Sunday, January 27, 2008

DG's Quick Hits- January 27, 2008

  • Shortly after the conference championship games were set, I thought about how funny it would be if the New England Patriots and the New York Giants met for Super Bowl XLII, since it would a case of perfect symmetry- the Giants had a chance to end the Patriots’ perfect regular season and now would get a chance to end the Patriots’ perfect playoff (and season). Now, we *have* a Giants-Patriots Super Bowl- I somehow feel smug that my intuition predicted that. Given that, though, I feel it’s pertinent to ask if we’re sure this game is going to be televised nationally, because the last time the Patriots and Giants played we had problems with that…
  • All kidding aside, you can’t help but feel for the Green Bay Packers, particularly Brett Favre, who were a feel-good story all year and played an epic NFC Championship game that really didn’t deserve to have anyone lose. I also hope Favre comes back next year, because I sincerely hope Cory Webster’s interception isn’t his last professional throw. A legend like him deserves a better ending to his career.
  • Speaking of which, just about everyone who commented on Favre’s performance at the game thought he played horribly. I don’t think he did, even on the last interception- Webster jumped the route- because the Giants’ secondary was revitalized with the return of Sam Madison. Favre also had two touchdown throws, and the Giants- for all the accolades they got for winning the game- nearly blew the game themselves when Lawrence Tynes missed two field goals in the fourth quarter that could have given New York the win in regulation. Seriously, this game could have gone either way and the Packers should only be proud of their performance in the game.
  • Shot of the NFC Championship game: three brave girls stood up after Donald Lee’s touchdown reception wearing pants, mittens and nothing but Packers gold bikinis as tops holding a sign saying “Brett, Take Your Time, (Aaron) Rodgers can wait”, signed at the bottom by the Bikini Girls (with the “G” taken from the Packers’ own logo) with a heart placed to the left of the signature. Said Troy Aikman after FOX cut to the ladies, “man, they make me feel like a wimp”. That’s high praise from a quarterback that had to play in conditions similar to what those girls were standing in: -4F (-20C) official temperature, with a wind chill of –23F (-31C). Of all the superfans that are seen throughout the NFL, the Packer Bikini Girls are easily the best among them- not only do they look the best out of all of them (that goes without saying), they’re also the bravest, since there’s no way I’d do something similar to that at a game, and that tops the lot.
  • It looks like we’ll get a great Super Bowl regardless of the result. The plucky Giants with the potential to create a new legend in Eli Manning, or the already legendary Tom Brady and the Patriots adding their name to an improbable list of legends- the “undefeateds”. This is going to be the highest-rated Super Bowl ever- easily.
  • Besides, it might be the second piece of an already remarkable quartet of Boston championships- the Red Sox are baseball champions, the Patriots are odds-on favourites to be the football champions, the Celtics are favourites for the basketball title and even the Bruins are having themselves a remarkable year. When has a city ever lay claim to a sweep of major sports titles? (Please don’t mention the New England Revolution’s loss in the MLS Cup…“Major League Soccer” is anything but) It certainly hasn’t happened in quite a long time.
  • My prediction: Patriots 42, Giants 34. The Giants went toe-to-toe in the regular season game that felt like a Super Bowl and came away with a three-point loss, so any expectations that New York will be blown out of this one don’t have any merit. That said, New England is going for *all* the marbles this time (not just records) and their intensity should be higher here as a result. The weather shouldn’t also be a factor, so the video game-like Patriots will be in full force. One thing is for sure- this game will be a fun ride.
  • Moving to other sports, remember the Toronto Maple Leafs’ three-game winning streak? Yeah, that came and went like Houdini after Toronto won just once in the following week (a 3-2 victory over Washington that went against the tide of play and where Nikolai Antropov clearly interfered with Olaf Kolzig right before the second goal went in). The positive part is that the Leafs are just six points shy of the playoffs, the negative part is that they’ve played two more games than the currently eighth-place New York Islanders. Toronto has made late runs at the playoffs the past two years so the season isn’t over yet, but time is slowly ticking.
  • Time officially ran out on General Manager John Ferguson, Jr. today, sacked by the Leafs in favour of- get this- Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis. Yes, “Trader Cliff”, the one who said “draft schmaft”, is back. Somehow I doubt the prospects Toronto desperately needs are going to be arriving any time soon.
  • Said Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings head coach, on the Leafs’ woes: “in Leafland, they won’t allow you (to rebuild)…they have probably the most ravenous fans in the world…and the fans want you to turn it around this year. They can’t understand that…you’ve got to rebuild it (by) drafting and trading away these players that you love and getting draft picks”. His words couldn’t be more accurate, but Babcock seems to forget that Detroit has been in the playoffs every year since 1991 and not everyone can be the Red Wings. The Wings are blessed with having the right people in the right jobs and that’s the kind of luck other teams wish they had; and while Babcock may think the solutions are obvious and easy to do, they’re much harder to execute in practice for other teams. Babcock’s heart is in the right place, but something tells me that he truly doesn’t understand the situation as well as he thinks.
  • Speaking of prospects…when Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment partner Larry Tannenbaum was asked about why the board rejected a Ferguson “season plan” that didn’t include playoff dates, Tannenbaum answered that the team considered itself contenders for the Stanley Cup and one can’t contend for the Cup without playoff dates. Then Tannenbaum was subsequently asked, if the GM ever suggested to the board he needed to trade his best assets in order to rebuild (thus building a team not likely to make the playoffs that year), Tannenbaum said he wouldn’t stand in the way of the “hockey expert”. So one end Tannenbaum said he wouldn’t mind trading a player like Mats Sundin for prospects, but when Ferguson tried to do just that he stood in the way. It just revealed what I’ve always known about the Leafs- they’re just after profits, not the Cup, because they’re just interested in playoff dates and not winning. Otherwise, the rebuilding would have happened a long time ago- and that’s something every “hockey expert” will agree on.
  • Speaking of seemingly lost causes, we have the Buffalo Sabres, also six points out of the playoffs and losers of 12 of their last 14 games. Endemic to their problems? The same issue that’s affected them all year- finishing. The Sabres make pretty plays in the offensive zone, but when it comes time to bury those chances, every player comes up short. If that isn’t enough evidence that letting go of Daniel Briérè (who always buried his chances) in the off-season was a bad idea I don’t know what is.
  • This then brings us back to the “Daniel Briérè or Chris Drury” debate that sparked during the 2006-07 season, which seemed like ages ago today. TSN’s Pierre McGuire was an unequivocal defender of Drury, noting his leadership skills and the fact that he routinely scored big goals. Those are undeniable traits to be a successful hockey player, but Drury’s clutch-scoring exploits are overblown: in the 2006 playoffs, Briérè had more key goals (the game-tying goal in Game 4 against Ottawa and the double-overtime winners in Game 1 against Philadelphia and Game 6 against Carolina, while Drury had just the overtime winner in Game 1 against Ottawa), whereas in 2007 the two were in a dead heat (Briérè tied Game 2 against Ottawa with six seconds left, Drury scored a second sooner in Game 5 to tie that game against the New York Rangers). Drury’s skills are undeniable, but “good leaders” aren’t as hard to find as “natural goal-scorers”, of which the Sabres only had one- Briérè. Perhaps Buffalo wouldn’t be so far off the pace with Drury, but I doubt they’d be anything except a fringe playoff team since the team would still face the problem they have now- who’s going to put pucks in the net? Drury sure wouldn’t.
  • Does this mean it’s time for Buffalo to change its coaching/GM tandem of Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier (respectively), in power since 1997-98? I think so- it’s clear that aside from a 1999 Cup Final appearance (stocked largely by previous administrations) neither can get the Sabres to the Cup. I might be willing to give Ruff/Regier another season to make sure this year isn’t a fluke, but unless things turn around sooner rather than later, it’s obvious Buffalo needs a real change to get them over the top.
  • So the Phoenix Coyotes fight for a playoff spot and suddenly Wayne Gretzky is the league’s best coach? I somehow don’t see that logic. The truth is that since Gretzky became the Coyotes’ coach in 2005-06 the team hasn’t come within even a whiff of the playoffs, and there’s no indication that the Coyotes will even qualify for the playoffs this time around, since teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild stand in their way (albeit the Coyotes are three points behind Vancouver for eighth). Meanwhile, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien has his Bruins playing way out of their depth in that Boston has occupied a playoff position for much of the season. If you ask me right now Julien is the Jack Adams Award winner, not Gretzky, but hey, if Boston falls out and Phoenix qualifies, I might change my mind. Might.
  • I don’t know what to make of Ilya Kovalchuk’s hit from behind on Rangers defenceman Michal Rosival: on one hand, it clearly was pretty bad, since Kovalchuk left his feet to deliver the hit and sent Rosival careening into the glass. On the other hand, Kovalchuk was following the play and didn’t skate halfway across the ice like Jordin Tootoo did in levelling Daniel Winnik. I still think he deserved more than the single game he received- given a stride or two more and a different player and we might be looking at another Patrice Bergeron situation. Just because the Thrashers need Kovalchuk doesn’t let him off the hook.
  • Is it just me or was the CBC production crew slacking off as much as the players do at the SuperSkills competition? For the opening “obstacle course” event, the cameras were always behind the action, and- like the other timed events- we never had a clock showing how much time was left. Plus, the whole event looked and felt chintzy, although there was one bright spot- the breakaway exhibition competition, similar to the NBA Slam Dunk competition, where players are judged on how artistic their breakaways are. The highlight? Alexander Ovechkin skating in, lifting the puck, batting it a couple of times on his stick, doing a spinorama and then trying to bat it in the net. Ovechkin missed the puck on his swing but it was impressive. No doubt in future years, once players get the hang of it, we’ll see the event go to its full potential but this year was a great start.
  • How about this as an idea for the All-Star Game? Take a week off the season right before the game and hold it two days before the actual games resume. That way the stars can get adequate rest and have less of an excuse not to go- and maybe, just maybe, they might try this time around.
  • On one end, Inter Milan’s 3-2 victory over Parma ranks as one of the most fantastic finishes in recent memory, since Inter came from 2-1 down after 88 minutes of play to bag two quick goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to steal a victory from a Parma club that deserved a better result, as their creativity confounded Inter defenders all day. On the other end, no doubt anyone who’s not an Inter fan is wondering what they have to do to get a good scudetto race. Still, there should be little doubt about the actual result, as there’s no question that Fernando Couto’s arm guided Couto’s headed clearance in the box (leading to the equalizing penalty), and Parma’s lack of concentration in the end cost them their draw. I still think the chase will be closer this year- Roma is improved from last year’s team, the only significant improvement in the previous off-season in Serie A- and Inter’s lead is just seven points, but after this week’s performance, it might not still be close enough.
  • One Serie A result that *was* dubious was Fiorentina’s 2-1 win over Torino last Saturday. You may recall that both of Fiorentina’s goals were scored via the spot kick, the first deserved (since Adrian Mutu was clearly tripped inside the box) but the second not so (as it was clear Mutu’s feet were clipped accidentally by a defender rushing back into the play). Still, as much as Torino played on a level pegging with Fiorentina, it was Torino’s inability to bounce back from that unfortunate break which left them a single point above the relegation zone. Meanwhile, Fiorentina get to stay in fourth, and hopefully they can qualify for a Champions’ League spot their previous officials robbed them of after Calciopoli.
  • I admit, Alexandre Pato looked pretty good against Napoli, managing to sneak by the entire defence on a long run to volley a long cross into the net. I’m still not convinced he’ll be of much help to Milan this season though- his performance in the U-20 World Cup last summer didn’t suggest a player capable of being a Serie A star immediately, and his goal was the 5-2 goal and thus meaningless. I’ll admit he seems to fit in with Milan’s system and does appear improved, but let’s see how well he does in later games before we start unabashedly admitting he’s the real deal.
  • Liverpool advanced to the fifth round of the FA Cup, but that won’t be what will be remembered from their fourth round match: their opponents, Conference South and semi-professional side Havant & Waterlooville (who are more “semi” then “professional” in that all but one of their players also has a day job), twice took the lead at Anfield in the first half (and could have had a 2-0 lead at one point) before Yossi Benayoun’s hat-trick 15 minutes apart sealed a 5-2 victory for the Reds. Still, Havant’s play endeared them to neutrals who couldn’t have expected them to score twice at Anfield- let alone “only” lose by three goals- and the fact they twice took the lead on Liverpool showed they were at least mentally capable of scoring the huge upset. They can also be proud of the fact they embarrassed Liverpool, since the fans gave their club mocking cheers after the first half ended 2-2, and could potentially send beleaguered manager Rafa Benitez packing. Not bad for a team whose members comprise of a teaching assistant, a binman, a van driver and a school caretaker.
  • Don’t adjust your set: the New Orleans Hornets are the top team in the Western Conference, underscored by a 102-78 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on January 26 that was every bit the rout it actually was. The Spurs cut the inside for the entire game, but the Hornets weren’t fazed, hitting an impossible array of perimeter jump shots that no defence could possibly have an answer for. Meanwhile, the Hornets themselves did the same for San Antonio in being incredibly organized defensively, but the Spurs could not keep up the pace, shooting 41% to New Orleans’ 56%. Now, I’m not convinced New Orleans can win the NBA title (you have to wonder how’d they’d match up against a team like Phoenix or Dallas who can score with the Hornets), but after this latest victory, the Hornets’ place atop the Western Conference is very much earned.
  • Proof that the unbeatables don’t always win: Roger Federer, who had been to 14 straight Grand Slam finals (winning 12 of them), lost in straight sets to rising star Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-finals. To non-tennis fans, Djokovic’s victory has to count as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, but tennis fans have long known that Djokovic showed the potential to beat Federer in a major tournament, having beaten Federer at the “mid-major” Montreal Masters tournament in 2007 and coming up short in their previous major tournament meeting, the 2007 U.S. Open Final. What was revelatory at the Australian Open this time around was how well Djokovic played Federer’s game, being the kind of player who showed great anticipation, the quickness to defend and return properly and the ability to mix up his shot selection to keep his opponent off balance. You’d have to wonder how Djokovic would do against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his surprise unseeded opponent that also beat his semifinal opponent at his own game, the fire-and-brimstone, all-out-attack Rafael Nadal. Conventional wisdom says that Djokovic has the edge, but considering how well Tsonga snuck up on people as an unknown, you’d have to think Djokovic’s victory is anything but assured. One thing’s for sure: it’ll be one memorable final.
  • Turns out this is George W. Bush’s plan to revitalize the economy: give every American somewhere between $600-$1200 in a one-time tax rebate. That may sound like a lot but it’s not in the big picture: that amounts to little more than a month’s rent, mortgage or car payment for most Americans and thus won’t have much affect on their pocketbooks. Besides, one month of “more spending” won’t erase years of budgetary deficits accumulated by Bush. I don’t see this plan having very much success except on the PR front.
  • Last but not least is the amazing story that saw a French bank defrauded of €4.9 billion or US$7.16 billion (yes *billion*) by a single junior futures trader. According to Société Générale, France’s second largest bank, Jérôme Kerviel, a junior member of SG’s futures trading team (involved in “making bets” to how well stock markets will perform in coming months) had operated above and beyond his trading duties for much of 2007 in incurring trades that totalled €49.9 billion (US$73.3 billion), well above SG’s market capitalization total. When SG uncovered the scam and tried to “fix” the problem, the markets also happened to suffer incredible losses, including a Dow Jones drop that erased all of the previous year’s gains. The bank asserts that Kerviel worked alone, but I have to wonder how someone could work alone and rack up a €4.9 billion rap sheet- something here just doesn’t add up.

-DG

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Return of Harold Ballard

As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours, and it certainly did on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third period against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night.

After building a comfortable 2-0 lead early in the second period on face-off dot blast by Pavel Kubina, San Jose coach Ron Wilson juggled his lines, tipping the balance considerably in the Sharks’ favour. San Jose piled on the pressure as the game wore on, leading one to think that if they just broke down the door to Vesa Toskala’s net, the game would be theirs. Sure enough, a power play goal early in the third by Patrick Marleau set the tone for the rest of the game, setting up a Craig Rivet blast on a 5-on-3 (spurred by an obvious cross-checking call on Toronto’s roaming pylon Hal Gill) and a poorly-contested Joe Pavelski tip-in off a Jonathan Cheechoo shot that gave San Jose the deserved 3-2 win. Following the game, a visibly shaken Paul Maurice, Toronto’s head coach, held back the tears in vehemently stammering that the Leafs didn’t lose because of a lack of effort and you’d be hard-pressed to prove him wrong, since the third period clearly proved that San Jose was better than Toronto on more than just paper. Still, the loss did the Leafs no favours, as it dropped Toronto to 28th overall in the NHL and seven points behind the New York Islanders for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

To be fair, very few people thought Toronto would be a Stanley Cup contender this season, and, given the team’s late runs at playoff berths the past two seasons, the Leafs might not be dead yet anyway. However, it was hoped that the acquisition of the steady Toskala would counteract two straight seasons of ineffective goaltending and raise Toronto’s level of play, and while Toskala has lived up to his billing, Toronto’s level of play didn’t rise at all, as Toronto’s wonky defensive play has been shown to be much worse than many might have thought. Thus, the prospect of another season out of the playoffs has led to a cavalcade of suggestions for what to do with the Leafs, from trading Mats Sundin for youth to the firing of both Maurice and lame-duck General Manager John Ferguson, Jr., but the Leaf fans’ vitriol is misdirected. They really should be targeting themselves.

The reasoning here is quite simple: Leaf ownership has returned to the days of Harold Ballard, where they didn’t care about a successful team as long as the product remained profitable, and the only way to respond is to stay away in droves. It wasn’t always this way- you may recall the non-interventionist ownership of Steve Stavro, whose management led to a reinvigoration of the Leafs on the ice in 1992-93, a season after his takeover. Those early successes went to waste by poor personnel decisions by Stavro’s hired gun, Cliff Fletcher, and by the time Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment became an entertainment conglomerate with the acquisition of the Toronto Raptors in 1996, the Leafs’ fate was sealed. Despite having four teams get to the conference finals (1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002), the Leafs never really did ice a team considered by many to be solid Stanley Cup contender, appearing content to ice a team that would at least look like a solid contender to keep the mirage of ’93 magic alive but, deep down, everyone knew it didn’t stand a chance. Meanwhile, MLSE kept raising ticket prices telling fans it was willing to build a great team while visibly keeping its character- “hey, Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson are marketable characters, let’s go get them even though they’re washed up! Yeah! And Ed Belfour too! Who cares if their best years are behind them? At least they’ll keep those playoff dates coming!”

Now, after careful posturing for over a decade, it appears that MLSE is coming out of its shell and openly admitting to its own intentional mismanagement. That is the only logical conclusion one can draw after president and CEO Richard Peddie felt it was needed to remind curious reporters that Ferguson does not have the power to execute any major personnel decisions, including trading Sundin and firing Maurice, unless the MLSE board of directors approves the deal. Such a comment harkens back to the micromanaging days of Ballard, only this time it is marked with casual indifference to hockey affairs instead of being rooted in deep-seated contempt like it was for Ballard. Granted, Ferguson is far from the only Leafs GM to face MLSE’s Byzantine decision-making process- you may recall Pat Quinn faced a similar dilemma regarding free-agent acquisitions- but now, with the team in turmoil just begging for a major change, MLSE folds its arms like a stubborn child and simply screams “no!”

One would think that the Leafs’ problems on the ice should be enough to sway MLSE’s opinion that a major change is needed, but since MLSE mismanagement is so well rooted and well established in the hockey department, the fact that basketball is a much more profitable sport than hockey (why else do you think Bryan Colangelo is Raptors GM?) and that MLSE itself is obscenely profitable (in early 2008, it was valued at $1.5 billion, with the Leafs being pegged at $413 million), there’s no reason to suggest that MLSE should have any interest in seriously rebuilding the team. Otherwise, long ago, when the Toronto Star asked readers during the lean years of the 1990s if they’d follow a young, promising (but losing) Leafs team and the readership vehemently responded “Yes!”, MLSE would have actually bothered to bring in top-level scouts, a GM with a pedigree for producing young talent (how about Randy Sexton, Darcy Regier or Ken Holland? All those were available in the mid-1990s) and a coach with a pedigree for grooming young talent (Mike Babcock, Andy Murray, maybe?). If MLSE wasn’t going to do it then, why should they do it now?

Thus, there can only be two reasonable solutions to the problem- one is to buy MLSE, but since most Leaf fans probably don’t have $1.5 billion lying around, that option is out of the question. The other is for Leaf fans just to stay away, like fans do in other cities when their team doesn’t perform. While it’s true that the bulk of the tickets- mostly the prime ones- are owned by corporations, there still are enough seats to produce a noticeable difference in crowd volume, and there’s still no reason why those tickets have to be used. Leaf fans don’t even have to stay away the rest of the season- if, even for just one day, Leaf fans staged a massive ticket-refund drive and forced Toronto to play in front of an empty stadium for a single game they’ll force a public relations nightmare so big for MLSE that they’ll just have to start paying attention to them. Fans do have more power than they think- it’s time for them to use it.

The fact of the matter is, quick fixes and placing confidence in an ownership group that hasn’t exhibited any reason to be trusted won’t solve the problem, as both Ballard and MLSE has profited on Leaf fans’ naïveté for decades. Thus, if Leaf fans really want to enact a change, they’ve got to show they’re more than just docile lapdogs who’ll eat up anything management tells them even though they’ve shown they’ve never delivered. They have to show they won’t put up with anymore of their rhetorical nonsense and have to start demanding better from their owners, and they can show that first by staying away. As long as MLSE sees a full arena they’ll think the fans are satisfied since they’re paying MLSE for the tickets, so the obvious reaction is to simply return them, as that is a real act of dissatisfaction. Otherwise, Leaf fans might just have to wait another 40 years before Lord Stanley’s Mug gets paraded down Yonge Street if they ever get to do it at all.

-DG

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