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 rivalry?

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


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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