Monday, December 20, 2010

Pope's picks and other Monday morning musings


You can put a bow on the NFL Most Valuable Player Award and give it to Michael Vick, whose performance in Philadelphia's improbable comeback win over New York yesterday was the stuff of legend. The Giants can start thinking about next season, because that's how long it's going to take them to recover. The hangover from blowing a 31-10 lead in the last seven-and-a-half minutes with first place in the division and a possible first round playoff bye at stake isn't going to go away anytime soon...Maybe the Canadiens can use their road trip to give Carey Price a much-needed Christmas break. Not that Price was to blame for last night's loss in Colorado or any of the four losses in the team's last five games, but 30 starts in 33 games is the kind of workload that can leave the tank empty come the spring. It might serve long-term purposes to give Alex Auld two or even three of the remaining six starts on the trip...No disrepect to National League MVP Joey Votto, but when Sidney Crosby scores the gold-medal winning goal on home soil in an Olympic year on top of everything else he accomplished, it's a stretch to give Canadian Athlete of the Year honors to anyone else...I still think Don Cherry is relevant as a hockey analyst, but he's really losing me with the other stuff, like this past Saturday's Coach's Corner lecture about the baby Jesus. Preach all you want about the evils of the instigator rule and the merits of no-touch icing, but Hockey Night in Canada is no more a place for religious dogma than the Pope is a go-to guy for inside tips on the Mise au Jeu.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Knuckles Cammalleri helps Habs pass gut check


Circumstances dictated that we would find out last night what the 2010-2011 Canadiens are made of, and it turns out they're constructed of pretty sturdy stuff. Call it what you will: a revelation, a statement game, a turning point - they're all apt descriptions of what transpired in a 4-3 win over Boston at the Bell Center. Mired in a season-worst three game losing streak and just ahead of two weeks and seven games on the road over the holidays, the Habs stepped up in a big way by beating their most hated rival in a game that solidified Montreal's standing atop the Northeast Division, and made the difference between third and eighth place in the Eastern Conference because of the seeding formula favoring division leaders. There was huge potential for emotional letdown coming off a hard-fought and demoralizing setback the previous night against Philadelphia, but the Canadiens went to war in more ways than one and drew no shortage of inspiration from Mike Cammalleri, who not only opened the scoring by turning Tim Thomas inside out on a penalty shot, but set a warrior's example in a spirited if inexpert fight with David Krejci in a completely unexpected battle of traditional non-belligerents. Pierre Bouchard versus Stan Jonathan or John Kordic against Jay Miller it was not, but the Cammalleri dust-up typified the the Canadiens resolve on a night when their character was put to as stiff a test as they've faced so far this season.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Vikings schmikings and other Monday morning musings


The collapse of the Minneapolis Metrodome roof in the middle of the night wasn't just fate's way of making sure no one got hurt. It was also the football gods telling the Vikings they should never have turned their back on tradition by playing indoors. The pre-dome Vikings were cold weather warriors who honored their Nordic namesakes by prevailing under harsh winter conditions against opponents who were sometimes so paralyzed by the weather that they had nothing left for football. It's an advantage that other Snow Belt teams haven't abandoned, which makes a December visit to Chicago, Green Bay or New York to face the Bears, Packers or Giants a much more daunting prospect than a room temperature road game against the Minnesota Shut-Ins...Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban wasn't the same player in back-to-back losses in Detroit and Toronto that he was before being benched for three games, and the change wasn't for the better. Stripped of his swagger and self-confidence, Subban went from being favorably compared to a young Chris Chelios to being just another mistake-prone rookie defenceman. He was tentative in the defensive zone, hesitant to rush the puck and didn't make any of his patented spin-o-ramas, even though a neutered dog usually turns around two or three times before he lies down and goes to sleep...Older generations of fans who caught the ceremonial opening faceoff Saturday probably noticed that 86 year old Leafs legend Johnny Bower hasn't aged a bit, mainly because he looked like he was 86 when he was still playing...Anybody else find it ironic that a thousand Nordiques fans held up English signs on Long Island inviting the Islanders or the Atlanta Thrashers to move to Quebec?...No truth to the rumour that Wayne Gretzky got turned away from Saturday's UFC after party at the Mise au Jeu because Dana White didn't recognize him.

Friday, December 10, 2010

You've gotta be shitting me

I try to steer clear of doing editorials on ridiculous salaries in sports because outrageous contracts have become so commonplace that it's akin to commenting on the sunrise, but an agreement was struck this week that cries out for commentary because of its extraordinary stupidity.
Not surprisingly, it's a baseball contract. The Chicago Cubs have signed first baseman Carlos Pena to a one year free agent deal worth 10 million dollars, which doesn't even put Pena in the top 25 as baseball salaries go, but here's where it gets surreal: Pena hit .196 last season. ONE-NINETY-SIX. That's below the Mendoza Line - baseball's folkloric threshold for incompetent hitting, named for banjo-hitting former major league shortstop Mario Mendoza, and symbolic of a batting average below .200. There was a time when you'd be lucky to still be in baseball if you hit a buck-96 over a full season. In the early 21st century, it'll get you 10 million dollars a year.
Yes, I know Pena hit 28 home runs this year - or about one homer every 17 at bats - but those are only fair-to-middling numbers for a power hitter, and he also struck out 158 times, or about once every three at bats. More power to him if he can parlay that kind of brutally disproportionate success-to-failure ratio into 10 million dollars, but that's a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a one-dimensional feast or famine hitter whose a lot more familiar with famine than he is with feast.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Winning makes P.K. benching a tempest in a teapot

It's difficult to argue with success, and the Canadiens' season-high three game winning streak has gone a long way towards stifling the debate over P.K. Subban, who coincidentally was a healthy scratch for all three games. It would be ludicrous to suggest the Canadiens are a better team without Subban in the lineup than they are with him. What they've demonstrated in the absence of both Subban and the injured Andrei Markov is that they have quality depth along the blue line and a strong collective commitment to responsible defence. It also doesn't hurt that they're playing in front of the best goalie in the NHL so far this season.
Coach Jacques Martin took a calculated gamble by extending Subban's press box exile beyond the anticipated one game, and after consecutive wins over three non-playoff teams, Martin is perfectly positioned to re-insert Subban into the lineup tomorrow night against the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings. Even if Subban sits again, success has ensured that the decision won't be a controversial one.
Of course, if it were J.P. Simon being benched by Jack Martin, we'd never hear the end of it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Last laugh to Lebron (and other Monday morning musings)


Say what you will about Lebron James, but the guy was at his superhuman best amid a lot of hostility last week, scoring a season-high 38 points for Miami in his first game in Cleveland since leaving the Cavaliers to sign as a free agent with the Heat. It's that much more impressive when you consider the logistics of a basketball court, where the fans are literally within a few feet of the players, with no plexiglass to muffle the taunts or deflect the projectiles...If the Canadiens can bench their best defenceman and win two in a row, imagine the potential for runaway success if they banished their highest-paid player to the press box. Seriously, I know P.K. Subban made a couple of costly mistakes against Edmonton last Wednesday, but at least he cares. How does Subban get pulled from the lineup for two games after giving it everything he's got, while Scott Gomez goes through the motions and keeps playing?...It tells you everything you need to know about what makes Montreal a hockey city and not a baseball town when a Canadiens oldtimers game draws what would have been considered a respectable crowd for the Expos...How good is Team Canada going to be at the 2014 Winter Olympics? Either Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos is going to get Taylor Hall as his left winger, and the consolation prize for whomever doesn't get Hall will be Rick Nash...Maybe it's desert heat that makes football figures in Arizona delirious. Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson's "this isn't funny" tirade after last Monday night's loss to San Francisco was only marginally less loopy than then-coach Dennis Green's "the Bears are who we thought they were" outburst in 2006. The upside of going crazy in Arizona is that you can sleep outside at night without freezing to death.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Subban takes a seat

Jacques Martin took a calculated risk yesterday and the Canadiens made it work. Benching rookie of the year frontrunner and fan favorite P.K. Subban, whose subpar performance figured prominently in Wednesday's loss to the Oilers at the Bell Center, was as big a bombshell as Martin has dropped this season. It's not as if Subban was stinking the joint out on a regular basis. In the absence of the injured Andrei Markov, Subban is Montreal's most capable puck moving defenceman in a rearguard corps that's not otherwise fleet afoot, and making him a healthy scratch represented a big gamble, especially going into New Jersey, which traditionally has been a Canadiens burial ground. Happily for the Habs, it was 2-0 Montreal before Subban was comfortably nestled into his press box seat, and the Canadiens never looked back, turning a controversial personnel decision into a scoresheet footnote.
There could be elements at play that aren't readily apparent, including the dynamic in the dressing room. Players from other teams have complained publicly about Subban being too big for his britches, and some of his own veteran teammates might feel the same way. Subban never met a camera or a microphone he didn't like, and enthusiasm for the limelight isn't an endearing quality. As an exercise in serving up humble pie, benching your best defenceman might not be the best plan strategically, but it is the surest way of getting his and everyone else's attention.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

At the eye of a Saskatchewan shit storm

This past Monday on Bird's Eye View on CTV Montreal, I did a commentary on Rider Nation getting its comeuppance at the Grey Cup. Well, did the shit hit the grain hopper in Canada's breadbasket. Here's what I had to say:

As one of the seven deadly sins, pride is something conventional spiritual wisdom tells us is best avoided, lest it manifest itself as hubris. Apparently, Rider Nation forgot to consult with its spiritual advisors before the Grey Cup.
Rider Pride was the overwhelming theme in the week leading up to last night's game, and the casual observer might have had a difficult time identifying the other team involved, even though the other team was the defending champions. The Alouettes and their entourage were a Grey Cup week afterthought, overshadowed by Saskatchewan's travelling football circus, which the CFL and its media partners gladly exploited to the promotional maximum. Rider Nation milked the attention for everything it was worth, and then some.
It's the "then some" that sometimes makes Rider Pride objectionable. A year ago, their team lost the Grey Cup because they couldn't count to 12, yet Rider Nation descended on Edmonton awash in expectation that bordered on a sense of entitlement. In a situation that called for at least a shred of humility, they chose unrestrained swagger, and poked karma with a sharp stick. Karma responded accordingly.
Of course, it wasn't just karma that was Saskatchewan's undoing. The Alouettes facilitated the process with some terrific halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball. Either way, for the second straight year, ill-advised Rider Pride just gave way to another deadly sin: Rider Envy.


CTV's website was carpet bombed by Saskatchewan fans who'd caught wind of my commentary online. I was also thorougly trashed on a site called riderspride.com and on a morning radio talk show simulcast in Regina and Saskatoon. Interestingly, three callers in a 10 minute segment said my commentary was spot on, and those are people in Saskatchewan. The host didn't exactly enhance his credibility by mocking my voice after replaying my CTV segment. It was childish and unprofessional, but I'm the idiot, apparently.

Footnote: I have an audition today for a television commercial - I'll be playing a Saskatchewan farmer. That, my friends, is irony.