Sunday, February 28, 2010

It Had to be The Kid

Of course, it was Sidney Crosby who scored the overtime goal to beat the US and deliver a hockey gold medal to Canada. The Kid has had a solid 12 months, to say the least, winning the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal in that time span. He was always supposed to be Canada's next hero on ice, and now he is.

If he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby's story as a Canadian legend would be perfect. But Canada will take what it has--probably the best current player in the world and two teams (both the men and the women) that are the best hockey teams on the globe.

It was difficult watching our young American lads, professionals though they are, accept second place after such a riveting performance not only in the gold-medal game but throughout the tournament. The final match lived up to expectations from a quality perspective, and it certainly didn't lack for excitement or drama. Had we won, there would have been a lot of happy hockey fans in the US and maybe even a few non-hockey fans down here who would have enjoyed the moment.

But we'll move on here in the States. March Madness, spring training, the NBA playoffs, even the NFL draft--the American sporting calendar offers very few down times, and given that we don't have a true "national sport," we can move relatively easily most of the time from defeat in one sport to interest in another. Let's not forget that this is a country in which 90,000 people will fill a football stadium in the South to watch an intra-squad spring scrimmage game.

Even the NHL starts back up tomorrow night, and it's very likely (although far from a sure thing) that an American franchise will win the Stanley Cup again. Canada's team--the Toronto Maple Leafs--almost assuredly won't, and neither will, in all likelihood, Quebec's team, the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs were the last Canadian team to win the Cup, capturing it way back in 1993. The Leafs, famously, haven't won it since 1967.

Hockey, though, is at the heart of Canada's culture. It's a national sport of national sports, so integral to the Canadian identity that names like Gretzky and Richard (and now Crosby) evoke images and emotions not unlike those Americans feel when we hear names like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. An exaggeration? I really don't think so. Quick, name a great Canadian. See? (That's not a shot at Canada's contribution to the world, either--only an example of how big hockey is there. And, yes, I've known more than a few Canadians.)

Beyond that, today was a triumph for Canada over its dominant neighbor, the country that swallowed North America years ago before gobbling up--culturally, anyway--much of the rest of the world. We stole Canada's league, the NHL. We took Gretzky, Crosby and many, many other native sons of the True North and stuck them in franchises south of the border. We dragged the Stanley Cup to places like Dallas, Carolina, Anaheim and Tampa Bay while folks in Toronto and Montreal looked on and Canadians in Quebec City and Winnipeg lost their NHL teams altogether.

It was hard, then, not to feel something positive for Canada as the home team received its gold medals. This wasn't just the players' victory; it was the nation's victory. While we're wondering who the Browns will take in the third round in a few weeks' time, Canada will still be reliving the last day of February. Today will likely live in Canadian history forever, long after Americans have forgotten who Seth Wescott (remember him?) or Lindsey Vonn was and what happened in the 2010 Olympic gold-medal hockey game.

The American players wanted to win. That much was clear. The Canadians had to win. And in a match-up as even as this one was--remember, the US won a thrilling opening-round game--that was the difference. At some point, heart and determination do matter, and the Canadians had just a drop more than our lads did today. Personally, I'm a little disappointed that the US lost, but I'm also happy for Canada. And not happy in a patronizing way but in a genuine, head-nodding, you-all-deserve-this way. Well done to the True North strong and free. (And, oh yeah--Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, we Americans are better than you at hockey. Yup. It's true.)

On a final note, a lot of people have speculated as to whether the TV success of Olympic hockey will spill over into increased popularity for the NHL. It won't...because the NHL doesn't look anything like Olympic hockey. It never has. The NHL regular season is a massive grind full of fights, clunky third-line players and (some) guys dogging it, and despite how exciting the Stanley Cup playoffs can be, nothing can match the drama of a single-elimination tournament and a grand-final game. Besides, the Olympics pit the best against the best in a setting in which the players care more than ever about taking home the top prize. Even the Stanley Cup finals can't do that.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been talking about not letting NHL players compete in Russia in the Olympics in four years' time. That might make sense for the NHL (or maybe not...), but it would be terrible for hockey. Then again, Bettman has never cared much about what's best for the game. Canadians, who have watched their sport drain down to the American Sun Belt over the last couple of decades, know that. It is their game, after all, and today they took it back. In Canada, The Kid is now The Man.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

But Wait...There's More! (BC 2, UMass 1 in OT)

Tonight was not my finest hour as a sports fan. My regular hockey buddy and I went to the UMass-BC game and saw easily the best contest we've seen this year, a tight, physical game that ended in a 1-1 tie.

Except it didn't end in a 1-1 tie. In a colossal mental lapse, I forgot how college hockey worked. I said to my buddy, "There's no overtime in college hockey unless it's a tournament game." So, after the clock read 00:00 in the third period, we bolted, hoping to beat the crowds out of a relatively full Conte Forum--surprisingly full, in fact, given that BC's "spring break" inexplicably started tonight.

In my defense, a lot of people poured out of the arena with us--hundreds, at least. I did find it odd that the BC pep band played an up-tempo song as we were leaving rather than easing into the alma mater, and I also thought it strange that so many people were sticking around for the three stars of the game and the home team's stick salute. Proud supporters, I thought. Really proud. Unusually proud.

Well, as it turns out, college hockey does indeed have an overtime--it just doesn't have a shootout after overtime the way NHL regular-season games do. I somehow confused the lack of a shootout with the lack of an overtime, period...and we missed BC's game-winning goal at 2:02 of the extra session. It wasn't until I got back to my friend's place and decided to read about the game online that I realized that we had bolted early.

We both decided that it was OK that we had left early, though. We enjoyed the game and had a good night out, and while it would have been nice to celebrate an overtime winner, I'm not such a die-hard BC fan that I was crestfallen upon realizing my error. (I do cheer for the Eagles, though, and I found myself really pulling for them in the third period tonight.) In fact, while I usually stay until the end of a sporting event, I was kind of glad that we got out when we did. It made the trip home that much easier. Sometimes, that's not a bad thing.

As for the game, UMass out-shot and mostly outplayed BC and probably should have won; BC's freshman goaltender turned in a fantastic performance and made up for a lot of BC defensive errors in the Eagles' zone. The teams combined for nearly 70 shots on goal and doled out tons of hits--far more than we usually see at a BC game. Then again, to be honest, BC is usually up at least 3-0 by the middle of the second period and doesn't really need to hit anymore at that point. Tonight, though, the play was physical from start to finish. The shots were hard, too, sending pucks exploding off the glass and boards.

With all of the excitement, the crowd was on edge--when BC nearly scored the winner in the final minute (of regulation...ahem), the noise in Conte was as loud as I've ever heard it. And that was with a smaller-than-usual student section stuck way up in a corner of the arena rather than planted in its usual spot behind the visitors' goal.

So, we missed the cherry on top of the hockey sundae tonight. The ice cream was still good, though (this really seems to work well for a hockey metaphor, actually), and the metaphorical whipped cream was tasty. A little winter-time hockey sweetness is much better than none. And, really, we saw three pretty sweet periods of hockey. There's one home game left for BC this season, next Saturday night vs. Hockey East-leading New Hampshire. Should that contest end in a tie after three periods, we'll be sure to stick around for the whole dessert, cherry and all. By the way, as always, my unedited and unvarnished photos from the game are online.

Next game (and last for this season): Next Saturday night (March 6) vs. UNH. Go Eagles!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BC 7, Merrimack 0...If It Actually Happened

I'm not sure exactly where Merrimack College is, and there were so few people at Conte Forum tonight for the Merrimack-BC hockey game that the game itself might not actually have happened. In fact, the only press "coverage" I could find of it tonight was here. (The attendance figure of 2816 in the box score is extremely generous, by the way.)

The fact that I forgot my camera tonight doesn't help; there may never be photographic proof of the existence of this contest. That would be a shame, actually, as Cam Atkinson scored a hat trick, and BC dismantled Merrimack in one of the most dominating sporting performances I've ever seen live. It was a lot of fun, actually--the kind of game that was way out of control after the first period and just got worse from there.

Usually, BC kind of calls off the dogs with, say, a five-goal lead, but the Eagles--who did play a lot of young guys tonight, including a backup, freshman goaltender and even a third-string goalie who came in for the last three minutes of the game--kept sniping all night long. Pucks were ricocheting off the boards and glass like cars backfiring in an Arkansas Wal-Mart parking lot. And the goals that did go in were mostly great ones, if a little aided by Merrimack's almost complete lack of competent goaltending.

Anyway, if tonight's game wasn't a figment of my imagination (and given that I had a friend with me, I don't think it was...), it was a lot of fun. And even if it was, well, it was still a good time. And there was no traffic getting out of the parking garage. Good times all around.

Next game (probably): Friday night vs. UMass.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thirty Years of the Miracle on Ice

There's nothing I can really add to the legend of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, so I'll spare the talk about how a group of American college kids stunned the best team in the world on this day (Feb. 22) 30 years ago.

All I'll say is that I fell in love with hockey during the 1980 Olympics and wanted more than anything else in the world to learn to play it. Unfortunately, that wasn't a possibility in the Dallas-Fort Worth of the 1980s, so (long story short) I ended up taking my first skating lesson just last year. Regardless, I still love hockey, and now I get to watch it live all the time. Living in New England does have its advantages.

What I can't believe is that the Miracle on Ice happened 30 years ago. I was six at the time, but I have to say that I was a fairly smart six. I read the newspaper fairly regularly back then (seriously) and watched the evening news every night with my dad. I had a basic idea of what the Soviet Union was, why the USSR was our rival in both politics and sports, and why it would be such an incredibly big deal if our amateurs could beat the Soviets, the best team in the world.

I also knew that times were tough in 1980. I was aware of the Iran hostage crisis and was even more acutely aware of the sagging economy. My family struggled financially in the late '70s and early '80s (as many did) before my dad landed a job that would essentially pay for much of my college education and allow my parents to retire fairly comfortably. Back in 1980, though, there was a lot of uncertainty about a lot of things, even at home.

So, in a simple way, I got it when the US beat the Soviets and then went on to beat Finland for the gold medal. I got why it meant so much to us as a nation. And I know that the greatest moment in sports history, period--which I still believe the USA's 1980 run to be--will never happen again, now that professionals have invaded the Olympics (and maybe rightly so).

But how on earth have 30 years gone by since the Miracle on Ice? Three whole decades! I'm not supposed to be old enough to remember things that happened 30 years ago, but I do remember...and I remember well. I see the old TV clips of the USSR game now and remember how primitive TV was back then.

To my memory (and I could be wrong about this), ABC didn't even show the USSR game live--it showed it on tape delay, which didn't really matter because most people didn't know how the game had finished, anyway. Back then, if we missed a live sporting event, we had to watch the evening news or wait for the next day's paper to find out what had happened. Strange days indeed. And very far away, it seems.

After the US won the gold medal, I dragged my mother to Lord & Taylor, where she bought me a cotton "USA" long-sleeved t-shirt replica of the hockey team's jerseys. I also remember having a winter vest with a 1980 Olympics patch on it. I kept the patch for a long time, at least into my 20s--and I might still have it in an archival box somewhere. I should probably take a look one of these days.

What I definitely have is memories of the defining sporting event of my lifetime (and maybe of anybody's lifetime) and a realization that Willie Nelson was incredibly prescient when he sang, "Gee, ain't it funny how time slips away." It is, Willie. It is. Thirty years...and I still well up a little bit when I see Mike Eruzione score. I'll bet most Americans my age or older do, too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

USA 5, Canada 3...Not that Anybody Saw It

That was one tremendous hockey game. Preliminary Olympic round or not, USA-Canada tonight was as thrilling as hockey gets, period. As much as I miss the old amateurs-vs.-professionals set-up that brought such joy in 1980, there's nothing like seeing the world's best go at it on the Olympic stage. Besides, with the USSR gone, sending a bunch of US college kids to take on other nations' pros would be no fun, anyway.

So, you did see the game, right? Three periods of furious, physical, fast hockey played with the kind of passion that even the Stanley Cup finals sometimes have trouble producing... You caught that, didn't you? No? Well, if you didn't, it was probably because NBC chose to bury the game on MSNBC--a "network" that I thought had ceased to exist and that I definitely don't get in high-definition.

Oh, Russia vs. Czech Republic was on live in HD on NBC this afternoon. But tonight, in prime time on a Sunday, NBC decided to go with taped replays of skiing, bobsledding and...well, I don't know what else because I watched the hockey game. I guess NBC switched to USA-Canada late in the game, but I didn't know that happened because...I was watching the game on MSNBC!

All this was tonight was Canada, the nation that created hockey, playing against the US, the nation that stole the game from the True North and overshadows Canada globally in just about every way possible. (By the way, I really like Canada, so that's not a shot at our northern neighbor--or neighbour, as the case may be.) All this was tonight was a battle on the ice not only for hockey supremacy but for the heart of Canada, which beats in rinks from St. John's to Victoria. And the US won, despite a furious fight from the home country's team.

NBC, however, decided that replaying Bode Miller's gold-medal run (what's the obsession with that guy, anyway?) and a bunch of other stuff that happened hours before it all aired would be better for ratings and advertising than broadcasting a marquee game in a marquee Olympic sport that did, let's not forget, provide us 30 years ago with the greatest moment in sports history.

Hey, NBC, today was Sunday. Most people don't work on Sunday. They could have watched Bode live if they'd wanted to. What they could not have done, however, was watch one of the biggest events of the Olympics live unless they had (and could find) MSNBC--and, even then, they (as I did) probably got the game in less-than-stunning standard definition.

NBC, you show NHL games on Sunday afternoons, and you do pretty well with the Winter Classic every year. Well, preliminary-round game or not, tonight's match-up was about a thousand times more important and thrilling than the Winter Classic was (and that's saying something coming from a Bruins fan), never mind a run-of-the-mill NHL game. Would prime-time Olympic hockey really have destroyed what have been thus far massive ratings for the Games? Or would it have boosted them even more?

Maybe this is why I'm not a TV executive, but I just can't understand why USA-Canada wasn't on the mother ship in high-def and in prime time. Bad show, NBC. You'd better hope that the US and Canada meet in the medal round because the kind of sport spectacle I watched tonight is rare and enthralling indeed. It deserves better than the dregs of basic cable.

A postscript: On the late-night show, NBC is now treating this game as if it was a massive event--which it was. Too bad it didn't merit prime-time coverage on the big network. Also, why is Cris Collinsworth commenting on hockey? Were there no former hockey players available? Granted, Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury have been a disaster on CNBC, especially since Milbury constantly picks fights with Roenick.

But Collinsworth? He's trying, but he knows nothing about hockey. He keeps comparing Jim Craig in 1980 to Ryan Miller tonight. Hey, Cris, Craig was a college goaltender in 1980. Miller is one of the best goaltenders in the world, an NHL star. Nice try, but the comparison isn't working. And NBC--really, you can do better. Andy Brickley has a few weeks off, and he's the best in the business. Plus, who wouldn't love to hear Jack Edwards blatantly cheer for the US? If only, NBC. If only.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Photographic Tour of the West Ham Match Experience

OK, OK. Last post on this topic for a while, I promise. I just hated to see a set of photos go to waste. So, here's a trip in images through the West Ham match-day (or -night, in this case) experience. Descriptions follow the photos:
Call it the "Snow"-leyn ground. Light flakes fell over the Boleyn Ground as my friend and I arrived after a short walk down Green Street from the Upton Park tube station.
Street vendors sell loads of West Ham stuff outside the ground. We bought match programs from some enthusiastic young lads who were selling them with some help from their mother.
The West Ham Supporters Club was likely rocking before the game. All we saw was the outside.
Nathan's is a legendary spot for pre-match grub, but the line there was (as you can see) out the door. It must be the eels. We settled for a fried-chicken place that offered super-spicy chicken with a soggy crust. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't fried chicken the way I remember it from growing up in Texas. Even Colonel Sanders would have looked at this stuff with some confusion.
Now, the real fun begins. The Boleyn, on Barking Road, is a beautiful (and huge) Victorian pub. On match days, it's full of Hammers drinking, singing and getting ready to head to the ground in full voice. The atmosphere is tremendous. Wear claret and blue, and you're part of the family. Wear something else, and...well, you're probably just better off wearing claret and blue.
To the ground! We arrived early enough to take some photos and watch the place fill in. My friend barely recognized the place after a 25-year absence. The changes that have taken place in English football in that time could fill an entire blog, but suffice it to say that the Boleyn Ground doesn't look much at all the way it looked in 1985. I am, of course, the one in the picture, subtly dressed in tasteful West Ham gear...
The view from our seats in the East Stand Lower. The empty ground would fill soon enough...but it looks pretty good even without supporters. In the very top right of this photo (it's really hard to see) is a huge photo of club legend Bobby Moore that presides over each match. To the left of it is one of the ground's large TV screens.
The bowels of the East Stand are a bit primitive, but they do offer a bit of food and drink. There's no taking a pint up into the stadium, though; it's illegal to drink alcohol while watching a match at an English football stadium. (Or at least as far as I know, it is...there's a sign at the steps leading out to the seats that says, "It is an offence to take alcohol beyond this point.")
See what I mean?
Through the iron gates (which I just thought looked cool)...
And, after a few warm-ups for the players, it's time for team introductions and the emergence of the squads from the tunnel. They line up and get ready for...
Kickoff! The ground is full and absolutely rocking. The Birmingham supporters, sitting to our right in a perpendicular stand, are already in full voice. We're responding to drown them out...
COME ON YOU IRONS! "Bubbles" resonates around the ground.
West Ham, desperately needing a win, put plenty of pressure on the Birmingham goal in the first half.
Alessandro Diamanti sets up for a first-half free kick. Was it the free kick that provided the first goal? Actually, I don't think it was, but I' m not totally sure. Regardless, the free kick that did sting the net was a real beauty and happened right in front of us on the stroke of half time. The score was 1-0 to the Irons at the break.
Birmingham threw everything at us in the second half, but we soaked up the pressure. And when Carlton Cole scored from a Julien Faubert cross on 67 minutes (unfortunately, I can't find a clip of that one), the Birmingham supporters went quiet. "You're not singing anymore..." was one of the nicer refrains that rang out from West Ham supporters. The rest of the match was really a celebration--Birmingham never looked like scoring again.
The US's own Jonathan Spector replaced the hobbling Herita Ilunga at left back after half time and played a solid second half. That's Johnny Specs holding the ball and standing next to the linesman.
It's a touch fuzzy, but you might be able to make out the 2-0 scoreline near the top of this photo and just to the right of center. That's it--match over. A much-needed win for West Ham. "Bubbles" echoes around the ground one more time, and then we all head for the world's longest queue at the Upton Park tube station. Everything considered, the night could not have gone better. COYI!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The "Colour" and the Pageantry

The excitement I've experienced over the last few days has left me reeling--but in the best possible way. All I did was go to a run-of-the-mill, mid-season English Premiership football match (although it was somewhat unusual being a night game and all), and yet I feel as though I've undergone some sort of transformation.

I love sports, as anybody who knows me or reads this blog knows. And although my live-sports resume is surprisingly weak--I've only been to one NFL game, and that was in 1982--I've had the good fortune to attend a pretty wide range of live sporting events, from a Formula 1 Grand Prix to rugby test matches in Europe to countless college and high school (American) football games in Texas. But I really believe, despite the fantastic memories I have of other events and my love for those other sports, that Wednesday night's West Ham v Birmingham football match in East London was the greatest live-sports experience I've ever had.

I'm still trying to get my head around it, but I think what I liked best about the match (other than the score) was that the atmosphere was purely organic--and yet it was completely electric. There is very little production value to European sporting events; most of the excitement comes from the passion and the singing of the supporters themselves, not from marching bands or overbearing public-address announcers or cheerleaders.

Football is probably the best example of this phenomenon. I had been to matches in France and Germany and really enjoyed them, but seeing a team I really love (West Ham, of course) and being able to sing in my native language (more or less) with 34,000 other supporters was almost emotionally overwhelming. The back-and-forth singing--not terribly friendly, I must say--with the traveling Birmingham supporters, who were sat very near us, was both hilarious and energizing. And when our lads shut them up with two goals and we started belting out, "You're not singing anymore..." the feeling of satisfaction was tremendous.

What impressed me the most about West Ham was that I felt as though I fit into the crowd immediately. Folks didn't seem to care that I wasn't an East London native or that I was (even worse) a "Yank." Now, granted, my buddy and I didn't mix with the more surly class of West Ham supporters, who might not have been so thrilled with a football tourist invading their ground--although I'd like to think that they would have at least respected my knowledge of the club and the game, if I had gotten a chance to demonstrate it.

But the people we did mix with--stewards, folks in the club shop and just run-of-the-mill supporters--were universally welcoming and friendly. And they weren't welcoming in some formal way--they brought us in as though we were close friends or would be shortly. Just wearing the claret and blue and having a passion for West Ham gave us a tie with them that was immediate and unbreakable. (Of course, my buddy is a long-time veteran of the Boleyn Ground, which didn't hurt my cause. But his Americanized accent set him apart almost as much as my modified Texas accent marked me out as a visitor.)

Still, people all over--at the ground, at the little food shops around the ground, in the neighborhood--seemed to just take us right in. There's something about being West Ham that's not like being Chelsea or Manchester United or Liverpool. West Ham supporters commit themselves to a special kind of misery--the club has never won the top division of the English league in well more than 100 years of trying. But they also commit themselves to a passion for beautiful football, a lifetime of undying and massively vocal support, and a pride in colors and community that I'd like to think that most clubs just can't match. I've certainly never seen anything like it anywhere else. That's what I love about West Ham. Oh, and West Ham fans have a sense of humor, too. We have to.

College football fans--and I do still very much love American college football, for the record--like to talk about the "color and pageantry" of the game, and both qualities are definitely there at most schools. But English football offers its own "colour" and pageantry, and it's all driven by astonishingly dedicated supporters who, in some cases, really do commit their lives to their clubs. And when the "colours" are the claret and blue of West Ham, all the better. If I lived anywhere near London, I'd be at the Boleyn Ground for every match, every season--or, at least, I'd want to be there. As it stands, I'm thrilled to have had the chance to go once, and I can't wait to get back again. As you might imagine, there will be more on this topic to come...


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

West Ham United 2-0 Birmingham City

Incredible atmosphere, great match, much-needed win. Photos and a full report to come (eventually), but right now it's almost 3am London time and I'm going to bed. Tonight really was an awesome experience, though. Just awesome.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

England! Pretty Much for Free!

Tomorrow, I leave for a trip to England and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see my favorite football club, West Ham United, play live at their home ground in East London. A friend and fellow West Ham supporter who is also a pilot for a major airline set me up with free plane tickets and a free hotel room.

He's an East London native and life-long Hammers supporter, so I'll have a good guide with me. He and I are headed to Blighty tomorrow for two days of football, fun and whatever else comes our way (and also two days of travel...but I'm not complaining). To say that I'm excited about this would be the understatement of the last two centuries at the very least. I'm going to see West Ham play live. On Wednesday night. In the Boleyn Ground. I won't really believe it until I'm there, which I will be very soon.

I will return to Boston on Friday afternoon, weather and other circumstances permitting. Keep an eye out here for photos--oh, yes, there will be photos. Lots and lots of photos. In the meantime...


Monday, February 8, 2010

Who Was Dat, Anyway?

There are so many feel-good stories associated with the Saints winning the Super Bowl that it's not worth digging into most of them here. Obviously, I was cheering for the Saints tonight, and it wasn't just because of New Orleans's ongoing battle to recover from the tragedy of Katrina or because of the city's deep love for the team, although those would be fine reasons to support the black and gold and certainly factored into my interest.

It wasn't just because I have family in Louisiana, either, or because my mother-in-law is from Shreveport and my in-laws lived in New Orleans for a while, or because I've been to New Orleans a few times and have always loved it, or because I've actually been on a tour of the Superdome. I've been a latent Saints fan for years, always kind of hoping for them to do well and cheering for them when they're not playing Dallas or New England. Adding a big chunk of family down in Louisiana by marrying my lovely wife--who lived in Shreveport as a kid--only made my feelings toward the Saints that much warmer. So, I had good reasons to cheer for the Saints. Plus, I just love that logo.

But the biggest thing that had me cheering for the Saints tonight was the fact that...well, they're the Saints. The SAINTS. The franchise that had just two playoff wins in its 42-year history before this season. The team once famously known as the Aints. The franchise that had Archie Manning running for his life decades before his son would unintentionally complete a pass to Tracy Porter that would send Louisiana into rapture. The New Orleans Saints, a team that was so bad for so long that it was the butt of jokes, the subject of pity (long before Katrina) and the absolute dregs of the NFL. It wasn't that the Saints came close and fell at the final hurdle (as even the Tampa Bay Bucs managed to do in 1979); no, the Saints were just bad, bad, bad for a long, long, long time. I cannot overstate this.

When I was a kid, a fast-food place called Del Taco had a contest. It gave away little scratch-off cards (like lottery tickets) with names of three or four NFL teams hiding under the silver scratch-off stuff on each card. The more of your teams that won that Sunday, the better the prize you'd get from Del Taco. Well, back then, my best friend and I were fiercely competitive, even about stupid stuff like this. As soon as I scratched off my silver and read that one of my teams was the Saints, though, I knew that I had an automatic loss right there. And that's exactly how it turned out. (For the record, I think I won something like a small drink with my one pathetic victory, while my friend had a perfect card and literally won something like a steak--from a burrito place. Go figure. I don't know that he ever collected on it, though. I'm pretty sure I did.)

But those Saints, the guaranteed losers with the great logo, the sharp uniforms and the crazy fans, are gone now. The logo, the togs and the fans are still there, but the team's not a loser anymore. It's a champion, a Super Bowl winner. On the list of things I never thought I'd see in my lifetime, the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl was very near the top, maybe even on top, for literally decades. But tonight, the Saints not only gave New Orleans something to celebrate, they also gave hope to every fan of every beaten-down sports team in the US and maybe in the world. If the Saints can do it, anybody can do it. (I'm trying to apply that thinking to the Boston Bruins right now...although not for this season. Hey, the colors are similar...)

So, thank you, Saints, the new America's Team, for providing a thrill ride for fans across the country and for reminding us that undying, ridiculous, painful, frustrating, seemingly totally futile love of and faith in a sports franchise can end up paying off after all. Enjoy your party, Saints fans. You have more than earned it. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Hippest Trip in Midlothian

Midlothian, Texas, is about 30 miles southwest of Dallas and approximately 5 million light years away from anything hip, trendy or cool (if it's even appropriate to use those words for popular things anymore).

Well, maybe that's not the case these days (the part about Midlothian being so out of touch, that is--it's still about 30 miles southwest of Dallas). Ol' Midlo's pretty suburban now, and it's way, way bigger and much, much more cosmopolitan--relatively speaking--than it was when my parents moved me there in 1976.

The town of my childhood in the late '70s and early '80s had a few thousand people, some farm land, a couple of cement plants, a steel plant and two restaurants that weren't named Dairy Queen (along with, of course, one that was). It wasn't a bad place to grow up, but it didn't exactly provide a representative picture of anyplace but small-town Texas.

I got lucky, though. My grandmother--much to my parents' objections, if memory serves--bought me a television when I was about six years old. I had it in my bedroom, and although I didn't have cable or anything fancy like that, I did have a window to the outside world that was plugged into the wall and received a signal through rabbit-ear antennas. (Oh, and I'm an only child, so it was all mine.)

Needless to say, I watched a lot of TV. And on Saturday mornings, there were two shows I never missed: America's Top 10 (I had a weird fascination with music charts as a kid, so much so that I used to buy Billboard magazine when I could find it at the mall)...and Soul Train.

Absolutely, Soul Train. By the time I started watching Soul Train sometime in the early '80s, it was an established cornerstone of American television. And, for me, it was a telegram from the outside world as to what was cool, funky and, frankly, not the product of white small-town Texas. In a town full of country-music lovers and headbangers (not that there's anything wrong with that...), there wasn't a lot of soul, nor was there really much interest in "urban music" until rap finally came to Midlo sometime in the late '80s.

I didn't always like the music on Soul Train, but I usually did...and I always loved the dancing. And the fashions. I just wasn't going to see anything like that in Midlothian, Texas...well, ever. Really, the music and the dancing were the best reasons to like Soul Train. And its super-smooth host, Don Cornelius, had a style that any young man would have done well to emulate...but that none could ever duplicate.

Did it help that Soul Train was a mostly urban, mostly black show? Sure, it did. There weren't many black kids in Midlothian, and although Dallas-Fort Worth overall is a diverse area, my little far-flung corner of it wasn't exactly multicultural. We had plenty of "urban" radio stations in the D-FW market, but Soul Train brought urban black culture to life in a way in which the radio never could. The styles, the trends, the astonishing moves of the dancers and the sheer joy of the famous Soul Train line were all nice breaks from the typical twang and bang I heard at school and with friends and their parents.

As it turns out, Don Cornelius would likely be happy with my impressions of the show. As anybody who watched tonight's Soul Train documentary on VH1 now knows, the show actually has a fascinating history that goes way beyond afros and butterfly collars. Cornelius, a TV reporter at the time, started the show in Chicago at the end of the '60s because he got tired of seeing black faces on TV associated mostly with crime and poverty. He sought a more positive image of urban black life--and, man, did he provide it.

The show went national within a very short time and took off like a rocket. It was thanks in large part to Soul Train that Americans of all kinds not only heard great artists (often for the first time) but also got a positive view of urban black culture on television. Cornelius, who owned the show, is a great American entrepreneur, period, and is a genuinely important figure in black history in particular (I think, anyway.). I can't say that I had much of a preconceived notion of black people or black culture when I was a kid (the result of good parenting, I'd say), but I am one of those white kids who got hooked on urban black styles and music largely as a result of my Saturday morning viewing ritual.

By the time I was in high school, I was in full rebellion against Midlothian's suffocating cowboy culture. I sported rayon shirts, baggy (although not MC Hammer baggy...) slacks and, sometimes, purple suede shoes. I even had an entire purple suit cut in the popular early '90s style with a short jacket, blousy pants and funky-collared shirt. If I could have had one of those Kid 'n Play afro fades, I would have. I listened to the music I heard on Soul Train (along with a lot of other stuff, of course) and did my best to look like the people on the show. My mother took me on countless clothes-shopping trips to Red Bird Mall--the mall closest to Midlothian, it was located, fortunately for me, in a heavily African-American South Dallas neighborhood.

The dancing part of my Soul Train style never did come along the way I hoped...ahem. But it's important to understand that I wasn't mocking the culture I saw on Soul Train. I was very genuinely trying to emulate it. (OK, so maybe I shouldn't have bought the Africa medallion. I got a little carried away, OK?) I liked that culture, or at least what I thought it to be. I though it was cool and different and maybe the way things were heading trend-wise throughout the whole country, if not in Midlothian.

As it turns out, I was ahead of my time, for once. The generation just behind mine is fascinated with black culture--the music, the clothes, the approach to life. A friend who teaches high school told me the other day that the few black kids in his private Catholic school walk around like kings because the white kids there look up to them. I can relate to that to some extent; I was always very proud to have come in second place in the voting for best-dressed male in my senior class. The winner was a black guy who really did look entirely less ridiculous in his clothes than I did in some of mine.

By the time I got to college, I realized that the whole white-boy Soul Train thing wasn't going to work in the outside world--it seemed to most people as though I really was mocking black people, so I went back to jeans and t-shirts. But I kept listening to Soul Train music, even if I didn't see the show much anymore. And while I can't say that I'm much of a fan of today's hip hop (and neither, by the way, is Don Cornelius), I do still have an appreciation for great soul music of all sorts of varieties.

These days, Soul Train more than lives on via YouTube. Some of the live performances it hosted are truly spectacular. I'll probably spend a few hours one of these days watching old clips and thinking about Don Cornelius--a guy who helped open my eyes to an unfamiliar world--wishing us, as always, love, peace and soul.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The AP (Finally) Picks up on Recession Specials

More than half a year behind the cutting-edge curve set by this very Web site, the Associated Press ran a story this week about how Americans are still drinking as much as they ever have but are buying cheaper booze. I addressed this very topic back in July, focusing on beer and giving a couple of recommendations for what I call recession specials. (OK, so maybe the recession's technically over, but does it feel over to you? It doesn't to me, either. So I'm still trying to cut the bill for my swill.)

Last summer, I touted Narragansett and Simpler Times as my cheaper-beer favorites. I'm still a fan of both, but I've also discovered (thanks to my friend, Eric, a genuine beer expert) Trader Joe's Vintage Ale at...well, Trader Joe's. Brewed by the very good Unibroue brewery out of Quebec and licensed under the Trader Joe's name, Vintage Ale is a semi-spicy brew that's great for the winter but doesn't give me that Guinness feeling of having consumed a liquid bowling ball.

I bought six bombers (those big bottles with the corks in them) of Vintage Ale at TJ's back in December and still have a couple left. A word of caution here: I'm not sure how much Vintage Ale Unibroue made or whether it's still available. I haven't been to TJ's in a while. (The sheer volume of booze I brought home before Christmas would have made an English soccer hooligan blush.) If it's possible to find Vintage Ale, though, it's worth picking up a few bottles. Oh, and while I don't remember exactly how much a bottle costs, it's very inexpensive. That is kind of the whole point of this post.

One brief note on the AP story I linked to above: The story says that vodka accounts for nearly one-third of sales of spirits (that is to say, I guess, just about anything other than beer and wine) in the US. Are we a country of alcoholics, or what? Odorless and colorless, vodka is the closet alcoholic's best friend. (It's sometimes the sport fan's best friend, too, for those November football games. I should have sneaked some into Fenway for that college hockey game last month. But I digress...again.) Seriously, alcohol abuse is obviously a massive problem in this country, and while it's possible that folks are buying mass quantities of vodka because they really, really like martinis or want to pretend to be James Bond, my guess is that it's a sign of pretty widespread hard-core alcoholism. And that's tragic.

But I don't want to end this post on a downer. It's way too early for me to be thinking about Vintage Ale at this point in the day, but maybe I'll crack one open tonight. It'll be a nice accompaniment to the shepherd's pie my lovely wife's parents made us the other night (thank you, Jon and Nell) and should be an excellent prelude to a restful winter night's sleep. In fact, I'm getting tired just thinking about it.