Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Around The Rink: Mid-Winter Crabbiness Edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Watch Hockey? It's only (insert month here)...

In yet another instance of this country, and this city's lingering preoccupation with all things football all the time, I have to defend the sport of hockey and the team which has logged 43 years of almost total success once again.

On Daily News live during the All-Star break, there was a segment welcoming e-mails into the program while the panel brayed on and on about the changes to the Eagles' coaching staff -- three whole weeks after the season officially ended with a home loss to Green Bay.

Host Michael Barkann read out one missive from a frustrated hockey fan, imploring the guests and host to turn their attention to the Flyers, whose very successful season was well underway. Without missing a beat, hockey maven and long-time DN columnist Mike Kern bleated out "But it's only January..."

Never mind that the Flyers are at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Never mind that they entered the break tops in the NHL for the first time since the 1979-80 team (you know, the one that went 35 games without losing) had losses in the single digits.

Never mind that they've been battling with a crippled Pittsburgh Penguins squad for supremacy at the top of the Atlantic Division and the conference, with the suddenly-hot Lightning nipping at their heels.

Never mind that their run of good luck, which manifests itself as the second-best record in the NHL (35-13-5 as of Tuesday, 75 points) is just four back of the league's best team, the Vancouver Canucks.

Never mind that throughout the year, Peter Laviolette's club has drawn comparisons that skip right over the Lindros Era teams that made two conference finals and one Cup appearance, and go right back to the heart-attack inducing top clubs of the mid-1980s who went toe-to-toe with the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.

It's only February...

Time for all you Eagles fans to come down from your perch atop the cables on the major bridges of the Delaware River. Time to snap out of the hypnotic rhythms of the constant drumbeat on TV and radio. Why not? Football fans and hockey fans are supposedly cut from the same cloth.

You both work hard, pay through the nose for tickets, support your teams unabashedly, and enjoy the consummate violence that makes each sport so much of an adrenaline rush and catharsis.

We'll forget about baseball supporters, whose stereotypical legions are at this minute staring out the window in a spineless depressive funk, endlessly waiting for the caravans to be swathed in warm sunshine and for the trees to blossom...let's claim the Flyers for our own, right here and right now.

Trade in your agita over Kevin Kolb. Let all fingernail-biting about Juan Castillo's suitability melt with the dirty snow. Get pumped over a rookie goaltender, veteran defense and youthful offense shooting to the top of the hockey world and staying there with unfailingly consistent play.

Block out all the talk about how anything not football or baseball related doesn't get ratings. Tune into the beat on the asphalt of South Broad Street, not in some musty studio in Bala Cynwyd.

Or don't. Keep spouting the party line about how hockey will never be a major sport in the USA, and how you don't need to follow hockey until the end because the regular season doesn't mean anything...while hypocritically whining and moaning about how each random January loss to Charlotte or Dallas hurts the Sixers' playoff chances.

By the way...NBA and NHL season? Same 82-game slate, plus best-of-seven for all playoff rounds...just thought I'd remind you folks.

It's only March...time for college basketball, and besides, the end of the season doesn't mean anything because the Flyers got into the playoffs on the last day and did all right.

It's only April...the Phillies are four-time defending NL East champions. They have the Four Aces. This thing is a lock.

It's only May...oh God, they're not in first place! There's something wrong!! Fire Uncle Charlie!!!

It's only June...the NFL and players' union haven't agreed on a CBA...what are we gonna do without football???

One thing's for sure, if it comes down to a parade on the second Friday in the sixth month of 2011, we don't want to see you celebrating. That is, unless you come to your senses and join the bandwagon. There's plenty of space...there's always space beyond the tight group of faithful who only number in the thousands and apparently don't count come each quarterly Arbitron period.

Can it all fall apart unexpectedly? You bet. The goaltending could fail. Mike Richards, the heart and soul of the team, could fall prey to a season-ending mishap. The Penguins could catch fire. The WFC could catch fire. They could lose in the first round. But that doesn't mean thinking of all the ways it could turn to ashes, means there shouldn't be any shift of emotional investment.

You get the same exact emotional tug-of-war with football, albeit in a compressed format. At least with the Flyers, your ulcers can take 6 months instead of 6 weeks to flare up.

That doesn't mean Kern, or Barkann, or The Cuz, or Mikey Miss has any right to try and convince football fans, and sports fans at large in this city, that things aren't the way they are outside of their sound-proof ego-fueled islands. You only want to talk about the Birds because they only want to talk about the Birds, and the cycle keeps feeding off itself endlessly.

And anyway, didn't the more successful and memorable Byrds once sing "To everything there is a season?"

The NFL is done, as of Sunday. Time to snap out of it.

This Flyers team is good. Scary good. Recipient of luck from the hockey gods the likes of which we have not seen in years. It practically begs for attention, because they are the one thing we demand above all else: winners.

It's only February, yes. But if things hold the way they have, the best is yet to come. Why not break free of your cocoon of stormy Eagles drama and drink some Orange Kool-Aid for once?

At least give it a chance until the first Spring Training game.

Leino shouldn't be held in Limbo

What do yo do with a player who was reclaimed from a Midwestern wasteland, and turned in one of the NHL's best playoff performances by a rookie?

Apparently, it's keep him in suspense over whether or not he'll be able to re-sign with the club in the off-season.

When Ville Leino, plucked from obscurity from Detroit for the equally obscure Ole-Kristian Tollefsen roughly one year ago, came to Philadelphia, it was safe to say nothing was expected of him. He was a spare of a spare forward, barely played by Laviolette in the regular season.

All that changed with his seven-goal, 21-point postseason jaunt. It equaled Dino Ciccarelli (Hall of Famer, that is) who put up the reverse in his first playoff foray for the North Stars in 1981. Leino's already notched career highs in goals, assists and points this year.

He's the best puck mover on the forward lines this franchise has seen since Pelle Eklund. He's a bargain, for now, at $825K before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. But still, because the club may want to deal for veteran depth before the February 28 trade deadline, Leino's future is up in the air.

I don't necessarily trust Paul Holmgren and the rest of the braintrust to make the right move, because they've finally, four years later, cleared themselves of the cap mess that came out of the desperate moves of 2007. I do envision them low-balling Leino in late June like in the case of Patrick Thoresen and then explaining the decision to let him walk as one of those hard choices a la R.J. Umberger.

That would clearly be the wrong decision.

Tim Panaccio reported that sources indicated Leino has two choices, either a $9 million or $12 million deal depending on length. Still, those are just hypotheticals, and wouldn't that mean someone else may be either deleted from the roster or not acquired for depth?

Who knows? A miracle may occur where Erik Cole is acquired and enough cap space will be cleared once he walks as a free agent that it may work out for the best. If not, it's been speculated that any deal Leino would get from the Flyers will be better than anything offered by any other team.

That's a powerful backhanded compliment to level at a young professional for any reason. Let's hope the organization does right by someone who clearly deserves it.

Your College Hockey Minute

Speaking of a sport that nobody in this city cares about...

The 59th edition of the Beanpot -- the annual round-robin that features the four Division I programs in Boston -- got underway last night at TD Garden in Boston, and the combatants for next Monday's final are set. Boston College will take on Northeastern, just the second 'Pot not to feature Boston University since 1994.

In the rotation between BC, BU, Harvard and Northeastern, the marquee matchup of the BC Eagles and BU Terriers inevitably occurs in the semifinals once every three years. There's been talk of revamping the process from the media, but predictably, all four head coaches like things the way they are and don't see much point in altering the process.

The crux of the argument is one of putting the underdog schools (N'Eastern and Harvard) on the prime-time slot of 8 PM in either the semifinals or finals more than they have. Of course, for that to happen on a reasonable basis, these programs have to beat BC and BU, which is a tall order because both have enjoyed national profiles for decades.

Yesterday, Northeastern blanked Harvard in the sparsely-attended early game. BC then edged BU in overtime in the prime-time slot that nearly filled the massive downtown arena.

In any case, the tournament recently dubbed the "BU Invitational" will not feature its namesake. Will that mean interest will wane? Maybe, but not enough to make an impact. After all, BC and BU once again stand a great chance to meet in the final based on the rotational matchups next season.

...and Finally

I've been known by many nicknames over the years, and have had my relatively unspectacular last name misspelled in some bizarre ways, but I've never managed to have my first name mangled -- until a couple weeks ago when I attended a Flyers home game for This Venerable Publication.

I've learned to let the following permutations roll off my back: Herper, Helper, Halper, Halpern, Hempen, Herren, Herman, Herpel, Heren, Hepburn.

But I'm never going to quite get over a first name with all of two letters: "B" repeated twice around an "O" with the last "B" left off.

Suffice to say, around the office, I'm now known as Bo. The only other mistake I could see on the horizon is "Obb Herpen."  Let's hope it never comes down to that. Otherwise I'm giving up.
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