Archive for May 2007

Super Fans

May 29, 2007

Bears 62, Manchester 1. Ditka with 14 hat tricks.

I’m Bill Swerski and with me as always are the Super Fans.

I’m back from spending the holiday weekend in Manchester where the Hershey Bears finished off the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL’s Eastern Conference final series. The Bears made quick work of the Monarchs, ousting them in a four-game sweep while outscoring them 18-5. The Bears held Manchester scoreless at even strength for a stretch of more than three games during the series, and they never trailed in any of the four games.

Next up: the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Calder Cup finals as the Bears attempt to become the first AHL team ever to win eight consecutive playoff series on their way to winning back-to-back titles. In the days of smaller leagues, fewer rounds and fewer wins were required to get through the playoffs. The Bears have won seven straight series, posting a 28-7 record in the process. Three of the losses came in overtime, and Hershey has needed seven games to dispose of an opponent just once in those seven sets. Three have been sweeps.

I’m a big champion of hockey in Hershey. The experience is a great one, from the time you walk into the building to the time you leave. The Bears have been around for almost 70 years now, and they’ve got a terrific fan base that rocks a wonderful new building. I’ve always encouraged people to make the trip up to see the Bears play in Hershey, especially at this time of year. You can’t beat the value and it really is one of the great hockey experiences you can have. Every true hockey fan should see the Bears play in Hershey at some point. They’re like the Green Bay Packers of the AHL, a small market team that thrives with a passionate following.

How passionate? So passionate that they travel well, more so than any other team I’ve seen in the AHL. The Bears opened this year’s road playoff run in Glens Falls, NY with Sunday, Monday and Wednesday games. A decent-sized group of fans made its way to upstate New York for all three games, and others took in the first two. Many stayed at the same hotel where the team stayed, and we often encountered them in the lobby and on the streets.

I was in Moscow during the East Division final series with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but I know from last spring’s series that these two teams both bring a lot of fans to the other’s arena. It makes for quite a wild atmosphere, especially during the playoffs.

I was amazed by the number of Bears fans in Manchester this past weekend (three busloads, I’m told). As I was lining up at BWI to board the plane to Manchester, I was greeted by the familiar faces of Dee, Michelle and Peggy, three Caps season ticket holders who decided to spend their holiday weekend with the Bears. When I got off the plane in Manchester, I met (Carl) Cramer, Kelly and Lynda, three more Bears fans who came up to New England hoping to see Hershey earn a second straight Calder Cup final berth.

After the Bears knocked the Monarchs out on Saturday, I headed back to the hotel hoping to get something to eat before the kitchen closed. I slipped into the hotel lounge and grabbed a quiet booth. But before anyone could bring me a menu, there were Dee, Michelle and Peggy waving me over to join them. And on my way to their table, I was stopped by another table full of Bears fans who wanted to say hello.

Since Game 5 was slated for Sunday and I had no way of knowing whether it would be necessary or not (it obviously wasn’t), I booked an early Monday departure. So I had all of Sunday to spend in Manchester and it surrounding areas, as did many of the Bears fans who made the trip. It was great for me; my lifelong buddy Tex — the best man at my wedding — lives in nearby Portsmouth. We had a great day together catching up on old times. We spent the afternoon in Nashua watching an independent league baseball game between the Nashua Pride and the (Lynn, Mass.-based) North Shore Spirit.

After the game, Tex and I headed back to Manchester. We wandered into a nice Irish pub where we watched the end of the Red Sox-Texas game (brought back memories of the many Sundays of my early youth spent watching the Sox, though not from Irish pubs) and had a good meal. It was getting dark outside and we had switched to coffee when in wandered Cramer, Kelly and Lynda. They bought us a drink and we snapped some photos and shared a few laughs before going off into the night. (If I had any technical inclinations, I’d post the photo Cramer e-mailed me after we got back.) I’ll get you back in Hamilton, folks. They’re making the trip up, as I’m sure many others are.

Monday morning, I stood at the baggage carousel at BWI waiting for my garment bag to come around. I heard a voice say, “No confidence in the sweep, eh?” I turned and there was Ralph, a Bears fan I first met last June in Milwaukee when we were both in town to watch the Bears win the Calder Cup in Brew Town. I explained that the extra day in Manchester bought me some time with a good friend, and he mentioned that he had spent Sunday with his daughter, who now lives in New Hampshire. Ralph is heading up to Hamilton next week, too.

Bears fans. They’re everywhere. They will sell out the Giant Center for Games 1 and 2 this Friday and Saturday respectively, and I will be jealous of them. It kills me to miss them, but I will be in Toronto this weekend for the NHL draft combine, something I’ve never covered and have always wanted to cover. I’d hoped there wouldn’t be a conflict, but alas, I’ll miss the first three games of the final series.

So have fun. Yell loud. Enjoy the hockey. And when the B-U-L-L-S-*-*-T chant is necessary, make it happen. I’ll be watching on the B2, and wishing I was there with you all. I’ll see you in Hamilton next Wed.

Da Bears, Da Bears, Da Bears, Da Bears …

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No Need to Go the Curb Anymore

May 22, 2007

My pals over at onfrozenblog.com have written a fair bit about the lack of hockey coverage in The Washington Post. I was reminded of that today when I learned that the beat writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution is working on a series of pieces on the Thrashers’ top prospects. It’s also worth noting that the Thrashers’ web team has sent its beat writer to Chicago to cover the AHL Wolves for a bit since the Thrash was ousted from the playoffs.

Don’t know about you, but Atlanta never struck me as being more of a hockey town than Washington is.

Post beat writer Tarik El-Bashir is a good friend of mine. He loves the game and he does a good job of covering the Caps and the game, when the powers that be let him. The problem is that the sports editors don’t perceive any need or demand for hockey coverage there, and I guess the fan base has just grown tired of having its pleas for more coverage fall on deaf ears.

Or maybe the local hockey fans’ needs are being met elsewhere. That’s what I’m guessing.

Check any of the blogs listed on the blogroll to the right of this piece. Hockey, hockey, hockey. And volume, volume, volume. Those are mostly local blogs there, and I’d wager their output is far greater than that of The Post (washingtonpopup.com, for those of you who read it online). There were at least as many representatives from local hockey blogs as local newspapers in attendance on Monday when the Caps introduced Nicklas Backstrom to the local media.

It’s nice to have options. You can read Tarik whenever they let the reins off him, and you can also read a number of high quality blogs (including Tarik’s) that are devoted to hockey and the Capitals.

Finally, it’s worth noting that other avenues exist for local hockey coverage. Longtime fans know that DC101’s Elliott in the Morning frequently gives the Caps their due on his show. And SportsTalk980’s Al Koken is a longtime local champion of the game and the team. Since the Caps’ season ended more than a month ago, Koken and his various cohorts (mostly on The John Thompson Show) at 980 have had several guests on to talk about hockey and/or the Caps, including George McPhee, Glen Hanlon, Brian Pothier, Pierre McGuire and Nicklas Backstrom.

Even better, you can listen to on-demand replays or podcasts of those interviews here. If you’re a Caps fan, you really owe it to yourself to listen to the McGuire interview. There’s a lot of hope packed into just a few minutes.

It’s a long summer for all of us, and we’ve gotta do what we can to get through it. The coverage is there, and it’s more convenient than walking to the curb in your Tony Soprano/Mike Commodore model white terry cloth robe. Dig in.

Who’s Driving?

May 21, 2007

So it’s Saturday afternoon, and The Dude and I are looking to watch a period or two of hockey before we drive up to Hershey for Saturday night’s Bears-Monarchs game. We’re eating lunch, and I tell The Dude to go turn on the game.

“What channel?”

“Eleven. It’s on NBC today,” I say.

A few minutes later comes the sad reply.

“No dad, it’s not on. It’s some guy talking about horses.”

Ah yes, The Preakness. A two-minute race that requires a four-hour pregame show. I curse my hockey-loving lot for settling in Baltimore, where I’ve previously been pre-empted from watching Stanley Cup playoff hockey by college lacrosse. And now a horse race. A two-minute horse race that is still four hours away.

Come to find out later the whole nation got shipped off of NBC’s “coverage” of the Buffalo-Ottawa game (in overtime, no less!) when the Peacockers opted to go to The Preakness.

This sort of red-headed stepchild treatment is what NHL fans have grown accustomed to in the last several seasons. It’s like the scene in “This is Spinal Tap” when the band shows up for a gig only to find it has been given second billing to a puppet show. And this is the sort of thing that will ultimately kill overtime hockey in the playoffs, leading to the dreaded and dreadful shootout that the league wants to believe is such a big success.

Many of the NHL suits in NYC who are decision-makers have been hired away from other sports, and as such they don’t have the passion for hockey that us lifers (and even most recent converts) possess. If a TV exec approached them with a telecast deal that would pad the pockets of the league’s owners while replacing sudden death overtime with playoff shootouts (more “time-slot friendly,” dontcha know), does anyone think the suits would decline the money in favor of “the integrity of the game?”

Don’t everyone step forward at once.

The shootout is horrible and it’s getting worse. It’s a novelty right up there with other (sponsorable!) insults to the attention span of hockey fans such as human puck races, ice girls and whatever other needless distractions are being foisted on the hockey-watching public.

Here’s my question(s) to longtime fans of the game. Is the NHL a better game now than it was say 10, 15, 20 or 25 years ago? Is the game better with teams in Miami and Nashville and Phoenix instead of places like Quebec City and Winnipeg? Have any of the “improvements” brought to us hockey fans by marketing types in the last two decades made the game that much more enjoyable? How many of you would get up and leave if you were confronted with organ music at intermission instead of sumo ice wrestling, human puck races, monkey hockey or whatever other ice-wrecking entertainment is being foisted on you on any given night? Would you cancel your season tickets and never go to a game again if mascots suddenly became an extinct species?

I’m only asking because the health of the game seemed fine to me some 20, 25 years ago when few to none of these “accoutrements” existed. The NHL certainly had a bigger footprint in the North American sporting landscape and with the average fan on the street. That was before some people in some high places decided that a lot of things that weren’t broken needed fixing. Now hockey has become a niche sport (at best) with second-rate media coverage (if that).

To me, there’s nothing wrong with the game itself (besides the shootout). I don’t go around conducting focus groups and taking the pulse of the man on the street, but I travel a lot and I talk to a lot of hockey fans in a lot of places. And my sense is that they’re mostly happy with the game itself, but they’re not so happy with the way things are working off the ice, and they haven’t been happy with the way things have been working off the ice for a long time. They’re not interested in bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors and dogs and ponies. They want good hockey at a reasonable price, and they want to be able to watch hockey on TV when they’re not at the arena. That’s not at all unreasonable, but few of them seem to feel that their simple needs are being met. The Man Behind the Curtain is too concerned with meeting needs that don’t exist.

The Versus network is not getting it done for the NHL, nor is NBC. Let’s have an NHL network that operates 24/7/365, and let’s see more teams develop their own TV networks. For this to happen, we need the powers that be to dedicate much more time on these pressing matters rather than lining up “B” and “C” list celebs to write playoff blogs and other such trifles. Concentrate on the things that truly matter, please.

Moscow Lag

May 16, 2007

Having just returned from my first ever trip across the ocean, I am now dealing with the after-affects of that travel. I pulled into the driveway of my palatial Baltimore estate minutes before midnight on Monday. A luggage snafu had separated me from my dirty laundry, and that added another hour to the end of the trip. I woke up at 9 a.m. Moscow time to shower and begin packing for a 10:15 departure from the hotel. Midnight in Baltimore is 8 a.m. in Moscow, meaning I was at last concluding a 23-hour travel day.

My lawn was the first thing I noticed. It came up to my knees. I mowed it before I left, but now I thought I heard the faint hissing of snakes coming from the grass. I opened the front door and entered, finding all the mail I’d missed in a neat, two-foot stack on the kitchen table. The cats didn’t come running, so I guess they didn’t miss me.

Both kids were sound asleep, so I hugged and kissed my wife and showed her a few of the things I’d brought back in my carry-on bag. Then I collapsed into an instant and very deep state of unconsciousness, the likes of which I have rarely experienced in my sleeping career. It was seven hours of nothing, no dreams no fitful tossing about. Just deep sleep. It was far too short, though.

My wife roused me at 7:30, and I made my daughter’s lunch and got her off to school. The Dude was home sick for a second straight day, so we let him sleep. I got back home and tried to catch up on two week’s worth of what I had missed. Lots of junk mail, plenty of useless e-mail, a few phone messages I didn’t need to return. Not much else, really.

I brewed up a pot of coffee and began to steel myself for the lawn mowing task ahead. It was when I first sipped that coffee that I was able to admit what I already suspected: I miss Moscow. I miss the people, the bustle, the scenery, the Metro, the walking, the hotel lobby, the coffee-fueled discussions of music and literature with my travel companions … but most of all, I miss the coffee.

I wasn’t prepared for that at all. My wife (who has lived in France and Japan and who has traveled to numerous other countries) has long been trying to get me to go on a European vacation. I’ve always resisted. There is plenty of North America that I haven’t seen, and I’ve never been the best air traveler. This trip to Moscow has softened me up for any of her future endeavors to get me to go to Europe. I’ve always been the guy who would rather drive than fly, would rather sleep in a tent than a hotel. Not so much any more. I’d go back to Moscow. I’d go back to Europe. I’d go anywhere this tournament is, or wherever a compelling hockey tournament is played.

The tournament itself was great. The World Championship is a criminally underrated tournament in North America, particularly in the United States. And you can find plenty of small-minded types here in the States who will say things like, “Who cares about a hockey tournament in Europe?” Let them watch football. Arena football.

See the tears of the Russians in attendance who have watched their dreams of a gold medal for the home team on home ice evaporate with a heart-breaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Finns. See those same Finns weep openly after their own gold medal dreams die at the hands of the Canadians a day later. Then ask “who cares.” You can recover from a bad game or two (or more) and win the Stanley Cup championship. Team Russia played a nearly flawless tournament here and came away only with the bronze. Getting beat to one loose puck was the difference between bronze and a chance at the gold.

Hockey is a global sport. There were no children throwing a football on the streets or in the parks of Russia. No kids aspiring to be Terrell Owens or any of the other model citizens than populate the NFL. No baseball diamonds, either. We saw one basketball court in our time in Moscow, and it was in the process of being refurbished. Hockey is the game there.

Almost everywhere we went, people would see our IIHF badges and would try to engage us in conversations about the game, about Washington, about Alex Ovechkin. Hockey is the glue that binds us. Nobody asked us about the Redskins or the Nationals after they learned we were from Washington. I regret that my Russian was nowhere near good enough to talk to converse with these people, but passion is an international language. You could see it in their eyes, feel it in their handshakes, and hear it in their voices. And when Team Russia played at Arena Khodynka, you could feel it, see it, hear it and wonder if it might blow the lid off the place.

One night, after hopping off the Metro train, I was encountered by a young Russian who grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. I was startled briefly but it passed when he said, “Hockey,” and pointed to the credential dangling from my neck.

“Yes, Hockey,” I replied. “Alex Oveckhin.”

“Ah, Ovechkin,” he beamed. “Washington Capitals. Ovechkin very clever man.”

“Yes he is,” I replied.

At this point, he hugged me and said, “Friends forever.”

Then he pointed to his female companion and said, “Now we will go to the club and have some dancing.”

This was not an isolated incident.

At the conclusion of Sunday’s gold medal game, the IIHF released its groups for next year’s World Championship in Quebec City/Halifax. It also released its ranking of nations based on “long-term quality of the countries’ national team program.” That ranking went 46 nations deep, and included countries such as Serbia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Japan, Mexico and Turkey. Wonder where those countries rank in American football, baseball and basketball.

The Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1893. The first World Championship gold medalist was crowned in 1910. No one asked me, but here’s some advice for those who would say this tournament is meaningless or that no one cares: Talk about what you know about. You use less of our time that way.

Thanks to Ted Leonsis for having the faith in us and the vision to send us to Moscow to cover this tournament. It was truly an opportunity of a lifetime, and I enjoyed every sleep-shorn minute of it. Thanks to Kurt Kehl for his level-headed advice and guidance, both before we left and while we were gone. Thanks to Nate Ewell, Paul Rovnak and Julie Petri for keeping tabs on the Hershey Bears while we were gone, and for keeping the home folks apprised to their efforts. Thanks to John Walton, whose dulcet tones and excitable musings would bounce off the high ceilings of our hotel lobby at all incredulous hours of the morning. You helped keep us going there JW, and we look forward to resuming the chase with you in Hershey this weekend.

Thanks to Dmitry Chesnokov for his patient prodding throughout the season, urging me to go to Moscow for the Worlds if it were at all possible. And thanks to Dmitry for his help in facilitating our trip, and for helping four weary travelers find their footing in a strange land. He went far beyond the call of friendship, and days after he left Moscow to return to the States we marveled at how valuable his advice and help was for us. He continued to e-mail us and help even after he had returned to American soil.

Many more are worthy and deserving of a measure of our thanks, and we’ll see to it that they’re thanked personally. Before I put a ribbon on this thing and get back to writing about hockey on this blog, I have to thank my three travel companions and comrades: Spike Parker, Mike Rucki and John Keeley. We developed a good working chemistry together and we needed it. We spent far more hours huddled in the hotel lobby working than we spent in our hotel beds sleeping. Such circumstances would try the patience and dispositions of many, but we maintained a remarkable degree of composure throughout.

Spike and I have worked together for years, and I never fail to marvel at his ability to overcome technological hurdles and impasses. Such was the case on this trip. His creativity also extends to his photo and video work, which added immeasureable depth and color to the content we shipped back from abroad.

Mike has a very underrated eye with a camera, and is one of the most resourceful folks I know. Through him we were invited to a party with Team USA at the U.S. Embassy, and he was very adept at opening other doors for us all as well. Besides the photos, he was adept at getting sound files for us and he and I seemed to be on this same bizarre pop culture plane throughout our time in Moscow. At least once a day, he’d say something just as I was thinking and/or was about to say the very same thing.

John is quite simply one of the best pure writers I know, and we’re lucky that he’s so passionate about hockey. He melds his love for the game and the language so well and so effortlessly. One of the highlights of the trip for me was being able to watch many games with him, sharing observations and ruminations as the game wore on. We really developed quite a rhythm for watching and writing by the end of the week, and I look forward to picking up where we left off in Hershey this weekend and in Washington this fall.

Ah, Moscow. You have forever removed the simple joy of my morning coffee here in the States. I will return. I have to. Or Coffee Mania needs to expand to this side of the ocean and open up a store or 63 in the Washington metropolitan region.

From the Worlds

May 4, 2007

Tried to put our “widget” technology here for our coverage of the IIHF World Championships in Moscow, but it didn’t take. For ongoing coverage of the tournament updated daily, go here.

The widget is a movable piece of internet technology that anyone can “grab” and post on their own page. It updates itself afterwards, so I urge anyone with the inclination to go ahead and grab it and put it up on your blog or web page.

You’ll hear and see much more from our four-man crew here as we deliver stories, pictures and video from the tournament.