Every time the Penguins play the Islanders, as they’re doing tonight, I can’t help but remember David Volek. Oh the name conjures memories of infamy, it does. It was Volek’s slapshot in Game 7 of the 1993 NHL playoff series between the Pens and Islanders that denied Mario Lemieux and company the chance at a three-peat.
It pains us, it does. It burnsss. It freezessss. Volek’s goal places him among the top sports villains of my life.
Not as high as Scottie Reynolds. But higher than Alfred Pupunu. Maybe in the same vein as Mardy Gilyard or Larry Brown (the Cowboys DB) , though Brown’s misdeeds against my sporting life were in a higher stakes game.
There would be no dynasty for the Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux. They continued to be among the top teams for many years afterwards but looking back now, damn, that team should’ve won that third Stanley Cup! If not for David #$%^@ Volek.
I suppose with the Superbowl coming up, I should name Ray Lewis or Ed Reed in the list. Long and storied careers full of antagonism but to my recollection, neither have a signature, defining play that cuts so deep. They would likely go on a different list.
No one will likely ever supplant Francisco Cabrera though.
Despite the pain and humiliation of watching my Pittsburgh Penguins lose their third consecutive post-season series, this time to the despicable Philadelphia Flyers, I am as convinced as ever that Ice Hockey is the best team sport out there.
I don’t necessarily mean most enjoyable, surely a subjective measure. Nor is the NHL the best sports league across all sports. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that Ice Hockey calls for the greatest total abundance of every sports characteristic and skill. List out all the skills you want and Ice Hockey will score higher in aggregate.
Speed, physical toughness, endurance, coordination/reflexes, mental toughness, etc. etc. etc. The game even calls for moving backwards in a fundamental way that no other sport duplicates.
Here’s a rough chart ranking the major team sports:
|Baseball||Basketball||Am. FB||Rugby||Futbol||Cricket||Ice Hky|
Before you get in a huff about these rankings, it should be noted that I have no animus against any particular sport. If I were to rate my enjoyment of each of these sports, it would be different from the rankings above. Just some food for thought.
One of my recent tweets: “Adam Graves and the New York Rangers should die of gonorrhea and rot in Hell. Want a cookie, son?”
Seriously? I can’t give up a grudge against Adam Graves (and by extension a New York Rangers franchise that hasn’t done anything meaningful since 1994) based on a cheapshot in the 1992 NHL playoffs? #$%^ no!! The Penguins won the Stanley Cup that year despite Graves’ hit on Lemieux and it’s even possible that the hit galvanised the team and propelled it to those heights. You’re damn right I’m not letting go of my hatred.
And that gets me to thinking about the nature and origins of sports hatred.
It’s pretty common knowledge among my friends that I despise the Cleveland Browns. It’s just the way Pittsburghers are raised. But truth be told, the Browns don’t really deserve to be hated. They haven’t been a true threat since a brief window in the early 1990′s. The cRavens are our real rival nowadays and a worthy one at that.
But I remember that brief, annoying period when the Browns rose up; when Vinny Testaverde was considered a threat to our AFC Central supremacy and the addition of the combustible Andre Rison served to put the Browns (the Browns!) as a chic pic to get to the Superbowl. And so I remember what it’s like to hate the Browns fo’ realz and I hold on to that hatred and nurture it and let it fester and boil.
My mom once told me that for all my hatred, I would probably end up with a girl from Cleveland. What a cruel fate to foresee for her son! Formative years those 1990′s were for Maher’s sports consciousness. I hated Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars for a time. I even remember hating the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves for beating my Pirates in the NLCS. Do you remember when Steve Avery was good? I f*ckin’ remember! I’d root for the Yankees over the Braves, damnit!
Now don’t get me wrong. I do hate the Ravens. Arrogant, showboating f*cks all of them! But damn, they’re good. And most of them probably already have gonorrhea anyway.
It’s interesting to see how current rivalries are shaping the sports consciousnesses of Pittsburgh’s youngsters. The Ravens may even win a Superbowl but all teams go through down cycles. Just ask the 1970′s Raiders, the 1980′s Oilers, the 1990′s Browns and Jaguars, etc. And rivalries are generally established of shared excellence not mediocrity.
But those who grew up knowing that raw, raging emotion will forever hold the Ravens in ill-regard. They will remember.
Which brings me back to Adam Graves and the New York Rangers. I f*ckin’ hate the Rangers. No, I mega-loathe them. You see, when I was coming up during Mario Lemieux’s Stanley Cup runs, the Rangers were a primary threat to us. The Flyers were pretty mediocre and though people of good conscience must always hate the Flyers in principle, they didn’t get me worked up that much. They do now but it doesn’t have the force of history, at least for me.
And so 20+ years later, 10-year old Maher still demands even more justice! Yesssss… Adam Graves and the New York Rangers should die of gonorrhea and rot in Hell.
… which is probably quite similar to Cleveland during football season. [steeples fingers malevolently]
The Devil in the details, so to speak, was a clause that Pittsburgh’s teams would also suffer mind-numbing, spirit-crushing losses as well. Caveat emptor, after all. Pittsburghers can recall these losses pretty well today, I think, so I won’t detail them here. When asked why this proviso was called The Cabrera Factor, the Devil simply grinned and walked away.
It is easy in the wake of monumental sports events to assign too much credit to a particular individual. It is even easier, in hindsight, to assign too little credit. To nitpick over effort given, a missed coverage, a turnover here, or a blown breakaway there. Yet sports isn’t played in hindsight. Nor should it be judged solely out of its immediate context. Balance is the key.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won Superbowl XL, in large part, despite the efforts of their sophomore QB, Ben Roethlisberger. Yet the Steelers reached the Superbowl, in large part, because of Ben’s outstanding play in three road playoff victories at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, to say nothing of the Immaculate Tackle on Nick Harper. The Steelers reached Superbowl XLIII, in large part, because of their defense. They won it, in large part, because of Roethlisberger’s last minute heroics.
Evgeni Malkin won the 2009 Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s regular season scoring leader. He led the Stanley Cup Playoffs in scoring, edging out teammate Sidney Crosby by five points and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Playoffs MVP. Yet it was Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby who first lifted the venerable Stanley Cup during the trophy presentation. And it is Sidney Crosby who is consistently seen as the most important player on the Penguins.
Crosby had a ho-hum ride during much of the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament. Until he scored the game winning shootout goal against Sweden in the preliminaries. And then again when he scored the Gold-medal clinching overtime goal against the USA. Despite setting up him brilliantly, it is Crosby, not Jarome Iginla, who is hailed as the conquering hero.
There will be, as always, those who downplay the contributions of players such as Roethlisberger and Crosby if they fail to dominate play at all times. Who will call them overrated and over-hyped and a product of the system. In other sports lifetimes, the same hyperbole was used on Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. Lucky and overrated. Surrounded by great players. The team won, not the individual player. No shit, Shirlock.
Yet it can’t be coincidence that such players are the ones who just happen to keep coming up on the winning side, that are practically omnipresent in the biggest moments in sports*.
It won’t always show up on the stat sheet but what do we really mean when we say that a player wills his team to victory. The best players do that. They.show.up., clichéd as that sounds. No one should be defined solely by titles won. However, it is fair to judge them by the moments they own within the circumstances presented to them and the moments they create for their teams of their volition and will to succeed.
So if you want to talk about Willie Parker’s run in Superbowl XL or James Harrison’s romp in Superbowl XLIII, fine. Or highlight Iginla’s or Roberto Luongo’s work for the Canadians, by all means, do so. But their work does not diminish the driving forces and players behind such triumphs. The ones that actually put the puck in the net.
* Dan Marino. A great player, who never won a Superbowl, cursed to play for an overrated buffoon of a coach. I can’t claim to be completely objective on Marino, a Pitt alum, but that’s a post for another day.
… or Emigration vs Immigration
It is, I think, endemic to the constitution of the USA that the issue of Club vs Country/Émigré vs Immigrant can sometimes be a difficult one, as concerned with sports. Ours is fundamentally an immigrant nation even if much of the populace is several generations removed from crossing the pond (or jumping the fence). What do you do when the country of your ancestry or childhood lines up opposite the one whose passport you hold.
That more FIFA World Cup tickets were purchased by denizens of the USA than any other nation is not necessarily a strong show of support for USA Soccer. It is as much an indication of the old-world loyalties that many Americans still carry. To Italy or Spain or Greece or England. To Nigeria or Ghana or Cameroon. To Mexico or South Korea or Brasil or Argentina.
For those who don’t have an ancestral horse in a particular race, they may develop an affinity for a country whose style (or women) they like or whose players ply their trade for the person’s chosen domestic club. Fernando Torres of Spain for Scousers. Didier Drogba of Côte d’Ivoire for Chelski’s. Kaka and Ronaldinho of Brasil for Real Madrid and AC Milan, respectively.
In a similar parallel, it was a bittersweet moment for many Penguins fans when Canadian Sidney Crosby flung the puck past USA goaltender Ryan Miller in overtime of the Olympic hockey gold medal game on Sunday. “At least it was Sid,” texted a friend of mine. But still others supported the Canadians outright to the exclusion of Team USA because of Sid, Jordan Staal and Marc-André Fleury. For my part, I supported Team USA but I’m not crushed that it was our Sid who delivered the hammer stroke. (And that once again Alex Ovagkin proved he is not clutch nor as great as Sid).
Though not particularly conflicted in ice hockey, I will admit to it in national team futbol. I’ll root for the USA but the Super Eagles of Nigeria truly claim my futboling heart even though I was only six years old when the family left west Africa. I don’t really know what I would do if the twain should meet in a match.
Does this make me less of an American or must I always root for the USA in such a trivial pursuit as sports? While political dissent is not automatically a show of dis-loyalty to one’s nation, we are taught that sports loyalties are more black and white. Yet, nationality isn’t so cut and dried an issue anymore.
In a globalized age, with so much movement of peoples to and fro, there is a certain malleability to our sporting and national identities, especially given the very founding of this country as a refuge for the “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore… the homeless, tempest-tossed.” To pledge allegiance to the USA does not mean, in my mind, to discard one’s past heritage because I believe I must find an America that is true for me. It is a fluid motion and a conversation that must needs continue through time.
Still, if you’re not gonna put a boot up my arse, I’ll gladly share some gari or fufu and goat stew with you this summer. Bring your own Yuengling or Malbec if you choose.
I think Penguins’ victory over the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals is one of the most underrated upsets in recent memory. For all the skills of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury (and apparently Max Talbot as well), the Red Wings were so much deeper and more experienced than the Penguins.
Let’s compare the players by position for Detroit to those of Pittsburgh.
|Pavel Datsyuk||Sidney Crosby|
|Henrik Zetterberg||Evgeni Malkin|
|Valtteri Filppula||Jordan Staal|
|Darren Helm||Tyler Kennedy|
|Kris Draper||Max Talbot|
|Johan Franzen||Ruslan Fedotenko|
|Jiri Hudler||Chris Kunitz|
|Tomas Kopecky||Matt Cooke|
|Ville Leino||Pascal Dupuis|
|Dan Cleary||Bill Guerin|
|Marian Hossa||Miroslav Satan|
|Mikael Samuelsson||Petr Sykora|
|Tomas Holmstrom||Craig Adams|
|Kirk Maltby||Eric Godard|
|Nicklas Lidstrom||Sergei Gonchar|
|Niklas Kronwall||Kris Letang|
|Brian Rafalaski||Brook Orpik|
|Brad Stuart||Rob Scuderi|
|Jonathan Ericcson||Mark Eaton|
|Brett Lebda||Hall Gill|
|Andreas Lilja||Philippe Boucher|
|Chris Osgood||Marc-Andre Fleury|
To me, it’s evident that the Red Wings are deeper and have greater overall skill than the Penguins. I don’t believe for a second that Pittsburgh wanted it more than Detroit. Perhaps age had to do with something to do with it but Detroit surely didn’t look old in winning 3 games at home.
I’m searching for some type of comparison to fully highly the magnitude of this upset. It’s not quite Giants over Patriots in the Superbowl but it’s not far off. While the Red Wings weren’t as dominant as that Patriots team, they have been the class of the NHL for the better part of the past decade. They have won in all aspects of the game – execution, timing, skill, talent, depth, money, coaching and scouting. And unlike New England – class as well.
The Penguins chipped the puck in behind the goal continuously. They played possession as much as possible. They threw the puck at Chris Osgood at every chance. They stood toe-to-toe with one of the top 2-3 finest organizations in sports and didn’t back down.
Bottomline: The Penguins outworked a team with superior depth of talent.
Vindication for Sidney Crosby. Don’t question his heart, his tenacity, his drive, his unselfishness and his will to WIN.
Vindication for Marc-Andre Fleury. Championship goalie. ’nuff said.
Vindication for Evgeni Malkin. The Conn Smythe Trophy after running into a wall last year in the Finals.
Vindication for Jordan Staal. If anyone doubts that this guy is a top-2 centerman, you can’t doubt it now.
Vindication for Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Rob Scuderi and all the muckers and grinders. What you do ain’t pretty, it’s just necessary.
Vindication for Dan Bylsma.What an inspired coaching effort. Flawless.
Vindication for Ray Shero and the front-office. Bold moves to remake the franchise, knowing exactly how to re-shape this team.
Vindication for Pittsburgh and Penguins fans. City of Champions.
Vindication for Mario Lemieux. Our hockey savior.
… or why I hate being kicked when I’m down
I’m not much for trash talk. I don’t usually like to rise to the bait. Superstition plays a huge part here because I fear what the sports Gods will do when faced with such presumptuousness. Call me paranoid but when your first full season following a sport ends because of a Francisco Cabrera single, you don’t tend towards overconfidence.
I do recognize the role of trash-talk for both fans and the players. But by and large, players make nice after a game. They shake hands in hockey, basketball, football and soccer even at the end of a hard-fought, bitterly contested game. They may not like each other but they at least attempt to act civil. Fans, however, often keep on talking after the games. (And before anyone tries to say that we have the right to speak as we choose, please SHUT UP. Your right to act like a boor is not in question here).
I think it’s all good and well (and perhaps a little fun) to trash-talk before or even during a game. But afterwards, act like you’ve been there. I’m one of those fans who, for better or worse, takes my sports affiliations way too seriously. I take it personally when my team loses. I can’t even watch Sportscenter for a few days after a big loss to say nothing of having to hear some blathering idiot drone on about the superiority of the foe who vanquished my team. I’ll give them their dues but just let me move on.
Some people place value on kicking others while they are down. I, however, prefer NOT to be kicked when I’m down for the count. In the former stance, the individual(s) in question is, hopefully, thick-skinned enough to take it when the team loses because this behavior defines turnabout as fair play. In the latter stance, you have to act like you’ve been there before regardless of the outcome; be gracious in victory or defeat.
While we all get some morbid satisfaction from the misery of others in defeat, I don’t think there’s any reason to rub it directly in their faces. For me, the greater pleasure is celebrate my team’s achievements with my fellow fanbase.
Or why I’m entitled to my irrationality
Just as the Penguins have washed off the stench of Bill Cowher’s Carolina-clad betrayal, along comes another character destined for villainy in the eyes of the Pittsburgh sports fan.
Last summer, Marian Hossa, the supremely gifted winger who played for the Penguins during the spring’s playoffs, turned down a 7-year, $49 million offer from the Penguins to sign a 1-year, $7.4 million deal with Detroit. Hossa’s stated reason is that he believes he had a better shot at winning a title with the Red Wings than the Penguins.
In the leadup to the Stanley Cup Finals, it has been posited that Penguins fans are being irrational for booing Hossa for leaving. An objective observer would say that Hossa’s decision made perfect sense. He wants a title; he goes out and strengthens the reigning champions while simultaneously weakening one of their main contenders. Some have even gone so far as to say that Hossa should be lauded for taking less to play for a champion rather than making the big money grab. All fine points.
But who says that a fan has to be objective on this particular point? Why am I not entitled to my outrage, to my sense of betrayal? I’m a partisan fan! No other NHL team matters to me but the Pittsburgh Penguins. If you ain’t with Pitt(sburgh), you ain’t it. When someone effectively takes a swipe at my team, as Hossa did in taking less money to cross the aisle to Detroit, I sure as hell am entitled to feel as though that person has earned my enmity.
As with Cowher, I don’t wish Hossa any general ill will. Hell, if somehow he re-signed with the Penguins this offseason, I’d welcome him back to the fold. A true fan needs no ulterior motives to root for his/her team but you can be sure that I would still take a great amount of pleasure if the Penguins came back from two games down to win the cup, thereby forcing Hossa to watch our players skated around with the Cup held aloft their heads.