Saturday, May 23, 2009

Iron Mike, the Tribe has Spoken...

The Calgary Flames are in the news as they announced yesterday in a statement released by General Manager Darryl Sutter that "Iron" Mike Keenan would not be back as Head Coach next season. It is a move that surprised many, including Keenan. After their playoff loss to Chicago, Keenan made this comment, "I have another year left on my contract. My expectation is to be here to fulfill my contract."
GM Sutter stated at the end of the season that a complete review of the team would be done from top to bottom as he tried to evaluate what happened to his team. The Flames led the Northwest Division for much of the season, only to see a late season collapse drop them to a fifth place finish in the Western Conference and a first round exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs. Injuries were certainly a factor, as was a seven game road trip in March while the Brier occupied the Saddledome but Sutter placed the blame on his coach and the lack of preparation in key areas.

"Our team did not meet expectations. Following detailed evaluation over the past three weeks, and taking into consideration all factors affecting our season ending result, we believe this is a necessary change required to allow our team to continue toward our objective of winning the Stanley Cup." - From the statement released by the Flames, available at the team's web site.

Keenan's Contract May Have Been Deciding Factor

When Sutter considered all the factors, Iron Mike's contract may have been his downfall. A coach or GM with one year remaining on their contract is usually considered a "lame duck". It is difficult to make a trade as a GM with only one year left on a contract and equally difficult to enforce your will on players as a coach in his final year. If Sutter wanted Keenan back next year, a contract extension would have to be in the works. If their were doubts after this season, could the Flames afford to be paying Keenan for several years if the Flames had a slow start and Keenan was fired next November? The best solution for Sutter in these trying economic times was to cut Keenan loose now and allow a new coach the summer to implement a new game plan.
Excuse or not, March was the Killer Month

Keenan's style of coaching had to be a contributing factor. The once fiery coach had seemed to tone things down in Calgary, perhaps too much. A firm believer that his star players can overcome difficulties if given time, he rarely practises the power play during the season. Calgary finished the regular season on a zero for 42 skid on the power play. A goal here or there could have meant first in the Northwest and starting the playoffs at home. Instead, they found themselves in the rejuvenated United Center in Chicago in front of twenty-three thousand Blackhawks fans.

The month of March was trouble for the Flames. As the Brier rolled into town, the Flames were sent on a lengthy seven game road trip that did not start or end well. The last home game before the trip was an 8-6 loss to Tampa Bay and the final game of the trip that saw them add Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline was an 8-6 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After the lockout, Calgary was the best team in the NHL in the goals-against category. In Keenan's first season in Calgary, the team fell to 15th in the category. This season saw the team fall to 23rd in goals-against. A category that could not be ignored by Sutter. When Mika Kiprusoff is your goaltender and you are that far down the list on the defensive side of the ice, something is not clicking.

What's Next for Iron Mike?

The Flames will hold a press conference on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the firing but the question of who will be the next coach is already a hot topic. I have to agree with TSN's Bob McKenzie, either Calgary Hitmen coach Dave Lowry will move in behind the bench or it will be a Sutter - Darryl resumes his duties behind the bench or brother Brent makes a move from New Jersey to Calgary if Devils GM Lou Lamoriello voids the final year of his contract.
So have we seen the last of Iron Mike Keenan? The Flames were the eighth coaching job in the NHL for the native of Bowmanville, Ontario and he is fourth on the all-time wins list with 672 victories. He is only twenty wins behind third place Dick Irvin Sr. but well behind Scotty Bowman's 1,244 victories. Keenan was Coach of the Year with Philadelphia in 1985 and was an AHL Champion with the Rochester Americans in the 1982-83 season. Of course, he was a Stanley Cup winner in 1994 with the New York Rangers but many believe that had more to do with Mark Messier then Keenan's coaching.
After stops in Philly, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Florida and Calgary, Keenan's next stop may be TSN or Hockey Night in Canada. It seems unlikely that another team will hire him before the start of next season but as his resume illustrates, you can never count out Iron Mike. Unfortunately, like “Coach” Benjamin Wade on this season’s Survivor, sometimes the blindside comes when you least expect it. Have a great sports day everyone

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Doc Halladay and the Interns

The Toronto Blue Jays have been leading the way in the American League's East division and all of the Major League Baseball to start the season but with their 8-3 loss last night in Boston, the Jays will lose a series for only the third time this year. A very impressive start has fans optimistic but the team has lost 4 of 5 games against the New York Yankees and the Red Sox; teams they need to beat to claim their first playoff appearance since the 1993 World Series win.
Former Red Sox and Expos pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee was a guest on the Fan 590 here in Toronto this morning and he was asked by co-host Mike Toth why Blue Jays Manager Cito Gaston kept rookie left-hander Brett Cecil in a game that saw him give up five home runs - four of which came in the fifth inning. His reply, "Well, Catfish Hunter did it... Sometimes you have to let your kid (Cecil) get his brains beat out and you learn. The kid will be tougher next time and he'll get more cutters in, more change-ups down and he'll keep the sinker out of the strike zone." Hopefully for the Jays, the lesson has been learnt.
Jays Had Hoped for Rejuvenated Offense
Going into the season the Jays hoped for a rejuvenated offense with the return of Aaron Hill and the emergence of young players like Travis Snider and Adam Lind. Snider has begun to struggle after a quick start (.242 average, 3 home runs, 12 RBI), but Hill (.349 average, 12 home runs, 34 RBI) and Lind (.311 average, 7 home runs, 35 RBI) have surpassed all expectations. Hill has successfully returned after playing in only 55 games last season due to concussion issues and leads the Majors with 65 total hits. Lind is hoping to be a regular after playing in 89 and 88 games with the Jays in the last two seasons and has found a home as the team's Designated Hitter and occasional outfielder. Marco Scutero, the former Oakland A's shortstop, has given the team some quality at-bats (.276 average, 5 home runs, 20 RBI), and he has yet to make an error in the field in 43 games played. If Vernon Wells and Alex Rios can wake-up their bats, the Jays offense could be a serious threat to their opposition as the summer rolls on.
Vernon Wells has not been terrible at the plate, he has a .263 batting average, 5 home runs and 21 RBI, but more is expected of him batting in the fourth spot in the line-up; especially as Hill and Scutero keep getting on base. The giant contract Wells signed several seasons ago has fans and perhaps management expecting better offensive numbers from him. Injuries have been a factor in the last two seasons and Cito Gaston is the type of Manager that will keep Wells in the clean-up spot in the batting order while he sorts himself out. Perhaps he will heat up as the temperatures climb this summer.
Jays Started the Season with Halladay and Who??
Toronto started the season with Doc Halladay as their number one starter, as usual, and he has not disappointed. The question surrounded the other four starters. Halladay leads the Majors with 8 wins this season. His win/loss record is 8-1 with a 2.78 earned run average. He has struck out 57 batters in 63 innings pitched. Pitching in his 12th season with the Jays, the two-time 20 game winner is on pace to be in the running for his second Cy Young Award as the League's best pitcher. Last season he finally admitted to wanting to play for a winner and having a chance to compete for a World Series but as the youngsters continue to progress, it seems likely a contract extension will be in his future and he will finish his career in a Toronto uniform; perhaps wearing a Jays cap into the Hall of Fame.
Before moving to Toronto, all I ever heard about was the poor performance of General Manager J.P. Ricciardi. When he was hired, he made the promise to return the team to the post season within five years. This is what has angered most fans as they enter year seven and are still waiting. However, the job of drafting Ricciardi has done is truly remarkable. The "master plan" may be a year or two behind schedule but as one starter after another goes down to injury, another top prospect emerges from the Triple-A level and the team keeps rolling. By the time everyone is healthy, the Jays could have 9 MLB quality starters and a trade can be made at the deadline to fix any issues plaguing the team; using some of the young arms as trade bait.
The surprise of the Spring was North Vancouver's Scott Richmond. In the 2007 season, he was playing for the Independent Northern League's Edmonton Cracker-Cats. He signed a minor league deal with the Jays in 2008 and has emerged as the Jays number two man behind Halladay. In 48 innings pitched, he has 38 strike outs and a 3.64 ERA to go with his 4-2 record. He was the American League's Rookie Pitcher of the Month in April. Not bad for a former Cracker-Cat! Joining Richmond in the rotation this year, Brett Cecil, Bobby Ray and Brian Tallet.
The Kids are Alright
Despite last night's fifth inning meltdown, Brett Cecil has been tremendous, as all the young guns have been. Cecil is now 2-1 with a 4.38 ERA and has 18 strike outs in 24.2 innings. Bobby Ray, until yesterday Robert Ray, has struck out only 9 batters in 20 innings and has a 3.60 ERA but picked up his first win in his last start against the Chicago White Sox to even his record at 1-1. Brian Tallet had been coming out of the bullpen as a reliever to start the season but as the injuries mounted he became a short-term solution in the rotation. He is 2-2 with a 4.47 ERA (inflated from a 10 run crushing at the hands of the K.C. Royals on April 29th), and has allowed only 4 hits in each of his last two starts. Before that, he allowed only 2 hits during a victory in Oakland. On the sidelines, Ricky Romero was 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three starts before a strained oblique muscle forced him to shut things down temporarily. The emergence of Tallet and Richmond and the others has forced Jays management to put Romero on the farm in Las Vegas until someone falters. Also in Las Vegas, acquired in the Matt Stairs deal with Philadelphia last season is Fabio Castro. He started the season in Double-A and is now pitching with the 51's (as in Area 51 near Las Vegas) at the Triple-A level. He is 4-0 with a 0.94 ERA at the two levels and has struck out 39 in 48 innings pitched. Eventually, the Jays will see the return of Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Casey Janssen. The Jays are very rich in the starting pitching department.
The Dog Days will Come
The Blue Jays will be tested this year as they attempt to join the "big boys" at the top of the division. The Red Sox, Yankees and now the Tampa Rays will all be fighting for the top spot. As we hit the dog days of summer, how will the Blue Jays react? If all goes well, Doc Halladay and his Interns will be able to make this a season to remember. Have a great sports day everyone.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Make it Seven, Why Not Make it Ten?

Even though The Voice is here at blogspot, as a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, I attempt to approach each article with an unbiased view. I am not a fan of the rumour mill and speculative blogs. However, once in a while, like everyone else I need to vent as a sports fan. This is one of those occasions... Today's posting is pure opinion - backed up by facts of course.
There is certainly a great debate on hockey in Canada with the events of the past few weeks involving Mr. Jim Balsillie's attempts to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and move the team to Canada. I have not weighed in on the matter until now because until the bankruptcy hearing is resolved, it's all speculation and the story has been written to death by every reporter in the hockey world. I will make a few brief comments now though in an attempt to clear up a few items I believe have not been reported properly.
Who Owns this Team?
If the city of Glendale has not been receiving rent on their arena since August (as reported in the Arizona Republic), and the NHL claims to have taken over the team in November 2008; then the league is proving to be a bad tenant. If the NHL is the owner, then pay your bills like the rest of us! You cannot claim ownership and yet owe the city $2.5 million in rent. In a revenue driven league, why take hard earned league dollars to support this failing franchise? I realize Phoenix is important as one of the largest television markets in the United States but if the people there do not watch or like hockey, doesn't the argument that the league "needs" to be there defeat itself? Each year part of the players salaries are held back so that their income does not surpass a certain percentage of league revenues as negotiated in the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement. I am sure the NHLPA and their members would appreciate higher league revenues and having that money back in their wallets.
Buy a Team and Move it the "Right Way"
Those opposed to the Balsilie take-over bid are saying he should follow league rules and "do it the right way"; applying for relocation in a few years time. Well, he tried to do it the right way - twice! Gary Bettman came into Pittsburgh at the last minute after a deal was struck between Balsillie and the bankrupt Penguins and placed several conditions on the sale. One of which was that the team could not be moved. Fair enough - the Pens have a long and illustrious history as one of the original expansion teams in 1967 and have been Stanley Cup champions several times.
Next came Nashville, where Mr. Balsillie was again told there was no-way the league would vote in favour of relocation so basically, don't even bother trying. Bettman then found his Nashville saviour in William "Boots" Del Biaggio. Turns out "Boots" had falsified bank records, defrauding investors and banks of $110 million and he now faces six years in prison. "Boots" claims that the NHL did not investigate his finances before awarding him the team. Nashville has local ownership but remains one of the failing franchises in the NHL.
Milbury Makes Strange Claims on CBC
Which brings me to my last comment. On a recent Hockey Night in Canada telecast, former NHL General Manager Mike Milbury claimed that Mr. Balsillie and the "no good" Del Biaggio already tried to steal the Predators from Nashville. First, can someone please explain to me why Milbury is on the telecast talking over Ron MacLean, Al Strachan and Peirre LeBrun? Secondly, if you are on a national telecast, being paid in tax payer dollars, please do some research and have your facts straight. Del Biaggio was Bettman's choice over Mr. Balsillie in Nashville. Craig Leopold took less money from "Boots" at the urging of Commissioner Bettman. Del Biaggio by the way had the arena rights for Kansas City... Hmmm, Balsillie can't bring a financially crippled team to Canada but it is appropriate to sell the Predators to a man with eyes on Kansas City? Something smells fishy here... So, to sum up, Mr. Balsillie has tried to buy a team "the right way" twice. Only to have the door to the Commissioner's office slammed in his face (metaphorically speaking). Now he is doing it in a business way. Making a very lucrative offer to a bankrupt owner for a team that is worthless as long as it remains in its current market.
Make it Seven - Why not Make it Ten?
Now on to my original thought... If the make it seven campaign is not successful and the NHL and Commissioner Bettman keep this team in Phoenix, I suggest that the make it seven campaign becomes the make it ten campaign; as in, create ten new teams in a new league. I can see it now, teams in Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Quebec City, Halifax, Winnipeg, Regina and perhaps a team or two in B.C. or Alberta. Several teams in the AHL could move up; Hartford, Chicago, Worcester and Grand Rapids could all join in the fun of a new league. Mr. Balsillie already has corporate support for his new team, would support be there for a new league? Recent reports have indicated that the owner of the Russian Super League - the KHL is interested in a North American team. Would Alexander Medvedev be welcomed into the NHL as an owner after starting up the competing league in Russia and taking players like Jaromir Jagr across the pond and out of the NHL? Something tells me that as long as Bettman is in charge, the door will be closed to this billionaire as well.
NHL Needs a Wake-up Call
As a Canadian, hockey is in my blood. I could not stop watching it personally or professionally no matter how hard I tried. However, the constant rhetoric coming out of New York and the Commissioner's office is beginning to wear thin. Even in the midst of this current battle between the league and Mr. Balsillie, Bettman continues to say that the league has not looked into putting teams back into Canada. Really? Isn't that poor planning, or at the very least short-sighted? He also claimed repeatedly this season that the Coyotes were not in financial troubles. He has certainly been caught in that lie, the team is in Chapter 11. If they are not bankrupt as the league claims, losing $300 million will put them well on their way to Chapter 11 or worse. The games with the best television ratings are usually regional rivalries. Is a national television deal in the United States that important that the NHL is willing to seriously jeopardize all of its teams and alienate its only paying fan base - Canada? The price for season tickets in Tampa Bay will start at $1200 next year, a recent caller to the Fan 590 in Toronto spent $1200 on four tickets for one Maple Leafs game in December. She felt it was worth her entire Christmas bonus so that her two sons could experience a live NHL game.
Good luck Mr. Balsillie in your attempt to do what the NHL is unable or unwilling to do - bring a team back to Canada. Personally, I hope it is the first of many teams to return to the Canadian market but if the NHL continues to shut the door, I feel it is time for someone to take them on - head on. Perhaps Mr. Balsillie can team up with Mr. Medvedev and create a fresh, new environment for hockey fans that are growing tired of the same old song and dance coming out of New York. Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Formula Done?

As FIA President Max Mosley continues to bring the hammer down with new rules and regulations that appear to come from nowhere with no consensus from the teams involved, Ferrari, Toyota, Red Bull Racing, Toro Rosso and now Renault are some of the major teams threatening to pull out of the Formula One racing series next season.
No Races in North America
The first surprise move came last Fall when Formula One unexpectedly canceled the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal; leaving no races in North America. In what appeared to be a cash grab, the Montreal race was dropped from the schedule, replaced by the Turkish Grand Prix on the calendar. In doing so, Formula One left the door wide open for NASCAR to enter Canada on a regular basis as the die-hard racing fans in Quebec search for excitement elsewhere. NASCAR already holds a road race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and as more of their stars take part in the race each year, it is only a matter of time before more races are added across the country.
Now that Indy and the Champ car series have mended their fences and reunited as the IRL open wheel series with races in Edmonton, Toronto and perhaps someday in Montreal, can Formula One ever regain their dominance on the North American circuits? Let's not forget IRL also has the very high profile Indy 500 on May 24th. With names like Paul Tracy, Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, how can Formula One and their 3am start times compete?
New Rules for Drivers Championship
Next came the announcement only weeks before the season began that the Drivers Championship would be decided based on victories rather then the current points system, which awarded cumulative points based on the final results of each race. The decision has since been rescinded for this season as teams protested the late change but could emerge as the deciding factor in next year's championship. Under the current rules, drivers are awarded ten points for a victory, down to one point for eighth place. This system rewards drivers that placed well all season. Under the proposed changes, a driver could win the first five races of the year, crash or fail to finish all the other races and yet still win the championship if no one wins more than a handful of races. Consistency would no longer factor into who wins the championship.
Voluntary Spending Cap has Teams Fighting Mad
May 29th is the deadline for teams to submit entries for the 2010 Formula One Schedule and as an American based team looks to join the series, as well as Suzuki, can F1 afford to lose high profile teams like Toyota, Renault, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and the biggest name in the sport - Ferrari? The voluntary spending cap, which limits team spending to approximately $71 million Canadian, will reward teams that abide by the cap with extra testing privileges. Teams that exceed the limit will be left behind, literally. A technical loop-hole already has Brawn GP and Toyota using a new diffuser ( an under-car device that allows greater down force, thus faster times). Ferrari, Renault, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and BMW-Sauber now have to re-design their cars to close the gap. Next season, if you are a team that over spends, you would not be allowed the testing necessary to make these changes.
While it can be exciting to see a team other then Ferrari and McLaren win several races, part of the allure of the Formula One racing series is cheering for the underdogs. Personally, I have been a fan of Toro Rosso (which uses a Ferrari engine) and Sebastien Bourdais. To see them race and compete with the "big boys" makes getting up at 3 or 4am worth the effort and extra coffee. Getting up to watch Suzuki battle Brawn GP in Abu Dhabi does not capture my imagination. Ferrari has been part of Formula One for sixty years, won 15 Drivers Championships and 16 Constructor Championships (as best manufacturer), the series would not be the same without the red car and black horse logo made famous by Gilles Villeneuve and seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher. All sides involved will be meeting in London tomorrow (May 15th) in an attempt to find common ground and a resolution to this issue that threatens to seriously damage the Formula One series. Hopefully a compromise can be reached that benefits all the teams involved and the fans that are being left in the dust. Have a great sports day everyone.