The hockey dork came out in me today.

One of my favorite hockey players of the current era is Jarome Iginla. Despite the fact that I despise the Calgary Flames (the reasons for which could be a completely different blog), I love the way that Iginla plays the game. He's a tremendous leader, he's gritty, got scoring touch and plays the game with class and respects the history of the NHL.

At the same time, former Flame Hakan Loob has the greatest name in the history of the NHL, for obvious reasons.

One of the only things that links these two together is that Loob, who played for the Flames during their only Stanley Cup run in 1989, and Iginla, who lost a Cup Final in 2004, both wear #12.

Which prompted this letter to ESPN's John Buccigross in his weekly column:

Wish I had my camera at the Saddledome last weekend so I could have taken a picture and sent it to you. A fan was wearing an old-school Flames No. 12 jersey with "IGINLOOB" on the back.

God, how I wish I could have seen that. But thanks to the magic of the internet, this is what I assume it looked like:

Change that none of us can believe

It has been about 26 hours since Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.

Throughout his campaign and his first speech as the POTUS yesterday, Obama touted that he would bring about the kind of change that America needed to get through these tough times. He called it "Change we can believe in."

What we're seeing through the first part of 2009 is quite the opposite.

It's change that none of us can actually believe.

The past five years have in Arizona sports have been dictated by the regular season dominance of the run-and-gun Suns, the utter ineptitude of the Arizona Cardinals, most people forgetting that the Phoenix Coyotes even existed.

Since the turn of the calendar, change has come.

Arizona Cardinals
Not much needs to be explained here; the story has played out before our disbelieving eyes for the past three weeks.

A franchise that could only be described as moribund since their move to Phoenix in 1988, and who stumbled so horribly down the stretch of the 2008 regular season, found their sea legs and are making an improbable trip to Tampa next week to play for a Super Bowl title. It's created a firestorm of media coverage across America as the rest of the country (and frankly, much of the Valley of the Sun) is learning all about how amazing Larry Fitzgerald is, the fact that Kurt Warner is actually still playing football and the celebration exploits of Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett.

Whoever legitimately saw this coming from the Redbirds, raise your hand.

Put your hand down. You're a liar.

Phoenix Suns
Through the past several seasons, the Phoenix Suns have defined themselves as no better than the 3rd best team in the Western Conference, but it was for no lack of thrills and fun. The Suns regularly put up over 100 points a night and made exciting runs into the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the playoffs. They were lead by a charismatic head coach in Mike D'Antoni and a core of athletic, explosive players.

And before our eyes, it all has collapsed, and the lowest point of all may have come Monday night when, seemingly before you could blink, the Suns were somehow down 30 to the Boston Celtics.

The way this all disintegrated is ridiculous. It's pretty safe to say, 10 months removed from it, that the trade for Shaquille O'Neal hasn't made an enormous difference. Remember when he pointed to his ring finger right after being traded to Phoenix and got a standing ovation?

Still waiting for that ring to show up. If anything, the only thing that has changed for the better (?) is that Suns opponents take more fouls...at least Gregg Popovich and the Spurs do.

Terry Porter was brought in to replace D'Antoni, but the team has clearly regressed and the players clearly don't play with the same energy and passion as they did under their former boss. Now we all have to sit and wonder, as the bad losses and blown double-digit leads pile up, whether these Suns will even make the playoffs this season.

Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes find themselves in a completely opposite situation than their NBA counterparts. Since 2003, bad personnel decisions, horrible coaching and a non-existent fan base made this team perform as horribly off the ice as they have on the rink.

Somehow, it has all turned around this year. And after last night's statement 6-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings last night in Glendale, I'm pretty much convinced that this Coyotes team will end their drought and make the playoffs in 2009.

There's youthful energy throught the roster, Ilya Bryzgalov is back to playing at the top of his game and Wayne Gretzky, whose talents have been called in to question repeatedly by the national media, might actually be coming into his own as a coach. And with the Desert Dogs surging and division rival Anaheim slowly fading, it's high time for the 'Yotes to seize this opportunity.

Like the Cardinals, you're a liar if you said the Coyotes would be the Western Conference's 5th seed going into the All Star Break.


A day later, and you still can't believe it.

That's all that really needs to be said for this morning.


Now is the time for the Dogs

The Phoenix Coyotes have raised plenty an eyebrow during the 2008-09 season thus far.

Beyond all the talk of financial collapse, $30 million in losses, horrible lease agreements and revenue sharing woes, the team on the ice has exceeded expectations thus far.

Despite being maddeningly inconsistent between games and even sometimes between periods within games, the Desert Dogs still find themselves in 7th place in the Western Conference and only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks for 2nd place in the Pacific Division behind the mighty San Jose Sharks.

This stretch, however, will be the one that determines whether Phoenix makes the playoffs this season.

We'll define this crucial stretch of games as going from tonight, when the 'Yotes travel to Vancouver to take on the Canucks, until February 7, when they host the Carolina Hurricanes.

During this period of about 2 1/2 weeks, the Coyotes will play only three of their 10 games against what I consider elite opponents: one game vs. Detroit in Glendale and two road games at San Jose and a repeat matchup with the Red Wings. Outside of that, the Coyotes take on the Canucks, Calgary, Edmonton and Nashville on the road and Anaheim, Buffalo and Carolina at home.

On the flip side, the Ducks, who are only 9-8-2 away from Honda Center, play 9 of their next 11 on the road. A five-game roadie starts tomorrow at defending East champion Pittsburgh and then continues to Minnesota, the Rangers and Islanders and then here to Phoenix. Home games against high-flying Chicago and the Sabres are interspersed with trips to Colorado, Minnesota again, Nashville and Calgary.

Advantage: Coyotes.

The 'Yotes have played the Red Wings and Sharks very tough so far this season and, at least in their home matchups, should be able to pull out victories. Out of this 10 game stretch, the Coyotes should be able to pull out at least 12 points, which will put them at 59 going into the middle of February.

The road weary Ducks, who were physically manhandled at home by Detroit last night, face stiff tests pretty much every night until February 7 (save their games against the Islanders and Colorado...hapless as hapless can be).

If the Ducks slip in any way in this stretch and put together a losing streak, the Coyotes need to take advantage and win their games. Moving up to 2nd place in the Pacific now will vault them into a position in which as long as they play .500 hockey down the stretch, they'll be in the playoff race until the very end.


What They're Saying: January 14

For the rest of the week...I'll post up links from articles from Philadelphia that discuss this weekend's Cards/Eagles matchup...enjoy!

John Gonzalez of the Inquirer says that the Cards are just another bandwagon to jump on.

Donovan McNabb says they can't underestimate the Arizona defense.

Our old buddy Craig Morgan writes about the drastic 180 the defense has taken.

Bob Ford poses questions about respect.

The Noon Buzz - January 14

Time for today's spin around the headlines...first off, special thanks goes out today (and the rest of the week) to 950 ESPN Radio in Philadelphia...we're helping each other out all week to get you all the best coverage of this Sunday's NFC Championship Game at the UofPho and 950 is providing us with all sorts of sound from Eagles HQ!

Anyway. Here's what caught my eye today.

"But mom said I could!" Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy, who I thought going into the season (and still do think) was the best running back in the Big East in 2008, is declaring for the draft amid reports that his mother was pressuring him into going pro. You can't ignore the fact that many of these players need to reap the benefits of the instant millions from going to the NFL early, but McCoy stood a tremendous chance of being the nation's most dominant runner as a senior in 2009. If all that has been said about Mommy Dearest is true, then LeSean seems to have some maturity issues.

"Good thing I'm who I am.." is probably what Michael Irvin is thinking right about now. Irvin had a gun pulled on him by a neighboring motorist on Monday night, but apparently, the guy in the car with the gunman recognized him from his days playing for the Cowboys. Irvin then went on to have a 'calm chat' with the guy before they drove away without incident.

"Rocky Top...you'll always be..." the victim of Jodie Meeks. So what if it doesn't have the same ring of the regular fight song? Meeks owned Knoxville last night, dropping a Kentucky record 52 on the Volunteers in a 90-72 win. He broke Dan Issel's 38-year-old record of 53 (though I don't think Dan will mind, he still owns four of the top eight scoring games in UK history) by shooting 15-22 from the field and an unreal 10-15 from outside the arc. A few more wins like this for the Wildcats and we'll be talking about the Wildcats as potentially a serious threat in the SEC.

"Anything you can do..." the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins can do better. The Sharks and B's both notched their 32nd win of the season last night in their 42nd and 43rd games respectively. San Jose dismantled the hapless Lightning 7-1 on home ice (reportedly making Steve Stamkos cry) while the Bruins physically punished the Habs on their way to a 3-1 win at the New Garden. While everyone is paying attention to those pesky (and slumping) Celtics and their recent slump, these two teams are continuing their torrid pace.

Stat of the Day: Since I have a huge affinity for Mid-Major college basketball...expect a couple more from this arena. Last night, there is no way there could be more of a 3-point success disparity between two teams like we saw yesterday between the Orlando Magic and New Hampshire. While Orlando was raining an NBA record 23 treys on the Sacramento Kings, New Hampshire only hit two against Boston University. Why is this notable? The Wildcats attempted 33. 2 of 33. Ouch.


Rolle Makes the Right Choice

It's a very rare thing in sports these days for an athlete, amateur or professional, to make a well thought out decision that positively impacts their future.

We're far too used to the athletes we follow every day making bad decisions, like this one.

Or this one.

I'll stop now. No need to waste more time on examples, plus you're all probably still trying to figure out Shaq's lyrics.

Either way, it's refreshing to come across someone like Myron Rolle.

Back in November, we all followed along as Myron Rolle raced down to Alabama for his final interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, then hitched a ride up to College Park to participate in the 2nd half of the Florida State/Maryland game.

On the way to the game, he found out that he was awarded the one-year full ride to Oxford to study Medical Anthropology. At the same time, his outstanding senior season left him as a surefire first day pick in this year's NFL Draft.

There's the rub. Take the immediate millions of the NFL this year? Or take on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be one of a select few that can carry the title of Rhodes Scholar?

He made his decision today. And he made the right choice in deffering the NFL for a year.

Let's be real. Either way, Myron Rolle is going to be a prominent and rich man at some point in his life. He's definitely got a future as a standout DB in the NFL, and then after that, he's going to be a brain surgeon.

Rolle is putting off immediate fame to advance himself and become a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in education, and he should be certainly praised for it. But if you do, bring a dictionary. Something tells me his vocabulary might be just a bit over all of our heads.

Rolle Passes Up Draft for Oxford (USA Today)


Update on the San Jose sports cutting situation

It got worse in East San Jose last night.

Here's an update on the story that we brought you yesterday about the East Side Union High School District consideration of cutting all sports programs at their 11 schools across the East Side.

The superintendent of schools for the ESU proposed $11.4 million in budget cuts at a board meeting last night, including $2.1 million from the athletic budget.

$2.1 million IS the athletic budget.

In front of what I'm told was an overflow crowd full of coaches, athletes and parents, the board passed the tentative budget plan, which may change before the June state deadline to have their budgets for 2010 and beyond set in stone.

I exchanged voice mail throughout yesterday with Jeff Borges, a PE teacher and the head football coach at Andrew Hill High School; the last I heard from him, he was on his way to the board meeting. I'm hoping to catch up with him this morning and get his thoughts on what happened last night. Here's an excerpt quoting Borges from this morning's San Jose Mercury News:

"Shame on you and the people who are responsible for even bringing this up tonight," said Jeff Borges, a coach at Andrew Hill High, before a standing-room-only crowd that filled the board room and spilled into the lobby. "You say $2 million in sports, I say get rid of an administrator at each school and the problem is solved."

The Oakland Athletics and San Jose Earthquakes, the Bay Area's MLS team, are trying to work out a plan to help save athletics for the ESU, which is a noble effort from each team. I'm hoping that this isn't the end-all, there are other very successful teams and organizations that can help prop up the programs and support the school's struggling booster programs.

Like I said yesterday, cutting all athletics would be a disaster for thousands of kids who are going to high school in run down and crime-ridden areas of San Jose. Said one sign at yesterday's meeting: "Sports keeps me out of trouble."

Is there any simpler way to put it?


Cutting Sports in San Jose Is The Wrong Move

Normally, I don't soapbox on this blog. I try to stay away from trying to tell people what's right and wrong ethically in the world of sports. I try to stick to what's happening on the fields, diamonds, courts and rinks.

However, a story I read in today's San Jose Mercury News prompted me to write this morning, especially because this is a matter that concerns where I grew up and programs that helped me along to where I am today.

One of the last bastiens of amateurism in sports today is found in high school. With all the controversy surrounding collegiate athletics, whether it be players receiving improper benefits, not completing classes or the what not, one of the last places to find pure, unadulterated sport is at your local high school.

For those who ever participated in a sport during their high school years (track and field, in my case), you remember what a tremendous experience it was. We all grew as athletes and as people, guided by coaches we'll never forget, and learned lessons in sports and in life that most of us carry with us into adulthood.

For many, after-school sports is a way to stay out of trouble as well. In many neighborhoods and cities across America, playing a sport is a way for school administrators to keep their students off the street once the school day is over and channel their talents towards the positive.

Which brings me to this...today's Mercury News reports that the East Side Union High School District, located in San Jose, CA, is considering cutting all sports programs at their 11 high schools.

Some areas of the East Side, for those who don't know much about the Bay Area, is considered one of the poorer areas of the Silicon Valley. Geraldo Rivera once actually called East San Jose "the ghetto side of town." Areas around Andrew Hill High School and James Lick High School have been historically noted for their high incidence of crime.

I know the economy is bad. It's affecting everyone throughout the United States, especially the education sector.

However, the last I checked, high schools are supposed to be where the youth of America are prepared to enter higher education and the working world. They're supposed to be sources of spirit and pride for their surrounding communities, and like it or not, these high school teams are most often the catalyst for this spirit.

Even more importantly, of course, is that for thousands of students at Andrew Hill, James Lick, Santa Teresa, Overfelt, Evergreen Valley, Mt. Pleasant, Piedmont Hills, Yerba Buena, Independence, Oak Grove and Silver Creek, their after-school sports programs, which for some provide springboards to playing in college and for all provide a way to stay in shape, gain positive support from coaches and teammates and, most importantly, stay out of trouble, will be gone.

Maybe I'm naive, maybe I'm short sighted...whatever it is...all I know is that I'm 23 years old...only 6 years removed from my own high school experience as a thrower and runner for Cupertino High School. I'll always remember those times for what they did for my self-confidence and athleticism.

Taking these sports away from thousands of student-athletes would be a huge mistake.


Quick Trigger Coaching Changes Don't Help...They Stunt

We've all heard that adage about head coaches in pro sports.

When a team starts losing..."it's easier to fire the coach than fire 20 players."

However, when those 12...15...20...however many players just don't have the experience and refined talent to win consistently, is it really the fault of the man in the suit?

There have been two questionable firings so far this season, and in both situations, the teams who did the firing are simply too raw to be competitive, at no fault of the coach who was fired.

In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are just too young. Sure, Kevin Durant is one of the most dynamic young players in the NBA, so it's easy to forget that he's just in his second pro season. But when you look at the players surrounding him, they're either equally as young and inexperienced (Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green), a veritable draft bust (Nick Collison) and several players who would look lost playing basketball anywhere (Johan Petro and Chris Wilcox).
In short, the Thunder are simply just not a very good basketball team. With a few more good draft picks and possibly some shrewd free agent moves, they still have the pieces in place to be at least a competitive team.

So why pull the rug out and get rid of the only coach that some of these players know? PJ Carlesimo was unceremoniously released a few weeks ago...one of four head coaches in the Association to already lose his job...and I feel like out of all of them, he was the least deserving. While Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell and Randy Wittman all failed to capitalize on their past success and with the talent infusion they each received (with the exception of Wittman, who was just in a hopeless situation in Minnesota), Carlesimo was never even given the chance to succeed.

Down the Sun Belt in Tampa, an even more egregious firing took place...one that has already stunted a young team and possibly the development of their brightest prospect.

You can say all you want about how Barry Melrose may have lost touch with the game of hockey during his 12 years as the lead NHL analyst at ESPN, but you can never question his enthusiasm and passion for the game.

It makes his outster after just 16 games behind the bench in Tampa Bay just that more mind-boggling.

It's incredible how the Lightning have sunk so swiftly to the bottom of the NHL standings just four years removed from a Stanley Cup title, especially with players like Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Paul Ranger on the roster. It's the effects of poor management and poor coaching that led them to this spot.

Maybe Melrose wasn't the long-term solution to the problems in Central Florida, but it's hard to judge that when he was only given a month and a half to be the team's head coach. From what I have been told by sources, Barry wasn't happy with how hands-on the ownership and front office were with the on-ice product. When he tried to get them to retreat, he was fired.

The worst thing about the entire Melrose/Lightning fiasco is it's effects on #1 pick and super-rookie Steven Stamkos. Tampa Bay struck a coup when they landed Stamkos and Melrose was trying to give him every opportunity to get ample playing time and invaluable experience; now that Rick Tocchet is in charge, Steven's minutes have decreased. Melrose said in an interview with The Fan 590 in Toronto that Stamkos is not NHL ready but he was trying to get him there. Now, I imagine it will take extra years to get him ready to play every night in the NHL, if he's ever ready, period.