Friday, January 04, 2008

OK...what's up with this?

Now what?

So here we are, in Day 3 of the “Post Winter Classic” era.

If you read press releases, listen to TV and radio reports, and peruse the blogosphere, you will find heaps of praise ladled generously on the Winter Classic played in Buffalo on New Year’s Day.

It is deserved.

As theater, it was perhaps the single most important production for hockey since the invention of the cathode ray tube. Conjuring visions of youth and hockey played on ponds, with snow falling in what amounted to a four hour Hallmark moment, two teams clothed in old school back-to-their-origins jerseys and wearing grins like young boys that lit up the ice, a crowd that was enthusiastically involved in the contest from before the drop of the puck to well after the puck came to rest behind Ryan Miller in the shootout, and the league’s own poster boy – Sidney Crosby – providing the coup de grĂ¢ce, it was an afternoon hockey executives and fans have prayed for since the end of the lockout.

Hockey was relevant again.

NBC reported television ratings in the U.S. better than those for any regular season telecast in almost 11 years. The game – and the sport – realized a rare penetration into print and electronic media that seem in recent years more devoted to running hockey off the sports landscape. Even the princes of ESPN – Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (one a hockey basher of some note, the other primarily a basketball writer who dropped hockey in favor of soccer and NASCAR because of his crowded schedule) – lavished praise on the effort.

At the moment, it is the Era of Good Feeling in the world of hockey…thanks to one game played outdoors.

Well, folks, NHL hockey is not one game, and it is not played outdoors. It is a more-than-six-month regular season covering 82 games, and it is played indoors in 30 cities, some of which are having a hard time making a buck or drawing fans to the rink (the Caps, for instance, are on a pace to draw their smallest average attendance since the 1983-84 season).

And, for you students of history, the Era of Good Feeling of the early 18th century ultimately dissolved into division and conflict. The potential for that exists in the months and years to come with a labor agreement that could be dissolved less than two years from now*; the lingering separation of clubs into populations of “haves” and “haves not,” despite the cost-certainty realized from the current agreement; uncertainty with respect to expansion or relocation; and a persistent lack of attention (the Winter Classic, notwithstanding) given to the NHL in the U.S.

The Winter Classic was less a blessing than an opportunity, and the league needs to take advantage of it. How they do that is a remedy to the problem that I don’t have – if I did, I’d be happy to share it. But it is a remedy that must be found while this opportunity presents itself, because while the Winter Classic was a theatrical success, it is also a novelty. I would not expect the league to repeat its success, even if it becomes an annual event. Novelties wear off.

I’ve been a fan of the sport for more years than I care to admit. Literally the first thing I did upon moving to Washington, many years ago, was to purchase a Caps ticket plan. Having seen just about every team sport there is – live and/or on television – I can testify that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…to compare to the experience of watching a hockey game live. Whether you sit in the balcony of an arena watching the geometry of the game unfold before your eyes, or you sit near the glass and appreciate the raw speed and power of the game, it is an experience that can’t be matched by any other team sport. The Stanley Cup tournament is some of the most compelling sustained drama that one could ever hope to see in sport. That the National Hockey League has not found a way to convey this to the sports fan is, I believe, one of the great modern tragedies in sports.

I’m no different than any other hockey fan – talking up the sport, marveling at the goals or the saves or the hits, making extra tickets available to friends and potential fans. And maybe it’s the little things like that – not the big Cecil B. DeMille productions – that will make a difference in rebuilding the sport. We can only hope hockey fans everywhere are doing what they can do, just out of the enthusiasm for the sport they show, to make that come true.

Looking back at the game played on Tuesday and marveling at the attention it received does little good for the league and teams not in Buffalo or Pittsburgh in the long term. The trick is in figuring out a way to build on the success of the Winter Classic, looking ahead and figuring out a way to translate the success of a unique event into something that can be sustained in the regular grind of a long season. Because if the league can’t do that, then the Winter Classic will – as it recedes into memory – look more like a snow globe you take out from time to time to reminisce of a time long gone than a signal of a new dawn for the sport.

* Article 3, Section 3.1(b) of the collective bargaining agreement states, “notwithstanding anything to the contrary set forth in subparagraph 3.1(a), the NHL [Players Association] shall have the right: (i) to terminate this Agreement as of September 15, 2009 by delivery of written notice the NHL at least 120 days prior to September 15, 2009…”

A no point night: Bruins 2 - Caps 0

Sometimes, you get the bear…and sometimes, the bruin gets you.

That Bruin would be Tim Thomas, who – if he played the Caps 40 times a year – might end up in the Hall of Fame. As it is, the 2-0 shutout he rung up last night against the Caps in Boston made him 8-0-1 in his career against the red, white, and blue.

It wasn’t enough to take the shine off the back-to-back wins against Ottawa, but it was a dose of reality, that there is a lot of work to do…and having depleted bunch with which to do it makes it harder.

It wasn’t as if the Caps lacked for effort as much as for results…at both ends. Boston couldn’t put the game away against Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig until they were granted a two-man advantage mid-way through the third period. A double minor to Mike Green for high sticking and a bench minor for too many men on the ice was converted into a game-clinching goal by Zdeno Chara 36 seconds after the penalties were assessed. And even that was a product of the Caps’ netminder being leveled in his own crease by his own teammate, Jeff Schultz, who just seemed to lose track of exactly where he was. Chara had what amounted to an open net at which to shoot.

Before that, Marc Savard made good on a rebound to give the B’s a 1-0 lead in the second period, but the story of this game was two goaltenders exchanging big stops…Thomas denying Tomas Fleischmann on a break following a turnover less than six minutes into the game…Kolzig snuffing out a drive by Phil Kessel off a pretty drop pass from P.J. Axelsson…Kolzig again stopping Marco Sturm from in close in the last two minutes of the first period…Thomas stopping Nicklas Backstrom from point blank range…Thomas again, stopping Donald Brashear all alone in the slot…Thomas denying Alex Ovechkin, not once, but twice in the same sequence, leaving Ovechkin to gaze into the rafters.

It was a treat for those who like goaltenders making big saves, even if the result was disappointing to Caps fans.

Not much to tease out of the numbers for this one; it was a tightly fought affair. If anything, the minutes evidenced the problem injuries create…guys getting more minutes than they otherwise might, perhaps playing roles they might not other wise play. For example, Schultz played almost six minutes more than his season average (23:50, compared to 18:06). Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich split up a good portion of the power play time that Alexander Semin might have gotten (3:32 and 3:14, respectively…Semin averages 4:42 in power play ice time this year). Even John Erskine, who had logged barely two minutes of power play ice time for the season, registered almost a minute on the man advantage that Tom Poti might have had.

On the other side, former Cap Glen Metropolit might have been the best player on the ice last night for the Bruins not named “Thomas.” A pair of assists, 60 percent on faceoffs, no giveaways, and it was his shot from which a rebound came that Savard pounced on for his goal.

But the story was Thomas. Alex Ovechkin noted after the game that the game was "[the] most terrible game of the season for us. We don't move. We don't shoot the puck. We were sleeping tonight – everybody. Only Olie (Kolzig) played well. I don't know what happened to us."

That might have been frustration talking. In all sports, there are “fill-in-the-blank killers”…a player who just has a knack for success against one team, even if his career hasn’t been otherwise noteworthy. In baseball, the example is someone like Frank Lary – a guy who won only 128 games in a 12-year career, but was 28-13 against the New York Yankees, earning him the nickname of “Yankee Killer” and once prompting Yankee Manager Casey Stengel to hold his ace – Whitey Ford – out of a matchup against Lary, noting that if Lary was going to win anyway, why waste his best pitcher doing it. Thomas seems to be growing into that kind of “Cap-killer.”

After this loss, some comments we remember from Brooks Laich the other day seem relevant. He noted that in a long season, you’re going to lose games here and there, but you can’t let one loss become two. The Caps have to avoid streaks of the negative sort at this point, which makes the game on Saturday in Montreal important.