Archive for February, 2015

Miracle on Ice: 35 Years and Still Going Strong

February 24, 2015

by John Furgele

LAKE PLACID—They gathered again to relive that magical time that was 1980 when a group of hockey amateurs pulled the historic upset of the mighty Soviet Union. For those old enough, the date was Friday, February 22, 1980 and the venue was the Olympic Center, a cozy 8,500 seat arena in the center of the small village. If you are old enough, you probably remember exactly where you were when USA won that game.

A history lesson might be needed for many. If you were born in 1972, you were seven or perhaps eight years old when the miracle happened. I’ve always believed that the age of reason for sports fans is eight and that’s from a personal point of view. I was born in 1968, and remember nothing sports-wise from 1975, but everything from 1976 on. It is possible to remember going to a sporting event as say, a four year old, but to remember the details from such an event is unlikely and perhaps impossible.

The hardest part to fathom about the “Miracle on Ice,” is that it took place 35 years ago. Has time passed that quickly? As an almost 12 year old, I remember it vividly. The first game was a last minute tie against Sweden; and then a surprising rout of Czechoslovakia, then three easy victories to get to the medal round. On the other side, the Soviet Union played five games, winning them all to come in to the USA game at 5-0. But, one of those wins was against a feisty Canada squad by a score of 6-4. For the most part, beginning in 1956, the Soviets ripped through Olympic play, so the tough contest against Canada often goes overlooked when documenting the journey taken by Team USA. More on this later.

Finland and Sweden were the other medal round participants and each team carried points into Friday. Because USA tied Sweden, each team brought one point into the last two games. The USSR beat Finland; Big Red had two points, and Finland none. Many believe that USA-USSR was a semifinal game and the winner would advance to the Gold Medal game on Sunday. In reality, that wasn’t true, even though all the Friday winner would have to do was win the Sunday game to get the gold. So, in essence if the USA-USSR winner lost on Sunday, the Gold medal could have been lost, too. Today’s Olympic hockey uses a standard tournament format with a preliminary round and then seedings, and from there, a single elimination tournament used to crown a champion.

On Saturday, the team was introduced numerically starting with #1 Steve Janaszak, the backup goaltender who didn’t play in any of the seven USA games. We did find out that even though he didn’t play, he met his wife, who was working as an interpreter. He spoke at the ceremony for a few minutes and his humble nature drew loud applause from nearly 6,000 people who came to Herb Brooks Arena on a cold and snowy night. He was lauded by his teammates including the guy who had the starting spot, Jim Craig.

Mark Pavelich, the recluse of the team also came back as did all surviving members of the team. Pavelich drove from Minnesota and it was the first time he’d been back to Lake Placid since the games. He was lauded by emcee Todd Walsh for his key plays, including an assist on Mike Eruzione’s game winning goal in the 4-3 win over the Soviets. But, true to his nature, he smiled but didn’t talk.

Some players talked, others didn’t. To nobody’s surprise, the captain, Mike Eruzione was a frequent speaker and his gregarious personality delighted the crowd. John Harrington, to many people’s surprise, also spoke frequently using humor to tell the story that he just might have tipped Eruzione’s wrister midway through the third period. Others did not talk at all, and when you think about it, with a team of 20 players, that means 20 personalities. Naturally, some are hams, some are shy, some are leaders and some are followers.

Walsh took us back to 1979 when the team was assembled under the late Herb Brooks. The players wove tails of Brooks’ brutal conditioning drills, the long 63 game pre-Olympic schedule against college, NHL, IHL, and national teams. Right before the team headed to Lake Placid, they talked of the 10-3 drubbing given to them by the USSR in Madison Square Garden.

The players talked about the relationship they had with Brooks, and for the most part, it was all business. Defenseman Jack O’Callahan wished he had gotten to know Brooks on a more personal level after the Olympics, before he died in a car crash in 2003 at the age of 66. Hindsight is always 20/20 but in 1980, Brooks had to keep a distance from the players and it was that distance that forged the bond that led to the Gold medal.

The 1980 United States Olympic hockey team had more talent that most of us are led to believe. The 20 players on that team totaled more than 1200 games in the NHL. Some like Neal Broten, who tallied 274 goals and 867 points and Dave Christian, with 193 goals and 417 points, had long and productive NHL careers. This team was not devoid of talent, in fact, its win over the Soviet Union was not a surprise to Clare Drake, one of Canada’s coaches. Two days before the USA-USSR game, Canada battled the Soviets to the end, losing 6-4, a loss that Drake said left his team “devastated.” After that game, Drake professed that the speedy USA team would not only hang with the Soviets, they would beat them using not only their speed, but also the “home ice,” that was the Olympic Center.

On that Friday, after the USA’s miracle win, Sweden and Finland played to a 3-3 tie. This left the USA with 3 points, the USSR 2, Sweden 2 and Finland 1. The Sunday USA-Finland contest was not an official Gold Medal game. For the USA it was, but had Finland won, they wouldn’t have won gold. Believe it or not, if Finland beat the USA and USSR beat Sweden (which it did, 7-2), the Soviets would have captured Gold despite their historic loss to USA on Friday. Based on the results, the USA and Finland would have finished with 3 points, and based on head-to-head, the Finns would have received Silver, the Yanks, bronze. And, when Herb Brooks told his troops that losing to Finland (they trailed 2-1 after two periods) would be something that they would “take to their f—- grave,” you now know why.

But that didn’t happen and that’s why after 35 years, there can be a reunion at Lake Placid with 6,000 people in an old school field house. It was an iconoclastic gathering. Some were at the 1980 game, some like me were kids, some were adults and some weren’t even born. The fact that the Olympics were on home soil, in a tiny village in Northern New York only enhances the legend. It might be the only time where people in Mississippi and New Mexico watched a hockey game—on tape delay no less—in its entirety. It was different time, a time where there was great hostility between the USA and USSR and a time where the United States was bruised and battered with high unemployment, 21 percent interest rates and overall self-esteem concerns.

I’ve said this before and I’m not alone, but most Americans recall the Miracle on Ice as the greatest sports moment of the 20th century, which is astounding because hockey is a distant fourth of the major sports in the United States. This was however, the perfect storm. The Superpowers. The fact that the USSR was using professional players, many of whom whipped the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup and others who participated in the 1972 Summit Series, an eight game series against Canada which the Canadians won 4-3 with one tie.

The USSR was the big bear; the enemy while the USA was the rag tag bunch of youngsters looking to pull off an historic triumph. This was neither a script nor a movie; it was a slice of reality that moved the nation. The ceremony captured the moment with elegance and class. As the highlights were shown on the two big screens, the crowd erupted just like many Americans did in their living rooms in 1980. The only thing was missing was more talk about the Finland game. I know that the ceremony was to fete the USSR game, but wouldn’t it have been great to hear what the players did the day after that game? What did Brooks tell them at the Saturday skate around? As we know, many thought that the USA clinched the gold by beating the Soviets, but what was going through the minds of Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, Jim Craig, Eric Stroebel, and Steve Christoff and the others when they woke up Saturday? Here they were hours after the biggest moment of their life and somehow they had to reprogram for a game against a good Finland squad to actually clinch gold.

They only had 2.5 hours to tell the story, which is probably why the Finland game is left off. But, we know how the story ends. It ends with 20 young men draped with Gold medals around their necks, and little did they know that 35 years later, those medals would continue to shine.

Super Bowl 49 and the Greatness of Tom Brady

February 7, 2015

While America focuses on “the interception,” the greatness of Tom Brady is lost

by John Furgele

How good is Tom Brady? Is he the “Greatest of All Time,” when it comes to quarterbacks? Is he better than Joe Montana because they both won four Super Bowls, or is Montana better because he was 4-0 in the compared to Brady’s 4-2? Does Brady get more credit for getting to six even though he lost twice?

I always find the argument silly for many reasons; reasons we won’t get in to in this column, but Brady is certainly an all-timer for sure. The funny thing about Tom Brady and his New England Patriots is how much they’ve changed since their first Super Bowl title in 2001. That year, they were the underdog, an 11-5 team that lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in week two to a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Enter Brady, who proceeded to lead the Pats into the Super Bowl against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams; a team that had won the 1999 NFL title was dubbed“The Greatest Show on Turf.”

Much of America rooted for the young Brady, the underdog Brady and the coach, Bill Belichick, who was trying to go from top notch assistant to Super Bowl winning coach. The Pats were the underdogs and after leading the game most of the way, saw the Rams tie it at 17 with under a minute left.

Most thought the Pats would play for overtime; in fact analyst John Madden insisted upon it, but Brady showed poise, drove the Pats to the Ram 30 where Adam Vinatieri kicked a 47 yard game winning field go as time expired. The Pats had pulled off the upset and were the darlings of the United States, and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were aptly named, too.

As we know, the Pats would win and win a lot. Back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, and countless appearances in the AFC Championship Games and of course, the 2007 team that went undefeated only to lose to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Another loss to the Giants in 2011 would follow, but year after year, the Pats won and won at a dominating rate.

The more they won, the more they became hated. I guess that happens in American society. Rush Limbaugh started out as just a talk show host, now he’s vilified by many despite his high ratings. The Pats fell into a similar trap. When they were the underdog, they were liked, but the more they won, the more hated they became. They were accused and found guilty of filming practices of the New York Jets and surely, there were other teams that did this but didn’t get caught. Talker Mike Francesa might admire Belichick and Brady but says without hesitation that the “Pats take liberties.” Of course, the Pats are the only team that takes liberties because you can’t win every year without cheating. I guess having great players; a great organization and great leadership don’t count anymore. The 4-12 New York Jets surely didn’t cheat or take liberties because if they did, they would have had a better record, right?

Brady went from likeable guy to hated guy. I always get a kick when people watch a sound clip or a post-game presser and say things like, “he seems arrogant,” or “I don’t like him.” I’m sure these people have their reasons, but I’m not sure what their reasons are. These people have never talked to Brady and never will, but because he acts a certain way, people judge him. Because he wins and knows he’s good, people judge him. Because he beats your team year in and year out, he is hated.

Sure, he has the model for a wife and three great kids. He has the looks, the money and let’s face it, a pretty cool life. It’s not really jealously because most people don’t want his life, they just don’t want him to have his life. And, when you’re on top, people look for ways to bring you down. Brady has a son with actress Bridget Moynahan. The two never married, and they broke up a few months into her pregnancy, so naturally, Brady was a bad guy for that. Moynahan admitted that Brady wasn’t holding her hand in the delivery room or yelling push during labor, but she does say that he’s been a good father and her, Brady and Gisele communicate regularly.

There are people who call Brady a snake for leaving Moynahan as if they know that he was to blame for the breakup. That’s another thing that puzzles me about following celebrities; the fact that we can gather all the information by watching Entertainment Tonight or reading People. We all thought highly of Robin Williams when in reality he was putting on an act in public, hiding deep and dark depression that sadly caused him to take his life.

The other thing people fail to do is give Brady his proper respect simply because they don’t like him. Even though he wins every year, there are those who say “he’s not that good,” or “he’s overrated,” and even when he rallies his team to an NFL title, will say “that he got lucky,” or “Seattle gift wrapped the game for him.” No matter, it is what it is. There are those who honestly believe that Brady—and the Pats—cheated in every game and that’s the sole reason for their success.

Brady has the looks and the titles, but Peyton Manning is more likeable. It is Manning who slings the ball on Sunday and also sells insurance, pizza and a myriad of other products. Manning is the everyman, the ordinary looking fellow who you can have a beer with and because of that, he’s better than Brady. Brady had better players and Manning had to do it all by himself to win games. No matter what numbers you put up, you’ll never convince these people that Brady was better than Manning, because Manning is “their guy,” even though they’ve never met him.

The bottom line is this. Lucky or not, cheater or not, Tom Brady is a gifted—very gifted—quarterback. You would think that a sixth round draft pick would always be revered simply by bucking the system and becoming a star, but no, he’s the lucky, hated quarterback. In Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks had him on the ropes. Everybody will point to Pete Carroll’s decision to throw the slant rather than run Beast Mode Lynch from the New England 1, but the Seahawks lost that game to Brady in the fourth quarter. With 15 minutes left, Seattle, the defending champion was up 24-14. The Pats were on the ropes and another Seattle score would have sealed the deal, but what did Brady do? He took the Pats 68 yards to cut the lead to 24-21 and then got the ball back 65 yards from the go-ahead touchdown. Down three, most teams would settle for a field goal, but Brady (and Belichick) went for six and got it. Brady was 13 of 15 in the fourth quarter. The vaunted Seattle defense, when it had to step up during winning time, failed. They failed because they went up against the master and the master took Sherman and Company to school.

Brady’s fourth quarter heroics were more impressive because the Pats couldn’t run the ball effectively, and just about every play was going to be a pass. The Seahawks and the whole nation knew it, yet Brady carved up the Hawks like Uncle Jimmy carves up the turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. Most quarterbacks need balance to win the big game, but Brady didn’t; he won with a one dimensional unit on offense at game’s end.

As we know, Super Bowl 49 will be remembered for the interception, the gaffe or whatever words you wish to describe 2nd and goal from the one yard line, but I’ll remember it as a crowning achievement for one of the all-time greats, Tom Brady. You may hate him, but in 25 years, you’ll be telling the youth of 2040 just how great he was much like the 45 year olds tell today’s youth how great Joe Montana was.

Greatness is fascinating to see. As a young fan, I rooted against Joe Montana and his 49ers and I always wished that the Bengals, first with Ken Anderson and later with Boomer Esiason would have won one if not both of the Super Bowls contested between the two teams. But 30 years later, I’m glad Montana and his Niners won those games—and two others—because I can now tell a story of greatness. That’s the story I’ll be telling about Super Bowl 49. While most tell the story of Pete Carroll choking the game away, I’ll be there, reminding people that I saw greatness, the greatness of Tom Brady and the coach Bill Belichick. Players and coaches like these two don’t come around too often, so rather than hate, why not appreciate?

Can Glens Falls Get Over the Hurt?

February 3, 2015

Will Glens Falls hockey fans accept lower level ECHL?

by John Furgele

For the third time, hockey fans in Glens Falls feel spurned. First, it was the Red Wings, then the Phantoms and now the Flames. As expected, the AHL announced that five teams are up and moving west to create a new Pacific Division. The reasons are obvious: proximity to the parent clubs, easier flights when calling up a player, and reduced costs, but that doesn’t make the jilted Glens Falls hockey fan feel better. For the most part, the city of Glens Falls and the surrounding areas have supported AHL hockey and because of that, the fans feel that they deserve an AHL franchise.

It was an interesting announcement as well. On one hand, the city is losing its AHL franchise, on the other; they are getting an ECHL team, which will owned by the Calgary Flames. In essence, this is a swap; the current ECHL Stockton Thunder will become the AHL Thunder while the current AHL Flames will become the ECHL Flames or some other moniker.

There are many emotions here, and to summarize, there are three camps. First is the disgruntled, “I’ll never support the team again.” camp. These are the fans that felt that the Red Wings leaving was wrong, and didn’t support Glens Falls’ years in the United Hockey League from 1999-2006. They accepted the temporary relocation of the Phantoms, knowing that the team would move once an arena was completed in Lehigh Valley, PA. They figured if they supported the temporary Phantoms, they’d be rewarded with a permanent AHL franchise.

They thought they were right. The Phantoms departed, and in came the Flames. AHL hockey was not only back, but back to stay. But, the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and the groundswell for a western division continued to pick up steam, culminating in what happened last Thursday. The AHL Flames, as well as the AHL are gone in Glens Falls, and this time, it’s unlikely that it’s coming back.

The second camp is the “I’ll support hockey in Glens Falls, because any hockey is better than no hockey.” Of course, that camp existed when the Ice Hawks/Frostbite came to town in 1999. At first, the crowds were pretty good, but as time wore on, they decreased and the UHL was gone, leaving the Civic Center dark for much of the calendar year. If the ECHL is to succeed in Glens Falls, this camp has to not only maintain, it has to grow. By all accounts, the ECHL is a vastly superior product to the now defunct UHL, but the fact is that most ECHL players will never play in the NHL and many more will not even be fixtures in the AHL.

The third camp is the casual fan, the “I’ll go to one or two games per year just to be entertained on a dark cold night.” These fans, for the most part, don’t really care about the level of hockey because, by definition, they’re casual fans. These fans have to keep going to their one to two games and for the good of Glens Falls increase from one to two, or two to three. The casual fan is the one demographic that any sports franchise covets, because this is a segment that has growth potential.

While I understand the bitterness, I don’t really understand camp one. Glens Falls is a city of 15,000 people, and for the most part, will never draw many fans south of Clifton Park. The more north you go, the less people, and more importantly, the less young people. The arena is beyond antiquated; yes, the sightlines are wonderful, there is a good feel to being there, but in today’s modern age, it’s all about amenities. To survive, they are needed and the GFCC simply doesn’t have them. The hard core hockey fan will state that it’s not a big a deal, but we live in the times of bells and whistles. Today’s fans aren’t very good at sitting in a seat for two plus hours. They want to walk around, have access to Wi-Fi, great food, and other entertainment while at the game. They don’t care really who wins the game, it’s more important to have a great time, and hence, come again.

There won’t be a new Civic Center and there won’t be a major refurbishing either. As they say, it is what it is. In many ways, the GFCC may not be that suitable for ECHL hockey, but for now, they’re in. The ECHL wants to expand its footprint to the east and Glens Falls fits the bill.

There is some smugness being displayed by the hard core fans. If Cincinnati, Toledo, Tulsa and Indianapolis can have ECHL franchises, why can’t Glens Falls? How can a city of 900,000 (Indianapolis) embrace a team, yet tiny Glens Falls thumb their collective noses at the league?

Fort Wayne is the best example. The city of 256,000 has a long storied minor league hockey history. Other than the Original Six teams and Hershey Bears, no team has played more consecutive seasons than the Komets, who began play in 1952-1953. And, like Glens Falls, the Komets have bounced around. They played in the old International Hockey League for decades, then played in the UHL, IHL again, and CHL before settling in the ECHL. They draw over 7,300 fans per game, and as good as Glens Falls hockey history is, it pales in comparison to the Komets.

Glens Falls fans should embrace the ECHL. They should change their first name from Adirondack to Glens Falls to give the team a true identity, one that won’t leave fans in Fort Wayne googling to see where “Adirondack” is. They should adopt the mentality that Double A hockey is better than no hockey and they should realize that if the ECHL leaves the GFCC, there won’t be another minor league venture replacing it.

But, this is a free society. The fans of the North Country will make the decision. They will support the new ECHL team or they won’t. If the team succeeds, it will be a source of pride for the community. If the team fails, then it fails. There is no gun to your head here. The fans can check it out for themselves. If they go to a game and render the ECHL as inferior, then so be it.

Life isn’t fair. The city of Glens Falls didn’t really have a say. They were told that an ECHL team is coming and there was no discussion or dialog to be had. Hopefully, after the hurt subsides, they will realize that Glens Falls and the ECHL can work, but it certainly can’t be forced down their throats.

I will hope for the best, hope that a proud old hockey town will embrace a new league and new era. It’s tough to be teased, and the AHL has certainly done some teasing the past few years. The operators of this ECHL franchise are going to have work, and if they take the savvy Glens Falls fans for granted, that would be a mistake. In the end, these are good hockey fans and they deserve to have a top notch team in this lower tier league. Moreover, they deserve some stability and a feeling that the new team will be here to stay.