READ KEITH GAVES' NORTHERN SPORTS DESK COLUMNS BELOW
Global pandemic has silenced the one
distraction we could always count on
By KEITH GAVE
Whoever said sports is war without the bullets never saw this coming.
Suddenly, with mind-numbing speed, we’re fighting an insidious enemy across the entire globe. Bullets won’t help. And sports, at their best competition among gifted athletes so compelling that they preoccupy the masses even, and especially, in times of great turmoil, are among the earliest casualties.
Just 48 hours ago, I was penning a column about how the major-league sports associations are banning the media from their locker rooms as a precaution. Seems rather trite now.
Just 24 hours later, the NBA suspended its regular season with about a quarter of it left to play. The NHL followed suit a few hours ago. The NCAA announced that it would play it’s March Madness tournament to virtually empty arenas. It’s various conferences cancelled their post-season tournaments.
Suddenly, the sports media have no games to cover. This is unprecedented. When our president was assassinated in 1963, the NFL, after much debate and anguish, decided to honor its schedule as a nation mourned. They called it Black Sunday.
After the towers fell in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, games were suspended for a week, and when play continued Yankees and Mets players wore caps representing police and fire first-responders. In Game 2 of the playoffs, the nation’s president, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his jacket, threw out the first pitch.
The games went on, and a shaken populace had a diversion. The NFL continued its preseason. NHL and NBA teams arrived at their training camps. Sports prevailed.
Now, as we avoid crowds and self-quarantine as best we can, washing our hands, not touching our faces, trying to bolster our immune systems, we’ve lost some of our greatest, most enjoyable distractions – our games.
That dystopian society the pundits on both sides of the political spectrum describe to try to scare the hell out of us – that society where there is great suffering or injustice – is upon us as we wage a deadly war against the coronavirus.
Where we end up from here is impossible to predict, but we know one thing for sure: All that hand-wringing about whether it’ll be the Tigers or Red Wings or, now, the Pistons who can turn around their rebuilding franchises first seems rather quaint, doesn’t it? Who should the Lions draft with the third overall selection in the NFL draft? Who the hell cares?
I mean, get serious. Who has time for that debate when we’re frantically searching empty store aisles for Purell and toilet paper?
Talk about putting things in perspective in a hurry, eh?
I wish I had some answers, or even a few suggestions worth considering. I’m sorry. That’s way above my pay grade. If I happened to write about science, then maybe.
But I’m just a simple sportswriter, with precious little of import to say. And nothing left to do.
Just be safe.
In a world of fear and loathing, can we still believe in miracles?
By KEITH GAVE
Right about now as I sit her typing, 40 years ago to the minute, I was walking out of the newsroom after a long day when all hell broke loose; the teletype machines started clicking away, preceded by a series of bells to alert editors that something of transcendent importance was happening somewhere on the planet.
The bells foreshadowed the next day’s headlines. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash news item, but the Associate Press wire service operators of that era had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.
All I can say for certain is that it sure seemed like there were way more than 15 bells that evening.
And then I read the lead of the story coming over the wire, dateline LAKE PLACID, NY.
So yeah, I know exactly where I was when news broke that an unheralded tapestry of college kids had just upset the mighty Soviet hockey club, until then the most successful international hockey team in history, by the score of 4-3. That’s when I started believing in miracles.
The outcome so unlikely and so profound for all its symbolic meaning to the two superpower nations those teams represented that at the end of the century the AP and Sports Illustrated magazine called it the single greatest event in sports of the entire 20th century.
I was a young reporter working my first newspaper gig on the city desk of the Lansing State Journal. But I wasn’t that long removed from my six-year stint as a Russian linguist assigned to a unit attached to the National Security Agency. As a veteran of the Cold War, I understood in no uncertain terms the historical magnitude of this moment – and it had absolutely nothing to do with sports.
Fast forward 15 years, which for me included a few more years in Lansing, another three in Chicago working for that AP wire service, then home to Detroit. I had spent a year on the City Desk at the Free Press before moving to the “toy department” – the Sports Desk, where I’d been assigned to cover the Detroit Red Wings.
And in their dressing room in the mid-1990s, there happened to be a player who had participated in that game at Lake Placid. A player on both sides of that miracle game. And they shared lockers right next to one another!
It seems cruel now as I reminisce, but I’d occasionally approach Mike Ramsey, who at 19 was the youngest player by a full year on that Gold Medal team. I’d ask him what it was like to be on the ice in those final, frenetic seconds, as broadcaster Al Michaels shouted, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
As Ramsey spoke, I could see the man next to him, Slava Fetisov, getting redder and redder, muttering expletives in two languages. Inevitably, it would end with Fetisov suggesting that if those two teams played 100 more games, the Soviets would win 100 of them. He got no argument from Ramsey. That’s why they called it a miracle, I mentioned as a way to resolve any residual hard feelings I might have revived.
The harder part, and in my view the far more interesting part of that story, was getting Fetisov – the Gordie Howe of Russian Hockey – to describe what it was like to return home with silver medals and not gold. Always a good and receptive interview, Fetisov would never say much, other than to acknowledge the great shame at losing to the Americans – the one thing their Soviet bosses back home said they would not tolerate.
A few years later, Ramsey was gone, but Fetisov and four of his comrades from the former Soviet Union helped to lead the Red Wings to their first of two straight Stanley Cup titles. Suddenly, the Cold War seemed like a distant memory. Russians were teammates, local heroes, sports icons.
It felt like a different world. A better world. Sport, as Fetisov has so often proudly professed, had become a bridge between two cultures that badly needed one. When I accompanied three of Detroit’s Russian Five to Moscow for the Stanley Cup’s first-ever visit to Russia, all I had to do is mention to people there that I was from Detroit and I never had to pay for a drink.
Some of the most skeptical, distrusting people on the planet were suddenly infatuated with America and Americans.
And now they are not. A couple of decades later, the world has changed again. We’ve somehow retrenched. A new Cold War feels inevitable – if not already being waged.
Forty years after that unbelievable victory by those young Americans, our world – especially the relationship between these two superpowers – is at a crossroads again. What this world desperately needs is another miracle. Or at least some kind of bridge.
February 21, 2020
UP Pond Hockey tournament
reinforces our love for the game
By KEITH GAVE
ST. IGNACE, Michigan – They came from all around the Midwest, from all across Canada and – as beer-league hockey goes – from outposts as remote as Florida, Texas and California. More than 1,000 strong they were, seven-man (and women) teams for a mammoth four-on-four pond hockey tournament on the nearly 30 Zamboni-ed rinks on the northern banks of Lake Huron.
I was invited by the event’s organizers in this enchanting Upper Peninsula community to spend a few days mixing with the skaters, their families and the legion of fans who come less for the games and beer and more for the camaraderie.
I’ve been around this sport a lot over the last 35 years, covering games on three continents, and I left more in love with it than I’d ever imagined. That struck me like a thunderbolt as I watched skaters come off the ice after their games, headed for the warming tent and a cold Labatt’s – the Canadian brewery that sponsored the event.
What occurred to me on the first couple of days when the windchill hovered around zero or below was that I couldn’t tell the winners from the losers. Everybody, and I mean every single competitor, left the ice beaming. For three memorable days, St. Ignace led the planet in rosie-cheeked, nose-running smiles.
And it hit me: Hockey just makes you happy.
Whether they play it, or their kids play it, or they follow the game at any level from Mini Mite to the National Hockey League, they all behave as though they share a secret that the rest of the world will never understand or appreciate – that ice hockey is the best damned sport on Earth. Especially when it’s played outdoors on a pond, whether it’s something that dad does every winter with a hose in the backyard, or on the black ice of a frozen lake, makeshift rinks surrounded by snowbanks, with a small target at either end serving as the goal.
Behind a table covered with books in the warming tent, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with many of the skaters, their family members and fans.
A couple of guys came up curious about the book, wondering what it was about. I was nonplussed.
“How can you be here in Michigan playing in this tournament and not know anything about The Russian Five?” I asked.
“Well, we’re from Kentucky,” one of them said. That explained it. I asked about their background playing the game.
“We just love it,” the guy said. “We’re not very good at it, but we’re good at beer. And bourbon.”
Turns out there were three teams from Kentucky in this tournament. One of them played in a championship game on Sunday. Go figure.
On Saturday afternoon, a young couple from Oakland County approached and they started talking about how much they loved the story after seeing the documentary. Now they wanted their own copy of the book. I asked them how they wanted me to inscribe it.
“Make it out to Kendall,” he said.
“Oh sure, great,” I said. “Does Kendall play hockey?”
“No,” he said. “But she will. She hasn’t been born yet, but she’ll be here in about a month.”
I immediately look at the man’s wife, confused.
“Oh no, not me,” she said. “We’re adopting her.”
I began to write, “For Kendall. . .”
And I heard him whisper to his wife: “This will be her first book.”
That’s when I lost it.
But at least I had the presence of mind to ask them if they would pose for a photo with me.
Then I took a little break. Went out into the cold, fighting a stiff wind and snow that was blowing sideways to watch pond hockey on rinks as far as the eye could roam.
Standing there alone, admonishing myself for not wearing a hat, I found myself smiling as I dabbed a little more moisture from my eye.
Yes, I confessed, hockey makes me happy.