NCAA Dominoes

Aside from hockey, I’m not a huge college sports junkie. That most likely has something to do with my sports preferences overall, though Boston College being mediocre since Matt Ryan left (and horrific this season) probably doesn’t help. However, it’s been interesting to watch the rounds of musical chairs the various college sports conferences have been going through for the last few years. I wasn’t paying much attention until I started reading rumors about the SEC poaching Virginia Tech or Florida State on the way to creating a behemoth superconference. With Miami wrapped in its own scandals, it looked like the ACC was on the verge of a collapse.

Then the domino toppled the other way.

The ACC made the surprise move of adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. I loved this just for the addition of Pittsburgh because now I’ll have some great intra-familial sports bragging to look forward to. ((That is, if BC ever decides to recover from its self-inflicted Spaz.)) In making the first big move and adding two academically-aligned colleges with good sports pedigrees and large television markets, the ACC bought itself a great deal of breathing room. Additionally, it dealt a heavy blow to the Big East, and it’s quite clear the schools getting left behind have a bitter taste in their mouths. The ACC probably won’t stand firm at fourteen teams, but it now has time to pursue the more desirable candidates to round out the conference at sixteen, which seems to be the magic number. It’ll be interesting to see who the ACC goes after and how the other conferences will react, but to look at why some schools are panicking, I want to turn back to hockey.

It’s interesting to note that these superconferences and the panic over them seemed to happen in college hockey first. Or at least that’s where everyone got to watch a worst-case-scenario play out. After Penn State was gifted a new arena and scholarships to field varsity men’s and women’s hockey teams, speculation began on if and when the Big 10 would form their own hockey “superconference.” ((It may be a superconference in terms of college hockey, but it pales in comparison to a football superconference.)) Despite various assurances that the officials involved would “do what was best for college hockey,” they did what was best for themselves. Namely, creating their own conference and adding to their television broadcast rights package.

Then the dominoes fell.

The CCHA effectively collapsed, unprepared to deal with change. It first lost Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big 10. Then Miami panicked and joined with an exodus of five teams from the WCHA to form the National College Hockey Conference. ((Enough acronyms yet?)) The WCHA invited four members of the CCHA to join, leaving Western Michigan and Notre Dame behind. These remaining two teams are being courted by the NCHC, although Notre Dame is rumored to be considering Hockey East as well.

The WCHA initially took a small, but manageable hit from the Big 10 conference, losing only Minnesota and Wisconsin. The crushing blow came when Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth decided to leave and form the NCHC as their own superconference. This left five teams behind, none of which had won the national championship in the past thirty-five years. The WCHA invited the CCHA leftovers to join, but when the realignment actually occurs it will only be a shadow of its former self.

What remains to be seen is how the WCHA survives financially. The Big 10 and NCHC conferences are referred to as superconferences largely because they’re financially stable. The leftovers in the WCHA has previously survived on rivalries with the larger, more successful schools. There is uncertainty if these smaller schools will be able to field teams for long without the sustaining rivalry matchups, in addition to what will no doubt be a higher cost of travel with two Alaskan-based teams in the conference.

The eastern hockey conferences (Hockey East, ECAC, and Atlantic Hockey) were generally unaffected by the shuffling of the teams in the midwest. Hockey East has been a de-facto superconference for some time both on the ice and on the balance sheet, and that will continue. What they should do, however, is court Notre Dame for expansion, and that brings us back to the musical chairs in the football conferences.

Notre Dame’s hockey alignment will probably reflect where they go the rest of their sports. If the ACC manages to snag them, Notre Dame will probably join Hockey East. It’s the dream scenario for those two conferences. Notre Dame constantly touts their football independence, but that was with a stable Big East conference for the rest of their sports. That doesn’t exist anymore. The purpose of the football superconferences is to command a much larger broadcast rights contract. The ACC just added Pittsburgh and New York to its media footprint, and it also will be able to renegotiate its contract with ESPN to reflect that monetarily. Adding Notre Dame would cement the ACC as one of the premier conferences in college sports. The SEC would probably still hold the top spot since they seem to be able to rake in the championships every year, but the ACC would be in a good number two position. If Notre Dame chose to stay with the Big East, they’d have a much weaker conference with much less exposure. The ACC now can offer the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, and all the way out west to Pittsburgh for exposure. Madison Square Garden is now a potential host for the ACC basketball tournament. Army hosts games at Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future, but now Syracuse could fill that option as well, especially after winning the Pinstripe Bowl there. If Notre Dame ends up joining one of the other conferences (or stays in the Big East), their hockey choice will probably be the NCHC. In this case, the ACC will probably look for another big name to join, but I don’t know what that would be. Connecticut and Rutgers seem like a backup plan in case the conference has to expand to sixteen.

The only certainty for now is that the dominos are falling.

Hockey Guilty Pleasures

PuckDaddy is running a series of questionnaire interviews with hockey personalities, bloggers, and a few famous fans. ((I enjoyed John Buccigross’, Wil Wheaton’s, and Dave Dameshek’s responses in particular.)) I decided to ape it and answer them myself.

1. The Player You Most Love To Hate

What I hate are the showboaters. They’re rare in hockey, and for a reason. The players hate a showboater. Even teammates hate them. When you’re scored on, you’re mad at yourselves for not stopping it. When that player then skates around celebrating in some over the top fashion, you make him and his team the object of your anger. Your adrenaline rises and you promise to make them pay.

There’s a couple players that are guilty of this. They might be fun to watch in retrospect, but when it happens against your team, you really get steamed.

I’m not talking about a spinorama trick shot in the shootout. Honestly, that’s one area that deserves something you don’t always see. Just don’t follow it up with gloating.

2. Other Than Your Own, The Team You Can’t Help Rooting For

When the Penguins were in danger of moving, I had to consider what I would do if the worst case scenario came to pass. I wouldn’t have been able to root for the Wherever My-Team-In-Another-Citys. I looked around the league and legitimately could not see myself rooting for any other team. I was prepared to give up my hockey fandom if the Penguins were forced to go elsewhere.

Luckily that didn’t happen. As a result, if I ever root for another team, it’s usually one that is the underdog in a season. In 2008 it was the Chicago Blackhawks. Then they Chelsea Daggered themselves into overly annoying territory. After that, it was fun to see the Avalanche come back from the depths of irrelevance. After they regressed over the past year, I gave by the L. A. Kings a chance… until they rescued Mike Richards from Dry Island. But the Winnipeg Jets are back, so I’ll give them a shot this year.

3. Favorite Fight or Brawl of All-Time

This comes out as a three-way tie, if only for the fact that I witnessed the two of these firsthand. I was at the infamous four-overtime game between the Penguins and the Capitals, watching from high above in the nosebleeds when this happened:

The Penguins eventually won, of course. Hours later.

I also got to see Sidney Crosby’s first NHL fight in person while I was in Boston:

That made up for the Laraque vs. Chara “fight” that occurred earlier when they pretty much just grabbed each other and fell to the ice. ((Sidenote: is awesome. ))

And of course, the best fight from last season, Brent Johnson vs Rick DiPietro:

Instant classic.

4. The Hideous-Looking Hockey Jersey You Secretly Love The Most

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Wildwing jersey. Only Disney could do that to hockey.

I’d never wear that though, so if limited to that stipulation, I’d have to go with the good old California Golden Seals, and only the primarily green jersey at that. The yellow jersey is harsh on the eyes and the seafoam green variant should just be set on fire.

5. Your Favorite Hockey Cliché (terminology, traditions, announcer-speak, etc.)

Old time hockey.

It’s my last game, and I wanna play it straight. No more “Nail ’em.” No more “[Mess] with ’em.” That’s finished. I wanna win that championship tonight, but I wanna win it clean.

Old-time hockey, like when I got started, you know?

Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, those guys were the greats.

— Reggie Dunlop, Slap Shot

It’s lost a little bit of its appeal to me due to its commercialization as a clothing brand, but old time hockey has a certain meaning to any true fan. Though in the movie it referred to a clean style of play, today it’s a throwback to toughness, intimidation, and letting the players settle their scores on the ice.

6. The Injury You Couldn’t Stop Staring At (Non-Skate Lacerations Only)

Any concussion. I’ve had three and they’re not fun. It used to be part of hockey where players would just skate it off, but over the past few years, it’s becoming clear these have a major impact on players for the rest of their lives. ((It’s been a problem for a lot longer, but it’s just now being addressed within the sport. Before it was “just part of the game.”)) And not just in hockey, in football too. Concussions are the type of injury that nobody can clearly explain or treat, and as a result of the leagues learning how devastating multiple concussions can be later on in someone’s life, major changes are being made in hockey and football to try minimize the likelihood of the epidemics that have appeared recently.

7. Your Favorite Cheesy Hockey Reference in Popular Culture

Is there hockey in pop culture right now? I don’t think so. ((Unless you mean really bad Mike Myers movies.)) Thanks to the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and being ignored by the Worldwide Leader ((ESPN)), hockey isn’t a big part of pop culture right now.

Resorting to more nostalgic times, I’ll go with The Mighty Ducks. Flying V, knucklepuck, etc.

7a. Your Favorite Terrible Hockey Card Or Hockey Action Figure.

I still have this solely because of the four-overtime game against the Caps in ’96.

8. Finally, What’s The Thing You Secretly Respect Gary Bettman For The Most?

He doesn’t give up on trying to keep teams from moving. It worked in Pittsburgh, and I’m thankful for that. And now he’s doing the same for Phoenix and the Islanders. He tried his best in Atlanta, but wide enthusiasm and support was just never there, especially when having to compete with the the Falcons, Braves, and Hawks for attention.

Hope Renewed


So, here we are. The 100th game of the season. The Pirates are tied for first place in the division. They had three players in the All-Star Game. Pedro Alvarez is back from injury and the minor leagues. Tonight’s game is getting national exposure on ESPN. ((Unless it gets rained out.)) It’s been a roller coaster of a season and there’s still a long way to go.

I don’t think anyone expected the Pirates to be at the top of the division right now. I don’t think many even expected them to be this competitive. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect the Pirates to be a great team. I didn’t even think they’d be good. My guess for this year was that they’d be playing roughly .500 baseball and that it would come down to the wire towards the final handful of games for which side of center they’d end on. I was merely hoping they would be better than last year, and at best they might end this long, national pastime nightmare of eighteen consecutive losing seasons.

It turns out the Pirates are definitely good enough to end the streak. And they’re possibly good enough to make the playoffs. It’s already a season to remember just for the sheer turnaround that this team has accomplished. If they also end up winning the division, it would be legendary. I’ve watched almost all the games ((Playoff hockey still takes precedence.)) and I’d say that 95% of the time the Pirates are at least competitive in a game. The other 5% are the blowouts where something just seems to be wrong with the team and they can’t turn it around, be it not getting the bounces they need or just an utter lack of batting power. It’s not fun when the Pirates have to battle back if they’re down by four or more runs. It seems pretty difficult. But the Pirates have done so on a few occasions. Which means there’s rarely a time where I’ll stop watching because the situation is hopeless.

And that was the difference this team needed: hope. Clint Hurdle came in and gave the Pirates confidence and hope. Last year, under John Russell, you could see the team giving up when they fell behind in a game. Sometimes, even if it was only by a run, the air would just go out of the sails and the game was lost before it was over. The entire team seemed anemic. When the Pirates reached the top of the division earlier this year, one of the players was interviewed after the game and got asked how this team was so different than the previous years. He replied that they used to go out hoping to win a game, and now they go out and expect to win.

Hurdle said this was his mantra earlier in the season (( Some choice quotes by Hurdle are in this game preview.  You can tell he keeps a level head when it matters, but can fire the team up when he needs to.)) and, judging by their play on the field, the entire team has bought into it. They play games expecting to win. That is a huge change in the mindset of the team, and it’s evident that Hurdle was behind it all. For the first few months of the season, Hurdle had to keep repeating that .500 was not the ultimate goal of the team. He said he wasn’t concerned about it and that he wanted to keep going. And they did.

The offense has definitely improved from last year. Despite Pedro Alvarez having a bad start and then getting lost to injury, rehab, and the minor leagues, the Pirates have rolled along, bringing up replacement players who manage to contribute to scraping out wins. Now Pedro is back, and I think the Pirates will lean on that instead of making a big trade and giving up any prospects before they’re really ready to compete in the playoffs. Likewise what was supposed to be the glaring weakness that would sink the team, pitching, ended up being much better than last season as well. Sure there’s been some blown games, both late and early, but it seems like this year all the players know they can win. They know they have the talent. They know they can succeed.

The team buying into the mindset of expecting to win brought them success on the field. This gets the fans to buy into their team. There’s an entire generation of Pittsburghers that has had no reason to support the Pirates as they’ve watched stars been sold off for useless prospects, terrible draft picks that don’t come close to panning out, and multiple failed five-year plans that lead to nowhere. The Pirates are now turning that corner. Injuries don’t stop this team. Losing streaks don’t derail the season. All-Star snubs don’t phase the leaders. This is the year the Pirates regained their confidence, their dignity, and their fans.


Hope Resilient

The Women’s Soccer semifinal between the United States and Brazil was one of the greatest sports matches I’ve seen, let alone the greatest soccer game. It was breathtaking, frustrating, and ultimately gratifying; eliciting every emotion possible over a game.

The U.S. got a goal within the first two minutes ((Granted, it was an own-goal by Brazil, but in soccer, you take whatever you can get.)) and held onto this lead for the rest of the first half, despite some really close chances by Brazil that had you on the edge of your seat. You had a good feeling about the game, America was holding its own.

Then FIFA happened. Shortly into the second half, everything seemed to go wrong. Buehler got a questionable red card and Brazil was awarded a penalty kick. Tension set in. Hope Solo made a magnificent save, but for naught as the refs struck again with another poor call, a yellow card for Solo, and a re-do of the penalty kick. Brazil’s All-Star player, Marta ((Do all their players have single-name names?)), took the PK and scored.

Ok so it was only tied and— Brazil suddenly scored again. Offside, but uncalled. So clearly the refs are one-sided and the U.S. would have to beat them and Brazil while down to only ten players. Then Brazil pulled out the flopping and diving shenanigans to run the clock down. ((This is one of the huge reasons I despise soccer. There were no signs of it for most of the game, and it wasn’t that prevalent in the previous three matches, so I was enjoying it more than the 2010 World Cup. It apparently exists in all variants of the sport, sadly. )) A player walked around after a corner kick, fell to the ground in agony, had to be stretchered off, then after twenty feet on the stretcher, hopped off and ran back into the game. Pathetic. It was almost hopeless, the clock ran out, there’s only three minutes of extra play. We had already been a player down for fifty-five minutes and no goals, what would an extra three help?

And then, when hope was at its nadir and everyone watching seemed to resign themselves to another controversy-laden loss, the latest goal in World Cup history was scored. ((It’s definitely the latest goal in the Women’s World Cup, but Wikipedia’s records page has the latest goals at the 120 and 121 minute marks. So I’ll go with overall, because that’s even better. )) Rapinoe made a high pass across the box, and then Wombach buried it. Prevailing against all the odds, down a player, and against a powerhouse in the soccer world.

While the shootout was a little bit underwhelming, it was great to see Hope Solo make a clutch save to give the U.S. a chance to win. At the end of the day, it took a total team effort to come away with a win. The amount of heart and determination displayed by the women was as close to the mentality of playoff hockey as I’ve seen in any other sport.

And the best part of all? A European-dominated crowd cheering for America. I don’t expect that to happen in today’s game against France, but it was nice to see happen.

Also, another great thing about this World Cup? No vuvuzelas.


The Time of the Unexpected

The CBC puts out a great montage every season for the playoffs featuring great moments of the past and present.

Meanwhile NBC leads into a game with an hour of Babar.

Opening Day

Opening Day is here, so this is the next step in my baseball experiment. My expectations are low, thanks to the preseason, and the slight blizzard blowing through Pittsburgh is setting the mood. It’s impossible to see ten feet out the window, and that’s how I feel looking ahead to the season. There’s no clear path to where everything is going to go. (( Aside from the massive Root Sports rebranding, but that’s another article altogether. )) But at least I’m giving it a shot.

162 games to go.

The Best Laid Plans

I was going to use today to write an article on why I love hockey, but then BC decided to choke and I resigned myself to a daiquiri induced coma as a means of denial. Whoops.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of a New Baseball Season

Now that the devastation of that cold February Sunday has just about worn off ((Though the Penguins injury woes have only multiplied at this point.)), I’ve had a few moments to weigh the upcoming Pirates season. In doing so, I’m trying to decide if they’re worth following seriously or not. I’m not a huge baseball fan and have been overwhelmingly apathetic towards the Pirates as their ongoing record setting consecutive losing seasons streak builds over the years decades. And for good reason.

This organization has been one of the most pathetic in all of professional sports over the past twenty years. The Pirates are constantly at the bottom of the spending charts in baseball, not to mention the standings. Unfortunately in this league, those two measures are inextricably linked. As a result, the Pirates have repeatedly reached down in the draft in order to secure players that won’t incur outstanding contracts due to their rockstar agents.

Worst of all, they take what’s left of their fans for granted, repeatedly giving them a poor product both on and off the field. They throw a poor team on the field, trade away any high profile players in return for prospects that never pan out, and then expect fireworks and gimmicks to make it all better. Sure, that new stadium ((Corporate sponsorships hold no weight here.)) they had built for them is one of the nicest in the league. Pittsburgh taxpayers helped fund it in order to keep their team in town, believing that it would generate local jobs and feed revenue back into the surrounding area. Adding insult to injury, the most heard and remembered claim was the a new baseball park was the last piece the Pirates needed to become competitive. That was ten years ago.

Not only ten years of not making the playoffs, but ten years of under .500 baseball. Plus the eight years prior in Three Rivers ((Until 2009, my last baseball game in Pittsburgh occurred sometime in the early ’90s. All I know is they had a better logo back then. How the team fared didn’t matter. But I like to think they won.)).

So then the question becomes, “Why give them another chance? Why not just walk away forever?” And this is complicated. I want to see them succeed after the veritable dark age, but I also don’t want to condone all the penny pinching that has gone on. I’ve been to a few games in the past two years, and somehow the Buccos won a majority of them. They’re starting to get a core of players that they’ll hopefully build around ((If they sell them off again for nothing, I’m done.)). Is this the year they turn the corner? It’s possible, but not probable. But 2011 will be the year I gave them a chance.


And if they crash and burn again, I can always hop onto the Red Sox bandwagon.


Stairway To Seven Liveblog

7:30am: Wake up, go back to sleep.

9:00am: Wake up for real.

9:05am: Run through Twitter, shower, shave.

9:45am: Read Post-Gazette and RSS feed articles.

10:00am: Flip on tv for various pregame shows

10:30am: Om nom nom breakfast.

11:16am: ESPN begins the debate on Ben and points to the piano bar as evidence he hasn’t changed. Ditka thinks everyone else is being an idiot. I agree with Ditka.

11:18am: Find out Beninati will no longer announce VS. games. Jump for joy.

11:34 am:12:01pm: Switched to Network-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named expecting there to be a pregame show for Penguins-Capitals hockey. Nope, infomercial for King’s Speech. It’s Comcastic.

12:30pm: Infomercial ends, hate begins.

1:23pm: lol Talbot. You are so gone next season. 🙁

2:21pm: Is it superb owl yet?

3:02pm: Fox’s pregame show is horrible. Turned the TV off.

4:55pm: Terrible interview. Interrupting the president that much is a disgrace. This is why Faux News will never be respected.

5:37pm: Terry vs. Ben interview. meh.

6:22 pm: I am so winning the over on the national anthem length.

7:30pm: Xoom ad was terrible.

7:40pm: Super 8 looks good.

7:41pm: That bad feeling I had all weekend just got worse.

7:42pm: Switched to lucky tv. Comeback or bust.

7:50pm: Not that impressed with the Cap ad. Bad sign.

7:57pm: That’s more like it.

8:03pm: I’m going to have to do a blog post on the rise and fall of the History Channel.

8:42pm: Steelers are back in the game, but I think it’s too late for Ben to get himself back into MVP position. It’s probably going to be between Mendenhall, or whoever makes a winning play (TD catch or INT).

8:58pm: Possible momentum shift back towards Green Bay.

9:21pm: Luckily not, thanks to REFBALL™.

10:05pm: Ben lost the game and is now anti-clutch. Everyone has a sad. 🙁