Saturday, September 21, 2002

I'm In

Sorry for the delay, but I have now registered. I've never been in a hockey fantasy league, so my expectations are low. Be gentle.

Friday, September 20, 2002

What Happened In Indy, And What It Really Means For Basketball: Late yesterday evening, I got a note from John Branch, the Tarheel Pundit, asking me what I thought of an article by ESPN's Ralph Wiley. In it, Wiley posited that the NFL was a superior league because virtually all of its players spend four or five years being schooled in the finer points of the game in college.

Meanwhile, the level of play in the NBA is rapidly dropping. Why? Because so many players who would normally be having the fundamentals drilled into their heads by Bob Huggins, John Chaney, Rick Pitino and others, are instead opting to enter the NBA Draft out of high school or as college underclassmen. Instead of learning the game, these players sit on the ends of NBA benches, reduced to a shadow of their true potential.

Of course, the pivot point for this discussion is the recently completed World Basketball Championships that were held in Indianapolis a few weeks ago. And, where, as you already know, a team of American NBA All-Stars finished sixth behind such basketball powers as New Zealand, Puerto Rico and Germany.

Back in June, William C. Rhoden of the New York Times wrote a column that said African-American players were in danger of being replaced in the NBA in much the same manner that Black jockeys were systematically forced out of horse racing in this country about a century ago.

At bottom, Rhoden credited the movement toward recruiting international players to racism, rather than the fact that these international players displayed more skill playing a fundamentally sound game of basketball. At the time, I disagreed with Rhoden, saying the advent of the international player was the best thing that could ever happen to basketball. It's good to see Wiley look at things the way they really are.

Funny enough, but there's a real historical antecedent to this development, and it comes from the world of ice hockey. Exactly 30 years ago this month, Canada and the USSR played an 8 game challenge series that matched a team of Canadian NHL All-Stars (minus some notable names due to injury and the fact that some had signed with the renegade World Hockey Association).

The Canadians came together for training camp not long before the start of the series in Montreal, many of the players still sporting spare tires they had added in the offseason. Practices were lacksadaisical and haphazard, and took on more of a feel of a reunion than a serious exercise in preparation for an international tournament.

This exhibition would be a great way to get in shape for the upcoming NHL season, or so they thought.

The Russians felt otherwise. When it came time for Game 1 in Montreal, the NHL players took a quick 3-1 lead into the locker room after the first period.

Then the wheels came off the bus.

Russian goalie Vlad Tretiak didn't allow a goal for the rest of the game, and the Soviets put on an absolute clinic for the Canadians in the game they had invented. The Russians played a game where puck possession was paramount. Passing and skating circles around the NHL players, and playing together in speedy 5-man units, they thrashed the Canadians, eventually winning 7-3.

To say that Canada went into a state of shock would be an understatement. They had been beaten in the game they had created, the one they dominated. In fact, it was all the more damaging as dominance in ice hockey was the one thing Canada could point to that differentiates it from the rest of the world.

"Henderson has scored for Canada!"
But the game would never be the same.

Though the Canadians eventually won the series, 4 games to 3 (with one tie), the game was changed forever. You see, the Soviets hadn't just proven that they were as good as the Canadians. They had also proved that there was another way to play -- one that ignored the tenets of the Canadian game. European "skill" players -- one's who could skate and pass instead of just dumping and chasing the puck and fighting -- began to arrive in NHL cities. If not for the Cold War, it's safe to say that the percentage of European players in the NHL today would be even higher.

Eight years later the Americans won the gold in ice hockey in Lake Placid (with NCAA coach Herb Brooks using European tactics), and soon top athletes from the U.S. who might have played some other sport began to choose ice hockey. In 1996, a team of NHL All-Stars from the U.S. defeated a team of their Canadian counterparts to win the World Cup of Hockey -- a tournament, that cruelly, had once been known as the Canada Cup.

What had once been an exclusive Canadian preserve, was now a true international game. And ice hockey was all the better for it. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the great Edmonton Oilers teams of the mid-1980s would not have looked or played the same way were it not for the significant new European influence on the sport.

Sometimes we Americans forget, but the Gold medal in Men's Ice Hockey that Canada won in Salt Lake City earlier this year was the nation's first in 50 years.

Well, now the karmic wheel has turned, and it's America's turn to be humiliated. Spin it anyway you like, America was slapped in Indianapolis by the nations that gave us: the world's longest surviving facist state; the living embodiment of runaway inflation; and the 20th century's last mass murderer. And though these losses didn't come as quite the thunderclap as the scare Canada got 30 years ago, we're going to see a whole lot of changes as a result anyway.

The flood of talent internationally will only increase. Kids back in Argentina, Serbia and Spain (and elsewhere) watched these games, and soon some of them will be abandoning soccer, jai-lai, and middle distance running to play basketball.

As a result, the number of American players who would have opted for the NBA Draft straight from high school or as college underclassmen will slowly begin to decrease. With more international players taking spots in the draft, there will be fewer slots for these athletically talented kids who are simply unschooled in the finer points of the game. The message will become pretty clear -- learn how the game is played, or the big payday you're shooting for will never come to pass.

Next, as more kids stay in school, college basketball will get better. Now, does this really mean that nobody is going to jump to the pros early anymore? No, not at all. But the cumulative effect of international players with a better grasp of the fundamentals of the game entering the NBA will begin to take a toll.

Now, will American players be pushed out of the NBA in much the way Rhoden predicted? Of course not. If anything, we'll begin to see a slow, but steady increase in the number of international players in the NBA. Today, a little more than 60 percent of the players in the NHL are Canadians -- quite a drop from 30 years ago when the league was exclusively Canadian. Today, countries other than the U.S. supply 15 percent of the NBA's players. In the WNBA, the percentage is even higher, at 25 percent.

But make no mistake, the American athlete will learn, just like they always do. A little competition never hurt anybody. Ask yourself this question: is the NFL a better game today than it was before Doug Williams threw five touchdown passes in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII, essentially destroying the final roadblock preventing African-Americans from getting an equal shot to play quarterback in the NFL?

So, to answer John's question, yes, I think Wiley is on to something. But don't fret, the reverberations of the U.S. team's dismal performance have already been absorbed, and the reaction is just around the corner. Hang on, the only thing you have to fear is a better game of basketball.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

There will be a 2004 World Cup of Hockey: The 2004 World Cup of Hockey will be played Aug. 31 to Sept. 14 in North America and Europe, the International Ice Hockey Federation confirmed during a meeting last week in Italy, according the The Canadian Press.

The tournament will feature eight countries: Olympic champion Canada, Russia, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the defending champion United States.

The tournament is being squeezed in between the end of the Summer Olympics in Athens on Aug. 29 and the end of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with its players on Sept. 15.

The IIHF also voted to change its overtime rules for the world championships, which in 2003 are in Helsinki, FInland. Overtime, which only occurs in elimination games, will go from 10 minutes to 20 minutes and feature four-on-four hockey instead of the traditional five-on-five.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Mike Vernon retires: Mike Vernon, who backstopped the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings to Stanley Cup titles, retired Friday after a 19-year NHL career. The 39-year-old goalie went 385-273-92 with Calgary, Detroit, San Jose and Florida. He also had 27 career shutouts with a 2.98 goals-against average. Vernon won 138 career playoff games and posted six shutouts.

A Calgary native, Vernon led the Flames to the 1989 Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1997 when the Red Wings won the championship. He was 22-16-5 with three shutouts in the 1989 playoffs.

He saw little action in his second stint with the Flames last season as backup to Roman Turek. He was 2-9-1, including one shutout, with a 2.76 GAA and an .899 save percentage.

ESPN's George Johnsons recommends Vernon for the Hall of Fame.