January 7, 2013

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What IIHF Gold Medal Means For American Hockey

By: Tyler Vespa

After a year without reaching the medal stand at the IIHF World Junior Championships, the United States came back with a convincing gold medal run in 2013. They beat Czech Republic in the quarterfinal 7-0, and then dominated Canada 5-1 in the semifinal. That placed the Americans in the gold medal game for the first time since 2010. On Saturday, January 5th they had to defeat defending champion Sweden. Led by tournament MVP goaltender John Gibson and a stout penalty kill, the Americans beat Sweden 3-1.

With the NHL not yet back on the ice, many tuned into the IIHL where the Americans won gold.

Along with their gold in 2010, they finished with a bronze medal in 2011. In 17 years since 1997 the United States has made the medal stand only 6 times, while Canada has earned a medal 15 times.

Just as Canada’s numbers speak for themselves, the United States has been more consistent in recent years at the tournament. With the victory that put the U.S. on the medal stand at the IIHF World Juniors for 3 of the past 4 years.

With that here are 3 reasons American hockey is on the rise:

  1. More consistent performance: No it’s not about a gold medal every year, it’s about earning a medal in the first place.
  2. Juniors include those playing in the NCAA and High School: That means the NHL hasn’t necessarily drafted some of the best players yet, including incoming recruits.
  3. Huge increase in number of American players drafted: the 60 American skaters drafted in 2011 were the highest since 2007 when there were 62 selected. After having just 42 Americans selected in 2008, there have been 50 or more Americans selected the past 4 years.

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It’s no “Miracle on Ice”, but this victory is significant considering the current situation with the NHL. Because of the lockout, the NHL has not yet committed to participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. That means the U.S. may be considered more of a threat to win the gold medal. With no NHL hockey being played it’s nice to know there continues to be an abundance of youth and talent in the States.

September 24, 2012

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2012 Ryder Cup: Why the U.S. can bring the Cup back

By: Tyler Vespa

This weekend is the phenomenon in golf known as the Ryder Cup. The 39th matches will be held at Medinah Country Club just outside of Chicago beginning on Friday, with the conclusion as always on Sunday with the 12 singles matches.

The Americans will be seeking to retain the Cup from the European team, who took back the Cup in 2010 at Celtic Manor in Wales. Since 1985, the Europeans are 9-4 against the Americans. The Americans have won the matches only one other time since the 1999 “Miracle at Brookline”, that was at Valhalla in 2008.

Steve Stricker brings experience to the USA Ryder Cup team.

As we enter this pressure-packed week, the United States team has only one player on its squad raked outside the top 20 in the world, that player being Ryder Cup veteran Jim Furyk, who is ranked, 27th.

The Europeans have 3 of the top 4 players in the world with world number 1 Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald who is 3rd, and Lee Westwood who is 4th. After that their team has only one other player ranked in the top 10, that being Englishman Justin Rose who is raked 8th fresh off of a runner-up finish at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Six of the final 8 members on the European team are currently ranked outside the top 20.

However, 9 of the 12 members on the European team have a winning record in Ryder Cup play. The European team has only one player making his Ryder Cup debut, that being Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts who won the Volvo World Match Play in Spain earlier this year. So, he does know match play, and has distance off the tee that could key the European side to victory.

The only weakness I see in this gritty American side is the fact that they have 4 Ryder Cup rookies. Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker have never experienced the cauldron that is the Ryder Cup. That being said, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson are now both major champions, and Brandt Snedeker is fresh off his win at the Tour Championship, which also earned him the FedEx Cup.  Jason Dufner, who had two wins in 2012, finished the season 4th in total driving, which is a combination of distance and accuracy and was also 4th in greens in regulation.

The experience of the American team with those 4 rookies in combination with the European team having 9 of their 12 players with a winning record in Ryder Cup play means the 39th edition of these matches should author one of the best finishes in the event’s history.

I’m taking the Americans on their home turf. The crowd at Medinah will help those rookies make a few more putts, and shake up the Europeans into one too many mistakes. The final tally: United States- 15   Europe- 13

October 24, 2011

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Can a Tour Not Sanctioned by the NBA Work?

By: Anson Whaley

With news that the NBA lockout could last a while, word broke recently that several of the league’s stars are working to go on an international barnstorming tour. This makes sense since the players could not only draw an income, but stay in shape and in front of fans missing out on the NBA’s regular season. Ordinarily, this might sound like a pipe dream scenario, but reports are starting to surface that contracts have already been signed and such a tour could be a very real possibility.

So the question is, ‘can it work?’

No one could really say for sure, but if the goal is to pack a few arenas and make a little bit of money along the way, then I think it could work over the short term. Here’s what needs to happen, in my opinion, for it to be a success:

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1.  Keep it overseas: The way I see it, the greatest interest for a barnstorming tour would be overseas. There are plenty of fans in the U.S. that would pay to see LeBron vs. Kobe in an NBA game any day of the week, but how many would want to pay big money for an exhibition? Could it work once? Probably. But fans overseas would likely have a far greater interest in seeing players they may never otherwise be able to see play in person. The tour would have a bigger chance of constant sellouts if played internationally than if the teams made the rounds in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Would people pay to see LeBron James playing overseas? Absolutely!

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2.  Limit the games: These games may seem like fun at first, but how many would you actually want to see? The novelty could wear off extremely quickly and the players involved would be better off by not playing an abundance of these contests. In addition to attendance, the other thing that’s reportedly been discussed is the possibility of televised games. Networks may be interested in airing a few, but it’s hard to envision a major entity being willing to broadcast a dozen or so games. No one knows how long this lockout will last and if the players need to organize another tour, interest should still be high if the number of contests is limited the first time around.

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3.  Make the competition real: Much like the NHL’s and NFL’s athletes, NBA players catch a lot of heat for their All-Star games because they’re perceived to feature little defense. That’s true to a degree, but it’s hard to fault the players for that because they don’t want to get injured – especially since their break is in the middle of the season. Fans may simply be pleased with seeing exhibition-level basketball, but the tour would be an infinitely bigger success if the players went all out. In addition, the last thing the players need to do is further alienate fans. That could happen if fans in attendance or watching on TV feel they aren’t giving their all … even if the games are played in another country. There doesn’t need to a trophy or an actual league set up, but if the games are competitive, that would go a long way to restoring their credibility among fans. That said…

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4.  Be careful: The worst thing that could happen would be a significant injury to any of the players. It would not only be devastating to NBA teams employing any such players (especially if the lockout ends and the season eventually gets underway), but put serious doubts in the mind of the rest of the players about if they should be participating. It’s simply not worth it for these players who are at the top of their sport to suffer a major injury. That’s the type of thing that could cause an abrupt end to the tour and make it a disaster.

July 5, 2011

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Jaromir Jagr’s Road Ends In Philadelphia

By: Anson Whaley

When former NHL star Jaromir Jagr announced he was open to returning to the league, it was one of the few hockey stories that could cause a stir during the summer. Usually during this time, sports fans are discussing the MLB All-Star game, the NBA Draft, and NFL training camps (or, more importantly, Fantasy Football drafts). But this year, with two ongoing lockouts, the NHL found its way into the spotlight.

The Jagr tale is a curious one to be sure, having so many twists and turns that a compass would be needed to accurately follow it. It didn’t always look that way, though. Jagr appeared headed back to Pittsburgh near the end of the process without much controversy. He played the majority of his career with the Penguins, still has a home in the area, and had talked to owner Mario Lemieux (who he credits for his successful NHL career) about a possible return. But leave it to the enigmatic star to cause some drama and we should have all known it would never be quite so simple.

It all started with rumors that three teams were involved for Jagr’s services – the Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, and a mystery team. Various reports, including one from the reputable Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, spoke of a possible contract being in place even before Jagr’s flight landed in the U.S. as he traveled from Russia. But from there, it got murky – he didn’t arrive on time and his agent reportedly didn’t even know where he was for a brief time. The deal with Pittsburgh that seemed to be in place dissolved. From there, more teams got involved in the bidding, the Penguins and Red Wings both pulled their initial offers, and Jagr was off to the Philadelphia Flyers for a one-year deal worth more than $3M.

So what kind of impact can the former All-Star have on next year’s Flyers team? It’s safe to say that anyone expecting the Jagr of the 1990s will be disappointed.

While still a serviceable wing (and one that could have greatly helped a team such as the Penguins who are desperate for pieces to play alongside centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), Jagr’s game has predictably seen a steady decline. In his last three years in the NHL, his scoring plummeted from 54 goals to 30, then to 25. While 25 goals is still worthy of first-line minutes, the quick decline he had from those three years from 2005 – 2008 needs to be noted. And despite playing in the KHL, a Russian hockey league that isn’t on the same level as the NHL, his scoring further declined over the past two seasons. Jagr’s 2010-11 total of 19 goals with KHL club Avangard Omsk was the first time in his career that he dipped below 20 since joining the NHL as a rookie in 1990.

Now at the age of 39, Jagr will be hard pressed to score much more than 20 goals next season. Joining the Penguins would have meant playing alongside Crosby or Malkin and the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk could have been ideal fits as well. Either team would have offered innumerable scoring opportunities and a 25-goal season might have been within his reach – not to mention a legitimate chance to play for a Stanley Cup. But Jagr is joining a Flyers team which has cleared house this offseason, dumping nearly 80 goals in production by dismissing centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and forward Ville Leino. What does it all mean? With fewer scorers, Jagr should have more chances with the puck, but in losing its top two centers, he will be left trying to score on his own creativity. And at 39, that will be a bit tough to do.

Mix in the fact that Philadelphia is a big-time hockey town and one of the major media centers of the U.S., and Jagr will be feeling an enormous pressure to score.

When you add it all up, I’m not sure it spells disaster. But there were certainly better fits for Jagr than Philadelphia

June 6, 2011

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Shaq Retires

By: Anson Whaley

It goes without saying that Shaquille O’Neal was one of those rare athletes that transcended the game he played. He wasn’t the most dominant as some have called him lately – that title clearly belongs to Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged more than 50 points and 25 rebounds per game in the 1961-62 season and more than 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for his career. But Shaq (like Wilt) was larger than life, which is why no single article will do him justice.

So with that, I give you the top ten things I’ll remember about the Diesel.

Shaq

 

10. Shaq Signs Exclusive Deal with Classic Trading Cards

Shaq was a trendsetter and had one of the first exclusive trading card deals in history. Classic, an upstart company back in the early 1990s, made one of the biggest splashes in history by signing O’Neal to an exclusive card deal, owning the right to print his first rookie cards. Sure, go ahead and scoff if you want. But his deal was enormous for the industry as it led to other companies signing exclusive deals with athletes.

9. Literally a Showstopper

O’Neal didn’t only break a few backboards when he dunked early in his career, but he literally tore down the entire support systems. This, of course, delayed play while the systems were fixed or replaced. Shaq was one of the few players that forced the NBA to look into reinforcing their backboards.

8. Shaq Raps

No, the Diesel’s abilities weren’t limited to only the basketball court. He was also a great rapper. Okay, well, maybe not. But his debut Album ‘Shaq Diesel’ still went platinum, which gives him exactly one more platinum record than almost everyone on the planet.

7. Leading Magic to Finals

O’Neal was only in his third season when he led the Magic to the Finals. He didn’t just help them get there, he was the clear star of the team. With all due respect to Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant, and Nick Anderson, the Magic probably don’t get out of the first round without the Diesel. Orlando was swept by the Houston Rockets, but it wasn’t because of Shaq, who averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game.

6. Passed over for Christian Laettner

The decision to take Christian Laettner over O’Neal for the final spot on the 1992 USA Olympic Dream Team had about as much impact on the outcome as it would if I were selected. Lots of factors played into the decision – Laettner was a senior with two NCAA titles for starters. Still, it was a big-time snub nonetheless and Shaq wasn’t all that happy about it.

5. Taking Heat to the Title

Make no mistake – the 2005-06 Miami Heat were Dwyane Wade’s team. But it’s fair to say that without O’Neal’s nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds every night, Miami would still be looking for their first title. Shaq also proved to the world he could win a championship without Kobe and his fourth title placed him in select company.

4. Kobe Feud

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. If Kobe and Shaq stay together, it’s likely that they would have gone on to win several more titles. The feud will always be one of the first things fans think of when reminiscing about Shaq. O’Neal wouldn’t have been able to run down Bill Russell’s 11 championships, but Kobe is young enough that it’s conceivable that he could have gotten close.

3. Signs with Lakers

The rumors swelled in the Summer of 1996 about what Shaq would do. He eventually chose to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers and effectively began a mini dynasty, helping the franchise to three titles. His signing filled the gap left by Vlade Divac, who was traded to the then Charlotte Hornets for … Kobe Bryant. That effectively concluded the most lopsided deal in NBA history.

2. Leading Lakers to Three-Peat

O’Neal began the Lakers’ Dynasty by helping the franchise to three straight championships. Whatever side you fall on of the great Shaq vs. Kobe debate, none of those titles are won without O’Neal, who won the Finals Most Valuable Player award each year.

1. Pythagorean Theorem

There have been countless memorable quotes over Shaq’s career, but none will ever top the time he tried to describe just how unguardable he was. An exacerbated O’Neal said his game was like the Pythagorean Theorem, claiming there was no answer. The only problem with that is there actually is an answer to the Theorem: A2 + B2 = C2.

It’s okay, Shaq – we get the point.