Going All-Out for the Finals

We’ve applied a lot of science to ritual cannibalism in this house, trust me. It started a few seasons ago when we had roast duck for dinner on the first night of the season when the Sharks hosted the Anaheim Ducks. The duck didn’t turn out as well as it might have, and the Sharks lost. In the ensuing seasons, the duck has been ever-more delicious, and the Sharks have won the season opener against the rival Ducks by ever-more comfortable margins. Last year, after stuffing the duck with orange quarters, we shut them out. Orange county, you see.

The science of ritual cannibalism is, therefore, irrefutable. We eat the duck, we beat the Ducks.

This year, as the home team has progressed through the playoffs, we (and by ‘we’ I mostly mean the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas) have explored the proper dishes required to vanquish ever-more-fearsome foes. For Nashville, whose fans throw catfish onto the ice, we ate catfish.

St. Louis was a little trickier: They are the Blues. How do you eat a musical style? We went with the color, which is slightly less tricky. We started with (yummy) Blueberry Crumble, but of course that didn’t work: we took their crumble, leaving them steadfast. We switched to a (delicious) blue cheese sauce on pork chops and never looked back.

Of course, there’s plenty of other Fan Science at work as well. Official Sweetie’s old-school Sharks t-shirt is banned from the living room at game time. When things aren’t going well, a glass of Canadian Whiskey will reverse our fortunes. The list goes on.

Pittsburgh has proven to be our greatest challenge yet. You don’t just pop down to Costco and grab a family-size tray of frozen penguin. Happily there are gummy penguins, and where there’s a will there’s a sauce.

For game one it was chicken (a flightless bird) with penguin sauce, and while it was most tasty, it was not effective. The Sharks started the game poorly, and though things stabilized after I turned to the whiskey it was too late. A heartbreak goal in the waning minutes sent our boys back to their hotel with heads bowed.

The menu for game two: Game hen with penguin sauce, with black and white rice. Really, really, tasty. Another close game; the whiskey brought the team back but they gave up a goal in overtime and were down in the series 2-0. Either game could have tilted the other direction, and while the Penguins seemed to be in charge much of the time they weren’t scoring very much. It wouldn’t take much to turn things around.

More research was required.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a darn good hockey player, is a man of ritual. On game day, he always has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Aha! we had found the chink in his armor.

And speaking of science, pork chops are a proven winner. Forget the symbolism of the flightless birds; go with what works!

For game three tonight, we pulled out all the stops for victory. Pork chops grilled outdoors with a peanut butter and jelly and melted penguin sauce. Do not cringe, my friends, it was absolutely delicious. The char from the barbecue added the perfect bitter note to work with the sweet/salty sauce. Rice and grilled green beans rounded out the meal. I wore the black t-shirt, not the gray one. Canadian Whiskey, as always, stood at the ready.

We found out not long before game time that one of the Sharks’ best young players would not be playing due to injury. Tomaš Hertl had hit the iron frame of the net three times in the game two heartbreak; had any one of those three shouts bounced the other direction the Sharks could well have won. It was going to be up to the pork chops to make up for the critical loss for San Jose.

It was a nail-biter, I have to tell you, but in the end the good guys prevailed, scoring in overtime after steadily looking more confident all game. Joonas Donskoi, or “Donkey” as we call him, slipped a shot past the Pen’s excellent net minder as the home crowd made enough noise to be heard in space.

As we celebrated at home the Official Sweetie said, “I hope we have more pork chops.”

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It Feels Different this Year

I’m a hockey fan, and if you insist that I be more specific I will tell you that I’m a fan of the local NHL franchise, the San Jose Sharks. Almost every year this team makes it to the playoffs. Almost every year they exit early.

Which is mostly just math. Half the teams in the playoffs are eliminated in the first round. By the end of the second round, only four remain. So MOST of the teams that make the playoffs go home early. But you do that too many years in a row, you get a reputation. Even if you go home because of a bizarre bounce in an overtime that shouldn’t have happened except the ref blew a call with 33 seconds to go in regulation.

Right now San Jose is skating agains St. Louis in a titan battle of saints in which God must be careful not to take sides. Like Joseph, Louis has earned a reputation for early exits. One of the two will reach the finals.

Three games in, it’s pretty easy to see that my team is the better of the two. Nashville took it to San Jose a couple of times in the previous round, but the Sharks answered by playing really good hockey. That good hockey has carried into the semifinal round with the Blues.

The Blues deserve to be here. They are a very good team, and they beat powerhouse Dallas fair and square. They beat the Stars by beating on them, and getting under their skin, and making Dallas do stupid things. They came out against the Sharks with the same strategy — and it failed utterly. A dude friggin’ pulled Joe Thornton’s beard and the Sharks laughed it off and scored on the power play. The Sharks, under the leadership of captain Joe Pavelski, just don’t take the bait.

Last game, Newt Gingrich Ken Hitchcock pulled his bullies and agitators and tried to match the Sharks with speed and skill. For a while, it seemed to be working. But nobody plays Sharks hockey better than the Sharks do.

And there’s the thing. Some time around the start of 2016 Joe Thornton started backchecking with energy and the rest of the team stepped up and Burns stopped making stupidly overoptimistic passes and it feels different this year. This isn’t a team getting by, it’s a team offering both an unstoppable offense and a disciplined defense (3 shutouts in the last 4 playoff games) and exposing no weaknesses to exploit. A team like that can laugh when an agitator on the other side tries to lure them into mistakes. Even people on the East Coast are waking up to what a good team this is.

It feels different this year. The Sharks aren’t looking for answers, they aren’t looking for the weakness of the other team. They’re playing their game, and they’re doing it well. It’s up to their opponents to solve the Sharks, and so far none has. Man, it’s been fun to watch.

It’s sports, and anything can happen. I felt confident two years ago when the Sharks went up 3-0 on the Kings only to choke away the playoffs. But this year the Sharks handled the Kings pretty easily, and while Nashville gave them a run for their money the way the Sharks emerged from that series has carried over.

What’s different this year? Maybe the most important thing is the C on Pavelski’s sweater. But don’t forget Wardo, and Donkey, and Jones. Don’t forget old man Zubrus making the fourth line a disciplined unit and a legitimate threat. Hertl’s lovely slap shot to open the scoring last night is now a rarity; under the new management the Czech kid is expected to be a complete player, not just a sniper but a stout defender and a guy willing to mix it up down near the goal. He has embraced the role and thrives on the chaos around the net. “Now I go to net, get rebound and score. Is better.”

The team knows: this is their chance. The older players, Thornton and Marleau in particular, know that time is running out, and this year they’re playing like their legacies are on the line. The new kids are hungry, and skilled, but they are inheriting discipline from the old-timers. It really is a joy to watch. At this time they are still six wins from their first championship, but no matter what happens I thank the Sharks for making it different this year.

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John Scott, NHL All-Star

John Scott plays hockey. He’s a lunch-pail, blue-collar player who works hard to stay in the league. He’s been called a dying breed, or an old-schooler, but those are just soft words to disguise what he does so well. He’s an enforcer. He’s a peacekeeper. He keeps the peace by making it absolutely clear that he will destroy anyone who violates the peace. He was on the team I support last year, and it’s funny how many fights didn’t happen when John Scott came on the ice.

But if it’s fisticuffs you want, John Scott is your bloke.

CZ6qWnSXEAAOYnsThere are thugs around the league that everyone hates. Raffi Torres, technically a member of my favorite team, comes to mind. People hate Raffi, and for good reason. But people don’t hate John Scott. He’s a bruiser, a puncher, but not a dirty player. If you don’t violate John Scott’s peace, you need not fear.

Not only do hockey fans not hate John Scott, they like him so much that this year they elected him to the all-star game. Part of it is a joke, of course, the fans punking the league. But they’d never punk the league with Raffi Torres. He’s an asshole. They punked the league with someone they liked. I’m sure many people in San Jose hopped on the John Scott bandwagon, even though he doesn’t play here anymore.

The NHL did not handle the situation gracefully. They tried to bury him, to shuffle him out of the lineup, and to apply personal pressure to get him to step down. Scott readily acknowledges that he is not the most skilled player in the NHL, but when the league began dicking him over to knock him out of the game, he pushed back, in a low-key, John Scott sort of way. Because that’s who he is; that’s always been his game. Play by the rules, there’s no problem. Step over the line, and he will guide you back, gently, at first.

Fans howled. Whether they were his supporters before or not, the NHL brass was trying to nullify their vote. He will be playing in the all-star game.

Then the other all-star players voted, and he has a C on his sweater. Team captain. John Fuckin’ Scott, team captain in the all-star game. The players, at least, remembered who really pays their checks, and they don’t mind punking their employers now and then to boot. You can read a feel-good piece about it (twins any minute now!) over at espn (also the source of the above image).

And now I’ll probably watch at least some of that horrible game, just to hear the arena get loud when Scott steps onto the ice. The game is suddenly interesting, at least for a few minutes. Final victory: NHL.

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Pulling for the Flames Now

I’ve always enjoyed hockey; it’s a game where something is always happening, scoring is a significant event, and the clock keeps ticking even when you wish it wouldn’t. Growing up in the coccyx of the rocky mountains in northern New Mexico, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage of the sport (this was before Colorado had a team), but it was fun to watch when it presented itself.

A brief aside: When I was growing up there was hockey right there in my town, at the local outdoor ice rink. It never even occurred to me that I could participate. I didn’t know anyone who did. I wonder if the hockey environment there has changed in the intervening years.

The first time I formed a loyalty to a team was on my Homeless Tour, when I was passing through Canmore, Canada. The Calgary Flames were in the finals, one win from the Stanley Cup. I got to the bar section of the Boston Pizza just in time to grab the last seat at the bar, behind the taps, and I proceeded to have a Seminal Sports Experience. It started when the whole place went quiet out of respect for the United States national anthem. Then came ‘O Canada’ and the whole damn bar belted it out. Things just got better from there.

The Flames lost, but the fans I met that day were awesome on every level. I became a Calgary fan, but even more I became a fan of Calgary’s fans.

Cut to late nights in the darkness, lying on the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch in my little flat in Prague, listening to radio calls via the Internet. The Flames’ play-by-play announcer was mesmerizing; in my book only the Blackhawks’ announcer was in the same league. Good times.

In the ensuing years I’ve come to be a Sharks fan. It’s the first time I’ve had a local hockey team to root for. I still harbor some loyalty to the Flames, and especially to the fans up there, but the Sharks are my team. So it goes.

I have also grown a hatred for the Los Angeles Kings. Thugs and morons, and if the league is crooked, they are crooked in the new-biggest-market’s favor. Not sure how many season-ending knee-on-knee ‘accidents’ have to happen before someone looks a little closer.

The season is winding down, and the Sharks are out of the playoffs. It’s the end of the third-longest playoff streak in major sports. That makes me sad. The Kings, the current champions, are on the bubble with two games to go. It will either be them or… the Calgary Flames.

Nobody thought the Flames had a chance this year. They’re rebuilding. A lot of kids with talent, but it takes time and experience to make a contender. But here they are, on the brink of making the playoffs. If they get in, Los Angeles doesn’t. It’s that simple.

The Kings have two games left. Tomorrow they play the Flames. Then on Saturday they play the Sharks. Words cannot describe the joy I will feel if the Sharks kill the Kings and put the lads from Calgary into the playoffs.

And this is sports. You love your guys. You hate the filthy bastards who have personally wronged you. You struggle when one of your guys winds up playing with the filthy bastards. But there’s a little more. There are the great fans you meet, people who love their team but aren’t assholes about it. We call those people ‘Flames fans’.

If I were so freakin’ rich that I solved the world’s fresh water problems and had money left over, I’d make an offer for the Flames, just to be part of that thing they have going on up there.

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Gonna Miss That Guy

I’m watching Douglas Murray’s first game in a Penguin sweater tonight, and the Pittsburgh announcers are gushing. “Not many guys in the league like him anymore. He hits someone and they just look like a rag doll sometimes.”

He’s still wears his number 3, over there with the Pens, and has already reminded the east-coast fans of the Great Wall of Murray (my sweetie’s phrase). He’s a big hitter, but not a thug. His hits are clean and even the guy who just discovered himself abruptly on the ice rarely has a problem with it. For all the hard hits, there are no cheap shots; he just knocks his opponent down. Both skate away to collide another day. Murray doesn’t get into fights very often.

The Pittsburgh announcers are right, there aren’t many guys like him in hockey anymore. He’s not a great skater, but he gets to where he needs to be (well… usually). A lot of slapshots have bounced off his body over the years, but knowing it’s going to hurt hasn’t stopped him from throwing himself in front of the next hurtling puck.

For Murray, I don’t think hockey is a job. I think he fully appreciates that he’s playing a game he loves for some pretty sweet money. And the ladies love him.

The Sharks produced a video honoring the man they had just traded; fans came up with better ones. The Sharks traded Murray to Pittsburgh for some draft picks, a forward-looking move. Then Pittsburgh picked up a couple more of the best players in the league. No doubt about it, Pittsburgh is making a run for the cup this year.

Next year, the Penguins won’t be able to pay all these guys. Murray will be an unrestricted free agent. He could sign with… the Sharks. That sentimental no-hard-feelings video? Step one in getting Murray back and cackling over the almost-free draft picks.

Whether or not that comes to pass, I wish Douglas Murray well. He is proof that hockey can be tough without being dirty, that you can be a hitter without being a thug. He is what’s right about hockey, and I will be his fan no matter what sweater he’s wearing.

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Mullets and Hockey

I learned on an NPR quiz show long ago, that according to some book mullets came into fashion in medieval times so peasants working in the field could keep the elements off their necks while not impairing peripheral vision — so they could spot bandits and raiders. It makes sense, I guess, as far as it goes.

Tonight I was watching clips of hockey games before the helmet was required, and it was a mullet-fest. And you know? It makes sense, for exactly the same reason. It’s cold on the ice, but a hockey player without peripheral vision is going to have a hard time of it. In that environment a mullet is… sensible. There, I said it.

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What I Didn’t Say

I’m at Shark’s Ice right now, enjoying a fine local microbrew (21st Amendment IPA), and watching tykes skate. There’s a family at the table next to mine, watching the action, and they have a kid maybe 6 years old who is wearing a D SEDIN Canucks t-shirt. He wants to play. Right now.

“Gotta like the attitude,” I said to his dad. “Put me in, coach!”

Dad laughed and agreed.

“His beard is better than Daniel Sedin’s, too,” I didn’t say. Barely.

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