Hockey's Bloody Spring; The Red Sox and Bobby Valentine Are Fighting

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Today in sports: The kickoff may be going to the way of leather helmets, hockey players are making up lost fighting time this postseason, and Bobby Valentine is working his divisive magic in Boston.

New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the NFL's all-powerful Competition Committee, let it slip last week that the league was "evolving toward" getting rid of kickoffs, because they're too dangerous. This is disappointing, because kickoffs are exciting and provide a tactical edge for certain teams. Mara didn't elaborate on how teams will know where to begin their offensive drive without kick returns: Grantland's Bill Barnwell speculates the league will use some variation on the two-hand touch "Everyone starts from the 20-yard-line policy" (or perhaps the 30 after field goals), which would be safer, but also take a huge strategical component out of the game.  [Grantland]

Fighting, along with "questionable hits and other dangerous tactics," has returned with a vengeance so far in the first round of the NHL playoffs, following a regular season where brawling was down and new league discipline czar Brendan Shanahan earned plaudits for placing an added emphasis on safe play. This is doubly surprising because the old hockey saw is that fighting tends to decrease in the postseason, because nobody wants to be suspended. Not so in 2012. "Entering Monday night’s games," The New York Times' Christopher Botta reports, "4 players have been suspended, and 724 penalty minutes have been assessed,..[t]here were 11 game-misconduct penalties during the first five days of this year’s playoffs. In the entire 2011 postseason, there were only six. During the regular season, the average number of fights per game was .49, the lowest in five years. Through Sunday night, the average in this year’s playoffs was .84." There's a perception that Shanahan has softened his no-nonsense approach: specifically, those around the game suggest his decision not to suspend Nashville defenseman Shea Weber after he put Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg "in a headlock and attempted to ram Zetterberg’s head into the glass in the final seconds of the Predators’ Game 1 win" may have "opened the door for the weekend’s raucousness." [The New York Times]

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New Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine insists he "totally apologized" to third baseman Kevin Youkilis for telling a WHDH-TV crew that Youkilis hasn't seemed "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past" during the early days of the new season. Because it's Boston and Valentine is new, the situation quickly and hilariously got out of hand. After saying he talked with Youkilis prior to yesterday's Patriot's Day game, Valentine tried hedging, explaining that he was actually talking about Youkilis' swing. "I should have been more specific," he explained, "physical is about your swing, emotional is about not being happy when he doesn't hit a ball off the wall." That wasn't well-received by new Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, who noted after the game, "I think Bobby wishes he had expressed the sentiment to Kevin first and I would agree with him. That's normally the policy." Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who apparently didn't hear or wasn't buying Valentine's "I was talking about the swing, not the man!" mea culpa groused: "I really don't know what Bobby is trying to do. That's not the way we go about our stuff around here. He'll figure that out. The whole team is behind Youk. We have each other's backs here...Maybe that works in Japan." After the game, Valentine said he talked with Youkilis again during the game. So it everything copacetic? "It is what it is," Valentine replied. [ESPN]

Six closers have landed on the disabled list already this season, which is more than just bad luck, writes Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. It's proof that "the modern bullpen is a failure and the modern conventional wisdom of training pitchers is a failure." The closer -- a designated ninth inning specialist used to finish out close games -- is still a relatively new baseball concept: Tony La Russa is credited with defining the current job description in 1988 with Dennis Eckersley, who would only be called on to get three outs when Oakland was up three runs or less  three outs left. But early closers, like Jeff Reardon, still got work in non-save situations. "They had to pitch," Tom Verducci explains, "not just throw as hard as they can with maximum-effort mechanics in very small, well-defined windows." By "saving" pitchers, organizations are actually putting them in positions where they are predisposed to overthrow, putting the arm at risk even though they making fewer appearances and not racking up as many innings. []

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who last week said that NBA players should be paid for participating in the Olympics but didn't really mean it, apparently spent all of "15 minutes" playing in a pickup game with teenagers in Tompkins Square Park Sunday following Miami's win over the Knicks. Wade's post-game activities also included "a chat with [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour" and a trip "to SoHo to buy socks with his stylist." He also found time to catch a Yankee game with Tim Tebow.  [Page Six]

Charlie Samuels, the former New York Mets clubhouse manager who pleaded guilty in February to basically purloining signed and unsigned hats, baseball, and jerseys worth in the neighborhood of $2 million during his 27 years with the club, was sentenced to five years probation and fined $80,000. He was also "banned from [Citi Field] for life." [The Village Voice]

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