Thursday, January 29, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #9

It's the Polish Prodigy Podcast #9. Unrated. Uncut. Mildly entertaining.

Today the discussion centers around the Penguins' big win Wednesday and their upcoming schedule, the Steelers' kind of important game Sunday, and some crap on the Buccos.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

National Hatred League: Animosity at All-Time High in NHL

Let me make sure I understand you, Chris Osgood.

You claim that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and by extension the entire league has it in for your Detroit Red Wings because stars Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were forced to sit out Tuesday's tilt in Columbus, a 3-2 Blue Jackets overtime win, after skipping out on the NHL's All-Star weekend in Montreal.

Fair enough. I'll temporarily ignore that the franchise you're lucky enough to play for is probably the most popular one in America, that your team leads the NHL in road attendance while routinely selling out arenas as the visitor, and that the presence of the Winged Wheel played a large part in the very healthy ratings garnered by last year's Stanley Cup Final.

For now, I'll forget about the fallacious nature of your claims and your apparent paranoia and focus instead on the New York Yankees-caliber hate that you say is raining down upon Joe Louis Arena and its primary tenant.

I narrow in on the hate because there seems to be a tremendous amount of it spewing forth from various sources around the NHL, most of it directed toward other hockey-related entities.

As a public service, I have accumulated a rudimentary list of grievances floating through the National Hate, er, Hockey League in recent memory.

Here we go: Everyone hates the Red Wings because they win. The San Jose Sharks are chokers. Sidney Crosby is a whiner, crier, diver, Bettman sell-out, secondary-assist compiler and might actually be female. Alex Ovechkin is a hot-dogging caveman who shows up the opponent. Florida, Tampa, Atlanta, Nashville, etc. don't deserve an NHL team. Gary Bettman ruined hockey and may in fact be a David Stern-planted demon with designs on expanding the league to 42 teams. Sean Avery is a parasite who should never skate a shift again. Fans of the Blackhawks, Capitals, Penguins or any other team that recently experience a huge positive turnaround are bandwagoners.

Oh, and the All-Star Game stinks.

At the same time, let's not disparage legitimate on-ice rivalries like Detroit-Chicago, Canadiens-Bruins, Flames-Oilers, Sharks-Ducks, Rangers-Devils or any game involving the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington trio. These sublime confrontations are the gasoline that propels the NHL's engine.

But with the NHL playing from behind the NFL, MLB and NBA in the United States, does hockey really need to indulge in petty infighting?

Don't get me wrong, anger and animosity always draw attention from media and fans alike; however, all the time and energy wasted tearing each other down can probably be better channeled toward promoting the sport itself.

On the other hand, though, maybe the fact that puckheads everywhere are at each other's throats is a promising sign for the NHL. After all, you never hear anyone talk about "promoting the game" in the NFL because the players, coaches, GMs and owners are too concerned about beating each other's heads in to care about much else.

I'll let you folks decide for yourselves whether too much internal bickering is good or bad for the sport of hockey's general health.

For now, it's just jarring to see the sheer amount of hatred pulsing through the NHL's veins. In a passionate sport such as hockey, perhaps having some vitriol spill over the dasher boards is simply inevitable.

Although for this writer/fan, an honest on-ice battle beats an off-ice slam every time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #8

The Polish Prodigy Podcast makes its heavily anticipated return, and this time it's recorded from the Great Lakes State, Michigan. Listen in to the discussion, which includes the Steelers' upcoming effort in Super Bowl XLIII and the Penguins' second-half push for the playoffs.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hockey's International Flavor Bodes Well for Future of the Sport

As I watched a trio of Russian dynamos excite and entertain, a towering Slovak flex his shooting muscle (and, by extension, his stick), a young man from Ontario unleash his lightning-quick stride, and a journeyman goaltender from Flint, Mich., steal some of the Sunday evening spotlight by denying a man of Nigerian descent, all in the view of the second-largest Francophonic city in the world, I couldn't help but think one thing.

Hockey is the perfect sport for our modern, interconnected, globalized times.

I'll leave it to Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and the rest of our worldly scribes to describe exactly how it's happening, but the fact remains that the political, ethnic, and religious boundaries that divide us are steadily fading.

In the country in which I reside, we recently inaugurated our first minority President to great and much-deserved fanfare. Furthermore, in a couple more decades Caucasians are projected to make up less than half of America's population.

This isn't your grandfather's world, it isn't your father's world, and heck, it isn't even your older cousin's world. (You know, the one who still lives with his parents.)

Applying this knowledge to the sporting landscape, it's easy to pick out the sports that appear to be the best equipped to thrive on a planet where "It's a Small World After All" isn't just a song from an old Disney movie—it's the truth.

Of course, soccer is uniquely positioned for expanded growth. Seemingly every nation cares about it, and it's extremely cheap to play, which is a part of basketball's appeal. Soccer is also the only major team sport in which international competition and regular league play share the marquee, giving it a two-pronged interest-generating attack.

Tennis is a sport played and followed worldwide as well. The four Grand Slam tournaments are competed on three continents, and at least five continents have produced significant characters in the sport's collective history.

Make no mistake though, hockey is third on the list of globalized athletics. While it has yet to create a meaningful foothold in Africa, South America, and Australia, the game inspires great passion across Europe and northern Asia in addition to the obvious Canadian hotbed.

Due largely to the presence of the sport's premier league, the NHL, many cities, states, and regions in America have contracted puck fever. Places like Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and the entirety of New England can rival any foreign counterpart in affection for the game.

Contrast hockey's international presence to basketball, baseball, and especially football. Hard to argue against hockey as the most prepared in that group of four for the incredible shrinking world.

Sure, baseball has Latin America and Japan, and basketball enjoys an increasing presence in Eurasia, but the composition of the Major Leagues and the NBA looks downright xenophobic compared with the cultural cornucopia that is the National Hockey League.

So enjoy the continuing exploits of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev, of Evgeni Malkin and Zdeno Chara, of Andrew Cogliano, Tim Thomas, and Jarome Iginla.

We as sports fans can either deny the globalization of our games or embrace it.

Meanwhile, we as hockey fans can be grateful our sport is so ahead of the times.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alex the Grating: Ovechkin Needs To Act Like the Superstar He Is

Alex Ovechkin crafted a dominant performance in a pivotal game last Wednesday at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, helping his Washington Capitals to a slump-breaking 6-3 decision over the Penguins. His energy, physicality and irrepressible talent were on display, showing why many around the sport of hockey are deeming him the Best Player in the World.

Ovechkin's raw human magnetism is strong enough to draw in the elusive casual fan, plus his unique combination of skills is intriguing to hockey fans of any tenure.

Essentially, the man has everything going for him.

Everything, it seems, except a modicum of self-control.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I am an avid follower of the Penguins for more than a decade. Thus, I have an interest in Sidney Crosby proving that the Calder Trophy voters of 2006 got it wrong when they handed Ovechkin the prize for the NHL's top first-year player.

I am also emotionally invested in the Penguins staying on the top of the Eastern Conference food chain for the next decade, and from my perspective, the Capitals are the biggest threat to that outcome.

On the other hand, I am also a fan of the great game of hockey first and foremost. I have a true weakness for pure goal-scorers like Ovechkin, probably because that's the type of player I'd want to be if I were fortunate enough to play in the Show.

In all of sports, nothing compares to the moment when puck hits twine, and the gentlemen who have the ability to make that magic happen will always be held in high personal regard.

Keeping all this in mind, it still bothers me when a player of Ovechkin's statue resorts to the kind of disrespectful behavior that he engaged in early in last Wednesday's third period.

Upon pumping home the goal that gave Washington its first lead of the game, the 23-year-old Muscovite launched into his usual explosive goal celebration, something that I have no qualms with. I'm all for the expression of joy; that's what scoring is all about.

But when Alex skated by the Penguins bench and taunted the opposition at a decibel level high enough for FSN Pittsburgh's on-ice mics to pick up, my feeling of respect for the superstar wing faded to a blip.

Hockey boasts an honorable tradition of great players who compete hard, yet exude class and dignity. Especially when the cameras are on, sportsmanship should be a priority.

I'm not advocating for the elimination of personality from the sport. On the contrary, I think the outward and inward diversity of NHLers should be emphasized more than ever in this era of media-ready cliches and bulky padding and helmets that make the players look more like robots than human beings.

At the same time, the principles that built the game shouldn't be tossed aside for the sake of shameless attention-seeking. Ovechkin does a lot of things right, but his appearing to have a lack of respect for his opponents has the potential to undermine his undeniable talents. And that wouldn't be good for Alex or the NHL.

Once again, Ovechkin is a tremendous competitor, the epitome of a modern hockey player. He is leading the Capitals to places the franchise has never been while boosting the Q-rating of a league that desperately needs it.

I'll leave it up to public opinion whether he has passed Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin for the title of the NHL's most outstanding player, but it is still quite certain that Alex Ovechkin still has much to learn about how to conduct himself.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Plight of the Penguins: A Tough Month for the Defending East Champs

Approximately halfway through the National Hockey League's regular season, the expected contenders in the Eastern Conference have begun to ensconce themselves in playoff position.

Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers are all in sixth place or better in the East, to no one's surprise. All four of those squads played postseason hockey last spring, and most around the game thought their prospects were just as good—or better—for the 2009 playoffs.

But wait, where are the defending East champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who were threatening to move into the conference's top spot after finishing November with a 14-6-3 record?

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and company sit in ninth place (42 points) leading up to Monday's divisional dance with the Rangers in New York.

It is strangely coincidental that Pittsburgh takes the Madison Square Garden ice tonight to try to put an end to an extended stretch of poor play that arguably began during the team's previous visit to the World's Most Famous Arena.

The Penguins played their first game of December on the third day of the month and held a 2-0 lead halfway through the contest on Broadway. With Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 edge in the waning moments of the third period, Petr Prucha nailed the equalizer, helping transform the game into a 3-2 shootout win for the Rangers.

Including that squandered Dec. 3 standings point, Pittsburgh has posted a 5-10-1 record in the past month, collecting only 11 of a possible 32 points during that span. After racing out to the franchise's best start in more than a decade, the Penguins are now faced with the prospect of repeating the torrid second-half surge they've relied upon the last two seasons.

What appeared to be a short slide in the middle of December has turned into a legitimate season-threatening slump in recent weeks, tracing back to an embarrassing 7-3 home defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on Dec. 20. Leading into that pivotal night, the Penguins were looking like a return to form was imminent, with franchise goaltender Fleury back in the crease after a prolonged groin injury; spurred on by a superior effort from its goalie, Pittsburgh had blitzed Atlanta 6-3 just two nights before.

The trouncing administered by the Leafs effectively revealed just about all that has plagued the Penguins of late: spotty goaltending (Fleury let in a pair of soft goals early), impotent special teams (Pittsburgh surrendered three PPGs and scored one meaningless late goal in five man-advantage chances) and a lack of production from 21-year-old captain Crosby (zero points and just one shot).

That putrid formula has repeated itself more often than not since then, producing three more sobering losses at Mellon Arena and more moral victories—close losses to Montreal and Boston—than actual ones.

What has made this standings freefall even more vexing is the team's inability to put forth a strong effort in more than one category. For example, Fleury played quite well during the week of Christmas, surrendering eight goals in four games, only to watch his powerful offense produce just seven as the team went 2-2.

It is difficult to be consistently successful in the NHL without either a dangerous power play or a stifling penalty kill, and a large part of performing well in specialty situations is winning faceoffs. The Penguins lost crack draw man Mike Zigomanis to an undisclosed upper-body injury during the Dec. 3 loss (coincidence?), leaving a below-average faceoff squad without its clutch puck-possession catalyst.

Less easily explainable is Crosby's scoring swoon. The club's superstar centerman has looked no better than average over the last 16 games, curiously occuring on the heels of his spectacular hat trick against the Devils on Nov. 29. Is he hiding an injury? The NHL's king of making no excuses will likely never say publicly if a physical ailment is holding him back.

On a positive note, Crosby still ranks third in the league in scoring with 50 points (15 goals plus 35 assists trails only teammate Malkin and Alex Ovechkin), despite coming up scoreless in five of the Penguins' last eight games, probably the worst stretch of his transcendent four-year career. Make no mistake, though, the Pens need No. 87 to be his usual 1.5-points-per-game self in order to truly be considered a Stanley Cup contender.

Somewhere along the way to the current group's best regular season yet, the Penguins have run into a significant barrier, raising real doubt about the team's credentials for the first time in more than a year. As it stands now, Pittsburgh is only a single point out of the East playoff field, but expectations and early-season success dictate that ninth place is a real disappointment.

Beginning this evening in the Big Apple, the Penguins have a chance to respond to their detractors and pull off a third consecutive second-half rally. What better place to start another surge than the site where the snowball first began to roll downhill?