Fighting for Fighting

John Scott of the Buffalo Sabres pulled back from his pursuit of the puck on Thursday night and three things happened. First, Scott skated in the opposite direction of the puck and towards the others teams benched in a calm manner, which provoked the question if he was concussed (he was not), and if he was going to try and take a seat on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench. Second, Scott sought out Franzer McLaren, who had just come on to the ice as the Leafs were in the midst of changing their lines, and positioned himself between McLaren and the Leaf’s bench. Third, Scott shoved McLaren and the gauntlet was cast onto the ice.

The ensuing affray took 32 seconds as both men used their left arms, fully extended, to keep the distance but using their opposite arms to throw deft right-hooks at one another. That fight was Scott’s fourth of the year and the footage of the battle is telling. There were five bystanders of the fisticuffs in total; two were Leafs, and McLaren’s teammates, and the other three were referees. There is an obvious increase in amplitude from the crowd within the Air Canada Centre as well as commentator Barry Melrose remarking that Scott was, “…just trying to rile up his team.”

There is an aboriginal argument in the National Hockey League about fighting – on one side it is a masculine part of a game that allows disputes to be settled in a gentlemanly way akin to dueling was during the 19th century. The opposing faction claims that fighting denigrates the sport and that Olympic and Junior hockey made altercations such as Scott’s taboo for a purpose.

For some men, like John Scott, all they do is fight. Scott averages 3:52 on the ice per game, and over his career (163 games) he has spent 262 minutes in the Sin Bin. Kindly, men of the same breed as Scott are dubbed “enforcers” while harshly they are termed “goons” and these men may do a little of both. They are big men on skates who do little to nothing else than waylay players on other teams who harass their team’s star a little more than the coach may like. In fact, Matthew Barnaby, who recorded 300 points in a 14-year NHL career, called out Scott, tweeting, “He’s big, he’s tough, but he couldn’t make my bantam hockey team” which referenced Barnaby’s son’s team – which Barnaby coaches – for under-11 boys. Barnaby means that Scott, who wouldn’t fight in Junior leagues, is not a good enough skater, shooter, passer or defender to be valuable even at that level.

While it may not seem like it, there are regulations concerning fighting in the NHL. A player may not be suspended for one fight, but they receive 5-minute majors. Using a weapon (stick, skate, etc.) carries harsh consequences, and coaches can be severely reprimanded for allowing bench players to agglutinate into the brawl. Basically those rules ensure that if two men have a disagreement, they solve it themselves.

Those cynical of boxing on the ice purport that it injures players, that it is a barbaric encampment in the sport and diminishes hockey’s integrity.

When it comes to injuring players, head of the NHL Players Association, Paul Kelly, says, “players need to keep a helmet on during the course of a fight, and perhaps require officials to step in if a helmet comes off during a fight.” Considering that helmets come off in a vast majority of the fights in the NHL – and that the NHL averages .53 fights per game – Kelly touches on a pertinent issue. My discrepancy with Kelly’s suggestion is that if a player is punching plastic and metal rivets rather than a person, are they not more susceptible to breaking their hand or wrist on a higher percentage of fights than players are already injured now? As of now nearly all fights end in a trip to the penalty box and not a trip to the trainer. In fact, in a study by HealthDay, in over 1200 games and 700 fights during the 2010-11 season, there were only 17 reported injuries – and five of them were knuckles. That’s 2.3% of fights are injurious.

In response to fighting’s barbarousness, it’s no more savage than an NFL safety coming across the middle and clocking an unsuspecting Wide Receiver on a crossing route, it’s no more crude than the sport boxing itself at which many esteemed patrons cheer as the combatants slug each other in the face repeatedly. And what about the UFC? UFC with all its submission holds and broken noses and blood is the fastest-growing sport in today’s America (by TV viewership and event attendance). In those sports, plays like that are accepted. Is fighting in the NHL barbarous or is it traditional? Such occurrences in sports like football, boxing and the UFC are considered “how the game is played” and that’s just how the NHL is too.

Where the ‘fighting diminishes hockey’s integrity is concerned’ I would say it is the exact converse. Gamesmanship is increased by the skirmishing. If two men have a problem with one another, or their playing styles, the pair set down their gloves and sticks and have a battle royal. That is far preferable to throwing a Matt Cooke-esque elbow or a player dealing with their frustrations in a similar fashion to Sean Avery. During fighting, both players are face to face and can see the fists coming; there is a certain pride in acknowledging your opponent and letting the tougher man claim victory. In a Cooke or Avery style of altercation (which would be prevalent if there was a ban on fighting) there is no warning, usually the victim is neither watching nor aware, and weapons don’t stop at fists. Skates, elbows, and sticks are far more dangerous than fists. Fighting allows players to relieve their frustrations, punch it out, and head to the penalty box to calm themselves for 5 minutes. If fighting was illegal, there would be a substantial increase in dirty play – which would certainly reduce ‘integrity of the game.’

I would even argue that fighting brings honor to the rink. It shows camaraderie – one teammate standing up for another and saying “I have your back.” Fighting is also a part of the unwritten code that NHL-ers adhere to, guidelines for the players and by the players – it’s them saying, “If one of your guys cheap shots our guys, there’ll be hell to pay.” They fight for respect and they fight for each other.

Hockey fighting is so engrained in today’s society that there is a website dedicated solely to it (hockeyfights.com) where fans can vote on the winner, watch highlights, and see statistics on a players fights throughout their career. Removing fighting would certainly incite anger in an NHL fan-base that already is full of discontent because of the many strikes in the past few years.

Also, is there any strategy to fighting? Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton tangled with Scott on Jan. 31st in their game and was – unusually – beaten. First, Thornton, who held no hard feelings, remarked that at least he lost to “a guy who was 6’8” rather than 5’8”.” Second, many callers into the Boston sports talk show ‘Dennis & Callahan’ on WEEI 93.7 were complaining that Bruins big Defenseman Zdeno Chara didn’t stick up for Thornton by ambuscading Scott. Callahan was astounded, saying that that’s exactly what the Sabres wanted, Scott – who plays three minutes a game – would take the beating for the team if it meant that Chara – one of the NHLs premiere Defenseman – would sit in the Sin Bin for five minutes as well. Scott for Chara is a swap that many would take and it would weaken the Bruins defense while the Sabres give up a man who barely plays.

For all the negativity surrounding fighting: the supposed injuries and the degradation of the sport, it appears that hockey has succeeded (and remained healthy) for years with it. While pundits continue to fight about fighting, the players will play by the code and hockey will continue on continuing on.

If fighting isn’t dangerous and it’s a part of hockey – the game we all already love – why remove it?

The NBA Fading-Star Weekend

The NBA is a model business. Their business strategy is incredible, their marketing – impeccable. The exposure and shopping of their most famous faces are everywhere. Households names like LeBron, Kobe, and Carmelo are recognized by even non-basketball fans. Shoes, jerseys, and media-wise, they have outdone every other sport and have maximized their popularity in America – as well as internationally with forays into China and India. The NBA has done nearly everything right (as we’ll forget about the lockout last fall) and has turned their enterprise into a money-printing machine.

Nearly everything.

Even the end of the lockout last year worked out perfectly for the Association. The exciting storyline painted LeBron James as a man taking on the entire League and leading his Miami Heat to his first NBA title. LeBron’s reclamation from his egotistical remarks at the beginning of his career in Miami – especially at the event in the America Airlines Arena in which he proclaimed the infamous “Not 1, not 2, not 3…” – marked him leaving his critics speechless and showing that he can play in the clutch. He dismantled the entire Oklahoma City roster and their own star, Kevin Durant, en route.

The 2013 All-Star event in Houston last weekend was an embarrassing pockmark on the Association’s otherwise successful operation.

Let’s start with the dunk contest.

Terrence Ross defeated Jeremy Evans in the 62nd NBA All-Star weekend Saturday night with his slam in which he went over a child while simultaneously through his legs. In the replay, it’s shown that Ross just missed curb-stomping that poor ball-boy’s cranium into the polished hardwood in Houston. While the danger-level may have been high, overall, the dunk was rather anti-climatic to the contest overall and the NBA knew it.

Complaints about the Dunk Contest have surfaced that there isn’t enough star-power. In fact, the contestants from Saturday night aren’t even used to being on the court. James “Flight” White averages six minutes per game with the New York Knicks this season. Speaking of “Flight” – he sure did fly on Saturday…nine times down the court – running the full length of the court for a reason that no one besides White seemed to know – and missing every attempt, including his bonus try. The same went for Gerald Green whose performance was upstaged by the Houston man who supplanted the Pacers Guard in the “Excitement Provider” category when he hung a new net from the rim with expertise (that after Green cut down the first one on his first dunk). Clearly, not dunking in a dunking competition is not a good thing.

Where’s LeBron, where’s Andre Iguodala, where’s Serge Ibaka? The NBA needs to get stars to re-energize the spectacle; they need showman to compete and pump some energy into a crowd that the professional DJs were having trouble igniting. Shouldn’t LeBron & Co. give back to the game that gave them so much?

Through the television, “MAKE NOISE” could be heard, but equally as loud was the silence that greeted the command. It was discomforting.

None of the dunkers in the contest were in the top 5 this season and only one (Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried, 90 dunks) was in the top 50. All other contestants had less than 30 dunks on the year.

Gone are the days of Michael Jordan battling Dominique Wilkins, gone are the days of Vince Carter’s unreal jams and gone are the days of Superman Dwight Howard being defeated by little-man Kryptonite Nate Robinson – there has always been almost a storyline to the dunk contest and whoever can spin a superior story comes out on top.

The one event that was still watcher-worthy was the three-point contest. The contest was close and exciting as second year sensation Kyrie “Uncle Drew” Irving continued to display his array of talents, winning the three-point contest as he drained 23 from behind the arc. Uncle Drew’s sharpshooting edged out the Spurs big-man Matt Bonner, who scored 20. (Bonner had my backing as we both share the red-head trait and we both hail from the beautiful state of the ‘Shire.)

Almost as fantastic was the news that the All-Star game jerseys would not be like the new Golden State Warriors sleeved-unis.

The All-Star game once again featured less than zero defense as for the 12th year in a row, both teams scored more than 110 points. But that’s normal; offense has exploded during the All-Star game as long as it has existed.

Mid-way through the first quarter, LeBron was stripped by the West’s Chris Paul (the eventual MVP) who tossed the ball ahead to Kobe whose softball toss went to an all-alone Kevin Durant for the reverse jam in which there was nary a defender over the half-court line. Or Chris Paul who jogged to a stop and dutifully reported to the space under the basket to wait for the rock to be slammed home on an alley-oop from Carmelo Anthony to LeBron James.

When Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, blocked two of King LeBron James shots late, it was the first showing of defense since MJ, Isaiah and others took turns testing Magic Johnson in the final four minutes of the 1992 during his return from HIV/AIDs.

It’s nice to see NBA All-Stars go wild with dunks and threes, but it’s tough to care when the game means nothing.

My proposal is that the NBA All-Star game be treated in the same way the Major League Baseball All-Star game is run, where the winner receives home-court advantage in the playoffs. Players would continue to put forth effort, just on both ends of the floor. It would create a more exciting and more meaningful contest to both fans and players – because 16 out of 30 NBA teams make the playoffs and every fan wants their team to have that home-court advantage. Even players that are out of contention would play at a high level out of respect for their perpetually-contending teammates.

The NBA All-Star Weekend (especially the game itself and the Dunk Contest) are broken – and they need to be fixed. Otherwise, it will be referred to as the NBA Fading-Star Weekend.

Pacing Themselves

The Indiana Pacers will win the NBA Championship this season.

There – I said it. In June, kids in Indiana will have more to cheer about than just getting out of school. And at least one kid in New Hampshire will cheer about the same thing.

Remember last year when the Pacers won a convincing Game 3 victory, 94-75, over the offensive juggernaut of Miami in the second round of the playoffs? Remember how they held the Heat to 4-20 from behind the 3-point arc or how they kept the Heat, who averaged 99 points per game, to a mere 74 in that contest OR how about the Pacers’ Tenacious D keeping the Heat to 35% shooting – a full 10% below their normal field goal percentage?

The Pacers can return to that form. Also, when they took that 2-1 lead of the series against LeBron and the Heat, they were in control. Dwyane Wade had fought with Erik Spoelstra, Roy Hibbert was playing out of his mind and Danny Granger’s left knee was still intact.

The Pacers then lost the services of Granger and his left knee to the same injury that claimed Vince Carter in the 2000-01 season. That was detrimental to the Pacers as Granger was their leading scorer for the past five consecutive seasons.

The importance of the Small Forward Danny Granger cannot be understated. He was the leader in the plus-minus category for the Pacers (+6.2), the leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and the physical and emotional General on the Floor for Indiana.

This season Indiana’s defense is just as stingy – tops in the NBA in points per game allowed at 90.2 and best in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage with 41.9% – as compared to a year ago. However, their total team offense has fallen 4.9 points per game in the absence of Granger. Without him, three guards: Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson, have all increased their average scoring output per game by at least five points.

The problem is that even though that trio has increased their scoring the Pacers are only scoring 92.8 points per game on 43% shooting, 28th and 27th out of 30 in the NBA respectively. So even though their prodigious defense keeps teams from scoring, their offensive struggles hinder their efforts to win games.

As Danny Granger returns Wednesday to “get his feet wet,” according to Coach Frank Vogel, he will work his way back to basketball-shape. When Granger gets back in basketball shape he will legitimize the Pacers as a threat in not only the Eastern Conference, but in the NBA.

The Pacers – who finished third in the Eastern Conference a year previous – felt that Granger’s injury may have made the Pacers take a step retrograde to their promising future.

It may have been a disguised blessing as Hill and the two 22-year olds (Stephenson and George) have been able to have larger roles in the offense and learn more on their own without relying on Granger. Another note: no need to worry about chemistry that the ‘New-look Pacers’ may have built up, Granger is (unlike most of today’s superstars) in the middle of his prime and remains a team player. In fact, last year the Pacers were 11-points worse per 48 minutes with Granger off the floor than on and shot 6% worse on field goal attempts.

Even without their Captain, they have excelled against good teams. The top-ranked defenders are 2-0 against the Heat, the top-ranked offense in the NBA, with 87-77 and 102-89 victories. That as well as a 105-95 triumph over the fifth-ranked offense in the Houston Rockets should inspire hope in Indiana.

This year, through their first 51 games – all without their Captain – they’re 31-20 and in third place in the Eastern Conference. So when Danny Granger finally is available for the Pacers, they will become even more dangerous.

The biggest part: as Danny Granger – a good, but not great, defender – returns to the rotation he may give up a bit of defense, but will certainly increase their scoring and therefore, chances to win. Also, as Granger works his way back and becomes stronger with every game played he will be reaching his performance peak around the same time the NBA playoffs start in April and will be playing his best ball of the year when others around the League are fighting off nagging injuries and dealing with overuse.

The Pacers shouldn’t have problems with overuse because the average age of the Pacers roster is 27 years old and Granger is the second-oldest member of the team at the ancient 29-year old mark.

Also, with the leadership of Granger and 32-year old veteran big-man David West and the younger, talented members of their backcourt – the Pacers have all the ingredients to cook a winner winner chicken dinner.

When everyone else is straining for breath at the finish line, the revitalized Pacers will still have gas in the tank. And at playoff time, gas in the tank is money in the bank.

So in response to a question as to why the Pacers have started off slowly this year and aren’t living up to the hype, all that can be said is that they’re Pacing themselves.

What’s it Going to Take?

Joe Flacco won. The 27-year old won two things on Sunday night: his first Super Bowl ring with a 34-31 triumph over the favored San Francisco 49ers on AND he won the money game with the Baltimore Ravens. In a move that took a lot of – as a basketball coach at my high school would say – ‘intestinal fortitude’ – Flacco put off contract negotiations with the team until the end of the season.

I don’t know if Flacco predicted that his season would extend until the first Sunday in February, but he has now bank-rolled the rest of his career (and life) by his performance on Sunday night. That performance under football’s biggest lights (except for 34 minutes on Sunday, of course), will prove to be a large, extensive contract for “The Man” of the Ravens.

He also came home with some unexpected hardware as he collected the ‘Most Valuable Player’ award.

Since 2007, only one non-Quarterback has won the award of ‘Most Valuable Player’ on the game’s biggest stage.

That one exception was Pittsburgh Wide Receiver Santonio Holmes in the 2009 Super Bowl, pitting the Steelers and Cardinals against one another, and Holmes deserved it. After a long Larry Fitzgerald touchdown put the Cardinals up 23-20 with about 2:00 to go, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers down the field and with 35 seconds to go, lofted a pass over three Cardinals defenders to Holmes who, dragging the tips of toes, brought the ball in for the touchdown and the win. That throw became possibly the best pass-and-catch pairing of all time.

Since 2007, the Manning brothers (Eli twice), Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have all captured the MVP trophy and driven off in that brand new ride. Flacco joined that prestigious crew of ‘elite’ Quarterbacks in receiving that award.

The Super Bowl MVPs have all not been worthy in past seasons. Drew Brees won the Super Bowl because of Sean Payton’s gutsy onside kick and an interception return for the touchdown by Tracy Porter, Peyton won because of Vinateri’s three field goals and his defenses five forced turnovers. Also, the first of Eli’s Super Bowl wins in 2007 was due to the luck of David Tyree’s helmet and the stingy defense line more than Eli’s passing.

The same is true, not only in the NFL, but all of football is that way. More value has been placed on the signal-callers of today and 11 out of the last 13 Heisman trophy winners have received the award with the Running-back statue.

I don’t think too much value is being placed in Quarterbacks, it’s only awards-wise that they are over-valued as it takes more than just a man under center to win a football game.

His 287 yards and three touchdowns made a strong case for the fifth year veteran out of Delaware. However, things go deeper than Flacco’s stat line and it leads to the question: did he really deserve the MVP?

Let’s examine his three touchdown passes.

There was a toss over the top to Anquan Boldin, who beat the safety and linebacker, who were in zone-coverage, using the exact same play the Ravens scored twice with against the Patriots just two weeks prior. It was more of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Boldin beating the coverage and being open – all Flacco had to do was loft the ball over the linebacker for six.

Then there was the score to Dennis Pitta. The Ravens had a 3rd & Goal from the 2-yard line and came out in the I-formation. After motioning Vonta Leach into the backfield to provide more protection, they play-action faked to stud Running Back Ray Rice and then Flacco found Pitta wide open in the end-zone for the touchdown.

The third touchdown throw was made great – not by Flacco – but by the receiver, named Jacoby Jones.

Flacco under-threw Jones, who had scorched his man deep, so that Jones had to rotate himself 180o, locate the ball and – as he fell back – he eventually pinned the ball against his facemask, securing the catch. Since Jones reeled the ball, no one had touched him and he had the presence of mind to get up and try to find the goal line.

What happened next I’m sure made Chris Berman give his trademark “Whoop!” twice as Jones spun, lost one defender, stepped back, juked and lost another would-be tackler on his way to the pylon. That last touchdown was good for 56 yards. Other than throwing the ball, Flacco was not responsible for the score.

Jacoby Jones didn’t stop there as the New Orleans native went off for his hometown in the victory.

In fact, the only thing that could stop Jones was the Superdome’s 34-minute power outage.

He wasn’t just great, he was historic. Jones had a reservation for six as he returned the second half opening kickoff 108-yards. That set the record for the longest return in Super Bowl history, and he also is the only player in Super Bowl history to run one back and to catch a TD. Jones also broke Desmond Howard’s record, which he set in Super Bowl XXXI for the Packers, with 244 all-purpose yards. Jones had 289.

So yes, Flacco threw for three touchdowns – but so have three other Quarterbacks in the last decade of Super Bowls. Jones also did that while in front of his hometown on the game’s biggest stage, setting or tying four records. Jones did leave with the hand-fitting of a Super Bowl ring, but that’s not the only hardware he should own.

And that leaves Jacoby Jones asking, when it comes to the Super Bowl MVP trophy, “What’s it going to take?”