Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Devils and Kings will play a professional hockey game tonight

I am remiss for not talking to you sooner. For those of you who know me, it has been an exhausting whirlwind of a few days to be a Devils fan and to deal with hockey-related news for a living. I'm sure you can all imagine just how busy and crazy this time of year can be for fan or writer. After all, tonight is Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. And that's a pretty big deal.

Just pretty big, though.

It made my life a little hectic as yesterday I was at Prudential Center running around like a chicken with its head cut off in hopes of interviewing a few key characters -- see if you can spot me in the picture to the right -- but on the whole this is an entirely bizarre and unexpected Stanley Cup Final run for New Jersey. It's not that the team hasn't earned it. Certainly the Devils thoroughly outplayed Philadelphia in the second round and outplayed the Rangers for most of the third, but despite how well New Jersey played down the stretch and how deep its lineup appeared to be, a Stanley Cup Final almost never seemed to really be in the cards.

I suppose the same could be said for the Kings, but for me I'm not sure I ever really believed the Devils would get this far, and certainly not when it was the Rangers who stood in their way. After all, as a cold rationalist I had more or less assumed the Devils matched up well with New York, had been playing better lately and certainly would be more well-rested after the Rangers went to their second-consecutive seven-game series in the second round.

But it was also the New York Rangers. Not only was this the big bad brother the Devils always stood int he shadow of despite far more success, but it was a team that from the day I was eight haunted my hockey dreams because of Mark Messier. As I wrote here last week, that the series headed to a Game 6 in New Jersey with the Devils holding a 3-2 lead exactly 18 years to the day of Messier's famous guarantee was not exactly something that inspired me with comfort or confidence.

And then, because the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, this happened.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Eighteen Years Of Anxiety Rushing Back To Me

In my life there are two Game 6s that have happened that have had a profound impact on how I see the sports world -- one good and one bad. Since this won't really be about the good one, I'll just dispense with the exposition quickly. It's Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I was only one, I don't remember, but it paints the entire psyche of the baseball franchise I call my own and so I know the 10th inning of that game like the back of my hand.

Then there's the bad one. On May 25, 1994, I was an eight-year-old watching the third period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on my parents' bed. At the time the Devils were on Sports Channel, a since-defunct regional sports network that was not including in the cable tier we purchased and thus came in scrambled and virtually unwatchable. Still, like a 14-year-old seeking his late-night Skinemax fix like Jason Biggs in the opening scene of American Pie, I would stare at the television during Devils games attempting to decipher what, exactly, was going on through the blurs on the screen.

For some strange reason, that night the game came in crystal clear once the third period started. I don't know if it was part of a free preview or a random glitch in the system, but there I was watching as the Devils held a 2-1 lead 20 minutes away from clinching their first ever berth in the Stanley Cup Final against the rival Rangers in what would have been a remarkable upset.

And then it happened. Mark Messier, who had famously guaranteed a victory at the morning skate that day, put the Rangers on his shoulders with a third-period hat trick that forced a seventh game New York eventually won in double overtime en route to its first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years. For a Devils fan, there has been a nagging feeling for the past 18 years that it should have been the Devils rather than the Rangers lifting the Cup that night, and Game 6 is the haunting reason as to why. That makes it all the eerier that for the first time since that series, the Devils and Rangers are facing off in the Eastern Conference Finals again, the Devils once again have a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 at home and Game 6 will be happening 18 years later exactly to the day of Messier's famous guarantee in 1994.

To a lifelong Devils fan it's enough to make my already potent anxiety go off the charts.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

These Teams Really Don't Like Each Other. And That's A Good Thing.

Rivalries are good. They are the lifeblood of many sports in that they stir the emotions of teams naturally pitted against each other either by competition or geography, and when they happen they create an excitement unlike anything else. Often these rivalries are what pull young viewers into the game and in many cases they can define how we've come to view or love a sport. That was the case with me in 1994 when my Devils fell to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and while those two teams continued a blood feud over the Hudson River over the next few seasons -- and it has had brief rebirths like it did in the first round in 2006 and 2008 -- a funny thing happened for most of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Rangers weren't very good.

While the Devils and Rangers have a strong rivalry it is not a particularly old one, and much of it is derived from the determination of Devils fans to gain acceptance and legitimacy from beneath the shadow of Gotham as a whole as well as the Blueshirts, something that, even with three championships in a nine-year span, hasn't yet happened because with the most important things on the line, the Devils haven't topped New York. Part of the reason for that, however, is that the Rangers were so mediocre for nearly a decade that New Jersey never got the chance. And with that mutual competition the threat of the Rangers and the disdain toward them, at least for me, faded accordingly.

Instead the team that earned my hatred was the Philadelphia Flyers, a group that, while it didn't win a Stanley Cup -- and still hasn't since 1975 -- was a regular road block for the Devils, competing with them for the division title on a near annual basis and twice meeting New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia's typical brutishness and tendency to get in New Jersey's way made them a much stronger rival in my mind than the Rangers, who were typically playing golf by the time tensions were ratcheting higher up.

Last night was a sign that that's all changed now. And thank goodness for that.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Life and Times of a Playoff Hockey Beard

It was a few weeks ago in the middle of my daily 11 a.m. meeting at work when I started to realize that things might be getting a little out of hand. I was told that while midnight apparently is the hour when everyone starts fighting in bars in Helsinki, I won't need to worry about it when I go there this summer because they won't fight a man with a beard. At that point the jokes started rolling in about my overgrown whiskers and whether or not they might actually be in violation of HR's guidelines for office presentation (I don't think it is), how I probably ought to shave the neckbeard and how my alter ego is Grizzly Adams.

This is a very mature office as you all can see, though I'm starting to realize that pretty much no office is mature, but the mockery has come fast and furious, and perhaps rightly so. In just over a month my face has gotten more and more scraggly and itchtastic. I have a positively enormous mop on my cheeks and chin that everyone seems stunned or shocked by as they pass by me for the first time in weeks. As you can see in the upper right-hand corner (I'm pretty sure my friend Elizabeth is going to crucify me for posting this shot in a public space again) my jaw line is nearly twice as voluminous and fluffy. It is a huge, red, overwhelmingly uncomfortable and easily mockable bit of decoration that will almost certainly continue to irritate me until the moment I finally get rid of it.

But the Devils are still playing. And, as I've said before, as long as they are, so is the beard.

Ah yes, the playoff beard is a tried and true method of hockey dedication as tradition dictates that players vying for the Stanley Cup don't trim their whiskers until they've been eliminated from the tournament or won it all -- a sort of protest against anything but single-minded pursuit of the game's ultimate prize. Superstition is dumb and participating it in it is even more irrational if you're just a fan and not a player, but the tradition has begun to spread to the stands over the last few seasons nonetheless, and most crowds at games in the postseason will feature at least a handful of people that could clean off frying pans with their faces if they happen to have run out of brillo pads.

I am now one of those unfortunate souls and that is, for several reasons, rather surprising for me . For one, I hate having a beard. I know, it doesn't look all that awful, but damnit all is this thing itchy. Like seriously, it's really really itchy, and it just doesn't stop itching the whole time you have it. Grown men who have beards or mustaches for spans of four decades or more, like my father, boggle my mind as they must have the highest threshold for epidermal irritation humanly possible. For another reason, this is not the first time I've tried growing a sports-related beard and the previous results have been, shall I say, not so positive. Two previous attempts at sports beardiness that come to mind are when I grew a protest beard in 2009 until the Mets got back to .500 (it did not achieve its aim), and when I decided to try out my first playoff beard for the New Jersey Devils in 2010 only to see them lose to Philadelphia in the first round in a whopping five games.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hockey Like It Ought To Be

Some of you might recall a few weeks ago when I mentioned that the Devils were good, and the Rangers were good, and they just might be good together. The point of it was that it seemed as if both teams had a decent shot of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in a long time and that the table might have been set for a potential rematch of the 1994 East Finals, which has probably had a more profound impact on me as a sports fan than any other single event. When the postseason field was finally laid out, the Devils were the sixth seed, the Rangers were the first seed, and it seemed short of a few upsets the odds of the Devils and Rangers meeting in the third round were pretty much nil as a result of re-seeding. Then the upsets happened, another upset happened in the second round, and suddenly here we are with Game 1 between New York and New Jersey having been played last night at Madison Square Garden.

Suddenly it feels like 1994 again.

I have said many, many times that the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals between New Jersey and New York was the greatest postseason series I've ever seen (though the 2001 World Series comes close), and there are several reasons why. I could go through a list of the three double overtime games, the two games tied in the final minute to force the extra periods, the drama of Game 7, the natural rivalry, the fact that it was the two best teams in the League that year, the Rangers' Curse of 1940, Mark Messier's guarantee -- all of it. I could go into greater detail on what was good and what was amazing, but if you read here with any frequency, you've probably seen it hashed out a few thousand other times and if not Wikipedia can take care of it for you. Plain and simple, this series promised everything, it had everything, and as an eight-year-old getting into professional hockey for the first time, it left a lasting impression.

Now imagine if my team had actually won the damn thing.

Yes, I am a Devils fan and perhaps that is why much of this sticks in my craw, and perhaps why I thirst for revenge. For 18 years New Jersey has been, by a fairly significant margin, the most successful team in the New York metropolitan area, if not the most successful team in the NHL not named the Detroit Red Wings. While the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and reached another Conference Finals in 1997, the Blueshirts went nearly nine calendar years without a playoff game after that despite having players like Wayne Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr on the roster. The Devils on the other hand, have won eight division titles, four conference championships and three Stanley Cups while missing the playoffs just once since 1994.

Friday, May 11, 2012

8,000 Nights Of, Well, Mostly Disappointment and Pain

There was a magical alignment of the stars earlier this week that made me almost obnoxiously happy. As I have pointed out many, many times, I don't like Philadelphia and the opportunity to beat or one up a team from the City of Brotherly Love is not exactly something I like to let slip away. So you can only begin to imagine the smile on my face on Tuesday night when my Devils completed not just an unexpected series win over the Flyers mostly thanks to this flub by Ilya Bryzgalov, but a thoroughly dominant one at the same time that my Mets rallied from four runs down to beat the Phillies across the parking lot. I always was a fan of the fact that Philadelphia's four major professional sports teams all played in the same complex, but the fact that two of my teams could be enacted such misery on the Philly faithful at the same time in the same place was probably more sensory overload than I can handle in one night.

Of course, given that I'm a Mets fan, I assumed my happiness was more than likely to come crashing down the next night in Philadelphia -- why should we Mets fans get too much of a good thing, after all -- but instead, for the third time in three games the Mets came from behind in Philadelphia to complete an impressive early season sweep. Eliminating the Flyers on one night and then sweeping the Phillies in Philly the next night? What could possibly come next to make it even better? Well, I can tell you what I'd like it to be, but I don't think that's particularly feasible. And while there was a bit of a downer mid-week, albeit a forseeable one, when the Knicks were eliminated by the Heat, and my hockey fix won't be satiated until Monday as the Devils play an eternal waiting game, I'm still managing to take quite a bit of joy out of these Mets in the meantime.

And why wouldn't I? Somehow they've managed to go 18-13 to this point despite facing universally low expectations and a surprisingly difficult early season schedule, and that kind of success, which includes a sweep of the Braves, a sweep of the Marlins and the aforementioned sweep of the Phillies suddenly has some people thinking there might be some magic in the air. And why not? Sure, there are still 131 games left to be played -- a whopping 81% of the season -- but they're looking good, are only a game out of first place, and would be there already were it not for a maddening sweep at Houston against the consensus worst team in the Majors.

But don't worry, people, because just when things might be looking a little too good, there's this stark harbinger of doom looming over the team that will be crystallized tonight. When the Mets start their game against the Marlins at their ridiculous new ball park tonight, it will mark the 8,000th game in franchise history. That's right, 8,000 mostly awful, distressing, but at least entertaining or interesting games for my New York Mets. As a fan of a franchise that always seems the ugly, new stepchild of the crosstown Yankees, seeing a number like that puts a new light and perspective on the fact that the Mets, now 50 years old, aren't really that new anymore, and they have an identity and a history all their own forged over decades of mostly futility and periodic success. That's all kind of nice, but this is a franchise, despite having all sorts of moments high and low worth mentioning, is still missing one thing.

That elusive no-hitter.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hey Everyone, Let's Have Some Fun With the New York Knicks

Of all the sports teams I follow -- and there are many -- there have been none in my lifetime that have been as inexorably difficult, frustrating and unrewarding to follow as the New York Knickerbockers. Some of you might think this is a bit of a stretch, but for those who would seem to argue that notion I can provide a handy-dandy list of each team I like and just what they've achieved since, oh, I don't know, let's just throw a date out there.... April 29, 2001. I acknowledge that this date which have seemingly cherry-picked without reason (there is a reason) will be unfair to the 'Bockers, cutting off their mid-90's dominance and miracle 1999 Finals run that got me caught up in the team in the first place. But it also cuts off two Devils Stanley Cups and a National League pennant by the Mets so, really, everyone is missing a few achievements. Let's see what's happened in the time since that date.

New York Giants -- Six playoff appearances, three division titles, two goddamn Super Bowl championships
New York Mets -- A division title and within one whiff of reaching the 2006 World Series
New Jersey Devils -- Five division titles, two conference championships, one Stanley Cup championship
Chicago Blackhawks -- The 2010 Stanley Cup Championship
Northwestern Football -- Six bowl game appearances, even if the BCS is a joke
Northwestern Basketball -- Four straight NIT appearances, flirtation with a first-ever NCAA berth
Southampton FC -- Back-to-back promotions and a return to the Premier League for 2012-13
Geelong FC -- Four Grand Final appearances and three championships in the last five years alone
New York Knicks -- The embarrassment that was Isiah Thomas, zero playoff wins

That's right. Zero playoffs wins. Zero. None. And I don't mean a series. I mean a single game. Hell, even Northwestern basketball has won multiple postseason games since then. That the team could have fallen that far for that long is pretty remarkable to me given the history, financial footing and demanding fan base the Knicks have pushing them along, and frankly, at the time that the Knicks won their last playoff game it was pretty inconceivable to me that any of my times could endure such a disturbing drought. After all, on that fateful date of April 29, 2001, I was in the midst of a both exhilarating and maddening eight-month stretch in which each of my teams in the four major North American sports -- except for the Knicks -- would reach their respective championship round and lose. I remember that postseason series very well as the Knicks would lose to those irritatingly headband-bedecked Toronto Raptors in five games, ostensibly because Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas fought over the same rebound.

Of course, it's a brave new world now after the 'Bockers pulled off a dramatic 89-87 win over the Heat yesterday afternoon. Dramatic may be a loose term considering that, yes it did go down to the wire and Carmelo Anthony scored 41 points, but perhaps more pertinently, the Knicks were already down 3-0 in the series and stand little chance at coming back. Still, I suppose a win is worth celebrating, which the Knicks did a little too aggressively considering they released streamers from the ceiling as if they'd just won an NBA championship, but it occurred to me yesterday just how long it has been since the Knicks won a playoff game when I realized that their last win came on my father's 50th birthday.

Last week we took him out to dinner to celebrate his 61st.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I'm Going To Keep Loving These Overtimes If They Don't Give Me A Heart Attack

Recently I noted that in 1993 the Montreal Canadiens won ten overtime games en route to an unlikely Stanley Cup championship. Now, I would never be so brash to suggest that the Devils are headed to a Stanley Cup this season, nor would I presume that it will take an abundance of overtime games to get there, but after last night's wild -- and somewhat bizarre -- 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Philadelphia, I'm starting to wonder. New Jersey has now gone to extra time in four of its last five games -- twice with its season on the line -- and wound up winning three of the four games. If you extrapolate that they've won six of 10 games, and would need to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, that would say that the Devils, should they go all the way, will play between 26 and 27 games to win it all -- just one shy of the maximum possible 28. If four of their 10 games have gone to overtime that would put the Devils, in 26 games, at an average of slightly more than 10 overtime games in total.

That's a lot. And I'm not sure my ventricles are strong enough to handle it.

Last night's game was of particular angst for me because I just so happened to be in sec. 129 to see all the action. This almost didn't happen. In fact, I was looking very much toward sitting on my couch and watching with some Chinese food. After all, the Devils have not yet lost a game I've watched while sitting on my couch at home. And naturally that has a very real impact on the end result -- just like my playoff beard, which is getting progressively itchier and distressingly grayer near the corners of my chin. But half way through the day I thought, hey, why not go down to the Rock for the game if I can get tickets for a reasonable price. This was proving tricky as get-ins on Stubhub were $100 at the cheapest for seats that were, uh, less than desirable, but since my friend Ruth had told me she would be in for $100 -- "It's a playoff game," she said -- I knew I had at least one person who would be crazy enough to go with me.

Here's the fun thing about Stubhub though. The website cuts sales off two hours before puck drop, and in the final minutes before sales cut off, prices drop precipitously from sellers hoping to get something -- anything -- for what will otherwise be dead weight. I always knew this, but until yesterday I didn't realize just how quickly -- and how dramatically -- the prices drop. The tickets I bought had been sitting at $120 each earlier in the day. By the time I bought them with three minutes to go before the cutoff they were $70. If I waited until one minute before the cutoff I could have sat in the bottom bowl for $50. My tickets were $141 face value, so to say the least, this is information worth packing away.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Back In The Top Flight And It Feels So Good

People often marvel at, mock or criticize the vast number of sports I keep at least a cursory tab on, and I find that this is generally not because there are so many of them but because some of them are not on this continent. I have a feeling that my near obsession with the Geelong Cats and Aussie Rules Football may have tipped the balance to be just too much in most people's respects. But, really, truly, the reason all of this non-American sports fandom started can by traced all the way to the summer of 2001, when a co-counselor of mine at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp turned me on to a soccer team on the southern coast of England called Southampton FC.

See, English soccer had long been something of a distant white whale that I had wanted to have a vested interest in, but somehow couldn't find the right option with which to do it. There were the obvious choices in Manchester United or Liverpool or Arsenal, but in a sport that is heavily monopolized by a few clubs at the top of the table, it seemed somewhat hokey -- and frankly, too easy -- to pick a team that was always in the title hunt and that for an American seemed to demonstrate little actual interest or dedication because everyone knows Manchester United is good. So, when I was turned on to the Saints I was satisfied that I had picked a team which, while not destined for perennial contender status, was still a mainstay in the top flight of English soccer -- Southampton had been in the top level longer than any other club in the FA -- and was at least moderately successful -- Saints reached the FA Cup Final before losing to Arsenal 1-nil in 2003, the second full season I followed the team.

In many regards, it seemed I had picked just the team I was looking for. One that was capable of winning championships, but not so regularly that the struggle and achievement was lost on a fan base bored with success. Opportunities to actually watch the team were rare, but the magic of the internet enabled me the ability to follow the team from afar, and follow it I did. As a quid pro quo for my dedication to Southampton, Scott, the counselor who had introduced me to the team, decided he would follow the New York Mets, and as it stands one decade later, I'm not sure who, exactly, got the worst of that trade. When Scott informed me last year that his young son was now the proud owner of a Mets cap, I sent him my deepest sympathies. Southampton, meanwhile, might have embarked on quite possibly the darkest decade in the club's history just two years after I jumped on board.

Massive injuries and a virtual revolving door of changing managers resulted in the team tumbling during the 2004-05 season, ultimately dropping them so far that they were relegated from the Premier League to England's second tier, the Championship, at the end of the campaign, ending 27 years in England's top level. Southampton flirted with promotion in 2007, falling to Derby County on a missed penalty kick by Inigo Idiakez, but the general trend was a downward spiral and colossal financial mismanagement, which combined to result in a sell off of talent that could almost alone be its own top level starting XI. James Beattie, Peter Crouch, Antti Niemi, Gareth Bale, Kenwyne Jones, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all have been sold off to top tier clubs in the years since, while Southampton was relegated a second time in 2009 to the third tier of English football for the first time in half a century and placed in Administration. Things were so desperate that the club actually asked employees to work for free as a gesture of good will.