how to fix the NHL

In hockey by b murf / May 29, 2008 / 2 Comments

Slowly but surely, people are coming back to the National Hockey League. The ratings might not be Super Bowl caliber, but all indications are that the league, led by young guns like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, and featuring a Stanley Cup match-up of two storied franchises, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, is in the best shape we’ve seen in some time.

But let’s not kid ourselves, things have been so bleak the last few years that a semi-steady pulse is considered a vast improvement. Just because the NHL has reminded the average sports fan that it’s still alive doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. Here are some suggestions if the league wants to capitalize on these positive trends and officially regain its position in the “Big Four,” along with football, baseball and basketball.

Say goodbye to commissioner Gary Bettman. I don’t dislike him as much as some, but much like NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, Bettman has become the focal point for many disgruntled fans who still haven’t forgiven him for two labor stoppages, including the 2004-05 NHL lockout that saw the entire season canceled. Other complaints against Bettman include “Americanizing” hockey (which essentially means putting teams in places with no ice to make an extra buck), essentially outlawing fighting and putting the league on a television channel most people either don’t have or can’t find. But other than that, no one really has anything bad to say about the guy.

Hire Mark Messier as the new commish. Or Wayne Gretzky. Or Mario Lemieux. Or even Jeremy Roenick. It doesn’t really matter who, just get a player who is interested in putting forth the effort to help get hockey back on the sports landscape.

Having guys like Brett Hull running teams, who is a co-general manager in Dallas, is a good thing. Hull is bright, knows hockey and is funny as hell. He’s also not afraid to say what’s on his mind. If you’ve got a guy like Hull in town, you can bet he’ll make headlines. Hockey needs headlines.

Along the same lines:

Get Mark Cuban involved with the NHL. If he can’t acquire the Dallas Stars, find another team for him. Seriously. Owners like Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals are smart businessmen who understand marketing their product in the 21st century. Plus, Cuban is competitive as hell, so whichever team he ends up with can rest assured he’ll do everything in his power to make them a league powerhouse.

Eliminate the following teams: Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Honestly, would anyone truly lose any sleep over these five teams vanishing tomorrow?

Award franchises to the following cities: Quebec, Winnipeg, Hartford, Las Vegas. Canada knows hockey. Canada loves hockey. The NHL cannot go wrong going retro with the return of the Jets and Nordiques. Add in the loveable Whalers and a team in the forbidden city and you’re guaranteed to have people talking. In fact, let’s just give Mark Cuban the Las Vegas franchise. Nothing else needs to be said.

You’ll notice I eliminated five franchises and only added four. Here’s why:

Make every game matter. Taking a page out of Italian soccer, hockey should institute a promotion/relegation system, where the top American minor league team and the top Canadian minor league team play a best of seven championship series, with the winner becoming the NHL’s final franchise.

After year one, the top American and Canadian minor league teams would play each other with the winner advancing to play the worst NHL team in a best of seven series. Imagine if the Boston Bruins lost to the Hersey Bears, and were therefore relegated to the minors for at least one season. If nothing else, it would ensure owners would do everything within their power to remain competitive, which is always a good thing for the fans.

Fix the schedule and remember that people like rivalries. The fact that the Red Wings and Penguins didn’t get to play each other this season is embarrassing. If you have a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, why wouldn’t you want to showcase him across the league? Chalk this up as another blunder for the commissioner, and make sure that every team plays at least one home and one away game against everyone else in the league.

And finally:

Reach out to the casual fan. Sports have reached a point where it costs too much for an average family of four to go to a ballgame anymore. So do anything and everything you can to make a good chunk of your seats affordable to the blue-collar family. Offer student discounts. Offer military discounts. Come up with creative family promotions to make it fun and affordable for families to enjoy hockey together, so you’re getting more folks in the stadium and you’re growing future fans in the process. We’re not trying to just fix hockey today, we’re trying to make this work for the long haul.

[Editor’s note: After much internal discussion, the plan changes slightly. We’re going to leave the Blue Jackets in Columbus and give the shaft to Hartford. Everything else remains the same. Thanks.]


the full monty

(photo by Brian Murphy)

Realizing that we’ve reached a painfully uneventful portion of an already uncharacteristically quiet offseason for the Washington Redskins, Homer McFanboy is here to the rescue. We’re busting out the first of a five-part series on the biggest surprises of the 2007 season. We’re spotlighting five guys (not to be confused with Five Guys), who exceeded expectations and give ‘Skins fans plenty of reason for optimism heading into the 2008 season. Up first, Anthony Montgomery.

Montgomery was drafted from the University of Minnesota in the fifth round (153rd overall) of the 2006 NFL draft. He’s begun to make a name for himself as a defensive tackle, not a character on Star Trek (although that Anthony Montgomery did play a killer role in Leprechaun 5: In The Hood).

Coming into the league, Montgomery, who is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, could easily be described as a Baby Huey or a Gentle Giant. He’s 6’5″ and was more than 330 lbs. when he first showed up at Redskins Park. In fact, some folks around the league talked about possibly making him into an offensive lineman because some talent evaluators believed he was too laid back to make it on the defensive line. But with all that body to work with, the coaching staff saw enough potential in Montgomery to keep him on the defensive side of the ball.

Growing up, I don’t know if he dreamed of one day playing in the NFL, but if he did, Montgomery didn’t really do his homework. He’s since admitted that once he made the team as a rookie, he didn’t know the Redskins could cut him. That explains why Kedric Golston, who was drafted in the sixth round (196th overall) of the same 2006 NFL draft, earned more playing time than the man they call Monty in their rookie year. For the 2006 season, Montgomery logged just 11 tackles and a half sack in five games, with one start in a largely uneventful season.

But riding the bench with a no-nonsense guy like Greg Blache overseeing the defensive line was a blessing in disguise for Montgomery. That offseason, he dedicated himself to eating healthy and to a strict training program, in hopes of toning his raw frame and building better endurance. As Phillip Daniels would say, “There was no half-steppin’.” Montgomery gave up fried foods and put in more time at Redskins Park than the secretaries, and it paid off. By the time the 2007 season started, the kid had dropped 20 pounds and looked like a football player. Veterans like Joe Salave’a and Renaldo Wynn were cut, but Monty was not.

Respecting the effort, the Redskins coaching staff had no choice but to find time for Montgomery, who played in all 16 games and emerged as a regular starter. He logged 47 tackles (35 solo), a half-sack and two fumble recoveries during the season, but the numbers only go so far. Montgomery looked particularly strong in wins over the Detroit Lions (where the defense surrendered just 68 yards of rushing on the day), the Dallas Cowboys (who rushed for one — I repeat — ONE YARD the entire game) and in the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks. When he’s on his game, he’s clogging the middle and giving running backs nowhere to hide.

I’ve had several chances to chat with Montgomery, and can honestly say he’s one of my favorites in the locker room. In fact, I’m on the record as calling him a “beast.” To his credit, he laughed at me and told me he took it personally when he had to sit most of the 2006 season and still takes it personally when a running back tries to run on his defense.

And Monty is a bit superstitious too. Turns out he did some stretching and warm-ups with fellow defensive lineman Chris Wilson towards the end of the 2007 season. The team won and both guys played well, so there they were, for the rest of the regular season, stretching together in the endzone before each game. As a hockey player who won’t even wash my jersey if I play well, let’s just say I can relate.

One of the other things I respect most about Montgomery is he’s there during the good times and the bad. He’s willing to do interviews after a win, but he’s just as willing to talk after a loss. After the team’s season ended against the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs I asked Monty how much time he planned on taking off.

“The season didn’t end the way we wanted it, so we can’t take a lot of time off,” he said. He planned on taking a week or two tops, and then heading back to Redskins Park for what he called “unfinished business.” That’s a vast improvement for a guy who was seemingly content to collect a paycheck without putting in the time and effort to become an elite football player as a rookie. Now, he’s completely transformed his body type and seems destined to be a force in the trenches for the ‘Skins for the foreseeable future.

That’s why, on the first day of minicamp, I wanted to check in with Anthony Montgomery. To see how he’s progressing and to have him weigh in on the new coaching staff. It was an enjoyable interview, which can be heard here, in which we tackle everything from avoiding a foot in the ass courtesy of his new defensive coordinator to taking the family to Disney World. Even though the Redskins might not have earned the trip to Disney that comes with winning the Super Bowl, we can give Monty a pass this time around. If this team is going to get there, it’s going to be because of players like Montgomery getting the job done.

Random fact: Montgomery excelled at three different sports — football, baseball and basketball — at John F. Kennedy High School in Cleveland. He averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and three assists as a three-year all-conference member in basketball, hit 14 homer runs and struck out 60 batters as an all-state baseball player and even played some quarterback for the football team.


help wanted

This week, Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post mentioned on his blog that the Washington Redskins are looking to hire a full-time blogger. In fact, the team even brought in Steinberg, the man behind the D.C. Sports Bog, to see if he could be the man for the job. While Steinberg said it isn’t going to work out for him, he went on to say, “The idea of a behind-the-scenes, video-and-photo-heavy, well-written and authentic Redskins.com blog, composed by a real blogger, is a tremendous one that will almost certainly succeed.”

On the flip side is Stet Sports Blog, who posted Five Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Blog For the Washington Redskins. In their opinion, whoever is hired will:

1. Have no creative license
2. Say goodbye to facts
3. Be hated by the Redskins players
4. Be fired within 48 hours
5. Lose their independence

Finally, we have Michael David Smith, of AOL Sports’ Fanhouse weighing in on the subject of a possible Redskins-blogger marriage. Smith says, “This is good news for Redskins fans, for bloggers, for blog readers — for everyone who likes football and likes going online to get information about football.

So why do I bring all of this up? Well, for more than three years now I’ve been afforded incredible access to the Washington Redskins. I’ve been allowed to take photos on the sidelines during minicamp, training camp and even games — both home and away. I’ve conducted countless interviews with everyone from Vinny Cerrato to Jimmy Farris, and everyone in between. I’ve covered everything from the Sean Taylor Memorial at Redskins Park to Renaldo Wynn’s Car Show, from Art Monk and Darell Green’s Hall of Fame press conference to Joe Gibbs’ final playoff game in Seattle. I’m not bringing any of this up for a pat on the back, I’m simply letting folks know I’ve been around the team long enough to form an opinion on this subject.

Whoever ends up being hired as the full-time blogger for the Redskins will be given the opportunity to do something completely groundbreaking. It’s one thing to come out to Redskins Park on behalf of the team’s messageboard or a newspaper and hunt for blog-able content, but it’s a whole new ballgame when you’re officially part of the team. Think about your current place of employment — just being there day in and day out you can’t help but learn fascinating tidbits about your co-workers that would otherwise go unreported.

For my full-time gig (sorry folks, Homer McFanboy ain’t paying the bills just yet) I work for the government. While that isn’t very exciting in the context of sports, on my floor alone we’ve got a guy who just bowled a perfect game, a gal whose cousin is a highly-talented rookie shortstop with the San Francisco Giants and another fellow whose related to a big-name rookie wide receiver in Pittsburgh. The bottom line is — stories are everywhere, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. So if you’re at the Park daily and afforded the kind of access the team is talking about, you can’t help but come across content no one else can provide.

Before I wrap this entry up, I want to tackle one very common misconception about the front office. Like I mentioned earlier, this is the fourth season I’ve been allowed to roam the ‘Skins sidelines. Not once during that time has anyone on the Redskins payroll pulled me aside and told me not to cover something or asked me to slant my coverage one way or the other. They’re fully aware of what I’m doing and what I’m writing, but no one is standing over my shoulder making me delete a comment if I say Devin Thomas looked lost on day one of minicamp or that Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas are injured so frequently that they spend as much time on the sidelines as I do. If you’re good at what you do and don’t embarrass yourself or the team, chances are the team will leave you alone.

When you read something like the “Five Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Blog For The Washington Redskins,” just know that’s coming from someone who has never actually worked with the team in any capacity. But as I said to that author, congrats to you – you’ve managed to “save your independence” by becoming a sheep and repeating what you’ve heard from all the other talking heads. You go girl.

This is a good thing, and whoever ends up as the first-ever Redskins blogger better bring the goods. Otherwise, this will be another case of an incredible opportunity wasted.


the man, the myth, the mullet

(photo by Brian Murphy)

Man, I hate these things. Speaking at someone’s wake … er … wedding is never pleasant. Okay, where should I begin?

It’s easy to see why Chris Cooley is one of the most popular athletes in town. For starters, he might be legally insane. Doubters need only talk to the folks at Cooley’s banking institution of choice in Leesburg, Virginia, where they’re still trying to recover from the time he went to the drive-through window to deposit a check. Not just any check, mind you. No, this particular check on that fateful day was a multi-million-dollar signing bonus with his name already signed on the back. Apparently walking in the building with his biggest paycheck in his young career wasn’t an option, but putting the check into the little thermos-like-contraption and sending the golden ticket to a Pacman Jones’ “Makin’ it Rain” party through the tube was a better idea. Just another day in the life of a semi-mormon tight end.

One of my first chances to talk with Cooley was after a 2005 preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Regardless of how he played in that game, I knew I needed to corner him a get some answers to the hard-hitting type of questions people have come to expect from me — like, “What’s up with the mullet?”

Cooley laughed, caught slightly off-guard. Even though there were dozens of media members in the post-game locker room, it seems I was the only one in the room who noticed the always fashionable hairstyle. He explained that teammates persuaded the second-year tight end to shave his hair into a mullet before the game, and to take it to the next level, Cooley had taken a magic marker and drawn a big, curly mustache on his face just for kicks. When I asked him about it, he kind of shrugged his shoulders and explain that training camp gets old really quick and he wanted to lighten up the mood in the locker room. Mission accomplished.

That was the 2005 Chris Cooley, only embarking on his second season of professional football. The following season, now feeling completely at home, he decided to sport an afro – again, just for the hell of it – that I was fortunate enough to capture in all it’s glory and can be seen at the top of this entry.

Other highlights with our wacky Pro Bowler include Cooley hitting the field for training camp dressed like one of those pricey role-playing hookers only disgraced politicians and Eddie Murphy really get to encounter.

Or arriving to camp with a spiffy buzz-cut look, severely limiting the options when planning on any shenanigans, so to make it up to everyone, he grew a pornstache, for no apparent reason.

And that, my friends, is just the tip.

Cooley was the first NFL player to talk openly about being involved in fantasy football. In fact, he’s on the record for costing himself a fantasy football playoff game because he scored three touchdowns against the hated Dallas Cowboys, only to discover his opponent that week had “Fantasy Cooley,” who scored him more than enough points to send the tight end home empty handed.

And we can’t forget the birth of Captain Chaos. Former teammate/fellow metalhead Brian Kozlowski bet Cooley $100 he wouldn’t introduce himself as Captain Chaos to the St. Louis Rams’ captains before a game. “There were five captains,” Cooley said. “I looked every one in the face and said: ‘I’m Captain Chaos. Nice to meet you.'” Reebok made a T-shirt, and the name stuck. No word on if Koz ever paid up though.

These days, with a firm grasp on the potential gold mind here, Cooley has started his very own Outside Football blog. If you ever wanted to know Chris’ thoughts on a possible jell-o wrestling match involving Cooley and his fiance’ Christy taking on Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson, it’s only a click away.

In fact, his blog is so open and honest that within the last week, Cooley has posted about his pending wedding to the former First Lady of Football set for this Friday and wrote a very well thought out entry on the owner’s decision to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. He’s enjoying doing it, and more importantly, he’s good at blogging. I had a few moments to catch up with Chris and to ask him about his new roll as a tight end/h-back/blogger. Click here to listen to the full interview.

So now, let’s wrap this thing up with a toast to the man of the hour – everyone please raise your glasses.

“To lesbians and virgins – thanks for nothing.”


damn it feels good to be a gangsta

It’s becoming more and more apparent that these aren’t your parent’s Washington Capitals anymore.

The big news today is that Alexander Ovechkin has been named The Sporting News’ Player of the Year. This may be a no-brainer considering how he will presumably sweep most of the individual awards when the NHL hands out hardware at the end of the season, but it’s still a big deal because, if we’re being honest, Capitals players typically don’t get much love and respect outside of the beltway.

It should also be pointed out that congrats are also in order for Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who joined Alex the Great on The Sporting News’ All-Star team. All of this comes a few days after Team Russia, led by a top line of Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin, took home the gold medal after defeating Team Canada (and Mike Green) in overtime 5-4 at the world hockey championship. Semin even chipped in two goals in the championship game.

Like I said, these ain’t your daddy’s Caps. This is probably a good time to mention that the season tickets are still available. Get them now, because I have a strong feeling this is going to be one of the most difficult tickets to get in town in the not-too-distant future.


center of attention

It is often said that the quarterback of the Redskins is the second most important position in Washington, behind only the president. Well, I’m here to tell you – this may be a QB’s town, but it certainly isn’t a place that shows the center much love.

Casey Rabach is a forgotten man. Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas are all bigger names on the offensive line. Hell, even the guy running the O-line, Joe Bugel, is more well known than the center. I’d argue that even the team’s long snapper, Ethan Albright, gets more attention than Rabach. Between making the Pro Bowl last year and the infamous Madden feud, the “Red Snapper” has definitely made more of a name for himself than the mighty Casey. I mean, what has anyone heard about Rabach in the last year? Not much, other than the fact that the rookie head coach doesn’t like the angle of his rear end when he’s got the ball in his hands.

Did Rabach complain or tell the rookie coach to pipe down? Not a chance. He simply said, “If raising my butt an inch or two is going to help, whatever, I’ll accommodate them. It’ll take a little time. It’ll feel awkward at first, but we’ll get it done.”

All of this to ensure that whichever golden boy lines up behind him gets the football delivered as smoothly as possible. Heaven forbid a quarterback actually do any work back there. Damned divas.

In the interest of full disclosure, after more than three years of being around the team, Casey Rabach is one of my favorite ‘Skins players to interview. He’s definitely not stuck up or worried about his public image. He’s very comfortable in his own skin and knows who he is and what he brings to the table at this point in his career. So much so, that often he’s standing there in the locker room with nothing more than a towel wrapped around him and with dip in his mouth. You can take the boy out of the country, but … well … you know the rest.

Anyone watching a ‘Skins practice can’t help but notice he always seems to be having the time of his life.

During minicamp, all eyes are on the rookies, right? Folks around town want to know every detail possible about the newest additions to the team. With that in mind, I asked Rabach how rookie offensive lineman Chad Rinehart looked after practice one day during minicamp and he replied, “Which number was he?” Kind of puts a rookie in his place, huh?

During another day of camp, Rabach could be seen chasing Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley 30 yards downfield after a catch-and-run, all the while yelling “
I’ve got your back! I’ve got your back!” over and over. I guess he wanted Cooley to know if he was winded and needed to pitch the ball to a 300 lb. lineman, he was there to help a brother out.

He’s also a guy who enjoys ice fishing while enjoying a few ice cold brews during the offseason. Or renting an RV with buddy Jon Jansen during training camp. Or flashing the batwing at an unsuspecting teammate. Or mooning the FOX Morning Show’s live shot. And while we’re on the subject, I’m 99 percent sure that Rabach also mooned a group of Redskins fans for good measure, when they gathered for a send-off at Redskins Park as the team was leaving for New Orleans a couple seasons ago. But let’s be honest, they probably deserved it.

All I know is that if I were on the team and had to suffer through the dog days of summer, Casey Rabach is one of the very first guys I’d want on the team to keep things light and enjoyable. The fact that he’s one of the better centers in the NFL is merely a bonus.

(photo by Brian Murphy)

mandatory training

(courtesy photo)


No matter how much you try and coddle them or prepare them for the real world almost universally they all end up learning the hard way.

I saw the potential for a problem at minicamp and tried to head it off at the pass with rookie tight end Fred Davis. During an interview with Davis, I asked him which football player he used to emulate as a kid and his answer was Michael Irvin. I quickly reminded him that he’s a member of the Washington Redskins now and answering “I used to pretend I was one of the hated rivals” is probably not the best route to take on his first day in town. We both laughed, and he quickly changed his tune to Jerry Rice and promised to stick with Rice’s name in future interviews.

Fast forward to last week, where it seems Redskins rookie wide out Devin Thomas won the 2008 Rookie Madden Bowl. Thomas competed against such names as Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm and Rashard Mendenhall and came out on top, calling the win “the greatest moment of his NFL career to date.” Here’s the problem – Thomas used the Dallas Cowboys in the video game tournament.

I guess no one sat him down (shame on you, Redskins media relations) and spelled it out. Something like “Hey Devin, don’t use the Cowboys when you play in a video game tournament that people will find out about. That’d be like us making you wear Michigan colors during a TV interview in East Lansing.”

I (half-jokingly) explain to folks that I’ve been a ‘Skins fan for so long that my parents put me in Dallas diapers and told me to aim for the star. During my Army time, when I was stationed in Texas for two and a half years, I would make it a point to be at the local sports bar the minute the doors opened every Sunday to ensure the Redskins game ended up on the biggest Plasma screen in the bar (which meant the Dallas fans had to watch the home game on one of the dinky TV screens above the bar). Sure, I nearly got my teeth kicked in on a weekly basis by pissed off Cowboys fans, but it was worth it. That’s what this rivalry is all about.

I most likely won’t get another chance to chat with the rookies until training camp, but in the meantime I am pleading with someone at Redskins Park to please sit these guys down and brief them on exactly who George Allen was and what this rivalry means to this town. If they’re going to be a part of the biggest rivalry in professional football, they need to know what’s expected of them.

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