Bye Bye Babcock, Buenos Dias Blashill: The Red Wings will be just fine

So long Coach Babcock and thanks for the memories. Your unmistakable sneer and fantastic head of hair (HOW DOES HE KEEP IT SO PERFECT?) will be missed in Hockeytown, but it was time for a divorce between the Red Wings and yourself. While your time in Detroit will never be forgotten, having won a Stanley Cup in your third year in the Motor City as well as falling one goal short of a second straight cup, the relationship began to sour a bit towards the later part of your tenure.

How many Cups is Babcock departing Detroit with?

Babcock’s accomplishments in Detroit will go down in the record books. In ten years coaching the Wings, he became the winningest coach in team history, earning win number 414 in April 2014, surpassing Jack Adams for most wins with the franchise. Later the same year, he recorded his 500th career win, becoming the second fastest coach to win 500 games in NHL history. The only one who did that quicker? Former Wings coach Scotty Bowman. Babcock also had to endure the challenge of facing his first year with the organization under the NHL’s new salary cap rules. The Red Wings went from being the most expensive collection of hall of famers ever assembled in 2002 (Luc Robataille was on the FOURTH LINE that year) to a new look organization that consistently mixed old, productive players with fresh blood. However, rumors around the team have said that some players began to tune out Babcock towards the end of his tenure, and the current iteration of the Red Wings are without a doubt, a team in transition. On May 8th, he requested permission to speak with other teams, and on May 20th, it was announced Babcock would return to his native Canada to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, signing a contract for 8 years and 50 million dollars. Without turning this into a piece slandering the Maple Leafs, two factors played a role in that decision. Detroit GM Ken Holland said he would not give Babcock a deal longer than five years, and having led Canada to that famous Olympic triumph in Vancouver in 2010 (DAMN YOU SIDNEY CROSBY) Babcock could have the Maple Leafs just make the playoffs and be completely adored by Toronto fans. Much like when Brendan Shanahan headed for Ontario, I don’t hold ilk against either of them unless the Leafs beat the Wings in the playoffs – then all bets are off and I’m burning things.

The Stanley Cup Blues

June 12, 2009 was the day the music died for Detroit

June 12, 2009 is a day that will live in infamy for all Red Wings fans. For only the second time that I could remember, my team losing drove me to tears. (FWIW, the first was that Michigan vs Ohio State game in 2006) The team lost Game 7 to Pittsburgh 2-1 in Overtime (TALBOT!) at home nonetheless. Hindsight is 20/20, but after that Cup loss, the Chicago Blackhawks current reign as the best team in hockey. The Red Wings have made the playoffs every single year since losing on that fateful night, but the team has not dominated like they used to, having failed to get past the second round of the playoffs the last six seasons. They went from winning the President’s Trophy and being among the best teams in the regular season to having to fight their way into the playoffs during Babcock’s final two years. There also was always a foreboding sense of fear that Detroit didn’t have the killer instinct that they used to – since 2010, the team is 1-3 in playoff Game 7’s, with their only win coming over the Ducks in the 2013 conference quarterfinals. Long story short – the Red Wings turned into the San Jose Sharks East this decade. They always made the playoffs and some considered them a dark horse pick to make a run, but they failed to live up to expectations. I think one way to fix that will be some fresh blood in the coaching staff to reinvigorate the players.

Downgrading Detroit

These days, the Wings are a far cry from the legends that hoisted the cup three times between 1997 and 2002

Can you name the last time the Red Wings truly made a splash in free agency? This is a team that almost always made savvy trades and nabbed big name free agents in the pre-salary cap era, but the well has dried up since. I cannot name one free agent signing who made an instant difference since Marian ‘The Mercenary’ Hossa skipped town for Chicago after his lone season wearing the winged wheel in ’08-’09. Sure, the squad got Mike Modano for a feel good victory lap, but guys like Ian White, Stephen Weiss, Carlo Coliacovo? These are not necessarily signs that Holland was slipping, but that perhaps players didn’t want to come to Detroit, either not wanting to play for Babcock, or the franchise refused to splash the cash necessary. There are times where this came back to bite them, the first being in 2011. The team certainly could’ve used Jaromir Jagr’s 54 points, which would have been good for 4th on the team that season, but Jagr chose to sign with the Flyers instead after the Wings were named as a finalist for his services. This past year, the Red Wings were rumored to be interested in free agent defensemen Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle, both of whom would fill the team’s need for a right handed shooting defenseman. The team missed on both, and their defensive shortcomings were exposed throughout the year, leading to the acquisition of Marek Zidlicky at the trade deadline. The “Red Wings Way” of Draft–>Develop–>Detroit is a fantastic way to ensure your hockey team is the model of consistency, but the playoff streak loses its luster a bit when the team can’t acquire the players necessary to get them over the second round hump they are stuck on.

Blashill has been an una-blash-ed success since joining the Wings organization since 2011

Next Coach Up: Wings fans, meet a name you may have heard before: Jeff Blashill. The 41 year old Michigan native (born and raised in Sault St. Marie) has been with the organization since 2011 when he served as an assistant in Detroit before taking his current position as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2012. Blashill has had success at every level he has coached at. He started as a college assistant with Ferris State and Miami (OH) – two storied hockey programs. His first year (2008-09) with the USHL’s Indiana Ice ended in a Clark Cup championship. In his only year at Western Michigan University, he led the Broncos to their best season in fifteen years – a top four CCHA finish, a CCHA tournament title, and an appearance in the NCAA tournament. In his first year in Grand Rapids, Blashill led the Griffins (which consisted of current Red Wings Danny DeKeyser, Luke Glendening, Thomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahen, Tomas Tatar and Peter Mrazek) to a Calder Cup championship. When other NHL teams requested to interview Blashill last offseason, Holland had a conversation with him, and Blashill elected to stay in Grand Rapids for another year with a pay raise making him the highest paid coach in the AHL at $400,000. He currently has the Griffins in the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs as they challenge for their second championship in three years after losing in last year’s conference semis to the eventual champions, the Texas Stars. While Blashill is busy getting his team ready, Holland said that he will be the first interview – and many, myself included, believe he is a shoo-in as the Red Wings next head coach.

Follow The Model

Blashill and Babcock had very similar career paths which could bode well should the Grand Rapids coach be Detroit’s choice

What’s fascinating are the similarities in the coaching paths that Babcock and Blashill have both taken. Babcock was in the WHL, before a two year stop with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the AHL before taking over in Anaheim in 2002, getting the then-Mighty Ducks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in his first year. He took over in Detroit after the 2004-05 lockout. Blashill has been in Grand Rapids three years after his own stint coaching at the junior level, and now could be ready to make his leap to the NHL. Blashill could do far worse than have a tenure as long as Babcock’s lasted in Detroit. That is sheer speculation, but as a long time Red Wings fan, I am confident in saying that Blashill is far more Mike Babcock than he is Dave Lewis (the Wings coach from 2002-04 who tried to fill Scotty Bowman’s shoes and failed to meet expectations.) One case study of note is Jon Cooper. The Lightning’s head honcho won at every level before being brought to Tampa before last season and now he has a young team built by a great GM in the Eastern Conference Finals. Blashill could be set up to succeed just like Cooper has, except he has a level of familiarity with the organization that Cooper did not.

Make Detroit a Destination Again. 

Signing Livonia native Brian Rafalski as a free agent in 2007 helped the Red Wings win their only Cup under Babcock’s watch

This is the counterpoint to everything written about free agency above. The Red Wings need to splash some cash and show that they can bring in the big fish again. Blashill’s potential hiring is the first step in that process. The second is targeting needs and giving in to a player’s demands a little bit. It used to be that Detroit could turn up their nose at free agent contract demands because they were the best team in hockey. This is no longer the case as the Wings are not even the second best team in their own division.

Could Jeff Petry pull a move like Rafalski did eight years ago?

A few free agent needs that immediately come to mind are a right handed shooting defenseman (Zidlicky is 38 years old after all and Alexey Marchenko will probably begin the season in Grand Rapids) and someone to replace the scoring punch of Johan Franzen, who sadly may never take the ice again due to his concussion problems. For defensemen – the team should be willing to throw money at one of the twentysomething righties on the market like Mike Green (Capitals) Andrej Sekera (Kings) or Jeff Petry (Canadiens). Petry sticks out as the most intriguing, and arguably, willing, candidate.  Born in Ann Arbor and raised in Farmington Hills, in addition to playing for Michigan State, Petry fills a need and could return home as a free agent for the first time in his career. Petry’s father Dan was a member of the 1984 World Series Champion Tigers as well. For that Top 6 scoring punch, it would be nice to see Holland put the moves on Ducks winger Matt Beleskey should he choose not to re-sign. Beleskey is a solid power forward type player who has had a career contract year with 22 goals and 32 points. He also has five goals in the playoffs for Anaheim while leading the team in hits during the postseason. He would be a risk or reward type signing, but on a team with proven young scorers, he would not be under immense pressure to match that goal tally.

Regardless of what happens over the next few months, we are headed into a new era of Red Wings hockey. With Ken Holland running personnel, Pavel and Hank still producing and a new crop of young talent ready and hungry, the Wings don’t need Mike Babcock to continue their hallowed playoff streak. Jeff Blashill just may be the guy who like Babcock upon his arrival in 2005, can inject some fresh blood and revitalize the Red Wings into becoming a Stanley Cup contender once again.

Jam of the Week

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsP-MjIueL4

Let My Brady Go: The Ballghazi Witch Hunt is the NFL at its Hypocritical Best

As soon as I saw the news break on Twitter of the Wells report on “Deflategate/Ballghazi” I knew I would not be able to watch any of the sports networks like ESPN or FS1. That is because this gives them an excuse to blather on about the NFL during it’s dead period instead of discussing more pertinent matters – like the NBA and NHL playoffs. I have been sick of hearing about this deflated ball non-story since it first broke back in January. Something stinks here and it’s worse than the stench of Brady and Belichick pulling the “oops you caught me” routine for the second time in the last decade. Let’s examine what has led to the Patriots fines, docked draft picks and Tom Brady’s ludicrous four game suspension.

“At the behest of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the league in 2006 started allowing teams to bring their own footballs to games. Quarterbacks break in these balls how they see fit. Essentially, it became legal to doctor the footballs.” – Peter King, TheMMQB.com, 5/8/2015

So the NFL dug their own grave on this one, and picked Touchdown Tom as the scapegoat for a story that has been blown out of proportion. In the last year alone, the NFL has seen the Ray Rice scandal, Greg Hardy have his domestic violence issues, Adrian Peterson’s suspension, and going back slightly further, the Richie Incognito bullying incident from two seasons ago. All of these off the field incidents have MUCH LARGER CONSEQUENCES for these men both on and off the field. Ray Rice was suspended a paltry two games, Hardy and Peterson both were suspended for fifteen, Incognito was suspended by the team for 8 games and spent 2014 out of football due to his incident. The precedent that “Dishonorable Chairman” Goodell has set is that if you are beating your significant other off the field, a felony in most states, you pay your time and can come back like nothing is wrong, yet if you adjust the footballs, underneath the statute the NFL put in place and overstep your boundaries slightly, or as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky put it so eloquently –

“Despite the Patriots schadenfreude (the last pure sports emotion), the punishment is a fucked-up overreaction from a league hyper-desperate to protect its image—it’s no accident that the NFL cited “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.”” – Barry Petchesky, Deadspin.com, 5/12/15

I’m just assuming that this is Roger Goodell at any given time in the league office whenever trouble appears on the horizon

This whole “ballghazi” issue can be traced back to 2006, when the league began allowing the doctoring of footballs (within certain specifications) to each quarterback’s personal liking. This was to appease Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and the rule had not caused any trouble over the first nine years of it’s enforcement. The original reporter who broke the Ballghazi story is Bob Kravitz, an Indianapolis Colts reporter who works for WTHR Indianapolis. He orginally reported in the wee hours of the morning after the AFC Championship game that the NFL “may” have been investigating the Patriots for tampering with game balls. After the Pats improbable Super Bowl win (YOU GIVE THE BALL TO BEAST MODE.) Kravitz, who had spent the prior two weeks leading the lynch mob against the Patriots, calling for the removal of Bill Belichick as head coach among other things, offered a ‘mea culpa’ for his role in the entire situation after the Super Bowl. It would be egregious to say that Kravitz was salty about the Colts’ loss and ignited a firestorm about this because the team he covers got absolutely blown out, but it also would not be entirely incorrect in this world of #HOTTAKES that we now live in.

Tom Brady isn’t the only GOAT who cheated during their playing days.

In a world without social media, Ballghazi is not a story. Look at some of the past incidents that everyone sweeps under the rug – Jerry Rice, who is without a doubt the greatest receiver of all time, admitted to using stickum on his gloves to get him a better grip on the football. QB Brad Johnson, who won Super Bowl 37 with the Buccaneers, paid ball boys $7500 to doctor the footballs before his team’s blowout win over the Raiders. This is gamesmanship above everything else. Of ALL major sports leagues, I find it comical the NFL is cracking down the hardest on Brady and Belichick for cheating. Look back to the Spygate incident, Eric Mangini was the coach who reported the Patriots after Mangini’s Jets played New England during the season opener of the 2007 season. Mangini served as an assistant under Belichick during the team’s initial Super Bowl run of three titles in four years. Mangini himself expressed regret over reporting the team for Spygate in 2012. Mangini bit the hand that fed him, and due to his whistleblower actions, hasn’t been a head coach in the league since being fired by Cleveland.

NFL fans frequently cast stones from inside their glass houses

It makes me laugh that NFL fans discuss the “integrity” of the game and things of that nature, in any sport (especially the Big 4 in the United States), teams probably cheat as much as they can get away with. If you dig deep enough, every team has their flaws. Now whether the Patriots have been careless, or the victims of their success (read: other teams digging deeper to try and undermine the franchise) one cannot be sure. What we all can be sure of is that no team is the “goodie-two shoes” franchise that fans think they are. That is the nature of the beast, because the only thing more important than winning, is money, and winning and money are mutually beneficial parties in the eyes of the owners, the players, and the fans. Take for example Colts fans who wanted the Patriots removed from the Super Bowl after Ballghazi broke. They will gladly overlook the fact that owner Jim Irsay was arrested for DUI with $30,000 cash on hand in addition to prescription drugs. No one is sure what unscrupulous activities the billionaire may have been getting into, but much like the Patriots, nobody knows your dirty laundry until you get caught.

Roger Goodell has had an up and down tenure as NFL commissioner over the last decade, and this latest suspension is proof that he is in full on panic mode. Goodell is only able to stay in power because he has the full support of the owners, or, at least did have full support of the owners. Goodell has lost Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who ranks among the NFL ownership elite alongside the Mara’s (Giants) and the Rooney’s (Steelers) in terms of stature. It’s the support of the owners that help keep Roger Goodell employed, and handsomely compensated with his absurd eight-figure salary ($40 million/year+ at last check.) Could losing his relationship with Kraft be the beginning of the end for Uncle Roger? That is hyperbolic, but it certainly doesn’t help him in terms of longevity. What also doesn’t help is how different he treats each situation – Rice gets two games, Peterson loses a whole season, and Brady gets four. There is no continuity, or standard in any of his punitive measures.

Some of the Brady hatred is definitely based on jealously more so than cheating.

Now to Brady’s suspension. When the news first broke of Brady’s suspension, I imagine he was sitting in his mansion, drinking wine out of a golden chalice, sitting upon a Game of Thrones-inspired iron throne while wearing all four Super Bowl rings on his hand. While the punishment structure has been as uneven as the NCAA’s, the difference between the NFL and NCAA is that there is no vacating of titles or records like in the college ranks. The NFL can’t just strip the Patriots Super Bowl 49 victory away from them. There could be an asterisk attached to it, but the legions of Patriots fans and most NFL fans won’t bother. As I have said many, many times when my teams lose – sports are dumb: we buy clothing and tickets to games to only benefit the teams. Sure, a win may provide personal validation on certain levels, but really, professional sports teams see fans as dollar signs more than anything. Speaking of dollar signs, do a random survey of 100 die-hard NFL fans, specifically those who say they dislike or hate Tom Brady. You ask them how many years they would give up off the end of their lives to live for a year as Tom Brady, and I would hedge my bets that most would give up somewhere between five to ten years off their lifespan to spend a year as Tom Brady. The man is a god in the nation’s biggest sport, a lock for the Hall of Fame (no he will not get the Pete Rose treatment) rich, and married to a Brazillian supermodel with few tykes running around. He has embodied the material American dream. As much as I revile the “hate us ’cause they ain’t us” motto that Pats fans have adopted about Ballghazi, it does carry some water. Brady will be out for the first four games of the 2015 season without pay. For a QB entering his 16th season, the suspension may actually benefit his 39 year old body – taking some time off at the start of the year certainly could keep him fresher for the playoffs. In Brady’s place will probably be last year’s second round pick Jimmy Garappolo. While untested, Garappolo will get plenty of reps during training camp and the preseason. The Patriots also have a favorable schedule in Pittsburgh, @Buffalo, Jacksonville and @Dallas. The NFL could think that suspending Brady will tank their season, but at worst, the team is 2-2 after that stretch. The same record they started the season with in THREE OF THEIR FOUR SUPER BOWL WINNING SEASONS (’01, ’03 and ’14.)

If you think the Patriots will falter under Jimmy G, you forget how good Belichick made Matt Cassel look in Brady’s 2008 absence.

In all likelihood, Brady will appeal his suspension. Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (who was initially suspended for the entire 2012 campaign for his role in the Saints bounty scandal) has encouraged Brady to sue the NFL to try and get his suspension reduced. Brady is a smart man who will do what ever he thinks is right in the eyes of himself, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. Whether that is sitting out for a month, appealing the suspension, or any other major action, won’t be known for awhile.

Get this man out of power immediately.

As you can tell from my rambling, I believe that Ballghazi has been a non-story from the start. As 49ers QB Colin Kapernick points out above, the Patriots did not win that game because of deflated footballs, they won the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl by being That. Damn. Good. Do I think that Brady perhaps should show a little more remorse instead of playing coy and acting a fool? Sure, but I also respect him for not catering to the expectations that the public have for him. As Brad Pitt’s character Jackie Cogan in Killing Them Softly said at the end of that excellent, excellent film. “This guy (Goodell in this case) wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f***ng pay me” That’s what the NFL is above anything else – a business that relies on dollars and sense. The Ballghazi penalties and suspension don’t really involve either – the million dollar fine will just go back into the NFL’s coffers, and Brady will probably appeal the suspension and get it knocked down to two games. More than anything, this suspension shows that Roger Goodell needs to be removed from power as NFL commisioner and replaced with someone who can dole out punishment that is fair and just with the severity of the crime. Until that happens – #FreeBrady

Jam of the Week

Good Old Hockey Game, Brand New Perspective: My First NHL Game from Press Row

IMG_1610

When the Minnesota Wild beat the St. Louis Blues on Sunday April 26 to advance to the second round, I was elated. Not only because it meant I would be able to start off my late sportscast with Stanley Cup Playoff highlights, but because it meant a story idea I had been kicking around could finally come to fruition. I routinely cover the Sioux Falls Stampede for work, and have done so even more since their playoff run began and now has earned them the right to compete in the Clark Cup Final. Two former Stampede players are members of the Wild, Forward Thomas Vanek (who just signed this past offseason) and Nate Prosser (in his fourth year in Minnesota.) I instantly resolved to do a story discussing the Stampede’s playoff run with the pair of Stampede alumni. After submitting and getting my credential approved, my news director approved of the idea and I found out I would spend my Cinco De Mayo working in St. Paul covering the Wild before their game 3 vs the Chicago Blackhawks (a FAR cry from how I had spent the last three years on said day.)

The four hour trip may have been boring, but the scenery sometimes provided a view.

The four hour trip may have been boring, but the scenery sometimes provided a view.

When the day finally came, I rolled out of bed at 5:30, got myself ready, and into the station car to drive myself up to the Twin Cities. Like driving anywhere outside of Sioux Falls, my drive featured mostly farm land, electricity creating wind mills, and even a horse in the middle of the median trying to be corraled by Minnesota State Police just after I crossed the state line. Having made a quick stop to consume the breakfast of champions (a sausage egg biscuit with the hash brown stuffed inside and a coffee.) I got off I-35 in St. Paul to arrive at the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Wild since their inception in 2000, the building gleamed at the corner of Kellogg Ave and 7th, and sits within spitting distance of the State capital. Upon getting there and recieving my media pass, I set up my camera gear to start recording footage for my story during morning skate. The first thing I was struck by was this was the first NHL arena I had been to that was not Joe Louis Arena. As much as I love the Joe, it’s an absolute dump by comparison. ‘The X’ had many more creature comforts and felt almost new when pitted against where my beloved Wings play. After shooting practice, I had to get to the locker room for media availibility. It was somewhat obvious I was a rookie among grizzled veterans in terms of the media presence.

Shooting morning skate with 100+ other members of the media was much different than my day to day responsibilites

Shooting morning skate with 100+ other members of the media was much different than my day to day responsibilites

Some photographers even brought step ladders so they could get better shots of players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who had droves of journalists surrounding them. Luckily for me, Nate Prosser has been a scratch during the playoffs, so I was the only one interviewing him. Upon introducing myself and saying I was from Sioux Falls, a slight smile came to his face as I set things up. For being the first NHL player I interviewed, Prosser was very receptive and had plenty of good sound bites for me. Once I wrapped up, I started hunting for Thomas Vanek and asked a member of the public relations team. I felt a gulp in my throat when a man in a grey suit with a Wild lapel pin told me that since his gear was in his locker, he may not return after hitting the showers. After a few minutes passed and the rest of the media contingent headed for Wild Coach Mike Yeo’s press conference, the same man returned to tell me since I was up from Sioux Falls, Vanek would spare an extra five minutes for me. This was paramount considering Vanek is still regarded as one of the best players in Stampede history. Upon meeting the Austrian born Vanek, two things surprised me: first, he was only a couple of inches taller than me, and two: he still had a European-tinge on his english, which I found interesting considering he had emigrated to South Dakota in 1998. As I spoke with him about his time in Sioux Falls and his first season with the Wild, I started to piece together my story in my head. Once I wrapped up with Vanek, it was back out to the car to set up my stand-up. There is nothing more confounding than attempting to shoot your own standup with different factors like traffic passing by behind me as well as myself flubbing my own scripts. After going through about 15 different takes, I finally nailed one and was ready to move on to the edit booth. (read: my hotel room) Working against a deadline, I knew I had to script, record my voiceover, and cut the whole thing together in time for the six o’clock news. Normally this is a process I can take care of in under an hour, but working with our road gear on a laptop and having to voice through the camera made the process take a bit longer. It was all a learning experience as this was my first road trip (and I went without a photographer nonetheless.) After a few pitfalls, I got the package done and sent to the office, which meant I could focus on the game itself.

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My view upon arriving in my space in Press Row

 

As I got out of my Uber and arrived at The X about 6:40 PM, it felt so much different than every other hockey game I had been to. This was a combination that it was the playoffs, and the fact that usually when I watch hockey, I’ve enjoyed a few Canadian beers among friends before hitting the arena. As I flashed my press pass to walk inside, I went up to the press box and took a seat at my space in press row. Considering I had no more “work” to do, I figured I would spend most of the game live-tweeting and enjoying hockey (without cheering of course, because that would be unprofessional.) The Wild had just started to skate onto the ice for Few things are more exciting to watch than a tense NHL playoff game.pregame warmups and you could smell it in the air. There’s something different about playoff hockey vs regular season hockey, especially in a place like Minnesota, where the sport is king. As the game began, the fans were quite raucous for the first period. The atmosphere was so inviting part of me wanted to go buy a Wild hat, sneak into the nosebleed seats and cheer on the team with the fans! Patrick Kane scored what would be the game’s only goal late in the first period. The Wild had been playing well, but weren’t executing on their shot opportunities. As the second half kicked in, everyone in the box began to realize that Corey Crawford had been possessed by the spirit of Domink Hasek. Save after save, and on the other side of the ice, Wild goalie and cult hero Devan Dubnyk was putting in an incredible effort, and aside from the one goal he allowed to Patrick Kane, had a great game, with the fans shouting “DUUUUUUUBBEEE” after every shot he deflected away. After the end of the second, I elected to go stretch my legs and take a walk down on the concourse. As I was surrounded by Wild and ‘Hawks fans, it felt just like home, fans at the game with family, friends, significant others – there is something about hockey to me that really brings people from all backgrounds together, and I would discover more about that later in the night. As I stepped into “The Lodge”

Those of you who know me could tell this was an inevitable purchase

Those of you who know me could tell this was an inevitable purchase

– the Wild’s team store, I made a slightly rash but easily justifiable decision – I was in Minnesota, in what may be my only Wild game, I wanted to get a sweater. So I had a Jason Pominville #29 sweater made up during the third and would collect it after the game. Having logged a near 15 hour work day, I let my “treat yo self” philosophy take over (and despite being there as a member of the media, it’s not like I took it up to the box with me.

By the time the third period began, there was a general consensus in the building that the final score had long been established. As the game wound down, the X fans were still cheering on their squad, but came to the sobering conclusion they were about to be down three games to zero to one of the best teams in hockey. The final horn blew and Wild fans slowly exited the building. Rather than take the elevator to Coach Yeo’s press conference, I ended up in the stairwell with droves of Wild and Blackhawks fans streaming out of the building. I started shooting the breeze with the groups around me as we slowly made our way down the stairs. Since the game let out at 9:30, I figured why not get a taste of Saint Paul. I retrieved my Pominville jersey and slipped it on over my dress shirt and immediately headed to the Irish pub across the street. Normally, I’m someone very hesitant about being in situations as such by myself, but I figured, new city – what’s the worst that could happen? After I ordered a beer, an older gentleman in a Mikael Granlund jersey spotted the number on my sleeve, tapped me on the shoulder and said “well we may as well burn these things, they played like shit.” He was right, Granlund and Pominville’s line had done nothing that night. After that I struck up conversation with him and his friend, speaking about the game and what brought me up to town. As I went to two other watering holes on 7th Avenue, similar situations occured. I just struck up conversation about the game and throughly enjoyed my conversation with people I’ll never run into again. That’s the beauty of sports, the common interest brings together different fans and can lead to anything. As I drove home the next morning, exhausted, I was very happy with my trip to St. Paul. My story went well, I saw the game, and even found a bar (Pat McGovern’s Tavern) that sold Oberon, one of my favorite Michigan craft beers. Now I do have to say, being at an NHL game not featuring the Red Wings and not being able to enjoy a beer while watching hockey was something new for me, it was still an exhilarating day. I know this is the first of many forays for me into travelling for work, and if this trip set the bar, things can only go up from here!

Jam of the Week

For Those Who Leave Michigan: What I’ve Learned in my year since Graduation

A year later, graduating from Michigan still ranks as the proudest day of my life.

Seeing that’s it’s graduation week in Ann Arbor, and having read a great post on my friend Emily’s blog (check it out, she’s an incredibly passionate writer) I figured what better time than now to reflect on the 365(ish) days since I became a Michigan alumnus.

I can’t believe it’s been a year since I walked across the stage at the Michigan Theater and went from being a Michigan student to a Michigan graduate. I’m not sure what’s harder to believe: that I have been out of college for a full year, or that graduation really didn’t feel like that long ago… The first thing you’ll learn when you leave school is that time passes a lot quicker. Maybe it’s that I don’t have any homework, maybe it’s that I don’t go to the bar five nights a week like I did super-senior year, or maybe it’s the fact that a work schedule keeps things so neat and tidy (even in an unpredictable profession like mine) that the weeks just fly by. I moved out of Michigan eight months ago this week, and it doesn’t feel like it has been that long.

Moving so far away from home has meant I’ve learned to treasure all the time that I am able to spend with college friends, even if it’s just grabbing beers and watching basketball.

While I did have a whopping five months of summer (and no job to boot) after graduation, that wasn’t exactly the dream experience that it sounds like on paper. As soon as graduation Saturday was over, I had some friends who left the next day, and I still haven’t seen nearly a year later (vacation time and travel are something you cannot get enough of at this age.) Obviously, this is something I wish I could change but it’s an unfortunate reality, so with that, treasure those weekend get togethers and make new memories. The one thing I have made certain of in all the trips I’ve made either home or to other destinations to meet friends is to always take a ton of pictures, and I disconnect from my phone (sounds crazy right?) I don’t worry about work emails or texting people who aren’t immediately with me that weekend, I just unplug, live in the moment, and enjoy every second that I can with friends who I wish I could see more often. Of course not everyone moves as far away as I did with no friends nearby, but at the same time, doing so has showed me how to make friends in the real world. Common interests, working together, there’s a lot of different things at play instead of bonding at Skeeps over tequila shots (wow I made a ton of friends that way.)

If you had told me I’d be working in South Dakota a year ago, I’d have said you were crazy. But I’ve embraced my new surroundings to the fullest.

For those of you who have jobs lined up in the big city, more power to you, you’ll meet plenty of people in addition to having an abundance of alumni around (looking at you New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco and Dallas.) For those of you who embrace entering the shit like I have, always keep an open mind and an open attitude. Never say no to anything because you never know what could happen. Meet as many people as possible and do as many things as you can, because in the real world, you’ll make friends from all age groups and backgrounds, which certainly keeps things interesting.

I’ve made my way back to Ann Arbor plenty, it feels different, but especially for a native like me, it will always be home (even if Rick’s doesn’t feel like home anymore)

When I finally left Ann Arbor at the end of September, I had settled into a nice postgrad rhythm of applying for jobs, exercising, and going out to the bar like I was still a senior. While I enjoyed acting like Van Wilder, leaving Ann Arbor made me realize two important facts – One: the town never changes. There may be a few new restaurants or tall apartment buildings, but in the three trips I have made back since I left, almost nothing feels different, which is great, because even when you leave Michigan you can always return hoMe. Of course, the same friends and people you always saw will move on to new places and greener pastures, but that’s the joy of reuniting back in your college town. Just don’t do what I did for my 24th birthday and try to think you can party like you did in college (derp.) Secondly: Your college doesn’t feel the same once you graduate. You’ll still have younger friends who are in school and everything may seem business as usual, but believe me, something will feel different when you step into Jug, Charley’s, Ricks or Skeeps upon your return to the deuce.

Baking unholy creations like this has become one of my new favorite hobby since moving

Baking unholy creations like this has become one of my new favorite hobby since moving

Finally, the transition from college to a real job was certainly my wake up call. Now instead of attempting to work hard and play hard like I did in college, I’ll come home, plan out my weekly meals or read, watch the Daily Show, or grab a beer with coworkers and turn in relatively early. The biggest thing that will hit you at some point (unless you are going to grad school, then go wild) is that becoming a functional member of society is something we all do at one point or another. Those desires to drink tequila and down NYPD on a Tuesday or sing your heart out at Karaoke when you have work the next day at 9 am gradually fades into the distance as you start this next chapter of your life. For me, I’ve channeled all the energy I put into those things during school into self-improvement as a postgrad: I’ve become quite the chef and baker, I read and write as much as possible, some days if I feel really ambitious, I’ll even wake up at 7 am and sneak in 9 holes of golf before I head into the office in the afternoon. Don’t let time go to waste watching Netflix all day (some days you will end up doing that, Those Seinfeld reruns on Hulu won’t watch themselves) but see how much you can learn and do in this first year outside of the classroom .Take up a new hobby or sport – just because you may never sit in a classroom again doesn’t mean you have to stop learning at that breakneck Michigan pace.

Your school pride will only increase the further you go from Michigan. A few weeks ago, I spotted an older gentleman at my gym wearing a MIchigan t shirt, I shouted Go Blue and asked him what his connection was. Turns out, his son had attended the U back in the mid 2000’s and was even in the Marching Band. When you leave campus, that readily available pool of people who have so much in common will disapate. So with that Join the Alumni Assocation. You don’t have to be as cheap as me and refrain from donating, but being in contact with other Michigan alums not only is a great networking opportunity, but can lead to great social interactions and exchanging of stories about days gone by.

These are just a few of the many things I’ve learned in my year since I graduated, and I’m sure I will learn plenty more in the years to come, knowing in the back of my mind, my home and my school will always be there for me in Ann Arbor. For the Class of 2015, I wish you all the best in whatever the future may hold for you. Grad school, a new job, or maybe being like me and moving back in with your folks until you figure your life out, just remember that as a Michigan graduate, you have accomplished something you can be proud of for the rest of your life. For those who leave Michigan, but Michigan never leaves, for today: goodbye, tomorrow: good luck, and forever: GO BLUE!

Jam of the Week

How She Goin’ Eh! Your Guide to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Put on your sweaters, grab a case of Labatt, and throw away your razors, after 1,230 games, it’s time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs! Growing up in Michigan meant two things for me: 1. I worshipped the Red Wings, and their eternal playoff streak. 2. I considered myself an honorary Canadian. Those two factors turned me into the hockey loving goon that I am today. My Wings are back in the tournament for the 24th straight season, but there’s also 15 other teams vying for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Before we preview this year’s participants, a quick recap of last year.

The Los Angeles Kings somehow topped their 2012 cup run by becoming the first team in NHL history to advance to the Finals after winning three consecutive seven game series. The Kings beat San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago, setting up a Tupac vs Biggie like matchup when they faced the New York Rangers in the Final. The Rangers had two seven game series in their opening two rounds before taking down Montreal in the Eastern Finals to reach their first Cup Final since winning in 1994. In a 5 game final, the Kings won 3 of their 4 games in Overtime, including their 2OT thriller in Game 5 to win their second cup in three years. It also led to Kings center Anze Kopitar providing us with one of the best trophy photos ever.

Now to 2015.

The Kings aren’t even in the playoffs to defend their crown, due to their atrocious 3-15 record in overtime this season, as well as some internal unrest between the players and head coach Daryl Sutter. For the first time since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes, the reigning champion won’t be defending their title, which adds a level of intrigue to the next few months. Now I know that hockey is a bit of a niche sport compared to the NFL or NBA, so here is a quick primer of the teams and why you should or should not cheer for them.

 

The Contenders

New York Rangers  – 53-22-7, 1st in Metropolitan

Rick Nash

The Rangers felt like they were wronged with how they lost last year’s Stanley Cup final, they spent this year exacting their revenge on opponents, winning the President’s Cup Trophy with 113 points and recorded a league high 53 wins, both setting new franchise records (FWIW: The team whose records they broke, were the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion Rangers). What’s most impressive is they spent a third of their season without their star goalie – Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist took a puck to the throat and sprained a blood vessel on Jan. 31 vs Carolina. During his 25 game absence, the team went 18-7. The team is 3rd in Goals/Game with 3.02, led by Rick Nash’s 42 goals. Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider and the team’s other forwards don’t have stats as gaudy as Nash’s, but the team found ways to win. A favorable matchup with the Penguins in the first round, followed by facing either the Capitals or the Islanders gives the Rangers a simple path to the conference finals.

Cheer Them: If you like watching good old fashioned hockey, and they are an original six team, which is always a good thing

Boo Them: If you don’t like cheering for the favored team or just are against New York sports teams.

Anaheim Ducks 51-24-7, 1st in Pacific

Ryan Kesler

The Ducks have been a consistent threat ever since the team won their first cup in 2007, only missing the playoffs twice in that span. Led by captain Ryan Getzlaf and new addition Ryan Kesler, the Ducks may finally be able to break their streak of disappointing playoff exits after successful regular seasons. The Ducks play the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, and while the Jets matchup favorably, it should be pretty easy goings for the Ducks until the second round, where they will play the winner of the Canucks/Flames matchup. That may prove more difficult, but if the Ducks play solid, consistent hockey, they very well could win the West.

Cheer Them: They have devoted fans, and Ryan Kesler hosts a hilarious parody of Between Two Ferns called Between Two Zambonis.

Boo Them: They dropped all connections to their awesome origin roots in 2006, a sin that is unforgivable to anyone who has watched The Mighty Ducks.

The Dark Horses

Tampa Bay Lightning – 50-24-8, 2nd in Atlantic

Steven Stamkos

The Lightning have had an up and down run during the Steve Yzerman tenure, reaching as far as the conference finals in 2011, and missing the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. The Lightning comfortably ended the season second in their division thanks to strong play from all-world center Steven Stamkos and the steady glove of Ben Bishop in the crease. It’s been five years since Yzerman left Detroit for Tampa, and fittingly, the Lightning play the Red Wings in the first round. This may be the hardest series to read, but if the Lightning do top Detroit, they should be able to take down the winner of Ottawa/Montreal as well. Tampa leads the league in goals per game with 3.2 this year, and considering the Red Wings nightmarish season between the pipes, that favors Tampa well. However, goalie Ben Bishop has yet to play postseason hockey and he may be nervy at first against a battle tested team like Detroit. Tampa Bay’s cup window is just opening, but in a questionable Eastern Conference, they need to seize the moment and try to win now.

Cheer Them: If you like rooting for teams built the right way between drafting, free agency and consistent play

Boo them: If you’re a Red Wings fan, or hate the idea of Florida hockey.

Washington Capitals 45-26-11, 2nd in Metropolitan

Alexander Ovechkin

In the name of Trotz, Orpik, and Niskanen, the Capitals are a pretty good team. New head coach Barry Trotz and the two new blue liners (Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen) to beef up the Caps formerly leaky defense. Combined with workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, who started 72 games this year (and went 41-20-10 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage doing so) and the league’s most potent scorer in Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals are hoping to make some noise. It all could hinge on Ovechkin, whose playoff performances have varied from absolute brilliance (2009) to Houdini-esque disappearing acts (2013). Washington has a favorable draw with the Islanders, and if they conquer them, they probably play the Rangers in the second round. The Capitals have been steady if unspectacular, but who knows, maybe Ovechkin finds his stride, and the team reaches their first conference finals since

Cheer them: You love watching a team that dominates on the powerplay (league leading 25.3%) and has a strong, skilled defensive unit.

Boo them: You have a disdain for the DC area, or are disheartened by a soviet born player in our nation’s capital (I’ve been on a big binge of The Americans lately, so maybe I’m just paranoid)

St. Louis Blues 51-24-7, 1st in Central

Vladamir Tarasenko

The Blues enter the playoffs this year in better condition then last year, having won five of their last six. The issue for St. Louis is the team starts hot, but falls off and exits early. Two years in a row, they have won their opening two playoff games only to lose the next four. They hope this will be the year that changes. The second best team in the west by record, had strong overall season on all fronts, ranking top five in: goals for, goals against, and powerplay, in addition to ranking seventh in penalty killing. They go up against the comeback kids, the Minnesota Wild. These teams have a lot of experience as division rivals, but I think this is the year the Blues can turn it around. They face the winner of Nashville and Chicago, which will provide sterner opposition. The Blues road to the cup is not easy, but it starts with winning their first playoff series since 2012.

Cheer them: You enjoy strong offensive forwards like T.J Oshie, Vladamir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen

Boo them: The Blues are kind of like the Philadelphia Eagles in that they have strong regular seasons and crash out in the playoffs (only two playoff series wins since 2001) also, the people that cheer for this team are probably Cardinals fans, who are terrible.

Chicago Blackhawks

Corey Crawford

The Hawks have won two of the last five Stanley Cups, and were a goal away from another final last year, but spent this year trying to rediscover their identity. Star forward Patrick Kane going down to injury hurt them the most. He was leading the league in scoring when he got hurt on February 25th, but has been cleared to return for their opener vs the Predators. Goalie Corey Crawford has quietly had the best season of his career (32-20-5 record, 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage) and was a co-recipient of the William M. Jennings trophy alongside Carey Price for allowing the fewest goals on the year (189). The Blackhawks experience, and a first round playoff matchup with relatively inexperienced Nashville favors them to advance to a matchup with the Blues or Wild. If the Blackhawks heat up at the right time, and Kane resumes his scoring ways, the ‘Hawks could make another deep run this year.

Cheer Them: Despite the team’s checkered history prior to the Quennville-Toews-Kane era, Chicago is a fine hockey town, and another original six club

Boo Them: Ask any “fan” under age 30 who Alexi Zhamnov is, if they don’t know, they are a shameless bandwagon hopper. Also, their iconic sweaters can be seen as a bit racist.

The Second Hottest Team in Hockey

Minnesota Wild 46-28-8, 4th in Central (Wild Card 1)

Devan Dubnyk

The Wild’s season has been a great story. Less than 90 days ago, the squad sat 12th in the conference. Coach Mike Yeo’s practice meltdown went viral and it looked like the team would not carry the success of last year’s playoff run in to this season. Then GM Chuck Fletcher acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk from the Coyotes and the rest was history. Dubnyk started every game for the Wild until their second to last game of the season, and the team nabbed a wild card spot, tying an NHL record by winning 12 straight road games to finish the season. They face division rival St. Louis in the first round. The Wild have already had an improbable road to the playoffs, and could make the second round again this year considering their hot streak. However, it would be the stuff of legend for this squad to go from the basement to the conference finals in under five months.

Cheer them: It’s hockey in Minnesota

Boo them: It’s hockey in Minnesota

The Canadians – There are 5 teams from the Great White North featured in this year’s playoffs, I doubt any of them will win, but O CANADA!

Montreal Canadiens 50-22-10, 1st in Atlantic 

Carey Price

Carey. Flippin. Price. He will be the lasting memory for hockey fans when they think of the 2014-15 Habs squad. Price is having a season that is worthy of Hart trophy consideration – a record of 44-16-6, 1.96 GAA and a .933 save percentage. Price’s 44 wins are a new franchise record, his save percentage ranks 3rd all-time among goalies who started at least 50 games in a season, behind only Dominik Hasek and Tim Thomas. What is Price’s reward for his year? The Habs face the hottest team in hockey in the first round, the Ottawa Senators, who they are 1-3 against this year. Two years ago, the Canadiens won the division and were upset by Ottawa, so they are on alert. If star forward (and former Michigan Wolverine) Max Pacioretty can return from injury and score goals, along with Price being Price, the Habs can go far. If not, they may be crying into their poutine before April ends.

Cheer Them: They are historically the most successful team in hockey, but haven’t hoisted a cup since 1993. Also Carey Price is pretty likable and hoisting the cup would cap his incredible campaign.

Boo Them: They are in Quebec, and Quebec is full of French-Canadians who don’t even want to be a part of Canada, so if your anti-francophile, don’t root for the Canadiens.

Ottawa Senators 43-26-13, 4th in Atlantic (Wild Card 1)

Andrew Hammond

The Sens are the hottest team in hockey, finishing on a run of 21-3-3. There also is the growing legend of Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, the rookie netminder is 20-1-2 since making his debut Feb. 18 against the team’s first round opponent – the Canadiens. If you’re a fan of good goaltending, the Senators vs Canadiens matchup is going to be great hockey. The Senators also feature Norris trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, the most dynamic defenseman in hockey. They are a pesky young team on a hot streak that could upset Montreal and at least give the winner of Detroit/Tampa a fight.

Cheer Them: If you like rooting for young teams without too many stars, also, their fans throw hamburgers on the ice for Hamburglar.

Boo Them: I mean, unless they are playing your team, or you dislike the city of Ottawa, there’s not much to hate about them.

Vancouver Canucks 48-29-5, 2nd in Pacific

L to R: Daniel Sedin, Radim Vrbata, Henrik Sedin

The Canucks had a quietly solid season, finishing second in the Pacific division. As a team, they were Top 10 in Goals, Powerplay and Penalty Kill. After a few good, under the radar seasons in the desert with Arizona, winger Radim Vrbata impressed all year long, scoring 31 goals to go with 32 assists. The goalie situation is what has hockey fans curious with the start of the postseason. Ryan Miller has been out since February with a sprained knee but could return for the playoffs. In Miller’s absence, Eddie Lack has played well in Miller’s and considering Miller’s playoff woes as of late (2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage in the Blues first round exit last year) it may present first year head coach Willie Desjardins with a dilemma – Trust the embattled yet experienced veteran? or stick with the hot hands in Lack? The Canucks have a difficult first round matchup with divisional rival Calgary, and if they take care of the Flames, have to face Anaheim, so a tough road lies ahead for the 2011 Western Conference champions.

Cheer Them: The Sedin twins are two of the most likable guys in hockey, Coach Willie Desjardins ascended from coaching in the WHL, to being an NHL asst. coach, to the AHL to the NHL within ten years.

Boo Them: Remember when the team lost the Cup in the 2011 Finals in Game 7 to Boston? That riot was out of control.

Calgary Flames 45-30-7, 3rd in Pacific

Johnny Gaudreau

The Flames were left for dead as recently as February, when most thought they would try to tank to earn the right to draft Connor McDavid this coming summer. Instead, the team shouldered the load after losing team MVP and (then) Norris trophy candidate Mark Giordano and won their way into the playoffs, going 12-6-3 down the stretch. The team has been paced by a mix and match of youth and veteran presence. Rookie Johnny Gaudreau has lived up to his “Johnny Hockey” nickname, second year forward Sean Monahan had 31 goals and 31 assists, while at age 31 Jiri Hudler had an impressive 76 points to lead the team (good for 8th in the league.) The Flames face divisional rival Vancouver in their first postseason trip since 2009. The teams matched up last in 2004, when the Flames beat the Canucks to face the Lightning in the Finals. The Flames are a dynamic team that could make some noise. They should beat Vancouver and can at least give Anaheim a push in the second round.

Cheer Them: There isn’t a lot else going on in Calgary, so they love their hockey team. Rallied from adversity and defied the odds to make the postseason for the first time this decade.

Boo Them: You are a jilted Atlanta Flames fan who didn’t get over your team skipping town in 1980.

Winnipeg Jets 43-26-13 5th in Central (Wild Card 2)

Tyler Myers

For the first time since moving from Atlanta, the Jets made the postseason, bringing playoff hockey back to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996, and the fans are excited. The Jets did this in an unlikely fashion – they traded disgruntled star forward Evander Kane to the Sabres for a plethora of veterans in return. The Jets roster is a collage of role players from other contenders that have made new names for themselves as stars in Winnipeg – Drew Stafford, Lee Stempniak and Mathieu Perrault all were on teams that had better fortunes than Winnipeg in seasons past, but have created a new, playoff ready unit under head coach Paul Maurice. Their path begins with facing the top seeded Ducks in the first round. While it is unlikely they can pull off an upset against such an experienced squad, the fans in the MTS Center will create a rowdy environment for at least two games that will make things difficult for Anaheim.

Cheer Them: Because for a town that had it’s hockey team taken from them in 1996, this was an event nearly twenty years in the making. The fans and players are elated for playoff hockey to be back in Winnipeg.

Boo Them: You are a jilted Atlanta Thrashers fan who didn’t get over your (second) team skipping town (again) in 2011.

The Participation Trophy Recipients – Thanks for Playing, It’s Not Your Year

Detroit Red Wings – 43-25-14, 3rd in Atlantic 

Petr Mrazek

A few people would think it’s blasphemous to pick against your own team, but I would be astonished if the Red Wings reached the divisional round, let alone got out of their first round matchup. The team was playing incredibly well into March, and then the wheels came off. After going 15-6-2 to start the new calendar year, the Wings had a miserable 5-8-2 record in March. Jimmy Howard has struggled since returning from injury, and young Petr Mrazek will be in net for Game 1 of their series vs Tampa. The team has not won back to back games since late February. However, you cannot discount the team due to their immense expereince, and the fact some of the younger players won a Calder Cup with Grand Rapids. The team ranked 2nd on the Powerplay, and Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist combined for 56 goals. This is not the worst Wings team to make the playoffs in the past few years, but there is a sense of doubt surrounding them. Beat Tampa Bay in the first round, and they could prove dangerous. If their late season sluggishness follows them into the playoffs, the Wings will be on the golf course before May.

Cheer Them: The Detroit Red Wings are the most successful club in the NHL of the past two decades, and one of the best in league history, yet don’t have the stigma of teams like the Yankees despite winning all the time. They build from within, and have one of the most iconic sweaters in the sport.

Boo Them: Stop reading this blog.

Pittsburgh Penguins 43-27-12, 4th in Metropolitan (Wild Card 2) 

Sidney Crosby

The Penguins backed their way into the playoffs this year, but it earns them a chance at revenge against the Rangers. After leading their second round series last year 3-1, the Penguins lost three straight, costing then Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero their jobs. Pittsburgh is 4-9-2 in their last fifteen games, which doesn’t bode well for their matchup with New York. The last two years their sticks also went quiet as they only scored 3 goals in their final three games against New York last year, and 2 goals when Boston swept them in the 2013 Conference Finals. Don’t expect this less than stellar Pens squad to bring another cup back to Pittsburgh.

Cheer them: Don’t

Boo them: Sidney Crosby’s infinitely punchable face is all the reason you need.

New York Islanders 47-28-7, 2nd in Metropolitan

John Tavares

This year was the team’s last playing in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, as the team moves to Brooklyn this coming fall. They will hope to make a long playoff run to give their long suffering fans something to remember the building by. Led by John Tavares, who is one of the best players in the league, the Isles have been steady for most of the year. They tripped up towards the end of the season, which could be troubling for their playoff hopes. They play the Capitals in the opening round, coincidentally, the team who they last won a playoff series against in 1993. If the Isles take care of Washington, it would likely set up an all-New York matchup with the Rangers. While I don’t see them making it past the second, a subway series would be a fitting sendoff for the Coliseum.

Cheer Them: Much like the Mets, the Islanders are the red-headed stepchild to the Manhattan-based Rangers, so they are an underdog at all times

Boo them: like the Rangers, they are a New York sports team, and that coliseum is a complete dump.

Nashville Predators  47-25-10, 2nd in Central

Shea Weber

What do you do when you fire the only coach in franchise history? Undergo a transformation of playing style and change from a counterattacking squad to an offensive machine. New head coach Peter Laviolette brought an attacking style that rewarded the club with the most goals they’ve scored in four seasons. Aside from rookie forward Filip Forsberg, the Predators greatest strength lies from the back forward – Goalie Pekka Rinne’s return from injury and strong play from the defense, led by captain Shea Weber, earned the team their first trip to the playoffs since losing in the second round in 2012. They go up against division rival Chicago, whose playoff experience strongly favors them despite being the lower seed. Nashville also has to face a returning Patrick Kane, back from his clavicle injury suffered in late February. The Predators must protect the Bridgestone Arena if they are to beat Chicago, and if they do, a date with the Blues or Wild awaits them.

Congratulations, you made it all the way through. Choose your team, cheer for them loudly, and embrace the coolest sport on earth. It’s the tournament for the best trophy in sports – the only one you can drink out of. Watch as much hockey as you can, because it’s the cup.

Jam Of The Week

 

Blue Devils, Badgers, and a lot of Big White Dudes: Previewing Tonight’s NCAA Championship Game

First, let’s go over how your March Madness went:

Your Alma Mater/Current College lost opening day in an upset. Your bracket went bust after the first weekend. Your office pick ’em pool team lost a heart breaker in the Sweet 16. You tried rooting for Notre Dame to upset Kentucky, but they lost in the Elite Eight. March Madness is a time of excitement and happiness, it also involves brief sadness before you remember that in the grand scheme, sports are just sports, especially when it comes to your “expertise” when you picked Iowa State to reach the final (raises hand.) While spending Easter/Passover/Your Weekend possibly drowning your March Madness sorrows in your vice of choice (jellybeans are a personal favorite of mine.) The Final Four became the National Championship game participants. Coming into this past weekend, we knew two things 1. In terms of coaching and program pedigree, we had one of the best Final Four’s of the past decade. 2. Each team has it’s own reasons that they can easily be hated. Kentucky was chasing perfection, and their fans are just as bad as Alabama football fans. Wisconsin plays their own “unique” style which can get downright ugly.. Duke is Duke. Michigan State is the good team that was horribly under-seeded and probably beat some of your picks out of their weak region, or in my case – they are a hated rival.

Duke topped Wisconsin in Madison back on December 3rd, but it helped that the Blue Devils shot 65% from the floor compared to the Badgers 40%

After Saturday’s games – the first of which was Tom Izzo’s worst tournament loss ever, the second was a phenomenal game worthy of being a Final Four rematch that turned Kentucky into just another wannabe undefeated team that fell short of perfection – the table is set. Duke and Wisconsin face off tonight in Indianapolis. Duke won their fourth NCAA Championship in Lucas Oil Stadium the last time the tournament was held their in 2010. I still wish Gordon Hayward’s shot had gone in, because that would have arguably been the greatest moment in tournament, and possibly sports history. Instead, Coach K, two Plumlee Bros. Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler led arguably the Duke-iest of Blue Devil squads to a win over Butler. On the other side is Bo Ryan, who finally has the Badgers at the top of the college basketball world after years of competitive teams falling just short. Like Duke, the Badgers have their own motley crew of whiteboys who can ball in Sam Dekker, Bronson Koenig, Josh Gausser, and Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky. As a Michigan fan, I’ve watched these Bo Ryan teams evolve from a standard Big Ten outfit to a rough and tumble offensively efficient monster. It also is the Badgers first National Championship appearance since winning the whole thing in 1941.

This image sealed in my hatred for Wisconsin Basketball

As a Michigan fan, I dislike both these teams, much like in January and the College Football Playoff , I am left picking between a rock and a hard place in terms of my rooting interest. Duke put Sparty in their place, and while that was great, this is still Duke that we are talking about. I was pulling hard for Kentucky, not because of my disdain for Wisconsin or my bracket, but because Kentucky was my team in the office pick ’em and I just lost out on a chance to make 68 dollars from a 5 dollar buy in (Thanks for nothing Big Blue Nation.) So now I am forced to choose between Big Ten pride and cheering for Duke. Part of me wants to root against Wisconsin in the worst way possible, they have had Michigan’s number ever since Ben Brust hit “that” shot in 2013 to force overtime in Madison. Even this year, that scrappy Michigan team pushed Wisconsin to the brink but couldn’t finish the job that Rutgers did, (Yeah, Rutgers topped Wisconsin in one of the most inexplicable results from this entire season.)

All that leads me to say that Wisconsin is clearly the lesser of two evils. Duke is like Notre Dame Football but they actually win games during the postseason. I respect the hell out of Coach K but it will be a cold day in hell (or perhaps if they were playing Michigan State in the final) that I cheer for the Blue Devils over a non-traditional rival from the Big Ten. From an objective standpoint – Wisconsin has had the harder road to the Final – having beaten (16) Coastal Carolina, (8) Oregon, (4) UNC, (2) Arizona and now (1) Kentucky. Duke on the other hand took down (16) Robert Morris, (8) San Diego St. (5) Utah, (2) Gonzaga and (7) Michigan State. Arizona and Kentucky were both legitimate threats to win the championship and the Badgers dispatched of both. Duke faced only one true championship contender in Michigan State considering Gonzaga fell apart at the end of their game during the Elite Eight. Both schools feature elite players that could be first round picks in this summer’s NBA draft – Duke has freshman sensations Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, while Wisconsin has Junior Sam Dekker and Senior Frank Kaminsky, who was voted AP Player of the Year and was announced as the Wooden award winner last night. Kaminsky is also a great underdog story – coming out of Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill.

The Wisconsin Badgers have a new found love for press conference stenographers

Kaminsky had scholarship offers from Wisconsin, DePaul, Northwestern, Bradley, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. He averaged a mere 7.7 minutes, 1.8 points and 10.3 minutes, 4.2 points during his freshman and sophomore years respectively. He blossomed last season and now is regarded as one of the best players in college basketball. In an era where so many players go to college for just one year “because those are the rules” Kaminsky is a throwback to how a player can go from unheralded and under-recruited to becoming one of the best players in the country with the proper coaching and in the right system. The Badgers also have had the most fun of any team this tournament – whether it be messing with stenographers or cracking jokes during press conferences, they Badgers have played great basketball while remembering they are only 18-22 year old’s playing a game.

All in all, it should be one hell of a game tonight, and from this proud Michigan alumni, On Wisconsin!

Jam of the Week

Maize and Blue Madness 2013: Watching the Wolverines Magical Run From inside ESPN’s walls

How do you make March Madness madder? View it from inside these walls!

For the uninitiated: two years ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime, and took part in my dream internship as a Studio Production Intern with ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. 10 weeks at the sprawling campus of the network that had made me want to get into sports, and where I hoped to work one day in the future. After a weekend at home for Saint Patrick’s Day, I was gearing up for the stretch run in Bristol, which would end the same weekend as the Final Four.

Sadly, my consecutive games attended streak at Crisler was snapped, but for a very good reason.

Sadly, my consecutive games attended streak at Crisler was snapped, but for a very good reason.

For perspective, 2012-13 was the first (and turned out to be the only) year that I was a Michigan Basketball season ticket holder. The hype of the fresh five (Albrecht, Stauskus, LeVert, McGary, Robinson III) joining Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr had me sipping the maize Kool-Aid despite the team’s inexplicable loss to Ohio in their opening game of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. I had attended every home game possible, sitting in the Maize Rage along the sideline, cheering on the team. My last game came the night before I left for Bristol, when the team beat Purdue 68-53 (pictured left). I waived bon voyage to Ann Arbor and took off for Bristol.

Seven Weeks Later (In Spongebob Narrator Voice)

Championship Week: The Big Ten Tournament

Before the tournament even started, I had the joy of casually meeting former Fab Five member and Michigan legend Jalen Rose in Bristol. When he found out I went to Michigan his eyes lit up at meeting a fellow Wolverine and Michigan native. During Championship week, it was the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan had inexplicably lost to a woeful Penn State team in Happy Valley two weeks before, blowing a 15 point lead giving the Nittany Lions their only conference win of the season. As I was walking down the hallway, I ran into Jalen and the following exchange ensued:

I got to know JR before he was relocated to Los Angeles, and before he always carried around his trusty bat.

Me: Yo Jalen, you ready for the Big Ten Tourney?

JR: MICHIGAN INTERN! Have you met Tim yet? (He motioned to Tim McCormick, a former Michgan Center in the 1980’s who works as an analyst at ESPN, was manning the screening room mini set for championship week coverage on ESPNNEWS.) Seeing it was a commercial, Jalen tapped his fist to the glass.

JR: Tim – Current Wolverine over here! Just making sure he pays homage to his elders! (He motioned to me and I waved, Tim politely waved back)

JR: but yeah I think Coach B has them ready for the tourney

Me: there’s no way they lose to this Penn State team twice in one year

JR: If they do, you me, and Tim will head to Ann Arbor and knock some damn sense into their heads before next week.

Thankfully, Michigan took care of business, beating Penn State 83-59 before falling in the next round to 4th seeded Wisconsin 68-59. While I knew it would hurt NCAA seedings, it was kind of nice to go to Ann Arbor not having to worry about balancing watching the Big Ten Tournament games with St. Paddy’s Day shenanigans.

*My run in with Jalen happened a mere 8 days before the epic clip above*

Weekend #1: Round of 64: Michigan 71, South Dakota State 56, Round of 32: Michigan 78, VCU 53

Tim Hardaway Jr. emphasizing Michigan’s Round of 32 win over VCU

My view from the VO room, the tourney of course took precedence.

One short week after my run in with Jalen Rose, March Madness kicked off. The entire campus was abuzz, from the SportsCenter pods discussing their brackets casually off-air to the endless on air coverage.  Anchors and analysts running between studios all day, a lot of the buzz that you felt from the tournament, you could see personified behind the scenes. It also was the time of year for “fan days” an annual tradition where talent and staff are invited to wear their favorite teams colors – of course I wore as much maize and blue as possible across the four days. I was sitting at my desk in the screening room on opening day, every tv along the wall had games playing, in addition to the TV at my desk having access to the feed channel – It divided the screen into four boxes and showed me four games being played at once simultaneously. Luckily, working feed room (pulling up archive footage from the basement and ingesting the files to the servers) I had done most of my work for shows that morning, giving me a chance to fully engross myself in the Madness of the afternoon. My bracket destroyed itself early, as it does every year, but being in this new environment being surrounded by fans, experts, and even guys who had played in March Madness themselves, created a melting pot like nothing I had ever seen.

The first Sunday of opening weekend, March 24, I had to work the AM SportsCenter. This was the day after Michigan soundly beat the 5th seeded VCU Rams 78-53, securing their position in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1994 tournament. They also had done so in nearby Auburn Hills, which meant there were hundreds, if not thousands of Michigan students in attendance. Working this particular sunday was the face of the franchise himself, a then beardless Bob Ley. I hadn’t had the chance to meet ESPN’s godfather, so as I introduced myself while handing him scripts, naturally he asked what school I attended, being an intern and all. I replied that I was Michigan born and bred. With a slight grimace, he said, I’m a Seton Hall alum myself, Michigan won that final over them when you were a baby. I had to inform him I actually was born 21 months AFTER Michigan won that 1989 National Championship. With a slight look of horror and amusement, he muttered “they keep getting younger and younger” as I gleefully returned to my spot prompting. Being able to fire a shot without even trying at one of the best in the business gave me a good laugh.

Weekend Number 2: Sweet 16 Michigan 87, Kansas 85 (OT) Elite 8 Michigan 79, Florida 59 

Do you remember exactly where you were when Trey sank the shot heard 'round the world?

Do you remember exactly where you were when Trey sank the shot heard ’round the world?

The next Friday, I had the chance to watch the Michigan’s Sweet 16 matchup vs Kansas from the comfort of my couch in Hartford. While I wish I had the ability to be in Ann Arbor, or better yet, Arlington to see the game in person, it was a game I would never forget. When Trey Burke rose up and nailed that 3 pointer, my celebrating led to my elbow leaving a decent size dent in the drywall behind me (whoops.) I didn’t care, my team had forced overtime off a moment that is forever sealed into my memory. Michigan of course went on to win, setting up an elite eight date with Florida.

The Sunday morning of the Gators game (which just so happened to be Easter Sunday) I had two interesting run ins involving my team. Working on The Sports Reporters, Burke and Michigan’s heroics from Friday dominated the tournament conversation. I distinctly remember Bob Ryan of the The Boston Globe (he is frequently on Around The Horn) mentioning that every tournament, he finds a player he wishes he could “adopt” as a son. Due to his breakout performance, he chose then freshman forward Mitch McGary. I held back a few stifled laughs having seen McGary around campus and met him a few times, knowing he was a bit of a goon, but was happy to see him finally breaking out on the court during the tournament. My friends and I also had a running joke that McGary had rode the pine the earlier parts of the season due to weight issues. While I was grabbing my post-show coffee, the reporters walked by on their way back to the green room so I dished to Bob Ryan the facts on man now known as MMG.

Mitch McGary made a name for himself during March 2013

Me: Hey Bob, you may not want to adopt Mitch McGary so quickly.

Bob: Why is that?

Me: I’ve seen the kid eat in the dining halls, you’re going to go broke trying to keep him fed!

That was met by some raucous laughter as the reporters continued down the hall. I had to work the mid-morning SportsCenter which meant running scripts and getting to chat with the basketball analysts as they came in to breakdown the day’s games. Former Tennessee and current Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was a real character, he is just as boisterous as he seems. I got a chance to get to know him and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg fairly well, and always picked their brain about Michigan hoops and their chances. Even they didn’t believe the team would go on the run they did. Most notably, I remember asking Coach Pearl about Michigan’s chances of making the Final Four. He said that he saw Michigan winning in a come from behind fashion. Michigan instead opened with a 13-0 run and led 41-17 at one point. I caught Coach Pearl walking out of the studio and before I could even say anything he haughtily replied “Jesus Christ! I expected them to beat Florida, not put them six feet under! Your boys ate their Wheaties this morning!” I high fived the coach and returned to my desk, knowing that a trip to the Final Four was in hand, and I would be back in Ann Arbor to watch my team try and earn a berth in the National Championship against Syracuse.

Final Four Weekend: Michigan 61, Syracuse 56

Making it back to Ann Arbor in time for the Final Four created one of the most memorable nights of my Michigan experience

Making it back to Ann Arbor in time for the Final Four created one of the most memorable nights of my Michigan experience

An insane thought ran across my mind. Could I pack up all my belongings in Connecticut, leave my last day of work, drive down to Atlanta to meet up with friends and spend the weekend in Georgia even without a ticket to the game? It would’ve required me pulling an all nighter Friday to Saturday and driving 20 hours to Georgia. Sadly, my folks didn’t think it was the brightest idea, so I digressed, but made my dad promise me we would be home Saturday night before the big game. Sitting in the car, driving through Pennsylvania on I-80, I was receiving dozens of Snapchats, and seeing plenty of Tweets and Facebook posts of people enjoying the festivities in Georgia. We made it back to Ann Arbor by 8:15

My Mom briefly confused Ann Arbor for East Lansing - the couch burning capital of Michigan.

My Mom briefly confused Ann Arbor for East Lansing – the couch burning capital of Michigan.

where my best friend and roommate had already assembled our closest friends for a watch party for the Syracuse game. Returning home, seeing everyone, and watching my team win brought me so many emotions and so much happiness, it was a night I would never forget. As we cheered on Michigan in their eventual win over the Orange, we then bolted out the door, and did not walk, but sprinted to Rick’s, our favorite bar, to grab a spot in line to celebrate. I even had the hilarious text conversation with my mother as seen on the right. It was a night I would never forget, leading into a Monday that was unmatched.

Championship Monday: Louisville 82, Michigan 76

Being in a college town when the school’s team is in the championship creates an atmosphere unlike any other. The hype around Ann Arbor that day was palpable. As I spent my day catching up with friends, I even had the chance to be interviewed by the local ABC affiliate at Charley’s while hanging out with friends who were saving a table for the game later that night. I was going with a different group to the watch party at the Crisler Center. The game was fantastic. Spike Albrecht had the game of his life. And all was well, until it wasn’t. Hope was extinguished when Michigan lost by six to Louisville. I obviously can’t imagine what the players were feeling, but the fans left Crisler in a somber mood, happy about the season that was, but sad that it fell just short of Championship glory. Even though Michigan hockey had just lost in the National Championship game two short years before, this one stung a bit more. If Michigan had won, it would have been the culmination of a program that spent most of this millenium under scrutiny for the Ed Martin scandal, and was returning to prominence under John Beilein. Like everyone else, I recovered from it, and still love Michigan Basketball through and through (despite my up and down attitude about the past campaign.)

It ended in sadness, but Michigan Basketball’s March Madness of 2013 gave every Wolverine fan the ride of a lifetime

While I may not have had the traditional student experience during Michigan’s run to the national title game, I had my own unique one that I will never forget that spanned Bristol and Ann Arbor. I laughed, I cried, and I cheered on my team with unrivaled passion. While I still wonder what could’ve been had Michigan won that title, it was a ride that I’ll never forget, and an experience I am thankful for.

Jam of the Week: