Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The first Sports-themed entry

I know -- hard to believe it has taken this long! Even harder to believe, given that this is both "fill in your bracket" time in college basketball, and late spring training (or fantasy drafting time) in baseball -- aka "the greatest time of year!" -- that this blog is about NEITHER of those sports!

Nor, shockingly, is it about the greed and stupidity that seem poised to take down BOTH professional football and pro basketball in the near future. Or about Major League Baseball's continuingly frustrating refusal/inability to get steroids behind them effectively.

It is about the peccadillos of the NHL -- the one professional sport usually beyond the silliness that greed has foisted upon the other major sports. And in particular, it is a simple question about arguably two of the greatest talents to EVER play the game. What does the NHL have against Alex Ovechkin? And why does the league feel it needs to overprotect their self-anointed Savior and wunderkind -- Syndy, oops, Sidney, Crosby?

To start with the latter -- hey guys, wake up -- if he IS as good as you say he is -- then you shouldn't need to protect him! Sure, the NBA had the "Jordan Rules" for MJ, and the NFL has turned Tom Brady into an untouchable -- literally. But, the clear evidence of the recently concluded Olympic tournament be damned, haven't you been telling us for years that the NHL version of ice hockey -- with the violence and fighting integrally a part of the game -- is the best in the world? The Jordan Rules weren't intended to give one player an advantage -- they were designed to keep him in the game, where he could amaze virtually every night (with the God-given talents and killer desire to be the best that DID give him that advantage!), and bring the world to the game. Tom Brady is a QB -- they should ALL already be required to wear dresses and flag football belts, since the rare one who is physically capable of defending himself would earn the wrath of his coaches for endangering himself if he ever tried! So the Brady Rule is designed to keep stars in the game, too!

But hockey? Where the machismo of the sport requires the best to be willing and able to defend themselves, or else requires their team to give up a roster spot to keep a bodyguard around at all times!? ESPN has made a household phrase out of "but he returned from the injury to finish out the game -- he's a HOCKEY PLAYER" -- regardless of the sport they are highlighting when they say it!

Even hockey has had its exceptions -- especially in the modern age. Mike Bossy, the great Islander goal scorer of the 70s and 80s, hardly ever drew a penalty, and may have fought once in his career. But he had Trottier, and often Clark Gillies, around to make sure that no one touched him! Likewise Gretzky and Lemieux -- they hardly ever were penalized or fought. And unlike those other sports, it wasn't because they were protected by the league, but rather, because they were disciplined internally, and protected by teammates -- because they were too damned valuable NOT to have on the ice. That trend probably traces back to the true Golden Boy -- #4, Bobby Orr!

But go back to the "glory days" of the NHL and the great ones -- Gordie Howe? NEVER shrunk from a hit or a fight, took care of himself. Bobby Hull? Rarely fought, but always got you back for whatever you did to him. Stan Mikita? Bobby Clarke? Two pests, who were among the dirtiest players in the league in their day -- and also the most successful!

So now -- back to Ovie and Syndy. In Ovechkin, we have a throwback -- a player with more size, speed, and skills in one package than this league has EVER seen (okay -- maybe since Gordie Howe. And no, I am not claiming he is more skilled that the Great One, #99 -- merely that he is more the "total package" that Gretz ever was). He can hit with the best, skate with the best, pass with the best, and score with the best of all time. You don't need to protect him -- but apparently the league has decided that other players need to be protected from him -- because they aren't big enough, or fast enough, or skilled enough!

Four times in his career -- and 3 of them this season (not counting the "hit for the ages" on Jagr in the Olympics -- as viciously hard and clean an open ice hit as I have EVER seen!) -- Ovechkin has hit an opposing player so hard that the game had to be stopped to tend to the injured player. In all 4 cases, he has received match penalty ejections for those hits. This, despite the fact that certainly in 2 of the cases, and quite possibly in all 4, a different referee on a different night, with a different set of players involved, would likely have called NONE of those hits as penalties, certainly none more than a single minor! And if you really want to be a stickler for details, and go back to the (seemingly forgotten) old rule that makes drawing blood an automatic 5 minute major instead, then at worst, he should have racked up 20 minutes in the penalty box for the 4 hits combined.

In the latest incident -- for which the game's greatest player was sent off the national game of the week in the first period (pretty stupid for PR purposes!), and is now serving a 2 game suspension -- it was SO clear that the bulk of the reason for the surprisingly severe injuries sustained came from a) the unfortunate position of the victim's skates as he was hit, and b) the significant weight differential between striking force and object player, and NOT from the hit itself, that the first intermission was spent by the analysts desperately trying, and ultimately FAILING, to justify the ejection! NOT the home town TV guys -- the NATIONAL crew! Some of the victim's own teammates have had no issue about going on ESPN and acknowledging that the hit was neither dirty nor that severe -- and have not been fined by the league or their own team! Unheard of!

Compare that to an incident that occurred late in one of Lady Crosby's first games back after achieving sainthood in Vancouver. As he moved towards the Rangers' goal, he appeared to take a dive over a Ranger defender's stick in an attempt to draw a penalty, losing his balance and sliding headfirst into the boards behind the goal. It is bad enough that this, now illegal, manuever was already going to lead to a penalty not on him, but on the Ranger player for "tripping" him.

But when Flopper Boy got up after the whistle blew, the Rangers' goalie obviously had some choice words for the cowardly diver, because the next thing we saw was Crosby giving the goalie a two-handed crosscheck across his face mask, which not surprisingly led to a full-scale melee.

The result of all this? Somehow, the referees found NO reason to penalize Crosby for either of his blatant infractions, or the instigation of a game-delaying brawl. In fact, somehow the Rangers ended up at a TWO-man disadvantage, during which the Penguins tied the score, before going on to win in OT!

It certainly looks to me like there is not merely a CLEAR double standard at play -- one which can only be intended to protect the Savior status of the Canadian-born Crosby by not allowing Ovechkin to pull too noticably ahead of Fat Sid in EVERY meaningful stat and area of the game -- but that as a result of it, the outcome of games is being impacted. Thankfully, the Bruce Boudreau coached Capitals are so deep that even the loss of Ovie doesn't slow them down. But I think both the Caps and the Rangers have a legitimate beef here.

And please don't try to connect this to the admittedly boorish behavior the Great 8 showed after his Russian team was eliminated from the Olympic tournament, directed at a female fan wanting to take his picture. Yes, he was in the wrong -- even though none of us knows the full story in this case. But 3 of those 4 hits and ejections, and his first suspension, all pre-dated that unfortunate misjudgement, so it cannot be the league trying to get back at him for a PR black-eye!

And yes, I know that the league has a growing problem with more severe injuries coming from hits from the blindside, because the size of players and speed of the game have both increased significantly. But the truth is that the NHL is lightyears AHEAD of both pro and college football in dealing honestly and effectively with concussions, and the most recent injury to Marc Savard that has led to a likely rules change for the better (even if the actual incident was FAR more clearly a penalty than any of Ovechkin's suspension-worthy hits, but no penalty was called and no suspension assessed, even after Savard was ruled out for the rest of the season!). But NONE of Ovechkin's alleged transgressions had a hint of deliberate intention to them. Watch the replays and show me where you find any -- and I dare you to find earlier incidents involving the injured players that might have led to a deliberate targetting -- they don't exist!

So the NHL, instead of making Ovechkin the co-poster child, and creating a rivalry worthy of Bird and Magic, that could catapult THEIR game to the next level, instead seems hell-bent on making the ONLY player from the last 25 years who could have played in the league 50 years ago, change his game for the worse. Gee, makes PERFECT sense to me -- NOT!

Which is why, no matter how skilled he truly is -- I will NEVER cheer for Syndy Crosby, or his team. Nor will I stop rooting for Ovechkin and his team -- if only to overcome the seemingly stacked deck they are being dealt from!

And if you have not given yourself the chance to watch Alexander Ovechkin play hockey, I strongly suggest that you do so at the earliest possible convenience -- before the league succeeds in doing what no player on the ice can do -- stopping him!

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