Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hall of a pick

Sports fans enjoy mulling over selections for the Hall of Fame, and I'm no exception. They all have their quirks and are difficult to predict. Baseball voters tend to reward longevity over short-term brilliance, the recent selection of Bruce Sutter not withstanding. Football's Hall is getting more and more exclusive, as they only take as many as seven players a year in a sport that has 22 regulars (plus kickers). Basketball has to factor in college play and international contributions.

Then there's hockey. Try to figure them out.

This year, four people made it. We'll throw out Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss, since no one cares too much about executives. That leaves three.

Patrick Roy? We saw that coming. Greatest goalie ever, by some accounts. Won a ton of games and a few Cups. A slam-dunk choice.

Herb Brooks? No problem. You've heard about the Miracle on Ice, and he did much more in his too-short life.

If you had given me 10 picks for the final spot, I wouldn't have come up with Dick Duff. But that's who went in.

Now Dick Duff was a pretty solid player in his day. He showed up most nights, had a decent scoring touch (five 20-goal seasons), played a two-way game, and went on for something like 18 years.

But Dick Duff instead of Dino Ciccarelli? Dick Duff instead of Glenn Anderson?

Ciccarelli scored more than 600 goals in his career. He's 13th on the all-time list. That's pretty good, even if he played in the lively puck era. If I'm in an all-time fantasy draft, Dino goes well before Duff.

Anderson scored almost 500 goals in his career, and won some Cups on those great Oiler teams. He wasn't a main component of those teams, but he was a mighty good player.

There were a number of others up for induction this year, including Doug Gilmour, Phil Housley, Pavel Bure and Tom Barrasso. You could at least make a case for all of them, although Bure's career probably was too short for serious consideration.

Every so often, the committee does something like this. All I can think about in terms of a comparison is the Irving Thalberg Award at the Oscars, in which an old-timer is honored for long and meritorious service.

I didn't think Clark Gillies was a Hall of Famer, for example. Leo Boivin played in three all-star games. Roy Conacher was a first-team all-star once. He had some good seasons, and his career was shortened by the war, but I'd rather argue the case against than the case for.

Bill Parcells once said that it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Pretty Good. That sometimes comes to mind when it comes to the Hockey Hall.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Favorite author

When I was in Canada recently, I picked up an update on my favorite author.

That's probably the only time you'll read Ken Dryden described that way.

Dryden is a former goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. He had one of the great starts to a career in pro history after finishing at Cornell. Dryden came up late in the season and started in the 1971 playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Now, this Bruin team might have been the best offensive team in NHL history, relatively speaking. They had the four top scorers in the NHL that season, and they had company. Esposito, Orr, Cashman, Hodge, Bucyk, Sanderson, McKenzie, Stanfield, and on and on. You probably could compare the group to the Eighties' Edmonton Oilers.

Dryden came in for the first round, and beat the Bruins. Then he helped Montreal win the Stanley Cup. He was so inexperienced, he was still eligible for the Rookie of the Year trophy the next season. Oh, he won that too. Dryden went on to win a bunch of other Cups as well.

This was not a typical goalie. He went to law school while playing; he liked the contrast in jobs. He retired at the top of his game, and never played goalie again after 1979. Dryden played defense in some pick-up leagues.

While everyone realized Dryden was smart, no one was sure just how thoughtful he was until he turned into a writer. His book on his time with the Canadiens, "The Game," is considered a classic. Then he wrote a couple of other books. Dryden's biography of a typical suburban Canadian is brilliant, mostly because of the author's patience. You can see him sitting with his subject, asking subtle little questions that reveal much about personality. Dryden also spent a year at a high school, again watching and taking notes. Wonderful stuff.

I had to be the only person in North America to be disappointed that Dryden took over as head of the Maple Leafs for a while, because it meant no more books. He had some success in that role, but couldn't quite get the Leafs over the top and moved into politics.

That's where he is now. A National Post writer (Canadian daily) took him to an Ottawa restaurant to watch a hockey game on television, something he hadn't done this season. Dryden had been a Cabinet minister for a while, but lost the job when his party fell out of power. His personality remains the same, according to the story. The slowest job in the country is campaigning with Dryden, because he won't give a yes-or-no answer when he's out with people. Dryden actually takes the time to think about his answers. He was one of those guys in sports whose answers were better than the questions, and he hasn't lost his touch.

The thought struck me that Dryden may be following the career path of another American athlete-turned-politician, Bill Bradley. Both men have been considered ready for big things for some time. Bradley had his chance at Presidential politics, but he couldn't beat Al Gore in 2000. The former Princeton basketball player wasn't a baby-kisser and hand-shaker by nature either.

Dryden's political career is hardly over, and there are no doubt more chapters in his story ahead as he attempts to become the leader of the Liberal party. (See his Web site, But so far it's easy to think that he's an international example of a common thought about politics: the best people to be leaders don't make the best candidates.

On the other hand, he can always go back to writing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Take Five: Montana edition

I can't say I spent much time in Montana before my last vacation. I set foot in it in Yellowstone Park, and then drove through a corner on my way out of Yellowstone. So six days there are enough for some quick observations, which have a little negative feelings that shouldn't overshadow a fine visit:

1. You've heard of the phrase "Big Sky Country?" It's true, at least in the Prairies. We drove south on Interstate 15 for about 90 miles, with farm land stretching out to the west and east. There were no buildings to speak of in the way, and no trees. It's all earth and sky. I could see where people could become attached to it, although it is a little lonely.

2. One of the oddest parts about reading a local newspaper in Montana was seeing a column of 12-step recovery programs. There were a few dozen listings. I guess I never realized about the extent of the problems of alcoholism in that part of the world. Which brings me to ...

3. Speed limits. Let's see -- you have some windy mountain roads and an alcoholism problem in your state. Naturally, you set the speed limit at 70. Ugh. There are far too many crosses with flowers along the sides of the road, signifying fatal accidents, for my liking.

4. Is it more difficult to get a fishing license or a casino license in Montana? It's tough to tell. Casinos are everywhere -- adjoining gas stations, pizza places, hotels, etc. I didn't actually go in one, but it sure is different than anything I'm used to seeing.

5. I wasn't really prepared for the beauty of the Flathead Lake area, south of Kalispell. We took a drive that way, and it is spectacular. If you get the chance, go.

I was prepared for the beauty of Glacier National Park, and its neighbor to the north, Waterton Lake. I may have to do re-do my list of top tourist stops/scenic places, because there were three such stops (Avalanche Lake, St. Mary Lake and Waterton Lake) that were simply unforgettable.

Friday, June 09, 2006

It's just a fantasy

I never became too enthusiastic about fantasy sports. I tried them on a limited basis, but I have enough trouble keeping up with the real standings to try and keep up with how "my own team" is doing.

But the concept of fantasy drafts is a good one. What is your personal ranking of a particular group? What's more, you can apply it to just about any subject at all. The arguments quickly follow:

1. California
2. Hawaii
3. Florida
4. New York
5. Utah

My sleeper pick is West Virginia, which is truly beautiful and few know it. Utah has some fascinating places, although there's a lot of empty space between them.

Baseball movies
1. Field of Dreams
2. Bull Durham
3. Pride of the Yankees
4. The Natural
5. Bang the Drum Slowly

William Bendix fans no doubt will add "The Babe Ruth Story" and "Kill the Umpire."

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin Roosevelt
4. Teddy Roosevelt
5. Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson probably was a better founding father than President, but I had to take him in that spot. In a long draft, I'd bet Eisenhower would go too late, and Kennedy would go too early.

Bruce Springsteen Songs
1. Born to Run
2. Rosalita
3. Badlands
4. Thunder Road
5. Glory Days

These were pretty easy; the top 10 would be much tougher.

Heavyweight Champions
1. Muhammad Ali
2. Joe Louis
3. Jack Dempsey
4. George Foreman
5. Larry Holmes

The toughest name to leave off is Rocky Marciano. His biggest drawback is that he didn't really beat anyone that good, so it's tough to know how good he is. I think of him as a smaller Joe Frazier. By the way, Lennox Lewis might be in my top 10.

Tourist Attractions
1. Na Pali coast of Hawaii
2. Lake Louise, Alberta
3. Zion National Park, Utah
4. Mount St. Helens, Washington
5. Monument Valley, Arizona

You could put the Yosemite Valley in here, and I wouldn't complain. Yellowstone was pretty special too.

The categories are limited only by your imagination. Greatest Boston Red Sox players? Candy bars? Astronauts? I could be up for hours doing this.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lunch with an astronaut

If you have a curiosity about the space program, the words in the title of this posting ought to suck you right in.

For those visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, lunch with an astronaut is an option. I recently took part in such a session. First, the basics: a good-sized tour of the Center (there are a couple of options available) costs a bit more than $30 each. If you throw in an extra $22 or so on a weekday, you can meet an astronaut.

The session starts with lunch, naturally. It's a basic, decent enough buffet, complete with salad and dessert. The room probably can hold a couple of hundred people when crowded. When I was there, we only had about 55 diners. Three times that were coming later in the week, so we were on the lucky side. You might want to consider doing this in a non-holiday time period. During the meal, a short film was played on large screens. It showed astronauts conducting several stunts in space, such as doing push-ups with two men on their backs. Each diner was given an autographed picture of the guest speaker.

Near the end of the meal, you might notice someone sitting by himself near the back of the room. A public relations person introduced the astronaut. In our case it was Mark Lee, who rode four shuttle missions. Lee obviously had done this a few times before, and was good at it. He had the laugh lines down pretty well.

Then Lee took questions from the audience. They were about what you'd expect under the circumstances. What do you wear in space? (Golf shirts and shorts work well.) What is it like being weightless? (Try going underwater.) How do you go the bathroom up there? (That's a little complicated, but picture a vacuum cleaner helping out.)

After about 20 minutes, Lee headed for the adjoining room. There he posed for pictures with all of the family groups in attendance. The p.r. person even was willing to take pictures with your camera so no one would be left out; there was the option of buying a canned picture for $10 taken automatically, I think, but there was no pressure to do so. It's a nice setting, complete with flags, and Lee was pretty enthusiastic about it ... which couldn't have been easy after doing a few times. I waited until the end of the line, and asked him a few questions about running in the space shuttle for a newspaper column. He was good about answering my questions.

If you don't feel like paying the extra $22, there is something called an astronaut encounter in a central meeting area in the visitors' center. Lee made a couple of appearances there as well, taking questions. He did pose for some photos, but didn't sign autographs.

The astronauts alternate during the course of the year; a schedule is available on line. No, John Glenn doesn't pop up, but once in a great while someone takes part "that you've heard of," which is how most people put it when I tell them about the program.

Is it worth it? Well, it was to me. Only 500 or so people have ever been in space, and I got to shake hands with one of them. It was the highlight of a very nice, entertaining day at the Space Center.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Five and counting...

I've been known to poke around, even post when I have the overwhelming urge to contribute "important" information. Forums usually aren't for the faint of heart, as you can get slapped around a bit by other readers, but some interesting ideas often get tossed around.

Like this one: five people you wish would go away. Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and Barry Bonds are disqualified for obvious reasons.

Who can stop with five?

1. Stuart Scott. Just a little too impressed with himself these days, especially in his column in ESPN the Magazine.

2. Angelina Jolie. Might be a nice person for all I know, but gets far more attention than she deserves. More attention than anyone deserves, in fact.

3. Drew Rosenhaus. Since Terrell Owens should have been disqualified, I'll take his agent here. An ego on parade. He might have written the worst sports book in history, which is quite a statement but I think it can be supported.

4. Bill O'Reilly. Let's avoid his politics. He seems to be a pig in the workplace, and doesn't let the facts get in his way. Click.

5. Isiah Thomas. I'm ready to name him general manager of the Yankees.

6. Gary Bettman. I'd mention Bob Goodenow here because of their roles in last year's year-long hockey lockout, but Goodenow already has gone away.

7. The creators of "Elimidate" and "Blind Date." Watch, and you'll find out why. And I thought Chuck Barris preyed on the intellectually unfortunate.

8. Most football coaches, at least in public. They never say anything, and they never let their assistants say anything at all. I still remember Skip Bayless' line that he only met one coach who could give an informed opinion about who his favorite Beatle was. Paul Hackett, we salute you for that distinction.

9. Most sports talk show hosts. Sometimes I feel shame for being a former member of the fraternity.

10. Dr. Laura. It was a happy day when her TV show got cancelled. I must go write the sponsors of her radio show some day.

There are about five others whose disappearance would merely make my life better as opposed to all of mankind's, so I'll keep those private. Let's just say I wouldn't go bowling with them.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Close but ...

Western New York has been exhaling for the past couple of days, as the Buffalo Sabres' playoff run came to an end on Thursday night. Most of the fans seem to agree that it was quite a six-week ride, the Sabres gave everything they had, there were no disputed calls that will cause anguish for months, and they (the fans) are ready for next season.

All true.

Let's add two more points while the subject is in our minds.

First, this was a terrific job of coaching by Lindy Ruff, who regained his reputation as a fine coach around the league this year. After a superb regular season, he came up with topnotch gameplans against Philadelphia and Ottawa, and kept compensating when his defense was decimated by injuries (four of his top six were out of the lineup by Game Seven against Carolina). Ruff also tried to deflect attention from his defense before Game Seven by making some out-of-character, caustic remarks. It worked. Rod Brind'Amour, who should have realized what was going on, even ripped into Ruff right after winning Game Seven.

Second, a bit of a reality check probably is in order. There's one huge truth in sports: you don't get many chances to win a championship. Buffalo may never have a better one.

The Sabres caught a good matchup in the first round. Philadelphia had a slow, big defense that was ill-equipped to keep up with Buffalo's fast forwards. Besides, Peter Forsberg was skating on zero legs (both ankles will have surgery before he returns).

Next up was Ottawa. Remember, the Senators jumped out to the lead in their division in part because Dominik Hasek was brilliant early. Then Hasek was hurt in the Olympics, and Ottawa had to rely on Ray Emery. The Senators had enough to win the top seed, but they clearly weren't as good as they were when Hasek was in top form.

By the time the Sabres had taken charge of the Ottawa series -- it took two whole games in Ottawa to do so -- the brackets had busted open. The team to fear in the East, New Jersey, was going down meekly to Carolina by that point. The top four seeds in the West were all gone. I'll repeat that -- the top four seeds in the West were gone.

In the conference finals, the Sabres were looking at a team with a similar talent level. There was no Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur waiting in goal; Martin Gerber or Cam Ward didn't give the Hurricanes an advantage over Ryan Miller. Carolina had more experience; Buffalo had more depth. The teams were close in the regular season, and they were close at that point.

Alas, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. The Sabres starting losing defensemen in rapid succession. The final blow came when Jay McKee, who had been playing his heart out for weeks, went down with an infected leg. No team is going far with four missing defensemen. They performed valiantly, but Carolina finally had enough in the end to win it. By the way, the idea that the Sabres should have traded backup goalie Martin Biron for a defenseman is 20-20 hindsight. If Biron had been dealt and Miller had been hurt, then the Sabres would have been ripped for weakening themselves in the most important position in hockey.

Teams change from year to year, and the Sabres have had a historically difficult time re-signing their own unrestricted free agents. That might mean McKee and Mike Grier will be elsewhere next season. Biron figures to be gone in some sort of deal as well. Other teams might do a better job of figuring out what players perform well under the NHL's new rules.

We don't know what the future holds, as there are no guarantees. We only know that the Sabres had an opportunity to do some very historic this year, and it didn't happen -- mostly because of an unprecedented run of injuries. With all the feelgood aspects to the Sabres' season, that last fact is going to make this a more difficult offseason that you might believe.