The L: Rats, everyone knows that following a kind of nadir in the public consciousness, the NHL experienced a renaissance last year. Great young stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin stepped to the fore and the entirety of the playoffs were vibrant and exciting. But... wasn't that like several days ago? Is it really time to expect anyone to pay attention at this point with the baseball playoffs beginning and the NFL season in full swing?
Ratso: The average Joe on the street doesn't care about hockey, doesn't understand it, and can't follow the game, so what difference does it make if he's tailgating in a parking lot in subzero weather on any given Sunday morning or if he's wearing three layers of thermals and watching a baseball game close to midnight in the Rocky Mountains instead of chomping on a hot dog at the Nassau Coliseum taking in the hapless Islanders home opener? Hockey's a deviant sport. Its cognoscenti get off on a feeling of exclusivity, like foodies who've just discovered the newest Asian fusion restaurant in Flushing. First of all, it's hard to watch and comprehend a hockey game unless you've actually played the sport. And to play hockey means a substantial investment in equipment: skates, helmets, shoulder pads, shin guards, garter belts...
The L: In our private discussions, you have suggested with customary subtlety that you have slightly diverse opinions regarding the young NHL flagship stars Crosby and Ovechkin. Would you, for the benefit of out readership, elucidate your views on both and what we might expect for the remainder of their careers?
Ratso: Crosby is a whiner. He's been anointed by the NHL brain trust (and I'm using that word extremely loosely) as the "face" of the game, so I guess he feels that that designation mandates that every referee's call should go in favor of the alpha Penguin and his arctic brood. He's also a sourpuss who seems to go about his business on the ice like a robot, devoid of emotion. Contrast that with Alexander Ovechkin, a much more dynamic and complete player who can bowl you over, strip the puck and deposit it behind your goalie before you can raise your 32 ounce Bud Light to your lips. And Ovechkin is extremely lovable, each goal occasions an outpouring of emotion, frenzied leaps up against the glass, chest bumps with linemates, etc. He's been criticized for his outlandish celebrations by none other than the Prince of Xenophobia, loudmouth Canadian sportscaster Don Cherry, whose own sartorial excesses would make Iceberg Slim blush, so it's obvious that Alexander's on the right track.
I was actually expounding on my distaste for Crosby and my preference for Ovechkin at the opening night party for my friend Sean Avery's new sports bar, Warren 77 in Tribeca. It was near the end of the night and I was pretty soused as I regaled Hank Lundqvist, Aves, and Avery's close friend from the Dallas Stars, Brad Richards, expressing my disappointment that the Penguins had ousted Ovechkin's Capitals from the Stanley Cup quest. I was going on and on about Crosby's whiny nature and contrasting it with Ovechkin's joyfulness when I registered a pained expression on Richards' face that was independent of the bar food and alcohol that he had consumed. "Wait, don't tell me that Crosby's your best friend?" I suddenly surmised. "We grew up with each other," Richards confessed. Just my luck, I was trashing one of the two Nova Scotians to play professional ice hockey to the other! The Dallas pivot then informed me that Crosby was really a swell guy, that he had taken on the mantle of being hockey's messiah since he was a teenager and that he was doing a great job as the sports ambassador to who-knows-what important audience. I didn't buy any of it but Richards is a lot bigger than me so I humbly retreated off my soapbox. I have to admit that Crosby did come up big in game seven of the Cup finals last year. Maybe having his name embossed on the cup will make him a little more personable this year.
The L: New York seems never to be in shortage of enigmatic, polarizing athletes, but few befuddle and vex like the aforementioned Ranger wing Sean Avery. This is an individual who, despite his manifest abilities, seems to wear out his welcome wherever he goes with a kind of willful expediency. I know you are a fan of Avery's. How should Rangers fans metabolize his idiosyncrasies, and why should they love him?
Ratso: Ranger fans already love Avery and for good reason. The Rangers record with Avery in the lineup is decidedly better than without the league's premier agitator. Avery is the Babe Ruth of Blabber. A few pointed barbs on the ice-"sloppy seconds" anyone?-and the Grate One reduces his opponents into slobbering Neanderthals hell-bent on dismembering him, which opens up the ice for his linemates. Case in point: Avery plays his first game the other night after coming back from a knee injury and he's instrumental in two of the three Rangers goals against Anaheim. First he entices a Duck defenseman to maul him resulting in a Ranger power play goal. Then, on a subsequent power play, he moves the puck behind the net and goads future hall of famer Scott Niedermayer into leaving his perch in front of his goalie to level Avery, which leaves Ranger rookie Anisimov all alone in front of the goal for an easy tap in and his first NHL goal and the icing on the cake of another victory.
And Avery works on his psychological warfare-doing painstaking research on his opponents and finding their psychological Achilles heels, then tailor-making his on-ice comments to induce their maximum psychosis quotients. I don't think you'll have to worry about Sean wearing out his welcome in New York. He's probably the smartest hockey player I've met and he was born to shine in the Big Apple. After a short self-imposed exile in Dallas, thousands of miles from the Beatrice Inn, he extricated himself from an untenable situation where the senior "leadership" of the team, hypocrites like Modano and Turco, made his life miserable. I'm sure Sean is still chuckling that the self-righteous owner of the Stars, Tom Hicks, is still on the hook for half of his salary the next few years. Lost in all the brouhaha over his verbal dexterity is the fact that Aves is an extremely talented passer, a fleet skater, and someone who plays every shift with amazing intensity. He's a perfect match with Rangers coach Tortorella. [More on him later.]
The L: What is your view of the NHL's future, in light of the bankruptcy of the Phoenix franchise and ongoing difficulties in expanding the popularity of the sport outside of its wheelhouse of Canada and the Northeastern US? As a sport which has expanded and contracted with the relative frequency of an accordion, what is the best prescription for bringing the most exciting product to the largest audience? Scaled-back ambitions or an optimistic view of recapturing the sort of coast-to-coast popularity experienced during the Islanders dynasty and subsequent Gretzky boom?
Ratso: There are cynical conspiracy theorists who maintain that NBA Commissioner David Stern dispatched his former associate Gary Bettman to the NHL to sabotage a sport that was on the cusp of surpassing Stern's hoop dreams. Certainly you could point to the lockout as proof positive that NHL owners (with the exceptions of Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle and Washington's brilliant AOL founder Ted Leonsis) make Marge Schott look like a brain surgeon. I'm extremely dubious about putting a hockey team in a desert or in an environment where the only ice one can ever encounter is floating in their cocktails. Look, if you want to put a hockey team in fucking Phoenix at least have the foresight to build a new arena close to where your potential audience lives, not 30 miles away! You have the guy who founded Blackberry, a good ole Canadian billionaire, who wants nothing more than to own an NHL franchise yet he's blackballed from NHL ownership in favor of a myriad of shady businessmen who went straight from their executive suites to the local clinker. I have two words for Commissioner Bettman: background checks.
The L: What can we expect from the Rangers? Is a deep playoff run necessary to characterize the season as a success? And who do you see taking the cup? Will the Penguins establish another dynasty or was that a fluke?
Ratso: I think the Rangers will surprise all of the so-called hockey pundits who envision them on the outside looking in for a playoff berth. First of all, these morons don't even do their homework. They point at the alleged fragility of the Rangers new supersniper Marian Gaborik who missed a large portion of the last three seasons to injury. But the problem had been that Gaborik's hip ailment had been misdiagnosed and treated for two years as groin injuries so it wasn't until he had the hip surgery last year that he could look forward to a productive season. He came back after the proper procedure and scored at a goal a game pace last year. And this year he's tearing it up the first few games. The Rangers have also been drafting very adroitly the last few years and the organization's trees are bearing strong fruit indeed. Del Zotto, a nineteen-year-old defenseman, is already captaining a suddenly revitalized power play. Gilroy, the Hobey Baker winner (MVP of college hockey) adds another offensive element on the back line.
But the most important move was the firing of Coach Renney last year. Renney was a supercilious know-it-all who Tefloned himself from criticism by toadying up to the press corps. Renney's "system"-five in the picture-was a reactive defense-oriented approach that nullified the offensive instincts of among others, Jaromir Jagr, one of the greatest players of all time. Eventually this suffocating system prompted the team quitting on the preppy, "professorial" Renney, whose post-game press conferences could have been scripted by Casey Stengel for all the sense they made. Think Yogi Berra meets Frasier Crane. That being said, Sather went out and hired one of the best coaches ever, John Tortorella, a Boston native who had an all-too brief tenure as interim coach of the Rangers a few years back before he piloted Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup. Torts is the polar opposite of Renney-passionate, emotional, hard assed, disdainful to the press corps-and his go-go system of pressuring the puck and forechecking an opponent to distraction is already bearing fruit. Of course, a balls to the halfwall puck pressuring system can only succeed if you have a potential Vezina trophyist in goal and the Rangers have that in the stingy Swede, Henrik Lundqvist, who's on his way to breaking record after record in the few short years he's been between the Rangers pipes. There are some real good young Russians learning on the job in New York and a monster named Grachev interning in Hartford, as well as homebred youngsters like Dubinsky and Callahan and Staal and Girardi who are coming into their own this season, eating up the massive amounts of ice time they richly deserved but never got under the Renney regime, where "requisite experience" was the keyword, no matter how badly a veteran might stink up the ice.
Then you have Avery back who will go down in hockey history for single-handedly driving Devil's goalie Martin Brodeur to distraction and a quick exit the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. So I would be disappointed if the Rangers don't go deep into the playoffs this year. But at least, under Torts system, we'll be treated to an exciting 82-game regular season, not the snooze fest that Renney inflicted on us season after tedious season. And if the Rangers don't win the cup, there's always an early spring Yankee game. How much they charge for hotdogs at the new stadium?