Tuesday Sep 16, 2008

Last Shift for Jack Falla

The night after the Devils played the last game of their 2007-2008 season, I ordered the pile of sports books that had collected on my nightstand and began devoting former hockey-watching hours to reading. I had picked up Jack Falla's Home Ice based on a blurb for it in some other hockey-related reading, and Saved came as an amazon.com recommendation. Read them in that order, saw a bit of an autobiographical cameo in the fictional Saved (I don't think you can write a purely fictional hockey novel), and blogged about how much I enjoyed them. Falla's writing made me forget the bad parts of last year's Devils campaign and had me wishing for cold weather and clean sheets of ice on which to experience the good parts all over again, one year later.

An amazingly happy thing happened after I wrote that blog entry in April: Jack Falla commented on it. Whether he discovered it through vanity Googling or because his agent found and forwarded the link, it was the same electric jolt to me. In the comment, Falla tipped a book that would be published in the early fall (now), and an idea for another novel.

I'm looking my pristine copy of Open Ice, the sequel to Home Ice, with the amazingly sad realization that this will be Falla's last book. Falla died Sunday morning at the age of 62. The hockey world has lost a voice of the people, not someone interested in ratings or controvery but a simple explanation of why we find a simple game fascinating. In Open Ice, Falla conveys how a chance mention of Montreal great Jean Beliveau in his first encounter with his (future) wife immediately cemented the relationship; having met Beliveau once, for 3 minutes, I could immediately relate to the backstory. That's sports writing ascended to a hockey cathedral in its own right, to borrow another phrase of his.

I'm hitting control-Z on the other two books in progress now, and picking up Open Ice tonight, sure that Falla's last shift as a writer was as spirited, fun, and memorable as his others. That's the way the game should be played.

[cross-posted to my hockey blog]

Monday Aug 11, 2008

Olympic Proportions

I'm regularly blown away by the comparative "regular guy" nature of hockey players, from kids to adult beer leaguers to professionals who will stop to talk, meet fans, and sign anything (or anyone) at just about anytime.

Today's coolness: I'm on my way to San Francisco, in Newark airport for a flight delay that is now just about as long as the flight itself (hey, mid-day thunderstorms will do that, no harm, no foul on this one). At this point I'm unclear as to whether I renewed my airport lounge membership, or what affinity card works where. So I tried, was given a polite "no", and then the guy in line next to me says "He can be my guest, he's a fellow hockey guy." All because I'm wearing my favorite "Miracle on Ice" t-shirt, attempting to channel a bit of the spirit of Lake Placid to our athletes in Beijing (wrong season, wrong sports, right idea).

Turns out my line-mate of the random rotation plays (more seriously than I do) in Chicago, is equally delayed here in Newark, and was just being nice. You want the antidote to air (or road) rage? Play more hockey.

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.

Friday Mar 23, 2007

Life Resembles Art (Devlin)

I had one of those "plate o shrimp" weeks. It started fairly simply as I was typing up directions for our youth hockey team's annual pilgrimage to Lake Placid, New York. The landmark I give for our arrival in Lake Placid is Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn, situated at the intersection of NY State 73 and Main Street. You know you've arrived in the Miracle on Ice village when you look over Art Devlin's welcoming wooden sign and see the Olympic ice rinks, perched on the hill, beckoning to skaters of all ages to look for miracles in a simple game. We've stayed at Art Devlin's exactly once, and the front desk area is a veritable cornucopia of ski jump trophies, medals and plaques. Art Devlin was one of the great (and first) ski jump athletes, practicing his art at the Olympic facilities in Lake Placid. As I've been closing each of my weekly emails to our team with a quote about Lake Placid, I've run into Art Devlin in the literature on a weekly basis.

A few days later, my son received a letter from his maternal grandfather, on the occasion of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, containing a bit of grandfatherly commentary. It's the kind of thing I hope he holds onto for a century, so he can explain to his grandchildren what the people in all of our family pictures were like. I tried to draw a parallel through one of the few glimpses I have of my own maternal grandfather; as he died in 1946 I never met him. But I know that he put away stamps and coins for my mother, now part of my own collection, and perhaps the genetic predisposition for my eBay habit. As I showed the bits and pieces of his great-grandfather's life to my son, he and I noticed that four of the stamps are near-perfect 1932 Olympic commemorative issues. Featuring a ski jumper -- whom we coincidentally nicknamed "Art Devlin." All I had to do was mention him in an email, and 75 years of philatelic history deposited Art Devlin in a family Kodak moment.

Normally, I wouldn't read too much into this, until I received this YouTube link from my co-author Evan Marcus. It's the story behind ABC TV's Wide World of Sports introductory "agony of defeat" scene, in which a ski jumper misses the ramp and careens down into the gallery. In the video, Jim McKay plays the original sports cast for the assembled crowd, and you can hear the gasp of the color commentator: one Art Devlin.

It's a life imitating Art hat trick.

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 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.


    Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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