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From the world press, 5/30/06
Divine comedy: a Nigerian experiment in state distribution of zakkat, the mandatory Islamic tithe for the poor, turns into just another welfare program
Gerontology watch: meet Maria Capovilla of Quito. She appears to be in pretty good health, considering that she is the last living human born in the 1880s. -4:16 am, May 29
Oilers-Ducks, Game Five
Do you know what the funny thing is? At the outset of the playoff tournament, my main thought about the Oilers was, without a word of alteration: "I don't think these guys are getting to the Stanley Cup final, but if they could skip straight to it, I sure wouldn't bet against them."
The unlikelihood of the Oilers winning the conference continues to be overstated because of their #8 conference seed. Yes, they're the first such team to go to the final, but the writing was on the wall early and informed fans have been gesturing towards it all along. The top three teams in the West, points-wise, were Detroit, Dallas, and Nashville. Dallas went 12-1 in the shootout, and Detroit and Nashville were two-fifths of a horrible division. Basically the Oilers were a 95-point team--one that had improved itself, dramatically and indisputably, at the deadline--in a universe of teams worth no more than about 100. Which of their playoff opponents haven't the Oilers outplayed pretty convincingly, especially on the technical side? Detroit had help from the referees in taking the Oilers to six; they were able, without leaving the matter in suspense too long, to annul San Jose's formidable attack; and only a bout of flu that decimated the roster and that had Dwayne Roloson vomiting between periods of Game Four ruined my prediction of a sweep against Anaheim. (Fine, the prediction was wrong; the underlying sentiment about which team was better, and by how much, was right on the money.)
So there's a curious sort of looking-glass separating Edmonton hockey fans from the rest of the league. The world is perhaps not yet convinced that the Oilers are a good team. Edmonton always knew the Oilers were good, but after the single most exasperating regular season in franchise history, we needed to be convinced that they wanted to win. Well, we know it now.
Perhaps I was predisposed to see things this way, but I felt that the Oilers last night followed my recipe for victory pretty closely, keeping their sticks on the ice on defence and bottling up the middle. Anaheim had grown too comfortable with the centring pass, and obligingly presented us with the spectacle of Scott Niedermayer and others continually skating down the wing unobstructed and refusing to take the first shot. After a while Roloson wasn't even bothering to wait the puck-carrier out. The Ducks took longer than Detroit and San Jose to basically give up against the Oilers' frustrating trap-and-counterpunch game, but give up they did. After arranging things Thursday night to give us the rare spectacle of a thirty-second three-on-three game of pond-surface shinny, the refs created another weird scenario last night, allowing Randy Carlyle to pull his goalie with a two-man advantage at 17:42 of the third. It's been a long time since I've seen a three-on-three, but I don't know that I've ever seen a six-on-three. In fairness to Carlyle and the Ducks, there is nothing in The Book telling a coach how to handle a six-on-three power play. But if there were such a chapter, it would probably say three things: (1) don't waste a bunch of time cycling the puck around when you have twice as many skaters as the other guy; (2) don't just leave your extra three men standing around next to the short-side goalpost scratching their asses; (3) you'd better score in that situation or you're going to look awfully stupid. Especially if the best defenceman on the planet is one of the players sitting in the other team's penalty box.
I have no idea who the Oilers are going to face next, no bold predictions or wisdom to offer. I had watched the Ducks a lot against Calgary, which is how I knew they weren't going to present more than a temporary challenge against a real team. All I know about Buffalo and Carolina at this point is that they're machines with major missing components. I know the rest that the Oilers have earned is a good thing. I know that I underestimate the quality of Eastern Conference hockey every year going into the final; I've been burned by that kind of presumption two years running and I'm not going to repeat it. I know that whoever survives the Sabres-Canes melée is more likely to underestimate Edmonton than Edmonton is to underestimate either of its possible opponents. I know Ryan Miller still frightens me. I know that an Oilers victory would infuriate all the right people, from Tom Benjamin (who already hardly knows whether to shit or go blind) to CalgaryPuck.com. I know that my franchise has a 5-1 record in the Stanley Cup final, has won the 5 since it lost the 1, and possesses every possible institutional secret that can be communicated in words to the players.
And I know that we fans have all already spent every mite of the treasury of merit we accrued following a mediocre hockey team for 15 seasons. It's an axiom of the Canadian civil religion that the Stanley Cup is a living thing; let's hope that, like all life, it knows its own.
From the world press, 5/27/06
The mood is optimistic in Herceg-Novi, the Montenegrin town that was ground-zero of last weekend's secession referendum
Oilers-Ducks, Game Four
Well, there goes the sweep. This, by the way, is the cue for a vicious self-induced psychic backlash on the part of the Oiler nation: Oh my God! What were we thinking? We got overconfident! I should never have trimmed my playoff beard! We're totally screwed! Why did we have to have a parade? That was just asking for trouble! We're gonna go on that stupid list with the '42 Wings and the '75 Pens! I'm going to go hang myself on Whyte Avenue!
The unearthly nature of the game makes the pill harder to swallow. Lots of weird things happened tonight: because the refs forgot to take their meds, the teams actually skated three-on-three for 30 seconds in the second period, which I don't think I've seen since they abandoned the Edmonton Rule about coincidental minors. Jaroslav Spacek* scored an own goal, which wouldn't be weird except that he scored it because for once he was actually performing his defensive responsibilities correctly and picking up Todd Marchant at the goalmouth. There were something like six five-on-threes in the game. Dozens of obvious penalties went uncalled, yet dozens more were called that seemed to relate to events in a game played in a galaxy far, far away. (This isn't homerism talking: on net, I'd say the Oilers benefited from the Gawd-awful reffing.) Georges Laraque scored a goal--that was pretty strange, although enjoyable. The Oilers, who gave up only 25 shots in an average game this year, gave up 25 shots in the first period. Dwayne Roloson and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who on the basis of their resumes have to be considered two of the top playoff workhorses in the game, both looked careless at times. (Roloson actually outduelled Giguere, making 40 of 45 saves to Giguere's 20/23.)
But for all that the game resembled one long, grotesque hallucination, what you see when you break it down on paper isn't especially surprising. The Ducks are packed with blooming offensive talent, and the Oilers, like the proprietor of a backwoods meth lab, finally took an explosion full in the face. Edmonton is now 1-1 since they were stricken by a terrible strain of flu; anybody who tries to use this datum to impugn their character, especially after their ferocious comeback in the second period, should check his premises. The one person I'd be tempted to criticize would be Coach MacTavish. This is not to say that the man's undone all his fine work this playoff year, by any means, but he made a foreseeable error: he made a big deal between games about keeping healthy players in the lineup, then tried to bushwhack the Ducks by benching Toby Petersen and Todd Harvey and starting a ravaged Raffi Torres and an ice-cold Radek Dvorak. (The pair was a combined -2 tonight.) In the end he may have caught his own club off-guard instead. I know there's no substitute for talent, but Dvorak's useless if he's not scoring, which he hasn't been doing for about 15 months now, and Torres obviously wasn't ready to pour his ambivalent energy into the maelstrom of the play.** He needs to be 100% healthy to be 120% Raffi.
MacTavish can fix things, and it shouldn't even be that hard. The Oilers choked up in the first period, probably because Roloson let in four in the last period Tuesday night. On defence, they were dropping to block shots early and handling attacks down the wing tentatively, exactly like they did when they were trying to play in front of the pack of bonobos we had guarding the net for 70% of the season. They just need to keep their sticks on the ice and guard against the centring pass. 50% of it is having confidence in Roloson, and 50% of it is backchecking flat-out, every time, which (because of illness or carelessness) they weren't doing in period one. You scratch that one lousy period, and this game would have been 3-2 for the Oilers going into the last two minutes.
*I don't think I've ever seen a player have as bad a playoff year as Spacek's on a team that was doing so well overall. I swear to God I've seen him make every possible kind of defensive mistake in the past two weeks. Sloppy pinching? Check. Ill-chosen first pass? Check. Overcommitting to the showy body-check against a fast, elusive winger? Check. Backchecking in the wrong lane? Check. Dumb penalties? Check, several times over. Screening out your own goalie? Checkaroonie.
**Don Cherry, who has been mostly incomprehensible this playoff year when he hasn't been busy wearing Hurricanes paraphernalia at Oiler games or skullfucking martyred cops and soldiers, redeemed himself somewhat by finding images of Torres looking like a zombie at today's practice. The shot of Harvey falling apart when MacTavish told him he wouldn't dress was pretty impressive, too. Grapes, we like watching you berate CBC technicians and stuff (thank God someone does it), but telling us something we didn't already know is what you're actually paid for. When you're on your game, you do it quite a lot; when you don't do it, you play into the hands of your critics. Got it?
[Admin note: non-hockey blogging has been scarce here, partly because, hello, the Edmonton Oilers are on the verge of the Stanley Cup final, and partly because I did have a few deadlines to meet this week. My desk is now clear until Sunday or thereabouts--please be sure to snag Friday morning's National Post for a new column from me.]
Mere days ago much of Finland was mourning the fact that its Eurovision Song Contest entrant, Lordi, was a hair-metal group parading around in GWAR-inspired mufti. In the semifinal, the geniuses behind The Monstamerican Dream set the Greek crowd and Europe's bettors on their ears. Lo and behold, on Friday Lordi won the whole goddamn competition with a record-smashing score. As a pummelled continent grovels before its new overlords, Evan Kirchhoff has the best roundup of links. See you in Helsinki. -7:15 am, May 24
Oilers-Ducks, Game Three
I have officially run out of ways to tell you what this is like. I left the house tonight to watch the game, feeling chastened, small, and slow--still leaching cold sweat from the same weekend flu that threatened to head off the Edmonton Oilers' resplendent Russian novel of a playoff run. My spirit was, in a word, situated perfectly to serve as a vessel for the ice-blue ecstasy of tonight's game. The play was almost beside the point, even in the third period, when both teams seemed to forget the business at hand and let fate punctuate freely. In truth, the series was finally decided before the drop of the puck, during the incomparable performance of twin national anthems--the American, which the Edmonton fans continue to cheer (unnoticed by the sporting press) with only the tiniest trace of base irony, and the Canadian, sung a cappella by 17,000 or so management accountants and plumber's apprentices and medical transcriptionists and retired nurses in strange wigs. When Paul Lorieau finished the first verse and turned the performance over to the city--this unbeautiful collision of transients trapped in the bend of an icy river, a proto-globalist afterthought never finished as a work of art until tonight--I knew what Jorge Luis Borges had meant when he awoke from his grief on a morning in 1944, saw the streets packed with neighbours he had all but forgotten, and heard that Paris had been not only freed but saved intact in the freeing. That day, he wrote, I learned that a collective emotion can be noble.
I hope you saw it; I'll never forget Ilya Bryzgalov's sheepish, nervous grin as he listened to the battle hymn, nor how his team fought and nearly triumphed despite being outnumbered by hundreds to one. It's notable that the wild violence of the first period, in which the Ducks tried futilely to fight back against the voices with their fists, was obviously stage-managed by Todd Marchant. It didn't work, but what else did they have left? Marchant is a former Oiler; though on the opposite side, he was only doing what he had done for us, against similar odds, a hundred times before. He's as tough and salty as a slab of horsemeat jerked under a Mongol saddle. I still miss the guy. He'll die with his boots on. On Thursday.
Oilers-Ducks, Game Two
I suppose the whole point of sports fandom is to participate vicariously in the experience of the players, but this is definitely taking a metaphor too far. There's been a flu circulating around the city for the past ten days or so--when I went to a north-side bank late yesterday morning, I noticed that corners usually alive with the sounds of stabbings and crackhead monologues looked like footage from The Omega Man. Early Sunday afternoon the Oilers began to report flu symptoms: Torres and Bergeron, key pieces in the playoff puzzle, barricaded themselves into Anaheim hotel rooms, while Shawn Horcoff, our number-one centre, looked paler than Mike Winters' bar-napkin portrait of him. Captain Jason Smith had gotten sick late in the Friday game, so he was relatively recovered and ready to start--but for safety's sake the Oilers were forced to dress and skate AHL centre Toby "Future Trivia Question" Petersen.
I fell discernibly ill with (presumably) the same flu at about 2 p.m. and spent the afternoon basically lapsing in and out of consciousness--when not trapped in the bathroom, or gulping acetaminophen to control the fever. My attention to the game, I'm afraid, wasn't the keenest ("Why is Jarret Stoll wearing a beard of snakes?"). Only the thought that "If they can play it, I can damn well watch it" kept me upright. If my peculiar nemesis is to suffer in victory, so be it. I'll tolerate it without complaint and keep taking fluids. Weblogging will be light for the next 24-36 hours.
[P.S.: What did I tell you? Oilers in four. Not kidding around about this. If it happens, I want a statue in Churchill Square. I'm a modest man, you guys can keep it to life-size.]
Oilers-Ducks, Game One
It seems as though I created a certain amount of discomfort between rounds in the Heartland of Hockey by publicly predicting an Oilers sweep of the Ducks. To date the opinion leadership of the Oilers fan-base has been walking on eggshells and policing itself viciously for errors of hubris and other categories of blasphemy. I've even fielded karmic queries from readers ("I've been drinking out of the same mug since the playoffs started--am I allowed to wash it?"), although Sacamano is widely considered the senior judge on such matters. With a million Oilheads carefully cultivating leg hair or dutifully singing the national anthem backwards in French before every game, there has been intense social pressure not to come out and express overconfidence in the Oilers. If they lose, my house is likely to be burnt and ploughed under and the lot sown with salt.
But if it is a religious error to defy the gods, history shows that it is a far worse mistake to cower before them: we were fashioned, after all, to stand upright. My Oilers-in-four prediction is a genuine, rational belief--though it is also an act of karmic judo--and it was rewarded with a victory Friday night that is likely to bring fans of all stripes around to my position.
A determined skeptic would point out that the Oilers scored only two goals in earnest on Friday (the third was an empty-netter). The first came on a trick play, when we suddenly discovered why Dwayne Roloson practices batting the puck up-ice; Roloson found Mike Peca behind all five Ducks skaters in the neutral zone and volleyed the disc to a position that allowed Peca to snatch it, break in alone, and shovel the puck neatly through the "red-hot" Ilya Bryzgalov's five-hole, practically grazing his protective cup. If you weren't amazed by Roloson before (it's been about three weeks since he gave up a bad goal), ask yourself how many offensive innovations you've seen made by goaltenders in the third round of the Stanley Cup tournament. And it was Peca's second breakaway goal in two games, each one aimed perfectly at the right place on the Shooter Tutor. The second goal of the night was Ales Hemsky's, batted out of the air into an open net and upheld (correctly) on a video review of Hemsky's stick position.
Neither goal was a fluke, exactly, but the Ducks fan could argue that neither is likely to be repeated. This is quite correct. But then, the Ducks' own sole tally was far more bizarre--a shot from the circle that was deflected high on an attempted block by captain Jason Smith, rang off the crossbar, and plunked downward behind Roloson. Aside from that goal, the Ducks had few serious chances. Indeed, it was apparent seconds into the play that the game was likely to be a mere continuation of the Oilers-Sharks series, with its poor ice conditions in both cities and with increasing desperation by the enemy offence creating more and more opportunities for odd-man rushes by the Oilers. On the verge of June, conditions favour the team that makes fewer mistakes. You tell me who's going to make more in the next three games: Roloson, Pronger, Peca, Smyth, Smith, Staios, and company? Or that gang of junior callups on the other side? Scott Niedermayer is a fun player to watch, and he got more Norris votes than Pronger, but which one plays the technically tighter game? Not a hard question for any serious hockey fan. Francois Beauchemin is a tough, sophisticated defenceman who has suddenly made a reputation for himself in this playoff year--I will always admire him for answering Iginla's ostentatious call-out in the first round and sending Iggy back to the bench with an innovative new head configuration--but do a lot of teams win Stanley Cups with 26-year-old NHL rookies playing 28 minutes a night?
The fact is this: if you reverse-engineer the Ducks they look exactly like a team that was designed to "shock" a couple of overrated teams in the early round and then expire gracefully. Bryzgalov isn't the first goalie to look like a sudden genius playing against the Flames offence, and Joffrey Lupul isn't the first kid to discover that Rob Blake and Jose Theodore ain't what they used to be. Meanwhile, the Oilers have been winning in every possible circumstance. They've been winning on fast ice and in blade-deep slush. They've been winning the firewagon end-to-end games and the tight defensive battles. They've been winning on the road and at home. They've been winning with the lead and winning from behind. The one player they couldn't stop was Zetterberg, and they beat the Wings in six anyway. Trap them, and they'll dump the puck and beat you to it. Throw everybody forward and try to chase Roloson, and you'll go home frustrated. And unlike Anaheim, they haven't ever counted on one player to pick them up and carry them: somebody different steps up for them every night. And sometimes, like on Friday, they're just a little bit better back-to-front in a boring, slow, difficult, grinding game. I can live with it.
Just because I think a sweep is the most likely outcome doesn't mean I'm committing the religious faux pas of looking ahead. Hell, I don't especially want to look ahead: Ryan Miller scares the rented beer clean out of me. And as James Mirtle wisecracked tenebrously in a comment thread somewhere, there is a direct mathematical correspondence between the survival of the season and the health of Dwayne Roloson's adductor muscles. But barring catastrophe, remember where you read it first: the Edmonton Oilers are returning to the Stanley Cup final. And when they get there, someone's going to have to fight like a tiger to take the Cup away from this team and these fans.
From the world press, 5/19/06
IHT profiles the weird and sometimes horrible life of Yi Seok, famous Korean songwriter and legitimate heir to the country's extinct throne
Oilers-Sharks, Game Six
Before the Oilers acquired Dwayne Roloson, the one occasion on which I had taken public notice of him was on the evening of April 27, 2003, shortly after Vancouver beat the Minnesota Wild 3-2 to take a 3-1 lead in their playoff series (one they eventually relinquished).
On Ohlund's goal [Roloson] left half the door open because his whole body weight was on his right knee: it was almost touching, a hint of a lost Golden Age, to see a goalie trapped in such imperfect balance in an era when everybody's a Baryshnikov. Human, all too human! Later, as the clock was ticking, Roloson gave the puck away at the right side of the goalmouth after it took him precious seconds to decide whether he wanted to cover--and risk having his team lose another faceoff to Trevor Linden--or play it and eat valuable seconds. He played it, and was lucky to scramble back before one of the rampant Canucks took advantage of the unattended net. He ended up turtled over the puck as his teammates struggled to clear the crease of men twice their size. He looked positively prayerful, and--at a guess--probably was.
Roloson hasn't changed much since then. He's three years older. He's a little freer with his paddle on opponents' legs than I was aware of him being, and he's not above flopping around like a fish to draw a penalty. Maybe he ends the play with his ass facing outward from the net a little less often. But basically he still gives every indication of being as daft as a brush.
If you're just beginning to catch up with the Oilers, the play tonight on which Roloson shook his mask off his head for no clear reason, like a cat trying to evade a piece of Scotch tape, was not exactly abnormal for Roloson. I don't mean I'd seen him do it before--if you made a habit of this you'd need a face transplant. I just mean that with this guy you grow accustomed pretty quickly to seeing things you've never seen before. Why does Roloson sometimes show off by throwing the puck in the air and whacking it up-ice like a batting coach hitting a fungo? Why is it that before every game begins, between the anthems and the drop of the puck, he spends a few seconds bent over inside his net, remaining bizarrely still, and then glides smoothly to his place in the crease?
You've noticed how the rim of his mask and the cage are gold-coloured? You know what they used to get that effect? They used gold--the metal parts of the mask were gold-plated by its manufacturer. Roloson says he didn't have any input into the mask. So is it a coincidence that his trapper and his pads are detailed in gold colour as well? It's not one of the team's official colours, so is the substance somehow totemistic for Roloson? Is he professing encoded Austrian School or Randian sympathies?
There are few clues in Roloson's background--only, perhaps, more puzzles. He shares the same origin story as many other goaltenders: at the age of four he was maliciously pressed into service by older relatives as a road-hockey goalie. He was a star in Ontario minor hockey but tailed off into Junior B and then signed up at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell), Craig MacTavish's alma mater. Three years into his college career, the Maple Leafs--the team he'd bled for as a kid in Simcoe, Ont.--sent him an offer sheet with a startlingly high number on it. He turned them down; he wanted to finish his degree in information management systems. And so he did, before signing with the Calgary Flames.
He was good enough as a rookie in Calgary to convince the team to waive Rick Tabaracci, but Tabaracci went unclaimed and then put on a hot streak that relegated Roloson back to the #3 slot. Like about half the league's current netminders, he became a victim of sloth and regime change in Calgary. He peregrinated to Buffalo, where he backed up Hasek for a couple of Hasek's 70-start seasons. Ending up in Minnesota, he got some starts in 2003 when Manny Fernandez hurt his knee, and gradually metamorphosed into the team's 1A goalie. He actually saw more action than Fernandez in '02-'03 and '03-'04, yet right up until the Oiler trade he was still being referred to in the press as "Wild backup Dwayne Roloson." What with the four years of college and the various thankless NHL assignments in exotic corners of the universe, he's 36 now--but he's largely considered an unknown. Yet he's never been bad, anywhere. He has adapted to the changing times, originally entering the league as a throwback stand-up goalie--something no one would call him now.
Tonight, as the Oilers saw off the San Jose Sharks, Roloson got his first-ever NHL playoff shutout. He has surely got to be the oldest person to accomplish this. If anyone had deigned to draft him, his year of entry would have been 1987, the same as Chris Joseph's, Pierre Turgeon's, and Brendan Shanahan's. He is looming ever larger as the games get bigger, and it's hard to perceive that as a mere coincidence. He can't count on many more chances to carve his name on the Stanley Cup. Given a free choice, he might not have chosen the Oilers as his vehicle--but when he looks around the locker room, he can see a lightning-fast, well-drilled forward corps and a deep, meticulous defence led by one of the position's finest living expositors. I dunno: the man in the golden mask looks pretty committed to me. He looks like he's on a mission. Stay out of his way if you know what's good for you.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming in order to bring you some photojournalism
Instead of working on the world-press roundup as previously promised, I decided to go for lunch downtown and snap a few photos of the "Copper Convoy" rally, which steamed out of the Rexall Place parking lot at noon today and converged on City Hall. (Amazingly, no one was stabbed by a reveller or abused by a cop, at least as far as I could tell.) Visit my Flickr set to see how Edmontonians put the hoodoo on the San Jose Sharks mere hours before Game Six.
(You can see the photos in slideshow form here--Eric McErlain gets a hat tip because I'd forgotten that was feasible. Be sure not to miss Fish Griwkowsky's post-game photos at Covered in Oil [g5, g4].)
Corporate euphemism of the day: you're not killing a money-losing newspaper and laying off 80% of the staff--you're "keeping the best elements" of the brand! (þ: Weisblott) -10:27 am, May 17
I'm sorry, but Kiefer Sutherland needs to make up his mind. It's just too weird for him to be both the star of the most talked-about drama on TV and the most sought-after commercial voiceover in Canada. If you're watching a show on Global--like, say, House, M.D., which by the way has been on fire since Christmas--and you happen to be checking your e-mail or something during the commercials, Kiefer's voice just runs together in the background between 24 promos and buttery, seductive ad copy. The results can be... unsettling. I'm not sure this is what advertisers really want. Hang on, did he just say that new Yoplait flavour was going to kill half a million Americans? And why is he threatening to run over the Secretary of State's head with a smooth-riding Mazda Miata?
World press roundup will arrive early this afternoon, so come back for that.
Don Cherry: right before he was wrong!
Am I the only one who's noticed that, in three of Canada's four largest metropolises, hockey fans are sitting in an exhausted stupor wondering why their Swedish leader can't ever seem to get the local team to the big game? Alfredsson, Sundin, Naslund: as far as I can tell, no one has yet connected these dots.
Swedish players have long since demonstrated that you can build an NHL team around them--at least Lidstrom and Forsberg have. But given the lack of collective playoff success amongst the top Swedish NHLers this year, you'd think someone would, at the very least, suggest that a certain amount of élan got left behind in Turin. Mikael Tellqvist, handed the glory job in Toronto, transmogrified into a potted fern; Sundin, Naslund, P.J. Axelsson, and the Sedins held the playoff door open for other teams; and Lundqvist, Lidstrom, Kronwall, Forsberg, Modin, Holmstrom, and Zetterberg were all carrion ten days into the Stanley Cup tournament. As individuals, all seem blameless (Zed, for his part, was magnificent in Round One). Amongst the group, there's a weird pattern, unless I'm completely crazy. Alfredsson, who is still in the shower trying to remove Jason Pominville's tire marks, was actually the most successful Swedish player in an NHL leadership role this year with the exception, permissible under elastic definitions of "leadership", of the increasingly impressive Sami Pahlsson.
No, apparently it's unworthy of comment that something like 70% of Canada's hockey fans are simultaneously throwing darts at photos of the local Blond Beast right now. Anyway, the problem isn't a one-year thing for Canada's Big Three. You guys in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa--doesn't it strike you that you've been soul-searching for an awful long time now? Isn't there always some excuse? Obviously this tart questioning is a little unfair to Sundin: once that addled leprechaun Pat Quinn finally allowed Mats to put the Leafs on his shoulders, he carried the weight easily and put on a godlike stretch-drive display. If anyone has a right to say he's shown he wants to raise the Cup, Sundin does--unless, that is, you compare him to the people who've actually done it, or gotten within a mile of doing so. After the long years of frustration the attitude in Toronto now seems to be "Thank God we finally changed coaches--Matty should be able to push the new guy around pretty easily." Yeah, because that scenario always works out real well, fellas.
Maybe I'm not the right person to discuss this: I cheer for a team that seems to have an informal but intense bias against Swedes, even though the national hero Kenta Nilsson is our key Euro scout. The Oilers continue, without notable recent success, to follow their '80s maxim that the money is just where you'd expect it, in fins & cheques.* No doubt the fans in the three larger cities are plenty happy they've chosen to have regular-season success with Swedish leadership than to be persistently mediocre without. And then again, the emergent playoff success of the Swedophobic Oilers might be just another data point, for this year at least.
I honestly don't know what to make of it all, but the immediate answer for Ottawa, Vancouver, and Toronto seems obvious: a three-way all-Swedish blockbuster deal. They do say a change is as good as a rest.
*[WARNING: I think Jaroslav Pouzar is actually an ethnic Slovak born in northern Croatia, if you want to get technical. We didn't really keep close track of the various flavours of Commie back in the day, but then they started shooting each other and the atlases started becoming obsolete every two months...]
Oilers-Sharks Game 5
Brief tale of the tape: Oilers score one, Sharks score one. Oilers score two, Sharks score two. Oilers score three, Sharks curl up and die.
This was the first truly ugly game the Oilers have faced in the playoffs so far: the San Jose fans were merely setting the tone when they booed "O Canada" (apparently they think Jonathan Cheechoo comes from the Moose Factory in Nebraska?!). The Sharks had apparently studied video of the Oilers' first game against Detroit, and decided consciously to turn the ice surface at the Tank into a wading pool--although if there is an alternate explanation for not turning the dehumidifiers on before game time on a 30° California day, I'm happy to entertain it. The tactic initially appeared to work, since the Oilers were held to seven shots through the first two periods and received seven penalties to the Sharks' two. But didn't anyone on the Sharks coaching staff speak up and point out the obvious? Hey, Coach, you know, it could be a problem trying to play against this team in slush. Their offence depends heavily on tip-ins; ours requires tape-to-tape cross-ice passes from Thornton to Cheechoo. So that could be a problem, right? Ron? Hello?
As a result, the Sharks spent much of the first forty minutes in the Oilers zone--but whenever there was an attempted feed from the perimeter to the front of the Oilers goal, someone (usually Pronger) was there to collect. San Jose's "comeback" early in the third period was nothing more than an illusion--they were sending skaters so far forward that you expected to see Toskala playing the point, and they were ripe for the spine-snapping counterattacks that followed almost immediately. The final score could have been 8-3 or 9-3; towards the end the Oilers were actually sending Georges Laraque out on the power play. Now the Sharks seem psychologically obliterated, and their goalie, in particular, is a shell-shock case who's going to have nightmares about Fernando Pisani for the rest of his life.
And let the record show that Joe "Non-Factor" Thornton added another moment of glory to his playoff legend, taking a childish slashing penalty with 113 seconds left, skating to the door of the penalty box, and suddenly choosing to declare surrender by stalking off to the dressing room instead. You've heard critics accuse the man of disappearing in the playoffs; as far as I know, this is the first time he's ever done it literally. N.B.: I'm not one of these guys who hates to say "I told you so."
From the world press, 5/14/06
Can you name "the worst atrocity committed by a government against demonstrators since Tiananmen in 1989"? Wesleyan prof Peter Rutland tries to make sense of a bloodletting in Uzbekistan
You couldn't make it up: On Wednesday the Saskatchewan industry ministry launched a public-funded ad campaign featuring businessmen talking about how great the economic climate is in the Giant Empty Rectangle. Among the featured bizniks was a VP of paper company Weyerhaeuser, which promptly closed its Prince Albert mill the next day. It's basically a death blow to PA, where Weyerhaeuser was the largest employer. Just keep voting NDP, guys--and those of you who don't want to, I'll see you round the pub here in Edmonton next week. (þ: Kate McMillan) -4:34 pm, May 13
Did you ever hear of the Mazzone Effect?
Until this season, the term referred to the apparently demonic gifts of longtime Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Since 1990, the Braves have won their division every year but one (1994, when the Expos finished in the lead), and every year Mazzone seemed able to turn some wild kid or washed-up project into a 16-8 starter. I've always been a Mazzone Effect skeptic; his credibility has always rested heavily on the fact that his pitchers turn to crap the minute they leave Atlanta, but if his brilliant pedagogy or his admittedly unusual training regimen are responsible for those great Braves staffs, what is it that these pitchers stop doing when they leave town? Don't any of them remember what they learned, or take the time in their new cities to throw off a mound between games?
What I realize now is that the Mazzone Effect simply isn't what I thought it was. The REAL Mazzone Effect is actually a mysterious clouding of the minds of sportswriters. The dude is like The Shadow in those old radio serials. Consider these recent excerpts from various newspapers:
Why isn't Mazzone getting proper respect? The Braves finished April with a 4.56 ERA, their pitchers' worst start out of the gate since 1990 - which just happens to be the last April that Leo Mazzone wasn't the pitching coach. "We couldn't be pitching any better," Braves manager Bobby Cox insisted Friday. This is no rip job of former Met Roger McDowell, Mazzone's extremely likable successor, who very well may blossom into a fine pitching coach someday. No, this is a condemnation of Cox and the many other Mazzone-bashers throughout the industry who refuse to give the man his due. -Ken Davidoff, NewsdayOf these characteristic articles, only Davidoff's takes even passing note of an uncomfortable fact: Mazzone's new pitching staff in Baltimore is the worst in the major leagues since he took over. In Atlanta, John Smoltz is hot again and Kyle Davies has bounced back nicely from a rough start. But under Mazzone's Merlinic tutelage, Bruce Chen, who had a solid 2005, has pitched himself out of the rotation; Daniel Cabrera, who was on everybody's list of breakout talents because of Mazzone, has walked 32 hitters in 37 innings; Kris Benson, acquired on the cheap from the Mets because his wife is insane, has an ERA nearly a full run behind last year's; fireballing Canadian Erik Bedard ran off four quick wins and went cold; and Rodrigo Lopez (7.03 ERA), the supposed #1 starter, is still looking for a second win to go with the one he got on Opening Day against the Devil Rays.
The Oriole pitching staff, which was made up of pretty much the same dudes, allowed 800 runs last year, hovering just above the bottom third of the league. Through 36 games this year, they're last in the AL, giving up 214 runs before anyone else but Cleveland had time to hit 200. If the Orioles' new pitching coach were anyone but Mazzone, the fans would be pelting him with batteries and trash. So maybe, just maybe, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz had a little something to do with all those Braves' division titles? Can I get an amen?
[Interests declared: I have Smoltz and Davies on my fantasy team. I did draft Bruce Chen, but I've long since soaked a hanky in chloroform, held it over his mouth and nose, and stuffed his body in the league's waiver-wire dumpster.
Speaking of my fantasy team, here's a joke for you baseball fans: what do you call a guy whose Opening Day outfield consisted of Hideki Matsui, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jeremy Hermida? You can complete the punchline however you like--one way or another, the butt of the joke is yours truly.]
Oilers-Sharks Game 4
If you're interested in hockey, you probably saw this one. This actually happened: I napped too long, woke up with a start about eight minutes into the game, saw that the Sharks were up 2-0, and thought to myself "Great: we've got them right where we want 'em." As God is my witness I never once felt the game was in doubt.
(Just this second, Oiler colour man Morley Scott was interviewing Vesa Toskala in the Sharks dressing room, and Toskala, speaking with a thick Finnish accent, gave the following account of Mike Peca's bad-angle goal: Shit happens, you know?)
Ron Wilson may have lost the series for San Jose tonight, and once again Coach MacT is unexpectedly looking like the winner in a war of nerves. With the Sharks up 3-1 Peca answered back with a "cheap" goal of the sort that only veterans know how to find lying on the ground. Almost immediately, Sergei Samsonov went off for hooking and had a front-row seat for one of the most frenzied power-plays I've ever seen. Just as he stepped back onto the ice, Roloson made a blocker save that caused the puck to doink upwards into the rafters; Pronger yelped a heads-up, Samsonov hung back, and the puck came down close to him at the Sharks blue line. Right then, Serge and Toskala might have been the only players on the ice who had any idea where it was, and they were basically alone in the building with one another. Somewhere, an Ennio Morricone orchestral crescendo rippled through the air.
Toskala (who was presumably screaming his head off) charged out to poke-check and perhaps force Samsonov too wide, hoping that one of the San Jose defenders could catch up and pickpocket him from behind. I will go to my grave insisting that Toskala's handling of the play was correct: hanging back and waiting for Samsonov to come to you in that situation is not the high-percentage move. But Samsonov had time to switch to the backhand and score an empty-netter.
That wasn't Wilson's fault, or anybody else's. (Pronger's role in the play shouldn't be overlooked--although for much of the night he continued to look shaky; he was directly responsible for the Cheechoo goal.) But you could hear the wheels turning in the head of the Sharks coach right then. Once again he'd tried to sit on a two-goal lead, and once again it hadn't worked. As the coach of that team, you'd have to be made of metal not to think: Man, fuck this noise. I've got the Art Ross and the Rocket Richard winners here. Why am I trying to play cautious, perfect hockey against these yokels instead of just turning my six-guns on them? Lesson: if you start trading wild punches with these Oilers--and this was pretty much true all season, even during the parts of it when they stunk--you'll get eaten alive. With Pronger, Bergeron, and Jason Smith distributing the puck, and Smyth, Hemsky, Samsonov, Pisani, and Moreau on the wings, it's too dangerous. They're just too fast and crafty. Wilson quickly found himself in a quagmire, and made it worse by yanking Toskala, who hadn't really made any mistakes (although it doesn't look too good when you give up Smith's first highlight-reel goal since Peewees).
Random praise for the enemy: in the second period, Pronger caught Cheechoo a dangerous 30 inches from the boards and tried to see how cleanly he'd break in half. Oiler detractors have been saying for a few weeks that Pronger gets a lot of breaks from the referees, and in this case they were (or would be) right: if that wasn't a boarding penalty then you can't ever call one. Cheechoo, who gives away five inches and about 30 pounds to Pronger, didn't whine about it. He waited for his moment and crushed Pronger's Adam's apple with an elbow like he'd been taking lessons from Messier. For the next few minutes Prongs was alternately gulping for oxygen and venting it at high speed in the direction of the officials. Hey, I've been accused correctly of having a severe-verging-on-pathological man-crush on Pronger, but come on. I know poetic justice when I see it.
Game five is simple: the pressure's on the Sharks now, and it's all up to Thornton. Smith's been on him like the Alien facehugger two nights running, but on Sunday the Oilers don't get to choose matchups anymore. The Tank is the place, and Game Five the time, for him to demonstrate his bona fides as an elite player. Don't bet the back forty on it.
From the world press, 5/12/06
A new monument in the Czech Republic will honour the soldiers of Operation Cowboy, the 1945 U.S. Army raid that kept the Lippizanner stallions from becoming "horse burgers"
Oilers-Sharks Game 3: The Smytty's Teeth Game
That's what you'll be calling third longest game in Oiler history when you tell your grandchildren about it. That might be a shame, because if we were to focus on a dental emergency, we might forget about the Oilers charging out and outshooting San Jose 15-2 in the first period; Georges Laraque's hilariously illegal second-period attempt to disclose the contents of Jonathan Cheechoo's head by dashing it against a seam in the glass; the heroic five-minute penalty kill that followed; Raffi Torres' tying wrister, scored on a pure open-ice showdown with an otherwise blameless Vesa Toskala; Roloson's glove save off of the unguarded Jonathan Cheechoo in the second OT; and the Oilers' final total of 58 shots, the most ever in franchise history. Can that be right? I could swear I've seen games where Gretzky had 58 shots all by himself, but one must trust the Elias Bureau.
But, yeah: Ryan Smyth. For those of you who weren't watching, Chris Pronger tried to fire the puck off the glass and clear the Oilers' zone about halfway through the second period; Smyth, in particular Smyth's face, got in the way. He crumpled to the ice for a few seconds, got up after the play was whistled dead, and skated to the bench with a slightly crazed look in his eye as the fans chanted his name. Shortly thereafter, CBC's cameras cut to a closeup of a lake of blood and ivory, holding the shot as the linesman retrieved the broken dentition and Rexall Place staff moved in to scrape up the gory mess. Across the country, HDTV owners were suddenly realizing that new technology can be a mixed blessing. But Smyth returned to the game, having traded three teeth for a mouthful of stitches and the promise of six hours of dental surgery. At 12:40 a.m. local time, he created the overtime winner, wrapping around the net and bouncing a shot off Toskala's pads onto Shawn Horcoff's stick.
With the other three playoff series all standing at three games to nil, the Friday matchup is likely to attract enormous attention, especially when word gets out about tonight's remarkable contest and Canadians realize that the Oilers are pretty much the only horse left in the race. ESPN Radio just broadcasted a record of Rod Phillips' call of the Horcoff goal to an entire continent.
The Sharks' Milan Michalek was scratched tonight after suffering a clean open-ice clobbering by Raffi Torres in Game Two. Without him, the threat from Marleau's line is much diminished, and in turn it becomes a little easier for the Oilers to bottle up Thornton and Cheechoo. All the same, and even with the last change, it took the Oilers an agonizing 102-minute effort to win. Obviously it's better for them that they didn't lose--but if they spend too much time brooding on the excruciating hill they had to climb to get their first win of the series, they'll be in trouble. The formula for victory is the one they followed tonight, as they followed it against the Red Wings: throw everything at the Sharks in the first period and grab the lead. Toskala, like Dwayne Roloson, is a terrific first-save goaltender, and his rebound control is better than Roloson's. He's not going to make it easy for our heroes even once. They have to continue trying to tip the puck past him, even though it didn't work in this game.
Is there any defenceman alive that Ethan Moreau can't annihilate to the outside and cut in behind, with room to spare for a good shot on net? He's a little like Hemsky; you wish he'd use his showpiece weapon more often, but if you watch closely you'll see the truth of the old chess maxim that a threat can be more useful than its actual execution.
Did you see the move Mike Peca put on Scott Hannan late in the second period? He crossed the blue line, faked a slapshot to make Hannan back up, did a 360, and put a pass right on the tape for the trailing centre (Stoll?). I'm not sure I can put the precise quality of the move into words: it was as if Peca was portraying Hemsky in a junior-high comedy skit. Even though the move was hilariously sloppy--the spinarama part evoked images of a damaged jetliner--the element of sheer surprise made it effective. Peca is an awfully smart player within his very narrow physical limits. That's not to say that he's slow or weak, only that he doesn't shoot very well and has no footwork. He retained an impressive amount of straight-line top speed in the fifth period while younger players were just trying not to collapse.
The usually authoritative Kelly Hrudey attacked Ville Nieminen in one of his CBC segments tonight, claiming that he's always going to be a journeyman because of the dumb penalties he takes. Yeah, OK: Ville Nieminen takes a ton of dumb penalties. That's axiomatic. But on the most rudimentary level of fairness, you have to account for the penalties Nieminen makes the opposition take, too: there are an awful lot of them, partly because he's a genuine threat to attack the net, partly because he's infuriating and dirty, and partly because he dives like Greg Louganis. He's preoccupyingly horrible to play against, like Ken Linseman or Claude Lemieux. I suspect he's the kind of "journeyman" who will always bounce from good team to good team--not only because he's most useful on a club that has a good penalty-kill unit, but because of his real contributions.
Does it matter that the Rangers were great with him in the lineup and went in the tank when he left (losing their next five games in a row), or that he joined the Sharks for the best part of their season (they immediately won four straight when he arrived)? Nieminen must have had a vastly better won-loss record in 2005-06 than either club he played for. Hrudey was thinking with the player part of his brain when he trashed Nieminen, not the analyst part. It wouldn't surprise me if the same weren't true of the GMs who keep giving up on the guy.
Fernando Pisani, in case you were wondering, is still playing exquisitely. Chris Pronger, on the other hand, is playing clean but is pinching carelessly, isn't finding the net with one-timers anymore, and has just generally started screwing up occasionally. (And he maimed Smytty, though that wasn't his fault.) Right now the best Oiler defenceman is captain Jason Smith, who engaged in an epic battle with Thornton tonight, stopping him cold in open ice at the Oilers blueline again and again and again. Toward the end of regulation his effectiveness forced the Sharks to overload the wing in the neutral zone, which takes away the Thornton line's entire raison d'être. (And yet, the repulsive truth is that with a few breaks Cheechoo could still have had a hat trick.)
Cutting the deck
Work left me unable to write immediate entries about the first two games of the Sharks-Oilers series, but since that seemed to have ill effects on the Oilers' luck I'll try to rectify the situation now, even though I missed the better part of Game Two. Big deal, right?--sounds like it was pretty much a rerun of Game One.
I have no clear idea at all what is going to happen on the next two nights at Rexall Place. If you ignored the scoreboard, the Oilers did not look like they were within a million miles of winning in Game One: they were beaten to loose pucks, dominated on the boards, outskated through the neutral zone, you name it. It was painfully apparent within ten minutes how easy the Red Wings had made things for Edmonton. Above all the Oilers were outhit, and while they turned that around in the second game, the score ended up the same, which often seems to happen after a team gets pasted for 60 minutes and makes a belated decision to start applying the body. Turning more vicious simply wasn't an adequate tactical answer to the Sharks' excellent transition game or to Thornton's surreal inability to be pushed off the puck, and maybe the first two games were simply too close together for Craig MacTavish to work out a better idea.
The early book on the Sharks was that they were a shallow team that would try to kill you with two elite centres, but so far the unforeseen key to the series has been the defence duet of Preissing and Ehrhoff. One week ago, if you'd made them the answer to a Jeopardy question, I probably would have said "What is the firm that published the symphonies of Anton Brückner, Alex?" Getting the last line change back should theoretically be huge for the Oilers against a team like this, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they won this evening by 5-1 or thereabouts. But the truth is that MacTavish wasn't able to accomplish much with home-ice advantage all year, nor has he ever shown signs of being a master motivator. No sense pretending: teal-coloured thunderheads are hanging, low and threatening, over this city.
Somebody has to say it dept.
I suppose we're all under a strong moral obligation to accept that there has now been "closure" in the murder of Cecilia Zhang, the young Toronto girl abducted in the night from her home on October 23, 2004. With the involvement of the authorities of the People's Republic of China, we may even be under a diplomatic obligation to avert our eyes from a convenient accord that will save the killer, Min Chen, from a first-degree murder conviction.
But it seems worth noting that the "statement of facts" agreed upon between the Crown and the killer, Min Chen, is completely unbelieveable.
Here's the version of events the prosecution has signed off on, courtesy of the Toronto Star. The premise, now being reported as flat fact in most of the papers, is that Chen wanted to kidnap Cecilia and hold her for ransom in an effort to finance a sham marriage to a Canadian citizen and remain in the country when his student visa ran out. Try to imagine it happening the way he said it did.
As [Chen] proceeded towards the front bedroom, Cecilia awoke, got out of bed, and entered the hallway wrapped in a purple towel. The Defendant believed she was about to scream and ran towards her, grabbing her around her head and neck with his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. She struggled and offered considerably more resistance than he expected.It seems damned careless to accidentally smother your kidnap victim to death literally on your way out the door of her house--but students of homicide know that we hear something like this exculpatory tale of a tragic accident from pretty much every single sex murderer in the recorded history of humankind. Even John Wayne Gacy, who had thirty-plus bodies of young male rape victims rotting away underneath his house, tried to spin elaborate explanations for how his prey, in every case, had up and died through sheer misadventure. It's a crock. It's just not that easy to kill a human being inadvertently, even a small girl. It's certainly not easy to do it on your way out of the closed doors of an utterly silent house. The gut-wrenching truth about Min Chen's real motive is apparent, despite the lack of physical evidence for or against sexual interference.
And the coppers and the Crown are aware of this. Before Chen's arrest the Toronto police publicly theorized that "Cecilia Zhang was alive for at least three days" after her abduction. The presence of a shovel near the body suggested a prior intent to kill, or perhaps a real quick trip to a Home Depot fortuitously open in the wee hours of the night. And there's the matter of some unexplained phone calls made to Cecilia's mother's cell phone the day after the kidnapping.
Still, the authorities have a ready excuse which they've incorporated into their apologia for the plea-bargain. "Without evidence as to how, when and where Cecilia Zhang died, and in the absence of any forensic or DNA evidence linking the Defendant to the death of the victim, the prosecution faced a real prospect of achieving only a conviction for manslaughter."
To prove murder, the prosecution would be obliged to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant either meant to kill the victim or meant to cause her bodily harm that he knew was likely to cause her death and was reckless whether death ensued. If either of these intents could not be proven, the verdict would be manslaughter. [Emphasis mine]This seems fair enough, but I'm not so sure the prosecution has a terribly good grip on the law as I was taught it, or as it's conveniently written down. Do Crown lawyers even believe in first-degree murder anymore, or do they view it the way they see maritime piracy--as some lingering, half-fictional oddball holdover from a distant age? In paragraph 82 of the statement of facts we are told:
The Defendant admits that, by placing his arm around Cecilia's neck and holding his hand over her mouth and nose, he caused her bodily harm by smothering and choking her. In the circumstances, he admits that he knew that by so acting he was likely to cause her death but was reckless whether she died by compromising her breathing until he was safely away from the house. As such, the defendant admits that he committed second-degree murder on the person of Cecilia Zhang. [Emph. mine]And here's section 231(5) of the Criminal Code:
Irrespective of whether a murder is planned and deliberate on the part of any person, murder is first degree murder in respect of a person when the death is caused by that person while committing or attempting to commit an offence under one of the following sections:Min confessed to a kidnapping--he admitted, that is, to confining someone for the purpose of holding her to ransom. He confessed to causing the death of his kidnap victim. I understand that the prosecution had excellent reasons to charge him with second-degree murder when offered a plea bargain that satisfied the Zhang family and the consciences of the investigating officers. But why is the Crown saying that Chen confessed to second-degree murder when s. 231(5) seems to leave no doubt that the act, as described by the killer himself, was first-degree murder?
Am I missing something obvious here--hidden wiggle room in 231(5)? In 279?--or does the "statement of facts" really contain a willful misrepresentation of the law that cannot be anything but intentional? And why is the press reporting Chen's account of the crime as inarguable fact when the Crown statement all but signals that it is nonsense? (Christie Blatchford, unsurprisingly, avoided making the same offensive mistake.)
From the world press, 5/9/06
[Busy with paying deadlines--full world-press roundup and regular blogging return overnight... -C.C.]
The Asia Times updates the facts and figures behind Japan's "demographic abyss"--but the truth is perhaps better illustrated by the story of the village whose last eight residents sold it for landfill
Be sure to look in this morning's National Post for my latest column. It's about the Childs v. Desormeaux decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Friday; you can read the text of the decision at the SCC/Lexum website. Post subscribers can view the column online.-6:59 am, May 9
From the world press, 5/8/06
Eurodisney II? Time Asia reports that the new Hong Kong Disneyland is suffering familiar-sounding growing pains
From the world press, 5/6/06
Australian physician training now involves so much time spent on "cultural sensitivity" and navel-gazing ethics that graduates literally can't find a prostate with both hands
Weekend media madness
WFMU's Beware of the Blog has posted a vast collection of MP3 covers of "Stairway to Heaven". As a bonus, it includes the audio of SCTV's "Stairways to Heaven" promo, which had to be dropped from the Shout Factory DVD set because Jimmy Page wouldn't sign off on the permissions. It isn't surprising that one of the most notorious turdburglars in music history should turn out to be an intellectual-property prig, but despite his relationship with the Dark Lord, I don't suppose it's Page's fault that the world has gone insane about copyrights.
Incidentally, sales of recent volumes of the SCTV set have reportedly been soft, and the upcoming collection of Cinemax episodes still hasn't turned up, so if you've been waiting to buy the NBC cycles, I would regard it as a favour if you'd get moving on that.
When you're done buying a stairway to heaven, be sure to visit this genius's collection of classic Sesame Street video clips from YouTube. It's easy to forget how musically sophisticated the Muppet team was (not to mention just plain hip): bits like Stevie Wonder's Sesame Street alterna-theme or The Beetles playing "Letter B" (complete with miniature guitar solo!) will leave you wondering how the hell we ended up in a world where kids are raised on stuff like Barney the Dinosaur and the Wiggles. Who stole the funk?
Maybe I'm wrong to perceive so much emotional complexity in media scraps like the "Capital I" song, with its mournful Nick Drake-y guitar and its lurching syncopation. (Not featured on the list is my own favourite by the same combo--"The Lower-Case N".) Still, you've got to wonder about those homogenous workers who claim that "it's great to be so happy on a busy afternoon." Are they living in a capital I... or a capitalist eye?
From the world press, 5/5/06
"Monstrous dark delusions of the past": Greek neopagans seek legal recognition for their right to revive the worship of Zeus & friends
From the world press, 5/4/06
A twist on Cosh's New Muralism: Russia and Ukraine are digging a giant 400-km ditch along their shared border to cut smuggling
Summer Bryz, makes me feel fine
Up is down, black is white, and the bottom four seeds in the NHL's Western Conference--teams nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8--have executed the top four in the first round of the playoffs. Four hungry underdogs have been thrown into a pit; the prize for the last one that doesn't get its throat torn out is a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Anaheim looked dreadfully soft tonight--their defence collapsed under pressure many times in the first period, their goalie (third on the depth chart to start the year) remains basically untested, Corey Perry appears to be toast* after a shin-on-shin collision with a teammate late in the second period, and the Duck offence is pretty one-dimensional (although if you only have one dimension, Teemu Selanne is a nice one to have). I'm tempted to suggest than 14 of the other 15 teams in the playoff tournament, and many of those that were not invited, could have beaten the Quacks tonight.
Fortunately for Anaheim's five fans, the Calgary Flames have pretty much the worst offence in the universe, their defence couldn't handle a prolonged crise de nerfs from Dion Phaneuf, and the Sea of Red--despite the example set for its members by Oiler supporters at Rexall Place--put on a pathetic display with the series on the line in the Saddledome. As a rule it is unwise to search for character-based explanations for occurrences in sports than can be accounted for quantifiably. It would be doubly unwise, on grounds of hubris, for an Oiler fan to do so tonight. But the strictly indifferent observers will be telling you the plain facts about the first round in the next few days: the city of Calgary and its hockey players let each other down mutually.
The third element in the dysfunctional relationship, of course, is the coaching and the front office, which are governed in this case by a single dictator, Darryl Sutter. I'm a typical Oilers fan: all year I've vacillated comically between hysteria about the team and feeling bad about how hysterical we were. No move by our GM went unchallenged, and our head coach's approval ratings had spiralled into what I'd estimate to be the low 20s by the end of the season. We are all feeling a bit sheepish about that hallucinogenic hullaballoo now--but in retrospect it's obvious that Calgary Flames fans were way, way, way too far to the other end of the spectrum. You'd have to be crazy not to see the Sea of Red as a physical manifestation of groupthink right now: every time Darryl Sutter made a strange move or said something completely incomprehensible, Calgarians were there to offer unblinking Stepford-esque justifications. They crowed continually about their '04 Stanley Cup run, yet they nodded with every stroke of the knife as Sutter filleted the '04 roster. The red jersey was said to have some mysterious power to make Tony Amonte younger, Roman Hamrlik smarter, and Chuck Kobasew a 40-goal man. They insisted that Jarome Iginla was worth every penny of $7 million, then made excuses when his stats fell apart (while making sure not to criticize the transformation of the supporting cast). Anyone who pointed out that the team wasn't scoring any goals was derided as a nerd in a green eyeshade. Even the ordinarily intelligent Matt Fenwick couldn't be entirely persuaded to concede the difference in value between Jamie Lundmark and Sergei Samsonov.
By the end of the year it seemed like the basis of Sutter's reputation was that he hadn't deliberately introduced poison into Miikka Kiprusoff's food. Is it generally known in Calgary that you're permitted to have doubts about personnel moves? Are these people aware that worrying about your team, and even complaining about it, is generally thought to be part of the fan experience? Is it conceivable to them that pressure on the front office may help encourage careful decision-making and accountability? Sometimes, to be sure, it doesn't. But, as Orwell argued, a democracy will always beat a dictatorship in a conflict of arms because there are mistakes it is impossible for a democracy to make.
Sutter will have to hire a colleague to coach or GM, which is good news for what is, after all, the reigning division champion. The bad news is that the colleague is likely to be someone firmly under his strange, mesmerizing influence. Iginla's distorting effect on the budget remains, and meanwhile, the meter is running on role-players like Amonte and Darren McCarty. The organization is not very deep in talent, though what they have is likely to be trained effectively, which I can't say for the Oilers. (See how that works? My team has an obvious, glaring weakness that I can confess to.)
You'd better believe I enjoyed watching Calgary gas its second straight 3-2 lead in a playoff series; in a weird way that probably reflects poorly on me, it is a purer pleasure than seeing Edmonton win. What I cannot tell you is whether the Flames will be back stronger and more frightening next year, or whether they are doomed to subside into oblivion. Absolutely anything seems possible.
*[UPDATE, 12:14 pm: Perry, who put on an impressive display of wailing and writhing even though he was felled by a teammate, and then refused to put any weight on the wounded limb while skating off, was actually back out on the ice by the end of the game. Apparently the dude has an established reputation in the OHL and the PacDiv as an all-world wuss.]
From the world press, 5/3/06
Turkish and other reports say that Iran has switched from shelling of Kurdish positions in northern Iraq to outright border raids
Oilers-Wings Game 6
I don't have much to say about the game. Without so much as a spit-shine, it goes directly into the crowded top shelf of the repository of Oiler legend. One could not choose two more suitable heroes--Ales Hemsky, the frustrating, dazzling young foreigner who sometimes made us wonder what occasion he was saving the full display of his talent for, and Fernando Pisani, the long-faced local lad who will never be more than a third-liner, but who is there as a reminder of what's at stake and how much the fans have bled. When he returned from the enemy net after scoring his second goal of the night to tie the game--did you notice?--Pisani wasn't celebrating: he was beseeching his teammates to rise to his level, shouting "COME ON! COME ON!"
Fans in other cities may not have absorbed this, but it had been 2,919 days since the last Oiler victory in a playoff series. It's a duration longer than the distance between the first and last Oiler Stanley Cup triumphs. For those too young to remember, the win over Detroit is an intoxicating taste of immortality. For those of us who lived out adolescence expecting a championship every season, and had to learn to make peace with diminished expectations of all kinds, it's a slightly bittersweet occasion. At midnight on the evening of the game, the wind was howling and I could hear the clamour of university students antagonizing the police and rejoicing. I had just turned 35--half of three-score-and-ten. For a hockey fan, games like Monday's are the indelible punctuation in a life story.
Chavs, swots, rugger buggers: at b3ta.com, British readers contribute memories of school fights and generalized mayhem. -4:40 pm, May 1, 2006
From the world press, 5/1/06
"Orders are not open to discussion": a superb account of how Vladimir Putin stage-managed an economic development meeting, stabbed Transneft in the back, and instantly became the "Saviour of the Baikal"
E-mail of the year
Dear Mr Cosh,