Saturday, September 29, 2007

Colin Campbell Hands Down 20 game Suspension

It's the new thing. Like celebrities adopting third world orphans. Like movie studios putting out exorbitant summer three-quels. Like politicians desperately attempting to appear hip with guerrilla Internet campaigns. League officials levying out heavy-handed judgments has been in vogue every since Roger Goodell sat "Pacman" Jones for the entire season And NHL's Senior Executive VP of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, is the newest member of the "it" crowd.

Philadelphia Flyer's prospect Steve Downie has become an example to the rest of the players that the league is serious about it's efforts to crack down on hits to the head. And he's got one of the longest suspensions in the history of the game as evidence.

Last season it became apparent that hits to the head were becoming an increasingly larger problem across the NHL. Players were being seriously injured by hits, that according to the rulebook, were completely legal.

Before the preseason began, the league sent a video to each club outlining rule changes, including how hits to the head would be called. A player could expect to be suspended if when hitting they:

- hit an unsuspecting player in the head
- target the players head
- injure a player
- hit a player late
- launch

It's the first three that are most interesting, as the latter two, late hits and launching, were already illegal. With this criteria the league is left to do the judgement call on whether they feel a player was unsuspecting, and whether the hitter was specifically targeting the head. This approach is essentially how Major League Baseball approaches a check-swing or a balk, there isn't any black and white definition, but you'll know it when you see it. Which can lead to confusion if the league isn't absolutely consistent.

Which leads to the third criteria, "Injuring a player". I have never agreed with the idea that a player should face a higher punishment if an illegal hit injuries a player. When the league does this, and they do often, they are sending the signal that it isn't the action, but the result that brought the punishment. Instead, the league needs to buckle down and dish out fines and suspensions anytime a player unleashes an illegal hit, regardless of injury.

As far as Downie goes, he was probably just a kid feeling the pressure of being on the bubble towards the end of preseason, and looking to make a name for himself. But with his reckless play he managed to break every aspect of the rule, and put the livelihood of another player in serious danger. And for that he deserves every minute of the 20 game suspension. But let's just hope that the league sticks to their guns when this happens again, perhaps with a more veteran player and down the playoff stretch. Because that's the only way this kind of play will be eradicated from the NHL.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Are the New RBK Jerseys the NHL's Synthetic Basketball

The 2007-08 NHL season has not even officially kicked off (but it will on Saturday in London, in case you heard otherwise) and already criticisms of the new RBK Edge jerseys have begun to circulate. The new jerseys were designed using technologically advance material (I'll be honest, I have no clue what that really means) with the goal of creating a lighter jersey that doesn't absorb water and provides a greater range of motion. But from the beginning, its unveiling at last years All-Star Game, fans and players alike have been skeptical of the new design.

In sports even the slightest alteration of anything from the rulebook to the equipment is bound to bring on endless criticism and second guessing. It's about tradition, and it's one of the things that makes sports great (also Dollar Dog Days). It's why you may have heard me mumbling all spring about Major League Baseball killing the classic wool baseball cap in favor of new technologically advanced (there it is again) New Era Hats. And when I heard some complaints from the wings I initially chalked it up to this, and categorized it with the Brett Hull/Don Cherry bunch who are often heard complaining about the lack of fighting, those wimps who wear shields, and how the game was infinitely better thirty years ago. But as the season approaches, and the uniforms are put to the test during training camps and exhibition matches, it seems like some very legitimate complaints have begun to surface.

The first complaint is one that sprung immediately after the RBK Edge Jerseys were unveiled, the new formfitting cut is just too small. Over the past couple decades the size of players and the size of equipment have grown greatly, and players combated this by wearing increasingly larger jerseys. But with the new design, Reebok attempted to make a jersey that would be cut to the shape of players today. The problem? Players can't get them on. Last winter when the Edge Jersey's were first worn in practices, players joked about have to enlist the help of their teammates just to put the jersey on. But equipment managers aren't laughing, allegedly some have taken to ordering players jersey a couple sizes larger, to work around the tighter fit.

The second complaint is something I've got to admit, I never really thought of, but makes perfect sense. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, neither Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, nor Mark Eaton are huge fans of the water resistant fabric. Apparently without the jersey to absorb sweat and water, players gloves and skates are become trenched. Well, the good news is that super technologically advanced fabric is working. The bad news is players may have to change gloves and skates between periods.

And the complaint that seems to be arising from a fight filled preseason, is that the new jersey's aren't standing up to a good old NHL throw-down. Several jerseys have ripped during fights so far, including that of New Jersey Devils Cam Jansen, who after having his jersey pulled over his head, was sent to the ice, injuring his shoulder.

It was only a year ago that the NBA went through a similar situation shelfed the leather basketball in favor of a new synthetic design. Players were unhappy with the new ball, claiming it was slippery and caused cuts on their hands. After only 2 months, at the insistence of the players, the NBA brought back the leather ball.

I would find it difficult to believe that the NHL and Reebok would ever get to the level in which they'd return to the old jerseys, considering how much they have already invested into the RBK Edge. But it does look as if the design is in serious need of some tweaking. What good is a jersey is it doesn't fit, or if it tears to pieces in a fight?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ticket-less and Bitter

Go ahead and count me as one of the many who showed up on Ticketmaster Tuesday for the highly coveted Winter Classic tickets, only to be turned away empty handed. Depending on who you believe, the event sold out in somewhere between 10 minutes and half an hour. 42,000 tickets sold, and not a single one of them to me.

My immediate bitter reaction was to blame the Buffalo Sabres fans. After all, it was those cold-hearted bastards who bought all the tickets that we all know rightfully belonged in my hand. But after a browse around the pipes of the inter-webs, it looks like I’m not the only one who got shafted here, including many a Sabres fan. On the opening day of ticket sales, only 42,000 of the 74,000 tickets were sold. Over 30,000 tickets have been put aside for the Buffalo Sabres season ticket holders. Which I reluctantly understand. The team is hosting a spectacle, and they’d like to give those who support them, the season ticket holders, the opportunity to get tickets to the event. The Sabres have a massive following, and this will probably only allow for about 2 tickets per season ticket holder.

But that leaves somewhere around 2,000 tickets for NHL employees, and sponsors. Yes, sponsors. Presumably for those from Amp energy drink, who are sponsoring the event. Which means they’ll most likely be raffled away with some sort of contest, which will inevitably be won by some schmuck who thinks skateboarding is a sport and spends his days listening to Gym Class Heroes and watching whichever recreation of Jackass MTV is currently broadcasting. (Sorry, my immediate bitter reaction may have deflected off Sabres fans, but that’s only slightly diminished it.)

Still, I’m left questioning how 42,000 tickets could sell so quickly. I was certainly expecting a sell out, which is why I thought I was bringing my “A game” by showing up on Day 1, but I’m completely taken back by ten-minute sell-out. The only answer is the ridiculously high limit the Sabres put on ticket sales. The lucky few that were able to buy tickets were not limited to 8 tickets, which is what the rate I usually see when prowling ticket master, but instead 50. Yes, they limited ticket buyers to a mere 50 tickets. Why not just hang a sign “SCALPERS WANTED”. Was the league so desperate to sell out this event on the first day, that they opened the door to scalpers and screwed over the casual fan? I don't know, but it's hard not to be cynical when you find yourself in a position like this.

But if your like me, and you missed out on Winter Classic tickets, you can pick a couple up on eBay, provided you’re alright paying a four times the ticket value.

Right now it looks like all I can do is sit back and watch everything unfold. I’m hoping with all the tickets being posted on StubHub and eBay, the market will force the prices lower, and perhaps in a few weeks when the hoopla has died down, I’ll be able to snipe a few of them for a moderately reasonable price. But until then, if you’re looking for tickets for yourself, and you see the current highest bidder is “retoocs”, for all that is upright and holy in this world, don’t outbid the poor guy. He just wants those tickets that were rightfully his.

Monday, September 17, 2007

NHL Announces Outdoor Game

Talk began spreading months ago that the NHL was interested in hosting an outdoor game. It was only a matter of deciding on the teams and finding a stadium to play it in. Over the off-season murmurs of a possible Penguins vs. Sabres New Year's Game began to pick up momentum. The talk gained instant credibility when the NHL released the 2007-08, finding the two teams meeting on the 1st of January. For a month it's been the worst kept secret in the NHL. And now it's finally official. And in less than 24 hours I'll join the masses in lining up at Ticketmaster in order to secure my seat in that freezing stadium in three and a half months.

The Penguins vs. Sabres match-up sees two of the NHL's elite teams, and two of the best current hockey markets face-off. The young squad developing in Pittsburgh, lead by 20 year old, leading scorer and league MVP, Sidney Crosby, turned the team from 2nd to last in the league to playoff contender in only season. Now they hope to prove they can be Stanley Cup contenders in the 07-08 season. They have brought a resurgence of hockey in the city of Pittsburgh, with the team having to put a stop on season ticket orders at 13,500, just to keep some tickets available. In Buffalo, the Sabres have been Cup contenders for the past 2 seasons, coming within 1 game of the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, and 3 games in 2007. As for the following in Buffalo, at one point in the season top selling players jerseys 2 through 7 were all Sabres. Number one? Penguins Sidney Crosby. I don't imagine they'll have a very hard time selling all 74,000 seats in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

So, of course this is going to be huge in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, but is it going to be acknowledged in the rest of the sporting world as the event the NHL is trying to make it? It's a little too soon to tell. The league has managed to put up record numbers when it comes to attendance and merchandise, but thanks to their exclusive cable deal with Versus, they still find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to television ratings.

But the date they choose seems rather interesting, and quite ambitious. If you are a sports fan like myself, then New Years day means one thing, College football bowl games. Can the NHL compete with that? It would be tough, the College Football bowl system has been under large scrutiny for several years, but with the big broadcast networks and ESPN pushing it, it would be tough to beat.

But one thing is for sure, the spectacle will be a step in the right direct when it comes to promoting the game of hockey in America.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

League Reviewing Video Confiscated from Patriots Employee

Is it just me, or has every big sports story in the news lately involve the seedy under belly of sports.

The latest comes from the New England Patriots of the NFL.

On the sidelines during Sunday's season opener against the New York Jets, a video camera was confiscated from a Patriots employee and sent to the league office for review. The tape is suspected to confirm rumors of New England filming defensive play-calling signals for later reviewed in conjunction with actual plays in order to decipher signals. Something that could be a huge advantage against a team in the same division, who face each other twice per season, which the Jets are.

The league has specific guidelines barring any recording devices on the field, in the coaches booth, or in the locker rooms. In an official statement the NFL acknowledged warning clubs that filming play-calling signals is strictly prohibited.

Chris Mortensen of was the first to report the story. His sources include an undisclosed member of the NFL competition committee who was quoted referring to the Patriots alleged violation, "It's not their first time."

A statement Green Bay Packers president Bob Harlen collaborates, admitting the same New England employee was removed from the sidelines during a 2006 match-up between the Packers and Patriots.

The news might come as a shock to most fans, but considering the amount of money that hangs in the balance, it's surprising this doesn't happen more often. You need look no further than the extracurricular activities of corporate America to see how rampant corruption becomes when money and power are on the line. Juiced players, stealing signals, corked bats. These are the sports industry's answer to accounting fraud and industrial espionage.

But as the league reviews the evidence against the New England Patriots, the same foul question hangs in the air that was left following the Enron scandal. Are the Patriots the only team resorting to such tactics, or is such corruption widespread, and are they the only ones stupid enough to get themselves caught?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Another MLB Player Reported to Have Recieved Steriods

Rick Ankiel on Thursday. Troy Glaus on Friday. And last night, Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons.

Sports Illustrated's Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim reported Gibbons as latest player to be involved in the growing saga that has become Florida's Signature Pharmacy. Gibbons allegedly received HGH and steroids from the internet distributor from September of 2003 through May of 2004.

With each report of an MLB player's use of performance enhancing steroids and human growth hormone my interest in the season deflates. One who followed the Rick Ankiel story can't help but feel as if there is nothing to get excited about in baseball anymore.

To Ankiel's credit, he has come out publicly and owned up to using HGH. He has claimed they were prescribed by a license physician during recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery. However, unless Ankiel is a female suffering from Turner syndrome or has a growth hormone deficiency, it stands to reason he shouldn't have prescriptions for human growth hormones Saizen or Genotropin.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Week 1: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns

Right now it's great to be Mike Tomlin. A commanding season opening victory against a division rival. It's quite the way for one to kick off a coaching career with one of the most storied franchises in the NFL.

The Steelers came out of the gate strong, forcing the Browns 3-and-out on the games opening possession. On 4th down Browns kicker Paul Ernster dropped the snap, and after recovering was only able to punt the ball 15 yards to the 32 yardline. On top of the poor punt, the Browns committed 4 fouls on the play. The Steelers accepted the 10 yard holding call, and were set on prime location for the seasons opening drive; the opponents 22 yardline. 4 plays later Ben Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward in the right corner of the endzone for a 5 yard touchdown pass. And all this only slightly over 3 minutes into the first quarter.

On the second play of the Browns second possession Deshea Townsend intercepted Cleveland starting quarterback Charlie Frye on the Cleveland 38, and returned it to the 21. The drive ended with a 26 yard field goal by Jeff Reed.

Later in the first quarter James Farrior forced Browns halfback Jamal Lewis to fumble on his own 36. Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden recovered the fumble at the 40. On the first play of the ensuing drive Roethlisberger found second year wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the middle of the endzone for a 40 yard touchdown pass.

Towards the later half of the second quarter backup quarterback Derek Anderson came in for Cleveland to replace Frye. Frye was 4 for 10 with 34 yards and an interception.

Leading off the second half, Roethlisberger lead the Steelers downfield on a 8 play, 71 yard drive, capped off with a 5-yard completion to back up tight end Matt Spaeth.

The Browns finally responded, breaking the shutout with a short play action pass on 3rd and goal from the 1 yard line. Anderson found fullback Lawrence Vickers for the touchdown.

Roethlisberger completed his fourth touchdown pass on a 22 yard toss to tight end Heath Miller. He was 12 for 23 with 161 passing yards, and no interceptions. He had a quarterback passer rating of 114.3.

Jeff Reed put in a 31 yard field goal at 7:16 of the fourth quarter, elevating the Steelers to the eventual final score of 34-7.

Browns replacement quarterback Derek Anderson was 13 for 28, with 184 passing yards, a touchdown pass and an interception.

Pittsburgh wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes both unleashed leveling blocks throughout the game, opening the field for halfbacks Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport. Parker had 27 carries for 109 yards, and Davenport had 8 carries for 48 yards. The Steelers were 6-1 last year when Parker rushed for over a hundred yards.

Rookie Punter Daniel Sepulveda had an exceptional first game, with 4 of his 6 punts ending up inside the 20 yardline; 2 of which were inside the 5 yardline.

Roethlisberger had success throwing to tight ends to the tune of 5 receptions for 4o yards and 2 TDs.

Next week the Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Buffalo Bills at 1:00 pm at Heinz Field in their home opener.

NFL Network Video Recap

Friday, September 7, 2007

This is What Baseball Has Become

It was the feel good story of the year. Something to hold on to in a season that will forever be remembered for the mayhem that surrounded Barry Bonds breaking the all-time Major League Baseball home-run record. It was a story of perseverance and overcoming the odds. It personified what sports was all about. But it's not anymore. Now it personifies what baseball has become.

Eight years ago Rick Ankiel was the hottest pitching prospect in the nation. In 2000, his debut for the St. Louis Cardinals, Ankiel went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, 194 strike outs, and finished second in voting for the NL Rookie of the Year. The Cardinals won the Central Division and were matched up with the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs. And that's where it all began to fall apart for Ankiel.

Rick Ankiel got the call to start Game 1 against Greg Maddux and the Braves. He allowed a single and a double in the first two innings and gave up a couple walks, but he took the mound in the third with the Braves still off the board. In the third Ankiel threw 5 wild pitches, walked 4 batters and allowed 4 runs on 2 hits, before being replaced.

Despite his performance, the Cardinals swept the Braves, and advanced to the NL Championship series. Ankiel saw the mound again in Game 2 of the series, but 20 pitches into the first inning we was pulled. 5 pitches went past catcher, Eli Marrero, 2 of them ruled wild pitches.

In Game 5 of the series Ankiel was brought as a relief pitcher in the 7th inning. He faced only 5 batters, walking 2 and throwing 2 wild pitches. The Cards dropped game 5, and were eliminated from the playoffs.

After that, Ankiel's Major League career was essentially over. He made brief appearance with the Cardinals in 2001 season, but spent most of it in the St. Louis minor league system. He sat out the 2002 season with a left elbow sprain, and returned to the minors for 10 starts in 2003 before having season ending Tommy John surgery. Again he returned to the minors for the 2004 season, and eventually made a few relief appearances in the majors towards the end of September.

And that was it. It was an amazing story of an incredibly gifted young pitcher's collapse. Or at least that's how it was supposed to end. But instead Ankiel's returned to the minors for the 2005 season and announced he was transitioning from the mound to the outfield. He progressed through the next two seasons, and despite more injury trouble, he began working his way back up the Cardinals minor league system.

On the 9th of August, 2007, after posting impressive numbers for the St. Louis AAA minor league affiliate in Memphis, Rick Ankiel made his return to the Major Leagues. In the 7th inning with 2 runners on base, Ankiel hit a 3 run home run to right field. The first time a player had hit a home run as both a pitcher and a positional player in 50 years. Cardinals manager Tom LaRussa said short of the World Series victory, it was the happiest he had seen his ball club.

But it didn't end there, over the course of August Ankiel continued to impress. On the 11th he went 3-4 with 2 home runs, 3 RBIs. He drew a standing ovation from the crowd every time he stepped to the plate. On the 31st, with his team trailing by a run in the 6th inning, he hit his first career Grand Slam. Suddenly, with only a month left in the regular season, and after spending half the season in the minors, he became the favorite for the MLB Comeback Player of Year.

Last night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rick Ankiel went 3 for 4, with a double, 2 home runs, and 7 RBIs. And this morning as sports fans awoke a crossed the country to drink a cup of coffee and check out the happenings of the sports world, it should have been just another installment in the amazing uplifting story that his career has become. But it wasn't. Instead the leading baseball story was from a report published in the New York Daily News alleging Rick Ankiel had purchased a 12-month supply of the Human Growth Hormones Saizen and Genotropin in 2004 from a Florida physician under investigation by the Albany County District Attorney.

The most surprising aspect of the story is that it really shouldn't be that surprising. Sure, his head hasn't ballooned like that of alleged HGH user Barry Bonds. He doesn't look monstrous like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Rafael Palmeiro. He's 6'1", 210 pounds. But this is what baseball has become. This is what it's regressed to.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one to white-wash baseball past. I realize that Mickey Mantle wasn't one the best of guys. And I know Babe Ruth greatly benefited from the Yankees having the left field fence in at a ridiculous 295 feet. But there is something different about everything in the steroid era. There is a great unknown that has transformed even the most naive fans into cynics. Some optimists talk of the possibility of Alex Rodriguez surpassing Bonds in Home Runs like the record will be saved. But who is to say A-Rod isn't juiced? Currently, though on the Major League Baseball Banned Substance list, HGH isn't even tested for. Granted, outside of a vague allegation by Jose Canseco (who at the time was pimping his latest book), no one has offered any serious evidence pointing to A-Rod as a steroids user, so it would be surprising.

But, really, it shouldn't be. This is what baseball has become.