Sunday, January 31, 2010
Benoît Pouliot - the name's been on everyone's lips in Montréal since November 23rd (2009), when he was traded for Guillaume Latendresse, and, while Latendresse has been making his mark with the Minnesota Wild, Pouliot's been finding the back of the net with the Montréal Canadiens - a trade that has made both teams, and both men, very happy.
Pouliot was born in late September, 1986, in Alfred, Ontario, and grew yp nearby in St. Idsidore. He took the relatively long route to the OHL, by first passing through Junior B and the CJHL. In 2004-05, he was named the OHL's Rookie Of The Year after netting 67 points in 67 games for the Sudbury Wolves, and was also named to the All-Rookie Team and to the Second All Star Team. That summer, he was drafted 4th overall by the Wild, just ahead of the Habs' Carey Price (Latendresse was chosen 45th). The following season, he garnered 65 points in 55 games while winning the gold (with both Price and Latendresse) at the World Juniors. Things were looking up.
However, Pouliot was not ready to begin playing with the best players on earth in the NHL (also something that can be said for Price and Latendresse, incidentally) at age 19, so he was sent to the AHL every year before the current season. The biggest knock on him was his lack of consistency - in his first two 'seasons' in the NHL, he scored a grand total of two goals in 14 games, both in the same game.
So far, though, playing on the Habs' first line with Stanley Cup-winning veterans Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, he has foud the twine more often than both of his linemates and seen his point production skyrocket. We'll see how long it lasts, but, for now, he's helping maintain the Canadiens in playoff contention with his strong play and terrific hands.
This is card #134 from In The Game's 2005-06 Heroes And Prospects series, showing him in his beautiful, dark Wolves jersey, entering the season after being drafted by he Wild. It is signed in thick black sharpie and was gathered by mail by a friend of mine who collects Wild players (and had two of these made). He also sent me a Brent Burns card I'll write about soon, while I sent him a bunch of Martin Havlat cards.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Tom Draper is a relatively unknown goalie from Outremont, Qc who ended up playing 63 NHL games spread over 5 seasons with 3 different teams (not to mention a trade to a fourth team for which he didn't play in which he was traded, essentially, for himself). In that sense, he's a journeyman hockey player like any other with no real reason to look him up, except if you knew him.
And that's where it really hits home: in 1993 or 1994, when I was in 10th grade, he came to my school to deliver one of those motivational speeches telling kids to follow their dreams, whatever they may be, and just keep pushing at it, because, of course, anything can happen and they can turn out to be true.
As a goalie myself, playing for the school's Notre-Dame Sabres like he had a decade earlier, those words hit home; I wasn't the only one he got through to that day: current Montréal Canadiens forward Mathieu Darche, current Nashville Predators forward Benjamin Guité, current Stjernen (of the Norwegian GET-ligaen) defenseman Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and recent NFL retiree Jean-Philippe Darche were all in attendance. It's pretty rare that one school produces two professional talents in the same age range, let alone four. And I, for one, attribute it mostly on his quality speech.
Not just that, but out of the 300 kids in my grade, a mighty chunk were sons and daughters of lawyers, and the rest were pretty much kids of politicians or very successful business people - everyone had their future path set up for them, following their parents' footsteps, should they be so inclined; many did, but we still managed to have four top-level athletes, a handful of actors, a bunch of musicians, a few writers and painters, a few people working in sports management, and a whole bunch of gypsies.
Sure, not many people outside of his family were impressed by his career, but all 300 of us in my year were touched by him, as were the 1200 other students in that high school who got to hear him speak. Not that he didn't have a decent career, because he did:
In the AHL, he shared the Hap Holmes Memorial Award (the AHL's equivalent of the Jennings trophy for the team with the fewest goals-against) with Martin Biron while playing for Buffalo's affiliate, the Rochester Americans. The Winnipeg Jets liked him so much that he has belonged to them at three different occasions, including the most bizarre trade in recent memory, where the Jets sent him to the St. Louis Blues in February of 1991 for future considerations, which turned out to be... himself and Jim Vesey, as the trade was completed later that season in May, before trading him again in June. He signed back to the Jets as a free agent in 1995.
He now works for Coca-Cola and is a goaltending coach at the junior level in Binghamton, New York, where he resides, with his wife, three kids, and according to Wikipedia, three cats he doesn't like.
This card sees him sporting a Buffalo Sabres uniform and was obtained in person at a hockey school I attended one summer where he was a guest teacher for a day, probably in the summer of 1995, and I told him how much his speech had affected us and he seemed genuinely surprised, happy and humbled by it; if only now he could see just how much it affected us with the current crop of NHL veterans he helped inspire. It is card #552 (part of the 'extended series' that had rookies and players who'd been traded or forgotten by the initial run of 400 cards) for the 1991-92 Upper Deck set. Despite his equipment all being of the Sabres' colours, his mask bears the Americans' red-white-and-blue - colours also associated with the Jets, oddly enough.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
A friend of mine recently suggested that Brian Hayward was to Patrick Roy what Jaroslav Halak is currently to Carey Price... I had to respectfully disagree.
First off, Hayward did, indeed, play half the team's games, but that was mainly so that Roy could save his energy for the playoffs. It helped a lot that Hayward was a pretty good goalie, too, enough to share the Jennings Trophy with Roy for 3 straight seasons while the Habs were challenging for first place overall, but come April, there was no question who'd be in nets, and he would go on to win an unprecedented three Conn Smythe trophies...
Also, Carey Price has not won anything yet at the NHL level and has yet to prove to be able to eventually keep the #1 goalie job to himself; his poor play is also the main reason behind two early playoff exits in two seasons, something you can't pin on Roy.
And, considering the Stanley Cup is the only championship that matters in the NHL and not the regular-season President's Cup, it's when you separate the boys from the men that it really counts; in that regard, even Hayward is ahead of Price, seeing as he was never the reason behind an early exit and has twice been on a Stanley Cup runner-up team: the 1988-89 Montréal Canadiens, and the 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars. Sure, he was the back-up both times, but behind a great man is a great replacement waiting to take his place (see: Halak, who played behind Cristobal Huet).
Unfortunately for Hayward, after his decent season in Minnesota, he was claimed by the San Jose Sharks in the weirdest dispersal draft in NHL history, where he had to share duties with future Habs #1 goalie Jeff Hackett on the worst team in the league. His GAA was terrible both years (4.92 and 5.55), as were his win-loss records (1-4-0 for 1991-92, 2-14-1 for 1992-93 - while Roy was winning a second Cup and second Conn Smythe in 3 Finals in 8 seasons).
A terrible way to end a career for an honest player who knew the game better than most.
This 1987-88 O-Pee-Chee card (the Canadian version of Topps that usually included more cards than its American counterpart, for some reason) was sent and received by mail when Hayward was a correspondent for CBC's Hockey Night In Canada, signed very clearly in black sharpie.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Ah, Marcel Hossa. Probably the biggest bust in recent Montréal Canadiens history. In a team known for disappointing first-round draft picks, this one might have hurt the most. They chose him, of course, because he's Marian's little brother, and they were hoping he had some of his sibling's hockey genes - and he did, although, obviously, less. The problem is he doesn't have Marian's work ethic.
Drafted in June 2000, he had yet to average a point per game in juniors (a feat he did achieve the following year), so taking him in the first round put undue pressure on him to perform at a high level, especially when picked ahead of fellow first rounders Brooks Orpik, Alexander Frolov, Anton Volchenkov, Brad Boyes and Niklas Kronwall and other 2000 picks Nick Schultz, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jarrett Stoll, Antoine Vermette, Dan Ellis, Paul Martin, Michael Rupp, Ramzi Abid, Kurt Sauer, Dominic Moore, Niclas Wallin, Lubomir Visnovsky, Michel Ouellet, Travis Moen, John-Michael Liles, Roman Cechmanek, Paul Gaustad, Jean-Philippe Côté, and a certain goalie named Henrik Lundqvist.
While in the Canadiens' organization, he managed just 17 points (9 goals) in 44 NHL games, as well as 104 points (54 goals) in 144 games with their AHL affiliates Citadelles de Québec and Hamilton Bulldogs.
The Habs traded him to the New York Rangers for semi-tough utility player Garth Murray, before they gave up on him themselves and sent him packing to the Phoenix Coyotes. He currently plays for the Dinamo Riga of the KHL.
These autographs were gathered in person at the Canadiens' Jamboree outside the Bell Centre right before the 2002-03 season got under way - a season he began in the AHL, as he was sent down to the Bulldogs just a couple of days after I met him.
It was a bizarre day in September, where the barricaded area in front of the team's home arena held mostly children and overweight adult, and all the players were signing whatever was presented to them, but most people were after José Théodore (who had just won the Vézina and Hart trophies), Saku Koivu (the team captain who had just won the Bill Masterton trophy and beaten cancer), and local-boy star-to-be Mike Ribeiro. Those three shared the main booth in the middle of the staging area, while the rest of the players walked around and roamed to see the different kiosks set up to please fans. A few of those other players seemed to find the event bizarre, such as Donald Audette, who was taken aback by kids screaming his last name ''Hey Audette, sign this'', and not even showing a glimpse of politeness, while others didn't really look like they wanted to be there at all (read my account of meeting Jeff Hackett here, and Éric Chouinard here, both from the same day).
What was weirdest about that day was the one player management had high hopes on and were trying to sell to fans was standing in one corner, all alone, by himself. Either no one recognized Hossa, or no one really cared about the player who was still a considered rookie despite having already played 10 games in the NHL (3 goals, 1 assist - 4 points - and 2 penalty minutes and a +2 rating). He really looked bored out of his mind but intent on staying outside for the complete half-hour the team was ''strongly suggesting'' its players to stay out for, so I went up to him for a chat. We ended up talking all afternoon, just about uninterrupted.
He was a really cool guy, relaxed, apparently not adverse to having a good time, without giving into excess like others I'd met or played with. We talked about my own junior career, which had ended just about when his started and he inquired about the City, its night life, its Culture, its landmarks, its districts. He was eager to learn and time just flew by. We even made plans to meet up once in a while for food and/or drinks, so he could learn about his new surroundings.
Unfortunately, since he was sent to Hamilton, those plans were not to be. And having seen last season how certain people can become a bad influence on hockey players (and with Ribeiro and Theodore primed to get on the party train themselves), I'm not sure an independent musician who gets paid as often in drinks as he does in cash would have been seen by the organization as the ideal person to have around one of its players...
All in all, though, it was a really good day. He signed both of my cards and even complained about Upper Deck's lack of originality for having put the same picture on two of their different brands' cards (a situation I had seen years earlier with Alain Chevrier's Pro Set and O-Pee-Chee cards). He signed the 2002-03 Victory card (#115) in blue sharpie and, upon realizing the ink was coming off and smudging (that was before I heard that erasers can help keep ink in by removing some of the cards' polish), he signed the 2002-03 Vintage (#336) Rookie card in black.
His signature is the exact same both times, looking like a # sign, followed by a dude wearing a hat and a Japanese-looking sign for ''fish'' underneath, but he swears it says 'Marcel Hossa', and I believe him.
After last night's amazing Saints-Vikings game, I had to do another (American) football post. I looked in my stashes and boxes and closets for a Drew Brees card - or any other Saint, for that matter - and just couldn't find one, so I turned to Kurt Warner, the one guy I wanted to make a difference against New Orleans, even though I'm now rooting for them.
But before that, a little history. I could start with his accomplishments, or name the numerous obstacles he's faced on his way to Football Immortality - and I'll mix both. His story is so amazing, he'll probably end up being knwon as Mr. Second, because he always seems to achieve so much more than expected, yet rarely actually break records. Well, that's not true, he has broken a few, but still...
First off, coming out of College (Northern Iowa), Warner went undrafted. Sure, the Green Bay Packers gave him a tryout in 1994, but they had Brett Favre, so they were set - and they didn't think Warner was ready for the NFL.
So he returned to Iowa, where he (now famously) work as a sales clerk, stocking shelves at the local Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, for $5.50 an hour - and went back to his alma mater to serve as assistant coach. With no NFL team willing to give him a shot, he accepted a job as quarterback in the Arena Football League, with the Iowa Barnstormers, starting 1995, which he kept until the end of the 1997 season. He was a First All Star Team member for both 1996 and 1997.
When 1998 came along, the St. Louis Rams offered him a contract and immediately sent him to the Amsterdam Admirals of the NFL Europe league, formerly known as the World League Of American Football, which included the Montréal Machine, of whom I have seen every home game in person. It didn't take long for Warner to make an impact on the league: he ended the season as the league leader in touchdowns and passing yards.
The Rams didn't really have a choice to bring him back to North America, and he was named the team's third-string quarterback. When the first two QBs were released by the team before the start of the 1999, they even went so far as to sign another #1 quarterback, thus 'half-promoting' Warner to second-string, but not showing enough confidence in him to give him the reins. Nevertheless, when Trent Green got injured in a preseason game, despite coach Dick Vermeil's reticence, Warner was given his chance, and he did not disappoint, putting together one of the best seasons in NFL history, with 4353 passing years, a completion rate of 65.1%, and 41 touchdown passes - including three in each of his first three games, a league record. He was named NFL MVP before the year ended, and won the Super Bowl (and, yes, he was the game's MVP).
Warner has a knack for records, so he started the 2000 campaign tying another one (held by Steve Young) - six straight games with at least 300 passing yards in each one. An injury and a poor defensive unit killed any hopes of a repeat championship, but 2001 again led the league in touchdown passes (36) and passing yards (4830, third all-time behind Dan Marino and Brees). Oddly enough, while he completed a terrific (amazing?) 68.7% of his passes, he threw a whopping 22 interceptions - Favre-like numbers. He again was named NFL MVP, got another team record under his belt (first team ever to be 6-0 to start a season three years in a row) and again led his team to the Super Bowl, throwing for 365 yards (second-highest total in history) but losing to the New England Patriots on a time-expired field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
While 2002 and 2003 were riddled with injuries (a broken hand that never healed properly), he signed with the New York Giants in 2004, winning 5 of his first 7 starts. Then he lost two more (for a 5-4 record) and the Giants decided it was time to groom Eli Manning for the starting position, and they remained with the youngster despite being 1-6 with him.
2005 saw him signed to the Arizona Cardinals, but again injuries got the better of him. By 2006, however, Warner reached the 20,000-yard milestone in his 76th career game - one game more than NFL record-holder Dan Marino. He struggled for most of the season, though, and had to share time with Matt Leinart. In 2007, despite again sharing duties with Leinart, Warner threw 27 TD passes, just one shy of the team's record.
He made up for that in 2008 when he threw 30, with 4583 passing yards and a completion rate of 69.9%. Then post-season time came, and he really got into a groove. He led his team to the Super Bowl and, again, fell just short, losing 27-23 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite throwing for 377 yards - yep, you guessed it - the second highest total in history.
2009 came along and, once again, it was record-breaking time: a week after my birthday, he broke the NFL’s single-game record for completion percentage in the regular season, completing 24 of 26 passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, you read right - 26 attempted passes, his receivers caught 24 of them; neither the receivers nor the QB made any mistakes. That's a completion rate of 92.3%, kiddos, it's ridiculous. He then started the month of November passing his 14,000th yard for the Cardinals - becoming the only QB in league history to throw for over 14,000 yards for two different teams. In early December, he registered his fourth consecutive game with a passer rating of 120 or better, making him... the second quarterback in NFL history to accomplish the feat. And later that month, he became... the second quarterback in NFL history to throw 100 touchdown passes with two different teams.
Earlier this month, his Cardinals defeated the Packers 51-45, the highest-scoring game in NFL playoff history. He accomplished a rare feat - having more TD passes (5) in a playoff game than incompletions (4), and finished the game with the... second highest quarterback rating in NFL playoff history, at 154.1.
And just last week, his team had a shot at beating the Saints, but he was injured early on and the Saints' lead was unreachable, despite Warner attempting to come back in the final (second, of course) half.
At age 38, he's closer to the end of his career than he was 15 years ago. Unfortunately, his career seems to follow a pattern of long good and bad streaks, and is that's correct, the next couple of seasons could be riddled with injuries, which could lead him to retiring a broken old man rather than a winner . But he'll always be a fighter, a beater of odds, a guy who achieves things on grandiose levels, maybe even in that category the... second one you'll think about, after Tom Brady.
This card, a 2009 Topps Historical Commemorative Patch card (card # PPR43), despite being released while Warner is a Cardinal, actually sports him as a Ram, commemorating his Super Bowl XXXV appearance. The only downside to it is that it's not an actual, official patch, and I quote Topps from the back of the card:
Featured on the front of this card is a patch commemorating Super Bowl XXXV which featured Kurt Warner.I kind of wish I had known that before I bought it on Ebay, but it's also nice to have a special Warner card in my collection.
The commemorative patch embedded in this card is a replica of a logo of either a historic NFL Pro Bowl game or a classic NFL Super Bowl. The relic contained in this card is not from any game or season.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Sure, Martin Brodeur is playing the Canadiens tonight, chances are he'll get another shutout, further surpassing Terry Sawchuk, leading the league once again, heading into the Olympics where his team will be favoured to win gold. And chances are he'll add another Vezina trophy to his filing cabinet, and further cement his (undeserved) reputation as ''the best goalie of all time''. Yawn.
The problem with that is that for the past 5 years, Miikka Kiprusoff has been the best goalie in the NHL. He's deserved at least 3 Vezina trophies in that span (Tim Thomas and Evgeni Nabokov could/should have had the others, and maybe one for Roberto Luongo), but Brodeur has practically won them all in what is nothing short of highway robbery.
History will remember Brodeur as the winningest goalie in NHL history, the one with the most shutouts, and the guy who has won most Vezinas in the 2000s, while Dominik Hasek has won the most in the 1990s. Both those facts erase and tarnish the fact that Patrick Roy was the better goalie for most of those two decades (he's even beaten Brodeur in their only Stanley Cup confrontation that went all the way to 7 games, no less), and that, following Roy's retirement, Kiprusoff backstopped a team that wasn't loaded with talent to a Cup Final and several decent regular seasons.
History might also forget that when Brodeur missed half a season to injuries, his replacement, Scott Clemmenson, who had never before played in more than 12 NHL games in a season, played 40, going 25-13-1, a 2.39 GAA (2 shutouts) and a .917 save %; a career backup with stats that rival Brodeur's. Don't tell me it isn't about the system they're playing in. In comparison, when Kipper isn't playing, the Flames usually resort to putting Curtis McElhinney in nets, who has never posted a better-then-.500 record and lets over 3 goals a game in. Kiprusoff, meanwhile, holds the modern-day record for lowest goals-against average in a season, with 1.69...
He has also backstopped Finland to three surprising (considering the country lacks the depth of Canada, Russia, Sweden and Team USA) silver medals: at the 1999 and 2001 World Championships, as well as the 2004 World Cup.
Not bad for a guy who was the Sharks' third-string goalie when the Calgary Flames took a chance on him for a second-round pick.
He is also notable for giving $10 for every save he makes during a season to children's charities - and with the amount of rubber he turns away, that's a hefty sum.
This particular card, from Upper Deck's 2007-08 Trilogy series (Honorary Swatches sub-set, card # HS-MK) shows Kipper in his white Flames jersey moving from right to left to, presumably, make a great pad save before sprawling for the rebound in spectacular fashion for a highlight-reel moment.
For my money, the best goalie of the past 5 years, followed closely by Luongo and Nabokov, with Thomas not too far behind and Cristobal Huet rounding out the Top 5.
With another Montréal-area player in the NFL this year (Samuel Giguère), and one who is close to retiring (Jean-Philippe Darche), I thought it'd be nice to remember the guy who made it all possible: Tshimanga 'Tim' Biakabutuka.
Biakabutuka was born in Kinshasa, Zaïre, in 1974 but moved to Montréal in 1978 - incidentally, the year I was born. His family still lives in the area. He didn't take up playing football until late in high school, but was impressive enough to catch the eye of the Vanier College coaching staff, where his play was so spectacular he was given the nickname 'Touchdown Tim', despite playing running back, a position more about winning yards than scoring.
In fact, he was so good that the University Of Michigan gave him a full scholarship to play football there. And he didn't just show up and phone it in: to this day, he still holds the school's second highest single-game rushing performance, with 313 yards. That performance helped him get drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers in 1996, with the 8th overall pick. He left Michigan with 1818 yards in his final season - a record that still stands to this day.
Unfortunately, injuries got the better of him in the NFL and he was forced out of the line-up in 2001, despite being convinced he could still pull it off. His per-carry numbers are pretty good, but he never played more than 12 games, never carried the ball more than 173 times, and never rushed for more than 718 yards in a single season; Wikipedia calls him a ''first round bust'', but I call him an inspiration for my generation.
This card is from Fleer's 2000 NFL set, the Autographic/Fresh Ink sub-set, showing him in his Panthers' white uniform, ready for a carry.
Mike Richards, this year, is a case I've been wrestling with: so talented, captain of his team (the Philadelphia Flyers), but also guilty of one of the dirtiest hits in the NHL this season - and it's been a season riddled with cheap shots all over. I can deal with his teammate Chris Pronger being talented and vicious, but it's been hard to imagine Richards being made from the same mold. Oh well, the Broad Street Bullies are, indeed, back. He's made the Canadian Olympic team, and he'll join Pronger there, and we'll see how he fares. I don't know how to judge this Olympic team, either; it has enough talent to win the gold, but also the intangibles to finish 5th behind the Russians, Swedes, Finns and Slovaks. Mind you, I have the same hesitations about the Russian and Swedish teams.
Here's a card from when he was just a rookie behind a talented offensive cast with the Flyers- full of promise, far from the scrutiny and pressure he's under now. The year was 2005-06, the set was Fleer's Fleer Ultra, and the sub-set was Rookie Uniformity, where players pose for the camera on the ice and, seemingly, the jerseys worn are introduced on the card, at the time an inventive way to offer player memorabilia before anyone else, even if it's never actually been used in a meaningful setting. The thought process, at the time, was: if autographed cards have barely been in the athlete's hands, why would collectors complain about a jersey that was at least worn for a couple of minutes by the player. Times change, I guess.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Unlike baseball and basketball, American football is a sport I watch almost as much as hockey. It's a spectacular and brutal sport, managed by the most serious and credible professional league in North America, perhaps the world - the NFL. If NFL teams would each face each other at least once, and the playoffs were a best-of-something (ideally 7), it could be considered the most grueling team sport around; unfortunately, for my money, NHL hockey still holds the crown, with up to 10 pre-season games, 82 regular-season games spread over the continent, followed by four best-of-seven series, with yearly World Championships and Olympics every four years for the best of them.
The NFL has a few storied franchises, a feat considering the Super Bowl was first appointed the same year the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a Stanley Cup - 1967. One such team is the Denver Broncos, Super Bowl winners in 1997 and 1998. While they've endured hard times in the 00s, they seem to be on the verge of great things again.
A good reason for that is Brandon Marshall. Chosen with the 119th pick (4th round) in the 2006 draft, he's already made a name for himself for his punishing hits - an unusual fact considering he's a wide receiver, bound to get hit more often than dishing it out. Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was even quoted as saying: ''he's the toughest guy to bring down, one-on-one.''
His name is also already in the NFL's record books as the receiver with the most receptions in a game, with an astonishing 21 (achieved December 13th, 2009). He is also one of only five players in NFL history to catch at least 100 passes in three consecutive seasons.
This current card, while not quite ''the whole nine yards'' like a Chris Davis card I've mentioned before, is still a unique collectible - it's both a game-worn jersey card and rookie card. It is card #BS-BM from Topps' 2006 Bowman Sterling series.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
I guess I could have waiting 9 more months before talking about this card... Mr. October. Sure, that title was originally bestowed upon New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson, who had a knack of delivering his best performances come playoff time, but the hockey world had one too: Brian Savage.
Savage had a knack for scoring three quarters of his goals in the first month and a half of play, and slumping for just about the rest of the year. He is also one of the rare athletes with balls big enough to negotiate a contract under false pretenses - and win; indeed, he signed a very lucrative deal with the Montréal Canadiens claiming: ''You know I'm a 30-goal scorer''... a feat he never achieved - not even once - in the NHL. In Montréal, he'd attained 26, 25 and 23 at that point (again, most of them coming early in the season), but never 30. And the most he'd score elsewhere would be... 12.
Apart from his nickname, Savage also has the dubious distinction of having been a first-line winger for the worst half-decade in Habs history.
Part of what I deem the worst card series of all time (more details here), Upper Deck's 1995-96 Be A Player series bearing no NHL team's logo anywhere, this is card #S138.
I pretty much stopped caring about baseball following the players' strike in 1994; that, in itself, turned into hatred for the sport in late 2001 when my hometown Montréal Expos were done being dismantled by then-majority owner Jeffrey Loria and 'sold' to Major League Baseball in one of the shadiest deals in the history of the business world.
But for much of the 80s and half of the 90s, it was a sport I would at times partake in with friends, and one I would go see at least 10 times each summer, despite the Olympic Stadium's not-quite-ideal location.
One guy that always gave my team a lot of trouble was Houston Astros' third baseman Ken Caminiti, and the team we'd always have to beat to win our division and make the playoffs were the Atlanta Braves. This Topps card (card #TTR-KC from the 2001 Topps Traded And Rookies set) combines both headache-and-nightmare inducing entities in just one, with an authentic piece of a game-used baseball bat that he likely used to crush the Expos with.
Caminiti's fate, however, is symptomatic of the rampant corruption of the sport from the 90s onwards and of the little care its owners took in ensuring the players - their product, as it were - remain healthy and receive the medical and psychological help they need.
Like many others named in the 2004 Mitchell Report on steroid use - and countless others who got away with it - Caminiti was a bona fide star player, one of the, say, 3 best players on his team; he would bat for .250, hit over 20 home runs, and had the potential to go .300 with 30 homers.
By 1994, he had already admitted to an alcohol problem (one he would not enter rehab for until 2000, though, for some odd reason). Cocaine use was also an issue. By 1996, he'd added steroids to the mix, but instead of people finding his character had changed, he was praised for his new-found power and he won the National League MVP award, batting .326 with 40 home runs, almost double his previous season's numbers. No one found it strange.
In 2001, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and sentenced to probation. In 2002, in a Sports Illustrated cover story, he admitted to steroid use during his MVP season, and even a few seasons after that (likely the end of 1999, when injuries brought his home run totals down to 13, from 29 the previous year).
In September 2004, he was sentenced to 180 days in prison for having been caught with cocaine again - for the fourth time. On October 5th, he admitted in court to having violated his probation (i.e. been taking coke the whole time), and, five days later, was found dead of a heart failure.
Autopsy results showed coronary artery disease and heart hypertrophy (an enlarged heart, a condition that occurs more and more in the sports world when drugs are involved, someone should look into that) but, more importantly, that it was caused by ''an acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates'', meaning a drug overdose, resulting from a mix of either cocaine and heroin, or cocaine and a legal form of opiates, maybe Oxycontin.
So, not content in being a star player, Caminiti, already using illegal substances and judgement-impaired, chose to enhance his performance for what turned out to be one magical season, in exchange for dying at age 41 in the Bronx, where he seemingly had no business going.
He and at least 89 other players risked their health under the complicit eye of Major League Baseball, who cared less about taking care of its primary source of revenue than putting asses in the seats, and since inflated statistics meant higher ratings and more revenue, they refused to question the obvious.
It's natural for a professional sports league to have 25 to 40 superstars to sell to their public, but when records are shattered every year by previously unheralded players, and suddenly 200 players have superstar stats, not only is the whole situation questinable, it must also be hell for the league's PR department, who no longer have a clue who to promote and make money off of.
It's too bad guys like Caminiti went this route; he'd had a good career, and it could have been twice as long should he not have risked it for one season. Like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, he didn't need to enhance hi body's already-impressive capabilities - they were all already All Star Game material. And their cheating undermines the exploits of past baseball greats like Felipe Alou, Tim Raines (despite a short bout of cocaine use), Dennis Martinez (as well), Andre Dawson, Babe Ruth (despite his drunkenness), Ken Griffey Sr, Willie Mays and countless others.
It's a shame, it really is, but you lnow what? Given the way MLB has treated my City and the two million people that went to see the Expos when the going was good, it'S also just what it deserves. When you disrespect the fans who pay to see your show, and the players they pay to see, it has to blow up in your face at some point. And I'm glad to see the NFL - a real league with decency rules overseeing an exciting sport - stepped in to steal MLB's TV ratings. Karma's a bitch.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
As I've mentioned in the previous post, I wasn't sure what angle to take when it comes to this player. On one hand, his achievements should speak for themselves; many view him as one of the best defensemen of all time. On the other, he's never had to prove himself on his own, as he always had a supporting cast of superstars to make him look good. So I decided to have it both ways: one post full of positive achievements (this one), and one that concentrates more on a few of his shortcomings.
First of all, not everyone gets drafted in the first round; it's even harder to make it to the top-3. He has. And it's even more difficult, at #3, to have better careers than both guys who were taken before you. Chosen after Eric Lindros and Pat Falloon, Scott Niedermayer has certainly done just that.
Drafted just fresh of a World Junior Championships gold medal, Niedermayer took his momentum to the 1992 Memorial Cup, where he gathered both the trophy with his team, and the tournament's MVP award (the Stafford Smythe Memorial trophy). Then he made the NHL All-Rookie team for 1992-93 (despite losing the Calder trophy to future teammate Teemu Selanne).
In 1994-95, he and the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup, riding Claude Lemieux and Martin Brodeur's coattails to the title against the Detroit Red Wings. He'd win another one with teh Devils in 1999-00, and one with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07.
In international play, he holds a World Junior gold (1991), a World Junior disappointment (1992), World Cup gold (2004) and silver (1996) medals, Olympic gold (2002), and World Championship gold (2004).
In that regard, he is thought to be the only player to hold all meaning full North American team titles, although I think his missing the AHL's Calder Cup should account for something.
He is also the only defenseman to have won the Norris trophy other than the Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom between 2001 and 2008 (he won it in 2004).
He has played in 4 All Star games, but was named to 5 (he didn't play in the 2006-07 All Star game).
This card is from Upper Deck's 2008-09 Be A Player collection and shows the Anaheim Ducks' jersey prominently; the autograph is from a black sharpie on a transparent sticker that was put on the card.
I wasn't sure what angle to go with this player. On one hand, he's great. On the other, he's never had to prove himself on his own, as he always had a supporting cast of superstars to make him look good. So I decided to have it both ways: one post full of positive achievements, one (this one) more, shall I say... realistic.
The draft isn't an exact science; Scott Niedermayer was chosen 3rd overall in 1991, behind Eric Lindros and Pat Falloon, but ahead of Peter Forsberg and Alexei Kovalev... (for the record, my draft order would have been Forsberg, Niedermayer, Kovalev, Ozolinsh, Lindros, Palffy, Rolston, Naslund, Perreault, Falloon)
There were high expectations for Niedermayer coming off a World Juniors championship, but he had the luxury of playing behind Scott Stevens, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Bruce Driver - and alongside Eric Weinrich and Ken Daneyko - not too shabby. Not to mention that, should any of the defensemen make a mistake, chances are goalie Martin Brodeur would correct it.
Much has been said of Niedermayer's speed and prowess to start up an attack, but it helps when the guys you can pass the puck to are finishers like Peter Stastny, Claude Lemieux and Stéphane Richer to start, and later Patrick Elias, Alexander Mogilny, Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott...
That's in addition to playing in the trap-controlled New Jersey Devils system.
And then he was named captain of the team, only to leave it in 2005 to join the Mighty Ducks Of Anaheim, where his brother played, a team that had reached the Cup Finals two years before and that could still hope to attain it again, with a goaltending tandem comprised of Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Russian Olympian Ilya Bryzgalov, in addition to proven scorers like Teemu Selanne - willing to play in Anaheim almost for free - kids like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry - and the best defensive line in the league (led by Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer).
But he couldn't make it on his own as the sole leader on the D, so the team went and got Chris Pronger from the Edmonton Oilers to help hold the fort, fresh off a Cup Finals in which he was favourite to win the Conn Smythe had his team won. And Pronger took Niedermayer and the rest of the boys to the promised land.
Sure, Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe that year, but the main reason he did was that the league couldn't possibly give it to Pronger after he'd been suspended twice in the playoffs - and Giguère already had one, for which he had been more than spectacular, in a losing cause, and since that particular trophy doesn't come easy (only one player has won it three times, Patrick Roy) they couldn't just hand it to him again on such a powerhouse team that could have won it five times in a row. So Niedermayer got the pity vote.
After that, he contemplated retirement. Contemplated, yes, but he couldn't quite get to it. Every day, from the start of training camp to the month of December, journalists inquired his teammates about his possible return or retirement. He was a distraction for the first 28 games of the season before he announced he'd be coming back - even after the team had already named another captain (Pronger). His return, instead of sparking his team, just added to the confusion, as they were ousted in the very first round against the Dallas Stars. Some leader, eh?
Also note that this beating around the bush occured in the summer of 2007; we are currently in 2010, and he's still playing. Pronger and François Beauchemin (the other member of the Anaheim Big Three) are gone and, coincidentally, probably, the Ducks could very well miss the playoffs. And what's the biggest story to come out of Anaheim these days? That their captain may have requested a trade to a contender.
Smells like team spirit, eh?
On this card, you can see him wearing the last jersey of the Mighty Ducks - before they became, simply, the Anaheim Ducks. Notice how they were going for a retro feel. This is card #GJ-SN of the 2006-07 Upper Deck Series 1 collection, and sports a white jersey patch.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
I can be a mean bastard at times. For example, if you ask me about a Dynasty from the 80s, I'll name the Edmonton Oilers; if you find a way to get me to admit the New York Islanders are worth remembering, I'll show lots of love to Mike Bossy, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin; I might take the chance and mention that Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom may have been good players, but not good enough for Hall Of Fame credentials.
It could be hours before we realize we haven't uttered a single word about Bryan Trottier.
Why is that?
We're talking about a guy who won the Art Ross trophy, the hart, the Conn Smythe, and who held the rookie scoring record until Peter Stastny obliterated it - and four Stanley Cups - two on Long Island, and two as a role player for the Pittsburgh Penguins, supporting a cast led by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Tom Barrasso, Ulf Samuelsson and young nobodies who made their way to 100-point seasons just breathing the same air as those guys.
And that just might be it: he was never the go-to guy. With the Islanders, Bossy was counted upon to provide the bulk of the offense (which usually happens when you hold an NHL record like ''most consecutive 50-goal seasons'' with 9, out of 10 years playing). And his 2 Cups in Pittsburgh came during 28- and 29-point seasons, in years when Kevin Stevens accumulated 123 points, a 34-year old Joe Mullen got 87, Mark Recchi got 70 in 58 games, Rick Tocchet got 30 in 19...
He got his name on another Cup conquest in 2001, the year Patrick Roy's Colorado Avalanche beat out Martin Brodeur's New Jersey Devils in the only Game 7 where they have faced each other; Trottier was an assistant coach to Bob Hartley. He also made a very brief head coaching stint for the New York Rangers in 2002-03, going 21-27-6 (for a .454 record) in 54 games, a team that had a roster with such stars/mercenaries as Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Petr Nedved, Pavel Bure, Bobby Holik, Brian Leetch, Radek Dvorak, Alexei Kovalev, Vladimir Malakhov, Darius Kasparaitis, Anson Carter, Sylvain Lefebvre, Mike Richter, Mike Dunham and Tom Poti.
Oh - and despite having been born in Saskatchewan, he chose to take part in the 1984 Canada Cup as a member of Team USA, trying to find every excuse possible to do so: his wife was American, he held a U.S. passport, his grandmother was part-Chippewa, giving him both Canadian and U.S-citizenship.
Still - he was an important part of perhaps the most forgotten Dynasty in hockey: the Islanders of the early 80s, the link between the late-70s Habs and 80s Oilers, a team whose offense could and would strike down on any team in the league while their defense shut every other offense down, and if shots ever managed to make it through to the goalie, they had the manpower there to shut the door still.
Sure, they were eventually surpassed by the Oilers in every way possible, but they laid the blueprint down for what the kids from Edmonton had to do to become champions, beating them for the fourth and final Cup of their wonder years.
Seeing the empty seats at Islanders' games these days, though, you have to wonder if it was all for nothing...
This card (WM-BT) is from Upper Deck's 2006-07 SPX Series, the Winning Materials sub-set, and sports two swatches - one white, one half-red and half-blue, for a total of three different colours, and is in high demand; I've seen a card with two all-white swatches go for over $20 on Ebay, so this one being rarer could net possibly three times as much.