Monday Nov 05, 2007

Making It By Not Making It Big

I spent half of yesterday at my first-ever USA Hockey Coaching Education Program, held in the municipal courtroom in Brick Township. For $30, and listening to several hours of speakers covering safety, sportsmanship, coaching styles, goaltending, and the Atlantic District coaching certifications, I was granted an Initiation, Level 1 USA Hockey coach's card. I'm semi-official; I'll pass a carding check if I'm needed to fill in on the bench.

Despite the seemingly dry nature of the day (one could argue the venue matched the content), it's an impressive operation. In addition to the hockey-noob class in the big room, there was a 2nd level training, and the conclusion of a weekend-long advanced level seminar all proceeding in parallel. Everybody had a different reason to attend: new high school coaches, coaches just starting the certification process, long-time coaches re-starting certifications that had expired, or in my case, a prospective coach for younger kids. Some of us have kids who play, some are just interested in staying close to hockey.

Highlight of the day was hearing from Steve Riley, our very own Devils Youth goalie coach, who gave a half hour whirlwind tour of teaching goalies how to skate. Not your usual approach to goalie practice, and delivered in a whimsical tone that is uncharacteristic of a practicing goalie. Goalies are supposed to be weird; we laugh at them and rarely with them. Riley's concluding remarks were one of the few things I wrote down during the day's course: You can practice hard and develop skills with the hopes of playing NCAA Division 1-A hockey, and if you do that well then you might not have to play hockey for a living. It's rare indeed to hear a coach emphasize education over sports, but more practically, the long-term value of education enabling and cementing your ability to play that sport when, where and how you like, as opposed to it defining and bounding your sense of self-worth.

Sunday Jul 08, 2007

Free Agency and the Price of Beer

I'm about two weeks behind in blogging various trips, adventures and random technology thoughts, so I'll probably start with the most recent and work backwards.

Scott Gomez' departure across the Hudson River was not the way I wanted to start my summer vacation. At some level; I knew he was leaving the Devils because he and general manager Lou Lamariello didn't see eye to eye on just about anything. But going to the Rangers was painful for those of us who started cheering for Gomez when he was 19 and enjoying a Calder Trophy rewarded rookie year. He's going to make $10M for somewhere between 80 and 100 games of hockey next season, or about $100,000 a game. High priced free agents usually are short-term pops for attendance, but long-term, they tend to crank the price of beer and do little for long-term fan support.

I carry on about this topic to the point of drawing a parallel between Alex Rodriguez and Scott Gomez over in my hockey blog. Building a fan base means investing in the community, in the media, in accessibility, and in brand image of your players, your club and your league. Hence the A-Rod comparisons.

Wednesday May 30, 2007

Championship Material?

With thirteen youth hockey tournaments under my belt in the past five years, I finally get the chance to play in one of my own. Tomorrow night my team leaves warm and humid NJ for the hockey mecca of Toronto, where we'll be playing in the Hockey North America 2007 Finals. Hockey North America, is, for all intents and purposes, the life and times chronicled by Bill Gaston in Midnight Hockey. We aren't driving to Toronto because 8 hours in the car, each way, with our own equipment would be cruel and unusual olfactory punishment. We've been warned that the toughest part of the tournament is simply getting to the games, as it will be the first time we've ever played hockey in the afternoon.

The league takes this seriously; there's already a website that tracks game by game and player by player results, similar to what you'd get with the Olympics. Except you'll never find this former math team captain representing any country in the Olympics. In ice hockey, anything is possible.

Three years ago, when a bunch of us left our former HNA team and spun up the Ice Dragons, we set a series of simple goals: inaugural year, play 0.500 hockey. After that: play in Toronto. Last year we made it a round deeper into the division playoffs, and this year we earned an invitation up north. Just like the youth tournaments, win or lose, we'll have a lot of fun, meet some fellow hockey heads, upset random hotel staff, and come home with t-shirts that prove we made the journey.

Thursday Mar 08, 2007

Volume to Value, Part N: Networking and Charities

In one of my very first blog entries, I commented on a friend of ours who was using the net to intermediate and connect all of her various circles of friends and associates, building a large base from which to draw support for her fund-raising effort. It worked, as she raised several thousand dollars from people who were one or two degrees of separation away from her household.

In the two and a half years since I first thought about this kind of volume-to-value chain, I've tracked traffic to my blog via search engines, various Sun-directed navigation paths, and regular readership. What I've found is that about one-third of the people who read my ramblings are regular gluttons for word play punishment. Another third get here because they're looking for something Sun-specific, click through an internal Sun page or off of one of our blog aggregators, or they're searching for a Sun branded term. The final third are the people who didn't know they were looking for something I wrote but end up here anyway; mainly they're looking for New Jersey jokes, Veronika Varekova and Petr Nedved gossip, or something snowman related. Google, Yahoo, and MSN rank the pages, and something is interesting enough that the searchers stumble into a Sun branded property.

About a month ago, my son (the hockey player) and I started talking about ways he could raise money for his mitzvah project, the culmination of about 7 months of community service work as a "junior coach" with our NJ Devils Youth special needs teams and 8-and-under beginner's hockey clinics. Mitzvah projects are part of his preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, the rite of passage to Jewish adulthood (pen and pencil sets optional). A common theme in these projects is tikkun olam, or healing the world, one adult at a time. The confluence of ideas was pretty simple: many of our DareDevils players have autism, there are a number of professional athletes (Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig and former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie) whose children have autism, April is National Autism Awareness month and his Bar Mitzvah date, so putting his money where his mouthguard (or hockey stick) is fit rather neatly together.

We did what anybody with a laptop and a few spare hours would do: we built a web site. On top of a lot of exposition we crafted links to eBay auctions, PayPal donation buttons, a "how to give" page with a PO box address on it, and a list of some donated and discovered items that we could auction off. We just needed attention.

If a website falls in a forest of links, and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make the "You've got mail" sound?

So we decided to circulate the URL to a few select groups of people: the coaches and families involved in the DareDevils, a few people who are hockey heads here at Sun, a few rink rat friends. Relying on search engines, cross-posting of links, and a $100 donation to Cure Autism Now's Autism Town, we started getting noticed. And traffic. And donations.

Three weeks later, the simplest push for volume has yielded great value:

  • MaryMary was first to give us the props. And here I thought she was angry at me for giving her kids noise makers the last time she (and the leaf nodes in the MaryMary family tree) watched Bubba play down in her neck of the hockey woods.
  • USA Hockey's Special Hockey web site had us on the splash page, thanks to one of our DareDevils coaches.
  • Frederic Brandwein, who attended the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 Olympic ice hockey game in Lake Placid, send us two of his Miracle on Ice posters. Just because. We also got donations from the good folks at Stick Sock.
  • Out of the red, white and blue, email arrived from Chanda Gunn, US Women's Olympic Ice Hockey team goalie, 2006 bronze medalist, and a hockey player with epilepsy. She offered to help. Isn't she the kind of person you want your young athletes to have as an Olympic role model?

    The unofficial Assist From Bubba scoresheet shows about $950 in donations, from checks and PayPal contributions to MissionFish driven donations resulting from eBay auctions of donated items and samples of our private reserve hockey-related stash. We're continually amazed at the generosity of people we've never met. It's a social network of a completely different order.

  • Saturday Dec 30, 2006

    My Other Car Is a Zamboni

    I have always wanted to learn how to drive the Zamboni,, the ice resurfacing machine that is de rigeur for anything larger than a backyard rink. Today I got my wish, attending the Zamboni Training Class at the Union Sports Arena in Union, NJ.

    The technology is pretty clever and has remained relatively unchanged for nearly half a century. Under the hood is a 4-cylinder truck engine, modified to run on natural gas and speed-governed to top out at a pedantic 9 miles per hour. It doesn't sound fast until you're racing into the corner on your Zamboni, peering around the nose of the beast to make sure you don't take out the dasherboards. The advice offered by Ken, my Zamboni instructor, was pretty much what I get from my adult hockey teammates: don't get too close to the boards, know where you are, and make sure you know how to stop.

    Fortunately, driving the Zamboni is significantly easier than navigating an ice-covered New Jersey county road. Being stuck in first gear helps; it gives you strong engine braking (so that the Zamboni almost lurches to a stop when your foot comes off the gas) and prevents you from down shifting through the penalty box in a burst of acceleration. Besides the difficulty in seeing over ice dump box (think: driving a dump truck in reverse), the strangest part was the low gear ratio of the steering mechanism. Took about four cranks of the steering wheel to execute a quarter-turn in the corners, explaining the little knob on the steering wheel -- it's easier to whip the wheel when you're not in a constant 10-to-2 clock face shuffle with your hands. And here I thought the wheel knob was so you could drive the Zamboni while wearing handcuffs (not statistically likely, I realize, but if Mark Cuban's HDnet wants to do an adaption of "The Longest Yard" meets "Slap Shot", it would be a great comedic device).

    Being a Zamboni-newbi, I wasn't allowed to perform an actual resurfacing. Another thing I learned: Rink rats always talk about "ice cuts" rather than "resurfacing" or the even more shoobie-like "Zamboni-ing" of the ice. It literally is an ice cut -- the Zamboni is effectively a huge sno-cone machine sans flavored syrup. No wonder we love'em in New Jersey. Directly under the driver's butt is a row of horizontal blades that scrape the ice in a rotary razor fashion statement. Levers to the right of the steering wheel move the blade tray up and down and the large horizontal wheel establishes the depth of the cut. These augers remove dirt and shavings and channel the ice into a set of vertical augers that lift the proto-sno-cone into the ice dump bin. The large lever in the middle of the control area (usually with a knob on it, but here shown with a hockey puck finial) clears the ice from the junction of the perpendicular blade systems, preventing clogs that can lead to dreaded ice contrails.

    The final stage of the ice cut is to pour hot water onto the ice, from a 150-gallon tank under the hood, which fills in any deeper cuts in the ice, replaces the layer shaved off by the augers, and almost instantly bonds to the existing cold surface. There's an optional ice wash system as well, which does what it says: sprays water to loosen debris and non-water soluble objects, then slurps it back up where it's filtered and recycled. If you're cutting the ice during a public skating session, or there's a lot of particulate nastiness coming from decaying bench or hallway rubber flooring, the ice wash prevents the ice from attaining a depressing grey color.

    I'm far from ready to hop on the Zamboni in an emergency, or get into the subtler parts of ice cuts like double waterings to build an extra layer of fresh, firm ice on top of the base, let alone switching gas tanks in mid-cut (yes, like a Jaguar, the Zamboni has twin tanks). But now my other car really is a Zamboni, and driving it was a great way to say farewell to 2006.

    Saturday Dec 02, 2006

    On Your Permanent Record

    Everything you do in the world of bits becomes part of your permanent record. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does make you think about what you say and do in email, video, and digital pictures. If someone (including you) is making a digital record, it's a permanent record. The Internet is only surpassed by my mom's basement freezer as a long-term cold storage device (should I get hungry for a small piece of my 1975 bar mitzvah cake, I know where to look). Google for my mom's noodle kugel if you literally want the proof in the pudding. An email I sent on behalf of the USENET Cookbook, in April 1986, is so deeply embedded in the mesh of the Internet that it can't be extracted (or, to my mom's dismay, made somewhat less artery-hardening).

    Earlier in the week, I had a fun email exchange with Tom Lycan, who blogs about the NJ Devils for the Newark Star-Ledger. He asked me about the Newark Arena, where the Devils will hopefully play next season, leaving behind their concrete-lined dump that not even Bruce Springsteen could make appealing (guess which side of the debate I'm on?) He warned me that he was preparing some notes for a future blog entry, but when you write to a writer, you are giving them free license to use what you say. Lycan did just that, and with what I think is a fair screen scraping of my on-the-record comments about Newark.

    Tuesday Nov 28, 2006

    On A Pork Roll: Fixing The Devils

    Pork roll is the quintessential New Jersey food. More commonly known as Taylor Ham, it's the right combination of curing agents, nitrates, salts, pig parts, additives, meat fillers, and food coloring to start your day. Don't ask, just enjoy, particularly with eggs and a hard roll.

    I've now stayed up past 1:00 AM three nights of the past four to watch the NJ Devils lose every game in the Golden State. There's nothing to enjoy here. Doesn't matter what the ingredients are, they aren't making anything too tasty. I posted the full-blown diatribe on fixing the Devils to my personal blog, but I'm cross-posting it here (slightly edited) because this is not the way I've wanted to start every day of the last week:

    The season is a bit past the quarter post, and the Devils look like the leftovers on an Atlantic City buffet table. It's just not pretty. Seven goals in a five-game road trip, three points out of a possible ten, and they're looking at the Islanders' tail pipe in the standings. It's not a lack of talent or a lack of leadership. It's finding the right combinations. Like pork roll.

    So here's my completely non-expert, biased fan's view of how to fix the Devils. I am not a coach, nor do I play one on television, and my hockey expertise is limited to beer league and running the clock at youth hockey games. But I've spent almost the equivalent of a new car on Devils tickets in the last decade, so I'm entitled to my shot at being Lou For A Day:

  • Fix the lines for at least three games. You don't learn anything by having guys rotate through lines. How do you know that Elias is more likely to pass than shoot if he's on the off-hand side of the slot (versus having the goal to his right from the left hash) unless you've been on the ice with him? So this means "fix" in both repairing and retaining senses. My personal line card would have Gomez centering the first line, Langenbrunner and Elias on the wings, because you have the most speed and two of the best finishers on the team. Yes, Gionta had more goals, but they were of the tip-in or deflection variety (more on that later). Second line: Parise at center, Zajac and Gionta on the wings. Sorry, Travis, but follow Brylin's lead and move to wing. The Zach-n-Zaj combination gives you great playmaking capability. Checking line is Madden at center, Pandolfo and Brylin on the wings. Brylin and Pandolfo are two of the most under-respected players in the league, and Brylin can score when it counts. Always has. Fourth line is a combination of Rupp, Dowd, Jansen, and Rasmussen, although I'd love to see Barry Tallackson come back from Lowell.
  • Shoot the puck. Sounds obvious, but it's not happening nearly enough. In the three California losses, the Devils had between 22-24 shots a game, with half of them coming in the third period. The Devils had a dozen shots total in Anaheim with over 35 minutes gone in the game. A short every three minutes means a shot every 3-5 shifts. The puck needs to move more (see above), and the shots need to get on goal. The latter is the bigger problem -- shooting from the point is great if you can get deflections in front (Gionta's signature) but if you can't park someone in the low slot you need more cutting below the hash marks. There's been a Bermuda Triangle of lost Devils from the center of the slot to the edges of the crease. Puck movement up and down the boards and along the blue line is pretty but pretty ineffective.
  • Give Marty a night off. Better yet, send Clemmenson up I-95 to Lowell and bring Frank Doyle down for some games (sorry, KK, but he is the heir apparent). If Clemmenson isn't solid enough to play against Phoenix or Los Angeles, two teams that aren't exactly smoking the league, then get help. Marty's performance in the shootout last night can be summarized in one word: tired. True, the schedule that had the team going from La-La-Land to Silicon Valley back to Hollyweird didn't help, and travelling in California is stressful at best, but three games in four nights over a holiday weekend is a bit much.
  • Get butts in seats. Think the Devils like playing in front of empty seats, in an arena that needs about 14,000 voices to get epsilon louder than the ventilation system? This is a positive feedback loop -- fans encourage the team, the team plays for the fans, the team plays better and more fans come to games. Give out vouchers for the upper level to every school, youth hockey program and youth group in the state. If the tickets aren't sold, what's the downside? Get some fans in the building and they'll buy concessions and add their noise to the mix. Encourage season ticket holders to resell or trade games they can't use. I'd gladly trade games I'm stuck with for 4 or 6 seats to other games, if the Devils make the trade. The San Francisco Giants "Double Play" system pretty much assures that season ticket holders get their full value out of their seats, by getting butts into them. Create demand, and the fans will come. If there's insufficient demand, start by giving things away. iTunes is free. WAPP-FM was free for one glorious summer. Solaris is free (sorry, had to put in the plug).
  • Tell Patrik Elias to have fun again. In seasons past, when Patty missed a shot or a pass went wide, you'd see Patty holler something funny (as evidenced by the smile on Gomez's unshaven face) or laugh himself. He's A-Rod serious now. We need the guy who used to pick up the trainer's scissors to give Gomez an impromptu haircut. Perhaps it's wearing the "C", or perhaps it's trying to figure out how to get the team to settle down, but Elias should lead the way he always has -- have fun, carry a big stick, and shoot the puck. He doesn't have to be Scott Stevens, because he's not Scott Stevens. He's Patty. He's a soccer playing, Euro cool, well spoken, dumpling-loving oenophile (how is that for statistically improbable phrasing?)
  • Everyone will relax, the goals will come, the game will open up, and the fans will return to watch grown men playing a simple sport that's incredibly fun. Want an example? Here's an open invitation for the big Devils to stay after practice this Saturday to watch the youth Devils play. Let the kids sign autographs for you, instead of the other way around, and sit on the bleachers that give you cold metal burns on your butt, and cheer for our goalie who wears #14 (because he worships Gionta), and our defenseman nicknamed Big Bird because he has the same look and disposition (but a much better slapshot) , and our third-line center who broke his foot but comes to every game to sit on the bench and cheer for his teammates. We share a rink, we share a jersey crest, so why not share in some fun?

    Saturday Nov 18, 2006

    Hockey Recap

    I'm a huge fan of densely packed information. The Hockey News is my faithful companion, and the Barron's market data tables filled a void in my social life before the Internet. I have a new favorite, with a bullet: Hockey Recap, both a web site and a subscription style daily newsletter. It aggregates just about anything you can think of: production time (their own stat, how long a player goes on the ice between points), milestones (who knew Jamie Langenbrunner popped in #150 last night? Not the Fox Sports New York broadcast crew) blogroll-like headline summary of hockey news, and highlighted per-game statistics from every game played the previous day. Want to know who had the most shots in the Devils-Senators game (Zach Parise, with 5, check the yellow box) or which players are at the top of the points leaders board (they're highlighted in the box scores as well). It's a perfect example of a mash-up in front of the net, warped to the particular needs of those of us who are data-driven.

    Part of my unnatural proclivity to seeing the hockey world through spreadsheets comes from my new boss, Executive VP of Global Sales and Services Don Grantham, who has instituted the same kind of data-driven discipline in looking at our overall customer engagement (not to be confused with sales, which is a trailing indicator). Inspection drives results, or at least analysis that precedes those results. Jonathan Schwartz likes to quote Louis Brandeis with "Sunlight is the best disinfectant". But he's never tried to fumigate a hockey bag.

    Friday Nov 03, 2006

    Community Sustainability and a Hockey Love Story

    It's been a long week, but I think they always feel like that when you start off sick and then play catch-up for days. Had a few conversations about long-term sustainability, ranging from an interview with John Fowler's internal systems group communications team to preparation for a panel next Wednesday at Suffolk University Law School in Boston on Innovation and Speed To Market. I'm going to talk about the need to balance flat-out innovation with long-term thought about maintaining what's been invented. Long-term thought was what occupied my mind as the week wound down.

    I spent this Friday night the same way I've spent the last half-dozen, watching my son volunteer as a junior coach and mentor in the Devils Youth Hockey Primary Program. He's on the ice with the under-8 set, getting to learn coaching style, and not just playing style, from his own favorite coaches. Tonight I had the added bonus of being asked to babysit for two of the coaches (who are married to each other), as they had their not quite three year old on the ice, practice jersey knotted behind her so she didn't trip on it. I got to entertain their little one, bringing back some pleasant memories of bouncing babies of my own. Fastest 45 minutes I've spent in a long time.

    As I was returning our future 2022 US Women's Ice Hockey olympic athlete to the home bench, her father (more commonly known as Coach Adam) pointed out to the other coaches assembled in the office that I won additional brownie points for taking my son to see Godsmack. What struck me was that he only knew that little tidbit from reading this blog. So if I'm truly to comment broadly about community sustainability, I owe Coaches Adam and Theresa props in a place where they, and others, will see them.

    In a variety of all-hands and staff meetings with peer organizations in the past three weeks, I've said that community sustainability -- building and maintaining a community of experts, of athletes, of volunteers, of any similarly interested people -- requires a few leaders who will put in the time no matter what, and a larger number of people who will follow their example. That's what makes our Devils hockey organization run over time -- the long-term efforts put in by people who are willing to do the community development. Ben skates with the primary program because he had fun as a participant in it eight years ago. Coaches Adam and Theresa were there every Friday night as well. He got up Sunday mornings at 5:30am, half-dressed in shin guards, socks and hockey pants, looking for a ride to the rink from any available parent or guardian, to skate in a half-ice game in the house league supervised by the two newlyweds. There have been a number of other coaches and contributors -- Big D, Coach Garry, Coach John and his wife Kelly -- who have pushed, cajoled, stretched, and molded my son into the type of kid who wants to spend the opening shift of his weekend with beginning hockey players.

    I find it a nice touch that my son is able to be on the ice with his first coaches' daughter. I didn't know then that a few minutes of volunteer time here and there was going to turn into managing and a board position. My first "job" with the Devils organization was opening the bench door for players, or lifting them over the boards in those half-ice games. I managed, as best as you can, a swarm of 6 year olds and laughed about it afterwards for most of the day, especially when Coach Adam let the pre-dawn skaters call his new wife "Coach Crabby." Thanks, and happy anniversary wishes to my most hockey-astute blog readers.

    Saturday Oct 07, 2006

    NHL Blogs, kind of

    The NHL inches toward better fan interactivity, this time with a limited blogging section on You can create "pages", which are equivalent to blog entries, but there is almost no HTML allowed, making this more of a walled (non-Madison Square) garden than a true blogging environment. It's better than the eBay blogs, but not by much -- blog content doesn't appear to be visible to Google or other crawlers, and the tagging environment is largely self-referential.

    I guess I'm not "getting" the half-way houses of content. Linda Cohn (ESPN on-air personality and former hockey player) laments the lack of a hockey audience. Commissioner Bettman has repeatedly said that hockey isn't an ideal TV sport, and he's been looking to electronic properties to grow the popularity of the sport both in North America and in the rest of the world that provides about a third of the NHL's talent. What better way to do this than making making the web site a true medium of the fan? Maybe we'll be critical, or loud, or flat-out wrong, but we'll be passionate, productive, and visible as well.

    I'm already signed up -- and my first challenge was to find a way to get my NHL "Community Connect" zone accessible from the outside world. It's beta, it's got some rough edges, but it's still safer for armchair (left) wings than skating into the corner.

    Sunday Jul 02, 2006

    Patrik Elias, Still A Jersey Guy

    There is much joy in Mudville, New Jersey today.

    Patrik Elias, scorer, prankster, passer, Euro-cool and Jersey-slick, re-signed with the Devils. Elias re-upped for 7 more years, for a total of $42 million. Impressive on the surface as it's the largest contract signed so far this year, but more impressive is what it says about Elias as a leader.

    Benefitting from the new NHL collective bargaining agreement and an April birthday, Elias is 30 years old and eligible for unrestricted free agency this year. He could have cashed in for up to $8.8 million a season, more than 30% over his negotiated $6 million paycheck. Rumors had three quarters of the league interested in him, and all of us who have closets and shelves full of Elias swag have been on edge since the Devils ended their playoff run. All of the ingredients were there for a fan disaster.

    I believe that our sports heroes should impress us with their behavior and not just their skill; they should be people we want to emulate in terms of what they do during off-days. We should want to exhibit all of their attitudes. My love of the Pittsburgh Pirates' Willie Stargell went beyond him being slow and left-handed; he worked in his own restaurant during the off-season; he endured a tough childhood; he was a team leader and created unity when he could have had rampant dissention. He played because he loved baseball, and is one of only a few baseball athletes to stay with a single club -- the club that first signed him -- more than 20 years.

    And so it is with Elias. Drafted by the Devils in 1994, he's always been in a Jersey way. Now signed for seven more years, it's likely he'll finish his career (or come close) wearing the tail and horns. Loyalty, hard work, team play -- the attributes I want my own son to learn from his favorite athlete.

    Saturday May 13, 2006

    Work and Play

    Ran into Sun's account executive for JP Morgan Chase at the Devils game today. I didn't mind, especially because the Devils were holding a 3-0 lead at the time (they went on to win, 5-1).

    I'm obviously carrying on about this over on the Snowman Blog, since the Devils-Canes series has consumed a lot of my emotional wealth this past week. But since I worked while supposedly at play, I figured I can plug play at work. Or something like that.

    Friday Jan 06, 2006

    Hockey Blog is moving....

    In the interests of keeping more Sun-focused, I'm taking the hockey content over to my personal web site, where I'll be tracking the hockey book, hockey happenings, and watching the wheels fall off the Rangers' Zamboni (we hope).

    Wednesday Jan 04, 2006

    Thanks, Mogs

    Imagine this: It's 1989. The Cold War is still "hot" while US-Soviet relations are, well, cold. You're a 20-year old hockey player who secretly flies to Buffalo, New York, because the year before some men in business suits took a wild chance on you. You fear for your life, for your parents' lives, you don't speak English and your #23 Russian Army hockey jersey seems more than half a globe away. You are Alexander Mogilny, the first Russian hockey player in the NHL.

    We frequently think of our sports heros as brave for playing through pain, or for orchestrating come-from-behind victories, but we don't always associate sports with life-and-death decisions. 89 became Alex Mogilny's sweater number because it was the year he defected, ending up in Buffalo since the team had drafted him a year before. He established a precedent that brought other Soviet and Soviet bloc players to the NHL, showing that not only was it possible to play but to learn English, adapt culturally (Mogilny learned to play golf), and thrive. In 1993 he became the first Russian player named captain of an NHL team.

    Mogs scored over 1,000 points in just under 1,000 games. A point a game is impressive over a few seasons, but he did it for more than 15 years. His name is on the Stanley Cup, won with the Devils in 99-00, and in 02-03 he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for the most gentlemanly play on the ice. Hockey is a contact sport, and Mogilny's hip had been flaring up on him, limiting his play the last few seasons.

    Tonight the Devils put Mogilny on waivers. It's not a complete surprise as Mogs has been in the doghouse lately. Hopefully he'll be claimed by another team, allowing him to wrap up his NHL career on a high note, perhaps reaching 1,000 games or 500 goals -- both impressive milestones well within reach during this season. In the meantime, my somewhat authentic Russian army #89 and #23 jerseys, and my "Blue Streak" poster from his Maple Leafs days will sit quietly, awaiting a distinguished finish to a distinguished player's career.

    Back to the EGG

    You know it's a good day when your favorite hockey play has his mug on the splash page. Patrik's back &em Elias returned to the ice last night at the Meadowlands, reunited with Gomez and Gionta on the EGG line. For all of the excitement in our house, it could have easily been a reunion of the band whose bass man first brought us Back to the EGG.

    Patrik looked good, using his body as well as his stick, and he was smiling - one of the things we love best about Elias. It is supposed to be fun, right?

    A big night all around - Jamie Lagenbrunner notched his first goal since Thanksgiving. Marty Brodeur got his first shutout since Easter - of 2004. Scott Gomez assisted on the first two goals, giving him a streak of registering 8 points on consecutive scoring plays, a new team record. Paul Martin, who has struggled as a sophomore, looked sharp and picked up an assist as well.

    Unfortunately, the good hockey vibes didn't carry up the Turnpike to the Ice House, where the NJ Ice Dragons ended our winning streak at one game, dropping an ugly one 5-3 and putting us at 3-6 just before the midpoint of the season. When I asked "What happened to the easy teams in this division," one of my teammates responded "Hey, we are the easy team now." Ouch. But it's still fun, which is what I keep telling myself as I hobble through mid town on a chilly matinee day.


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