Friday, May 29, 2009

Confession Time

Thursday morning. 3:45 am.

My news anchor, Brad, enters the newsroom. Usually, he says “Good Morning.” Not this time. He strides up to me and says loudly, “Rematch!” Brad’s from Detroit and a rabid Red Wings fan. I am a rabid Pittsburgh Penguins fan. I hold up my hand for a high five and he slaps it. “Let’s have a great series!” we agree, and he continues to his desk as I turn my attention back to proofreading scripts for the newscast.

But as I sat there, I felt a little guilty. I just identified myself as a “rabid” Penguins fan. But I have a confession to make. Several short months ago, I wasn’t so rabid. In fact, I doubted very much that the Pens would even have an outside shot at the post season. They were in 10th place. They weren’t gelling as a team. The lines seemed out of sync. Even pairing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together didn’t really yield the results everyone hoped they would. Okay, so Malkin and Crosby were the scoring leaders for most of the season. But that exalted statistic didn’t do much for the team itself. They would win one, lose 3. Win 2, lose 4. They’d win 6-0, then lose by the same margin. They’d blow 3 to 4 point leads and lose in overtime, or a shootout. Friends who are diehard Pens fans stuck with them, though. “Just wait,” they insisted, “they’ll turn things around.” Even my friend Doug, who is a New York Rangers fan, tried to boost my spirits. “It’s only December,” he reminded me. “There’s a lot of time left in the season.”

But I didn’t agree. By Christmas, I had lost most of my faith in the team. Oh, I still loved them as much as I ever did, but I had resigned myself to the fact that the Pens would be one of those teams who went to the Stanley Cup Finals one year, only to finish out of the running the next year. I told myself the Pens had lost too many key players, like Ryan Malone, who I considered to be the “swagger” of the Pens. Like Gary Roberts, who I considered to be the hard-nosed, grizzled veteran. Like Mark Recchi, who I considered to be the legacy of the team. Like Marian Hossa, who only joined the Pens in the post season run, but who fit in so well, it seemed as though he’d always been part of the black and gold. My husband kept telling me to calm down, that the Pens would make some decisions come trade time that would give the team the boost it needed. But to be brutally honest, I did not believe him. And listening to Coach Michel Therrien did not make me feel any better. He gave press conferences but he never SAID ANYTHING. The only thing I remember about any of his press conferences was “Call me Mike.” Huh??

Then, the Pens gave all of us the best Valentine’s Day present. On February 15, they fired Therrien and called Dan Bylsma up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to man the helm of this decidedly listing ship. And something happened.

The Penguins started winning.

They won 18 of the next 25 games. They lost 7, including 4 in overtime. The Pens added a couple of key players at the trade deadline: feisty sharp shooter Chris Kunitz and solid veteran Bill Guerin. Other players stepped up: Maxime Talbot, Matt Cooke, Kris Letang. Sergei Gonchar came back. Malkin continued his tear up the scoring charts, with Sid right behind him. And the Pens steadily moved up the ranks. By the time the regular season wound down, they were 2nd in the Atlantic Division and had secured a solid playoff spot. And it seemed that the Pens just got stronger with every game, even ones they lost. And they looked like they were HAVING FUN OUT THERE!

What happened? I think that “Disco Dan” Bylsma injected some personality into the team. Was it his age? At 38, he’s the youngest head coach right now in the NHL. (Therrien is 46). And even though he doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience (He was in his first season as the top guy for WBS), he seemed to “connect” with the guys. They fed off his energy and he fed off theirs. And it seemed to propel them; first, as they met the Philadelphia Flyers and won in 6 games. Then, the much-anticipated 2nd round match up with Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. This series went to 7 thrilling games, but the Pens kept their cool and prevailed. The Carolina Hurricanes came next, fresh off an upset of the Boston Bruins and hungry for their own return to the Stanley Cup Finals. But the Pens persevered here, too and swept the ‘Canes in 4 games to clinch the Eastern Conference Championship.

In the West, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings were also steadily blasting through the competition. They swept the Columbus Blue Jackets in 4 games. They battled the Anaheim Ducks in 7 games, then dispatched a tough young Chicago Blackhawks team in 5 games.

My faith wobbled in December, but as the Pens started believing in themselves and playing better, my faith grew stronger. I still feel a stab of guilt that I doubted, and once my friends who are Penguins fans read this, they may think less of me. But confession is good for the soul, isn’t it?

My husband did say “I told you so.” He told me that Guerin especially would be good for the team. He was absolutely right. So, I won’t begrudge Stu his moment in the sun.

This morning. 3:15.

My friend Rex sneaks over to Brad’s desk and tapes a Pittsburgh Penguins banner to Brad’s computer monitor. Then we get to work. 3:45 am. Brad comes striding into the newsroom. “Good Morning!” he booms. “Happy Friday!” we reply. We chat for a few seconds about the stories on tap for the newscast, then he makes his way to his desk. A few seconds of silence, then a booming laugh.

“Su! I think you need to come get this!” he calls out, and I rush over to rescue my beloved pennant. It’s now proudly affixed to the wall by my desk. Brad and I have a “friendly” wager. He thinks the Red Wings will win it in 6, like last year. I think the Pens will pull out an exciting upset in 7 games. The loser buys the winner breakfast in the cafeteria.

It’s a bet I can handle, no matter who wins the Cup.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

'Tips' Simpson; T-Birds' Pickard invited to Team Canada Under-18 Summer Selection Camp

They made quite an impression this season. Now, two young goalies have been invited to test their skills on a much bigger stage. Kent Simpson of the Everett Silvertips and the Seattle Thunderbirds’ Calvin Pickard were among 40 players invited by Hockey Canada to take part in a summer camp aimed at selecting the National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team, which will represent Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic from August 11 to 15.

Kent Simpson/Photo: Frank Deines III/Everett Silvertips

17 year old Kent Simpson just wrapped up his first full season with the Silvertips. He posted a record of 8-11-3-1 with a 3.85 goals against average and a .892 save percentage. He has one shutout. It came in his very first career start on September 26, 2008 against the Portland Winter Hawks. Everett selected Kent in the first round of the 2007 Bantam draft. Kent is from Edmonton, Alberta.

The Silvertips hope that Simpson becomes the 7th Everett player to take part in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Other Silvertips who have played include: Leland Irving, Brady Calla, Zach Hamill, Shane Harper, Vitaly Karamnov and Kyle Beach.

Calvin Pickard/Photo: David Pitcher/Seattle Thunderbirds

17 year old Calvin Pickard also wrapped up his first full season with the T-Birds. His record: 23-16-1-4 with a 3.05 goals against average and .896 save percentage. He posted 3 shutouts (against the Portland Winter Hawks on October 11, 2008, Spokane Chiefs on February 20, 2009 and Tri City Americans on March 7, 2009). Calvin is from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He and Kent are among 13 WHL players invited to take part in the camp.

Kent Simpson and Calvin Pickard have also been invited to Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence Goaltending Camp, which will take place in Calgary from June 11-14. They are among 14 goaltenders under the age of 20 selected to take part in this camp.

We wish Kent and Calvin the best of luck in the Under 18 camp and will update you on their progress. In the meantime, you can check out what the Everett Silvertips are up to by clicking here to link to their website. To see what the Seattle Thunderbirds have been doing in their off season, click here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New Interview with Thomas Hickey

I had the pleasure of catching up with former Seattle Thunderbird Captain Thomas Hickey about his action-packed season. But the most amazing thing of all is his attitude about the whole thing. I would be excited just to have one of his many accomplishments this year:

1. Taking the T-Birds to the playoffs

2. Captaining Team Canada to its 5th consecutive gold medal in the World Juniors.

3. Joining the AHL Manchester Monarchs and scoring 1 goal and 6 assists in 7 games.

Click to link below to read more about what he has to say about his season, advice he has for rookies making the jump from Bantams to the WHL and why he can't pick just one favorite memory of his time with the T-Birds.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Riley Armstrong Interview posted at KING 5 Site

                                    Riley Armstrong/Photo Courtesy:  Scott Berg

I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Riley Armstrong not too long ago.  We chatted about all kinds of things, from his early days as a figure skater, to his wild ride with the Everett Silvertips in their inaugural season, and his road to the Worcester Sharks and its parent club in San Jose.

Riley is open and comfortable talking about all kinds of things.  Follow the link below to see what he has to say about his team's playoff bid, his memories of the Silvertips and their fans, his love even now, for the billet family who opened their doors (and their hearts) to him in Everett, and the one race in which he's beating older brother Colby.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Crying in Hockey

We’ve all heard the saying “There’s no crying in baseball.”  Tom Hanks made that abundantly clear in one of many unforgettable scenes in “A League of Their Own.”  There’s. No. Crying. In. Baseball. Period. 

If that’s the case with a sport where contact is mostly incidental (barring hitting someone with a pitch, sliding into them or engaging in a good, bench-clearing brawl), then crying is definitely outlawed in the rough and tumble sport of hockey.  There’s just one problem with that. 

Someone forgot to tell me.

I am emotional by nature.  I cried when Bambi’s mother was killed.  I cried when Racer X saved Speed’s life in one cartoon episode and just when I thought he would reveal himself to be Speed’s brother, he walked off into the sunset instead.  I cry at Folgers’ coffee commercials.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

When I started liking hockey back in the 80’s, I saw the game differently. It was pure, superficial entertainment, like a bar brawl on skates.  When I got to college in the 90's and became our school’s national anthem singer, I started learning the nuances of the game, taught to me by hockey players who became friends, and friends who loved hockey.  I grew to love hockey and the UAH Chargers so much, a loss would leave me devastated, and not just for myself.  My heart went out to my friends who gave it their all out there on the ice, only to fall short.  Of course, no team could win EVERY game all the time, but I never said I was rational about this.  I cried after every loss, but in private.  The players would not know just what a wimp their national anthem singer was.

That was several years ago.  And I can say that I am now even more emotional about hockey than I was in school.  Last year, my beloved Penguins took it to 6 games in the Stanley Cup finals, only to lose on home ice to a very talented Red Wings team. I spent hours after that loss curled up in my bed, weeping my heart out.  The looks on the faces of the guys, who fell short after coming so far, remain fresh in my mind’s eye.  And if I think about it too much, I will fall apart all over again.

This year, I confess that things got even worse.  Why?  I added two more teams to my “favorites” list: the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds.  I went to games, interviewed players and somewhere along the road, forgot to remain unbiased.  Sitting up in the media section at ShoWare Center, I cried every time they lost.  It’s a good thing that area up there is pretty dark, although I think one of the WHL people saw me wiping my eyes once.  I cried when the Silvertips lost their final home game of the regular season to Chilliwack.  The 'Tips had already made the playoffs, but that didn't matter.  And I wept when both the Silvertips and T-Birds were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by Tri City and Spokane.  My heart went out to these kids, because they are kids, no matter how mature they sound or act.  They played their best, but their opponents played just a little better.  I cried for their heartbreak and then I cried for the players who would be moving on because they had reached the WHL age limit.  I had gone to games in years past, but the teams had been at arm's length then. I didn’t keep up with who was going and who was staying.  

This year, things were different.  I knew I would miss Taylor Ellington, Graham Poteur, and Daniel Bartek making great hits and plays at Comcast Arena.  It would hurt to not see Chris Cloud, Devon LeBlanc, Greg Scott, Jim O’Brien and Thomas Hickey in T-Birds blue, ruling the ice at ShoWare Center.  I’m happy for the guys who moved onto the AHL, one step closer to fulfilling their NHL dreams: Taylor with the Manitoba Moose, Jimmy with the Binghamton Senators, Greg with the Toronto Marlies and Thomas with the Manchester Monarchs.  As a fan of these guys, I now have new teams to learn about and cheer for. I hope that Graham, Daniel, Chris and Devon find new opportunities to continue their hockey careers as well so I can expand my horizons even more. But that doesn’t change the fact that I miss them, along with a host of Everett and Seattle fans.

This brings me to today.  My favorite team is once again in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.  The Pens opened second round action today against a very strong and determined Caps team.  When Varlamov somehow denied Crosby what looked like an easy goal, I knew in my gut that it would come back to haunt the Pens. And it did.  My guys lost 3-2, and as the clock ran out, the tears came.  Jeez. It’s only Game 1! If the Penguins actually make it to the Finals, I may have to be committed because I’m sure to have a nervous breakdown!

Back when I was crying about the T-Birds' and ‘Tips' seasons ending in the first round of the WHL playoffs, my friend Shawn tried to make me feel better about being so emotional.  After all, I am a sports writer.  I edit a hockey page at a TV station website. I should not cry!  The newspaper reporters who covered the games with me surely did not cry after each loss.  Shawn, being the good friend he is, pointed out that he doubted any sports writer who had covered Ray Bourke for as long as they did, could remain stoic when, after 22 seasons, he finally won the Cup with the Avalanche in 2001.  I remember watching that game and seeing Joe Sakic hand the Cup to Bourke on what would turn out to be his final night as an NHL player.

But of course, that’s not nearly the same.  That was a momentous occasion more than two decades in the making.  It’s OKAY to cry at times like that.  What I do is much more trivial and has me thinking hard about giving up hockey as a sport to watch.  I mean, really.  I cannot be taken seriously if I dissolve into weepy tears over games that I should be IMPARTIAL about.  I should not care so much about the players. I should just do my job and go home and be done with it.  But in my heart of hearts, I know I can’t do it.  I am emotional. I’ve always been emotional. (Remember Bambi?) On the other hand, I love hockey.  I love watching the game, from the Pee Wee level to the Big Show itself. 

So, where does that leave me?

Well, I guess I could undergo surgery to plug my tear ducts up.  Or, not go to T-Birds or Silvertips games next season and just report the scores like most everyone else. Or, I could go and hope no one sees me wiping my eyes after a particularly difficult loss.  I still have a few months to decide. But do me this favor if you think you see me crying at a hockey game: please don’t laugh. Or at least, have the decency to turn away first.  

'Cause I know there’s no crying in hockey.  But someone forgot to tell that to my heart.