Sunday, March 23, 2008
Superstars-A New Generation
Aleaxander Ovechkin recently notched his sixtieth goal this year for the Washington Capitals. That marks the first time that any NHL player has recorded sixty goals in more than ten years. A couple of superstars accomplished the feat at that time-Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. (I almost left off their last names, because even the casual fan recognizes them both on a first name basis.)
There have been other Alexanders in the NHL. Mogilny comes to mind most quickly; however neither Mogilny nor any other Alexander was able to bring his game to the table in the same manner as Ovechkin. He is pure excitement.
He brings a joy and an excitement to the rink every night, and it is infectious. Last fall I prowled the lower halls of the arena in St. Louis after the Blues had beaten the Caps. Washington coach Hanlon was singing the praises of his young star: “He raises the level of play of every player on this team. The advantage is in our favour every time he steps on the ice.”
When he gets his seventieth goal, he will join the elite club: Gretzky, Hull, Selanne, Lemieux, Esposito, Mogilny, Kurri, and Bernie Nicholls. There is little doubt that Ovechkin will get there soon.
On the roundball court, another youngster has captured the imagination of all sports fans. Only two other players have been able to convert the casual NBA fan into a serious watcher: Michael Jordan and Kobie Bryant. As was the case with Bryant, LeBron James went directly from high school into the NBA. No two players have made that transition more smoothly.
There was little doubt that LeBron would be a force when he stepped onto the court. What is somewhat surprising is that he has taken his game, and his team, to such levels that other teams are jockeying for position so that they will not have to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
LeBron has been with the Cavaliers for five years. The team entered the NBA in 1970. He recently became the all time leading scorer on the team even though several players in the past played twice as many games as he. He was drafted into the league in 2003 out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio.
Even as a teenager, he was prepared to assume the mantle as the head of the team, and he leads them into every game. Attendance numbers skyrocket when the Cavs come to town, as they did when Jordan flew into Pearson.
The Raptors have their eyes on the standings as they play out their final games. To move on in the playoffs, they will have to play well, with everyone healthy. All those little nagging injuries will be forgotten as the adrenalin pulses. Egos need to be set aside for the benefit of the team.
There are other budding stars in both games, particularly Sidney Crosby on skates and Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets, and Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic on the hardwood.
It bodes well for both games that the young stars bring such energy to the game.
Perhaps some day young fans will have trouble recalling the names of Gretzky and Michael Jordan, and their exploits.
As far fetched as that may seem, young fans have no clue about Rocket Richard, or Bobby Hull. Even young basketball fans have little knowledge of George Mikan, Bill Russell, and Bob Cousy.
No matter. We all know that fame is fleeting. This article is not about fame. It is about enjoying the exploits of today’s fabulous young stars. Enjoy them while you can.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
The Raptors are Comin' Home-Thankfully!
The Raptors western road trip has finally come to a close, thank goodness.
Expectations were not terribly high when they boarded the plane at Pearson. They even wore green uniforms to close out the trip in Utah, to no avail. They fell to the Jazz, 96-79. Thus ended a somewhat miserable journey. “Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight” likely ran through the heads of the entire team as they limped back into Toronto.
Prior to that defeat, they had gone winless in the previous four games on the road-understandably so. The Western Conference continues to be touted as the place to come from in the NBA this year. All of the pundits predict the crown will be worn by one of those teams when the season wraps up.
The Raptors will enter the playoff fray, but it is still up in the air as to where they will finish. This will be the fifth time in their brief history that they have been involved in post season play.
In 2000, they lost in three straight to the New York Knicks. Those were the days of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and company. The Knicks boasted a kid named Camby, with Patrick Ewing on the cusp of his career, and Allan Houston. Some talent there!
In 2001, the Raptors knocked off the Knicks and faced the Seventy-Sixers in the Eastern Conference semi-final. In game seven, with 2.2 seconds remaining, Vince Carter clunked a shot off the iron to dash further playoff hopes for the Raptors.
The Raptors lost the fifth and final game to the Detroit Pistons in 2002. Toronto led by four points in the fourth quarter with less than four minutes remaining, but could not maintain the led.
Las year, the Toronto squad fell to the New Jersey Nets in six games. They did not win a game at the Continental Airlines Arena all year. Rest assured, it also smarted a little considering that Vince Carter led the way for the Nets, after quitting on the Raptors.
In 2003, the Raptors drafted Noel and Freida Bosh’s boy. Chris was an early entry candidate out of Georgia Tech, spending only one season there. Prior to that he won “Mr. Basketball” honours in his home state of Texas, leading his Lincoln high school team to a 40-0 record.
Bosh is expected to return to the lineup soon, and none too soon. His presence has been sorely missed in the centre of the court. Another giant from Slovenia who stands seven feet tall, Rasho Nesterovic, has done a most capable job filling in for Bosh; however, there are a few extras that Bosh gives the Raptors when he is on the court. Nesterovic has been in the league nine years, and benefits from his experience. When he is on the floor, he will, in basketball terms, “take what the opposition defence is willing to give”. In other words, he knows how to burn the opponent for its ineptitude.
The Toronto Raptors will achieve success for years to come. A major factor in their quest for a championship comes from clever management. Bryan Colangelo has a number of official titles listed in the Raps media guide. But the bottom line is that he knows the game, and knows talent. He guided the team in the selection of Andea Bargnani as the Number One Draft Pick, and has seen the fortunes of the team rise dramatically since his arrival.
There are a number of roundball clichés that make sense for all hoopsters. Stay between your man and the basket when playing defence. Make the easy pass. Look for the open shot. Run hard. Get in a zone. No cheap fouls. When playing defence, deny, deny, deny. Keep your mouth shut.
The Raptors have fifteen games remaining this year, nine at home. There will be movement in the ranks of the teams in their division; nonetheless, there will be post season basketball in Toronto this year. Hopefully, plenty of it.
Many of the games are covered on most of the television networks. Leo Rautins and Chuck Swirsky handle the telecasts with vivid and intelligent accounts. Enjoy!
For more detailed information about the team, get yourself the team media guide, pictured above. On the cover: Parker, Bosh, Ford, Bargnani, and Jose Calderon.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Ranger Goalie Makes History
On March 9, 2008, Henrik Lundqvist posted his ninth shutout this season. That tied the record of Ranger great-Eddie Giacomin.
I am certain the rafters were ringing with the chant of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” when the buzzer sounded to end the game in 1967 when Giacomin recorded his shutout. It was his first full year in The Big Apple, and he led the league in wins as well as shutouts. Always a free spirit, (tell me, what goalie isn’t?), he often wandered from his net to play the puck, skating with it and passing it to his forwards.
He won the Vezina Trophy along with backup Gilles Villemure in 1970-71. The following year he took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final, only to be thwarted by Bobby Orr and the Bruins.
He was a fan favourite in New York; however, early in the 1975-76 season, the Rangers decided to waive Giacomin and the Red Wings picked him up. In his first start back in New York against his old team mates, he stood patiently between the pipes before the game. In his wonderful book about hockey players entitled “The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone who has ever played in the NHL”, Andrew Podnieks has written: “In one of the most emotional nights of that rink, the fans started chanting his name during the national anthem, and wouldn’t let up. When the Rangers scored on him, they skated by and apologized.”
In the 1977-78 season the Wings decided to go with younger goalies-Ron Low and Jimmy Rutherford, both now prominent in the league in managerial positions. Eddie stayed in Detroit where he ran his own sports bar for seven years. He returned to New York to help young goalies for a few years, and was honoured when they raised his Number One sweater to the rafters in 1989. In that regard, he followed Rod Gilbert. No other Ranger had been so honoured up to that point in time.
Nowadays, you will find Eddie in the forests of Montana, building log homes for Yellowstone Traditions. I found that little gem of knowledge in “Over the Glass and Into the Crowd”, a look at the post career lives of 200 former players. Eddie loves the work, according to author Brian McFalone. In Eddie’s words: “You’re dealing with the natural elements-the trees, the forests. When you’re cutting one of them down, taking the bark off and putting them in a home-it’s something special! There’s a lot of you being put into the wood.” Spoken like a true goaltender, a little funky, a lot weird.
When the cold winds sweep down from Canada, as the Americans are wont to say, Eddie scurries to Fort Myers, Florida to knock around the little white ball.
The Rangers lucked in with Lundqvist. He was drafted in the seventh round, 205th overall, in the 2000 entry draft. At this point in the season, he has moved the Rangers into a tie with the Ottawa Senators. He has won 32 games for the Rangers, and has a respectable 2.30 goals against average. A native of Are, Sweden, he will be a key ingredient in the Rangers’ quest for the Cup in a few weeks.
With his 30th win this season, he became only the second NHL goalie to record three seasons with thirty wins to begin a career. The other? Ron Hextall.
He also tied another Ranger goalie with his three season, thirty wins total. That of course would be Eddie Giacomin.
As we approach the playoffs, there are still plenty of spots up for grabs. The playoff contender list changes daily. So do the stakes to get the number one draft pick-Steve Stamkos. Stay tuned! Keep your stick on the ice!
James Hurst-March 12, 2008
Saturday, March 01, 2008
Las Vegas-Home of the Wranglers!
To many of us, the city of Las Vegas is a lot of things. But to Kevin Lalande, and to many hockey enthusiasts, it is the home of the Las Vegas Wranglers.
For a few quirky reasons, the Wranglers play in the East Coast Hockey League. They are presently on a road trip to two other East Coast locations-Alaska and Victoria, British Columbia. Hardly east coast, according to my basic geography. But that is reality in the professional hockey world.
Kevin Lalande spent the last four seasons with the Belleville Bulls. He was selected by the Calgary Flames in the draft, relegated to Quad City of the American Hockey League, and is now between the pipes for the Wranglers.
As a Belleville Bull, Kevin developed into one of the premier netminders in the OHL. He began slowly in 2003-2004, posting a .833 save percentage in his rookie season. In the same vein, he struggled at Quad City, with a similar .837 save percentage; however, since his posting to Las Vegas, he has taken his game to a higher level.
He has played 20 games for the Wranglers, posting a dozen wins and four losses in regulation. He also has recorded three shutouts. His goals against average is a stingy 2.08, and his save percentage is .929. In his last outing in Victoria, he helped the Wranglers clinch a playoff berth in the quest for the Kelly Cup.
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I discovered there are plenty of distractions for Kevin and his teammates lest they should get bored. I ventured into a couple of casinos to learn about sports betting, as it takes place in one of the very few legal places in the United States.
It is big business. At the hotel called New York, New York, there are more than sixty television screens in the sports betting area. Everything from basketball, hockey, boxing and horse racing was displayed on one of the sets. Bets were not restricted to one of the events in progress.
In a recent article in the hotel Vegas magazine, Matt Vilano interviewed the Race and Sports Book Director from the MGM Mirage. Robert Walker sets the betting lines for every wager.
The lines he sets are designed to get equal bets on both sides, giving the bettor an equal choice for either side. Quite often, the casinos take “futures” bets on events that will not take place for some time. Wagering is now in full swing for the NCAA basketball championships, as well as the Stanley Cup.
On a printed odds list, the Red Wings are listed at “+400” indicating that you would be paid $ 4 for every dollar you bet for them to win. The Black Hawks are listed at “60/1”, for a return of sixty bucks per dollar waged. The Leafs? 450/1. The L A Kings are lowest on the totem pole at 750/1-not much chance there.
I spoke with Tim, (who preferred to keep his last name to himself) about the betting process. He has worked sports betting for six years in Vegas, originally at New York, New York, and now at the Luxor. He listed the most popular betting sports in order: football, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, and finally baseball. He also handles bets on thirty race tracks every day.
A high roller might lay down forty to fifty thousand dollars per game, according to Tim. “This year’s Super Bowl was disastrous for the casinos. They did not estimate the odds properly, and the New York Giants victory cost them a bundle. It will take some time to recover from that.”
Tim was more than willing to explain the systems to me. Wagers can be as little as five dollars on a board bet. The largest wager ever taken was on the 2002 Super Bowl. Someone bet $ 4.6 million for the Rams to win. The Patriots won that game 20-17, and the bettor was out of luck.
Tim was more than a little critical of “Proline”, Ontario sports wagering system. “A little too complicated, a little too difficult to put together enough selections to win a decent amount of money.”
Odds for most of the games were posted on the walls beside the TV screens. Occasionally some bettor would let out a whoop if his team won; more often there was a quiet grunt in the back row.
My money stayed in my pocket. But the rows of spectators at all of the casinos indicated that it is a most popular activity.
I will continue to follow Kevin Lalande’s season on the internet. There are several other local players in the league, and it is good fun to track some of them down, particularly as the playoffs arrive.
You can also place your bets through the casinos on line. I will leave that up to you.