Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Memorial Day exists not to honor our armed forces personnel in general, but to specifically honor those who have died while carrying out their duty to defend America.

From the first person who perished on Lexington’s village green in 1775 up to the most recent fatality in Afghanistan this very month, the list of the fallen is long and venerable. To observe past Memorial Days I have published letters that were written by soldiers during wartime. Here they are again.

*****

This first one was from Sullivan Ballou, a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, to his wife. He was killed in the Battle of First Bull Run one week after writing it:

July 14, 1861

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou

*****

This next letter was written by Arnold Rahe, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, with instructions that it be delivered to his parents if he did not survive. He was killed in action shortly thereafter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Strange thing about this letter; if I am alive a month from now you will not receive it, for its coming to you will mean that after my twenty-sixth birthday God has decided I’ve been on earth long enough and He wants me to come up and take the examination for permanent service with Him. It’s hard to write a letter like this; there are a million and one things I want to say; there are so many I ought to say if this is the last letter I ever write to you. I’m telling you that I love you two so very much; not one better than the other but absolutely equally. Some things a man can never thank his parents enough for; they come to be taken for granted through the years; care when you are a child, and countless favors as he grows up. I am recalling now all your prayers, your watchfulness -- all the sacrifices that were made for me when sacrifice was a real thing and not just a word to be used in speeches.

For any and all grief I caused you in this 26 years, I’m most heartily sorry. I know that I can never make up for those little hurts and real wounds, but maybe if God permits me to be with Him above, I can help out there. It’s a funny thing about this mission, but I don’t think I’ll come back alive. Call it an Irishman’s hunch or a pre-sentiment or whatever you will. I believe it is Our Lord and His Blessed Mother giving me a tip to be prepared. In the event that I am killed you can have the consolation of knowing that it was in the “line of duty” to my country. I am saddened because I shall not be with you in your life’s later years, but until we meet I want you to know that I die as I tried to live, the way you taught me. Life has turned out different from the way we planned it, and at 26 I die with many things to live for, but the loss of the few remaining years unlived together is as nothing compared to the eternity to which we go.

As I prepare for this last mission, I am a bit homesick. I have been at other times when I thought of you, when I lost a friend, when I wondered when and how this war would end. But, the whole world is homesick! I have never written like this before, even though I have been through the “valley of the shadows” many times, but this night, Mother and Dad, you are so very close to me and I long so to talk to you. I think of you and of home. America has asked much of our generation, but I am glad to give her all I have because she has given me so much.

Goodnight, dear Mother and Dad. God love you.

Your loving son,

(Bud) Arnold Rahe

*****

God bless them all, and may they never be forgotten.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

So close and yet so far


My father once said that finishing in second place feels worse than finishing in last place. He was absolutely right.

When the hockey season started, nobody thought of the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender. When they qualified for the playoffs, they were only the fifth seed and most people expected them to lose in the first round. I am sometimes accused of being overly competitive, but considering that the Lightning had not made the post-season in a few years, when these playoffs began even I said that I would consider the season satisfying if they simply won a playoff series instead of getting ousted in the first round.

So what this band of diligent overachievers wound up doing -- winning the first round with an inspiring comeback, defeating the top seed in the second round, pushing one of the NHL's storied franchises to a seventh game in the conference final, and finishing a goal shy of appearing in the Stanley Cup Final -- should be looked at as a rousing success.

Instead, I felt a wave of frustration when Game Seven ended. When you get so close to a prize that you can see it and sense it within grasp, you need to seize it because you just do not know if you will have the chance again. So after the Lightning gelled in the post-season and proved themselves to be true contenders, watching them come up short by such a narrow margin left me with an initial feeling that was negative but that I can not even begin to describe.

I felt anger toward Boston fans, who spent the whole series acting superior to everyone else and acting like the Bruins are entitled to the Cup just because they are an "Original Six" franchise. I could not help but remind them that the Bruins have not won a championship in two generations, and that their best player since the early Seventies had to be traded to Colorado in his final season in order to win the Cup.

And those were just my feelings as a fan. Imagine how it felt for the players, who have been striving for all of their living memory to earn the right to have their names engraved on the Cup. Imagine how it felt for goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who is 41 years old and played spectacular last night. He stopped 37 of Boston's 38 shots, only to see his own team take 14 fewer shots and fail to score, which left me remembering that a goalie should never be forced to pitch a shutout just to earn a tie.

Fortunately for my mental state, the "morning after" brings perspective. The Lightning far exceeded expectations and they provided their fans with multiple memories of playoff success, so I am happy. My hope is that the bitter taste of disappointment stays in their mouths and they use it to push themselves all the way to the pinnacle next year.

I have many thoughts about the upcoming Stanley Cup Final between Vancouver and Boston, but will save those for another post. I will close out this one by saying that everybody who loves sports and appreciates hard work should read this article about Martin St. Louis.

Go Bolts!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lightning Notes



I am not superstitious, but there is something about the NHL playoffs that toys with a man's head.

I wanted to wait until the first round was over to write anything about the Tampa Bay Lightning's performance. That's exactly what I did, and it seemed to work out as they beat Pittsburgh in seven games.

Then in the second round, I wrote about it as it was unfolding and the Lightning did even better -- not merely beating the Washington Capitals but sweeping them.

Now we are four games into the third round, which is the Eastern Conference Final, and I had not written a word until a minute ago. The series has been one of dramatic ups and downs with Tampa Bay and Boston tied at two games apiece -- which is obviously not bad for the Lightning, especially after their impressive comeback yesterday, but they simply have not played as good as they did against Washington.

I found myself wondering if I should mention them in the middle of this series, to get some of that round two mojo going again...or if I should wait until it is over, just in case the secret is to alternate the rounds in which I say something mid-series with the rounds in which I say something post-series.

Obviously, I decided to go ahead and throw caution to the wind. I figured, since I am supposedly not superstitious anyway and am definitely not going to be on the ice, why worry? So here a few general notes on my team.

For starters, I can't allow the retirement of Fredrik "Freddy" Modin to pass without being noticed. The strong, fast Swede with a blistering shot played for Toronto before he played for Tampa Bay, and for other teams afterward, but those of us from the Bay area will always think of him as one of ours. During his six years here he tallied 155 goals and 152 assists, including the winning goal in Game Seven of the 2004 Eastern Conference Final. He played a huge role in the Lightning's Stanley Cup championship that year. Back problems forced him to hang up his skates a few days ago at the age of 37.

Since the Bolts are playing the Bruins this round, I have gotten to thinking about how cool it would be if they won the Cup and once again had Phil Esposito's name etched onto it as the team founder. If that were to happen, it would mean that Esposito's name is on the Cup as a Bolt just as many times as it is on it as a Bruin. That, combined with eliminating the Bruins from the race, would be good to throw back at those Boston fans who fall into the "obnoxious" category.

I have no analysis for how the Eastern Conference Final has gone so far. None of the games have had any resemblance to the others, and even the periods seem to be very different from one to the next. There has been amazingly good play and also amazingly sloppy play. After looking like Conn Smythe material through the first two rounds, Lightning G Dwayne Roloson has been pulled from the net twice. But on the other hand, Bruins G Tim Thomas hasn't exactly been stellar either, since the Bolts have scored five goals in three of the four games. The only thing I'm sure of is that this is the most helter skelter playoff series I have seen in many years, and if it keeps going like this it will be the most helter skelter one I have ever seen.

And in case you didn't hear about it, a bunch of fans did something cool today when the Lightning's plane left Tampa International Airport bound for Boston: They gathered and stood in the shape of a lightning bolt that the players could see while taking off. For a picture of it, go here.

And lastly: Go Bolts!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Vladinator


Vladimir Konstantinov


George Will once said that "sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence." I think it is important to make sure that examples of true excellence do not get forgotten with the passage of time.

Vladimir Konstantinov was the best pure defenseman I have ever seen play the game of hockey. Locking down opponents with his defensive skills and striking fear in their hearts with his bone-rattling checks, he neutralized their arsenal by effectively taking half the ice away from them. He played with a competitive fire that manifested itself in a mean streak, and he looked menacing with his granite face and flat nose.

When he was on the ice many players avoided his vicinity or played tentatively, so that his mere presence worked against them. As he once said: "For my game, I don't need to score the goal. I need someone to start thinking about me and forgetting about scoring goals."

Konstantinov was a living, breathing repudiation of the stereotype that European hockey players are long on skating talent but short on toughness. He thrived on the NHL's rugged style rather than struggle because of it, and his lack of shyness when things got physical was evident from early on. During the World Junior Championships, when Konstantinov was playing for the Soviet Union, a fight broke out between his team and the Canadian team, and as Neil Smith (an NHL scout who was there) recalls, "he was the only one of the Russians who fought back."

When he first reached adulthood, players were not able to leave the USSR to play in the NHL, but before long that changed. Konstantinov signed with the Detroit Red Wings and joined them for the 1991-92 season, playing in 79 regular season and 11 playoff games that year. With him and fellow Russian Slava Fetisov anchoring the blue line, the Red Wings became a perennial Stanley Cup contender in the middle of the 1990's.

Detroit reached the finals in 1995 but lost to New Jersey. In 1997 they finally won the Cup for the first time in 43 years, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers to do so. Six days later, tragedy struck when Konstantinov, Fetisov, and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov attended a party. They did the responsible thing by hiring a limousine service to drive them home, but the driver fell asleep at the wheel and lost control of the vehicle on Woodward Avenue. It crashed into a tree and Konstantinov was taken to the hospital in a coma. His brain swelled and at one point he was not expected to survive.

When he came to, he was not the same man. Extensive brain injuries left him with diminished cognitive and decision-making skills. They also impaired his ability to communicate, move, and balance.

And he became, at least to an extent, disconnected from emotions. I remember reading an article a while back in which the reporter said that Konstantinov would look at pictures of himself holding the Stanley Cup and be fully cognizant of what the Cup was and the fact he had won it...yet would have no feelings about it.

It has been 14 years since the car crash and his life continues to be one of big struggles to achieve small victories. At one point it was thought he would never walk again, but now he is able to keep up a "modest pace" on a treadmill. His attention span is short, but he is good at math. He requires round-the-clock care and is attended by nurses who cook his meals in addition to monitor him. Fortunately, his wife Irina is supportive.

At the time of the accident Konstantinov was 30 years old and in the prime of his career. He was one year removed from having finished the 1995-96 season at +60 -- a remarkable feat when you consider that in the past quarter-century, the only other player to finish a season with such a high plus/minus is Wayne Gretzky.

And while Konstantinov's defensive prowess was so formidable that many people assumed he contributed little on offense, the facts show otherwise. He totaled 193 points in 528 NHL games.

Today, few people talk about this man who epitomized stellar defensive play, and those who do mention him usually focus on the car crash instead of the playing career. That is a shame. In his prime, Konstantinov was a feared man who inspired such nicknames as "The Vladinator" and "Vlad the Impaler." He was the kind of player you loved to have playing for you and hated to be playing against. While his battles to overcome disability are inspiring, we should never forget the athletic excellence without which he would never have been in the public eye.

When a young person who wants to play great defense asks whose play he should learn from, it would be wise to tell him to watch old videos of Vladimir Konstantinov.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Kicking the Fans Around

Based on my recent posts, hockey is clearly what’s on my mind.

I could keep that hockey-posting trend going by writing about what I perceive to be an unprecedented amount of dives being taken to draw penalties…which cheapens a game whose rules actually allow you to be sent to the penalty box for diving.

And I could write about how the refs are not calling any of those diving penalties…which endangers the reputation of a game that is defined by heart and hustle.

Or I could write about the conference finals, now that the match-ups are set and the games are starting tomorrow.

But instead I feel compelled to write about the drama surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes; the heartless rumors about them returning to Winnipeg; and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s bizarre, lovesick-puppy obsession with hockey in Phoenix.

As a hockey fan from the Sun Belt, I have mixed emotions. I know what it is like to love the game and to talk about it with knowledge and passion, only to have close-minded Northerners dismiss you simply because they are bigots when it comes to place of birth. This should make me sympathetic to Phoenix fans, who are often told they don’t deserve to have a hockey team playing in their town. Yet I do not find myself feeling that sympathy.

Although part of me wants to wonder why that is, the answer is clear and comes in two parts: 1) Phoenix’s franchise was not born there, but instead it fled there from a city that did not deserve to be abandoned; and 2) in an odd twist, my love-the-underdog mindset, which I consider to be as All-American as apple pie, persuades me to root for small Canadian markets even in some instances where they are going up against a U.S. market.

I remember when the Winnipeg Jets packed up and headed south for the desert. I remember watching them play their final game in Winnipeg, a playoff game against Detroit that they were doomed to lose. The building was packed to the rafters with raucous fans who were hoping against hope that their team would not leave. Looking at those fans from the plains of Manitoba, you just knew that they lived and breathed hockey and would support their team to the end. But faced with financial obstacles -- like lower revenue from being in a smallish city, and having to convince players to be compensated in Canadian dollars when they could simply play in the U.S. and be paid in U.S. dollars -- the Jets abandoned their fans, departed the country where hockey was born, and moved to what they thought would be greener pastures.

Voila! The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and Gary Bettman and his cronies toasted what they thought was sure to be a grand new day in the NHL’s geographic expansion. Bettman & Co. were right in many aspects of the big picture, because hockey is more popular today than ever before and is played in many more places than ever before. But they were wrong in some aspects, of which the Winnipeg-Phoenix situation provides a perfect example.

Human perception and judgment are highly fallible and pretty much everything in life is temporary, including economic conditions. Fast forward to the present and you will see that the Canadian dollar is stronger than the U.S. dollar, and you will see that despite moving specifically to make money, the team continues to lose dozens of millions of dollars annually after 15 years in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Winnipeg -- the largest city in the vast center of the country which produces the most NHL players -- is left without an NHL team for its children to grow up watching.

This is so obviously wrong that commenting on it is not even necessary. I feel for the hockey fans in Phoenix who constantly hear that the Coyotes may be leaving, and I feel for the workers and business owners who benefit from the influx of people attending games at jobing.com arena. However, I feel even more for the hockey fans in Winnipeg. Not only did they have their hearts ripped out when the Jets left town, now they must suffer through the ordeal of having their hearts played with on a daily basis, as league officials and prospective team owners use them as pawns to extract money from distant taxpayers.

On top of that, I can not stomach the gross hypocrisy and illogic of Bettman & Co. Not only did the NHL rah-rah that move to Phoenix when it happened, but when the team filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, the NHL purchased it in order to prevent it from being sold to someone who intended to move it to Hamilton, Ontario. That would be fine if the league showed such an interest in every city’s franchise, but it does not.

When asked recently about the Coyotes situation, Bettman said the NHL stands behind fans in every city. Unfortunately, his nose was growing. He and the league showed no concern for Jets fans when their team left Winnipeg. Nor did they show any concern for Nordiques fans when their team left Quebec City, or for Whalers fans when their team left Hartford. Even today, the powers that be are not showing any obvious concern for the fans in Atlanta whose team is being talked about as one that might skip town. The stench of hypocrisy and dishonesty makes me want to see the Coyotes return to Winnipeg just to give Bettman & Co. their comeuppance.

But now that Glendale politicians have voted to set aside another $25 million to give to the NHL next year, to cover any operating losses the Coyotes may sustain, it looks like any chances of a move from Phoenix to Winnipeg are on hold for at least a year. Many people have switched to speculating that during that year’s reprieve, the Atlanta Thrashers will relocate to Winnipeg instead. Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting.


Update, 5/31/11: Earlier today it was announced that True North Sports & Entertainment has purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move them to Winnipeg. I have to say congratulations to the fans in Winnipeg because they never should have lost the Jets, and because returning NHL hockey to their city is righting a wrong.

But at the same time I have to sympathize with the fans in Atlanta. There are some good ones there, and it is horribly unfortunate that their team was saddled with an ownership group which made it obvious from the beginning that they did now want to own the team and were not going to even try to produce a winner. After 11 years of the crap, the fact that 13,000+ people per night spent their time and money attending every Thrashers games does not seem all that bad.

Monday, May 9, 2011

(Almost) Halfway There


How awesome are the NHL playoffs?

So awesome that I, who am often accused of being obsessed with politics, have not bothered to blog about the killing of Osama bin Laden. In fact, when the White House announced the killing late last Wednesday, my first reaction was to feel annoyed that attention was being taken away from the Tampa Bay Lightning's series sweep of the top-seeded Washington Capitals.

After my most recent post, I figured I would wait until the second round was over before writing anything else about the playoffs. But tonight I am feeling the itch to opine, even though the San Jose-Detroit series is still not decided...so here I go with some relatively random, stream-of-consciousness thoughts:

I have to start by praising my Lightning (or as I put it before, giving them their due because the MSM will not). As noted above, they did not merely defeat the Eastern Conference's top seed, they swept them. But even more impressive is the fact that they got significantly better as the series progressed, and did that despite being without two very important players who were injured in Game One (LW Simon Gagne and D Pavel Kubina).

Although I have never liked the Caps, I never hated them until now. Watching the series that just ended, I realized how dirty they are from top to bottom; and while Alexander Ovechkin has never been known as the most virtuous player on the planet, it was not until I watched him four times in seven nights that I realized what a thuggish cheap shot artist he is. As repulsive as it is that he routinely high-sticks opposing players in their faces and throats without being sent to the penalty box, it is even more repulsive that no one in the media bothers to point that out.

But of course, Ovechkin has been sent home early, Cup-less yet again, to watch other players pursue hockey's Holy Grail. So I will move on to relevant topics, like the Eastern Conference Finals where the Lightning will be facing the Boston Bruins.

Although Boston is favored to win, it is striking how similar these two teams are when you look at their results. They finished the regular season with identical records and both had to go seven games to win their first round playoff series, after which they both swept their second round series. Their goaltenders are ranked one-two in playoff production, with numbers so close they are a statistical tie -- Tampa Bay's Dwayne Rolsoson has a .941 save percentage versus .937 for Boston's Tim Thomas, while Roloson's goals-against average is 2.01 versus Thomas's 2.03. And as it turns out, Thomas and Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis were college teammates for the exact same years at the University of Vermont (1993 through 1997). Who will win this series, nobody knows; but I will go out on a limb and say that whoever does win it, will win the Stanley Cup if they face Vancouver and probably win it if they face San Jose.

On a semi side note, I have to mention I am loving the fact that Roloson is playing Conn Smythe-caliber hockey without bothering to think about the fact he is 41 years old.

Getting away from the Lightning, I must give props to the Nashville Predators and their fans. Earlier tonight the Preds got eliminated by Vancouver -- but they made it obvious they are the kind of team that is built for post-season victories, and their fans made it clear that Nashville is a legitimate hockey market. Look out for the Preds over the next few years, because they are only a couple of tweaks away from having an excellent chance to become the third Southeast U.S. franchise to win Lord Stanley's Cup.

And about that San Jose-Detroit series, what's a fan to do? Well, since I am 40, I suppose I should root for Detroit because they have a lot of very productive older guys on their roster. I love that Nicklas Lidstrom, nine months my senior, continues to play a key role for the Red Wings. And since I am a Lightning fan, I suppose I should root for Detroit because the presence of so many older guys should make them less conditioned and easier to beat by the time the Stanley Cup Finals roll around (please God let us make it!) than any of the other teams in the Western Conference.

The Stanley Cup represents the hardest championship to win in all of the world's professional sports. Whenever San Jose and Detroit finish their second round series we will finally be halfway through the playoffs that will determine this year's Cup winner. May the best team win, but Go Bolts! no matter what.