Philip Larsen Taught Me To Take Chances

Jayson Megna and the Vancouver Canucks skated into New Jersey on December 6, 2016 – I was upset when I found out that it was going to snow and I wouldn’t be able to go.  As a Megna fan, since seeing him play with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, I’ve watched him move from one organization to another. I watched him with the Pens then the New York Rangers and now with the Canucks.

Around the 15 minute mark of the 2nd period of the game, Canucks defenseman Philip Larsen skated behind his net to gather a puck.  With his head down watching his stick, New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall launched his body through the 27 year-old Dane.  As Larsen fell backward, his head hit the ice and his body went lifeless.

Larsen’s on-ice teammates rushed to the boards near him to push Hall, unconcerned with the young Canuck lying frozen below them.  One flew in so fast his skate hit Larsen’s helmeted head, a stick flew onto Larsen’s body and Larsen’s outstretched gloved left hand was struck by another careless player.

As many emergency technicians will tell you, when you reach any accident scene you don’t move the injured – in fact you do whatever you can to keep their head and neck steady. This is why the skate hit to the helmet was so bothersome, if Larsen had a break in his spinal column and it was moved about, he could have been injured further by recklessness.

December 6, 2016 was also the day before Philip Larsen’s 27th birthday.  I don’t believe Larsen stepped on the ice thinking that he would be knocked out by a check.  In fact, I don’t believe any player steps onto the ice thinking they are going to get hurt by a check or a skate or a stick.  If you step out thinking that’s going to happen you probably shouldn’t be out there.

However, as I was watching the game live on television and saw Larsen lying in what can only be described as an “out cold” position, I couldn’t help but wonder about the fine line that we as humans are always walking.  What if I just watched Larsen get hit and die there? A guy behind the glass was so “amused” with the situation he was getting ready to take a picture of Larsen flat-out on the ice until Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom yelled at him. How could someone want a picture of that?  As I rewound it a few times to hope that maybe I saw him move after the hit I started asking myself what is wrong with us.

Honestly, don’t get me wrong, I like playing hockey.  I love the feeling of skating up and down the ice, the passing and shooting.  At some point we’ve crossed a line in society and it seems we are seeing the bubbling up of trouble.  When people are hurt and someone’s first reaction is to take a picture – that’s a problem.  Some may shout that society has become too politically correct but I think society HASN’T become humanity correct.  We’ve strayed away from caring about others to the point that we are so quick to act out in violence.

Yes, I get that some sports are full of violence and I understand that hockey is one of them. I am sure that Philip Larsen knew that hockey is a violent sport and I’m sure he’s committed violent acts.  That’s not the point, the point is that one violent act doesn’t deserve another or even deserve a cruel act.  He didn’t deserve to have someone take a picture of him as he was laying cold on the ice – possibly dying.

As the 26 year-old, at that time, was being attended to all I could think about was how much more life he had to live.  How fragile that line is that he walks when he steps on the ice.  Maybe he understands more about that line now or maybe he’s like other athletes and pushes it to the side to keep going.

Over a 12 year span in the NHL, Sidney Crosby has had at least three concussions leading me to wonder if the next one will be the last for one of the greatest hockey players ever. It’s more than possible that Larsen has one too after the hit that he took.  If knowing that these types of blows to the head can lead to devastating long-term effects like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, how can one want to keep rolling the dice?

I guess that’s a question we all face on a daily basis.  Every day that we get up, put on our clothes and go out we are facing some sort of odds – whatever they may be.  For all we know space junk could fall out of the sky as small of a possibility that there is, it still could happen.  Something could always happen, whatever it is.  The average life expectancy in the United States is 78 meaning we have to make the most of our time on this planet. Nothing is guaranteed and we shouldn’t take anything for granted.  A chance may come along and it may scream to be taken – take it.  One day when you are 77 years-old you may curse not taking it.  Or when you are 78 you may be thankful you did.

Messi’s Tax Case Proves We Need To Support Our Local Minor League Teams

Lionel Messi was sentenced to a jail sentence of 21 months in Spanish prison on July 6, 2016, although it is unlikely he will ever step foot behind bars.  It’s not what you are thinking though.  I know when I first saw that he would not be jailed, I thought it was because he was the superhuman Barcelona and Argentine football star who was getting away with it because of his prestige.  Spanish law says that if you are sentenced to a prison sentence of under two years for a tax crime you can serve that time through probation.  Voila!

According to Forbes magazine, Messi makes $81.4 million dollars a year.  He has been an endorser for Pepsi, Adidas, Proctor and Gamble and Banco Sabadell – a Spanish bank – just to name a few.  The Spanish tax court claims that he avoided paying taxes from 2007 to 2009 on some endorsements by having his father, Jorge, who he claims he let handle his money, set up shell companies in the U.K. and Switzerland as well as dumping money in Belize and Uruguay.

Sadly this case of tax fraud has been dragging through the courts since 2013 when the courts first decided to charge Jorge.  In 2014, the courts decided to step up against Messi by telling him that even though he claims he didn’t know he had to pay taxes because he didn’t understand the Spanish system that even when you go to school you understand you have to pay taxes.  The Messi duo did pay $10 million in taxes on endorsements in 2010 and 2011 and penalties on the back taxes.

What bothers me the most, is that this seems like another example of someone who is making millions of dollars trying to evade the system.  How can he use the excuse that he’s not from Spain so he doesn’t know he has to pay taxes?  Or that he let someone else handle his finances?  In February 2016, Javier Mascherano, another Barcelona player, was given a one year sentence for not paying his taxes.  His legal team didn’t want to pay $312,000 for overdue taxes.  I mean really?

Just the other day Andrew Luck, quarterback of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, signed a contract, 6 years-$140 million, which guarantees him $87 million no matter what.  He received $47 million of that as soon as the ink dried on his signature.  From July 1 to July 4, NBA free agents signed contracts around $3 billion dollars, you read that right, $3 billion dollars.  Guys who fill out the bench are getting paid millions – Cole Aldrich signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves for $22 million over 3 years.  He averaged 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds through 60 games for the LA Clippers last season.  Can you imagine?

Comedian John Oliver recently made a mockery of the New York Yankees and their Legends Suite tickets behind home plate on his HBO television show “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”  For the opening week of baseball season he gave away two tickets to the fan who would go to the game and act the craziest.  These seats in the Legends Suites and Champions Suite that make up the lower section near the field cost upwards of $1,600 a game face value.  If you watch a regular season game in the middle of the season you will see these seats empty because average fans can’t afford these seats.  Tickets on the field at Rogers Centre in Toronto, putting you as close to the action as you can get, are $297 according to the Blue Jays website.  That’s a huge gap in cost.  It may be affordable for someone who wants to experience baseball, not that it’s cheap.

Many fans have been priced out of the professional sports experience altogether between the ticket cost, food cost, parking cost and souvenir cost.  With the amount of money that is going into salaries it makes sense why many choose to sit at home and watch it on television.  The best seat is at home right?

Although if you give it a chance, you may find going to a minor league game can be the best place to be.  The New York Yankees AAA minor league team the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders tickets are anywhere from $10-$15.  The park is small, 10,000 people capacity, and the stars of the future play there as well as Yankees who are rehabbing on the way back to the majors.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins experience is similar, they play in a 8,300 capacity arena and the tickets can be anywhere near $30 a ticket.  It is a small arena and you are right near the action, plus there were a ton of the young Pens who won the Stanley Cup that spent time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

It’s hard to be a sports fan and feel sorry for guys like Messi, I know I don’t.  It’s strange to see guys that barely average 5 points a game get over $20 million dollars considering the era I grew up in.  In 1997, Dee Brown was the highest earner on the Boston Celtics at $3.5 million dollars.  Aldrich’s contract would put him in the Top 20 of NBA contracts in 1997.

It’s tough to see a guy get $87 million guaranteed and not wonder where all this money is coming from.  That money is all coming from the fans who buy shirts, hats and video games.  We can also choose to support our local clubs, the ones that we can afford to go see.  The ones that don’t get the national attention but are the ones that we should be giving our attention.  The ones that put back into our local economies with jobs, donations and community programs.  It’s time to start choosing wisely.

Phil Kessel Is My Hero and Conn Smythe Winner

I tried to be partial when it came to the Stanley Cup Finals and the San Jose Sharks.  During the run to the Finals, the Sharks had a little black cat run onto the ice, Jo Pawvelski as she would come to been named.  Many of you may not know the depth of my love of black cats, however my favorite soccer team is the Sunderland AFC Black Cats, also my first cat as an adult was a black cat named Madeline that I still miss to this day.  I’m very much a black cat person.

Taking that into consideration, I’ve tried not to be partial to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I grew up watching the great “Super” Mario Lemieux and his sidekick Jaromir Jagr beat teams up in the historic Igloo in Pittsburgh.  I always liked the guys who weren’t in the spotlight, guys like Martin Straka or Mike Needham.  Guys you probably wouldn’t find on the scoresheet night in or night out, but they were the guys who skated and did the little things.  These were guys who won draws or were able to get up and down the rink faster than the others.

Looking at the 2016 Penguins and their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs I can’t help but be amazed as I watch guys who I’ve seen play at Wilkes-Barre Scranton.  These “Baby Pens” are growing up and contributing with the big club and these “young kids” are pulling their weight.  I’ve talked about them before, but I have been pulling for these guys because it’s like seeing your hometown club try to win a championship.  Plus they’ve made the Northeast Pennsylvania area extremely proud to be a hockey area.

But there’s something else and it touches me closely.  I knew Phil Kessel because he was a Toronto Maple Leaf and I knew there was animosity from the fans his situation there.  People have made fun of his weight and the fact that sometimes he looks like he is out of shape when he gets back to the bench.  Kessel is a cancer survivor after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006.  He’s been cancer free for over 9 years and he’s battled something that no one should have to go through, whether it’s testicular, breast, brain or any other type of cancer.  As a member of the Event Leadership Team for an American Cancer Society Relay for Life, I can’t help but support Phil Kessel.  Seeing his performance this Playoff season has made me want him to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy.  I can’t help it.  He was 19 when he had cancer AND beat it.  He went to the Maple Leafs and they made him out to be fat, lazy and a coach killer.  He’s none of those.  He’s a team player who has found a home in Pittsburgh with a team that respects and values him.  Why no one has appreciated the fact that he beat cancer and continues to play at such a high level is beyond me.  It’s no easy thing to beat cancer and I’ve seen survivors and caregivers who back that up.

I’m holding out for Kessel to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe so that he can get some vindication for all the years that he’s taken crap from people about conditioning, diet and whatever else people could find to throw at him.  Kessel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for finding a way to beat cancer and stay cancer free because that is no easy feat.  I hope he accomplishes his dream.  Maybe I’ll get a Kessel jersey so every time I pull it on and step on the ice I can push myself just a little harder knowing what the man must have gone through.  My demons I’m going through learning to play hockey are minuscule compared to what he must have gone through.

Why Can’t Hockey Be America’s Game?

Every time I go to Toronto I find myself drawn to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its marvelous displays of greatness.  Not that I make it to the Great White North all that much but it seems like since I’ve gotten older I’ve made it more than when I was younger.  I’ve been to the HHoF at least three times and to Toronto at least five but every single visit to the museum I’m always struck by the wonder of it all.

I know that Canada invented the game (although some may argue that it’s roots are in the Middle Ages – the game as we know now is Canadian in origin) and is celebrated as a religion country-wide.  In fact before it was replaced in 2013, the Canadian five dollar note featured children playing winter sports, including hockey, and wearing a number 9 sweater to honor  Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Included with the picture was a quotation from Canadian novelist Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places-the school, the church and the skating rink-but our real life was on the skating rink.

Yeah I get you Roch, the rink is where I’d be too if I lived in Canada.  Cold, brutal winters where you are forced inside, you might as well find something to do right?  Time for some hockey and after your legs are burnt out from skating turn on the television and watch some Hockey Night in Canada?  I mean come on, we don’t have anything like that here in America.  Sure we have Monday Night Football, but Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no chance.  The tradition and the history, plus Canadians have Don Cherry and his outfits.  No contest.

But here’s the thing.  Most places in America don’t have access to a rink.  In the South you are lucky to find a rink.  It’s getting better but when I was growing up I could only tell you where one was.  Even living in New York, where you think there’d be a bunch – it’s cold!, I have to drive an hour and a half on a good day to find a rink to play hockey.  True, I’ve read Derek Boogaard’s biography where it talks about his father driving him all over.  If my daughter is going to play she’s going to have to go at least three hours in multiple directions to play.  All over the Eastern Seaboard.  I can’t imagine doing that as a kid to play a sport.

But what’s funny about hockey, is that for as much as it costs-and trust me it costs, at some point you start to find this itch.  You can’t get enough ice time.  You can’t get even time on your skates.  You want to feel that stick in your hands every chance you get.  Even getting back into it at my age, I’m proud to say that I skated for an hour without falling-finally!  I’m getting better but I’m still pretty terrible.  Watch me skate backwards if you need a laugh.

However I’m bothered though, for all that hockey means to Canada there will probably not be one Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Yes the teams are loaded with Canadian players, but I want to see Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Vancouver go deep in the playoffs.  It just doesn’t seem right not to see a Canadian team.  I don’t like it at all.  I realize some of it has to do with the direction of the club, some has to do with the value of the dollar and some has to do with the quality of the team but no matter I don’t like it.  I’ll trade a potential Florida team or two for a Canadian team any day.

I know these teams are all because of the Gretzky effect – the same Gretzky who perfected the so-called Gretzky buttonhook.  A move that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl perfected in a game on March 20, 2016 when he assisted on Bryan Rust’s goal.  The Pens took out the league leading Washington Capitals 6-2 that night behind Kuhnhackl and his spin moving self.  I’m not sure Gretzky could have made a better pass, this was text book.  Maybe Chris Becker taught him that at the Revolution Ice Rink in Pittston at skills night while he was playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens?  It’s a possibility.  You never know where he may have picked that one up.  Then he sold him some Ribcore skates?  Just kidding Chris.

Because of Gretzky’s influence on the league we’ve seen more and more Americans jump into hockey.  I was probably exposed to more hockey because of him and I have to thank him for that.  It is one of those sports that gets in your blood.  No matter what other sport you think you love, until you actually get on the ice and strap on the pads, skates and grab a stick, you don’t know what you are missing.  I can understand why it’s Canada’s sport and you know what?  I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough at it to best them.  We’ll never have the access or the commitment to hockey.  Our focus is on baseball, basketball and most importantly football.  There’s no way we’ll take up hockey as our number one sport.  I think Canada should take hockey, mold it and each year make it better and better.  Each visit to Toronto make the HHoF a place that I never want to leave at the end of the day, a place where those that gave everything they had to the game have a chance to pay tribute to their teammates and those they respected.  Hockey deserves a place where it can be worshipped and I think that place will be and should always be Canada…O Canada.