Good Guys of the Week
The Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks set off on a six-game, 12-day road trip on Nov. 18 -- to, in order, Phoenix, Dallas, Toronto, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles. (Who thinks of these itineraries? Magellan?) In between a Saturday night date with the Maple Leafs and a Tuesday noon flight to San Jose, the players were going to have their one day off on the trip, a Sunday, back home with family in Chicago.
But the day before they played Toronto, the players learned that Stan Tallon, the father of Chicago general manager Dale Tallon, had died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease in a rural Ontario town, Gravenhurst, two hours north of Toronto. The director of team services, Tony Ommen, told the captains that he could try to arrange a team trip to the Sunday night wake in Gravenhurst if they wanted to go. But if they did, of course, they'd be giving up their only day off on a grueling trip in a two-week period. It was a day most of the players had plans to do something, if only to watch football on TV, sleep all day, Christmas-shop, hang with family.
"Guys like their time off, that's for sure,'' Patrick Sharp, an assistant captain, said via cell phone. "But this was something, when we got together, we felt we had to do. Dale's a part of us.''
The team meeting was brief and to the point, and there was no objection from a single player: The players would stay over in Toronto, surrender the day off, and bus up to the wake in mid-afternoon on country roads with a fresh blanket of snow. Ommen arranged two buses, one for the coaches and staff, and one for the 23 players on the trip. In all, about 50 members of the Blackhawk traveling party made it to the W.J. Cavill Funeral Home in Gravenhurst, and when they walked quietly through the side door of the place, Dale Tallon couldn't believe his eyes. He tried to say something.
"I couldn't talk,'' he said. "I just started bawling.''
The players and staff all filed past the open casket and paid their respects to the family, including Tallon's 80-year-old mom, whose mood brightened tremendously. She knew the players from watching the games on satellite TV. Now here they were, her heroes! She had a little crush on the big star, Patrick Kane, whom her son had drafted first overall last year. "Patrick Kane!'' she said, and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. Tallon,'' Sharp said.
"Ooooh,'' she said. "I enjoy watching you play.''
And then the players sat respectfully among the townspeople for a while, and then they went into a side room to look at the photo display of Stan Tallon's family, which could have been any hockey family in Canada, with shots of Dale as a tyke and moving up through the years 'til he thrilled the family by making the NHL. Before the players left, Dale Tallon told them how touched the family was that they'd make this trip for him.
Last week, Dale Tallon tried to explain why this happened. "I think hockey's unique,'' he said. "In every Canadian town, the hockey rink seems to be the center of the community. Families do so much for their kids and sacrifice for them so they can play. You rise up through different levels, but you never forget how you got there. With these kids on our team, I scouted, recruited and drafted so many of them. Watching them walk through that door made me feel so good about the type of people -- not just the kind of players -- we drafted. I hear so many people talking negatively about the youth of today, but don't underestimate these kids. They're good kids. My mother is there. Her husband of 59 years is laying in a casket next to her. And these kids walked in and she was just on Cloud Nine ...'' And then Dale Tallon got a little misty over the phone.
"I've played for different teams in juniors and the pros,'' said the 26-year-old Sharp, from the Ontario hockey hotbed of Thunder Bay. "And you walk into every locker room and you become brothers. Maybe it's rare in pro sports, but it's not rare in hockey, I don't think. We're all in this together. It goes back to growing up in hockey. My older brother played, I played, and my parents made huge sacrifices to drive us everywhere we had to go. Everyone in this game knows how much family means.''
Said Ommen: "The culture of hockey revolves around family.''
The team boarded the buses to return to Toronto and the charter flight home. But on the way out of town, as happens with two dozen premier athletes who have not eaten in some time, the players saw a McDonald's. They got the buses to stop. Inside, as the Chicago Blackhawks walked en masse into a sleepy McDonald's in rural Canada long after the dinner crowd was gone, a teenage kid behind the register figured out who he was looking at. "Coooooool!'' he said.
"So on the wall there's this big billboard,'' Sharp said. "I guess McDonald's in Canada has hockey cards, and we're looking at this, and there's [teammates] Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, looking at this. They had cards in this McDonald's series. We all had no idea. So a few of the guys bought the Happy Meals, or whatever, trying to get their cards.''
A couple of weeks have passed. The Blackhawks lost all three games on the last leg of the trip, but no one was blaming the Gravenhurst detour. I asked Sharp if the team had any regrets about attending the wake.
"None,'' he said. "No complaints. We were where we should have been. We'd do it again, 100 times.''
And that's my good news story of the week. Be proud, Canada. You've raised some nice boys.
What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
The NFL has final say over the games flexed to Sunday night in Weeks 11 through 16 ... and the NFL has absolute say over the final Sunday night game of the year, in Week 17.
I preface this by acknowledging that I am employed by NBC, the beneficiary of the potential to change the late-season schedule, so you rightfully should look at this and say, "Of course King's going to empathize with the concept of flex scheduling and pay homage to powerful Lord Ebersol. It's helping to pay King's massively bloated salary.'' And you'd be right, sort of. So skip over the section if you don't want to read my propaganda about how good flex scheduling is for the football fan from Orono to Oxnard.
For starters, I don't know anyone who wants to risk a return to those glory days of 2004, when we got 3-11 Cleveland versus 3-11 Miami in Week 16, and the 5-10 Giants and 6-9 Cowboys in week 17. NFL Fever! Catch it!
I was curious last week about how the decision was made to change the upcoming Week 16 Sunday night game from San Diego at Tampa Bay to Carolina at the Giants, and about what is on tap for the final weekend of the season, so I phoned Ebersol and also spoke with two other people with knowledge of the TV schedule. First, and probably most important to jittery Jets fans, looking ahead to a potential Miami-New York AFC East championship game in Week 17: NBC and the other Sunday networks, CBS and Fox, will not be able to do anything more than lobby for which game will and won't get moved to the final game of the season on the night of Dec. 28. That's totally a league decision. CBS and Fox cannot block any of their games in Week 17 from moving to Sunday night.
Now on the confusing issue of protected games, which has been interpreted several different ways in the sporting and TV press: Fox and CBS can protect one game on five of the six weeks of NBC's flex scheduling. So Fox and CBS can pick out five games to protect between weeks 11 and 16, and no more than one per weekend. A league source said since Fox and CBS obviously knew NBC would never give up the previously scheduled Giants-Cowboys game this weekend, this was the weekend neither network protected a game.
That brings us to Week 16, for which the league source said Fox protected Philadelphia-Washington, making it the prime late Sunday afternoon game (4:15 p.m.) a matchup of teams from two of its most important markets. CBS protected a game that appears to have massive playoff implications and the only nationally attractive game in its 1 p.m. slot, Pittsburgh at Tennessee. That left NBC with only one potentially sexy game --Carolina at the Giants -- but only if the Panthers beat Tampa Bay last Monday night.
Ebersol listens to lots of voices advising him on which game to request in NBC's six flex weeks, but he relies most heavily on a two-man kitchen cabinet, John Madden and game producer Fred Gaudelli. The contract with the NFL mandates that NBC must make its request 13 days prior to the game, but Ebersol wanted to wait for the result of the Bucs-Panthers Monday nighter last week because if the Bucs won, Carolina would be far less attractive; if Carolina won, the Panthers-Giants game potentially could be for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. This was the first time in three years Ebersol asked to wait 'til after the Monday night game to decide which game he wanted 13 days in the future.
No team can appear on NBC more than four times in a season, and the Giants, who'd been on the NBC late against Washington and Philadelphia and soon Dallas, had one appearance left. Ebersol watched Bucs-Panthers in his Manhattan apartment, and when the Panthers had it safely in hand at the two-minute warning, he phoned NFL senior VP of broadcasting and media operation Howard Katz and formally requested Panthers-Giants. The next morning, commissioner Roger Goodell approved the switch.
"The essence of what Roger and [former commissioner] Paul [Tagliabue] wanted in this TV contract was not only to protect us at NBC,'' Ebersol said. "It was to protect the league, too. In the last four years of the last TV contract, of the last four games of each of those years, only one of the 16 games matched two teams with winning records.
"The NFL wanted competitive games in prime time. And it wanted the ability to take teams they hadn't foreseen as being top teams when the schedule was made -- like Baltimore, which we flexed into the game against Washington last week, and Carolina -- and put them into the Sunday night game. All in all, on all levels, I think it's helped the game. All the networks are at least a smidgeon above or below last year's ratings. While there's been so much erosion in prime-time programming across the board, the NFL remains a consistent draw.''
Of course, Fox isn't happy losing Carolina and the Giants. But if you're a big fan of the NFL, and you don't have DirecTV or four TVs in your living room, and if you can now see the best AFC game of the weekend (Steelers-Titans) early, a game with possible wild-card ramifications following that (Eagles-Redskins), and then a game for NFC playoff supremacy (Panthers-Giants), what's better than that?