Wednesday, March 30, 2016

About those awards

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in less than two weeks and will unfold across the course of two months. And as they unfold, many of the performances and storylines of the regular season will inevitably get pushed to the back of our memories.

But the NHL's awards, whose winners will not be announced until the playoffs are over, are based on what happens during the regular season. Because of that (and because I've been itching to write about hockey for a while now) I have decided to go ahead and say who would get my vote for those awards, and why. Not that I have a vote to give, and not that anyone should care, but anyhoo, here goes:

Hart Trophy  (MVP)
The Montreal Candiens started this 2015-16 season better than they have started any other in their storied history, winning their fist nine games and thirteen and of their first sixteen, with one of the three losses coming in overtime. Then, on November 25th, during a win that pushed their record to a stellar 17-4-2, Carey Price went down with an injury that has kept him sidelined ever since. And now they are below .500 and have been mathematically eliminated from having any chance of reaching the playoffs.

Based on that, a perfectly logical argument can be made that Price should be named the league's most valuable player despite missing most of the season. I do not agree that he should, because I think the Habs would have eventually cooled off even with him in the lineup; and also because I think that when you only play one-fourth of a season, the sample size is too small for you to be considered for such an award. But there is no doubt that the Habs are a playoff team with him but not without him, and I still wanted to point out the hypothetical case for him being MVP, because I think it is cool.

So who should get the award? Hands down, it's Patrick Kane. Arguments can be made for several other players, but Kane's torrid pace in piling up points (he has 94, which puts him nine ahead of second place Jamie Benn) combined with his solid +13 makes him the clear favorite. Take him out of the lineup and the defending champs might be out of the playoff picture right now, but instead, they have already clinched a spot.

Vezina Trophy  (Best Goaltender)
There is little doubt that Braden Holtby will take this hardware home. Goaltender is the most important position; and with him playing that position to an outstanding level throughout the year, his team has by far the best record in the league, having clinched the President's Trophy two weeks before the season's end. Plus, Holtby has been one of the league's best goalies for several years and never gotten his due respect, so it would be nice to see him take this home.

However, I believe Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop has been the best goalie this season. Bishop's Bolts, unlike Holtby's Caps, have not been scoring at the high rates they scored the last couple years, so Bishop has needed to steal games for them and has done so. Bishop bests Holtby in save percentage (.928 to .923), goals-against average (2.02 to 2.19), and shutouts (six to three). He leads the NHL in shutouts, and the only person ahead of him in save percentage and goals-against average is Brian Elliott -- but because Elliott plays in a platoon system for the Blues, he has appeared in 19 fewer games than Bishop and it can not even be said that he is a starter.

Yes, I am a Tampa Bay Lightning fan and have been since Day One. Nevertheless, my reason for saying Bishop should get the Vezina is objective, not subjective.

Norris Trophy  (Best Defenseman)
None of the smart money is forecasting that Erik Karlsson will win the Norris this year, and that makes me happy. Not because I have anything against the 25-year-old Swede, but because I am sick of hearing about him.

Yes, he's a helluva player. Yes, he is one of the better defenesmen on the planet. But so much of his game is based on offense, and so many of the accolades thrown his way are based on offense, that I have an instinctive problem declaring him the best defenseman on the planet. Especially when he is currently at -2. But there are still some folks who think he deserves Norris votes, and that makes me shudder.

Now I will get off my high horse and focus on the matter at hand. And I, like most observers, believe this year's Norris should go to LA's Drew Doughty. At least one observer has criticized this as giving out a lifetime achievement award to a dude who's 26, but in my opinion, that criticism misses the point.

Right now, who is a better all-around defenseman than Doughty? I can't think of one, and my thinking includes the knowledge that a guy named Duncan Keith still plays in the league.

Right now, three defensemen have a better plus/minus for the season than Doughty, but Doughty is only three points back from the leader (+24 versus +27) and, unlike those three, he is an adrenaline-infusing difference-maker when the game is on the line.

Right now, Drew Doughty is the best defenseman alive. He gets the Norris, and his getting it is deserved.

Selke Trophy  (Best Defensive-Minded Forward)
This is often a tough one to figure out. It requires seeing, in their entirety, an abnormally large number of games played by teams who are not your team. In other words, I feel that my opinion on who should get this trophy means less than my opinion on who should get the others.

With that said, my hypothetical vote for the Selke goes to Anze Kopitar, and I am very confident that that vote is going to the most deserving player out there. In this day and age, "Kopitar for Selke" is the default, kind of like "Gretzky for MVP" would have been the default vote in the 1980's, and kind of like "I'll have a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale" is my default choice when I'm not sure which beer I should order. Kopitar is the best defensive-minded forward of his generation; is in his prime at the age of 28; and is, at +31, second in the league at plus/minus for this season. And his team, of which he is an alternate captain, already clinched a playoff spot 11 days ago. I dare ya to pick anyone else!

Calder Trophy  (Rookie of the Year)
Although Carey Price missed too much of the season to warrant legitimate consideration for an award, there is something to be said for the notion that missing some prolonged amount should not automatically disqualify you. Connor McDavid has missed 37 games due to injury, but in the 42 in which he has played, he has averaged more than a point per game, and that certainly seems to justify the "generational talent" hype with which he was selected first in the 2015 draft at the fledgling age of 18.

Still, there is something to be said for sample size and I don't disagree with it. Plus, there are plenty of rookies who have suited up for far more games that McDavid, so it is not unfair that "number of games played" be taken into account.

A big part of me wants to give my hypothetical Calder vote to Chicago's Artemi Panarin. This is partly because he has played superbly across the course of 75 games (25 goals, 39 assists, 14.6 shooting percentage, +2) and partly because some observers hold his 24-year-old age against him. The Makarov Rule was already implemented to guard against the "older rookie problem" and it set the threshold at age 26. If you have a problem with Panarin being 24, then your problem is with the rule, not with him, and the rule is what it is.

Be that as it may, I say that Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere (aka "The Ghost") is the NHL's Rookie of the Year. This is based partly on the "eyeball test," by which I see that he makes a major impact because his team is electrified when he steps on the ice and starts making plays. And it is based partly on his eye-popping production: 42 points (as a defenseman) in 57 games played, five game-winning goals (two of which were in overtime), and +8 with only 20 minutes in penalties.

At one point he notched a point or more in 15 consecutive games -- which is more than any rookie defenseman in NHL history, and more than any Flyer at any position in team history.

Not long ago the Flyers appeared too far back to have any chance of making the playoffs. But now, due largely to Gostisbehere starting rushes and patrolling the point on the power play, they have made an unlikely run to put themselves in playoff contention as the season enters its final eleven days.

Honesty is the best policy, and honesty compels me to admit that I give "The Ghost" tiebreaker points for being the first Florida native to play in the NHL. But I only give him tiebreaker points for that, and I think I have just established that he deserves the trophy outright.

Masterton Trophy  (Perseverance, Sportsmanship, and Dedication to the Game)
In my mind, this is an absolute toss-up between the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello and the Penguins' Pascal Dupuis. So I am going Ben Carson, meaning that I am splitting the conjoined twins by giving my hypothetical Masterton vote to Zuccarello and my hypothetical vote for the next award, the Messier, to Dupuis.

Because Zuccarello lists at only 5'7" and 179 pounds, and even those figures are generous, he already demonstrated plenty of perseverance just by making it to the NHL. Especially when you factor in the fact that he comes from Norway, a country which has never produced anywhere near as much hockey talent as its neighbors Sweden and Finland. But Zuccarello wins this award because of the way he has overcome the ordeals of the last 11 months.

On April 24, 2015, during last season's playoffs, he took a puck to the head that triggered brain bleeding and a stroke. Initially it was marginally unsure if he would survive, and considerably unsure if he would play again. He required speech therapy to speak again.

But with perseverance he recovered enough to host an annual charity event and travel to Africa to see the funds put to work. And with dedication to the game, he returned to the ice and has played every game this season, so far tallying 24 goals and 33 assists, which ties him for most points on the team.

Messier Award  (Leadership Qualities on and off the ice)
It's the "and off the ice" part that drives me to give this prize to Pascal Dupuis and the previous one to Mats Zuccarello. The 36-year-old winger has appeared in only 18 of the Penguins' 76 games this season and has rung up more penalty minutes (12) than points (4).

But just getting back on the ice was a major accomplishment after the tribulations that have rained down upon Dupuis since December 2013. First, his right knee was pulverized with a torn ACL, MCL, and PCL when Sidney Crosby got checked into him by an opponent. Then he had a blood clot that traveled to his lung and led to a pulmonary embolism, which is something that usually gets diagnosed at your autopsy after you suddenly drop dead. Then, he had another blood clot in his lung.

Through it all, Dupuis has remained with the team even as he has been mostly unable to play. He has watched games from the press box and offered feedback to active players. He has attended team meetings. He has assisted with scouting. And now, he has played in 18 games this season while his teeth have grown long. And you can go here and read what it's been like straight from the horse's mouth.

Lady Byng Trophy  (Sportsmanship and Gentlemanly Conduct combined with good play)
Several players deserve this and I don't know who deserves it the most, so I will simply give it to the deserving player I see the most: Tampa Bay's Anton Stralman. Along with fellow Swede Victor Hedman, Stralman anchors the Bolts' top defense pairing and is one of the best, most dependable defensemen in the league. And he is level-headed as hell, never losing his temper, always keeping things in perspective, always acting as a leader in the locker room.

Jack Adams Award  (Coach of the Year)
Actually, technically, this award goes to "the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success." And frankly it's a toss-up between: 1) Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau, who stayed the course without panicking when things looked bleak earlier in the season, and has reaped the harvest of seeing his team climb to within one point of first place in the Pacific Division; and 2) Washington's Barry Trotz, who has guided a previously underachieving squad to the league's best record and gotten even Alexander Ovechkin to buy into playing defense. I give my vote to Boudreau because he has faced and overcome adversity this season, whereas Trotz has yet to be proved in the heat of that crucible.

And, well, that's all. When the playoffs get here, may they be every bit as heart-stopping and entertaining as they usually are. And please, watch them and enjoy them, for hockey is the greatest spectator sport on Earth.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spring Equinox

Here in the Eastern Time Zone, the vernal equinox occurred this morning at half-past midnight -- so here are some thoughts about spring, on its first day:

I love how it is often warm and rarely humid.

I love that bright, shimmering shade of green that new leaves give to old trees.

I love how wildflowers turn ordinary roadsides into vivid profusions of color and life.

I love going swimming with my daughter again.

I love watching my son run through the outdoors (see above!).

I love sitting outside in the afternoon and drinking a margarita beneath a cloudless blue sky.

I love spring training baseball.

And finally, I am riveted by the most intense pursuit in all of sports: the NHL playoffs.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patty's Day

Erika and I will be spending today at Universal Studios kith the kids, allowing Sarah to indulge her Harry Potter jones and Parker to indulge his Minions jones, so we won't be gulping down gallons of beer like the rest of you... although I suspect I'll find a way to grab a Wizard's Brew either in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley... but in any event, with this being St. Patrick's Day, I thought I would go ahead and re-publish what I wrote in 2014: 

As a child growing up in the U.S., you are told that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland (true) and that he drove the snakes out of Ireland (false). You are also told that wearing green is the main point of the holiday that bears his name, with failure to do so resulting in you getting pinched.

As you grow up you see the snakes story for the crock it is, and based on your observations (and eventually on your experiences) you come to believe that the main point of St. Patrick's Day is pounding sipping Guinness before and after stuffing yourself with dining on shepherd's pie.

In many ways, St. Patrick's Day is one oddity of a holiday. It celebrates a genuine Catholic saint, but few of us know anything about him other than the fact that people celebrate him by getting drunk every March 17th... And most of us who celebrate him in the U.S. are not Catholic, instead identifying ourselves as Protestant or even agnostic... And although the holiday is specifically tied to an island with a population smaller than New York City's, it is celebrated around the entire friggin' globe.

Jaded, fortysomething Americans such as myself like to say (while consuming a pint of Murphy's Stout and ordering a round of green Bud Light) that St. Patrick's Day is an American construct gussied up in Irish drag. We like to say that it has no real ties to religion, that it goes unobserved in "the old country," and that it is nothing more than an excuse for our alcoholic countrymen to get falling down drunk and chalk it up as "tradition." But we are wrong -- wrong! -- because the Vatican made it an official holiday way back in the 1600's. Even the gluttony/drunkenness thing has some churchy basis when you consider that on March 17th the Vatican lifts the Lenten restrictions on drinking alcohol and eating.

Perhaps the diaspora of Irish people explains part of St. Patrick's Day's wide appeal, since the sheer size and extent of their dispersal makes the scattering of Jews from the Holy Land seem trifling.

Long ago I remember hearing that there were 4 million people living in Ireland and 44 million Irish people living in the United States... Huge percentages of the populations in Canada's Atlantic provinces, especially Newfoundland and Labrador, are made up of people from Irish stock... An estimated one million people of Irish ancestry reside in Argentina... Ireland accounts for the second largest ancestry group in Australia... etc. etc.

When you consider the outsize influence Ireland's diaspora has had on the world, you really start to appreciate the role Irish genealogy plays in our affairs. We know the Beatles as an English band, but all of them except Ringo trace their ancestry to Ireland, not Liverpool... Oscar Wilde made his mark as London's biggest playwright, but was born in Dublin... John Wayne came from Irish stock and so did Maureen O'Hara, the smoking-hot redhead who often starred alongside him and is still alive and kicking at the age of 93.

In the decisive decade of the Cold War, America's president was Ronald Reagan and Canada's prime minister was Brian Mulroney. Both were Irish by blood, and together they helped hasten the end of the Soviet Union. In the following decade, Irish-by-blood Tony Blair became the most influential British Prime Minister of the post-Thatcher era.

In the sports world, seemingly white-as-can-be boxing champ Jack Dempsey was an American of Irish descent -- and so was seemingly black-as-can-be boxing champ Muhammad Ali, whose great-grandfather was born in County Clare, on Ireland's west coast, before moving to America.

Still, genealogy and diaspora can't completely explain the global reach of St. Patrick's Day. Not when Japan (yes, Japan!) celebrates it not just on March 17th but all month long. Not when Russia's notoriously xenophobic government plays a part in staging an annual St. Patrick's Day parade in Moscow. And not when prickly French Montreal also hosts a parade.

Some things just can't be explained. And it's often better that way.

Update: Maureen O'Hara passed away in her sleep last fall at the age of 95.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

Actually it was twenty years ago this spring, not today, but I can't let such a minor detail stop me from Sergeant Peppering my headline.

I am talking about the first time the Tampa Bay Lightning made it to the NHL playoffs, and since the race to qualify for this year's playoffs is tight -- with the Bolts defending their Eastern Conference crown, aiming to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third time in twelve years and win the Cup for the second time in that span -- I feel driven to welcome the approach of the 2016 playoffs by paying tribute to the scrappy group of guys that generated a major buzz back in 1996.

Some people will claim that in order to understand how special that Lightning team was, you need to be from here. Some might say you need to be from here and be of a certain age. Although I don't believe either claim is necessarily true, I do believe some context is needed, so here it comes.

*     *     *     *     *

When dawn broke on the 1995-96 NHL season, Tampa Bay had for years been one of the biggest laughingstocks among North American sports markets. We were considered losers, and while that label wasn't accurate, it was understandable because the National Football League's Buccaneers were in the middle of their thirteenth straight losing season -- and as if that wasn't bad enough, the twelve immediately preceding years had not been "merely" losing seasons, but double-digit losing seasons.

The Bucs' original owner, Hugh Culverhouse, was a miserly tax cheat tax attorney who never even tried to put a winning product on the field -- and didn't think twice about running Doug Williams out of town in a probably-racist move that arguably ruined Williams's career (although Williams would famously quarterback the Redskins to a Super Bowl victory, that did not occur until after his squabbles with Culverhouse forced him to spend his prime years exiled in the football wilderness by playing in the USFL and then riding the bench in Washington; he only started two games during the Super Bowl season, but received the unexpected nod to start in the playoffs basically because Joe Gibbs, the legendary Redskins coach, had a hunch.)

While our football team had spent most of its existence flopping around like a dying fish on a dock, our efforts to land a Major League Baseball franchise also bore a striking resemblance to a dying fish flopping on a dock. The city of St. Petersburg openly dreamed of attracting MLB starting in the 1970's, and in the 1980's it rolled the dice by building a pricey, lopside-domed stadium on the site of an abandoned gas plant, never mind that MLB had not announced any plans to expand.

After the dome was built, its existence was nakedly exploited by MLB organizations who used it as a means of bribery to get concessions from their own cities. The owners of those teams (in particular the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants) feigned interest in either moving here or selling to new owners who would move them here, and the gambit worked. Tampa Bay was repeatedly spurned at the altar and made to look a fool.

Thankfully, the Lightning arrived on the scene as an NHL expansion team, playing its inaugural game in October 1992 and showing the way to success. The Lightning, affectionately known as the Bolts, demonstrated that success can be attained simply through good old-fashioned grit and determination, regardless of situation. They put the taste of winning back into the mouths of Tampa Bay's put-upon fans, who had not experienced it in years, and from the get-go there was something special between the Bolts and their fans.

*     *     *     *     *

That special something between team and fans had a lot to do with their mutual underdog status.

As soon as this metropolitan area was awarded an NHL franchise, legions of people in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Canada rolled their eyes and thumbed their noses at the idea of a hockey team playing this far south. Edmonton Sun columnist Robert Tychkowski once wrote that those of us from the Bay Area couldn't comprehend hockey because we "wouldn't know snow unless it was shipped in from Colombia." Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star declared that we were too dimwitted to understand the sport and required "Hockey for Dummies edification." The more we proved them wrong, the more unhinged their condescension became.

And, pardon my Francais, but to Hell with them.

The Bolts played their inaugural season on the Florida State Fairgrounds in a building called Expo Hall, which, as you might have guessed, is basically a big auction barn (seating capacity: 10,245). But in their first game, they took on the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Campbell Conference champs, and crushed them 7-3 with journeyman Chris Kontos scoring four goals. (Comparatively speaking, the NFL's Bucs did not win their first game until the next-to-last game of their second season.)

The team competed well throughout that season and went on to improve in each of the next three.

Though Tampa Bay's roster lacked star power in those early years, its lunch pail determination more than made up for it. Every time you went to a game, you had a legitimate feeling that the team could win. The phrase "Kick Ice" showed up on bumper stickers and window decals all over town, and that kind of moxie quickened the pulse and gave Bay Area sports fans a swagger they hadn't had since 1979.

*     *     *     *     *

When the 1995-96 season began, the Lightning had no player who was considered a premier goal-scorer.

But they did have a fast, undersized centerman named Brian Bradley, who had a heart that exceeded his heft and also had a knack for sniffing out open ice and getting the puck in the net.

They had a tenacious winger named Rob Zamuner, who happened to be one of the best defensive-minded forwards in the game.

They had a fear-inducing enforcer named Rudy Poeschek.

And another one named Enrico Ciccone, who will always hold a special place in the hearts of fans even though he only played one full season with the team -- and even though he was traded away late in the 1995-96 campaign and therefore didn't get to suit up for the Bolts in the playoffs.

Plus, they had a young, entering-his-prime defenseman named Roman Hamrlik, who was born in Czechoslovakia and had become their first-ever draft pick back in '92.

They had a pair of smart, diligent, over-30 veterans that signed with them during the off-season: John Cullen, a former All-Star coming off of a productive year in Pittsburgh; and Brian Bellows, who had just finished a three-year stint with Montreal after spending nine seasons as one of the Minnesota North Stars' fan favorites

The Lightning also had "the kids" -- 20-year-old Chris Gratton and 19-year-old Jason Wiemer -- playing center and showing glimpses of big potential. That pair was being hailed as the foundation of a bright future.

But most importantly, the Lightning had a man named Daren Puppa (pronounced poo-pah). A brick wall of a goaltender from Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Puppa was able to win games all by himself even if the the Bolts were outplayed everywhere else on the ice. Whenever he made a fantastic save, the fans yelled "Puuuuuuuuuuuu-ppa!" Hanging from a club-level section of seating behind the west goal line was a sign declaring that section "The Pupp Deck."

Like I already said, the Bolts played their inaugural 1992-93 season in Expo Hall. However, in their second season they moved to the Thunderdome -- that aforementioned, lopside-domed stadium whose reason for being was to attract Major League Baseball (and which is now known as Tropicana Field, home of MLB's Tampa Bay Rays).

1995-96 was the Bolts' third and final season playing inside the Thunderdome's cavernous confines before moving to their permanent, long-awaited arena in downtown Tampa. And like I have also already said, 1995-96 was the first time they made the playoffs.

*     *     *     *     *

That was back in the days when newspapers were almost always read on paper, rarely online. As the regular season's end drew near, the St. Petersburg Times ran a daily cartoon showing a player in a Lightning jersey, holding his thumb up or down depending on whether the Lightning would qualify for the playoffs if the season were to end that day.

Larry Hirsch called Lightning games on the radio and endeared himself to fans with his adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm. The phrase he yelled every time the Bolts scored -- "Yessir! Yessir!" -- became part of the team's identity and could be heard on ESPN commercials which hyped the NHL as a whole.

At the end of pre-game warm-ups, Alexander Selivanov, a young winger from Moscow, had a routine: He would scoop up a loose puck from the end of the ice where he had been shooting, then pivot around and skate to the other end at full speed and snap the puck into the opposite net. He did it before every home game and the crowd roared each and every time. A little more than a year after the season ended, he married Carrie Esposito, daughter of team founder and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, and they went on to have two sons.

Like all hockey seasons -- in fact, all hockey games -- 1995-96 was marked by heart-racing swings of momentum. The Bolts controlled those swings rather than let the swings control them, and they placed themselves in position to qualify for the playoffs as the season entered its final weekend.

Looking back, there were (in my mind) two key points. One was a twelve-game stretch with only one loss between February 15th and March 10th. The other was a 2-1 victory over the hated Florida Panthers on April 10th -- a victory secured when Hamrlik, cracking his stick in the process, blasted a slap shot through the five hole of en fuego goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck.

I was driving southward, on Fourth Street near its intersection with Gandy Boulevard in the city of St. Petersburg, when the news broke over the radio that the Lightning had made the playoffs because the Ottawa Senators had just defeated the New Jersey Devils. No longer did the Lightning have to get either a tie or win the following day -- they were in no matter what, baby!

*     *     *     *     *

The Lightning's opponent in the first round was the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who, thanks to their insufferable boo-bird fans, were reviled by pretty much every North American sports fan not from eastern Pennsylvania or southern Jersey.

The Flyers' #1 seed was more than warranted. Defying logic, their players were both blindingly fast and hulkingly large and their top offensive line -- the so-called "Legion of Doom" comprised of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg -- was arguably the best to lace up skates for any team in the 1990's.

In Game One, Philadelphia's physical superiority seemed even more pronounced than it actually was as they jumped on the Bolts from the beginning and seemed to get every shot to cross the goal line. The Flyers won 7-3 and looked invincible.

But looks do not always equal reality, and the Lightning rose to the occasion in Game Two. Puppa stood strong in net and turned away one assassin shot after another. Selivanov pounced on a third period rebound and snapped it past Philly netminder Ron Hextall to tie the game 1-1. Then, midway through the first overtime, Gratton started a breakaway that ended with Brian Bellows rifling a shot past Hextall to give the Bolts their first-ever post-season victory.

Next came Game Three, when the series shifted to the Thunderdome and the Bolts got to play their first post-season game on home ice. It took place on April 21, 1996, a Sunday afternoon, and the building was crammed to the rafters with what was then the largest crowd ever to attend an NHL playoff game (today it ranks as the second-largest).

In what would later prove to be an ominous sign, Puppa suffered back spasms (a recurring problem throughout his career) that rendered him unable to play, so backup goalie Jeff Reese replaced him in net. Everyone who was a Lightning fan at the time remembers how well Reese played, keeping Philadelphia's snipers enough at bay that his team had a chance to win.

With the Flyers leading 3-1 in the second period and on a power play, Rob Zamuner notched a steal-and-score short-handed goal (which you can see here at the 2:55 mark) to pull the Bolts within 3-2. Later that period, he tied it up with a goal you can see at the 3:30 mark of the same link.

Philadelphia did manage to regain the lead, but not for good. Late in the third period, Bellows tied the game by honing in on a bouncing puck and chopping it into the net. Because of that goal (which is viewable just after the prior link's 4:50 mark) the game went to overtime tied at four.

Then, a mere 2:03 into the extra stanza, Selivanov etched himself an eternal place in Lightning history by anchoring himself just outside the crease, allowing a blocked Brian Bradley shot to land in front, and jamming the puck past Hextall to win the game 5-4. You can see it just after the link's 5:55 mark. The crowd's cheer -- which is not done justice by the audio -- sounded like it would blow the roof off the dome.

The Lightning were in the catbird seat against the favorites, and spirits soared throughout the region.

*     *     *     *     *

In the end, however, fate was not on the Lightning's side.

They played hard against the Flyers for the remainder of the series but struggled to get anything to go behind Hextall -- a bad sign when your own starting goalie, who is also your best player, has been replaced by a backup in your own net. Philly won Game Four here and Game Five there, by identical scores of 4-1, to take a 3-2 series lead.

When things shifted back here for Game Six, a still-hurting Daren Puppa returned to the net in a high character effort to overcome his ailment and rally his team; but unfortunately, it was not in the stars for him to become Tampa Bay's Willis Reed.

As I watched from high above the ice, in the general admission area of the Thunderdome's third deck, the Flyers simply outmanned the Bolts that night and ended the series at 4-2. My brother sat to my right. To my left were a bunch of twentysomethings from Timmins, Ontario, who were on hand to experience their dream of seeing an NHL playoff game in person -- a dream made possible because one of their friends had relocated here and was able to secure tickets. Such was the nature of things back then, in this new-to-the-NHL area where we loved hockey and sought to expand its roots without upheaving them.

There was a sense of disappointment because the Lightning had shown they were good enough to beat those Philly bastards -- only to lose control and drop the series by getting outscored across the last three games.

Nevertheless, the final feeling of that series was one of excitement and optimism. We Lightning fans had always known our team was for real and always known we were a formidable fan base. Now, after the way our team had spooked the Flyers and their obnoxious fandom, nobody could question Tampa Bay's legitimacy.

*     *     *     *     *

Sadly, the team's immediate future proved not to be as bright as it appeared during those heady days.

By bringing in future Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli, the franchise demonstrated its commitment to improving and to making an impact on the league. But Puppa was still ailing when the next season opened, and wound up missing 76 of its 82 games, and as it turned out, he never did fully recover. Despite being one of the world's most talented netminders and despite being in his prime when those back spasms sent him to the sidelines during the '96 playoffs, Puppa never made it through another complete season. Though he remained on the roster for four more years, he missed more than 84 percent of the games across that span before deciding to retire.

A year after reaching that '96 post-season, the Bolts were in the thick of the chase to qualify for the 1997 playoffs and John Cullen was their leading points-scorer. But Cullen started battling flu-like symptoms that he couldn't shake, and being a competitor, he hid them from the trainers. His wife, Valerie, decided to go over his head by telling the team about it -- a decision which led to x-rays, which, in turn, revealed that he had a grapefruit-sized tumor in his chest. The tumor proved to be cancerous and he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Cullen began chemotherapy that was debilitating, and, obviously, missed the remainder of the season. While undergoing treatment, he underwent cardiac arrest and his heart stopped and he briefly died on a hospital gurney. Blessedly, he was revived and ultimately defeated the disease.

After missing the entire 1997-98 season, he returned for the 1998-99 campaign and received a standing ovation when he stepped back on the ice for the first time. However, he chose to retire in November after it became obvious he could not regain his prior form.

Then there is the case of Alexander Selivanov, who, like I mentioned earlier, scored the winner in that epic Game Three and went on to marry Carrie Esposito. On the one hand, it can be said that their case shows nepotism has no place in the NHL's meritocracy, since Alexander's status as the founder's son-in-law did not prevent him from being traded to Edmonton in 1999, after his production declined. On the other hand, their case shows that "none of that shit matters" when you think about the denouement that was to come.

Four Januarys ago, Alexander had been out of the NHL for more than a decade but was still receiving a paycheck to play the game. Specifically, he was playing for a team in the Netherlands while Carrie and their sons were living in Germany. A couple weeks before the end of January 2012, she coughed up blood but did not seek medical attention, and then, on January 30th, she collapsed in their home and died of an abdominal aneurysm.

In the bat of an eye, Alexander Selivanov became a widower at the age of 40, and Nikko and Rocco Selivanov were rendered motherless at the ages of 13 and 9. Carrie's oldest son (Dylan, from a previous marriage) was 19 when her sudden death left him without his mom.

Roman Hamrlik went on to have a remarkably long, 20-season career in the league. But despite his status as history's first Bolt, more than 14 of those seasons were played elsewhere because he was traded to the Oilers midway through the 1997-98 campaign. And as far as production in the offensive zone is concerned, he never came close to matching the 65 points he tallied during that magical 1995-96 operation.

Although Chris Gratton and Jason Wiemer would have decent NHL careers, they fell far short of the stardom so many were predicting for them. In hindsight, those predictions were not warranted from the outset and did nothing but saddle young players with unrealistic expectations.

So, while 1995-96 was a helluva ride by a core group of guys who were easy to like, it turned out to be the highest hill that group would ever climb.

*     *     *     *     *

For the fictional slave Pseudolus, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

For that first Lightning squad to reach the post-season, Life happened on the way to the world which lay beyond 1996.

Life, with all its vagaries and randomness, knocked that team off its tracks; but in many ways, that fact makes the team's story more inspirational, not less.

John Cullen remains cancer-free. Now 51, he manages his brother's car dealership in Jonesboro, Georgia. This continues a family tradition, since Cullen's father and uncles were car dealers in Canada when he was growing up. He and Valerie are still married and have three daughters: Kennedy, Karlyn, and Kortland (the latter two are twins).

Alexander Selivanov splits his time between here and Russia and Phil Esposito gets to see his grandkids. But Russia consumes most of Selivanov's time because he is one of the coaches of Admiral Vladivostok -- a Kontinental Hockey Legue team based so far in Russia's eastern realms that its arena is near the Korean Peninsula.

Daren Puppa continues to reside in the Tampa Bay Area even though his playing days are years behind him. So too does Brian Bradley.

After finishing his playing career, Jeff Reese served for years as the Lightning's goaltending coach. In that capacity, he got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup when the Bolts won it all in 2004.

Mikael Andersson, the fastest player from that first playoff squad, now works for the Lightning as a scout.

Petr Klima, who was arguably that team's most skilled skater and shooter, now owns several developmental teams for youths in Michigan.

Head Coach Terry Crisp has long since left the coaching world behind. Today he is 72 and works as a TV and radio broadcaster for the Nashville Predators, but he's happy to talk about the years he once spent turning the Tampa Bay Lightning into a winner literally from scratch.

Yes, in the two decades that have passed since that first playoff appearance, the Bolts have fielded teams that achieved much more on the ice. But where Lightning lore is concerned, no squad is more special than that overachieving gang that briefly touched the sun in the spring of 1996.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sports et ceteras

Enough about politics. At least for a little bit. It's time to focus on something I look forward to with more optimism and less tredipation than I feel when thinking about the presidential race.

I am talking, of course, about the World Cup of Hockey, which will begin 195 days from now in Toronto. The participating teams announced their preliminary rosters last week, meaning they each announced 16 players (of a total 23) and now have have until June 1st to fill the remaining slots.

This year's World Cup is structured a little differently than the previous two, which took place in 1996 and 2004 and featured eight national teams. Though there will still be eight teams, only six of them will represent specific nations: Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States, and the Czech Republic. The other two squads are Team Europe (consisting of players from European countries who weren't invited to send their national teams) and Team North America (consisting of Canadian and American players who are 23 or younger).

I do have one problem: Why didn't Slovakia get to send its own team? It is one of hockey's powerhouse countries and its players include such present and past luminaries as Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Peter Bondra, and Ziggy Palffy. It seems wrong for it to not be represented under its own flag, because it's conceivable that a Team Slovakia would have just as big a chance to win this tourney as all the other national teams (actually, make that just as big a chance as all the other non-Canadian national teams, since there's no question that our northern neighbor is the biggest fish in the hockey pond).

But moving on from that complaint, I applaud the Team Europe concept, which is long overdue because it allows outstanding players from the non-powerhouse countries to participate. Players like the LA Kings' Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) and Boston Bruins' Dennis Seidenberg (Germany) and Minnesota Wild's Thomas Vanek (Austria). We are talking about high-profile, impactful, NHL'ers, not muckers and B-leaguers.

And finally, the idea of fielding a joint Canada-US squad consisting solely of youngsters strikes me as the most intriguing of the whole tourney, even if it is responsible for the exclusion of a Team Slovakia. Team North America's age limit does not prevent it from fielding big-name stars, as evidenced by the fact that its roster includes Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid, and Jack Eichel. Plus, a "youngster squad" should have speed and stamina advantages and it will be fun to see how it tries to exploit them.

When it comes to sportswriters, Hubert Mizell was a titan not just in the Tampa Bay Area, but in America as a whole. We lost a good one when he passed away last Thursday.

Maybe it's a sign of my own not-retreating age that I was surprised to learn Mizell was "only" 76 when he passed. Remembering his byline photo that appeared in the 1980's next to his column in the St. Petersburg Times (recently renamed the Tampa Bay Times), I find it hard to believe that the face belonged to a man who was roughly the same age I am today. But rather than get caught up thinking about how time flies, I choose to think about the fact that Hubert Mizell's time on Earth was lived to the fullest.

Born in Dublin, GA and raised in Jacksonville, FL, he exhibited the warm manners and slow-but-eloquent speech that are the best the South has to offer. And those qualities were evident in his writing.

Mizell's first job was as a paper boy for the Florida Times-Union, and he became so attached to newspapers that he dropped out of college to take a job at the Orlando Sentinel. He moved out of state to work briefly for the AP and Golf Digest, but returned to his beloved Florida and joined the Times in 1973.

Thereafter, Mizell became a Bay Area fixture who was known nationally. Though he made his mark by observing, chronicling, and helping precipitate Tampa Bay's evolution as a sports market -- from one whose biggest draw was the University of Tampa's Division II football program to one with professional teams that have won a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, and American League pennant -- his impact on the national scene was so large that Bob Costas emceed his retirement party.

Mizell's reputation for integrity was such that he was one of only a few writers Bobby Knight agreed to be interviewed by after his final game as Indiana's head coach. Upon hearing of Mizell's passing, Knight reflected that "Hubert was one of the very, very best would be hard to find anyone who was more knowledgeable or more accurate in his never had to be careful about talking to Hubert."

In the 1990's he hosted a radio show on Tampa's 820 AM. One of the co-hosts who served as his sidekick was a yappy young pup named Colin Cowherd -- who, as you probably know, went on to become a national personality first on ESPN and now on Fox Sports.

During Mizell's career he covered 42 bowl games, 33 Masters, ten Olympics, eight Wimbledons, and countless other major events. He was in the Lake Placid Field House for the Miracle on Ice in 1980; and was in Candlestick Park for Game Three of the World Series when the infamous 1989 earthquake struck San Francisco.

Of all the Hubert Mizell prose I read over the years, my favorite was this passage he wrote when recollecting the Miracle On Ice: "The media actually had a section in the stands where we sat. We're all schooled to be neutral observers. But David Israel, who was then a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and later a Hollywood writer and producer, stood up in his seat, put his back to the rink, faced us all in press row and said, 'Gentlemen, there will be cheering in the press box.' And there was."

Although it has been years since Mizell's musings appeared in the Times, it is sad to see him leave for good.

As in Manning. Since this post is entitled "Sports et ceteras," I feel compelled to mention his retirement, but I don't really have anything to say about it.

I have often criticized the media's overly sappy coverage of Peyton Manning. I was one of those who relished giving him a backhanded compliment by calling him "the greatest regular season quarterback of all time." However, I can honestly say that I relished it not because I disliked him, but because I disliked seeing the media fawn over him like they had just swallowed a fifth of Amortentia.

Apparently I got over it, because I found myself smiling when Denver won the Super Bowl last month. I was happy to see Manning earn a second ring to legitimize his reputation -- which means I was happy to see him shut up armchair critics such as myself.

But now I'm ready to see my fellow Auburn graduate Cam Newton win a couple rings of his own. Ditto for Jameis Winston, because he plays for the right NFL team even though he went to the wrong school.

Such is the nature of caring about sports. And that's all I have to say.