Have you ever wondered what it must be like to cover a professional team as a sports reporter? This blog post, written by former NHL.com writer Dave Lozo perfectly articulates the experience, specifically the challenges of dealing with a “difficult” coach. Reading his account jogged so many memories of “first time” interviews and press conferences. For better, and for worse. Lozo covered the New York Rangers and head coach John Tortorella for four seasons. Enjoy, and be thankful it was him not you :)
The old press room in Madison Square Garden was a fitting setting for my introduction into covering John Tortorella. The tiny quarters had a suffocating, claustrophobic feel. The room was encased by cement bricks and filled with 20 or so metal folding chairs that faced a stage that held a table and chair where Tortorella would sit and answer – or usually, not answer – questions from the assembled media.
If a prison had a press conference room, this would have been it.
It was September 2009, and my extensive professional hockey writing experience totaled one Western Conference Final game and four Stanley Cup Final games, all of which were contested at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit the previous summer. I found myself covering these very important games after writing stories off conference calls in the earlier rounds that the usual writers couldn’t do because of travel situations.
It turned out my reward for that three weeks of work was four years covering the scariest coach in the NHL.
There’s no way to ever relay the terror that comes with that first press conference involving Tortorella. I had seen the videos, heard the stories and knew what to expect. Seeing as how it was my first day, I planned to simply sit back and watch the beat writers ask their pre-game questions and see how it went.
As became his routine during the season, Tortorella hobbled into the room with Rangers PR star John Rosasco at his side. Tortorella had a hip issue during the season that he would get corrected afterward, but it did nothing to soften his gruff personality. Tortorella walked up the three stairs, examined the chair and table as if it didn’t belong there, sat down, and looked out onto the gathered reporters with a long, deep sigh as if he were an 11-year-old and the human beings in the room were green beans he had to finish if he was going to be allowed to play video games later.
The Kings went from trying to make happy history by winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise’s 45-year existence to possibly ending up on the wrong side of history with a hockey collapse of epic proportion.
In a seven-game series, a 3-0 lead looks insurmountable regardless of the sport. A deficit of that magnitude has never been overcome in an NBA playoff series. The Boston Red Sox were the first to break the barrier in their legendary ALCS win against the New York Yankees en route to the World Series title in 2004.
Compared to baseball and hoops, Hockey teams are entitled to have hope when down 0-3, albeit just a tiny sliver. Three times in NHL playoff history has a team climbed out of the huge 3-0 hole to win the series.
As a No. 8 seed ripping through the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Kings have not only taken the hockey community by surprise, but it’s own home city of Los Angeles has been transformed from a collection of beach-going basketball and baseball fans to a population of people warmly embracing the cold ice of hockey along with the excitement and edge the fight for the Cup creates.
Winning 10 consecutive road games in this year’s playoffs (12 dating back to last season) en route to series victories over the 1, 2 and 3 seeds out West had the media and most fans crowning the Kings invincible heading into the Cup Finals against the also surprising New Jersey Devils.
Beating the Devils twice in Jersey only continued the clamor for the Kings, despite both games being decided in overtime and the Devils actually outplaying L.A. in Game 2. But Game 3 in L.A. was all Kings as the home team crushed the visiting Devils 4-0 making the sweep look pretty realistic.
The Kings had twice led three games to none in these playoffs and lost the fourth game at home, so it shouldn’t have shocked anybody that a desperate Devils team staved elimination with a Game 4 victory, sweeping the brooms aside. But the Kings are better on the road than on home ice making a Game 5 win all the more difficult for the Devils.
The Kings have vastly improved over the last few months (after a trade and coaching change) as the players have become so in synch with each other that L.A.’s lines seem to move in flawless formations with each man knowing exactly what each of his teammates is doing and where on the ice he’s doing it.
L.A. has won games while being outplayed because the Kings players have consistently been in the right place at the right time for rebounds, redirects and deflections near the net, on faceoffs, etc. Despite playing extremely well in Game 5, the Kings lacked their usual “right place, right time” magic. Missed shots that lingered deliciously close to Martin Brodeur and were ripe for the taking went untouched by the Kings who were often times nowhere near position when it came to rebounds and second chances. The Kings were off-kilter while the Devils were carried on the back of Brodeur.
With Bryce Salvador’s shot deflecting off of L.A.’s Slava Voynov and into the net, along with captain Zach Parise’s goal, the Devils found themselves with the “right place, right time” style typically fit for the Kings.
With the 2-1 victory, the Devils became the first team to force a Game 6 after losing the the first three in the Stanley Cup Final since 1945 and only the third team ever (out of 26) to do so since adopting a seven-game series format in 1939.
Only the 1942 Maple Leafs have overcome a 0-3 deficit in the finals to win Lord Stanley’s cup. 33 years later, the New York Islanders turned the 0-3 upside down on the Penguins, beating Pittsburgh in seven games in the 1975 quarterfinals.
But what has me worried is what I watched with my own two eyes while I lived in Boston in 2010 as the Philadelphia Flyers became only the third team (in 167 tries) in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series. The momentum shift was palpable in that series, like a ship swaying back and forth on choppy waters. The ship finally settled in Philly’s favor after the Flyers took Game 5. That was the turning point, the halfway mark.
It’s easy to say, “boy, it sure is hard to beat a team four straight times.” Heck, I thought there was NO WAY that after winning 20 straight games, the Spurs could lose four in a row to the Thunder. It just didn’t make sense.
But it does make sense, especially in a sport like hockey where one mistake can cost an entire game. The first two games in this series could’ve gone either way. The series easily could have returned to L.A. with the Devils leading 2-0. That’s why it is so hard to predict “if the Kings lose Game 6, they’re done. The momentum will be clearly on the Devils’ side and it’s over.” All of the momentum in the world can’t stop one guy from making one mistake, turning the tide.
If the Kings do lose Game 6 at home, Game 7 will prove to be one fierce battle for the crown as it will truly be anyone’s game. I say Kings in six, or Devils in seven.
They say history often repeats itself and the New York Rangers are living proof of it. The Rangers’ third-round playoff series against the New Jersey Devils has mimicked the first two seesaw-like rounds in which the East’s No. 1 seed won the first game, lost the second, and rebounded for a Game 3 victory.
The home team Devils actually dominated the first two periods showing plenty of toughness and out-shooting the Rangers 26-14 en route to a goose-egg tie heading into the third period of play. Henrick Lundqvist was phenomenal throughout and when push came to shove - both literally and figuratively - New York’s offense pulled its head out from you know where to smoke New Jersey late for the 3-0 win.
It took some nudging on behalf of Rangers coach John Tortorella to wake his boys up. By way of verbal lashings and line shake-ups, Tort reminded the guys, “Hey! You fools are the freakin #1 Rangers, so get out there and act like it.”
Apparently Rangers right winger Brandon Prust heard that message loud and clear as he elbowed the back of Anton Volchenkov’s head, dislodging his helmet right after a Tortorella pep talk. While wanting to prove to your coach that you get the point, that was a less-than-ideal way to do it as Prust is almost certain to be suspended at least one game for the play in which no penalty was called.
Much like in Game 1 of this series, the tables turned completely in the third period. Dan Girardi, a proud member of the Rangers’ fourth line, was the first to inflict pain on the Devils, scoring a only a few minutes in. The Devils didn’t even have time to suffer the pain of an 1-0 deficit as Chris Krieder -a rookie who was playing for BOSTON COLLEGE in April, and now has a goal in each of the last three games - scored 1:57 later, changing the landscape of the game in a hurry.
Lundqvist and the 40-year-old Marty Brodeur were both fantastic in the first two periods, but the Rangers goaltender could not be matched over the long haul. Lundqvist finished the game with 36 saves while Brodeur’s 19 saves -many of them spectacularly physical and heroic- were not enough to to combat the two he let in early in the third period, the first, coming right off a face-off during a power play.
New York’s third goal came on the cheap, an empty-netter from Ryan Callahan providing icing on the cake with only a few minutes remaining in the game.
Lundqvist, who logged his second shutout of the series, said after the game that it was just a matter of time before things started to go the Rangers’ way, and he was right, as the more physical and skilled team eventually prevailed. The Devils, who with the loss broke a four-game win streak on home ice, were unable to capitalize on the power play going 0-5.
The bazillion-dollar-man himself was no match for the super-human Lundqvist as the Rangers netminder stopped Ilya Kovalchuk on a breakaway 49 seconds into the second period before logging a set of back-to-back saves shortly after. The sequence set the tone for the rest of the game, letting Los Diablos know that that whether or not his teammates were going to block shots, Lundqvist wasn’t letting a penny squeak past him today.
Between old man Brodeur, Hollywood Henrik and the rookie Krieder (whose story is sure to be made into a Disney movie if he keeps playing at this level), there is no shortage of great story lines and physical play forcing our fingers crossed in hopes of this series going 7 games.
And if the Rangers’ recent history repeats itself, seven games it is.
Yes, the NBA and the NBPA are in a third day of mediation which is certainly a better sign than silence between the owners and players, but who knows when professional basketball will truly be back. In the mean time, I strongly suggest that hoops fans turn to hockey to fill the void. Here’s why.
When I asked a former coworker to teach me hockey, the first thing he said was, “just think of it as basketball on ice.” Huh??? Come to find out, he was kind of right.
Both sports are up and down, fast pace games involving both a transition game and a half court offense. The word “goal” appears on stat sheets of both and you can play zone or man on man. Hockey and basketball both feature, assists, passing, blocked shots, rebounds, deflections, players on the wing and a five minute overtime period. A face-off is a more complex version of the jump-ball. When comparing the NBA and NHL, both leagues have 30 teams that play an 82-game regular season with the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.
But there are stark differences as well. Ball vs. Puck, for starters. Hands vs. No Hands. Hockey plays six men on the ice while hoops is a true 5-on-5 game. Basketball is played in four 12 minute quarters while hockey is played in three 20 minute periods, and there is constant scoring on a basketball court while often the best hockey games involve very few goals scored.
If a regular season game remains tied after one 5 minute overtime period, hockey settles the score with a shootout where players go one-on-one against the opposing team’s goalie for the win. The NHL uses a points system (2 points for a win, 1 point for a loss in overtime or a shootout and no points for a loss in regulation) to rank its teams while the NBA uses a straight wins and loss record.
Once the playoffs begin, it truly is a new season for NHL teams as the lowly eight seed routinely beats the top dog in the first round. That is a rarely accomplished feat in the NBA, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs positively exciting and fascinating regardless of the matchups.
Then, there’s the fighting. If a basketball player as much as throws the basketball down at his feet after the whistle blows, thats a technical foul. Two of those, and you’re tossed from the game. Don’t even consider throwing a punch because if ya do, you’re looking at an ejection, suspension and fine. In hockey, you can throw off your gloves, go one-on-one (or engage in a brawl if you choose) and wrestle your opponent to the ground with your only punishment being the equivalent of a child’s “time out” on the playground. In fact, there’s usually one guy on each team whose primary objective is to strategically use fighting to benefit his team.
Basketball is considered a contact sport, as players do a bit of bumping down low, and perhaps get a tad physical setting screens, but the physical contact is minimal compared to hockey which is a collision sport. These guys throw their bodies into each other while traveling at high rates of speed, sometimes sending the opponent flying into the air resulting in a crash landing back on the ice. Players slam one another into the boards which makes for a dramatic in-game soundtrack. The physical exertion of both athletes is remarkable but between the padding, hitting, high speeds, and the skill level of skating, stick handling and shooting, hockey players take the cake. It’s the most physically demanding of the major American team sports.
If hockey is so fabulous, then why is it still not considered mainstream in America? Most kids in the U.S. grow up playing basketball in their driveways, neighborhoods and schoolyards. You don’t even need a real court to play and improvising is easy. The same cannot be said about ice hockey in many parts of the country which is why I think the popularity difference is so great. It’s harder to understand a sport you’ve never played and many Americans have never played hockey. I think that is the root of the problem.
The NBA is my first love. My unwavering affection for my hometown Lakers as a kid is what made me want to be a sports reporter. I grew up “liking” the Kings, but I didn’t understand hockey, therefor wasn’t a true fan. Once I moved to Boston, a place where hockey is king, and began covering the Bruins for work, I had to learn the sport real fast. The truth about hockey is that once you learn it, you can’t not love it. In the last two seasons, I found myself choosing to watch NHL games over NBA games at times, which shocked me.
The point is that if you are an NBA fan, you do have an equally enjoyable alternative during the lockout; it’s called hockey.