Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The worst week ever

Photo copyright: Sean Birmingham. Used with permission.

I’ve had bad weeks before. Plenty of them actually.

But I can’t remember a more bizarre one than the one Kristin and I suffered through last week. Of course, I wasn’t really the one who suffered. The ones around me fell victim to a wicked game of “So You Think This is Bad …” created by karma.

It was a week that started as a vacation and ended after two trips to emergency rooms at different hospitals and being stranded in a flood.

Kristin became the first unwitting victim in karma’s vicious game. We delayed our vacation by one day because she was just getting over being sick, her fever at one point tipping 102 degrees.

Convinced the worst was behind her, we headed off for my family reunion in Eau Claire, Wis. You ever have those moments where you just know the decision you’ve made is the wrong one yet you forge ahead anyway? Yeah, that moment for us was the morning of the 17th when we got in the car.

Over the next few days, Kristin’s body declared war. It threw laryngitis at her, a sinus infection and finally pinkeye, which had us rushing to the Mercy Hospital emergency room in Coon Rapids, Minn., at midnight on July 19.

Her diagnosis meant she couldn’t go to the Twins game the next night. We were staying with our good friends, Rick and Patty. With Kristin quarantined, it was decided Rick and I would go to the game without the wives. It started as a good night, kicking off with a pregame trip to a local bar for a bite to eat. I hear the place is especially fun on New Year's.

Rick and I used to go to Twins games together back in the day, so it was nice to get to do it again at the Twins’ new stadium. But it was a hot, miserable night. The Twins were awful, losing 4-3 to Cleveland.

Around the eighth inning, Rick got up and went to get something to drink. He didn’t come back, so I figured he’d found a more comfortable seat and was watching the game from there.

As I walked into the concourse I saw him right away – sitting in a wheelchair with several first-aid workers surrounding him. Trip No. 2 to the ER – this time to the Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis – ensued.

He ended up spending the rest of the week in the hospital, another unknowing victim of my bad karmic touch. I’m glad to say he’s now home and should be better now that he’s a safe distance from me again.

We returned home Friday and it was time for karma to come gunning for me directly. Kristin and I were supposed to go together to a show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago that night. But even though she was feeling much better, she figured it was best she stay home. Hallelujah – we made a good decision!

While I was inside Lincoln Hall enjoying a great show from Ha Ha Tonka and headliner Langhorne Slim, a little rain was falling outside. I left the venue at 1:30 in the morning, heading home in a downpour, completely oblivious to the misfortune awaiting me.

I soon found myself rerouted off the expressway in the near west suburbs when flooding on the road forced the police to close it. As I left the expressway I figured this was going to delay me about an hour or so – no big deal.

Two hours later having still not gotten past the Eisenhower/I-88 junction that would lead me home to Aurora, I was driving around with dozens of other people seeking an escape route from the flooding that was suddenly everywhere.

Eventually I decided I needed sleep, so I pulled into a Holiday Inn Express parking lot, pushed my seat all the way back and stole a 45-minute nap. At 6 a.m. I woke up to daylight and more rain. But at least now I could find my way out of the mess.

By the time I got home – six hours after I left Lincoln Hall – the suburb I was trapped in, Westchester, was being declared a disaster zone. I crawled into bed thankful to be home.

I was also thankful the week had ended. Given a few days to reflect, I’m still not sure what I did to piss off karma. I just hope it has moved on to some other poor sucker. Carson Daly would make a good target.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Big Buff Blues

No! It can’t be. No way did the Blackhawks just trade Big Buff.

That was my reaction to a voicemail I received Wednesday from my brother, who was more than happy to share the news that the Hawks had traded Stanley Cup hero Dustin Byfuglien, defenseman Brent Sopel, enforcer Ben Eager and a prospect to Atlanta in order to clear salary cap space.

Less than two weeks ago I was on East Wacker in downtown Chicago during the Hawks victory parade and rally. Big Buff was on the bus that ended up parking right on the other side of the street where I stood with Kristin and our friends.

There he was, bigger than life, a homemade world championship title belt draped over a shoulder, his Stanley Cup champion hat riding off-center on his head. He carried a bullhorn in one hand and a can of beer in the other.

This was Big Buff at his grandest. And now he’s a Thrasher. The difference in stature is stunning.

It took some time, but eventually at some point last night I came to accept the trade, and saw it for what it is: a good move for the Hawks. It’s a good move for the Thrashers, too, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I hope Byfuglien does well and if he doesn’t, at least there’s a chance he’ll be sent down to the AHL and I’ll get to see him play for the Chicago Wolves!

But I digress. The trade was good for the Hawks for the obvious reason of freeing up some salary-cap space. It’s also good because they got some decent draft picks in return, and two serviceable roster-ready players in Marty Reasoner and former Colorado College standout Joey Crabb.

It also brought prospect Jeremy Morin, a sniper who The Hockey News writer Ryan Kennedy said has a lethal release and could be a 50-goal scorer for Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League next season. If he develops well, he could be a nice addition to the Hawks in years to come. But some doubt exists as to whether or not he’ll materialize into a successful pro.

Kennedy also brought up a point I’ve been thinking about a lot: what type of player are the Thrashers getting in Byfuglien? His career high in points during the regular season is 36. And while he scored 11 goals in the Hawks’ Cup run – including three game-winners in a sweep of San Jose – he only had 17 goals in the regular season.

There were long stretches of the season where Big Buff somehow seemed to vanish on the ice. He hardly ever released his booming slap shot and seemed not to care much about mucking it up in front of the net until he was facing his nemesis, Roberto Luongo.

I was hoping the playoffs were going to serve as his turning point. He’d become a legitimate Chicago hero and the thought was he appeared ready to live up to his potential.

We’ll never know that now. If he has a great season with the Thrashers, there is still no guarantee he would have done that with the Hawks. And if he resumes his old, underachieving play, that’s still no reason to believe he’d have done that in Chicago.

In any event, I’ve come to accept that Big Buff is gone. It’s the way of the world in professional sports these days.

I’m just glad I chose to buy an Esposito jersey instead of the Byfuglien one I was eyeing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going where my mind takes me

This is what I wrote Saturday at the website. You'll need to read my earlier post to learn more about the site. Beware, this entry got an R rating for its language and sexual content. So if you're easily offended please don't read it. Also please keep in mind this is fictional (mostly) and written in one take in less than 20 minutes.
Down in the recesses of my brain, down past the walls I set up for others to see, the parts of me I make public, there is something else living there. I feel its breath on me at night as I roam the streets looking for company. The sidewalks are usually deserted in the early morning hours. The frat boys and sorority sluts are already back home, sleeping or fucking or whatever else they do when the bars close. Chicago can be a lonely place, despite its bustling nightlife and daylight hours. I can walk along the lakewalk from Montrose Harbor all the way to the Shedd Aquarium and hardly anyone will pay any attention to me. I walk past teenage girls who look right through me. I've reached the age where I am invisible to them. If I try to talk to them, they are usually polite at first. It's when I start asking where they are headed or what they are doing in the city, that's when they start to get that look in their eyes. We have to get going, they'll say, and scurry off to get away from the guy who is creeping them out. I stand on the sidewalk and watch them disappear down Halstead. At night I walk Rush Street, unable to afford to stop in and have a drink at any of the clubs. I love to hear the jazz notes floating into the air from behind the closed doors. In front of those doors usually stands a burly meathead asking for the $20 cover charge. And I think to myself, 20 fucking dollars? Really? I went into one of them during another phase of my life. I ordered a Diet Coke because I was still on the wagon then. The drink came back in one of those tall, skinny cocktail glasses loaded with ice and a narrow black straw. A few pulls on that straw and my pop was gone. The bartender asked if I wanted another, and I said yes because in addition to the $20 cover charge, there was a two-drink minimum to sit at the bar. A short time later she slipped the tab in front of me as I watched the band crank through one of those 15-minute jazz songs that never really sounds like the same song but then they stop playing and tell you that was, "whatever, whatever" and we hope you liked it. I did like it. But I left anyway. I've never been back into one of those clubs. The clientele was rich and refined, maybe even dignified. All things I am not. I prefer finding the hole in the wall bars, places like Carol's on Clark. A guy can go in there and get five or six beers with 10 bucks and be happy. It's one of those dingy places where cigarette smoke still clings to hte walls and ceiling even though smoking hasn't been allowed in city bars for two years. I suspect Carol probably still lights up in there when business is slow. She always struck me as a I-dont-give-a-fuck gal. But you have to be careful in Chicago. Cops are always looking to bust bar owners for stupid shit like that. Those liquor licences -- especially the 4 a.m. ones -- are better than gold in Chicago. Carol's stays open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays. Well, I guess that would be Sunday. I've walked into that place many times after 2 a.m. and had trouble finding a place to sit. College-age girls don't come in there, but that's all right. The women who do don't look so bad, unless they're the ones who slather on their makeup with paintbrushes and squeeze their fat asses into way-too-small jeans. Those are the ones who sit at the bar looking bored, glancing around for some guy drunk enough to want to fuck them. Some nights that guy is me. But it never works out well. We'll go back to her place -- always her place, I never take anybody to my dingy apartment -- and maybe smoke some weed if she has any. I'll get myself a beer or a shot of whiskey and then we'll start up on the couch. My hands run all over her body and hers are on mine. We move to the bedroom, disrobing along the way. By the time we're naked and on the bed, I'm bored. My dick just lies there no matter what she does to entice it. A few minutes later I'm back outside letting the night air cool my face. I look down the street one way then the other, hoping someone -- anyone -- is out walking and wouldn't mind talking to me.

750 words a day

I've been meaning to write more. I've had a bunch of ideas bouncing around in my head that would make good blog entries, but I never get around to doing it. Part of that is my freelance workload has increased, and I find that as long as I am doing some kind of writing, I don't get the urge to do another kind.

So when I hit a slow spot with the freelancing, I usually get the urge to blog. When nothing comes to mind to blog about, I try to turn to my much-neglected fiction.

But this makes everything very disorganized and isn't the best for trying to be creative. As I've been told by other writers (either in person or through books), you shouldn't wait until you feel inspired to write. You should create a habit of writing every day.

Maybe you end up writing crap that day, but that's not a big deal. For some the goal is to write three pages per day. That breaks down to roughly 750 words, which is what I learned when I discovered this website.

I signed up two days ago and pledged to write 750 words per day for the entire month of May. But I couldn't wait to May 1, so I started already. I've only created two entries, but I'm finding I really like the system.

I'm a competitive person -- no, really I am -- so is a way for me to challenge myself. The site keeps track of how many days I've succeeded and myriad other details, including the weather that day, the words I use most often, and how long it takes to get to the 750-word threshold.

What I really like about it is the point system. The more days you write, the more points you earn. There is a scoreboard that keeps track of everyone. This is where my competitiveness comes in handy. I want to see my name included on the leaderboard some day.

My strategy for writing is just to write whatever pops into my head, which is what they recommend doing. No editing. No looking for the "right" word. Just type one word after another and see where it takes you.

I took the nonfiction road for my first entry. On Saturday morning my writing turned into a fictional story told in first person. I might share it just to give you an idea of how my mind works. Don't expect a polished product, though. As I reread my entries I cringe at the sloppy syntax and sentences that sometime pop up.

I'm a manic self-editor so it's difficult to let typos go and just keep rolling. I'm getting the hang of it, though.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the site with you. Really, this post was just a way for me to tend to my much-neglected blog. Check out my next entry if you're interested in reading my stream of consciousness ramblings. I warn you, though, don't expect Faulkner.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What I love about my job

Last Tuesday I found myself wandering around McKinley Park on Chicago's South Side.

I was there looking for fishermen at the park's lagoon for this article. But I was there at 10:30 a.m., not exactly prime fishing time. So I only found one guy, and he was leaving just as I saw him. I talked with him and then waited around for another hour or so before deciding I'd be better off coming back the next day.

I drove home frustrated for having wasted the day, especially when the assignment pays a flat fee and not an hourly wage. I essentially drove there for nothing, which is a freelancer's worst scenario.

When I returned Wednesday evening I wasn't very optimistic. I walked around the lagoon again but didn't see anybody fishing. Then as I rounded the far side I spotted a few guys set up on the path ringing the lagoon. They had poles propped up on the shore, lines in the water.

I still wasn't sure if I would find anything interesting as I approached two of the men. I told them who I was and that I was writing about the recent consumption advisory telling anglers they shouldn't eat carp caught in the lagoon more than once a week. The carp population was contaminated with PCBs.

The guys pointed me to an older man sitting in a folding lawn chair next to two tackle boxes and a cooler. He wore a tan fishing vest over a T-shirt that read something to the effect of him having to choose between fishing and his wife. Lower on the shirt was a Gone Fishing sign above, "I'm sure going to miss her."

This turned out to be Lonnie Williams, a 58-year-old McKinley Park resident who claimed to have fished that lagoon for 50 years. Jackpot! I don't know if he saw my face light up or not, but I knew without having to ask another question that I'd found the guy I needed to find for the article. His two friends, who were about 15 years younger than Williams, were equally interesting.

This is how it often is for journalists. Sometimes we strike out looking for the perfect fit for an article. And sometimes we find Lonnie Williams. Nothing replicates that feeling of knowing everything is going to be all right -- I'm going to make deadline, I'm going to have an interesting character to channel the subject matter through, my time hasn't been wasted.

It also makes me feel very fortunate. If not for that assignment I never would have discovered McKinley Park or Williams or his band of urban anglers. That's the best part of the job, the discovery of something new. It might not be new to everybody, but it's new to me.

I'd be happy if I never interviewed a famous person again as long as I can continue meeting people like Lonnie Williams. Or George Hood, who I first encountered a couple years ago and interviewed again this morning.

Hood is looking to reclaim his Guinness World Record for riding a spin bike. The record stands at 192 hours, but he's shooting for 300 hours or more. Some think Hood is crazy, and I can't fault them for that. It is crazy to put your mind and body through such an ordeal to raise money for charity and to get your name in a record book.

I'm fascinated with Hood and what makes him tick. I'd like to write a book about him, and he's offered me the opportunity a few times. But as much as I'd love to do it, that would mean I'd have to drop everything else. I don't know if I'm ready to focus on only one topic and subject, no matter how fascinating it is.

There are just too many people out there with interesting stories waiting to be told.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More Backyard Tire Fire

OK, OK, I know. You've had enough. But really, have you? If you haven't listened to Backyard Tire Fire's latest release, "Good to Be," then you are missing out on something special.

Anyway, I wrote a review of the Los Lobos/BTF show from Saturday night. It's posted on a message board that caters to Chicago's live music fans and is run by my friend, Dave Miller.

You can find it here, but you have to click on the "Concert Reviews" section when you get there. Please check it out, and then poke around a little bit on the site, especially if you're in Chicago. It's a great resource and I know Dave works hard on it.

In the meantime, here's another BTF video, this one featuring the opening track on the new record, the kick-ass "Roadsong #39." As the 70-something woman usher said to me after the show, "If that didn't get your blood pumping, nothing will."

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's OK, it's all right, I'm alive and it's Good To Be

Photo by Brad Hodge

Life on tour can be a lonely existence. The long miles between gigs, that constant, unending road leading away from home and family. It can chew up musicians and spit them out in the shoulder already littered with the debris of failed bands.

Yet, it can also be exhilarating. For some, the road becomes home. The chance to play music for a living can outweigh the difficulties of a nomadic lifestyle.

It seems to me Ed Anderson falls into the latter description. Anderson, who turns 38 next month, is the leader of Backyard Tire Fire. His brother, Matt, who plays bass, and drummer Tim Kramp complete the trio that hails from Bloomington, Ill.

BTF is in the middle of a long tour in support of its latest record, the exceptional "Good To Be." I talked with Ed last week while he was driving between Montana gigs in Missoula and Bozeman. You can read the result of that interview here.

Our conversation drifted to his youth in the western suburbs of Chicago (he and Matt graduated from St. Charles High School). He joked that as a kid he wanted to grow up to play shortstop for the Cubs. He never really considered becoming a rock star. But as he got older music became a viable option, thanks mostly to his blue-collar work ethic.

BTF has played between 150 and 200 shows a year for the past decade.

"It's been a haul," Anderson said. "We've worked our asses off, but even if you work really, really, really hard, there always has to be a little luck involved."

Luck for the band came in the form of a show opening for Los Lobos in October 2008 (more details can be found in the article I linked earlier). Because of that the band is riding an unprecedented surge of popularity, though BTF is far from a household name at this point.

But that isn't the point. Ed, Matt and Tim are doing what they love. They are creating music that is connecting with people. They are doing that one town at a time, finally getting a boost from commercial radio stations that have begun spinning "Good To Be" in regular rotations.

No wonder Ed is able to say, "It's OK, it's all right, I'm alive and it's good to be," as he does on the title track.

"I feel fortunate to have found something that's challenging and that I love," he said. "So many people don't get that in life. They end up having to do things they don't want to do. I never wanted to be one of those people. I always wanted to be happy with what I was doing.

"I think I found what I'm supposed to be doing, you know?"

I, for one, am happy he has.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The importance of work

For most of my life I fought the notion work was good for you. To me, work was a necessary evil, a way to earn some money so I could spend it.

The Puritanical belief that hard work is its own reward was lost on me. I came to think of that mantra as a way to condone the continued exploitation of the working class in our society.

That feeling embedded itself in me during my final days working for The Naperville Sun. With massive nationwide layoffs crippling the newspaper industry, those of us remaining were made to feel we were lucky to still have jobs. We shouldn't complain about the added workload or the new skills many were being asked to learn. Some places began forcing reporters to become videographers.

When I left the Sun during a round of layoffs last April, I was relieved. My job had become just that -- a job. It was so bad, I could feel my mood change every time I got into my car to go the office. Being unemployed freed my spirit.

Because of Kristin's job, I was in the fortunate position of being able to walk away without having to worry about the mortgage getting paid. We don't have any children, so that wasn't a concern. Kristin's job also takes care of our health benefits, so no worries there either.

But now I'm nearing a full year of unemployment. And I'm surprised to have discovered the importance of staying productive. It turns out work is important, and not just as a way to make sure the bills get paid. As Studs Terkel wrote in his 1972 book "Working," "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread."

For much of the past 11 months, I've been searching for that meaning. Really, I've been searching for it even longer, probably all my life. Now I wonder if it was right in front of me the whole time.

In recent weeks I've been doing more freelancing for newspapers. I just finished three articles since Friday, including this one published in Sunday's Naperville Sun. Those came a few weeks after I wrote a story about Evan Lysacek's sports podiatrist, also for the Sun, and a feature on a local high school basketball player for the Chicago Tribune.

None of the stories can be considered award worthy, but that doesn't matter. I wasn't writing them hoping to win an award. I was writing them because I enjoy writing those kinds of articles, especially the feature on Ryan Boatright.

What I discovered is that working didn't feel like work anymore. (OK, to be honest, when it came to deadline time and I was staring at a screen with only these words written, "By Paul LaTour," it felt a little like work.)

It felt invigorating. It felt good to be busy, to have a reason to wake up in the morning other than to avoid spending the day in my pajamas.

I have a few more assignments on my docket, including another one for the Tribune. Soon I'll be brimming with work as I try to ride this rebirth of enthusiasm. I'll be covering the high school state hockey semifinals and finals next week for the Tribune. I'll be covering high school girls soccer again, this time for

And in just over a week I begin a part-time, temporary job with the U.S. Census Bureau. My task will be doing follow-up visits to group homes, nursing homes, shelters and dorms, making sure everyone is counted. I'm excited if only because it could lead to meeting some interesting people. Of course, everything I find out is confidential, so I won't be able share the details. Then again, they could turn up in a short story or two.

This is all to say that I have found my daily meaning. It really was with me the whole time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'm a guest star on another blog

My new friend Dan Cote started a great Facebook fan page for the Minnesota North Stars. He's also created fan pages for just about every former North Star you can imagine (Dwight Bialowas? Moose Vasko???).

As part of that he started a blog, North Star Green Preservation Society. A few weeks ago he asked me to share some of my North Stars memories, which I finally got around to today. I have tons of memories, including one I've already shared here.

So if you get a chance, please head on over to Dan's blog to check out what I had to write. And don't be shy about telling him you want to share your own stories. That's what he's looking for.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Miracle turns 30

It was a Friday evening in late February, and my dream of being a famous goalie remained alive as I skated through hockey practice on my neighborhood rink in Woodland.

The sky above Duluth, Minn., was just beginning to fade into night when our assistant coach came racing out of the warming shack, yelling his head off. He ran to tell us what he had just heard, "We beat the Russians!"

That was Feb. 22, 1980, and I'm sure many people remember exactly where they were when they heard Team USA had defeated the powerful Soviet hockey machine in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Some people mistakenly remember watching the game live. But it was shown on tape delay, the telecast starting about an hour after the game ended. I watched it in our family room, sitting about four inches from the screen the entire time.

I screamed when Mike Eruzione scored the eventual game-winner, and leaped from my seat as the final seconds ticked down, even though I already knew the result. I'm sure I stared in disbelief while watching the celebration because I still do it now when I see it replayed.

There are other seminal historical moments marking my lifetime. Nixon leaving the White House (home with my mom). The space shuttle Challenger disaster (in senior hall at Cathedral High School). The 9/11 attacks (in bed in Killeen, Texas).

Those were all negative events. The Miracle on Ice is different. It's one of the few positive moments that will always stick with me and so many other Americans. So on the 30-year anniversary of the greatest game in U.S. sports history, I thought I'd rehash where I was that incredible night.

As an added bonus, I'm also including a column I wrote for the Naperville Sun, which ran Feb. 22, 2005, on the 25th anniversary of the Miracle. Days earlier I had run into former Olympian Ken Morrow and was fortunate enough to get a short interview with him. I turned it into the following column.

There can be only one Miracle

Naperville Sun, The (IL) - Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Author: Paul LaTour

His hair is thinning and more of his forehead is showing because of it. His grizzly beard -- the one Disney inexplicably sheared off -- has been traded for a more clean-shaven look.

Otherwise Ken Morrow looks about the same as he did when he played for the one hockey team no American will ever forget: the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" when the United States upset the Soviets, 4-3, at Lake Placid, N.Y. Morrow, a defenseman, was on the ice as the clock ran out and Al Michaels uttered the unforgettable line, "Do you believe in miracles?"

Morrow was soon joined by the entire team on the ice, a swarming mass of overjoyed, exuberant players who could hardly believe what they had accomplished. Two days later, they won the gold medal with a come-from-behind win over Finland.

Most of the players will unite again today in Lake Placid for festivities honoring the 1980 U.S. Winter Olympians. Mike Eruzione, the team captain who scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets, will be there.

Morrow will be there, too. Sadly, Herb Brooks will not be.

Brooks , the U.S. coach and chief architect, was killed in a car accident Aug. 18, 2003. Brooks never saw Disney's adaptation, "Miracle," in which actor Kurt Russell gave a dead-on portrayal of him.

Although Brooks will be missing, Morrow wasn't sure his coach would have come to today's reunion anyway.

"He never really was at any of the other ones," Morrow said. "He was like that as a coach. He stayed away from the players."

Even on that glorious February night in 1980, Brooks let the players celebrate on the ice while he quietly slipped into the shadows, away from the cameras, away from the attention.

The movie, released last February, brought back a flood of attention. Morrow had nothing but praise for the film, even though some of the technical aspects were slightly askew.

One thing in particular caught Morrow's attention.

"I didn't have a beard (in the movie), that was the thing I noticed right away," Morrow said. "But with all the defining moments, they were right on the mark. They did a great job with that."

Of all the members on that team, Morrow can be considered the most fortunate in terms of hockey success. He went from a gold medal to a Stanley Cup championship with the New York Islanders in less than four months.

His championship run continued for three more years as the Islanders won four straight Cups. As rewarding as those titles must have been, beating the Russians still tops his list of accomplishments.

"It's a moment that's stood the test of time and, if anything, is gaining in stature," Morrow said. "People still want to talk about it 25 years later."

People like me, who happened to spot Morrow in the Allstate Arena press box earlier this month. Morrow, now a scout for the Islanders, was watching the Chicago Wolves play the Houston Aeros on Feb. 12.

He comes through this way quite often, actually, and not always on business. His wife's sister lives in Wheaton.

Morrow is still a recognizable figure, even without the beard. A cluster of fans stood ready to greet him between periods in the walkway behind the press box. Included in the group of autograph seekers was a man wearing a 1980 U.S. replica jersey with the No. 80 on the back.

The scene brought back memories of just how meaningful hockey once was in this country. Today, as the Olympians reunite in Lake Placid, hockey could not be on shakier ground. Talk of salary caps, lockouts and canceled seasons dominate conversations.

It is more than a little ironic, then, that a hockey game is considered by many -- myself included -- as the greatest sports moment in U.S. history.

While Morrow talked about the NHL lockout, which had not yet resulted in the cancellation of the season, he joked that if the NHL resumed play this season it would be another Miracle on Ice.

He's wrong, though. There can never be another.

Copyright, 2005, The Naperville Sun. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mr. Zero remains my favorite Blackhawk

Somewhere buried in a box stacked in a downstairs closet, a cardboard tribute to my ex-idol sits untouched for years. It's a Tony Esposito hockey card, a ragged-edged memento of my youth.

I always wanted to be a goalie. But not just any goalie – I wanted to be Tony Esposito. Thanks to that card, which I got when I was around 5 or 6, I noticed he held his goalie stick in the same hand I did – the left.

That was pretty uncommon then. So uncommon the community rink I played for in the late '70s (Woodland) didn’t even have a left-handed blocker pad. So I had to use a regular hockey glove to hold my stick. The catcher glove for my right was this mangled piece of leather that could barely be opened and closed. Thankfully, I played for a great team and wasn’t called upon to make many saves. But man, would my feet get cold standing back in the crease for what seemed like hours at a time.

I watched Espo on TV and saw how he would scrape the snow from his crease and pile it up on the sides of the net, creating a nice inhibitor to the wraparound. I would do the same thing, sometimes piling it so high a puck would get lost in it on those rare times the puck came that close to my net.

I carried Espo’s hockey card around with me all the time. The bottom became pretty tattered because I used it to play marble hockey on the upstairs hallway floor of my parents’ house. All my hockey cards bear the marks of those games, but especially Espo’s, which also had a piece of Scotch tape holding it together after it got torn in half.

Esposito played for the Chicago Blackhawks, a team I came to despise as I got older. Living in northern Minnesota, we were all North Stars fans. And the Blackhawks were our No. 1 rival, at least in the late '70s and '80s.

It was a classic rivalry, highlighted by the battles between Dino Ciccarrelli and Al Secord. So hated was Secord that North Stars fans still cheered “Secord sucks” when the Hawks were in town long after he retired. I've posted YouTube videos of the bench-clearing brawls that punctuated the teams' meetings.

Tonight the Blackhawks are honoring Esposito, as they have with many of their former superstars in the past couple of seasons. I've converted to the Dark Side by cheering for the Hawks now, but I turned away when Bob Probert, Denis Savard and Steve Larmer were given their Heritage Night honors.

It's different with Esposito, even though he played on some of those teams I hated. When he was toward the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career we used to heckle him through the TV. He had a habit of going down for a puck and then just staying on the ice. We laughed and said he was too old to get back up to his feet, or that the Chicago Stadium needed to install a crane to help him.

But I always had a hard time getting into the jeering. I wanted to fit in with my older brothers and their friends, so I pretended I also hated Esposito. Yet, deep down he remained one of my all-time favorite goalies, second only to Cesare Maniago of the North Stars.

So later today I will go digging for my old Espo playing card, the one with a 35-year-old piece of Scotch tape holding it together.* I will scour the Internet looking for articles about Esposito like this one from ex-Tribune writer Bob Verdi.

And I will watch on TV as the Hawks honor the goalie I emulated above all others. Maybe I'll even pile snow on either side of my recliner, you know, just to capture the spirit of the thing.

* -- UPDATE: I found the card, and it turns out I was confused. My Ken Dryden card from the same year is the taped-up one. The Esposito one is in one piece, though the edges are pretty ragged.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Keith Brooking can suck it

My basketball career wasn’t exactly loaded with highlights. I was a bench-warming guard for Cathedral who usually only played when the game was already decided. Because the Hilltoppers weren’t very good, that meant I saw a lot of action when we were losing.

That was the case when we faced Duluth East on our home court my senior year. East, a much larger school with a very good team, featured a 7-foot center who went on to play college basketball. The Greyhounds were rolling over us as usual, so of course, I was on the court in the fourth quarter.

We were trailing by at least 60 points as East inched closer and closer to the 100-point mark. They had either 98 or 99 points with just a couple minutes left to play. I had the ball at the top about 20 feet from the basket when I turned it over (big surprise).

The player who stole it quickly lofted the ball over my head. As I turned I saw for the first time that the 7-foot, college-bound star was standing at midcourt waiting for the pass. He was floating out there doing what is known as cherry picking.

He took the ball, ran down the court ahead of me and went up for a dunk. I had nearly caught up to him. I was close enough to have grabbed him as he jumped. I could have laid a shoulder into him and brought him down.

Instead, I did nothing. The kid slammed the ball home and the Greyhounds hit the century mark in points. Their bench went nuts—it was as if they had just won state.

All these years later, I still regret not taking him down. Sure it would have been a foul and I probably would have been ejected. But I would have prevented the humiliation of having my nose rubbed in it during an already embarrassing night.

All these years later, I’m still pissed East’s coach would leave his best player in the game. And that not only was he still playing, he was cherry picking. It was a blatant disregard of sportsmanship, and it showed an utter lack of class on the coach's part.

To listen to Keith Brooking, he’d have you believing that was comparable to what the Vikings did Sunday at the end of their 34-3 victory over the Cowboys. In case you somehow missed this, Brett Favre threw a touchdown pass on fourth-down late in the game and Brooking, a Cowboys linebacker, took umbrage. He charged to the Vikings’ sideline and began jawing at the players and coaches.

“I just thought what happened at the end of the game was disrespectful,” Brooking said in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It was classless and all the things that are in that category. I’ll say it to the Vikings organization and whoever is over there calling plays. It wasn’t the right thing to do at that time. Period.”

Here’s the deal though, Brooking, this is professional sports. You get paid a lot of money to do your job, which is to stop the other team from scoring. You failed to do that time and again on Sunday.

It’s possible Brooking’s postgame comments included his admission that the Cowboys were badly outplayed. I don’t know. But what was published and reported made Brooking look bad … really bad. Even without the final touchdown, the game was never close. How much better would he feel if the final had been 27-3? Or 30-3 if the Vikings had kicked a field goal instead of going for it?

In pro sports, you play as hard as you can for the entire game. People pay good money to be there and they deserve an honest effort. Just because the Cowboys quit, doesn’t mean the Vikings had to, also.

That is the fundamental difference between what happened on that basketball court 24 years ago and what took place in the Metrodome on Sunday. In pro sports, there is no running up the score. That’s a term used for situations when amateurs sometimes find themselves badly overmatched through no fault of their own.

A high school coach who encourages his team to keep pouring on points against an overmatched team teaches his players it’s all right to humiliate someone with less talent. A professional coach who does that teaches his players there is no letting up, especially in the playoffs.

The stupid part of this whole thing is how short everyone’s memories are. In Week 17 of the season the Cowboys led the Eagles 24-0 with 2:26 left to play. On fourth down with the game long decided, the Cowboys opted to throw from the shotgun at the Eagles’ 35.

Of course, Tony Romo was sacked on that play, so the Cowboys didn’t have to face accusations of running up the score. Odd, I don't remember Brooking saying anything about that.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's #&%! Norm Green's fault!

I really forgot how much the North Stars and Blackhawks hated each other. The rivalry even tops anything between the Packers and Vikings, I think.

Yet tonight I'll be cheering for the Hawks as they face the Wild. Believe me, if the North Stars hadn't left Minnesota I never would have become a Hawks fans. But that's not what happened. Norm Green up and stole the team away from Minnesota, leaving me to look elsewhere for a home team.

Still, it's fun to look back on the old days and remember how much we hated the Hawks. For old times' sake, join with me once more in this memorable chant that echoed through the Met Center: Secord sucks! Secord sucks! Secord sucks!