Monday, December 31, 2007

He played another 22 minutes tonight, and blocked at least 3 shots

With the New Year just one hour away and the latest Islanders victory just 30 minutes old, let me leave you with one last story for 2007.

A few minutes into the game Saturday (you may have seen this) Brendan Witt was directing traffic in front of the Islanders' goal when an opponent's slap shot got him somewhere on the hand.

Now, as Dubie noted last week, Witt is the guy who says he's okay with pain because - in Witt's words - pain lets you know you're alive. But the veteran dman doesn't usually let you see the pain on his face.

Or hear it. I was standing by beat writers row with Greg Logan and Pete Botte when the puck smashed into Witt's hand. Brendan let out a stream of audio-anguish easily heard upstairs. He even took his glove off in the middle of play to inspect the damage, before growling some more and skating to the bench to tell trainer Garrett Timms he was going directly to the trainer's table in the locker room.

It looked so bad, I immediately called my PR associate Corey Witt (no relation) and told him to go down to the room and wait for an intermission report from Garrett because I didn't think Brendan was going to return to the game.

Of course, Witt was back on the ice with five minutes left in the first period.

After the game, I sat with Brendan in the locker room. He was taking his time, soaking in the old-school victory in front of a Coli-shaking crowd and especially enjoying some rare and deserved media attention centered on fellow defenseman Andy Sutton, who had the Howe hat trick.

Witt was enjoying the show so much he didn't even seem to notice the blood-smeared part of his hand that took the blow. Folks, it was nasty, gross, a bit scary.

"A mere flesh wound," said Witt, subtly trying to see if I got the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" reference.

This guy is really something else. I always thought he was a good player with the Caps, but he's so much more than that. Turns out the "mere flesh wound" was a major inconvenience to him, but not because it affected his stickhandling.

"I couldn't get my legs going when I got back on the ice," he grumbled. Seems from the moment Witt left the game to the moment he returned to it, his rump was on the trainer's table as the doctors treated him. "I get back out there late in the first all charged up, and I've got nothing in my legs. Then it takes me all of the second period to get going. I was all right in the third."

He doesn't get on the stat sheet much, wasn't on the All-Star ballot, doesn't get a lot of pub, but Brendan Witt is never just all right.

Happy New Year to Brendan, Salima and their family. Happy New Year to all of the Islanders fans out there. 2008 is going to be fun.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Why it's always a privilege

I'm just about to leave the Coliseum tonight when something just hit me that I had to get out.

On Saturday night, the Islanders went above-and-beyond in acknowledging my 20th anniversary with the franchise. Thank you to Charles, Garth, Chris Dey, Art McCarthy, Tim Beach, Corey Witt and everyone involved in what was an incredible surprise. Even as I look at the Rolex on my left wrist and the No. 20 jersey in my office, I still can't believe it happened.

Since Saturday I've received a lot of lovely congratulations followed by the inevitable, "How do you do it"? and "What keeps you going?" and "Does it ever get ho-hum"?

The answers to those questions are easy. Then you have a moment like the last three minutes of tonight's game.

How about the heroic shot-blocking on that 4-on-3 penalty kill? Dubie's miraculous play with a giant standing in front of him? Richard Park's determination and Mike Comrie's finish?

From now on when I'm asked those questions, I'll just show them the tape of the final moments of Islanders 4 Leafs 3 (OT) on December 26, 2007.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Stand up for Blakey

With the Islanders out of playoff contention in the 2000-01 season, the team acquired a pair of sparkplugs in separate deals. "If we're gonna stink," a hockey staffer told me on the day of the trades, "let's do it with guys who are gonna play their hearts out every night." One of the new players was Steve Martins, a five-foot-9-yeah-right, fiery fourth-liner who made it into 269 NHL games on sheer will. At age 35, Steve's a point-a-game player today with Chicago of the American Hockey League.

The other guy acquired that day was a fifth-liner from the Los Angeles Kings named Jason Blake.

Let me put it this way: I have never, ever seen a professional hockey player get more out of what God gave him than Jason Blake. If it's possible that someone tried harder in an Islanders uniform than John Tonelli, it was Blakey.

The Islanders picked up Jason for a mid-round draft pick. At the time he was 27 and had played games over his past few seasons not just in LA, but in Orlando, Lowell and Long Beach, California. Soon after he arrived on the Island his wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with their first child. Thankfully, everything turned out beautifully and Jason and Sarah now have three children.

Who knows if that experience brought something out of Jason? Who knows if he was also determined to give everything he had to the Islanders because Charles Wang gave him the time and support to take care of his family first?

All we do know is Jason Blake climbed a line on the depth chart with each season, literally. I remember Peter Laviolette saying to the press, "It gets to a point where the guy keeps on out-working everyone, keeps on producing, and maybe you have to think that he IS a top-six forward."

At age 33, Jason Blake emerged as a 40-goal scorer and NHL All-Star.

Early in the game on Wednesday night, fans can expect a classy scoreboard presentation welcoming Jason back to Long Island.

Jason can expect a rousing, well-deserved standing ovation. He might wear a different uniform now but to all of us he's Jason Blake...and he's an Islander.

Friday, December 21, 2007


There are so many layers to both the Chris Simon and Kyle Okposo issues that, to be honest, I've been all over the place deciding what I want to say on this blog. I've decided to leave the Okposo case for a few more days.

As for the events surrounding Chris Simon, I'll address one issue. There is no point rambling on about Colin Campbell (an honest slip of the tongue that was not race-related), the suspension (10-15 games would have been my call) and what Simon did (troubling, inexcusable).

What did amaze me - although I guess it shouldn't have - was that any fan, reporter or anyone around the league could be cynical about what transpired at Iceworks on Monday. To recap: Charles Wang took charge. Instead of taking the easy way out, he proactively sought to help Chris Simon. Garth Snow and Ted Nolan got on board. There were a series of meetings with Simon, and later the captains and the whole team. The Islanders acted as a family. They stuck together. They backed each other up.

Whether you worked at Dairy Barn, Morgan Stanley, the New York Post, wherever, isn't this how you would like to be respected? Coincidentally, I ran into a neighbor of mine on the flight home from Toronto after the Simon hearing on Tuesday. Turns out he worked at Computer Associates during the 1980s. My neighbor hasn't been associated in any way with Charles Wang for 20 years. Even when he was at CA as a young employee, he didn't work closely with Charles. In other words, he has no dog in the hunt. But do you know what he said to me? This:

"I read about how Charles went to your practice rink and kind of led the charge in doing the right thing for Chris Simon. I know a lot of fans who thought you guys would distance yourselves from Simon, maybe even release him. But I wasn't surprised. When I was at CA, no matter who it was, Charles got involved and was always there to help. You never forget that."

How a few experienced hockey writers - including some that have reported on hockey mismanagement for decades - or even some of the fans on the message boards could view Monday's events as anything but impressive, inspirational...well, that's sad.

On Wednesday, the Islanders lost a close hockey game. On Monday, they won big.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Richards and DP, growing older together

I just got the following release from the Flyers:

"The Philadelphia Flyers announced today that they have signed center Mike Richards to a 12-year contract extension, according to club General Manager Paul Holmgren. Richards’ new contract will start next season and run through the 2019-2020 season."

Good for Mike and the Flyers, good for the Flyers fans.

We saw the reaction to the Islanders' signing of Rick DiPietro to a landmark 15-year deal. Rick is the face, heart and soul of the franchise. My friends at the Flyers say similar things about Mike Richards.

Will the hockey media, especially the experts in Canada, have as much fun with the Flyers' long-long-long-term deal as they did with the Islanders' deal?

We'll see. That's another thing about the sports press: when they do not know how to react - or don't have the guts to take a stand - they resort to bad jokes.

Just over a year later, the DiPietro deal can be considered revolutionary, the door-opener for lengthy deals all over sports. It was also brilliant for the Islanders and their fans. Call it the deal of the decade and a half.

Quiet Riot

The PR/media lesson from the Mitchell Report: if people in sports truly want to keep something out of the media, they can.

Some of our best sports journalists were trying to track down the names on the list for weeks. When it was announced earlier this week that the list would be made public today, the search intensified. The New York Yankess are covered like no other sports team in the world. Turns out Senator Mitchell's biggest scoops came from a personal "trainer" associated with a few players in the Bronx.

My point: if a player or a team or an executive really wants something out, he'll get it out. If, as in this case, they don't, it's amazing how secretive they can be.

By the way, did the Yankees get Santana yet?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Merry Christmas, Mr. Resch

It's that holiday time of the year when I tend to get a little nostalgic and think of people who helped me along the way. I was waiting for the hilarity and shame of the Petrino press conference last night when ESPNews showed clips of the Flyers beating the Pens behind two hat tricks. There was a graphic that said the last time the Flyers had two hat tricks in a game was on Dec. 18, 1986 when they beat the Islanders, 9-4, at the old Spectrum with hat tricks from Dave Poulin and Tim Kerr.

I was an intern for the Flyers that season, commuting back and forth on the subway from La Salle in between classes and Explorer basketball games (anyone remember the "L Train," Lionel Simmons?). The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Final that season, beating the Rangers and post-Easter Epic Islanders along the way. I made a lot of good contacts, but it was the Flyers players - their dedication, their class, their decency with the PR intern - that inspired me to take a run at this business.

Those Flyers made it to the 7th game of the Cup Final against Edmonton, tied after two periods, before Wayne Gretzky decided enough was enough. But I'll never forget those players, coached by a young hothead, I mean hotshot, named Mike Keenan.

So thank you: Dave Poulin, Tim Kerr, Peter Zezel, Brian Propp, Brad Marsh and the then 38-year old backup goaltender, Glenn Resch. As fate would have it, several players later became Islanders and I was able to thank them in person: Brad McCrimmon, Doug Crossman, Ron Sutter, Craig Berube, J.J. Daigneault and the best man of them all, Ron Hextall.

I started with the Islanders in December of 1987 perhaps even more intimidated because, after all, these were my Islanders. The first player to put an arm around me and give me tips on how to work the room was Steve Konroyd, who had been acquired for my all-time favorite, John Tonelli. Steve's grace has stuck with me forever.

He wasn't alone helping me settle in those first few seasons. Thank you: Brent Sutter, Bob Bassen, Pat LaFontaine, Denis Potvin, Alan Kerr, Bryan Trottier and especially Patrick Flatley and Kelly Hrudey.

Over time, when you get to look close enough, you realize these players met their dreams of NHL success as much on the strength of their hearts as their talents.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Family squabble

So we have our first in-house controversy of the season. As you'd expect, Ted Nolan handled it perfectly.

To recap, with the Islanders about to start a brief 5-on-3 power play in the final minutes of Wednesday's game in Atlanta, what would usually be a harmless Fox shot of the Islanders bench became something more. Assistant coach Gerard Gallant was seen making a very emphatic point to dman Marc-Andre Bergeron. Many have assumed MAB might have protested because he didn't like being on the bench for the power play.

One of the many cool things about Ted: while Gallant and Bergeron smiled off Greg Logan's questions about it yesterday after practice and said everything was coming up roses, Ted gave one of those answers that had Logan and Mears and King and the ITV crew and even the PR guy looking at each other like, "This is good."

The head coach didn't laugh it off or try to sweep it under the rug. He made it clear he was not happy with what transpired and he intended to talk to BOTH parties about it.

I really liked that. It's so easy for head coaches to jump on players. Ted's position was that he was going to get to the bottom of it but make no mistake - everyone was wrong. Of course, if this was Isiah and Eddy Curry, it might have bumped the latest faux-Yankees rumors off the back page.

(Did you see the one today about how the San Fran Giants might take Matsui's contract off the Yankees' hands and trade a 27-year old lefty who went 14-7 last year for him? Man, no wonder New Yorkers get a reputation for thinking they can have everything).

Anyway, back to Ted. He handled the situation with MAB and the assistant they call "Turk" honestly and directly. There's only one hockey coach I know who would have handled it the same way. That was the guy with 739, I mean 740 wins and four Cup rings as Islanders coach.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

All action, no talk

Maybe we should be more like the NBA, where a Quentin Richardson can pop off about the Big Three of the Celtics not impressing him and get tons of press for it. Q is having trouble shooting the ball in the basket, but he's 1-for-1 when aiming at his own foot.

With the Islanders playing Atlanta today on the heels of getting smoked by the Thrashers at home just a few days ago, think of all the possibilties.

Guerin could say the Thrashers are nothing and the Islanders owe them one. Andy Sutton could talk about how glad he is to be out of Atlanta. Ricky D could fire up the troops with some classic trash-talking. Don Waddell could make up a story to the press about how the Islanders disrespected them on Saturday by not giving the winners any credit.

But alas, none of that was to be found this morning at the rink. When the Thrashers' skate was ending, their assistant coach (and possible head coach next season) Brad "Beast" McCrimmon skated over to our bench and told me how his team better be ready tonight because they have so much respect for Ted Nolan and the Islanders. McCrimmon has been around long enough to understand Atlanta will see a different team than the one at the Coliseum on Saturday.

And that was it, one of the many reasons why I love this league. No garbage, no talk. The Islanders and Thrashers know all that matters is what happens when the puck drops tonight at 7:05.


Looks like Berard and the Fantastic IVth are the scratches tonight.

Ruslan Fedotenko was asked by the press what it was like to be back with Guerin and Comrie - again - and, bless him, Tank tried really, really hard to come up with a good answer.

Ted Nolan is so under the weather, he asked if it was okay for Gerard Gallant to do the post-skate media scrum this morning. Here's hoping when you see Ted on the FSN post-game tonight, an Islanders victory has contributed to bringing some of the color back to his face.

Saw an amazing John Fogarty concert last night in a 2,000-seat palace about ten miles outside of downtown Atlanta. I have fond memories of the (North Fork) Westbury Music Fair, but like a transformed Coliseum, Long Island could use a joint like that.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's a marathon...

Just two weeks ago tomorrow, the Islanders beat the Rangers 2-1 at the Garden. It was the Islanders' sixth win in their last eight games and for the season they were 11-6. Calls came in from USA Today and elsewhere, hoping to speak with Garth and Ted and some of the players about how the gritty-gutty Islanders were getting it done. (Because, after all, the experts had picked them to finish around 14th in the conference. That's where they were supposed to be, darn it!).

After that first Garden triumph, the Islanders dropped their next two games: at home to the Canadiens and in Boston. Just like that, the Islanders had lost four of six. Some of the reporters we weren't able to hook up with suddenly were saying maybe they'd catch us down the road.

The Islanders won the back end of the home-and-home with the Bruins, lost to Dallas in overtime at home on Monday, and then the Orange and Blue did something they hadn't even been able to do when Laurie Boschman was a first-liner for the expansion Senators - they beat Ottawa at home. Man, I was so happy last Wednesday night. Everyone in Islanders Country was feeling pretty good and those media requests started piling up again.

Then came the loss Thursday in the Garden and last night's first period flop to Atlanta.

Four days ago, the Islanders were 9-4-1 in their last 13.

Now they enter Monday's game against the Bruins with only two wins in their last seven games.

I'm sure you could see where I was going with this paragraphs ago. (Sorry, just ask my wife or my colleagues: it takes me a while).

In summation:

1. It's a very long season.

2. As Carolina and Tampa Bay proved in their Cup years, the key is how your team comes together for the home stretch.

3. Welcome back, Tamby.

4. It's so much nicer reading Islandermania after Islanders wins than losses.

5. My word to fans of any NHL teams that look like they could use their Butch Goring: it's probably not happening, if at all, until February. For a while, the answers will have to come from within, or within the farm system.

6. I don't understand why my buddies at WFAN aren't too quick to have NHL guests, yet Mad Dog yesterday morning had the football coach at Texas Tech breaking down the Missouri-Oklahoma matchup for 20 minutes.

I know that last one has nothing to do with the rest, but it ticked me off and I had to get it in there.

See you Monday for Kids Night. If you can, please bring something for the Marines' Toys for Tots collection.