Superheroes on Skates

As the (arguably) number four sport in America, hockey has always had to try just a little bit harder for attention and recognition. Relegated now to Versus and the rare NBC Sunday game for national television coverage, the National Hockey League constantly fights to keep its product in the spotlight with a variety of gimmicks.

Few sports fans could forget the happily discarded glowing puck during the NHL’s seasons on Fox, and there has been a lamentable trend of late towards “ice girls” who skate skimpily onto the ice during stoppages in play to shovel up ice shavings around the creases. The recently completed all-star game featured a fantasy draft format, where the teams were picked by their respective captains rather than representing a conference or a country as in years past, an innovation that garnered a fair bit of press. And one could make the case that the shootout used after a five minute overtime period has failed to find a winner is a similar gimmick designed to produce a fan-friendly winner rather than resulting in a drab draw.

In that vein of attention-seeking, then, one must consider the Guardian Project:

The Flyer Strikes!

In collaboration with Marvel Comics, the NHL has created a superhero based on each team’s logo. From the Red Wing to the Capital to the Canuck, each superhero defends his team’s town, using lots of very specific locations and references—the Predator, for instance, chases bad guys to John C. Tune Airport, while the Flyer has a pet bird named Wanamaker.

With a six page comic for each Guardian and animated shorts, it’s obvious that quite a bit of work has gone into this project, with the usual Marvel quality, but to what end?

In my samplings of the comics, there’s little to no connection to ice hockey in the stories themselves beyond the anthropomorphizing of the NHL logos. What seems to be occurring is an attempt to develop brand affiliation amongst a younger demographic. Too, the heroes represent qualities that the NHL would like to have associated with itself: durability, honor, bravery, strength. Kids like the comics, become fans of the hometown hero, and go to see the logo on the ice.

It’s easy to knock the Guardian Project as silly, but it’s not for me or about me. I’m already an established fan and perhaps a good thirty years past the target demographic. If the Guardian Project gets even one more hockey fan in each city, that’s good enough for me. Just don’t bring back the glowing puck.

(Image from the Guardian Project.)

Tearing Down the Spectrum, DIY Style

The desire to obtain a keepsake, a memento, of a cherished place, roots deeply in the human heart. The entire picture postcard and souvenir industry relies on this need.

Sports fans in particular cherish the arenas, the stadiums, in which their teams do battle. What baseball or football fan (gridiron and association) doesn’t seek out a grass clipping or artificial tuft of astroturf from the field of honor?

Last Stroll at the Wachovia Spectrum by Doug Kerr on via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

Ice hockey fans have a slightly more difficult task, since ice melts and goals are inconvenient to get home. But with the impending demise of the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the current owners have decided to let people loose. Tomorrow, November 6th, you can enter the Spectrum floor for the low cost of $25 and have the run of what’s left for three hours:

Items available for the “If You Can Carry It, You Can Keep It” event include Spectrum folding chairs, used televisions, some office furniture, couches, computer equipment, and other collectibles. Items are first-come, first-served. Patrons will be allowed to take as much as they can carry (up to four chairs per person) with no re-entry into the arena. Tools and hand carts are prohibited.

The Flyers’ last game in the Spectrum is long since past, so perhaps with this controlled ransacking there’s no chance of the demolition Phillies’ fans wrought on Connie Mack Stadium on October 1, 1970, in the last game played there, when fans carted off bleacher seats. It doesn’t look like fans will be able to get into the actual stands and take railings, signs, and the likes, making this event more of a glorified garage sale than a smash ‘n’ grab, but it’s still a fitting way for the old arena to go out, Philadelphia style.

(Image courtesy of Doug Kerr via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.)

(via Deadspin)

Some Suds with Your Slapshot?: Verizon Center’s New Beer Menu

Beer & Hockey by Brad Lauster on via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike LicenseIn July, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, promised to bring better beer to the crowd at Verizon Center. Given the price of beer there, it’s the least he can do.

Doing what journalists do best, Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post‘s D.C. Sports Bog labored to compile a listing of where each of the beer choice is available this season at the Verizon Center, home of the Capitals.

Not surprisingly, mainstream domestic beers predominate the list.

Beer snobs quickly pointed out that having Bud, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, Bud Light Wheat, Bud Select 55, Michelob, Michelob Amber Bock, Michelob Light and Michelob Ultra is like bragging about the incredible variety of Wonder Bread available at your brand new bakery.

But there were more than a few beers on the list that we’d all like to drink, leading to the next problem.

That problem being, of course, where to find the superlative suds. Dan Steinberg’s comprehensive location guide will help once you’ve narrowed down your decision.

Looking over the beer list, I have to confess that I don’t see much new from my visits last season. Kona Fire, Czechvar, Starr Hill, and Fordham Copperhead are the only selections I don’t recall. Still, the location guide will be handy for my next visit this year. Section 424 beer stand, here I come!

(Image courtesy of Brad Lauster via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license.)

A Surfeit of Soccer

world cup games in dupont circle by cristinabe on via a Creative Commons Attribution LicenceFinally, blissfully, we near the Quarterfinal stage of the 2010 World Cup—not because the quality of play increases (mostly) as the teams are winnowed down, not because the stakes are higher and teams play for wins (usually) instead of group stage points, but because we’ll get a break for a few days.

Whew. It’s been soccer day in and day out for nearly three weeks. We get two days off before Friday’s matches.

I’ve watched a ton of soccer this World Cup, as I’ve tried to with every World Cup since 1986 (anyone remember the bright red Budweiser border around the match action on American TV for the Final that year, to deal with the lack of commercial time-outs?), but with online streaming, I’m watching more than I thought I could. Not just the marquee matches, either, but games like Cameroon/Denmark and Slovakia/New Zealand.

Why? Because I live in fear of missing that transcendent goal, that last-ditch equalizer, that stud-perfect tackle or fingertip, round-the-post save. The outcomes of the games are, largely, irrelevant to me as a neutral in those matches, but watching an after-the-fact replay just doesn’t cut it. There’s something quite unsatisfying in seeing a soccer highlight stripped of its game context.

To watch soccer, to spectate, requires experiencing the whole match. Tension is built into soccer, almost symphonically; a goal against the run of play has a much different flavor when you’ve watched the other side dominate, a quick shriek of woodwinds breaking a long melody by strings (assuming woodwinds can shriek, of course). A replay is soccer shorn of that context, and however much I glory at a far post cross met by a header, if I didn’t see that same towering center back almost give up a goal earlier by getting nutmegged, it lacks the nuance that makes soccer such a wonderful sport. It’s just a goal, and not a moment.

And I need a break. It’s exhausting.

(Image courtesy of Cristina Bejarano via a Creative Commons Attribution License)

Explaining the Beautiful Game

A comment over on Goal, the New York Times‘ fine soccer blog (though I’ve always found it silly that newspapers insist on calling their non-printed commentary “blogs”) got me thinking about the extent to which Americans don’t understand soccer—not from a cultural standpoint, which is a separate topic entirely, but from a technical standpoint.

DSC_9982 by edtrigger on via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives license

Commenter DMacM131 writes, in response to Jeffrey Marcus’ post, “Green Faces the Music; Chaochi Repeats His Mistake”:

As a quadrennial soccer fan, I was in the dark about many actions […] I hope the US team gets a better draw next game… Not the competition, but the commentators. I wouldn’t be offended if a commentator explained some of the baseball rules during the World Series or hockey rules and strategy during the Stanley Cup.

Several other commenters chimed in on this point, arguing back and forth about whether a World Cup broadcast is truly the time and place to explain offsides or the implications of receiving a yellow card. It’s an interesting question, one that gets to the heart of soccer’s struggle to capture America’s interest as a major component of our sporting life (as opposed to being primarily a children’s sport).

Some people are “in the know,” aware of the predominant stylistic differences between the Premier League and Serie A, aware of what a 451 formation looks like and why a team might employ such a structure, and are watching all of the World Cup group games that they can. And some people tune in once every four years to watch the US National Team play on a national free-to-air television network, much as they might have tuned in to “Wide World of Sports” two decades ago to see rugby or motorcycle racing. To whom do you cater? The existing fan, or the potential fan?

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Reflections on the Run

The Stanley Cup has been lifted once more, and once more, it has been lifted in a city other than Philadelphia. The Chicago Blackhawks quenched a 49-year drought with their four games to two Stanley Cup Finals win over the Flyers, and I must say that they are worthy champions. The ‘Hawks earned the Cup this year.

Let's Go Flyers!

Yet the Flyers aren’t just also-rans in this contest. Their improbable run to the Cup Finals has been well documented, from the last-day-of-the-season qualification for the playoffs (in a shoot-out, no less) through to their resurgence after being down three games to none against the Boston Bruins in the Semifinals. It was a playoff run for the ages.

This year, like most, we believed in the men in Orange and Black, believed on a visceral, almost unconscious level. Didn’t matter that they went down 3-0 in Game 7 of the Semifinals. They’ll find a way. When Scott Hartnell tied up Game 6 of the Cup Finals, we believed. The Flyers find ways.

They lost that game in overtime, and Chicago got the Cup, but really, and not to take anything away from the ‘Hawks, that’s almost beside the point.

This year’s team gave its fans, if not the Stanley Cup, then something worth almost as much: they reminded us why we are Flyers fans. More than any Flyers team since the mid-1980s, this group played with heart and passion, grit and drive. They played smart, disciplined, hard hockey. They played Flyers’ hockey. They just didn’t quit.

If the Flyers had won the Cup, it would have been glorious, make no mistake, but not just because they would have won, but because of how they would have won. Their play might not have always been pretty, but it was beautiful, beautiful in the purity of its intention.

The Flyers played with style. Style matters, and heart is style at its most elemental.