all enjoying the comfort and breathability of spandex.

The players say the tights provide support and compression which helps their muscles work more efficiently, especially when they are injured, and it helps keep their muscles loose and warm during the game. There’s also the Robert Traylor-model, featuring a tummy-tucking control top.

Sure the players may have looked like they were a pair of white ice skates away from being figure skaters, but when you’re Dwyane Wade and you have a posse of 20 people waiting for the opportunity to earn their pay by beating down anyone who tries to point that out, you don’t really care.

But apparently that wasn’t the look that David Stern was going for either. The NBA reportedly wanted to ban the tights after the All-Star break, but decided to wait until the end of the season to avoid another controversy like the pre-game suit scandal.

So enjoy seeing your favorite NBA star in spandex while you can, since it looks like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have a hard time imagining Allen Iverson starting a “Fight for Right to Wear Tights” campaign, though a catchy rhyme like that would be perfect for his next rap album.

The bigger question is where do the NBA players go from here? They tried going gangsta and that didn’t work. They tried going girlie and that didn’t work. I can’t imagine what we’ll be seeing our favorite NBAers wearing next season, but I can guarantee it will be weird, and I can guarantee that David Stern won’t like it.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Have you ever been dragged into the middle of a fight you didn’t really want to be a part of? Well, as a sports writer, I feel like I’m dragged into the middle of this whole Barry Bonds steroid issue. I tried to avoid it, I really did. But if you pay attention to any of the mainstream media, it’s almost impossible not to get involved.

Personally, I just want to see an end to all the lies and deception. And I’m not even talking about Barry Bonds. The talk in recent weeks about investigating Barry Bonds has as much to do with Major League Baseball and baseball’s sports writers not wanting to see Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s home run record as it does with any of the other reasons given like the “integrity of the game.”

By now I’m sure that most of us have seen all the famous picture of a young, skinny Barry Bonds from the early 90’s next to a picture of the swollen homerun hitting machine that he currently is. But has anyone seen a picture of Barry Bonds from five years ago next to a picture of Barry Bonds right now? I have. They’re pretty much the same.

The point is that Barry Bonds’ body didn’t make this transformation overnight. He’s looked the way he does for some time now. But Major League Baseball and the media never really had a problem with it, until now that he’s coming close to one of baseball’s most impressive records.

Bud Selig and Major League Baseball could have stopped all of this from happening. There have been complaints about steroids in the game of baseball for over a decade now, but Selig never took the initiative to stop it. They made a few half-hearted attempts at getting a drug-testing policy, but backed down at the first sign of resistance from the players. You’d think they would have fought harder for something so vital to the purity and integrity of the game, but they mainly used it as a concession to the players to give them leverage for their other priorities.

And then there are the baseball writers. Baseball’s media is as close to a modern-day version of the mafia that you’re going to get. If you help them out, give them good quotes, tell them funny stories, they will give you their protection. If you don’t help them out, you’ll have to endure their wrath. You can’t blame them for it. Trying to make the same story interesting 162 different times over the course of a season can be extremely difficult. But that’s why I view things like the Hall of Fame voting, which is voted on by baseball writers, to be about as legitimate as a South American election.

Bonds has always been surly and standoffish with the media. He doesn’t give smiling interviews in front of the camera the way Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did, and he has always been punished by the media for it. Can you imagine the reaction if Bonds bat split open in tomorrow’s game and cork came flying out the way it did with Sammy Sosa’s bat a few years ago? I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t accept the “I accidentally grabbed the wrong bat” accuse like they did for Smilin’ Sammy. It’s also why we get the annual story about why Barry Bonds is such a bad teammate, despite the fact Bonds performs better than any baseball player in history. I don’t know how you could be a better teammate than by going out and doing your job well every single day, but like I said, what happens in the clubhouse is more important to baseball writers than what happens on the field.

The steroid hysteria around Bonds is no different. There’s a bunch of writers who would love nothing more than to put an asterisk next to all of Bonds achievements just because they think he’s a bad guy. The potential steroid use is just a convenient means to go after him.

So while everyone is making a big deal out of this now, it’s no different than how gay marriage becomes a hot button issue near every election. If Major League Baseball and the baseball writers really cared as much about this issue as they say they do, it would have been corrected long ago. If they want to stop steroid use in the future, they should make a rule to start testing players. But don’t single out and attack Barry just because you don’t like him. And try to leave me out of it.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is by far the most hated and most criticized commissioner in professional sports, and for the most part, for good reason. The NHL has undergone two embarrassing work-stoppages, attendance has dropped to pitifully low levels for many of the league’s franchises, and the league has almost completely fallen off the national radar.

All of those are valid criticisms and will certainly be a black mark on Bettman’s legacy, but I also can’t help but wonder if history will judge Bettman more kindly than his peers have. It may not seem obvious, especially with pro hockey at an all-time low point in terms of respectability, but Bettman could be the Harry Truman of sports commissioners: hated in office, and loved afterwards.

One of the biggest complaints about Bettman’s work as an NHL commissioner was the expansion of the league to “non-traditional hockey venues. The decision to allow franchises in Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Anaheim, Columbus, Nashville, Florida, and Dallas among others was controversial, and largely considered to be a failure. The empty seats in those cities seemed to confirm that. But Bettman’s big gamble may finally be starting to pay off.

Here’s a quick trivia question. The VOSHA Mustangs won the 14 and under Tier II national championship last season. Where is that team from?

A. Northern Minnesota
B. Suburban Boston
C. Phoenix, Arizona

If you said C, you would be correct. It’s no coincidence that most of those kids were 4 or 5 years old and just starting to choose what sports they wanted to play when the Coyotes moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg. The Tier I champions from last year came from St. Louis, another non-traditional hockey town that is slowly starting to become another hockey hotbed.

The growth of youth hockey in NHL cities isn’t limited to just Phoenix or St. Louis. Two of college hockey’s most dangerous scorers, Brett Sterling and Robbie, both of whom will be playing in the NHL in a few years, are direct products of the Los Angeles hockey-boom caused by Wayne Gretzky and the success of the Kings. Earl and Sterling may have been considered anomalies, but their former youth program, the California Wave have five more alumni already committed to play collegiate hockey in the next two years, and many more players that should receive juniors, college, and pro interest in the coming years.

Pittsburgh may have a long history in the NHL, but the franchise has struggled financially recently, which has led many to call for the NHL to euthanize the team. What most fail to notice, however, is that Pittsburgh is starting to reap the residual benefits of the Mario Lemiuex and Jaromir Jagr era. It was almost unheard of for a player from western Pennsylvania to play high-level hockey ten years ago. But today, players from the Pittsburgh area are becoming more and more common. Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone is in his third NHL season, while another Pittsburgh native, Bill Thomas, made his NHL debut earlier this week. Other young players, such as Dartmouth’s Grant Lewis and National Development Team member C.J. Severyn have very real NHL aspirations.

NHL scouts have to become as familiar with AAA programs like the Dallas Stars, San Jose Jr. Sharks, and Colorado Outlaws as they are with the high schools of Minnesota and the prep schools of the east coast.

Kids in western Pennsylvania are growing up dreaming of quarterbacking a powerplay for the Penguins rather than starting at quarterback for the Steelers. Kids in southern California are giving up their hoop dreams, for a sport where any player over 6 feet tall is considered big. Potential linebackers and tight ends are becoming big, bruising defenseman in Texas. That’s the kind of success that doesn’t show up in an attendance figure or a television rating, and Gary Bettman is a large reason for it.

The effect of this will help the NHL in three ways. First of all, it increases the overall hockey talent pool. If more kids that are playing hockey that means that there will be more talented players. The faster and more skilled the game becomes, the more attractive it will be to viewers.

Secondly, it means the NHL will see more locally born and bred players. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are great players, and may save their respective franchises, but could you imagine the hype and interest surrounding them if they had actually grown up in Pittsburgh or Washington? It would be like the hype and excitement of LeBron James getting to play in front of his hometown fans every night.

Finally, it familiarizes fans with the game. Why is hockey so popular in Minnesota? Why is football so popular in Texas? Why is basketball so popular in Indiana? Because it’s the same game that everyone in that state grew up playing. They understand the rules and the strategy and the nuances of the game. The NHL has found out how difficult it is to get new fans to learn and love the game on the fly. But it’s not that hard at all if you grow up with the sport.

On the surface, professional hockey looks to be in serious trouble here in North America, and for the short-term, it probably will be. But those short-term sacrifices to his reputation that Commissioner Gary Bettman has made will pay huge dividends to the NHL and to his legacy in the long-term.

There was a heavy feeling of disappointment around Ann Arbor three weeks ago on Selection Sunday, as fans watched the NCAA tournament match-ups being announced, and once again, did not see Michigan's name get called. Most knew that Michigan didn't deserve to be in the tournament, but deep down, were secretly hoping the tournament committee would find it in their heart to let Michigan sneak into the Big Dance. But as the last bracket went up on the screen, everyone remembered that the NCAA doesn't have a heart. Michigan fans were left with nothing more than the sad consolation prize of another trip to the NIT.

No one was more excited than me at the prospect of bouncing out of bed early on March 16th and anxiously pacing around the house, watching the clock and waiting for the opportunity to see my team play in the NCAA tournament. It was a scenario I had dreamt about since the season began. But it wasn't meant to be for this Michigan basketball team. It was another year of the ultimate dream hanging just out of grasp.

As I took my seat in Crisler Arena for Michigan's first round match-up against Texas-El Paso, a funny thing happened. My disappointment over Michigan not making the NCAA disappeared. I felt strangely comfortable, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the general public apathy allowed my family to get seats so great that you could smell the mousse on Tim McCormick's head. This was the Michigan basketball that I knew and had grown to love. A team a little below average in talent, and a little above average in heart and determination playing in front of a half-filled arena in a game nobody outside the arena walls cared about. It wouldn't have felt right if Michigan had been playing earlier in the day on national television with millions of fans watching.

I can't speak for the players, but from my perspective as a fan, this season was miserable. All of the impossible expectations and constant criticisms of people who hadn't watched Michigan play basketball since the late 80's and think winning 80% of your football games is a total failure made the season less than enjoyable. People wanted this Michigan team to be one on the level of other big time programs in college basketball, and that just wasn't who Michigan was. It's impossible to say whether or not that pressure to be something they weren't weighed this Michigan team down, but it certainly couldn't have helped. If constant second-guessing and questioning of players is what life if like at the other big time basketball factorties, then I'll pass. A ticket to the Big Dance isn't worth a season's worth of misery and dread.

My favorite memory of Michigan basketball happened four years ago, when the current class of five seniors who have started every game in this NIT were only freshmen. They were an undermanned team with no hope of playing in the postseason that started the season with six straight losses. Interest in the basketball program couldn't have possibly been any lower in Ann Arbor. But that team went on to win 13 straight games, and the few fans that experienced those two months of basketball will never forget it. There was no pressure and no expectations. Just a group of kids playing a fun game, and a bunch of fans having a great time watching them. It wasn't about playing for a national title, or being ranked in the top 25, or having highlights on ESPN, or any of the other benefits of having a high-profile team. It was about enjoying the game of basketball and watching your favorite team play it.

The running joke I've heard from multiple people is that it's almost better to lose in the NIT and quickly be forgotten rather than to keep winning and bring attention to the fact that you weren't quite good enough to make the NCAA tournament, and face the mocking of others around the country. I'm glad that that attitude hasn't carried over to the players though. Getting to see my favorite team play an extra five games is great no matter what the circumstance. Bowing out of the NIT early with a poor effort is akin to stabbing your slightly dorky, yet exceedingly loyal friend in the back in an effort to look cool in front of the "in crowd".

So Michigan will play their final game of the season tonight against South Carolina. A few more people may watch this game than the game against UTEP two weeks ago, but probably not many. As soon as the season is over, the talk about what a disappointement this team was will likely continue. It's true that this may not have been a great team, but they were my team. And for a couple extra weeks, they gave me something to look forward to during they day and something to do during the night. The only disappointment I'll feel about that is when it has to end.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The NCAA ice hockey tournament got off to a great start this past weekend. There was some very exciting hockey played by some of the best young athletes in all of North America. There was only one problem: Nobody watched. Sure, attendence was fine in the West thanks to local crowds in North Dakota and Wisconsin packing the stands to see their local team, but attendence bordered on pathetic out east, especially at the Albany regional where the arena was less than a third full to see Maine defeat Michigan State in the regional final. That's always been the problem with college hockey though. Those that leave the arena always walk away satisfied, but far too few get into the building to begin with.

One solution to this problem is so simple that it should be obvious to the NCAA: roll back ticket prices. The cost of attending NCAA tournament games is just too high. I understand that it takes a lot of revenue to fund an event like this, but the NCAA would actually make more money if they charged $25 for a pass to all three games and sold out a building like Pepsi Arena, as opposed to charging $72 for a pass to all three games and only having 4400 show up.

But would making the games cheaper really make that much of a difference? Absolutely. I’ll give you a personal example of why it would.

Believe it or not, about 13 years ago I went to the Arena Bowl. For those not familiar, the Arena Bowl is the league championship of the ever-growing Arena Football League. The question is, why did I go to the Arena Bowl? Prior to attending the game, I had maybe watched a tiny bit of a game or two on television. I couldn’t name another team in the league, aside from the hometown Detroit Drive, let alone name any players playing in the league. I was pretty much clueless about any rule that differed from the NFL. But there I was, sitting inside Joe Louis Arena with my dad watching what Detroit Drive owner Mike Ilitich described, shortly before selling the team, as “something stupid like arena football.”

The answer is easy. Why not go? On a lazy Saturday with nothing to do, my dad was able to pick up a couple tickets to the Arena Bowl for pretty cheap. We love football, but Michigan only plays 6-7 home games a year, and going to see the Lions play is usually more pain than pleasure, so the next best alternative was to go watch some arena football. We were able to go out to eat before the game and the game itself was a cool event.

Arena football itself didn’t really capture my interest. Detroit getting blown out by the Tampa Bay Storm probably didn’t help. I haven’t been back to, or watched an arena football game since. But that’s beside the point. The point is, I was there, and I got to see what the game had to offer. I may not have liked it all that much, but there were thousands of other people just like me who loved what they saw and decided to keep going back. That’s a big part of the reason why the popularity of arena football has exploded over the past couple years. Albany’s franchise draws between eight and ten thousand fans per game. Games can now be seen on national television, and the league even has their own video game. College hockey fans would kill for those things.

The high pricetag associated with NCAA tournament tickets isn’t going to scare away the hardcore college hockey fans. They’d pay just about any price you asked. I’m saving a kidney for when Minnesota State makes it back to the NCAA tournament. But the price is so high that you have to be a rabid college hockey to pay it. Very few families are able to justify spending that amount of money just to go check out something they’ve barely heard of and might be interested in.

Some people argue that by cheapening the tickets, you cheapen the event itself. They say college hockey, while expensive, is still a great bargain compared to most professional sporting events or other cultural events. While that is very true, not very many other people know that. You don’t convince them by telling them what a great bargain college hockey is. You do that by showing them what a great bargain it is. Let the people experience the excitement and atmosphere for themselves and the game will sell itself.

This was a great weekend of college hockey. As I watched tiny Holy Cross defeat powerful Minnesota, all I could think of was how much the tournament needs to be expanded. Imagine how great a 32 team NCAA tournament field would be, with small schools fighting desperately to pull off major upsets against top teams in great games would be. But in order for that to happen, you’ve got to increase fan interest, and there is no way that is going to happen if the casual fan is left on the outside looking in.