Long off season continues for hockey fans


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As the summer heat intensifies with still very hot and humid 90+ degree conditions with a thunderstorm about to hit here at home in the Annadale section of Staten Island, a long off season continues for hockey fans.

Even in mid-August into the dog days of summer, the drop of the puck feels a long way off. With training camps being held a bit later due to the World Cup of Hockey which will be televised on ESPN, there hasn’t been a whole lot going on. Unless you’re one of those hockey bloggers fascinated by college rookie free agent Jimmy Vesey, there’s nothing to discuss. The Vesey hype on Twitter has become irritating. All the speculation and projections means nothing until he decides which team he’s signing with.

Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of college players foregoing signing entry level deals with the teams that drafted them. So, excuse me. The Rangers have Kevin Hayes because he and the Blackhawks couldn’t reach agreement. I just don’t like the rule that allows young players who haven’t even turned pro to dictate who they play for. Fans of teams who have taken advantage of the loop hole can thank Mike Van Ryn. He decided he didn’t want to be a Devil, eventually signing with St. Louis. He didn’t have much of a career until he got to Florida where he put up a few solid seasons. Never better than 13-24-37 in ’03-04.

Sometimes, the young players who don’t sign with the original team who picked them don’t turn out to be big stars. Fifteen years ago, the Canucks drafted R.J. Umberger in the first round. After playing three years with Ohio State, his rights were dealt to the Rangers for Martin Rucinsky during ’04 when Glen Sather sold everyone. But following a tryout with Hartford, the Rangers decided not to sign him, allowing Umberger to go to the Flyers. He carved a nice career for himself as a checking center who’s scored at least 20 goals in five seasons with the Flyers and Blue Jackets, topping out at 57 points in ’10-11 for Columbus. Since putting up four straight 20-goal campaigns with the Jackets, he’s been a shell of himself. Yet the Flyers brought him back in a salary dump sending Scott Hartnell to the Jackets. At 34 after earning $4.5 million each over the last two seasons, Umberger might be done. He remains unsigned.

As for Vesey, after playing four yeas for Harvard, he decided not to sign with the Predators, who took him in the third round back in 2012. So, Nashville sent his rights to the Sabres recovering a third round pick (Rem Pitlick). If a player isn’t gonna sign, you may as well get what you can. The thing is Buffalo took a chance here thinking maybe Vesey would see the light and sign with an up and coming team built around Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly. In Western New York, the talent pool is deep with Sam Reinhart, unsigned restricted free agent Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Hudson Fasching. With GM Tim Murray signing Kyle Okposo and acquiring Dmitry Kulikov along with a core featuring Tyler Ennis, Robin Lehner and controversial power forward Evander Kane, the Sabres have all the pieces to make a run at the playoffs in ’16-17.

By adding Alexander Nylander with the eighth overall selection in this year’s Draft, the talent pool only increases. If Vesey chose the Sabres, he’d be just another piece to the puzzle. But he has decided to test free agency. With other strong suitors such as the Maple Leafs, Devils and Bruins all in the mix, it’s anyone’s guess where he lands. He also visited the Rangers. But they remain a long shot. Personally, I would love to see Vesey sign with Buffalo. We’ll see.

As for another overcast night with rain storms in the air, I’ll continue to enjoy the Summer Games in Rio. Plenty of fun track and field to watch. I just watched 17-year old Sydney McLaughlin come in fifth in the women’s 110 meter hurdles during a semi heat. So, she didn’t qualify for the final. But she’s only going to be a high school senior. She got a great experience that she’ll take with her into Tokyo in 2020.

The highlight of the Oympics has been Michael Phelps adding five more golds and a silver to become an immortal. The 31-year old swimmer is the greatest of all-time winning 23 gold medals and totaling 28 throughout a brilliant Olympic career. Nineteen-year old Katie Ledecky continues to look like the female American version winning four more golds and a silver giving her five gold medals in two Olympics. That includes two more world records including the 400 meter freestyle and 800 M freestyle in which she blew away the competition.

American gymnast Simone Biles has wowed everyone winning four gold medals including three individual for vault, all around and floor exercise. She also teamed up with Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian (silver on uneven bars) and silver medal winning Old Bridge, New Jersey native Laurie Hernandez (balance beam) to help the United States win gold in the team all around. Biles also took bronze in balance beam behind Hernandez giving her five total medals. Not bad for a 19-year old.

There are plenty of other great stories. While our Americans have dominated the headlines with a Rio-leading 83 total medals including 28 gold, fascinating Jamaican sprinter Usain “Lightning” Bolt made Olympic history by three-peating in the 100 meters men’s final. The 29-year old is remarkable. His powerful 6-5, 207 pound frame allows him to recover from slow starts with huge strides. He did it again by powering past 34-year old American Justin Gatlin, who took silver despite a fantastic start. He led for the first 60 meters. But a cool Bolt easily caught and passed him having time to smile and pound his chest as he crossed the line in a gold medal time of 9.81.

As a huge track and field fan who ran mostly distance in high school, it doesn’t get any better. The fastest man has always been a huge draw attracting enormous crowds who make plenty of noise. The last time it was this hyped was when Canadian Ben Johnson blew away loathsome Carl Lewis in the ’88 Seoul Games running a then record 9.79 before getting disqualified for a positive steroid test. One that still boggles the mind. If you’ve ever seen the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary 9.79*, then you know what I’m referring to. No question, the muscular Johnson admitted to taking steroids (performance enhancers) after agreeing to go on the program run by then coach Charlie Francis. The perplexing aspect is his urine samples contained stanozolol. A steroid even his coach said Johnson didn’t prefer because it made him feel tight. Francis claimed that Johnson preferred furazabol.

The prospect of PED’s have been around since. Former sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones had their careers tarnished. Particularly the hyped Jones, who had three gold medals and two bronzes stripped from her following the 2000 games in Melbourne. Montgomery once ran a then record 9.78 in ’02 but the end result of the BALCO scandal, he was stripped of his title. Even former Olympic gold medal winner Gatlin who won the 100 meters in Athens with a time of 9.85 is a two-time cheat for doping. His first suspension came while in college for amphetamines due to medication.he took for ADD. The second was for high testosterone in ’06 which originally resulted in an eight-year ban. It eventually got reduced to four, allowing him to return at the 2012 London Games where he took bronze with a time of 9.79 which trailed Jamaicans Bolt (9.63) and Yohan Blake (9.75).

In this year’s race, it was Bolt who beat Gatlin (9.89), who was booed frequently by the Brazilian crowd. Finishing third was Canadian Andre De Grasse, whose time of 9.91 gave the country bronze. The first time in over two decades Canada has had a top three finisher in the 100 M. De Grasse edged Blake for third.

Bolt’s finish produced some of the greatest memes ever.

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Bolt has two events left to go out the ultimate winner. The 200 which is actually considered his best event. He already advanced to the semifinals along with Gatlin. If he can three-peat in that and then guide the Jamaican team to gold in the very exciting 4 x 100, Bolt will be remembered as one of the all-time best. Think Jessie Owens. I don’t count Lewis because I feel his performance was tainted by the positive tests during the American Olympic trials in ’88. He comes off as a hypocrite. Lewis is one of the best ever. But his whole attitude was fraudulent. Imagine an athlete as decorated as him who rubbed even his own American competitors the wrong way due to his arrogance. He was not well liked.

One of the highlights of Rio was the record performance of gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk, who set a world record to win the 400 by beating Michael Johnson’s record (43.18) by running a 43.03. More amazing because he ran out of the eighth lane and couldn’t see the field. He never broke stride. The South African trained with Bolt, who couldn’t believe what he saw prior to winning gold in the 100 M.

On the women’s side, you have a new world’s fastest in tall Jamaican Elaine Thompson, who pulled away from the field to run the 100 meters in 10.71, beating American Tori Bowie (10.83) and former gold medal teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (10.86). Thompson reminds me of a male Bolt due to her length and strength. She takes long strides and looks like she’ll dominate the women’s circuit for a while.

One event I very much looked forward to was the women’s 400 meters final. Namesake Allyson Felix was going for gold in the only individual event she made. Despite some setbacks this season due to injuries which forced her out of the 200 due to not qualifying, there she was going for Olympic gold in the 400. However, a slow start allowed the Bahamas’ Shuanae Miller to surge to the front where it looked like she would lead all the way. But a relentless Felix tracked her down and looked poised to win again. In the closing moments, she was actually past Miller. But Miller did the unthinkable using a desperation dive on instinct to cross the line first edging Felix for the win. Her gold medal time was 49.44 ¬†with Felix taking silver at 49.51. Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson took bronze (49.85). Here’s how the end looked:

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Maybe if Felix had leaned at the finish, it might not have mattered. Miller admitted she had to get gold. She didn’t know she would dive. It was just instinctive. There’s nothing against the rules that prohibits diving. It actually decelerates your stride. But hers worked because it got her body across before Felix’ foot touched the line. Ironically, both runners were exhausted after the race and laid on the track recovering rather than celebrate their accomplishments. It was that kind of race.

The Olympics are not for everyone. Especially due to the corrupt IOC. When you have Ryan Lochte and three other American swimmers robbed at gunpoint, it’s not a good look for the games in Brazil. Thankfully, no one got hurt.

However, the Games are something I’ve always enjoyed. Even if NBC’s coverage led by Al “Rotwig” Trautwig on the gymnastics leaves a lot to be desired. At least former gold medalist Nastia Liukin is part of the coverage. Gymnastics are so tough though. Brazil’s excitement over their silver and bronze was pretty cool. The host country has had plenty to cheer for in men’s gymnastics. While their women’s soccer team disappointed like gold medal favored USA losing to Sweden in penalty kicks, their men are still alive as are their women’s beach volleyball tandem, who take on Kerri Walsh-Jennings and new partner April Ross in the semifinals.

If you’re not into Olympics, fine. Baseball has disappointed for Mets fans. The Mets don’t look like a playoff team. At .500 with an inconsistent offense and disappointing bullpen, they actually have a worse record than the Yankees. The Yanks have given me more joy since they finally decided to rebuild the farm system. Seeing Gary Sanchez slug his second home run into the second deck as lightning and thunder gave way to rain reminded me of Roy Hobbs played by Robert Redford in The Natural, which has been on a lot lately. Unfortunately, the rain took Michael Pineda out of the game and the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold a six-run lead against the explosive Jays. They lead 8-6.

With Sanchez and Aaron Judge leading the way along with Didi Gregorius, Yankee fans have plenty to be excited about. Even if they fall short tonight, the future’s bright. With Greg Bird returning next year, Tyler Austin and future Bronx Bombers Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Julio Mateo and Justus Sheffield, there’s plenty to look forward to.

As for the Amazin’s, I’ll leave that one to Hasan. He’s probably in full Jets mode as preseason continues. As for hockey, I’ll wait patiently. I don’t miss it. I’m enjoying the summer. Everyone should.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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