Monthly Archives: February 2010

Watching the NHL shun Olympic hockey…

Free advertising is good.  Someone should tell Gary Bettman this so that he stops hinting at the end of a relationship between the NHL and Olympic hockey, a relationship that may very well save his sport.

North America has been captivated this past fortnight by Olympic hockey matchups that have inspired patriotism and inspiration while reminding us (Americans, mainly) that this game really does kick ass when it is played with passion and at a high level.  And now the United States and Canada prepare to play the biggest game of the Vancouver games as they square off in the gold medal game today at noon.

The countries’ first matchup, last Sunday in the group round, was the most-watched hockey game in the US since 1973 when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals to win the title.  The United States-Canada matchup had more viewers than last year’s Stanley Cup Final between Pittsburgh and Detroit, a game 7 that featured the league’s brightest star: Sidney Crosby.

MSNBC drew 8.2 million viewers to a network that does not broadcast in HD and is not available in all homes.  According to NBC, this was the second highest draw since the network’s 2008 election night coverage and its third highest rating behind debate coverage from that election year. 

With these great numbers, one must ask the question, why would the NHL think this whole Olympic hockey thing could be bad?  Any publicity is good publicity, right?  Commissioner Gary Bettman has been reluctant to extend any commitment to the two-week Olympic break further than the Vancouver games.

Bettman has yet to commit to the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia and has cited the difficulty associated with shutting down operations for two weeks and what they lose in attention, attendance and competitive balance.  In January, Bettman said this:

“It’s difficult for any business, any league, to shut down for two weeks with the attendant loss of attention and everything that flows from it and there are competitive issues.”

Maybe it’s me, but I don’t get it.  They still play the same number of NHL games in a year.  Yeah, it’s a little more compacted and the flow is interrupted making for a hectic run of the last 20 games leading into the playoffs, but everyone has the same disadvantage there.  I get the competitive issues part, too.  Bettman notes in the same interview that not every team has the same number of players competing in the games, so certain teams may reunite more beat up, well-rested or out of sync.

However, the one point that Commissioner Bettman and I will never agree on is the loss of attention.  What more do you want for your league and your sport than to have the attention of the world squarely on hockey for most of the last two weeks?  The dream matchup of USA vs. Canada twice in two weeks could not be any better for the NHL.  The caveat is that NBC also carries the NHL and can cross promote the NHL with the Olympics, something that would not happen if ABC, CBS or whomever had the television rights.  Additionally, rabid and casual fans alike will  be able to hear the same announcing teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs making the transition from Vancouver to the NHL seemless for the league, the network and the fans.

So what does it come down to?  Why is Bettman so reluctant to make this a permanent arrangement and continue the relationship with Olympic hockey by keeping NHL players in the games?  What’s the answer to most questions that are on this public of a stage? 

Money.

The biggest thorn in the side of the NHL when operations shut down is that they don’t make any money by having their own fans in their buildings and having their own broadcasts over the air.  But the piercing blow is that they have to watch their sport make boatloads of money and get better ratings than the league for two weeks while they see no part of that revenue.  Top that off with the fact that the Olympics is essentially using their employees to have all this commercial success. 

Imagine having your business shut down, loaning your employees to another corporation for two weeks and then sitting back on a two-week vacation to watch them have more success than you?  It would hurt your pride, wouldn’t it?  But it would hurt your wallet even more.

What Bettman and the NHL’s brass fail to realize is that this is all good for the league despite the immediate negative consequences.  The game is getting more attention than it has for years, finally showing a complete recovery from the lockout of 2004-05 when the league lost an entire season and was shut down for over three-hundred days.  The current economic crisis facing the NHL is more related to our country’s economic recession as opposed to lingering effects from the lockout.

What’s good for the game is good for the league. 

If hockey picks up casual fans who are inspired by the way they see the athletes perform when representing their country that should hypothetically translate into NHL fans who will love the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I consider myself a casual fan.  I couldn’t tell you the best player on each team or even tell you who leads each division.  But I can tell you that I was on the edge of my seat when the US played Canada last Sunday.  I can tell you that I jumped off of my couch, yelled and clapped (to the point where I startled my daughter, Emma) when Ryan Kesler scored the empty net goal that sealed the win.  I can also tell you that I will be sure to watch today’s gold medal game and tell everyone else I know to do the same.

Will I continue to watch NHL hockey with a greater level of interest?  I like to think that I will, but I can’t make any promises.  However, there are millions of casual fans out there that are in the same boat as me.  If I were the NHL, would I take my chances that a decent percentage of them will become fans for the long haul?  I’d like my chances and that is why Bettman and the league should keep this relationship going.  Gains will ultimately be made and fans will connect with the spirit of the game that they experienced in watching the Olympic competition.  No one can argue that Olympic competition is good for the game of hockey.

In January, Bettman said, “. . .We have to decide . . . is it worth it?”

What’s good for the game is good for the league.

You bet it’s worth it.

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Filed under Hockey, NHL, Olympic Games, Olympic Hockey, Vancouver

Watching our athletes’ behavior…

No cliché in sports lore is older than the refrain of players wanting to represent themselves, their team and the league well…on and off the floor or field. Recently, our beloved athletes’ behavior fits a different sports cliché: “they’re making a lot of unforced errors.”

Looking through the pages of ESPN in the past two months has been an adventure in comedy as several stories seem like they should have come directly from spoof movies like Major League or Slapshot.

Washington Wizards’ guards Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton certainly shot (sorry, had to) themselves to the top of the bad behavior list after both were suspended for the rest of the 2009-10 season. Arenas was charged with a felony and Crittenden a misdemeanor last month. The two pulled guns on each other in the locker room after arguing over a card game that took place on the team plane.

Thankfully, the Wizards reportedly banned card games on the team plane.

The last straw for Arenas before his suspension was the stunt he pulled in pre-game introductions where he pulled out pistols using his fingers and “play shot” teammates. He was suspended the next day. Stellar behavior from one of the league’s stars, right?

Perhaps the saddest part of this particular story was that the late Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington franchise since 1964, was an anti-violence advocate that changed the team’s name from Bullets to Wizards because of the connotation associated with it.

But Arenas and Crittenton don’t even make my top spot in the list of boneheaded moves in the way of poorly behaving athletes in the last month. Here’s my top five:

5. University of Florida DE Carlos Dunlap’s DUI Arrest

On the Tuesday before the SEC Championship game, which very should have been called a national semifinal, between the Gators and Alabama, Dunlap was arrested at 3:25 a.m. and charged with driving under the influence (SEE HERE). This came in the beginning of the Gators’ week of preparation to play the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship and served as a distraction as practice began. Dunlap was so drunk that he was stopped at a traffic light on a green when officers approached the car and observed that he was snoozing, slumped over the wheel.

One would think that every player leading up to this big of a game would be on his best behavior and focused only on the task at hand. Dunlap’s absence may have been part of the reason that Florida lost to the Tide. His lack of commitment to a program above himself would be the main reason I would not want my team drafting him this April when the NFL convenes at Radio City Music Hall. Scouts, Inc. currently has Dunlap rated at #21. Here’s hoping Miami doesn’t select him.

4. University of Southern California WR Joe McKnight’s SUV

The 2006 Land Rover registered in Joe McKnight’s girlfriend’s name looked really nice at the USC practice facility in late 2009. The car was purchased for $27,000 by Adam Schenter, according to the California DMV. Schenter is a businessman and marketing specialist with no known ties to the USC program. However, his known ties to McKnight include a company Schenter owned that registered the website http://www.4joemcknight.com. Check the LA Times’ story on the controversy HERE.

McKnight ended up sitting out the Trojans’ bowl game and the investigation is not over yet, but when you play for a program like USC, a team that is the envy of most national programs and already under investigation because good old O.J. Mayo and others, you should probably watch it a little bit. Did he have to be driving the Land Rover to practice? Maybe he could have just saved it for times he took out his girlfriend and mother of his child to a nice meal paid for by Schenter or a booster. Driving it to practice each day where reporters and cameras are on a daily basis was more boneheaded than accepting the SUV in the first place. It’d be a little more obvious if he showed up in a 2003 Elantra or came using public transportation. McKnight should get a nice Schwinn and drive that to practice next year. . .if he stays in school.

3. Buffalo Bills’ RB Marshawn Lynch’s $20 Tip

I like TGI Friday’s as much as anyone, but apparently Marshawn Lynch uses it as something more than a place to grab a burger and maybe a molten chocolate brownie. On December 7, Lynch went to a Friday’s in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg and had an incident where he snatched $20 out of a woman’s hand, a $20 bill that was to be used to pay her check and leave a tip (SEE HERE). Unfortunately for Lynch, the woman’s husband was a cop and filed a police report days later.

Maybe Lynch forgot his wallet in the car and didn’t have his credit card to pay for the French onion soup and Jack Daniel’s flat-iron steak he was about to order. Or maybe he had forgotten that he was a star athlete in his own town and the TGI Friday’s would probably comp him and his picture would end up somewhere on the wall. You know, he would be posing with the general manager and lead cook and the photo would be signed and put somewhere in the lobby. Perhaps he needed the 20 to pay for a babysitter. Or maybe he forgot that he signed a 10.275 million dollar contract in 2007. But, Lynch has never been the stand-up type. After all, this is the guy who was accused of a hit-and-run with a pedestrian. What would have been nice, would have been if Lynch walked into the Friday’s and announced he would buy everyone a round of drinks as opposed to taking money from TGI’s patrons. They used to make a dang good French dip, but took it off their menu. Maybe Lynch was mad about that. I know I am . . .

2. Arenas and Crittenton

I can’t pass this one up as part of my top two. The fact that it happened in a pro sports locker room, was over a card game and that it caused card games on the team plane to be banned still makes me giggle. But, the top spot was not even close. . .

1. East Carolina University Dessert Fight at the Liberty Bowl

Leonard Paulk and Jonathan Williams really like dessert. So much so that they fought over one at the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl’s awards luncheon that preceded the game played on January 2 (SEE HERE). According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the two players nearly flipped over a table and one had the other in a headlock and was hitting him. ECU’s entire roster and coaching staff were at the luncheon, as was that of their opponents, the University of Arkansas, who won the game in overtime, 20-17. ECU Head Coach Skip Holtz suspended the two players for the game. The seldom-used running back Williams tallied 38 yards on 14 carries this season before his season ended due to a knee injury. Williams has been suspended by ECU twice before, so he is no stranger to trouble. Paulk, a defensive back, played in all 13 regular season games as a nickel/dime back and on special teams.

The burning question in everyone’s mind is: what was for dessert? Was it a nice piece of New York cheesecake? A brownie? Did they have tiramisu? Or maybe it was a cake that said “Congratulations to ECU and Arkansas!”, and Williams and Paulk really wanted the piece that said “ECU” like five-year-olds want the piece of birthday cake with the flower on it. What kind of teammates get in a fight at an awards banquet with media in attendance? They should have split the piece and then chalked it up as the event that brought the team together, the defining moment of their season.

The best part about this whole ordeal was that Holtz jumped ship at the end of the bowl season to take over the University of South Florida program, and that’s where this gets a little complicated. You see, USF fired their coach, Jim Leavitt, after he allegedly grabbed a player by his throat, slapped him in the face and then lied about it all. Did USF officials think that Holtz would bring a new discipline to the program after hearing of the dessert altercation? Maybe they got ahold of the tape from that luncheon and saw really good form in the headlock and figured the USF defense would benefit from that type of instruction.

After Holtz left, who did ECU turn to as a replacement? None other than Ruffin McNeill. Yes, that name does sound familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because McNeill was the interim coach who replaced Mike Leach at Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. Leach, of course, was accused of improperly dealing with the concussion of Adam Jones and was fired. McNeill better make sure the dessert table is fully stocked at all ECU functions, and as he begins to assemble his staff a pastry chef may be at the top of the list. I hear the Pirates like chocolate. . .

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Filed under Athletes' Behavior, Basketball, College Football, Football, NBA, NFL

Watching what could have been with Drew Brees…

As the Saints and Colts prepare to have all eyes on them Sunday night in Miami, Drew Brees prepares to share the biggest spotlight with the best quarterback in the world, Peyton Manning.  Miami Dolphins fans have the unfortunate privilege of watching Brees play in the stadium he nearly called home.

This reality may torment Dolphin fans day in and day out, but in the Super Bowl, in their city, it has to sting more than usual.  Let’s revisit Brees’ decision and explore what might have happened had it been different.

It was March of 2006 when Brees made the decision to sign with New Orleans and rookie head coach Sean Payton.  The Saints were coming off a dismal season, going 3-13 and playing no games in the city of New Orleans after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.  Brees’ decision was partly swayed by the role the Saints -and eventually Brees- played in the rebuilding of New Orleans’ city and its spirit.

There was one other team who showed interest in Brees, who was coming off a devastating shoulder injury from his last game as a San Diego Charger.  Dr. James Andrews performed the reconstruction and 30 other NFL teams were scared off.  The Miami Dolphins were the one team that showed interest in the quarterback, but were unwilling to guarantee the kind of money that Brees was seeking.  ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown is set to air a feature on Brees’ surgery including interviews with Andrews that will show just how badly the injured shoulder was and why every NFL team was correct in steering clear and why the Dolphins had ample reason to hesitate.

Nick Saban was the Dolphins coach that season.  The Fins had just finished a 9-7 and seemed to be moving in the right direction.  They were in the market for a proven quarterback and Brees was on their radar.  After negotiations that were described as business-like and always had the dark cloud of Brees’ shoulder and the franchise’s injury concerns hovering, the Dolphins decided to break talks and instead traded a second-round draft pick for another quarterback coming off an injury, Daunte Culpepper.  That trade was made the same day Brees signed a 6-year, $60 million contract with New Orleans.

The rest is history.  Brees has been throwing touchdown passes since he signed with the Saints, has been an integral part of the rebuilding process of New Orleans and will play on sports’ biggest stage on Sunday.  Culpepper lasted four games as Miami’s starter before being benched and was eventually put on injured reserve.  Saban bolted for Alabama after two seasons in Miami and is now on the top of the college football heap once again with the Crimson Tide’s national championship.

But what if Brees came to South Florida?  What if the Fins rolled the dice on his injured shoulder instead of Culpeper’s mangled knee?  Brees had the opportunity to sign a contract with Miami for less money.  Though he says that the rebuilding process after Katrina was a part of his decision-making process, would more money have tipped the tables?  Let’s make like we’re all four-year-olds and play “pretend” for a few minutes. . .

The most devastating effect in this whole alternate scenario is on the city of New Orleans.  In 2005, the Saints played two preseason games in the Superdome before Katrina forced them into vagabonds for the rest of the year.  Training in San José and playing home games in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, the team’s future was up in the air when the curtain closed on Jim Haslett and the Saints’ season.

Had Brees donned the bright orange jersey of Miami, the Saints would have had limited options at quarterback.  Culpepper may have found himself in black and gold and we all know how ready he was to play.  Currently on the roster at the end of ’05 were longtime starter Aaron Brooks and backup Todd Bouman, who supplanted Brooks as the starter for the final three games of ’05.  Brooks had started 82 consecutive games, but clearly his time as New Orleans’s starter was over.  He was released at the end of the season.

With those options moving forward, the fortune of the Saints without Brees would have been tenuous at best.  Owner Tom Benson remained committed to keep the team in New Orleans after Katrina and that effort was certainly solidified by Brees’ arrival, the team’s subsequent rousing homecoming and the events of 2006: a 10-6 season, a divisional title, a playoff win over Philadelphia and a conference championship appearance.

The magic of the 2006 return to New Orleans may have energized the team through two mediocre seasons (7-9 and 8-8) and zero playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008.  Beginning the 2009 season, the team was a posh playoff pick, but many critics also thought that Sean Payton may have been on the hot seat if the magical 2006 season was followed up by a third sub-par effort.

Say the Saints plodded through 2006 with Brooks, Bouman or Culpepper at quarterback and ended up with the same record as the Dolphins (6-10) or worse.  Money says that fans might turn away from the team as a beacon for hope and reality would set in pretty quickly on Benson and the ownership group.  Three consecutive seasons of “Ain’ts” football might have Benson ready to sell or move the franchise to cozier surroundings like San Antonio or Los Angeles.  The Saints had been playing with house money since 2006 and Payton and Brees kept the energy up by immersing themselves in New Orleans’ recovery efforts.  The same may not have happened if 2006 wasn’t so sterling.

And what of the Dolphins if Brees came to Joe Robbie/Dolphins/Pro Player/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium?  This is where things get really crazy in bizarro world.  Brees would undoubtedly have taken the reigns of a club on the rise, coming off a 9-7 season in Saban’s first as an NFL coach.  The addition of Brees of could have been league-altering.  This was a team with a stellar defense left for Saban after Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt built it to dominance.  The offense featured 1,000-yard rusher Ronnie Brown in his second season and four receiving options that caught over 50 passes each with quarterbacks like Culpepper and Joey Harrington under center.  Wes Welker was one of those targets, leading the Dolphins in receptions.

Clearly, Brees would have nurtured this group and turned them into instant contenders the way he did with the Saints.  Some may even argue that Miami had more pieces in place to become a power faster. 

What would the ramifications hold for this change of fortune?  Let’s explore a few:

Would Saban have bolted?  In the final weeks and after the 2006 season in which the Dolphins went 6-10, the rumor mill swirled around Saban’s departure for Alabama.  We have all heard the controversies and seen the name calling about his claim that he would never leave and then his exodus to Tuscaloosa.  But what if Brees brought him another winning season?  A division title?  A playoff win?  An AFC Conference Championship appearance?  These are all things Brees did in his first year with the Saints, and we already established that Miami’s supporting cast may have been more ready to take a longer leap.

That 2006 season ended up being the first losing season of Saban’s head coaching career.  He hadn’t even gone .500 since he went 6-6 twice in three years (1996 and 1998) while coaching at Michigan State University.  Odds are, Saban would have wanted to see this through and with Brees in place, there would be no reason to ditch the Dolphins.

So what of Alabama?  Clearly, the team would be on the lookout for another high-profile coach after dismissing Mike Shula after four seasons, the last of which being 6-6 campaign.  Would the Crimson Tide’s win in the BCS Championship game last month still happen?  Doubtful, seeing as no one but Saban could have done what happened in the turn-around of that program.  Saban went 6-6 (2007) in his first season at Alabama before going 12-0 in 2008’s regular season, ending that year with losses to Florida in the SEC Championship and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.  In 2009, the Tide became BCS Champions.  None of this would have happen if Saban stayed and he very well may have if Brees roamed South Beach.

What of Wes Welker?  Would he have been traded after Brees developed a connection with him in 2006?  Like Tom Brady, Brees may have been able to bring out the best in the receiver Miami branded as a borderline slot guy with great return skills.  The next season, Welker got a lowball offer from the Fins and the Patriot swooped in and traded Miami a two draft picks (rounds 2 and 7) for the Texas Tech graduate.  This would surely impact the Patriots’ dynasty moving forward and have some effect on Moss and Brady’s production without their slot weapon.  Furthermore, with Saban still in control and the Dolphins making more sound decisions without being in front office limbo, the chances they recognized the talent and locked him are more likely.

Alas, for Dolphins fans this reality never materialized.  The Saints got Brees and now here we are.  I do believe the signing of Brees in New Orleans was meant to be.  He was the perfect fit of great player, amazing human being for that city at the right time.  The way he dove right into New Orleans has been inspiring and he has become a major part of that city’s rebirth.  He truly embraced the Crescent City from the word go.  Brees and his wife, Brittany, chose to restore a 100-year-old New Orleans mansion and have become true New Orleanians.   His charitable contributions and activity in the Katrina recovery have been immeasurable.

Now it’s time to see if Brees can do something that would be a first and not a restoration…winning the Super Bowl for the city he now calls home in the city he almost did.

Here is my pick for the Super Bowl.  Odds are from Danny Sheridan as of Friday Night.

NEW ORLEANS (+5) 34, Indianapolis 31

I think the magic continues and the Saints take the whole enchilada.  The game should be very exciting and I see lots of scoring.  I think the difference will be turnovers caused by the Saints defense and the mojo that comes with having most of the nation rooting for you and the good karma that comes with overcoming a natural disaster like Katrina.  A new America’s Team will be crowned Sunday night.  Who dat?

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Filed under Betting, Drew Brees, Football, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, NFL, Playoffs