More Than A Game

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I’ve followed sports my whole life and can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like the national anthem at Wednesday night’s Boston Bruins-Buffalo Sabres game, the first major sporting event in Boston since the senseless acts that took place at the Boston Marathon. Only a few words into The Star-Spangled Banner the noise began to grow as the entire arena of 17,000 plus Boston residents sang in unison. It was hard to keep a dry eye just watching it on sportscenter, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be there. Watching that moment was as proud as I have ever been to be a small part of the greatest country in the world. It was more than just a hockey game, even to the players on the ice. Steve Ott, an alternate captain for the Buffalo Sabres said of the Bruins opponent, “We’re all playing for Boston”. This is why sports are truly the greatest form of theater.

Sports bring people together unlike anything else in the world. On any given day, if you go to a sporting event wearing the home team’s apparel, you give yourself a chance to bond with people you have never met; and when tragedy strikes, the unity is just at a whole new level. Only sports fans can understand the emotional attachment that they have with their favorite teams, and the personal hatred they have for rivals, even if they don’t know anyone in either organization. In any other context, it’s just not socially acceptable to love and hate people you’ve never met, but in sports it’s the standard. Baseball fans realize how bitter the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox is, arguably the biggest rivalry in American sports. Yankees fans hate the Red Sox and their fans, and yes, it is personal. The Yankees like to rub their 27 rings in Boston’s face more than anything, but on tuesday night, Sweet Caroline, the song that is played during the 7th inning stretch at Fenway Park during every Boston Red Sox game, was played at Yankee Stadium as Yankee fans sang along and video boards read, “United We Stand” with a Red Sox logo and Yankees logo on each side. For at least a day, the rivalry didn’t matter, America stood as one as New York did what they could to pick up their wounded brother.

Playing Knockout

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It’s March baby! The greatest month of the year, and I am so tired of this whole regular season nonsense. I’m just itchin’ for the big dance. Everyone knows that the best part of the college basketball season is the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but not far behind will be here after just one more week. I’m talking about the conference tournaments. This is the week when every year the little sisters of the poor come out of nowhere to punch their ticket to the dance while knocking out a bubble team from a power conference. This is the week when the final draft of that beautiful bracket is molded. Obviously tickets have been punched, but this week is when the outsiders can “do it for Johnny” and sneak in.
 
It pains me to say this as a student at Mizzou so I’ll get it out of the way, Kansas looks to be headed for a 9th straight Big 12 Title and I wouldn’t count on them going down in their conference tournament. They have a great backcourt with veteran Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore, the diaper dandy who appears to be a top-3 pick in next year’s NBA draft. For the Jayhawks, their fate is simple. Win the Big 12 tournament means a #1 seed, it’s as simple as that. Other Big 12 schools whose ticket to the dance is punched include OK State and K-State.
 
In the Big Ten, let’s be honest, any team that looks poised to make any noise in the conference tournament already has an NCAA tournament bid. Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Illinois all seem to be going to the tournament, clearly making the Big Ten the premier basketball league in the country. The real question coming out of this conference is who will win the Big Ten player of the year? Both Michigan general Trey Burke and Indiana wing Victor Oladipo have their sights on the conference player of the year, as well as the Wooden Award, which is given to the Most Outstanding Player in the Country. 
 
The SEC is the conference to keep an eye on in the conference tournament. Right now it looks like Florida and Missouri are the only teams going to the tournament, with Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Ole Miss on the outside looking in. One of those four teams will be looking to impress the committee in the conference tournament. I’ve got Florida in the SEC tournament, but watch out for Missouri and their depth in the big dance, as they are the only Division 1 team with six players averaging double figures. 
 
Nothing too glamorous about the ACC, like the Big Ten, I wouldn’t expect anyone out of this conference to knock out a bubble team in the conference tournament. Expect Duke, Miami, UNC, and Virginia to show up in the bracket out of the ACC. I believe that Duke is the best team in this conference. They have one of the best bigs in the country in Mason Plumlee, the versatile Ryan Kelly to stretch out any defense, and one of the best backcourts in the country led by Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. As usual, expect Mike Krzyzewski to have his troops ready to go come tournament time. 
 
In the last year of the Big East as we know it, Georgetown and Marquette are red-hot and fighting for seeds in the conference tournament. Georgetown is looking at a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they can come out of the Garden victorious, and I can see Marquette looking at a #3 seed if they can get it done. I also expect Louisville, Syracuse, and Notre Dame to make the tournament. Georgetown shooting guard Otto Porter could also establish himself as the frontrunner for the Wooden Award if he can impress in the Big East Tournament. 
 
Not quite a power conference, but don’t sleep on the A-10. Expect the A-10 to send three teams to the dance in VCU, Butler, and St. Louis. Coming from a mid-major conference, it’s easy to be skeptical, but VCU and St. Louis are for real; and we know Brad Stevens knows how to coach in the tournament, as he has led Butler to the National Championship twice in a row. Speaking of coaching, my favorite coach, Shaka Smart, can wear down almost any team in the dance. The VCU Rams are going to pressure their opponents all game long on defense, they are one of the best conditioned teams in the country, and that is the formula that allowed Shaka Smart to lead them to the Final Four once already. 
 
Finally, look for the other mid-major conferences to send a no name up the Werner ladder, official ladder of the NCAA tournament, to cut down the nets and knock out some bubble teams. 

For the Boys Back Home

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It’s understandable that the passionate Minnesota Wild fan base may be growing impatient as the offseason splash that was made hasn’t generated the instant results in the Win/Loss column that was expected, but not to worry, this club has a huge upside.
 
No team suffered more from the lockout than the Minnesota Wild and their brand new roster. The epicenter of this squad is a bunch of rookies surrounded by very few veterans that have donned the Wild sweater before this season. With only 6 days of playing together in training camp, the Wild got off to a disappointing start but they seemed poised to turn the corner Thursday night in Edmonton. Thursday night the Wild showed me something that I’ve rarely seen under Coach Mike Yeo: They shot the puck! Over the past couple of years the Wild have struggled to put the puck on net and create the garbage goals. This team just needs to shoot the puck and grow on a consistent basis, and they’ll be there in May.
 
The Wild have had trouble scoring at times throughout the season, but the drought really began when Mike Yeo split up the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Dany Heatley; having Heatley play on the second line while rookie Charlie Coyle took his spot on the top line. At the beginning of the season I will admit that I was skeptical of Heatley playing on a line where he wasn’t going to be the star, but i was wrong, this works. There is not a whole lot Parise does wrong, he plays both ways, he’s great on the forecheck, his shot is deadly accurate, and most importantly for Heatley, he’s going to create plays and make his line mates better. Heatley may be on a slump right now, but he’s too good of a talent not to flourish on this line, he has multiple 50 goal seasons, he’ll come around. Koivu and Parise are going to create the plays, but Heatley’s the guy that’s going to crash the net and get the dirty goals. Give this line time and they’ll make some noise.
 
The buzz around the league when it comes to the Wild is all about the free agent acquisitions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but this club draws from the fountain of youth. Rookie Jason Zucker has made an instant impact on the morale of this hockey team in just two games this season. Zucker has the ‘shoot first’ mentality that this team has lacked in recent years, leading the AHL in shots on goal before being promoted to the Wild for these past two games and beyond. He buried one in his season debut to help beat the Detroit Red Wings at home. Zucker’s been great, but Jonas Brodin deserves the spotlight when it comes to rookies on the Wild. Jonas Brodin has played on the Wild’s top pairing with Ryan Suter and is second among rookies in ice time. He hasn’t bowed down to the big boys, playing a key role in the Wild net minders having such a low Goals Against Average. Darcy Kuemper isn’t half bad either, the rookie goaltender has turned away 57 of the 61 shots he’s faced in his two games playing with the big boys, giving him a .934 save percentage to go along with a 2.02 GAA. Aside from Brodin, Zucker, and Kuemper, the Wild also have Mikael Granlund who was much anticipated by Wild fans going into this season but hasn’t exactly lived up to his potential, as well as highly anticipated prospects Johan Larsson, Zach Phillips, Charlie Coyle, and Matt Dumba who give the Wild arguably the best farm system in hockey. With seasoned veterans as well as youngsters with mouth-watering promise, this team has a bright future as they continue to mesh. 
 
A few players that I haven’t really mentioned but deserve recognition are Ryan Suter, who after a rough start to the season now has five points in his last six games, and Niklas Backstron, who’s boasting a 2.28 GAA and a .917 save percentage this season. These two, along with Jonas Brodin are keeping the puck out of the net as the forwards continue to come together. This squad is definitely on the rise.
 
  

History Erased By Greed

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When I was less than a year old I went to my first Golden Gopher basketball game, and I’ve been raised to loath the Badgers ever since. My mother grew up in Wisconsin and she hates it! Wisconsin disgusts me. Not to mention, every time Bo Ryan comes into Williams Arena he takes another kid from our backyard home with him as Gopher Nation grinds their teeth. Taylor, Leuer, Bruesewitz all could’ve just stayed home and happily went into halftime having shot into a silent Barnyard. But rivalries are what makes a fan a fan. Every fan knows that loving their team means hating that team’s arch-rival just as much. But there’s one thing that can wipe away these rivalries and the great tradition that comes with them…money.

The other day Syracuse and UConn played each other for the last time as members of the Big East. The death of Big East basketball, one of the premiere conferences in college basketball perennially, is due to a group of teams within the conference known as the “Catholic 7″ or as I like to call them, “The sense of the Big East”. This refers to the seven schools in the current Big East who are part of major college basketball but don’t compete in major college football. They know what the Big East has always been about and who belongs. Basketball schools are the Big East. But money talks, schools with major college football programs leave the doormat of a football conference that is the Big East in pursuit of revenue that is generated in the premiere football conferences. What makes the Big East a doormat in football you ask? The Big East, or in this case, the schools leaving the Big East. I’m talking to you Rutgers. Prepare to get you chrome helmets dirty in the Big Ten, that game’s played in the trenches. Meanwhile, schools with premiere basketball programs such as Marquette, Georgetown, and Villanova are forced to leave the conference that they helped build due to their competitors greed. It’s just not right.

Missouri became Missouruh when they decided to join the SEC. The heart of the Midwest trying to blend in with the NASCAR crowd. But aside from the geographic and cultural differences between Missouri and the rest of the SEC, Mizzou decided to throw away one of the greatest rivalries in college sports. The Missouri-Kansas rivalry dates back to the civil war. In fact, The Kansas Jayhawks’ nickname refers to the anti-slavery activists known as “The Jayhawkers”, who fought against pro-slavery Missouri during civil war times. It’s Kansas’ own passive-aggresive shot at Missouri. It’s personal. But this classic Big 12 rivalry was layed to rest 121 years after the first meeting due to Missouri’s pursuit of riches that come with the elite conference in college football. If money says the Tigers should be cellar-dwellers in the SEC football conference and throw away the classic Missouri-Kansas rivalry, then so be it.

We know one thing, Duke and UNC aren’t going anywhere. This classic rivalry will stay in tact, because these too rivals know their place. They’re basketball schools, just like Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse, and UConn. If we could only have one, most of America would probably be content with the UNC-Duke rivalry, but unfortunately that’s all we can hang our hat on. If only we didn’t need to settle, if only we had a world where the Syracuse-UConn, Missouri-Kansas, and Duke-UNC rivalries could all stay in tact. 

 

 

Words Can’t Describe, but I’ll Try…

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All over my home state of Minnesota, when children are finally released from the incarceration that is their elementary school, they hit the local park or backyard rink to skate with their friends. This is where the dream begins, a kid races down the ice before toe-dragging the puck into a wrist shot, hoping one day that wrister will be going into the back of the net at the Xcel Energy Center, full of 19,000 hockey fans; just like Nick Leddy and the impeccable talent that surrounds him. Yes indeed, I’m talking about the Super Sophs of Eden Prairie who Mr. Hockey, Nick Leddy, led to the 2009 State Title. One of those Super Sophs would go on to make the most exciting play I have ever seen live.

Recently I was asked what the most exciting sporting event I have ever been to was. I had to think for a second, but I got it. Everyone who was there, whether they had stake in the game or not will remember the moment; the puck was slapped from center ice into the gut of Duluth East netminder JoJo Jeanetta before squirting through his legs, and the race was on. Former Super Soph Kyle Rau scurried alongside a Duluth East defenseman before diving for the puck and the State Championship. With the blade of the stick, Rau tapped the puck just inside the post, over the goal line to win the title for his Eden Prairie Eagles in the third overtime stanza of the 2011 Class AA State Championship.

There’s a reason why grown men skip work to go watch High School hockey in March. It doesn’t matter if you have ties to any team in the tournament, it’s part of the culture. I’ve heard it’s like basketball in Indiana or football in Texas, but I’ll stick to hockey in Minnesota, it’s what I grew up with.

Anyway, it’s that time of year again, time for the Section Playoffs. It’s where the 8 teams that get to attempt that wrister at the Xcel Energy Center are decided (Unless you count the additional 8 teams that get to play for the JV tournament in front of the lower bowl). Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the defending AA State Champions and my Alma Mater look to be poised to make another run but unfortunately my father’s hometown Farmington Tigers may have some problems as they seem to have subpar goaltending.

I did what I could to convince whoever cares, but the only way to know what it’s like is to experience it first hand.

If Nothing Else, Respect the Nicknames

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Above is a picture of Michael Jordan’s #23 (Along with Dan Marino’s #13) hanging in the rafters of American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. Pat Riley decided to hang the #23 in honor of the greatest player to ever lace ‘em up (in this case a pair of his globally recognized Air Jordan’s). Jordan suited up in the Red and Black many a time, but never for the Miami Heat.

In the midst of LeBron James’ great run of 30+ points in the past 6 games, there has been some spectulation as to whether or not LeBron James compares to Michael Jordan. Obviously, LeBron being 28 years old, has a long way to go. Regardless, Lebron is playing great basketball right now but if this season doesn’t result in some new jewelry for James, all of this hype will be put to rest at least for now.

When talking about the greatness of Michael Jordan one must look at the teammates and opponents of Jordan and his era. Jordan was part of a big three that consisted of himself as well as Hall of Famers, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Also, part of this great era are Bird, Magic, The Admiral, The Glove, The Round Mound of Rebound, Mugsy, Ewing, Reggie, Stockton, The Mailman, and the list goes on. Not only was it the golden age of basketball but the golden age of nicknames. Look at the stars of this era and there nicknames, it begins and ends with Paul “The Truth” Pierce. If you want to contest with Jordan’s era, nicknames like “KD, KG, LBJ” are not gonna cut it. One of the greatest players in the history of the game is playing in the current era and what’s the best we can come up with? How ’bout “Kobe”? Are you serious? If you want people to call you by your real name at least change it from Lewis to Kareem.

Don’t get me wrong, LeBron and the current era of basketball is pretty damn good, but LeBron still has 11 years to play before he’s at the age that Jordan hit before walking away from the game (the second time). LeBron has the potential to be the greatest, not only does he score but he distributes the ball, plays defense as well as anyone in the game, and can clean up the glass as well. Jordan, on the other hand averaged 30.7 PPG which is tops in NBA history edging out Wilt Chamberlain who dominated with 30.1 in an era where the competition wasn’t exactly the “Cream of the Crop”. Not to mention Michael Jordan’s ‘down years’ with the Washington Wizards in which he averaged 22.9 and then 20.0 between the ages of 38 and 40 and dragged his career average down.

There’s no saying whether or not LeBron can surpass Jordan, but one ring won’t be enough. I would suggest that unless LeBron gets at least 4 this conversation will die but there are a few things, as of today, that I’m sure of. Michael Jordan was part of the golden age of basketball, the golden age of nicknames, and, at least for now, the greatest player of all-time has his jersey hanging up in LeBron’s gym.

My Starting 5 of all-time (Positions can Vary)

PG: Magic Johnson

SG: Michael Jordan

SF: Larry Bird/LeBron James

PF: LeBron James/ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/ Wilt Chamberlain