Sunday, March 24, 2013

It was a Hike of a Trip



I am a visual learner – I need to experience things before I really feel comfortable doing it again. If someone shows me how to do something, I am pretty capable of repeating it.

Of course, sometimes I have to be thrown into the deep end. And a lot of those times, I feel pretty rotten because of how badly I do. The only real comfort is that when I do it again, I know what to expect.

I have a feeling that mountain hiking is going to be a lot like that.

I’m not saying that I had a terrible time hiking up Mt. Bierstadt in the middle of March in the snow. But now, I know what to expect, what to pack, and how I’m going to feel after 11 hours of hiking.

There was a lot of “experience” going on for me that day. I’m here to tell you all about it!

Pre-hike drive playlist: The King is Dead by the Decemberists, Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes.

I have a group of friends around the area who are quite the adventurers. Not extreme, but they hike, climb, ski, showshoe, and do all sorts of outdoorsy-type stuff. This time, they had organized a winter hike up to the summit of Mt. Bierstadt. And I decided to try it with them.

Usually, a hike up Mt. Bierstadt is a nice little daytrip. In the summer, the mountain is crawling with hikers. Of course, it isn’t summer right now, so the mountain was pretty much empty. Our group saw one lady coming down in the morning, had two more hikers pass us near the top, and then saw one more guy in the afternoon. That was it.

The weather forecast wasn’t too appealing for the casual hiker, either. They forecasted rain for much of the area, but in the higher elevation there was bound to be snow.

My group gathered in Georgetown, about an hour west of Denver on I-70. The mountains really start to pick up around Georgetown – nearby is Mt. Evans, one of the fourteeners you can see from Denver, and a popular tourist location.

We piled into three vehicles and headed up to the trailhead of Bierstadt. Well, almost to the trailhead. About two miles from the trailhead, they stopped plowing, and hikers need to walk up the rest of the way.

Georgetown to parking playlist: Cracked Rear View by Hootie and the Blowfish

It was here where I observed what my fellow hikers wore and brought. Snow pants and rain pants, Camelbaks and backpacks, snowshoes and microspikes. Layers and layers and layers of clothing, too. I felt mostly prepared, with my layers and Yaktrax and Camelbak and hand/feet warmers, but I had a feeling I still may not have everything I need.

We started up in good spirits, and in about 10 minutes it started to snow. It was pretty clear from the clouds and the snow that we were going to be experiencing that for much of the hike.

The road went up by switchbacks, and we cut out a bit by climbing through the trees. It was pretty steep, but eventually we found the road again. We took our first break here, and I put my feet warmers in my shoes and my hand warmers in my mittens. Someone gave me a body warmer, and I put that on my t-shirt. When you shake these bags, they heat up, and as longs as they continue to shake, they can stay warm for hours. I have to say, I wasn’t cold at all through the entire hike. My fingers stayed warm and I could always feel my toes. Experience tip #1: bring hand/feet/body wamers.

We made it to the trailhead, where there was the one pit toilet station available for the day. They didn’t have anything on the mountain, so the best you can do is find an empty area and squat. I’ve been to China, so this wasn’t a problem. You just had to make sure to go with the wind. Experience tip #2: bring toilet paper. Apologies for being crass.

There were four main parts of the trail: the Willows, the switchbacks, the tundra, and the rocks. The Willows actually starts out in a descent (more on that later). We found the trail with poles that stuck up out of the ground, since there was snow. You wouldn’t think about that when hiking in the summertime. Up past the tree line, you look for cairns, which are rocks stacked up on top of each other. It made the hiking a little more of an adventure, looking for a pole or a cairn nearby. Experience tip #3: look for piles of rocks or a pole to stay on the trail.

I didn’t use an iPod during my hike, deciding to focus on the quiet of nature. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have songs stuck in my head to keep me going.

Internal playlist: “World on Fire” by The Royal Concept

We had to say goodbye to a few friends who had engagements elsewhere, so the final count was six that would try to make it up to the top.

We often stopped to catch a breath and take a drink. A few times we stopped to eat something. This was one of the dumb things I did: I only brought Cliff bars and a couple of my great no-bake cookies. Some of the others had sandwiches, chocolate bars, trail mix, crackers, and fruit. By the end I had no desire to eat my food, and that made me more tired and more cranky. Experience tip #4: bring lots of types of food and EAT IT to keep up your energy.

“Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities

I had inquired before taking the hike as to how much water I should bring. I heard two liters, and my Camelbak bladder (yes, it’s called a bladder) held two liters. To be on the safe side, I also packed two other water bottles, in case I ran out. Then I drank lots of water the night before, drank water before we started, and made sure to rehydrate when I got home. That last one was REALLY important.

So you’re thinking, “Hey! You did something right!” Well, you’d be kind of right. The problem was that I drank my Camelbak water first…and drained the whole thing by the time I got to the top. I mentioned it to my group, and someone said that the Camelbak is insulated to prevent freezing, but the water inside the tube may have frozen. I checked when I got home, and it hadn’t frozen – I had drank every single drop!

“When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City

The big problem was my water bottles. Since they were outside the pack, and it was below freezing, the water froze! I had to borrow water from friends on the way down. Experience tip #5: drink water bottle water first, then Camelbak water.

In order to keep going up, I developed a few techniques/steps to keep going. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it just seems pretty silly. But I digress.

“Babel” by Mumford & Sons

The first step is the Penguin. As I got into the steeper territory, I pointed my toes outward, which helped me avoid too much incline in my feet. I also used the Hermit, where I hunched over and put the weight of my Camelbak directly on my back and took tiny steps up. I looked ridiculous, but it worked for short amounts of time.

The best move, though, was coming down the mountain. Since it would obviously be easier going down the tundra section than going up it, we spent a lot of time, well, sliding down the snow. It would have been a great chance to use a sled or skis if I’d had them. It ended up being a lot of jumping and slipping down as much as I could without toppling over.

“Madness” by Muse (how appropriate.)

A huge factor was the weather. When we started, the clouds covered all the mountains. We could see a good distance, but it didn’t look like much. The snow fell for pretty much the entire ascent. The higher we got, the more the wind picked up, too. There was about a 20 minute span as we neared the rock portion of the hike where we considered turning around, because the wind, snow, cold, and clouds were making the trip a little less desirable. Several people said, “If someone wants to turn around, that’s fine, just say the word and we’ll head down.” But no one said anything.

We were rewarded a while later, when we caught glimpses of the sun…and the clouds broke. Suddenly we saw mountains behind us! The area we had started at was a valley completely surrounded by the mountains. The view was incredible. It was that extra bit of adrenaline that we needed to keep moving upwards. God made sure that the curtain was pulled back at just the right time. 

“Gangnam Style” by Psy

Unfortunately, by the time we conquered the large rock portion of the climb (in the summer you would avoid putting your feet on the rocks; in the winter you avoid putting your feet in the snow), the clouds had covered Bierstadt, the snow had picked up, and you couldn’t see a thing. It didn’t matter, though. I had five people that served as witnesses that I made it to the top of that mountain. Yes, in pictures it doesn’t look like much, but it’s all about depth perception. Once we got up there, we realized it was quite the fourteener to conquer.

The curtain was once again opened as we were heading down, and this time the sun completely appeared under a beautiful blue sky. I believe that the red on my face was from the sun reflecting off the snow, and not from windburn. We ended up stopping halfway down, plopping ourselves in the snow, and having a “meal.” I even had a victory beer. Experience tip #6: don’t drink beer. At least, not until AFTER the hike is over. It will give you a stomachache. It won’t feel great inside your system, either.

“Harbour Lights” by A Silent Film

For much of the hike I had been in decent spirits. Even when I kept losing my Yaktrax in the snow (eventually losing both of them completely), needing to use the bathroom, and frustrated with the snow and clouds, I kept talking. But after our “meal,” I started not feeling the best. Yes, the beer was one of the factors, but there were others. My water was slushy in the water bottle. My hand warmers kept my hands warm, but my mittens had frozen. My nose kept running. And that snowfall that had taken place while we were at the top had laid down an inch of fresh, fluffy snow in the switchback/Willows area. That was the worst. Some in the group broke out their snowshoes, but I didn’t have anything. Instead, I kept finding the fresh snow and falling knee-deep in it. If I was lucky, I stepped on the already-packed-down snow. But most of the time I was not. And that made me really tired and cranky.

I tried to keep it to myself, but I didn’t do a very great job. But my hiking buddies, bless their hearts, tried to keep spirits high. Whether it was talking to me or talking to others, they kept up a good conversation. They kept up the encouragement, and urging us on with “We’re almost there!” and more stuff like that. I wish I had tried harder to be more positive in this point, but once we reached the Willows, it really felt like we were never going to get back to the trailhead. I wasn't the best hiking buddy that I could have been. Sorry, hiking buddies.

“Kill Your Heroes” by AWOLNATION

Remember how I said at the beginning of the hike that the Willows actually started downhill? Well, after 9 hours of hiking, the Willows portion was now an uphill climb. And at this point, I really, really didn’t want to do any uphill climbing. I really could not remember how long we had hiked in the Willows, and because of the fresh snow, I could barely remember the trail. Our leader kept taking us to the poles, but I just wanted to see some sort of light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel.

Finally, finally, we got to the blessed outhouse. That pit toilet meant that we just had to follow the road downhill, and we’d be at the car. Yes, there was snow we’d have to slog through, but just getting out of the Willows made me feel a lot better. We didn’t take that steep shortcut like we had in the morning, but followed the road down.

“Galvanize” by The Chemical Brothers

Just before darkness fell, we got back to the car. After 11 hours of cold, wind, and snow, it was wonderful to get back into a car with heat. And when I got back to my vehicle, I could finally revel in the fact that I had just gone up and down a mountain!

I highly doubt I’ll try another winter fourteener – especially since Bierstadt is probably the “easiest” winter fourteener in Colorado. But the idea of hiking on dirt paths is incredibly appealing. Anything has to be easier than keeping yourself from sinking in the snow!

Did this experience convince me to try again? I think I have one more fourteener inside of me. I am curious to see how a summer fourteener is different. And hopefully, thanks to the experiences I had during this fourteener, I will be more ready and more prepared mentally and physically for what I will be facing!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Michigan Clinic: How to Break a Press

I really can't believe it's been 19 years since Michigan reached a Sweet Sixteen. They have either been out of the tournament completely, or eliminated in the first weekend, for nineteen years.

"Havoc" is what they call Virginia Commonwealth's defense, but to me it looked a lot like a high-intense 3/4 press. And I've learned, ever since grade school basketball, that the best way to break a press is to pass.

And boy, I sure saw some great passing by Michigan!

It was clear that head coach John Beilein prepared this team for what it was going to face today against VCU. They ran up and down the court, spreading out the floor and finding the open man when VCU tried to trap.

It didn't help that VCU shot less than 40% from the floor for the game. More important than that, Mitch McGary was out of his mind today, scoring a career high 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. The Michigan offense had to prevent turnovers from VCU, and they "only" gave up the ball 12 times. But, considering teams that lost to VCU this season gave up the ball an average of 21 times, 12 isn't that bad.

I was impressed. I hope that Beilein can get Michigan ready for whatever Jayhawk-Tar Heel attack they'll face on Friday...away from Michigan.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bracket Pointers

68 teams, and you can only pick one? But in the process you have to narrow down 67 different games?

No problem!

I have been doing brackets for over 15 years, and each time I do them badly. I follow the same pattern, and each time the result is less than ideal. But I'm here to give you some pointers - rather, I'm here to tell you the stuff I used to do, and tell you not to do it that way!

Step 1: Take Your Time
I always was so eager to get to my bracket, I would fill them out right away Sunday night or Monday morning. I even managed to draw out my own brackets so I could fill it out right away!

But that was always a mistake. I never wanted to change my picks after I made them ("first instinct" rule), but as the week went on, players would get hurt, shots would be tossed around by a player or coach, and sometimes even momentum would shift from the power team to the underdog. Then I'd look back at my schedule on Thursday morning and go, "Man, I wish I'd waited to fill this out."

It's a little different now, at least for brackets that include the Dayton Tuesday games as part of their contest. That takes away two days of wondering and tinkering. Other online bracket contests may just skip those four games and wait till Thursday, and in those cases it's best to wait until right before tipoff of the first game to send in your picks.

Step 2: Ignore the Records
I got mildly irritated if I printed out a bracket that didn't have team records on them. If a team had 25 wins while another one had only 19, well it was only natural to select the team with more wins, right?

Not entirely. Sometimes I would get so focused on the records that I would forget that some teams played mostly second-tier squads, while those who had a few more losses than most had tough schedules.

Step 3: Follow Momentum
If a team has made a tough run in their respective conference tournament, especially a team that wasn't favored to win (Ole Miss, for example?), it doesn't hurt to pick them to get through the first weekend of play.

Case in point: in 2011 Connecticut was the #9 seed in the Big East Tournament. But they won that tournament, and then blew off six straight wins to take the whole NCAA tournament. Momentum is huge. 

Step 4: Your Favorite Team Won't Last the First Weekend
It is common to have young children pick their favorite team to go all the way - forget the fact that their favorite team is a 10-seed and their second round opponent is probably going to be Duke. Kids don't care about that.

Usually I don't pick Michigan to get past the Sweet Sixteen. I remember having friends who picked Michigan, and I just shake my head. Don't let loyalty sway your picks.

Step 5: Don't Pick too Many Upsets
One year I decided to have three brackets: one of my normal picks, one where I had all upper seeds winning, and one where I had all lower seeds winning. I knew the lower seed bracket wouldn't have too many wins, but I was shocked to see how few I had! But I think what really surprised me was that my upper seed bracket did a lot better than my normal bracket.

It's savvy to pick the upset teams, but make sure to keep it to the few that have a shaky top seed. More importantly, the brackets tend to burst on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so pick those upsets in the second round. That's when the top seeds will fall. (VCU over Michigan, anyone?)

Step 6: Have Your Champion in Mind
I used to pick game-by-game, and then I'd get to the championship with the same two teams four years straight! Now, I try to have my Final Four in mind when I make my picks. Every other pick revolves around those Four teams, but doesn't affect what I pick in the long run.

So there you have it: all the stuff that I used to do that I'm trying to get you to avoid. No need to make the same mistakes as me, eh? Of course, you may have your own methods: coin flip, best colors, mascots, or more technical thoughts, but the most important step to consider in all of this:

Step 7: Don't Think Too Hard.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

News Flash...

Kentucky is NOT on the bubble. No matter how much the media freaks out that the defending national champions won't make the NCAA Tournament, it won't happen. Kentucky is too much of a basketball stalwart to be shut out of a 68-team field. Yes, they had a rough year, but their victory over Florida last weekend assured them of a spot.

Don't be fooled - Kentucky will make the Tournament.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Time to Hike a Mountain

Next weekend, I take the plunge...or, to be more appropriate, the climb. I am climbing one of Colorado's 53 mountains that have a summit of over 14,000 feet, Mt. Bierstadt. It is one of the "easier" mountains to hike, or so they tell me. There is a significant amount of snow on the ground, which means climbing this mountain in mid March is waaaay different than climbing it in July.

I am taking the hike with several experienced winter hikers - that is a good thing. They have already suggested what to wear, what to bring, and what to expect when climbing in the winter. But it's also intimidating, since they are going to have to look out for me as I trudge up the mountain.

I am doing my best to train my body for the 10/11-mile round-trip hike that I'm going to endure. I'm breaking in my new boots. I'm going on the treadmill and walking with a steep grade. I'm expanding my regular walks. I'm also investing in some new clothing that is non-cotton, breathable, and sweat-wicking while still keeping me warm as I go higher and higher. At this point, Denver is supposed to be 67 degrees on Saturday, but Georgetown (near Bierstadt) is forecasted at 54, and the summit would be far colder.

I am starting to realize that living in this state requires a lot of equipment. If I want to hike, I need boots, layers of clothes, water, food, hiking sticks?, sunscreen, hat, gloves, with possible spikes, Yaktrax (look it up), or snowshoes. Plus a bunch more. Hopefully I'll have enough room to pack a camera to take some good pictures.

I believe I am more nervous because my last hike up a mountain wasn't the greatest experience of my life. Four and a half years ago, I was teaching in China and took a fall trip with some fellow teachers to Xi'an. One day we took a train to Huayin and climbed Mt. Hua, one of the Five Great Mountains in China. I was probably the most out of shape I'd been in my life, and hadn't done any training beforehand. There was the promise of a gondola ride down from the East Peak back down to the city, but that didn't happen. We didn't even reach the very peak. Old ladies in heels were climbing better than I was. So the whole experience was exhausting and pretty negative. Plus the elevation of the East Peak was only 6877 ft.

I am hoping that my climb next week will leave a better taste of mountain hiking in my mouth. I would like to climb many more fourteeners in the future - and completing this hike in the winter would make me feel like I could climb anything!

Once I have tried the hike, I'll be sure to post my hike report, regardless of whether or not I make it to the top.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not a First Half Team

I guess it's better than the other way around?

...?

I am looking forward to watching a game played by the University of Michigan men's basketball team where they don't start in the hole.

It's as if they need to play a half of basketball in their practice gym before they begin the real game! Their warmup routine needs a real makeover. I don't know if the team isn't mentally prepared for the first half, or if they just work better from behind.

It even seemed like the second half was much more of a Michigan style today. They started running up and down the floor better, their passes were sharper, and they were getting rebounds and avoiding blocked shots.Their shooting percentage improved from 48% in the first half to 54%. Three point percentage improved from 28% to 36%. Trey Burke got back on track, even becoming the seventh player in Michigan basketball history to get to 1,000 points as a sophomore with his game high 26 points.

But what is taking them so long? Is it too much to ask for a wire-to-wire beatdown of an opposing team? As we've seen, coming back from behind doesn't work against the high ranked teams, like Indiana and Michigan State. Both of which, by the way, Michigan still needs to play a second time. Top notch teams know that they need to start strong and finish strong. Most of the time, just "finish strong" won't win games. Even a bottom feeding team will pounce on that.

In other news...

The Tigers are back in business! The period of mourning is over. It feels good to have a solid DH back in business. Welcome back, Victor Martinez! (And Little Victor!) Bruce Rondon - future (or present) closer - provided a solid inning of pitching on Saturday. The big bats are back to hitting home runs. And if we could get all of our injuries out of the way now (Boesch, Santiago) that would prove useful during the season.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

With Great Ranking Comes Great Responsibility

I still can't believe that in the 20 years it's taken Michigan basketball to return to the #1 spot, only 26 different teams have been the top-ranked team in the nation. Twenty six!

But it finally happened: Michigan took the top spot again. With a Duke loss at Miami last week, and two Michigan wins over Purdue and Illinois, there wasn't any real doubt over who was the mightiest team in the land...for the AP. I don't know many news outlets that still use the USA Today Coaches Poll, but that poll has Kansas ranked number one.

I'm not here to talk about that, though. In many people's eyes, this week is a huge one for Michigan. Yes, it is the number one team in the land. But they have to defend that ranking against one of the top teams in the nation - and who had been #1 for the first month of the season - Indiana. The Hoosiers have taken their hits - first against in-state rival Butler, then against Wisconsin, and finally in a near defeat by Michigan State last weekend - but don't doubt their ability to come out hard against the Wolverines in Bloomington on Saturday night.

In recent games, Michigan has started out slowly, or allowed the other team to come out fast. Against Illinois, large runs in the beginning of the game were quickly cut down by the Fighting Illini, while against Purdue, Michigan couldn't seem to stop the Boilermakers' hot shooting. Earlier, Minnesota hung around for more than 20 minutes until Michigan finally slammed the door.

Playing in Bloomington is dangerous, especially with a crowd that desperately wants its team to get back to that number one ranking. Michigan needs to come out pumped up and ready for the onslaught. More importantly, Trey Burke has to keep doing what he does best: coaching from the floor and finding the best possible way to get points. He can't overdo it - teams have dissected game tape and he isn't a surprise anymore. There are plenty of other scorers on this team that he can feed. (Nik Stauskas, anyone?)

I'm not dismissing tomorrow's game against Northwestern in the slightest. They managed Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone pretty well on January 3 (likely because Michigan runs a 1-3-1 themselves), and the Wildcats couldn't hit the broadside of a barn - and that issue probably won't be the case tomorrow. I am looking forward to the Indiana game more because Indiana is the High Ranking Team that Michigan hasn't really encountered this season. (I don't count Minnesota as a HRT...especially with that 4-game losing streak) How is Michigan going to handle the pressure? Not only is this one of the top five teams in the country, Michigan has a reputation to uphold!

Take the challenge and run, Michigan. Show a national, Saturday, prime-time audience that you were meant for this position.

After twenty years, it finally feels like now is the time for this team.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Don't Be Too Quick to Dismiss HarBowl



I’ve already heard it. “Any more talk about the Harbaugh brothers coaching in the Super Bowl and I’m going to puke.” 

Usually I am one of those people. Any overhyped, media-crazed story has me rolling my eyes and flipping the channel. I’ve written about the hype, and how horrible it is, many times. I’ve verbally complained to people about the hype. 

But this time? This time, folks, I’m taking the side of hype.

So sue me.

Let’s go over the other facts of the past fourteen days: the baseball writers decided no one was worthy of making the Hall of Fame, Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah that he took PEDs, and Mante Te’o was the victim of a horrid prank (or so we think at the moment). Those types of stories are pretty depressing. The media trounces on those stories to get us to react. They want us to talk about the validity of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) and whether or not baseball players accused of taking steroids are should be in the HOF. They want us to ream out Armstrong for his jerkiness. They want us to feel pity for the Notre Dame defenseman.

Now think about the Harbaugh story. Jim and John – born a little over a year apart from each other – are head coaches of the two teams headed to the Super Bowl: the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. John has established himself as a solid head coach, even while having no NFL playing experience. Jim played 15 years in the NFL after being a stellar college quarterback for the University of Michigan. The boys’ parents, a happily married couple named – get this – Jack and Jackie live in Mequon, Wisconsin, a little burb north of Milwaukee. Jack has gotten coaching film from the boys throughout the season and has given each support every step of the way. And now these two men are going to have to try and best the other on one of the biggest stages in sports.

Does that make us irritated at an organization? Does that make us think that a player is a giant jerk? Does that make us feel pity? 

No! It makes us feel good! It makes us feel happy! Stories like this one are meant to be overhyped! Why complain about this? Do you really want to hear more about the Los Angeles Lakers’ nosedive into the basement of the NBA? Really? Because I’d much rather hear about two men from a solid Midwestern family who have reached the pinnacle of their sport. 

Last year I was already salivating at the idea, but then both the 49ers and the Ravens lost in their respective championship games, making the Super Bowl last year – even with Tom Brady – a little less important in my book.

This year, though, I’m very excited for this game. I am looking forward to seeing the pregame and postgame talk about the Harbaughs. I look forward to seeing any screen shots of their parents – or maybe their sister and her husband, Indiana basketball head coach Tom Crean. I eagerly anticipate the CBS crew messing up “Jim” and “John” about twenty-one times. (Is there a prop bet for that one yet?) 

Why? Well, I take pride in family. It’s probably similar to me enjoying a good Peyton-Eli matchup. Okay, I also enjoy a good Peyton-Eli commercial. But they’re brothers, too. Like the Harbaughs, they grew up together, played with and against each other, had arguments, fought, laughed, joked, and lived together. To see a family story extend beyond college is a treat, especially because many times we hear about sports figures’ broken homes or tragic backstories. 

Wouldn’t you like to play a giant game like this against your brother or sister? Pick your favorite sport. Now have your sibling be on the opposing side. For me, it would be swimming. If my sister was in the lane next to me in the finals of the 400m individual medley, I would sooooooo want to beat her. But at the same time, if she beat me, I would be very proud of her. Put yourselves in Jim or John’s shoes. Think of how much fun it would be!

So enjoy the only kind of family drama there should be – played on a football field, where the outcome doesn’t really matter and they’ll shake hands at the end. Stories like this one are the ones that I will gladly overhype, whether you like it or not.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My First Hockey Post

Hi, my name is _______, and I am a hockey fan.

It almost seems that you need to do that in order for people to understand you. "You're a hockey fan? Even with all the crap the NHL has put you through? Your seasons never start on time! Hockey shouldn't be played in the summer! Blah blahblahblahblahblah?"

Yes, even with all the crap the NHL has put me through, I am still a fan of hockey. Exhibit A: as I was preparing to go out and run my errands, I turned on the Blackhawks-Kings game and was immediately drawn in. In the first five minutes of the game, there was a 5-on-3 and Chicago scored a goal. How does anyone not get drawn in?

As my father says, hockey is the best sport to watch on an HD TV, too. The whiteness of the ice really makes the players pop out of the picture - not to mention it's a lot easier to follow the puck, too. No bright flashes of red or blue necessary, FOX.

Some hockey fans vow to never watch or attend the sport ever again because of what the NHL did to them. Really? I feel like those fans were never fans of hockey in the first place - they simply watched it because their home team played great and won the Stanley Cup or something like that. With the first sign of bad things happening, they were going to drop hockey regardless. But true hockey lovers were just waiting - like NBA and NFL fans back in 2011. They were ticked off, but they weren't going to stay away.

And the teams, to be fair, are really trying to get their average fans back in any ways they can. The Detroit Red Wings offered their fans a scrimmage in Plymouth, and the traffic brought M-14 to a crawling pace. The Pittsburgh Penguins are giving out free concession items at their first four home games of the season. The Colorado Avalanche are selling Opening Night tickets at a 2-for-1 price.

I was excited to see the NHL season begin, simply because now I live in Avalanche country. I am hoping that both Colorado and Detroit are contenders this season (which shouldn't be too hard; the season is only 48 games long), because to see that rivalry renewed while living in enemy territory would be terribly exciting! If I made it to a Red Wings-Avalanche game at the Pepsi Center, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only Detroit fan in attendance, either. It wouldn't feel like a home game like in, perhaps, Phoenix, but we Red Wings fans travel well.

As for the Red Wings themselves, it shouldn't be too much of a transition to have Henrik Zetterberg be the captain instead of Nicklas Lidstrom. But it will be difficult to fill in the big gap that Lidstrom (and Brad Stuart, who left for San Jose) left in the defense. Goalie Jimmy Howard had a good campaign in 2011-2012, and that consistency will help the incredibly young defense he's got in front of him. What I'm more concerned about is the loss of Tomas Holmstrom, who retired a couple of weeks ago. Holmstrom was a mainstay in front of the opposing net, and drove many goalies crazy while providing Detroit players with plenty of scoring opportunities. Who is going to be nuts enough on this team to replace that?

Breakneck seasons like this one allow for a lot of anxiety, stress, and hyperactivity - which is exactly what you'd want to see on an NHL rink. A game in January used to be meaningless; now it's proof that the team is getting off on the right foot. The only teams that wouldn't be in the playoff race in April are the ones that fell flat on their faces when the puck dropped for the first time.

Next weekend, there is not one football game. What are you going to do with your Saturday and Sunday afternoons? You can't possibly fill the entire weekend with college basketball. Add some spice to your weekend: watch some hockey! And then you'll realize that maybe, just maybe, you've missed it - just like I have.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Problem with Youth

I seem to remember something like this happening 20 years ago.

Back then, the Fab Five dominated the college court. Their style was unconstitutional, their swagger was unorthodox. But they won - a lot. And the thing that really got people talking about them was their youth. Five freshmen started for Michigan, sending juniors and seniors to the bench that weren't bad players - they just couldn't keep up.

But what happened in the NCAA Tournaments? As freshmen and sophomores, the Fab Five (and Friends) couldn't pull out that last game. The more experienced Duke and North Carolina teams beat them.

And before we could say "Wait till next year, when we've got these guys as upperclassmen!", Chris Webber bolted for the NBA, and the magic was gone. Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose left the next year.

I even remember something like this two years ago. Darius Morris was poised to help Michigan basketball compete in a tough Big Ten Conference. But amid the whisperings of his NBA potential, Morris left Michigan after his sophomore year, and the team had to build from the bottom again.

Not to say that there wasn't anything at the bottom. Because Morris was gone, Trey Burke was able to get more playing time and help him develop. And Trey Burke, along with junior Tim Hardaway Jr, have become the leaders of the team.

But the rest of the players on the court are new to some of these experiences. New to the threatening nature of the Ohio State gym. New to the national spotlight. New to the idea that, with one game, they could be #1 in the nation.

So when the spotlight shines the brightest, the youth can't keep up the dominance.

THAT'S the problem with youth.

Youth has very little experience. Youth needs to live a little to get the experience needed to dominate and control a game. Youth needs to have some downs along with the ups. Youth needs to have that crushing defeat in order to know how badly it feels...and never want to feel that way again.

But there's another problem with youth - of the college basketball variety.

So many of the Youth of the NCAA are beckoned by it's older NBA brother - and the cash and fame that comes with him. Youth doesn't want to wait to get the experience in college - they want to be in the deep end immediately.

So how is Michigan going to adjust to this loss? To the fact that everyone was looking at them today, and they absolutely STUNK for the first 20 minutes of the contest? Are they going to grow up? Are they going to use the experience to adjust their game?

I can be encouraged by the fact that this happened early in conference play. Michigan has a chance to play OSU again at Crisler Center (still can't adjust to the name change), and will be seeking revenge. Burke and Hardaway Jr. and GRIII will hit the practice floor tomorrow ready to shoot around till their fingers cramp. A loss like this can only be good.

Well, kind of.

If the Youth decide to stick around and change from Youth to Experienced, then I am very, very excited. This year is gravy. Next year? Next year could be amazing. A team that grows together knows each other and understands what the other is thinking and can be there for the alley-oop by mere telepathy is a team to be feared.

But if Hardaway Jr. and Burke decide to bolt for the NBA come spring, then this loss is really, really hard. Any loss we get doesn't help us form an Experienced team - it makes the juniors and sophomores eager to play a solo game, energize their draft status, and jump ship. And then we're right back where we started.

With more Youth. And the vicious Youth cycle begins again.