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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Frozen Orange
Flanagan grinding it out to build SU's inaugural women's team

To borrow the interpretation of Jim Carr -the ever-feisty broadcaster for the Charlestown Chiefs- it appears that the Syracuse University athletic department "is just real thirsty" for some real-deal, competitive varsity hockey action.

And, naturally, nobody is fueling that thirst more than coach Paul Flanagan -hired straight out of St. Lawrence University- who despite having but one tangible name to speak of on his list of on-ice colleagues so far is eager to foster yet another D-I women's program in upstate New York.

At any rate, already with New Hampshire goaltending transfer Lucy Schoedel -Kayley Herman's helplessly dormant stand-in last season who signed May 15- and a coach in the accomplished ex-St. Lawrence skipper, the Orange have followed up on speculation that started as early as last fall. Come the 2008-09 season, in ever-growing compliance with Title IX, the Syracuse squad will hop on board as the fifth women's tenant of College Hockey America, a conference whose male side has ironically shriveled down to four members with the termination of the Wayne State University men's program.

With the new foundation, Syracuse also becomes the fourth Big East member school to field a varsity hockey team, along with PC, Connecticut, and Notre Dame (men only).

Athletics-wise, everyone is at least fundamentally acquainted with the standard Orange gold fields. SU's notoreity has always been strictly focalized on the inhabitants of the Carrier Dome: football in the fall, hoops in the winter, and the freshly-crowned men's lacrosse program in the spring.

Hockey-wise, the city of Syracuse has its place with the Bulldogs -Slap Shot's villainous Broad Street Bully clones- and a hefty history of come-and-gone minor pro franchises, though the current AHL Crunch seems durable enough with 14 years and a steady alliance with the Columbus Blue Jackets to its credit.

In the two-plus months since his appointment as the start-from-scratch architect, Flanagan has repeatedly admitted that his float will be built and launched in unthinkable haste. After all, he's looking at the task of padding on at least 19 more bodies between now and September whereas most of the looming competition already has bits of a 2009 recruiting class up its sleeve.

But Flanagan, for one, clearly saw fertile ice in the school's compact, two-sheet Tennity Ice Skating Pavilion if it convinced him to part ways with his alma mater, where he had merely spent nine years making a perennial contender out of the Saints.

In the newfangled Syracuse program's baptismal online press release, Flanagan proclaimed "There's been a great response. I've received a ton of e-mails. There's a lot of interest which speaks well for Syracuse University and the reputation of the school. Obviously the Athletics Department draws people here initially. It will my job and the job of the staff to get this thing up and running."

Granted, Flanagan did something to that degree on the isolated Canton campus. He assumed the St. Lawrence helm in 1999 only after the Saints had swallowed five straight sub-.500 campaigns with the responsibility split between three coaches, those being program godfather Bernie MacKinnon, Pam Mahoney, and Ron Waske.

Not exactly household names, those three immediate predecessors were -and the data explains why. But under Flanagan, St. Lawrence's Appleton Arena took little more than a crisp breakout feed to become a promising pond for female pucksters. His guidance brought them back above the poverty line with an 18-15-1 transcript in 1999-2000 and he proceeded to log at least 20 wins and no more than 10 losses per year leading up to his relocation just two hours south.

In half the time it took the aforementioned MacKinnon (18 seasons) to deliver the Saints' first 170 wins, Flanagan charged up 230, not to mention five Frozen Four berths between 2001 and 2007.

All this in mind, Flanagan is logically entitled to ambition as he steps on a fresh sheet. Except, of course, for the fact that this sheet has the freshness of last night's freezing rain rather than something remade by a Zamboni.

And while he will no longer have primal worries about ECAC powers Harvard and Dartmouth, he will have a reckonable Mercyhurst menace to deal with at least four times in his CHA schedule.

Assuming Flanagan does pull off this nimble expansion draft in time for the Orange's anticipated launch, the 2008-09 season will likely be an orthodox, growing-pains expansion campaign. But, if nothing else, he will have at least served to augment the collective D-I women's hockey basin to an all-time high 34 tenants.

Wilson watch still hovering in Toronto
TSN initiated the talk as early as Tuesday that the Toronto Maple Leafs had offered Friar alumnus Ron Wilson -the freshly discharged Sharks skipper- their head coaching position. But it wasn't until a Thursday press release that GM Cliff Fletcher -John Ferguson, Jr.'s replacement back in January- broke the foolproof silence that talks of a possible hiring were indeed brewing.

Fletcher laid out a string of reasons for the bumbling Buds to enlist Wilson as part of their rebounding project and concluded that the final decision would be that of his prospect.

In an interview with Leafs TV, Fletcher made his case: "Number one is his experience. He's coached well over 1,000 games in the NHL, has a great winning percentage. His teams play strong, disciplined, solid hockey. Everyone who plays for him is made to be accountable. And he's had a great track record working with young players. So you add it all up and it's a pretty appealing package for the Maple Leafs moving forward."

Anything that moves them forward would put an ideal spin on the Toronto franchise, which in the first two post-lockout seasons finished 9th in the Eastern Conference, just teethmarks shy of post-season membership, before plummeting to 12th this year. And so far, on the coaching front, Fletcher has not cited any other options, let alone one he would be especially contented with.

Later reporting that Wilson will give the final thumbs-up or thumbs-down by Monday, Fletcher simply concluded, "If he accepts, great, we look forward to working with him."

Elsewhere, USA Hockey looks forward to working with Wilson's classmate, Brian Burke, newly hired as the GM of the Men's Olympic Team for the 2010 Games in his former home city of Vancouver.

Wilson watch coming up in Ottawa
At the top of his accounts of the recent NHL combine, Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News had swift acclaim for the performance of BU's Colin Wilson, already solitary for being the only seasoned collegian cited in ongoing draft talk.

The 6-1, 215 lb. striker who concocted 35 points in 37 games en route to topping UNH parallel James vanRiemsdyk and BC goaltender John Muse in the Hockey East Rookie of the Year derby is #10 amongst North American skaters in the eyes of the Central Scouting Service.

And after witnessing Wilson's response to the marathon of gym testing, Kennedy writes in the best nutshell: "(Wilson) came in to the fitness testing with a very broad upper body and used it to his advantage, pumping out 22 (unofficial) reps of 150 pounds on the bench press and keeping his heart rate steady on the two biking stations, the Wingate anaerobic and VO2 Max aerobic challenge."

Sounds like someone wants to get picked good and fast. And assuming there were more eyes perceiving the boundless passion that Kennedy spoke of, Wilson just might be plucked from the Terriers on the spot and molded onto an organization currently deprived of muscle-based maneuverability.

Additionally, Wilson's fellow first-round prospect John Carlson was torn off of Don Cahoon's freshman class in Amherst when he was officially signed by the London Knights, who claimed him 33rd overall in the Ontario League draft, Monday. Carlson will venture to Ottawa with a #17 overall projection.

Quick Feeds: The PC women boast six members of the newly announced WHEA All-Academic team in Katy Beach, Danielle Ciarletta, Kelli Doolin, Mari Pehkonen, Alyse Ruff, and Brittany Simpson. Ciarletta, Pehkonen, and Simpson were all named for the second consecutive season. Seven players on the men's side were likewise honored: Matt Germain, Kyle Laughlin, Trevor Ludwig, Nick Mazzolini, Kyle MacKinnon, Jon Rheault, and Tyler Sims -Laughlin and Sims both now three-time honorees...Among the prominent PC hockey personnel at last Monday's Friar Golf Classic were coaches Tim Army and Bob Deraney as well as alumni John Butterworth -now Senior VP of a Boston-based realty company- Wendy Cofran, and Joe Hulbig -now in PC's institutional advancement office...With Detroit having stamped its decisive Game 6 victory last Wednesday, Pittsburgh bouncer Hal Gill won't be adding himself to the little list of Friar alumni with a Stanley Cup ring. But seeing the likes of Detroit's Chris Chelios -whose age-induced weariness made a great leap forward by sidelining him throughout the finals- must evoke thoughts of Steve Rooney. You know, the second-leading point-getter behind Army on PC's 1985 national finalist team who a year later took a slurp of java in the playoffs (one game played) and then a sip of champagne with the Montreal Canadiens -opposite a burgeoning Chelios...About fourteen months removed from helping his Michigan State Spartans pin Boston College for the national championship, Tim Kennedy decided to make like Eagle standout Nathan Gerbe and trade in his senior year for a stab at the Buffalo Sabres roster...John Tortorella, a Boston native and Maine alumnus, was fired from his coaching position in Tampa Bay after the Bolts plummeted to a plebeian status (44-33-5 for second place in the Southeast Division in 2006-07 to 31-42-9 for the bottom feeder this past season)...So, it appears to have been confirmed that the Chicago Blackhawks will host hockey's next great outdoor at Wrigley Field this coming winter. Around here, that kind of poses the question: whatever became of that promise made in February 2006 of a Boston College game at Fenway?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Celtics Commentary

The good ol' days -or something like them

The lowdown to this is simple.

On June 8, 1986, the Boston Celtics hung up their 16th NBA championship banner, an achievement that remains peerless throughout the North American professional athletic kingdom.

A year and six days later, the ever-revered parquet prowlers lost out on their shot at #17, submitting to the hated LA Lakers in Game 6.

Still another year and several weeks after all that, this writer was born. But only now, with yet another Celtics-Lakers championship tussle set to commence in the Hub on Thursday, does anybody in or below their 20s truly understand what the nostalgic fuss is all about.

You could get a substantial idea just by paging through your basketball history texts, no doubt.
You can trust the endless string of highlight films all crammed together for equally endless buildup on ESPN this week. You can listen to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as they rehash their firsthand accounts of when NBA supremacy was torn strictly between two stark corner points of the country.

But for this new wave of sporting buffs, it's all a puzzling hologram until it resurfaces, which it now has -even if its just a Baskin-Robbins type of free sample versus the gourmet platter our parents and grandparents once consumed.

I can distinctly remember the first time I was told that the Celtics and Lakers were rivals. Around the time of the 1999 ALCS between sports' two least mistakable enemies -the Red Sox and Yankees- NESN ran a poll asking which Boston-related rivalry ran the best second to this one.

Three of the choices were worthy candidates: BC-BU and Patriots-Jets made no-duh geographic sense. Bruins-Canadiens carried (and still carries, especially after this season) the same sort of bitterness that the pre-2004 diamond tales always did.

But seeing Celtics-Lakers in that mix, and at that time having lived through 11 years of blah-blah B-ball in Beantown, I didn't follow. If they had said "Celtics-Knicks," then there would have been no questions.

But how can you be rivals when you don't even play in the same conference? How do you cook up genuine, long-lasting animosity when you are bound to lock horns no more than twice per season barring a spontaneous championship encounter? And with so many teams in this league now, what are the odds of even that happening?

Oops. I think I just threw out a piece of ammo for those old school fans who want David Stern to consider contraction. Let's not go there.

Even if the competitive pool was shallower back in the day and even if that did nurse a healthy, intriguing, coast vs. coast rivalry, all those elements evaporated in a hurry. From 1987 onward, New Englanders stopped going Gardening this deep into the spring. If anything, we were just happy to see Rick Pitino ushered back to the collegiate sidelines where he belongs.

Other than that, the Celtics cultivated next-to-no relevance because they kept banging their heads against rock bottom, conventionally a sign that things will turn around, but never bothering to kiss the Blarney Stone. It still must befuddle lottery ball technicians everywhere that a team going on an 18-game nosedive still settled for the #5 draft pick last year.

The Cs sure took their sweet time rekindling their banner caliber ways, but from November through May, its been plenty savory.

And now, right after one refreshing sip of the past by means of a six-game triumph of the Detroit Pistons, it's a titanic tussle between the NBA's two former throne-switching monarchs. According to the standings, it's 1987 all over again. Tops in the East versus tops from the West.

But you see, right there, how tough it now is to rerun the same matchup. In the former days, it was Celtics-Lakers 10 times in the space of 28 seasons. Now a 21-year "drought" for this "rivalry" has been splashed.

In other words, by all means get in on the "Beat LA" fervor the same way Paul Pierce is, just so long as you don't start thinking this'll happen 10 times more between now and 2035.

Really, it's nice to have all of the history to hearken back to as Thursday's tip-off looms, don't get me wrong. Even the students to the subject will take that extra dollop of appreciation and incentive.

But, most importantly, the new Garden is getting its first look at a championship clash. A new generation is that close to seeing it's first NBA banner. Whoever they beat, or whoever prolongs the disappointment, is second-rate to the end result.

It's that simple.