Welcome to the dead-grass portion of the calendar, when every winter-climate town should temporarily be called Yellow Grass.
The sun is higher, the air is warmer and the backyard rink has turned into a birdbath. My greatest nightmare will be the day I wake up, look out at the rink-turned-pool and find a shirtless Barry Melrose on a floatie.
The NHL season is no longer a season in March. It's a nightly "Dancing with the Stars" meets "North American Idol." Emotions go back and forth. "Are we in?" "Are we out?" "Are we worthy?" In the words of Pete Yorn, from his latest CD "Nightcrawler," the track "Alive" sums it up best:
Sometimes it's pain
Sometimes it's hollow
Never the same
It'll change you tomorrow
Doesn't matter when it's gone
This day is alive
This day is alive
This day is alive
(Or you can listen to the first 36 seconds of Lit's 1999 title track, "A Place in the Sun," as loud as you can in your car or on your iPod, but just for that one song, kids. Listen to Pete Townshend when he says to keep the sound down or you'll cause irreversible damage to your ears!)
Yes, just when you think the Sabres are a lock in the East, the Devils look like the Devils. In the West, I have a major crush on Vancouver right now, but everyone in the West has been winning lately.
This is the micromanaging portion of the NHL season and it can suck every bit of riboflavin out of your system. Everything changes every night. Predictions are pointless. Just sit back, watch and try to keep up with all of the changes. It's a good time to introduce yourself to asparagus, or perhaps some okra, to keep your riboflavin at the proper levels. I prefer pudding and nuggets of deep-fried cheese. Consider the following two nuggets of deep-fried cheese:
• Since Ted Saskin became the face of the NHL Players' Association after the end of the lockout, I've written a few times in this space that I never felt right about him. He seemed too cozy with the NHL. And how in the wide world of sports did he get around $2 million a year?! The head of the NHLPA should make less than the NHL average. Even if it's by a quarter. Period. From this point forward, the NHLPA should always be led by a former player with a team of lawyers working with him. Players are sophisticated enough to hold such a position. They have a better feel for the game and for whom they'd represent.
Retired players are better educated today; not necessarily better, or more ethical, or more entitled, but certainly adept at leading a group of men in one direction. I know some of you are hoping for a Gary Bettman-related e-mail scam to expedite a regime change there, but, trust me, NHL owners don't know how to operate a computer or e-mail. Right Guard deodorant? Unbreakable combs? Really Old Spice in the white bottle? A Buick LeSabre? Ordering "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts" on VHS from their rotary phone? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. What Steve Guttenberg was to "Cocoon," Gary Bettman is to aging NHL owners.
(This reminds me. I was at a national sporting goods store over the weekend and saw an older couple looking to buy a piece of exercise equipment. Please call your parents right now and tell them never to do this. Buy them a 10-pound exercise ball, have them do various exercises in the family room while they watch the "Matlock"/"Murder She Wrote" Hour. Tell them to go for a walk every day. That's all they need to do. Buying a piece of exercise equipment is like buying a $600 clothes rack, or the complete collection of "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.")
• I forgot how good this Lit CD is. I'm listening to it on my Dell as I write this. Yes, Bill Wirtz, you can do this. "My Own Worst Enemy" is a good NHL regular-season homestretch song. Chris Simon could relate to this song.
All of us who have played hockey at any level understand what the Islanders winger may have been feeling when he hit the boards, got up and saw forward Ryan Hollweg skating toward the Rangers' bench to get off the ice. We've all felt that ice rage, and most of us have done something we regret. I once cross-checked someone back in high school after time ran out and my squad lost its first game of the season.
(Sidetrack alert! I am better now than I used to be, but I do have the perfectionist curse, and back then, I wanted everything to be perfect. This includes competitive sports. I always ended up with a better golf round in high school when I bogeyed the first hole because it lowered my expectations. Remember Sparky, low expectations and high enthusiasm usually result in the best performance because you are at your most relaxed. Most of our best moments are unplanned, right? I believe I ended up at ESPN because I always wanted to work here, but never expected it.)
Simon's unplanned moment was not his best. He was angry, and anger has few fringe benefits unless an Escalade falls on top of you. A little anger might get that SUV off your leg. We don't know what it feels like to skate like Paul Coffey or Evgeni Malkin, or snipe like Joe Sakic. But rage? Most of us understand it because we have felt how it transforms us into different people within seconds.
When people say Simon hit Hollweg in the face, I think they are missing the details. I think Simon's aim was for the shoulder pads; most of his stick hit that area, grazing Hollweg's chin and drawing a little blood. If Simon hit Hollweg's face flush, we would be talking about a possible lifetime ban. But that's why Simon had to receive the largest on-ice suspension in NHL history -- he could have crushed Hollweg's throat. Or blinded him, or de-toothed him like Yukon Cornelius de-toothed the Abominable Snowman. The margin for error was too small not to have a large suspension. (Simon won't get paid during the suspension and forfeits the final $80,200 he was set to earn this season. NHL players don't get paid in the playoffs except for small bonuses after each playoff round. The longer you play, the more the parting gift.)
It was such a different moment from what happened earlier in that same Rangers-Islanders passion play last Thursday. In that same game, there was a scrum in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Players were poking at a loose puck, fighting for position, trying to keep their balance and falling in the general vicinity of the Rangers goalie. As the whistle blew, Simon reached down and tapped Lundqvist on the shoulder and back, apparently making sure he was OK and apologizing for whatever he or others may have done in the heat of the confrontation. It was -- gulp -- a tender moment, an act of genuine care and sportsmanship. I remember watching that and thinking, "That's cool."
Simon has heart and soul. That seems to be the general consensus of people who have met him. I haven't met Simon, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this because it wouldn't be appropriate. I think Simon's gesture toward Lundqvist came out of respect for the netminder. Lundqvist is good at what he does, plays fair and his off-ice demeanor is that of someone who doesn't take himself too seriously. I don't think Simon respects Hollweg to the same degree because of how he plays. Simon once scored 29 goals in an NHL season. He is a heavyweight, but he can also play a little bit. He has 143 goals in 744 games and his name is on the Stanley Cup.
Hollweg is currently nothing more than a crash-test dummy. One could argue Hollweg is a young Chris Simon, who had eight goals in his first 82 NHL games. Hollweg has three goals in 119 NHL games. Part of that is due to a lack of ice time and no power-play time, but as one former NHL player told me last week, "He could play without a stick and he would accomplish the same thing." Is this the new NHL?
Hollweg, and players like him, are 200-pound wrecking balls, running all over the ice and hitting some of the NHL's most valuable and talented players. Hollweg hit the Islanders' leading scorer, Jason Blake, near the head early in last Thursday's game. He has been running around all season slamming people into boards. When Simon, in the last year of his contract, believed his health, and perhaps future earning power, was in danger, he snapped. Simon claims he was concussed when he picked himself up and recklessly swung his arms and stick at Hollweg. But I think he just had enough of the kind of hit Hollweg delivered. Simon was making an editorial statement. For a moment, he took all of the emotions other players and fans have been feeling and felt like handing out some "justice."
Of course, Islanders fans had their own Ryan Hollweg in Steve Webb (321 NHL games, five goals). These players provide the game with the energy and emotion that fill NHL rinks. We need the jolts of adrenaline they supply, but when they go too far, they are putting themselves and their opponents in danger. If nothing is done, the NHL is going to have to pad the boards and switch over to an NFL-styled helmet. These are 200-pound physical specimens traveling at high speeds with agility and power. And the players delivering the hits have never had more financial incentive to make their presence felt. Hollweg is making $456,000 this season, a figure you and I will likely never reach. He's only 23. Oh, to be young and making half a mil, yo!
Simon was wrong. He should never have swung his stick like he did. In this age of media scrutiny, it was a truly like a moment out of "Slap Shot." The video was clear, the lighting was excellent and the framing was ideal to witness a shocking piece of real video. I'm glad Hollweg is fine. I like the energy he brings his team. He's probably a great guy. I think Simon probably should have received 50 games. It would have made a statement against well-televised violence more from a marketing standpoint than an overall deterrent because it's hard to deter rage in a competitive environment.
Still, most incidents are built up over time with a series of events. This stuff doesn't just happen. There is a moment when all of the built-up emotions finally boil over. The NHL has a feel for that and always takes that into consideration when it rules on these decisions. Maybe the league shouldn't. Maybe the NHL should look at these things in a vacuum and discipline players accordingly to prevent future buildups and future incidents.
Part of what makes the game so transfixing is what makes it so dangerous. It's a tightrope that will always need to be walked.
My son Jackson's Mite season came to an end Sunday with a tough 2-1 loss in a state championship final. I found myself getting emotional, almost to the point of tears, for the rest of the day. The hockey season was over. The practices, the games, the joy that those 7- and 8-year-olds show in every stride all gone, forever. Yes, there will hopefully be another season, but there are no guarantees in life. Nicholas Lambden, 10, was playing hockey at an outdoor rink in February in Guelph, Ontario, where he was hit by a puck from a nearby group of hockey players. He died. His father, Andrew, will never see his son play again.
This dad thinks about these things. Almost every day. While we pray the unthinkable will never touch us, just the fact our sons and daughters will never be 6 again is, while obviously unequal to Nicholas Lambden's death, still a loss. That child is gone.
Hockey is the most emotional of games. That's why people can't pull themselves away. It makes us laugh at "In House" and "Learn to Skate" players, cry when our Mites and Squirts exit childhood for a meaner world and scream when we believe our kids are put in danger by irresponsible coaching or inadequate officiating.
As players, we feel exhilaration, joy, pain, contentment, fulfillment, and yes, rage. This is a human reaction created in the brain and manifested in the body by adrenaline. I believe this is what happened to Simon -- adrenaline overload. Adrenaline is what enables people to lift automobiles off trapped people. It has widespread effects on circulation, muscles and the provision of energy. It also affects judgment.
It's not a cop-out for what Simon did. It's not an excuse. I would have probably given him a longer suspension if I ran the NHL. But having felt all of the emotions of the game, including the "Rage Against the Machine" emotions, I'm comfortable in paraphrasing Chris Rock when I say, "I don't agree with what Chris Simon did, but I understand."
Schedule me in for a hearty laugh this offseason when Ted Nolan wins the Jack Adams. This means he'll have won the award in the final year before his banishment and the first season upon his return.
The Coach of the Year meter changes every week. Right now, it reads: 1. Barry Trotz (Predators); 2. Ted Nolan (Islanders); 3. Michel Therrien (Penguins); 4. Lindy Ruff (Sabres).
Just finished reading your Q&A with Erik Johnson. Last summer, a few weeks after he was drafted No. 1 overall, me and some friends sat down, and E.J. was sitting right next to us. We congratulated him on the draft and he handled himself very well. He was really happy to talk hockey with us. I was so impressed by how friendly he was to all of us strangers and knew right away that he will be able to handle himself well in the future. He is truly a class act.
St. Paul, Minn.
Erik e-mailed me this week and wished to have the following included in this week's column, concerning his time at Minnesota and his plans for next year: "I am sorry for the comments I made. I have had a great experience this year at the U of M and my mind is not completely made up [for next year]. I did not intend to offend anyone if it came off the wrong way."
By the way, you mentioned to Erik Johnson that the longer he waits to get married, the better looking his wife will be.
Is the converse true? If I hold out, could I land a George Clooney or Daniel Craig type? I'd like to think so.
All the best,
Ft. Collins, Colo.
No. Men, by rule, get worse looking. Have you been to a high school reunion lately? However, women should also wait because men are maturing later and later these days. Let those testosterone levels drop a bit and some humility will set in. We all should wait for smarts, humor, kindness and thoughtfulness. Those all usually improve with age. Some, like Marisa Miller, are just born with it. Don't hate her for it. Celebrate it. And keep Tom Brady away from her.
I saw R.E.M. at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta in 1987 (I think?) on the "Document" tour. I was 14 years old. A drunk guy behind me spilled his beer down my back, and when I tried to act tough and ignore his attempts at an apology, he whacked me in the head. I remember he was wearing a Red Wings jersey.
Just thought I would take the chance now that my high school season is over to drop you a line and share a new saga in the "Life of Podes" section of your mailbag.
I am a high school coach in Minnesota (near Rochester) and one of my players met Shjon Podein at a convention last year and invited him to come out and visit one of our practices. They met up again earlier this year, and apparently (without me knowing for sure), Podes accepted and was scheduled to appear within the next few days.
I get to practice and one of my assistants tells me there is some strange guy on the ice, and I completely spaced about Podes dropping by (let's just say that for an ex-NHLer I was surprised to see his on-ice clothing). He had on oversized snowmobiling gloves and a track suit that looked liked he was going sledding instead of watching hockey practice. Sure enough, I get out there and introduce myself and chat with him for a bit and tell him to chirp in whenever he wanted to. I introduce him to the guys and put him on the spot and ask him about his Stanley Cup win and subsequent equipment-a-thon, where he didn't change for 25 hours out of his gear (best Stanley Cup story ever, in my opinion).
What a great thing for him to do, for really no reason at all other than to fulfill a player's request to come out and drive 1.5 hours from his house to the Twin Cities and check out a high school practice. Just another reason why NHLers are the best athletes and people in the world.
Yours in hockey,
Head Coach, Dodge County Wildcat Hockey
The Life of Podes is a full life, indeed. Thanks for another installment, coach.
Just wanted your opinion on a couple of ideas to increase scoring or, at least, scoring chances. First off, when the NHL tinkered with goalie equipment a couple of years ago, they didn't do anything about the size of the catching glove. Compare today's with those from the '80s, and modern gloves are way out of control. So, shrink the gloves and take away that piece that goes from the thumb alongside the wrist area. Due to the improvements in equipment, virtually every player is a shot-blocker. How about making it illegal to leave your feet to block a shot? Players could still use their stick or their skates, but no more flopping on the ice like seals. Love to hear your thoughts.
Yes, the glove is too big, but I don't think you are going to get equipment any smaller for a variety of reasons. That's why I would just make the net bigger by inches. Blocking shots illegal? Blocking shots is a sign of selflessness, a symbol of heart, courage, mental toughness and artistic expression. The four great values of the game. Anything that brings out "the big four" is not only pertinent and necessary, but also hockey at its most beautiful.
Do you think the NHL should add a rule disallowing the practice of a team trading away a player at the deadline, then signing him back in the offseason, like Doug Weight last year? I'm sure, once in a while, there is no prearranged agreement, but there is no way that anyone can believe that, most of the time, the player has absolutely no intention of signing with anyone else except his former team. Teams can't re-sign players that they buy out of a contract. Why should they be able to re-sign players that they trade?
Peace, love, and hockey pucks,
I'm for freedom. A player didn't trade himself. Players don't get to pick what company to work for, like most North Americans can out of school. Unrestricted free agency is the one chance a player has to pick where he can live, work and join the local Knights of Columbus.
What do you think of Paul Stastny for the Calder? You have to admit, in the last month or so, he's accelerated his game while Malkin has slowed down. Not to take anything away from Evgeni, but does the late-season run help Paul?
Hoping the Avs make it to the playoffs,
Stastny's run will likely get him a final-candidate nomination. Evgeni Malkin is CLEARLY the most talented rookie in the NHL. He's a game changer. He does everything at high speed. He is the guy you want on your team when you are down a goal late in the game. His amazing talent will make it hard for him not to win the Calder. I would still vote for Jordan Staal. He is only 18. He will score 30 goals, he kills penalties and is on the ice in the last minute of a game to protect a lead. He also doesn't get the power-play time Malkin, Stastny and Anze Kopitar have received.
Regarding your comments in your last mailbag about the Ryan Smyth trade, I couldn't agree more with what you said, especially the getting "a whole lot of nothing" for the best player on the team. That trade was atrocious and Smytty deserved a whole lot more from that team. It's painfully obvious that he wanted (and deserved) to finish his career as an Oiler. I cannot understand how the majority of the Canadian sports media did not take the same position as you (if anything, you let GM Kevin Lowe off far too easily).
And the song "Level" by The Raconteurs sounds like Frampton. I'm just sayin'.
I do think the Oilers made a strong effort to try to sign Smyth. Like a lot of organizations, they could have signed him for less last summer. So, you would think when an employee, like Ryan Smyth, embodies everything you want in a worker, an employer would make sure that person is signed. The earlier the better, because if you wait, it will cost you more money or cost you the employee.
The Oilers did wait. When the price kept creeping up from the $5 million figure that Edmonton was already grinding over, everything changed. "5.1 million? OK. 5.2? Jeez, I don't know. Oh, alright. 5.3?! Sigh, alright. 5.4? OK, we'll do it. But that's it!"
Word travels fast around the NHL. GMs knew the Oilers were having issues signing Smyth. When the Islanders made a trade for Marc-Andre Bergeron, GM Garth Snow let Lowe know that if the Oilers couldn't get Smyth signed, the Isles had a package of prospects and picks that would appeal to Edmonton. The salary cap may rise next season, but Edmonton's will not. The Oilers still have to think about these things. There's a decent probability that Smyth's game will deteriorate, considering his age and style. A five-year deal worth $25-30 million with a no-trade clause is a big commitment for a team like Edmonton.
The biggest issue: Smyth's deal could have been taken care of a long time ago. The whole episode kind of reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. Mike Milbury was once asked about Ray Bourque trade rumors, way before Bourque would eventually be traded by the Bruins. Milbury said, "Why would we trade a guy who embodies everything we want everyone in this organization to be?"
Do you think that some of the teams in the league with a lot of shootout wins will be upset come playoff time, when there are no shootouts? I don't think it will affect the Sabres, whose high number of shootouts is reflective of their good defense and goaltending, which is what gets you through the playoffs. I am worried about my Penguins, who play a lot of high-scoring games and whose recent surge contained a lot of 4-on-4 and shootout victories. What do you think?
I think it's a good point. Defense (or a hot, confident goaltender) wins playoff games, especially long, overtime playoff games. If Marc-Andre Fleury is on top of his game, the Penguins won't have a problem winning overtime playoff games. If he is off, they will have a problem. Great goaltending wins playoff games.
Erik Johnson and R.E.M. in the same column!? Can't beat that! From one Hall of Fame act to, hopefully, another! Speaking of baby Blues, here's my son Mason after a long night of cheering on his Blues.
Keep up the good work,
You're my boy, Blue.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.