Monday, January 31, 2011

What a weekend!

Hats off to you, Raleigh, for a tremendous NHL All Star Game weekend. From the Fan Fair at the impressive Raleigh Convention Center, to the Fantasy Draft (the brainchild of Brendan Shanahan), to a wildly entertaining All Star game, the Triangle showed its true colors as a place that the game has taken hold, and has deepening roots.

I had the pleasure of talking to players past and present over the course of the weekend. There is one thing that has not changed in all the years I have covered hockey. These guys get it. There are no monster egos. These are rooted players that know the value of the fans, and the game. They may be high maintenance for their own teams, but as all stars, they are the class of the league, and carried themselves that way all weekend long.

I loved the way the game itself began. The kids on the ice, picking sticks out of the center. This method is the blind draw of the choosing of teams (unless you already know who the stick's owner is). The Hurricanes were able to blend in their history with their youth in a tremendous and touching moment. Bringing Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis out in the skit with the kids, and then Eric Staal, the All Star game captain of his own squad, joining them in a pool of white light at center ice. The crowd (predictably) went berserk, but again, they tied yesterday to today in a classy manner.

I had a wonderful time covering the game, but most of all, I want to thank those folks who had so many kind and wonderful things to say to me all weekend long. The 7 years I spent in Raleigh were some wonderful times, and I met so many terrific people. I had one person tell me, "it wouldn't have been right if you weren't here." That was one of the highest compliments I have ever gotten in my career. From the bottom of my heart, I thank each and every one who stopped to say hi, talk hockey, or even just catch up on old times.

It was a very special weekend for the city of Raleigh, and the state of North Carolina. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of the party.

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

NASCAR, NFL and more

Been too long, but have some thoughts here, starting with NASCAR.

Yes, the Daytona 500 is just about 3 weeks away, but on Wednesday night, NASCAR unveiled their new points payout system for all 3 of their national series, Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks.

First place earns 43 points, 2nd place 42, 3rd place 41, and so on, down to 1. Win the race, get 3 bonus points. Lead a lap, get 1 bonus point. Lead the most laps, get 1 bonus point.

The Chase remains, as well, with the top 10 drivers in points earning a berth, and then 2 wildcards will be handed out to the drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins.

NASCAR tried to place more emphasis on winning, and while they did, they didn't go far enough. 3 points for a win, on a graded 43 points scale is a mere pat on the back. Make a win significant. Make a win bonus 5 or even 10. Keep the laps lead, and most laps lead at 1, but the goal should be to collect checkered flags. It's virtually the same as the 5 point bonus that was given to the winner under the old system. It's nice, but it's not enough.

Now, I don't have all the answers, and I do know the NASCAR simply can't win no matter what they do. I admire that they are trying to make things better, easier to understand, and they should be applauded for their efforts, but I had a hard time following the explanations coming from NASCAR CEO Brian France on Wednesday night. It almost seemed that even he didn't believe the changes would work.

Time will tell how these changes work out, if they make things better, or produce those "Game 7" moments the series longed for last year. You just don't know until you give it a try.

I do like the Chase changes, and I like that they didn't add a "knockout stage" to eliminate drivers that aren't keeping up, I like the notion of being in, and staying in. The points payouts being what they are, things could be a little more interesting, but as always, the cream will rise to the top.

OK, Super Bowl 45 is 11 days away, and while the Pro Bowl is actually this Sunday, that game doesn't really count. I could be wrong, but I think it was Jack Youngblood who said he got hit harder on Bourbon Street on vacation, than he ever did in a Pro Bowl. That in mind, football fans have just 4 quarters (barring overtime) of football left for the foreseeable future.

Not getting into the CBA discussions (of which there have been none by all accounts), I had the conference champions picked, and now that it is Green Bay and Pittsburgh, I am still taking the Steelers, and I have ti being a tight game. Pittsburgh doesn't generally blow teams away, and even thought they got out to a 24-0 lead on the NY Jets, they didn't stretch it any further. Green Bay has played some fine football in the last 2 months, and they will be the sentimental pick, simply because the Steelers won it all just 2 years ago.

My Chicago roots will have me rooting for the Steelers on February 6th. My game opinion also leans towards Pittsburgh, but if you are looking for a rout, look someplace else. This one could go down as one of the great title games ever. So many weapons on both offenses, and both defenses can make the big play when needed.

11 days out, I have it Steelers 20-17 over the Packers.

I, do, however, reserve the right to change my mind.

Mike Solarte

Monday, January 17, 2011

And they want to lockout the players?

Really, NFL?

You mean to tell me you two sides, players and owners, can't hammer out a deal?

Check the TV ratings for the weekend. More people watched Chicago thump Seattle than watched President Obama talk about the Arizona shootings.

The popularity of the NFL is at an all-time high. Maybe it's because people are soaking in all the football they can before owners lock the door on players after the current CBA runs out in early March.

More realistically, it's because football feeds the nation. Period. I'm a hockey guy, and even I know the NFL rules the roost. Sorry NBA, MLB, NASCAR and anyone else. The USA is the NFL's turf.

Chicago and Green Bay will meet for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Think UNC-Duke to the 100th power. This isn't about college ties, this is about one city hating another city. It's not Durham despising Chapel Hill. That isn't the factor in the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. That's proximity, and a 10 mile stretch of Hwy 15-501. In Chicago-Green Bay, it's about one city saying the other could be wiped of the map, and it would be an improvement. I lived that rivalry growing up. Bears fans won't wish the Packers well if they go into Soldier Field and win on Sunday. True Bears fans will root for the AFC team. To a Bears fan, the only good thing coming out of Green Bay is the bus they leave Lambeau Field on after the game.

The NFC title game will be filled with hard hits, and hate. Great tv.

In the AFC, it's the Jets and Steelers. I have friends on both side of the rivalry, and to all of them I say good luck. Should be a dandy game, considering the Jets destroyed New England. Sorry, Pats fans, the final score was not an indication of how close things were. The Jets hammered the Pats up and down the field, for 60 minutes. Rex Ryan's mouth has written big checks, and his team has been able to cash them. They are dangerous.

I'm not running Pittsburgh out of this, by any means. The Steelers are nasty. They play hard. They are physical. They aren't afraid to smack someone in the mouth, because they seem to enjoy when they get hit back. I get the sense the Steelers are carrying their own swagger into the AFC title game, because there are a lot of folks that had it New England's march, no matter who else qualified for the playoffs. I'm guilty of that as well, as I had the Pats in Dallas for all the marbles.

A week out, and not knowing all the injuries, I'm calling my Super Bowl matchup here and now.

Green Bay v. Pittsburgh

And then, Go Steelers.

Mike Solarte

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ron Rivera, random thoughts

Been a week, but things to discuss....

The Panthers should have Ron Rivera in place at some point on Tuesday. Nothing finalized as of this blog post, but all indications are the Panthers will nab the man that designed the best defense in the NFL for the 2010 season. It was a 3-4 defense, but don't read anything into that. Personnel in San Diego seemed to dictate that. Rivera is a versatile coach, and offers the former player perspective, as he was a solid linebacker in the league for 9 seasons.

This has been a quick process for the Panthers, considering it was this time last week that owner Jerry Richardson addressed (albeit a little strangely), the media following the end of the season. The Panthers obviously wanted to move quickly on this hire, and in doing so, they can now focus their attention on the April draft. What this means for the number 1 pick is still anybody's guess. The coveted QB (Andrew Luck) is staying in school at Stanford, leaving the Panthers to figure out what direction they want to go in with that number 1 selection. Rivera in the mix could mean a defensive lineman, but that isn't the biggest area of need.

Then there is the question of assistant coaches. Maybe bigger than the top draft pick is the naming of an offensive coordinator. If there was one thing I took away from the Richardson presser, it was the recognition that the NFL has opened up, and a good offense (better than good actually), is a must. If there was one shortcoming of the John Fox era, it was the decision to go conservative more often than not. Yes, there was some deviation from that at times, but the standard draw play on 3rd and long trickled down from Dan Henning to Jeff Davidson, with one constant. Fox. Funny thing is, under Henning, I felt things were vanilla. After Henning's departure, I realized how differently things ran (and how much better as well).

I'll have more for you once Rivera is officially sworn in. Seems like a guy Panther fans will warm up to quickly, and luckily for him, Panther fans should be forgiving in the early going.

Elsewhere, Charlotte Bobcats are 4-2 since the coaching change with Paul Silas taking over after Larry Brown's departure, and the players continue to say that under Brown, it wasn't fun. They are enjoying the game more, and it shows on the floor. The trick will be continuing the run, even with the NBA trade deadline on the horizon. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bobcats make a deal to shore the roster up, especially with them being down a big man (DeSagana Diop is done for the season after an achilles injury).

Note to Oregon football: please pick a uniform and stick with it. It's nice that you roll out a new combination every week, but seriously, when is enough enough? All my life, Oregon was green and gold (yellow). Try that out, and I don't know, try it again the following week.

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The horizon is cloudy

NFL Fans, Jerry Richardson has a message for you: Hope you recorded NFL games this season, and in years past, because you might not be watching games for a while.

Richardson held his "State of the Franchise" news conference on Tuesday (that's what I am calling it, anyway), and Richardson says the NFL and NFLPA aren't as close as some might indicate.

Richardson drew up a rough pie chart while talking about the collective bargaining agreement, saying of the $3.6 billion dollars in new revenue generated over (what sounded like) a 3-year period from 2006-2008. Of that, $2.6 went to player costs, and 1 billion is divided among the 32 member clubs, and he also pointed out a negative cash flow of $200 million. Those are some big numbers.

Richardson is the NFL co-chair on the negotiating committee, which means he's one of the guys responsible for brokering a deal. That being said, the Panthers owner also pointed out that the club won't be re-signing any players (28 at last count), until a CBA is reached. That's not to say he won't re-sign his guys, he's just not doing it until there is a structure set up, as he plans to follow the CBA once it goes into effect.

Other tidbits:
-He plans to own the Panthers until he dies. He said he hadn't given thought to long-range ownership once he passes.
-John Fox was not retained because he didn't produce back-to-back winning seasons. Fox finished out his contract, basically as a lame duck, because the staff price tag was more than $11 million. Wiping out that staff with a year left, and hiring a new staff didn't make sense economically.
-The Panthers won't trade out of the number 1 overall draft pick, given the state they are in.
- The team would not indicate officially who they have contacted, or whom they have gotten permission to speak with. Unofficially, the team is eyeing Ron Rivera, Perry Fewell, and Rob Ryan-all Defensive Coordinators in the NFL.
-Richardson seems to desire a coordinator, not a college coach, but wouldn't commit solidly to those feelings. That was the sense I got from some of his remarks.

That's all for now, much more coming on Sports Night at 10.

Mike Solarte