Sports In Briefs

Sports rants from an industry exec who maintains the passion of a fan

Archive for the ‘Olympics’ Category

Rivalry Day – Pressure, Hate, and Too Much Talent

with 4 comments

A few thoughts two-thirds of the way through Rivalry Day in Winter Olympic hockey…

Zach Parise & Ryan Kesler celebrate

Intensity: I have watched hockey all my life, and never have I seen an entire period played with the emotion shared by both the Americans and Canadians in the first period Sunday night. In fact, the first twenty minutes reminded me of the opening round of “The War” between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns in 1985.

The two squads delivered an opening period of preliminary round action with a fire that is usually reserved for the final minutes of a gold medal or decisive Stanley Cup game. That the pace and intensity didn’t waver for the full twenty minutes was mesmerizing.

The teams did more than bestow upon us some tremendous hockey, though. They reinforced two points:

1) The Americans are not here just to build experience for the next Olympics. Many of the familiar names are gone from Team USA, leaving fans to think this year’s young squad was acquiring experience to make it more of a force the next time around. Not so. With goalie Ryan Miller standing on his head, veterans playing like leaders, and young stars proving they belong, the United States may just have a chance.

2) The Canadians are feeling the pressure. Team Canada entered the tournament as one of the gold-medal favorites, hoping to become the first host nation to win hockey gold since the U.S. in 1980. Canada eked out a shootout win against Switzerland, a victory in the standings but a loss to the nation’s hockey-mad fans. The team knew it needed a win to not only gain a bye into the quarterfinals but to stave off the growing doubts, and they played with that desperation.

The biggest question for the Americans is whether they can maintain this intensity into knockout play. It’s very possible they may have peaked too soon, with the possibility of a letdown after an emotional victory. It’s a risk with such a young team.

A day off to get angry – at themselves, at each other, at their expectations, whatever – is a good prescription for a Canadian squad that now has to play into the quarterfinals. I would hate to be their next opponent. On the other hand, I would hate to be player wearing a maple leaf if this team doesn’t figure it out, and soon.

It’s possible to be too talented. Nearly every player in the NHL has exceptional hockey skills, and they can all do wonderful things with the puck. But being a great player means knowing when to do the simple things. It’s like being able to do a 360 dunk, but knowing when a layup is appropriate.

Unfortunately, I noticed more than a few times during the Canada-USA game when players attempted the extra pass or a fancy play when the simple option was the right one.

I can’t say whether it’s the desire to create that highlight-reel goal – the so-called “SportsCenter effect” – or if it’s the result of having so much talent on the ice.

Case in point: Sidney Crosby passed to Rick Nash from six feet in front of the goal; Nash was cutting to the post, blanketed by a defender, while Crosby had space enough for a clear shot on goal. It would have been a picture-perfect goal, and had Nash been able to bury it (he shot the puck through the crease) we’d all be talking about Crosby’s vision and Nash’s finishing ability. The appropriate play was for Crosby to put the puck on net; the odds are much better that he scores, or that a crashing Nash deposits the rebound.

Yes, you could say I am being overly critical or that I’m reading too much into one play. But the fact is that it happened more than just once, and this was the play that was the shining example to me.

When everyone on the ice is an all-star, playing on an international stage, the urge sometimes is to create a play that isn’t there. If you have the skill to make that happen, the impulse can be blinding. But the great players know how to let the game come to them. The heroes from these Olympics will be the players who realize a great play might make SportsCenter, but the right plays will be remembered for years.

Patriotism trumps team loyalty. Every player for Canada and the USA plays in the NHL, and the entire Olympic tournament is full of NHL players. But for these two weeks, those NHL teams are just backstory for fans, like where players went to school or played junior hockey.

It’s an extension of my philosophy that when the Olympics arrive, I hate everyone. During the Games, all that matters is your flag.

Marleau, Heatley and Thornton are Canadians right now - not Sharks

Fans of the San Jose Sharks are probably very proud that their line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley remains intact as key cog for Team Canada. But I imagine Silicon Valley was happy the trio couldn’t muster a victory over the Americans Sunday night.

The same holds true for fans all over the hockey world. While it would be nice for your favorite players to make a splash at the Olympics, you don’t want to see it happen at the expense of your country.

As a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, I’m excited that captain Mike Richards and defenseman Chris Pronger are in the Games. But it wasn’t until late in the third period, when the Americans had a 4-2 lead, that my mind turned to those Flyers.

“Richards could score a goal right now, get on the scoresheet and the U.S. could still win,” I thought. That notion was quickly discarded when Sidney Crosby scored a power play goal to close to within 4-3.

Interestingly, there’s an opposite effect as well. As a Flyers fan, I have a special distaste for the New York Rangers. But when Chris Drury scored to put the Americans ahead 3-2, he was momentarily forgiven his sin of being Rangers captain.

That Team USA jersey can mend a lot of fences. Well, temporarily, at least.

In a week, I can go back to loving Richards and Pronger, and shuddering at the mere mention of Drury’s name. But in the meantime… well, you know how I think.

Final thoughts:

Aside from Miller, the player who stood out most in the Canada-USA game was Nash. He was an absolute beast out there. He threw his weight around like a man playing pee-wee hockey, and he showed elite stick skills. As a Flyers fan in Texas, I don’t get to see Nash very often. For hockey’s sake, either Columbus has to become a contender, or Nash needs to find his way to a better team.

Alex Ovechkin can be the Tasmanian Devil of hockey, and no one knows that better today than Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin’s open-ice pasting of Jagr was a thing of beauty, especially since it directly led to a goal. Even without the puck, he can be a dominating player.

Advertisements

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 am

The Winter Olympics, And Why I Hate Everyone Now

with 5 comments

The flame was lit in Vancouver... eventually

The Winter Olympics are under way. I know, I know, you may not have known had it not been for all the Olympic-themed commercials hitting the airwaves. And maybe missing the beginning of the games wasn’t a bad thing for you; after all, the games were awarded to Vancouver in 2003, yet in the ensuing six and a half years, the organizing committee couldn’t figure out how to make all four trap doors work so they could light things on fire.

One of the most common phrases these next two weeks is going to be “Olympic spirit.” Friends and foes will live together in the Olympic Village and compete as equals in Olympic events. Fans from different worlds will sit side-by-side in the stands and cheer their heroes to gold.

The Olympics, they say, bring us all together.

I heartily disagree. When the Olympics come around, I can’t help but dislike everyone else in the world equally.

Yep. There, I said it.

I live in the United States and I want to see our athletes win everything, whether that’s reasonable or not. I am not going to be consoled by the thought that the British athlete who won is a friend of ours, or that the gold medal triumph of some skier from Uzbekistan is a great story.

When another anthem plays, it means we lost.

In everyday life, friends are friends, foes are foes, and the Swiss are neither. But in an event invites the entire world to compete, it just stands to reason that the entire world is now a foe.

I’m not being childish about it, I’m just rooting for the Americans. I will cheer heartily for our athletes and I will celebrate our victories. I believe the Olympic ideal is wonderful, with events such as these in which everyone can compete and find glory.

I’ll just save my cheering for American glory. The rest will get a nod of acknowledgment… maybe.

One thing I don’t quite understand about the Olympics is timing. We all concede that part of the reasoning for the Olympics is for the participating countries to set aside their differences, gather together in the spirit of competition, and generally all feel warm and fuzzy together.

If that’s the case, why not schedule the Summer Olympics to take place this time of year, and the Winter Olympics when the Summer Games are usually held? If we’re looking for the games to make us feel better just by turning on the TV, seeing the sunshine and 85-degree weather of the Summer Olympics would do me just fine. And when we’re all sweating from near-100% humidity in July, wouldn’t a glimpse of a skier throwing some powder give us the right kind of chills?

It’s not like summer in February and winter in July is a crazy notion – after all, that’s what the entire southern hemisphere experiences. And since 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere, the change would serve the vast majority of the world’s people.

Hey, at a time when it seems Vancouver is the only place north of the Rio Grande River that is struggling to accumulate snow, it’s just a suggestion.

The next two weeks will be filled not only with the events we know – hockey, figure skating, skiing – but also some sports that I struggle to wrap my brain around. The first one of those is the biathlon, which started awarding medals today.

What exactly is the purpose of the biathlon? I know, when you boil it all down, there really isn’t much logic to most sports. But the biathlon pairs two seemingly unrelated activities in cross country skiing and shooting stuff. Participants ski for a while, stop and shoot at targets, ski more, shoot more, etc.

I get it, it’s difficult to ski your hardest, settle your body, breathe easy, and shoot a rifle at a target. And I don’t begrudge those that train for years to become the best in the world at their chosen event.

But there are lots of activities that are difficult when paired together. Juggling while riding a unicycle is not particularly easy, but I have yet to see the IOC hand out medals to a Ringling Brothers clown. If we’re looking to combine the practical with the dangerous, why not speed skating and bear wrestling comes to mind. What is the summer equivalent, the 5,000 meter/blindfolded knife-throwing relay?

Flowers and a note mark the site of Kumaritashvili's death

On a more somber note, we are all well aware of the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday.

We are bound to hear debate about access to the track for practice runs. Is the world’s fastest track too fast?

I know nothing about the luge, except that it looks like bobsledding without the bobsled. My questions, therefore, are less technical and more practical.

My first thought is, why is it necessary for there to be support posts so close to a straightaway, especially coming out of a fast corner? Whatever they’re supporting, can’t it be pushed back, even if just ten feet? Some sort of buffer zone between the track and any obstructions simply seems like common sense to me.

If the support posts absolutely have to be there, why leave them naked and exposed? Those posts should be padded. I just can’t think of any practical reason why they were not protected. Maybe the padding wouldn’t do much for a luger flying out of control at more than 85 mph. But if they do enough to stave off that athlete’s death, isn’t that enough?

I’m no sports architect, and I have never been to a luge track. I have no idea if these design elements are the norm or if they’re unusual. I’m sure organizers have very valid answers to all of these questions, but in light of this tragedy, how truly valid are those answers?

Responsible parties have taken some steps in the last 24 hours. The posts are now being padded. The pads look like they were borrowed from a sixth-grade gymnastics class, but at least it’s something.

A wooden barrier has been erected to hopefully contain any athlete who flies off the track in a similar manner. The starting points for the luge have also been adjusted, which should help cut down speeds at the bottom of the track.

Kumaritashvili was remembered at the opening ceremonies, where flags were lowered to half-staff and a moment of silence was held. The small Georgian delegation, every member adorned in a black armband, received a sustained applause as well.

I would imagine the Georgians will become the sympathetic favorites for the remainder of the Winter Olympics, receiving polite applause from the international fans. Should a Georgian win a medal, it will make a heartwarming story.

I might even applaud during the Georgian national anthem.

Then again, maybe just a nod.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 13, 2010 at 8:16 pm