Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Death of the BCS

We've hashed away at this for years.

For Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel, the subject was enough for him to turn into a book that -- dare I say -- helped spring everything that's happened as of late.

And, now, it's time to (finally) lay the BCS to rest.

A committee of university presidents approved a plan for a four-team playoff put forward by commissioners of the top football conferences.


Apparently not one to brag, Wetzel instead recognizes that this necessary step was simply a step and not anything remotely close to perfect. Witness, if you will, how the bowl people took the news.

So they wouldn't even give us a high school-style playoff. They pretended it would ruin the regular season (it won't), that it would curb bowl-game charitable donations (they actually give extremely little), that it would be an impediment to student-athletes' academic progress (everyone always laughed at that one).

They said a lot of things. Almost none of it was true.

In 2010, Rick Baker, president of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, said, "A playoff system would ruin the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic."

Tuesday, Rick Baker, president of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, said, "It's a great day for college football. We congratulate the conference commissioners and presidents for their diligent work to enhance the postseason."

It was all the ridiculousness, all the dishonesty, all the worst parts of college sports. And none of the good stuff, just one measly championship game, often with a disputed matchup, 40-something days after the season ended. 

Wetzel's column, by the way, is a must read. Just do it.

We talked about the BCS in November, when the flawed formula rendered every conference championship game totally meaningless. No matter what happened, LSU was going to play Alabama for the national title. There was nothing that could be done about it.

So much for preserving a meaningful regular season, right? The most important games of said regular season meant were worth less than this blog.

We're supposed to believe a four-team playoff will preserve the regular season in college football.


I'm glad we get to preserve quality non-conference competition like Florida Atlantic-Alabama, Jacksonville State-Arkansas, Bowling Green-Florida, Northern Iowa-Wisconsin, UAB-Ohio State, New Mexico-Texas, and so many others.

Yes, college basketball powerhouses play tomato cans once in a while. But as long as the system in college football lacks any sort of inclusion come postseason selection time, there is little incentive for powerhouses to take on serious challenges. Instead, Oklahoma will travel to UTEP and pat itself on the back for taking that road game.

In fact, if you look at Phil Steele's preseason top ten (Florida State, Oklahoma, LSU, USC, Alabama, Oregon, Texas, Georgia, Wisconsin, Florida), here are the true road games that are being played in non-conference action:

Florida State at South Florida
Oklahoma at UTEP
Texas at Mississippi
Wisconsin at Oregon State
Florida at Florida State

You'll count one -- ONE! -- head-to-head game among the ten teams. Obviously, there is some head-to-head from conference rivals in the group. However, Florida-Georgia and Oklahoma-Texas are at neutral sites, and LSU-Alabama only requires that the kickers show up for the game. LSU travels to Florida, but neither LSU nor Alabama have to play Georgia.

But look at the system in college football.

Lose a game, and you're out.

What's the incentive for anyone to schedule a real road game against a real opponent? Why bother?

Plus, if you're an elite program, why would you bring in an elite team for a game, when you can fill your stadium just as easily when you play a tomato can?

Until there is a system that allows teams to lose games -- one that actually encourages real non-conference scheduling -- we're left to dream.

Well, that and look at a schedule grid and pick out matchups that could be happening Sept. 1 if anyone had any guts.

(I already have done some work on this. How about we start with LSU-Oklahoma, Arkansas-Wisconsin, Florida-Texas, and Florida State-Stanford?)

It's a start, and we're all glad to see the BCS go. But college football still has some work ahead, as those with common sense try to cut through all the crap that's been left by those who lack it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Justin Schultz Gets His Choice

When Blake Wheeler bailed on the Phoenix Coyotes for the chance to become an unrestricted free agent, it was a rather surprising move. It was a rule people knew about, but not one a first-round pick and highly-touted prospect had used the way Wheeler did.

Wheeler has carved out a pretty good career for himself in the NHL, so it's hard to say things didn't work out for him. Phoenix has turned itself into a perennial playoff team, despite budget constraints and all the drama surrounding the franchise's future in Arizona. So, yeah, it's worked out for the Coyotes, too.

When Wisconsin lost to Denver in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in March, conventional wisdom was that defenseman Justin Schultz would sign with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him in 2008. That didn't happen, and it immediately started to look like Schultz was taking advantage of the same rule Wheeler did.

Per the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player who is drafted and then plays in junior for one season before going to college can exercise a rule in the agreement. That player has the right to withdraw from school after his junior year. After a 30-day window where the drafting team has exclusive negotiating rights, the player can become an unrestricted free agent, just like Wheeler did, and now how Schultz has done.

It's a rule that allows players who played junior hockey for a year before going to college to be treated the same as those who go straight to college. After four years have passed, a team has to make a decision ... if the player withdraws from school and forces the team to make that call.

Players who spend their four post-draft seasons in college have the same rights Schultz does. They can become free agents if they choose to not sign in the 30-day window.

It's a rule that not everyone understands (even after Wheeler signed with Boston, I didn't totally understand it), but it does make perfect sense if you think about it.

The only thing I don't like about it is entry-level players have more freedom than restricted free agents. I'm not sure I like the message that sends.

A restricted free agent who is extended a qualifying offer by his current team has virtually no freedom compared to what Schultz has now. That RFA can sign an offer sheet with a different team, but the current team has a right to match the offer and keep the player. In the case of Schultz, Anaheim has no right. The club offered Schultz the max, but obviously Schultz wants to play elsewhere.

Per the CBA, it's his right. That doesn't make it right.

It's something I'd like to see fixed in the upcoming negotiations, though I fully understand it isn't a priority for Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. Entry-level players should not have more rights when it comes to "picking" their NHL team than experienced free agents do.

As for the future, I've tweeted this before, but I'd be willing to bet Schultz ends up with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Buddy Jake Gardiner was traded there, and it seems the Leafs' move of Luke Schenn could have been made to open a spot among their top four defensemen for Schultz to fill.

Can Schultz step in and be a top four defenseman in the NHL? Well, he's as good as I've seen in college hockey over my seven years calling games there. He has puck-moving, skating, and hockey sense that can translate to any level, including the NHL. There's no reason he won't be very good, but there's obviously some risk when you're talking about a guy who played in the BCHL for juniors and then played three years in college.

I have no problem with Schultz taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him by the CBA. None whatsoever. Ducks fans probably disagree, but that's the nature of the beast. Their anger should be directed at the system that allows this. Some will be mad at GM Bob Murray for not making a deal for Schultz's negotiating rights during the 30-day window. I'm not sure what good that would have done, since a deal with the Maple Leafs seems like a foregone conclusion, to the point that I've heard the "T" word (tampering) thrown around.

In the end, it's unfortunate that the Ducks will lose a potentially great defenseman, but it's hard to look down on Schultz for doing what he thinks is best for him.

Monday, June 18, 2012

St. Scholastica and St. Norbert Join MCHA

Earlier this year, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association saw itself blown up. Five members -- all University of Wisconsin system schools -- pulled out of the league so the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference could start its own hockey league.

The move immediately cast doubt on the futures of two private schools -- St. Scholastica of Duluth and St. Norbert, near Green Bay -- in the league.

Now, those futures are more clear. Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press Gazette reported Monday morning that the two will join the Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association for men's hockey starting in the 2013-14 season.

Two local sources have since confirmed the report. A press conference is set for the St. Norbert campus on Tuesday afternoon to make the official announcement.

St. Norbert has won ten of the last 11 NCHA regular season championships, and the Green Knights are back-to-back NCAA Division III champions. SNC is unbeaten at 55-0-2 all-time against the current membership of the MCHA.

(That membership, by the way, is as follows: Adrian and Finlandia of Michigan; Concordia, Lawrence, Marian, Milwaukee School of Engineering, and Northland of Wisconsin; and Lake Forest of Illinois.)

The league has seen improvement in recent years, thanks in part to the addition of an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs for its tournament champion. Adrian was the NCAA runner-up in 2010, while MSOE made the tournament last year and was hardly embarrassed in its first-ever game, losing 3-1 at Gustavus Adolphus.

Obviously, the WIAC taking in CSS and St. Norbert would have been best from a competitive standpoint. I can't envision a scenario where the Green Knights don't dominate the MCHA, at least at the start. The majority of the league will have plenty of work to do to catch up to the level SNC is capable of playing.

This adds uncertainty on the WIAC side, as the league -- currently set to be comprised of UWS, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Stout -- is one team short of the minimum required for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. There had been rumblings the conference would pursue Concordia (located in Mequon) and MSOE to develop a Milwaukee footprint. Nothing has been announced in that regard, however.

Wild Plans For Duluth Exhibition Dropped Because of Lockout Concerns

The Minnesota Wild visited Duluth last fall for two training camp practices and team-building time. You might remember that goalie Josh Harding was injured during one of the team-building exercises, forcing Houston Aeros GM Jim Mill to don the goalie pads for the first practice at Amsoil Arena, as Aeros goalie Matt Hackett couldn't get to Duluth in time for it.

At the time, nothing but nice things could be heard from players and staff about their stay in northern Minnesota. They were very complimentary of everything, including the new facility they got to practice in.

It led to people asking if there was a future for the Wild in Duluth that could include a preseason game down the line. After all, the team didn't hold any public events while they visited in October. Maybe next time, right?

Well, "next time" was supposed to be "this fall." According to a source with knowledge of the plans, the Wild were scheduled to visit Amsoil Arena for one of their home preseason games in the fall of 2012. However, those plans were changed because of uncertainty regarding the possible NHL lockout.

The league's collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. The Wild announced their preseason schedule Monday, and that is slated to start ten days later. With such a small lag time between the expiration of the deal and the start of the preseason, the smartest of smart money is on the preseason not starting on time because of a lockout.

Per the source, plans were underway for the game, but those plans were derailed because of Wild management's concerns about the CBA and uncertainty associated with negotiations. Reading between the lines, it's clear that no one would have wanted a situation where tickets were sold and local residents excited over a game that had little chance of happening in the first place.

The Wild are still scheduled to visit Duluth June 25 as part of the annual Wells Fargo Wild Road Tour. Players Nate Prosser and Jason Zucker will be joined by radio broadcasters Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid for the event, which starts at 11:30am at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center.

Phil Housley Hire Stunner From USA Hockey

According to multiple reports, most notably a tweet from ESPN hockey guy (no, that's not an oxymoron) John Buccigross, former NHL defenseman Phil Housley will be named head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team Monday.

The team will compete in the IIHF World Junior Championships, which start the day after Christmas in Ufa, Russia.

USA Hockey supporters on Twitter aren't exactly loving this move, as it is quite the break from what has become the norm since a 2009 failure with National Team Development Program coach Ron Rolston coaching. In 2010, established college coach Dean Blais led the United States to a gold medal in Saskatoon. Yale's Keith Allain took the reins for a bronze medal in 2011. Last year's team, an experienced one coached again by Blais, disappointed greatly in finishing seventh.

Now, the powers-that-be at USA Hockey have chosen 2013, which should feature a very inexperienced United States team, to hire a coach with no head-coaching experience above the high school level.

Housley was a great defenseman, one of the best American-born players of all time. He's second in points among all U.S.-born players, trailing only Mike Modano. While Housley never won a Stanley Cup, he did win a gold medal with the 1996 U.S. team in the World Cup of Hockey. He was also on the silver-medal 2002 U.S. Olympic team.

(Wait. Did someone mention the 1996 World Cup of Hockey?)

Housley's coaching experience is more limited than anyone who has gotten this prestigious job in a long time. It makes him an easy target, especially after last winter's disappointment. His head coaching experience is limited to his time at Stillwater High School, where the Ponies have made zero state tournaments under Housley.

(To be fair, they have also made zero state tournaments with other coaches in their history.)

He's a name. USA Hockey loves names, and while I may disagree with the philosophy, it's clear that the governing body believes this is the best time to move away from established college coaches to run the junior team.

Perhaps running a high school program means Housley will have more time to spend focusing on picking a team and getting his players prepared for what lies ahead. There's no real way of knowing that.

I've suggested in the past that USA Hockey hire a full-time coach to run the junior program. That single voice would be charged with doing due diligence on players, especially those who have not been involved with the NTDP, as well as being the face of the junior team. No, Canada doesn't run things this way, but Canada's insane success from the U20 level up doesn't mean that Canada's way is the only way.

That said, my reaction is probably similar to most of you. After seeing established college coaches take this job more often than not in recent years, it's a rather surprising piece of news to see USA Hockey go with a high school coach.

Housley is no dummy, however. He played a lot of hockey, and he spent a lot of time in leadership roles on his various teams. He's coached junior hockey before, and now he coaches high school-age kids. Relating to players should be no issue for Housley.

I'd expect that his coaching staff will include at least one veteran amateur coach, preferably one with some experience coaching an international tournament like this.

A lot of people seem to hate this hire. I'll be honest and say that I don't like it a whole lot. There is pressure on this program to win now. It's not like the old days where a medal was cause for a parade. We've past that point. Two medals in a row -- bracketed by teams that everyone feels should have been better than they were -- is going to put that kind of heat on a team. This is not the time for an experiment, or a guess, especially with the number of inexperienced players who could end up on this World Junior team.

It's a tough spot for Housley. He'll be expected to work with a group that a highly-respected coach like Blais may have struggled to medal with.

In the end, we should all band together in wishing Housley the best. He needs the support of American hockey fans, not their catcalls.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

WCHA Makes Waves With Odd Playoff Idea

Normally, I'm all for thinking outside the proverbial box. To me, a sports league can make good things happen by trying it, no differently than a sports team can.

(Yes, some ideas -- the A-11 offense, for example -- are almost examples of trying too hard. But at least it's outside-the-box thinking.)

The remnants of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association met this week in Detroit, with plenty of items on the agenda. Due to be discussed were, among other things, a playoff format, tournament site, expansion plans, the regular season schedule format once the league goes to nine teams, and other stuff.

The league put out a press release after the meetings were concluded (no, the press release wasn't put out a month after the meeting, at least as far as we know).

While I tend to disagree with a 28-game schedule format after talking to a bunch of people about the issue in the last 14 months, I can live with it. The eloquent Chris Dilks provides probably the best argument in favor.

I'd rather watch two games against league rivals competing for points to win a league championship than watch two teams that play once a decade fighting it out for hundredths of a percentage point in some convoluted math formula for a spot in a comically short postseason tournament. Non-conference games are never as hard-fought and entertaining as conference games.

I still don't think I agree from a logistical, "How can we get more teams in the tournament?" sense. But Chris is right when he says non-conference games aren't normally as much fun for fans.

The really controversial part of the WCHA plan was revealed later in the week. And, boy, did Bruce McLeod and company hit a home run if they were trying to irk his league's fans.

For this, we'll call on Jack Hittinger of the .Bemidji Pioneer

Bemidji State athletic director Rick Goeb Thursday confirmed that all nine of the league’s teams would make the playoffs and that the regular-season champion would receive a bye into the Final Five.

That much could have been gleaned from the press release the league released Thursday afternoon.

What wasn’t on the press release, however, was the fact that the Alaska schools would be playing each other every year – regardless of league finish – unless one of them got that first-round bye.


Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman told my buddy Shane Frederick that "nothing is forever," and there are indications this plan is not at all a permanent solution.

We can only hope.

I'm not a financial expert, and I'm not one for telling other people how to spend their money. That said, if the decision has been made to maintain a hockey program and form this league, people need to understand that competitive equity matters. So does integrity.

And a nine-team league where the No. 6 team could get home ice advantage in the first round, while the No. 3 team is on the road ... well, that's not right. Or smart.

I certainly can understand the desire to save a chunk of money on plane tickets, but if money is that tight, the WCHA should stop looking at the XCel Energy Center for its postseason tournament. It's better off at campus sites until the league can gain some footing. It's the best way to sell tickets, right?

In all seriousness, cost-cutting is certainly key here, but the price being paid with this idea -- postseason tournament integrity -- is way too high.

I'm hopeful the league can work this out and create a situation where it can be financially viable and maintain a sort of competitive balance.

The other playoff proposal -- the top seed gets a bye to the WCHA Final Five -- is interesting. If I were a coach, I wouldn't be a huge fan of a weekend off before I play a Friday semifinal game that could decide my NCAA chances (I do believe there will be years where the WCHA is a one-bid league, and the top seed needs to win the tourney to secure its spot). Perhaps there's a way around it, like some sort of deal with the NTDP that allows the Under-18 team to play the league champion at least once on that off weekend?

(That's out of my mind, not anyone else's. I'd consider it if I were the WCHA, only because it would remove a bye week that could cause rust at a really bad time for rust. The bye week before the Frozen Four is different, because everyone has it.)

There's more to come. The WCHA is going to listen to Alabama-Huntsville, and with leagues now setting up at fewer than 12 teams, it'll be interesting to see if anyone outside the 58-school "fraternity" looks to add Division I hockey.

The WCHA could easily alleviate some cost concerns if someone in the upper Midwest adds the sport, because the more teams in the WCHA, the fewer that have to travel to Alaska twice a season. That would help reduce some cost. UAH could help, too, thanks to speculation it would help subsidize travel for the seven teams that would head to Huntsville during the season.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

North Dakota Ready to Move On From Fighting Sioux Nickname

When North Dakota's men's hockey team was preparing for a February visit to Duluth, the team was without a nickname. The "Fighting Sioux" moniker was dropped as of Jan. 1, and the school was planning to go sans nickname for a couple years.

Then a group of petitioners in the state decided to intervene. A successful drive led to enough signatures to trigger a statewide referendum on the nickname. Yes, a statewide vote on the status of a school's nickname.

The school and its alumni association -- which had fought the NCAA "hostile and abusive" bit for years -- suddenly were on the other side of the fence. Led by an emotional men's hockey coach Dave Hakstol, one of the champions of the fight, the school began an initiative to convince voters to allow it to drop the name.

The work was a success.

Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly decided to allow the school to drop the nickname. The guy who started the petition drive isn't ready to let a 2-1 majority stand in the way of what he thinks is right.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Sean Johnson, Bismarck, spokesman for the group that sought Tuesday’s statewide referendum on the nickname.

He blamed “a lot of false fears generated by the foundation,” a reference to the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, which took the lead in encouraging a vote to allow UND to retire the nickname. Keeping it, the alumni groups and others said, could severely damage UND because of NCAA sanctions.

The alumni groups spent about $250,000 on the campaign, mostly on TV advertising. “When your opposition out-spends you 25-1, they’d better fire their ad company if they don’t win,” Johnson said.

He said nickname supporters will continue to circulate petitions for another vote, an initiated measure that would secure the nickname in the state Constitution. If enough signatures are filed by August, that vote could occur in November, but Johnson said the group may wait to file until December for a vote on the constitutional amendment in 2014.


Meanwhile, the Grand Forks Herald story linked above indicates that there are some members of the Standing Rock Sioux who want the tribal council to vote on the nickname. A vote in the affirmative by this tribe could have prevented any of this from happening in the first place, but the tribe has yet to vote.

No matter what, it's time to move on. It's been a controversial and very divisive issue in North Dakota, as well as among alumni of the school.

The nickname has already cost North Dakota several competitive opportunities, including a track meet at Iowa that the school had been invited to before the petition drive forced it to reinstate the Sioux nickname. The alumni association's campaign centered around opportunities like this that were going to disappear if the nickname wasn't discontinued. Those opportunities largely involved sports that aren't hockey, as the UND hockey teams don't tend to have any scheduling or conference issues.

Longtime readers and listeners will know where I have stood on this issue. But when the nickname was restored in February, it was clear that more harm than good would come from its continued use. The fact that people like Johnson don't seem to understand that these are real impacts on real student athletes -- even if they don't directly involve hockey -- make me think that this petition drive was the work of either an attention-grabbing or exceptionally misguided individual.

The day that this nickname started having a profoundly negative impact on the student athlete experience at North Dakota was the day that this fight had gone on long enough.

That day has come and gone.

UPDATE: Via Jen Conway (@NHLhistorygirl on Twitter), here's a statement from UND President Robert Kelley:

We are appreciative that voters took the time to listen and to understand the issues and the importance of allowing the University to move forward.  We also understand how deeply this has affected all of us.

Tuesday's vote allows us to focus our attention on our students as we continue to build exceptional programs in all areas of the University.  We appreciate the support that has been expressed for the University of North Dakota over the past several weeks, and especially for UND Athletics.  It is support that will continue to be important as we build a great future for the University and for UND Athletics.

We will continue to work with the State Board of Higher Education, the North Dakota University System, and the leadership in athletics as we move forward.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Random Rabble: June 11

I'm not a boxing expert. I don't watch a lot of big-time fights, largely because they're on pay-per-view, and I refuse to pay $64.95 to watch a star fight a guy I've never heard of.

When I heard Manny Pacquiao was fighting something called Timothy Bradley, Jr., Saturday, and it was nearly $70 to buy the fight, I didn't do any further investigating into the event. I hadn't heard of Bradley, and even if I had, I doubt I would have bought it.

Naturally, Bradley won. Naturally, it was a split decision. Naturally, the internet blew up.

Want an informed opinion on the bit? Find someone who saw it and knows how to break down what they saw. I'm not that guy. I just think the whole thing is interesting.

Even though I have no idea if Pacquiao was screwed over in this fight, I do know one thing. Promoter Bob Arum would be well-served to close his yapper. He immediately started talking about a rematch in early November, and since he promotes both fighters, it's safe to say he will be making a few dimes on that event.

Again, I did not see the fight, but to me, any conspiracy talk starts with the guy who stands the most to gain from a rematch. That's not Pacquiao. It's Arum. If he's wise, he stops talking about it, even though he's said he wants an investigation. It doesn't help, because the dollars still all point in his direction.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference will announce Monday that its first postseason tournament will be held at Target Center in Minneapolis. The announcement has been expected for some time, as Target Center has been linked to the NCHC for a while, even going back to before the Big Ten officially announced that its tournament would rotate between the XCel Energy Center (St. Paul) and Joe Louis Arena (Detroit). It's not a surprise.

Many fans have been disappointed by the talk, and they won't be happy with the news of this deal being official. However, the NCHC's decision makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is one of the easier ones to fly into for out-of-town fans, especially those of Denver and Colorado College. UMD, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, and even Nebraska Omaha are a pretty easy drive away from the Cities, plus the schools all have plenty of alumni in the area.

Not only that, but the NCHC will probably be more capable of attracting corporate sponsors to an event in the Twin Cities than it would to one that rotated among campus sites or went to a smaller venue in a smaller city.

I am not a Target Center fan, but there are renovations coming. I don't know the specifics, but they can't hurt. The building needs to be spruced up.

The WCHA Final Five has been a cash cow for the league since its inception, but the league has missed out badly, as evidenced by the fact that the event hasn't sold out a game since 2008. The NCHC now is charged with filling more seats in a building no one associates with hockey. It could be a tough sell, but the new league has to hope it can do a better job than the old league -- the one six of the NCHC's eight teams left to start this new endeavor -- did.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Kevin Durant Is Becoming What LeBron James Can't Be

I don't watch much NBA basketball, but after the New Jersey Devils found a way to stay alive in the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday, I flipped over to TNT and caught the last 14 minutes or so of the San Antonio Spurs' season.

This didn't seem to be a likely scenario as the hockey game was playing out. The Spurs led by 15 points early in the game, saw it peak at 18 in the second quarter, and took a 15-point lead into recess. As the hockey game played to its conclusion, the Thunder were staging a stirring comeback.

Along the way to a 107-99 win, Kevin Durant may have become the kind of team-leading star that LeBron James was supposed to be. He played all 48 minutes, scored 34 points, pulled down some huge rebounds, had the pass that led to Kendrick Perkins' monstrous and dagger-licious dunk in the final 30 seconds, and even drew a Manu Ginobili charge in the fourth quarter.

The difference between the snippets of the first half I got to see and the fourth quarter? Oklahoma City turned on the defensive energy in the second half. The Spurs had too many open looks in the first half, and while they might be old, they have plenty of guys who can hit big shots when you leave them open.

In the second half, the Thunder -- led by Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- were all over the place defensively, contesting every pass, drive, and shot. It was an impressive display for a young team, one that people assumed would crumble early in this series.

Instead, the Spurs crumbled. The team with a 20-game winning streak (going back to the regular season) didn't have a chance in the second half of this game, much like it didn't have a chance in Game 3, and much like how it looked inferior for most of Game 5.

Durant and the Thunder earned this. In doing so, Durant may have propelled himself past James in the pantheon of present-day NBA greats. James gets all the publicity -- good and bad -- because of the star power he's possessed since he was in high school. Durant wasn't the top pick in his draft (Greg Oden), he has played in two middle-road markets (Seattle and then Oklahoma City), and at no point has he gotten the deserved publicity because of 1) the market he plays in; 2) the power of guys he's in the league with right now; and 3) the fact he hasn't won a title.

(I know James hasn't won a title, but he's got a running buddy who has in Dwyane Wade, and he has been the alpha dog in this sport since he was 17. Durant can't claim those things. His experienced running buddy is Derek Fisher, a guy who generally goes about his business the right way and doesn't draw attention to himself by wearing asinine clothes after crushing playoff losses.)

James hasn't been a favorite of mine since the whole "Decision" debacling, so it was awesome to see Durant step up in the fourth quarter Wednesday -- at both ends of the floor -- and take a leading role in his team's defining moment.

Well, defining moment for now. There is more business to come for the Thunder.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Hockey Rabble: June 5

I want to send sympathies to the family and friends of Dick Stewart. The longtime Duluth hockey supporter died Monday night at the age of 92, just nine days after he lost his wife of 63 years, Maxine. Stewart was a fixture at UMD hockey games, listening on the radio after his eyes failed him, but rarely missing a game. It became a tradition for the UMD students to chant his name as he waved his trademark winsock during a break in game action. UMD players, boosters, and fans will all miss Stewart's presence, and his loss is a huge one for the Duluth hockey community. Services are pending.

Buddy Chris Dilks of Western College Hockey scoops that Hill-Murray forward Charlie Sampair has committed to play college hockey at UMD. Sampair had 30 goals as a senior for the Pioneers as they finished second at the state tournament. Sampair was drafted into the USHL by the Indiana Ice, but it's expected he will play for UMD in the 2012-13 season.

The Stanley Cup Final is going to end on cable Wednesday, when the Los Angeles Kings finish off a sweep of the New Jersey Devils. I'm not complaining about the sweep, because it's the first Cup Final sweep since Detroit beat Washington with relative ease in 1998. It's the first time since 2007 the series has failed to go at least six games. However, the fact that the NHL cut a television deal with NBC that allows its signature event to end on a cable network that doesn't have great reach is a loss for hockey fans. You don't see World Series games on TBS. The NBA Finals don't air on ESPN or TNT. What American pro sports championships are decided on cable? MLS, the WNBA, Major League Lacrosse, etc. Nice company, NHL.

(I get the NBC Sports Network idea here. Obviously, it's a huge get for a growing network. I don't doubt that, and in most years, this won't be an issue at all. However, this is one of those years where it looks like a potential problem. I want NBCSN to grow as much as anyone -- ESPN badly needs someone who can compete for eyeballs and rights packages to slow their monopoly on things -- but I don't believe putting Stanley Cup Final games there is the right way to get that growth.)

That said, there aren't enough words to describe what the Kings did to the Devils on Monday. Holy smokes. Liam McHugh called it a "soul-crushing" defeat on the postgame show, and that's about as good as I can do. I don't Jersey is at all a threat to win four straight, but it will be interesting to see if the Devils can put together a good performance Wednesday.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Nicklas Lidstrom's Timing Off?

Much has been made of last week's retirement announcement by Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom.

(I wrote two pieces for SB Nation regarding Lidstrom's decision. This one talks about Lidstrom's greatness, both on and off the ice. After I took a shower, I wrote this one, which contains lots of speculation about how it could affect the free agent status of Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, who could cash in big-time come early July.)

The announcement came Thursday, one day after the Stanley Cup Final opened up in New Jersey. The fact that there was an extra day off between games may have been part of the timing, but there has been criticism out there of Lidstrom making the announcement after the series started.

Puck Daddy's Ryan Lambert wrote Monday about his issues with Lidstrom's timing.

(The) decision to announce that he would call it a career on a day between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final was a serious misstep for him and his franchise.

Let's say this was any player in the sport today besides Lidstrom, who chose to reveal they were retiring in the middle of the Cup Final. Now, granted, it wouldn't have had nearly as big of an impact because, let's face it, no one in hockey today is Nick Lidstrom. But for another, he would have been excoriated by the media, and rightly so.

(A few years back, Alex Rodriguez announced that he would be opting out of his contract with the Yankees in the middle of the World Series, and got torched for it.)

This is the type of thing that only serves to distract from what is, and should be, the greatest two weeks of the NHL season.

I saw somewhere that Lidstrom apparently arrived at his decision to retire a week ago, which leads one to wonder, "Why wait until now, when Game 1 of as many as seven is in the books?" There's not really a good answer to that. For all the Red Wings organization are famed for having, this strikes as remarkably tonedeaf, especially considering the stink a team like Detroit would kick up if someone did it to them. Remember, this is a franchise that tried to get the entire League re-aligned and playoff system revamped because it didn't like its current travel schedule. If the decision was made a week ago, then hold the presser in the days leading up to Game 1; or, better yet, hold it after. It would have no bearing on the Red Wings' offseason plans, especially if they knew internally how to proceed.

(To be fair here, Lambert is a known hater of the Red Wings, but the thoughts in this piece are incredibly rational and don't seem to be about tweaking the incredibly sensitive sector of Red Wings fans.)

It's not a huge deal in my view, but Lambert is correct. A quick Google search finds that people were pissed off that Rodriguez opted out of his Yankees contract and announced his decision during the World Series. Generally, baseball teams are discouraged from making major announcements during the World Series. The Yankees sought permission to name a new manager during the 2007 World Series.

There is no rule in the NHL on such a thing, nor should there be. But there should be a sort of professional courtesy. No offense to his family, but if a guy like Greg Zanon wants to retire and announce it during the Stanley Cup Final, it's fine. Greg Zanon's retirement has no chance of upstaging the sport's most important event.

Nicklas Lidstrom's does, and everyone involved -- Lidstrom, his agent, and the Red Wings -- should have known that going in. No amount of attention rightfully heaped on Lidstrom last week should have been a surprise to anyone.

That's the most disappointing thing about it. The Red Wings should have seen this coming, and encouraged him to announce it either the weekend before the Final or in the days after it ended.

For perhaps the first time in his storied hockey career, Lidstrom's timing was off. Because he had built up so much positive equity during his time in the sport, no one is going to rip him for it like Rodriguez got ripped in 2007. But Lambert is right to call him and the team on it, and hopefully it's a lesson for everyone in the game to think twice before putting themselves ahead of a major hockey event.

(I'm looking at you, Tim Thomas. Now would be a good time to slump down in the back seat of that lady's cab again. You've done the game wrong. Again.)