NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake

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NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake

Nobody wants to overstate the importance of any one day in the NHL lockout, but today is crucial when it comes to forecasting hockeys future.

The pessimists (realists?) have been predicting the cancellation of the leagues centerpiece Winter Classic for more than a week, and many believe it will happen today. When it does -- if it does -- it will mark the moment things got truly ugly for both the NHL and the NHLPA.

Today is the deadline for the league to send a 250,000 contracted payment to the University of Michigan, which is hosting the event. If the NHL decides not to write the check and pulls the plug on one of its crown jewels, well, that could spark the kind of doom usually reserved for comic book super villains from Latvia.

The NHL would simply be following through on its long-anticipated move of cancelling the Jan. 1 game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In so doing, it would wipe out a glorious day that was not only supposed to break league records for revenue from a single event, but would create a winter festival atmosphere in a beloved hockey town.

It would be also the latest in a series of kidney punches hockey fans have endured over the first 47 days of this labor war. More than 300 regular-season games have been cancelled over the last two months. But the axing of New Years Day festival would mark the first loss of something everybody expected to survive the lockout.

It's cancellation would wipe out the kind of feel-good day the NHL will so badly need whenever it returns.

Think about it: It wasn't until the September 1995 night in Baltimore, when Cal Ripken played in consecutive game number 2,131, that Major League Baseball truly started healing the wounds of the 1994 strike. As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr -- who was the head of the baseball players' union during the '94 strike, which also wiped out the World Series -- found out when he first began meeting with media from Montreal this summer, there are throngs of Expos fans who have never forgiven MLB for cutting short a magical season at Olympic Stadium, one in which the Expos had the best record in baseball when play stopped.

It's almost 20 years later, and they still remember.

The good people of Michigan -- not to mention hockey fans everywhere -- will have the same kind of long-lasting ill will if their Winter Classic is taken away.

The NHL appears hesitant to continue on with Winter Classic planning given the financial capital that's required, the long-range planning that's needed . . . and the goodwill that has to exist on both sides to make things work on New Years Day. Sources have indicated the NHL feels the bitter feelings and raw emotions left over from the lockout would damage the fairy tale aspect of the Winter Classic even if hockey is being played by January.

While thats understandable, the league should look at it from the other direction. Hockey will need signature events and big moments to win back the disenchanted fans.

The snow globe Winter Classic is the biggest club remaining in commissioner Gary Bettmans bag, and he loses leverage once he uses it.

Perhaps the Jan. 1 game in the Big House in Michigan -- with as many as 120,000 fans from Detroit and nearby Toronto expected to pay top dollar to attend -- is the one cathartic moment that will allow NHL fans to forgive and forget. Thats something the league didnt have when it attempted to make amends with its paying customers after whacking the 2004-05 season.

And remember: Removing all possibility of a Winter Classic also rips the heart out of anybody that loves the game of hockey. Sure, it doesnt mean that the entire 2012-13 season will be cancelled. But if the Winter Classic -- and the profits that go along with it -- become a memory, then the loss of the entire season becomes a very real possibility.

Some, given Bettman's past history, are resigned to the fact that there'll be no hockey this year.

But were not there yet.

Unfortunately, the cancellation of the Winter Classic would be a giant step in a direction the NHL shouldn't want to go.

Those with agendas talk about how the lockout is already doing irreparable damage to the NHL. But thats simply not true at this point.

If the NHL and NHLPA agree to keep the possibility of the Winter Classic alive through Nov. 15 -- probably the latest date in which all the preparations could still be made -- and come to an agreement that would start the season on Dec. 1, fans will forgive the greed and arrogance thats been shown over the last two months. People wont remember the bad times when the Red Wings and Maple Leafs suit up before a record hockey audience, and it will all seem like a fading bad dream once the Stanley Cup playoffs get cranking in April after a shortened season.

But the NHL needs to send forth an olive branch, and that starts with extending the life of the Winter Classic while finding some way to make a capped escrow system work within the parameters of a make whole provision. Hope is something that will keep hockey fans going, even though the NHL and NHLPA have given them little-to-nothing thus far in negotiations.

If the NHL and Gary Bettman cancel the Winter Classic today, they might as well just cancel the rest of the season while they're at it. Because it will destroy the one thing -- the public's goodwill -- that theyll desperately need once the business of hockey resumes, as it inevitably will.

And its already in dangerously short supply these days.

Gostkowski credits 'faith in the process' after bounce-back game vs. Rams

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Gostkowski credits 'faith in the process' after bounce-back game vs. Rams

FOXBORO -- With four games remaining on the schedule, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has reached career-highs that he wishes he hasn't: Four missed field goals, three missed extra points. In Weeks 11 and 12, he missed one of each. 

But after making all six of his kicks in Sunday's 26-10 win over the Rams, Gostkowski called his latest performance "a start," as in a step in the right direction. 

"Every week is a different challenge," he said. "You just gotta battle. Keep your head down, stay humble, show up and control your attitude and your effort, make sure both of those are good, and have faith in the process that what you've been doing is going to continue to work."

Gostkowski drilled both of his extra-point attempts in the first half, and when the Patriots offense stalled later in the game -- it finished 4-for-16 on third down -- he bailed it out with his right foot. 

He made a 48-yarder from the right hash, a 45-yarder from the left hash and a 45-yarder from the right hash on consecutive series that stretched from the third quarter and into the fourth. It was a series that all but put to rest questions about whether or not the placement of the football and his angle into kicks was giving him trouble of late.

Against the 49ers, after missing a point-after attempt, he moved all of his extra-point attempts from the middle of the field to the inside of the left hash. Against the Jets his lone miss came from the right hash.

Gostkowski acknowledged that he's been tinkering in recent weeks, but he explained that it's something he's done since joining the Patriots.

"You fine tune every week," he said. "When you play in New England, you could have cold weather, hot weather, windy weather, snow. It's a daily change out there. It's not a climate controled environment. You're fine-tuning every day . . . You're going to go through that during a long season. It's no different than any other season I've had." 

When asked if it was safe to assume that his confidence had waivered at points this season, the 11-year veteran indicated that it wasn't so much a confidence issue as it was a perfectionist's approach that led to frustration when the misses mounted.

"In athletics, I've gone through ups and downs my whole life," he said. "I've always had my confidence when it comes to athletics. Sometimes stubborn to a fault. As long as I'm out there, running out there and getting a chance to play, I expect to do well. No one's harder on themselves than me when I do bad, and I don't plan on changing anytime soon."

With Rob Gronkowski out for the season, the margin for error for everyone on the Patriots has shrunk. That doesn't exclude Gronkowski's teammates in the kicking game, and Gostkowski in particular, who will be depended upon to convert drives stopped short into points. Sunday's outing was a reminder of what Gostkowski can do, and an indication that as his team comes down the stretch of the regular season, he's getting right.  

"Every year's different challenges, different opportunities," he said. "You're only as good as your opportunities in this game. You're lucky to get some good opportunities. You don't get a lot of second chances. That's just part of the job. You know that going in. It's a mental and physical grind week in and week out to do well. I'm not going to change the way that I am competitively win, lose or draw."

Celtics report card: Isaiah Thomas gets high marks

Celtics report card: Isaiah Thomas gets high marks

BOSTON -- The first quarter of the NBA season is about over for the Boston Celtics, a team that like so many in the league is far from a finished product.
 
When you look at where this team is versus where they could be if not for a slew of unfortunate injuries to key players, there’s a sense within the organization that they have weathered the early season storm and are in good shape going forward.
 
And while there’s plenty of fodder that would help explain away some of the team’s early season issues, the bottom line is the Celtics have been an inconsistent bunch at times regardless of who has been healthy enough to play.
 
Still, they Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season, third in the Eastern Conference and by all accounts are nowhere close to being as good as they should be this season. Which is why the evaluation of this team has to be about their sum parts as well as their individual success. 

And with this group returning so many key performers from a year ago along with adding Al Horford to the mix, expectations were realistically high.
 
So naturally, how close they have come to achieving those expectations is a factor in both their collective and individual grades as well.
 
Here’s a grade breakdown for the Celtics’ guards, wings and bigs at the quarter-way mark of the season.
 
GUARDS’ OVERALL GRADE: B
 
ISAIAH THOMAS: Showing last season’s all-star appearance was no fluke, Thomas has made a strong case to be considered among the top guards in the NBA. His 26.3 points per game ranks ninth in the league, and he’s at his best in the fourth quarter (his 7.9 points which trails only Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard) – a trait that often separates good players from great ones. He’s the star of this team, without question. GRADE: A-

AVERY BRADLEY: The season began with Avery Bradley putting together a legit campaign to be a first time all-star. He’s still playing at a relatively high level, but he’s no longer deeply entrenched in that conversation in part because the Celtics haven’t won more games and his numbers have tailed off. After averaging 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds through the first 10 games, Bradley’s numbers since then have been 16.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But to Bradley’s credit, this was yet another season in which he came back and showed tremendous growth in a specific facet of his game. That would be rebounding. The 6-foot-2 guard is currently the Celtics’ leader with 7.9 rebounds per game. GRADE: B
 
MARCUS SMART: He is the Celtics’ best defender not named Avery Bradley, and before his career is over he will be named to one of the NBA’s all-Defensive teams. His shot-making remains sporadic, although he has shown a knack for hitting big 3s late in games. Shooting struggles aside, his defense and much-improved playmaking have been good for the Celtics this season. GRADE: B- 
 
TERRY ROZIER: He was so impactful this summer and in training camp, it created expectations that he could easily slide in and fill the void left by Evan Turner who signed a four-year, $70 million deal with Portland during the offseason. Rozier has a ridiculously high assists-to-turnover ratio, but he doesn’t make as many impactful plays as the Celtics would like. The second-year guard hasn’t been bad out there, but the difference-making talent he showed earlier has not materialized yet. GRADE: B-
 
DEMETRIUS JACKSON: My initial thought was the sample size is too small to give Jackson a grade. But looking back at the three games he has played in for the Celtics as well as those stints in the D-League, Jackson has a bright future in this league. To his credit, he has made the most of his opportunities to play whether it’s with the Celtics or the Maine Red Claws. Still, he hasn’t done enough to knock any of the team’s more seasoned guards out of the rotation … yet. GRADE: B-

WINGS’ OVERALL GRADE: B-
 
JAE CROWDER:
This is one of the tougher players to grade (see Al Horford). I absolutely love the fact that Crowder is such a jack-of-all-trades kind of player who is all about helping teams win. But the fact that he has missed eight games has to be factored into his grade thus far. Aside from missing games with injuries, there’s a lot to love about Jae Crowder and his role on this team: B+

JONAS JEREBKO: Aside from Isaiah Thomas, Jerebko is probably the most improved player who was on the roster a year ago. He doesn’t take many shots, but when he does he makes them at a ridiculously high rate. And his overall effort defensively and on the boards has solidified a spot in Brad Stevens’ regular rotation. GRADE: B+
 
JAYLEN BROWN: There are always off-the-charts expectations when you’re a high draft pick, and Brown is no exception. But he joined a playoff-ready team which means getting on the floor as a rookie has not been easy. Brown has shown tremendous athleticism and a willingness to learn, but like most rookies he hasn’t been as consistent as he needs to be and does more thinking than just playing when he’s on the floor. But he has shown progress on that front of late.  GRADE: B-

GERALD GREEN: Having signed a veteran’s minimum contract at a time when the salary cap exploded should have been the first sign that Green wasn’t going to make much of an impact. He has a very simple job with this team and that’s to be an adequate defender and a shot-maker. Unfortunately, he has struggled on both fronts in his second tour of duty with the Celtics to the point where he has not played in eight of Boston’s last 11 games. GRADE: C-
 
JAMES YOUNG:
He barely beat out R.J. Hunter for the final roster spot and frankly, hasn’t done much since. From the time he arrived in Boston until now, there’s no question he’s a better player. But the former first round pick still hasn’t done enough to secure a spot in the rotation. And barring a couple injuries, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. GRADE: C-
 
BIGS’ OVERALL GRADE: C+
 

AL HORFORD: There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Boston signing Al Horford in the offseason. And to the surprise of many, the Celtics have been exceptional when he has played. But that’s the problem. He has missed half of the still-young season primarily due to a concussion. There’s an old saying that one’s availability can be their best ability. And with Horford missing so many games, those absences have to be factored into his grade thus far this season. GRADE: B+
 
AMIR JOHNSON: If there’s one player whose impact can’t be measured in statistics alone, it’s Johnson. His job is to defend at a high level, score once in a while, and grab a few rebounds when he’s not sealing off his man so that Avery Bradley and the rest of the team’s guards can come in and scoop them up. There’s no glory in what he’s tasked with doing other than the knowledge that it’s important to winning. And to some degree his impact on games is limited due to him playing limited minutes because of Boston’s desire to spread the floor with long-range shooters – something that’s definitely not a strength of Johnson’s game. GRADE: B-
 
KELLY OLYNYK: Olynyk missed the first six games while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. He has had some really impressive moments (19 points vs New York; 16 the following night at Indiana), but far too often he doesn’t make the most of what sets him apart from most players and that is being a 7-footer with legit 3-point shooting range. He has been solid, but he’s not having the kind of breakout year the Celtics could really benefit from this season. GRADE: B-
 
TYLER ZELLER: There were some who were surprised the Celtics signed Zeller to a 2-year, $16 million contract (team option on second year), but that’s actually below the going rate these days for a backup center. Zeller today isn’t all that different than he was when the Celtics acquired him via trade a couple years ago. And that’s kind of the problem. He’s looking to shoot the ball more facing up and from the perimeter, but that’s very much a work in progress. To his credit, he stays ready and when he does get a chance to play he usually gives good effort. But effort can only take you so far. GRADE: C
 
JORDAN MICKEY: Viewed by many (self-included) as a draft-night steal for the Celtics, Mickey’s growth has been OK but not great. He has great instincts defensively as a shot-blocker and his offensive game is definitely trending upwards. But he doesn’t do enough of the little things to get on the floor with consistency just yet, which is why his most recent D-League stint probably won’t be his last this season. But again, he still has legitimate upside and in time should get more opportunities to help. GRADE: C