Thursday, June 16, 2011


An otherwise memorable playoff season was badly marred last night as thousands of unhinged, moronic, presumably drunken Canuck fans rioted after the Bruins dominant 4-0 Game Seven win, causing millions of dollars of damage to their beautiful city and a permanent stain on Vancouver's image. An ancillary victim of the carnage: hockey itself, which now has the word "hooligans" branded on its Canadian fans, much as the sport of soccer has on its fans in Great Britain.

Canadian fans? Is it fair to throw an entire country under Vancouver's deranged bus? Well, I've spent a lot of time covering hockey in Canada, and I've seen this kind of thing before. In 1993, the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup, Montreal fans rioted in the streets afterward, breaking windows on St. Catherine's street, looting, and overturning cars. That was the first time I'd ever seen such a mindlessly crazy reaction (I had to walk through the rioters on my way back to the hotel to write my story for Sports Illustrated...the Canadiens had beaten Wayne Gretzky's LA Kings), and that was after a WIN! Since then it has become something of an annual ritual in Montreal. Google "Montreal Canadiens fans riot" and you will find that they also rioted after beating the Penguins in 2010 and after a lowly first round win over the Bruins in 2008. In 1994 Vancouver fans rioted after the team lost in Game 7 of the Finals to the New York Rangers. There's a pattern here.

But last night's riot appears to have been much worse, and unfortunately I can't say I'm shocked that it happened. During the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, after the U.S. men's hockey team beat the Canadians in a preliminary round game, there was enough simmering anger in the streets that I was concerned about the possibility of a riot if the US beat Canada in the gold medal game. It didn't happen, but I now firmly believe if it had things would have turned very ugly, and an otherwise great Olympics might have been spoiled. Tens of thousands of people were in the streets during the gold medal game, drinking heavily, wearing team colors, hollering CA!NA!DA! in unison, feeding off the mob's collective energy. Once that energy turns negative, tempers ignite and destruction follows. Especially if the police is unprepared for it, as, incredibly given the history, Vancouver's seemed to be last night. It's unfathomable how an otherwise polite, measured society--Canada--that prides itself on its manners can become so completely unbalanced over the result of a hockey game. But it has happened with some regularity. And it happened last night in the extreme, tarnishing an otherwise wonderful playoffs for the NHL. (The overnight ratings for Game 7 tied the best Stanley Cup ratings ever, and in Boston they were a stunning 43.4 with a 64 share--nearly 2/3rds of the TVs that were on were tuned to the game.)

Far better to try to remember the 2011 playoffs, both in basketball and hockey, for the triumph of perseverance and teamwork over superstars and flash. The Bruins best player was 37-year-old Tim Thomas, the Conn Smythe winner as the playoff MVP, and the definition of a late bloomer. A career minor-leaguer, he broke into the NHL in 2005 at age 31 and did not even open this season as the Bruins starting netminder. The rest of the team, and I include Zdeno Chara, their 6' 9" captain, is cast in blue collar mold, long on substance and grit, short on style and flash. Honest, tough, hard-working and team oriented. That's the Bruins. They aren't beautiful. But they're a close knit group; a fist, not fingers.

The Dallas Mavericks? They had one superstar, 32-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, but until this playoff season, he was a tarnished one, accused of being soft when the stakes were the highest.

No one believed that he and his Mavs teammates could stand up to Miami's "Big Three": Lebron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. But it turned out that at crunch time it was the Mavs who stepped up, while the "Big Three", especially James, did a disappearing act and played soft. In the Game Six clincher, Nowitzki had a terrible first half, shooting 1-for-12. But his role-playing teammates took up the slack and gave Dallas the lead, with veterans like Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, and the undrafted J.J. Barea, doing the scoring. It's practically all Nowitzki, the Finals MVP, talked about after the game. How his teammates had carried him until he found his rhythm. The team prevailed over the individual stars. It's why most of America was cheering for the previously unloved Mavericks.

So the long winter sports season is finally over, and I cannot remember a year when there were two more absorbing finals, and two more deserving champions. Nor can I remember a reaction to a sports event that left a fouler taste in my mouth than the one put on by Vancouver's "fans" last night. The city should be hanging its collective head in shame, and Canada's hockey-mad culture should be taken to the woodshed and taught to get a grip.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Don't Eat his Index Finger: Eat Tongue

The NHL finals got off to a rousing start Wednesday, with all the elements in place for a memorable series between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. Both fan bases are long-suffering: In their 40-year history, the Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup; the Bruins haven't won in 39 years. National pride, curiously, is at stake: A Canadian-based team hasn't won the Cup since 1993, an unprecedented drought for a hockey-obsessed nation. So is civic pride. Think Boston isn't still a hockey town? Game One, a classic 1-0 defensive gem won by the Canucks, drew a 25.5 rating and 39-share in the Boston market, blowing away the 19.1 rating/ 34 share Game One of last year's NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, the NBA's marquis match-up. And now there is some genuine ill-will between these two teams who have very little history between them. Vancouver's Alex Burrows chomped down on Patrice Bergeron's index finger during a first period scrum, biting hard enough to break the skin.
Burrows chows down
The NHL chose not to suspend him, and the Bruins will be looking for payback. For story-lines, this series gives sportswriters much to chew on.

I'm taking myself out of the prediction game, having gone a pathetic 1-3 in the second round. In today's NHL--and this is starkly different from the league I grew up watching--the better goalie usually beats the better team in a playoff series, so prognostications are little more than guesswork. Vancouver had the best record in the NHL's regular season, so they would appear to be the favorite. But home-ice has not proved to be much of an advantage in these playoffs, and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the probable Vezina Trophy winner, is capable of winning a series all by himself.
So is Vancouver's goalie, Roberto Luongo, for that matter. The better goalie over the next ten days will win this series. That's my prediction.

Interestingly, they play completely different styles. Luongo's big; he plays on his knees; and he plays deep in his net, meaning the Bruins had better rattle their shots off the top post to beat him, as Chicago was able to do in the first round against Vancouver. That's all Luongo gives you.

Roberto Luongo

His one weakness is that he's terrible at handling the puck. The Bruins dump and chase a lot, so they might be able to take advantage of that. But I don't think they snipe well enough to score a lot of goals in this series. And their power play is awful. Boston was 0-for-21 in its seven-game win over Montreal in the first round, becoming the first team to win a playoff series without scoring a power play goal.

Thomas, by contrast, is aggressive and will challenge a shooter from the top of his crease. He's athletic, flexible, and unorthodox.
Tim Thomas
He reminds me quite a bit of Dominick Hasek, often making saves while flat on his back. But I'd be surprised if Vancouver, by making an extra pass or intentionally banking a shot off the backboards, wasn't able to exploit Thomas' aggressiveness into some open net tap-ins, similar to the only goal scored in Game One, which came in the final 18 seconds. Vancouver's Sedin twins love to make plays from behind and beside the net, making the extra pass that sometimes gives Thomas trouble. Don't be misled by shots-on-goal totals in this series. The Bruins will take more shots, but the Canucks will get the better scoring chances. Who will win will be decided by the goalies, however, who in my opinion have outgrown the size of their cages.
Daniel and Henrik Sendin

Now, a few words about the incredible, edible tongue.
13 1/2 inches of low-fat protein
As you can see by this photo, a cow's tongue is a real mouthful. The average weight is about three pounds. This one came from Beal Beef, a grass-fed beef operation in New Hampshire run by our good friends George and Barbara Beal. If you have an interest in ordering grass fed beef and reside in the Boston area, I strongly urge you to contact Barbara at (Full disclosure: they are temporarily out of beef tongues.) All grass-fed beef is low in fat and high in protein, but the tongue is also chock full of vitamin B-12, which boosts production of red blood cells. If you are anemic, get thee some tongue! It is mild in flavor, excellent in salads and sandwiches, can be served hot or cold, and has a proud history. Every Monday for the fifteen years he was in the White House, President Franklin Roosevelt ate beef tongue for dinner.

I don't know why so few Americans eat tongue these days. Fifty years ago it was a staple. It's easy to prepare. You simply put the tongue into a pot, cover it with 3 cups chicken stock plus enough water to cover the tongue, one peeled and quartered yellow onion, two chopped carrots, two chopped celery sticks, and a dozen peppercorns. Boil for 2-2 1/2 hours. Remove from broth until cool enough to handle. (I strain and reserve the remaining liquid and use it for beef broth.) Take a sharp knife and make a slit in the tough outer skin of the tongue, and peel off the skin to reveal the smooth, pink flesh. Slice and serve.
Because it is so mild in flavor, it needs some spice or seasonings to make it interesting. Capers. Hot mustard. Peppers. Onions. It's excellent on a bed of flavorful swiss chard, covered with a lemon vinaigrette. Below it's served on a bed of lettuce, smothered in capers and a vinaigrette.
Mr. Burrows, this is not finger food. You will need a knife and fork. Bon appetite!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

First Round Highlights, Second round predictions

Hawks goalie Corey Crawford

I couldn't let the gallant comeback efforts of the Chicago Blackhawks, 2010 Stanley Cup champions, pass without comment.   For those who didn't stay up till 1 a.m. to see the end of the Game 7 thriller, the cliff notes version is: a) Vancouver, which had lost three straight, scored in the opening minutes and held that 1-0 lead entering the third period.  They were desperate and very physical.  b) Chicago goalie Corey Crawford stopped a penalty shot by Vancouver's Alex Burrows just 27 seconds into the 3rd, the first Game 7 penalty shot in Stanley Cup playoff history, believe it or not.  c) Crawford continued making one breathtaking save after another to keep the Hawks in it.  d) Hawks Captain Jonathon Toews tied the game with just 1:56 remaining, shorthanded, no less, whacking in his first goal of the series while lurching up from his knees.  e) Burrows won it with his second goal of the game after an unfortunate turnover early in the overtime, but not before he'd taken a penalty in the opening seconds of OT to give Hawks fans further reason to believe destiny was smiling at them.
Ben Smith wins Game 6
     It was one of the best hockey games I've ever seen.  The Hawks, who'd backed into the playoffs, had fallen behind three games to none, but showed their hearts by nearly becoming just the 4th team in NHL history to come back from that deficit.  And they did it against the team with the NHL's best record in the regular season, and against the league's top goalie, Roberto Luongo, who was pulled from two straight starts.  Crawford, a rookie, got better every game of the series, and looks like a keeper going forward.  Decimated by salary cap cuts last summer after winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, the Blackhawks proved that GM Stan Bowman has assembled enough young talent to keep them one of the league's elite teams for years to come.  They are led by two 22-year-old superstars, Toews and Patrick Kane, and their top defense pair of Duncan Keith (27) and Brent Seabrook (25) will be in their prime for another decade.  Another 22-year-old, former Boston College Eagle Ben Smith,  who'd played in only 6 NHL games prior to the series, emerged as the surprise of the playoffs, scoring three goals including the OT winner in Game 6.  This is a very, very exciting team with a great future, and it's a shame their run and gun style is not going to be on display the rest of the playoffs.  They play beautiful hockey.
     I've always believed the first round of the Stanley Cup was the best entertainment of the playoffs.  The teams are fresh, the energy high, and the upsets are many.  Eight sedes beating top sedes happens all the time.  Why?  The goaltenders in hockey have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of a short series.  The better goalie will often beat the better team.  As the playoffs drag on, the players start to wear down, and nagging injuries effect the quality of play.  The energy levels just cannot stay at that early fever pitch.  This year's first round will especially be remembered as a great one.  The last two nights I watched four game 7s, something I never remember doing before, or being able to do.  Vancouver-Chicago was by far the best of these, though the Bruins-Canadiens grudge match also went into overtime. But the skill level of Montreal-Boston was noticeably below that of Vancouver-Chicago.

Edwards and Brickley: The worst
      Though I live in Boston, I actually ended up rooting for Montreal.  Why?  Bruins announcers Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley are such insufferable homers that they ruin the game for me.  I have one friend who, smartly, just turns them to mute.  Brickley tries to sound like a college professor, taking twenty words to say something when four will do.  Instead of "he should skate harder", Brickley will bombast thusly: "He needs to eliminate those portions of the hockey game when his legs are at the ready but remain motionless while his skates are gliding, and endeavor to sink his edges deeper into the ice surface to propel himself with greater alacrity and tenacity." 
     Edwards, meanwhile, sounds like an utter lunatic, especially when there's a fight or when someone makes a big hit.  Check out this clip from a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, when Edwards does his mad scientist laugh after watching a Flyers forward pummeled into the boards from behind.
He sounds like someone who should be committed.  In last night's Game 7 against the Canadiens, Montreal forward Jeff Halpern, 34, a classy player throughout his career, was given a cheapshot a zone behind the play which sent him to the ice with a possible concussion.  It was a totally uncalled for, dirty play in the 3rd period of a do-or-die game.  The ref didn't see it, so it wasn't called.  But it was caught on tape.  Instead of recognizing the Bruins luck, never mind acknowledging that sort of play has no place in the game, Brickley kept repeating that plays of that nature happen all the time in the NHL. (Right, and they lead to suspensions.)  Then Edwards sunk to a new low by announcing he was "putting the clock on him" when Halpern was led to the dressing room so trainers could examine him for a possible concussion.  New NHL safety rules say players should stay there for 15 minutes to be properly examined.  When Halpern returned six minutes later, Edwards began ranting about how the NHL wasn't properly enforcing its own safety procedures, and that Halpern should not be allowed back before the full 15 minutes had expired.  He was outraged.   Never mind that it was game 7 of the playoffs, and that the Bruins' Andrew Ference, who'd delivered the cheap shot, had assisted on the go-ahead goal while Halpern was in the dressing room.  The whole sequence ruined the game for me.

Okay, prediction time:  Detroit Red Wings vs San Jose Sharks
    These are the two best teams remaining in the playoffs, I believe, and the winner will take the Stanley Cup.  Detroit is playing fantastic, and they're rested. 
Prediction: Detroit in 7.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators
     Tough one.  The Preds are playing great, and Vancouver is tired.  But I think Roberto Luongo has emerged from the Chicago series a stronger goalie mentally, and perhaps the Canucks team has, too.
Vancouver in 7.

Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
    A rematch of last year's first round, when the Flyers became the first team since 1975 and only the third in history to win a series after falling behind three games to none.  It won't be that close this time.  With Chris Pronger back on defense and Danny Briere at the top of his game, the Flyers will handle the Bruins.
Flyers in 6

Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning.
     If you care about hockey, root, root, root for the Capitals.  Tampa Bay is playing a stultifying 1-3-1 defensive scheme, abandoning forechecking.  Yes, it leads to wins like the 1-0 Game 7 shutout last night over the Penguins.  But it is a snooze cruise all the way.  Meanwhile, Washington has learned how to play defense, and the best player in the playoffs, Alex Ovechkin, has bought in.

Capitals in 5.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bears Thump Eagles: A Bird in Hand

Among the fascinating tidbits I picked up from our Thanksgiving quiz this year is that:
   a) an adult turkey has about 3500 feathers
   b) Minnesota raises more domesticated turkeys than any other state, including Arkansas
   c) Israel consumes more turkey per capita than the U.S. or Canada. Or Turkey.

Here's a picture I took of a turkey displaying in our yard in Carlisle, Mass. last spring, a hunka-hunka burning love....

Here's the same turkey in profile.  He looks exactly like the paper turkeys which used to decorate the Thanksgiving table at the Onwentsia Club when I was a kid.  I love this shot.  Look at that tiny head.  And you can easily see how he would have 3500 feathers.  Benjamin Franklin lobbied hard to have the wild turkey named our national bird, and I'm sorry that he failed, especially since they keep ending up in the White House.

  (That remark is non-partisan, by the way.)              
  Ordinarily I write something about sports in this column, but I am so pleased with my beloved Chicago Bears win over the high-flying Eagles yesterday that I've decided to write about birds instead.  I have some unusual pictures I've been lucky enough to snap in the last couple of years, and I have an idea for a Christmas gift for the bird lover in your family.  You won't even have to get in the car.
   I'll begin with the most unusual bird picture in my repertoire, which was taken in Spring Island, South Carolina, just after Christmas in 2007.  I was standing in our driveway around dusk when I heard a strange, meowing sound above me, and looked up to see this owl on a branch. 
Great Horned Owl
It was a Great Horned owl.  They are common there, but shy and difficult to photograph.  This one wasn't hooting.  It was meowing like a cat.  It was very strange, because it was being answered by another Great Horned Owl that was hooting nearby.
       "Meow....meow... "
        "Hoo-hoo, hoot-hoot-hoot."
      This went on for a couple of minutes.  Suddenly the hooting stopped and out of the corner of my eye I saw something swoop over my head.  I raised the camera and snapped a picture of two great horned owls...copulating. 
Slam, bam...
   It took about three seconds, then the male swooped off into the fading light...

...Thank you, ma'am

...leaving the female speechless, meowless, and sitting exactly where she had been when I'd first seen her.  Even in that dim light, I would describe her expression as underwhelmed.

Looking underwhelmed

        Probably my favorite bird, on Spring Island or anywhere else, is the pileated woodpecker, otherwise known as the Woody Woodpecker bird.  It is crazy large and has a crazy wukwukwuk cackle and hammers away at dead and dying trees in search of grubs and beetles like a lumberjack.  This shot was taken in northern Wisconsin.  He was so intent on drilling this dead birch tree he let me get pretty close to him:

Pileated woodpecker

      Another favorite is the scarlet tanager.  I've only seen a handful in my life.   They never come to the feeder, though we have a family of tanagers that lives near us in Carlisle, perhaps even on the property, somewhere in the woods I suppose.  Every couple of years I'd see one, so easily recognized with its shocking red feathers with black wings.  Three years ago we built a water feature in the back, a couple of rivulets running down a bank, over rocks, into a small pool.  It had a couple of pint sized waterfalls.  We did it because the area was shady and wouldn't grow grass.  Little did we know once completed it would attract all manner of birdlife, including scarlet tanagers.  (It even attracted a Great Blue Heron last fall, which flew in and dined on the fish and bullfrogs that lived there.)  The tanagers, normally so reclusive, loved to take baths in the running water.  Who knew?
Scarlet Tanager

      Which brings me to my mother's favorite bird, the rose-breasted grosbeak.  When we were kids, growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., my brothers and I always wanted a BB gun. My mother forbade it.  She didn't trust us, with reason.  She was sure we'd either use it to shoot each other or, worse, one of the birds that came to the feeders.  One year a rose-breasted grosbeak built a nest in the thorn tree that grew beside our whiffle ball park.  This development was sufficiently earth shattering that all games that spring were summarily cancelled by my mother, the Commish, who watched from the upstairs hall window as mama grosbeak laid three eggs and sat on them till they hatched.  When the chicks were still little more than featherless blobs, a gray squirrel climbed into the tree one day and approached the nest while mama grosbeak chattered helplessly.  My mother's squeals were a good deal more piercing, and all three sons were called upon to defend the nest from the squirrel.  Since we didn't have a BB-gun, and were afraid of thorns, we fired tennis balls and sticks and golf balls at the critter from the base of the tree, without result.  I knew the game was up when three headless grosbeak corpses, which looked exactly like miniature roasted turkeys, dropped to the ground and the squirrel bounded away, sated.  Apparently the head of a baby bird is the most nutritious part.  We got our BB-gun the next day, but the grosbeak flew away and never came back.
       Ever since, a rose-breasted grosbeak has made my heart leap.  We have a family of them that comes to our feeder and pigs out on sunflower seeds every summer, then disappears into the woods from whence they came.  They are not particularly shy.  But here is an unusual shot of an immature male, who is just beginning to attain the signature rose-colored patch on its breast. 

immature male rose-breasted grosbeak
        Now, the Christmas present idea.  If someone in your family enjoys birds, and likes identifying birds by their calls, there is a new book out called Bird Songs Bible which is published by Chronicle Books.  It weighs about 20 pounds and comes with an attached recording device which can play the call of every single bird that nests in North America, nearly 750 in all, plus at least one that doesn't: the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, now believed to be extinct again after temporarily making a fleeting comeback in the swamps of Arkansas. (The Ivory-Billed looks like a pileated, but its call is more like one of those old bicycle horns with the squeeze-bulb: Toot-toot-toot)   The calls are from audio recordings made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and include such rarities as calls of petrels and shearwaters who only vocalize at sea.  Also turkeys, great horned owls, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks.  There are color illustrations of all 728 species, plus a diagram of their range and habitat, and while the illustrations are not to scale (the hummingbird is the same size as the turkey vulture) they are pleasant to peruse.  It should be noted that this book will be of absolutely no use in the field: it is too cumbersome and the drawings don't show the birds in flight.  But at cocktail hour it is a fun tome.  The most comprehensive book of its kind, it retails for an imposing $125.  But for readers of this blog, it can by ordered from Amazon for a more palatable $75 by clicking the link below. 
   Or not.
   The important thing is BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN! BEARS WIN!
    Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yuna Kim fires Orser and The World's Best Salsa recipe

Like most pundits in the figure skating world, I am scratching my head at the news that Yuna Kim has parted with her coach, Brian Orser, six months after she won the Gold Medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
       It wasn't the only change "Queen Yuna", as she's known in Korea, has made since her breathtaking performance at the Olympics.  She also switched management teams in April, scrapping IB Sports, the Korean company that made her one of the five wealthiest female athletes in the past year with an estimated $9.7 million in earnings, to start her own agency, All That Sports, which is run by Kim's mother, Meehee Park.  Those 25% management fees are now all in the family.
      The announcement of the coaching change was made by Orser's management agency, IMG.  Let the P.R. war begin.
       This is all changing hourly, but here's a synopsis of what's come out so far.
     1) Orser tells various media outlets he was blindsided by the news of the coaching change, which he and coaching partner Tracy Wilson received from Yuna's mother on Aug. 2.  Orser adds that Yuna didn't know what was going on either.  He suspected something was amiss, he says, because his emails weren't being answered.  He also felt "disrespected" when he learned second-hand that Yuna's new short program was being choreographed by Canadaian ice dancer Shea-Lynn Bourne, with whom Orser had never worked.  Orser claims money has nothing to do with the split, that he never had a contract with Yuna, that he never got a bonus from her for winning the Gold, and that he was the lowest paid coach at that level in skating, charging her only $110 an hour.  But he loved Yuna and wished her well.
     2) Yuna Kim's camp responds to that opening salvo by saying Orser knew perfectly well why they were leaving him, but they do not believe it's the sort of thing that should be aired in public.  Yuna writes on her  Facebook page she is "disappointed and saddened" that Orser would pretend to be blindsided, and that she couldn't sit idly by and let her mother take the blame for the coaching change when she, too, was involved.  She says that she is an adult and she and her mother made the decision together.  Yuna further contends the relationship between her and Orser was never as perfect as the media made it out to be, and that it had been increasingly "awkward and ambiguous" in the last few months.  She also says the fact that Mao Asada of Japan, her arch-rival, approached Orser about coaching her was not the main reason she was leaving.  She implies, though, it was a factor.
      Okay, here's what I think.
      Money has to be the main reason for the split.  Orser's claim to the contrary doesn't pass the smell test.  If he truly didn't get a bonus after Yuna Kim won a gold medal, he has every right to be angry.  The girl made almost $10 million last year!  Furthermore, he is represented by IMG, and all IMG cares about is money.  You think his agent at IMG is going to let him charge only $110 an hour to the Olympic favorite with no incentives built in?  Ha!  IMG also owns Stars on Ice, which Yuna Kim does not skate for.  My guess is that IMG was applying some sort of heavy-handed pressure on Kim, who has her own skating show in Korea, to join Stars, and it blew up in their face.  They may even have been using Mao Asada as a weapon: If you don't want Brian to take on Mao, you should skate with "Stars..." this winter.  I wouldn't put it past them.  They only know heavy-handed.
     The sad thing is that such a successful team should now be broken apart.  Yes, as Yuna said in her Facebook message, skater's change coaches all the time.  But not after they win an Olympic gold medal and skate two programs for the ages.  At least not when the coach is as easy going and positive as Orser and his coaching partner Tracy Wilson are.  The laid back, relaxed atmosphere at the Toronto Cricket Club, where they coach, was the perfect landing spot for the stressed-out Kim when she arrived there at age 15.  I visited there last December, and, despite all the pressure she was feeling from home to win, Yuna was clearly happy training under Orser.  I don't believe the problems that developed originated between the two of them.  And one thing was and is certain: her mother, Meehee Park, calls the shots.  Yuna is not going to buck her.  Somehow IMG and/or Orser ran afoul of the mother, and it caused the rupture of a terrific skating partnership, one that created what I believe to be the finest gold medal performance in Olympic history.  It'll be interesting to see what develops.
     Okay, now for the Recipe of the Week.  This is a great way to enjoy those ripe tomatoes from your garden or local farmer's market, a salsa recipe I found in a book called The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman (a gift from son Nathaniel last Christmas).  The key is the first step: mince one medium red onion and marinate in the juice from 1/2 lime (about 2 tbls), 1 tsp. salt, and freshly ground pepper for 20 minutes.  In the meantime, chop about 2 lbs. tomatoes into 1/2 inch pieces, add 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 jalapena pepper (finely minced and seeds removed), and 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro.  Add to the onion and lime mixture and serve.  Great as a dip with tortilla chips, or as a relish on poultry or omelets.  Truly addictive!  Summer on a chip!


Monday, August 16, 2010

The PGA controversy, Plagiarizing at The Times, and Jim Gray

I know, I's been awhile.  Just back from my niece's lovely wedding in Chevy Chase, Md., where more than one friend commented on the abandonment of Swift Kicks since the Vancouver Olympics.  The truth is, I've turned into a farmer this summer, having requisitioned a plot at the Carlisle Community Gardens, and haven't had the least inclination to sit down and write.  I used to think time and tide waited for no man.  Now my standard for unrelenting impatience is summer squash and green beans waiting to be picked.  You want tomatoes?  Right now my counter is covered with about 150 of them in various shapes and sizes in search of a mouth or a recipe.  It's enough to make a man sit down and face his blog.

It was a fascinating final round at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.  As most of you know by now, Dustin Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole, an infraction that cost him a spot in the playoff.  It was a sad thing for Johnson and the tournament, but CBS announcers made it sadder than it should have been.  Announcer David Feherty practically wept while revisiting the offending bunker, telling CBS viewers it never crossed his mind it was, in fact, a bunker, rather than a bare patch of ground.  He could see no discernible lip, no rake, and footprints were all over the sand, left by spectators who'd been standing there.  His take?  Johnson had been jobbed.
     I like Feherty, but I have trouble believing it never crossed his mind Johnson was in a bunker.  While watching the telecast, when I saw Johnson ground his club while addressing the ball, my heart immediately jumped.  It was clear to me he was in one of those shoddy bunkers: there are something like 1200 of them scattered around that course.  None of CBS's announcers--Jim Nantz, Feherty, Nick Faldo--said anything when Johnson grounded his club, however, so I assumed the bunkers beyond the ropes had been designated waste areas.  A waste area is not considered a hazard, and golfers are allowed to take practice swings and ground their clubs when in them.  Why?  Because waste areas aren't raked, and the surface of the sand is uneven and unpredictable within them, often marred by footprints and tire tracks.  The bunker Dustin Johnson found himself in on the 18th hole, which the gallery had been standng in, was just such a place.  It should have been declared a waste area, but it hadn't been.  PGA officials had specifically posted signs in the media center and the locker rooms alerting players to the fact that those areas were considered hazards and to be treated as if they were bunkers.  Johnson should have known that.  Feherty, who had the benefit of going back and standing in the bunker, certainly should have recognized it for what it was.  And Nantz and Faldo should have known the local rule and said something while Feherty was carrying on as if Johnson had been robbed.  Eventually a PGA rules official interviewed by Peter Kostis cleared the matter up.  But it was not the finest bit of sports television I've ever seen.  Then again, none of those involved--Nantz, Faldo or Feherty--should be considered a journalist. 
     So what's Jim Gray's excuse?  This guy makes Keith Olbermann look objective.  First there was his absurd performance during the LeBron James telecast a few weeks ago on ESPN, in which the self-aggrandizing Gray waited six minutes to ask the only question a real journalist would have cared to ask: Which team was James jumping to?  I didn't think it was possible for him to sink any lower, but he managed to on the eve of the PGA Championship, when Gray confronted Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin outside the press center, jabbed his chest with his finger, called Pavin a "liar", and told Pavin he was "going down."  Huh?  Down where?  The hole that Gray crawled out of?  Pavin's offense?  He told the press conference that Gray had misquoted him when Gray reported on the Golf Channel that Pavin said he'd offer Tiger Woods a spot on the Ryder Cup team, even if Tiger didn't qualify for one of the automatic selections. 
      My take?  Anyone who's ever covered sports for any length of time has been accused of misquoting an athlete.  It's very possible Pavin told Gray exactly what Gray reported.  It's also possible he told it to him off the record.  It's possible there was a misunderstanding between the two about what was on and off the record.  These things happen.  Athletes say things all the time they later regret.  Often the default response is to say they were misquoted.  Or misinterpreted.  It's happened to me a couple of times over the years.  The way for a journalist to handle it is to privately discuss the athlete's concerns with him (or her), and, if you still believe you are right, to publicly stand by your story.   That's it.  "I stand by my story."  No name calling.  No jabbing in the chest.  No calling someone a liar.  And certainly no threatening that "You're going down!!"?  Gray was unprofessional to the extreme.  It was, and is, inexcusable.  Any network that hires him going forward should know what they are getting: an unprofessional personality with axes to grind.  Not a journalist.
       Finally--while speaking of bad journalism--under the category of Low Moments in the New York Times, we have The Case of Who Plagiarized Whom?
    In Lynn Zinser's news story on the final round of the PGA Championship (Monday, Aug. 16) she writes the following about Phil Mickelson: "But on Sunday he finally got hot.  He eagled the par-5 No. 5 early and then had birdies on three consecutive holes.  He hit nice putts on Nos. 12 and 13 and hit his approach within two feet for birdie on No. 14.  That put him at seven under.  He stayed there until a wild ride on 18, which led to a bogey and a round of 67."
     Succinctly put.  This was another article in this morning's NY Times, written by Thomas Kaplan, entitled On Par, under the subhead Mickelson Steadies Himself: "But on Sunday, he finally heated up.  He eagled the par-5 No. 5 early, then had birdies on three consecutive holes.  He hit nice putts on Nos. 12 and 13 and hit his approach within two feet for birdie on No. 14.  That put him at seven under.  He stayed there until a wild ride on 18, which led to a bogey and finished a round of 67."
       If it were not for two minor discrepancies ("got hot" by Zinser vs. "heated up" by Kaplan; and the word "finished" in the last sentence by Kaplan), the paragraphs would have been identical and I would have assumed it was some sort of computer screw up.  But since those two descriptions of Mickelson's round were almost, but not exactly, the same, the hand of man is apparent.  So who wrote it, and who copied it?  I smell a nameless editor's hand in this foul till.
     Or maybe great minds think alike.  Strange brewings in Kohler, for sure.  All in all, an exciting PGA Championship that some of us would just as soon forget. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vancouver 2010: Where I rank it, and why

I get asked a lot which were my favorite Olympics and why.  Its not an easy question to answer, because so many things go into it.  Professionally, my favorite Olympics was the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, which were an organizational nightmare.  The buses went on strike, so spectators had to trudge to an from the opening ceremonies, which were held a mile outside of town.  Since it was snowing, it looked like the retreat of Napoleon's army in the Russian winter.  Hotel and restaurant owners price-gouged to such an extent that it was easy to find a table at any restaurant in tiny Lake Placid.  People left as quickly as they could after an event to friendlier environs.  But I covered all six of the U.S. gold medals--five by Eric Heiden, and that very special one by the U.S. Olympic hockey team--so it was a wonderful Olympics for me, personally.  But I still rank Lake Placid at the bottom of my list.
       So, Vancouver.
      First, the competition.
       It couldn't have ended better, with the overtime goal by Sidney Crosby, Canada's biggest active sports star, putting an exclamation point on the Games, as if it had all been scripted.  The men's hockey gold was Canada's 14th, the most by any country.  The U.S. had the most medals, 37, and Germany was next with 30.  But Canada was able to trumpet that they had "owned the podium" after all, by virtue of winning the most gold medals of any country in any Winter Olympics.  Though by the formula that I suggested in my last post, awarding 3 pts for a gold, 2 for a silver, 1 for bronze, the U.S. still finished on top:
              United States       9 gold     15 silver    13 bronze =  70 pts.
               Germany           10 gold     13 silver      7 bronze =  63 pts.
               Canada              14 gold       7 silver      5 bronze =  61 pts.
       So both North American countries had a great Games.  But I would submit that as the nationalistic fervor gripped Canada in the final week, as the gold medals started to accumulate, the tenor of the cheering changed from enthusiastic and supportive to rabid and edgy.  Many, many Canadians have told me that if the U.S. had scored the overtime goal, instead of Canada, it would have ruined the Olympics for the host nation and left a bitter taste in their mouths.  That is not the Olympic spirit.  Nor is the goal of "owning the podium" and resorting to restricting access to facilities by foreign teams who wanted to train on the new bobsled, luge, skeleton and speedskating tracks.
        Let me add the nationalistic chest thumping did not start with Canada.  But we're not used to seeing it from our neighbors to the north.  The Americans are the very worst perpetrators (U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!) and I'm certain that four years from now, Mother Russia will also want to prove its greatness by piggybacking on its athletes, as the Soviet Union used to.  And who was the first to use the Olympics, founded as a "friendly competition between nations", for propaganda purposes?  Nazi Germany, which hosted both the Summer and Winter Games in 1936.
        Look, I'm not comparing Canada (or the U.S. or Russia) with Nazi Germany.  The Canadian athletes who finished off the podium did so with grace.  But for a nation that likes to consider itself humble and understated, the Vancouver Games took them into uncharted territory.   It's why I've always loved the Sarajevo Olympics.  I believe Yugoslavia won one silver medal in those1984 Games.  They had been isolated behind the Iron Curtain for so long, they were just thrilled to be host to the sporting world, and they cheered every medal as their own.  They were the best hosts ever.

The Stars Were the Stars
      From Lindsey Vonn, shown here with some random old fart who is way too pleased with himself, to Shawn White, to Bode Miller, to Apollo Ono, to Sid Crosby, to Kim Yu-Na, the athletes we were familiar with rose to the occasion.  That's a good thing.  Upsets are fine in football, but in the Olympics, where for four years most of these athletes toil in obscurity, we need the Michael Phelps' of the world to perform up to the hype.  Or it's just hype.  They did that here.

The Organizing Committee Got Its Act Together 
      My colleague, S.L. Price, called it the greatest comeback in Olympic history.  And it was done by Vanoc, the Vancouver Organizing committee.  The first week was beset with problems, great and small.  The death of the Georgian luger.  The breakdown of ice cleaning machines at the speedskating oval.  Street protests.  Anger that the Olympic torch was behind a cyclone fence.  Grandstand tickets that were sold and then invalidated.  Fans injured at an outdoor concert when a barrier collapsed.
       The last two weeks were rife with solutions.  Those things that could be fixed, were fixed, and new problems didn't arise.  There were no lapses in security.  Buses ran on time.  Police controlled crowds without dampening enthusiasm.  Vancouver was a fun, safe place to be.

The Weather--yuck
      The weather wasn't just an aesthetic problem.  It severely affected the alpine competition, especially the slalom and the ski cross events, which were held in pea soup fog and driving rain.  About half the slalom racers skied off the course.   Four years, and then your fate is determined by whether you ski during a break in the fog or not.  As for the city, where I was the entire time, except for four or five days in the middle, which were lovely, it rained every day.  Not driving rainstorms.  Just a steady, spitting drizzle.  Bad luck?  Maybe.  But it all goes into the mix when it comes to ranking your favorite Olympics.

The Crowds--Unreal
       They just kept showing up, milling around the streets, clogging the sidewalks, wearing their Team Canada jerseys (they're called sweaters here), their funny hats, their facepaint.  Cheering Ca-na-da! till they were hoarse.  Watching the hockey games through tavern windows while standing in the rain.  It was all about being there, sharing the experience.  They didn't need tickets to feel part of these Olympics.  Walking to the press center Sunday morning, where I would catch a bus to the gold medal hockey game, I passed three bars that had lines to get in that stretched around the corner.  It was 9:20 a.m., and, since it was Sunday, the bars didn't open till 11 am.  They waited without complaint, surrounded by like-minded Canadians who would remember Sidney Crosby's goal the rest of their lives.  I'm glad I didn't have to see how they'd have behaved if the U.S. had won that game, but as it was, they were just giddy, proud, happy, thrilled fans who brought an energy to these Games the likes of which I had never seen.

So here it is: My Favorite Winter Olympics

1) Sarajevo, 1984--  Heavy snow.  Heavy smoke in loud, hot bars filled with burly locals who tried to make you understand their native tongue.  A population so appreciative to have contact with the outside world, you had the feeling they'd have done anything for you.  

2) Lillehammer, 1994--Cold, clear air.  Fresh white powder.  Grandmothers who did their shopping from sleds.  Small.  Old fashioned.  The only taint?  Tonya Harding was there, too.

3) Vancouver, 2010

4) Calgary, 1988--What I remember best is the figure skating.  Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov all won gold medals; I wrote about them all; and I was hooked.  Snow early, then a warm snap as a chinook blew in.  Canadian friendly.

5) Albertville, 1992--A wonderful opening ceremonies, very French.  Wonderful food, of course.  Managed to get a couple of days of skiing in Meribel during the Games.  Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal; and Paul Wylie won his silver.  Both great stories to tell, especially Wylie's.  (He was 27).  Too spread out, however.  Which is now the trend.

6) Salt Lake City, 2002-- They did a great job, after a very rough start. (Remember the scandal about bribing IOC officials).  As good a combination of mountains and proximity to a city as any Winter Games site ever, and the weather was perfect.  Only problem was, well, it was Salt Lake City.

7) Torino, 2006--Another site where the city and the mountains were just too far apart, a couple of hours by bus.  Rain in the city, snow in the mountains.  The food was, again, fantastic--it was Italy, right?  But the Italians didn't embrace the Games as the Vancouverites did.

8) Nagano, 1998--This is mostly a personal thing that I can't even explain.  The Japanese did a great job with these Games, and the people could not have been more hospitable.  But there was no place I found to gather with my colleagues at night, and the hotel room was small and the bed hard.  The hotel elevator gave me a chuckle, though.  The floors were inscribed in the brass plate as follows: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Robby.     I swear.

9)  Lake Placid, 1980.  My first.  I shared a bedroom in our condo with SI Editor Bob Ottum, who became a great friend and mentor.   He and Willaim Oscar Johnson, our skiing writer, would write at the kitchen table with their manual typewriters, Ottum with a bottle of vodka in front of him, Johnson with a bottle of bourbon.  It was an eyeopener for me, I'll tell you.  And a good one.  Real pros.  I miss them.  I miss the camaraderie we shared in that small condo.  It gave me my love of the Olympic Games, which has yet to diminish.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Medal Count

The Olympic Games is not supposed to be about medal counts.  But it always has been and it always will be, so they might as well get it right.  Every paper you open, and even the official Vancouver media website, has a table like this one from this morning keeping track of the medal.

     Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           34
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           27
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           21
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           20
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           15
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           15
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           14
ChinaChina 5               2               4           11
FranceFrance 2               3               5           10
SwedenSweden 5               2                   2             9

      My problem with this table is the Total.  They are assigning the same value to a bronze medal as to a silver medal, and the same to a silver as to a gold.  But as we all know, and as anyone who saw the U.S. women's hockey team in tears after they received their silver medal, while the Canadians were loutishly drinking beer and smoking cigars on the ice after getting their golds, all medals are not even close to being created equal.
  Should Sweden, with five golds, two silvers, and two bronzes, really be listed behind France, with only two golds, three silvers, and five bronzes?
          I'm told Olympic historian David Wallechinsky tracks who wins the medal race at the Olympics by listing them by gold medals accumulated, using silvers and bronzes as tiebreakers.  But that's equally non-sensical.  Canada's Joannie Rochette's bronze medal in figure skating was nearly as sweet as any gold.  Tiebreaker?  I don't think so.
      The solution?  A points system.
       What, then, is a gold medal worth, relative to a silver, relative to a bronze?
       Is one gold worth two silvers?  And one silver worth two bronzes?  If so, then it should be 4 pts. per gold, 2 per silver, 1 per bronze.  Then the current medal standings would look like this:

      Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           71
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           65
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           58
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           50
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           32
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           27
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           38
ChinaChina 5               2               4           28
FranceFrance 2               3               5           19
       Sweden 5               2                   2           26

    South Korea would move ahead of Austria and Russia in the medal standings, China would pass Russia, and Sweden would move ahead of France.  All three of these changes would more accurately reflect their performances.   The top four countries wouldn't change their order under the 4, 2, 1 system.
        But is one gold really worth four bronzes?  Would an athlete rather have two silver medals, or one gold?
      It's a fair question.  I happen to think two silvers trumps one gold, and an athlete with three bronze medals can look a single gold medalist in the eye as an equal.   Hence a simple 3, 2, 1 system would be my preference.  That would mean the medal count would look like this:

  Country                   Gold            Silver       Bronze       Total

United States 8             13             13           63
GermanyGermany                 9             11               7           56
CanadaCanada10               7                   4           48
NorwayNorway 8               6               6           42
AustriaAustria 4               5               6           28
RussiaRussia 3               5               7           26
South KoreaSouth Korea 6               6               2           32
ChinaChina 5               2               4           23
FranceFrance 2               3               5           17
SwedenSweden 5               2                   2           21

  By this formula, South Korea again moves up two places, into 5th place overall, and Sweden again passes France.  But China remains in 8th place, and the top four places, again, don't change.  Easy to understand, simple to compute, and more accurately representative of the athlete's accomplishments.  As easy as 1, 2, 3.