Tuesday Aug 16, 2005

New York Hockey Minute

Yesterday was just one of those cool days when I ran into people I haven't seen for a while (but hadn't been avoiding). Walking down Broadway in the Big Apple, I ran into "C" (identity hidden to preserve her privacy), who is the executive assistant to a major hockey executive. She stopped; she talked; she asked about my son. A complete dose of hockey in a New York minute. "C" exemplifies the person you want on your right hand -- she's probably the only person other than the commissioner who talks to every owner, writer, official or fan, and she does it with a smile.

On the way back from the city, I stopped at South Mountain Arena to pick up this year's hockey schedule. Saw some higer-end cars secured in the Devils parking area, and on the way out, I ran into Scott Gomez, who came over to offer greetings. I haven't seen Scott since the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, when he had to suffer through my golf game at a charity event later that summer. He stopped; he talked; he asked about my son. Like Patrik Elias, he's the epitome of an ambassador for the sport. And he does it in a New York minute, conveyed in New Jersey.

Thursday Jul 28, 2005

The Nied For Speed and Demand Side Economics

An Open Letter to NJ Devils Defenseman Scott Niedermayer:

Let me start with something of a disclaimer: We are Scott Niedermayer fans through a set of coincidences. One of our favorite delis used to serve the "Niedermeyer burger", named after you. My son wore #27 for a year of travel hockey, because it was the only pre-numbered sweater that fit him. The number drove the fan, rather than the other way around. And one of those pro stock sticks that you broke during practice ended up in my shop, where it was outfitted with a new blade, and I scored three assists and a goal with it. We enjoy watching you play; we respect the (alternate) captain's letters on your sweater; you are, intentionally or not, part of our hockey family.

Don't leave our family.

The press has been all over your announcement that you want to test out the free agency market next week. Given that you're probably looking at a serious cut in pay no matter where you play, that's fair. But I believe it is time for some equally serious leadership in hockey, starting with the owners and continuing with the players, in ensuring that the free agency free-for-all doesn't hit the "undo" button on some of the structure put in place by the new collective bargaining agreement.

Free agency is good for the players in that it prevents them from being locked into one team's finances for an entire career. Market forces are good at establishing market pricing. However, the current economic situation of the NHL, combined with the new salary cap, means that the market forces are effectively constrained for a few years. There are supply side economic forces at work in the NHL in that the cost of goods has been limited by laywers.

So where's the upside? What's this have to do with leadership? It's quite simple: Build a fan base. Be loyal, and bring pride and joy (and the Stanley Cup) back to the Meadowlands, and this will translate into money. The new economics of hockey tie the salary cap to league revenues. Hockey doesn't have a supply problem; it has a demand problem. Create demand through leadership -- the leadership that put the "C" on your sweater in the absense of Scott Stevens, coupled with creating (and demanding) loyalty, hard work, and copious amounts of fun. I've always thought that's why we played hockey, as kids or adults.

So, New Jersey needs the Nieds. Simple. Stay for the next season, and enjoy the rules changes that will benefit a fast skating team like the Devils. Feed the puck to Elias, Gomez, Gionta, and hopefully Zach Parise, and watch the statistics pile up. Use your own speed (for those not in the know, Scott Niedermayer has won the "fastest skater" competition at the All Star Game more than once) and create excitement. And fans. And loyalty. And league revenues.

It's a virtuous circle, to be sure, but it has to start with one or a few virtuous acts. Stay in New Jersey. I'll even return your broken Easton stick to you.

Wednesday Jul 13, 2005

Start Your Zambonis

Since this morning's early missive about a potential NHL deal, I've been looking for signs. Got one as I stopped for coffee on the way home from the city. Another guy, a rink kind of guy, sitting in the corner of the Dunkin' Donuts, reading the newspaper. I asked him if he was ready to go back to work, with pride and joy once again. He had no idea what I was talking about. I told him there was an NHL deal coming, imminently, I could feel it in my bones. He said he'd check it out, after his coffee.

He's not a player. He's a Zamboni driver. He cuts the ice at South Mountain Arena, the NJ Devils practice facility. And his life has been impacted by the labor problems with the NHL. Emphasis here on "has". Past tense.

There will be hockey in North America in 2005-2006.

The NHL and the Player's Association reached a deal, announced in the last hour.

It's about time. For the past year, the community of professional hockey has been neglected. Not just the players who lost out on roughly a billion (yes, billion) dollars of salary, but the Zamboni drivers, beer guys, concession stand cooks, and parking lot attendants.

Signatures, ratifications, publicity and final final still need to happen, but the labor penalty clock is ticking down. Hockey is back at full strength.

Doin' Deals

How do you get information when there's no information readily available? I'm an amateur writer; I have no file of names and addresses ready to comment on any and every subject. Sometimes you have to infer information from what you (or others) see. I'm sitting in the Starbucks on 7th Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan at this very moment, just after 7:00am in the morning, and there are a dozen butts perched in the window of a 2nd floor conference room in the building across the street. Morning call? Deal going down? Someone trying to move a big block of stock today? Earnings (a number of tech companies are reporting today)? The conclave in the fishbowl conference room disbands within 10 minutes -- probably nothing market moving.

What's of more interest to me is what might be happening just a little further across midtown at the NHL headquarters. League officials have denied a deal is done and that's certainly all the public news available. But that doesn't stop me from asking the guy who knows some guys if the other interested parties are working a deal. My guy is convinced there's a deal coming. For the sake of hockey fans everywhere, I hope he's right. While it's amusing to be an author of butt stories, it's more entertaining to read auteur du but stories in the French Candaian sports pages.

Here's hoping that everyone lines up for a handshake after doin' a deal.

Wednesday Jun 22, 2005

Give The Devil His Due (and his Mizunos)

While shopping for sneakers at the local Dick's Sporting Goods, my 11-year old son had a life experience that imitated my writing the hagiography of Saint Patrik. With my wife supervising the sneaker outfitting, she noticed a six-foot plus tall man, with long blond hair, asking my son if he liked a particular brand. "Who's the surfer dude?" she asked, only to get the reply through gritted teeth "He's Patrik Elias". No "NJ Devils" surname needed with our family.

What do I interpret from a 60 second conversation between an ice hockey star and his young fan? First and foremost, Elias is feeling better if he's buying sneakers. Devils fans throughout NJ emitted a Springsteen-like collective howl when we heard of Patrik's bout with Hep A.

Number two, hockey fans everywhere hold your breath. There's hope for a hockey season. Patrik spent the past year in the Czech republic and Russia, playing hockey, but he's back where the NHL takes him. Buying sign for Devils tickets?

Last, but most important, Elias is one of the most genuinely nice guys in a sport where the athletes are distinguished by their (off ice) genuine niceness. It's one thing to sign autographs and make small talk when approached; it's another to start a conversation with a young adult because you wear the same sneakers. Fill the NHL - or any other league - with guys like Elias and you'll have a fan base for the next two decades.

My son's only regret from his less than 15 minutes of fame encounter? He didn't get to tell Patrik about the ever-growing pasteboard empire we've assembled in his honor, or tell him we're glad he's back to full strength, or remind him that they share the same birthday.

Perhaps we're so used to thinking of the questions that we'd ask a person we admire that we're caught off-guard when the conversation is reversed. Here's the interesting question - if the one person who appears in your school essays about sportsmanship, leadership, and role models starts asking you questions, will your own answers make you proud?

Monday Feb 21, 2005

Silver Anniversary

Hockey can frequently be a game of bounces. When they go your way, the hockey gods are in your favor, and you feel lucky. Other days, the puck couldn't find the opponent's net even if it was tied to the back twine and reeled in.

Last Saturday I took all matter of literary license with my job as team manager, and taped a note on the locker room door as my son's ice hockey team prepared for the NJ State Squirt "B" (Tier II) playoffs. On the note, in a protective poly sleeve, was one of my prized eBay finds, a Tretiak jersey card, having been saved for just such an occasion. Above it, I wrote "25 years ago the team that could not lose was beaten by a team that believed in itself." And below, "We believe in you." Not quite Herb Brooks in the moment of sending his boys out to skate versus Tretiak, but my best effort at one in the morning the night before.

The bounces went our way, combined with hard skating, preparation, and significant quantities of teamwork. Our goalie came up huge, stopping three breakaways and controlling rebounds behind or to the side of the net. Blend excitement, 50 screaming fans, 15 players, 3 coaches, and one slightly loud timekeeper (yours truly) with ice for 36 minutes, and our little Devils managed a 5-3 win, sending them to the state championship game.

Sunday's game saw the bounces go the other way. No matter how hard or frequently we shot the puck, we couldn't find the net, and we lost 4-1. Net net on the net, though, our team brought home the New Jersey State silver medal for our group, on the silver anniversary weekend of the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid.

And when the renovations to our beloved South Mountain Arena are done, and the new trophy cases display the pride of the Devils, we have a spot reserved for our team trophy. Among my son, his teammates, and me, I'm not sure who will be most proud of this weekend, but the memories will easily last another twenty five years.

Friday Feb 18, 2005

A guy who knows a guy

Many years ago, a certain Sun executive came to New York and, with less than 48 hours notice, asked for a pair of tickets for the musical "Rent" which had been playing (and insanely popular) for less than six months. I know this guy, who knows a guy, who, you know, knows a guy, who got the tickets. Such a sequence of guys is usually nothing more than the source of rumors, unless you're French Canadian and you can be more specific about the Guys.

Today there are rumors that the NHL Player's Association and the NHL owners are talking again, ignoring the chalk outline painted around the season on Wednesday. My guy-talk roundabout introduction merely sets the backdrop for why I give the rumors more credence than the average guy or Guy. While in New York today, I parked in my usual spot. I won't say where it is because it is, after all, my spot. I know this guy, and he always has a spot for me. Saturday evening, Wednesday before the matinees, early Friday morning, I get a spot. And this guy and I talk about hockey. He likes the Rangers, I like the Devils, we both like the sport. So today this guy mentions that there's this other guy, who always has a spot, and talks about hockey, but that's his job. And he was most definitely in da house today. So I'm hoping that the guy I know is right about the other guy he knows, and that that guy will talk to the guys he knows and you know, we'll be watching hockey again before baseball season starts. Otherwise tonight's blog entry is the first known case of using an elliptical clause with non-specific pronouns ending in "y" to hide identity.

I can't help but have hockey on the brain, because tonight is the 25th anniversary (to the day, not the date, it was a Friday night) of the Miracle on Ice. The team that never lost, defeated by a team that believed in itself first, and miracles after. There is a certain irony and symmetry to the date arithmetic. Nine hours from now, my son's team starts the New Jersey State Tier II hockey playoffs, seeded fourth, facing an undefeated team. NHL or not, it will be the most exciting hockey I watch this year. I believe in hard work, and in team work, and in preparation, all of which are on our side. The boys will give everything they have for 36 minutes, and then win or lose, they will line up and shake hands.

Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow could learn quite a bit from 10 year old boys who love this sport.

Monday Oct 25, 2004

Great Expectations

Youth sports parents have received significant quantities of bad press in the last few years. Much of it is deserved: parents attacking coaches or each other don't set a good example for their kids. I have zero scientific evidence divining the root cause of this escalation in bad behavior, but I'm sure the growth in competitive travel programs along with increasing hopes that excellence in sports leads to a discounted college education, have something to do with it. Most of us just need to relax and have fun. Most of the kids have forgotten the win or loss before the scoresheet is mailed.

Whether it's exhilirating or terrifying for you to watch your own child play, the hardest spectator seat in the house goes to the hockey goalie's parent. The goalie is seen as the last line of defense. But it's unfair for all eyes to turn to the goalie when the red light goes on, because the goal tells you that the other five skaters didn't play defense or weren't in position before the shot went off.

This weekend we had a game against one of our local rivals. Their starting goalie's father sat directly behind the scorer's table, at center ice. He gave his son the respect -- and support -- of not sitting at the far end of the bleachers, and then switching sides at the end of the period. The loudest thing in his immediate vicinity was his bright orange hat. His son played very well, and he made goaltending look easy with fluid motions and excellent line of sight to the puck. 17 minutes and 11 saves worth of shut-out hockey, it was time to switch goalies, with some nice crowd support. Orange Hat clapped for every player, and not once did I hear his slightly accented voice. In short, worthy models of how to play and watch the game.

What's the big deal, you ask? In Orange Hat's day job, he wears a helmet with the 4 initials of his children written across the back. His son wears his father's number (30) on his back. Above the number, in 4-inch high blue and white letters, is the name that's key to the story: Brodeur. When your grandfather was an Olympic ice hockey medalist, and your father brought home the Olympic gold medal in ice hockey along with three Stanley Cups and a Vezina Trophy, there are great expectations for you. Hats off -- orange or otherwise -- to Marty and Anthony for just having fun.

Wednesday Oct 20, 2004

The Hat For This Cat Comes Back

"World Cup of Hockey"
the hat is great swag;
for it came coupled
with a matching gym bag.

But overbooked times call
for desperate measures;
our puck fundraiser
needed personalized treasures.

I called Dr. Ed,
who knows several Devils;
and hoped that he'd help
crank up our raffling levels.

So Jamie Langenbrunner
signed my hat for donation,
fulfilling our team's
tricky tray obligation

The very next night
we gathered twenty score;
Jamie's sign was hotter
than the same from Bobby Orr.

As the tickets piled up
my lack of hat I lamented;
Secret plans to return it
I quietly fomented.

Two sheets of tickets
the transaction transpired;
I'd use Andrew Jacksons
for my most hat desired

My son made deposits
of a Hamilton or two,
with hopes of an autograph
or a stick that was new.

"Time for the drawings,"
the crowd grew hysterical;
our raffle stubs were clutched
in their order, numerical.

"Eight one three six"
sounded sweeter than nectar,
for my son had landed
the coveted CCM Vector

Then he won again! A stick,
three tapes and socks that soak stink,
our prizes had taken us
from red to black ink!

Despite our collection
of gear so financial,
what I really wanted
had sentiment substantial.

When it drew time,
results were most quick,
an "eight one three six"
scored my returning hat trick.

So ended our night,
on the air spirits floatin';
driving home with the mark
of a fine Minnesotan.

Such a lid! Indelibly signed
by a Brunner who's Langen,
and so with great pride
on my melon it's hangin'.

With great apologies to Dr. Seuss and greater thanks to Dr. Ed, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kelly DiNorcia and the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club


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