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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It seems that every year, some young columnist tries to make a name for himself by writing an article about how hockey doesn’t deserve to sit at the “cool table” of American sports with the popular clique of football, basketball, and baseball because it is nothing but a bunch of big, brutish thugs skating around trying to hit each other. This year it was a young columnist from UCLA that chose to take a momentary lapse of judgment in a club hockey game and turn it into a condemnation of the entire sport.

Moreover, the sport of hockey suffers from their fair share of critics within the sport. There are people who justifiably squirm at the idea of throwing thousands of dollars worth of scholarship money at 14 year old kids or 13 year old kids moving 2000 miles across the country for the sole purpose of playing for a better travel hockey program.

The sport of hockey and their system of developing players didn’t look so bad this past week, however, when the NCAA released their figures for last year’s Academic Progress Rate. While other major sports like football, basketball, and baseball had many teams that only avoided NCAA penalties thanks to leniency granted by the NCAA due to the small sample size of the numbers, college hockey only had two schools that fell just below the mark. The top ten percent of schools in college hockey all had a perfect 1000 APR rating.

So why exactly are a bunch of maladjusted brutish thugs doing so well in college while the cool kids in the Big Three of American Sports struggling?

Hockey is such a small sport, with only 58 Division I teams. It certainly helps when about 10% of the schools playing hockey are Ivy League schools, not to mention schools with outstanding academic reputations like Colordao College, Rensselaer, Clarkson, and Michigan Tech.

I also think that the way players are developed plays a big role in things. I know that not there weren't too many football and basketball teams that received penalties, but I noticed there were quite a few that avoided punishment thanks to the squad-size adjustment.

The difference is that I think more football and basketball players are a little more used to receiving "star treatment" growing up. Everyone in town seems to know the big football or basketball star since they usually star for the local high school team. Hockey players usually grow up playing on independent traveling teams that get very little local recognition. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions both ways, but I think overall, that creates a difference in attitude for those sports.

On a similiar note, most hockey players spend at least part of their high school years playing in a junior league where their academic is monitored by their team. Meanwhile, I think there is the tendency to let top football or basketball players slide in high school and get away with not doing as much work.

The other advantage that hockey has over other sports is that players have other options besides just going to college. Most top hockey players have the option of choosing to play in the NCAA or going to Canada and playing in one of their major junior leagues. This gives less serious students the opportunity to play hockey with less academic focus. Players can also play in junior leagues for up to two years past high school. This gives players the opportunity to mature a little more and give them a little more academic focus. A 20 year old freshmen is much more likely to be considering his future and be a serious student than an 18 year old freshmen.

This is something that is missing in most other sports. It especially gets talked about with basketball. Struggling students often get forced into college athletics when they're not ready or not interested because they have no other options.

So it seems that the hockey system and culture that people are often afraid of is working incredibly well. Hockey players seem to be coming to college more ready to handle the difficult balance of competing on the ice as well as succeeding in the classroom. There is a heavy load placed on their shoulders, and they’re doing an excellent job carrying it. But then again, isn’t that what big, brutish thugs do best?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

It’s been a year of changes in the NHL. The end of the yearlong lockout brought about the “New NHL” with new rules to make the game more exciting, and young new superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. It also meant the end of the line for some of the game’s all-time great superstars like Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. An embarrassing performance at the Olympics was one final reminder that the USA’s golden generation of hockey players that won a World Cup and an Olympic silver medal in 2002 had clearly past their prime. Even the game’s most untouchable player, Wayne Gretzky, has seen his image tarnished a tiny bit as information leaks out about his gambling exploits.

Amidst all these changes, one of the true legends of the game is nearing the end of his career without much fanfare from most of the media in the country. Then again, that’s probably the way Steve Yzerman, captain of the Detroit Red Wings since 1986, would want it.

The Detroit Red Wings organization was at an all-time low following the 1982-83. They had earned the affectionate nickname of the “Dead Wings” for their lackluster play on the ice and sparsely filled arena. The team was looking for a spark heading into the NHL Draft that June, armed with the 4th overall pick. It seemed as though even that would sour, when the Red Wings first choice, local star Pat LaFontaine was taken one pick prior at number 3 overall by the New York Islanders. That forced the Red Wings to take best available player on their draft board, which happened to be a small, but promising young forward out of the Ontario Hockey League. The Red Wings thought they lost out on their local hero that day. Instead, their local hero had found them.

The large mural of Steve Yzerman that was on the side of the Cadillac Tower in Detroit said it all. Born: Cranbrook B.C. 1965. Adopted: Detroit 1983. While the message of the sign always seemed to be a bit of parting shot at the athlete that adorned the wall prior to Yzerman, who was so intent on leaving Detroit that he cut his career short just to do so, the giant painting had a much more direct message: Steve Yzerman was Detroit.

He led the Red Wings in scoring the year after being drafted and finished second in Rookie of the Year Voting to goalie Tom Barasso. While some players might have sulked at not winning the award, Yzerman didn’t let it phase him. While some players may have pouted about being stuck on a terrible team, Yzerman worked harder, doing his part to make sure Detroit didn’t stay that way. That attitude and effort wasn’t lost on his coaches or teammates as he became the team’s captain at age 21, making him the youngest captain in team history. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Red Wings doubled their win total that season and made the conference finals before losing to the mighty Edmonton Oilers.

From that point forward, Yzerman was The Captain. Not only was he one of the best players on the ice, he was even better off the ice. Journalists and commentators love to talk about players being “media-savvy,” but that wasn’t the case with Yzerman. He was just honest. When tough questions needed to be asked, Yzerman was always there to give an explanation about why the game didn’t go their way or why the playoff run ended a few round short and to explain how things would get better in the same even-tempered voice he would have used if the result had been reversed. It was never about blaming or calling out teammates. It was never about whining about the officials or the other team. It was just an honest explanation of what happened. It was a quality the blue collar fans of Detroit could appreciate.

My personal favorite Steve Yzerman memory happened at the beginning of the 1995-96 season. The Red Wings were just coming off of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in which they were dominated by the New Jersey Devils trap. Head coach Scotty Bowman feared his team may be complacent due to the Stanley Cup Finals hangover and decided it was time for one of his famous head games. A few days before the first game of the season, Bowman leaked it to the media that a number of players, including Steve Yzerman were on the trading block and being shopped around to other teams. We’ll never know how serious those trade rumors were, or if they were real at all, but Bowman’s message to his team was clear: play hard because nobody on this team is untouchable. The message Bowman got from the fans a few nights later at the Red Wings season opener was just as clear. When each player was announced for opening night, Yzerman was given a three minute standing ovation that was only cut by Yzerman’s fourth attempt to quiet to crowd. The only reaction that came close to it was the minute-long chorus of boos for Scotty Bowman. It’s hard to imagine the greatest coach in hockey history being booed by his own fans, but that was the respect the people of Detroit had for Yzerman. Seeing him in another jersey would have been a crime because he was Detriot’s own.

The pinnacle of Yzerman’s amazing career came in 1997 when he helped Detroit win their first Stanley Cup since the 1950’s.Yzerman going to receive the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman and finally being able to raise the Cup over his head after season after season of heartbreak and disappointment is one the most heart-warming moments in sports. Even the reserved Yzerman couldn’t hold back his joy at finally winning the Cup.

Of course without Yzerman, the Cup may not have ended up in Detroit that year. The Red Wings easily swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals, but their road to the finals was rocky. While most any hockey fan can easily recall Mark Messier guaranteeing victory over the New Jersey Devils to help the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup in 50 years, few remember Yzerman’s famous speech in the 1997 playoffs. In the first round, the Red Wings found themselves in the middle of a tough battle with the St. Louis Blues. The series was tied at two games apiece and the Red Wings looked to be in trouble. Yzerman called a players only meeting with his team to talk with them about the team’s play and how they could improve. What he said is a mystery, but whatever it was worked as the Wings only lost two more games the rest of the playoffs. Even Yzerman himself downplayed the speech in his usual way by joking that his speech got better every time someone retold the story and that by the end of the playoffs, people were saying he had guys pinned up against the wall by their collar, screaming in their face.

From that point on, the Red Wings were one of the premier franchises in professional hockey, winning a few more Stanley Cups and always being one of the most difficult teams to face. It was a fitting denouement to the career of the man who took the Dead Wings and turned them into the pride of Hockeytown. His role on the ice diminished over the years as guys with younger legs than his started to get the upperhand. Yzerman has been moved to a role on the fourth line this season on a team of talented young players, some of whom weren’t yet born when Yzerman first put on a Detroit sweater in the 1983 draft.

Yzerman won’t complain though. He knows his role with the team now, just as he did almost twenty years ago when he was asked to assume to the role of captain of the team. Besides, Yzerman wouldn’t want the attention. He even took his name out of the running for the Olympics this year because he knew he would likely be picked for the team out of gratitude for his great career, and instead of getting the free ride and collecting what seemed like an easy gold medal, he withdrew so a more deserving candidate could get his shot at the Olympics. Canadian captain Joe Sakic chose not to wear the number 19 in honor of Yzerman.

Once the season is over, Yzerman will likely hang up his skates for good. He’s the last remaining player from the 1983 draft that is still playing in the NHL, and is really a relic. There just doesn’t seem room in the New NHL with the salary cap restrictions for a guy that wants to nearly a quarter-century in the same city. And there doesn’t seem to be much room in a league that wants to follow the example of the NBA and try to market the excellence of individuals for a guy who would never put himself before his team.

Yzerman will get a job in the Red Wings front office. He’ll get his jersey retired by the Red Wings. He’ll get his well-deserved spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’ll probably even get a large celebration from the Red Wings and the people to honor his career, and as a way of trying to say thank you for everything he has given the to Detroit over the years. But for the most part, Steve Yzerman’s retirement will go largely unnoticed by the rest of the country, which is probably just fine by him.