Thursday, April 28, 2016

One Round In

I already opined about my Bolts when they advanced by ousting the Red Wings. Now that the rest of the first round series have ended, here are some of my overall brain droppings -- so far -- about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Half wrong
That might not prove to be the correct phrase, but my post from 12 days ago predicted that this year's champ "will be either LA or St. Louis" -- and LA got eliminated six days ago.

LA's quick departure at the hands of their prior whipping boys, the San Jose Sharks, was especially shocking. The Sharks are very good but have a reputation for post-season flops -- particularly against their downstate rivals, since the last two times the Sharks made the playoffs, in 2013 and 2014, it was the LA Kings who eliminated them. The 2014 elimination was historically notorious, as they charged to a 3-0 series lead only to see the Kings roar back and win four in a row, sending them home with their tails tucked between their fins, after which the Kings rolled on to win the Cup for the second time in three years.

With the Kings re-energized and playing powerfully this season, and Vinny Lecavlier enjoying a renaissance after arriving in a mid-season trade, it appeared they were set to make a deep run that could potentially end with them hoisting the Cup for the third time. However, it was not to be.

Dionne Warwick
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Now that the Sharks have bared their teeth and exorcised their ghosts of playoffs past by hip-checking LA out of the race, it's worth wondering if they've figured out what it takes to be a champ.

It's also worth wondering if the Kings' tenure as an elite contender has run its course. After winning two titles and ten of eleven playoff series from 2012 to 2014, their last two campaigns have finished with them missing the playoffs in 2015 and getting bounced in one round in 2016. Plus, Jonathan Quick's performance has dropped off precipitously, which brings me to my next segment.

In decline?
Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are still good goalies, and each of them might have enough gas in his tank to backstop a team to a title. But after this season, it's clear they are no longer among the top half-dozen (or maybe even top dozen) goalies in the game. And with Lundvist now 34 and Quick having turned 30 a few months ago, it's reasonable to ask if we will ever again see them dazzle like they did in the very recent past.

During the Kings' first Cup run in 2012, Quick earned the Conn Smythe with an otherworldly post-season that included a .946 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average. In 2013 his post-season numbers dipped, but almost imperceptibly, as he remained superb at .934 and 1.86 and equaled his previous year's mark of three playoff shutouts. In 2014 the dip was more pronounced, to .911 and 2.58, but those numbers were still good enough to win the Cup and Quick turned in a bevy of clutch, highlight reel saves along the way... But now, after LA missed the playoffs in 2015, his 2016 post-season ended with positively pedestrian numbers of .886 and 3.04, which places him behind 15 other goalies who logged ice time in the first round.

Meanwhile, back East, Henrik "The King" Lundqvist was horrible throughout the week and a half his NY Rangers participated in these playoffs, surrendering 4.39 goals per game with a putrid .867 save percentage. He was pulled from three of the five games in the series, and that was after being yanked on eleven different occasions during the regular season... Sure, his team was thin on the blue line and his teammates gave him no goal support against Pittsburgh, but even if they had, the Rangers still wouldn't have had a chance. And most tellingly, Lundqvist lost his cool several times, which is not a good look for a man reputed to be the most unflappable player in the league.

Every playoff round is marked by a number of sudden conclusions. Not only do teams' seasons come to an end, but so do some players' careers. This year, Round One brought the curtain down on the NHL careers of two of the finest hockey players of the last 15 years: Pavel Datsyuk and the afore-mentioned Vincent Lecavelier.

The Lightning drafted Lecavelier with the first overall pick in 1998, and he went on to become one of the most revered figures in Tampa Bay sports history. During his 15-year tenure with the team, he served as its captain and played a key role in it winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, and in it coming within one goal of returning to the finals in 2011. He was the first player in team history to score 50 goals in a season, with his 52 in 2006-07 topping the entire NHL and earning him the Rocket Richard Trophy. In addition, Lecavalier was MVP of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, which was won by his Team Canada.

Unfortunately he became a salary cap casualty in 2013, as the Lightning opted to buy out his contract. He spent most of the next three years being misutilized and often scratched by the Flyers, until that mid-season trade to LA led to a revival of sorts, with him becoming a major contributor on the Kings' special teams and chipping in 17 points.

Forever the good soldier and company man, Vinny Lecavelier always worked his butt off, always played productively, and never complained. A married father of three, he has routinely spent personal time visiting with critically ill children at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, where he donated millions of his own dollars to create a facility for the treatment of pediatric cancer and blood disorders. Lecavelier is exactly what a superstar athlete cum role model is supposed to be... and the same can be said of Pavel Datsyuk, the 37-year-old centerman from central Russia who has played for the Detroit Red Wings since 2002, never once wearing the jersey of any other NHL organization.

Much like Igor Larionov, another Russian centerman who preceded him in starring for Detroit, Datsyuk's cerebral play was a perfect meeting of brains and skill. Although his points totals never jumped off the page at you, he made special things happen whenever he was on the ice, earning him the nickname "Magic Man," and was universally recognized as one of the world's most elite hockey players. He finishes his NHL days with 918 points in 953 regular season games, plus 113 in 157 playoff games.

Balance and all-around proficiency were Datsyuk's hallmarks. As if to prove that point, he won the Selke Trophy (for the forward who demonstrates the most skill at the defensive aspects of the game) three straight times from 2008 to 2010. The 2007-08 season ended with him leading the Wings to the Stanley Cup and leading the league with 144 takeaways -- compared to 86 for Mike Modano, who finished second in that stat.

On top of all that, Datsyuk won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (for good sportsmanship) four straight times and has doggedly battled back from injuries in recent years.

Like Vinmy Lecavelier, Pavel Datsyuk is a man who sacrifices for the game but has his head screwed on straight and his priorities in order. His recent (apparent) decision to return to Russia, and thus forego the $7.5 million he would make by remaining in Detroit and playing out the final season of his contract, is based on family matters.

There is still a chance that one of them (especially Datsyuk) will change his mind, but that doesn't seem likely and it is sad to see them skate into the sunset. If only there were more professional athletes like them.

Wild indeed
The best game (or maybe I should say best period?) of Round One was Sunday afternoon's decisive Game Six between the top-seeded Dallas Stars and eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild.

Trying to force a Game Seven, and playing their first home game since hometown hero Prince passed away, the Wild paid tribute to him with a purple-saturated light and laser show prior to faceoff. Then they went out and got thoroughly dominated for the first two periods... Limping into the locker room for the second intermission, they trailed 4-0. But when they returned to the ice for the third period, they mounted a furious, adrenaline-fueled rally that had the crowd inside Xcel Energy Center rocking like Hendrix was in the house

3:48 into that final stanza, with the Wild on a power play, Jared Spurgeon pulled them within 4-1 when he found the puck amidst a goalmouth scrum and poked it in... Then, a mere 16 seconds after the ensuing faceoff, it became 4-2 as Minnesota broke into the Dallas zone and Jonas Brudin converted a perfect cross-ice feed from down low by Erik Haula... And 4:35 after that, with Minnesota on another power play, Spurgeon struck again when he took a cross-ice pass from Mikko Koivu and rifled it into a quite open net.

Just like that, with more than half the third yet to be played, the Wild had closed the gap from 4-0 to 4-3. The crowd's decibels spiked. Some 17,000 Minneapolis-St. Paul versions of the terrible towel were whipping in circles from the fists of upraised arms. You sensed that a historic, perhaps series-changing comeback victory was in the making.

Until the 10:28 mark. That's when a fluky bounce resulted in the puck being behind the Wild's goal line and the Stars being on the receiving end of the hockey gods' beneficence. Although Dallas's Alex Goligoski was credited with the goal that made it 5-3 Dallas, it was really scored by a tag team of Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk and Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle.

After losing sight of Goligoski's shot (which did not go in), Dubnyk skatterhopped in the crease while looking for the puck and decided to go down on his right leg... meanwhile, Coyle, who did see the puck, came swooping in from the left circle to clear it... but Coyle got there just as Dubnyk's foreleg touched the ice, with the puck resting on the net side of his pad rather than the open ice side... and with Coyle's and Dubnyk's converged momentum moving in the direction of the net, their sliding bodies pushed the puck backwards and across the goal line to make it 5-3 Dallas.

That sounds like a deflating moment, but the Wild had come too far back to let their surge die because of something fluky, so they kept attacking; and with 4:47 left, Jason Pominville scored off assists from Spurgeon and Nino Niederreiter to pull within 5-4. That amounts to four goals scored by one team in 11 minutes and 25 seconds, with yet another goal scored by their opponent during the same span.

When Pominville's shot went in, the crowd erupted and you could feel the momentum shift massively, as if the ice surface became tilted into Minnesota's offensive zone. You could just sense that the Wild were gonna tie it and force overtime; and as the final minutes played out, that sense never went away because they kept creating good chances and taking good shots.

The gut punch came with just 34 seconds remaining. That is when Niederreiter smacked a puck to the net and -- depending on your rooting interest -- it either crossed the goal line before it was stopped by the right pad of Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen, or Lehtonen's pad stopped its momentum just in time to keep it out.

Remember that in hockey, the entire puck has to be behind the line for it to be a goal. Unlike football, in which it counts as a touchdown so long as any molecule of the ball "breaks the plane" of the front of the goal line. With that in mind, I think it's clear this was not a goal, though the margin of difference was tiny and I get why that rankles some people.


So close, and yet so far. But such is the story of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the 34 seconds between that agonizingly close call, the Wild kept applying pressure, but it was all for naught.

Thrill of victory, agony of defeat. Game of inches. Thin line between victory and defeat. Never stop giving it your all... Apply every sports cliche you can think of and it will fit that Game Six. Gotta love it.

Looking forward
Regarding the series that will take place in Round Two:

Lightning-Islanders: My first thought was "should be a barnburner, good chance it'll go seven." Then the Lightning laid an out of sync stinker last night in Game One. I wasn't surprised they lost because I expected them to be rusty after their long layoff, but that performance was inexcusable. They should bounce back and will definitely do better, but they need to bounce back fast and do a lot better if they think they can make it to the conference finals for the third time in six years.

Penguins-Capitals: Actually, that's all you gotta say. "Penguins-Capitals," or "Pens-Caps" if that's your style. These franchises have playoff history against each other and are superbly matched.... The Pens have a slight edge when it comes to skaters, but what does that really mean when the Caps bring the likes of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov?... The Caps have a significant edge in goal since they are starting Braden Holtby while the Pens, thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery's lingering concussion issues, are starting 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray... But then again, Patrick Roy was a 20-year-old rookie when he backstopped Montreal to the title in '86.

Blues-Stars:  Are the Stars really worthy of the #1 seed when they have so many question marks in net? Are the Blues really ready to make a difference in the post-season now that they've gotten past the first round? Will Ken Hitchcock's refusal/hesitance to play Vladimir Tarasenko more than 20-21 minutes come back to bite the Blues in the derriere?

Sharks-Predators:  One of these teams will be going at least as far as the Western Conference Final. Which is good, because up until now they have both been saddled with the reputation of playing very good in the regular season then underperforming in the post-season. Now, will Pekka Rinne finally get some playoff credentials to match his multiple appearances as a Vezina finalist, or will it be Joe Thornton who finally turns in a post-season that's worthy of his skills? I hope they both do well individually, but I am predicting the Sharks will take this series and have even odds of winning the WCF.

Bring on the race, chase, fire, and struggle. If you don't enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you suck.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

et ceteras

Before I "get political," a few thoughts about the icon whose death shook the music world on Thursday:

Prince was one of the very few artists who never released a bad or even mediocre song. They were all either good or great, every last one of 'em. (Even the Beatles, titanic as they were, recorded more than a few tunes that were pure crap, but not so when it came to Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson.)

When songs offer any physical description of the women they're about, we usually find that music stars are fantasizing about stereotypical versions of sex bombs. Prince, however, sang about falling at first sight for a girl wearing the kind of beret "you find in a second hand store." That's "keeping it real" (and so is that song's very next line, in which he indulges his imagination by speculating that "if it was warm she wouldn't wear much more").

Speaking of "keeping it real," it counts for a lot that Prince never left Minneapolis. Other stars flock to LA or NY or Miami and wall themselves off from the general population. But he remained in the icy city whence he came, and he was embraced by its citizens as its favorite native son. He pedaled his bike around town, shopped at independent record stores, and freely interacted with the public. He hosted parties on his property for a $10 cover charge and performed during them; the last such party was held five days before he died.

And the imagery in Prince's lyrics was outstanding. "Dream if you will a courtyard / An ocean of violets in bloom." That has always been one of my favorites, and have you ever noticed the cross-reference it contains? He was always associated with the color purple, and that lyric is of course from "When Doves Cry," the lead single from his album Purple Rain -- and by mentioning "an ocean of violets," it plants his favorite color in your brain without ever saying the word "purple."

Plus, he was not "merely" a songwriter and singer, for he also played multiple instruments. His final concert, one week before he died, consisted of just him and a piano. RIP...

Tubman on the Twenty
Those who criticize the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill need to be slapped down with facts. Maybe there was some politically correct calculation involved in the decision, but in this case, so what? She belongs there much more than Andrew Jackson, whose visage is being replaced by hers.

Most Americans' knowledge of Harriet Tubman is limited to "she was part of 'the Underground Railroad' that helped fleeing slaves make it to the North." That alone makes her an important figure in our history, but she did so much more than "just" that during the 91 years she walked the earth.

During the Civil War she was an actual member of the U.S. Army, serving as a scout, spy, and nurse. But she did not serve "only" in those three capacities, for she also became the first woman in our history to lead a military raid. That raid was against Combahee Ferry in South Carolina and was a success, ultimately resulting in more than 700 slaves being freed.

She did all that despite being afflicted by seizures and debilitating headaches -- lifelong afflictions that resulted from a slave master beating her on the head with a metal weight when she was in her teens. In the 1890's, when she was in her seventies, she underwent cranial surgery and declined anesthesia, choosing instead to undergo the procedure while biting down on a bullet to alleviate the pain, because that is what she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.

Harriet Tubman was born in 1822. The Civil War ended in 1865, and slavery along with it. Yet she was still an active force in American life after the 1900's rolled around, when she became heavily involved with the AME Zion Church in Auburn, NY; in 1903 she donated land she owned to the church, with the instructions that it use the land to create a home for "aged and indigent colored people."

And that was after she made a strong mark on the women's suffrage movement by working with Susan B. Anthony in efforts to earn women the right to vote. When the National Association of Afro-American Women was founded in 1896, Tubman, 74 at the time, gave the keynote speech at its first meeting. Because she was "cash poor" from having donated so much of her hard-earned money to others and to causes, she had to sell a cow to buy a train ticket to the meeting.

The United States was founded on the idea that the government is secondary to the people, that the people control the government, and that the government play little to no role in how we choose to live our lives -- which makes it odd that, until now, every person to appear on our currency has been a politician. America is about "ordinary citizens" and Harriet Tubman will now become the first to appear on our currency. I dare you to find another ordinary citizen who is more qualified.

And what about the person she is replacing on the twenty? Andrew Jackson did some good things, but also some bad, and was one of the most polarizing presidents in our history. He strengthened our military and expanded the nation, but in so doing, he unnecessarily authored the Trail of Tears, which to this day is one of the most shameful chapters in our history. He was the first crony capitalist to occupy the Oval Office and corrupt the free market by boosting federal power and treating the federal government like a patronage machine. In an interesting twist for a man whose face appears on paper money, Jackson was opposed to paper money.

And for those of you so-called Republicans who believe Donald Trump is right to criticize Harriet Tubman's appearing on our currency, and who still hold the mistaken belief that Trump is a conservative who stands up for the people against the powerful, let me take this opportunity to remind you that Andrew Jackson was a slave-owning Democrat whereas Harriet Tubman was a freedom-advancing Republican.

Weep not for Old Hickory. He will still be on the back of the bill, and Harriet Tubman was a thousand times more American than him. Which brings me to...

Trump in the Arena
Donald Trump won big (yuge?) in New York's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday -- just like everyone always expected him to. The prognosticating bean counters were so certain of such an outcome in NY that their omnipresent (and increasingly confident) speculations that Trump can't get to the magic number have all been based on him winning big in NY, and perhaps even taking all 95 of its delegates. As it turned out, he took 90 of the 95.

Which makes it amusing to see that some people are actually calling on Ted Cruz to drop out because Trump won NY. Prevailing in a single state after losing five in a row hardly counts as momentum in my book, especially when that win has been baked into the delegate math all along.

The Trumpkin blowhards, spurred on by their pied piper himself, would have you believe he can win NY in November. But they are full of crap, and, unlike their pied piper, they don't even realize they're full of crap. On Tuesday, Trump received fewer votes in NY that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- despite him being a native son who has proudly lived there his entire life, unlike Clinton (who carpetbagged into the state late in life by way of Arkansas and D.C.) and unlike Sanders (who skipped out years ago in favor of Vermont).

Yes, Trump is in the arena, sparring for the GOP nomination. But what happened for him on Tuesday was less than what happens when a boxer receives a ninth-round checkmark on some judge's scorecard; which is to say, it did not improve Trump's chances of winning the twelve-round bout... So when his high-profile tire-pumpers claim that Cruz should throw in the towel, it makes Team Trump look desperate, fearful, and unfit to lead. Because it, including its leader, is desperate, fearful, and unfit to lead.

Friday, April 22, 2016

First One Won & Done

My last two very late nights -- or maybe I should say my last two very early mornings -- have been spent writing a post about my thoughts concerning the Trump terror phenomenon (it's bad) and Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the twenty (it's good). Right now I should probably be finishing it.

But I just got done watching my Tampa Bay Lightning chuck aside the Detroit Red Wings and become the first NHL team to advance past the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. So I am going to write about them instead, even though I won't finish writing this tonight (at least not to my anal retentive standards for hitting the "publish" button).

In any event, while typing away I am going to be listening to some "Little Red Corvette" and "Raspberry Beret." And, of course, "When Doves Cry." How dare Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, die an untimely death this morning? I remember girls singing "Purple Rain" outside the walls of the late, great Riviera Middle School in '84 and '85, and I remember half the bus on the way to our eighth grade field trip to Disney World doing the same. The flesh-and-blood that created a big chunk of the soundtrack of my youth just got ripped away from the world, and I am not ok with that.

But before I get sidetracked, let me get back to hockey...

I've already written why Lightning goalie Ben Bishop deserves the Vezina. Tonight he proved it even more.

One of the things needed for a team to win the Stanley Cup is for its goalie to steal a game or two that it really shouldn't win. Until tonight the Bolts hadn't gotten that this post-season, but now they have.

The Wings dominated each of the first two periods but especially the second, when they notched six breakaways by my count, yet Bishop stopped 'em all. At the end of two, Detroit had 16 scoring chances to the Lightning's six, yet the score was tied at zero all because of Bishop. Not only did he turn shots away, he also played the puck like a forward, situationally stickhandling it away from the net and passing to teammates to keep it away from the Wings.

One round into the playoffs, he has a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage... This is only his second trip to the post-season, yet for his career he already has four post-season shutouts and three of them have been series-enders... He has given up two or fewer goals in 10 of his last 11 post-season games... Money. That's what he is.

Nikita Kucherov did not score last night (I told you I wouldn't finish this the same night I started) but so what?

In the five games the Bolts have played these playoffs, he's tallied eight points and had two multi-goal games. Even though his career is still nascent (he's 22 and this is only his third season) he has rung up 31 points (16, 15) in 33 playoff games. And let's not forget that his first NHL goal came on his first shot, in his first shift, against none other than Henrik Lundqvist.

Kucherov has one of the quickest releases I've ever seen. Hell, Phil Esposito says it's one of the quickest he has ever seen. Four of his five goals in Round One came from the right circle on lasers that moved so fast they looked rapid even in slow motion. Being a lefty with a shot like that makes the right circle Kucherov's province, and he was so dominant from there against Detroit that from now on I might stop calling it the right circle and instead call it "The Kucherov."

It's impossible to opine about the Detroit series without opining about the stellar job Jonathan Drouin has done in redeeming himself after the debacle which was the last half of his regular season.

In case you don't know, that debacle involved him demanding to be traded despite his youth and relative lack of production, then being demoted to Syracuse, then failing to report to Syracuse, then being suspended indefinitely until he finally ate crow and reported after a phone call to GM Steve Yzerman.

I'm trying to keep this post from becoming too long, so I will limit my Drouin comments to two things:

First, as impressive as his four-assist production has been -- and three of those four assists were highlight-reel creme de la creme set-ups -- I am most impressed by the way he is hitting people and showing the kind of piss and vinegar that is required for playoff success. He has made mistakes, including a few bad turnovers, but he is also proving he is more than willing to work hard and that he is worthy of people believing he can be a cornerstone.

Second, because the Lightning's skaters were so awful in Game Five, I have to point out that Drouin was not. He was one of only two skaters (the other being fourth-liner Valdislav Namestnikov) who showed jump and oomph throughout the whole game. (Apparently there was some flu going around the locker room that affected several players last night, but still...)

Signs they can go deep
For starters, see the above. Bishop is an elite goaltender and Kucherov is an elite sniper.

Also, Tyler Johnson again proved he is clutch and that his eye-popping performance in last year's playoffs was no fluke. He did that by scoring two third period goals to win Game Two.

The Bolts as a whole, and especially Ryan Callahan, are willing to sacrifice their bodies by blocking shots before they get to Bishop.

Valtteri Filppula is superb at the little things that make all the difference without ever appearing on the stat sheet.

The Bolts' penalty kill is to penalty killing what Prince was to music.

Their deep run last year gave them all the playoff experience they need.

Jon Cooper is one of the best coaches walking Planet Earth. There is literally nobody else I would rather have coaching my team.

Signs they can't go deep
Although they put the Wings away in five, which is good, the Bolts were outplayed in two of the five games.

Their defensive depth is shaky. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are one of the best top-pairing defense combos in the game, but Stralman remains sidelined by the fractured fibula he suffered three weeks ago; and when you get below them on the depth chart, Jason Garrison is the only D'man whose defensive acumen strikes genuine fear in the hearts of opponents.

Ten of their twelve goals against Detroit were scored by guys who play on their top playoff line. You definitely can't win the Cup (and probably can't make a deep run) if you don't get points "down-roster" from lower lines. Stars often cancel each other out, causing a situation in which the unsung guys are the ones who make the difference in a series; and so far, where points are concerned, the Lightning's unsung guys have not shown any reason to remove them from the ranks of the unsung (and the same is true even for their second line).

As good as it felt to eliminate the Wings for the second year in a row, there is a very legit question concerning how big an accomplishment that is. The Wings' roster is talented but aging, and they have now failed to get past the first round in four of the last five seasons.

And, finally, the Bolts are frustratingly inconsistent.

...I am temporarily satisfied.

Advancing in the playoffs is always good and I am going to enjoy this until the next round starts. Go Bolts!

Monday, April 18, 2016

241 years ago today

The hours from tonight through tomorrow morning mark the 241st anniversary of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” and the battles that ensued. It is one of the most significant anniversaries in American history -- perhaps the most significant, because it can be argued that if not for the events that took place on April 18th and 19th, 1775, the United States might never have come to be.

Tensions between colonists and the royal rulers from the other side of the Atlantic were running high in those days. Though this was true in all of the colonies that would become our first 13 states, it was especially true in Massachusetts, where the monarchy had effectively shut Boston off from the world by blockading its port and quartering large numbers of soldiers within the city.

It was believed that government forces (officially called "Regulars" and derisively called "redcoats") would invade the colony en masse, so residents in surrounding towns had been stockpiling munitions to defend themselves. The redcoats targeted Lexington and Concord, the former because revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams were thought to be there, and the latter because it hosted the Provincial Congress and was rumored to have a huge stash of munitions the government wanted to confiscate.

When redcoat forces were detected sneaking from Boston under cover of darkness on April 18th, Paul Revere and William Dawes mounted their horses and galloped into the countryside to warn their fellow citizens. Revere departed from Charlestown, across the Charles River from Boston proper, while Dawes left directly from the city. Revere’s route was the shortest to Lexington and Concord, and thus he was the first to warn their occupants of what was coming.

The next morning, Lexington’s village green was the site of the first skirmish between government forces and the citizen militia known as minutemen. The latter took the worst of it, with eight dead and ten wounded compared to just a single wounded redcoat.

The redcoats then marched on to their primary goal of Concord. After arriving and crossing the North Bridge, nearly half of them went about securing the bridge while the rest searched for weapons. When wooden cannon mounts were found, they were set afire and before long the flames engulfed a church.

Positioned on Punkatasset Hill some 300 yards from the bridge, Concord’s minutemen had been joined by minutemen from neighboring towns, giving them a numerical advantage the redcoats did not anticipate. When they saw the rising smoke, they believed their homes were being destroyed and responded by advancing.

Seeing them approach in such numbers, the redcoats retreated back across the bridge. A shot soon rang out, though no one knows who fired it, and within minutes a full-blown battle had transpired in which half of the officers from the government troops were wounded. Disoriented, they fled back toward Boston and along the way fell under fire from minutemen who had arrived from elsewhere and were hiding behind fences and walls. By the time they made it back to the city, they had sustained more than 200 casualties.

It was an indisputable defeat for the world’s most powerful military, delivered by ordinary people seeking simply to defend themselves against oppression. The example set by those people ignited the fuse of the American Revolution in such a way that it would not be extinguished.

But as with all mass "remembrances" of things that happened long ago, some of the things people assume to be true are not. In the case of Paul Revere's ride, the inaccuracies cut both ways and are of differing levels of importance.

Generations upon generations of American schoolchildren have been told that Revere warned farmers and villagers that "the British are coming!" Those schoolchildren have grown up and passed along that telling to their own kids. In reality, however, what Revere said that night was "the Regulars are coming out." That quote is from his own subsequent account, and from accounts of those he warned. It would never have occurred to him to say "the British are coming!" because he himself was British and so was everyone else in the 13 colonies.

For Revere to have warned people that "the British are coming" would be like me telling my neighbors that state troopers are entering the neighborhood by saying "the Floridians are coming." It would not have made sense. But by keeping the "British are coming" narrative alive for so long, and casually saying that the subsequent Revolutionary War was against "the British," we citizens of the United States have unwittingly distorted something important about our nation's genesis. Specifically, we have abetted a myth which holds that the idea of individual human beings having rights upon which government may not infringe was born on these shores, in the brains of our Founding Fathers. In reality, that idea -- which I fervently believe and which I do indeed "hold to be self-evident" -- was born not in American colonies of the 1700's but in southern England of the 1200's.

A full 558 years before the Boston Tea Party, 560 before Paul Revere's ride, and 561 before the Declaration of Independence, the outline of individual rights that would later serve as the basis for the United States was laid out in the Magna Carta, in the year 1215. Because human nature is human nature and political power abhors a vacuum, the British government infringed on those rights as the centuries passed, but the Magna Carta did not disappear from the British public conscience. In the 1500's an upsurge of interest in that document was kindled; and in the 1600's, Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke argued in favor of the freedom that was enshrined in it.

When our Founding Fathers pushed back against the monarchy of the 1700's, they did not do so with the belief that they were sailing uncharted philosophical waters. They did so because they believed, accurately, that their rights as British citizens had been violated by a British government that was acting counter to British ideals. They considered themselves the true Britons and the rulers from London the false Britons. The notion of a separate American identity decoupled from any British identity probably never entered their minds, yet a separate identity is what came to be. Most Americans living today wrongly believe that a separate identity was part of the plan.

I am not sure exactly how to build the bridge between the inaccuracy I just noted and the one I am about to note, so I won't even attempt to build it. However, the inaccuracy is worth noting and there may be no better time to do it than when talking about Paul Revere's ride, so here I go -- and it is related to, of all things, race.

I am a history buff who grew up in a house where history was frequently discussed, and I always did good in school, always taking advanced classes, so it says something bad about American schools that I never heard of Crispus Attucks or Peter Salem until I was grown. Rather than learn their names when I studied AP American History, I learned them by reading the text of a speech that was given by Duke Ellington in 1941, in which he passionately made the case that black Americans are historically loyal to and historically integral to the United States.

Opining that "although numerically but ten percent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings 'America' with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our ten percent is the very heart of the chorus," Ellington mentioned that "America is reminded of the feats of Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, black armies in the Revolution..." Realizing that those names had been mentioned with the assumption that listeners knew them (in the era of Jim Crow, no less) got me to researching, and I learned things that most Americans would have a hard time believing.

Crispus Attucks was born a slave, circa 1723 in the vicinity of Framingham, Massachusetts, which tells you that slavery was not just a Southern thing. Attucks was the son of a black man and Natick Indian woman, and at some point in his adult life became either a free man or a runaway slave who was not seriously pursued. What is known for sure is that he became a productive rope-maker, seaman, and goods-trader who was known and respected on the Boston docks.

On March 2, 1770, five years before Paul Revere's ride, a fight erupted between redcoats and Boston rope-makers. Three nights later, the dispute escalated when five Bostonians were killed by redcoats in an event that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Many historians consider the massacre to be the first violent act that started history's train chugging toward the Revolutionary War, and because Attucks was the first colonist to die in the massacre, he -- a biracial man born a slave, hailing from the only two races that have experienced systemic legal racism in America -- is considered by many to be the first fatality of the American Revolution. Today you can visit his final resting place in Beantown's third-oldest cemetery.

Meanwhile, Peter Salem was also born a slave in the vicinity of Framingham. His original slave master, Jeremiah Belknap, at some point sold him to Lawson Buckminster. In 1775, when Salem was believed to be 25 years old, Buckminster granted him freedom and he enlisted in the Continental Army to combat the redcoats.

Salem was literally involved in Paul Revere's ride because he fought as a minuteman during the skirmish in Concord. One week later he enlisted with the 5th Massachusetts Regiment and went on to fight at the famous Battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Stony Point.

One of the colonists' main achievements at Bunker Hill was the killing of British Major John Pitcairn as the battle unfolded. It is known that Salem was one of the soldiers who shot Pitcairn, and generally believed that his shot was the first to strike him. Salem's role was publicly acknowledged as far back as 1786, when a famous painting by John Trumbull depicted him holding a musket as Pitcairn fell. In 1968, that portion of the painting (excluding the image of Pitcairn on the ground) was reproduced as this U.S. postage stamp.

After the war Salem built a cabin near Leicester, Massachusetts, where he lived most of his remaining days subsisting as a gardener and cane-weaver. He was reportedly well-liked by the townspeople and enjoyed regaling children by telling them stories of the war. Upon his death in 1816, he was laid to rest at the Old Burying Ground in his birth town of Framingham. In 1882 Framingham established an annual Peter Salem Day, and the town still observes his birthday each October 1st.

None of which is to deny that slavery was America's Original Sin, or that racial inequality in non-slave areas was American's Original Sin Part 1(b). These historical facts do, however, show that the racial jumble which existed at America's founding was not as cut-and-dry as most people assume. They show that the Revolution was supported by more people than just the rich and "lily white." These things need to be understood and taught in order for future generations to have a true, balanced understanding (and appreciation) of how America got to where it is.

The train of history does not follow an inevitable track. It changes direction over and over again based on the actions and inactions of men and women. If a bunch of ticked-off English property owners had not precipitated the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215... if later encroachments by the British monarchy had not incited people to hold the Magna Carta dear to their hearts... if the likes of John Locke had not later written clearly about the ideals of liberty that were at its heart... if, later still, Adam Smith had not written about how those ideals apply to economics and lead to mutually beneficial free trade... if the Founding Fathers had not read the likes of Locke and Smith, and not sought to re-assert individual rights against the monarchy's despotic aims... if Crispus Attucks, by being murdered along with four other Bostonians in 1770, had not helped make commoners feel antipathy to the crown... if Paul Revere had not chosen to warn colonists with his midnight ride, so that the colonists could prevent the British Regulars from stealing their arms... if Peter Salem had not been at Bunker Hill to shoot Major Pitcairn and deprive the British military of one of its most creative leaders... if America's early abolitionists were not able to point to heroic actions by the likes of Peter Salem, in order to give some of their uncertain countrymen pause and thereby keep their movement alive... well, who knows what would have happened? Those are a lot of ifs, and every one of them was an important link in a very long chain that eventually led to freedom expanding its reach and slavery being abolished in North America.

Today is a day for reflection on our shared past, and a time for figuring out how we can learn from that past to decide what course we should take in today's extremely dangerous world. We must take pains to ensure that our national memory first gets strengthened, and that it then gets preserved, if we have any hope of being confident and self-assured as we face the future.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Here Again

When it comes to blessing the world with my unsolicited thoughts about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I was a little slow getting off the schneid this year, which seems odd because this is one of the most intriguing in recent memory.

But life has been hectic of late, and hey, we're only three days into the first round so I'm not extremely late. Here goes.

My Lightning Indulgence
Because the final days of the regular season saw Steven Stamkos get sidelined by a bloodclot, probably for the entire post-season; and indispensable D-man Anton Stralman suffer a broken fibula that will keep him out through at least the first round of the playoffs; and a nagging assortment of injuries continue to cause missed games by stars Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov and also Tampa Bay's blood-and-guts alternate captain, Ryan Callahan... let's just say that I felt a bit of dread about my team's chances in the days leading up to Wednesday.

We are talking about hockey. You expect a heavy dose of adversity-via-injury to occur during the two-month warfare of the playoffs, but you don't expect it to already be exacting a toll before the playoffs start. And you certainly don't expect it to affect so many main contributors on a single team. Ugh.

But the dread went away while watching Game One on Wednesday.

Hedman returned after missing the last few regular season games -- and logged 29 minutes of virtuoso performance, including this Lemieux-esque goal that didn't count because Jonathan Drouin was offsides.

Johnson played, somewhat unexpectedly, and not only was he all over the ice, he got the assist on the winning goal -- a Cicarelli-esque redirect by Alex Killorn.

Kucherov played, and scored on this laser and this mucker.

Brian Boyle and The Vampire did all the cunning little things that have huge impact but are never noted on the stat sheet.

Detroit's talentless scumbag goon hard-hitting winger Justin Abdelkader spent the entire night launching his 218-pound frame at people's heads and trying to cause brain damage send Tampa Bay players to the locker room. And the Bolts, especially Braydon Coburn and Ondrej Palat, stood up to his sorry ass without stooping to his paramecium level.

Then came Game Two, last night... The Bolts' penalty kill was phenomenal. Kucherov opened the scoring with another laser... Brian Boyle, not known for his scoring touch, looked like Kuch when he buried one into the back of the net after a perfect assist from Jonathan Drouin... Just two minutes after the Wings tied the game at two in the third, Johnson scored off a smart wrap-around assist by Killorn; and eight minutes after that, he put the Bolts up 4-2 off another wrap-around assist, this time by Kucherov.

The Wings continued to play dirty, with Abdelfuckerkader and Danny DeKeyser targeting heads and disgracing the game (Detroit fans no longer have any right to complain about Claude Lemieux concussing Kris Draper) but their dirty play FAILED to throw the Lightning off their game, as evidenced by the Lightning winning the game 5-2 and seizing a 2-0 series lead.

And no, I am not wearing rose-colored glasses. The Bolts are a long way from winning this series and the chances of them drinking from the Cup this year are long. But in Games One and Two they displayed all the qualities we Lightning fans love about them and they proved themselves a legit contender, injuries be damned.

And they also... Huh? What? There are 15 other teams playing in these playoffs?... Okay, whatever, I'll try to move on.

de l'ouest (that's French for "from the West")
Last year I predicted that the Cup winner would come from the Eastern Conference, and that the Western Conference champion would be whoever won the opening round series between Chicago and Nashville. I was wrong on the first count and right on the second.

I guess one out of two ain't bad, but if I had to be wrong on one, I really wish it would have been the second, since Chicago did beat Nashville and win the Western Conference, but then defeated my Lightning. Keep in mind, the Lightning outplayed Chicago for most of the series and only lost because Corey Crawford won Games Five and Six by standing on his head. And...

...oh, sorry, there I go again. Lemme get back on point.

The Washington Capitals had the best record in the NHL this year, and by many measures appear to be the best team in the league. On paper, they should win the Eastern Conference and have the inside track to win the Cup, though it wouldn't be a surprise if the Lightning denied them, like they did the last time the Caps were a #1 seed, in 2011, but there I go again... What I'm trying to say is that when I remove my emotions and think objectively, I believe this year's champion will come from the West.  And I believe it will be either LA or St. Louis.

The Stars are a "sexy" high-scoring pick, but they have questions in net and strike me as a regular season club... The Blackhawks are defending champs and have won three of the last six Cups, but their tank seems low on gas as they enter the post-season banged up and making it look hard... Anaheim's Lazarus-like rise across the second half of the season makes it easy to picture them hoisting the chalice, but I just can't envision them doing that when their net is minded by Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.

The LA Kings, on the other hand, have won two of the last four Stanley Cups and are backed by Jonathan Quick. They dropped Game One to San Jose, but I still would never bet against them.

And the St. Louis Blues are playing with a major chip on their shoulder. And although Brian Elliott has never been known as a money goaltender, he lit it up during this regular season and pitched a splendid shutout in Game One versus Chicago before his team dropped the second game by only the slimmest of margins.

And remember that no one thought Quick was great prior to the 2012 playoffs, yet now he is considered one of the top goalies on the planet. Elliott 2016 reminds me a lot of Quick 2012.

Hockey series, like hockey games, are marked by brain-melting shifts in momentum. Much could happen between now and the end of the first round -- much less between now and the end of the whole shebang -- to make me change my mind. But I am putting my name on this and putting it in writing, even though I hope the Lightning prove me wrong: This season's Cup champion will be either the Los Angeles Kings or St. Louis Blues.

...I should be able to say a lot more, but I'm beat so I'm gonna stop. I'll be back soon enough.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Looks Back

Soon enough I will be using this blog to spout off about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which started tonight (Tourette's alert: Go Bolts! Kuuuuch! Hedman for Conn Smythe! Fuck you Abdelkader!) but first it's time to look back.

Two major voids have opened in the hockey world over the past week, and we should pause to appreciate their place in the game's history.

Northlands Coliseum
Yeah, yeah. I know it has been called Rexall Place since 2003, and had shorter stints when it was known as Skyreach Centre and the Edmonton Coliseum during the eight years before that.

But it will always be Northlands Coliseum, for that is what it was called when it housed the team that changed the history of hockey.

That name, Northlands, was taken from the park where the building is located -- and the park took it from the 137-year-old volunteer organization which to this day runs the park and owns the building -- so it has a local fit from that perspective. But that fit seems too small, for Northlands is a word that reflects Edmonton's location on the globe and projects it on a grand scale. To this Florida teen in the 1980's, hearing that word in front of "Coliseum" brought to mind's eye a picture of Alberta as an untamed land of freedom and derring-do, infused with images of roaming bison on frigid plains with the Canadian Rockies somewhere in the distance.

That mind's eye picture was clinched by the fact that the Edmonton Oilers -- Northlands Coliseum's reason for being -- were the best damn hockey club the world had ever seen, a free-wheeling, fast-skating, goal-scoring machine that didn't shy from doling out checks or dropping gloves when necessary. They were what the '86 Mets could have been if the '86 Mets had stayed focused on the games and not squandered their talent on drugs and booze. The Oil was hockey's last dynasty, and its best.

Some people claim that the team's greatness became a sure thing on November 2, 1978. That was the day Nelson Skalbania, owner of the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers, sold Edmonton the rights to a 17-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky (along with two other players, Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll) for a sum of $700,000.

But to say that clinched things is to be blind to reality. The Oilers were in the WHA at the time, not the NHL, and the WHA was struggling to stay afloat. When it folded in 1979 and the Oilers (plus three other WHA franchises) were accepted into the NHL, Gretzky was only 18 and the team was wholly mediocre. It finished well down in the bottom half of the league for its first two NHL seasons.

But during those lean, building years, the Oilers drafted extremely well and before long their roster included a bevy of other young phenoms: Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, and Andy Moog.

They had a breakthrough season in 1981-82, finishing with the second-best record in the league and becoming the first team ever to score 400 goals in a single season. Gretzky led the way with 92, which remains an NHL record all these years later, and added 120 assists; those numbers combined for 212 total points, making him the first -- and still only -- player to account for 200 points in a season, a feat he would accomplish four different times.

But despite all the highlight reel success of that '81-'82 season, Edmonton got bounced by LA in the first round of the playoffs.

Not to despair. The following year saw that group of ambitious whippersnappers arrive ready for the post-season and make it all the way to the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for them and their fans, they ran into the freight train that was the New York Islanders dynasty, and got swept as the Islanders won their fourth Cup in a row.

Then came the 1984 finals, when the two juggernauts faced off again. The Isles were aging out of their collective prime and the Oil was aging into its. They stared at each other across the abyss, then rushed across it into battle, and the Oil prevailed... Edmonton won a 1-0 goaltenders' duel in the opener, with Kevin McClelland scoring the only goal; and then New York took Game Two in a 6-1 blowout; but then Edmonton dominated the rest of the way, earning the title by winning the next three games by scores of 7-2, 7-2, and 5-2... Messier won the Conn Smythe, Kurri led all playoff goal-scorers with 14, and Gretzky easily had the most assists with 22.

From then on it was legend, as the Oilers won five Cups in the seven seasons that ended in May 1990. Edmonton, a smallish city far from the beaten path, became the center of the hockey universe and home to what could legitimately be called the greatest show on Earth.

Gretzky's passing ability made Magic Johnson's seem like no big deal, and his assist numbers were blown through the stratosphere by the fact that Kurri, a sniper extraordinaire, was on the receiving end of so many of those passes... Meanwhile, Messier's pugnacious leadership recalled the spirit of Gordie Howe... Fuhr, biracial at a time when the sport was even whiter than the North Pole, performed so well that many observers claimed he was the best goalie ever... Marty McSorley was the most feared enforcer on the continent... And in the dynasty's later years, yappy Finnish winger Esa Tikkanen left his mark as one of the best defensive-minded forwards of his generation.

And that all occurred in Northlands Coliseum. Sure, the Montreal Forum housed some epic title teams back in the day, and Maple Leaf Gardens housed some splendid ones way back in the day -- but Northands Coliseum did its hosting in the truly modern era, with the NHL drawing the best players from many countries, not just two; with the best U.S.-born players finally being actually good; and with the NHL fielding many more teams than in those limited, bygone, days of yore.

One week ago tonight, the Edmonton Oilers played their final game in Northlands Coliseum (I refuse to call it anything else) and defeated Vancouver 6-2, which is the kind of score that was expected back when Reagan was our president and Brian Mulroney was Canada's PM.

The evening opened with this stirring belting-out of the national anthem, the crowd's singing drowning out the recorded voice of the late Paul Lorieau, a local optician who performed "O Canada" before every home game from 1981 to 2011.

In the third period, Walter Gretzky, father of Wayne, gave an autographed Wayne Gretzky jersey to a longtime season ticket holder.

After the game, more than 100 past and present Oilers, all clad in their Oilers jerseys, came onto the ice as their names were read off.

However, there is this: The Oilers finished this season in the shit of last place, and have not been to the playoffs in a decade. They routinely finish at or near the bottom of the league, and their city is never talked about as a destination where free agents want to go.

From where I sit, that is not good for hockey, because Edmonton was once its epicenter.

Baseball players think of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and yearn for the honor of playing for the Yankees, even if they weren't Yankees fans growing up... Basketball players sense the same thing when they think of playing for the Lakers and taking the baton from Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, and Bryant; or when they think of playing for the Celts and taking the baton from Russell, Cousy, Bird, and McHale... It seems to me that hockey players should feel that way about Edmonton.

The Oilers have been stockpiling star-potential young talent for a few years now, so the future should seem bright; but they remain stuck in the cellar, so dire feelings continue to linger like an infection that won't respond to antibiotics. And like I said, this is not good for hockey. Every sport needs to keep its canopy connected to its roots, or else its trunk will die.

A whole generation is coming of age with no living memory of the Oilers even being respectable, much less good and certainly not great. For today's 15-year-olds, Gretzky's days in Edmonton are farther from their births than Rocket Richard's time in Montreal is from mine. For the new generation, Oiler greatness is an extinct artifact from grainy news reels, kind of like Truman's presidency was for me at their age.

And that makes me shudder.

As Northlands Coliseum passes into professional oblivion, and its status as the Oilers' home gets replaced by Rogers Place next season, those of us who recall how significant it was, and how otherworldly its tenant was, should take it upon ourselves to make sure it is remembered for what it was at its peak. It would be tragic if Northlands Coliseum was to slide as anonymously down the memory hole as the Hartford Civic Center.

Ed Snider
I, like most people who were not born in southeastern PA or southern NJ, or in the drawf state known as Delaware, am not a Philadelphia Flyers fan. Never have been, never will be. Never could be. Ditto for the Eagles, Sixers, and Phillies. I tend to root for whoever is playing against them. It is what it is.

But having said that, there is a large part of me that can't help but respect Ed Snider. The entrepreneurial son of a Jewish grocer, he founded the Flyers when he earned an NHL franchise after learning that the league was planning to expand in 1967. Under his watchful eye, taking a cue from his passionate personality, the franchise became one of the most dependable in the game.

The Flyers have existed for 48 seasons and have qualified for the playoffs in 38 of them... They have reached the Stanley Cup Finals eight times (an average of once every six years) across a span of nearly half a century... In 1974 they became the first team from the '67 expansion to win the Cup, and in 1975 they won it again to make it two in a row.

Their list of all-time stars includes high-scoring cheap-shot artists gadflies like Bobby Clarke, snipers like John LeClair, seven-time Ashbee winner Eric Desjardins, and envelope-pushing goalie Ron Hextall.

In February 1966, Snider was awarded the expansion franchise that would become the Philadelphia Flyers... Seven months later, a baby named Mike Richter was born just outside of Philadelphia. As Richter was raised, he watched the game and started playing it and grew up to become the best U.S.-born goalie of all time, backstopping the Rangers to a Stanley Cup and Team USA to an upset championship in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey... Would he have even played hockey had Ed Snider not created a home team for him to watch? And in turn, would U.S. hockey have experienced its only major international championship since the Miracle on Ice? Would today's Rangers still be taunted by opposing fans chanting "1940"? Do not assume anything. The answers to those questions are probably no and no and yes, respectively.

In short, Ed Snider was a force for growth in the game of hockey, and the mark he left reaches far beyond the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

In addition to the Flyers, Snider once owned the cable company PRISM, and he started and ran Comcast Spectator. He started the first sports radio station in the world. From 1996 to 2011, he also owned the Philadelphia 76'ers.

Ed Snider's battle with cancer started a couple years ago. For the last several months his health has had been deteriorating. On Saturday, before the final Flyers home game of the season, the national anthem was sung by Lauren Hart, whose late father Gene was the team's radio broadcaster for its first 29 years of existence.

While she sang, Lauren held up her iPhone with Snider on FaceTime from his hospital room, so that he could share in the experience. Then the Flyers went out and won the game, clinching the final playoff spot.

And on Monday, he passed away.

I do not like the Flyers, but I shudder to think about what the world of hockey (and sports in general) would be like if not for Ed Snider, the son of a grocer -- a son who went not to Harvard or Yale or Stanford, but to the University of Maryland. RIP...