Fixing the Pens: Who Stays, Who Goes?

Pittsburgh is a city spoiled rotten for sports victory.

Before you start throwing your parking chairs at me in rage, hear me out.

Within the last 10 years, our city has experienced back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances with one win, three Super Bowl appearances with two wins, and one brief brush with post-season baseball. Only cities ending in “oston” can claim better overall.

We are the City of Champions, which is something to be proud of. We have been host to some of the greatest teams in all of sporting history. Some of the greatest in their respective sports have played here, won championships here, nested here, and are citizens here. Even the most disinterested Pittsburghers, the one who claim they don’t watch sports (a rarity), turn a slight eye to the television when the big games come around and can at least name one of the current starring players on the three major teams.

We have decades of success to look back on. Since the popularization of professional organized sport, Pittsburgh has had a presence and, indeed, a winning tradition. It is to the point that we, as Pittsburghers, cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to live in Toronto or Buffalo or the disgusting Philthy cesspool on the other side of our state. We cannot conceive what it is like to truly and honestly suck in sports across the board.

This is why Pittsburgh sports fans feel entitled and are spoiled rotten to the core. We become emotionally invested in these teams and the games they play, sometimes more than the players getting paid to play them. We believe, more than most other fanbases (excluding football hooligans) that our actions as fans matter. That if we cheer loud enough and hope strong enough and wave those towels hard enough, somehow, someway, the Sporting Gods will look down upon us and grant us our much needed miracle. We’ve been given every reason to believe that this works (the shoestring tackle in the AFC championships, Johnny Cuedo dropping the ball on the mound, the last three minutes of game seven vs. the Red Wings in 2009) and we feel that our teams are the Achilles of the Sports Pantheon – favored of the Gods, nigh invulnerable, and virtually undefeatable.

We demand victory above all things. We crave it like vampires, drinking the sweet nectar of achievement to keep us eternally young and virile. Without that, we are lost. In our city, anything less than a championship team means that our guys sucked and heads must roll.

That’s why I’m here today; because I am one of your entitled and privileged number, oh my brothers and only friends. Because my vampiric lust for victory is five years starved. Because my hockey team was defeated – brutally – at the hands of a foe believed inferior in a part of the world where every foe is believed inferior. I am here today to talk about change and what needs to happen to get our beloved Penguins back to the way they should be. Heads will roll. Heads must roll. If there’s anything we Pittsburgh sports fans are good at, it’s pointing fingers and assessing blame when our teams lose.

This team was supposed to be a dynasty – The Crosby/Malkin Dynasty – and we have been left sorely disappointed.

That said, how long should the line for the guillotine be this off-season? Like the French Revolution, we the people will determine which nobles get the chop and which get to live another day. This is only my humblest of opinions. You’re welcome to disagree.

We will look at my top three choices for who goes, who’s on the fence, and who stays for sure.

Who Goes?

Dan Bylsma
Let me be perfectly clear: I have nothing but the utmost respect for Coach Disco. He deserved all the praise he ever got and he led this team out of the darkness to ultimate glory when things seemed to be most dire in the early-year winter months of 2009.
That said, Dan has a lot to answer for.
Coach Disco has been the focal point of the sports pundits’ rage since the Stanley Cup hangover of 2010. His inability to change his team’s style when utility cried out for it has been his major downfall. His distaste for playing the line matchup game is a close second.
Disco did not properly utilize his team and, when shake-ups were necessary and change was required, refused to bow to the pressure of the media, the fanbase, and the game itself. His mentality was a stubborn one. He rammed into a brick wall, time and time again, hoping that the wall would eventually yield to his sheer will and create a door. He wanted the game to fold to his line combinations rather than adjusting more than on-the-fly when a late-game rally was needed.
He played players where they shouldn’t have been played, as evidenced by last summer when he took Jarome Iginla and made him look like a lost pee-wee on NHL ice by making him play on the opposite-side wing from that which had made him such a hot commodity in the first place. The entire reason Iginla was acquired was flushed and made a superstar into a complete bust causing him not to even think about resigning with our team in the off-season.
He became the players’ friend rather than their boss which meant that, when the time came for a reprimand or for the flexing of nuts, he couldn’t do it with any authority. He could yell and scream and I’m sure he did from time to time, but a coach is supposed to be more of a boss than a friend. Players should feel accountable for their actions, but getting criticized by your friend can cause real emotional problems.
Being a friend to the players destroys the professional dynamic and makes everything personal. That benching, that bag skate after a horror show, that call out in the locker room, becomes personal and leads to bigger issues, which I honestly believe what had Sid giving less than a shit and Geno more fired up during these playoffs. This negative emotion has been palpable for the last two or three years.
A coach is supposed to be a figure of authority; someone that these multi-million dollar players should respect if not outright fear. Dan was a breath of fresh air to them after the reign of Iron Mike Therrien, who was too much of a disciplinarian. Dan, however, was too lax in the end.
This was as evident on the Pens bench as it was on Team USA’s this past winter.
His confidence and faith in the “little guys” as many in the media had cited caused potentially bigger guns to go unutilized and also caused many players to be retained far beyond their expiration date. I understand that this is also in part due to the General Manager. We’ll get to that later.

James Neal
He was once The Real Deal. I admit, I was blinded by the points totals. I was convinced by the general skill, the fast release, the fit with Malkin. I was content with James Neal.
Then, he kneed Brad Marchand in the head last season.
I fought against the media hype and all the people who claimed James Neal was a dirty player. I called for his innocence during replay after replay, saying that he was just skating up ice and didn’t see Marchand lying there.
But, the seed was planted.
As reality crept in, I saw the purpose in that knee. I saw the ever-so-slight acknowledgement on Neal’s face as he did it. I still denied it. People started to cite past targeting of heads and sneaky dirty plays. I still denied it.
Then, as I watched this season, I finally acknowledged it: James Neal is one of the dirtier players in the game.
Not the dirtiest by far, but certainly willing to try to sneak in that extra hit. He’s a pest, but not in a Jarkko Ruutu/Matt Cooke “fun yet aggrivating” kind of way. His pestiness is a bit more subtle and a lot more malicious. His big concussion-inducing high-elbow hits are just as resounding.
James Neal this post-season contributed heavily to the opposing team’s power play opportunities by amassing a total of 24 penalty minutes, 12 of those in Game Six vs. the Rangers alone. Over the course of 13 games, he gave the opposition a little more than a period’s worth of extra-man time which, as of last night, ranks him 10th in the post season in PIM. Yes, he was also ranked 2nd for total shots (49), but only converted on two of those attempts with two helpers for four total points in those two rounds.
Neal drastically underperformed and, yes, most of the team did just the same however James Neal is no longer the super-mega-star he was in 2012, his career year. He is a frustrated mid-carder who benefitted heavily from being on Malkin’s line and has since cooled way down.
While he is certainly not solely to blame for the Pens post-season flop, he is potentially the biggest piece of trade bait available within our arsenal. Whether Shero stays or not (again, we’ll get to that later), I think James Neal is gone. What the return could be is left unknown.

Brooks Orpik
This one is more of an unfortunate truth. No fingers can be pointed at Brooks for the post-season problems, but none-the-less, he will be gone.
Last night, rumors began to stir amongst the twitter-verse that Brooks was spotted limping around the Pens locker room and it was overheard that the injury he suffered was one which could potentially end his career, at least with the Penguins.
His contract is up and he will be eligible for free agency this summer. While it will pain me to lose a character guy and a solid defensive defenseman like Brooksy, the sad fact is that we will not pay him what he will need to stay in town, especially not if he is hurt.
I will miss Brooks and all the Free Candy he handed out.

There will undoubtedly be other casualties. These three are assured.

On the Fence

Ray Shero
Yes. This man is an absolute wizard. The certified Jedi Knight of the trade deadline. The Jesus Christ of Free Agency. Responsible for some of the biggest blockbuster trades and acquisitions in the history of this organization.
And, now it’s time for him to say goodbye.
Ray brought us such hits as the Marian Hossa deal, in which the “throw-in” player of Pascal Dupuis ended up being the mainstay. He proved that a turd could be polished and traded for diamonds by dealing Alex “the most worthless defenseman ever” Goligoski to the Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. At a deadline when prospects were slim and it seemed nothing would happen, he made a grab for Jarome Iginla and got it.
While I am a card-carrying member of the Church of Shero, Ray’s time with the team may have run its course.
Pundits are predicting the axe based on poor drafts. I can’t fault them there. We have been stacking up a young defensive core for years without any true merit to the big-league squad aside from the first-half of this season in Olli Maata. As a result, offensive depth has suffered. None of the guys in Wilkes-Barre are capable of filling a bottom-six let alone a top-six spot.
The thought was that these young, skilled defensemen would someday pay dividends and serve as trade bait to build a squad of known quantities around Sid and Geno. The problem with this theory is that the better type of players we would want will not be easily given up by their teams for defensive prospects alone if at all. We could leverage them to potentially pry players from the hands of lesser teams, but, most teams will not deal the caliber forward the Pens need for a handful of magic beans that could one day sprout into a defensive core for their team.
I believe that, behind the scenes, though ownership thought that the two were inexorably tethered to each other via Disco’s two-year extension meeting neatly with the end of Ray’s contract, I think Ray and Disco didn’t do well in the communications department. At least, not beyond being bros. Ray’s choices this year seemed to be more in-line with Disco’s “type of player” than years past but I still don’t think Ray ever truly understood Disco’s coaching style.
This was most evident in the Iginla deal as Shero had done the impossible in snagging the superstar only to have Disco completely misuse this resource. This should not go down as any kind of bad mark on the record of Ray, as the deal done was incredible. Any other coach would have made Ray look like a God for adding a weapon like Iggy to an already formidable line-up. Of course, any other coach would have played Iggy on his proper wing and potentially made it past the Conference Finals.
So, Ray is on the fence. I think the Pens give him one more year, sans Disco, to see what talent he can pull for potentially better development or better fit with different coaching. In the end, Ray is like the hardware store and Disco is a carpenter. Ray only supplies the building materials, it’s more up to Disco to determine what to do with them. Sometimes you wind up with a kick-ass treehouse, sometimes you wind up with a 6th grade shop project. We need a better carpenter.

Olli Maata
As I mentioned during the Shero bit, Olli Maata, at first glance, seemed like a genius move. For the first half of the season, especially while our defensive core was in disrepair, the kid stepped it up. We decided to hang on to him knowing that the terms of his contract demanded that he play lest he be sent back to Major Juniors – such is the problem with his age and terms.
Olli proved himself to be a decent playmaker most of the time; often jumping up on the rush, contributing a good share of assists and even goals, and caught himself a hot streak. He was an exceptionally good two-way defenseman this regular season. Keeping him seemed like the right thing to do.
Post-season, it all disappeared.
Maata, especially noticeable in the back half of the Rangers series, appeared lazy, confused, pressured… I dunno, man, something. He was made to look like a rookie, by his own hand or by the more professional hands that surrounded him.
I suppose we could see how he continues to mature, however, I believe we’ll be doing so at least from the safe distance of Wilkes-Barre. He might prove to be an answer next year as a mid-season call up, but, with potential defensive departures, he may be a best option available for the big league squad.
I believe that Olli is trade bait next season. Maybe not at the outset but surely at the deadline. This is one of those defensive prospects that could pay dividends though, hopefully, he won’t become another Marcus Naslund and really break out before we gave him a chance.

The Rest of the Coaching Staff
As goes Disco, should the rest of the staff be ousted as well? Coaches Granato, Rierden, and Martin could be brought to task just as much as their boss and, if the Pens are indeed looking to tempt a strong, established coach from a well-established team (as I’ve heard whispers of), the rest of the staff seems likely to be on the block as said well-established coach may want to pull in his own staff.
While I like to think that the rest of the coaches aren’t as much of a problem as Disco (and, likely, don’t have the same declining relationship with the team’s superstars as portrayed in recent media revelations), when you treat a cancer, it’s sometimes hard to excise a tumor without removing the organ entirely.
I very much like these three and would hate to see them go. I would like the chance to see Martin given more reign over the team, as it has been said that he was largely discredited by Bylsma. If any of them go, Martin seems the most likely as Bylsma seems to have caused him to “lose the room”. I suppose we’ll see as things progress.

Who Stays?

The Big Stars
Sid, Geno, Flower, Kuni, Fleury, Tanger.
There’s no reason to panic with the big six. Sure, everyone on this list had a sub-par post-season except Fleury (who was the only reason they stayed past Round 1), but damn near the entire team had a sub-par post season.
This is the core around which a new coach/GM tandem will build the future and all of these guys have long-term deals. There are honestly no deals I could see which would get anything near equal return for any of these guys. Cap dumping isn’t even an excuse.
Fleury played out of his mind this post-season and I don’t think that can be said enough. This was not the head-case MAF who barely showed up in last year’s failed playoff. The Flower was planted strong and would have been a Conn-Smythe candidate if he had a team in front of him who could have carried him to the finals.
I believe with new leadership (specifically, a new coach, one who is more boss than friend), these guys will light up and become the core that they once were. Keep what works, shed what doesn’t, and each of these guys work.

Jussi Jokinen
If you could find a harder working guy on the Pens during the post season who wasn’t one listed above, I’d like to know who it was.
Jussi has really blossomed this year. It may be a late-career rally, but I think we should let him ride this wave until it crashes. Could be next season, who knows, but every effort should be made to retain him when he hits free agency.

The PK
Specifically: Adams, Goc, Gibbons.
When they were on, they were generating short-handed breaks like crazy, blocking shots, and doing their best to stifle every conceivable shot while being down a man. I loved 90% of what I saw from these guys. They are strong and, if left together, would be half of an incredible special teams package in the season to come.

Funny, isn’t it, how there are always more words for condemnation than praise?

That’s my take. This closing is a bit abbreviated because I want to get my views out before any big moves are made (especially in the Head Coach department). As I write, rumors swirl of ownerships displeasure with Bylsma and the axe seems to be hovering over Shero as well.

My voice is just one in a chorus and I don’t expect it to be abided by in this instance but I do believe I’m on the money with most of this commentary.

I told you I would do it and it’s done.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

Under the Dome

I know I’ve written before about the Great Silver Dome on the Hill.

I wrote about how much I would miss the old barn. I wrote about the years I spent growing up there, the events I’d seen, the genuinely magical feeling I got every time I walked through those doors realizing I was going to cheer on the Pens in person.

However nostalgic I may be regarding the place, I was very much a proponent for tearing it down.

A particular Facebook comment my wife read to me is the inspiration for this post. When one of the local news stations reported that all efforts to preserve the Civic Arena had fallen through and that demolition would begin Monday, September 26, someone had the ignorant gall to say: “Pittsburgh doesn’t give a crap about history.”

How dare you, sir. How dare you.

If you are a True Pittsburgher, you would realize that we care only too much about history and that, most of the time, it is that care for history which slows progress or, at the very least, causes progress to necessitate another approach.
I get that the Arena is a unique structure. Trust me, I spent over two decades of my life frequenting the place through the winter. Some years, if we were lucky, we would stay until late spring or even the summer. I still say tear it down.
I’m hardly the longest-running attendant of Old Lady Mellon, but I can say that I am one of the most sentimental. I used to be a pretty bad pack rat (nowhere near a hoarder level, mind you), collecting little pieces of junk and never throwing anything away due to the memories attached to it. I kept some strange things over the years. I would have put the Arena in my pocket and carried it with me always if I could. But, I can’t, and I won’t, and the City shouldn’t either.

The most interesting thing about Pittsburgh, to me, has always been our sense of self. We are a microcosm of a city, more so than anywhere else in the world. Sure, you’ve got people being proud to be from New York or Chicago or Boston or (God forbid…) Philthydelphia (not a typo). Pittsburgh, however, has always been more than just a state of mind, but a state of being.
At just a quick glance, you can see that Pittsburghers will always be Pittsburghers. Whether they’re transplanted to another city or adopted to this one, they will always be Pittsburghers. Go anywhere in the world and find someone else from Pittsburgh. Even if you lived on the other side of the county (hell, even the region) from them, they’ll still give you the benefit of the doubt as a fellow Pittsburgher. You will warrant at least that knowing smile and the obligatory question: “Where you from?”, as if being from Munhall and meeting someone who lives in Greentree would be like saying you were from two separate islands in the same chain. I don’t think there’s any other city in the world that has that sort of mutual respect based on current or previous co-habitation.

Pittsburghers love Pittsburgh. Though it may seem redundant and you may think it sounds stupid, how many Rick Sebak documentaries have you watched when there was nothing else on? I’ll go a step farther and ask: how many of those documentaries have you watched knowing that they were out-of-date just so you could count the mullets and talk about what stuff in the show is different or not there anymore? That’s what I thought. Caught you red handed.

It is that appreciation for history and tradition that makes Pittsburgh what it is, but this pride goes untempered and wild when a threat against an institution is presented.

The Arena needs to go. People can’t face this because it is more than just a building. It’s a symbol; something that indelibly marks our city. In the realm of sports and events venues, especially when it comes to indoor arenas, The Igloo was distinctive. Much like the original Maple Leaf Garden or even (GAG) the Spectrum in Philthy, it was a place of tradition, no matter how brief in the grander scope of hockey history.
Most indoor sporting venues, at least those geared mainly for hockey, have taken on a similar appearance to our now beloved Consol Energy Center. Though each has something that makes it unique, they’re just big boxes at the end of the day. The Civic Arena was something different. The dome was something uniquely Pittsburgh. There were really no other venues like it.

Though this may be the case, pride was what stood in the way of progress. To say that Pittsburgh doesn’t care about history isn’t just insulting the people who pushed for the demolition, it’s a slap in the face to our entire societal makeup. It’s a kick to the gut of the entire city. It makes me sick to hear someone say that and it makes me that much sicker to hear it coming from our own rank and file. If you live here, you should know better.

Pittsburgh cares so much about history that strips of abandoned steel mills go untouched and fester like open sores along the river. It took decades for the Homestead Waterfront to come to be because there was bickering about what should be torn down, what should be preserved, and what shape the area would take to go around that history. In different parts of town, defunct industry sits waiting for redevelopment, but progress halts for history at every conceivable turn.
Main streets of these old mill towns become wrecked with derelict buildings because historical societies stand in the way of demolition, citing events that occurred in these places or the people who designed the building giving completely just cause as to why these places should survive even if developers present promises of an economic boost once the places are leveled.

While I don’t always agree with the scorched earth tactics of most developers, if you’d seen the state of some of these places… they’ll sit vacant forever because of the stubbornness of Pittsburgh. They will continue to rot and collapse and be unfit for human habitation because of our city’s love for history.

There’s nothing wrong with this love, don’t get me wrong, but some concessions to history must be made to promote progress. If you love something, you must give it room to grow. Pittsburgh has a wonderful and rich history of which we can be, and indeed are, proud. We’ve got to continue moving forward at some sort of pace or we will be left in the past.

I understand that if the vote had gone through and the Arena was to remain standing that it would have been repurposed. How long, then, would the building have stood vacant while three hundred different commissions and councils and initiatives and groups clamored and squabbled over the rights to turn it into their vision? Months? Years? A decade?

Preservation is fine, but there are plenty of things in this town that are preserved. This is not progress for the sake of progress, this is progress for the sake of the City. This is progress for the sake of all of us. And, if you’re feeling nostalgic once it’s all over, stare out the windows of the bar on the upper balcony of the Consol, look down at all the progress, and remember Old Lady Mellon. Remember why she died — she died for progress. She died for Pittsburgh.

—end transmission—

A Summer Beard

I spent more than a few minutes than normal on facial grooming today. I was slightly more meticulous, paying special attention to the length of the goatee and moustache which have adorned my face for more than a decade. Most of the time, I am less than careful about this. I allow my goatee to grow to lengths normally reserved for the late Captain Lou Albano. My moustache has never quite bordered on Wilford Brimley territory, but it’s gotten close.

Why make such an event of one particular shaving session? Why make so certain that it is done today and done just so?

Today, my friends, is the beginning of a (hopefully) long march. One which my blood pressure dreads being made again so soon. A slogging grind which will be almost as gruelling for the spectators as it is for those actually participating.
After today, some of us will obsess. Some of us will dissolve our lives temporarily out of anxiety and anticipation. Some of us… will grow beards.

As the NHL playoff matchups are settled with today’s dramatic conclusion, people like myself are shaving and starting fresh; hoping that, when our team reaches total victory, we have growth on our face enough to make al Qaida jealous.

The playoff beard is one of hockey’s most vaunted traditions. It’s right up there with fighting, toothlessness, and the usage of “eh” as punctuation. At first, it was a tradition started by the players. Currently, it is a superstition carried over to the fans.
In cities all over the NHL, men just like me paid tribute to the Hockey Gods by removing any winter growth from our faces and giving superstition a clean slate. We all hope that we won’t be shaving until the end of June.

For some of us, the journey will be over sooner rather than later. Some of us will carry our stubbled faces low to the sink before April is out in search of our razors while others soldier on.
For those of us among the fraternity of the bearded, it is a religious experience. Much like hasedic Jews, no one looks twice at a hockey fan rocking a full and thick beard at the onset of summer. If it’s 90 degrees and your team is in the playoffs, it is a true test of your devotion to let that bad boy keep growing.
I was torn two years ago when my wedding day coincided with game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. I had to shave or my waiting wife to be would have had my bearded head on a pike.
My offense to the Hockey Gods (including missing the rest of the round while on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranian) felt like it cost the Pens their victory. I was lucky enough not to have as many commitments the following year and the Hockey Gods were pleased.

This example proved to me the seriousness of the superstition. And so, I join my fraternity again. I band with my bearded religious order in observing our annual penance. I may not like them if they are from an opposing faction, but I see their faces and I know who they are. I may hate them, but I respect their zeal for it nearly matches my own.

All that being said, I masochistically look forward to the sleepless nights, the cardiac moments, the breathless seconds, the extra-strength heartburn, and the anxiety that comes between.

Let the playoffs begin.

Let’s go Pens.

The Battle of Olympus: Vancouver 2010 Wrap-Up

The curtain has fallen over the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and I suddenly feel like my world is going to be emptier for it.

The Olympics, be they summer or winter, do so much more for the world than just bringing young athletes together to compete on the grandest stage of them all. They do more than elevating normal people to the pinnacle of sports stardom or bringing the well-known-in-the-sport competitor to the lime light for a brief moment, allowing them to get recognized for their obscure athletic pursuits.
For two weeks, I was wrapped up in the stories of the people involved, whether they were American, Canadian, Chinese, Japanese-defected-to-Russian, Canadian-defected-to-Australian or one of the many winter sports-dominating Nordic nations. For two weeks, it didn’t matter what was on TV. I was watching the Olympics. It didn’t even matter what event was on (though I did take a powder to crush Bioshock 2 while the Men’s Short and Long-Program Figure Skating was shown), I was watching. From curling to biathlon, nothing was too obscure for me to watch with intent.
The human interest stories which make the Olympics somehow more real than the modern world of the big ticket professional sports are part of the big draw for me. Also, the sort of one-and-done thrill of victory/agony of defeat thing does it. Every time someone jumps off the ramp in the moguls, your heart stands still waiting for them to land of beef it. Every time someone came around the Georgia Death Curve in the Luge or the 50/50 turn in the Bobsled, you wonder if they’re going to lose control. Every time a figure skater goes for that triple toe loop, you are held in suspense to see if they can land it.
Normally, none of these sports would concern me. But, because of the prestige of Olympic gold, I was drawn to it. All of those moments were tense ones because, if you were watching, you knew that one tiny mistake, one fall, one spill, one false move, and it was all over. There were no second chances. There were no do-overs. An athlete could potentially get their revenge at a World Cup of whatever their event was, but it would never replace their failure at the Olympics. True redemption is four long years away. Too long for some who may be too old or may not qualify next time.
I understand the plight of the US Men’s Hockey Team taking a crushing defeat on a soft goal off the stick of Pittsburgh’s own Sidney Crosby in overtime. I understand the sour taste in their mouths as the representative from the Olympic Committee put the silver around their neck and shook their hands. I understand why Ryan Miller cried like a baby, even as he was named MVP of the Tournament. It took four long years to get to this point and it will be four long years before there is another chance to gain that gold.
The US hockey team should take heart, though, considering many sports writers and hockey aficionados didn’t even expect them into the medal round and had no idea that they would be the tournament’s number-one seed. It stings to lose in the finals (especially to lose in overtime in the finals) but, in the Olympics unlike any other sporting event, you are always recognized for second and even third place. There is no runner-up Stanley Cup or Lombardi Trophy. The only reward given to prove that you made it all the way to the end before losing are conference trophies which, usually, are not touched, hoisted, carried, or kept. Olympic Medals, even those not made of gold, are forever.
It may be a “kick in the groin”, as Brian Burke (GM of the US team) put it, to go home with a silver medal after assembling possibly the best US hockey team in years, built out of the vast NHL roster of American-born players. Such is the agony of defeat. Someone in that game had to go home with the silver. Though they were two evenly-matched teams supported by outstanding goaltending, there could only be a happy ending for one country.

The thing is, when I went to work the next day, there was still a buzz about the previous night’s game. People who I know to actively dislike hockey were talking about what happened in that game before the pomp and circumstance of the Closing Ceremony. They remarked, as I did, of the pained expressions on the faces of the Americans. They talked about what a hard fought battle it was within the last five minutes and got goosebumps just as I did when referring to Zach Parise’s tying goal with less than thirty seconds left. What a game, what a moment. I’m sure once the sourness is rinsed from their mind, the US team will realize as a whole that they just participated in one of the greatest hockey games on record.

Over the Olympic span, I found myself talking about more obscure sports that I would never watch with people who I know are generally not interested in sports.
The Olympics are a different thing from the pro-sports spectacle. They have the ability to unite the world in discussion more than the best Super Bowl or World Series or Stanley Cup Final. Even if you’re not necessarily patriotic, you can still watch in amazement as athletes from all over the world, some of whom are, three out of four years, average Joes who spend their free time honing their skill in speed skating or shot-putting or cross-country skiing combined with rifle shooting. Summer, winter, doesn’t matter.
There are Olympians who are probably doing the same jobs as you right now, somewhere in the world. You may not know them to see them, but they’re out there. They may be gold medal winners but you won’t recognize them on the street. Not every sport gets their own Wheaties box for recognition. Somewhere, there’s a dude who won a gold medal in skeleton or pole vaulting and is back to being a wage slave just like you and me. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole deal.
There is a human angle to the Olympics that there isn’t in professional sports. These are not unapproachable Gods or media juggernauts. These are not people who are eating in unimaginably expensive restaurants or sitting in the VIP area of the club. These are probably people who would be right behind you at the end of the line on the wrong side of the velvet rope. Except, that is, for the “dream team” sports. Even then, if there’s one pro on a team of college kids and amateurs, that pro is providing these people with a taste of what it’s like in the bigs. Unless they’re a douche. I’m looking at you, Jaromir and Alex.
Real people play here. Real dedication is seen here. Stories were abound of first-time Olympians sleeping in the family car with their parents so that they could afford to train. Competing on this stage should, on it’s own, be an incredible thing. But, there must be no taste sweeter than gold. To know that the hours and hours of dedication to one thing could officially make you the best in the world, even if it’s by one hundredth of a second or point-zero-one points from the judges, must be the greatest feeling in the world.

At this point in my flabby, smoke-filled, and under-exercised life, the only way I’m going to make it in to the Olympics is if I can get really good at Curling over the next four years.

I’m forming a team. Sochi, here I come. Who’s with me?

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

Classics, Class Acts, and the Classless

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has long been one of my favorite editorialists. Even if his column is about something which doesn’t immediately interest me, I still read it for the fun of reading a good piece of writing.
Today, his column happened to mention the possibility of the NHL Winter Classic being played within the confines of the majestic PNC Park – the nicest ballpark in which any home team has ever completely hit the shitter.
When speaking about this, he mentions that the ownership of your Battlin’ Buccos (read: straddlin’ suckos) should be contemplating more important things that go on inside PNC Park, such as, oh, I don’t know, baseball, rather than courting the NHL for its annual outdoor extravaganza.
In case you’ve missed the story as it floated through the news, the details are rather cut and dry: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, PNC Park, New Year’s Day. Crosby and Malkin vs. Ovechkin in the (hopefully) frosty climes of Western Pennsylvania with naught but league pride and one of the marquee matchups of the regular season on the line.
If you’re a Pens fan and that doesn’t make your pants feel a little tighter, check your pulse.

While I’m excited at the prospect (and the amount of press it’s been getting), Collier does make a good point in his few statements at the beginning of his rant. He goes a different way with the conversation, but I’m going to hang on to the initial premise and lay down some obvious facts. The first and most glaring being this: Sure, the Winter Classic is awesome, but shouldn’t we spend some actual money and time working on our baseball team?
I’ll admit, I am not a huge baseball fan. I was not raised on it as some people were. My grandfather tried to get me in to it but I was too hyperactive. Baseball is not a sport for the easily bored. I wanted frenetic non-stop activity and that’s what hockey gave to me. Until I began my drinking career, I couldn’t sit still or concentrate on it long enough to see more than 2 consecutive innings. Even when the Pirates were winning.
I still hold some amount of disdain toward baseball though, being married to a woman who practically worshipped the Pirates of the late 80s and early 90s, I sort of got into it and started watching. Baseball being on at the bar also helps. Still, I can’t fully get into it.

I don’t want to say that if the Bucs were doing well, I would pay more attention to them. That would make me no better than the people I hate for becoming latter-day Pens fans now that we’ve got some of the best players in the league, two Conference Championships, and a Stanley Cup under our belts. I heckle those who jumped on the bandwagon without struggling through the thin years. I know that true fans are the ones who stand by the team, even when they’re in the direst of straits.
How long, though, can anyone really stand by a team? If the Pirates have another losing season, their streak will be able to walk into a convenience store and buy cigarettes. If the Pirates have another losing season, their streak will graduate over the summer and start looking for colleges so that it can become an even better (worse?) losing streak.
After seventeen years of losing seasons, I couldn’t blame even the most staunch Bucs fan (and they are out there, I know a few) for abandoning the sinking fiery wreck which this team has become. With piss poor ownership, used-car salesman management, and bargain basement talent at bargain basement prices, there’s nothing to really like about the future of this franchise.

There was a brief glimmer of hope a month ago when Lemieux Group LP offered to buy the team from the vile and detestable Nutting family.
As designated God of Pittsburgh, Mario reached down his mighty hand and attempted to enter negotiations. The Nuttings weren’t having it, though it stirred the city into a brief frenzy of what-ifs.
What if… the ownership of the Pirates cared about its welfare?
What if… the ownership was worried about more than lining their own pocketbook?
What if… it was all just a ploy to light a fire under/draw a magnifier over the Nutting family?
What if… the goal was to have Lemieux Group LP buy the Bucs in an effort to create an official Pittsburgh Sports Network, ousting Fox Sports Pittsburgh from its current contracts and creating an on-air revenue stream which runs right into the improvement of two of the city’s sports teams?

None of the above wonderings are bad things. There’s really no way that Mario even offering to buy the Bucs could do anything but help the team. That man turns ownership into pwnership.
The Bucs would win out in the deal as much as Pens fans would. All that gate money, all that food and beer money, raked in when the joint would otherwise be locked up tight. The money-grubbing bastards are doing it behind the screen of our much beloved world champion hockey team, too. I’d like to see the Winter Classic come here. Just, maybe not to the benefit of Pirates ownership.

If the Bucs are to benefit from the Penguins celebrating a 6-2 stomping (you heard it here first!) of the Washington Capitals in the 2011 or 2012 Winter Classic, I would hope that they would take the ill-gotten gains and spend them on something other than another West Virginia Manse for the Nutting family. Maybe invest in a half-decent crop of ball players who may have to be paid above league min but will still put up more of a fight than the current caste of characters.

It’s a crazy dream, but dammit, I have it.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

A Tip of the Cap, A Wag of the Finger

The New York Yankees are your new World Series Champions.
I can make this statement using two distinct and opposite emotions.

I can say it happily because it prevents my personal most hated city in the world, Filthydelphia, from gaining any kind of victory. Any time someone shuts down a Philly sports franchise, especially by pummeling them into playoff elimination, my heart swells.
What can I say? I was born and raised a Pittsburgher. We’re bred to hate Philly and Cleveland. Sorry, it’s just regional genetics.

On the other hand, I make my statement angrily. If this World Series proved anything at all, it proved once again that, for an immense amount of money, you too can be like George Steinbrenner and buy yourself a Commissioner’s Trophy.

The whole thing made me realize that, with both the NFL and the NHL’s respective players associations going into renegotiations with their respective leagues regarding a possible removal of salary caps, what is next for sports in America?
Salary caps are what really keep things in line in sports. By making sure that no team can retain every player of increasing value every year, you allow some of the spillover to be distributed to lesser teams for possible improvement.
Yes, there are dominant teams and yes, there are far-less-than-dominant teams. The ebb and flow of the leagues, however, is dependent more upon performance of the players rather than the budget of the teams. This is the way sport should be.

Rather than come by things honestly, teams like the Yankees can use monetary temptation to lure players from elsewhere and build an all-star team, which they have done to a great degree of success over the last decade. This proves nothing other than the ability to flaunt money and buy a championship. It also makes things pretty lame for baseball if you’re not from a market with a team who has MAD BANK to shell out on a ton of big guns.
MLB should absolutely push to institute a salary cap. Think of the mass roster exodus of the uber-market teams. How many teams could benefit from veteran leadership which they just don’t have? How many teams could use a heavy bat or a golden glove or a cannon to help them become competitive?
Take the Pirates (Seriously. Take them. Please.) for example. They get someone good, he gets dealt to the bigger teams for peanuts. It happens at the end of every season as if the Buccos are some kind of farm club for the actual teams in the MLB.
Teams like the Pirates are simply breeding grounds. Sure, they play in the same league as the New York teams, Boston, the Chicago teams, etc, but they may as well be an independent minor league franchise which does nothing but breed mercenaries. We are arms dealers. We cultivate guns only to sell them to the highest bidder when they are primed and ready.
Ownership of these teams would have you think that there isn’t enough money in the organization to field a decent team. This is simply an awesome excuse to sit back and clean up on merchandise, concessions, and ticket sales while the team continues to suck donkey balls. The owners of these arms dealerships are only worried about the individual price tag of the men on the field. If they can keep payroll to a minimum while still offering up enough promotions to keep butts in the seats, it won’t matter if they tank season after season. At least, it won’t matter to the owners.
Under a salary cap, however, any owner would be seen as a fool if he didn’t allow his management to spend up to the absolute ceiling. With the talent overflow from the Yankees alone, the entire face of the league would be changed overnight. It may even allow some teams who don’t regularly haunt the lower ladder to actually make a run at something special.

Salary caps level the playing field. They make the championship anyone’s game at the start of the new season.
There are always dominant teams, but their championship reign is hardly guaranteed from one season to the next in the same way that it can be when there is no spending limit.

MLB should take an example from the NHL. Especially with the shape of the league right now. Many players who became more big-ticket last year were traded or snagged from free agency by traditionally lower ranked teams, lending to unexpected surges in the W column.
Also contributing to that is the lack of presence by most of the traditionally dominant teams due to age or fatigue or injury. With so many strange things happening, it seems as though there are no real early on favorites for the Stanley Cup as there have been in years past. Sure, I’d like to see the Pens take it all again, but whoever comes out of the east will give them a good run for their money as much as whoever they face from the west in the finals. Everything is up for grabs. Hockey is exciting again.

Baseball seems as boring as ever. If you know your team well enough, you could write the story of their season as soon as spring training starts. No names, no money willing to be spent on names, no real chance of victory.
There are those miracle players who come from nowhere to surprise everyone, but they are few and far between. An even rarer bird is the low-ranked team taking it all in some sort of drive for the ages. It has happened, it could happen again, but the chances of it happening are insanely slim. Chances of a miracle season under a cap? Much, much better.
One needs look no further than the reigning Stanley Cup champs to see proof. Going into the final stretch, they were almost iced out of playoff contention. Fighting back, they managed a fourth-place finish in the conference and surprised everyone by challenging the Red Wings to a rematch in the finals and winning.
Take this fan’s word; it was a dismal winter in more ways than one. To see them rise to the challenge was incredible. If not playing under a cap and going into the spring stretch with a losing record, you can pretty much count your team out. Most of the eligible players will be sold piecemeal to the highest bidder with a playoff berth without a thought. I’ve seen it happen in seasons past. It sucks.

Without salary caps to protect sports, things will become a buyer’s market just as they have in the MLB. There will be no point to any championship. Credibility for any trophies will plummet. Everything sacred about the game will crumble and the smaller market teams will be left in the dust.
I am not necessarily a baseball fan, so I’m not making this rant solely to oppose the reign of the Yankees as World Champs. I am merely a sports fan in general, pleading to the players, the owners, and the league management staff: If it’s not capped, cap it. If it is capped, keep the lid on it. Don’t let things get out of control for want of money.
The integrity of baseball is destroyed and can only be restored if the system is purged and the playing field leveled. I hold out hope that the same won’t be true for more sports in the future.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

Less than a year from now, my traditional winter home will more than likely be lying under three feet of its own rubble. The once proud metal dome will probably be taken away for recycling, reduced to cans or building materials or even some phat rims by this time next year. My favorite bright orange seat either auctioned off to someone richer than I for a few thousand dollars or beneath the concrete, rebar, and remnant plastic beer cups.

Tonight marks the beginning of the end of an era.
There will be people who will speak of the good ol’ Igloo in dismissive, even angry, tones of voice. There are people who for years have been calling for the building to be put out of its misery and offered as a sacrifice to the Hockey Gods that we may move on and prosper in greener buildings and, if we are lucky, greener pastures.
As right as these people may have been, I shudder to see my old home torn down. Then again, I’m much more sentimental than most. I’m sure at least a few of the Pens fans reading this will already be asking “Why do you care? Things are going to be so much better across the street! This place is a dump!”

Yes, it is a dump. But, dammit, it’s my dump. Hell, it’s our dump.

Since I was but a toddler, when my mother had the foresight to bring me to my first Pens game during Lemieux’s rookie season, this dump has been my home.
My mother, excited that her son would at last be interested in a sport (I showed no favor for baseball, football, or basketball), continued to bring me to the Igloo after that first night. I loved the game, she loved the game before I was even born. It was the first real thing that we could do together on common ground. It was the first thing we were both actually interested in, meaning that it wasn’t Muppet-related, animated, or written in an ABAB rhyme scheme in 24 pt. Times New Roman.
For those first few years, we would go when we could. Tickets weren’t exactly hard to come by back then and you could easily pick up a pair for a few measly bucks at the box office as you walked up to the building. At first, we went on giveaway nights where advertising included the phrase: “The first thousand kids through the door receive” a Pens gym bag, or a stocking cap, or a teeny, tiny youth jersey made of t-shirt material. Most of these collectables I still have. My mother has kept them. She would never throw anything Pens related away.

Our attendance grew into a habit.
We were seating mercenaries, taking whatever we could get that was cheap. As a result, I can say that I’ve sat in almost every section of the Arena. I’ve seen every view (even the partially obscured ones) of the ice that you can see in that building.
Within a few years, we had purchased a 10-game roaming ticket plan. 10 games, guaranteed, but they moved your seat every time.
Soon after, we purchased a partial season, curtailed our gypsy ways, and settled down in good old E-16.
Over the next few years, we watched the team grow. We made friends in that section with whom we are still close today. We watched their kids grow up, graduate high-school (at least 6 years behind me), move on to college, get lives. These people were invited to my wedding. These people are family.
Eventually, we left our original row when the prices started to go up. We moved to the top of E-14 and only spoke to our friends in between periods. Of course, we made more friends in our new seats. When you’re sitting next to the same person for sometimes 4 nights a week, you wind up talking and, most of the time, becoming friends.

Regardless of where we sat, it was always me and my mom. We loved the Pens. We held our breath together when Mario would be on a breakaway. We screamed and railed together when Jay Caufield would drop the gloves. We cried together when we beat Boston in the 1991 Wales Conference Final. We cheered together when they raised the first Cup banners a year later. We cried together again soon after when we all held light-bulb candles and stood silent to mourn the great “Badger” Bob Johnston.
Our experiences at the Arena were defining moments for my strong relationship with my mother. We lived half of our lives there in the fall, the winter, and if we were lucky, into late spring.
If trick-or-treating fell on a game night, I would have to finish my rounds quickly so we could get to the arena to catch the drop of the puck (still in costume). If there were a game on New Year’s Eve, we wouldn’t be at the party until around 11 o’clock (games ran much longer back then).

We were season ticket holders for 12 years by the time I came to graduating high school. I was going to be in art school and had a lot of night classes. My mother and I had a long conversation regarding the possession of our season tickets. I told her that I didn’t know if I could make a lot of the games. She agreed that it might be foolish to hang on to them when we couldn’t go together. My mom banded together with one of the ladies we used to sit near. Her husband had died and she continued to come to the games and, eventually, offered my mom her extra ticket permanently.

After school was all said and done and the lockout had come and gone, my future wife and I decided to get our current partial season tickets in E-17. We’re section neighbors with my mom and her friend and we go to dinner with them before every home game we have tickets for.

I doubt any of the traditions of the game will change when the Igloo finally breathes its last.
The team will play on, the crowd will pour in, I will still retain my partial season, my mom and her friend along with myself and my wife will continue to have dinner. But, the atmosphere will be different. Maybe better, maybe even more comfortable (because those Mellon seats are damn narrow), but still different.
The floors will be too new; not yet stained by the salt of four-decades of winter, the spills of a billion beers, or the floods of victorious or sorrowful tears. It will be plain and will smell like new plastic and upholstery. It will be virginal and untouched. It will have no character of its own.

I suppose, however, the character is where this generation of Pens fans comes in. We may be losing a large member of the Pens family when the Arena empties for the last time and is dropped to the ground shortly thereafter, but it is our job to care for the newborn across the street. It’s going to be our task to make sure that the Console Energy Center gains enough character in the many years to come. It will be our job to bring our children into the fold so that they, too, can bond with us over hockey. When I am graced with children, I can only hope that I grow as close to them in this new facility as I did to my mother all those years ago.

I will miss my old winter home when it’s gone. More than likely, I will cry on demolition day as if a piece of my heart has been destroyed.
I do, however, look forward to the new place across the street, all the new memories we’re going to make, and all the future banners we will raise within those walls.

Hoist those banners high tonight, boys. Let them fly inside the belly of the Mellon for one more year. This year, we need to rock that place so hard that they won’t need explosives to bring it to the ground.

Welcome back to Hockey Season, Pittsburgh.

Go Pens.

—end transmission—