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   Devastation From The Blind Side A Familiar Story For The Bruins

Boston Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton made a serious error in judgement during Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the TD Garden.  The Bruins forward grabbed Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik from behind, threw him down on the ice and punched him in the face/head area a few times, which knocked Orpik unconscious.  Orpik was removed from the ice on a stretcher and sent to a local hospital to be examined.  The incident occurred after the whistle during the first period of an eventual 3-2 Bruins win.  

The first period was quite nasty leading up to the Thornton incident as as Bruins forward Loui Eriksson was sidelined after suffering a concussion thanks to a hit from Orpik, and Penguins forward James Neal kneed Bruins forward Brad Marchand in the head while he was already down on the ice.

The question is not whether previous actions by the Penguins warranted a response by the Bruins.  Retribution for throwing shade on one’s teammate is a strong tenant of the hockey code, so Thornton certainly wasn’t wrong in that respect.  The criticism comes from the fact that Thornton basically waged a sneak attack on Orpik as the two had not agreed to fight and from his vantage point, Orpik never saw Thornton coming.  Orpik was defenseless.     

Thornton, who was ejected and has an upcoming in-person hearing with NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan, appeared to be genuinely remorseful after the game (watch the video above, care of WEEI’s Mike Petraglia).  

After the game, Thornton told reporters that he felt sick about the incident and that he never intended to do such damage to Orpik, a player he knows well.

“I know Brooksie,” Thornton said.   “I’ve gotten to know him over the last several years here. I skated with him in the summer, over the lockout.”

Thornton said he sent Orpik a few text messages after the game and continued to apologize for the incident which turned out to be your typical hockey retribution fight, gone wrong.  

“That’s always my job, I guess, to defend my teammates but I’ve prided myself for a long time to stay within in the lines,” Thornton told reporters.  "It’s hard for me to talk about it right now."

There have been several overtly violent incidents in the NHL over the years, but the one that sticks out for me and anyone who has watched the Bruins in the last few years is the hit from then-Penguins forward Matt Cooke on then-Bruins center Marc Savard in 2010.  The incident effectively ended Savard’s NHL career.  

Thornton was Savard’s teammate at the time, and the Bruins took a lot of flack for their lack of retribution against Cooke in that game.  The next time the teams met a few weeks later, Thornton went after Cooke within seconds of Cooke stepping on the ice.  

In no way can I defend Thornton’s behavior on Saturday.  For several reasons, including what happened Saturday, I would argue that fighting be removed from the NHL all together.  Sure, the counterargument can easily be made that if Thornton had at least confronted Orpik face-to-face, that Orpik would have been able to defend himself, possibly lessening the impact of Thornton’s punches, and that the circumstance was the more dangerous than the punch itself.  

Thornton once told me that when he was a kid playing hockey, his coach encouraged him to learn how to fight, telling Thornton that he’d better play that part if he wanted to continue to rise through the hockey ranks. Many enforcers of the past and present took on the role solely for self preservation as fighting and physically defending teammates became the only way they could remain in the game.  

Between my conversations with Shawn and some of his public comments, I have the feeling he (and others in his position) has mixed emotions about his role as an enforcer.  The bloody knuckles and broken noses have earned him a long NHL career, but success at the behest of violence has come at a price.

A price that is about to skyrocket.   

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Sporting events might just be the only authentic reality television.  The personalties, athletic ability, competition, story lines and lack of a predetermined outcome captivate fans and audiences worldwide.  

Historic rivalries provide some of the best drama sports has to offer.  At a certain point, attempting to find new ways to spin old stories can become a bit tedious for writers, reporters and producers of sports content.   

NFL Network recently found a brand new way of examining one of the NFL’s most popular modern rivalries, Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.   

One could easily argue that this isn’t quite a rivalry at all considering opposing quarterbacks never set foot on the field at the same time, but the games between Brady’s New England Patriots and Manning’s Indianapolis Colts (and now Denver Broncos) have given us suspenseful pleasures for more than a decade. 

Before proceeding, you should know that I worked for NFL Network as a production assistant for nearly two years, and Anthony Smith, an NFL Network features producer who created the network’s latest series about Brady v. Manning, is a good friend of mine.  That said, it never hurts to give credit when and where it’s due. 

"The Rivals" is a multi-part video series that chronicles not only the history of Brady v. Manning, but also, examines the heart and soul of great rivalries, as told by several of the modern era’s biggest sports rivals. 

"The concept came about this summer during a brainstorm for the current season," Smith, in his eighth year at the network, tells PepperOnSports.com.

"I was looking at a way of telling the Brady-Manning story in a way that I hadn’t seen yet."

"The Rivals" roster is long and accomplished as the following athletes participated in the series: 

Jack Nicklaus & Arnold Palmer

Bill Walton & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Goose Gossage & Carlton Fisk

Jimmie Johnson & Jeff Gordon

Martina Navratilova & Chris Evert

Pete Sampras & Andre Agassi.

"Pitching the project to the rivals was pretty easy.  All of them immediately understood what the project was looking to accomplish," says Smith.

"All of these athletes are sports fans.  And all of them followed the NFL, with the exception of Andre Agassi who was up front and honest about that."  

Watching and listening to sports titans talk about their career rivals within the context of Brady and Manning is a treat for any sports fan, regardless of one’s familiarity of the historic rivals.  “If you don’t know, now you know.” 

One of my favorite lines in the series comes in the Bill Walton vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar episode when Walton says of Abdul-Jabbar, “that guy’s left leg belongs in the Smithsonian.” 

It is rare that athletes are given the opportunity to discuss peers in other sports.  The group chosen to participate in “The Rivals” legitimately loves the sport of football, and Brady v. Manning.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the vast football knowledge of all of them," says Smith.

The episodes debuted on the web and were shown during various televised programming on NFL Network in the week leading up to Broncos v. Patriots in week 12 of the NFL season.  

I’d bet most of the “The Rivals” participants watched Sunday night’s instant classic that will undoubtedly find a place in rivals lore and further the legend that is Brady v. Manning.  

 

A lot of people “don’t like” hockey.  Most of said people have never watched a game or a playoff series and likely have little-to-no understanding of the game they choose to blindly bash, otherwise, they would certainly sing a different tune.

Only a few games into the postseason this year and we’re already witnessing upsets-galore as the NHL is taking us on one heck of a wild ride that nobody wants to get off of just yet. 

The Stanley Cup Playoffs is perhaps the most exciting postseason in all of North American professional team sports not only because of the increased intensity of an already fast and furious game, but also because of the predictably unpredictable results.

Unlike football, baseball or basketball, the “underdogs” frequently get the best of the favorites when Lord Stanley is involved as the NHL playoffs provide all kinds of crazy drama in “truth is stranger than fiction” fashion.  Just like in the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s easy to gravitate to teams with players you’ve never heard of solely because they have the potential to be that Cinderella story.  The NHL playoffs give us a solid underdog storyline or two nearly every year as lower seeds routinely give higher seeds a run for their money.

In the Western Conference, the 8-seed Los Angeles Kings lead the 1-seed Vancouver Canucks (last year’s Cup runner up) two games to none in the first round as L.A. stole back-to-back road games in British Columbia.  Meanwhile the 8-seed Washington Capitals logged a double-overtime win over the top dog Bruins in Boston to tie the first-round series 1-1. 

What are the chances that either of these 8-seeds actually pull off the upset and beat the 1-seed in the series?  Believe it or not, that feat has been accomplished nine times in 34 tries since the NHL adopted its current playoff format 17 years ago.  When you crunch those numbers, the 8-seed beats the 1-seed in the conference quarterfinals 28.1 percent of the time.  That might not seem like a lot, but in comparison to the NBA where we’ve only seen the 8-seed down the 1-seed four times, EVER, the odds aren’t terrible for the little guys! 

Recent history is even more favorable to hockey’s lower seeds.  According to Grantland, the higher-seeded team has won 62.5 percent of first-round matchups since NHL play resumed in 2005 after the season-long lockout.   62.5 percent is not an impressive figure if you are the higher-seeded team.  Plus, that number gives the underdog a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs.  In that same time frame, the higher seed in the NBA has won 79.2 percent of first-round series. 

Once the postseason starts, anything is possible in the NHL where parody finds its way into the field of 16.  But the 8-seed isn’t the only playoff cellar-dweller having success this year as the 4-seed Pittsburgh Penguins are in a predicament, down 2-0 to the 5-seed Philadelphia Flyers.  The Penguins placement in the fourth slot is misleading as Pittsburgh had the second-best point total out East but was relegated to the 4-seed because they finished a point behind the New York Rangers who won their division. 

The Pens are extremely talented especially now that Sidney Crosby is back on the ice, but the Flyers are tough as nails and extra motivated after being swept by the Bruins in the second round last season.  I suppose it’s all cyclical as the Bruins sweep of the Flyers in 2011 was retribution for the Philly’s historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Bruins in Boston in 7 games back in 2010.  Despite the roster differences, the Flyers are rough and confident, much like they were in 2010 and will take no pity on Crosby or any of his teammates.  Then again, it wouldn’t shock me if the Pens came back from this 2-0 deficit to win the series, despite the odds now in the Flyers favor.  According to NHL.com, teams trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven series have come back to win the series only 12.7 percent of the time (37-291). 

That leads us to the Kings and Canucks.  A series victory looks promising for the Kings who are not only bringing a 2-0 series lead back home to L.A., but the Canucks will play a near must-win Game Three without star left winger Daniel Sedin who has been sidelined with a concussion since late March and did not make the trip to Southern California. 

Then again, this marks just the third time in team history the Kings have held a 2-0 series lead (first time on the road) and the franchise has NEVER won a Stanley Cup.  Despite the Kings’ historical lack of success, at least the roster has some experienced players who will do their best to shake off the stink of the record books and instead, smell the sweetness of victory as L.A. looks to turn the page. 

Another team who struggled, fired its head coach and managed to salvage the season to the point of making the playoffs is Washington.  Sure, the Caps have Alex Ovechkin and a hot young goalie in Braden Holtby but I can’t see Washington getting past the defending Cup champion Bruins.  As superb as Holtby has been, Saturday’s game was his second career playoff game and only his 21st career NHL game, period!  Tim Thomas eats those numbers for lunch. 

Then again, the NHL Playoffs is the perfect place to expect the unexpected.  I’m sayin’ there’s a chance…

           

His coaching ability might be questionable, but there is no doubt that Rick Neuheisel, UCLA’s lame-duck football coach, is a well liked and respected person.

Wednesday was Neuheisel’s last practice as the Bruins head football coach after being relieved of his duties by his alma mater on Monday, but will remain with the team through their game against Oregon for the Pac 12 conference championship on Friday.  

The UCLA players gave Neuheisel a special send off after Wednesday’s practice by picking him and carrying him off the field as they sung the school’s fight song. 

According to the LA Times, “Asked if he could have received a better tribute, Neuheisel said, ‘It’s tough to imagine. It’s meaningful when you work to create relationships. You want the best for them, you want them to achieve what they are capable of achieving. Despite the fact that we didn’t win enough games, I think they are achieving as people. I am extremely proud to be a part of this team and I’m looking forward to a grand finish.’”

A source close to the football program told me that while they were not aware of exact details surrounding his firing, they felt bad for Neuheisel, his children and the UCLA players.  The source said the public scrutiny is just cruel in times like these.  And it’s not even USC!

Clearly, the players like this guy and are sad to see him go as many have gone on record in support of Neuheisel saying they would do their best to beat the Ducks on his behalf.   But the saying still rings true:  Nice guys finish last. 

Being a nice, affable person might help you recruit but doesn’t necessarily translate to play calling or game management on the field.  A record below .500 over four seasons just doesn’t cut it, even for a program that hasn’t been successful in several years. 

But hey, there is a silver lining here… Justin Combs, son of Diddy, has committed to UCLA despite the impending exit of the coach who recruited him.  Will Diddy Jr. ever be a factor on the team?  Who knows, but at least UCLA countered USC’s move of signing  Lil Romeo - son of Master P - to the basketball team a few years back.

                                 

While it remains to be seen who will serve as the next Bruins football coach, at least we can expect to see one big name on UCLA’s sideline… or in Diddy’s case, several:
Sean, Puff, Sean John, Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, and now, perhaps, Diddy Bruin Daddy

For more on Justin Combs, click here:  http://www.nypost.com/p/sports/high_school/football/hollywood_bound_iona_prep_combs_9aPreLYgj1MJlRCeW2CLOP