A BRAVE NEW MIDWESTERN SPORTS WORLD

Last week I delved into the history of the sports scene here in western Michigan. I am looking forward to a possible trip to the Big House to see Michigan football, and even a trip to South Bend to check out the land of the Fighting Irish. Wrigley and Lambeau both beckon across Lake Michigan. This area of our great nation is just oozing with sports history and tradition.

With all of its history, and and the traditions that abound in Michigan and all around the Great Lakes, there is a newness that welcomes an East Coast guy like myself.

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Following the Detroit Tigers also comes with an American League Central Division education.

Having relocated from South Florida to the Great Lakes region in April, I was welcomed by Detroit Tigers baseball.

I grew up in New York City where I had the best of both worlds. I was exposed to the Eastern Divisions of both leagues. As I followed the New York Mets, my baseball radar gravitated towards the National League. Having lived in South Florida since before the Florida/Miami Marlins ever set foot on the field, my National League focus continued.

The rivals of both the Mets and Marlins included the Phillies, Nationals/Expos, Braves and of course, each other. Back before the invent of the Central Division, the Pirates, Cubs and Cardinals were commonplace rivals ( more in New York than in South Florida).

The closest National League baseball club is across Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, or a couple of hours away in Chicago. The baseball club that grabs the headlines in these parts are, of course, the Detroit Tigers.

This year I have been following, and finding myself embracing the Tigers. It has been an odd summer. For a guy that followed the National League East for so long, I now find myself looking at an unfamiliar area of the standings.

First off, the American League? Weren’t they forced to welcome the Astros in 2013 by then commissioner Selig? Didn’t Selig volunteer to take his Brewers (yes the closest National League team to Grand Rapids) out of the American League in 1998?

I know that growing up in New York the American League had the city’s glory team playing in the Bronx. As a kid growing up on the Queens/Nassau County border I only saw the Yankees as the crosstown rivals. I looked at the Yankees schedule from time to time while concentrating on where the Mets were in the standings, and who they were playing day-to-day. I never really focused on the Yankees and their rivals, however my toes do tingle when the Red Sox come to town. The recent four-game sweep at Fenway Park did grab my attention.

Back to the new part of my sports world. In embracing the Tigers, I have gotten a crash course in Midwestern baseball. It has been a summer of looking up at the Cleveland Indians, and being neck and neck with the Minnesota Twins. I have spent this season looking over my theoretical shoulder at the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox.

Back in the two division days the Indians and Tigers were in the same division (American League East) as the Yankees. They were somewhat familiar faces up until 1994 when the Indians headed to the newly minted Central Division. In 1998 when the Tampa Bay Rays franchise joined the Junior Circuit, my new hometown Tigers were moved to the Central Division.

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After years of following the Miami Dolphins in the American Football Conference, I am now fully entrenched in the National Football Conference and its North Division.

Ahh…the Black and Blue Division of the National Football League. This AFC fan has heard about it, and have watched the likes of the Packers, Bears, Vikings, and Lions battle it out from afar. The truth is I am a lot more familiar with the NFC football than I am with baseball’s American League.

As a kid I took a liking to the Dallas Cowboys and was turned off when Jerry Jones bought the team and unceremoniously kicked legendary coach Tom Landry to the curb. When I moved to South Florida I embraced the local culture and was hooked on the Miami Dolphins. My NFC roots, as well as my ties to New York, did continue however. The New York Football Giants have been my number two team over the past 29 years.

This weekend the NFL preseason began in earnest. When the Dolphins and Giants both opened for business, it hit me. Neither team was on TV locally here in the Great Lakes region of the American Midwest. It hit me that I was deep in the heart of the Black and Blue. I was in Detroit Lions territory. There is no AFC team around for miles. The closest American Conference team resides either in Cleveland or, gasp!, Buffalo!

So here we go again. New sports season, new set of characters. The local NFL scene will include the Lions, Bears, Packers and Vikings. The local headlines will bash Aaron Rogers and focus on Matthew Stafford and perhaps Golden Tate. It will be a year of watching Ryan Tannehill’s comeback in Miami from afar. It will be a year of bashing the Patriots and Jets from a distance. Oh, and by the way that Brady guy in New England will be bashed from a distance!

Yes, it’s a brave new world with such sports teams in it. Welcome to the Midwest, the American League Central and the Black and Blue Division!

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IT’S ABOUT TIME I SHOWED UP!

It was March 4th when I last published, and then “poof!” I vanished from the social media radar. It’s time I explained myself to you, my valued readers.

At the beginning of this past October, Robin and I made a life-changing decision.

Following a rather short stint in South Florida, our daughter, Megan and son-in-law Matt sought greener pastures. They moved back to Matt’s home state of Michigan. This meant that Robin and I would be without all of our children in South Florida. Coupled with the painful reminders of our son Justin no longer being here, we decided we weren’t going to miss out on being close to our family. We didn’t want to miss seeing Madeline, our granddaughter, grow up either.

On the morning of April 14th Robin and I got on the Florida Turnpike, headed north and began a three-day journey to Megan and Matt’s home in Belding, Michigan. We got there in time to celebrate Madeline’s first birthday and I haven’t returned to Florida since. Robin went back on April 22nd to finish up family business and headed to our new home for good on May 19th.

During this big, life-changing transition, as much as I tried at the end of February and beginning of March to keep things going, it left little to no time for writing. I apologize for just disappearing from the blogging landscape, but now I’m back! I will be publishing on Sunday morning once again. For now I will back burner the Wednesday feature until the baseball post-season.

I now come to you from my new location in my home in Wyoming, Michigan! Wyoming is located just outside Grand Rapids and is a booming, sprawling suburb. Robin and I couldn’t be happier being near our children and grandchildren!

Over the past few months, I couldn’t help but survey the sports makeup of my new home. I’ve learned quickly that the teams headquartered in Detroit have a far-reaching appeal throughout the state of Michigan.

The Detroit Tigers logo is proudly displayed throughout Western Michigan. I truly live in Tigers territory!

A big difference in the sports scene up here, as compared to South Florida, is its history. South Florida has its Dolphins, Marlins, Heat, and my personal favorites, the Panthers. However, South Florida is still relatively new to the world of big time professional sports. The Dolphins began in 1966 as an expansion team in an up-and-coming American Football League and remain the top dog in South Florida today. The rest of the sports scene didn’t really develop until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

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The big time sports scene in South Florida began in 1966 when the Miami Dolphins began play as an American Football League expansion team.

The Dolphins were the lone big league franchise in South Florida until 1988 when the Miami Heat joined the NBA as an expansion team. In 1993, the late H. Wayne Huizenga legitimized South Florida as a major league locality. Huizenga led groups to join both Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League in the early 1990’s. The results of Mr. Huizenga’s efforts still live on in the Miami Marlins and Florida Panthers.

In contrast to the expansion and late coming sports culture in South Florida, I have found Western Michigan to be much different.

Grand Rapids seems to be Detroit’s sports scene’s breeding ground. There are three minor league franchises playing in the Grand Rapids area, all three have ties to the big clubs over on the east side of the Lower Peninsula.

The West Michigan Whitecaps are the baseball team in these parts. They play in the class A Midwest League and are affiliated with the Detroit Tigers. They play in the town of Comstock Park, which, like Wyoming is located just outside downtown Grand Rapids.

The Van Andel Arena is located in downtown Grand Rapids and is home to the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins. Much like the Whitecaps, the Griffins are the AHL affiliates of the Detroit Red Wings.

Downtown Grand Rapids also has a minor league basketball team. The Detroit Pistons’ G-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive, call the Delta Plex Arena home.

The Detroit Lions have been members of the National Football League since 1930, and have called Detroit home since 1934.

The major league culture here in West Michigan, unlike South Florida is very traditional and full of history.

The Tigers have been around since 1894 and are one of eight charter franchises in the American League. The Olde English “D” logo on their caps and home jerseys remain virtually unchanged, much like the pinstripes and Olde English NY of the New York Yankees.

The Lions franchise originated in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1929 and joined the National Football League in 1930. The franchise was known as the Portsmouth Spartans until they moved to Detroit in 1934, when they were re-named the Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Red Wings franchise has been around since 1926. The Red Wings and their iconic logo have been around since 1932. The franchise joined the National Hockey League in 1926 as the Detroit Cougars, and changed their name to the Falcons in 1930, before settling on the Red Wings in 1932.

The Pistons are the “new kids in town” in Detroit. The Pistons’ franchise is a charter member of the National Basketball Association. They originated in Fort Wayne Indiana in 1941 and moved to Detroit in 1957, making them Detroit’s “newest” professional sports franchise.

The Detroit Pistons are the area’s youngest big league franchise. They moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.

For 29 years I saw games played in an empty Marlins Park (and Hard Rock Stadium before Marlins Park was built ) and BB&T Center. The Miami Heat played to full houses at the AmericanAirlines Arena when the likes of Shaq and Lebron were on the court, not so much otherwise. The Dolphins can sell out regardless of what they put on the Hard Rock Stadium football field. I heard it for years, Miami is a football town with no room for much else.

I am intrigued and excited at the culture up here in the Great Lakes Region. History abounds not only here in Michigan but on the other side of beautiful Lake Michigan as well, where you find bothWrigley Field and Lambeau Field.

The fan bases of all four Detroit franchises are loyal, and have been around for generations.

I am truly looking forward to a sports scene containing Lions and Tigers and across the lake, Bears (two different varieties) oh my!

I promise to be back next week!

SPORTS CONTINUES TO HEAL A COMMUNITY

Last week I chronicled the healing events that went on at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. On an emotionally charged evening, the Florida Panthers played their first home game since the tragedy at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A moving ceremony began an evening that ended with a late game comeback and eventual victory for Broward County’s only professional sports team.

This is kind of a slow time of year in the sports world, and quite honestly, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to write about this week. Since my Wednesday Night Baseball piece returned this week I have taken Spring Training off of the table for Sundays. That left the calm before the storm in college basketball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association. March Madness will usher in the slate of spring hysteria in two weeks, but it’s a little to early to get excited about it. The Stanley Cup and NBA Playoffs will follow along with baseball’s Opening Day. The truth is that right now the NFL is showcasing its annual scouting combine while basketball at both levels and hockey are still on auto-pilot.

My dilemma was brought into focus this past Tuesday night.

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Stoneman Douglas shooting victim Joaquin Oliver was laid to rest wearing a Dwyane Wade basketball jersey.

Students returned to Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday morning. Amid all of the moving on and attempts to return to normal, what happened in both Downtown Miami’s American Airlines Arena and Sunrise’s BB&T Center on Tuesday night was flat-out amazing.

One of the victims of the shooting, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver was a big fan of the Miami Heat. He idolized Dwyane Wade in particular. After stints in Chicago and Cleveland, Wade returned to Miami via a trade on February 8th. All of South Florida celebrated the return of the future Hall of Famer, including many attending Stoneman Douglas. Little did we know that a mere six days later, a little suburb of Ft. Lauderdale was going to gain world-wide attention for a dubious reason.

Joaquin Oliver lost his life just six days after his hero returned home. Like many South Florida basketball fans, Oliver owned a Heat jersey bearing Wade’s name and his number 3. Joaquin Oliver was laid to rest in that jersey.

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Dwyane Wade wore Joaquin Oliver’s name on his shoes Tuesday Night.

Much like the Florida Panthers’ arm patch honoring the victims, the Heat are also donning a black ribbon on their jerseys for the remainder of the season. Not to keep them out of the loop, the Miami Marlins are currently doing the same thing on their Spring Training jerseys.

Both the Heat and the Panthers are currently battling to make the playoffs. Both teams saw action in critical games on the night before Marjory Stoneman Douglas re-opened for business.

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Dwyane Wade shot the game winning basket to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Wade paid homage to shooting victim Joaquin Oliver that night.

In Tuesday night’s game at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Wade seemed inspired by the fallen seventeen. He scored 15 of Miami’s final 17 points in the contest and sunk the game winner with 5.9 seconds left on the clock. The Heat defeated Philadelphia by the score of 102-101.

Wade’s heroics on Tuesday night came on the heals of another local star’s late game winner. Just five days earlier, it was Vincent Trocheck of the Panthers sealing a victory over the Washington Capitals with 18.7 seconds left.

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Florida Panthers’ Jared McCann celebrates after scoring the game winning goal vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs shortly after Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade sinks the winning basket vs the Philadelphia 76ers just a few miles away.

All of the heroics, and all of the stories surrounding Dwyane Wade and his salute to the students of Stoneman Douglas High School would have usually stood on its own. Tuesday night became even more magical in the South Florida community around an hour later. This time the drama unfolded further north in the area’s other arena.

On the same rink that Roberto Luongo brought the community to tears with a speech, on the same rink that Nick Bjugstad brought the Panthers back to life and Vincent Trocheck scored one of the biggest goals in South Florida hockey history, there was more to take place. The Panthers were playing yet another huge game in the standings against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. The game was in overtime shortly after the basketball game concluded in Miami. This time the hero was little known center Jared McCann!

With a little over a minute remaining in the extra period, McCann took a feed from defenseman Aaron Ekblad. He then shot the puck past Toronto goaltender Curtis McElhinney to seal a 3-2 victory for Florida.

The events that took place on a court in Miami and a rink in Sunrise on Tuesday night were further examples of how sports are part of the healing process in the face of a tragedy. South Florida’s basketball fans and hockey fans had reasons to rejoice. A grieving community rallied around a welcomed back hero and then around a third line center.

What Vincent Trocheck’s last second goal last week meant to South Florida took me back to Mike Piazza’s walk off home run in 2001 and what it meant to the New York area. Wade’s basket and McCann’s goal within an hour of each other adds even more healing to a community still mourning the unthinkable.

You can’t make this stuff up! I am in awe of how two unrelated events in two different arenas in neighboring counties can occur within an hour of each other. It further floors me that this occurred just hours before 3000 surviving students and teachers had to try to pick up the pieces and figure out a new normal.

ARE BETTER TIMES ACTUALLY AHEAD IN MIAMI?

When last I left you on the baseball stage, the Houston Astros were putting the finishing touches on their first ever World Series Championship. Houston walked away with the Commissioner’s Trophy after an epic seven game World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After an interesting winter, baseball returned two weeks ago when players arrived at training camps in Florida and Arizona. This has always been a beacon of warmer and lighter days on the horizon. Nothing says that the laid back days of summer is on its way like the beginning of Spring Training!

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The defending World Series Champion Houston Astros begin Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Once the streets of Houston had been cleaned up following the Astros victory parade, the focus turned to the new ownership of the Miami Marlins. Following the regular season, the Marlins were sold to an ownership group led by businessman Bruce Sherman and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. The Marlins fan base busted into celebration upon hearing the news that Jeffrey Loria would be leaving the South Florida sports scene.

The celebration wouldn’t last long, however. Jeter, who is handling the baseball side of the business took over and cleaned house. Marlins icons Jeff Conine, Tony Perez, Jack McKeon and Andre Dawson were all given the choice of taking lesser roles in the new organization or being relieved of their duties. All four opted to leave the organization, and longtime television voice Rich Waltz would be next on the chopping block. Needless to say, Jeter went from hero to villain very quickly. This, however was a mere preamble to what was to come.

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Giancarlo Stanton was dealt by the Miami Marlins to the New York Yankees in early December.

Just before Christmas, National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton was traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for infielder Starlin Castro and two prospects, including pitcher Jose Guzman. Keep Guzman in the back of your mind for now.

As if the departure of Stanton, his MVP season and his 59 home runs wasn’t enough, Jeter’s pre-holiday shopping wasn’t done. A few days later, left fielder Marcell Ozuna was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a package of prospects. This haul was headlined by pitcher Sandy Alcantara and outfielder Magneuris Sierra. Again, put these two names along side Jose Guzman.

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Marcell Ozuna was dealt by the Marlins to the St. Louis Cardinals a few days after Stanton went to New York.

Following the two blockbuster deals center-fielder Christian Yelich expressed his displeasure regarding the departure of Stanton and Ozuna. Yelich wanted no part of a rebuild and wanted out. Jeter wanted to keep Yelich as part of the new world order in Marlindom but following the holidays he began shopping him. In late January the final piece of arguably the best outfield in the National League was shipped to the Milwaukee Brewers. The centerpiece of the deal was outfielder Lewis Brinson. Brinson, a Broward County native is one of the top prospects in baseball.

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Christian Yelich was dealt to Milwaukee in late January.

Prior to the outfield purge, stolen base champion Dee Gordon was traded to the Seattle Mariners for a prospect package headlined by pitcher Nick Neidert.

The outrage rang from Homestead to Jupiter. What is Jeter doing? Why is he parting with most of the pieces of a team that finished in second place and really just needed some pitching?

I have to admit that I joined the outrage at first, until I actually heard the Captain out.

First off, the huge contract that Loria strapped the new owners with is simply unrealistic. Here’s a bit of advice to Yankee fans, don’t get used to the new generation of the M&M Boys. The toxic 13 year contract that Loria signed Stanton to will continue to escalate in value. He will get insanely expensive in the next few years. Nobody will be able to keep a competitive payroll with Stanton’s contract in the middle of it.

Secondly, Loria left town with an organization in tatters. The big club did include arguably the best player in baseball, and the top outfield in the National League. Dee Gordon is one of the top catalysts in baseball, Justin Bour and JT Realmuto are both rising stars. Beyond that facade Loria left the Marlins strapped. Following the tragic death of Jose Fernandez the pitching staff became average to below average. There was nothing in the tank in a once loaded farm system.

The Marlins, despite the rising offense, still finished eight games below .500 in 2017. The second place finish in the National League East was very deceiving since they finished a full 20 games behind division champion Washington. The franchise has not had a winning season since 2009.

Since Jeter appeared on the scene in South Florida he has been preaching building an organization from the bottom up. Let’s take all those names that were put to the side earlier and see what he accomplished.

Starlin Castro, who was not too thrilled about his new team at first, looked and saw for himself what he was working with. The former Yankee all-star was very impressed. Alcantara, Guzman and Neidert are all top pitching prospects. Alcantara could be the Marlins ace in the next couple of years.

Sierra could be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, and could be the next Dee Gordon with a little more power. Finally, the crown jewel of the South Beach haul has to be Lewis Brinson. The Coral Springs native is Major League ready and is expected to be the centerpiece of the heart of the Marlins order alongside Bour and Realmuto.

My message to my fellow Marlins fans, yes we’ve been through this more times than most fans, but take heart, Jeter means business. He’s in this for the long haul. Get used to the names folks, unlike the Huizinga, Henry, and Loria years, this is the beginning of something permanent. Embrace this new squad, you’re going to like what you are about to see. These guys are here to stay!

SPORTS AND TRAGEDIES-A SOURCE OF HEALING AND ESCAPE

Following my last article which was written on Super Bowl Sunday, I went on hiatus to tend to some family business. I know that I promised a return of this past Wednesday, however circumstances moved it back until today. My wife and I were visiting my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter last week. The first anniversary of my son, Justin’s death was last Wednesday. Yes, it was Wednesday February 14, the same day that fourteen students and three staff members were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

We were at our daughter’s house when the news broke. We were far away from our home which is roughly a fifteen minute drive from the school, but it still struck very close to home to all of us. The events of February 14th that rocked Parkland, Broward County, South Florida and all of the United States led to the delay of my return.

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One of many vigils held around South Florida following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In the middle of all this craziness, I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate the Super Bowl 52 champion Philadelphia Eagles!

Here’s is the reason why I failed to published on Wednesday. Broward County’s only professional sports team, the NHL’s Florida Panthers were on their longest road trip of the season when the shooting occurred. As many of you hockey fans here in the east know, there is a long road swing to Western Canada that all of our teams have on our schedules.

The Panthers began their road swing in Edmonton last Monday. Florida is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, and the trip began on a high note. In a wild game the Florida defeated the Oilers 7-5, little did anyone know that the rest of this trip would turn very different, and a playoff berth would take a distant back seat.

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The Vancouver Canucks hold a moment of silence prior to their game with the Florida Panthers on the night of the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

On Wednesday, the Panthers, much like myself and my family got the news from afar. The team was on the second stop of their Western Canadian tour. They were diagonally across North America in Vancouver when the story broke. Many of the Florida Panthers and their staff live in and around Parkland. The BB&T Center in Sunrise, the Panthers home, is a stone’s throw south along the Sawgrass Expressway from Stoneman Douglas High School. The team’s practice facility is located in the neighboring town of Coral Springs.

Not only did the Panthers show up to the Rogers Arena in Vancouver that night, they won a very big game in the standings. Stops in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto awaited the team before being able to head home and tend to the community. The NHL being a big family supported the traveling Cats. Moments of silence were held in both Calgary and Toronto in addition to the one in Vancouver.

So here’s why I didn’t publish on Wednesday. The Panthers were due to return home this past Thursday. I am a Florida Panthers season ticket holder, so I decided to return with a chronicle of Thursday night’s events.

Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and the Washington Capitals was played in an atmosphere unlike any other hockey game I have ever attended. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the BB&T Center, there is a huge plaza located outside of the arena. On game nights, the plaza, known as the Jet Blue Runway is usually abuzz with music and games. It was relatively quiet on this night outside the arena. The three massive flagpoles that normally proudly fly the American flag, the Florida State flag, and the Florida Panthers flag were eerily at half mast. The only sounds were made by fans chattering and BB&T Center staff directing people and announcing the building’s security policies.

When I got inside I was greeted by a combination of Stoneman Douglas students and Panthers cheerleaders donning Stoneman Douglas t-shirts. My usual next stop was the team’s 50/50 raffle. Tonight the proceeds of the raffle would go to the MSD Fund to aid the victims. With the help of the NHL the jackpot soared to over $97,000! There was also a silent auction, a separate donation booth, and a blood drive being held.

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Panthers star goaltender, and Parkland resident Roberto Luongo addresses the crowd at the BB&T Center and everywhere else where people were watching, 2/22/18.

The victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting’s names are projected onto the BB&T Center ice during a stirring pre-game ceremony.

The pregame ceremony was one that will stay with me for a very long time, possibly for as long as I live. It opened with a video depicting all seventeen victims, one at a time, on the giant video board at center ice. Panthers broadcaster Randy Moeller was the emcee of an emotional, tear-jerking program that featured the victims names projected onto the ice. Moeller’s portion of the ceremony ended with him asking the crowd to pause for silent devotion, during which the arena went dark.

Following the devotion time, Panthers’ goaltender Roberto Luongo skated from the bench to the ice. I thought that he was leading the team onto the ice and that the ceremony was over. Boy was I wrong! Luongo took to the mic and addressed the crowd. The Parkland resident and future Hall of Famer choked back tears as he told all that were listening that he has been a resident for 12 years and will continue to live there the rest of his life. He wrapped up his remarks by telling Parkland residents that the Panthers organization is there for anything anyone in the community needs.

The Panthers did a great job of rallying around the South Florida community on Thursday night. One thing that seemed very strange was the absence of advertisements. The usual advertisements along the boards and on the scoreboard were replaced by MSD Stong signs. The Panthers organization made it clear that this was a night for healing and remembrance.

Then came the game itself. Luongo fresh off the emotional speech in the pre-game ceremony, was dominant. He stopped 33 of 35 shots in the game, including a first period in which he admitted later on that he wasn’t in the zone. I certainly didn’t notice.

Panthers’ rookie Maxim Mamin scored his first NHL goal to open the scoring on this emotional night. Florida captain (and Parkland resident) Derek MacKenzie energized the already emotional crowd when he mixed it up with Brooks Orpick.

Washington took a 2-1 lead into the third period. Florida seemed like they just couldn’t solve Capital goaltender Braden Holtby through most of the final stanza. Then it happened!

It is on nights like this that the unexpected tends to happen. What began to unfold late in the third period brought me back to a late September night in New York’s Shea Stadium in 2001. With about four minutes left in the game Aleksander Barkov took the puck from around the center ice area and skated through what seemed to be the entire Capitals lineup (I’m sure that I’m exaggerating). Barkov fired a shot that deflected off of the skate of Nick Bjugstad and into the net! The BB&T Center was electric!, can they pull this off in overtime?

Keep that night in New York aside for a moment. With 52 seconds remaining in the third period, Washington’s Lars Eller was called for an interference penalty. The Panthers power play had been on a tear through most of the Canadian road swing. The power play unit made history on this night.

In 2001, at Shea Stadium in New York, the Mets hosted the first sporting event in the city since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That game ended with the now iconic walk off home run by Mike Piazza to defeat the Atlanta Braves. On this night in Sunrise, at the first sporting event in Broward County since the tragedy in Parkland, the Florida Panthers did the same thing.

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Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck scores the winning goal with 18.7 seconds remaining to defeat the Washington Capitals during the first sporting event in Broward County following the shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

With time running out in regulation defenseman Keith Yandle fed Jonathan Huberdeau in the Washington zone. Huberdeau would shoot the puck which was deflected into the net by Vincent Trocheck with 18.7 seconds remaining! The Florida Panthers, down 2-1 with a little more than three minutes left on the clock, would not be denied! What a night for South Florida! What a night for Parkland!

Much like Mike Piazza’s heroics in 2001 was a shot in the arm for all New Yorkers, Trocheck’s goal was just as strong for South Florida. It capped the longest, strangest road home for the Panthers. It gave all of those associated with the Parkland school something to cheer about. I’ll never forget the release I felt when that puck went past Holtby and into the net. It was unlike any goal I’ve ever witnessed, including Bob Nystrom’s overtime goal that won the New York Islanders their first ever Stanley Cup. It truly went beyond hockey. It was a notice to a community. It was a temporary escape from a dark reality.

There is an organization located not far from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that is near and dear to me and my family. They have helped Robin and I tremendously in dealing with our grief. The Bobby Resciniti Healing Hearts Foundation is an organization that helps families that have lost children. I don’t know where my family would be without them in dealing with Justin’s loss. The tragedy in Parkland has left 17 families in the same position. Resciniti and his staff have already gotten the ball rolling in welcoming those directly affected by the shooting on February 14th. To me, grief counselling is an essential part of the healing process, and the Healing Hearts staff are the best there is.

I dedicate this article to many people. I know this has been a long blog but please bear with me. First off I dedicate this to all 17 victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I further dedicate this to my son Justin Karpel who passed away exactly one year prior to the shooting. I also dedicate this to the following angels who are with the victims as well as my son, they are Stevie, Matthew, Paul, Nikayla, Christina, and Domenic.

HAS AMERICA’S SPECTACLE LOST ITS LUSTER?

So here we are again on the first Sunday in February. It’s America’s unofficial party holiday, the junk-food and wing fest known as Super Bowl Sunday.

I would like to begin by wishing both the Eagles and Patriots luck as they square off tonight at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. This is the tropical paradise known as Minnesota’s second time around as Super Bowl hosts. Minneapolis became the first northern venue to host the NFL showcase when the Metrodome (which stood on the same ground) hosted Super Bowl 26 in 1992. The Redskins defeated the Bills in that game.

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US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis will be the backdrop for Super Bowl 52.

Over the past two weeks I have witnessed an interesting phenomenon among football fans. I like to refer to it as football fans becoming Patweary. Yes, outside of the corridor that runs from Maine to Connecticut known as New England, America has grown tired of the success of the New England Patriots.

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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been the cornerstones of the New England Patriots since 2001.

Many teams, in many sports, have dominated over extended periods of time. None more than baseball’s New York Yankees or hockey’s Montreal Canadiens. However, what the New England Patriots have accomplished is so staggering, frankly, America has grown tired of it.

Bill Belichick was hired by Patriots owner Robert Kraft following the 2000 season. Tom Brady was forced into action early in the 2001 campaign due to a season ending injury to Drew Bledsoe. The rest of the story continues to amaze, and annoy many. Under Belichick’s leadership, and Brady’s quarterbacking, the Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl in 2001. Since the two have been together, New England has missed the post-season twice (2002 & 2008). They have appeared in 8 Super Bowls (including today) and have won five of them (pending today’s results).

The Philadelphia Eagles will have their second Super Bowl shot at the Patriots today. Brady and Belichick’s Patriots defeated an Eagles team led by Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl 39 by the score of 24-21.

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The Patriots and Eagles met in Super Bowl 39. New England won 24-21.

So here’s where Patweariness comes into play. As the Patriots finished up their AFC Championship victory with a late touchdown, the rumblings began. The Jacksonville Jaguars led, even dominated New England throughout most of the contest. The Patriots were called for a grand total of 1 penalty. 1 penalty in a hard-fought conference championship game? Seems odd to myself and many other football fans outside of New England! There were questionable calls on Jacksonville at some key moments during the game as well. Combine that with a questionable call in a late season game with the eventual second seeded Pittsburgh Steelers that cost Pittsburgh the number one seed, there are many questions by fans outside of the extreme Northeast.

Have the Patriots earned the right to get these calls? Have the officials helped the Brady and Belichick Show along the way? There is no way to know for sure, and it would be irresponsible of me to comment on it either way. What I will say is, among many avid football fans there is a tone of, well Patweariness going around. Many have said they will skip tonight’s game with the notion that “the Patriots are going to win anyway!”

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The World Champion 2008 Phillies were the last team from Philadelphia to win a major championship. They would win the National League Championship the following year and lose to the Yankees in the World Series.

I for one, WILL be watching tonight’s proceedings. One thing the world of sports theater has taught me, is nothing is for certain. The flip-side of the ho-humness of another potential Patriots Super Bowl victory is the fact that the Eagles are back for the first time since Super Bowl 39 in 2005. The last time the City of Brotherly Love had a championship to get excited about was in 2009 when the Phillies lost the World Series to another dominant franchise, the New York Yankees. The Phillies did bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy the year before that.

Here’s hoping that the Eagles put a fly in the ointment tonight. Here’s a fun fact about the Patriots,New England has faced one opponent in their incredible Super Bowl run more than once. They faced the New York Giants in Super Bowls 42 & 44. The Patriots lost them both. Can they pull off a second win against the Eagles? Will the NFC East spoil another New England Chowder Fest this year? Please tune in tonight, and stay away from Patweariness!

WELCOME TO THE HALLOWED HALL

I would like to open this morning’s article by offering my heartiest congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots for winning their respective conference championships. Here’s hoping for a good, close match-up next week. Oh, and by the way, this writer will be pulling for the Eagles!

I now offer a break in the action on this non-football Sunday (the Pro Bowl doesn’t count). I bring you a mid-winter baseball break!

On Wednesday night the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum announced its class of 2018. As a result of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s annual vote, the Hall of Fame will welcome Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Trevor Hoffman, and Vladimir Guerrero this July. These players join Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, who were elected by the Veterans Committee last month.

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Trevor Hoffman was the first closer to reach both the 500 and 600 save plateau.

Trevor Hoffman broke in with the inaugural edition of the Florida Marlins in 1993. He was dealt to the San Diego Padres in June of that first season in exchange for Gary Sheffield. As a Marlins fan I was thrilled about the trade. Sheffield would become a key piece of Florida’s 1997 World Championship, and it looked like they got him for “mere prospects.”

Hoffman would spend the next fifteen seasons in San Diego and become one of the most storied players in Padres history. Trevor would rack up 552 of his 601 career saves in a Padres uniform, including his 500th save in 2007. He would finish his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 where he notched his 600th career save.

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Vladimir Guerrero will be the first Hall of Fame inductee to be depicted in a Los Angeles Angels cap.

When I wrote last year’s edition of this blog, I touted Tim Raines as the last of a breed from yesteryear. It looked to me at the time that Raines would be the last member of the Montreal Expos to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was wrong, well sort of. Vladimir Guerrero broke in with the Montreal Expos late in the 1996 season. Guerrero spent seven years in an Expos uniform before signing on to play with the then Anaheim Angels. Here’s the “sort of” part, Guerrero announced this week that he will be depicted as a member of the Angels on his plaque in Cooperstown. So it looks like Raines will be the final member of the Expos to be enshrined in the Hallowed Hall.

Guerrero would spend six seasons in Southern California before finishing his career as a member of the Texas Rangers in 2010 and the Baltimore Orioles in 2011. Vladimir was a .318 lifetime hitter, he blasted 449 career home runs and drove in 1496 runs.

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Jim Thome finished his storied career with 612 home runs.

Jim Thome enjoyed success in three different markets. He broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1991, and became a main cog on a team that won American League championships in 1995 and 1997. Thome would hit over 40 home runs three times during his tenure in Cleveland, including a career high 52 in 2002.

Thome signed on with the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2003 season. Thome would only be in the City of Brotherly Love for three years, but he became one of the most popular members of the Phillies. Thome lead the National League with 47 homers in 2003, and followed that up with a 42 home run year in 2004. The Phillies dealt Thome to the White Sox following an injury riddled 2005 campaign.

Thome’s production would pick back up in Chicago following that 2005 season. In his first year with the White Sox, Thome hit 42 homers and knocked in 109 runs. In his three plus years in Chicago, Thome would smack 134 total home runs. Jim would finish his career with stints in both Cleveland and Philadelphia in 2011 and 2012 while also spending time with the Dodgers and Twins. Thome wrapped up his career as a member of the Baltimore Orioles in 2012.

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Chipper Jones spent his entire career with the Atlanta Braves.

Chipper Jones accomplished something that is a rarity in modern professional sports. In an era where money talks and players often chase the dollar bill to other teams, Jones spent his entire 20 year career with the Atlanta Braves.

A member of the 1995 World Championship team in his rookie year, Jones became a fixture in Atlanta. He would finish his career with a batting average of .303, 468 home runs and 1623 RBI. Chipper’s most productive year was as a member of the National League Champions in 1999. Jones hit 45 round-trippers, while driving in 110 runs and hitting .319. In 2008 Jones was the National League Batting Champion when he hit .364.

Although the quartet of Jones, Thome, Guerrero, and Hoffman grabbed this week’s headlines, I believe the Veterans Committee also got it right this year. In my opinion both Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were way overdue for their calls from the Hall.

Congratulations to the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2018!

MIRACLES OF THE GRIDIRON

“Do you believe in miracles?….Yes!”- Al Michaels

All of us who were around during the 1980 Winter Olympics remember this iconic call by Al Michaels. He proclaimed this as the USA Men’s Hockey team defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union. Although this article is not about hockey, the quote is a perfect lead-in.

For those of you who may have been out of touch with the sports world late last Sunday afternoon, let me fill you in. In the last of the weekend’s divisional playoff games, the Minnesota Vikings hosted the New Orleans Saints.

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Minnesota Vikings’ Stefon Diggs reels in a pass from quarterback Case Keenum on the last play of a stunning 29-24 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints.

The game seemed like it was going to be uneventful at the end of the first half. The Vikings led the Saints by the score of 17-0 at the break. Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees led a roaring comeback in the second half. The future Hall of Famer threw three touchdown passes including a go-ahead strike to Alvin Kamara with three minutes remaining. The Vikings took back the lead with a field goal with 1:29 remaining. New Orleans responded with a field goal of their own a mere 64 seconds later. This set the stage for a miraculous ending.

The Saints field goal left the Vikings with only 25 seconds on the clock. With New Orleans clinging to a 24-23 lead, everyone in the football world was thinking the same thing. Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum needed to get his offense into field goal range. With ten seconds remaining, and the Vikings on their own 39 yard line, it happened!

Keenum threw a desparate sideline pass to receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs caught the pass with two Saints’ defenders near him. The New Orleans defenders collided, and one actually missed tackling Diggs. Diggs struggled to stay in bounds, but got himself together and ran untouched into the end zone for the game winning touchdown!

What has come to be known as the Minnesota Miracle, conjured up thoughts of other unlikely events in the annals of the NFL Playoffs.

The first of two such stunning events occurred on January 8, 2000. In a wild card playoff contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans, the football world witnessed another shocking ending.

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Tennessee Titans’ Frank Wycheck throws a lateral pass to Kevin Dyson on the final play of an AFC wild card playoff game, January 8, 2000.

In a close contest, the Bills had taken a 16-15 lead with sixteen seconds remaining on the clock. The ensuing kickoff return turned out to be legendary.

Following his go-ahead field goal, Buffalo kicker Steve Christie kicked the ball to the Tennessee 24 yard line. Lorenzo Neal fielded the ball and handed off to Frank Wycheck. With the Bills pursuing him, the Titans’ tight end turned return man threw the ball to Kevin Dyson (normally a wide receiver). With most of the Bills kicking team on the tails of Wycheck, Dyson scampered 75 yards for a game winning touchdown! To this day, this unbelievable finish is known as the Music City Miracle.

Perhaps the most famous miraculous play in NFL Playoff history happened in Pittsburgh on December 23, 1972.

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Steelers’ RB Franco Harris grabs a ball deflected by Raiders defender Jack Tatum and teammate Frenchie Fuqua. Harris would take the ball to the end zone for a game winning touchdown.

With 30 seconds remaining in a divisional playoff game, the Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders by the score of 7-6. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw attempted to hit John “Frenchie” Fuqua with a pass. The ball deflected off of Fuqua, and Raider defender Jack Tatum in what seemed to be an incomplete pass. Steelers’ running back Franco Harris appeared to come out of nowhere and scooped the ball up before it hit the ground. Harris ran the ball to the end zone to cap a 13-7 Pittsburgh victory!

There is still some controversy surrounding the play that has become known as the “Immaculate Reception.” It has been questioned whether or not the ball actually deflected off of Tatum. The NFL rules at the time mandated that a ball could not be deflected from one offensive player to another. If it is tipped by the defense, in between it is still a live ball. We will never know the actual answer to this. Even in the current era of reviewing replay, there is not enough evidence to overturn the call on the field.

With the conference championship games coming up this afternoon and evening, will there be another miracle?

CHAMPIONS, COACHES, AND ICONIC VOICES

Since last weekend, so much has happened on both the college and professional gridirons.

First and foremost, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to the football program at the University of Alabama.  I may not agree on how Alabama landed in the National Championship Game, but Nick Saban’s boys took the opportunity and ran with it (or should I say passed with it!).  I would be remiss if I didn’t also congratulate the University of Georgia’s football program.  The Bulldogs won arguably the greatest Rose Bowl Game in its storied history, and came within an overtime drive of winning the National Championship.

 

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The University of Alabama football team celebrates winning the National Championship.

 

Many would compare the Crimson Tide’s rebound from a 20-7 deficit to the Patriots Super Bowl comeback last year.  A comparison of this year’s Bulldogs can be made to last year’s Falcons.  Two teams that happen to hail from Georgia, who were dominant through most of their schedule both came up a dollar short.

Freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will forever be etched in Alabama lore for his championship winning 41 yard bomb to DeVonta Smith.  Lost in the pass heard around Tuscaloosa, is Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship’s go-ahead 51 yard field goal that gave Georgia the lead.  It was certainly a championship game for the ages.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has now won six National Championships in his storied career, hat’s off to a true college football legend.  Saban’s accomplishments leads me to my next topic.

As the college kids were finishing their season, the professionals began the quest for the Super Bowl   To me, the biggest story of last week’s Wild Card round was the collapse of the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

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Does Andy Reid’s post-season history measure up to the likes of Bud Grant and Marv Levy?

 

While hosting the sixth seeded Tennessee Titans, the Chiefs led 21-3 at halftime.  With six-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third quarter, the collapse began.  The Titans would score their first touchdown of the game, this would be the first of 19 unanswered points.  The Titans eliminated the Chiefs by the score of 22-21.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is no stranger to playoff losses.  Reid did lead the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl 39.  His lone appearance in the NFL championship resulted in a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots.  Reid has had numerous playoff appearances both in Philadelphia and Kansas City but all of them have ended in disappointment.

Do we dare put Andy Reid in the company of Marv Levy and Bud Grant?

Many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s remember Bud Grant.  Grant was the head coach of a Minnesota Vikings team that featured Fran Tarkenton as a scrambling quarterback and the “Purple People Eaters” defense.  This edition of the Vikings played outdoors at frigid Metropolitan Stadium, where Grant refused to let his team sit on heated benches.  The Vikings would appear in four of the first eleven Super Bowls and manage to lose all of them.

Those of us who are a little younger might remember the Super Bowl run of the Buffalo Bills in the early to mid 1990’s.  Marv Levy was the head coach of a Bills team that featured Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith.  This edition of the Bills won four straight AFC Championship games.  This squad also managed to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.

So where would you rank Andy Reid?  Both Levy and Grant have gotten to the big show multiple times, and in all fairness Reid’s career isn’t over yet.

 

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The legendary Dick Enberg with his long-time sidekick Merlin Olsen.

 

While I was on hiatus over the holidays, the sports world lost a broadcast icon.  On December 21 Dick Enberg was found dead in his California home.  He was supposed to be on a flight to Boston, and his family was concerned when he didn’t get off the airplane.

Those of us who grew up in the 1970’s remember the game show “Sports Challenge” that aired on Saturday afternoons.  This was how Mr. Enberg entered the broadcast spotlight.  He was the baseball voice of the California Angels, and finished his broadcasting career as the voice of the San Diego Padres.   He was also the long-time voice of UCLA Basketball.  In between, his calming demeanor and velvet voice was heard on national television broadcasting the NFL, Wimbledon, the French Open, countless golf tournaments, NCAA basketball, Major League Baseball’s Game of the Week, and the Olympics.  Enberg also called eight Super Bowls.   His catch phrase “Oh My!” will never be forgotten.

Mr. Enberg was a big literary influence on me.  I tend to hear the smooth tones of his voice as I write, much like I can hear the voice of Vin Scully.  Rest in peace, Mr. Enberg, and thank you.

 

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Keith Jackson was the voice of college football.

 

Yesterday morning, the sports world got some more sad news.  On the heels of the loss of Dick Enberg, we lost Keith Jackson.  Saturday afternoon in the fall meant the high energy tones of Mr. Jackson.  Keith Jackson’s iconic voice dominated the college football airways in an era when ABC Sports was the home of college football (although CBS was network #2).  Mr. Jackson was the original voice on ABC’s Monday Night Football, and was a mainstay on ABC’s Major League Baseball coverage. Like Enberg, Mr. Jackson was also seen during the Olympics.   I can never look at a big play (such as Tua Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass on Monday night) without hearing Jackson proclaiming “Whoa Nellie!”  Rest in peace Mr. Jackson, the sports world will never be the same without you.