Friday, July 24, 2009

Wizards Sign C Fabricio Oberto

He's won a gold medal. He's won an NBA championship. He's officially the biggest winner on the Wizards. For that, we'll take him at the biannual exception. Whatever.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mike Wise on Sports Towns: "I'd Take DC Over L.A., Miami, Seattle, Denver and yes, Dallas"

New 106.7 The Fan radio host and super tall Washington Post columnist Mike Wise answered a few questions at Mr. Irrelevant today about his new gig. He's excited, nervous, hopeful, blah blah etc. The most interesting part, to me, came in his assessment of DC as a sports town:

"The idea that D.C. is a lousy sports town is what I’ve heard since I got to town five years ago. Measured against the passion of Philly, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York or Chicago, yeah, I agree. Beyond the football team, it doesn’t have as many zealots or characters or crackling passion for the games and the people that play them as those cities. I would still take D.C. over L.A., Miami, Seattle, Denver and, yes, Dallas."
I've lived in DC, Denver, Philly and New York. I've seen "zealots", "characters," "crackling passion" at pro and college games in each city, listened to local radio, watched local TV, followed local sports coverage in all of these places. And I can say with unequivocal honesty that ranking sports cities based on fan "passion" is complete and utter baloney.

I might be alone on this. It just irks me when I hear DC called a "bandwagon" sports town, and then as soon as the Knicks drop below .500 in New York it's like they don't exist. I get steamed when DC fans are labeled "average," meanwhile the Philadelphia airwaves are filled with people lambasting their players 24/7. No one in New York City gives a hoot about the Rangers anymore; most bartenders at sports bars never knew a Rangers game was on. In Manhattan. During the playoffs.

The strength of a city's fanbase comes down to three basic things in my view: 1.) winning; 2.) heritage; 3.) The Star. One of the three, and any city can go bonkers for its team. Take it all away, and a place like Chicago can become a sports siberia. Just look at the Blackhawks. They lost their stars in 1995, they started to lose, and they fell off the face of the earth. Now they're good again, have the stars again, and Chicagoans are pretending they were there all along. But no one's calling them bandwagon fans. Huh.

Most of the fanbases Wise puts ahead of DC also are blessed with heritage that comes from having been around for so damn long. Throughout the 20th century, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago were vibrant cities with blue collar people. Sports were affordable and a subway ride away at most. The teams became embedded in the culture and civic identities were formed around what felt like the neighborhood squad. Having been around so long, with so few other teams in each league, also brought multiple championships and multiple generations of followers. Fandom in those cities is passed down from father to son pretty easily.

That's just impossible to have in an expansion city - meanwhile those very same places, especially in the South - go buckwild rabid for their college teams. Because there's heritage there. DC has had one team around more than 35 years: the Redskins. And you see the passion there. You think that's a coincidence?

Passionate Pittsburgh fans displaying their loyalty at a Pirates game. Image via Fedje Baseball Tour.

Here's the bottom line: every city has great sports fans, zealots, characters, and every city has fickle, fair-weather morons. How many there are is mostly tied to heritage, and how passionate they are at any given time depends on how successful they are currently or whether the star player is still around (see Iverson, Ripken Jr., Sakic). And a lot of it is just plain luck. Wilbon lauds Pittsburgh fans like his morning jelly doughnut, meanwhile the Pirates have been awful and no one has been going to their games for like 18 years, even with their shiny new stadium.

Give it 20 more years. Let Ovechkin have a few victory parades, the Zorn Star to deliver a Super Bowl or two, the Nats to win more than 90 games, and the Wizards to shed The Curse 'O Lez Boulez just once, and DC will be an orgy of sports passion. It will happen. And I can't wait.

Happy Trails, Brent Johnson

Yesterday, George McPhee said what most of us already knew: Brent Johnson would not be a member of the Washington Capitals in 2009. Today, it became official: Johnson is a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins after signing a one-year deal.

Former Capitals goalie Brent Johnson.

Brought in before the 2005 season, Johnson suffered through the first two post-lockout seasons as Olaf Kolzig's back-up, weathering the rebuild years with professionalism and class, playing behind a shaky defense that boasted names like Bryan Muir, Jamie Heward and Mathieu Biron. Then, at the height of the team's sprint to the playoffs in 2008, Johnson was essentially put on hold; the team's acquisition of Cristobal Huet made Johnny a press-box fixture from early March through the end of the season.

In 2008, Johnson was back in his normal backup role, this time behind the newly-acquired Jose Theodore. It didn't take very long for Johnny to make a strong push for the team's No. 1 slot, going 8-5-0 before suffering a hip injury during a Nov. 12 game at Carolina. Injuries have never been kind to Mr. Johnson.

Johnson's final record as a Washington Capital: 34-41-12. Hardly the stuff of legends. However, he was a fan favorite because of his steady demeanor and underdog status. He helped guide the team through several dark winters and, despite the obvious fact that there was no longer room for him on a team with Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth waiting in the wings, he badly wanted to play for this team.

Quality teammate, quality person and, with decent health, a quality backup on a quality team: three cheers for Johnny on the Spot.

But now that he's a Penguin, let us never speak his name again.

[Getty Images via]

Monday, July 20, 2009

McPhee: "If we played a better game in Game 7, maybe we win the Stanley Cup."

George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau just took an hour's worth of questions from Capitals season-ticket holders, a wide-ranging discussion that touched on everything from last week's development camp to the upcoming season to José Théodore's apparent refusal to uncover his head during the National Anthem (paging Bill O'Reilly!). Any real news? Nah, not really, unless you're a founding member of the Brent Johnson fan club. Also, Boudreau said Théodore is still the team's No. 1 goalie going in to training camp, a sentiment that is (hopefully) nothing more than an attempt to publicly do right by the vet.

The starting goalie for the 2009-10 Capitals (for now) according to Bruce Boudreau.

Here are some highlights from the conference call, along with whatever I can remember from Saturday's development camp-concluding scrimmage:

On development camp: McPhee said the coaches agreed that the 'All-Camp' team would look something like this:

Stefan Della Rovere - Cody Eakin - Trevor Bruess
John Carlson - Dmitri Orlov
Braden Holtby

Della Rovere made the list despite missing the last few sessions of camp with a shoulder injury. Orlov, meanwhile, might have been the best player on the ice on Saturday. He's an extremely smooth skater and passer who possesses a low, hard shot and loves to throw the odd hip-check.

What's surprising here is the omission of two players who were near-consensus picks for the camp's three stars among this town's hockey cognoscenti: Mathieu Perreault and Michael Dubuc.

Perreault is a diminutive fella who has no problem carrying the puck into high-traffic areas. His involvement in the offensive zone was hard to miss at Saturday's scrimmage, and his speed and shiftyness are impressive. Dubuc, on the other hand, scored 7 goals in three scrimmages during camp. Last year, Jake Hauswirth had a similarly impressive output as an invitee and it resulted in a professional contract and a shot at making the team in Hershey. Will Dubuc, who spent last season with the South Carolina Stingrays, be similarly rewarded?

On John Carlson: "Carlson is going to be a really good player...he's going to contend for a job this year" - Bruce Boudreau

Carlson didn't have his best outing on Saturday; he got turned around on a second-period rush, recovered in time to take the puck back, only to throw the puck blindly into the slot, which resulted in a turnover and scoring opportunity for the white team.

On Anton Gustafsson: "I was really surprised by how big and strong and put together he is," Boudreau said of the 6-foot-3, 200 pound Swede, who was the team's first pick in the 2008 draft. Gustafsson suffered a concussion mid-week after crashing headfirst into the goal and sat out the final sessions of camp. "We don't know if he's going to crack the lineup this year but he certainly thinks he wants to."

On the team's recent success in the draft: "We weren't getting the results I thought we needed in my early years as a manager," McPhee said. "We kept the same personnel but we've changed the way that we've scouted and it's really made a big difference for us...the draft is our lifeblood."

On replacing Donald Brashear's
fists toughness: "At the moment we have to look at Detroit and say, here's a club that doesn't invest in [fighters] a whole lot." - GM

On free agency and the salary cap: "We do have room to do a few more things." - GM

On Mike Green's health: "I talked to Mike Green today and he's in incredible shape right now...He's in as good shape as he's ever been in, and healthy. As far as Mike Green is concerned, we're okay with that." - BB

On departing players other than Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov: "Probably Brent Johnson would be the other that [will] not return. - GM

On the goaltending depth chart:
"[Varlamov] did great in the playoffs but Jose won [32] games for us. Varly's gotta prove it again to me...To me, Varly and Michal [Neuvirth] still gotta knock José off his perch to be the No. 1 goalie on our team." - BB

On Joe Finley: "We're really toying with the idea of moving him up to forward." - BB

Good call. Finley skated on Hauswirth's line during Saturday's scrimmage and looked very comfortable parked in front of the goal on offense. His skating needs some work, but the guy's a mountain (6-7, 230+) and was at his best with his back to the goal, a la Tomas Holmstrom. With the team's logjam on the blue line, playing the wing is Finley's best path to the NHL right now. You're telling me his size wouldn't make a great addition to a second-unit power play?

Boudreau also singled-out defenseman Brett Flemming for praise. "
Flemming really looked like a hockey player. He looked really solid and came on and got better as the week went on."

On the team's crowded defense corps: "We are very deep on the blue line. It's a position of strength for us," Boudreau said. "You cannot ever have enough defensemen who can play at the NHL level."

On the team's captain: "Chris Clark is healthy. It's the first time in two years that he's been healthy." - BB

We've heard that before. Let's hope it's for real this time.

On the team's best attribute going forward: "Our ability to win the games against big teams in their buildings." - BB

[Mitchell Layton/Getty Images via ESPN]