Sunday, January 21, 2007

Miracle Worker

Not since Annie Sullivan woke Helen Keller to the outside world have we seen anything like it. The age of enlightenment has arrived. The light bulb has been invented. The dark ages are in the past. Cave man discovered the wheel. The Wright Brothers have taken flight. Tranquility Base has been established.

Yes, Andy Murray must be hockey's version of Vince Lombardi...or Ghandi...or Patton...or (fill in the blank with the leader-of-men of your choice) the way the Blues have reinvented themselves in the last month-and-a-half. Saturday night's 1-0 win over San Jose was the icing on the turnaround cake. In the last game before the all-star break, the Blues outskated the hottest team in the Western Conference on their own ice. Suddenly, there's no team in hockey that the Blues aren't capable of skating with, and beating. Bill Guerin's goal, lucky though it may have been, was the only score the team needed to subdue the "mean fish" at the Shark Tank.

So many players on the team are skating with an energy and ability that we've never seen before that it's hard to believe when you watch. Keith Tkachuk is a kid again. Doug Weight is flying instead of skating. Bill Guerin is his old very dangerous self. (He only had 13 goals in Dallas all season last year). Radek Dvorak is ten times the player he was in November. Manny Legace has gone from screen door to brick wall. Barret Jackman is playing like an all-star, no longer the "lost soul" of before. Dallas Drake, who had looked like a beleagured veteran ready for the scrap heap, has changed into a fresh-faced--well maybe that's a stretch--kid. The man the fans loved to hate, Eric Brewer, is suddenly the player the Blues thought they were getting in the Pronger deal. By the way, Pronger is hurt and not playing for Anaheim.

Some of the youngsters...led by Lee Stempniak...who appears to be a star in the making...have suddenly turned into solid pros. David Backes, Dennis Wideman, Jay McClement et al. Even Peter Sejna, who flamed out a couple of years ago and appeared to be a career minor-leaguer is suddenly re-energized and worthy of an NHL sweater. The more I write, the more excited I get.

I've said it before, it's hard to believe you're watching the same bunch of players who were so pitiful in pre-December games. Can you believe that a man can come in, put in a different set of rules, values, and pracitce habits and get this bunch of professional players to morph from the worst team in pro sports into a Stanley Cup contender? I hate to even mention The Cup because they're still several points out of a playoff spot. But, you've seen the same thing I've seen. These guys are now one of the best teams in hockey. You legitimately expect them to win...or at least be every game. Amazing!

The thing that now will be very interesting is how the management, John Davidson, Larry Pleau, Dave Checketts, Jarmo Kekalainen... et al, decide to approach the upcoming trade deadline. My feeling is that if they honestly believe they will make the playoffs and do some damage they will keep the team largely intact. If, on the other hand, they get the idea that they might make the playoffs, but flame out early, then they could be inclined to sell off a few veterans for the sake of future draft picks and prospects. I think that decision will be based largely on how they perform against Detroit and Nashville this coming Friday and Saturday. Those two teams are not only at the top of the Central division, they represent the type of teams that the Blues would have to do well against in the playoffs to create any post-season excitement. With the recent success we should expect large crowds at Scottrade Center for these games and with most of the squad well-rested after the all-star break, there should be no excuses for poor effort.

Keep your eyes on those two games. Is this team capable of going deep into the playoffs? Or have we been enjoying the water at a mirage? I tend to think they can compete. But I also think it's more important to stock up for future cup runs. Big decisions to be made in the next few weeks.

Friday, January 19, 2007

People...Not Royalty

Shows like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood feed The Monster. Then they live off it's excrement. The Enquirer, The Globe, and other such supermarket rags feed it too. The Monster is our cultural fascination with celebrity. Why do we allow these media companies to do this to us? Why do we consider the people that The Monster feeds from, and to us, to be special and more important than anyone else? They are regularly shown to be very, very human with faults and imperfections just like the rest of the population.

Lindsay Lohan goes into re-hab. Martha Stewart goes to jail. Rosie and Trump are feuding. Someone called someone else a name. Brangelina is having a baby. TomKat are having a royal wedding. Blah, blah, blah. I guess every industry needs a product. But I, for one, don't get the continuing fascination with these people considered to be celebrities. Especially when fame in the entertainment industry is so temporary...and fleeting.

Let me give you a few examples of that. When's the last time you heard from Lisa Kudrow? A few years ago she, and her Friends co-stars, could do no wrong. Everything she did was under the microscope. She was doing TV, movies, the talk show circuit, and seemingly anything else she wanted to do. She was regularly featured as food for The Monster. Now, I'll bet you can't name anything she has done in, maybe, two years.

Another example. If it weren't for the fact that he went off the deep end during a stand-up routine several weeks ago, would Michael Richards be on your radar? Of course, being on Seinfeld for all that time probably has him in a financial position to do whatever he wants. But, as far as being productive in the entertainment business is concerned? He's been non-existant. Richards is always going to be Cosmo Kramer and he might as well get used to it. The likelihood of him being able to land parts in movies or other TV shows seems remote. So, suddenly he isn't good Monster food. He goes back to "regular guy" status and does stand-up gigs to keep his name out there.

Another. Where would any of the American Idol winners...or non-winners for that right now, and what would they be doing, if it weren't for someone coming up with that show. Would Kelly Clarkson be an enormous recording star? Would Clay Aiken be sitting at a computer working for an accounting firm? Would Chris Daughtry (who's first CD is breaking all kinds of records in sales) be still working at a car dealership service department? Would Jennifer Hudson be in Dream Girls and holding a Golden Globe? Or would she be working as a secretary at Bob's Auto Body? These people are now bona fide stars and part of the monster's regular output. But because they seized an unlikely opportunity, now they are treated as though they aren't regular people. And after awhile they buy into that notion too. "We're treated like we're, I guess we are."

How do we fail to make the connection that there are many people who are more talented than these who happen to get the break to find themselves in the spotlight? Many others have a better head on their shoulders. Many in other professions are truly worth the adulation and fawning that is dealt out to the Hollywood crowd. We should remember that when we feed The Monster by watching the TV shows and purchasing tabloids. As long as we feed it, it won't go away.

Friday, January 12, 2007

20th Anniversary Stuff

-The word has gotten around that I've been doing the Blues P-A job for 20 years now without missing a game. So, I've done a few media interviews about that and I thought I'd share some the info here. No biggie. (By the way...I'm being told now that there will be no recognition of my anniversary at Saturday's game. Too much other stuff to do because of NBC doing the game)

But, I won't scoop Norm Sanders. Norm is the Blues beat writer for the Belleville News-Democrat. I spent about a half-hour with him on the phone Thursday. He says they'll be running a story sometime soon. So, just keep your eye on the N-D for Norm's article.

I also answered a few questions for Tom Settles who writes Blues stuff in a couple of different places, including Here are the questions he posed in an e-mail and my responses.

1) What is the preparation for you to get ready for a game each night?

I usually get to the game early…two hours before gametime…and study the game notes. They usually contain pronunciations of all of the difficult names from the opposing team. If there’s still a question about how a guy’s name is pronounced, I usually try to consult with the out-of-town broadcaster or one of the media relations guys from the visiting team. Other than that, I usually like to get to my position rinkside early enough to go over the promo copy for that night and get my scoresheet filled out so everything is scripted as much as possible. If there are any special ceremonies, or differences in the presentation, I try to chat with Chris Frome (Director of Event Operations) about that.

2) Is there a specific night or goal that sticks out as your favorite over the span of 20 years?

A couple of nights are special to me. The 1988 NHL All-Star game was very special. I announced the lineups live on ESPN. And to see Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, and many others all on the ice at the same time was pretty special. Lemieux was MVP of that game at the old Arena. And the Brett Hull number retirement night on December 5th was also very special. Hullie’s career in St. Louis started just after I started doing the p.a. announcing, and I have had a special connection to him because of that. I announced all of the goals that he scored as a member of the Blues.

3) Who has been your favorite player to watch.?

Brett Hull. No doubt. He saved hockey in St. Louis, in my opinion. And, he did things as a player that will never…never’s a long time…but I think never be done again. Al MacInnis is a close second. I also liked watching Brendan Shanahan while he was here...and was very sorry he had to go elsewhere.

4) What seems to be toughest and the best part of your job?

The toughest part has been being away from my wife and sons for as much as the job requires. And there have been a few times where I’ve missed out on some family functions. But not many.

The best part is just being around professional hockey people on a regular basis and having the feeling that you’re part of the sport. Being the p-a announcer is a pretty special part of presenting a hockey game and I enjoy being involved in the action close-up. There are a few perks to being that close to the game that I won’t name…but they are nice too.

5) Learning all the players names must be hard, what has been the worst to pronounce and have any of the players come back to say you did it wrong?

There have been several down through the years that have been a bit of a challenge. But, I have to say…and I hope I don’t sound like a braggart…that the names sort of come naturally for me. I don’t have a lot of trouble with that. Once I understand the origin of the surname, Slavic, Germanic, French, whatever. And once I find out where the player is from…Canada, American, European…there are rules that apply to pronouncing names that usually get you through. Like I said before, if there are any questions I usually consult with a broadcaster, team official, or the player himself.

A few have been pretty challenging. Maxim Afinogenov of the Sabres took a little study the first time I saw it. When Petr Cajanek of the Blues first started playing here, I got a message from one of the Blues media relations guys telling me that I was pronouncing his name wrong. I was saying it Chy’-an-ek , just like we’ve become accustomed to it. The guy said that, then coach, Joel Quenneville wanted me to get it right. I asked around trying to find out how he thought it should be pronounced but never did get two people to say it the same way twice. So, I just kept doing it the way Blues broadcasters Chris Kerber, Ken Wilson and I agreed that it should be pronounced. And I never heard any more about it. I think Rob Niedermayer was in the penalty box one time and I had announced him as Needer-mayer…instead of Needer-myer…and he tapped me on the shoulder and corrected me. But those have been pretty few. It’s usually names like that which can be pronounced correctly in different ways that give you the most trouble. In those cases, you just have to get to know the player and how he wants it pronounced.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lotsa Stuff

-I see where the folks who run SIU-Edwardsville have decided to go for Division 1 status with their athletics programs. I am an alumnus and support the move. However, I have always had a problem with the Edwardsville campus's status as a step-child of Carbondale. I hope they can somehow address that perception as they make the move to D1. It might be time to address the concept of SIU-E autonomy once again.

-Does anyone else think this Rosie O'Donnell feud with "The Donald" is a big publicity stunt? These people seem to be smart enough to concoct a little feud for the sake of staying in the spotlight and increasing ratings don't you think? DJ's on radio stations used to do it all the time.

-Andy Murray is starting to look like the greatest hockey coach since Herb Brooks rallied the US team in the Olympics. Mike Kitchen must be wondering what he was doing wrong.

-I read where Meryl Streep will star in the movie version of ABBA's musical Mamma Mia. I know she has sung a little in the past. But, I don't know if she's the person I would have to buy a ticket to see in a musical. We did watch The Devil Wears Prada this weekend and thought she was teriffic in it.

-Just goes to show you how ridiculous the salary structure is in baseball when the Cardinals are willing to pay Mark Mulder what?.. 9 million dollars a season?.. when he had a couple of mediocre seasons and then shoulder surgery. Unbelievable.

-The college basketball season...that started with such high hopes for fans in our in danger of going down the commode. SLU...touted as a tournament team...lost to their first two A-10 opponents and both were supposed to be easy wins. Mizzou has started to fade after walking through their pre-conference (i.e....weak) schedule. Illinois is struggling...which gives Bruce Weber's detractors some ammo. SIU-C is strong again this year...but not dominant in The Valley. There's time for our guys to get back on track...but they better get crackin'.

-I'm guessing the civil war in Iraq will be nothing compared to the fighting that will begin now that the Democrats control Congress. The President will have his work cut out for him....especially with polls saying the public is against the "surge" in Iraq.

-Collinsville is working on building a stadium just off I-255 that would be home to a team in the MLS. They might step up their efforts... which sounded exploratory in nature based on published quotes by the Mayor. The reason... David Beckham is signing to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy and will bring a much needed boost in soccer interest because of his "rock star" status in the rest of the world.

-Glad to hear that Jon Brough is home...and is comfortable. The man will have to live the rest of his life without sight or smell....but based on the outpouring of support from the community of Belleville, and the region, he should be alright. I know, based on what friends close to him have told me, that he's the kind of guy who will find a positive approach to his situation.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sad Sack...Not Big Mac

"Sir...I'm not here to talk about the past".
These words may go down in history as an example of the worst legal advice ever. Obviously, when Mark McGwire uttered those words in front of the Senate hearings in Washington they weren't his own. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable and putting on some kind of rehearsed act. His lawyers had told him that if he wanted to avoid criminal prosecution, he needed to stay away from the truth...or lies. So what did he do? He danced around somewhere in the middle. And, because of that dancing, he was snubbed by the baseball writers for the Hall of Fame today.

I contend that had McGwire blurted out the truth, or lied like Rafael Palmeiro, he still might not have been voted in today, but he would have been better off.

The truth might have sounded something like this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Senate panel, and baseball fans everywhere. I come here today to lay myself bare and own up to what I have done with regard to steroids and performance enhancing substances. As you probably know, I have used, and admitted using, androstenedione in the past. This substance, when I used it, was not illegal in any way. I have also in the past experimented with steroids and human growth hormone. And when I did, they too were not on baseball's banned substances list. So, now that these substances are banned, and illegal to use, I am profoundly sorry for having put myself in a situation where I thought I was enhancing myself, my team, and my sport with their use. Looking back, I wish they hadn't been available to me, or anyone else in our sport. And, I wish the sport had done more to discourage players from using them. I truly believed that these substances were just another part of an overall training regimen that I was using to create the best possible athlete I could be. I also realized that there was a possibility that I would be creating some long-term physical problems for myself with the use of these substances. That, at the time, was a price I was willing to pay in order to achieve at the highest possible level. Once again, let me say that I am profoundly unhappy with the choice that I made then. I am sorry for having made it, and will do anything and everything possible to discourage young people from going down the same path. I also stand ready to answer any question anyone may have in a private, but legal, forum away from national exposure. This would initially protect anyone I might name from immediate scorn and humiliation. Please understand that I was operating in a time and place that featured vastly different attitudes, opinions and rules about these substances than we are in today. Once again ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for what I have done. And I hope you might be able to put yourself in my shoes of ten years ago to understand the issue from my perspective. Thank you. "

An untruthful presentation might have gone like this:

(Pointing at the panel with index finger extended) "I don't know how to say this any more clearly. I have never, ever used performance-enhancing substances of any kind. And I challenge you, or anyone else, to prove otherwise. I will be happy to cooperate in any way to help discourage young people from using these terrible substances. Thank you."

Gee, that sounds familiar. Doesn't it?

Had McGwire lied on that day in '05, he may have been voted into The Hall today. Noone could have proven between now and then that he took 'roids. Although everyone believes he's guilty, noone has definitively, conclusively, and without doubt, proven that Barry Bonds did...and he's the poster boy for the stuff. McGwire might have slid by if he gave a strong performance to the Senate.

Had he told the truth, I believe he would have done himself far more good than harm. America is a forgiving place. We have had famous criminals and ne'er-do-wells forgiven many times over for much more dispicable acts than steroid use. I think had "Big Mac" fessed up on that day he would have been the first "steroid era" player to go into The Hall. And he could have done it in a positive, society-changing way. His speech at the induction ceremony might have been the opportunity to leave a lasting and wonderful legacy that would have rid baseball and all sports of the "steroids cloud". But, unfortunately, he didn't want to talk about the past.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Blues Anniversary

-After a bit of research, and with the help of the St. Louis Blues staff, we've determined that I will be celebrating 20 years of continuous service as the public-address announcer on Sunday January 7th. My first game as a solo act (The first two in January '87 I was an observer) was on 1/7/87--Blues vs. Hartford Whalers. Blues 6, Whalers 3. There's no game on the 7th this year. So, there may be some sort of recognition of my anniversary at the game on Saturday, January 13th.

Not only has it been 20 years, but what I'm most proud of is the fact that I haven't missed a single game in that time. I've been lucky with my health...and have had very few significant schedule I'm working on something around 900 straight games....pre-, post-, and regular-season. The story of how I got started goes like this....

I was working in the sports department at KXOK (AM 630) in those days. KXOK had won the radio rights to Blues hockey away from KMOX for a few years and was attempting to do essentially what KTRS is doing now. Eventually there was a problem at the ownership level...but that's another story. Ron Jacober, my boss at the time, approached me one day and said that Susie Mathieu (then Vice President of Everything with the Blues) had asked him if I would be interested in being the p-a announcer for the rest of the '86-'87 season. She needed somebody because Charlie Hodges, who had been doing it, was leaving the team to take a job with Bud Sports. Ron said, "If you're interested, talk to Susie".

I had been covering the team regularly for the radio station anyway, so it was a comfort zone that was easy to walk into. Susie and I met. She informed me that there would be very little compensation attached to the job because Charlie had been on-staff in the media relations department and they hadn't budgeted anything for the p-a position. Also, she said, the Harry Ornest ownership philosophy was in full effect. If you don't have to pay for something, don't. So, I agreed to fill out the season for a small remuneration, and the chance to do something fairly high-profile that was fun. I had no intention of doing it past the end of that season...certainly not at that original pay rate.

As we approached the end of the season, Susie called me one day and asked if I'd be interested in doing the p-a on a permanent basis. She said they liked the way I sounded and handled the job. I told her that I was flattered...but that I couldn't justify the time investment if there wasn't more compensation involved. She said.."Stop by my office after the next game and we'll discuss it. " At that meeting, Susie and the Blues made the job worth my while financially. And we've been able to maintain a working relationship ever since.

Highlights? Let's see....

  • I've worked for 5 owners....Ornest, Shanahan, Kiel Center Partners, The Lauries, Dave Checketts/SCP Parners.
  • I've had several bosses...all of which I consider great people and friends.
  • I announced every single goal that Brett Hull scored on Blues home ice.
  • I handled the player intros on ESPN for the '88 NHL All-Star Game..(A big thrill.. I think Mario Lemieux scored 4...or 5?.. goals in that one and won MVP).
  • The night that "The Great One" played his first home game in a Blues uniform..(I think that was the most nervous I ever was doing the player intros before the game).
  • The Dan Kelly, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, Al MacInnis and Brett Hull number retirement nights.
The Blues p.a. job has brought many wonderful friendships and business relationships into my life in these twenty years. I can't imagine what could have brought more enjoyment than having been associated with the classy, hard-working people that I've been able to work for, and with, in the Blues organization. Not to mention the NHL off-ice official crew, and many great hockey fans with whom I've become friends over the years. I dare not start naming names, because I wouldn't want to disrespect anyone who deserves to be mentioned by not doing so. There's a good chance, if you're reading this, you are one of those people. If so, thank you.

My deepest thanks to Ron and Susie for hatching this egg...and the Blues, and the great people they have brought into my life. Go Blues!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Year...New Blues

-As we begin 2007...I'll get back to more regular business here on the ol' blog. And, by the way, Happy New Year!

I guess the question I was most asked during the holidays was..."What the heck is going on with the Blues...Can a new coach make that much difference?" I guess that's two questions rolled into one. But I have to tell you I struggled to answer it (them?) each time. Here's my take on it.

I have to believe that as much as the players liked and respected Mike Kitchen, they had given up on him as a coach. They must have had the belief that there was no way Kitchen and his strategies were going to get them headed in the right direction. So, as a result, there was little or no effort in most games. I'm not saying there was a conscious effort to get Kitchen fired. But, it sure did look like it at times.

But, if you want to believe there was a conscious effort, one night in particular could spawn such a conspiracy theory....

On December 5th, the Scottrade Center was packed with fans who came to see Brett Hull's jersey be retired. The ceremony was fabulous. The emotion of "the good old days" charged the atmosphere inside the building. Then, despite all that, the team came out, after sitting on the bench and watching the fans shower Hull and the other dignitaries with heartfelt cheers, and laid an enormous, effortless egg. The Red Wings skated around the Blues like they were snowmen built by the building staff and wearing Blues sweaters.

As a lot, hockey players are pretty smart people. Very few, especially the leaders on teams, fall into the "not so bright" category. Isn't it almost impossible that after such a ceremony, the team could come out and play such an uninspired game unless it was seen as a way to eliminate the coach that was holding the team back? Could there have been a meeting after practice that day between some of the leaders of the team? Could they have discussed "tanking" the game as a way to get "Kitch" out of the way? They knew that the owners would be in attendance. They knew the building would be full. They knew that losing pathetically to the Red Wings would be distasteful to the owners and fans. They knew that the situation was already precarious for their coach. The Blues have several veteran players (notice I'm not naming names) who could make a decision to "not compete" happen.

If something like this did happen, noone would ever admit it. It would be unflattering to them as players, a slap in the face to the coach who is gone, and suggest that fans may, or may not, get their money's worth on a given night if the players decide to "take a night off". One would hate to think that such a conspiracy to get Mike Kitchen fired could be launched. But, it sure seems that from day one of the Andy Murray era there has been an entirely different mindset on the team. Same players...different attitude, effort, and results.

Did the core leadership among the players believe that Kitchen's strategies and approaches were flawed? Did they discuss that among themselves? Did they suggest a possible replacement for Kitchen to John Davidson? Did Davidson, if such a suggestion were made, agree to bring in Murray as a concession to the players? Did Davidson make a recommendation to the ownership to make a coaching change based on conversations with certain players? Did ownership agree to such a change because of the paltry numbers of people showing up at games?

All of these questions are legitimate. But, of course, they all fall into the category of speculation. Someone privvy to the conversations of the team's top players might be able to tell us if they hold water, but that's not likely to ever occur. It might be interesting to ask Mike Kitchen at some point whether he would put any credence in such a theory.

In the meantime, St. Louis now has a team to get excited about. So, go Blues!