Monday, April 7, 2008

March Sadness

Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Scott Stevens, and Al MacInnis were inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame this year...

Tonight, all the talk of the sports world is the championship game of NCAA men’s basketball, the final culmination of the field of 64 teams in the tournament known as March Madness. All the prognosticating, smack-taling, filling in of brackets, and placing of wagers comes to a frothy head as I write this. March Madness, indeed.

So what…I can’t stand basketball.

While seemingly everyone else in the known universe is watching hoops, my sport is once again cast aside like a forgotten afterthought. Hockey always gets the shaft, actually. The start of the season is overshadowed by baseball’s World Series and the start of the NFL and college football seasons. Football dominates the TV and news coverage throughout, unless it’s instead being gobbled up by basketball. And now that the regular season is ending for hockey, no one seems to be noticing, caught up instead by the opening games of baseball season and the basketball championships.

Although hockey’s playoffs and the run for Lord Stanley’s Cup will carry us through to May, I’m still sad to see the season winding down. I call it March Sadness.

Yeah, I know, it’s April. Sue me.

So, since ESPN would rather show people playing poker, as if it were a sport, USA Today relegates daily hockey coverage to the back of the sports section after in-depth coverage of everything else under the sun, and the NHL’s TV coverage is provided by Versus, a cable channel that’s seen in about 12 homes nationwide, I thought I’d fill you all in on the spectacular moments in hockey that you’ve missed since the first puck dropped.

The season opened on September 29, with the first of back-to-back games in London at The O2 Arena. Both games featured the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks, and the Los Angeles Kings (who are owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the same company that owns The O2). They were the first NHL regular season games ever played in Europe.

At just twenty years of age and in his third professional season, Sidney Crosby of the Pittburgh Penguins became the oungest captain ever of an NHL team when he was selected to that position on May 31st, during the off-season. At the time, Crosby was still about 10 weeks shy of turning 20.

Sid The Kid scores the winning goal at the Winter Classic

On November 7th Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars broke the NHL all-time record (1,233) for most points scored by a U.S. born player by scoring two goals in the first five minutes of a game against the San Jose Sharks. Modano ended the regular season with a total of 1,287 total points on 528 goals and 755 assists.

Mike Modano celebrates his milestone achievement

On November 10th, Jeremy Roenick of the San Jose Sharks became only the 3rd American to score 500 goals during his playing career. And on the final day of the regular season, April 6th (yeah, Saturday night), that feat was also accomplished by a fourth American, Kieth Tkachuk of the St.Louis Blues (Joe Mullen and Mike Modano are the other two Americans to have reached 500). Only 41 players have reached the 500-goal milestone in the history of the NHL, with the first being Maurice “Rocket” Richard in 1957.

Jeremy Roenick celebrates goal number 500 with his son. How cool is that?

On January 1st, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres played an historic outdoor game at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills football team. The AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic was the first time an NHL regular-season game had been played outdoors in the United States, and it set an NHL attendance record of 71,217 people in subzero weather conditions. (

On January 8, Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings became the second oldest player in the history of the NHL, at 45 years, 348 days. Only Gordie Howe, who played until age 52, was older. Now in his 24th NHL season, Chris is older than his coach, Mike Babcock, who turns 45 later this month.This coming weekend, in Game Two of a playoff game against the Nashvile Predators, Chelios will become the NHL’s all-time leader in playoff games played. Incidentally, the Predators squeaked into the playoffs after a dramatic overtime win with a goal scored by a former South Carolina Stingray, Rich Peverley.

Methuselah? No, Chris Chelios!!!

Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers was severely injured after having his external carotid artery in his neck accidentally cut by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen in a game against the Buffalo Sabres on February 10. Zednik is expected to fully recover from the injury. (

Richard Zednik, one lucky dude.

On March 21, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals scored his 59th and 60th goals of the season against the Atlanta Thrashers, becoming the first NHL player to score 60 goals in a season since 1996. He is the 19th player ever to reach the 60 goal plateau during a season. On March 25, Ovechkin scored his 61st goal to hold the Washington Capital's team record for regular season goals, and broke Luc Robitaille's record for most goals by a left winger in one season on April 3, by scoring two goals, his 64th and 65th of the season. Ovechkin finished the regular season as the leader in points (112) and goals (65), and today was awarded both the Art Ross Trophy and the Rocket Richard Trophy for the respective achievements. Moreover, since the Capitals won the Southeast Division, Ovechkin is a frontrunner for the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award as the league's MVP via selection by the media and the National Hockey League Players Association, respectively. Twenty-two year old Ovechkin is in only his third NHL season.

Alexander Ovechkin. You can call him Ovie.

The NHL also celebrated a very special anniversary this year. It was 50 years ago that a young man named Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in major league hockey. In 1958 O'Ree made his debut with the Boston Bruins. He was with the Bruins for two games before being sent back to the minors. In 1961, after two more years in the minors, O'Ree had a longer stay with the Bruins--41 games. O'Ree never played another game in the NHL, but stayed in the minors till retiring in 1974. He came out of retirement in 1978 for a final hurrah; at age 43 he laced up the skates one more time. Incredibly, Willie missed only a half-dozen games of the 70-game season and scored 50 points.

The most fitting tribute to Willie's career came when the NHL created an all-star game for young minority hockey players and named it in Willie's honor. The Willie O'Ree All-Star Game is held every year at the World Junior Championships. On January 17, 1998, during ceremonies before the NHL All-Star game, the NHL honored Willie O'Ree for his pioneering efforts and named him the director of youth hockey development for the NHL/USA Hockey diversity task force. He travels all over North America helping to establish programs.

Willie O'Ree while playing for the Bruins

A little closer to home, our very own South Carolina Stingrays have wrapped up their 15th season and are once again heading to the playoffs, the 14th trip of their 15-year franchise history. First year head coach Jared Bednar now holds the Rays’ record for regular-season wins with a team made up mostly of young rookies, a couple of returning core players, a couple upstart college players signed at the last minute, and a part-time defenseman who catches crooks at a local Target store. The goalie tandem of Davis Parley and Josh Johnson combined for six shutouts. Rookie sensation Travis Morin’s 34 goals and 50 assists not only led the Rays in scoring but was also good enough for third in the league. Their first-round action against the Augusta Lynx kicks off Thursday night.

Pierre-Luc O'Brien and Scott Romfo of the Stingrays celebrate another win.

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