Saturday, December 17, 2011

NFL Picks Week Fifteen: So Let Me Talk About Hockey For a Few Minutes

In the midst of all your holiday parties and your fervent non-hockey watching, some of you might have missed last night that the Devils made Scott Niedermayer the third player to have his number raised to the rafters at the Prudential Center. I know to many of you the name probably sounds strange, and even for the die-hard hockey fan, Scott Niedermayer was about as unassuming as a superstar defenseman of his caliber could be, but for a Devils fan who grew up watching the brilliant dynasty that brought home three Cups in nine years, seeing Niedermayer's number retired is an appropriate and special moment.

Yes, Niedermayer left the Devils for the opportunity to win a Cup with his brother in Anaheim, which he did four years after defeating his brother and the Mighty Ducks in seven games for the Devils' last championship, but that move is in many ways not only one that both sides have since said didn't mean to happen, but one that was a rare divorce for New Jersey and a star player that did not involve malice. Everyone seemed to acknowledge that Niedermayer was hoping a move west would bring a championship home for his brother, and actually took less money to do so.

Niedermayer, who is arguably the finest defenseman of his generation, is still always going to be a Devil for many of his fans however. His remarkable coast-to-coast goal against Detroit in the 1995 Final is the stuff of legend in New Jersey, and may have been the singular moment that transformed the organization from Mickey Mouse to NHL dynasty. And perhaps more noteworthy, he is one of just five players who was in uniform for all three of New Jersey's Stanley Cups along with Martin Brodeur, Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens and Sergei Brylin. Daneyko and Stevens have already had their numbers brought up to the rafters. Brodeur's will join them some day.

To understand Niedermayer's greatness, his use of speed, his smooth skating, his offensive ability and his shut down defense is to understand how the nuances of the game when perfected by one individual can be a remarkable display of hockey brilliance. Niedermayer's amazing career will land him in the hall of fame one day, but even that may not quite do justice to just how good someone who spent most of his career out of the media spotlight was. Niedermayer won four Stanley Cups, the last of which with Anaheim gave him a Cup as a captain as well as a Conn Smythe Trophy, but even that doesn't show just how winning followed him wherever he went. In addition to his Cups and his Conn Smythe, Niedermayer was a Norris Trophy winner and is the only player in hockey history to win every single professional or amateur high level hockey championship in North America. In addition to his Stanley Cups Niedermayer has won a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, an IIHF World Championship, an Olympic gold medal and the rarely played World Cup of Hockey (nee Canada Cup).

The list of accolades is simply astounding, and no coincidence whatsoever.

And so as a fan who grew up watching Niedermayer spin his masterful plays from the back it's a happy day to see the man get his due from a franchise that almost painstakingly avoids making icons. I actually had to turn down tickets to the game for personal reasons, but to be there must have been something special.

When Brodeur gets his moment in a few seasons, barring something unexpected, I will be in the crowd for a night that will likely close the book on New Jersey's run of NHL dominance -- though I still cross my fingers that the next one isn't too far away. Also, it should be noted in case no one saw, the Devils actually did win last night. In fact the Devils are actually in the East's top eight at the moment and sit just three points behind Pittsburgh with a game in hand -- and eight points behind Philadelphia atop the conference. Maybe New Jersey has a playoff berth in it yet this season.

At least, as a fan, I certainly hope so. After all, for most of my youth the Devils were the best I had.

Meanwhile, one of my historically less successful teams, the Northwestern Wildcats, announced this morning that the university had signed a landmark agreement with Under Armour to fully outfit all of the school's varsity athletic teams. This is a bigger deal than it seems in that UA is a major player in collegiate apparel and could have a significant impact on the school's reputation for recruits. I do however cross my fingers that Northwestern's classy, dignified, subtle purple Northwestern sleeve-striped jerseys don't get forsaken by UA for some of its more wild and experimental -- and by that I mean awful -- uniforms.

Here's hoping.

Lastly before I get to my picks -- and on a side note, I'm going to include that I picked the Falcons over the Jaguars before Thursday because I'm, you know, not an idiot -- I will point out that trips in 2012 are finally starting to shape up. While I'm still eyeing a weekend in Dallas in March for the Stars and Mavericks, I am excited to say that an hour ago I bought tickets for opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 5, which will not only finally take me to one of the widely agreed upon best stadiums in the country in PNC Park, it will also have me headed to the Consol Energy Center that night for Penguins-Rangers.

I am excited. Very. Let's do some picks.

Last week: 9-7-0
Season: 93-94-10

TAMPA BAY (+8) over Dallas
ATLANA (??) over Jacksonville
BUFFALO (-2) over Miami
Seattle (+4) over CHICAGO
INDIANAPOLIS (+7) over Tennessee
KANSAS CITY (+15) over Green Bay
Cincinnati (-7) over ST. LOUIS
New Orleans (-8) over MINNESOTA
NY GIANTS (-7) over Washington
HOUSTON (-6) over Carolina
Detroit (-2) over OAKLAND
DENVER (+9) over New England
NY Jets (+3) over PHILADELPHIA
ARIZONA (-7) over Cleveland
SAN DIEGO (+3) over Baltimore
Pittsburgh (+3) over SAN FRANCISCO

There it is. Happy weekend, everyone.

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