Sunday, February 20, 2011

For Old Time's Sake

Promotions and publicity stunts are an everyday part of sports.

Whether it's a giveaway item, a special ticket offer, or a game-related ceremony that honors a former player or coach -- it's all designed with the fans in mind. It's intended to grab their attention -- and keep them coming back to future games. Rarely, however, does the promotional event affect the game itself.


On November 3rd, 2007, the New York Islanders came up with a unique way to honor their longtime former coach, Al Arbour. The man who led the Islanders for 1,499 regular season games, 739 wins and 4 consecutive Stanley Cups during his 19-year Hall-of-Fame coaching career was getting one more opportunity behind the bench. At the request of head coach Ted Nolan, Arbour -- at 75-years-old -- would lead the Islanders against the talented Pittsburgh Penguins.

Al Arbour guided the Islanders for 19 seasons

As expected, Arbour took the part-time job very seriously...spending weeks getting to know the Islanders' roster and players' tendencies. This was not a ceremonial figurehead position -- Arbour wanted to win. But with the Islanders garnering few pre-season expectations among National Hockey League experts, and the Penguins emerging as a perennial Stanley Cup contender, it would not be easy.

In terms of ticket sales, the promotion worked -- the 16,234-seat Nassau Coliseum was sold-out -- and there was a genuine buzz that the man affectionately dubbed "Radar" would be coaching the Islanders once again, if only for one night.

Arbour was synonymous with the Islanders' success. After taking over coaching duties for the fledgling franchise in 1973-74, he led the Isles to 12 straight playoff appearances until his 1st retirement following the 1985-86 season. During that time, he guided over one of the NHL's last great dynasties...with the Islanders winning Stanley Cups in 1980, '81, '82 and '83. The Islanders' 15 consecutive playoff series victories from 1980-84 remains an NHL record.

Arbour coached the last great NHL dynasty

In 1992-93, Arbour coached the Islanders during their last great playoff run -- upsetting the two-time defending champion Penguins and advancing to the Wales Conference Finals. The Isles have not won a Stanley Cup Playoff series since then.

Inside the building, the main scoreboard above center ice served as a reminder of the special event. With the Islanders' familiar colors of blue, orange and white serving as a background...the video screen featured "Al Arbour Night" in big black letters. Beneath the marquee was a photo of Arbour during the dynasty well as the logos of both the Islanders and Penguins. At the bottom, in orange, was the number "1,500"...signifying the old coach's milestone achievement. Fans continually took photos of the scoreboard before the game got underway.

Honoring the legendary coach by giving him one last game behind the bench

The ceremonial faceoff featured hockey royalty, in tribute to Arbour. With Islanders' captain Bill Guerin and Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby gathered at center ice, they were accompanied by Hall-of-Fame general manager Bill Torrey -- Arbour's former boss on Long Island...and Hall-of-Fame former coach Scotty Bowman -- under whom Arbour served as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues in the late-1960s.

Bill Torrey and Scotty Bowman drop the ceremonial first pucks

Some of the greatest players in Islanders' history were also in attendance. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Pat LaFontaine -- all Hockey Hall-of-Famers -- made the trip to Uniondale to watch their old coach attempt to do his magic behind the bench.

A packed Nassau Coliseum on "Al Arbour Night"

The more-talented Penguins took control of the game, grabbing a 2-0 lead on a 1st period goal by winger Ryan Malone, and an early 2nd period goal by rookie forward Tyler Kennedy. During the middle of the 2nd stanza, Islanders' forward Trent Hunter scored to cut the deficit in half.

Arbour behind the bench once again

With the Islanders still trailing 2-1, their task of making a comeback became more difficult. Starting goalie Rick DiPietro was struck under the mask with a high-stick...and the resulting injury forced him to leave the game. Backup netminder Wade Dubielewicz -- who had played in just one of the Islanders' first 10 games of the season -- was now called upon to keep the high-scoring Penguins at bay. Would "Al Arbour Night" end with a whimper?

Backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz makes an emergency appearance

As the 3rd period got underway, the Islanders appeared determined to win it for their one-day, legendary coach. With 14:30 remaining, forward Miroslav Satan scored to tie the game at 2...and Nassau Coliseum went into a frenzy. The game developed a playoff-like atmosphere, as the scrappy Islanders tried to send Al Arbour into the NHL sunset as a winner. The fans sensed this as well -- every Islanders' shot on goal brought the crowd to the edge of its collective seat, while every Penguins' scoring chance resulted in a building full of held breaths.

The scoreboard seems to be in suspended animation

With every second that continued to tick on the clock, the tension would increase. The scoreboard seemed stuck at 2-2. Finally, with 2:41 left in regulation, the Islanders broke Satan netted his 2nd of the game! When Satan's rebound shot reached the back of the net, Nassau Coliseum exploded in leapt to their feet, as did the players on the Islanders' bench. It was just a November regular season game, but it had taken on a much deeper meaning.

Islanders grab the lead!

Now the Islanders -- who did not hold a lead for the game's first 57 minutes -- had to hold on, with their backup goalie minding the nets. It was a success -- the defense tightened up and Dubielewicz was solid in the crease. As the buzzer sounded, people in the stands began high-fiving and hugging. The players, meanwhile, converged at the bench to congratulate the man-of-the-hour, Al Arbour.
The entire Islanders team greets Arbour after the win

Following the game, a ceremony ensued to honor Arbour for his most recent accomplishments. The Islanders presented Arbour and his family with a framed jersey bearing the number "1500."

The old "739" banner is lowered and rolled up

Afterward, a banner signifying Arbour's career wins with the Islanders -- 739 -- was lowered from the Nassau Coliseum ceiling. Fans cheered along, chanting "7-40! 7-40!" to reflect his updated win total. In its place went a "1500" banner, with Arbour's name displayed prominently at the top. The entire Islander team gathered around their temporary coach as the white, orange and blue banner was lifted to the rafters. When the banner reached its peak, indoor fireworks went off...while orange-and-blue confetti fell from the ceiling.

With much fanfare, the new "1500" banner takes its place in the Coliseum rafters

The celebration even continued in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot, as fans simulated the "Let's Go Islanders" chant with their car horns. Hempstead Turnpike was filled with happy Islander fans who didn't mind the post-game traffic jam.

Following Arbour's 2nd retirement, the Islanders endured over a decade of dubious moments. Playoff appearances were few-and-far-between and short-lived...while concerns about the franchise's long-term future had become prominent. But for one night, at least, it felt like the 1980s in Uniondale...and a legendary head coach had everything to do with it.

A trip to the past brings a memorable present

Monday, February 7, 2011

Happy About Nothing

Football season is now over, and winter has provided nasty weather for much of the U.S. Who is ready for baseball season?...

One of the great things about sports is that the unexpected can happen right in front of your eyes.

How many times have you attended a game, thinking, "I hope something amazing happens today!" It's that hope which can set us up for disappointment...but the potential of witnessing a memorable moment trumps the fear of "wasting" your time and money on an otherwise insignificant game.

Throughout my lifetime, I wanted to attend a Major League Baseball no-hitter. It's an event that is so unassuming at the outset...just another baseball game. But as the zeroes pile up on the scoreboard, tension begins to mount. Each remaining out represents a step toward history. People acknowledge the potential feat...but thanks to superstition, do not talk about it. The 9th inning can bring goosebumps to both fans and players everyone wonders whether this particular pitcher, on this particular day, has what it takes to get the job done...


It was an ordinary Friday night -- June 25th, 2010 -- the final day of my summer vacation excursion to Florida's Gulf Coast.

An unassuming summer Friday night at Tropicana Field

The Arizona Diamondbacks were taking on the Tampa Bay Rays at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, and there was little reason to suspect anything spectacular happening during this contest. The Diamondbacks were struggling mightily, with a 28-45 record on the season...while the Rays were showing early signs of being playoff contenders, sporting a 43-29 mark.

The pitching matchup was equally lopsided on-paper -- Edwin Jackson, a former Ray with a 4-6 record and substandard 5.05 ERA, was pitching for Arizona. Tampa Bay countered with Jeff Niemann, a former 1st round draft pick who seemed to be fulfilling his potential, entered the game with a 6-1 record and 2.84 ERA. The theme of this night, however, was to expect the unexpected.

The starting lineups

Arizona would get on the scoreboard first, receiving an offensive jolt from 1st baseman Adam LaRoche in the 2nd inning -- a line drive solo home run that barely cleared the fence in right field. With the Diamondbacks leading 1-0 early, the game was in the hands of the erratic Jackson.

Initially, it didn't even look as if the veteran right-hander would be around long enough to qualify for the win! Jackson walked 7 Rays' batters and uncorked a wild pitch during the first 3 innings...yet somehow, Tampa Bay was unable to scratch across a run. Even more importantly, the Rays were held hitless during that stretch...and Jackson was finally able to get into a groove.

Arizona pitcher Edwin Jackson couldn't fnd the plate early on

After throwing nearly 70 pitches during those 3 wild innings, Jackson became much more efficient...surrendering only a hit batsman during the middle innings, while striking out three. At the end of the 6th inning, it was still 1-0, Arizona...and a "0" still populated Tampa Bay's hits column.

From here, an interesting dilemma started to present itself. Through 6 innings, Edwin Jackson had not allowed a hit. However, he was over the 100-pitch mark. How long would Arizona manager A.J. Hinch stick with his starter? Would he give Jackson an opportunity to complete the 2nd no-hitter in Diamondbacks' history? The bullpen was already warming up during the 6th inning...just in case.

No hits through 6 innings...but would Jackson stick around?

As fans inside Tropicana Field sang "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, Jackson emerged from the Arizona dugout, slowly making his walk to the pitcher's mound. From my seat on the 3rd base side of the upper deck, I felt a rush of adrenaline as I saw Jackson take his warmup pitches. Although I was rooting for the Rays on this particular night, loyalties can switch pretty quickly when history is involved...and I was nine outs away from witnessing my first no-hitter.

Jackson is still dealin' in the 7th

Jackson would retire the Rays in order in the 7th. With each recorded out, I would quietly pump my fist, while the rest of the Trop crowd groaned in disbelief. Jackson pitched for their team for three years. He was a part of the Rays' miracle American League pennant-winning team in 2008...yet he was also one of their most inconsistent pitchers. For every flash of brilliance, a whiff of disappointment would follow.

The Diamondbacks were held scoreless in the top of the 8th inning, keeping the score 1-0...and Jackson returned to the mound for the bottom half of the frame. Although he had 117 pitches under his belt already, and relief pitchers were still warming up down the left field line, it became clear that this game was Jackson's...until the no-hit bid was either a success or failure.

Tension mounts at the Trop

Once again, Jackson was racking up the outs in the 8th. Even after 1st baseman Carlos Pena reached on an error by D-backs' shortstop Stephen Drew...Pena's pinch-runner, Carl Crawford, was caught stealing! Only the 9th inning stood between Edwin Jackson and a historic night.

The pitch count is mounting...but it's not stopping Jackson

The top of the 9th inning only lasted seven minutes...yet to me, it felt like it was taking forever. My anticipation for Tampa Bay's at-bat was feverishly high. Prior to this evening, the closest I had ever come to seeing a no-hitter in-person was in 2003 -- ironically, in this very ballpark -- as Dewon Brazelton no-hit the Florida Marlins for 7 2/3 innings before allowing a double. Now that Jackson has already surpassed that mark...will he complete the feat?

Getting closer...

As Edwin Jackson made that familiar slow walk to the mound for the bottom of the 9th inning, most in the crowd of 18,918 began cheering...though it was not in appreciation of the Arizona hurler. Instead, it was to rally their Rays to overcome the game's 1-0 deficit...and continue their rise in the American League standings.

Batting first for Tampa Bay was center fielder B.J. Upton, who struck out looking. Designated hitter Hank Blalock then flew out to left field. Jackson was only one out away! Then, in an unintentional reminder of the wildness Jackson displayed in the early part of the game, the right-handed pitcher walked pinch hitter Willy Aybar. Shortstop Jason Bartlett was now the last obstacle between Jackson and his 1st career no-hitter.

Jackson takes a moment to compose himself in the 9th inning

Showing his rediscovered control, Jackson's first pitch to Bartlett was a called strike. During every pitch, I would take a picture and hold my breath. I could only imagine the nerves being felt by the Arizona players in the field. The second pitch to Bartlett was fouled away. It was now down to one strike. Everyone inside Tropicana Field stood, anticipating the next pitch. Jackson took the sign, came set, and delivered. Bartlett swings, and hits a chopper just to the right of the pitcher's mound. Shortstop Stephen Drew came charging in for the ball. Bartlett, with good speed, raced to first. Drew grabs the ball on the run and throws...and gets Bartlett by a step. It's now official...a no-hitter!

The final pitch...a chopper to short...

The Diamondbacks' players mobbed Jackson in celebration at the pitcher's mound. While many of the fans at the Trop fell silent, disappointed in their team's performance...some Rays' fans applauded Jackson's 149-pitch effort. As Jackson conducted an on-field interview with reporters, a teammate smeared his face with a shaving cream pie. The stinging in his eyes was undoubtedly worth it.


In the 300-level of Tropicana Field, I stood and watched the celebration unfold, grinning from ear-to-ear. After roughly 150 MLB games attended, I finally got to witness my 1st no-hitter...under some of the most random of circumstances.

My 1st no-hitter...unlikely, to say the least

A post-game concert gave fans a chance to walk on the stadium's FieldTurf, so I happily took up the offer. I wandered from foul pole to foul pole, letting my mind absorb the evening's events as the music played. What started as an ordinary Friday...had turned into a night that I will never forget.

On the field after a strange -- and historic -- game