Sports Have Always Been My Comfort Zone

I have long considered doing this, but it wasn’t until an old friend of mine, Doug Millar, made his own leap, and later challenged me to do the same, that I finally gave in. (Here you go Dougie, your double-dog-dare you, online push has worked!)

I have often delayed in getting started on something almost supernaturally, or perhaps it is simply Sweeney stubbornness (ya, I hear that is a thing. Don’t buy it!).  I was one of the last to get HDTV…I was one of the last to join twitter (and I am now a twit addict…or maybe just a twit).  But here we go, why not make the leap.  After all, I have never been accused of having nothing to say, and anyone who knows me will tell you the limits of 124 character on the Twitter-verse are far too confining for me.

What will this blog be?  I am not sure, it is such an infantile germ of an idea right now.  With all due respect to my friend Doug, who has begun his adventure in a humorous but thoughtful dive into his very existence, it will be nothing like that.  It will be a slightly less blusterous, slightly more literate Coach’s Corner, but with a lot less focus.  I will hit any and every sport that tickles my fancy at that moment.  But never soccer, I would never dignify soccer with my time.  Beautiful game my ass.

In my youth, I was always described as a hockey nut…and at my core, I still am.  Where so many of my friends of childhood no longer play the game, I have ineptly decided to take it on in adulthood.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory could not be more true when it comes to the game of ice hockey.  I say it all the time – how can I be expected to ever make up for 15 years of minor hockey most of my friends have played.  How do I make up for 3 practices a week, travel hockey, road trips to the far reaches of the province and beyond? How do I overcome a lack of formal instruction, power skating, or ever having been asked to perform a crossover?  I can’t (and I am not just referring to crossovers)…though it doesn’t stop me from holding myself to this impossible standard, or moments of frustration.  Reality is, I have never been a gifted athlete in any arena (unless Newfy Horseshoes is considered a sport, because I consider myself pretty damn good at that!).  I think my most charitable friends and teammates would call me a high effort athlete, a glue guy, and thinking mans player.  At worst, I was a guy people didn’t mind having around for a timely joke or to pass out post game beers.

Beyond that, I am a poolie…if I take even a moderate interest in a sport, it will likely involve some form of pool.  I usually get dragged into a March Madness pool, though like many, I generally do not hold any interest beyond the opening weekend.  I have become a hardcore fantasy football player.  I just entered our work Master’s Pool.  I am in two insanely deep, multi category keeper hockey pools.  And this Sunday, a group of friends, most of whom I have know since our Hillcrest days or earlier, will hold our 25th annual Playoff Hockey Pool.

The format has never changed, some of the teams have, guys have come and gone, but at its core, we likely have 10 of the 16 spots filled by the same guys for 15 years.  Up until about 5 years ago, we did the draft old school, live in my basement, with cut and paste newspaper stats, beers and a large heaping of trash talk.  There is always a running contest of who will try to take a player already selected, though it has consistently been done by the same two guys (sorry Rudgey and Roman, but it is true!).  And it is always so much fun to see how the different strategies play out.  The Hillman’s are the creators of the pool, somehow I have inherited stewardship of it, even though Shawn and Todd have never missed a year.  And usually the “East End Mayor” Terry Hillman joins us, though he still wants to draft Harold Snepsts and Shawn Burr.

Without fail, I will get asked what my strategy is this year?  The truth (and likely most of my pool will read this) – I don’t have a strategy.  With 16 guys drafting 10 players and a teams goalies, a random serpentine draft, to borrow one of my favorite Mike Tyson=ism “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.  This format requires you to bob and weave, react to what others are doing, and change on the fly.  My theory has always been I want 2-3 players from a team in each conference that I think can go the final.  And then 1-2 players from another team in each conference that I think can put up 8-10 points in a round or two.  More often than not, one of those “other teams” making a run will set me up to be in the money.

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Playoff hockey, and the pools, are my favorite.  It is truly a marathon, a grind.  And I think this year is going to be wild.  I don’t think there are clear locks in either conference.  But each conference has their own unique mood.

The Western Conference is going to be a war.  Once again, 2 very good teams with real Cup hopes, will lose in the first room.  It’s just reality.  Think about it, 2 of LA, San Jose, Anaheim and Nashville will go home in the first room, to be joined by at least one of Chicago, St. Louis or Dallas. If I gave you a Cup Final with two of those 7 teams, it would be great hockey.  But half of them are 1 and done.  I haven’t even hit on the fact that those Pacific playoff series are going to be physical hell to boot.  I simply think it is too tough to call on this side.  I worry the Blackhawks have to run out of gas at some point, as the core has played an incredible amount of hockey the past 3 years.  But that core is so sublimely talented, so focused on playing the game the right way and paying the price to win, it is hard to write them off.  I did so at my own peril last year.  The Kings have that look again that they are going to be a tough out.

I will go out on a bit of a limb here.  One of the teams that have seemingly personified playoff disappointment for the last decade (Sharks, Ducks or Blues) are going to come out of the West.  Going to be some late nights in April, as most of this will go down in Pacific time.

Now the Eastern Conference is a very different story…I would not describe there to be seven potential Cup winners on this side of the bracket.  In fact, between injuries and mediocrity, I think there are only three contenders.  Washington has been the best team in the league all year.  They are deep, they are explosive, but this is a franchise haunted by the ghosts of playoff failures past.  But they are certainly a contender, and in some “puke in my mouth as I say it” way, I think this may be their time.  My other concern for the Caps – they are not exactly rolling into the playoffs on a high, but more coasting in having clinched everything.  It is great to get a little rest before the grind of the playoffs, but history has shown that that “Go Switch” can’t always be flicked back on once the real games begin.  I am including Florida on my list for the East, though I think it is a year early for them, but why not.  They have an all world (and Twitter Mastermind) goalie, an underrated, deep defense, and a wealth of emerging forward talent.  Oh and did I forget the man, the myth, and the legend, #68?

Which takes me to my third contender {HOMER ALERT…HOMER ALERT – I must declare myself to be highly biased here, as a lifelong Penguins fan.  And I have the never to fit again #66 jersey to prove it!} the Pittsburgh Penguins.  This spring has been the March of the Penguins, as the coaching change has lit a fire under this team.  Do I have concerns, hell yeah.  This team has been a perpetual fraud since 2009.  Marc Andre Fleury has been more fragile come playoff time than a box of beer at a Friday night East End bush party.  Their best players (ya, looking at you Uncle Sid) have seldom risen the challenge when the times get tough.  The defense to my liking is a little soft for playoff hockey.  The powerplay has been an embarrassment given the wealth of talent.   So there, I have hit all the usual criticism and some that maybe not everyone has pointed out.  But there is a different vibe to this team right now.  They have some youth that can play.  Speed kills, and they have plenty of it. In my opinion, MA Fleury has been a brick house the past two playoffs (they have lost despite his excellence).  And for the first time since the ‘Ol 29er Phil Bourque was running amok in the 90’s, they can legitimately roll 4 lines, with guys that can hold a stick the right way, and identify the net at the far end.  And with that, I have likely cursed them to a 4 game sweep.

Well, one thing I didn’t promise was to be short.  As my middle school gym teacher once proclaimed, I am prone to bouts of verbal diarrhea.  I hope someone out there found this a useful distraction for 5 minutes, or got a couple of chuckles.  I doubt I will be this long again, but there is so many other topics to cover.  Until next time, win or lose, don’t laugh at your shoes.

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