Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Karlis Skrastins Held the Key to Longevity

It was in February 2007 when I sat down one-on-one with then Colorado Avalanche's Latvian blueliner Karlis Skrastins -- in the same month he broke Tim Horton's durability record for most consecutive games played by a defenseman. 

Karlis towered at 6' 2" and his handsome devilish smile was framed by long flowing blonde locks. He was a pleasure to be around. 

Here is part of that conversation:

What's the key to longevity? 
Getting ready and getting focused for one game at a time. It’s a lot of work and a lot of effort. I think it’s the combination of work and a lot of luck, too. Hockey is a tough game to play. I had all kinds of injuries, but they weren’t serious enough to stop me from playing the game.

What was your worst injury? I had a broken wrist. It was one year before the lockout and close to the end of the season.

How did you gain confidence in the wrist when coming back from the injury? I try a couple practice. I try one game, second game, and was able to play the same game that I was playing before. If I would play forward, of course, it would be tougher for me. I was able to do almost everything I had to do. That season I was playing really good. It was one of my best seasons.

Talk about your first opportunity to play in the NHL. Dreams come true, you know. I remember my first game. I never thought I was going to play so many games, especially so many games in a row. When I played my first NHL game, it was, oh, my dream come true. It was amazing. It makes you feel good you can play in the best league with the best players in the world. If you keep working, your dreams can come true.

Who were some of the people who have influenced your career? It was more back in Europe. I don’t know if you know Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov. He asked me to come to his team in Finland. I spent three really good years there. It was my step up in my career. Without his help, without his helping me to believe in myself, I couldn’t be in the NHL for sure. It’s where I got drafted – Finland. I kind of got my opportunity in Nashville. Nashville was a great organization and those people were helping me, too.

How was the cultural adjustment for you when you first came over to North America? It was hard. The first year, there were a couple of Russian guys to help me get used to American life. The first year I played in Milwaukee, the farm team. I learned a lot about small ice, about American hockey. Everything was step-by-step. It wasn’t like right away. I learned my language, too, day by day. I didn’t have another choice if I wanted to be here.

What has the game taught you personally? It’s what I love. It’s your job. It’s what you dream about. If I had another chance, I would do it exactly the same.

Karlis died this morning in a plane crash, along with his entire Kontinental Hockey League Lokomotive team, which was headed for its opening game from Yaroslavl to Minsk, Russia. 

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

College Coaches: More About "Me" Than Molding Players

Pittsburgh Panthers coach Mike Hayward was just given his walking papers after an arrest on a domestic violence charge. He only had been in the job for two and a half weeks. College Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg says in response, "Head coaches are among the university's most visible representatives and are expected to maintain high standards of personal conduct and to avoid situations that might reflect negatively on the university."

Well, isn't that special? And what a crock.

Tell that to Declan Sullivan.

The 20-year-old Notre Dame student fell to his death filming a practice that coach Brian Kelly conducted in tropical storm winds. No changes were made to the routine, despite the 60 mile per hour winds that Sullivan faced while standing on a hydraulic lift 50 feet from the ground.

Kelly was never held accountable and neither was the athletic director or school president. It was chalked up as an "unfortunate incident." In reality, the Irish could have postponed the practice or moved it indoors. This was negligence at its best. But, the Irish carried on business as usual. They played the next day and the NCAA never batted an eyelash.

December 29, 2009, Texas Tech finally came to a right decision and punted head coach Mike Leach, who had a series of questionable conduct, but his ultimate undoing was locking player Adam James in a shed during a practice.

Then there is Lane Kiffin. He was reprimanded by the SEC for calling out Gators' coach Urban Meyer for recruitment tactics -- this when he was with University of Tennessee. Then after one year with the Volunteers, he jumps ship to go to University of Southern California to replace Pete Carroll. The grass seemed greener, I guess. His likeness still hangs in effigy in Tennessee.

Speaking of breaking contracts, Nick Saban, who after verbally dispelling rumors, insisted he was not leaving the Miami Dolphins (with time left on his contract) and lo and behold, he's coaching University of Alabama.

But with death and physical abuse aside, the poster coach for lack of integrity has to be none other than Bobby Petrino.

With three games still left in the season, less than 24 hours after a blowout loss, Petrino left a note in the player stalls of the Atlanta Falcons' locker room to say he quit. Hours later, the Falcon players watched their ex-head coach calling out "pig suey" at a press conference announcing him as the head coach of University of Arkansas. The move was so distasteful and scorned that even today, broadcasters can barely mention his name without hurling.

So let's not revere these coaches too fast.

A Sports Illustrated story this season exposed the real truth behind the bowl games and who wins financially. Not the colleges -- in many cases, it costs them thousands of dollars out of pocket to send teams to the events. The winners are the sponsors, the host cities, and college coaches. Yes, coaches. Why? Their salary goes up with every bowl game appearance. Most football fans would welcome the end of the bowl system in lieu of a playoff, but the colleges, whether they benefit financially or not, will fight to the death to support it -- for its coaches.

Also note that the NCAA is an institution that penalizes its players for selling personal items or accepts any financial help, while it makes a killing off the backs of the same players. See Reggie Bush giving back his Heisman trophy, although Cam Newton seems to have gotten off scott-free.

Joe Paterno

Urban Meyer
Bobby Bowden

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Technology Doesn't Always Cooperate

It would have been the most awesome film clip. The vantage point was perfect -- could not have been better. The match was great, and the outcome -- a belt.

I was tasked with the job of videotaping my friend Ra'am Dante's wrestling match tonight. I filmed his walk through the back of the hotel to the curtain. Then I filmed his entrance into the ring. I moved over to a seat right outside the ring where the lighting was good and the wrestlers were practically on top of me, and that's when the camera crapped out.

We missed all the good stuff. Pretty much the whole bout, the signature move, the belt presentation, and the lead-in to the next grudge match when another wrestler grabbed the microphone and called Ra'am out.

Stuff happens, and instead of preparing for it, I left my backup camera at home.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time.

I remember a conversation with my friend Peter Maher for my first book (Inside the NHL Dream), where he talked about the perfect interview with a goaltender on game day -- a rarity in the NHL. After finishing up the interview, he realized his tape recorder didn't record. It's not like you can do the interview all over again. Even if you could, the subject would never be as candid or answer the questions the same way.

Funny, I did the same thing with a goaltender. It was Curtis Joseph, actually. He was awesome, and after I realized I had hit the play button instead of the record button.

Then there's the tape record over the perfect interview you haven't had the chance to transcribe or download yet.

I'm sure everyone at one time or another has experienced a technology outage at the most inopportune time when you can't get that moment back and you missed documenting a piece of your history.

Beat yourself up all you want, but it happens to the best of us. And it will probably happen again. It's like karma. It's how technology rolls.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Just Ducky

March 1, 1993.

That was the day NHL beat writers questioned the sanity of the announcement: the Mighty Ducks are coming to Anaheim. Even with the Mickey Mouse empire behind them, as one headline attested, "NHL expansion on hold till next goofy rich guy."

Fast forward to playoffs 2003. With only two playoff seasons to their name (1997, 1999), the Ducks looked ever so mighty, mowing through Detroit, Dallas, and Minnesota before forcing the New Jersey Devils to a game seven in the Stanley Cup final. Mike Babcock had just taken over head coaching duties for the season. The team finished as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. G Jean-Sebastien Giguere tied a league record for most consecutive shutouts (3) and earned himself the Conn Smythe Trophy, even though the Devils won the Cup

Mike Babcock addresses the Ducks in December 2006

As November neared a close in 2006, the Ducks had their best start ever and sat first overall. They out shot their opponents by roughly 15 shots, averaging the third highest in the league. The Ducks defense had the most points by a league defense. The team ranked second in power play percentage and earned a standings point in each of their first 16 gamesthe longest streak to start a season.

RW Teemu Selanne banked his 500th career goal on November 22, 2006 at Colorado, scored points in nine of ten games, and led his club in points. He also tied a franchise record for both assists and points (5) when he chalked up five assists on November 19, 2006 versus Phoenix (tied D Dmitri Mironov12/12/97 versus Washington).

Captain Scott Niedermayer ranked fourth on the points scale for defensemen and was second on the club and sixth overall in the league for ice time. He was also the fan favorite in the All Star vote, leading the Western Conference balloting—well over 18,000 votes ahead of Detroit D Nicklas Lidstrom. Ducks D Chris Pronger was third in the ballot, first for points for defensemen, second in the league's plus/minus, and fourth in overall league assists.

Meanwhile, Giguere topped the league in wins and was tied for first in shutouts, while RW Dustin Penner was second in rookie scoring.

Then came the 2007 playoffs.

After winning the Pacific Division title, the Ducks eliminated Minnesota, Vancouver, and Detroit before heading to the Stanley Cup final to face the Ottawa, and beat the Senators in five games.

Yes, the team has struggled to make the playoffs since then, but the Ducks have certainly had the last laugh over the 1993 headlines. It's not a stretch to think that another future headline might read "Stanley Cup contender."

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tony Amonte and the Personal Impact of Trades

It was 2006 when Tony Amonte was playing for the Calgary Flames. I was able to pull him aside and ask him about what it was like to be traded. Not about his role with his new team or what he thinks of the new city. What was the impact on his family?

"It’s a double-edged sword. The first one is really the one that catches you off guard. You really don’t know it’s coming. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how to act. The way you have to look at it is there’s a team that really wants you bad."

While fans know that players must report to their new city as soon as possible, nobody thinks about the logistics behind that.

"It’s brutal. Especially if you’re a single guy. You’ve got to pack up and leave right away. You’ve got to find friends to let the movers in and let the movers pick up your crap. If you’re married, fortunately you’ll have a wife you can leave behind and she has to do all the work, unfortunately. That’s the worst part about being traded is the move – upload and moving your stuff across the country. Your car is over there and everything else. As far as the trade itself goes, it’s usually pretty smooth. You get the call. You’re on the next plane out. You leave everything. Fortunately for most guys, they’ve got great friends, great wives, and people who will look after their stuff and take care of some issues for them while they’re gone."

Even if they hadn't played with someone before, through from past tournaments, all star games, and player association functions, many players do know a lot of players on other teams. It's still an adjustment. The room has a different chemistry and when you first arrive, you don't really know where you fit in. 

It's nice when one of the vets steps up to the plate.

"Guys know, especially in the middle of the season, when the new guy comes on the team, take him in, make sure you talk to him as much as you can, get to know the guy, dinners, if the guy needs anything while he’s in town. If he needs a rental car, you can hopefully set him up with some people. Whatever the guy needs to just make him comfortable. When you get to a city, you want to feel comfortable. You don’t want to feel like you’re all alone and sitting in a hotel every night. Guys will invite you out to dinner, go here, just do things and keep busy."

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thanks #World Cup and #Team USA, I almost forgot

I stand here before you and admit as a North American-born citizen, I watched Saturday's match (June 26, 2010) between Ghana and the United States in the South Africa World Cup. There! I said it. It was a heck of a game and extremely hard on the nervous system as Ghana won the game in extra play.

It's no secret that many North Americans have an aversion to soccer (what people outside of North America call "football"). Gridiron football has been my religion for as long as I can remember, and having been personally involved in grassroots and junior football for over 18 years in Canada, there was one thing that you knew for sure -- football in Canada and the US means helmets, shoulder pads, and hitting. Let's just say, you'd be better off admitting you were gay in a testosterone-filled locker room than admit to liking soccer.

Team USA just may be the catalyst to change that mindset -- for some. Unless you've been hiding under a rock, even in Canada, the US bid for the World Cup in 2014 is a big deal. The bid committee is made up of a star-studded lineup (Bill Clinton, Drew Carey, Morgan Freeman, Henry Kissinger, Spike Lee, Brad Pitt...). While security may be a nightmare, the possibility of being on the world stage and the economic impact is intoxicating. After all the crap its been facing of late, with the economy and oil disaster killing everything in its path along the southern and soon eastern coastline, the US really needs this. And we in Canada have to want this, too, because as goes the US, so does Canada.

But getting back to yesterday's game. I almost (actually I did) forgot I used to really enjoy watching soccer -- used to watch it a lot BM&D (Before Marriage & Divorce), after which it was completely lost on my radar. I forgot I used to go watch live matches in Edmonton and never missed seeing Pele play on TV. Repressed memories.

Oh granted, I do have a lot of problems with the "acting" where players go down as if they've been shot, feigning injury. This is where my gridiron peeps step in and mock the sport. In "real" football, guys who spend the whole practice on the trainer's table are "champagning" it. And if you have a broken finger (even the quarterback) or something equally benign and choose to stay out of the reps (repetitions) to nurse it, you are never going to make the team for long. That's just a fact of life. Toughen up and be a football player. Notice soccer goalies never take an injury dive.

But where soccer has most sports beat is in the conditioning department. That's a lot of ground to cover when all you have to go on is your legs.

Now just because I enjoyed watching the US team play doesn't mean soccer will take over my TV any time soon. Gridiron football will always be my religion: National Football League and NCAA. But from time to time, I think I just may indulge again in soccer. And yes, I did sign the petition for the US bid.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Flames Don't Need to be Fixed if the Team is Not Broken

It was April 15, 2000. The Calgary Herald headline read "Tick, tick, tick...Flames' future in hands of fans." The day before, owner Harley Hotchkiss faced the media (you know, those people who report to the fans what is happening within the organization) after a full-scale housecleaning, which included the firing of Brian Sutter as head coach. The club had missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year and had only 9,000 season tickets to its name.
That humbling experience seems all but lost on the current regime. If two words could sum up what is wrong with the Calgary Flames, those words might be: arrogance, complacency.
When President Ken King and General Manager Darryl Sutter addressed the media on April 12, 2010, the message was the team was just a couple of wins from being a condender and no wholesale changes are needed, only that some players need to step up their games and that if the Flames played in the Eastern Conference, it would have made the playoffs in seventh place.
King was quoted: "We are throwing no bodies out on the tarmac here." In other words, both their jobs are safe, even though they have not received reassurance from the ones who sign their paychecks: ownership.
Because it was noted that 97 percent of the club's season ticket holders have submitted their deposits for 2010-11 and that profits were made despite missing the playoffs also suggests that the current regime takes that as approval of performance.
Nepotism runs rampant here and you have to wonder if that doesn't play a role in the overall culture of the organization. Brent Sutter was brought in as head coach after he left New Jersey with one year left on his contract and an adamant denial that he would be coaching the Flames. Ron Sutter is a scout. Duane Sutter is director of player personnel. Brett Sutter (Darryl's son) is in the system and has suited up for the Flames this season. Also note that Shaun Sutter (Brian's son) never made the NHL but was drafted by the Flames in 1998. 
Meanwhile, inside the locker room, the chemistry was shaken when the player Darryl Sutter wined and dined for years since taking the helm--Olli Jokinen--was uprooted and sent packing with Brandon Prust. Then all star defenseman Dion Phaneuf was sent to Toronto in return for nearly one third of that team's offense--a team in worse shape than the Flames. If that wasn't enough, Sutter brought in the much maligned Ales Kotalik--a deadweight player with a Paris Hilton contract. None of the players received in return have so far been able to carry Phaneuf's jock strap, let alone act as a complement to Jarome Iginla. The reasoning behind these decisions were left with what has become the usual stoic non-of-your-business explanations.
The overall season on-ice performance has been inconsistent at best. Agree with him or not, Captain Jarome Iginla steps up to receive the blame for the results. One player does not make a winning season and without consistency from the supporting cast, it's doubtful that Sidney Crosby would have fared any better on this team.
It is clear there will likely be two sets of evaluations happening within this organization in the weeks to come: one by the current braintrust and the other by the ownership. The only people who should have job security are the trainers, doctors, and equipment staff.

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