On Gordie Howe

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It didn’t hit me that Gordie Howe was gone until the first intermission of Sunday night’s Stanley Cup Final game in San Jose, Calif., when SAP Arena, the NHL, the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins honored his life.

Howe’s monumental legacy may never be matched – maybe only by Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, or maybe Sidney Crosby. And it’s difficult to put into words exactly what his legacy truly is, when you’ve never witnessed it in its prime.

But I got a glimpse of the greatness of Gordie Howe in March, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, when I was assigned to cover the Detroit Red Wings’ birthday tribute to the NHL Hall of Famer.

What struck me was how everyone simply stopped to watch Howe get ushered through the corridor of Joe Louis Arena on a golf cart. It was like a royal procession. Even players from the Buffalo Sabres stopped kicking a soccer ball or hopped off an exercise bike to stand at attention for one of the NHL’s giants.

Howe, however, was frail. The look in his eyes was distant. Even surrounded by his family, he needed help walking through the doors and hallways at Joe Louis. When he was shown on the big screen inside Joe Louis Arena, his son Mark held up his hand, as a means for Howe to acknowledge the crowd.

Tears streamed down peoples’ faces when 18,000 people sang “Happy Birthday” with Karen Newman, the Detroit Red Wings’ anthem singer. The crowd roared. The Red Wings presented Howe with a gorgeous birthday cake for his 88th birthday.

Yet there was something off-center about it. It wasn’t a joyous occasion.

As I watched Howe that night, I felt his greatness, but I also felt pity. A titan of the sport was in the twilight of his life.

While everyone gave him the berth of respect, one that comes with being an idol, a legend, a transcendent superstar, did he have any real idea where he was or what he was doing that night? Or, would all the love and the good vibes in the building would somehow sustain him for a little bit longer?

I drove back to Toledo that night with an empty feeling. Glad I finally got to be in the presence of the great Gordie Howe, but wondering where the vitality was, where the joy was that was in so many photos and videos and what I had been told by people, the memories of the times they watched or met Howe. Rach, I told myself. Let’s be real here. He’s 88 years old, he suffered a stroke, he has dementia. He may not have a lot of time left.  

Gordie Howe died on Friday, June 10. In the fall of 2014, my editors told me to begin writing an obituary for him, after he had suffered a stroke.

That obituary sat for 19 months in my file, and while you think you may never have to use it, when you dust off that file and begin line-editing it and updating it for timeliness and plugging in all the information … you just wonder if you fulfill the respect it deserves, and if it will attempt to do it any sort of justice to a person’s rich life.

 

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On Kevin Stevens

So I’m sad today. The Boston Globe reported this morning that former NHLer Kevin Stevens is being held on federal drug charges and will be arraigned Tuesday in Massachusetts.  He’s charged along with another man with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute oxycodone, and is in federal detention.

Kevin Stevens was one of the players on the Pittsburgh Penguins whom I grew up watching. He was the gregarious Bostonian who probably threw the best parties of anyone on your block or in your college dorm, or the guy who lived next door to you and always offered you a beer after a hot afternoon of mowing the lawn and kept you laughing into the night … and a super-talented hockey player – a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a U.S. Olympian, an NHL All-Star. kevinstevens

I’m not sad because of Kevin Stevens’ legal troubles – I’m sad after considering what brought it to this point, that Kevin Stevens probably could never get control of himself. I’m sad because I will never forget his arrest in 2000 for soliciting a prostitute and possessing drug paraphernalia – crack cocaine was found on the scene.

I’m sad because I will never forget when I met him in 2009 while covering the American Hockey League, I remember him as engaging and super-funny, and I appreciated that whenever he saw me, he took the time to talk to me. But I also remember thinking, “don’t kid yourself, this guy has a lot of problems.”

And I think back to the moment it all likely changed for Kevin Stevens, when he was injured in the 1993 playoffs – when his head hit the ice after a check on New York Islander Rich Pilon, and when he came up, half of his face was caved in. He needed major reconstructive surgery, had five metal plates put in his face and had bone fragments removed.

I put that injury to Stevens up there in gruesomeness – and potential psychological after-effects – with the injury Clint Malarchuk sustained in 1989, when his neck was sliced open by a skate blade.

Clint Malarchuk admits he never got the psychological help he needed – likely to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. And with that in mind, it begs a question: Did Kevin Stevens ever get the help he needed after that injury, or did he take the “I’ll be fine” attitude?

Or, in that era of the NHL, the early 1990s, was the help even there?

Earlier this year, CTV’s Rick Westhead did a great, insightful, saddening piece on the long-term effects of concussions on retired NHL players – in particular, Mike Peluso.

From the CTV piece:

Did team doctors put the financial interests of their employers ahead of the health concerns of players? And did NHL executives put their collective heads in the sand when it came to learning more about the dangers of repeated head trauma, and about possible rule changes that might have better protected players, even if it meant popular tough guys were sidelined longer between fights?

Watching it made me consider the era of the NHL that I grew up watching, a 10-year span that began in 1988, and what players went through – and how they were (or weren’t) helped afterwards. They were almost chattel, commodities that could be bought and traded and dumped.

And because so many of them loved the game, or needed to pay bills, they kept going.

And now, we’re starting to see the long-term effects these injuries had on the players. More importantly, on the people these players had to be once they stepped off the ice for good. It’s hard to say for certain whether or not Kevin Stevens’ latest legal issue is a result of that, but it’s not hard to wonder if it contributed to it.

I hope Kevin Stevens gets the help he needs.

Now, everybody’s watching the Chicago Blackhawks

Updated: Give Andrew Shaw credit for taking ownership of what was an ugly situation:

***

“I’m so glad the Chicago Blackhawks are a tolerant organization…”

Said no one, ever.

After Tuesday night, that divide only deepens. It’s now been proven that the Blackhawks espouse misogyny (Garret Ross), sexual deviance (Patrick Kane) and now, homophobia.

The whole English-speaking world saw what Andrew Shaw said in the late moments of Chicago’s 4-3 loss to St. Louis in a Western Conference quarterfinal series.

I’m not going to repeat it, but Google it yourself (or click here) and make up your own mind as to whether or not he used a homophobic slur.

Shaw said he didn’t remember what he said.

That’s an overused defense. I usually say that when I’m lying.

In an ideal world … Andrew Shaw could go against the grain of his organization. In an ideal world, he makes a public apology, admits what he says was wrong and insensitive, and inappropriate, ‎and vows to educate himself on societal issues facing the LGBT community.

But wait, this is the Blackhawks. That probably won’t happen.

This is an organization that employs Patrick Kane.

And – it might just be a case of awful timing – an organization that gave away aprons the same week it was announced Ross, a minor-league player in Chicago’s farm system,  was being charged with revenge porn, a charge later dropped on a technicality.

Bad timing, bad connotation.

It’s fair to ask, is the Blackhawks management doing anything to educate its players and employees about societal issues?

On a macro level in sports … is anyone doing anything in any organization?

***

Watching Andrew Shaw yell whatever it was he did (and we have a pretty good idea of what he said), made me think of a similar talk I had a few years ago with a college hockey player, who now plays professionally. It came in light of another incident in which a professional athlete used a homophobic slur.

“Do you ever say that on the ice?” I asked him.

He sighed. “Sometimes, yeah.”

“Do you ever think about what you say?”

Some things, he said – almost in a defensive, yet resigned tone – come in the heat of the game.

I wasn’t going to take that for an answer.

“Well, think about it next time.” Then, I laughed, and offered him some vulgar advice. “It’s okay to say someone’s a ‘f#%&er’ … but it’s not okay to say what that guy said last night.”

We laughed – I think he was a little surprised that, being a woman, I said such a dark word. I was comfortable with cussing around him, but I hope I helped Will think a little differently after that conversation.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I did.

***

Let’s be real: it’s 2016, but sports are not a kind, welcoming or tolerant environment, despite the advances that have been made for inclusion. This, many still believe, is a man’s domain.

Want to see a gender gap? Want to see a hostile realm? Turn on or buy a ticket to a major-league sporting event, and count the number of women you see and find out what their role is in the game.

It might make me a hypocrite that I give my money to professional sports teams, or that I cover sports for a living, but that’s also something we as a society have to do – hold the people we cover and financially support to a certain standard.

And we’re discussing a realm in which people attempt to justify what some people believe is inherent and acceptable in sports – such as homophobic/misogynistic/racist/sexist/deviant behavior – by saying, “Oh, it’s just part of the culture.”

No, it’s not acceptable.

Do you discriminate or lampoon others in everyday life because of their race? Because of their gender? Because of their ethnic background?

It shouldn’t be done in a confined space such as an ice rink or a football field, either. Because, as Andrew Shaw and the Blackhawks are finding out, all of us are watching.

 

Steers get branded, you know.

“Getting hacked” is the new way of saying “I really messed up.” At least when it involves the Twittersphere. Tyler Seguin used it as an excuse when a post appeared on his Twitter account Saturday night.

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(h/t CBSSports.com Eye on Hockey)

Now only Seguin knows whether or not he wrote what was posted on Twitter. But from this point on, “Seguin” could likely be linked to “homophobia” – this is the second tweet of his since April that’s included an anti-gay reference. Even though Patrick Burke of You Can Play basically gave Seguin a pass this time around, Seguin might as well be branded at this point – isn’t that a Texas tradition when it comes to steers?

Language? Please. The transgression prompted Seguin to censure himself – and suspend his account. And now, Jim Nill has questions about his latest acquisition.

“My problem with social media is you just don’t know how much of it is true,” the Stars general manager told the Dallas Morning News. “I think, as a society, we are trained to believe 100 percent of it is true, and that’s obviously not the case. It’s difficult to validate how things might happen, whether someone was truly hacked, or just what might have happened. I can’t go off hearsay, I need to ask questions.”

The Dallas Stars did damage control, too, posting a three-tweet disclaimer in response to post on Seguin’s account on @dallasstars. (Not saying Seguin did it, though the post did end up on his Twitter account.)

Still, it would behoove the organization to bring in the good folks from Burke’s You Can Play initiative, which aims to fight homophobia in hockey. One bad apple …

Tyler Seguin, I know you’re 21 years old. I know you run with other 21-year-olds. Maybe a few 19- and 20-year-olds, too. And I get that 21-year-olds make stupid decisions. Many of us were 21 once, too. Yet as a 21-year-old athlete who makes millions of dollars, you’re held to a different standard.

But even if you didn’t do it, don’t leave your phone sitting around. Or, if you’ve had one too many, don’t TWI – tweet while intoxicated. Things happen.

Haven’t you ever heard of screengrabs? And were you even born when the movie your Twitter account referenced was released?

Another reason why they probably hate the media …

Columbus Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel was pissed that he lost. Again. This time, as a result of a 4-on-4 goal.

Then, he got even more pissed that someone reminded him – with empirical evidence handy – of how his team lost before he could remind himself of it. In response, he walked away from the podium during the post-game press conference.

They probably hate the media because they think members of the media think they have all the answers.

From BlueJacketsXtra.com:

After the game, Blue Jackets coach Arniel acknowledged the 4-on-4 goals hurt, but seemed unaware of his team’s poor record in such situations.
“Have you noticed that we’ve been beaten up 4 on 4, goals against?” Arniel asked in response to a reporter’s question. “I don’t think so. I’ll go and show you the stats on that. That hasn’t been a problem for us. It was tonight.”
When a reporter pointed out that the Blue Jackets have been outscored 8-1 in 4-on-4 situations, Arniel said “Is that what it is? Oh, OK. I guess you guys have all the answers and you’re just waiting to jump. I guess we’ll have to work on that.”


On Jagr-gate, or why my inner teenager is so conflicted

My father offered me some unsolicited advice in the days before I left to go to college in Pittsburgh:

“If you’re going to date anyone, make sure it’s Jaromir Jagr.”

Truthfully, I had no chance.

But the exchange – now more than 15 years old – was indicative of where Jagr, then a cult hero/NHL All-Star/rock star/hairstyle-challenged/teenage dream stood in the eyes of Pittsburgh sports fans – and of hopeful father-in-laws.

Hence, Jagrmania. Twenty years ago, girls loved Jaromir Jagr. Mothers hated him. Guys wanted to be like him, probably because they envied him. Kit Kat candy bars, Ed Belfour and traffic cops were afraid of him.

But did Pittsburgh fans ever imagine this day?

Jagr returns to Pittsburgh tonight – as a Philadelphia Flyer.

As a hockey fan, do you appreciate what Jagr has accomplished during his time in the game?

As a member of a capitalist society, do you commend Jagr for taking the best paycheck in exchange for the best opportunity to showcase his hockey wares?

As a Penguins fan, are you supposed to hate Jagr for such an act of treason? For choosing Philadelphia over Pittsburgh?

It creates some cognitive dissonance. Especially considering that most of my teenage years were spent watching Jagr work his on-ice (and sometimes off-ice) magic with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, I was one of those big-haired screaming teenage girls in the stands at the Civic Arena in the early 1990s. Those were the halcyon days …

These days, I don’t know if I’d be screaming for Jagr. Or if I’d be screaming at him. Because as I look back at his time with the Penguins, and then courting the Penguins, I’m conflicted. So is my inner teenager. It’s like coming to terms with the old boyfriend who jilted you, then who unexpectedly sent you a friend request on Facebook 15 years later, when you thought he’d been thoroughly purged from your memory. But he wasn’t. And his wife was kind of hot.

*sigh*

Jagrmania, it was.

In 1990, the Penguins drafted Jagr out of the Czech Republic. He went from an 18-year-old who spoke little to no English in his first season to a perennial All-Star, a Stanley Cup champion and a western Pennsylvania heartthrob. Oh, and if you rearranged the letters of his first name, it spelled “MARIO JR.” Some believed he was poised to be the franchise after Mario Lemieux’s premature retirement in 1997.

Yes, that's my 1990-1991 Penguins media guide.

But it didn’t work out that way, as he was shipped off to Washington in the summer of 2001, only a few months after the infamous “dying alive” statement.

Still, the love reappeared, nearly nine years later. Jagrmania was back in full tilt in February of 2010 when Jagr returned to North America with the Czech hockey team for the Winter Olympics. Then, it was revived this summer when Jagr openly expressed interest in returning to the NHL after playing three seasons with Avangard Omsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. It seemed like all of hockey was on watch after Jagr announced his intentions to come back to North America.

Seen in Toronto ...

One of those destinations? Pittsburgh.

And Penguins fans, despite the franchise’s embarrassment of riches, were ready to welcome Jagr back, despite the thorny parting of ways nearly 10 years ago. The thought of Jagr returning to Pittsburgh didn’t just bring about Jagrmania. It brought about full-tilt Jagr Madness.

He thought about Detroit. Considered Montreal. Played the dating game with Pittsburgh … and Jagr decided to go to Philadelphia. Was this right? Was this fair? Was this karma?

***

Jagr returns to Pittsburgh tonight for the first time since the 2007-2008 playoffs, and he met with the media this morning in Pittsburgh, prior to tonight’s Flyers-Penguins game at CONSOL Energy Center.

A sampling of what he said:

From the Philadelphia Inquirer (and when you watch this video, make sure the “Rocky” song is playing in the background):

Jaromir Jagr was not himself Wednesday. The usually gregarious Flyers winger, who won five scoring titles with the Penguins, was mostly agitated during a news conference. He admitted on Thursday that he was upset with how the Pittsburgh media has portrayed him.

“Maybe I overreacted. I’m just not happy with some of the media here,” he said after Thursday’s morning skate. “They make up everything. That was the problem. That’s when they start everything, and it’s tough to control.

“It’s bothered me for a long time, and I was a little bit mad about it yesterday,” he added. “It’s not going to help me, but at least” he relieved his frustration.

Among the things that apparently bothered Jagr were reports that he had agreed to return to Pittsburgh before signing with the Flyers.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Q: Did the Penguins say anything to you or [your agent] Petr Svoboda when they made the offer about what kind of role you would play?

A: Nobody will tell you how they want to use you. That’s one thing. But you can sometimes read between the lines. I’ve got nothing against [Penguins winger Tyler] Kennedy [who was a restricted free agent last summer] or guys like that, but if somebody tells you, ‘Well, we have to wait for Kennedy,’ and he was playing on the third line, well, where am I going to play if you wait for Kennedy before you sign me? I was reading between the lines. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right. Nobody’s going to know. Bottom line, I am here, you guys are over there. I’m going to come to the game. Everybody’s going to hate me. And I still have to play. OK? Good luck to everybody. See you next time.

“Hate” is a very strong word. Maybe “pariah” is more fitting. Or “persona non grata.”

Despite the money, the fame, the supposed hate … is there some small part of Jaromir Jagr that’s a bit conflicted about tonight?

If so, my inner teenager, swathed in a mustard yellow-and-black jersey, can relate.

Beware of flying inanimate objects

Look out above! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No … it’s a duck. Not that kind of (Anaheim) Duck.

During last night’s Anaheim-San Jose game at HP Pavilion, someone launched a duck. A goose. A honker.

There’s video, courtesy of our friends at Puck Daddy, and there’s a photo of a linesman unceremoniously taking the posthumous goose off the ice.

The tradition of projectiles is nothing new in the NHL. In fact, it’s generally condoned, despite the fact that many facilities and the NHL repeatedly state a rule that throwing things on the ice during a game is prohibited.

Last spring, the NHL issued a crackdown on Detroit’s octopus toss.

That crackdown came a year after a fan tossed a baby shark – with an octopus stuffed in its mouth – onto the ice at HP Pavilion. “It was done for fun,” the fan told a Northern California television station.

In Philadelphia, a fan once threw a smoke bomb to the ice after a goal was waved off.

And didn’t fans throw rats onto the ice in Florida more than 15 years ago? The Miami Herald reported earlier this month that with the Panthers’ resurgence, the rats may return to their 1996 glory.

Some players even attempt to get in touch with their inner Nolan Ryan … or their inner Steve Blass.

(Nice frosted tips, JR)

Maybe the Teddy Bear Toss is a little safer?

Yet this ongoing phenomenon could be worse.

What did Bob Froese say after a night in which fans at Madison Square Garden threw plastic beer mugs onto the ice?

“I’m just glad it wasn’t Machete Night.”