Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Archive for the ‘Hockey’ Category

The Future of Hockey on the Isle

In Hockey, Loyalty, New York on August 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM

Before I get to the main thrust of this article, it should be noted I’m a Rangers fan, thus hate the Islanders with an intense passion, and that colors everything I think about this situation.

But contrary to how you might interpret that sentence, I want the Isles to stay on Long Island.

I want them to stay badly.

I value this rivalry more than the Yankees and Red Sox or Arsenal and Spurs. Certainly more than the Rangers and Devils or Rangers and Flyers.

But despite Chris Botta’s original optimism on ESPN NY that the Isles would win the crucial vote, the chances of that happening are getting very slim after Monday’s referendum on the $400m loan from Nassau County to fix the old Mausoleum was voted down.

Sure, they are a perennially awful and mismanaged franchise. Nothing Charles Wang, or the people Charles Wang has put his trust in, has worked out for them, and for as bad as they’ve been over the last decade, you’d expect them to have built up an amazing team through the draft, as Pittsburgh and Washington did and Edmonton are in the process of doing. Tavares and Niederreiter aside, there are some major question marks in their system, despite Hockey’s Future ranking the organization #6 (the Rangers are #7, for the record)—especially in goal.

How mismanaged are the Islanders? The two key players from this year’s Stanley Cup finals were drafted by them: Roberto Luongo was traded after they drafted Rick DiPietro, and Zdeno Chara was traded away because they wanted Alexei Yashin, giving Rangers fans plenty to laugh at for a long time (and the Rangers returned the favor by signing Chris Drury and Wade Redden).

It’s curious to me, actually, that a lot of younger Ranger fans don’t have the raging hatred of the Islanders that older Rangers fans do. The split seems to come circa 1994, in the Cup year. Fans too young to remember the Cup hate the Devils more, or the Flyers or Penguins (mostly Crosby). But to me, and most fans who are old enough to remember the Cup (and sweeping the Isles in the first round en route to that Cup), the Rangers prime rival will always be on Long Island.

I think their fans are goobers (Gary Bettman grew up rooting for them, for Christ’s sake!), personally, but more in a playful way, not in the same way Thrashers fans were. Thrashers fans, with a few die-hard fan exceptions, deserved to lose their franchise. In the case of the Isles, it’s more that the franchise-as-run deserves to lose their fans, which has the unfortunate knock-on effect of the fans potentially losing their franchise. And the Rangers losing their prime rivalry.

It’s an interesting rivalry, in that whichever team is doing worse in the standing tends to win the season series. There’s such an intense hatred that the worse team plays with a motor that they don’t have against other teams, and it leads to absurd chants like You can’t beat us! with a callback of Make the playoffs!

So, what now though?

Might the Islanders move to Kansas City, who have an arena and desire for a hockey team? The surging St. Louis Blues wouldn’t be a fan of this idea, and might make the team less desirable as they are about to be sold by Checketts’ group.

Not only would the Blues not like this idea, but the rest of the Eastern Conference also wouldn’t like this idea. After moving the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, and the probability that they will end up in the Western Conference once the dust settles (meaning one team currently in the West would move east—probably the Columbus Blue Jackets), moving the Islanders west of Detroit would up the likelihood of the Red Wings entering the East, something Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has reportedly been pressing the NHL commish for years.  That’s not something any of the 14 remaining teams in the East would welcome, though something that would make Bettman want to touch himself (extra Wings games with the Rangers, Leafs, Bruins, Flyers and Habs? A ratings boon for sure).

Might they move to Brooklyn, into the Barclay’s Center, when their lease is up? It would keep them in the East, and in New York, thus keeping the rivalry alive. But as a Brooklyn native and resident, this sends shivers of disgust up my spine. The Brooklyn Islanders? No, no, no. I vote no.

Despite what Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz says, this is not a good idea. Not a good idea at all, dammit. With the bad blood between Madison Sq Garden and the group that own their farm team, the Hartford Whale, many Ranger fans were hoping it would be the Baby Rangers moving into the ice rink that the Barclay’s Center will have (which is thought to have about 14,500 seats, or 4,300 seats fewer than MSG’s 18,200 hockey capacity). Also, there’s the fact that Nets partial owner Mikhail Prokhorov says he has no interest in owning another sports team, though Wang would be admitting defeat if he sold anyway, and he doesn’t seem like the type who would give in, especially not after sticking it out for this long.

The Islanders must move out of their awful arena, of course. But they must stay on the Island, just as the Devils had to move out of their awful arena, but stayed in North Jersey.

I don’t know how this can be achieved, however. Most Nassau County voters and politicians don’t seem to want to lift a finger to help owner Charles Wang keep the Isles on the Island.

Hockey fans aside, it was the oddly ironic coalition of Tea Partiers and Democrats who turned out in force to vote in Monday’s referendum, which was expected to be an extremely low turnout, but ended at up at a “high” 17% of registered voters. This may be the only thing the two sides have ever agreed on, and was seen as a referendum on the debt ceiling bill passed in Congress over the weekend.

Long Island has some of the highest property taxes in the country already, so the early optimism seems a bit misplaced. This always seemed doomed from the start to me. Nassau Count Executive Ed Mangano (R) might have signed his political death certificate with this vote, but that’s a story for another article.

The thing is, though, if we’re to take Charles Wang at his word, he has lost around $250 million dollars on a team that hasn’t won the Cup since 1983, and Nassau County, who loved those 1980s teams so much but have the worst current attendance record in the league, are still unwilling to throw him a bone.

That’s not right.

Perfecting the Big Question: The First Game

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Houston, Loyalty, New York, Perfecting the Big Question, Seattle, Wrestling on July 29, 2011 at 12:03 PM

With a varied list of contributors to Perfecting the Upset, we decided it made sense to start a series of articles where we’d throw out a question to the crew and see how they stand.  This week, we ask:

What was the first game you ever attended?

(Don’t forget to check out our Allegiances table to know our loyalties.)

Rahat Ahmed
The first professional game I attended soon became part of one of my first memorable heartbreaks: Game 6 of the 1992-93 Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics.  My uncle surprised me with tickets, which led to me frantically printing out “banners” on our old dot matrix to cheer on Olajuwon and crew. (They were terrible, but an eleven year old has to make do with the technology he has access to.)  The first five games of the series had been decided by an average of 14.4 points, all won by the team at home.  Game 5, in fact, ended in a 25 slaughter by the Shawn Kemp-led Sonics.

The game was tight through half-time until Kenny “The Jet” Smith took it upon himself and ripped the Sonics 36-15 in the third quarter with his 13-for-16 shooting.  We won 103-90.  But the real memory of that series remains in two parts: The first was Game 7, which ended in a 3 point loss at Seattle in overtime.  It was the only game in the series that went down to the wire, where The Jet had a chance to clinch it at the end of regulation but failed.  We lost 103-100 because we simply couldn’t stop Sam Perkins.  Brutal.

But what I’ve never forgotten was outside the series, and why I’ve come to hate David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs so much: Game 82 of the regular season was against them. We won the game outright during regulation, but Hugh Evans decided to count a tip-in at the buzzer that was clearly too late.  It was enough to send the game to overtime and help the Spurs eek out a 119-117 victory.  Most importantly?  It gave Seattle home court advantage against us, even though we both ended the season with the same record.  And considering we were 2-6 against them over the past two seasons due to our inability to contain Kemp, Payton and Perkins, we could have used that.  (Perkins, especially, was one of the few players in the league who gave Olajuwon problems due to his range and height.)

We know that one decision in the regular season doesn’t lead to your final seeding, but I’ve never been able to forget about it.  My first experience at The Summit remains blood-stained by Robinson and Evan and kept us from having a go at Jordan.

Nick Britton
I assume that the first sporting event I went to was a minor league baseball game but I don’t remember anything about it. And when I was a young’un I saw the Washington Bullets a couple of times and the Washington Capitals once. That’s all I remember.

The first game for which I remember any details was a Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles game on June 6, 1993 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The stadium was only about a year old then. I remember this game for a couple of reasons: One, my dad had procured access to the Tyson Chicken corporate luxury box, so I got to watch the game in style; and two, there was a giant brawl in the middle of the game.

The fight I remember well but the people involved faded from my memory over the past 18 years until a friend of mine found the box score for me. I knew Harold Reyonlds, Mike Mussina and Norm Charlton were involved and that Lou Piniella got thrown out for a temper tantrum. It was an epic fight by baseball standards, and it started as baseball fights usually do: Team A’s pitcher throws at or hits Team B’s batter and then Team B’s pitcher retaliates shortly thereafter. In this case, Chris Bosio of the M’s went headhunting and Mike Mussina of the O’s nailed some dude I’ve never heard of. Fight!

What I remember most was how the fight never seemed to end. Usually, these things end quickly and everyone’s standing around. The guys from the bullpen run in just to get some cardio in. But this fight just kept going on and on. The pile kept moving around the infield like those cups in that cup game they always throw up on the video board. Fights were breaking out all over the place. McNulty and Bunk tried to break things up until the umpires stopped them (the police did try to intervene). Apparently, Ripken was at the bottom of that mess. Everyone in the stadium was standing up just in awe of a real, honest-to-god fight on the baseball diamond. I was pretty sure it was the greatest thing I’d seen in my 14 years of life so far.

The end result: Chris Bosio broke his collarbone for the second time that season. Two guys on the O’s got all bloodied up. Norm Charlton threw some punches. Eight players were ejected, including Piniella (shocker).

I only knew who won thanks to the box score. But two teams brawling out all over the diamond, that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. The only equivalent would be Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground like a bag of flour. But I wasn’t there for that.

Oh, and Cal Ripken? Ripken lived to see another day (or so).

Andrew Feingold
Technically, the first game I ever went to was Rockets vs. Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 3, 1983, when my mom was pregnant with me. When I was old enough to hear this story, I instantly became a Knicks fan. During the 1983-84 season, the Knicks finished 47-35 and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics. As a Knicks fan, this was just the beginning of losing series to playoff rivals. Hubie Brown was the coach of the team at the time, and to this day he remains one of my favorite announcers to hear on the radio.

C.D. Hale
Survivor Series ’94. San Antonio. Freeman Coliseum. I was 12, and our poor asses smuggled food in from the outside, a pseudo-white trash family of four taking in the ‘rasslin for the night. Couldn’t have enjoyed it more, particularly when Undertaker extracted revenge by defeating Yokozuna in a casket match. The special enforcer for that main event match? A Mr. Chuck Norris, the man who doesn’t read books, but rather, stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

Sean Koo
In September ’94, my dad took my brother and me to our first Buccaneers game. It was at the Old Sombrero against the New Orleans Saints, and little did I know that this would be the start of my hatred of the ‘Aints. In the midst of the Bucs’ thirteen year run of losing seasons, Sam Wyche was trying to put a consistent winner out on the field, but even his Super Bowl resume couldn’t get it done in Tampa. In a game that you could call a “defensive showdown” or an “offensive letdown,” the Bucs lost to the Saints 9-7. It would be a couple of more games until I saw my first win, and years until my first winning season, but being in the stadium for the first time and taking in the experience in all of its smash-mouth-football glory had me hooked. Buccaneer football at the Old or New Sombrero was the only way to go.

Sreesha Vaman
My first sporting event was a Capitals regular season game against the Minnesota North Stars in 1987, but it wasn’t the first one I was supposed to go to.

On November 1, 1985, my Capitals hosted an early-season home game against the New York Islanders—those New York Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cups and came one win away from a fifth.  Bossy.  Trottier.  Smith.  Potvin.  Gillies.  LaFontaine.  Two Sutters.  Tonelli.  A stacked line-up, one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the NHL.

So needless to say I was excited for weeks when my friend told me that his dad got four tickets to the game from work, and I was getting the fourth ticket.

The day before the game, I stayed out playing night roller hockey with my friends in the cold Indian summer air wearing a t-shirt and shorts… and got sick.  I could barely move the next morning.  I skipped school, slept as much as I could, but couldn’t convince my mom I was healthy enough to go to the game.

The 4pm vomiting didn’t help my cause.

At 5pm I succumbed, and another friend went to the game.  I watched the Caps beat the Isles, 5-3, on television.  My friend’s dad brought me a Capitals team calendar, which was the promotion that night.

Missing that game was a source of inspiration from then on, though: I watched every minute of every Capitals game on TV (unless I went to the game in person) from that year until I went to college outside of the DC area 12 years later.

In my junior and senior year, there was some home tape-delaying involved since I was working, playing club hockey, and, for a little bit, entertaining a girlfriend who wasn’t a sports fan; go figure—but I made it happen.

Still, I wondered how great it would have been to see my Caps perfect the upset (pun intended!) against the vaunted 1980s Islanders.

I still am jealous to this day.

Perfecting the Top 10: Superstars in Surprising Places

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Perfecting the Top 10 on July 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM

For many of us, the off-season and the trade deadlines can be a time as exciting as the season itself. You can find yourself in agony when a favorite departs or on the other side of the fence when a fresh face or seasoned veteran makes their way onto your club.  And with today’s salary cap limitations, fire sales and trades in the name of “rebuilding,” cornerstone members of franchises often find themselves in jerseys different than the one they’ll be remembered for. While most of these are forgotten over time, here are the most random (and jarring) ones over the last few decades until LeBron ultimately ends his career in Minnesota.

10. Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Boggs is a member of the 3,000 hit club, and he did it while wearing one of the ugliest uniforms in sports history. After a long run in Boston and a World Series for the Yankees, Boggs signed on with Tampa Bay in 1998. The Hall of Famer spent the last two seasons of his career in the basement of the AL East after years of sitting on top of it.

9. Thurman Thomas, Miami Dolphins

After being cut by the Buffalo Bills in 2000, Thomas signed on with the Miami Dolphins as a backup to Lamar Smith (and probably because Florida is a retiree paradise). The future Hall of Famer saw action sparingly before an injury ended his career twelve year career.

8. Mike Piazza, Florida Marlins

One of the greatest offensive catchers of all-time, the one time Dodger bat boy was traded by L.A. to the Florida Marlins in 1998 for exactly a week. He was nothing more than a poker chip to the Marlins to purge contracts from their World Series team the year before. The twelve-time All-Star managed to play a whole five games before being flipped to the New York Mets where he spent the next seven seasons of his career.

7. Karl Malone, Los Angeles Lakers

The definition of a ring chase: Karl Malone spent eighteen of his nineteen years with the Utah Jazz and John Stockton perfecting the pick and roll. After Stockton’s retirement in 2003, Malone, at the age of 40, decided to move out further west to the Lakers for one last attempt at the NBA Finals. Things didn’t go as planned as the Lakers ran into a staunch Pistons team who caused The Mailman to retire with many accolades, but no championship.

6. Wayne Gretzky, St. Louis Blues

“The Great One” to some will always be seen as an Oiler while many will reference him as a King. While he did spend the end of his career in New York, his brief stint alongside Brett Hull for the St. Louis Blues is often forgotten. Acquired for their playoff run in 1996, he departed the following off-season.

5. Eddie George, Dallas Cowboys

Forgot this ever happened even though it wasn’t all that long ago. Eight years after being drafted by the Oilers and then moving with them to Tennessee, George made his way back to Texas as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. From there, he pretty much did nothing until hanging it up. Playing in only 13 games for Dallas, he managed just over ten yards per game.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors

The Dream was Houston. He spent his college years a Cougar and led the Rockets to two championships over his seventeen years with the franchise. However, after the 2000-01 season, Olajuwon and the Rockets could not settle on a contract for the fading superstar and traded him north to the Raptors. He retired after the season, but he got to hang out on Toronto’s bench for half of it.

3. Emmitt Smith, Arizona Cardinals

As odd as it was to see Eddie George in Cowboy blue, it was even more awkward to see the NFL’s all-time leading rusher not in it. Determined his career wasn’t over, Smith made his way to the Cardinals after the 2002 season and spent his last 2 years in the backfield of some really bad teams. Thankfully, Emmitt retired as a Cowboy after signing a one-day contract worth zero dollars.

2. Joe Montana, Kansas City Chiefs

Still remember the Sports Illustrated cover with Montana, his ring and the title Kansas City, Here I Come. After 13 seasons in San Francisco, the Hall of Fame quarterback was traded to the Chiefs who he took to the playoffs both years before retiring. Regardless of this success, the guy who threw that pass will always be remembered in red and gold.

1. Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards

This one is easy. Michael Jordan is a Chicago Bull. While his numbers were decent, the Wizards weren’t and his tenure there just didn’t feel right.

Disagree on the order?  Have we left out some obvious choices?  Let us know in the comments!

Perfecting the Top 10: Most Intimidating Athletes

In Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Football, Hockey, MMA, Perfecting the Top 10, Wrestling on July 16, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Certain people draw plenty of attention when they speak. James Harrison, with his guns, brash attitude and status as one of the NFL’s top defensive players, is one of those people. Needless to say, Harrison had the nation’s attention with his recent comments regarding league commissioner Roger Goodell (crook, devil, puppet, dictator—the latter two of which I’m not sure can coexist, but I digress), as well as verbal digs against teammates and opponents alike.

What made Harrison’s comments so noteworthy—aside from their inflammatory nature—was the person from which they were spewing forth. Point being, Harrison (to quote Kevin from The Office) is a “Grade-A-Badass.” Herein lies a question: What other athletes currently share Harrison’s standing as legitimately frightening individuals, people with whom kicking up dust might not be the best idea? Let’s find out.

Note: These rankings are not based on an athlete’s ability in their sport, but rather, their sheer “fear factor.”

10. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens: Yeah, Ray has lost a step. In fact, he’s probably only the third or fourth best player on his own defense at this point. That said, if it goes down, give me someone such as Ray-Ray, a wily vet with a noted mean streak, a ripped physique, unmatched intensity and an innate leadership quality. Plus, tell me this doesn’t frighten you just a bit.

9. Zdeno Chara, Defenseman, Boston Bruins: I don’t pretend to know much about hockey, but I do know that anytime a guy has to meet with police regarding an on-ice hit, this person gets a one-way ticket to this list, no questions asked.

8. Clay Matthews, Linebacker, Green Bay Packers. The hair doesn’t hurt matters; neither does unmatched ability to get to quarterbacks and dispatch them with extreme prejudice.

7. Manny Pacquiao, Boxer/Politician: The reasoning for this is simple … boxing is a sport in which success is measured by one’s ability to pummel his opponent into submission with his fists. No one in the world does this better than “Pac-Man.” Let’s move on.

6. The Undertaker, Professional Wrestler/Dead Man: Think it’s fake, huh? Try telling that to this 7-foot, 300-plus-pound Houstonian behemoth who, by the way, also trains in mixed martial arts. Plus, his 19-0 record at WrestleMania is professional wrestling’s 56-game hitting streak.

5. Kobe Bryant, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers: He’s not intimidating in terms of pure physical force, but Bryant’s intensity, work ethic and will to prevail on the court are second only to one Michael Jordan. Personally, that frightens me, if only because it indicates that Kobe is the type to sneak a shiv into a fists-only streetfight.

4. Albert Pujols, First Baseman, St. Louis Cardinals: By all accounts a good guy on and off the diamond, Pujols nonetheless looks like the meanest bouncer at the bar, the guy who spent all day working out in the hopes of inciting a riot later that night. His muscles have muscles. Hell, Brad Lidge never fully recovered from his brush with Big Albert.

3. Brock Lesnar, UFC Heavyweight/Ill-Tempered Minnesotan: No, Brock Lesnar is not an elite UFC competitor, at least not on par with the Anderson Silvas of the cage fighting world. That said, look at this man. Dude looks like he was manufactured in a lab. Hell, I’d go so far as to call Lesnar our nation’s 21st Century Ivan Drago.

2. Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace), Forward/Resident Lunatic, Los Angeles Lakers:  The eyes don’t lie. Whether it’s that formerly-crazy girlfriend who alleges to have changed her ways, or a former bleacher-rushing Indiana Pacers forward who alleges to have done the same, the eyes don’t lie. And the eyes tell me, for all Artest’s on- and off-court improvements, there’s a tinge of crazy that has yet to be exterminated. And that sliver of crazy, no matter how small, is more than enough reason to vault near the top of this list.

1. James Harrison, Linebacker/Gun Enthusiast/Disgruntled NFL Employee, Pittsburgh Steelers: Easy call. Harrison is a 6-foot, 250-pound, mean-spirited, hard-hitting, gun-toting madman. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison’s bone-crushing hits, their ensuring fines and his subsequent NFL blasts, are the stuff of legend. Tack on fellow Steeler defenders like Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, LaMarr Woodley, and Troy Polamalu, and it’s no wonder Carson Palmer can’t wait to exit the AFC North.

Now Playing in Washington: A Discount for Ovie

In Hockey, Loyalty, Washington DC on July 14, 2011 at 7:00 AM

When Tomas Vokoun signed with the Washington Capitals in the first week of free agency this summer, the 35-year-old Czech native wasn’t shy about telling anyone that would listen that he took a significant cut in pay to play for the Capitals.

Wait, what was that?

Vokoun made $6.5 million last season with Florida, the last year of a multi-year contract with the Panthers.  He turned down multi-year, more lucrative offers from the Panthers to make less than a quarter of that this season, $1.5 million for one year in DC.

I’m not sure I followed that.  The more lucrative offer was where he was already playing?

See, this is a foreign concept for D.C. sports fans, especially Capitals fans.  For decades, we watched stars take less money to avoid the Beltway.

None of this was ever confirmed by the players, but many high-profile hockey stars were known to have turned down more lucrative offers from the Capitals to play elsewhere in the 80s and 90s (nobody can fault players for avoiding D.C. in the 70s).

I never faulted the players who turned down bigger deals from the Capitals to stay where they were.  Sometimes, the right decision for your family isn’t the most lucrative one for you; besides, a million to a guy making multiple millions for decades isn’t as much as it is to us common folk.

I also understood that some players turned down D.C.’s bonanzas to play in their hometowns.  Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Detroit and Boston have made a veritable paper fortune banking on this hometown discount.

(It’s worth noting that Potomac, Maryland native Jeff Halpern gave the Capitals a hometown discount for his services next season—that is definitely the first time in history that’s happened!  But it won’t be the last: some D-I college hockey scouts say that D.C. is now a must-visit on the recruiting trail.  That’s really exciting to guys like me who grew up playing youth hockey in the area.  And I don’t regret this not being part of my club hockey career—my position of Left Bench was already occupied at most schools.)

I was perpetually frustrated by the players who signed with new teams and took less money than what the Capitals were offering.  In the 80s and 90s, the Capitals were a regular playoff team, including a 19-year run of post-season play, but were always just one or two players away from jumping the big hurdle.

There were flashes of brilliance: Dale Hunter clinching the series for the Caps, after D.C. trailed the Flyers 3-games-to-1, with an incredible overtime goal in Game 7 in 1988; the run to the conference final in 1989, when the Druce was Loose to knock out the vaulted Rangers and pushing the Caps further than they had ever gone before; the run to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 against Detroit, when all of the pieces just seemed to fall into place until Esa Tikkanen deked Chris Osgood but slid the puck wide of the empty net in Game 2.

The fan base was loyal and motivated—sure, it wasn’t Toronto or Boston or even St. Louis, but surely D.C. was a better stop than, say, a dying Minnesota North Stars franchise, the remote village of Quebec City (to non-francophones, anyway) or Hartford, the insurance capital of America.

What would have happened if just one of those big-name stars gave Washington a chance?

And then it happened.  A bona fide superstar gave D.C. and the Capitals that chance: Alexander Ovechkin.  In a now-infamous article, The Hockey News suggested at the start of the 2007-08 campaign that the Capitals should trade Ovechkin and rebuild with depth instead of relying on one star.  Traditional theory held that Ovie needed out of D.C. to start building his legacy.  Instead, Ovie bunked tradition and signed a 13-year, $124 million deal to essentially pledge his entire career to Washington.  That signature single-handedly put D.C. on the proverbial hockey map.  Who wouldn’t want to play with the game’s most exciting star?

Capitals fans know this part of the story already: Building sells out—perpetually; Caps make the playoffs—perpetually; Caps become the darlings of the league and the city, and NBC’s Al Michaels notes on Sunday Night Football that there are more Capitals jerseys than Redskins jerseys in the stands at FedEx Field.

And now this: Jason Arnott waives his no-trade clause at last year’s trade deadline—for one team.  Tomas Vokoun takes a 76.6% paycut to play in D.C.

I still have to pinch myself just thinking about it.

A Farewell Letter to Chris Drury

In Hockey, New York on July 4, 2011 at 10:00 AM

“O Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done…”

-Walt Whitman

On June 30th, 2007, I wanted you. I wanted you bad. Well, truthfully, I wanted you or Scott Gomez. As an organization, the first line center was seemingly an unfillable void since 1997, when Mark Messier left for Vancouver after only a year of being reunited with Wayne Gretzky. Much like the Flyers can never find a goalie and the Canucks cannot win the Cup, it seemed the Rangers could not have an elite first line pivot.

It loomed even larger in the 2007 off-season when, very much against Jaromir Jagr’s wishes, we let Michael Nylander and his army of 19 children walk, where he eventually signed a disastrous deal with the Washington Capitals. Jagr was past his prime then and couldn’t do it alone. He needed a new center and you and Scotty Gomez were the prizes of the unrestricted free agent class that season, and you both happened to be first line level centers.

Never did I dream that we would acquire both of you. Never did I dream that it would quickly turn into a nightmare. It was elating in the moment, though, watching you guys flip a puck to see who would wear #23.

True, you had just ripped out Ranger hearts in the playoffs by scoring a game-tying goal in game five with 7.7 seconds left. But you grew up in Connecticut and, more importantly, grew up a Ranger fan. It was a coincidence that you scored a game tying goal with 7.7 seconds left, the same as the Devils’ Valeri Zelepukin did in 1994, though one that was impossible to not feel sore about in the moment as there was no Stefan Matteu to step up, only Maxim Afinogenov to twist the knife in our hearts deeper.

Gomez had his own issues, too, coming from the loathed New Jersey Devils, where he was regularly a Ranger killer. But he loved playing in the Garden, where he could take the puck from his own goal line, zip through the D untouched like they weren’t even there and put one right past Mike Dunham, or even Mike Richter and Henrik Lundqvist. He tallied 4 goals and 2 assists in three games at the Garden in his ’99-00 rookie season, including a hat trick the first time he stepped on Garden ice. Of course it’s not as easy to do that when you’re not playing against the Rangers D.

But neither you nor Scott could find a fit with Jagr. 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 was not a bad return, but not the 70 points we were expecting and the -3 plus/minus on a team where the only other players minus were the fourth line and a aged Brendan Shannahan was deeply worrying.

Still, after Jagr left you were named captain. Rightly so. You were fulfilling the dream of millions in the NY Metro area—the entire sports fan world, really—to play for the team you grew up rooting for. In explaining your departure from Buffalo you explained to the fans that it was like a kid from Rochester being offered a chance to play for the Sabres. You had to take it. Just that fact made you instantly beloved by fans of a certain generation (mine, born in the early 80s and older), though your diminishing skills and silent, lead-by-example style did nothing to impress younger fans who were not sated by the Stanley Cup win in 1994 as my generation was. They could not identify with the famous “Now I Can Die in Peace” banner held up that night. They didn’t witness a cup.

To them, you were supposed to be Captain Clutch, the Rangers’ version of Derek Jeter who would score key and late goals like the one you scored against us in the playoffs.  You did have 7 game-winners, but there were not that many clutch goals to speak of outside of the one in Chicago in that ridiculously penalty-filled game, or the one in Calgary where we lost in a shoot out anyway. In the following three seasons, you had 3 combined game winners, as you morphed into something of a penalty killing defensive specialist, which, let’s face it, we could have just kept Jed Ortmeyer at $600k a season for if that’s what we needed.

You and Ryan Callahan did Ranger fans proud at the Vancouver Olympics, but we wondered why you lacked that same drive when you played for us. We saw the same Cally on the ice at the Garden as we saw in Vancouver,, but you were different, like that jersey mattered more to you than the Ranger jersey. I’m sure it didn’t, but it felt that way at times.

And then came the injuries. The concussions, the twice-broken finger that never really healed and the knee that had to be scoped that also never really healed, which limited you to 24 games played, 1 goal and 4 assists last season. Just not acceptable for $7.05m a season, and so Glen Sather was forced to buy out your contract for the Rangers to stay competitive.

You’ll surely be missed, even though your time here was largely a failed experiment. You’ll be wished well on your new team (until you score against us) if your knee ever heals enough to resume playing. Ryan Callahan will probably replace you as captain either this season or next. Someone will be issued the #23, though I hope we keep it vacant for a season.

But things move quickly in sports, Chris, and we’ve already spent your cap money on Brad Richards, who comes on a 9-year, $60m deal that, while exciting as he fills every need we have (veteran leader, elite, top line center and powerplay quarterback) is somewhat worrying when we think of the deals we made in 2007 with you and Scotty. Though his cap hit is a relatively tame $6.66m a season (maybe a little numeric payback for the Devils having 19,040 seats at the Meadowlands), the 9 year term is an awful lot to live up to in New York.

Childhood Chris, who used to go to baseball practice in Rangers sweatpants en route to winning the Little League World Series, would think this was a good move to make.

It was, sadly, the only move to make.

Perfecting the Top 10: Historic Team Logos

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Loyalty, Perfecting the Top 10 on July 2, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Logos are important. They are a team’s identity, the common element that we recognize, that we react to. If a Yankees fan sees those two red socks on the back of a car, they know the car belongs to a Red Sox fan. If you want to know the power of a logo, break out your Cowboys t-shirt at FedEx Field (please do not do this).

I have limited background in design. I’m no expert. I just like logos. I’m not going to break down each element of a logo, but I do look at the font, the colors, the link with the team name, the complexity (or “busyness” you could say) and so on. Some logos just have that somethin’ special.

I’m limiting the pool to the Big 4: MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. Defunct or relocated teams count. MLS isn’t old enough, and there are way too many colleges out there. A current logo qualifies as historic if it was being used, say, since 1985 (over 25 years).

10. Chicago Cubs: 1979 – present (MLB)

The Cubs have been around forever. If it weren’t for that pesky Great Chicago Fire costing them the 1872 and 1873 seasons, they would be the oldest sports franchise in the country. Since the late 1900s, the Cubs have kept the same basic theme with their logo: A large “C” and something in the middle. In the first part of the century, it was usually a bear. Since the 30s, it’s been “U-B-S.” The latest (and best) incarnation came about in 1979 and has seen the likes of Sandberg, Dawson, Maddux and Sosa. It’s simple and clean and contained completely within a circle. I don’t typically like logos that are entirely contained within a circle, but the interior “C” helps to break up the circle’s impact visually. You can never go wrong with red and blue. It doesn’t tell you anything about Chicago or their mascot, but it does tell you something very important about the Chicago Cubs: They’re a historic franchise that have never needed a huge makeover. Their logo is a fairly modern take on a simple concept. It’s proof that sometimes simpler is better.

9. Portland Trail Blazers: 1970/71 – 1989/90 (NBA)

This is the lone NBA representative on this list. And it seems an unlikely choice. There’s nothing in this logo that tells you anything about the team. Absolutely nothing. Some people suggest that the logo is a backwards “p” and “b” but I can’t verify that. The font used in the wordmark is certainly echoed in the logo. And if you’re willing to take it a step further, you could probably get a “t” out of there. Anyhow, at first glance, it does have some things going for it: Clean lines, a simple and distinct shape and it’s self-contained without being completely enclosed in a circle. The logo creates a sense of movement, and it feels dynamic despite its simplicity.

I also like the choice of non-traditional colors. I read one comment that said black and red were used to mark the Oregon Trail but haven’t been able to verify that via an admittedly brief Google session. If it is true, that’s a stroke of genius. But there’s another stroke of genius, one that’s far more subtle. Both the red element and the black element are made up of five lines. And, of course, basketball is a game of five on five. So you have a (very) abstract representation of the game the Trail Blazers are playing. You can even take it further and suggest that sense of movement brings the five lines to meet in the circle at center court. One last thing: It just screams classic 70s.

8. Minnesota North Stars: 1967/68 – 1973/74 (NHL)

Perhaps hockey teams seem to spend a little more time than other sports on their image and identity. Or it may be because their logos appear more prominently on their uniforms. It may be because a lot of these teams showed up later on when identities became more important with more exposure. Until 1967, there were only six teams in the NHL. At that point, the league doubled in size. One of those teams was the Minnesota North Stars.

None of the expansion teams of ’67 were Canadian. The team farthest north was Minnesota. And when you think hockey, you look north. Like the Cubs logo, this one is simple and easy to use in various formats. It gives you an idea where Minnesota is in relation to the other American teams and evokes the team’s branding. The “N” has a nice fluidity; it creates a sense of movement that leads you to the star. The star fits snugly into the arrow, which is pointing up, the usual direction for north. Not only does it lead you into the star, but it takes you north to hockey’s homeland. And of course the star is yellow which always goes well with green. When the North Stars moved south to Dallas, they dropped the “North” and the logo lost everything that made it special.

7. Toronto Blue Jays: 1977 – 1996 (MLB)

This is a complex logo. It has a lot of competing pieces, lots of swooping lines and a non-traditional font. At the same time, for a logo from the 70s, it has a surprisingly modern representation of a blue jay: Angular and abstract. It incorporates Canada’s maple leaf without distracting the viewer from the rest of the logo. While I’m not a fan of using sports equipment in a logo, it seems to work here: The ball creates focus and helps define the logo’s shape that might otherwise seem to sprawl in all directions. The blue is an obvious choice but the red is not. Blue and red verges on the traditional American colors used by a number of teams. But here it provides a contrast that helps to, again, focus the logo and contain its pieces. If you ignore the text, it tells you most of what you’d need to know: the team is Canadian, probably called the Blue Jays and they play baseball.

And when you compare it to their horrible current logo, this logo is a work of art, worthy of a wall at the Louvre.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers: 1963 – present (NFL)

You should know this logo. This logo probably violates any rule I could put on paper about what logos should or should not do. It’s completely surrounded in a circle, it contains colors that are not part of the team’s official colors, it’s basically copied from another organization’s logo. And so on. The logo’s history tells part of the story. It was created in 1960 for the American Iron and Steel Institute, and it originally said just “Steel” on the left side. The three shapes on the right side are called astroids, which are “hypocycloids with four cusps” (yeah, I know, just go here). A company called Republic Steel (from Cleveland!) asked the Steelers’ owners about putting the logo, the Steelmark, on their helmets. In 1963, the Steelers asked if they could change “Steel” to “Steelers” and there you have it. The colors do mean something: Yellow is coal, red (originally orange) is iron ore and blue is for scrap metal. So that the Steelers could trademark it, they made the astroids bigger and changed the middle one to red.

So, how does all of this make a good logo? Because what started as the symbol for an industry turned into one of the most iconic brands in not just the NFL but all of professional sports. It shows how seemingly random shapes and colors can come together in a clean, classic design. And to underscore all of that, what amounts to an advertisement for the steel industry turned into the logo for a football franchise that had been around for 30 years before the logo even existed. Can you imagine that happening today? Scratch that and try this: Can you imagine that happening so overtly today?

5. California Golden Seals: 1970/71 – 1973/74 (NHL)

Wait, you’ve never heard of the California Golden Seals? Well, you’re in good company. I doubt anyone who wasn’t a hockey fan in the 60s and 70s has. They were part of the expansion in 1967 that also brought the North Stars to the NHL. They were the California Seals, then the Oakland Seals and then finally the California Golden Seals. After that, they moved to Cleveland and then merged with the North Stars. But while they were in the Bay Area, the Seals kept the same basic logo: An abstract seal with a hockey stick coming out of a “C.” I’ll admit that this logo didn’t catch my eye when I first saw it. But like the Trail Blazers logo, it grew on me. There are no hidden pieces, no subtle elements. It’s just a straight logo, and that might be the part I like the most. It’s got a lot going on but it’s not overwhelming.

The “C” is good: As I’ve said, as a general rule, logos should use circular elements to contain most of the logo, not all of it. Even when they were the Oakland Seals, the seal’s head spilled out of the “O” (that was converted from the “C”). The seal is not a simple. Like the Blue Jays’ logo, the representation is remarkably ahead of its time. And like the Blue Jays’ logo, the animal isn’t represented as aggressive, but as neutral or even “happy” as was common before the 90s. The aggressive animal logo phenomenon came later and is all the rage over the past 10 or so years (see the most recent logo changes for the Seahawks, Lions, Dolphins, Blue Jays and nearly every minor league baseball team).

Of course, a seal is a good choice for a team name in the Bay Area, it being home to the California sea lions and harbor seals. Additionally, there was the San Francisco Seals, the minor league team that Joe DiMaggio played for. The fact the seal is holding a hockey stick is something I’d normally dislike but here it helps to balance the composition. There’s a lot of unused space inside the “C” which was filled in with green. I’m okay with that, too, for the same reason: It gives the logo a nice balance and helps the yellow elements stand out.

This is the kind of fun logo you’ll never seen again. It would be considered too flat, too static, too something. But it’s bold and holds up well to this day. It’s a good mix of an old football or baseball logo and something you might see today. To that effect, this is a unique work that we may never see the likes of again.

4. Milwaukee Brewers: 1978 – 1993 (MLB)

I remember always seeing this logo on baseball cards and thinking, I don’t understand why the Brewers use a glove and ball as their logo. I just didn’t get it. And it took me a while to get it. My wife, on the other hand, got it immediately when she saw it. It’s an “m” and a “b” of course, and it’s flawlessly molded into a baseball glove, the empty space in the “b” serving as a baseball. It has a cartoonish quality to it: The font is bubbly and uneven, the outline is thick and the ball is, well, anatomically incorrect. But these qualities give it that fun quality. It’s a nice reminder that, hey, sports can be fun sometimes.

This logo is also a good example of how a team can create an identity crisis for itself. It establishes an identity, sticks with it for a long time, and then changes it for no apparent reason. This logo was on the hats of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers. And then the team altered its colors, did away with the ball and glove logo and created an entirely new identity. And a decade later, the Brewers brought this logo back as a third uniform. The Blue Jays did the same thing. There’s a reason people like throwback uniforms: They’re usually better.

3. Montreal Expos: 1969 – 1991 (MLB)

We’re going north of the border again. When I was a kid, I watched the Atlanta Braves on TBS religiously, and they seemed to be playing in Montreal 100 times a year. I always wondered about the logo on their hat: It appeared to spell out “elb,” and I had no idea what that meant. A former co-worker of mine was an Expos fan.  (Really, his license plate was “XPOSFAN”.) He told me that it spelled out “eMb”  with the “e” and “b” forming part of the “M”. Admittedly, the “M” is hard to see at first, but it’s there and stylized in a way that feels like it represents Montreal well (though I cannot tell you why).

So, why “eMb” then?  Well, in French, it stands for équipe de Montréal baseball, which translates into “Montreal Baseball Team.” But, wait, there’s more! Shuffle those letters around and you get “Meb” and they left it in English for you: “Montreal Expos Baseball.”

So in one little, three-color shape you have the team’s insignia, a description of the organization in French and a description of the club. It’s simple and unique and stands out as one of the better baseball logos in history. It may not be iconic like the Yankees’ “NY” or the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “B”, but it’s clever and captures that certain je ne sais quoi.

2. Hartford Whalers: 1979/80 – 1991/92 (NHL)

When the Whalers moved to Raleigh and became the Carolina Hurricanes, this logo disappeared from the sports world. This is one of those logos that probably flew under the radar: It’s a very small city in the fourth sport of the Big 4. I’m not a big fan of whaling and all, but I’m pretty sure there’s no other team called the Whalers in the sports world (unless there’s some small liberal arts college playing Division III basketball I don’t know about). The Whalers’ logo took advantage of an design element you rarely see: Negative space. Think the FedEx logo, the way the white area between the “E” and the “x” forms an arrow. You probably never noticed it. But once you see it, you’ll never stop seeing it. That arrow is the negative space.

In this logo, you have the “W” at the bottom. Pretty obvious. At the top, you have the two flukes. That alone would be a pretty decent logo. But graphic designers are sometimes pretty damn good at what they do. And good ones will use that negative space when it can be used effectively. In-between the “W” and the flukes you have a stylized “H”. So, in one compact space you have the first letter of the city, the first letter of the team name, and a graphical representation of the team name (or what the team name would be killing, I guess). Another nice touch is that the outsides of the “W” are rounded to give it the feel of water. It’s like the tail is coming out of the water.

This logo is similar to the Expos logo in what it accomplishes. It takes a lot of pieces and puts them in a clean, simple form. There’s nothing flash about it. It doesn’t use a lot of colors or any sense of depth to give the team an identity. And like the Expos logo, it manages to endure even though the team itself is no longer around.

1. Vancouver Canucks: 1970/71 – 1979/1980 (NHL)

I don’t know where to begin with this logo. So many things are represented in such a simple design. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that people don’t know what’s being represented. It’s too damn good for its own good.

The somewhat obvious: It’s contained within a hockey rink and there’s a hockey stick cutting across the right side. Thus the nickname “stick-in-rink” logo. Some people don’t pick up on the rink but the stick is clear. The colors weren’t just chosen because they look good together (they do) but because they represent three natural characteristics of Vancouver: The blue water, the green trees and the white snow of the mountains. Then we begin to dig deeper. The hockey stick breaks the outline and creates a very, very stylized “C”, and one could go so far as to say that the negative space in the stick itself serves as a very shallow “V”. Then you get to the flat out esoteric: That hockey stick forms the mouth and jaw line of an abstract whale head.

I know a lot of people hear all of this and just shake their heads. That’s the problem I mentioned earlier: A lot’s going on but it’s all really subtle. Even the “C” is subtle. Most people see a hockey stick in a swimming pool. Even if this was simply a hockey stick in a swimming pool, it would still be one of the best logos ever created. It’s clean, simple and nice to look at.

In the end, logos often define a team’s identity. You’ll always know that the hockey stick in the swimming pool logo belongs to the Canucks. The longer a logo sticks around, the more entrenched that identity gets. That’s why some baseball teams can hang on to the most generic of logos (think the Tigers’ script “D”). No sports fan in North America is going to look at that and wonder what team it is. But for teams that haven’t been around since the turn of the century, you have to create an identity and stick with it, good or bad (good’s usually better, though).