Blogs > From The Bleacher Seats

A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Monday, December 15, 2014

No news is good news

I’m in the news business, and sometimes I can hardly stand it. Too much death. Too much destruction. Too much chaos. Beheadings in the Middle East. Chokeholds in New York City. Murder in Grosse Pointe.
I have to put down the newspaper. I shut down the computer and turn off the television. Or at least turn it to Family Guy or the Cartoon Network.
That is why I am glad I am in the sports department.
I was at a high school wrestling match at Rochester High School earlier in the week. Three other teams joined the Falcons; Anchor Bay, Eisenhower and Hartland.
Hartland came into the double dual meet ranked fourth in the state. The Tars from Anchor Bay were seventh ranked. Those teams met in the second round of the night.
Prior, Anchor Bay had defeated Eisenhower and Hartland beat Rochester.
It was an incredibly dramatic match for this early in the season. It came down to a pin by Anchor Bay’s Joey Dombrowski at 135 pounds to clinch the victory over Hartland for the Tars.
“I went in a back room before I wrestled and visualized what I had to do,” said Dombrowski, a senior.
That is why I like sports. It’s all aimed at visualizing the positive. There is way, way too much of the negative at our disposal everywhere else.
Check out these recent headlines:
“Armada teacher pleads no contest to sexual contact with student.”
“Rochester schools issuing mid-year layoffs after $1.2 million budget shortfall.”
“Addison woman charged with murder in deaths of son, granddaughter.”
“Case delayed for teen accused of trying to kill family.”
I was at Cousino High School last week to see Sterling Heights and the host Patriots play a girls basketball game. Cousino is coming off a fine season, and so are the Stallions. The last time these teams met, coach Rick Repicky’s Sterling Heights squad knocked Cousino out of the state playoffs.
“These kids have had eight months to think about that loss,” said Mike Lee, the Cousino coach.
His Patriots dismantled Sterling Heights by 20 to at least partially exorcise those demons from last March.
So there you go. Accentuating the positive results, at least for one team.
Writing about sports, especially high school sports, helps keep your perspective. It keeps things optimistic in a world too often beset by pessimism. Good kids on the basketball court or the softball diamond. Hard working kids playing football or running cross country. Nice kids serving as team managers. Nice kids in the bleachers watching the games.
It is not crime. It is not mayhem. It is not an ongoing war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Ukraine.
It is your kids. It is their achievements. It is win and losses, but mostly it is about giving an honest effort.
I love sports and what they stand for at the high school level. Sometimes that is all the news I can handle.

Friday, December 12, 2014

An old buddy rides off into the sunset

A buddy of mine is retiring.
Rick Freeman, Walled Lake Western Class of 1972, is leaving Gage Products in Ferndale after 39 years on the job.
That is a long time in the workplace. After a while, calluses are just part of the dress code.
I haven’t talked to Rick for a while, so I don’t know what his plans are.
I know he has a Harley, and loves to ride, so I can hear that Bob Seger song in the background …
"Took a look down a westbound road right away I made my choice
Headed out to my big two wheeler I was tired of my own voice
Took a bead on the northern plains and just rolled that power on."
So maybe Rick plans on taking a long motorcycle ride.
He deserves it. I know that 39 years does not account for all of his pay stubs.
When he was in high school, he worked with owner Don Bridges at a pizza place on Maple Road near Pontiac Trail in Walled Lake.
Rick and Don doled out real pizzas. There was no corporate crust, or mozzarella and sauce that came delivered via 18-wheelers.
They made the dough. They made the sauce. Their ingredients were fresh as a 15-year-old on his first date. Getting a pizza was a big deal back then. They didn’t sell slices at gas stations, convenience stores and concession stands.
Rick even had his own place for a while on Grand River in Farmington Hills. He was doing well enough but opted to get out when a customer with a gun came by to pick up not just an extra large with pepperoni, bacon and mushrooms, but the contents of the cash register.
There’s no holding up Rick and his retirement.
We’ve known each other since grade school.
Rick played the drums, and I played the trumpet, and if we didn’t make some god-awful racket in the Decker Elementary School band, then Mick Jagger never shimmied across the stage and Led Zeppelin did all Mel Torme songs.
We went to junior high and high school together and played sports all the way through. Rick was a very tough offensive lineman/linebacker with bum knees, and I was more of the delicate sort at running back and defensive back.
I remember one game where I undercut a kid who was going up for a pass and he did a nice somersault before thudding to the ground. Apparently, that kid didn’t take kindly to the hit, and he started coming after me.
Since my back was turned, I didn’t realize I was about to get mugged. All I remember is hearing Rick’s cries of agony and when I turned, he had already crumpled to the turf and was holding his knee. Apparently, Rick was playing the part of my protector, and when the guy shoved him, Rick fell awkwardly on his already bum knee.
Still, the huddle was hardly the only place we saw one another. We dated sisters while we were in high school.
Rick had a Camaro back in the day, and he had it custom painted. It wasn’t quite lime green but it was awfully close. Every time we drove around in it, it was like a Sprite commercial.
I am looking forward to toasting Rick’s retirement even though I’m not great with friendships.
Friendships take work, just like any relationship, and I have not punched in much in that regard over the years.
Rick is retiring. He’ll also be marrying long-time friend Laurie Whisnant in the coming months.
I told Rick I’d buy him lunch at Woody’s diner on Pontiac Trail in Walled Lake. Either that, or we would convene at the nearby Copper Mug.
Maybe I’ll get my chopped ’74 Honda CB 750 on the road again. Maybe we’ll roll away together for a while.
There’s a lot to catch up on. Good friends don’t care if their smiles come complete with bugs in their teeth.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A coach's kid

A coach's kid.
Grows up learning X's and O's before the ABCs.
Forget Bambi, Snow White and Frozen. Disney and Pixar take a back seat to game films.
Daycare looks suspiciously like practice. Babysitters, the rare time they are called for, look just like the high school quarterback or the point guard on the basketball team or the star pitcher.
Tim Conley knows the drill.
He's the head football coach at Southfield High School. His father, Tom, has been a coach for 45 years and is a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. He's also on the Blue Jays' staff.
A teacher's kid.

Homework is never an option.
The dog never eats the aforementioned homework.
Bad grades are his or her doing, and not blamed on someone else.
Tim Conley knows the drill.
His dad taught social studies and was a school counselor for 35 years. His mom was an English teacher for 20.
"As you know, my mom and dad are the main influences that have guided me into teaching," said Tim Conley, who is also the head of the social studies department at Southfield.
A coach's wife.
Years ago, dinners used to be wrapped up in aluminum foil to be reheated.
These days, since microwaves and metal don't mix, they are left in Tupperware to be reheated.
It's the same drill. Family dinners are a misnomer. Practice and games and watching film often leave eating a solitary endeavor.
"When we started football practice this year, day two of practice was my mom and dad's 45th wedding anniversary and my dad was at practice. I asked him how many anniversaries he missed because of football practice and he responded `All 45,'" recalled Tom Conley's son, Tim.
The Conley boys, Tim and Joe, both played football at Troy High. Joe was the MVP of Colts' state championship game in 1994.
"Coach Griff (Gary Griffith) was a constant fixture in my life for many years. My dad and he were watching reel to reel football game film at my house since the mid 1970's. Being coached by him and coaching alongside of him at Troy High are real highlights for me.
"TC (Tom Conley) and Griff embody everything great coaches have; exceptional organizational and technical skills. They know how and when to bring out the emotions in their players and when execution is paramount; they also build strong bonds with their players. When I played and coached with them at Troy I saw how they inspired their teams, and we had winning teams with great confidence because the players knew that TC and Griff had their backs," said Tim Conley. “There has always been a quality of toughness in their personalities and in the way they coach.”
A coach's kid now has kids of his own. Tim Conley is married to Chantal and they have a son, Miguel.
Coach Tom Conley has grandkids.
That is the way it often works.
Tim Conley and Tom Conley were at Novi High School as the Blue Jays fell to De La Salle 31-7 in a Division 2 state semifinal game Saturday.
More game film to watch. More bonding between a father and a son.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The circle of life with turkey and stuffing

First you have kids.
Then the pages of the calendar start to whirl and eventually your kids have kids.
You are grandparents. Those are your grandkids.
The circle of life. It’s not just a song from Disney’s “Lion King.”
I was raking a lot of leaves in the fall of 2009.
There was a nagging ache in my chest, but I knew it wasn’t a heart problem.
I ignored it for as long as I could before my wife, Kim, convinced me to go to the hospital.
A whole bunch of tests later, the doctors discovered a tumor.
It was kidney cancer but apparently of the restless variety. It had spread to my bones. Shortly thereafter, they found it in my brain and a lung.
I figured I was a goner. Goodbye George Thorogood, hello Taps. So long, Kid Rock. Hello, How Great Thou Art.
Tears were shed and I thought about stuff that I would be missing.
Five years and three grandkids later, I haven’t missed a thing.
I feel great, thanks to a lot of kneeling on Sunday mornings; a saint of a wife; and some absolute heaven-sent docs from the Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University.
This past Monday morning, our third grandchild was added to the family roster. Emerson Rye Holloway busted onto the Christmas list sometime around 8.
Emerson is the second child of our oldest daughter, Brittany, and her husband, Chris. She was beaten to the dinner table by their son, Julian, who is nearly 2 ½ years old.
Kyle, our oldest son, has a daughter, Josie. She is about a year older than Julian.
The circle of life. Hello to Simba, Timon, Pumbaa and the grandkids. I did not think I would be around to see the birth of one grandchild, much less three.
We all will be gathering at my moms’s house once again for Thanksgiving. Mom has eight grandkids and eight great grandkids. She is coming off a busted hip sustained in a fall back in April and if you had taken bets early on during her recovery if she’d be toting 20-pound turkeys around ever again, the odds would have been Jimmy the Greek woeful.
Mom might be in her mid 80s, but she is determined. She has more guts than the rest of the family combined. Me, if I had fractured a hip, I would have been happy spending Thanksgiving eating a Banquet turkey pot pie in a reclining chair watching the Lions on television.
Please pass those tater tots.
Not mom. She’s doing the turkey. She is doing the mashed potatoes. She is doing her sweet potatoes.
We will say grace before we eat. We will miss the lost some family members. We will welcome those we have gained, too.
The circle of life, you know.
Emerson is still too young for most of the food. Maybe she can gum the Jello with mandarin oranges.
Pass the gravy please. The turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, too. I’ll put the pumpkin pie on hold. For a maxiumum of 45 minutes or so.
My oncologist said that is fine. The cardiologist would probably have a different opinion.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's not just hockey for the MC Monarchs


Team owner Mark Gilman shares a laugh with MC Monarchs coach Jason McCrimmon (Photo courtesy of John Corzine/Hockey Weekly)

“He’s part hockey coach, part Father Flanagan.”
That short summation by team owner Mark Gilman described Macomb County Monarchs head coach Jason McCrimmon.
Following a recent practice at Fraser Hockeyland, McCrimmon gathered a handful of players in his office and closed the door.
“They have developed big heads,” he explained later, smiling.
Who can blame the upstart Monarchs for their confidence? The team opened the season by winning its first six games. Those wins included sweeping a three-game series against the third-ranked Tier 3 Junior team in the country, the Soo Firehawks, as well as a victory over the previously undefeated Detroit Fighting Irish.
The Monarchs were in Traverse City last weekend to play the hometown Hounds.
“Jason is a very well-respected as a coach,” said Gilman. “He can be tough on the players, but he also knows when to laugh. He is not a yeller.”
The Monarchs are a first-year Junior A (Tier 3) team that plays out of Fraser. They are a member of the Midwest Junior Hockey League. The Macomb County team joined the Alpena Flyers, Berkley Bruins, Decataur Blaze, Michigan Ice Dogs, Soo Firehawks and Traverse City Hounds.
The MJHL is an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned Tier III league. Its stated primary goal is to develop its players on and off the ice for higher levels of junior hockey and to be able to play college hockey.
After the MWJHL’s inaugural season, more than 30 players had secured college hockey offers at the NCAA Division III level and at all three levels of ACHA hockey. That number was similar after the 2013-14 season.
Still, the Monarchs seem to be about much more than wins and losses. A look at the unique resume on the back of McCrimmon’s hockey trading card might provide a clue.
McCrimmon was born and raised in Detroit. He’s from the city and even though Detroit is called Hockey Town by some that is hardly the reality.
“My mom was a social worker. She made me try hockey when I was three years old. I hated it. Why did I want to stand around on some ice and freeze to death? None of my friends were playing,” he said, laughing.
But McCrimmon kept playing, more out of obligation to his mom than anything else. When he was 10, he moved on and played with some teams in Grosse Pointe and then later with Belle Tire.
At 16 he quit. Other priorities beckoned, just like they do for plenty of teens. He did not play again until he was 20 years old.
“I didn’t have any passion for the game,” he explained. “I had other priorities.”
An opportunity presented itself at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. After two years there, he moved on to the University of Massachusetts Boston. He later played for Muskegon and Flint of the IHL, as well as other teams.
McCrimmon had just returned from a multi-year stint as the captain of the Hela-Kiekko professional team in Finland when he met with Gilman, who was intrigued by the 6-4, 260-pound McCrimmon’s story.
“I knew he had a lot of fights in his career and wanted to see the toll that was paid on his knuckles. He made me laugh when he said the worst part about hockey fights was not broken bones in the hand, but that you never get used to being hit in the face. He wanted out,” said Gilman.
Scar tissue doesn’t negate compassion.
The Monarchs have formed partnerships with the Hope Center in Fraser as well as with McCrimmon’s Ice Dreams hockey program in Detroit.
The Hope Center is a non-profit, Christian-based, human-services organization whose purpose is to address the hunger crisis and respond to the needs of county residents. Ice Dreams is designed to introduce ice skating and hockey to kids in Detroit.
“We want these players to be productive citizens. Not only do we want them to get better on the ice but off the ice as well. We are not only building players, but young men, too,” said McCrimmon.
The majority of the players are from Macomb County. Several are Oakland County residents. There are also two on the roster from the Cape Cod area and one from the Czech Republic.
The team will play 46 regular-season games. The playoffs follow the regular season.
“I love hockey. Jason and I are really good friends and he deserves this chance. I’ve seen so much bad coaching and situations where the kids aren’t treated right. We wanted to start a team that would do right by the kids. We’ll follow through on our promises,” said Gilman.
Gilman is the owner of Decus Strategic Consulting and Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Waterford. He resides in Clarkston with his wife, Patti. They have five children in their blended family. Three of them either played or are playing hockey.
“I’m just a hockey geek,” said Gilman.
Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, was a kids geek. The Irish priest believed there were no bad boys. McCrimmon seems to espouse that same belief.
Even those boys who occasionally get big heads.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Thank You note to Mike Ilitch

This is a Thank You note.
Not to my aunt for a pair of argyle socks or my nephew for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.
Nope, it is to Mike Ilitch.
And no, Mr. Ilitch didn't give me a Hickory Farms basket for Christmas.
I want to thank him for the Red Wings. I want to thank him for the Tigers.
I was watching the Red Wings beat the Bruins in their home opener Thursday night and it got me to thinking; the Wings have made it into the playoffs the last 23 seasons and I’m not sure we all appreciate that fact.
I remember when Mike Ilitch bought a Red Wings’ team that was so woeful he had to give a car away pretty much every game just to get people to stop by the arena.
They had been called the Dead Wings by Channel 4 broadcaster Al Ackerman. Or was it the Dead Things? Either way, neither was very complimentary.
It's 11 o'clock, do you know where Ned Harkness is?
Those Red Wings were a joke and that is something that should be remembered when people grouse about these Red Wings not getting to the conference finals or the Stanley Cup Finals or even winning the Stanley Cup.
I just wanted to send a Thank You note to the team owner.
Not for argyle socks. Not for a T-shirt. Not for a Hickory Farms assortment basket. But for turning the Red Wings back into a winning organization and keeping them there.
While I'm at it I ought to get back to the Hallmark store and pick up another card.
Dear Mr. Ilitch, thanks for the Tigers.
I know they have to be frustrating the heck out of you lately. You spent all of that money and not all of it has brought a good return. A team that was supposed to make a serious run at the World Series championship stumbled in the opening round of the playoffs.
But the team has won the Central Division the last four seasons. They have played some outstanding baseball and the lineup is sprinkled with some of the best and brightest in the game. Comerica Park is a great place to watch baseball and there has been lots of good baseball to see in recent seasons.
I know you are a baseball guy. I know you grew up a fan of the Tigers and even had a shot in the minor leagues.
You are one of us. Someone from here who has a passion for the game. You want the Tigers to win as much as we do if not more and you're willing to pay the price.
That passion alone is something to say thanks for.
You have proven that you can field competitive teams -- and even championship teams -- in a town about as far away from the bright lights as you can get. We don't have South Beach. We have Metro Beach. We don't have Broadway. We have Henry the Hatter on Broadway Avenue in downtown Detroit. We don't have Malibu. We drive Malibus.
But we have Cabrera. We have Zetterberg. We have Datsuyk. We have Verlander. So I guess that means we have Upton, too (Kate, not B.J. or Justin)
We have our share of stars. We have more than our share of wins and even a few titles.
We have a pretty darned good owner.
That Thank You note is in the mail.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fanning the flames

Sports talk radio.
Hi, I’m Wes from West Bloomfield. Joe Nathan is a jerk.
Hey, I am Frank from Fraser. Brad Ausmus is abysmal.
Hello, this is Rick from Royal Oak. What is wrong with Matthew Stafford?
Yeah, this is Oliver from Oak Park. Oops, all right, I have turned my radio down. How come the Pistons have been so pathetic recently?
So there you have it. The voice of the fans.
Everybody has an opinion, especially the irate. Everybody can be heard loud and clear, especially if they yell loudly enough. Not just on the radio, but also on television, through blogs, on Twitter, Facebook and a variety of other social media tools.
And, at the stadium.
Freedom of speech. It is guaranteed in our constitution. I’ll bet our forefathers never envisioned Tweets.
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Wes from West Bloomfield. Frank from Fraser. Rick from Royal Oak. Oliver from Oak Park.
Even yours truly.
Criticism is part of the game. Especially when Nathan blows a one-run lead in the ninth. Or Ausmus makes questionable decisions from the dugout. Or Stafford throws two interceptions. Or Jimmy Howard lets in four goals. Or the Pistons lose yet again.
That brings up this old truism. The worst jobs in town are the closer for the Tigers, the starting quarterback for the Lions, and the top goalie for the Red Wings.
Those folks are frequently the most unpopular people around. The best jobs in town: the backups for all of the above. Hurray for Joakim Soria; yahoo for Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore; and how come Jonas Gustavsson doesn’t play more?
We adore our athletes. We despise them occasionally, too. We love our teams. We just don’t like them sometimes. Win and we’ll put chocolates on their pillows. Lose and there is a flaming bag on the front porch.
It is the epitome of a love-hate relationship, and when fans hate we speak very, very loudly. Justified or not, the volume increases when we start thinking about how much our professional athletes who are screwing up make. They are all largely millionaires.
Conversely, most of us are not. We pay to get into the stadium. We pay 20 bucks or so to park our cars. If we go out to eat, the food is more often than not served via a drive thru window. We regularly have to make decisions like whether to pay the mortgage on time, or instead pick up a prescription at the drug store; should we put a new muffler on the car or deal with Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy?
I am not sure our professional athletes agonize over the same things. Do they want a Porsche or Mercedes; an Escalade or Land Rover? What do they feel like eating tonight, filet or lobster tails? Where will they vacation; the French Riviera or Tahiti?
Sure we get mad at times, but don’t take it personally, guys. We love you. We love our teams. At least most of the time.
When we don’t it’s time for Wes from West Bloomfield, Frank from Fraser, Rick from Royal Oak and Oliver from Oak Park to speak up.