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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cristiano Ronaldo: That was my best goal yet

Cristiano Ronaldo: that was my best goal yet
Making a statement: Cristiano Ronaldo struck from 39 yards in Porto Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Ronaldo's sixth-minute goal, a stunning right-footed strike from 40 yards, was enough to seal a 3-2 quarter-final aggregate win and confirm an all-Premier League last-four meeting with Arsenal. With Chelsea also through after defeating Liverpool, it means that for the third season in a row, three of the four semi-finalists are English.

It was Ronaldo's first away goal in the Champions League since last season's final against Chelsea in Moscow and the World Footballer of the Year insisted that last night's strike was as good as any he has scored. "When Anderson gave me the ball, I thought straight away to turn and shoot at goal and I scored a fantastic goal," he said.

"It's the best goal I've ever scored. I've just seen the replay and I didn't realise it was 40 yards out and I hit it at 65mph - wow! This victory will give us confidence. The last five games we didn't play great, but I hope this will change that.

"It's a fantastic tie for us in the semi-final because Arsenal play fantastic football. We know them well, but I think we can win the tie and go to the final."

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson must now prepare for a first leg against Arsene Wenger's team at Old Trafford on April 29 and the Scot has challenged his players to take a lead to the Emirates for the return leg. He said: "No matter what happens, the semi-final is going to be a big factor in our season now. With it being an all-English tie, it will certainly give it extra spice.

"I'd be quite happy to win the home leg 1-0. That would be a perfect scoreline for me. The league game at the Emirates earlier this season showed football in a great light. It will be a terrific tie."

Semi-final dates

Tues Apr 28 Barcelona v Chelsea
Wed Apr 29 Manchester United v Arsenal

Tues May 5 Arsenal v Manchester United
Wed May 6 Chelsea v Barcelona

Final

Sat May 27 Stadio Olimpico, Rome.

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Big names mull joining forces in bid for Canadiens

ANDREW WILLIS

A shared passion for the Montreal Canadiens is making for strange bedfellows in Quebec business circles, as a consortium made up of pop star Céline Dion, Seagram heir Stephen Bronfman and Quebecor Inc. boss Pierre Karl Péladeau is considering a joint bid for the storied NHL team, financial sources report.

As the Canadiens begin a first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins as heavy underdogs, majority owner George Gillett is into the second round of bids for the team and arena he purchased nine years ago for $185-million (U.S.). One investment banker familiar with the process said potential buyers who made "initial expressions of interest" now have full access to financial data on the Canadiens and the Bell Centre.

"There is a group bid being discussed, and it's clear that Gillett is very willing to sell if the price is right," said the investment banker, who is helping line up financing for potential bidders.

However, the banker and other sources familiar with the possible sale of the team cautioned it will be difficult to strike a partnership that satisfies the strong personalities of Dion and husband René Angelil, Claridge Investments head Bronfman and Péladeau, the dominant player in Quebec media.

This trio of potential buyers is said to be contemplating a dedicated pay-TV channel in Quebec that would carry Habs games and other hockey-related content as one way to increase revenues from the team.

Several major-league sports teams have launched these networks, to mixed reviews from fans. Regular-season Canadiens games are currently shown in the province on RDS, an arm of CTVglobemedia (which also owns The Globe and Mail).

Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté dropped out of the bidding for the team last week, according to sources in the financial community.

One financial executive who knows Laliberté said: "Guy is extremely careful in his money and is not going to get caught up in an enterprise where he doesn't have full control of the purse strings."

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the provincial pension fund, is not expected to be an equity investor in the Canadiens, bank sources report. However, potential buyers are pitching the $120-billion pension fund for loans that would help finance the purchase, and are also trying to borrow from a number of major banks.

Gillett, 70, hired investment bank BMO Nesbitt Burns to weigh options for the Canadiens earlier this year, amidst a brutal economic downturn.

The NHL franchise, which has won 24 Stanley Cups, was recently valued at $335-million by Forbes magazine.

Print Edition - Section Front


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Open Ice: One-on-One with Brian Leetch

Stephanie Bagley is a Senior Writer for HockeyBarn.com and a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can catch weekly updates to her column, "Open Ice," as well as frequent installments to the series "Quest for the Holy Barn," as HockeyBarn scours North America in discovery of hockey's greatest "barns."

Open Ice is excited to launch its premier column with an exclusive interview with one of the greatest defensemen of all time, Brian Leetch. HB talked to the man who redefined "offensive defensemen" about everything from how he got his start on a small rink his father managed in Cheshire, CT to how 'ice time' now means teaching his eight-year-old son the basics of the sport he excelled at for 17 seasons in the NHL.

# 2

It has been more than two years since two-time Norris Trophy-winning blueliner Brian Leetch officially hung up his skates as a professional hockey player, and more than a year since the New York Rangers ceremoniously raised # 2 to the rafters, but the intrigue and impact of one of the greatest NHL skaters of all time is still as sharp as Alex Ovechkin's chip shot.

Leetch, 40, is currently headlining as a dad. When HockeyBarn caught up with Brian by phone, his game-plan for the day was enjoying time at home playing with his three children who had a snow day off from school. Still, he reminisced about his time as a Blueshirt and the rest of his career with the same excitement and understated humility that defined him as he earned a Conn Smythe, Calder, aforementioned Norris (twice), 11 All-Star nods and, oh yea, a Stanley Cup during his 17-season NHL career.

As is fitting for one of the true greats, he transcends the ice, the stats, the laundry-list of records, the uniform...his legacy is somehow bigger than all of that. But he will be the last one to ever tell you that.

"I feel like I should be the one saying thanks because my career on the ice is over and I had so much support for all those years, so much gratitude," said Leetch.

BACK TO BASICS

No dawn-til-dusk pick-up games with four hockey playing brothers or homemade backyard rinks here. Brian grew up in Chesire, CT hundreds of miles from the ponds of Winnipeg or Minnesota and got his first taste of hockey after picking up some skates at a local store, Cheshire Sport, and then playing around with the neighborhood kids at the rink his dad managed.

" "When they built the rink in town, my dad was the rink manager so we all went there together. It was a normal size rink and then a small sheet of ice about as big as one zone is where we learned to skate," said Leetch.

Brian added that he could not remember any specific drills or skills that he worked on because their practices were often informal and he did so many they all blend together.

"It was just us falling down and getting up and learning to skate. Nothing really sticks out because you do everything so much. I see that with my own son now, who is eight. It just slowly starts to sink in a little bit at a time. "

PUT ME IN, COACH

Leetch die-hards (or anyone who has been to the Sports Museum of America in downtown NY) are probably the only people who are aware Leetch had a 90 MPH fastball by his sophomore year of high school in addition to a wicked wrist shot.

In his two years at Cheshire High School, Leetch excelled on two very different playing fields. Leetch led the Cheshire Rams to a state championship in baseball before he transferred to athletic powerhouse Avon Old Farms School in Avon, CT, where he set a school record for 19 strikeouts in a game his senior year...and also scored 70 goals and 90 assists in 54 games. As a defenseman.

Venerated 34-year Avon Old Farms ice hockey coach John Gardner (whom we interviewed HERE) is notorious for his nose for talent, but even he was blown away by Leetch's ability to move the puck:

"One of the first times I saw him skate as a junior was at practice one day. I was standing behind the bench talking to some of the kids and I looked over to the ice to watch him and he just took the puck all the way down the ice and passed about 3 people and then sunk the puck right in the net. Everyone just kind've looked at each other saying things like, 'Did you see that?'"

The hockey phenom spoke about himself in decidedly less effusive terms than his coach, teammates and fans, who would routinely stand up at the bench and watch in awe whenever he took the ice.

"I never looked at myself as having a unique talent but definitely felt a responsibility to my teammates to play well so that our team could be successful. I was receiving the most ice time and was on the ice for all important moments and didn't want to fail or let my teammates down."

Leetch reserved all words of praise for his coaches, John Gardner and Kevin Driscoll.

"They were both men who earned our respect as people and coaches yet were able to joke around and at times act just like us."

Luckily for all of us hockey fans, Brian chose to stick to the rink instead of the baseball diamond. Why? He cited several reasons, but a main motivation was the team aspect. No surprise there for the man who defined team player throughout his career.

"Baseball practice was a lot slower and took longer and focused a lot on individual skills like hitting and fielding. I liked the importance of all five guys on the ice working together in games and the flow to practices."

WELCOME TO THE NHL

Leetch had barely stepped off the plane from the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where he captained Team USA, before Rangers GM Phil Esposito had his first round draft pick (9th overall) in a Rangers sweater. The blueliner made his anxiously awaited NHL debut on a stage that is arguably bigger than even the Olympics: Madison Square Garden.

The Garden is notorious for its relentless media that can sanctify you one week and crucify you the next, and loyal but ruthless fans who would boo even the Little Rangers who skate between periods if they do not take enough shots on goal. (Ed. Note: I've actually seen this happen.)

"My first game at the Garden I was on the bench during the opening face off vs. St. Louis and Chris Nilan was lined up. He got into a fight only two seconds into the game. In the fight he was wrestling and throwing punches and drifted right in front of the Rangers bench only a few feet away from me and I just kind've chuckled out loud to myself, and was thinking 'Welcome to the NHL,' just like that."

The fresh-faced new Ranger played hard for the remaining 17 games of the 1987-1988 season, earning 14 points, yet he lamented missing the playoffs and vowed to himself to do everything in his power to get into the post-season.

By 1988-1989, his first full season with the Rangers, Leetch had both the New York media and the Garden Faithful eating out of his hockey glove. In addition to helping the Blueshirts make the playoffs he scored 71 points, including a record-setting 23 goals for a rookie defenseman, good enough to soundly earn him the Calder Trophy.

"I was always more excited and more nervous to play at home. My first few years the Garden crowd definitely brought out the best in me," said Leetch.

BRINGING THE CUP HOME

1993-1994.

The year that will forever remain on a blue banner hanging from the famous Garden rafters emblazoned with the words STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS.

It has now been fifteen years since Leetch scored 34 points in the playoffs to earn the Conn Smythe and help erase a 54-year drought without a Cup. For many members of the numerous and steadfast Garden Faithful, the run to the Cup seems like it was just yesterday and conversation never seems to dull of the June of 1994.

Much of the season is now a "blur" for Leetch, who also has a permanent place in the rafters, but the MVP shared some of his memories of the season with HockeyBarn.

# 2's Stanley Cup Memories

1. Mark Messier's reaction to taking the lead with his 2nd goal in "the" pivotal Game 6 against the Devils in the Eastern Conference Championship:

"I remember Mark took the lead on his backhand goal, and he was excited. But then within 3 seconds of us coming together, his face got really serious and he gave us a 'Let's go! Let's go!' He switched it right over. A lot of us were like, 'holy cow... we're actually in the lead now' after everything that had gone on. He flipped it over pretty quick to get us focused again. While there was a definite jump in our step, we were thinking that we had the rest of the period to take care of business. And then we did, but then obviously he capped it off..."

2. Winning the Cup was the greatest honor of his career:

"Without a doubt winning the Stanley Cup in New York City was the greatest achievement in my career. The ups and downs that go into an 82-game regular season plus the grind of a two month playoff makes the satisfaction of winning and sharing that bond with your teammates the ultimate reward. Put on top of that winning in New York and breaking a 54-year drought for the franchise, a ticker tape parade...there is no comparison."

3. How he spent his time with the Cup:

"There was no official 'Cup watcher' then, so I actually had the Cup for about two weeks. It was just starting to get into the 'everyone has a day with the Cup' deal. And after about two weeks, I'd had enough of the Cup. We would take it out to the clubs, restaurants and parties in between taking it on Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Yankee Stadium and so on.

The night before the parade I had it in my apartment with a few friends who were in town for those last few days and we just took some pictures with it, but then I knew I had to be up to do a TV show early in the morning so I called my buddy and I said, 'You're going to meet us at the Garden for the parade.' So he wrapped the Cup up in a blanket and then went and got a taxi and put it on the taxi seat next to him and brought it down to the Garden. I met him outside and then we brought it down to the parade. "

Guess we know why they started using security guards to watch the Cup the next season...

SO YOU'RE SAYING THERE'S A CHANCE...

After retiring in 2007, Brian is now content spending the majority of his time at home with his wife and his three young children, but he is far from done with hockey. He encourages his kids to skate and brings them to games in hopes of getting them excited to maybe play one day since (understatement) he "knows some stuff about hockey."

While he says he will never pressure his kids to play, his oldest son is showing some interest and is playing on a team that Brian helps out with and steps in to coach when needed, though he said he has no desire to be head coach and "deal with parents."

That said, there will be no teary un-retirement from Leetch...but a job in a front office? He would consider it.

"It interests me, there's no question about it. But I know I can't do it halfway and I'm not prepared to jump in full time right now. I'm home with my young family. You're pretty much right back into how it was like when you played, it's a 24-hour thing. That would also probably depend on whether I have any friends that get a position to help me out there that I played with."

Leetch also expressed how much he enjoys returning to the Garden as an alum, which he continues to frequent for both special events or just to take in a game.

"When I go back I feel like I am home and there are so many memories that come up."

Hopefully a certain blue-shirted team who could use a little magic --and who also have a promising young defenseman often compared to Leetch (ahem, Marc Staal)--is listening.

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Birdie blitz puts Kim into record books

by Allan Kelly

AUGUSTA, Georgia (AFP) - Anthony Kim made Masters history on Friday with a record 11 birdies in his second round and said that reading about the death of baseball player Nick Adenhart had changed his mindset.

The Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher was killed in a road accident in California on Thursday just hours after making his Major League Baseball season debut.

Kim, one year older at 23, said he had been upset after a disappointing opening 75 on Thursday but had put things into context after reading a newspaper report of Adenhart's death on Friday morning.

"The last line in the story was: 'You never know what can happen, even at 22. You have to live every moment of every day like it's your last.'

"I said to myself - Look, it's been a dream of mine to be at the Masters my whole life, and there's no reason to pout about a bogey or a 3-putt, but enjoy being out here and enjoy all of the hard work that was put into it by myself and my parents, and go out there and have some fun.

"I think that's what made the 11 birdies a lot easier."

Kim had six birdies on the front nine and five on the back, with the only blemishes on his round of 65 being bogeys at the fourth and ninth and a double bogey at the 10th.

The previous record for the number of birdies in a single round at the Masters belonged to Nick Price of Zimbabwe who had 10 en route to a course record 63 in the third round in 1986.

Kim exploded onto the professional scene by winning two tournaments last year and he then played a pivotal role in the US Ryder Cup win over Europe in Kentucky last September.

This year has been more of a struggle after a tie for second place in the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship in January.

He did spread his wings though playing well in Asia and was tied for fourth at the Dubai Desert Classic.

There had been signs, he said, that his game was coming together again.

Kim said he had never doubted his own abilities.

"I'm not too concerned about what everybody else is thinking. That has nothing to do with me," he said.

"Of course, I hear or I'll be reading the paper and say, whatever happened to him; I'm still here. I'm still making golf swings.

"I haven't played as much in the US but at the same time, I've been dealing with injuries and different circumstances that I've never had to deal with in my life. So I'm very positive about where my career is headed."

That mindset could get even more positive come Sunday if he can reproduce the kind of form the rewrote the history books on Friday.

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2010 Super Bowl Might Be the First One Online

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A few months ago, Miami hosted the first BCS Championship game to be shot in 3-D. Next year, the city might host the first Super Bowl streamed online.

CBS, which will broadcast next year's game, is hoping to persuade the NFL to bring the big game into the Internet age. The network made $30 million off streaming the recent NCAA basketball championship and is eager to apply the model to the Super Bowl.

The NFL hasn't agreed, but according to Business Week, organization execs were quite happy with their experiment streaming regular-season games with NBC last year. They found that online viewership didn't detract from TV viewership, and in fact as many as 80 percent of the online viewers were also watching the game on television. The streams offered four additional camera angles not seen on-air.

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Shaquille O’Neal Gets Payback on Lou Amundson for Prank

Shaquille Lou Amundson

April 15, 2009 - Dr. Anklesnap

The video of Shaquille O’Neal the consummate prankster being the subject of a practical joke went viral yesterday on the internet. Everyone loved watching the big fella get pay back for all the pranks he’s played on people over the years. Although it was all in good fun when Phoenix Suns teammate Lou Amundson filled Shaq’s truck with millions of little pink styrofoam pieces, Shaq vowed to get his revenge.

Well it didn’t take Shaq long to exact that revenge. If Lou Amundson is identified for one thing besides his blue collar work ethic on the court, it’s probably his long golden locks. The guy has long blond hair like a surfer, and clearly he takes pride in it. If you want to hit Lou where it hurts you have to go after his hair, right?

Shaq (with the help of some teammates) tracked down Lou Amundson this afternoon and held him down while Shaq used clippers to take a patch of hair off his head. Mission accomplished, but while he was at it, Shaq also gave Lou’s eyebrows the “Racing Stripes”.

My only question is: “How much do you think Lou’s locks will go for on eBay?”

(H/T to Planet Orange.net for the Pics)

Tall Catchers, Managers in Uniform, Pitchers Batting 9th, and Other Bad Ideas in Baseball

For all its staid traditions, baseball does evolve. If you have an idea, no matter how preposterous, chances are it will eventually get a hearing. (See the Chicago White Sox's brief experiment with Bermuda shorts).

Some of these ideas are probably not going to be adopted. Longtime designated hitter Jim Thome, for instance, believes the rules should be changed "to give the hitters four strikes." Other ideas, like the world's first $2,625 baseball ticket, on sale now at the new Yankee Stadium, may prove to be significantly ahead of their time.

For as much progress as there has been in baseball, there are still some old notions and orthodoxies that ought to be reexamined -- and some new ideas that might need some rejiggering. Here are a few baseball ideas that are dubious, wrongheaded or just downright illogical.

CSM /Lando
Tall Catchers

Yogi Berra, who was arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history, wasn't exactly long and lithe. Most great catchers aren't. Since it's their job to squat for hours on end, they tend to be short of limb.

Just 11 catchers listed at 6-foot-4 or taller have ever had at least 2,000 plate appearances in the modern major leagues. Among them, only Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins, a two-time batting champion, has been a truly exceptional player -- at least, when he's healthy. Mr. Mauer is currently out of the lineup with a back injury. The idea that catchers shouldn't be too tall is the rare concept that has the scouts and the statisticians nodding their heads in agreement.

All of this raises an uncomfortable possibility for the Baltimore Orioles. Their top pick in the 2007 draft was catcher Matt Wieters, who's listed at 6-foot-5 and hit .355 with 27 home runs in the minor leagues in his professional debut last year. Given the dearth of tall catchers of note, the Orioles could be tempting fate by leaving a potentially historic hitter at the position most likely to stunt his career.

Andy MacPhail, the Orioles general manager, says he's "not necessarily a subscriber" to the idea that a tall catcher can't be successful, despite the views of scouts. He says there are no imminent plans to move the talented Mr. Wieters, although he won't rule out the possibility. "The beauty of the situation," he says, "is that if the bat is what it appears to be, he'll be able to play anywhere on the field."

Pulling Your Best Hitter for a Pinch-Runner

During the World Baseball Classic last month, the Dominican Republic lost a shocker to the Netherlands in the first round. With two outs in the seventh inning of that game, while trailing 3-2, the Dominicans brought Jose Bautista, a journeyman infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, to run for David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox -- one of baseball's great clutch hitters

It's a standard move managers make in close games when they need a single run: Get the big, lumbering guy off the bases in favor of a quicker guy who might be able to wheel it all the way home on a big hit. The logic behind this is based on the notion that getting a run immediately is more important than keeping the best hitter in the game.

Bart Given, a former assistant general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, says the trouble with this tactic is that if your team does survive, it then has to try to win the game without its biggest bat. "It's a pet peeve of mine," he says. In the case of the Dominicans last month, Mr. Given's aversion to this tactic was justified: The Dominicans didn't score after the substitution. When Mr. Bautista came up in the bottom of the ninth inning with the tying run on base and two outs, he promptly struck out. "It always seems to happen," says Mr. Given.

Pitchers Batting Ninth

In 2007, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa decided to make a change. For years, he'd been flirting with the idea of rejecting the conventional wisdom that the pitcher on a National League team (usually the team's worst hitter) should always bat ninth in the order. That season, he decided to see what would happen if he batted his pitchers in the eighth spot.

The move was not impulsive. "If he feels he has two leadoff hitters," explains Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, "he would rather position them nine-one than one-two, because he prefers power in the two spot." If that sounds like a classic case of overthinking things, the math actually bears out.

Several statisticians who have studied the matter say it does make some sense. Seattle Mariners consultant Tom Tango says the move doesn't make a huge difference, but could give the team something on the order of two runs over the course of a season. In fact, he says, the No. 8 hole is actually the ideal spot for the pitcher. "It's more important to set up the top of the order with a bad hitter than a horrible one," he says. That benefit, he says, outweighs the cost of letting the pitcher get a few more at bats."

CSM/Newscom

Calling in the Closer With a Three-Run Lead

On April 10, the New York Yankees, who were leading the Kansas City Royals 4-1, called on the best pitcher in their bullpen, closer Mariano Rivera, to shut the door. Mr. Rivera retired the side on one hit and recorded two strikeouts. Nobody at the ballpark batted an eye.

But for all the money teams spend on pitching, John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions, a data company that works for major-league teams, is bewildered by situations like this. "In a three-run game," he says, "you'd be better off bringing in your No. 2 reliever and saving your best pitcher, usually your closer, for the next game." By probability, the most crucial moment in a game -- the one where an out is the most valuable -- often comes earlier, sometimes closer to the seventh inning.

From 1977 to 2006, according to situational probabilities that have been calculated by baseball researchers, home teams going into the top of the ninth inning with a three-run lead win 98% of their games. This would seem to make the use of Mr. Rivera in such situations similar to shooting a fly with an elephant gun.

Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League champions, made the change. They left most of the easy save chances to veteran Troy Percival, who racked up 28 saves despite an unsightly 4.53 ERA. Stronger pitchers like J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, who between them pitched 147 2/3 innings with a 1.95 ERA, were reserved for tight situations earlier in games.

Getty Images

Managers in Uniforms

According to baseball's rule 1.11(a), all members of a team must wear a uniform. As straightforward as this seems, it's actually created a philosophical divide. On one side are the managers who like wearing the same uniform as the players. On the other are a handful of managers who flout the rules and the growing number of comedians who find the tradition hilarious.

According to an informal look by researchers at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, it's believed that the last manager to wear a suit was Burt Shotton of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who last managed a game in 1950.

Ron Gardenhire, the manager of the Minnesota Twins, a fan of the uniform, may have the most convincing argument. "I hate sports coats," he says.

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