Tuesday, April 25, 2017

HOWIE BALABAN: Thinking Out Loud

I am a sports fan. Specifically, I have three loves: all things Syracuse University, the New York Rangers, and the New York Yankees. However, I also try to keep myself open to other sports stories as they emerge. To say that things have been quiet on the sports front in the past two weeks would be like saying I like doing laundry.
Anyone who has ever listened to talk radio has heard the phrase "hot take" and we've likely heard variations of such takes by callers to whichever show we were tuned into at the time. Truth be told, I've called some shows before.
That said, here is my not-so-hot take on two of the most recent issues to grace the sports world. One is local, and one is not.

Let's start locally with the Buffalo Sabres and the kerfuffle that seemed to take place between the would-be franchise cornerstone in Jack Eichel and the Buffalo media. And let's also all agree on one thing: Eichel is a player franchises drool over come draft time. Let's also agree that he is the best offensive player the Sabres have seen in a long time, and he still has room to improve.
So with all that in mind, what happened to the not-yet-21-year-old Eichel in the past week or so was ridiculous, and I say that as an casual fan of the Sabres. I've lived in Western New York on and off since 1993 and have adopted the Sabres as a second-favorite team. My wife and all of her family root for the Sabres, as do many of the friends I've made up here. The Sabres doing well is a boost to local morale.
For the past few years they have not done well. There were a few years of bad hockey while "trying" followed by a few years of bad hockey while "tanking." Ownership and management can say what they want, but the evidence was there that the Sabres were not built to win for two straight years. As fate would have it, despite having the best odds for the top overall pick two years in a row, Buffalo wound up in second place and instead of a franchise building blocks like Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid the team wound up with Sam Reinhart and Eichel. Ekblad has emerged as one of the league's best young defenseman, while McDavid has his team preparing for Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Eichel's April calendar is empty for the second straight year.
Supposedly, or allegedly, or whatever "-ly" word you want to use, Eichel told someone that he would not sign an extension if the Sabres kept their coach from the past two seasons. That coach, Dan Bylsma, was fired along with the general manager in the past several days. Niagara's Watercooler touched on this fiasco from a fan's perspective when George Root wrote about his reaction to the ordeal. He called out the media in his own unique way, and explained how the Sabres were too good to be so bad.
The deal with the local media is what has me confused, but as a hockey fan, not a Sabres fan. Bylsma won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins because of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and an on-his-game Marc-Andre Fleury. He won that cup in 2009, but didn't do much in the aftermath. There are many, many fans who never liked his hiring in Buffalo at the time, and now the feeling I am getting from even more fans is that it was unfair of Eichel to make such a demand.
Fans are fickle and live in a world where, "What have you done for us lately?" is the mantra. I heard fans on a show today calling for Joe Girardi to bench Brett Gardner, the longest tenured current Yankee, because he was in a weeklong slump at the plate. They were campaigning for Aaron Hicks to get the starting nod. The same Aaron Hicks they were looking to trade for a bag of baseballs at this time last season because he started off slow. Go figure.
The point here is that it really shouldn't matter what Eichel said or didn't say. He is 20 years old, and is the face of one of his franchise. This is a kid who is not legally allowed to drink being driven to do so, in a manner of speaking, by fans who were swindled by a GM who in hindsight was in over his head. Keep in mind, Buffalo was not only among the worst teams at the NHL level, but the farm teams finished near the bottom, also.
Face facts: Eichel said what every fan was thinking. Ownership has money to spend, but if the franchise player doesn't want to play here, then how does that look to free agents? Changes needed to be made.
As for my good friend George's argument that Buffalo is too good to be this bad on the ice, I completely disagree. Teams with talent do not finish so far down in the standings in consecutive years. Whoever the new GM is should make it known that every player except Eichel and high-ceiling defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is available. Rebuild the team around those two young players, and start creating hope among the fan base again.
Moving on to topic no. 2, which is one that concerns Aaron Hernandez.
Enough has been written about his guilt, his death, and various conspiracy theories about both. I understand the conviction for the murder for which he was found guilty was under appeal at the time of his death, leading to a legal conundrum, but I won't get into that. I won't get into whether I thought he was guilty or innocent, either, because as far as I am concerned a jury ruled on the case.
What I will do is say that the round-the-clock coverage on ESPN of his suicide was annoying, and the continued leaking of new information is getting tedious to sift through. Yet of all the stories about his death that have been published, there is the latest one about how he had a male lover in prison, and that he killed his friend to hide his bisexuality.
Want to know my conclusion on that? What a shame.
Think about it this way: Hernandez was an incredible football player who chose the wrong path. Think back a few years to the draft in which Michael Sam was taken. He was the first openly gay player in the NFL ranks, and had a host of people applauding him for his bravery. Unfortunately, Sam didn't leave any lasting mark on the NFL. Hernandez most certainly did leave a mark as a player. Could you imagine how much different his life would have been - and the life for what I'm sure are many other pro athletes - if he had chosen to embrace who he was instead of hide from it and take lives while doing so?
Life is filled with plenty of moments that shape who we are. In Hernandez's case, if the reports are true, his decision to hide ultimately cost people their lives.
A jury found him guilty, and in the end he wound up taking his own life. In the days that have followed many in the sports media have tried to make sense of it. Some are trying to make him a victim. But I won't do that, because after all he was found guilty.
There's another story to him, though. One we'll never know about, and maybe in some parallel universe it's playing out in a positive way. All we can really do, though, is simply ask the age old question, "What if?"
Howie Balaban is very happy the Rangers took down the Habs. There's nothing quite like playoff hockey.