Monday, December 31, 2007

The best quotes of the year

There were a lot of memorable moments in sports last year, but most were for less-than-stellar reasons. Scandals erupted in every sport from baseball (Steroidgate) to football (Spygate), basketball (Refgate), soccer (Riotgate), and cycling (Landisgate). However, there was never any shortage of good material for sportswriters. Here's some of the year's best quotes:


"It was a pretty serious situation. I pray for his buttocks and his family." - Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden discusses the abcess removed from the posterior of pitcher Jesus Colome.

"It's not lies if we knew the truth." - Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi on the misinformation he spread about closer B.J. Ryan's elbow

"I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger." - Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (via a translator) on facing countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka

"He looking for changeup. He find it." - Arizona pitcher Yusmeiro Petit, on giving up Barry Bonds' 740th home run

"As anyone can plainly see, I'm 5'6 1/2'' and a strapping 150. And unlike some people, I came by all of it naturally." - NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, on Barry Bonds calling him a "little midget man"

"Hey, it looks like Barry Bonds might end up in pinstripes after all." - The Orlando Sentinel's Mike Bianchi after Bonds was indicted

"The Dalai Lama is here in the United States. This morning, he was awarded the congressional gold medal for his contribution to peace, human rights, religious understanding. Unfortunately, a few hours after the ceremony, he was stripped of his medal after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs." - Jimmy Kimmel

Football (American)

"I don't condone dogfighting, catfighting, cockfighting or bullfighting, but before it comes out in the papers, I have a confession: I bet heavily on hamster lacrosse."
- Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle on Michael Vick

"Some people get vasectomies. I used to give them." - Former NFL lineman Conrad Dobler, considered by many to be one of the dirtiest players in league history:

"He may be drawing on someone else's experiences." - Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber on the announcement of Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver Terrell Owens' new children's book, Little T Learns to Share

"I'm realizing how ignorant you guys are. But I didn't mean that in a bad way."
- Chicago Bears' "quarterback" Rex Grossman to the press on Super Bowl media day

"We had better signs, but Belichick stole them." - Sign in the stands when the Baltimore Ravens played Belichick's New England Patriots in the wake of the Spygate scandal

Football (European, otherwise known as soccer)

"If Rafa (Benitez) said he wanted to buy Snoogy Doogy, we would back him." - Liverpool co-owner George Gillett showing his faith in his manager by giving him money to buy a mispronounced rapper (Snoop Dogg)

"You know, omelettes, eggs? If you have no eggs, you have no omelette. And it depends upon the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket you have Class One, Two and Three eggs. Some are more expensive and make better omelettes. So when Class One eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go there, you have a problem." - Ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, on his injury list causing problems

"To be the England manager you must win every game, not do anything in your private life and hopefully not earn too much money." - Former England manager (and current Manchester City manager) Sven-Goran Eriksson on the demands of the national team job

"Had I not become a footballer, I think I would have been a virgin." - At least Peter Crouch recognizes that his looks aren't great

"David Beckham is coming to the United States. People say he could make a huge impact on the way Americans ignore soccer." - Jay Leno


"If one hockey player ever does that show he's never gonna live to tell about it." - Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios on Dancing With The Stars

"I don't feel I have a concussion problem. I have a problem with people giving me traumatic blows to the head." - Ottawa Senators' forward Dean McAmmond


"Head coach of the England team demands management skills that Brian does not have. Somehow we'd managed to turn our World Cup campaign into a Monty Python sketch - called The Life of Brian." - English writer Lawrence Dallaglio on national coach Brian Ashton

"We went into South Africa with no direction, no shape and consequently no belief. It was the worst week I had known in international rugby." - English player Mike Catt on his team's initial poor performance at the Rugby World Cup (they went on to place second in the tournament)


"If I have offended any cowboys, any Texans, any horses or anybody else, I want to apologize for this." - L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson "apologizes" for his Brokeback Mountain reference

"When we lose, I blame the referees anyway." - Golden State Warriors guard Baron Davis, on why the Tim Donaghy scandal won't cause him to look at refs more closely

"I want to buy an island. Because Diana Ross has an island. Marvin Brando had an island." - Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas should bone up on his cinematic history before considering the real-estate market


"Beach volleyball in Mongolia is very difficult, because we don't have any beaches." - Mongolian beach volleyball player Bayarmaa Tsogtbaatar


"Some players have psychologists, sportologists. I smoke." - Angel Cabrera, U.S. Open winner

"This is the icing of the gravy." - Reserve qualifier Lucas Glover after his opening-round 71 at the British Open.

"I'll be in my villa in Malaga in 34 degrees smoking a cigar and drinking wine. You play in the rain." - Miguel Angel Jiminez to fellow golfer Paul McGinley, on why he's skipping the European Open in Dublin


"I feel like a cow on ice." - Maria Sharapova on playing on clay

"Um, we both owned Alaska at one point." - Tennis player Dmitry Tursunov on the similarities between his native country (Russia) and his adopted one (America)


"I'm not as top as I'd like to be, but I'm topper than others." - Heavyweight champion Vladimir Klitschko.

Formula 1 Racing

"This is the best feeling I ever had. You cannot compare it to sex. But you know, I would say it is better than sex. It is!" - Lewis Hamilton after winning the Canadian Grand Prix

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A sporting Christmas wish list

Apologies for the lack of updates over the last few days: a combination of my computer dying (or at least suffering serious injury) and the craziness associated with Christmas meant that I wasn't able to find the time to sit down and hammer out a post. Anyways, in step with the many pundits who have traversed the road before me(such as Ben Knight and my own father), here's my shot at offering symbolic Christmas presents to those I write about.


-To Roberto Luongo: A trophy case for those he should collect later this year. Luongo narrowly lost out to Sidney Crosby and Martin Brodeur in the Hart and Vezina Trophy races last year, but is having a better season than either to this point. He also dominated their head-to-head battles, stopping Crosby twice on late breakaways and shutting out Brodeur's New Jersey Devils in a 5-0 rout. As the Vancouver Province's Ed Willes pointed out in an insightful column yesterday, "Luongo, at this moment, is the best player in the NHL." His numbers (2.03 GAA, second only to Detroit's Chris Osgood, and .929 save percentage, second only to Boston's Tim Thomas) are impressive on their own, but look even better when you look at the shot-difficulty data Gabe Desjardins has compiled (thanks to James for the link). Luongo is sixth on his list of those who have a better GAA than expected from the difficulty of shots that they make, with a delta GAA of -0.65. Brodeur is way down the list with a delta GAA of -0.11, suggesting that many of the saves he makes are on easier shots (not surprising, when you consider that the defensive system New Jersey plays with is even more pronounced than Vancouver's). Hopefully a strong continued performance from Luongo will be enough to sway the necessary voters come June.

- To Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth: get-well soon cards. The league is a better place with players of their quality.

- To Mike Weaver: Some toys for his new son. He's been a solid team player thus far for the Canucks, effective in his role and capable of stepping up to fill in defensive holes in the roster.

- To Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins players: some toques. They'll need them.

- To Colin Campbell: a clue. The NHL's discipline czar uttered some great lines to Toronto Star writer Randy Starkman on the legitimacy of concussions in hockey. "Some are legitimate," said Campbell. "I think some you might find aren't legitimate. ... I think there's a small percentage, not a great percentage, of players who use it as an excuse, `Oh yeah, I've got a concussion.' They can milk it. It's a hard thing to really say that you haven't, you know, if you're trying to get some extra insurance money out of it to get paid an extra year or something." I think Campbell is out of his mind here, especially given the hockey culture of not reporting injuries and returning far too soon. As Keith Primeau, who was knocked out of the game by concussions, said in Part Two of Starkman's series, hockey players aren't going to take themselves out of a crucial game due to concussion symptoms. "They're not going to do it," Primeau said. "Guys aren't going to think long-term. We never do." It's a little worrying to hear that the head of NHL discipline thinks players are faking concussions. I'll have more on this in a later post or column. By the way, kudos again to James for highlighting these articles in an insightful post.

- To Starkman himself: sincere commendations for the work he did on his features on concussions in hockey. Concussions in sport are a tough, often touchy topic to address, as I found out earlier this year when writing my original piece on them. Players and coaches are frequently reluctant to give out too much information on concussions for fear that it might be used against them by opponents. Yet, it can be rewarding: there's a deep issue here, as concussions bring up the tension between the manly image of playing through pain and the concern about what's best for an athlete long-term. They make us ask the question of "at what price do we value sporting triumphs?" Starkman did a fantastic job on this article, and deserves a hearty round of applause. Hopefully, more work will be done on concussions in different sports in the future: I still think that this is perhaps the most important, if rarely talked about, issue facing sports today.

- To all NHLPA members: reading lamps for them to enjoy their new gifts from Chris Chelios and Eric Lindros, Susan Foster's The Power Of Two. This fantastic book, on the work that Foster and ex-NHL star Carl Brewer did to expose Alan Eagleson's shameful activities as head of the Players' Association, should be required reading for every hockey player, particularly in light of the recent troubles the PA underwent with Ted Saskin. Kudos to Chelios and Lindros for springing for these. I'll also send the PA members Russ Conway's great book Cracking the Ice, based on the investigative articles he wrote for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, to give a journalist's perspective on Eagleson's downfall. Both books are terrific, and should be read by anyone interested in the history of hockey.


- To Jonny Evans: a good lawyer. He'll certainly need one.

- To Manchester United: Blinders to ignore the fallout from the Evans case. Regardless of how this turns out, it's going to be a public black eye and a distraction for the club at a very inopportune time. Hopefully, they'll be able to keep their focus on the pitch.

- To Luca Toni and Franck Ribery: some choice German sausages, beer, and Black Forest cake to make them feel at home at Bayern Munich despite Oliver Kahn's recent comments. I'm pretty sure Toni at least feels somewhat comfortable, judging by his recent four-goal performance against Aris.

- To the Vancouver city council: a desperately needed kick in the pants to get going on the new soccer stadium. Unlike every other arena deal in recent history, Greg Kerfoot is proposing this one with very little cost to taxpayers at any level. Council should stop moaning and listening to the constant grumblers, and get on board with this before Kerfoot realizes just how much better his offer is than any proposed by a sports franchise in any other city. It's a wonder that this man puts up with this city.

- To Toronto F.C.: a playoff berth next year, and an injury-prevention device. They made some great strides this year, and could have done much better if not crippled by a string of bad luck. Hopefully the support will stay strong in Year Two and the on-field success will follow.

- To the UBC Thunderbirds and the Cape Breton Capers: a belated bottle of champagne for their CIS championship wins.

- To the men and women of the Queen's Golden Gaels soccer teams: a round of drinks in celebration of a successful season, and best wishes for next year's campaigns.

- To George Gillett: success in his new stadium endeavour for Liverpool. He comes across as a guy who genuinely cares about his franchises, and the tremendous level of access he gave to the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt recently certainly speaks well for him.

- To the aforementioned Mr. Brunt: congratulations for a solid year's worth of work. He's written many terrific soccer columns this year, including the aforementioned one on Gillett and Liverpool and his earlier call for replacement of the Canadian Soccer Association around the Black Wednesday protest. It's great to see a columnist of such stature not only talking about soccer, but writing insightful pieces on it. He's also written some other great columns this year, including those on the imminent invasion of the NFL, Bret Hart
, and the backroom maneuverings between the NHL and NHLPA. Keep up the good work.

- To another great Globe columnist, Ben Knight: kudos for a fantastic first few months in his new digs at the Globe on Soccer blog. He consistently provides great insight into and fascinating takes on the beautiful game.

Other Sports

- To the New York Giants: superhuman strength to knock off the insufferable Patriots against all odds (and not the steroid variety: it's not worth becoming cheaters to beat cheaters).
- To Madison Square Garden head honcho Jimmy Dolan: a hint that it might be time to Fire Isiah?
- To those named in the Mitchell Report: a old-fashioned Bronx cheer

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thursday roundup of the sporting world

Lots of news going on at the moment: here's the highlights.


Flapping in the breeze

The Dallas Stars apparently think Roberto Luongo's equipment is controversial. According to Grant Kerr of the Globe and Mail, Marty Turco and Mike Smith both took to the practice ice this morning wearing exaggerated cardboard flaps to question the flaps on Luongo's pads that supposedly extend wider than the maximum width permitted by the league. This surprised me a bit, as Luongo isn't one of the goalies regularly mentioned in the same paragraph as bulky equipment, unlike a certain Stanley Cup-winning netminder. It will be interesting to see if anyone at league HQ takes notice.

Related: Alanah's take on the issue.

Simon's attempt to save himself

According to a Roy MacGregor piece in today's Globe, Chris Simon is planning to appeal his 30-game suspension.
"I don't think it was fair," Simon told MacGregor. "I'm not a complainer. I've never complained before. I took my suspensions and moved on. But I don't think this one was fair." He went on to say that the act was unintentional.
"I wasn't trying to injure him," Simon said. "I tripped him and I was telling him to [expletive], and I did step on his foot. I pushed down on his skate, I don't deny that, but I wasn't trying to hurt him. I don't think a player has ever missed a game from one of my suspensions."
Simon brings up an interesting point here: is it the intent, the action itself, or the results that should be considered? For example, is Simon's act worthy of a longer suspension than Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore because the intent and the action itself were worse, even though the results were nowhere near as bad? I think the NHL got this one about right, particularly given Simon's long history of suspensions: however, it is interesting to note that the legal system takes the opposite approach (for example, Simon and Jesse Boulerice aren't too likely to get in legal trouble over their suspendable activities as they didn't cause severe damage to anyone, whereas Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley did). The other possibility to consider is that the league recognizes it was too lenient in the McSorley/Bertuzzi days and would apply an even stricter penalty for such an incident today.

- Takes from James Mirtle, Eric Duhatschek, James Duthie, and The Puck Stops Here.
- The National Post has a story quoting Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as saying that Colin Campbell perpetuated a stereotype about First Nations people with his comments on Simon's suspension. Fontaine is demanding an apology.

The Moore-Bertuzzi saga continues to spiral...

Many people are all in a flutter about the latest testimony to come out of the Bertuzzi trial. It's nicely summarized in James Christie's Globe story here.
Basically, whether you believe Bertuzzi saying that Crawford told the team to get Moore during the intermission or Dave Nonis who said the conversation occured earlier in the day, it's pretty clear that the Canucks were out to get Moore. However, this isn't all that shocking, given the hit he laid on Naslund: retribution has been part of the hockey code for eons. As Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province points out, the case "isn't as cut and dried as Danson (Moore's lawyer) would lead you to believe." Willes adds that the evidence that has been introduced so far would lead to massive outrage and a summary conviction in any other arena, but in sports, it's tough to define what is and what isn't accepted: Bertuzzi's actions were certainly beyond the pale (which he was found criminally responsible for and served his sentence), but calling for someone to "pay the price" is a normal part of hockey and doesn't mean to go break his neck. As Willes writes, "The end result, of course, was terrible. But you can watch any hockey game and see something similar, or a lot worse, take place. There was Chris Simon's attack on Ryan Hollweg; Marty McSorley's attack on Donald Brashear; Steve Downie's hit on Dean McAmmond; Jesse Boulerice's cross-check to the face of Ryan Kesler. We could go on, but you get the picture. What Bertuzzi did was dangerous and mindless, but within the context of the game it wasn't that unusual. Maybe it's not the most admirable defence, but it's an effective one."

- Christie Blatchford at the Globe has a well-written piece along the same lines as Willes' column
- The take over at Orland Kurtenblog.
- The related court transcript from the Toronto Star: thanks to Zanstrom for the link

Other hockey links:

- James Mirtle on the Canadian franchises' contribution to NHL revenues
- Tom Benjamin on how league parity isn't such a good thing (including the following hilarious lines: "Is more parity really good for the hockey fan and good for the NHL coffers? Bettman thinks so, but he's incompetent and the incompetent are seldom right.")
- George Johnson has a great story in today's National Post about the Flames' recent 6 for 6 road trip (including memorable lines such as "Six out of six? C'mon. It's still hard to get the old head around the idea, much less the reality. Timothy Leary on his best trip couldn't come up with something that far out.")
- Neil Stevens of Canadian Press on the IIHF inducting three women (Angela James, Geraldine Heaney, and Cammi Granato) into their Hall of Fame
- The Edmonton Journal's David Staples on how the NHL should href="">strengthen its drug policy
- Alanah on Stephen Harper's promos for the World Juniors on TSN


Edu seeking bigger pastures?

According to a National Post story by Mark Masters, Toronto FC's rookie sensation Maurice Edu may soon be heading to the English Premier League. Manager Mo Johnston was quoted as saying, "There's a couple teams who have contacted us. You'll have interest any time you have a great young talent." British papers have Aston Villa (who saw him first-hand during their summer exhibition against TFC) making a strong play for Edu. It would be a shame to see him go, as he impressed me quite a bit in his debut season, but he's certainly very talented and would fit in well with the core of strong young players at Villa. Hopefully Mo will get enough cash to buy a capable replacement if he leaves.

Jonny Evans arrested
The Associated Press reports that Manchester United defender Jonny Evans has been arrested and released on bail in connection with a rape case, which allegedly took place at the club's Christmas party. Whether this particular allegation is true or not, it certainly gives the club a black eye in the public relations realm. Evans is only a fringe player, but he's one of the up-and-coming talents at the club, and has seen some first-team duty this year (including last week's meaningless Champions League match against Roma). It's definitely not the first or last time that athletes have been accused of rape: see Stephon Marbury, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Duke lacrosse team. Even in the case of those later proved innocent, such as the Duke players, questions need to be raised about the situation they put themselves into. I'm not advocating for all athletes to be upstanding moral citizens, but they need to at least try to be discreet and somewhat careful about their carousing so it doesn't hurt their own image and that of their club. The paparazzi make too much of many of these cases, but that doesn't mean that there is no problem.
Related: Football Corner's post on the story.

United going after Larsson again?

Still on the Manchester United front, Football Corner has them linked with another move to re-acquire Swedish star Henrik Larsson on a short-term loan. Larsson did very well in his short stint with United last year, and I think he'd be a great fit as a depth striker, particularly as fixture congestion tends to become an issue in the New Year. He's very capable of scoring off the bench, much in the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used to do, and he's familiar with the United team. On United's side, it's an obvious move, as they tried to get him to stay last year. The only question is if he can be persuaded to leave Sweden again.
Related: Richard Starnes has more on this proposed move.

Nick Dasovic becomes men's Olympic coach

The Canadian Press reports that Nick Dasovic has been named to coach the Canadian Olympic (U-23) men's soccer team. Dasovic had a great playing career with the full national team and several clubs including Croatian side Dynamo Zagreb and the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he served as a player-coach. He has recently been Dale Mitchell's assistant with the full national team.

Dasovic is a good choice in my books: I saw him play several times with the Whitecaps, and was impressed not only with his on-field play but with his direction of those around them. The Olympic side is important, as it's an area where we have a greater chance of success than we do with the full national team: players must be under 23, except for three over-agers per country, which allows some non-traditional football powers to excel (2004 saw Paraguay finish second and Iraq come in fourth). It also plays a key role in developing young players for the full national team. Dasovic should have the right blend of playing and coaching experience to succeed in this role. Kudos to the Canadian Soccer Association for getting one right.

Bayern advances with rout

Bayern Munich pulled off a stunning 6-0 defeat of Greek side Aris to advance to the next round of the UEFA Cup. Luca Toni recorded four goals, while Philipp Lahm and Christian Lell added the others. I bet the four-goal performance probably felt pretty good for Toni, after the recent criticisms of him by teammate (and captain) Oliver Kahn. Also, Lahm, who has recently been linked with a move to Manchester United, continued to impress with his offensive ability from the wingback slot.

Other soccer links of note:

Ben Knight on The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, which he calls "the best soccer book of the past decade – flat-out adored by every fan and writer I know who’s ever read it?"

Other fun sporting links:
- Matthew Sekeres of the Globe has a nice post on the From Deep basketball blog about the Raptors' game in Portland
- The Globe's Michael Grange has to write a post about the Trailblazers on an ESPN blog, due to losing a bet
- A great Sports Illustrated story by L. Jon Wertheim on Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers
- Apparently Terrell Owens doesn't actually have a problem with Jessica Simpson watching Cowboys games
(includes the great TO quote "If I don't get the ball this week, then I am going to have to go to Hollywood and bake some cakes or something and find me a Hollywood star or something.").
- Jonathan Papelbon's dog ate his World Series ball
- Some more names using steroids come out of Jason Grimsley's affidavit

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Once he was the learner...

The 5-0 thrashing Roberto Luongo and the Canucks put on Martin Brodeur and the Devils on Tuesday was one of the more impressive performances I've seen this year. It becomes even more remarkable considering the context: the Devils had won 11 of their previous 14 games, while the Canucks went 3-3-2 in a tough eight-game stretch that had them hitting the road, returning home for a single game, and going back out on the road. Luongo had also missed the previous four games with sore ribs, so some rust might have been expected, especially against his main rival for the Olympic goaltending job (who had gone 11-1-1 in his last 13 starts with a 1.68 GAA). Perhaps some sour grapes were involved as well, as Brodeur controversially won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender over Luongo last year. Luongo was only 4-13 against Brodeur going into the game (although all of those games were when Luongo was playing with a terrible Florida team and Brodeur was with a very good New Jersey team), but he didn't show any nerves or rust, and made 31 saves for his fifth shutout of the season. The expected duel of the league's top goaltenders never materialized, though, as Brodeur looked disoriented (perhaps from playing outside the Eastern time zone for the first time this year) and allowed five goals on just 24 shots. As the Globe and Mail's Grant Kerr wrote, "[I]t was supposed to be a matchup of Canada's top goaltenders for the next Winter Olympics, in 2010. It was no contest, though, as Vancouver's Roberto Luongo made all the difficult saves, while Marty Brodeur of the Devils had difficulty with making saves after travelling west on Monday."
Luongo's dominant performance showed why he was just named the top goalie of the calendar year by Goalies' World magazine. Perhaps it's too early to say that Luongo has surpassed his once-mentor Brodeur, but the two of them are certainly in a class by themselves, and Luongo should give Brodeur a run for his money when it comes time to award trophies and decide the Olympic job.

Canucks' Links of the Day: The best of the interweb!

- Jason Botchford of The Province on how Coach Vigneault wants more shots from his top line
- Botchford on Aaron Miller's first goal in four years
- Jim Jameson previews tonight's Canucks-Stars clash
- The guys at Orland Kurtenblog talk to Dallas Stars' writer Mike Heika
- Grant Kerr of the Globe on Jason Jaffray
- Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun on how the top line needs to click
- Zanstrom's thoughts on the Canucks-Devils tilt
- Hoopsjunky (of Canucks Hockey Blog) previews tonight's game

Don Fabio takes charge

Fabio Capello held his first press conference as the manager of the English national soccer team Monday, and there were some unexpected results. Capello declined to give any players assurances of a spot, which seems to be a good decision: they don't play a friendly until Feb. 6 and don't have a competitive game until World Cup qualifying starts in September, and the landscape of who's available and qualified could alter dramatically in that time. This is one of the advantages of bringing in an outsider, as he can evaluate the players and the program on their own merits without legacies and reputations clouding the picture.

Capello certainly has the credentials to make an impact. He won 14 titles with his previous four clubs (Milan, Roma, Juventus, and Real Madrid), and took Milan to an unexpected 4-0 Champions League triumph over Barcelona back in 1994. He won the Spanish league title with Madrid last season, but was then sacked after a fallout with management, likely over his favoured defensive mode of play. This may not win him many fans among the England ranks either, as one of his predecessors, Sven-Goran Eriksson (currently taking Manchester City to new heights) was routinely criticized for favouring defensive soccer tactics. Offense may draw fans, but defense wins titles: just look at Greece's run to the European Championship in 2004. Fortunately, Capello seems to also have the guts to stand up to the footballing establishment and the countless members of the media who are assured that they'd do a better job as the manager. His authoritarian style should suit him well in a job where a firm hand is desperately needed. As ESPN Soccernet's Norman Hubbard writes, "This is a manager unlikely to be distracted by critical articles, whingeing superstars or FA pressure to conform." Players who have served under Capello also speak highly of him, such as famed Dutch striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy who played for Capello in Madrid. As Van Nistelrooy said, Capello seems well-suited to the English game. "He is definitely the right manager for England," Van Nistelrooy said. "He fits the English game. He always talked about England It was his wish to be England manager one day. He likes the way the English players are, the way they play with their hearts, the way they give everything."

Some English papers, such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror, have come out in support of Capello's appointment. Others, such as the Daily Mail, have criticized it on rather xenophobic grounds. Des Kelly of the Mail called it "a hideous embarrassment, a farce that demonstrated how pathetic England and its Football Association have become." Martin Samuel of the Times wrote "The nature of the surrender was unequivocal. The appointment made by Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive, was not a victory after all, not the triumph it had been painted, but a terrible, hollow defeat. England lost, Italy won — again. Lost the way, lost the plot, lost all knowledge of what had been invented within these shores, with no clue how to get it back."

These sorts of comments are foolish: what makes England look more pathetic, hiring a man with proven success regardless of his cultural identity, or promoting another English manager like McClaren who has achieved little to nothing so far? Admitting that a candidate from your ideal background isn't the best man for the job may be tough to do, but it shows a broadmindedness that Samuel is clearly lacking. I'm against affirmative action in sports, as to me, it seems that it's ideal to get the best people for the job, regardless of race, colour, religion, or nationality. Soccer has progressed beyond its English beginnings, and is now truly a global game. As such, the best people for managerial jobs are not always English. Capello wasn't my first choice, but after Jose Mourinho withdrew from the race, he seemed to be one of the strongest remaining candidates. Some can complain now about Capello not being English, but they should consider if they'd rather achieve some success on the national level or throw that away in favour of maintaining an archaic hometown quota. As Chris Murphy of Soccernet wrote about a potential World Cup victory for England, success dispels all controversy. "Who cares that the manager is Italian?" he asked. "Who cares if his philosophy is built on a sturdy back-line? Who cares if England only managed to score more than one goal twice in the competition? A fanciful notion it all may be but if Fabio Capello can instil order, discipline and structure into an England side that unquestionably has talent who knows how far they can go?"

Links of the Day:
- Norman Hubbard's column on Capello's reputation
- Chris Murphy's take on Capello's style
- Richard Starnes on the clash between clubs and country Capello is likely to bring
- Cathal Breathnach at Football Corner offers his take on Capello

Monday, December 17, 2007

The kids are all right

It came out today that Canucks’ centre Brendan Morrison will miss up to 12 weeks after undergoing wrist surgery. This is merely the latest injury misfortune to strike Vancouver, as they've spent plenty of time this year without three of their top defencemen (Sami Salo and Lukas Krajicek, who have returned to the lineup, and Kevin Bieksa, who's still out) and their number-one goaltender (Roberto Luongo, slated to return in tomorrow's game against the New Jersey Devils). Yet, despite the rash of injuries to top players, they've turned in quite a successful season so far: their 38 points are good enough that they're tied with the Minnesota Wild for first in the Northwest Division, and sit fifth overall in the Western Conference. A large part of their success so far has come from the stellar performances turned in by the younger players they've called up to patch the holes: Alex Edler and Luc Bourdon did a terrific job filling in on defence (see Ben Kuzma's column in The Province for further proof), while forward callups Mason Raymond and Jason Jaffray have also been solid so far. Combine this with Ryan Kesler having a breakout season (and living up to Bobby Clarke's offer sheet), Curtis Sanford showing that he's pretty darn good for a backup, and Alex Burrows having another strong year, and the future certainly looks bright for the Canucks. Depth has been a concern with this team in the past, but it shouldn't be as big of a worry this year, and there are still some great prospects down in Manitoba (Ryan Shannon, Rick Rypien, Michael Grabner, Brad Moran, and Jannik Hansen spring to mind). In the immortal words of The Who, the kids are all right.

A special Canuck edition of the links of the day:
-Zanstrom reports that Luongo will start tomorrow
-Ben Kuzma's Canucks Nation feature in The Province: his three stars of the week are Sanford, Edler, and Jaffray
-Tom Benjamin on why the Canucks' defensive brand of hockey is still entertaining
-A new Canucks' rap (like last year's ""Trapper's Delight"): Trap It Like It's Hot(thanks to Alanah for the link)
-Elliot Pap of the Vancouver Sun on Luongo's return
-Grant Kerr of the Globe previews tomorrow's Luongo-Brodeur showdown
-The guys over at Orland Kurtenblog on music they'd like to hear at GM Place
-The take over at the Canucks Hockey Blog on the Morrison situation, and if the Canucks should try to replace him now or later

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mitchell's Silver Hammer

Well, the hammer dropped earlier this afternoon as former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell released his long-anticipated report. Contrary to Bob McCown's claim on Prime Time Sports a couple days ago, the report named far more than the dozen or so players he predicted. Several prominent players who there had been little prior conclusive evidence on were included in the report, including Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Miguel Tejada, and Andy Pettitte. On the Jays' side, important names included Troy Glaus (to no one's surprise) and Gregg Zaun (to the surprise of some).

Many have argued that this report's value is minimal. However, I disagree. For one thing, it gave some solid backing to the widespread nature of steroids in the game, as the Globe's Jeff Blair commented on The Score.

"This issue clearly goes beyond hitters," Blair said. "The fact that they came out with the names of three prominent pitchers—Clemens, Pettitte, and Gagne—sort of gives lie to the myth that only home run hitters were involved."

Blair also said it's important that the report mentioned players at every level of ability, not only the superstars. "You have guys who had great careers and probably used the stuff to extend those careers, and at the other end of the spectrum, you've got guys who, quite frankly, probably wouldn't have had major-league careers if they hadn't used the stuff. It really does show how deep this problem was in baseball. It touched every team, and every talent level as well."

Mitchell himself described the importance of this in the report.
"The players for whom evidence has been gathered of possession or use, or both,
of illegal performance enhancing substances defy categorization," he said. "They include winners of Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, members of All-Star teams and World Series rosters, players whose tenures in the major leagues were long, and others whose tenures were brief. We heard often about the pressure on marginal players to use performance enhancing substances because they believed they needed to do so to keep up with the competition or because the money was so much greater for those who could make the jump to the major leagues."

The impressive nature of many of those implicated also draws the attention. As the Globe pointed out, seven MVPs and 31 all-stars were named in the report. In fact, there was an all-star named at every position, so you could put together a "Juice Team." As Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Association said in an interview on Prime Time Sports today, catching the marquee players is important. "Some of the big names, and the real stars, I think the attention should be focused on that," he said. "There are other things as well, but take a look at the names."

Another interesting part of the report was how many active players were implicated (85 in all). In addition to the ones already mentioned, such names as Paul Lo Duca made their way on to the list (the Jays are probably quite happy not to have signed him now). There's solid documentary evidence for all of the names listed, with many copies of signed cheques to former Mets' clubhouse assistant Kirk Radomski and damning direct testimony about many players' involvement. Commissioner Bud Selig, in a press conference this afternoon, said that dealing with the active players implicated is one of the three key steps baseball will take in response to the report. "I'm going to review [Mitchell's] findings, and the factual support for those findings, and punishment will be delivered on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Also noteworthy in the report were the steroid links of several former players currently involved with the game in managerial roles, such as Tim Laker, or with the media, such as F.P. Santangelo. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of this will be what effect this has on their careers. I think Sportsnet may be a little leery of inviting Gregg Zaun to return as an analyst next playoffs (of course, in an ideal world for Toronto fans, this would be a moot point as the Jays would be in the playoffs).

Many, including the esteemed Stephen Brunt, have criticized the Mitchell Report for a variety of reasons, including not going far enough in its quest to uncover those who used performance-enhancing drugs. This is perhaps a fair criticism: despite the All-Star roster named in the report, it did only scratch the surface of steroid use in baseball. However, as Mitchell himself wrote in the report, it wasn't possible for him to uncover the name of every user.

"This report, the product of an intensive investigation, describes how and why this
problem emerged," he wrote. "We identify some of the players who were caught up in the drive to gain a competitive advantage through the illegal use of these substances. Other investigations will no doubt turn up more names and fill in more details, but that is unlikely to significantly alter the description of baseball’s “steroids era,” as set forth in this report. From hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents we learned enough to accurately describe that era."

The description of this era that Mitchell provides is very relevant. Many estimates, included in the report, showcase the depth of the problem. As Mitchell wrote, "In 2002, former National League Most Valuable Player Ken Caminiti estimated that 'at least half' of major league players were using anabolic steroids. Dave McKay, a longtime coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland Athletics, estimated that at one time 30% of players were using them. Within the past week, the former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Armstrong estimated that between 20% and 30% of players in his era, 1988 to 1994, were using large doses of steroids while an even higher percentage of players were using lower, maintenance doses of steroids." Mitchell mentions that he wasn't able to verify any of these estimates, but the matter that the 85 names that were mentioned in the report were drawn primarily from only a few sources and avenues of inquiry suggests that there are far more names lurking beneath the surface. As Fan 590 legal analyst Rob Becker commented on Prime Time Sports today, "You gotta figure that if Mitchell had had access to more sources, there would have been a bigger number of players." It's impressive that Mitchell was able to get his investigation as far as he did, especially considering that the majority of players he approached refused to talk to him. The recalcitrant nature of the Players' Association in relation to this report says a lot about which side of the steroid divide they come down on. They're not alone, though: as several interesting letter and e-mail exchanges included in the report, particularly those between Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and scout Mark Delpiano over Eric Gagne's steroid history (p. 267 of the report), the clubs were certainly aware and possibly complicit in what was going on, and Commissioner Selig either knew or should have known.

Unlike Brunt and Jeff Blair, I don't think that the next logical step is to give up on further searches into the game's torrid steroid past. Perhaps it's my investigative reporting instincts, but to me, it seems odd to be satisfied with something that is clearly only scratching the surface. Brunt's piece, in fact, bases many of its criticisms on this point. This doesn't undervalue the report: it's a solid piece of work that contributes a lot to our understanding of this era, but it itself shows that there is much more that could be found.

Blair argues that this should slam the door on the whole issue. "Here's hoping Selig is merely playing to the cameras before yet another appearance before a U.S. congressional subcommittee next week, because his next move ought to be to shut the door and say enough's enough," he said. "It's over. Let the records stand, forgo the piffle about asterisks and let fans and everybody else make what they want of the steroid era." In my mind, though, this is doing a big disservice to the players of this era who didn't give into the steroid craze. They've suffered the most, and their clean accomplishments should not only be removed from any taint of suspicion, but the cheating of everyone else should be outed as well to increase the value of what they were able to do without resorting to performance-enhancing drugs.

Obviously, it will be difficult if not impossible to find all of those who cheated, but the effort needs to be made, and the clean players of this era need to be differentiated from the dirty ones. As Frank Thomas said, the impact of these users affects everyone else in the game. "I do feel I was overshadowed by some of those guys," he said. "I had a diminished-skills clause written in after I hit 29 home runs and drove in 92 RBIs, and I think those (steroid-aided home run hitters) are partly to blame." Interestingly enough, Thomas was the only current player to be specifically cited by Mitchell in his list of "those whose views and information were very helpful" (p. 367 of the report, thanks to Stoten for spotting this). Former Jays' catcher Darrin Fletcher also took a stand in favour of the report and further investigation into baseball's past on The Score today. "I think this is just the evolution of the cleaning of the game," he said, adding that players are starting to catch on to the risks involved with performance-enhancing drugs. "It ain't worth it being caught up in this: now your whole reputation's shot."

Mitchell's report also offers some good reputations on the path to move forward. The recommendations offered are great, for the most part. I particularly like the suggestion to establish a Department of Investigations reporting directly to the commissioner. The names in this report and the evidence gathered against them show the efficiency of this tactic: many players were found who never failed a drug test. This kind of investigation will likely prove the only way to root out those using Human Growth Hormone and other designer steroids where testing procedures haven't yet been established.

Overall, I see this report as a beginning, not an end. It opens the door for further investigation and offers several tantalizing threads for various bodies looking into the matter to pull. Hopefully, commissioner Bud Selig will take a strong stand in the ongoing battle against performance-enhancing drugs, an arena he was noticably absent from for much of his career. His comments at his own press conference today were positive for those who want to see the game cleaned up. Referring to Mitchell's investigation, Selig said, "His report is a call for action, and I will act." Let's hope Selig follows through, and that the Mitchell Report is only the the pre-wash stage in the long cycle of cleaning up baseball.

Other discussions and articles on the report:

- Neate Sager on Gregg Zaun's inclusion
- The Globe's James Christie on the inclusion of prominent pitchers like Clemens
- A Globe piece by Robert MacLeod on Paul Godfrey being "somewhat disappointed" by the inclusion of Zaun and Glaus
- Todd Devlin of The 500 Level on the report and its Jays connections, including Clemens
- A good take over at Drunk Jays Fans

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Oliver Kahn is one of the all-time great goalkeepers, and also one of my favorite players, but he's gone too far this time. Kahn was recently suspended for a game and fined 25,000 euros for "disciplinary reasons" by Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld. The club didn't explicitly say why Kahn received such punishment, but according to the ESPN Soccernet article linked above, it's likely related to the recent criticisms he made of Bayern's new signings in kicker magazine, one of the leading German soccer publications.

"The new players need to get used to our high expectations." Kahn told the magazine. "It is not good enough to make a bright start. One or two (players) have got to work out that two or three good games are not enough. Bayern is not Marseille or Fiorentina; we are like Real, Man United, Barca or Milan. It is hard to get a team together because we always need three interpreters. There is no pleasure in our game anymore, and every player has got to ask themselves why."
Kahn is wrong here on several counts. Firstly, he singles out Franck Ribery and Luca Toni (Marseille and Fiorentina are their old clubs) for special criticism. Anyone who has watched a Bayern match this year will tell you that Ribery and Toni have consistently been two of their best players: Ribery has brought a brilliant new creativity to their midfield, while Toni has formed one of the most lethal strike partnerships in all of Europe with Miroslav Klose. Sure, language barriers can make team comraderie difficult, but Bayern gains far more from the inclusion of Ribery and Toni than they would from having a linguistically homogeneous team. It's a reality of high-level soccer now that players come from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds: this diversity hasn't held back clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Barcelona, so I don't see why it's suddenly a problem for Bayern. A footballer should be judged by his performance on the pitch alone, not his racial, cultural, or linguistic background.

Secondly, Kahn went about his criticisms the wrong way. If he has a problem with his teammates, he should talk to them about it first, and then if it remains unresolved, he should go to the manager. As the captain, he does bear some responsibility for how the team is playing, so if he feels Ribery and Toni aren't performing as well as they could, he should go to them directly or call them out in the locker room. As a member of the press myself, it sounds odd to say this, but the media is not the place to resolve a conflict within an organization, although it makes for great ccopy (just look at the trouble the Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten themselves into with Richard Peddie's comments about hiring the wrong general manger). Teams' dirty laundry should remain in the locker room, not be aired out in front of the fourth estate. As a long-serving captain at both club and national level, Kahn should be well aware of this by now.

Thirdly, the captaincy itself is a problem. Can Kahn's teammates have any trust in him as a leader after he's shown his willingness to throw them from the train? Moreover, can his manager count on him any more? This situation looks especially bad, as Kahn is not only Bayern's captain, but a national hero and the face of the franchise. For hockey fans, this would be the equivalent of the Canucks suspending Markus Naslund or the Leafs benching Mats Sundin: can you imagine the furor that would arise? I think Hitzfeld made the right decision here, as someone had to show Kahn that this type of backstabbing wouldn't be tolerated, but the negative side effect is that his response has made this into a global story, as opposed to a few comments in a German-language magazine. It's focused a lot of negative attention on both Kahn and the club, which doesn't bode well for the future. Hitzfeld may even be forced to remove Kahn from the captaincy, which would be tragic, but perhaps necessary to ensure team unity.

The most unusual part of this scenario is that Bayern have actually performed well to date. A disappointing fourth-place finish last season left them out of the Champions League and without even a cup title to their name, but they reloaded and restocked, bringing in new talent like Ribery and Toni. In fact, they spent nearly $94 million US on new signings, more than the majority of clubs in much bigger leagues than the Bundesliga. This catapulted them to fifth in the world in Sports Illustrated's pre-season power rankings, ahead of such giants as Manchester United, Inter Milan, and Liverpool. So far, they haven't disappointed: they lead the Bundesliga by two points over Werder Bremen, and they're tied for second in Group F of the UEFA Cup, sitting only one point back of leaders Bolton (who have also played an extra game). Sounds like anything but a crisis to me, which makes Kahn's actions all the more unusual. He's really hurt his team here, not only by breeding an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust but also by forcing them to do without his goalkeeping services for Saturday's clash against Hertha Berlin. Soccer is at its very essence a team game, and Kahn would do well to remember that. For the moment, Bayern fans can emphasize with James T. Kirk and his angry cry of "Kahn!"

Links of the Day: A round-up of the best of the interweb

- Richard Starnes on Stephen Ireland's latest antics
- Bobby McMahon's latest Speakers' Corner responses: he likes Capello for England and has some great views on how fans should learn a club's history
- L.A. Galaxy manager Ruud Gullit and AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf have some reservations about the Capello for England movement
- Burglaries aren't limited to American football players: some thugs broke into Steven Gerrard's home last night, following with the Liverpool trend (Pepe Reina, Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt and many more have all been burglarized recently)
- The New York Times' Jeffrey Marcus on the recent soccer violence in Mexico

- Zanstrom previews tonight's Canucks-Ducks matchup
- The Vancouver Province's Gord McIntyre's take on Roberto Luongo's injury and the end of Brendan Morrison's ironman streak
- The Province's Ed Willes on the lack of offensive play in the NHL
- Alanah on the Canucks' current injury woes and Mason Raymond's rise to stardom
- James Duthie on the lack of trades in the NHL
- James Mirtle on how bloggers and mainstream media don't need to hate each other.
- David Staples of the Edmonton Journal has an interesting blog post about Shawn Horcoff, trading Joffrey Lupul not necessarily being so bad, and giving Kevin Lowe the benefit of the doubt (can't say I agree with him, but he makes a good case)
- Varius clears through all the muck surrounding the Ducks' tagging room

- Neate Sager has a nice piece on Raptors' guard T.J. Ford's injury last night
- The Globe's Michael Grange on how bad this injury could be and what it could mean for Ford's career, especially given his spinal cord problems
- The Canadian Press reports that Ford's 'doing better' and should be back in T.O. today
- The Times' Howard Beck on Isiah Thomas' latest confrontation with fans

- Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci on why former Montreal Expo Tim Raines deserves to make the Baseball Hall of Fame
- The Associated Press on the looming release of the Mitchell Report
- The Globe's Jeff Blair on the Paul Lo Duca saga
- ESPN's Keith Law on the recent controversy over his non-admission to the BBWAA (check out Neate's post here for the original details)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Trouble in Canuckland

The Vancouver Canucks lost a disappointing game 4-2 to the Los Angeles Kings Monday night. There were many problems with the Canucks' play during the game, particularly on the defensive side where former King Aaron Miller looked especially vulnerable. However, more worrisome for Canucks' fans were the troubling events prior to the game. Star goaltender Roberto Luongo stayed in the treatment room after Saturday's loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, sparking rumours that he might be injured. He was scheduled to start Monday's game against the Kings, but pulled himself partway through the warmup, citing sore ribs. A seismic wave of fear was quickly felt throughout the Canuck community, as Luongo probably means more to this franchise than just about any other player does to any NHL team. Vancouver Province hockey reporter Gord McIntyre described the repercussions quite well in his post-game story.
"It was the biggest shock since Bette Midler's understudy took over in the stage musical Rochelle, Rochelle," McIntyre wrote. "Except that was on Seinfeld, a make-believe TV show. On Monday night at the Staples Centre, it was still prime time, but real life."
In a post-game interview with McIntyre, Luongo certainly didn't do a great deal of reassuring. "It hurts when I move, it hurts when I breathe," he said."The last few days it got worse. I was in pain all day and wasn't good enough to go."
Luongo said he picked up the injury from a Minnesota Wild slapshot on Dec. 2, which TEAM 1040 analyst Dave Tomlinson identified as taken by Canuck-killer Aaron Voros, who also scored the winning goal in that game. Luongo stayed down for about a minute after the shot, which raised some initial concern, but he appeared to be all right. Luongo said in today's media interviews that he reaggravated the injury against Chicago on Dec. 5, but still was able to play later. He identified the injury as a rib contusion, and said he'll be out for "a few days", which had TEAM analysts Blake Price and Tomlinson worried. Price said that usually with close back-to-back games approaching (Wednesday against Anaheim and Thursday against San Jose), an injured player who's at all close to returning would state that he'd try to make it for one of the back-to-backs, and Luongo's less-committal approach means he may be gone for a longer stretch.
It now remains to be seen what Vancouver will do for the back-to-back games: do they call up Drew MacIntyre from the Manitoba Moose to play one of the games, or even just as insurance in case Curtis Sanford gets hurt, or do they hope to tough it out and start Sanford both games? My feeling is that the call-up as insurance makes sense: that way, if Sanford plays well Wednesday, he can go Thursday as well, but otherwise, MacIntyre can have a shot. In either case, at the moment at least, it doesn't look like Bobby Lou will return until at least Saturday's game against the Oilers. This will be a real test for this team.
"Vancouver fans have always wondered what life without Roberto Luongo might be like," Price said. "They're about to get a small dose of it."

A sad day for England

According to a Reuters story today, Jose Mourinho has ruled himself out of contention for the England national soccer team manager's job. As I laid out in an earlier post on my Journal blog, Mourinho was far and away the best candidate for the job: he had enjoyed fantastic success with both minnows (FC Porto) and giants (Chelsea), and had also proven himself capable of both managing superstar egos and getting the most out of limited talent. He is also perhaps the only person adequately prepared to survive the storm of scrutiny that goes with the England job, which is unparalled in professional sports. In fact, Richard Starnes muses that it may have been the prospect of this scrutiny itself that led Mourinho to decline. If the self-anointed "Special One" who played the media like a fiddle during his time at Chelsea can't handle the prospect of even more invasive media coverage, who possibly can?
Of the remaining candidates, Martin O'Neill and Jurgen Klinsmann stand out as good choices: neither is too likely to get the job, though, as O'Neill has already said he doesn't want it and Klinsmann would probably want to stay in California, which would not sit well with the English FA. Fabio Capello has said he's interested, but I'm not sure that he'd be the best fit: he speaks little English, seems uncomfortable with the media, and had difficulty managing egos during his time at Real Madrid. He's had considerable club success, but I don't know if he has the personality required to translate that into national success. Marcello Lippi's proven that he can succeed on the national stage, but again, language and personality are issues. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops: will O'Neill change his mind, will the FA be willing to bend and accomodate Klinsmann, will they take a chance on Capello or Lippi, or will they go with some dredged-up Englishman like Sam Allardyce, Steve Coppell, or Harry Redknapp? My hope is for one of the former possibilities, but the latter has a strong chance of happening due to the "We need an Englishman" sentiment. As Ben Knight remarked a while ago, England needs to accept that the best managers are no longer homegrown.

Links of the Day:

- A great interview with Sir Alex Ferguson by the Telegraph's Tim Rich
- The Guardian's sport blog list of the top six soccer books of all time
(thanks to Bobby for the links)
- Jozy Altidore on the NY Times Soccer Blog about his training with the U.S. Olympic team
- James Mirtle's list of the NHL's best penalty killers: some interesting names, including ex-Canucks defenceman Brent Sopel
- James Duthie on oversized goalie equipment (and Marty Turco's suprising thoughts on it)
- Alanah's top ten reasons why hockey's better than other sports
- The Province's Gord McIntyre previews tonight's Canucks-Kings clash
- Neate Sager on the state of the Kingston Frontenacs.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mighty Ducks IV: The Return of the Scott

Scott Niedermayer's recent return should elevate the Anaheim Ducks back to their former levels of might. Even without him, they're still a solid team that has put up 32 points thus far, good enough for seventh place in a jam-packed Western Conference where they're only two points out of second. With him, they have most of the pieces that led them to last year's Stanley Cup championship. It's uncertain whether Teemu Selanne will follow Niedermayer's example and return for the remainder of the season, but the Ducks' younger forwards have done a nice job of filling the void, with Getzlaf, Perry, and Kunitz all recording over 10 goals so far.
Anaheim's had its problems so far, though. One of the most prominent is the absence of scoring depth, as no one except the three previously mentioned forwards has more than four goals and the Ducks have only averaged an anemic 2.35 goals per game, 25th-best in the league. They also haven't been amazing defensively, allowing a 12th-best 2.70 goals per game. Special teams have also been a problem, as their power play is 24th-best and their penalty kill is 25th-best. Despite all these discouraging statistics, they've still found a way to win games, particularly at home where they're 9-4-3. Many have counted them out already, but they still retain most of the core that lifted the Cup last year: now that Niedermayer has returned, the most significant departures are Dustin Penner (who is doing little to justify his gargantuan pay in Edmonton) and Selanne. They've also added two capable veterans in Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider.
Niedermayer's return has been compared to that of Roger Clemens, who came back midway through the year with the Yankees and was largely ineffectual. There are major differences, though. Clemens was already far past his prime, while Niedermayer's still at the top of his game. It may take a little while for the rust to wear off, but Niedermayer showed last year that he's still one of the greats: he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as best defenceman. Once he's back on form, he should be able to turn the Ducks into a powerful contender again.
However, there is still one problem to face: that of the salary cap. Basically, the Ducks are fine for this season even with Niedermayer's contract, but are about $1 million over next season's cap. Greg Ballentine gives a great explanation of the details here. It will be interesting to see what GM Brian Burke does to clear sufficient cap space for next season so Niedermayer can return to the roster, but according to what Burke told the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek, he doesn't think it will pose much of a problem.
"We have an offer," he said. "I could hang up this phone and fix this right away. We're trying to make the best hockey deal we can make. We're not in a bind at all. Of the 29 teams — we don't talk to Edmonton - so of the 28 other teams, there's plenty of interest in making this predicament go away."
Hopefully, Burke won't have to give up too much to fix his cap problems. Some, including Duhatschek, have suggested trading Schneider, but he's been one of their best players thus far, and a top-four defence lineup of Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Francis Beauchemin, and Schneider would be the most fearsome in the league. It would be much better for the Ducks if Burke was able to move Todd Marchant instead, who is paid far too much for his five points thus far and primarily fourth-line role. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens here, but my gut feeling is that Niedermayer is just the catalyst needed to catapult the Ducks back to the echelons of the league's elite, and maybe even enough to give them another Cup.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Clearing out the cobwebs

After a prolonged absence, I've decided it's time to get this blog going again. I've been busy with working for the Journal and with my new blog there, but now seem to have a bit of time again, so I figured going back to this beat studying for exams. The plan for the immediate future is to post longer columns twice a week or so on my Journal sports blog and update this site in between with other columns, shorter thoughts, sports book and movie reviews, and links to interesting sites and articles that I've noticed. Hope you enjoy it.
- Andrew