The Glass Eye: Wrestling and Hockey

The Eye casts a harsh light on several subjects this week…

-We’ll lead off with the probable end of Olympic wrestling, a story that reeks of corruption, arrogance, and laziness on all sides. The IOC’s decision to remove wrestling as a ‘core’ sport – while leaving the likes of sailing, table tennis, and (most notably) modern pentathlon intact – is fraught with conflicts of interest. The most notable example: IOC member Juan Samaranch Jr. (Spain) was allowed to vote to drop wrestling (and save pentathlon) even though he sits on the executive board of the Modern Pentathlon Federation! 

There’s simply no question that the IOC ‘s elitist board wanted to save the pentathlon, even though the modest traditions and global reach of that sport pale in comparison to wrestling’s rich history. Having said that, wrestling’s international body and the group most responsible for wrestling advocacy, FILA, clearly dropped the ball here. It seems that no one near the top of that organization took the threat to the sport seriously, and there was no organized effort to lobby the IOC against this action until it was done. The president of FILA resigned last week in response to this disaster.

Look, we all know that wrestling’s popularity has been on the wane; even here in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania, most high school teams struggle to fill 14 weight classes, gyms aren’t packed like they were 30 years ago, and many kids would rather take up less demanding sports, or skip athletics altogether. However, on a global scale, wrestling is still both popular and thriving. In many parts of the world, including Iran, Turkey, and parts of southern Asia, wrestling is considered the national sport. 27 different countries have won 10 or more Olympic wrestling medals, and 57 countries have won at least one medal. Wrestling truly is a global sport, a sport with DEEP roots in all parts of the world and a sport that gets to the essence of athletics – fair, nonviolent competition.

There are so many other Olympic sports/events that stand somewhere between outdated (pentathlon) and outright contrived (synchronized swimming? competitive walking??) that it seems impossible that the IOC would save them at wrestling’s expense – yet that’s where this appears to be headed. There’s still a CHANCE wrestling can be saved for the 2020 games, but I think it’s unlikely that the IOC will reverse itself so quickly.

-Speaking of wrestling, we don’t often cover high school sports but I want to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of the West Branch wrestling team. When Coach Jason Bainey took over in 2007, there were only SEVEN kids on the team! Today, the Warriors are the class of District 6, taking home both the dual meet title earlier this month, and the postseason honors this past weekend. Along with finishing first as a team, West Branch crowned two individual champions and Bainey took home the Coach of the Year award. What a turnaround at West Branch!

-A quick look around the Western Conference of the NHL, since I didn’t get a chance to preview it…the Blackhawks played Tuesday night with a chance to tie the all-time record for point streaks to start a season. Chicago was 12-0-3 as of Tuesday, and they show no signs of slowing down. Not far behind are the Anaheim Ducks, the surprise of the league thus far, at 12-2-1. After those two, the conference standings are extremely compact (as expected in a shortened season) – there are eight teams with 16-19 points. Columbus is in last place as expected with only 10 points, but the defending champion LA Kings are the league’s biggest disappointment thus far – they are 5-6-2 and BURIED in the standings. Now, LA has played fewer games than any other team in the West, but they need to get on a serious hot streak just to contend for a playoff slot, and their popgun offense (30 goals in 13 games, worst in the West) is once again proving to be an issue. Frankly, aside from the Blackhawks and arguably the Ducks, the entire West is wide-open, with only the Blue Jackets and (most likely) the Flames truly out of contention.

-In the East, the big disappointments have been the Flyers and Capitals. Philly has had a road-heavy schedule, like Pittsburgh…but while the Pens have started 8-2 on the road, the Flyers are 3-8 away from home (and that includes Monday’s 7-0 drubbing of the Islanders). At 7-9-1, Philly is in 10th place – and worse, they have played the most games of any Eastern team, so their climb will be even tougher. The good news is that the East standings are even tighter than the West – if Philly wins at Pittsburgh Wednesday night, they will by only five points out of first place in the conference.

Philly’s biggest problem has been goal prevention – they score 2.6 goals per game, but they allow 2.8 per game. The defensive corps has been inconsistent, but the real issue is in goal – Ilya Bryzgalov has been decent most of the year, but he has started 15 of 17 games because Philly has no acceptable backups. In a short, compressed season, backup goalies are crucial and I look for Philly to make a move SOON to shore up both their defense and their backup goalie issues.

Washington’s problems are deeper – they don’t score nearly enough, and their young tandem of goalies are both enduring some growing pains. Alex Ovechkin’s numbers are still down, and that’s an issue, but an even bigger problem is the complete lack of offensive depth – Mike Ribiero has 18 points and has been a great addition, but no one else has more than 11. The third and fourth lines offer virtually no offensive support, and Ovechkin can no longer carry a team like he did three years ago.

Goalies Neuvirth and Holtby each have .888 save percentages, which is simply unacceptable in today’s NHL. The defense hasn’t been stellar, but I’ve seen enough of these goalies to know that the big issue is their inconsistency – way too many soft goals have been allowed already.

While Philly still has a decent shot at the postseason, Washington is only 5-9-1 and is in last place – with 1/3 of the season gone, the odds are they’ve dug themselves a hole too big to crawl out of.

-New Jersey has surprised me, but Montreal has to be the biggest surprise in the East – new coach Michel Therrien has turned that team around even faster than I expected. He has the ‘Habs’ playing a fast, physical brand of hockey, they are very much a tough team to play against right now.

-Meanwhile, the Pens keep on rolling, at 11-5 they lead the East and have the best offense in the conference. I’ll have a full review of their strengths and weaknesses in the next couple of weeks.

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

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