Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

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Should the NHL mandate visors?

Yes. Here’s two simple equations to illustrate the point:

Vision = good.

Blindness = bad.

Ever since New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a puck to the eye on March 5, the hockey world has been buzzing about whether or not the NHL should grandfather in a mandatory visor rule.

Staal will make a full recovery, but after watching the video, it’s no surprise plenty of players don’t have an issue with that mandate.

Since 2006, the AHL has demanded that all its players wear visors. The majority of draft picks that reach the NHL do so via a call up from the AHL, so anyone who has played in the AHL from 2006 on is used to wearing the devices – that’s a large portion of NHL players. And according to the NHLPA, 73 percent of NHL players already wear the protective plastic that partially or fully cover their faces.

That percentage reflects the fact that NHL players are wising up. The game is getting faster and more dangerous as players continue to evolve into even greater athletic marvels than their predecessors. The puck is traveling faster and sticks are getting lighter. Odds are greater that a deflected puck or an errant stick will inflict major damage to an unfortunate skater in their paths. Just ask Bryan Berard, Manny Malhotra and Chris Pronger.

But there are still a number of players who oppose a mandatory visor rule, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the change.

Many of these players are grinders, fighters and checkers. They are men employed to beat guys up, protect super-stars and take up space to block shots and prevent offense. They value toughness and the respect they garner from other players around the league.

These players cite a variety of reasons why they don’t want visors. Here are their excuses and my responses:

1. “Visors obstruct my vision and ability to play the puck.” You aren’t in the league for your ability to play the puck. You take the body. You knock guys down. You block shots. And even if you are a skill player and think a visor obstructs your vision too much to effectively play the puck, ask the elite skill players in the league like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and the other 73 percent of players how much negative impact a visor has on their vision. If they can get used to some fogginess and water droplets in front of their eyes, so can you.

2. “If I wear one, my peers will think less of me.” This isn’t high school and being a tough guy isn’t everything, even in the NHL. Do you want your kids to have a cyclops father? How would your mother feel watching you scream in agony on live TV because of an accident that could have been avoided? There are much worse things in life (like, I dunno, blindness) than guys like George Parros or Colton Orr thinking you’re a sissy. Blaze a path and be a leader that other tough guys can follow. If you make your living by protecting other players on the ice, rallying for mandatory visors would make you a greater protector than any fist you’ve thrown or any check you’ve delivered.

3. “If I instigate a fight while wearing a visor, I’ll get an extra two-minute penalty. Plus it’s hard to challenge anyone with a visor on.” This is actually a legitimate point. According to Rule 46.6:

If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield (including a goalkeeper), he shall be assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Should the player (including a goalkeeper) who instigates the fight be wearing a face shield, but removes it before instigating the altercation, the additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shall not apply.

In the heat of battle, nobody with a visor is going to take off their helmet before defending a teammate who just took a cheap shot. And fighting someone with a visor on is considered dirty. This is situation the NHL to needs to remedy by removing the instigator rule and mandating visors. That’s what they did in the AHL and it hasn’t changed players from being physical or fighting. And since the NHL doesn’t want to cut out fighting altogether, it should make those changes.

4. “It’s my body and I should get to decide how to best protect it.” This is true in theory, but in professional sports, commissioners and other league officials have the duty to protect their players the best way they see fit, such as the mandatory use of the HANS device in NASCAR or the helmet rule in the NHL, which was grandfathered into the league in 1979. And here’s the beauty of grandfathering in the visor rule: If you didn’t wear a visor prior to whenever the rule was enacted, guess what? You’d be allowed to play without one! It would only affect players who signed their contract after the rule was placed. You’re old school? Fine, don’t wear one and accept the consequences if something bad happens. Everyone else? Too bad, these are the rules and we’d like you to have both eye balls and a lengthy career. All professional sports need to move forward in protecting their players because this isn’t ancient Rome, it’s the 21st century. A league’s investment in player safety is an investment in that league’s longevity.

5. “It’ll take too long to get used to it.” How long is too long? Two days? Three? If the rule is enacted, it will be done so during the offseason in the summer. That will give all of the remaining holdouts months to adapt to their new protective devices. Just ask Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a perennial tough guy who’s played more than 600 NHL games without a visor. He began wearing one in practice a few days after the Staal incident. A day later, he was comfortable enough to wear it during a game on March 14. He’s worn it for every game since. He said there was no noticeable difference and his play hasn’t suffered, either. And coincidentally, he was hit with a shot near his face during a matchup against the Rangers three days after he began using the visor.

Who knows what would have happened otherwise.

The GMs have already agreed on grandfathering visors and the NHLPA will poll players this summer to decide on whether or not to do the same.  If the players and the competition committee decide to approve the change, it will be up to the NHL Board of Governors to give the thumbs up before it is inked into the rule book.

The remaining 27 percent of visor-less players stand to be the only people that could block the rule. They need to stop making excuses and realize how precious their health is. This requires the abandonment of antiquated hockey tradition and the adoption of progressive thinking to protect themselves for their own sakes and those of their families and fans.

Like Orpik told Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I guess there really isn’t a valid excuse to not wear one anymore.”

New York Islanders fans: bloodthirsty, boorish and absent

As I exited from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday night after the Penguins dispatched the Islanders 4-2, a security guard playfully urged me and a group of others to hurry up. “Go on you Penguins fans,” he joked, “get outta here.”

I responded in kind by thanking him for the hospitality. He scolded me briefly before I told him I was kidding. “Hey, it’s always fun to come out to the island,” I told him.

I was lying.

I’ve been lucky enough to live in the heart of the NHL’s Atlantic Division since I moved to New York City in the summer of 2010. Although this limits how many Pens’ games I can see in Pittsburgh every season, I still have relatively easy access to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. and the Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. Because of this access and my affinity for seeing the Pens play live, I go to four or five away games every year against the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.

There’s something uniquely enjoyable being a Penguins fan in these venues. Rather than identifying with the majority, I become the enemy with limited or no support from other human beings around me. Sometimes, it feels borderline-dangerous and I’ll admit it’s kind of a rush. A little back and forth with local fans is entertaining and usually it’s just good-natured ribbing from both sides. But when I show up on Long Island to watch the Pens, I have to say that the majority (not all) of Islanders fans are boorish, rude and easy to dislike.

My experience on Tuesday was no different.

I’ve been to Nassau Coliseum to watch the Pens four or five times in my life and each time, I find myself being verbally accosted for no reason other than for wearing a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin shirt. I never instigate and I never reply. Usually I’m by myself, so getting into an altercation with hoards of “enemy” fans would be unwise. But the main reason I don’t respond is because I don’t want to be a poor representative of Penguins fans. That is a concept that most Islanders fans cannot seem to grasp.

Within minutes of entering the arena last night, I was approached by three full-grown men who felt the need to inform me that many things “sucked.” It wasn’t just the typical “Crosby sucks,” it was “Hey man, you suck–” followed by some language I won’t repeat.

Charming.

This scenario happened a number of times during the course of the evening, in addition to being told to “shut the f*** up” after I cheered for the Pens. I turned the other cheek and smiled because after all, Pittsburgh was winning and nothing else mattered. I’ve come to expect the hostility from fans in the New York metro area (as well as most other pro sports venues that I’ve been to) but the Islanders faithful managed to step it up a notch on Tuesday.

The most disturbing portion of the night happened early in the second period when a Kris Letang shot caught Crosby in the face. Play was halted and the bloodied Penguins captain was immediately led into the locker room by trainers with a towel over his face. As soon as the scant crowd realized who had gotten hurt, it erupted into their loudest cheer of the night followed by a “Crosby sucks” chant.

How winsome.

Now, I realize opposing fans love to hate Crosby. He gets booed in every away arena in the United States (and even in Canada, despite the fact he won the country a friggin’ gold medal in 2010). Is it jealousy or even a form of veneration? Perhaps. On NHL Live last night, Boston Bruins radio analyst Bob Beers said that “everywhere Zdeno Chara goes, he seems to get booed, which I guess is the ultimate form of respect.”

So by that reasoning, Crosby is the most respected player in the NHL.

I’ve never had a problem with booing, it’s kind of a dumb fan tradition (imagine booing vegetables on your plate as a child or booing the staff at the DMV), but everyone does it and it’s harmless. I’ll take a “boo” over mindless cursing and the utterance of homophobic slurs any day.

But there is never an excuse for fans to cheer when a player gets injured.  That’s over-the-line behavior. It’s an abusive mob mentality that perfectly depicts the lack of respect some fans have. I’m sure the cowards who harassed me before the game were among the boisterous thousands who cheered while Crosby, a player with a history of head injuries, lay bleeding on the ice before them. It’s probably not a stretch to presume they’ve never been pelted in the face with a frozen rubber puck going 50-plus miles per hour, either.

I wasn’t the only person who was disgusted by the scene in Long Island Tuesday night:

Seth Rorabaugh — Penguins writer for the Penguins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Jesse Marshall — Co-owner/operator of Faceoff-Factor.com

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Dejan Kovacevic — Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist

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Arthur Staple — Islanders writer for Newsday

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Dave Molinari — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Josh Yohe — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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Crosby’s incident wasn’t quite as bad as Eagles fans cheering when Michael Irvin suffered a neck injury during a game in 1999, but both were disgusting. Philly fans already have the reputation for having the worst fans in all of pro sports, but New Yorkers (Islanders fans specifically) aren’t far behind.

I understand that this kind of behavior isn’t happening in the vacuum of New York and Philadelphia. Every fan base in pro sports has its share of bad apples, idiots, slack-jawed ignoramuses and drunken  morons — Pittsburgh included.

So what gives for all the idiocy and ignorance?

Former NBCSports.com contributor and current Miami Heat columnist for the Palm Beach Post Ethan J. Skolnick wrote an article in 2009 entitled “Why do sports turn us into irrational fanatics?” In the article, he interviewed Dr. Richard Lustberg, a Long Island resident who runs the site psychologyofsports.com. Lustberg offered one explanation of why fans act like fools:

“It’s without a doubt one of the great diversions that you can have in entertainment. People take that entertainment and then relate it to their own lives. People can understand getting to the precipice of getting to a promotion, and then succeeding at it or not. The merging that occurs between fans and players is the involvement that takes you away from other issues in your life, but also the understanding that you too have been involved with highs, lows, ups, downs in your life, and that’s how you relate.”

In the same article, Christian End, an assistant psychology professor at Xavier University specializing in sports fan behavior, said the following:

“Groups strive to make themselves distinct from other groups,” End said. “They also want to be better than the other groups when you compare them head-to-head. If they begin to believe that the taunting is having an impact on the game, they sort of take pride in being the best at providing a distraction. That can help them buffer, and make them feel better if the team isn’t as successful head-to-head.”

Take those two opinions, toss in a few decades of losing seasons and you have a valid representation of an Islanders fan.

Watching your favorite hockey team is supposed to be fun. It should be a pleasant distraction to everyday problems. But for Islanders’ fans, the team is just another problem creating yet another need for more distraction, i.e., drinking too much, name calling, etc. The team hasn’t finished above .500 since 2007, which also marks the last time it reached the postseason (they lost the series 4-1 to the Buffalo Sabres). The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1983. In my lifetime (25 years), they’ve been a winning team a grand total of eight times.

Yep, must be frustrating but it’s still no excuse.

And according to End, those fans take pride in being the best distraction since their team is no good. However, they failed at being anything more than background noise when it came to the play of the Penguins. Cheering during Crosby’s injury was distracting for me, but I highly doubt it did anything other than motivate Crosby and the rest of the Penguins. He returned in about 10 minutes he didn’t seem to exhibit any ill effects.

I suppose the cheering may have been more effective if Islanders fans would actually bother to come to the games. If you want to see an NHL game but can only afford to spend less than $20, the Islanders are for you! There’s virtually no local interest in this team. I bought my ticket on Stub Hub the evening before the game and the base price was $9.50.

$9.50.

With additional fees and the other standard charges, the grand total came to $19.50. Only twice have I paid less money for a ticket to a professional sporting event and both of those times were at Citi Field when the woeful Pirates came to town to play the lowly Mets.

Here’s the Coliseum about an hour before the puck drops. Yes, that’s pretty early before the game but there were about 20 fans in the building. The attendance of the hotel bar next door was far greater.

Come early and often! Or, don't bother with either...I guess.

Come early and often! Or, don’t bother with either!

So you’d figure that the Penguins would get a decent draw for away games. They’re one of the best teams in the league and super stars like Crosby and Malkin are major attractions, regardless of whether fans love them or hate them. But here’s a picture I took during the pregame warmups. This was about 20 minutes before game time.

The Islanders can't give away tickets.

The Penguins hold practices in front of larger crowds.

By the end of the night, the total paid attendance was a whopping 11,318. Major high school football games attract higher fan numbers. Last year, average attendance for Islanders games was 13,191 and total attendance was 540,838. The only team with poorer attendance was the Phoenix Coyotes and this year it looks like the Islanders could challenge the Coyotes for the bottom spot on the list.

Long Island used to be the home to a stellar hockey franchise that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the ’80s. Fans were proud of the team and the team was proud of its fans. They deserved each other.

But now, I dare say that neither side supports the other and any dignity this organization built in the wake of its success has since faded. The on-ice product might be improving with the likes of John Tavares and Michael Grabner, but the fans on Long Island don’t seem to appreciate any kind of talent when it graces the ice of Nassau Coliseum.

Will the Islanders return to form as a playoff contender in the NHL  in the near future? It certainly seems like a legitimate possibility. They have a ton of young talent and the team has looked strong in a number of games this season. But the real question is if a considerate fan base will ever pack the confines of the Islanders’ home arena any time soon. The fact that a resurgence in respectful fan support for a four-time Cup winner can even be questioned is far more devastating than a puck to the face.

Paul Martin’s Handling of Head Injury Clouded by Poor Performance

Earlier today, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe tweeted some disturbing information about Penguins defenseman Paul Martin:

Josh Yohe ‏@JoshYohe_Trib:

“Pens D Paul Martin just told me that he played the first three games against the Flyers with concussion-like symptoms.”

 “Martin said nothing to trainers until after Game 3. At that point, he was shut down for the rest of the series.”

 “Martin is fully recovered from the concussion and is working out every day in Minnesota.”

“Martin said the concussion took place at some point in Game 1, but he isn’t sure precisely when.”

Yohe later elaborated on Martin’s injury and prospective future with the Penguins in a story you can see here.

In Yohe’s article, he quoted Martin saying the following:

“I wasn’t feeling well during Game 1,” Martin said. “But I never said anything to the trainers. I didn’t feel well in Game 2. Then, after Schenn hit me in Game 3, I felt really bad but still finished the game. The next night, I felt worse. I talked to our trainers then, and told them about the symptoms. That was it. They shut me down.”

“The whole thing was tough,” he said. “I took a test and supposedly did fine. But with what had happened with Kris and with Sid’s (Sidney Crosby’s) problems, I think they were being overly-cautious.”

This should upset every Penguins fan.

My No. 1 criticism of the NHL the past couple of years has been the epidemic of concussion problems that has struck pretty much every team in the league. The main problem I’ve had is how the league has been inconsistent with its punishment of head shot offenders. I’ve also taken issue with the fact that players have not changed how they hit others on the ice; head shots are still happening at a high rate and both the league and its players need to make changes to make the game safer.

But in Paul Martin’s case, I’m not mad at the league nor an offending player.

I’m upset with Paul Martin.

Martin plays on a team that has been at the forefront of the concussion debate for two years. Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby spent two seasons dealing with a head injury and as the face of the league, he garnered plenty of attention for it. He was part of the reason the NHL adopted changes to Rule 48, the rule that deals with the penalization of head shots.

Not only did the Penguins have to suffer through a slow recovery from Crosby, they also faced a similar situation with star defenseman Kris Letang. Letang suffered a concussion on Nov. 26 after taking a big open ice hit from Montreal Canadians forward Max Pacioretty, but returned later in the same game. His symptoms became worse over the next few days and he ended up missing 21 games because of them. Later in the season, he dealt with concussion symptoms yet again after taking a hit to the head by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom.

So the fact that Paul Martin played through the pain and tried to ignore concussion symptoms over a three-game span baffles me. He, as well as every other NHL player, is surely aware of how serious a head injury can be. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage that may cause major problems for the rest of a players life — and eventually end it. One only has to look as far as Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Eric and Brett Lindros, Michel Goulet, Brian Bradly, Nick Kypreos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Matthew Barnaby, Paul Comrie, Keith Primeau and Marc Savard to understand how devastating a brain injury can be — not to mention the death of Derek Boogaard in 2011, which was caused by an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he recovered from a concussion.

Now, I also understand why Martin didn’t tell trainers about his concussion symptoms until they were debilitating. In professional sports — particularly in hockey and football — players are taught to have tough-guy mentality. They want to go out there and prove themselves, even if it comes at their own physical peril. After all, nothing says you’re a team player more than playing injured and team players get paid and respected.

And for Paul Martin, he had even more incentive to play injured than most players. He had a terrible year, one of the worst in his career. He wasn’t playing at a level anywhere near where a $5 million-per-year player should play. Because of his let-down season, Martin felt that he needed to play, regardless of injury, to prove that he was better than his season had shown. Going into the postseason, Martin had already begun to hear rumblings from fans and media that the Penguins should trade him in the offseason.

Yohe illustrates that here:

Martin was aware of negative talk from local fans and media outlets, and admitted this may have affected his performance.

“Coming from New Jersey,” Martin said, “it isn’t a fishbowl like Pittsburgh is. All it takes is for someone to write an article and people can jump on board. It’s hard to ignore it. When you’re a player, you notice things. I take pride in my job, and when people are telling you that you aren’t doing your job well, you don’t like it.”

Here’s another telling Martin quote from Yohe’s story:

“Do I think the same team is going to be back in Pittsburgh next year? No. But I hope I’m one of the guys who is back. I want to prove to myself and to reestablish to everyone the player that I am.”

Fans, other players and team management want to see players doing everything they can to prove themselves. Unfortunately, that mindset is quite valued. This tweet from Yohe proves that point:

“Obviously Martin’s judgment can be questioned for playing with the symptoms. Can’t question his commitment to the team, though.”

Martin may have thought he was helping the team by playing injured, but he was potentially doing the exact opposite. The old saying goes “Loose lips sink ships,” but when it comes to head injuries, it’s the sealed lips that hurt the most. No team will ever benefit from a player that is unable to get back onto the ice because of a devastating head injury. It looks like Martin got lucky because he doesn’t seem to have any long-term symptoms of his head shot.

It’s tough to say whether or not Martin will be in a Penguins sweater next season. Many people agree that he should be traded, but his high price tag will make it tough for Penguins GM Ray Shero to move him after the terrible season he had. Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in the AHL that could take Martin’s place next year, but if the Penguins can’t move him and are unwilling to eat the remainder of his contract, he may be on the blue line in Pittsburgh for another year. Ultimately, that will be what saves Martin from being traded, not his ill-advised effort to play through a head injury in the post season.

If Martin is a Penguin next season, I’ll expect him to be better on the ice.

But I’ll expect more from his decisions off of it.

Penguins Unexpected Playoff Exit Only Adds Drama

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, it still sounds awful and I’m still distraught about it.

I’ve been trying to find the positivity in a losing series in which the Pens gave up 11 power play goals and three shorties and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals with a 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage.

I found that, if nothing else, the Penguins’ hatred of the Flyers grew in those six games and so did mine. It may seem like a small positive – if a positive at all – but the intensity that rivalries inject into sports adds about as much drama as you can dream up.

That’s why we watch sports, after all. The drama of every shot, every hit and every swing of a bat, stick, racket or club can keep fans on the edge of their seats because of what is at stake. It’s supremely entertaining because sports is the ultimate reality show. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, the odds are pretty good that you can guess what may come next, but there is no sure thing in sports, as in life.

The Penguins’ postseason was a great example of that unpredictability. They went into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Stanley Cup. Sports Illustrated featured a cover line that read “Who will stop the Penguins?” on the NHL playoffs preview issue (pictured right).

Sidney Crosby was healthy again, Evgeni Malkin had won a scoring title and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing the way he did when he won the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh Tribune Review Pens beat writer Josh Yohe wrote a blog entitled “10 Reasons Penguins Can Win Stanley Cup” even before the Penguins really turned it on with Crosby’s return. But once the regular season ended, it all collapsed at the hands of the Penguins most hated rival.

This is a theme not uncommon to sports.

If you’re a Yankees fan, it was reasonable to guess that after Enter Sandman boomed from the loudspeakers, Mariano Rivera was going to jog out of the bullpen and sit down the next three batters to win a ball game.

Then without warning, Rivera slipped on the warning track while shagging fly balls and tore his ACL, leaving his career in jeopardy.

If you were a fan of the “old” Tiger Woods – which coincidentally was the young Tiger Woods – you could be almost certain that he was going to win a tournament if he went into the final day of a tournament at the top of the leader board.

But then Tiger got into a car accident, some strange events unfolded and now he hasn’t won a major or much else since.

It’s the drama of not knowing that drives a fan. It’s all about hope. It’s that hope for “the feeling” you get when your team wins at the risk of getting “that other feeling” when your team loses. I hoped the Pens would oust the Flyers from the playoffs. It didn’t happen. I hope the Steelers can make a decent run at a Super Bowl this year, but maybe they won’t. I’m willing to put in all the enthusiasm I can to root for my teams even though I’m risking major disappointment. I’ve bought into the risk vs. reward just like most fans out there.

So even though the Penguins lost to the Flyers, it only fueled my desire to see the black and gold take the ice next season and defeat the orange and black and hopefully the Penguins share my sentiments. I’ve accepted defeat and disappointment this season because I know a Cup might come next season in dramatic fashion. Flyers in 6 wasn’t the end of the world, it was just part of the evolution of the rivalry. Maybe Pittsburgh will face Philadelphia in the postseason next year and the rivalry will be even more intense. That’s what I’m hoping at least, because in sports, you never know and that’s what makes it great.

Mike Milbury “What a Child”

Mike Milbury has done it again.

And when I say “it” I mean he has again said something thoughtless, rash, hateful, hurtful and unintelligent regarding some aspect of the National Hockey League. This time it was about Sidney Crosby.

What a surprise.

Earlier today, Milbury joined 94WIP’s Angelo Cataldio and The Morning Team to discuss the Sunday’s Pens Flyers game that nearly resulted in Philadelphia’s head coach Peter Laviolette attacking Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato. Laviolette’s anger was brought about from a heavy hit on Flyers forward Danny Briere at the end of the game, which ultimately ended up injuring Briere’s back and resulted in a 10-player brawl.

Minutes before the hit and brawl, Pens captain Sidney Crosby was involved in an altercation with Brayden Schenn of the Flyers. Crosby gave Schenn a shot at the end of a play and then started off toward the Pens bench. Schenn followed from behind and crosschecked Crosby, knocking him to the ice. No penalties were assessed on the play.

Mike Milbury had plenty to say about both Crosby and the bench fight between Laviolette and Granato.

“It’s not totally uncommon,” Milbury said of Laviolette’s behavior at the end of the game. “I can remember being on such a perch, or at least trying to climb over the boards to get at somebody to make a point. And I thought Dan Bylsma should have taken off his skirt and gone over there.”

If that was ignorant and idiotic enough, Milbury added “Little goody two shoes (Crosby) goes into the corner and gives a shot to Schenn. Schenn was late to the party, he should have turned around and drilled him right away, but I guess better late than never,” Milbury said. “So you know, Crosby gets cross-checked, big whoop. He said after he came back from his 35th concussion, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to get into this scrums, I’m going to stay away from that stuff.’ He couldn’t help himself because there’s a little punk in Crosby. He’s not the perfect gentleman. He’s not the sweet kid you see in interviews with his hat pulled down over his eyes. I’d say screw him, hit him.”

Where do I begin?

First and foremost let’s review who Mike Milbury is. The best start is to Google his name. The first entry to come up is his Wikipedia page, as expected. But the next few go something like this “Mike Milbury charged with assault of child.”

Yes, if you didn’t know that already, Mike Milbury allegedly hit a 12 year old. “Brookline police Capt. Tom Keaveney said Milbury, an assistant coach on his son’s team, allegedly grabbed, threatened and shook the opposing player as the teams were shooting around following a Dec. 9 game at a town-owned rink.”

Fortunately for Milbury, there wasn’t enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

But regardless what happened in court, it’s clear that Milbury is a joke of a human being. He was a goon as a player, piling up penalty minutes and nothing else. Oh and he also ruined the New York Islanders as the GM before he “stepped down” from the position. That should be sufficient back ground for now.

It’s clear that Milbury has no idea what “restraint” is. He says that he remembers climbing up on a perch like Laviolette and trying to “get at somebody to make a point.”

Yeah, he should remember doing that, because once during a game he climbed over the glass and attacked a fan who hit one of his players with a rolled up program. That incident led to the NHL installing higher glass to prevent goonism from morons like Milbury spilling over into the crowd.

There is a link to a story and video from NESN below. You can see him in the top-left part of the video at the 36 second mark.

http://www.nesn.com/2009/12/thirty-year-anniversary-of-mike-milburys-shoe-incident-at-msg.html

This isn’t the school yard and you aren’t nine years old Mike. Attacking someone to prove a point? Apparently your parents taught you nothing and I hope you don’t teach the same to your children.

Telling Dan Bylsma to “take off his skirt” and physically engage with Laviolette is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard lately. Whatever the situation is, it is NEVER ok for a coach to get violent during a hockey game. Laviolette was fined $10,000 for standing up and yelling. Can you imagine what the NHL would have done if there was a physical confrontation? You’d be looking at suspensions at the most critical time of the year, heading into playoffs. That wouldn’t help anybody.

Milbury is entitled to his own opinion, however wrong I think it might be. But what he said about Crosby is unforgivable. “He said after he came back from his 35th concussion…”

Are you kidding me? Concussions and headshots are the biggest topics in hockey right now. With the changes to Rule 48 and Brendan Shanahan dealing out suspensions on video, it’s unfathomable to hear that someone as close to the NHL as Milbury can make light of Crosby’s situation. Crosby has done more for the game than Milbury ever has. He’s the face of the league and like him or not, he generates revenue and makes the game more interesting.

Sure, Crosby is not the perfect gentleman. He will never win the Lady Bing trophy. But it’s pretty hypocritical for Milbury to be at odds with a player that isn’t the perfect gentleman. Sure, Sid may jaw at the refs and opposing players, but he never assaulted a 12-year-old kid…(allegedly).

And it’s not like Sid doesn’t get hit. Other players will continue to target him because it’s hockey. Everyone gets hit. I didn’t take a whole lot of exception to Schenn crosschecking him because Crosby started it. He knows it and Schenn knows it. It wasn’t to the head and Sid probably bought it a little bit. It seemed to me like no harm, no foul.

But when your star player gets hit after the whistle, it’s the other players’ and coaches’ responsibility to deal with the situation. Bylsma sent out his fourth line –the checking line – to send a message that you can’t hit Crosby like that. It’s a team standing up for itself. The Flyers responded with the scrum after the hit to Briere. Again, that’s standard hockey. Hell, even Laviolette screaming at the Penguins’ bench was warranted, to a degree. He could have kept a little more control rather than climbing up on the boards, but it never got physical.

Mike Milbury doesn’t understand diplomacy and talking things out. He doesn’t believe in playing by the rules and he doesn’t believe in civilized society. He may continue to talk and voice his opinion, but if NBC knows what is best for the network, Milbury will be uttering the rest of his comments under his breath from the comfort of his home while collecting unemployment.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review Penguins reporter Josh Yohe said it best in his tweet this afternoon.

Josh Yohe ‏ @JoshYohe_Trib

“Milbury is entitled to his opinion, but the mocking of Crosby’s concussions is inexcusable and should cost him his job. What a child.”

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