Sunday, February 21, 2010

Here's what would be a miracle.

It's been 30 years, as we are constantly reminded, since the "miracle on ice", the US hockey team's defeat of the Soviet team in the semi-final round of the 1980 Olympics. There has been endless, exhaustive analysis of the game and for good reason-it was extraordinary that a rag tag bunch of amateur hockey players from colleges and backyard rinks across the US would ever manage to beat the well-oiled Soviet hockey machine. It happened. We all know. Lots of us even watched the movie, which was good, and those of us who live in Pittsburgh, "Hockeytahn" as we like to call it, home of Craig Patrick and sometime home of Herb Brooks, the coach of the winning team, get it even more often.

Here's the thing, though. Men's Olympic Hockey is a completely different game than it was in 1980. Professional players from top teams in the NHL primarily but also other leagues around the world are now allowed to play. The USSR no longer exists, and the Russian team, while formidable, has finished no better than silver and was out of the medals in 2006. Olympic hockey has a much more level playing field as a result. Sweden has won gold twice since 1994 and Finland has the most medals with two bronze and one silver. Canada is a perennial contender, but has only managed one gold since 1952, despite having the likes of Mario Lemeiux, Wayne Gretzky, and Sid Crosby play for the national team. (To be fair, this is pretty much Sid's first Olympics as an adult, so who knows what can happen. So far this year, he's saved Canada from the inglorious fate of being beaten by Switzerland.)

IIHF hockey is wonderful to watch. There are less fights and more scoring. The lines on the rink and the dimensions are subtly different. There are some rule differences that make the game move faster and to me at least make the game more interesting and more fair, like no-touch icing and automatic misconduct penalties for hits to the head, and no restrictions on where the goalie can play the puck. If only the IIHF had any power over the NHL.

It's a good thing to remember the glorious day that the US men's hockey team pulled off their miracle, but honestly, we're not going to learn anything from further analysis. The sport is too different. The Games are too different. Enjoy the now of seeing the Stanley Cup champions playing for three different teams, seeing Jagr back on the ice in this hemisphere, and seeing hockey in its second-purest form once every four years.

Purest form? That would be women's international hockey. Enjoy the games!

And yeah, Johnny Weir got robbed. He did.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Images of gold

Once again, we are in the midst of Olympic fever.

The Winter Olympics have a more limited audience than their summer counterpart, but they still have one of the biggest audiences of any sporting event. Few events define sports like the Olympics in either season.

Start with “Bugler’s Dream,” the song that has been used in Olympic telecasts since I can remember. Few songs are more recognizable, and none are more associated with a single event.

Then there are the events themselves. They are so varied that it’s hard to imagine there isn’t one that somebody isn’t interested in. Ever wanted to watch curling or skeleton? Here’s your chance.

And then there are the Olympic nations. While TV coverage is slanted toward the U.S. and the other countries that regularly face them, the Olympics are a great geography lesson.

The first Olympics I remember were the summer games in Munich in 1972, when I was six. My first knowledge of the Olympics came one Saturday morning in August when I was told that my cartoons weren’t on TV that day. In their place were, in the words of my mom, “all the runners and jumpers and throwers.”

But the first athlete I remember seeing that day was a swimmer who always seemed to win. His name would become immortal before the next week passed—Mark Spitz.

Over the next few days, there were not only runners, jumpers, throwers, and swimmers, but also gymnasts, boxers, wrestlers, divers, basketball players—and terrorists.

The politics of the games hadn’t quite sunk in to me yet. I had a vague idea that the U.S. was a “free” country and the Soviet Union was a communist country, but I wasn’t really sure what those things meant yet. But I was convinced that the Americans were the good guys, of course. And I had little knowledge of the situation in the Middle East that provided the backdrop for the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the Munich games. But I remember the reports on TV and I knew that some people had been killed. And I was left with a powerful image. To this day, my image of what a terrorist looks like is the picture of the ski-masked gunman standing on the Olympic village balcony.

Images are what each Olympic Games leave with us, and the Winter Olympics are no exception. The first winter games I remember were the Innsbruck games in 1976, which I associate with Franz Klammer gliding down a mountain en route to a gold medal.

The most indelible image has to be the U.S. men’s hockey team beating the Soviets in 1980. By then, I knew a lot more about the Cold War and the “us vs. them” mentality that came with every event in which the teams faced each other. I also knew that the Soviets had a huge advantage in many Olympic sports because professional athletes were not allowed in the Olympics back then. When the U.S. won that game, I knew that I was watching one of the greatest sports upsets in history.

World politics—and Olympic politics—are different now. The days of “us vs. them” are gone. When my favorite NHL team won the Stanley Cup, a Russian was named MVP—which would have been unimaginable just three decades ago.

While many things about the Olympics have changed, the images will remain, and this year’s Winter Olympics are sure to add more to our collective memories.

P.S. Jamie said that Johnny Weir got robbed.

Friday, February 5, 2010

This used to be my playground

While aimlessly Googling last week, I stumbled across a website which tells part of my life story.

It’s officially called the Daily Racing Form Historical Online Archive. It includes PDF files of all copies of Daily Racing Form since the 1890s—at least all of them that have been entered online so far.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and I’m not surprised that most days are unaccounted for. Issues from May and June—Triple Crown season—are the first to be preserved for posterity in most years, which is not surprising, because those are the issues that historians and fans care about the most.

It’s fun to go back to Secretariat’s Belmont and relive the anticipation of the real prospect of the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. It’s eye-opening to read articles about the big races after the fact to see just how wrong the experts can be. The 1971 Derby edition shows that shocker Canonero II, while not completely dismissed, received baffled mentions as the mystery horse from Venezuela. The past performance lines from that renewal are good for a laugh, as I scoured the lines and the accompanying articles for any indication that horses such as Fourulla and Royal Leverage deserved to be in the race.

But it isn’t the famous races that I find the most fascinating. Having misspent much of my youth at Beulah Park, I’m attracted to the lines on $2,000 claimers at tracks that may or may not exist today—Narragansett Park! Lincoln Fields! Havana!—the grist of racing back when it was king.

Beulah isn’t in the current archives much because its race meets back in the day usually took place in the spring and fall (its spring meet still ends on Derby weekend), so many of my reminiscences must be experienced through other Ohio tracks (although I did find several cards from the ‘80s when Beulah was being mismanaged under the name Darby Downs).

It all comes back to me...those Sundays in the chilly air, maybe some rain, as they played the National Anthem and track announcer Jim Dolan gave the changes for the day, and I wrote down every last one of them with more zeal than I ever gave to any classes in school. I would hand two bucks to my dad to bet for me, and he would make no comment one way or the other, even if he thought my choice was ridiculous.

Then I would rush off to the paddock and study the horses intensely as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Then off to either the rail or the grandstand to see the race. I usually lost because my handicapping methods were pretty unsophisticated (“Hey, this week I’ll just go down the program until I find a horse that’s dropping in class!”). But it was my own, action-packed little world for one day a week.

And through it all was the Form. I would read it cover to cover the night before while listening to "Saturday Night Cruisin’", an oldies show on WBNS radio. Even before I set foot in a racetrack for the first time, I was familiar with the Form. There was just something about the mass of statistics that approached art.

While handicapping is far more sophisticated than this, there was something that showed me the general difference between a good horse and a bad horse at first glance. The better horses’ lines appeared cleaner, loaded with small numbers, 1s and 2s. Slow horses’ lines appeared cluttered, full of 11s, 12s, and, in later years, negative comment lines. How simple, and beautiful.

It may sound weird to discover such splendor in race horse statistics, but it’s no stranger than finding beauty in, say, Campbell’s soup cans.