Did Jack Eichel’s End-of-Season Interview Start a Slow Motion Car Crash?

Perhaps you’ve been in an accident where time slowed down so you were acutely aware of how your disaster was unfolding. There’s a moment when you recognize you’re in danger. You speed-dial your way through possible responses, see you’re coming up short and grab a moment to appreciate what you have before bracing for the inevitable. A new, diminished reality is milliseconds away, and you have no choice but to accept it.

According to many news reports, that’s the point the Buffalo Sabres hockey team is at with their captain and best player, Jack Eichel.

This round of speculative reporting was kicked of when Eichel expressed some disenchantment with the team during his end-of-season interview last week. 

It matters a lot to fans because Jack Eichel is or was the promise of a new beginning for the Sabres. He is a generational player, someone you build a team around and who becomes the face of the franchise, like the anchor store at the mall or the signature bridge on the river. 

For the most part he has lived up to that promise since the Sabres drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015. The Sabres, however, haven’t been able to build a competitive NHL team around him. Their current playoff drought of 10 years ties the league record for that particular futility. They had the league’s longest losing streak this year (18 games) and—for the fourth time in the last seven years—they had the league’s worst record. 

It was OK to have the worst record if that earned you the right to draft a generational player like Eichel. In what world does having the league’s worst record now mean you trade away that generational player?

Jack Eichel, April 5, 2016. Photo by Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA – IMG_5087, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48027751

The trade rumors aren’t new. All through the just-concluded Sabres season, hockey writers routinely speculated that Eichel was on the trading block. The beat reporters in one city or another would conjure up the trade packages their hometown team would need to put together to land him. National writers laid odds on which teams were most likely to pursue him and who they might give up to make the deal happen. 

And this was all based on what? Eichel’s only negative public statement that wafted into my world was his end-of-2020-season comment that he was tired of losing. And who wouldn’t be? It was an honest comment, and Sabres management took it as such, expressing nothing but loyalty to Eichel.

So it has felt like reporters were baiting the sad-sack Sabres into making another lame trade, like when they dealt their previous No. 1 center, Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues where he promptly led them to the Stanley Cup championship, the very next year. 

But Eichel raised the ante somewhat in this year’s end-of-season interview, claiming a disconnect with the organization about how to handle the neck injury that ended his season. He added that he wanted to be ready to play again next year, “where ever that might be.”


Eichel went on: “You’ve got to look after what you think is best for yourself, and the organization has a similar job to do, but it’s to look after what’s best for the Buffalo Sabres…. But I’ve got to do what’s best for me, you know what I mean?”

How could what’s best for the Sabres be anything but what is best for their captain, marquee player and best performer?

There are two sides to every story. Sabres newbie General Manager Kevyn Adams claims there’s no disconnect, that Jack is asking for a surgery no active NHL player has ever had and that they’ve agreed to wait until June to make a decision on that. He reports that Eichel hasn’t asked for a trade. That they are moving forward with the players who want to be here and Eichel is on that list (at least for now). 

All that sounds credible. But it’s coming from an organization that has been unable to put its money where its mouth is for more than a decade. Season that with Buffalo’s wide-right sports tradition, and every Eichel trade rumor, while tragically misguided, seems perfectly plausible. 

Photo at the top of the page by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States – New York Islanders vs. Buffalo Sabres – February 8, 2015, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77872227

The Non-Handoff Handoff

Handoffs seem straightforward. Something moves from here to there, a point-to-point transaction that limits room for error. 

I recall getting instruction on making a good handoff for only one situation. That was in baseball. I was a shortstop teaming with the second baseman on double plays whereby the one who catches the ground ball flips it to the other, who steps on second base and throws to first, while the oncoming runner tries to bowl him over. My coach’s instruction was that when you catch the ground ball, immediately take it out of your glove and “show it” to your partner. 

It’s a small consideration but it helps ensure a smooth transition. It was one of many small things we learned—like when there’s a pause in the action don’t stand on the infield dirt but on the grass where it’s 10 degrees cooler. Those small things add up and no doubt contributed to our team’s dominating record. 

Likewise the handoff between presidential administrations improves its odds for success if both parties are transparent—the equivalent of showing the ball. 

The first presidential transition I recall noticing was in January 2001, when the outgoing Clinton administration gave way to George W. Bush. A story I read then in The New York Times—and I seem to remember it on page one, below the fold—claimed that the Clinton team had vandalized the White House offices on its way out, including removing the W’s (the incoming president’s middle initial) from keyboards. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described his reaction to reporters with a clever quip: “It would have been ‘Wow,’ but the ‘W’ was removed, so now it’s just ‘O.'”

A few months later these reports were shown to be at best an exaggeration—possibly a falsehood. The General Accounting Office reported as much as $14,000 in damages, but noted that some were the result of normal wear and tear, and that it couldn’t determine if the obvious pranks were more or less than occur in every presidential transition. (Who knew about that tradition?). Salon called it, “The White House vandal scandal that wasn’t.” Kind of like an alternative reality. This one pranked the national media into trashing the Clinton administration while delivering an opportunity for the Bushies to highlight that they had a different way of governing, sans the frat boy frolics. 

That incident foreshadowed the Bush administration’s modus operandi.  Just two years later, they perpetrated a reality that offered an alternative to U.S. intelligence findings, that Iraq had ties to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The claim helped the Bush team justify starting the war on Iraq. You probably know how that turned out. 

Donald Trump has taken alternative realities to new places, and like Bush he set the tone right out of the gate when his press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the Trump inauguration had the largest attendance ever, denying what was clear in photographs, that the Obama inauguration crowd was bigger. Such is Trump’s management style, demanding loyal and enthusiastic support of unsupportable alternative realities. 

Now 13 senators and 140 house representatives (at last count) say that when Congress meets tomorrow (Jan. 6), they will support the lame-duck president’s claims about election fraud by refusing to confirm the electoral votes that give President-Elect Joe Biden the election victory. 

How ever this objection gets resolved, the manner in which the presidential handoff has been jerked from its simple point-to-point moorings doesn’t bode well for the future of the Federal government nor for us, the people some in government seek to serve. 

Photo at the top of the page shows what was roughly Donald Trump’s view of the 58th presidential inauguration, a view that convinced him it was the largest inauguration crowd in history.

How Hank Aaron Became My Favorite Baseball Player

I picked Hank Aaron as my favorite baseball player in 1959 when I was five years old. I’m pretty sure about the year because I’m pretty sure the data I used to guide me was on his 1959 Topps baseball card. At the time baseball was at the center of my life with the neighborhood kids. Most were older than me, and they all had favorite players, like Mickey Mantle. Spittle would spatter from Bobby Gilmore’s mouth when he spoke Mantle’s name. It meant that much. 

I wanted a favorite player, too, but I didn’t know how you get one. I was aware of only one guiding principal: your favorite player is on your favorite team. So mine was on the Milwaukee Braves, an unusual choice in the Yankee country I grew up in. I now assume they were my favorite team because my parents were from Boston, where the Braves originated. I don’t recall my Dad ever pushing me towards the Braves or even mentioning them. I surmised later in life that as a kid he was more a Braves fan than Red Sox fan, and even that I never heard him say directly. 

The Braves excellent uniform shirt of my youth shows well in the 1961 Hank Aaron card.

Regardless, the Braves were an easy team to like in 1959. They beat the Yankees in the ‘57 World Series, lost to them in the ‘58 Series, and they were in the thick of the pennant race again in ‘59. Plus they had the best uniforms, with the embroidered tomahawk across the chest, the laughing Brave on the sleeve, the hat with blue top and red brim, and the extensive piping that even traced the players’ belt loops. 

So my quest for a favorite player was narrowed down to a single 25-man roster—actually to a handful of the team’s better players. 

How to pick one? In those days of one televised game a week, we had little to go on. I remember asking one of the older guys for advice. His response: you can judge how good a player is by the number at the bottom of the third column from the right on the back of his baseball card. (That’s his home run total.)

The circled number on the back of this 1959 Hank Aaron baseball card was the basis for my decision to make him my favorite player.

I didn’t fully trust this advice. Home runs aren’t even a stat for pitchers, so they were all ruled out. And what about all those other numbers? They must mean something, too. But the older guys knew more than I did, and I had nothing else to go by. So I checked the home run totals on my cards. 

Using that criteria, you’d think Hank Aaron would have been a lock, given that he eventually broke Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs. But at that time, Aaron was in only his sixth year, and his 140 home runs put him third on the team behind third baseman Eddie Mathews with 253 and first baseman Joe Adcock at 156. 

So why did I pick Aaron? I have 1959 baseball cards of Mathews and Adcock, so I would have seen that their home run totals were greater than Aaron’s. Maybe I hadn’t gotten those cards yet when I made the decision? Maybe I didn’t trust that home runs alone could determine the best player and there was some intangible that made me go for Aaron? I don’t remember. But I do remember getting confirmation from an older guy that Aaron’s totals made him a “good” player. That was the stamp of approval that finalized my decision.  

In retrospect, I’m fascinated that my pseudo scientific approach landed me on the guy who broke one of baseball’s most cherished records. And that despite starting with a rather mild commitment, I quickly came to obsess over him, the way you’re supposed to obsess over your favorite player. He had a great career, and his playing days lasted into my early 20s, about the time my baseball passions began to wane (they returned later in life), so our baseball peaks aligned pretty well. And I got to see him play twice, in the 1961 All Star Game at Fenway Park, Boston, and in the 1963 Hall of Fame Game against the Boston Red Sox in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he homered with a line drive that just cleared the left field fence while playing in a lineup that included his younger brother, Tommie.

I’m also fascinated that in the very year (1959) when Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox to finally integrate every major league baseball team, when racial segregation was still the rule for many public accommodations in the South, I chose a Black man as my favorite player. Apparently in Hank Aaron’s baseball card picture I saw nothing but a great player. I had no preconceptions based on race, no awareness of racial stereotypes.

Yes, growing up in an all-white suburb as I did, I would learn the stereotypes soon enough. But the memory of choosing to align with Hank Aaron preceded all that. And he delivered in a much bigger way than I or anyone else expected. I still keep this in my mind. Like a touchstone. 

Image at the top of the page is a 1959 Topps baseball card showing Hank Aaron, hitting a home run in the fourth game of the 1957 World Series. The other player pictured is Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, who was my older brother, Scott’s, favorite player at the time, making this a pretty special card in our family. Image at the bottom of the page is from my neighborhood.

I Reveal My Trick For Teaching My Dog to Run With Me

Experts say dogs shouldn’t go distance running until their bones are well formed at about one year of age (some say even older). So I waited until after our Standard Poodle, Mersey, had her first birthday before going on a sustained run with her. 

That noted, I prepared her in small ways for the big day. 

First, thanks mostly to my wife, Claire, Mersey got plenty of exercise as a puppy, typically two sessions a day of walks and / or play dates with other puppies. And when I walked her, I occasionally broke into a trot, testing her and letting her know to expect more of this in her future. She responded well, immediately picking up on the new pace and matching it, like it was a game, and she wanted to play.

But that was the extent of her preparation. So when I took her out for her first run a few weeks after her first birthday, I was leaping into the unknown. Would she enjoy it, sticking with me and bounding along like we were having a great adventure? Or would she pull me in all directions, stop every 50 feet for an intensive sniff, or lag behind like I was dragging her through a torture chamber eventually pulling to a stop and stubbornly refusing to move? In a moment, I would find out. 

We began by following our usual walking pattern, bursting out the door and down the driveway along with our other dog and her usual walking partner, Dusty, who my wife was going to take separately. The familiar pattern changed at the end of the driveway, when we broke into a trot while my wife and Dusty walked in the opposite direction. 

Mersey was confused. She twisted and turned, trying to understand why they were walking the other way. After several twists, we were down the block and they were out of sight. She turned again as if to verify her fate then resettled into her new pace. My pace. 

This is a dog who can pull intensely for long stretches of a walk. But now the rope leash was limp. She stayed close, sometimes sliding slightly ahead, sometimes slightly behind. I cheated on my usual responsible monitoring of the street and sidewalk where my feet were landing to steal glimpses of her. She seemed to be enjoying it, her head moving from side to side, focusing here, then there, watching the world roll by more quickly than usual, taking it all in. She’s an observer. In the car, watching our TV, sitting in the backyard. And now, on a run. 

We ran five miles that day. She kept pace with me nearly the whole way, a feat she has repeated on every run since. 

I used my phone to shoot this video of Mersey keeping nearly perfect pace with me along the Genesee River path in Rochester, N.Y. 

Yes, our runs have been disrupted now and then by wildlife and other distractions. But there’s no denying it: she’s a natural. I’m amazed each time I run with her that she keeps perfect pace with me for minutes on end. And I did nothing to train her. She arrived at her first birthday running ready. I just guided her out the door. I imagine there’s a method to train a dog to run with you. But this time at least, I didn’t need it. 

When Even Fantasy Shuts Down

You’d think during a time of social distancing that one’s imagination would blossom and fill some of the daily routine’s newly empty space with unsuppressed wonder and delight. So imagine my disappointment last week when my one ongoing fantasy was utterly dashed. 

It was announced in an email from the University of Snipe’s Dean Dangle. He’s also commissioner of the Gump Worsley Invitational Fantasy Hockey League in which his school and my team, the Ellwanger Maple Leaves, compete. The unfinished coronavirus-plagued season is over. It won’t be salvaged. No make-up games. No playoffs. No cash awards to top finishers. 

W-w-wait. No cash awards? So what happened to the money I paid in, to fund the awards? 

No worries. According to Dangle, that money will transfer to next year “so no League fees will be required for the 2020/2021 season.”

Fantasy draft night is a national holiday if you call in sick that day. 

OK, if there’s nothing shady going on, then I guess it’s okay to reminisce about the season. It began with great promise, with the draft party at the commissioner’s office. Bold signage let everyone on the block know if was draft night. Dean Dangle’s squad showed off new University of Snipe wearables and shared such locker room staples as pizza, wings, pucks and water bottles, as well as complimentary mints. My fantasy was festive!

Food spread at the draft party anticipated the fast food fare champions could expect should they accept an invitation to the White House. 

My team, the Ellwanger Maple Leaves, got off to a rough start, but by March we had clawed our way back to fourth place in the 10-team league, getting hot just in time for the playoffs. My fantasy had fire!

Then on March 12, the NHL suspended play. Anyone who knows anything about fantasy sports knows our league needs the pros in action so their stats can fill our score sheets. In other words, my fantasy was f***ed!

If white males focused as much attention on the election as they do on their fantasy hockey drafts, Wayne Gretzky would be president.

But not so fast. Our league play was officially on hold while the NHL worked out details of if and how it would complete the season, and last week the NHL returned to action. Well apparently Dean Dangle got deked during negotiations, because the NHL chose to close out the year with a format that was incompatible with the Gump Worsley Invitational bylaws. The NHL’s 24-team playoff means that fantasy squads with players on the NHL teams that advance would have an insurmountable advantage.

So Dean Dangle was forced to forfeit our fantasy. It’s hard for me to say those words. (F’s have always given me trouble and with that much alliteration…I don’t even want to go there.)

These University of Snipe water bottles can contain any legal beverage.

For what it’s worth, the unprecedented action came “after much deliberation and due an abundance of caution,” Dangle claimed. “The League spent a great deal of time consulting officials and reaching out to how other fantasy hockey leagues across the sphere were handling the end of the season. There was no consensus – but we felt this one was the fairest across the board.”

These University of Snipe logoed hockey pucks have no actual role in fantasy hockey. 

Whatever. As another Gump once said, fantasy is as fantasy does. And in my fantasy, my Maple Leaves are just starting what I believe will be an epic run that will eventually find me hoisting high the Gump Worsley Cup (not the athletic supporter he wore when playing goalie, but something more like the Stanley Cup) while dancing around in my living room, occasionally blocking my wife’s view of the TV.

I’d invite you to join the celebration, but I’m not yet ready to fantasize that the coronavirus pandemic’s social distancing will be over any time soon. All the same, please go ahead and enjoy a mint, compliments of the University of Snipe.

Mints provided on draft night were custom made in the University of Snipe’s team colors, red and white. 

Note: Photo of Gump Worsley at top of page is a trading card photo of the Montreal Canadiens goalie that was printed on the backs of Chex cereal boxes in the United States and Canada from 1963 to 1965. 

The NFL Will Be Back This Fall

The National Football League will play its schedule this fall. Even it baseball never throws its first pitch. Even if a second wave of COVID-19 kicks in. Even if some states ban gatherings of 1,000-plus. And while post-coronavirus football will make adjustments, none will change the essentials of the game. 

This week’s NFL draft will not be in vain. 

Yes, training camps will start later than usual. But come on. The starters hardly play in the pre-season games anyway. They’ll be ready on opening day. 

Coaches, who tend to be older and therefore at greater risk of COVID complications, will now wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) on the sidelines. No big deal though—most of them already look pretty nerdy. 

More devastating: fans may not be allowed in the stadiums, protecting the larger population but making the NFL a TV-only league. But here’s a news flash: people like watching football on TV! We’ll miss the tailgating and the 12thman heroics, but we’ll adjust.

Then there’s the players. They’ll have to contend with a new threat: COVID-19. But let’s be real. NFL locker rooms aren’t exactly nursing homes (though Tampa Bay’s room may get reclassified as an assisted living facility since Tom Brady’s signing). 

Still, the risk of hospital stays or even death for COVID-19-inflicted NFL players isn’t zero. A handful of players have diabetes, some have asthma, and as many as 14 percent have high blood pressure(and 90 percent of linemen), according to American Medical Association-published studies—factors that increase the risk for COVID-19 complications. 

So let’s cut to the chase: how many COVID deaths can we expect in the 2020 season? One? Two? Three or four at the most? Well guess what? Four active players have diedin three different seasons: 2007, 1964 and 1963, and three have died in six campaigns, most recently in 2012. Yes, those are high numbers. Yes, each death is tragic. Yes, it’s sad. But experiencing three or four deaths of active NFL players in a season is not unheard of. 

And let’s face it. Health implications are far worse for retired players than for active ones. More than half of NFL playershave body mass indexes that put them at risk of diabetes. The high blood pressure increases the likelihood of future heart disease. Then there’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma, resulting in symptoms like memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues and suicidal behavior.  A studypublished in the Journal of the American Medical Associationin 2017 found CTE in 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players they studied. To sum up: nearly every NFL player gets it. 

Indeed CTE has introduced a new brand of danger to the NFL—and the coronavirus can slot right into that same lane. If players inhale each other’s potentially coronavirus-laden droplets in the trenches or when they’re putting a big hit on that running back or when they’re doing those homo-erotic end-zone celebrations, well, it’s all part of the game. It’s their destiny. It’s American’s destiny. Let’s embrace it!

Let’s savor Tom Brady’s new quest to lead a non-Bill Belichick team to the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to take place in Brady’s new home stadium in Tampa Bay this year, by the way. Let’s rejoice when the nation’s betting capital finally gets its own team as the erstwhile Oakland Raiders open their first season in Las Vegas. And most importantly, let’s take note that the Buffalo Bills are No. 11 in the pre-season power rankings of both ESPN and Sports Illustrated. After more than two decades of frustration and entering the fourth season of a Brandon Beane / Sean McDermott-led rebuild, the Bills are ready to return to form. 

We can’t let that just slip away.

The photo at the top of the page by chaddavis.photography is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license: cc-by-sa-2.0.