Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gump Worsley: R.I.P.

Unless you are a hockey enthusiast you will probably be mystified as to why I am mourning the death of former NHL goaltender and Hockey Hall of Fame member Lorne “Gump” Worsley this past weekend. I mourn for his death because Gump Worsley was one the few remaining vestiges of the NHL’s glorious distant past; a past that could never be replicated in today’s world. His death has now stilled a voice that once regaled writers and fans alike with memories of playing for the New York Rangers in the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s before finishing his career with the Minnesota North Stars in 1974.

Yes, I mourn for his death because Worsley was the antithesis of what we expect from a famous athlete. What other goaltender would get his nickname from a comic-book character or look so ungainly in physical appearance? (Worsley, in his prime, always sported a crew cut, was a pot-bellied 5-7 and trained on rye whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes between periods). What other goaltender could block a Bobby Hull slap-shot with his unmasked face and have the courage to defend his net against the likes of Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, or Frank Mahovlich while being deathly afraid of flying? What other goaltender could endure season after losing season with the Rangers and then be reborn as a four-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender for the Habs in 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969?

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender could win the Calder Memorial Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s best rookie player) in 1953 and yet be demoted to the minors the following season simply he wanted a $500 raise in salary? (The goaltender who filled in for him while Worsley did his minor-league purgatory was Johnny Bower, a future hockey hall-of-famer himself). What other goaltender could maintain a high-standard of play despite playing on Rangers teams that (with the exception of Harry Howell) played very poor defense. It is axiomatic among hockey experts that in front of every great goaltender, is a great defensive line. Worsley was a prime example of that axiom. When he played for the Rangers his Goals-Allowed average was around three. When he was traded to Montreal his Goals-Allowed average plummeted to a low two level and he would win his two Vezina Trophies (awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender) whereas Jacques Plante the Habs goalie who was sent to New York in exchange for Worsley saw his once low Goals-Allowed average soar appreciably.

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender (or player for that manner) could utter one of the most (if not the most) famous hockey quotes when (as a Rangers player) he was asked by a New York sportswriter which NHL team gave him the most trouble, only to retort, “The Rangers, dummy!” Former Rangers player Vic Hadfield once wrote in his diary of the Rangers 1972-1973 season that Worsley “took a lot of abuse from the fans in those days, but he’d shrug it off and never lose his sense of humor.”

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender could enter the NHL in the 1950s (the Golden Age of great, innovative goaltenders who altered the face of the hockey with their unique styles) and take on night after night such net-minding luminaries like Terry Sawchuk (with his gorilla crouch), Glenn Hall (with his radical butterfly style of blocking shots), Johnny Bower (with his vaunted poke check), and Jacques Plante (first to use the face mask while fearlessly venturing out of the net to shoot the puck to his teammates—which was unheard of in those days) and not his disgrace himself despite the poor support of his teammates?

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because when he was entering the back nine of his NHL career he was granted a chance in 1965 to prove to the world that he was a genuinely great goalie. In the 1965 Stanley Cup finals against the vaunted Chicago Black Hawks (which featured Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Phil Esposito, and Glenn Hall), Worsley led the Canadiens to victory in Game Seven despite having to sit out several games in the finals due to injury. When the chips came down, Montreal coach Toe Blake tapped Worsley to win it all and Worsley played the greatest game of his career, shutting out the Black Hawks, 4-0. For sixty minutes Worsley stoned the Black Hawks, playing with great style but with an economy of movement. He was never out of position and never lost focus on the puck. The closest the Black Hawks ever came to scoring came roughly five to seven minutes into the second period when Hawks defenseman Bill Hay fed an outlet pass in the Chicago zone to Eric Nesterenko, who took the puck up the ice to Worsley’s right side. When Nesterenko crossed the red-line he swerved sharply to his right (thus faking the Montreal defensemen out of position) and, after dekeing out the last Montreal defender, he finds himself one-one-one with Worsley. While all this is going on the Montreal Forum crowd is on its feet. Nesterenko reached the face-off circle to Worsley’s left. It was then that Worsley made the defensive play of his career. He left the net and slid into Nesterenko, deflecting the puck away from him with a brilliant skate save. It is my favorite moment of the entire game. When I interviewed Eric Nesterenko in Vail, Colorado I was hoping that he would remember the play (sadly, he didn’t but, rather interestingly, as I was reciting the play to him, he had a coy half-smile on his face. What the smile meant, I didn’t know. Did the smile mean Nesterenko did remember the play and didn’t want to tell me or was he impressed with the verve with which I recited the play from memory? I’ll never know).

It was my fervent desire to interview Gump Worsley this coming April during my impending trip to Montreal to interview as many players (and fans) living in the area as possible. It was my hope that Worsley (if he were still living and in semi-decent health) could have told me the story about that play and any other special moments in his career. I would have loved to have listened to his stories and reveled in his rapier-like wit and barbed commentary. I would have loved to ask him what it felt like to have a Bobby Hull slap-shot impact on his face (or body). I would have loved to ask him about the 1965 Stanley Cup finals (and the 1966 Finals). I would have loved to ask him about all of it.

But that won’t happen because he’s dead and his memories have died with him and the realm of NHL history is a lot poorer now because of that fact. Sometimes being a historian means you’re in a race against time. This is one time where time has defeated the historian.

Rest in Peace, Gump Worsley!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jeb Bush: The Stealth Candidate

There are two years remaining in President Bush’s Presidency and already the jockeying for position to replace him has begun in earnest for both political parties. One would suppose that since President Bush is a lame duck politically speaking that the field is wide open for anyone in either the Republican or Democratic parties to vie for the Presidency? The truth is, for the Republican Party, it will not be a wide open race simply because President Bush will not allow that to happen. Despite what the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution says in limiting a person to serving only two terms as President the Bush Administration is gearing up for the 2008 Presidential primaries and beyond. The President himself cannot be a candidate but there is no stopping him from utilizing the enormous powers of the Oval Office in influencing the outcome of the Republican primaries which will decide who will be the G.O.P. Presidential nominee in 2008. No, President Bush will not remain a disinterested spectator instead he will use all manner of political leverage to insure the nomination and election of his younger brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to the office of President.

Even though Jeb Bush has repeatedly demurred on whether he will run in 2008 he has been running a stealth Presidential campaign since 2004. (One example of his stealth campaign took place in December 2004 when President George W. Bush sent him to accompany Colin Powell to Southeast Asia to coordinate aid-relief efforts in the wake of the tsunami which struck the region. Despite the President’s stated “reasons” that he was sending Governor Jeb Bush as an “expert” on disaster relief (it was the same year Florida was struck repeatedly by major hurricanes) there was no legitimate reason for Jeb Bush to be on that aid mission. All it did was provide a nice photo-op for his future Presidential campaign. Rest assuredly the Jeb Bush Presidential campaign will use the footage of that trip to demonstrate his foreign policy credentials).

Indeed his public displays of disinterest in the 2008 Presidential campaign have lacked conviction and Jeb Bush himself has yet to make any unequivocal statement refusing to seek the Presidency. Further evidence comes from disingenuous statements made by President George W. Bush and his father former President George H.W. Bush that they hoped that Jeb Bush would seek the Presidency.

No, Jeb Bush’s stance of “disinterest” is a calculated pose designed to deflect unwanted attention before he is ready to make his formal entrance into the race. Timing will be very important for Jeb Bush because when he does announce for the Presidency his campaign will be the trickiest and most unique Presidential campaign in American history. No brother has ever succeeded another brother to the Presidency. (It might have happened in 1968 if John and Robert F. Kennedy had not been assassinated) but it will happen in 2008.

A Jeb Bush candidacy will be the closest thing to a Third Term you can get in the post 22nd Amendment era. No matter what Jeb Bush says his candidacy will be a referendum on the present Bush Administration policies since 2001. There can be no other way. The question that remains is how will the electorate respond to a Jeb Bush candidacy? The problem that Jeb Bush will face will be the same one Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced in 1940 when he sought a Third Term. Something that Presidential historian James MacGregor Burns once wrote, in describing FDR’s dilemma, can also describe Jeb Bush’s problem too: “Roosevelt’s basic problem, if he chose to run, was not how to get the nomination—his ability to get a decisive convention majority was never in doubt—but how to be nominated in so striking a manner that it would amount to an emphatic and irresistible call to duty. This party call would be the prelude to a call from the whole country at election time….Roosevelt’s task—in event he finally decided to run—clearly was to bring about a unanimous party draft that would neutralize the anti-third-term sentiment….If the President were to run again, everything depended on a spontaneous draft.”

Although Presidential politics have changed greatly since 1940 the dynastic ambitions of the Bush family creates the same problem that FDR faced that year. What’s ironic though is that while World War Two helped FDR win a third term the war in Iraq will be the greatest obstacle facing the Jeb Bush campaign in 2008. One can argue that Jeb Bush’s chances in a crowded G.O.P. field will be slim. I think not. I feel that Jeb Bush has an excellent chance in getting the G.O.P. nomination, far better than his brother George did in 2000. So far, none of the declared or potential G.O.P. candidates have excited the masses. John McCain’s best chance for the Presidency was in 2000 and he failed. His age and his public cries for victory in Iraq stand against him politically. None of the other G.O.P. candidates have made a public dent at all. (Most of the media coverage has been discussing the political merits of Senators Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama).

There are ample reasons which will compel Jeb Bush to run for President. If the Presidency should go to the Democrats or to a non-Bush G.O.P. candidate then there are great risks that the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq will be repudiated or at least radically altered. Another great risk caused by a non-Bush Presidency in 2008 is the exposure of the false pretenses used by the present Bush Administration to get America to invade Iraq and the exposure of the Bush Administration’s covert war on civil liberties in America and deliberate misuses of Federal agencies to damage the personal and political enemies of the Bush Family. A non-Bush family President could gain enormous political capital in revealing and correcting these abuses. Also the present Bush Administration has put an enormous amount of energy and effort in constructing this elaborate edifice of institutionalized abuse of Executive power. Does the Bush Administration really want to see its efforts exposed, eradicated, and its perpetrators potentially investigated? Another reason comes back to the Bush Family’s dynastic ambitions. Jeb Bush’s son, George Prescott Bush, has political ambitions in his own right and the father has publicly expressed his desire in furthering his son’s political ambitions. Those ambitions could include the White House some day. (Don’t laugh there is also talk of both George W. and Jeb’s nephew Pierce Bush, son of Neil Bush, having political ambitions too).

To prevent any repudiation of the Bush Family’s policies and to insure the dynastic ambitions of the Bush Family there can be only solution: that is for Jeb Bush to run and be elected President.

A Jeb Bush candidacy will come with enormous advantages. First and foremost is money. The Bush family’s ability at political fund-raising has been unparalleled in American political history. Secondly in terms of appealing to the conservative base of the G.O.P. both George W. and Jeb Bush have done well in pandering to their supporters (ironically far better than their father ever did). Indeed there have been several reports made in the past that Jeb Bush is even more fanatically devoted to conservative social issues than even George W. Another factor is the fact that Jeb Bush will have the full weight of the White House behind him. Voters must understand that the White House’s ability to manipulate press coverage and alter government policy to benefit a political candidate is limitless. One could question the propriety of the present Bush Administration blatantly supporting a Jeb Bush campaign but the Bush Family has never allowed propriety ever to get in the way of its dynastic ambitions; especially now when events seem to be conspiring to bring down the Bush Administration’s standing not only in American politics but also in the world arena as well. History has shown that when the Bush Family has its back to the wall that it is notorious for lashing out with great viciousness and effectiveness (who could ever forget the Willie Horton ads that destroyed Michael Dukakis’ campaign in 1988 or the Florida electoral fraud in 2000 or the Swift Boat Veterans’ ads of 2004?). Lastly, one must consider the nature of the primaries themselves: Jeb Bush doesn’t need to win every primary, only those primaries which will have maximum effect in advancing his candidacy (i.e. Iowa and/or New Hampshire, South Carolina, and especially the Southern Regional Primary on Super Tuesday). The Deep South has been and remains a bastion from which the Bush Family can draw political capital. History has shown that a sweep of Super Tuesday can insure a candidate’s nomination: it worked for the elder George Bush in 1998, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000. I am sure it will do the same for Jeb Bush in 2008.

If and when Jeb Bush does gain the G.O.P. nomination I have a rough guess as to who his running mate will be when it comes time for the 2008 Republican Convention to take place: it will be Karl Rove. (This is not the first time I’ve predicted this. My blog entry of July 20, 2005 said the same thing).

As for a Jeb Bush candidacy its future lies in the hands of the electorate but does the electorate really want another four to eight years of the same?

If Jeb Bush doesn’t win the nomination or the Presidency in 2008, I will be mighty surprised—but also pleased.

The worst is yet to come.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Forgotten Milestone: 100 Years of the Forward Pass

Now that the farce that is the B.C.S. has come to a merciful end, I'd like to take the time to celebrate a forgotten anniversary which went unrecorded by sports commentators: 2006 was the centennial of college football legalizing the use of the forward pass in football.

Let's think about that for a moment. Imagine from 1869 to 1906, there was no such thing as passing in college or pro football (yes, there was professional football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but the NFL wouldn't be born until 1921). Football in its salad days was strictly a running and kicking game more like Rugby than the football we know and love today.

College football grew out of the Northeast (the Ivy League was the cynosure of power when it came to football and would remain so until the 1920's) and filtered slowly throughout the Midwest, South, and the West. The Big Ten conference didn't start making a name for itself until the turn of the 20th century. The South started its own football programs in earnest during the 1910's and it was during the 1920's that colleges in Texas and other Southwestern states began to take up football and it was until after World War Two that Texas and Oklahoma would field squads that would dominate college football. There were no Bowl games. (The first Rose Bowl game was played in 1902. The other Bowl games weren't established until much later).

Even the players' names were unique for that era, imagine rhapsodizing over the gridiron skills of such pigskin luminaries like Pudge Heffelfinger, Willie Heston, or Walter Eckersall? These are not made up names but real players, all of whom were legends of the pre-forward pass era of college football.

Football during the pre-forward pass era was a strange game. Players didn't wear helmets but grew thick shocks of long hair to protect their heads. (If you look at photos of football players during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were quite a shaggy lot). Padding was rather skimpy and some players did without pads altogether. Some colleges utilized weird formations not seen today like the V-formation or the Flying Wedge (either because they were later banned or else they became impractical to today's game). A football team could earn a first down merely by going five yards in three downs. Even the kicking game would be seen as odd by today's standards. Field goals could be scored by drop-kicking as well as place-kicking. (Indeed the football of 1906 was more conducive to running and kicking than it was for passing. The football was larger and plumper which made holding it to pass more difficult but made it easier to drop-kick). This writer has read several anecdotal tales of extraordinary drop-kicking feats. In fact if a player drop-kicked a field goal past a certain distance, his team could receive four points instead of the customary three.

One would think that having no forward passing would have made college football a rather low-scoring game. Interestingly that was not the case. Some college teams could wrack up point totals unheard of in today's game. The Michigan Wolverines once beat Buffalo University 128-0 in a game played in 1901. (The record for most points scored by a team in a college football game is 222 scored by Georgia Tech against Cumberland University in 1916). And yet defenses were more devastating than they are today. It was not uncommon for college football teams to hold their opponents scoreless for an entire season. (The last NCAA Division I team to do so was Duke University in 1939??? I believe if I'm not mistaken?) Indeed, in 1905, Michigan once had a five year unbeaten streak snapped by the University of Chicago who won by the score of 2-0.

Still, by 1906, college football was becoming more and more violent on the field and more players were suffering severe injuries or, even worse, were being killed on the field. In 1905 there were eighteen recorded fatalities of football players while playing the game.

The violence was causing a public outcry and it took the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt to make college more palatable to the public. Roosevelt gathered the heads of the leading college football powers together at the White House and told them, in his inimitable, maginificent way, that they either made the game safer for the youth of America or else he would ban the game of football altogether.

That's right, sports fans, imagine the President of the United States banning the game of football from being played by America's youth.

Roosevelt, being the athlete manque that he was, had no desire to ban a game he loved watching himself but he wanted the college powers that be to make the game safer and they did. It was in 1906 that they legalized the forward pass, changed the first down rule from five yards in three downs to ten yards in four downs. By 1910 the NCAA was formed to regulate college football.

But it was the legalization of the forward pass that revolutioned the game. It altered how offensive and defensive lines were formed on the playing field. It broadened the game's tactical horizons. Still, it would take decades before colleges would fully utilize passing in their repetoires. (The present day configuration of the football wasn't established until 1925).

And consider the heroes that were made possible by the legalization of the forward pass? Players like Benny Friedman, Joe Namath, Johnny Lujack, Harry Gilmer, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, and John Elway were all college football legends noted for their passing ability.

And now with the end of the 2006 college football season, isn't it a pity that the pundits of college football didn't have the historical foresight to pay homage to the fact that the forward pass is now a hundred years old?

(My favorite college football pass of all time has to be Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass of 1984. I saw it on television and will never forget it ever).