Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Edmonton tough-guy Dave Semenko once fought Muhammed Ali in a three-round exhibition fight back in 1983. That the little sport of hockey could be on display with a legend like Ali is pretty much all that needs to be said about "The Greatest."
On Friday the sports world lost a legend in Muhammed Ali. As a kid growing up, while he was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee near the end of his prime, our small gang of friends were caught up in everything the world of sports had to offer from "The Greatest" to Secretariat to the Big Red Machine to OJ, the Sabres and the Buffalo Braves.
At the time we were fierce competitors when we played any sport, with every game played as if it were for the championship of the world. There was no slacking and no time for injuries, unless you took a baseball to the nose on a wild hop at 2nd, an elbow to the nose taking it to the hole, an errant kick to the groin on a kickoff return or slash to the shin on a two-on-one break playing street hockey. And gloating? Any of the young ones like myself knew the price of excessive celebration was a beat down from the older kids.
My Ol' Friend Don and I grew up together as friends and foes playing sports and I hadn't talked with him in a while. Don can be cantankerous at times, a probable offshoot of a tough childhood that saw him at constant odds with his parents and his brother. But what he lacked in diplomacy he always more than made up for with some pretty good insight.
We had a pretty good chat and it started with Muhammad Ali.
MP: What did you think of the passing of Ali?
OFD: I really hated his act growing up but in hindsight he was a really incredible figure.
MP: I think he may have liked you.
OFD: Why's that?
MP: Because you may have grown a bit in your world-view as you've aged. Ali once said, "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." In chatting with you now, you've mellowed a bit.
OFD: Yeah. Well. Screw you. There are still a lot of things wrong with the world and I'll bitch when it's necessary. But now is not a time to bitch about the things I hated about Ali growing up.
MP: Which was?
OFD: It's nothing really.
MP: Come on, Don.
OFG: Urgghh. Ok. Look, Captain Rope-a-Dope I have grown to respect Ali and maybe he was "The Greatest." The shape he was in, his quickness, footwork and power plus he was quite the tactician. But what always bugged the crap out of me was the gloating and showboating. Yeah he smoked Sonny (Liston) and only lost once in his prime (actually twice,) but he displayed no class acting like the way he did in the ring. Howard Cosell loved him and it made for great TV, but whatever happened to "act like you've been there?" Whatever happened to class?
MP: Kind of old-school. Actually ancient looking back it some 40 years later. Fact is, starting with Liston, many wanted him to shut up. However you wanna shut him up or stop him from dancin'? Beat him in the ring and take him out of the mass public consciousness. I think that's what his detractors hated most, no body could beat him.
OFD: Yeah, I get that. Smokin' Joe got to him once. Man. Smokin' Joe. That was the "Fight of the Century." We didn't have any money so we had to watch it after the fact, but it was still cool. I thought that was it. Finally someone with class to take down the boisterous one.
MP: Didn't last long.
OFD: Yeah. And when he won the title back and all those fights afterwards, he would rattle off more and more and you'd start to see his influence in other sports. Players flappin' they're yap and doin' their little dances. That's was still irks me.
MP: It's all a part of the scene now. And shouldn't they celebrate a little bit. It's sports, it's supposed to be fun. Isn't it?
OFD: Meh. I remember Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson and that little thing he did in the end zone after a return for a touchdown. It was cute. But he ran through 11 defenders at the risk of getting his head taken off by players coming at him full speed so that's a dance-worthy accomplishment And I remember that jackass [Mark] Gastineau and his stupid little dance after a sack. Hated that. Absolutely hated that. In hindsight at least they accomplished something that could be referred to as a minor feat. Today I see these players doin' their little "Look-at-me-Mommy-I-did-somethin'-good" celebration for the camera after for tying their shoelaces properly in the middle of a blowout.
MP: You blame Ali for that?
OFD: He definitely influenced that behavior. Yet Ali earned the right to do that. As much as I hate to admit it. He was squawkin' at Sonny before the fight and he backed it up. Most of these players--black and white--talk the talk and make their millions before it's discovered just what a farce they are. They do it all the time in football, do it in basketball. Baseball. Meh. Hockey's the only sport left where there's still a little bit of class.
MP: You mean the game that nobody really watches?
OFD: I watch it. And when I turn friends on to it, they like it and will watch it. So what if it hasn't gained nationwide popularity in the States. Screw it. More media exposure means more money for the suits and more players earning more money than they probably deserve. Look at baseball. Can anyone justify $20M for a baseball player? Are baseball fans really that entertained to the point where they can justify the average baseball player making well over $4M a season? Really? When A-Rod signed a quarter of a billion dollar contract. How on earth can one player be worth that much money? It's obscene.
I new a guy when I bartended in California. His name was Warren and he was in his 80's back in 1992 when I was working out there. Grew up in Brooklyn. Avid baseball fan. He'd seen all the greats from The Babe to Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, The Mick and even legends of the Negro League like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Warren would come in every afternoon like clockwork grab a half-liter of chardonnay and smoke a half-pack of cigarettes before ambling on. Was doing it for years. Told me that after the 1981 baseball strike he never attended another game. Never. Said it's ridiculous how much they're making.
MP: So you hope that hockey's ratings will remain low?
OFD: I don't give a rat's ass what the ratings are. I'll watch and I'll go to the games. They're at a pretty good level here in the States. I like the way they play the game and it's a great game to see live. Look. I get it. And I think the NHL gets it. Hockey will never achieve the levels of football or baseball when it comes to popularity. And even though they like to compare basketball to hockey there's no comparison even when both take backseats to football and baseball. Hockey will always run fourth in America and will always trail basketball.
MP: Why's that? Back in the 70's basketball was Boston, Los Angeles and the rest with the game of hockey not too far behind. Now basketball's popularity has a powerhouse in the winter sports category compared to the NHL.
OFD: And they will dominate as a Winter sport for a number of reasons.
MP: How's that?
OFD: First off it's a pretty easy game to understand. Have ball, shoot it into the hoop. Don't have ball, make sure the other team doesn't shoot it into the hoop.
MP: All sports are based upon that.
OFD: But it's easier to figure out in basketball. Plus, for kids like me who didn't have a lot of money, all you need to play the game is a basketball and a court with a hoop. About the only thing cheaper for a family on a strict budget is football where all you need is a football and an open field. Why are those sports popular, especially amongst kids? It's cheap and easy to figure out. Kinda like a girl I once knew. But that's the key for kids, once you start playing the game, you take more notice of it played at the higher levels and you start following it's stars and teams.
MP: I know you wanted to play hockey.
OFD: Absolutely. But you also know that my parents barely had enough money to get me a cheap pair of skates. All of that hockey equipment costs a bundle and it prevents much of the youth the opportunity to try the sport, play the sport and eventually become a die-hard fan of the sport. But we did play street hockey. And street hockey got us into watching pro hockey. We had a couple of brothers who brought nets (although the often stomped home with them when things didn't go their way,) we brought our sticks, played in our kicks and acted like the pros of the day. We used those sticks until they were shaved down to toothpicks by the pavement and when we scored we raised our arms in celebration just like real hockey players did. We found our hockey heroes and followed our favorite teams with out the cost of playing the actual game on the ice.
MP: Do you think street hockey can help broaden the fan base?
OFD: I don't know. I'm not a marketer, but it did for us. Look at the "non-traditional" markets like California and Arizona. In California rollerball is big and they're starting to pump out some good players. This year's top NHL draft pick grew up watching the Arizona team play. Granted, attendance isn't the greatest in warm-weather states because of the climate, and there are many times where the beach and outdoors with all it has to offer is more preferable, especially to a hormone fueled adolescent. But there are a lot of people in those areas. If you can get sticks into the hands of kids and have them play the game, even though it's not on ice, it will at least help.
MP: Having star-power will help too. I remember Gilbert Perreault and Bobby Orr growing up. When we scored we were all players like that. Even Gump Worsley in net appealed to us kids. It was a different era of end to end hockey with a players hair flowing while they raced up and down the ice with scoring chance after scoring chance. There were hockey stars all over the place. People complain that the NHL stymies their star players these days by allowing rules violations to go unchecked. They say calling the game tighter, meaning by the rules as laid out, will get obstruction out of the game and allow their stars to shine. Which, in turn, will grow the popularity of the sport. They say basketball is a perfect example.
OFD: Yeah. Those are just the highlights. They also fail to mention that in the 70's goon-hockey an intimidation were the counterbalance.
MP: Yeah, I get that. But when Gretzky and eventually Lemieux played, the thuggery was down and scoring, especially in Edmonton in the early 80's, was way up. They say it's the way the game was meant to be played.
OFD: First off, that was a hell of an era in the 70's and 80's. A "Golden Era?" Maybe. God knows it was fun to watch. But I hear that all the time, "Look at basketball, their stars are allowed to shine on the big stage whereas hockey, through defenses and obstruction put the clampdown on the stars."
And it's true to an extent. But a lot of it is whining and blather to fill airspace.
MP: How's that?
OFD: Well, hockey has a defensive specialist employed on a full time basis to do one thing--stop the damn puck from going into the net. Why don't stars shine in hockey as opposed to basketball? Because once a star player gets through a tightened defense there's one more big step and that's getting it past the goaltender. In basketball it would be akin to having Manute Bol or Gheorghe Muresean parked right in front of the hoop to bat away any ball that comes near the net. What happens when a basketball player shoots the ball and a defender knocks it away when it's headed towards the basket?
MP: It's called goaltending?
OFD: Yup. Dig. Teams game-plan against star players and lock things down. Hell, even Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both had a rough go of it in the first game of the NBA Finals the other night. The Cavs upped their defense on the two stars and made the rest of the team beat them. Which they did.
OFD: A star player in hockey not only has to go through a heightened defensive scheme keenly focused upon them, they also need to get the puck past a guy whose sole purpose is to guard a 4'X6' net. In both situations, however, oft-times the rest of the team needs to up it's game, but in basketball, once they shed the defense, they simply shoot the ball at the hoop. Put a goaltender in front of the hoop and the final score of an NBA barn-burner might hit 28-27.
MP: They wouldn't do that.
OFD: Of course they wouldn't. It's not made to be played liked that so it's kinda ludicrous when people complain that lack of enforcement is stifling the creativity of star players using basketball as an example. Makes me wanna bring out my old Bobby Clarke punching bag when I hear people talk like that.
MP: They do have a point.
OFD: Yes they do. But they make it like it's a be-all, end-all and it's no where near that. Hockey is not basketball by any stretch of the imagination and the only thing the two have in common is they're played in the winter. Should hockey alter rules to make it easier to score like football has done? Should they allow rules on offense to go unchecked like basketball's travelling rule? How about a clamp-down on goalie equipment instead of constant disruptions of play because a penalty could be called on nearly every rush up ice. My blood pressure's up.
MP: So you don't want to talk about the Sabres and the draft?
OFD: No. It'll go even higher if I start thinking about Murray and Russians. Or Maple Leafs smugness and Edmonton ineptitude.
MP: We'll save that for another time. Good talking to you.
OFD: Yeah, been a long time. Was kinda waltzing through things lately with not much to get my dander up.
OFD: Meh. No big deal.
MP: You gonna be OK?
OFD: Yeah. Just trying keep Jerry "The Great White Hope" Quarry and Rocky out of my head. Am also trying to keep myself from reading all those athlete quotes on Ali constantly scrolling across the bottom of my TV screen. Yeah, I hated the aura of Ali back in the day, but I hate even more some of the tribute stuff within those quotes. Mayweather, Sharpton, Stallone. Got a couple of hot cattle prods I can stick in my eyes?