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Father’s Day 2016: A Poem In The Cards

This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.

“..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
– Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”

“It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
–Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”

My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.

I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.

Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.

I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.

Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:

  • Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
  • Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
  • Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
  • Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.

Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.

Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.

One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.

It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.

One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.

Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.

Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.

Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.

When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.

Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.

Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.

Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.

When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.

Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.

The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.

The New New Devils

The last two seasons were not kind to Devils fans. After starting the 12-13 campaign in a nosedive, only to pull up with a glimmer of playoff hope before skidding off the end of the season’s runway, 13-14 wasn’t much better: inconsistent play, lack of scoring, sometimes muddled defense and an overall lack of coherence. I was hoping the ownership change would shake things up, and based on the first day of free agency, I am insanely thrilled I renewed the season tickets this year.

Martin Havlat is not a young gun, but he brings a great chemistry with Elias and that’s likely to translate into a better locker room environment. Put him in the right system with the right coach and he’ll score goals, move the puck, and create excitement. Think Jagr five years ago, and then add Jagr and Elias to the mix, and you smile.

I’m also impressed that the Devils didn’t bend and sign Brodeur. I sincerely, honestly, thoroughly hope that Marty decides to retire, rather than suffer through the ignominy of a few weeks of free agency. If you don’t have a deal early on, you’re not getting a deal, and if he waits for an early season injury and comes back to the game after an extended hiatus, it won’t be pretty for anyone. Marty is one of the all-time best, his number should be raised to the rafters amidst much fan adulation and maybe some more Elias sniffles, and that’s that. I also see this as a sign that the Devils ownership is committed to building a team, rather than replaying historical cards that held value years ago.

Then there’s one of my favorite players: Mike Cammalleri. His Canadiens player shirt was the first bit of non-Devils team wear I purchased. He’s tough, gritty, energetic, funny, and a nice guy to boot (yes, I’ve met him, and he impressed the daylights out of me by giving his father a hug before he greeted any other guests including his girlfriend). Think David Clarkson but with significantly better hands and speed. Before any criticizes his two tours through Calgary, note that the Flames were unable to produce much with Jarome Iginla either. Put Cammalleri on a line with Elias at center and you’ll see some of those fancy passing plays turn into goals. Like Gionta, he plays bigger than he is, and every time he played at the Rock, he was on the scoresheet. Maybe the place likes him already.

Free agents have a tantalizing effect on fans: they look shiny, exciting and new, and as the season unfolds you see exactly what your ticket, food and parking dollars are funding. A healthy and head-intact Ryan Clowe, a Michael Ryder with someone who can feed him the puck, and a feisty Cammalleri reshape this team with lots of potential energy – if it produces chemistry, fun, and some wins, we can still be cheering loudly for hockey in May.

The Life and Times of Ryan Carter’s Moustache

About 11 months ago, giddy after the Devils OT win over the Rangers to move on to the Stanley Cup Finals, I decided that Ryan Carter’s moustache needed its own web site. The turning point for me was in Game 5, which I was forced to watch at the Sports Page in Mountain View, California (a dive bar that used to be a true dump before it was given the implicit upgrade of being near the Googleplex). Carter scored a monster goal and I tipped the bartender an integer multiple of the price of the Mountain Dew I used to wash down the remainder of my garlic fries as a thank-you for putting the game on just for my cheering pleasure. Carter’s playoff ‘stache was a statement, a symbol, a beacon of hope, and quite possibly an entire 11th grade English essay waiting to be written. In my case, it led me to stay up until 2am creating a web site in its honor.

Fast forward one foreshortened hockey season, and there is no playoff joy in New Jersey, no Devilish moustaches to rival that of our own mascot, nothing to do but jeer the Rangers and wish for hope to spring eternal in Boston. I’m retiring Carter’s stache-site, and present my attempts to write under a more amusing “nom de stache.” At this point, I’ll do anything for a hockey laugh.

Better Than A Beard (May 26, 2012)

Hi, I’m Ryan Carter’s moustache, and I’m going to the Stanely Cup Finals. Who needs a beard when you can rock the upper lip like me? I’m the most famous 16 hairs in hockey.

I’m the Frosty the Snowman of the hockey springtime: here now, down the drain only when the time is right.

My Favorite Moustaches (May 26, 2012)

Best moustache on the team: NJ Devil, by a longshot. I mean, our mascot has a porn moustache that’s nearly 3 feet wide. Clarkson might be second.

Best moustache in hockey: George Parros, Anaheim Ducks. Long before it was fashionable, and he does good charity work. Makes me proud. Certainly the most erudite stache on ice.

Best LA Kings moustache: Wil Wheaton, Kings fan, actor and writer. Love that guy (I’m a huge fan of Eureka and the Guild, okay? Need to watch something on those cross-country flights).

Fear, Stick, and Poke (May 26, 2012)

What I’m afraid of: high sticks (need to shave to get stitches in there, ask Zubbie), Gillette, Shick and Norelco products.

What fears me: Are you kidding? Henrik Lundqvist is going to have bad dreams about my hirsuite heft in front of him all summer long. 4th line on the ice, first on the upper lip.

Christmas in May (May 26, 2012)

Two of them, actually.

May is the best – for me, it’s that time of year when you’ve survived the first round of the playoffs, you know you’re not going to be some short-term, hair today-gone tomorrow affair, but the real deal. A playoff beard for those making a statement, or incapable of making more facial hair. Either way, when the rest of the world is cleaning up for the beach or graduation or whatever other warmer weather pursuits entertain, I’m looking to go public. Not like Facebook, of course.

Close runner-up: November. Exactly six months away. Start of hockey season, when normally I’d be in hibernation, forgotten on the other end of vacation, camps, and early season predictions by The Hockey News that are completely useless. November is the more formal name for Movember, the annual campaign to raise awareness for prostate and other men’s cancers.

For me, it’s like Christmas in June, because May is more like Christmas. Henrique said that last night on-ice? Rook steals all my lines.

Kovy the Krank (June 1, 2012)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kovy is just hilarious, sticking a tab of smelling salts right there in front of me. I’ve never been shoved into a urinal cake, but you get the idea. Pungent stuff. Harsh. Tangy. Kind of like Josefson’s gear. You spend your whole existence under Carter’s nose, you pick these things up.

The practical joker on this team was Gomez. Never played with him, but he thought he was pretty funny when he tried giving Patty a haircut. Look where that got him — Gomez has no hair now and scored one goal in what, a hundred games? Not that I’m wishing anything bad on Kovy, he’s a good guy, and he’s here for the duration, but these little stunts go both ways.

I’m getting Master Carter to replace Kovy’s pre-game playlist with the very best of Verka Serduchka:

Jump, jump indeed – what goes around the bench, Kovy…..

One At A Time (June 6, 2012)

One game at a time.

One shift at a time.

One shot at a time.

One facial hair at a time.

The difference in Game 4? Henrique decided that I’m the epitome of power, and trimmed up to match up. And he scored another game winner.

Even The Fans Voice thinks I’m funny.

Brothers In Arms (And Lips And Hair) (June 7, 2012)

As a player, or at least part of a player for part of the season, I’m not supposed to “make friends” with the media. Unbiased communications and independent thought and transparency and other SAT words (hey, I know the SAT, I went to Minnesota State Mankato, or at least Ryan did and I made the rare appearance at a frat party…).

But I just love Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. He’s frank and funny and frankly funny most of the time. I wouldn’t mind having a locker stall next to his. If he could skate, that is. He’s like a rare combination of John Scalzi and, well, Bob Woodward. And he most definitely appreciates the finer strands of facial hair.

Must-read post-game commentary on Henrique following me to moustache-ville. Then again, if someone said highlighting your hair would bring luck, Henrique would do that too and then go score another big goal. Oh wait, that was Elias like five years ago. Both good guys, both came up big last night.

What I need to know is: Why isn’t anyone interviewing NJ Devil about his ‘stache? Right — he can’t talk, he’s the mascot. Like those body puppets in Disneyland but with a totally bad-ass attitude and cheerleaders who follow him around (so totally not LA it’s laughable). He started this whole thing in 1999, the year the Devils decided he needed to look more like Tom Selleck and less like a normal mascot.

Not Buying It (June 7, 2012)

Not hockey related. Mostly not.

A very hip Euro-bud (not Patty, Sykie, Zubie or anyone else wearing horns, k?) pointed me at a goatee shaving template. People are that spastic?

Then I thought about all of those Rangers fans leaving the Garden during the playoffs, and it kind of made sense — if you’re drunk enough, I guess a little plastic screen to keep you from looking like you were the subject of a frat prank is useful. And it probably prevents some folks from accidentally shaving off their noses, although the way the Garden smells, being nasally challenged might be a suitable win.

I Am Not Afraid (June 9, 2012)

I have no fear (mostly because I have no glands to generate whatever hormones are associated with fear, being made of hair, that is). But I have no fear of ending up in the wastebasket in my bathroom, or washed down the drain with some Barbasol. I am a bigger stache than that. Lo, though I skate through the San Fernando valley of overpaid acting talent and bad officiating, I fear not, because Gionta is with me (and he’s way bushier).

But seriously, the way people are carrying on about the 3-1 games advantage you’d think we were Napoleon planning to invade the KHL. The “1% chance of winning after 3-0” and “9% chance after 3-1” deficits are historical averages, not representative of a game played in the here and now. You can’t even look at it like a series of coin flips, hoping it comes up heads four times in a row. Coin flips are independent, the next doesn’t care about the results of the last (except in some weird sci-fi stuff that Zubie reads on trips to Canada, but that’s another story).

Successive hockey games are dependent trials. You win one, get the other guys off their stride, playing your way, making adjustments, and you improve your chances of winning the next. So if it’s 3-1, then it’s 3-2, guess what? 3-3 looks a lot more reasonable. One game, one period, one shift, one shot at a time.

Want to be afraid? If this series goes the distance, Game 7 will be made into the newest Hollywood horror flick called “Wednesday the 14th”. If Goon got to production, so can this one. I, of course, will have a cameo playing myself. Don’t tell Ryan that means I’m sticking around for the off-season. He’ll be afraid (and itchy).

Down The Drain (June 15, 2012)

“Ignominy” is such a great SAT word. Really is. And I even had a new definition for it: ending up in an interceptor pipe in Southern California, getting washed out with the sewage, loose hair and bad movie ideas that spring from the Hollywood Hills. Sigh. It was a great run, and I’m proud of my teammates for what we accomplished, as well as for truly appreciating the beauty of the singular stache when the playoff beard seems overdone.

To the fans: thank you for cheering until the last horn. For those of you (especially the ladies) who sported moustaches, I’ll only repeat what my mom said: Don’t do that to your face or you’ll look like that for the rest of your life. But stache-bearing fans are always welcome at our games. To Kevin Clark, the best arena announcer of any sport, I know my name doesn’t give you much to work with unlike a Zubrus or that eye-chart Kovulchuk, but thanks for belting me out with the pride and energy you bring to every day of your job.

July 1st I’m a free agent, but that’s a business for agents and laywers and GMs and other non-mustacioed people. I think this team has another deep run in it, and there’s nothing I would love more than to re-appear, Tony Blundetto like, on a moist April day in Newark. For now, kids, get those beach bodies in shape, forget about (hockey) life for just a little while, and don’t forget to wave those towels.

A Point on the Number Line

With apologies to Trey Anastasio and Phish, today was a trip up and down the number line.

It was the last day of Mites hockey, completing my first year as coach. It’s been deeply satisfying watching these young players progress through the year as players and teammates. I got to work with other coaches who donated their time and patience in copious quantities. We had an amazing group of parents who got their kids all over NJ, frequently before 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, and who cheered, supported and encouraged good sportsmanship in all the right quantities. As I thanked my team last week, after our last tournament game, it was a pleasure to borrow a few hours a week of their lives — as the saying goes, the days are long but the years are very short, and each hour shared with a sports program is a gift to be valued.

Watching the parents and their kids I was reminded of a weekend exactly a decade ago. Bubba was wrapping his second season of travel hockey, competing in a tournament in Lake Placid. With banners, t-shirts and Olympic ephemera reminding you of the Miracle on Ice and the emergence of a particularly American strain of hockey, it’s easy to wish for big things. We found ourselves competing in the bronze medal game; only the winner would take something home other than a lot of memories.

Bubba’s team lost in double overtime.

About an hour into our 5-hour ride home, with Bubba being quieter than usual, I reminded him that with tryouts coming up for the next season, he’d had a chance to “trade up” for jersey #26, the number-sake of favorite Devil Patrik Elias. I had been late to the game (literally) on the day jersey numbers were chosen, and Ben got a second choice. There are so few points of personal selection when it comes to jerseys – the team crest is something you work for; the name above your digits is given to you by heritage, but you get to pick the most obvious part of the design.

“I’m going to keep #8, Dad” was Bubba’s reply, “it’s my number now too”. As all twenty readers know, #8 has been “my number” since 1972 when I became a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Willie Stargell, and it has graced nearly every jersey for which I’ve had the honor of choosing the number. Of all of the moments of 10 years of club hockey and 4 years of high school hockey, from state tournaments to rivalries to the birth of long-term friendships, that ride home remains my favorite.

To quote Jodi Picoult, sometimes the miracle is the thing that didn’t happen.

Hockey Is Back

Hockey is back, and despite all of the bad feelings during the lockout, I’m loving it. Devils win, Flyers lose, Rangers lose.

I watched the Penguins-Flyers game just to bark at the Flyers in a warm up for the Devils home opener on Tuesday.

I’ve made up my first nickname of the season – the Kovulchuk-Zajac-Zubrus line shall be known as the Scrabble Line (total value 63, and only Valeri Zelepukin would be worth more than Zajac, based only consonant placement and not puck control).

It’s great seeing the big fourth line from the playoffs — the CBGB (Carter Bernier and Gionta’s Brother) line — back as the third line, and rookie Stefan Matteau anchoring the fourth line. Marty looks like the rest and late start served him well. Patrik Elias’ “skating age” is much younger than his chronological 36 and change. Zid looks stronger than the beginning of last season. Travis Zajac is still the man.

Everything hockey related is clearly rust-tinted. A line’s worth of Devils making sloppy passes. msg.com website was down for an hour. NHL’s scoreboard didn’t provide any updates for most of the evening. And some things never change – the MSG Network Islanders announcers still cannot pronounce Patrik Elias’ name properly, which is both disrespectful to Patty and their own profession.

Ryan Sutter-Zach Parise are a combined -2 in their Minnesota debut. I guess $194 million doesn’t go as far as it did pre-lockout. Maybe they’ll realize that Heatley isn’t the same kind of playmaker as Zajac or Elias.

#hockeyisback people. Loudness ensues.

Free Agency vs Loyalty

Zach Parise is going to play out his hockey days in the first state of hockey. I’m not sure of the proper nomenclature for an individual on a team that uses a non-plural name – he’s a Wild or a member of the Wild or as my Yiddish speaking relatives would say, a vilde. That’s as far as the name-calling will go; in the few days since the signing was announced I experienced mild anger and then was quickly over it.

The facts are that Parise is a great player and was a solid captain. His grit and fire during the Rangers series contributed heavily to the Devils making it to the Finals. He was a solid scorer during the regular season, and has been fun to watch since his rookie year. He was one of the guys you could count on to sign oddball objects after practice (in the days of open practices at South Mountain), and he had that homey air that made you believe what he said. He chose not to talk to the media after a particularly bad playoff game, then came back and played his heart out two nights later. Actions, not words.

It’s words, however, that stuck with me after hearing of Parise’s decision to leave New Jersey, specifically: winning, money, and family.

Parise repeatedly said he wanted to win, and go play for a team with the best chance of winning. Clearly, as a leader and scorer, he can move the needle on most teams in the league, but the Wild were last in the league in scoring even after bringing Dany Healtey and Devon Setoguchi onto the top line. Winning is a function of all positions on the ice, coaching, and player motivation. Compare the Devils in the first and second halves of the 2010-2011 season.

What bothers me most about his contract is the large up front bonus this year – it’s a hedge against a player lockout, and it’s effectively betting against himself, the league and his peers in the Player’s Association. It’s equivalent to selling your own company stock short because you’re afraid it might go down — my employer (and most others) prohibit such behavior, and my personal attitude is that if you aren’t making the stock more valuable, you’re part of the problem. Even the messaging of this structure has to inject tension where compromise would be in everyone’s best interests.

The draw of family in Minnesota was clearly strong, but part of being a pro athlete is making your home where your team hangs its helmets. Hedberg asked for a two-year deal so he could uproot his school-aged kids and wife and move them to New Jersey. Comparisons to over-compensating sports fathers like Carlos Gomez (father of 100-games-goalless-Scott Gomez), or overly-important sports spouses like Veronika Varekova (the former Mrs. Peter Nedved, who refused to move to Edmonton), are obvious but misplaced – if Parise wanted to play in front of his parents, $90M buys a lot of airplane tickets, nice North Jersey apartments, and dinners with the grandkids. Minnesota is home, it’s a tremendously passionate place for hockey, but the Devils and their fans invested in Zach from the 2003 draft through his captaincy. Home can be cut from that kind of whole cloth.

I can’t dismiss what Parise did with the Devils or his skills on and off the ice. He helped me watch a Stanley Cup Finals with my college-bound son, and there was a lot of joy in the house thanks to his efforts, not just this season but through his career. It’s sad, though, when free agency pits loyalty against self, and upsetting when a team leader doesn’t follow the lead of other players who have benefitted from Lamariello largesse (Elias and Brodeur specifically). If the Wild don’t turn into a contender within a few short years, and Parise’s potential Hall of Fame career is relegated to a few statistical entries, then we can question loyalty over free agency and legacy over personality.

Four Reasons The Devils Will Beat The Rangers

I’m going to invite the evil eye and all other manners of superstitious bad karma by saying the Devils will beat the Rangers to go on to the Stanley Cup Finals (against the LA Kings, who have taken the slot reserved for “One of Gretzky’s Former Teams”). I’m fully prepared to ward off all untoward energies, having packed my playoff towel and my “Chico Eats” t-shirt to enjoy the game remotely tomorrow night. The parallels to 2000 are plentiful: I’m in a Starwood hotel, watching a big game against a hated rival, and I’ll likely be yelling at the TV. In 2000, I got a call from a Westin front desk manager asking me exactly who “Freakin’ Brylin” was and if he could do what he was doing without me hollering. We know how that one ended up (I now stay at another hotel in the Boston area).

Without further historical arcana, here are four reasons the Devils are going deep(er):

Creativity. First the sports press said the Devils couldn’t get by the Rangers’ shot-blocking. Then it was the Rangers defensive scoring prowess. And the Lundqvist meme keeps surfacing like a bad Facebook virus. The Devils are winning by being creative, and for that credit goes equally to the players and Peter DeBoer. On the first goal in Game 4, Josefson set a huge scren in front (in his first playoff game); on the second goal Parise waited for the shot-blocker to slide wide, then fed Zajac. The oft-repeated basic tenet of hockey is to create time and space – time moving with the puck, space moving without it. The Devils are doing both to control the pace of play, and more important, control the shape of play in the attack zone. Leave your feet all you want to block shots — they’ll just skate around.

Responsibility: Parise decided not to talk to the media after Game 3, then came up huge in Game 4. Everyone is focused on the job at hand, and it translates into every little detail of the game. Was I sad to see Petr Sykora in the press box for Game 4? Yes, but the decision to play Josefson was smart. DeBoer is making good calls and the team is sticking with him, his decisions and his style. Elias may not have a point this series, but he’s running the forecheck from center or left wing, driving the power play from the half boards and killing penalties. The Rangers blue line gets the press, but Bryce Salvador has the highest plus/minus rating on both teams at +9.

Poise: The Rangers lost it in Game 4. Hagelin took two dumb penalties on either end of consecutive shifts. Mike Rupp lost any remaining fans he had in the Devils Army when he sucker punched Brodeur. Tortorella can whine about picks and missed calls, but that goes out the window when he races to the glass at the end of his bench, finger wagging, to scream at DeBoer.

Respect. While in the Tortorella vein, the same coach who made a stink about DeBoer starting his scrapper line (in March) sent out Bickel, Boyle and Rupp late in the third period of a game in which they were down two goals. The Rangers have had two players suspended during the playoffs for head shots, and Gaborik received an implicit gift for not having a sit-down with Shanahan regarding his elbow to the head in Game 4. The issue of respect is more than respect for the game or for your fellow athletes; it’s about conducting yourself with a high ethical standard at all times. A number of my regular Devils fan crew have tried to put our collective fingers on what we despise about the Rangers, and I think it comes down to respect – despite a storied arena, a 85 year old Original Six history, and a penchant for buying the premier free agents every season, the Rangers never seem to exhibit respect in any way, and it surfaces as an air of superiority or above-the-law behavior that is tiring even when not echoed by Rangers fans. That lack of respect shows up when Mike Rupp punches his former team mate, or Chris Drury deteriorates so badly he is bought out of his exhorbitant contract, or Scott Gomez forgets how to score goals and make plays (that time and space thing again), or why Bobby Holik believes he is the hockey themed Albert Camus whenever he opens his mouth.

For all that is good, fun, and competitive about a simple game played by simple men: Devils in 6.

Five Reasons The Devils Can Knock Off The Flyers

The Devils can knock off the Flyers, probably in six or seven games, because they have the right ingredients with the right blend at the right time.

1. They do the little things. Clarkson’s Game 2-winning goal doesn’t happen if Elias doesn’t poke-check the puck away from his man on the half-boards. It’s not on the scoresheet, but that play turned a Flyers breakout into a goal-scoring chance for the Devils. Elias, Greene and Henrique have been executing the small area game very well.

2. Bryzgalov lost the nerves contest. Bryz started looking shaky handling a puck in front of the net, and shortly after that Larsson went top shelf on him; a few bouncing pucks didn’t take Larsson off his game. I don’t think the Rock needs to filled with fans wearing bear masks or carrying boxes from Build-A-Bear Workshop (although that would be really funny), but keeping Bryzgalov thinking is to the Devils’ advantage. Philadelphia can’t put their other Bob-lehead in net; the Devils owned him this season.

3. Matching lines and hitting hard works. Briere was -3 in Game 2, mostly because Larsson and Volchenkov, along with Henrique’s line, were pounding him and Giroux with regularity. The fact that Wayne Simmonds went flat-line stupid at the end of Game 2 indicates that frustrations are high.

4. The fourth line has stepped up. When you can roll four lines your top two lines are more productive. And the Devils’ fourth line has been outstanding through the playoffs.

5. You add by subtracting a negative. Kovulchuk wasn’t at his regular performance level, and finally resolving his status make everyone else’s job more clear. The Devils have shown they can stick to a system and work through adversity.

What else do I want? I’d like Sherry Ross to stop making inane comments and then repeating them ad nauseum. I’d like the NBC commentators to listen to Doc Emrick to hear how play by play can flow beautifully without comments that sound like Ross cast-offs. I’d like to understand how an obstruction penalty can be called after the horn has sounded (end of Period 2, Game 2) when there’s no movement in on-going play with which to interfere. And I’d like Bryce Salvador to score another goal.

Career Goals and Points

I stand corrected – a few weeks ago I posted that 2011-2012 would be the last year in Patrik Elias’ contract with the Devils. It’s not; I was off by a year and inadvertently rushed him out the door. No, no, no, no didn’t want to do that.

Let’s just say that a guy who knows a guy yelled at me for this, and says Patty is here for 1,000 career points (or more). With 816 career points in the NHL, all with the Devils, and averaging roughly 70 points a year, that’s two-three more solidly productive years. I’ll sign up to watch and cheer for those career goals (and points). And implicit in that is the hope that the NHL suffers no further labor issues, and that players benefit from a CBA that respects seniority, loyalty and market dynamics.

What I find amusing is that Bubba and I were just talking about Elias’ career with the Devils, and how he’s not only the scoring leader but also the “freshman development” leader. This came after a hot day of summer football practice spent indoctrinating incoming (high school) freshman, and thinking about his role as a literal senior on the field. As I’ve written here before, if the lessons Bubba takes from Elias are about loyalty (think contract), friendship (think Sykora jersey in 2000), leadership on and off the ice, flexibility (played all three forward positions this year), and dealing with negativism (when asked what he did differently to pick up scoring in the 2003 Cup Finals, Elias said “Didn’t listen to you guys” to the press), then he’s chosen a hero wisely for solid points and career goals.

Not With A Bang But A Whimper

This is the way the 2010-2011 hockey world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper (and apologies to T S Eliot).

For the first time since we began following our hometown hockey boys, there is no April joy, no second season, no reason to start watching out of market games because of their scheduling implications. The only things left to do are cheer against the Rangers and watch Zach Parise improve in his last four games before free agency.

As badly as the season started, there were so many things of which to be proud since mid-January. Patrik Elias was on fire, skating perhaps better than before the lockout season, and finishing in the slot as well as he did in 2001-2002. First hat trick in five years – against Philly, a team he just pwns – is evidence enough. Some real chemistry on the lines was a positive. Going 24-4-2 over a 30 game stretch; more than a third of a season of close to perfect hockey in every imaginable shape and form. And yet there were disasters as well: not correcting the trajectory before the season was out of hand (whether it was MacLean, Langenbrunner, or some combination of them and other factors we’ll never know, but I’m personally hoping Dallas goes deep so the Langebrunner trade yields a prospect). Injuries to the defense left us with three freshmen on the blueline nearly the whole season. Colin White’s play improved tremendously once Lemaire was back, and then he was repeatedly scratched with a nagging injury down the stretch. Salvador is gone. Taormina is recovering. There’s such potential there with Volchenkov, Tallinder, and Green all healthy at the same time.

With a long off-season, here’s hoping the Devils stay in shape and train through the warm months. That they come back in September hungry, wanting to never feel this way in early April again. That the echoes of Montreal’s fans signing “Hey Hey, Goodbye” resonate and reverberate, and remind them of what preparation and conditioning and team play can deliver or deny. It was a tough year to be a fan, and yet the last third of the season saw some of the best attendance at the Rock since the buiding opened.

Personally, I’ve yet to watch a baseball game or take out the golf clubs, subconsciously not wanting the miracle of the last two months to end, never wanting to see a wizardly Jacques Lemarie behind the curtain frantically telling us to pay attention to the flash and not the reality. But reality has set in, and for the first time in 15 years, I’m sorry to see the arrival of summer.