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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Sunday, February 08, 2004

J.R. Isn't Mad, But His Skillz Are

The Home Run Derby is a cake walk. It's batting practice. The Slam Dunk Contest is played out. Every move's been done. The NHL SuperSkills competition, on the other hand, is still worth checking out.

For one, there's a variety of challenges, both individual and team-related. You've got the hardest shot, fastest skater, accuracy shooting, breakaway relay, and more. Basketball just has a dunk contest and a 3-point contest. Baseball only goes for home runs.

Even better, the players go all-out to win their events. How many ballplayers pull out of the Home Run Derby each year because they're afraid to mess up their swing? You never see anything like that in hockey. Players are all about ripping 100-mph shots, and a few players even put their helmets on for the fastest skater competition because they knew they'd be going hard enough that a wipeout was a possibility.

This year's skills competition was no different, and it was fun to watch. The hardest shot competition was a good one - three players cracked the century mark: Adrian Aucoin (102.2), Sheldon Souray (102.2), and Pavel Kubina (101.2).

Souray is a great story - he didn't even play in the NHL last season. He was busy having four wrist surgeries, and his future in hockey was in doubt. Now he's leading NHL defensemen in goals scored, he's posted a five-assist game and a hat trick this season, and he tied for the lead at the hardest shot competition. Apparently the doctors gave him a bionic wrist. Souray's got a few things going for him off the ice, as well. A few years ago, he was named the NHL's best-looking player, and he's married to former "Baywatch" actress Angelica Bridges.

But the best story at the skills competition, at least from a Flyers fan's perspective, was that of Jeremy Roenick. Roenick, as you might recall, went through a pretty rough stretch last month, during which he threw a water bottle at referee Blaine Angus and was subsequently suspended.

Today, Roenick, who is one of the only NHL players you could even think of accusing of having an ego, took the mic in front of the Xcel Energy Center crowd and publicly apologized to Angus. A real class move from one of the league's stars. It's nice to see a star athlete issue a genuine apology in this age of "me, me, me" in sports. Shaq and T.O., are you paying attention?

Roenick's apology clearly pleased the hockey gods, because they smiled upon him when he took the ice for the accuracy competition. Roenick, going bottom left, bottom right, top left, top right, picked off all four targets in four shots, becoming the first player to reach perfection in the event since 1996.

One of the reasons I think pro hockey hasn't reached the popularity of football and basketball is that the players are too team-oriented. That's a great thing in terms of sports, but not in terms of selling a league. Love or hate Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Shaquille O'Neal, and Allen Iverson, you know them and would recognize them in an instant. But who recognizes Markus Naslund (you know, the guy leading the NHL in points)?

There's Roenick, Hull, and Messier, and outside of those three and a few others, there are no personalities in the NHL. The league really needs more Jeremy Roenick types, and it needs to do a much, much better job of marketing its star players.

Someone just needs to tell the players that. While Ray Lewis dances like he's standing on the third rail during player introductions, the players at the All-Star game are going to look like they want the spotlight to get off them ASAP. At the most, they'll raise their stick to acknowledge the crowd. For the fans' sake, ham it up a little bit, please.

As for the up-and-comers, there were two goals in the YoungStars Game that particularly stood out to me. First, the Oilers' Raffi Torres dropped a sick move on goalie Andrew Raycroft - he raised his right leg wildly, way more than he would if he were actually going to shoot - but Raycroft bit, letting Torres slip a backhander through the five hole. Then, later in the game, the Maple Leafs' Matt Stajan cut back so hard in front of Avs' goalie Philippe Sauve that he covered Sauve in snow as he beat him with a nice forehand.

Granted, the four-on-four format is a little more than conducive to these types of breakaways. But it's still cool to watch.

***

The last time we visited the ESPNEWS Jinx, it was claiming Oklahoma basketball and setting its sights on Patrick Ramsey. Today, Ramsey's fortunes turned for the worse. The Redskins worked out a deal for veteran QB Mark Brunell, putting Ramsey's once-secure job in jeopardy. The Jinx. It's for real.

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