Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tanks for nothing

There's one last point to make about one of the strangest and ugliest hockey seasons in recent memory.

It all could have been prevented by changing the draft lottery just a year sooner.

The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes play on Thursday night here in Buffalo. If the Sabres lose in regulation, it will be very difficult to catch the Coyotes in the overall standings, which means Buffalo probably will finish last. This pleases a segment of the fan base, which wants to see the team grab one of two potential stars in the summer draft in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. So you'll probably hear some people cheering Thursday in Buffalo when/if Arizona scores.

It's part of a very odd year. Let's count the ways.

The Sabres organization has been accused of writing off the entire year in order to get a shot at one of the stars. The fans aren't sure how to react, and it may depend on whether you are willing to donate thousands in season-ticket payments for the chance at better times in the future. The players know that there are a bunch of prospects waiting to grab their seven-figure salaries, and thus have the usual incentive to play hard to stay in the league. The general manager signed several free agents last summer who haven't helped much. Did the team look for players who weren't too good and who could simply fill up a salary cap minimum without helping the team much, or does the hockey department have people who aren't good judges of talent? The coach realizes that this season hasn't been exactly a fair test of his abilities, and that he could lose his job at the whim of a general manager who was hired by an executive who is no longer with the organization ... and who hired the coach before that general manager. The coach wants to win games; does the front office want him to do the same? Sometimes players and coaches love to play the "us against the world" card. Usually it's silly, but in this case it might be true.

Oh, one other point. When Toronto comes to town later in the season, many Maple Leaf fans will be showing up as usual. Will they be rooting for the Sabres to win, so that Buffalo has less of a chance of getting McDavid or Eichel and then be better in the future (plus perhaps give a slightly better chance statistically to the Leafs of winning the lottery)? Would that be the strangest moment in a good-sized, old rivarly?

I think that covers it, more or less. Yes, it's complicated. There's probably an Arizona version of that list, but I'll leave that to a Coyotes' watcher.

The problem is the system. The National Hockey League set up a draft lottery a few years ago to prevent this sort of season. The idea was that last place would not be any sort of guarantee of receiving the first draft pick. The 30th-place team right now has a 20 percent chance of going first in the draft. Who would throw an entire season away, and possibly anger the fan base, with an 80 percent chance of not getting the top pick? No one. But what happens when there are two really good players coming into the league?

Since only one team could move up in the draft lottery, the number 30 team in the standings was assured of going second in the draft. Therefore, that team would definitely get one of the two top prospects. That created an award for finishing last - which the lottery tried to avoid, and is exactly what shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Even the 29th-place team has only a 33.5 percent chance, more or less, of getting one of the two top players - 20 percent of the No. 30 winning the lottery, and 13.5 percent of moving up a notch. That's quite a difference.

Next year, however, there will be a lottery for the first three picks in the draft. There will be no guarantee that the worst team in the league will do better than the fourth pick overall. It seems like it will prevent this sort of season. That's the way it works in the NBA. Admittedly, some years lately there hasn't been one franchise player out there, let along two or three. And it doesn't stop teams from stocking up assets for the future, as the Philadelphia 76ers have been doing.

But at least their fans know who to root for during the course of the season. And they know that management has the same goal as the coaches and players. Not so in hockey this time.

It's been a mess of a season, and I don't want to see its likes again.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Our hostess

I took a trip back to the Seventies today while going to the barber shop. While waiting for my turn in the chair, I picked up the Clarence Bee - the weekly of the town where I lived in my high school and college days - and unexpectedly came across the obituary of Mary Hormell - the mother of some good friends of mine from that era. Once I got past the initial shock, memories from a distant era quickly came back.

Did you ever wonder about how and where kids gather? The dynamics probably change from case to case. But when it came to the Hormell family, it was easy to see why the house was such a magnet. Mr. and Mrs. Hormell had two sets of twins - Dave and Debbie, Peter and Tish - who were two years apart. Since they lived only a couple of blocks from high school property, the house could have a crowd of teenagers just by leaving the front door open. Still, in spite of what the real estate agents tell you, location isn't everything in such matters. A welcoming presence by the people with the keys to that the front door is a necessary part of the equation. The Hormell parents didn't just tolerate the friends of their children (which usually is the way it works), they actually seemed to like them.

The house became a frequent collection point for me and some of my friends by the time my senior year of high school rolled along as I got to know classmates Debbie and Dave. Then Debbie and I went to Syracuse together where we worked on the school newspaper, broadening our ties. And then Debbie and I worked together briefly after college, extending the base of friendship even more. Dave and I maintained connections through sports; he kept insisting that the upcoming season would be the one that the Bills would win a Super Bowl in spite of the obvious evidence against that prophesy in a given year.

Every so often, a party would break out - either planned or unplanned. Everyone would have a fine time, staying later than they planned. I think I set a personal record for my latest night out while visiting the Hormell residence one year. It was New Year's Eve, and they were having a party. I had to cover a Sabres' game (remember Tux 'N Pucks?), so I didn't get to the party until about 12:30 a.m. Well, I believe I got in the car to leave around 5:45 a.m. The reason I know that is I listened to my own taped report on the game on my radio station on the drive home, which - trust me - is an odd experience.

Debbie once reminded me of another story from those times. Mom had instructed me to pick up the proverbial quart of milk to bring home for someone's breakfast. I stopped on the way to the Hormells and put it in the refrigerator for "safe keeping." Well, at some point the milk was desperately needed for a purpose that has been lost to history, although it probably was used as a mixer with an alcoholic beverage. Debbie remembers me stumbling around after it was consumed saying, "What am I going to tell Mom?"

I have two specific memories about those gatherings in general. One, there were people in the living room. This was almost shocking. When you grew up in the suburbs, you learned as a child that the living room was filled with "good furniture." That translated into furniture which was too good to actually use, especially by children. Yet the Hormells actually let their children's friends sit in the living room for long periods of time. For whatever reason, that really made me feel welcome.

Then there was a fact that a regular participant in these gatherings was Mrs. Hormell. I don't want to imply that she was crashing any parties, or trying to act 19 years old or something. She'd simply be around, and start conversations with her children's friends. Mrs. Hormell was obviously quite interested in what those friends were like and what they were doing. I'd walk in the house, and Mrs. Hormell would be at the dining room conversation, chatting with a 21-year-old as naturally as could be. That was very unusual. Looking back, it is obvious how she set a comfortable tone for all who entered the house.

That era came to an end as the 20-somethings moved on with their lives, which in some cases took them out of town or at the least out of the house. I'll bet Mrs. Hormell missed those gatherings as much as we did in some ways. In looking over the obituary, it was striking how little I knew about Mrs. Hormell - her first name, for starters. But we all knew what a kind, nice woman she was, and hope she realized how much we appreciated her hospitality and interest in our lives.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The alma mater

We're all used to seeing universities receive penalties and go on probation for some sort of violation with the NCAA. If we've learning anything over the years, it is that the rule book is incredibly large and difficult to comprehend, let alone follow to the letter. In addition, we all know that if some booster wants to give a $100 handshake with a player on the basketball team, well, it's a little tough to enforce.

We're also used to see some schools cut some corners when it comes to recruiting these days. The idea of a student-athlete is a romantic one. But realistically, being a college football or basketball player is essentially a full-time job these days, and that doesn't include study time. Not too many young people can balance the workload easily, and - as one coach once said - those people go to Duke or Stanford. When the rewards of success are considered, it's easy to understand why teams might take a chance to keep a talented quarterback enrolled and eligible.

Athletic programs have gotten so ridiculously big, and the amount of money involved has gotten so large, that it's difficult to wonder how our universities got so far away from their original mission statement of educators first and providing extra-curricular activities second. It's particularly true when it's remembered that most university athletic programs lose money; places like Texas and Alabama are the exceptions.

That brings us to Syracuse University's latest programs. Just for the record, that's of interest to me, a Class of 1977 graduate. That's so long ago that I still covered Jim Boeheim's introductory news conference from his hiring in 1976. Since I'm in the sports journalism business, I'm still something of a fan of the Syracuse sports teams; it's a good way to feel a connection to some good times and good people from my past. But I'm also a fan of the university itself, and have something of a stake in its reputation. When the athletic department breaks the rules, all graduates, students and staff members suffer consequences in a sense.

Syracuse doesn't exactly have a history of innocence here. The school has been on probation in the past. Still, this particular incident has a really odd feeling. Not only did it take forever to investigate, but a description of the offenses sounded worse than the actions themselves.

For example: it's never good when a booster is charged with paying players. In this case, a few football and basketball players and athletic staff members earned a few thousand dollars for so-called volunteer work. That's not a good idea, but I've heard of far worse.

For example: the director of basketball operations tapped into players' email accounts in order to check on academic progress, and may have even attached some revisions to course work that way. Of course, if you recruit student-athletes who have trouble with the student part, the pressures build all through the system.

For example: the athletic department didn't follow the written guidelines for a drug testing policy. Apparently some first violations (probably involving marijuana) was supposed to be reported to parents and weren't. Again, it's not a good idea to follow the guidelines, but players weren't exactly completing drug deals at halftime. 

Let's say you were the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, and certain violations of a comparable nature popped up. Mr. or Ms. CEO would call someone into the office, and promptly suspend the culprit until he or she could be suitably fired. The regulations in college athletics might be different, but the goal should be similar. The coach has to set the tone for the entire program, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Based on the NCAA report, a few people weren't even reading out of the same book. It's tough to know how often Boeheim acted like a CEO and how often he acted like "just another employee" here, but the NCAA obviously believed there was too much of the latter.

Syracuse received some punishment for its actions from the NCAA. The basketball team will lose scholarships after the coming year. Even in a world when a team has something like 15 scholarships but only plays eight guys regularly, the cuts will make an impact on depth and make it difficult to compete on a national level. A five-year probation shouldn't matter, as long as things in the department get fixed. Boeheim will sit for nine conference games next season; well, potential coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins will get some on-the-job training that way. And Boeheim and the university will have to vacate 108 wins, which always seemed like an odd penalty that only matters to the historians.

The other shoe dropped on Wednesday morning. It was announced that athletic director Daryl Gross has left that job in favor of moving on to other responsibilities at the university. I can't say how much Gross had to do with any of this, but he seems to be taking some blame - fairly or unfairly. Gross might be feeling like a bit of a scapegoat, although you probably won't get him to say that. Then the school announced that Boeheim would retire in three years at the latest. The longtime coach will be around through the scholarship limits and thus hand Hopkins a program with fewer worries and restrictions in 2018. Boeheim did reserve the right on Thursday to retire when he saw fit.

I'm just a long-distance observer here, but it's easy to guess that the Syracuse athletic department has pressure - pressure to win games, pressure to sell the 30,000+ tickets in the Carrier Dome. They've done rather well over the years, which might have led to some institutional arrogance on the basketball side. (I would guess that there might be even more pressure on the football side, because they've been mediocre at best for quite a while and could REALLY use wins and filled seats ... but that's for another time.) Considering the charges from the NCAA, it's a small stretch to think that a complete housecleaning was in order - although business as usual isn't going to cut it any more.

Still, Boeheim's reputation certainly feels a little tarnished. He's still the most important person in history of Syracuse basketball. He's still a respected voice on the sport. But Boeheim is still at times a bit on the prickly side, particularly in a public setting. That combination has made him easy to respect, but tough to love.

Well, he's got three years tops to complete the book on a legendary career of coaching. He doesn't seem too concerned with his legacy. He's certainly done a lot of good for the university and for the community. Still, you'd think he'd have an interest in righting the ship before he goes. It might make a disproportionate effect on how he's remembered.

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Friday, March 06, 2015

Defenseless

Let's forget about the endless arguments about tanking by sports teams for a moment. As I've said before here, it's more of a rhetorical matter anyway.

Instead, let's talk about a related problem in a couple of sports that no one is really discussing.

It's become standard practice in baseball and hockey for teams who are doomed to losing seasons to sell off their assets - usually in the form of free agents to come - to contenders. In baseball, the trading deadline is at the end of July, although other deals can take place through the end of August. In hockey, the deadline is final - in this case, on March 2.

Yes, if you were a general manager, you'd probably do the same thing. Why let a free agent walk away without any compensation? A team can get a draft choice, prospects, etc. (depending on the circumstances and the sport) in return for someone who is departing. Fans of contenders can't wait to see if their teams fill some holes for the stretch run and playoffs, while fans of non-contenders see what sort of ransom those players can bring. I could argue that in a perfect world teams should have a similar roster at the end of the season to the one that started it - in other words, no loading up for the final weeks plus playoffs. But fans like to see wins, and championships.

Here's the catch, though - if you were an employee of major league baseball or the National Hockey League, you might have another reaction. Is all of this really in the best interests of the sport?

The Buffalo Sabres, in this case, are exhibit A. They completed several deals short of the trading deadline. In the biggest swap, several assets were shipped to Winnipeg for a respectable defenseman and a power forward who will not take a single shift for the team this season. While it's tough to know who will "win" that deal in the end, few would argue that the Sabres had a better big-league roster when it was completed. In addition, the No. 1 goalie, Jhonas Enroth, was set to Dallas for a backup goalie and draft pick. Then on Deadline Day, the Sabres unloaded four players for draft choices and a couple of players.

When the dust had settled, the Sabres had two goalies who had enjoyed almost no success lately in the NHL before turning up in Buffalo. They also had lost some other forwards and defensemen. The roster as presently constituted is a long way from being competitive for the rest of the season.

The unspoken question, then, boils down to this: How would you like to have bought tickets for games in the next few weeks, and now realize the chance of your team winning has, um, dropped considerably? Would you take it like a fan, say that it's all part of the rebuilding process and hope for the best? Or would you start asking lawyers about class-action suits?

It's not just a Sabre matter. The Arizona Coyotes moved some of their assets as well in the past few weeks. The Edmonton Oilers have been doing this for a few years, it seems, and they don't seem to be making a whole lot of progress. Remember, this isn't just about the first overall pick. Some sellers won't come close to the bottom three in the standings, so their chances of getting a top 18-year-old are pretty small.

And it's not just a hockey matter. Baseball's Boston Red Sox tore apart the roster in midseason when it was obvious that repeating wasn't going to happen. Most of the pitching rotation went elsewhere. To be fair, the Red Sox made their moves with 2015 in mind, and have been busy since then in putting together what appears to be a competitive team. That didn't help much when fans were watching the 2014 team in August and September, especially at some of baseball's most expensive prices.

Solving this problem isn't particularly easy. Yes, the trading deadline could be moved up to earlier in the season. That would make it more difficult for teams to figure out if they are out of the playoff race, and thus less tempted to have a clearance sale. But it wouldn't affect a team like the Sabres much, since their fate has been sealed for months. In the meantime, the status quo is pretty ugly.

And so we watch the real value of tickets drop - StubHub has some Sabre tickets barely above $10 for some games the rest of the way - and we guess that the no-show numbers will rise (which means less money in the form of concessions, souvenirs, etc.). And we wonder, is the well of patience and loyalty by fans really as bottomless as teams hope it is?

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Friday, February 27, 2015

1-976-1313

Ever have something come out of nowhere to remind you about the relatively distant past?

Let's hope so. Otherwise, this essay may be pretty boring.

This just happened to me while looking over Grantland the other day. The website had an article on Sports Phone. As the article states, this service definitely was a Eighties way of catching up with sports news. It was also my employer, on a part-time basis, for six years.

If you don't know much about the concept, go ahead and read the story. I'll wait.

As the article mentions, this was something of a New York City invention that at its peak received zillions of calls. I'm sure the peak hours were at night and on the weekends, particularly NFL Sundays, when sports fans (and especially gamblers) had no other way what was finding out what was going on. So they paid a few cents per phone call to hear the latest scores.

Left out of the story was the Buffalo connection. Since the service was doing so well in New York City, New York Telephone asked Phone Programs Inc. (the company that supplied the service) to do a Buffalo version of it. To do that, it needed some sort of Buffalo sports reporter.

I'm not sure how Phone Programs found me, but I was certainly available. I was working part-time in radio, as a job at a suburban newspaper had fallen apart and I could use the work. I don't recall the interview process too well, but I don't think there was much to it. Soon I became the Buffalo bureau chief ... heck, I was the Buffalo bureau.

The work was rather straight-forward. I was expected to give short (30 seconds) reports on the news of the day - Bills and Sabres mostly. I believe I received $5 for each of those reports. That meant I needed to grab the morning paper minutes after waking up, type up the report, and read it to someone back in New York. He'd record it and put it on the service shortly after that.

I was assigned to cover every Bills and Sabres home game. Phone Programs paid to install jacks in the two press boxes, so each game I would bring my phone in a small tote bag, and plug it in. I called in updates on scores and quarter ends, and then collected a few sound bites through interviews for transmission back to the home office. That was good for $35 per game. I also did some local college basketball games, but that was simply updating scores every so often for $10 per game. I recall going to a game with some friends once, and excusing myself every so often to run to a pay phone at Memorial Auditorium. I explained it, but they probably still thought it was odd. Sports Phone didn't want anything on the Stallions or Bisons, probably because not many people were betting on indoor soccer back then. Or now.

Sometimes during hockey season, Sports Phone didn't have anyone in the hosting city of a Sabres game, so I was charged with phoning in the updates. One time the Sabres played a 0-0 game in Quebec, which meant I made $10 for making three phone calls - one after each period. Nice work if you can get it.

At other times, there were conflicts, and I couldn't be in two places at ones. So I farmed out jobs to friends. Since virtually any sports fan could call in the score, I'd make some calls and find someone, anyone, who could listen to a Niagara basketball game while I was at the Sabres game. Or, if I just wanted to go to a movie for a change. Because I saw a lot of games in that era.

When I counted up everything, including Stallions and Bisons games I covered for WEBR, I believe I saw something like 132 sporting events in Buffalo one year. That may be the all-time record; at least I haven't heard of someone who has matched it. The money added up by my standards at the time, as I made something like $200 a week on the side during the busy season (December to March). That gave me a quick lesson in the area of "estimated taxes."

Every sports fan had heard of Sports Phone, thanks to some advertising. When I mentioned I worked for it to a college friend, he answered, "I call them when no one else will talk to me." But while friends knew I worked for it, I can't say I remember a single person who mentioned hearing me on it.

This job lasted a few years, until somewhere in the 1984-86 range. I started to hear stories that Sports Phone was having financial difficulties, although it's not like I had a boss who checked in with me regularly. But one summer day, the man who hired me called to say the Buffalo service was coming to an end. He still wanted me to cover games involving New York teams, but the "gravy train" was essentially over.

The story from Grantland actually filled in a few gaps in my knowledge of the organization, and the history of Sports Phone. I had no idea that Gary Cohen, Howie Ross and Al Trautwig were fellow alumni, and I had fun reading about Andy Roth - whose name I remembered from those days.

Looking back from 30 years later, my memories of Sports Phone are generally good ones. I hung out with a lot of good people in the form of sports journalists, saw many good games, and got a graduate course in the business. The money, such as it was, even paid some bills. I guess you'd call it "paying your dues" now, but in hindsight it sure seemed liked I was getting paid for something I liked to do.

That's still the case now most of the time. Maybe Sports Phone is a reason for that.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The bunny hop

The view down the street tends to be obscured by the mountains of snow
that have piled up in space between the road and the sidewalk.
Let's start with the rabbits.

You can tell they are around. Their footprints show up in the snow, often overnight. Traces of their visits used to be seen in the area, but that's getting tougher to find as the snow piles up. Mostly they are hiding, trying to find a small corner of their world to keep relatively warm.

But let's face it: just about everyone in Western New York has become a member of the rabbit species in a sense.

We've had an odd set of circumstances here in the last couple of weeks. After a relatively calm stretch of weather for more than a month, the entire area went into the freezer. Yes, that can happen here. We've also received some snow in that time - a few inches here, several inches there, and so on. One key point is that Lake Erie has frozen over; it's the only Great Lake shallow enough to do that. So most of the snow has been widespread and not arriving in bands, like it did for the Southtowns when it received 79 inches in November.

The catch is that none of it has had the chance to melt. So, when the shovels, snowblowers and plows attack, they push and throw the snow ... somewhere. It piles up, and up, and up. Until it's difficult to find a free spot to put it. I believe I have shoveled for the last 14 straight days. I think that's a personal record. The snow pack has been above 20 inches for most of that time. If you are ready to say it's always like that in Buffalo, well, no, it hasn't been like this in at least 13 years. The statistics on this run of frozen weather keep changing, so it's difficult to keep up with them.

When this happens for several days, you have a mess - not an emergency mess for the most part, but a mess. Driving becomes an adventure filled with uncertainty. It starts with just getting out of the driveway, which comes with the knowledge that you might not even see an oncoming car because the view is blocked by snow. Once on the road, will there be space on a sidestreet for two cars coming in the same direction? Will the car get stuck somewhere? How long will a 20-minute drive take? That makes each car trip mentally tiring. I have been able to get around when necessary, but I'm not in a hurry to do so.

Adding to the trouble is the inevitable wind that blows some snow right back where the old snow was. Then there are the plows, which clear frozen material out of the street and deposit it on the side of the road, including the entrance to the driveway. By the way, street-cleared snow comes in boulder-sized chunks, so snowblowers are useless there. The stuff has to be cleared by shovel. I appreciate those plows ... after I'm done shoveling.

Driveways and sidewalks resemble bobsled runs. When pulling the car into the driveway, the best approach is to simply aim it up the middle and hope you don't skid too much. There's a chain link fence in my backyard. At least there is at the moment. Some of the drifts have just about reached the top of it, and we're probably a storm or two away from covering up most of it.

This weekend provided something of a cruel joke for the entire episode. On Friday morning, temperatures plunged to minus-5. Usually when we hit negative numbers here, it's because there is no cloud cover and the heat rises up and goes straight to Venus or something. Yet we had a little snow that day, dry and fluffy stuff that blows around easily. On Saturday, temperatures rose to 20 degrees as a front came through and deposited about four inches to mess things up a bit more. It made for an interesting drive to lacrosse practice.

And today, the forecast is for the coldest day in Buffalo history. I'm not sure how that's figured, since we aren't going to come too close to the record of minus-20. But we're scheduled to be below zero for virtually all day, hitting bottom at minus-12 early Monday morning. When exactly did I move to Winnipeg? It will warm up after that, sort of, but some single digits are still looming in the days ahead.

One of the odd parts about all this is that the cold spell dominates conversation as well as the news, but it's rarely been "don't even think about going outside" bad. (Admittedly, today is not the day for a leisurely walk through the park, with below-temperatures and a strong wind combining for a dangerous windchill.) Generally, it's just been tiring and inconvenient.

Yet life goes on. While driving on Saturday morning through the snow burst, one of the downtown streets was closed to traffic. Was there an accident? A snow drift? No, it was a 5-kilometer road race. I'm not sure how many people took part in the event, or in the 10-mile run in Lockport, but I salute all those that did.

I'm certainly not willing to trade this sort of weather for Boston's, which is working on its second blizzard of 2015 and has already broken the record for snow in February. And it's only the 15th. When I consider that city's street grid, laid out in the 1700s, I can't imagine what life is like there.

So, we trudge on. We pack an overnight bag when traveling, just in case. We wait for a 35-degree day after which we'll be able to see pavement again.

And we stay under cover and munch on lettuce. Because we're rabbits, for the time being.

(Late update: The high on Sunday apparently was plus-2, set at 12:20 a.m. The number sung into negative numbers pretty quickly and stayed there for the rest of the day. So we didn't set the record for the lowest high temperture in Buffalo's recorded history of about 150 years - merely for the lowest high figure on Feb. 15. So that's certainly a sign that things aren't THAT bad.)

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Question time

An article on Grantland.com recently got me to thinking ... and it may have the effect of making me a slightly better reporter.

The article was called "The Worst Question in Sports." For those who don't want to go through it all, the worst question is not a question. It's the reporter saying "Talk about ..."

The next time you listen to an extended news conference, see if you'll hear something along those lines. The odds are pretty good that you will.In fact, the odds are almost as good that you can listen to long periods of those news conferences waiting for a question to be asked ... and one doesn't come along.

What's going on here? A number of things.

Sometimes it's just a matter of wording. "Talk about your goal" can be instantly transformed to "What happened on your goal?" It's a pretty simple fix. Bad questions like "How frustrating was it to lose to the Fighting Spiders again? (the answer is always "very") can be changed easily to a slightly good-natured "Are you sick of losing to these guys again?"

It can be a case of different media outlets requiring different answers. When I was in radio, I didn't often care what people said into the microphone ... as long as they took at least 10 seconds to say it. That meant I had to ask about more general material, which could be worked into a story later, or I didn't even bother asking anything - allowing others to do so. When I moved over to newspapers, I had much more specific needs in mind when I was preparing to write a story. 

Often it's simply habit. Conversations with friends, etc. aren't filled with questions; they often are an exchange of informational statements - one after another. Many athletes, especially the pros, know what is expected of them in interviews, and have an answer of some length ready. An interview is a more formal situation, but it's not necessarily adversarial. Exchanging statements can seem to make it a little more friendly.

Finally, and least common, is the story where the reporter is busy trying to impress the interview subject with his knowledge. "You did a nice job of penetrating their defense with quick breakouts from your own zone that didn't allow them to get their best players on the floor." Pause. There's not much room for the subject to go somewhere with an answer. It would be nice to hear the response of "You're right" or "Thank you." But usually the answer is more generic and polite than that. Apparently, some people forget that the smartest guy in the room about a particular subject is the one answering the questions.

I'm willing to admit that in some cases, nerves play a role in all this. Most reporters don't want to ask a really stupid question and embarrass themselves in front of the people they cover and their peers. My tendency is to sometimes ask a question, and then clarify it with background information due to a mild case of nerves over not being clear. ("Can you catch these guys? You're not mathematically out of it but the numbers are daunting now.") Better to turn that around and ask the question last.

After reading the Grantland article and listening to tapes of news conferences lately, I plan to try to do better. Maybe I'll get better answers that way. Hope so.

Later on, someone can say to me, "Talk about your attempt to be more direct in your questioning..."

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tanks a lot

The Buffalo Sabres are on holiday these days, enjoying a long All-Star break.

Good thing. The people covering team need to figure out new ways to describe losses. Eleven straight regulation defeats will do that.

The latest skid has put "tanking" back on the table as a discussion for discussion. That's when your team more or less gives up on a particular season or two in order to get the best available talent in the draft.

Sometimes, a team picks the correct year to lose. In basketball, the former Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) went first to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and he turned that team into a champion in short order. In hockey, Mario Lemieux needed a few years to get a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh ... but he got them there. The Penguins, you'll recall, didn't exactly load up with talent the season before the draft in order to avoid the chance of getting him in the draft.

On the other hand, there are no guarantees. The Edmonton Oilers have had a bunch of high draft choices lately. Yet they are still at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Philadelphia 76ers have had some good picks in the NBA draft too, but haven't quite found the combination yet to change their fortunes. They remain awful.

The Sabres had a hot streak in December that got them well out of the basement. But this poor run on losses in 2015 has put them in the basement and renewed the talk of tanking, frustrating players and front office members alike. After all, who wants to be associated with losing in that way?

Let's look at the Sabres situation. How do teams that are in losing streaks react? Usually, they follow a series of steps.

First, they look to the minor leagues for reinforcements. The Sabres have done some of that; most of the best players in Rochester have had at least the proverbial cup of coffee in Buffalo. You could argue, and some have, that there are players like Mark Pysyk who are better than guys in Sabre uniforms. But there is something to be said about giving players time in the minors to grow and mature - particularly defensemen. Others have come up and shown little.

Second, they make trades. Yes, most (all?) of the phone calls to general manager Tim Murray no doubt are about young players. No doubt, they are also one-sided offers. Even so, teams often trade "my fringe player for your fringe player," just to shake things up. That hasn't happened. The Sabres did add some players in that sense last year, but so far it's been quiet. In fairness, it's tough to know what's possible and what's not in such areas.

Third, they fire the coach. Obviously, that hasn't happened here. Ted Nolan signed a three-year contract last summer, I believe, and he still has plenty of good will among members of Sabre Nation. When the team is in 30th place overall, you should save all the good will you can.

Yet, both Nolan and Murray are operating under an odd situation. They were both hired by Pat LaFontaine, who later, um, vacated the premises. That means Nolan wasn't hired by Murray, an unusual situation for a coach and general manager. Since LaFontaine wasn't replaced, no one can be sure what it would take to send Murray or Nolan to the unemployment line. Owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black could order such moves, I guess, even though it would be odd for someone to be fired for following the overall blueprint for rebuilding.


Add it up, and the Sabres have been on the quiet side in reacting to the situation this season. Meanwhile, what constitutes a tank anyway? Most non-playoff teams in hockey usually trade their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents for prospects and/or draft choices in order to get better in the future. Clearly, trading Ryan Miller last year meant the Sabres did not have short-term interests in mind. But most agree that the deal probably was the right idea under the circumstances. It's difficult to find good free agents to come to a team at the bottom of the standings; sometimes even overpaying them isn't good enough. So is collecting young players proof of tanking, or do you have to find a cliched "smoking gun" document that says "let's lose as often as possible so we can get Connor McDavid"? Depends on your definition, I guess.


The Sabres can't exactly sell the present to the fan base. But they can sell hope - hope that better times will be coming. It shows the passion of those fans that many are willing to watch the team lose - yes, even root for losses - if it means a superstar in the form of McDavid is coming. That puts them on opposite sides from the current group of players, who obviously have an interest in doing as well as possible.

It's an uncomfortable situation for everyone, and it will test the patience of those involved - from ownership to fans in the 300 level. This is a new situation for all concerned, since the Sabres haven't gone through many long droughts in their history. We're likely to learn a lot about those connected to the team in the coming months.

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