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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Wilson launched into the open, again

Less than a week after he had wrested his record ninth Stanley Cup and decided that this would make for a proper final dab on his nearly inimitable coaching career, the famed Scotty Bowman spoke at the 2002 NHL Awards of the many benefits of being a champion.

One item he was quick to offer up: it means "You won't be getting fired any time soon."

If by "any time soon," he meant one year max, Bowman's proclamation is quite true for the generation of skippers flowing in after him. But a wise man who started off when there were a dozen teams and kept at it for four nearly uninterrupted decades just wouldn't understand the current dynamics. (Or, if he does, he ought to find it head-shaking in contrast to his day).

The fact of the matter is, whether you're conducting a symphony of perpetual Yankee-like reverence or tutoring a yet-to-surface expansion joint (e.g. Columbus Blue Jackets), this is the ground rule for coaching job security in the 21st century: take the team farther than you did last year or log on to Monster.com.

For those who are not so inclined to shy away from that reality, it's extraordinary that Ron Wilson's freshly unplugged reign with the San Jose Sharks persisted as long as it did. Only in the midst of the Sharks' cringing first round struggles against Calgary -where they ultimately pulled through- was there hardcore speculation of a canning at HP Pavilion. By the time the ex-Friar's pupils were in a harrowing 3-0 hole against Dallas, Wilson's only hope was for the supposed "Every 33 years" magic to choose his bench.

It didn't happen. Granted, the Stars needed to gulp two losses and gnash through four overtimes in Game 6 to finally delete the feisty Sharks, but that kind of cramming doesn't tend to cut it in the eyes of an NHL general manager.

And so, after a cumulative four-and-a-half seasons, franchise-best 206-134-45 record, and most importantly a string of spring shortcomings, Wilson is finished in the Bay Area, making him the second PC product ousted from office this year after John Ferguson Jr. lost his post as Maple Leafs GM in January.

The latest falter made for the Sharks third consecutive conference semi-final loss in as many post-lockout years. Before that, Wilson had done his part to yank them out of a playoff no-go 2002-03 endeavor and steer them into the 2004 conference final -an eventual six-game loss to a Cinderella Flames team.

Now, how familiar does this sound? San Jose GM Doug Wilson offered the following explanation in an altogether carefully phrased statement on the team's website Tuesday: "Ron helped foster a new era in San Jose Sharks hockey with some record-setting regular season performances. However, ultimately we have decided that it is time for a different voice and a different approach to lead this team..."

Yep, that's the trend now. The Friartown folk should know it best having read a duplicate statement from Bob Driscoll concerning Tim Welsh, who was discharged here on March 15 after a decade of directing the PC men's basketball team.

But Wilson's diary is just one hunk of evidence that coaches are as easy to market off as players. That's a reality that lugs around its own vinegary stings and brightening consolations all at once.

Just take a tape recorder or a cup of coffee -whichever suits your vocation better- and sit down with current Friar Puck coach Tim Army. Keep the puck chat going long enough and he's reasonably likely to evoke some story he shared with his fellow Providence alumnus when he served as Wilson's sidekick in either Anaheim or Washington. Army was part of Wilson's firm throughout its four years with the Mighty Ducks and when it found its lost blades with the Caps for another five seasons.

After the Ducks curtained their first-ever playoff appearance in 1997, Wilson was still unleashed, after which then-GM Jack Ferreira mumbly cited "philosophical differences" and added from a slight gambler's standpoint, "No one knew who Ron Wilson was four years ago, so I'll be judged by the future."

Well, not to get smart here, but no one seems to know who Jack Ferreira is eleven years later (his name and quotes were only unearthed for this column from the canoe.ca and Yahoo archives. And if any alumni-embracing Friar Fanatics do wish to get smug, the current Orange County GM -aka Wilson's 1977 classmate Brian Burke- has done quite a bit to make a name for himself lately).

Wilson's tenure in Washington ended for the more conventional reason. After he led a startling hustle to the Stanley Cup Final his first year in 1998, he failed to get past the first round and was exiled by 2002.

But more to the point, coaches of all notorieties change warm-up jackets like players of all notorieties change jerseys now. If the water runs dry before its serves its replenishing function, it is ideally recycled. It might then serve as rain in Georgia, a much-welcome dollop of ice in the Arctic, or just someone else's beverage.

Relevant translation: recent history all but guarantees that Wilson will find a resurfaced sheet somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

Manifique Company
While the PC men's program's all-time points leader is in Stage 1 of personal speedbump recovery, Skating Sorority legend Cammi Granato was officially stamped as a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame this week. The formal ceremony -held in Quebec City amidst the men's World Championship tournament- marked the now century-old organizations first bestowment of female stars.

Along with Granato, Canadians Geraldine Heany and Angela James were included in this year's seven-member class. Their fellows: French-raised NHL alumnus Phillipe Bozon, USA Hockey executive Art Berglund, and legends Igor Larionov and Mario Lemieux.

Granato, only six months removed from being the first woman to have a share of the Lester Patrick Trophy, subsequently laced up Thursday evening at Quebec's Colisee Pepsi as a member of the World Stars team -opposite none other than husband Ray Ferraro and brother Tony Granato on her line.

The World Stars challenged, and fell short in a shootout, 8-7, to Russia-based Team Gazprom. Granato was one of those foiled in the deciding one-on-one round, but not before she etched a helper on her husband's goal at 18:23 of the first period, which at the time planted a 3-2 World lead.

Other standout World teammates in Thursday's bonanza: a pair of goals each courtesy NHL legends Glenn Anderson and Doug Brown, the latter of whom was coverted an assist by goaltender Patrick Roy on the third period equalizer.

By the way, Gazprom -the official sponsor for the opposing team- is a Moscow-based natural gas extractor, supposedly the most influential corporation in Russia.

Oh, the hu-Maine-ity
By convention, last weekend's Maine Black Bear men's hockey awards banquet was of course intended to churn that old mix of past gratitude, future well wishes, and at best mildly emotional we'll-miss-yous. But look at the star cast of the evening, and it's amazing coach Tim Whitehead retained proper serenity.

Of those seven players handed a piece of hardware, only three (Rob Bellamy, Chris Hahn, Jeff Marshall) are still potential returnees to Orono this autumn. The likes of Wes Clark and Billy Ryan claimed the program's unsung hero and perseverance accolades and then joined six skating classmates in celebrating their graduation.

Meanwhile, invaluable goaltender Ben Bishop and rookie scorer Andrew Sweetland -the only non-senior amongst Maine's top seven point-getters last season- were only bestowed after they had gone ahead and signed pro tryout contracts in March.

One other thing: the Bears bowed their heads in naming UNH senior Mike Radja the "Most Honored Opponent." While Radja himself is done with Dick Umile's capstone project, there's still no indication of James vanRiemsdyk, who was literally Sweetland times two (34 points as opposed to the Maine youngster's 17), defecting from Durham.

Recall, of course, that the 2007-08 Black Bears already went from two-time Frozen Four entries to Hockey East playoff no-shows due to a profuse loss in scoring depth. Don't expect a return to normalcy around northern New England rinks that easily.

Spare Bodies?
On Friday, a friars.com press release confirmed the arrival of five new members of the PC men's team, some of them previously speculated in an array of media outlets, some of them kept under the radar up to this point. The names mentioned are: defensemen Bryce Aneloski and David Brown and forwards Andy Balysky, Matt Bergland, and Shawn Tingley.

With those five added on to the four December NLI signees in Justin Gates, Chad Johnson, Rob Maloney, and Danny New, the Friars will have up to 32 players available for practice next season, four more than what they rostered in 2007-08. That, of course, is barring any more Cody Wild-like defections.

Quick Feeds: The aforementioned New, who calls Cranston home, and Tingley, a resident of North Kingstown, will amount PC's 2008-09 roster to a total of seven Rhode Islanders...On the other hand, the East Providence-raised Army is also letting loose on local restriction, admitting his first two Minnesotans (Bergland and Maloney) and a Coloradan in Brown...The Alaska-Fairbanks program put the stamp on Dallas Ferguson's new title as head coach Thursday. After four years as an assistant, he will fill the shoes of Doc DelCastillo, who has resigned April 10...North Dakota beacon TJ Oshie, who slugged 59 goals and 142 points in three seasons, declared his intent to take off for the St. Louis Blues organization Tuesday. Guess three Frozen Four strikes against Boston College was enough for him...The almighty UNH women's team will have three of its rising sophomores -forwards Courtney Birchard and Jenn Wakefield and goaltender Kayley Herman- sharpening their blades with the Canadian U-22 team at the end of the month.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Red Sox Commentary

Simple question: where are those Braves?

Once the weather lets up this weekend, for their May appetizer to the heftier plate of June interleague play, the Red Sox will serve up an interesting dish of casual nostalgia with a three-game set against an ex-AL cohabitant from Milwaukee.

Looking ahead, there will be a 15-game, 17-day featuring get-togethers with the Reds, Cardinals, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Astros, all wrapping up at the tail end of June.

See a problem? No, it's not the fact that this is neither spring training nor the World Series. Interleague play, introduced back in 1997, has survived to adolesence and is rightfully here to stay. Get used to it.

The glitch in scheduling is this: for the first time since baseball came its senses and desegregated its regular season schedule, the Sox will not cross paths with their one legitimate NL rival, the Atlanta Braves.

Now, there is something that I have grown so used to, you have to wonder why it's being kept in the cooler this year. Even I nod assent to the temperate ludicrousness in calling this matchup "The Boston Showdown," though that aspect does offer an intriguing bite-sized history lesson.

True, this day and age, Braves-Red Sox provides nowhere near the civic implications of Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, or even -if you insist- Angels-Dodgers. But you don't always have to clear the Monster seats to percolate a good ruckus, know what I'm saying?

Even with the geographic discrepancy, this kind of matchup has a lot of the requisite ingredients to be a worthwhile rivalry, and when it's been placed on the field, it has proven its worth.

Granted, it's easy to forget what with the revolutionary developments in Red Sox Nation and the ardent responses from the new Bronx regime. But there was a time when the Braves were as close as the NL was to fielding a nose-to-nose Yankee counterpart.

Actually, after clinching the 1995 world championship, they essentially acted as a prelude to the post-2000 Yankees. Up through 2005, they continued to win the division on an all but unchallenged basis under a firmly established manager (Bobby Cox) yet made faltering in October an equal habit.

And no, you may not have heard anybody from Liberty Media, second-year owners of the Braves after long-rigid ties to Time Warner were severed, indignantly questioning the explicit existence of Red Sox Nation. Maybe you would, though, if TBS was still laying out the action at Turner Field for some of the most disinterested markets to see every day all season.

But all in all, the contesting products on the field -which some of you may have forgotten is the vital organ of this business anyhow- have their appreciable similarities. These two franchises are at a point where they always start their season as revered, presumed contenders. When they can't follow through on that -a quintessential case being the 2006 season- it's plain agonizing for themselves and their fan bases.

Furthermore, while it is nowhere close on the tension scale to the annual Red Sox-Yankees race, the other New York baseball establishment is typically a prime suspect in the Braves' collection of NL East roadblocks. (Come to think of it, it's also a rip that -for the second straight year now- there are no Sox-Mets fixtures to be found). That said, if you've got two traditional powerhouses who don't particularly like New York, what are their fans going to do for fun animosity while the Subway Series is going on?

Seemingly, the most common wherefore employed in the futile case against interleague play is that there isn't an exciting match for every team. Well, yeah, especially when one league (baseball lexicon for conference) has more tenants than the other. But are you saying that Padres-Nationals would be that much more appealing than Padres-Orioles?

The point is, it's not like there aren't any intriguing AL-NL matchups period. The Red Sox and Braves have their decent pairing in one another. And this is the only major sport whose schedule can really breed and nurture such rivalries. (Sorry, Jets-Giants, one matchup a year won't get me to buy it. Celtics-Lakers, we'll see what happens and perhaps talk in a month).

So, if you're one of those franchises lucky enough to have one of these rivalries, be grateful and use it.

Soccer Log

Hunks of home action to begin, end women's season

The PC women's soccer team pinned its 2008 regular season schedule on the program's official website this week, slating an August 28 hosting to newly D-I intrastate rival Bryant University as the official start to their campaign.

Including a pair of pre-season scrimmages with Sacred Heart (August 19) and Northeastern (August 23), the Friars will affix their cleats to campus for their first six outings of the season -none of them factoring into their Big East stance. Providence will also take a night trip to Hartford on September 11 before yet another home outing opposite Davidson September 14.

The conference portion of the schedule will kick off with a September 19 journey to Cyclopean rival Connecticut, after which PC returns home for one last interleague go-around with A-10 member UMass-Amherst.

The 11-game Big East stretch drive will then go uninterrupted, starting with a September 26 home date with Marquette. It will then be time to make sure all bags and pouches are filled to the brim with food, water, and tools as they go beyond New England boundaries for the only five times of the season.

After a hasty trip to South Florida only two nights after the Marquette clash, a three-year long-time-no-see stretch with the likes of Cincinnati and Louisville will be pierced come the first weekend of October when the Friars make a first-time Ohio Valley excursion. They'll drop in on the Bearcats for a rare evening kickoff (7:00) on Friday, October 3 and follow up with a Sunday matinee across the river with the Cardinals.

PC has yet to have ventured into that area since Cincinnati and Louisville were admitted to the Big East in 2005. The Friars endured 3-0 and 1-0 losses to the Cards and Cats respectively at Glay Field during their first season as conference cohabitants.

The following weekend involves tackling defending conference champion West Virginia followed by a visit to Pittsburgh, where Providence is winless (0-2) since a 1-0 triumph in 2002.

Afterwards, though, in a return to the incidental norm, the Friars will be able to wrap things up with a four-game homestand, bringing in the likes of Notre Dame, DePaul, St. John's, and Syracuse. Since 2002, PC has lucked out with a prolonged tray of home dates to polish off their season with the exception of last season when they visited -and lost to- all four of the aforementioned insitutions.

As was the case in 2005, the Big East hunk of the schedule will omit any get-togethers with National Division tenants Georgetown, Rutgers, Seton Hall, and Villanova. It will be the second straight season wherein the Friars don't cross paths with either the Hoyas or Wildcats, both of whom they tied on the road back in 2006.

Miscellany: Save for Davidson and Manhattan -scheduled to stop by on September 7- the Friars have faced all scheduled non-conference opponents in recent memory. Last season, they tied the UMass Minutewomen, 1-1, on neutral URI soil and scraped out their only non-conference win against Hartford, 1-0. They will host Stony Brook on August 31, less than two years after treating them to a scoreless draw at their place. On September 4, Holy Cross will pay its second visit to Glay Field in three years, having previously forged a 1-1 draw with the Friars on August 25, 2006.