December 2010


Mark Recchi

This was Mark Recchi 20 years ago. Very little has changed.

Hockey players contributing into their forties isn’t a new phenomenon. Before my time, Gordie Howe and Johnny Bucyk played deep, with Howe scoring an incredible 41 points as a 51-year-old in 1979-80 for the Hartford Whalers. Since I’ve been paying attention, there have been a few solid players who have more than earned their keep – Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek and Dwayne Rolson (quietly having a nice year for the terrible Islanders) come to mind.

But I haven’t had the pleasure of watching one of them closely in my backyard, night after night. Mark Recchi, about a month shy of his 43rd birthday, is tied for the team-lead in game-winning goals, holds down Patrice Bergeron‘s right wing on the second line, serves as alternate captain, fights, hits guys, plays the power play, plays short handed, and probably makes coffee.

He had knee surgery this past offseason. In the 2008-09 playoffs, he played two rounds (and scored 6 points) with a kidney stone, passing it the morning of Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. I’m sure there are other ailments he’s had to play through — who wouldn’t at that age? And with that comes obvious passion for the game.

Hockey players occasionally survive into their 40s. Mark Recchi is thriving, and it’s quite a sight.

♦ ♦ ♦

In searching for highlights, I found this clip from the 1991 playoffs. It’s Game 3 of the Patrick Division semifinals, and the Devils and Penguins are tied 3-3, seemingly heading to overtime. The line of Bryan Trottier, Mario Lemieux and Mark Recchi are on the ice (what a combo!):

♦ ♦ ♦

Cut to last night in Tampa Bay, and the Bruins are lined up for their second game in as many nights. Tim Thomas, the puck-stopping machine he’s been, is back in net after making 31 saves the night before.

Boston goes up 1-0 early, then trades goals with Tampa until the third period. Tied 3-3 with under two minutes left, Steven Stamkos is called for a boarding penalty on Gregory Campbell, with a fight ensuing in the immediate aftermath. The commentators after the game (Mike Milbury especially) thought it was a bad call, saying it was a “bang-bang” play and “you can’t call that penalty that late in the game.” With all due respect, yes you freaking can. You can’t hit a guy on the numbers low and into the back boards, ever. That’s old news. If Stamkos had done that at the 10 minute mark, it’s a penalty with no dispute. If it’s a penalty, it’s a penalty. I’m sorry it happened that late, but I’m really not sorry at all.

I digress. With 1:50 left, the Bruins are on the power play.  And I believe I saw 19.4 left on the clock (it was really 19.7) when Recchi, from the top of the slot, teed off on Bergeron’s pass, a wrister that blew past Tampa goalie Dan Ellis. It’s at this point when I wonder what my neighbors thought of me when they heard me scream, jump up from the couch, and yell again when I accidentally punched the ceiling.

♦ ♦ ♦

I didn’t think much of it when the Bruins picked up Recchi at the deadline in 2009. I thought he’d be a nice, complementary player for the rest of the season before riding off into retirement. I didn’t realize how much I’d grow to like him, and I certainly didn’t appreciate what a tough old bastard he is. He’s solid, he doesn’t put up with much, and he has as much of a knack for scoring the big goals today as he did 20 years ago.

If he wants to come back next year at age 44, he’s more than welcome.

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Wayne Gretzky still doesn't feel real to me.

I am by no means the biggest stat head among the sports fan universe. To begin, I was never the best at math. But I’m not a prude — I’m constantly checking up on OPS leaders at Baseball-Reference and plus/minus at the Internet Hockey Database, and the absurd amuses and thrills me to no end.

I got into something of an e-mail volley with my friend and keeper of the SuperSonics flame, Ryan, that was really just a re-telling of some absurd stat lines through the years. He started it with his look back at Michael Jordan, which he highlighted in his own blog. To wit:

  • Taking out the 1998 season, Jordan’s lowest FG% in a full season with the Bulls (because he played for them 13 years and then just stopped playing basketball) is higher than Kobe Cry-Baby’s best year
  • Kobe’s best year: 46.9%
  • Jordan’s discounted 1998 season: 46.5%
  • Let’s just marvel at ‘88-‘89 season for a minute: 40.0 mpg, 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg, 53.8 FG% (55.3%, if you don’t include his 27% 3PT%), 85.0 FT%, 34.8/7.0/7.6 in the playoffs.

Yeah, so Jordan was insane.

I countered with some notes on Barry Bonds, with the caveat that much of this might be artificially enhanced. Still:

  • Bonds’ OPS+ (which is OPS adjusted for era/league/all that) in 2002, was 268, the highest of all time. In fact, if you take the top 10 OPS+ seasons of all time, Bonds appears first, second (2004, 263), third (2001, 259), and tied for 10th (2003, 231).
  • Helping out the on-base numbers, Bonds set the record for walks in 2001 (177), 2002 (198) and 2004 (232). For good measure, he is also 10th all time with 151 bases on balls in 1996.
  • Back to 2004: He was walked intentionally 120 times. 120 times! On the all-time list, that’s 52 more than the batter in second place. And yes, that was Bonds with 68 in 2002. He’s also third with 63 in 2003, tied his 1993 finish in 2007 with 43, and then appears ninth on the list with 41 in 2006.

So the moral of this story is that Bonds terrified pitchers and managers. Rightly so.

I’ll wrap up this little exercise with the Great One, the man who graced my bedroom wall from 1993 to 2000, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky in the early 1980s was a demon on skates, the leader of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.

  • As a natural playmaker and a pass-first center, Gretzky scored at least 50 goals every season from 1979-80 to 1986-87. The high mark came in 81-82, when he set a record with 92 in a season (and scored 50 in the Oilers’ first 39 games). He went beyond 60 in 1982-83 (71), 1983-84 (87), 1984-85 (73) and 1986-87 (62).
  • How many other players have topped 70 goals? Seven: Phil Esposito, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selanne, Bernie Nichols and Jarri Kurri. Hull did it three times, Lemieux did it twice, and Kurri was Gretzky’s linemate when he scored 71 in 1984-85.

And, for fun, let’s run down some of the single-season records Gretzky owns:

  • Goals: 92 in 1981-82.
  • Assists: 163 in 1985-86. He also owns every spot in the top 11 in this category.
  • Points: 215 in 1985-86. He owns all but two spots in the top 10; Lemieux ties him at fifth and 10th.
  • Playoff assists: 31 in 1988
  • Playoff points: 47 in 1985

And career marks?

  • Goals: 894
  • Assists: 1,963 (714 more than the second-place Ron Francis)
  • Points: 2,857 (Mark Messier is second all-time with 1,887)
  • Shorthanded goals: 73
  • Playoff goals: 122
  • Playoff assists: 260
  • Playoff points: 382

Considering the low-scoring era we live in now, this nears the unfathomable. Even if goals are up this year, with Steven Stamkos leading the way, there will never be another time like then, and there will never be another Great One.

I don't actually own this card, but I wish I did.

I’ve always had a thing for Chicago, I suppose. Years before I visited the city, years before a number of my friends moved there, I identified with it as a second love after Boston, sympathizing with their teams and digging their music (the blues scene, Wilco, Hum, Big Black, etc.).

In sports, they have some fantastic icons. The Bears had Gayle Sayers and Walter Payton, the Blackhawks had Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, and the Cubs had Ernie Banks and, for our purposes today, Ron Santo.

Santo died late Thursday night at the age of 70. To say he was beloved by followers of the Cubbies is an understatement. One of the greatest third basemen in the history of the game, an announcer for the team for years, famous for being snubbed by the Hall of Fame, a champion for carrying on in the face of diabetes, Santo was as classy a former ballplayer as you’re likely to find.

I never saw him play (he retired after the 1974 season), and I don’t live in Chicago. But I’ve always admired him, and I was sad to hear he had passed.

Some folks who know better than me summed up his career and life pretty well, though, and I’d like to highlight them.

  • Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods has, in his typically understated way, captured Santo beautifuly in just a couple hundred words or so.
  • Joe Posnanski talks about how Santo carried himself with a dignity and grace that’s rare for the overlooked.
  • Bruce Levine looks back on his childhood hero, and how he grew to admire him even more as their paths crossed.

As they say, rest in peace, Ron. You were loved, and always will be.