Challenge Yourself

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Not long ago, I had the opportunity to a local Fire vs. Police Charity Hockey Game. At the time, I was in the process of becoming a Firefighter with the local department, and the veterans were kind enough to include me. Being asked to play was a big personal thrill.

While I’m extremely grateful that I was asked to play, months later I am still too salty to fully appreciate the experience. Predictably, the Cops cheated and brought a line full of ringers, and Law beat Fire 8-5. Not that I am at all biased.

You need to understand that Fire and Law have a mostly-antagonistic, Dogs vs. Cats-type relationship. Last February, I had a New Hanover County cop pull me over and hand me a $160 ticket for “No Seatbelt” as I was leaving the Fire Station. My experience has been that Fire and Law cooperate when absolutely necessary – such as legitimate crises or life-and-death situations – but otherwise squabble like siblings.

Fire won last year’s game 10-0, and really it shouldn’t have been shocking if I saw Alex Ovechkin deputized for the day and skating for Law. Understandably not wanting to be drubbed again, the cops enlisted a few overqualified players with loose connections to the local departments. Fire got manhandled on a number of shifts by this unit of players, the three of whom appeared to be a regular line on an upper-tier amateur team.

It would probably be much more sound politically for me to not publish this portion of the article, but as you know my ethics as a Hockey Player supersede everything else about me. As a Hockey Player, I don’t think what Law pulled was particularly classy. Fire beat Law badly in the 2013 game, but all of the guys skating for Fire in the 2013 game were Firefighters or EMS personnel. I am ruthlessly competitive, but I don’t play D-League to sate my ego because there’s no honor to it. As the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the epic film Predator, “No Sport.”

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I know for a fact that Fire could have had a much stronger roster for the 2014 game, but the Captain of the Fire team rightly pointed out that the game was “so people could watch the . He very respectably stayed within the spirit of the game, even though he could have beefed up the roster with players loosely connected to Fire/EMS. This entire scenario seems to play into my view on how some people look to break rules in order to Do the Right Thing while others do whatever they want as long as it’s within “the rules”. I’ll let you figure out which groups most cops and most firefighters respectively fall into.

While I’m salty, admittedly irrationally so, that Law brought in a group of 18-year old Junior players to win a Charity Hockey Game, that’s not the issue at hand nor the point of this article.

Months later, I am angry about how I played. I played…OK. I had a Goal and an Assist, won 90% of my Face-Offs (as I am wont to do), and competed hard. But outside of the Face-Off dots, I was not dominant, at least not in the way I am accustomed to being. Fire lost, so in my view, I did not Rise to the occasion. My view is that it doesn’t matter if Law brought half of the Carolina Hurricanes in to play for them, I should have made a better account of myself. I did not play to my ability at an opportune time, and that clearly continues to bother me.

(Jack’s Note #1: I am may not have been “Tiger Mode” dominant, but I’m still Jack Farrell. See Alan in the red jersey cutting behind me? I also see him, even though I’m looking at the net. He’s about to get a pass under Blue’s stick as soon as Blue bites and tries to knock the puck off me, which he won’t because I’m teasing him with it as Mario, Jagr, and Kovy taught me. God, do I love Hockey.)

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(Jack’s Note #2: Not to further detract from the point, but I am able to sleep at night knowing that I had blown rivets on my skates for the Fire/Police game. Notice the glorious USA Hockey soakers on the Modano Tacks. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but holders coming off the boots will knock any Hockey Player down a peg or two. Here’s a picture because I don’t lie about this sort of thing. Keep reading though, there’s a lot of helpful stuff later in the article.)

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As with most aspects of my life, it takes failure in Hockey to force me into personal or psychological growth. I did not elevate my level of play in a situation that really mattered to me because I had become too accustomed to playing at half-speed. The root of this problem, like many of the other problems that plagued me in 2013 and early 2014, was not my lack of effort or Will, but the fact that in several ways I had become complacent, or worse, resigned.

I am not entirely sure how it happened, but at some point I began to routinely accept mediocrity in my life. If you know anything about me, you know how completely out of character that is for me. I am an Elitist that borders on being snobby. Like MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, I hate to suck. My disdain for personal incompetence trumps my desire for excellence, a trait you commonly see in those of us with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s more important to not be bad than it is to be good.

Also, if you consistently read my blog, you know some of my core tenets are Rising and using Willpower to get through almost any conceivable scenario. But there is an underlying concept that enable Rising and Will, the same way spark plugs enable engine ignition, and that concept is Challenging Yourself.

Challenging Yourself is the road that leads to Rising. You cannot be expected to swim the English Channel if you can’t do fifty laps in the community swimming pool. Continually overreaching and exceeding your limits is what allows you to Rise to a given occasion, when needed.

A Simple Lesson Lost

At some point, like so many other people, in a number of ways I stopped Challenging Myself. It becomes frighteningly easy to stop striving and to embrace the relative comfort of complacency. When there are a cacophony of external stresses – Financial, Mental, Physical, Psychological, Sexual, Social – it becomes very easy to cut corners, or worse, put particular areas of your life on Cruise Control.

The problem is that at times Life is like pushing a boulder uphill: it gets more and more difficult, especially if you lose momentum.

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If you are familiar with Greek Mythology, you will know the tale of Sisyphus, King of Thebes. An arrogant, clever cat if ever one existed (my kind of guy), Sisyphus continually mocked the Greek Gods, at one point cheating death by tricking Thanatos, Death Himself, into releasing him from bonds in Tartarus.

Anyway, as punishment for his gall and hubris, Zeus eventually condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a boulder uphill, only to watch the boulder roll back down as soon as Sisyphus neared the top. Wikipedia sums it up very nicely:

“…an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Thus it came to pass that pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean…”

Going back the Boulder analogy, this is what happens when you cease to Challenge Yourself on a consistent basis: useless efforts and unending frustration. There becomes a recurring pattern of falling a day late and a dollar short. Sisyphean activities. How much you care and how hard you try become irrelevant if you have not properly conditioned yourself for adversity. Almost all of us can identify with this.

I’ve given a lot of thought to why 2013/early 2014 was such a rotten time in my life personally, and I think I have traced the problem to the source:

A few years ago, I was doing very well in all of the areas mentioned above – Financial, Mental, Physical, Psychological, Sexual, Social – and like Sisyphus, I had perhaps grown a bit too arrogant for the Gods’ liking. Shortly after college, I decided that I had enough of my bar manager at the time stealing from my register to fund his on-the-clock cocaine habit, so I became a Personal Trainer. Obtaining the PT Certification was a Challenge, but my work habits were strong enough that I was able to accomplish it with a reasonable amount of dedication and effort.

I took a job at the first place I applied, the endlessly-greedy and corrupt LA Fitness, despite the fact they were offering me slave wages and nonexistent benefits. I made more in an hour fondling the waitstaff and letting drunk girls flash me than I would make in a day at the vaguely-French LaFitness, but for whatever reason I decided to…settle. It was easier to let LA pay me pennies than to continue searching for a job that compensated me properly.

As they say, Fortune Favors the Bold. The inverse is true as well. Because I settled for the first employer that said yes rather than continue to beat the bushes for a better opportunity, I set myself up for failure, and in the process managed to take a very bad perspective: Good is Good Enough. I’ll explain why this mindset is not only flawed, but potentially self-destructive.

 Unlearning Bad Habits

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Regrettably, one of the things most of us learn is how to stop striving. We encounter professional situations in which nothing in our power can compel an employer to increase our pay grades or in some way show greater appreciation. Rather than continuing to press or finding a new employer, we most often yield and accept that things are the way they are. We don’t just accept, but embrace, mediocrity.

This leads to a litany of undesirable effects, not the least of which is a cloud of negativity that not only follows you around, but permeates to everyone in your vicinity. Resignation is a slow, painful death by atrophy, and the emotional erosion is in many ways worse than the mental and physical tolls extracted.

I have always been a worker, and as an adult my confidence has usually bordered on arrogance. As such, traditionally I have never needed motivation to strive for accomplishment. For most of my Life, I have wanted to be excellent at everything simply for the sake of being so. Challenging Myself was something that came naturally and thoughtlessly.

Unfortunately, the decision to take the LA Fitness job taught me an awful habit: to accept mediocrity, from others and eventually myself. A heavy toll was taken on all of those areas – Financial, Mental, Physical, Psychological, Sexual, Social – in which I had previously expected accomplishment and progress.

One thing that will always stick with me about the LA Fitness experience was how thoroughly unprofessional most of my coworkers were. I would sit for hours at night coming up with innovative training programs for my clients, and treat all of my clients – even the absolute train wrecks – like they belonged to the President’s Cabinet. Meanwhile, my coworkers couldn’t be bothered to stop playing on their phones long enough to ensure that their clients weren’t dropping weights on themselves, or to look at their clients while they were speaking. The contrast was jarring.

At first, this didn’t change anything in my approach, because I was dedicated to excelling. But the combination of the atrocious employee treatment, nonexistent pay, and catty glares and whispers from my indifferent, lazy, resigned coworkers began to grind me down, again in all of the areas of competence mentioned above. A poisonous professional situation such as this is one most anyone reading can identify with.

The first thing to give was my body. Because my employer was more than happy to drive me into the ground without compensating me properly, my ability to Challenge Myself physically went by the wayside. If I managed to force myself through a workout at the end of a 12-hour day, it was almost certainly a half-assed one. I gradually lost the ability to stave off the daily physical stress I was putting on myself.

One of my major character flaws is that almost everything I like to do is Physical. I have tried to round myself out to a certain degree, mainly through writing, but my favorite activities, in no order, are fighting, working out, having sex, and playing hockey. I actually like farming and doing chores around the house (ladies, take note). Every job I’ve ever sought – bartending, landscaping, house-painting, stripping, training, construction, Fire/EMS – has involved the use of my body rather than my mind, and not by accident. My version of Eternal Torture is being forced to sit still.

So, it was a catastrophic blow to all areas of my well-being when I severely injured my knee about four months after taking the LA Fitness job. I was playing a hockey game at Bethel Park in Pittsburgh, made a routine turn, and something just snapped in my knee.

I did not have Health Insurance at the time – thanks again for the employee benefits, LA Fitness! – so I never had an MRI nor the surgery that those results likely would have recommended. I still haven’t had an MRI, so Lord knows what’s happening down in my right knee. All I know is that I walked with a noticeable limp for nearly a year, and had disability and intense pain for nearly two. The knee still flares up if I am not diligent with my training and nutrition.

I might have still injured my knee if I had not taken the job with LA Fitness. However, I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which I would be more employer-raped and physically run down for less money. As I detailed in Jack’s Rules, I made a major miscalculation by putting pride and the wants of people who did not care about me above my own needs. Had I made the more Challenging decision to put my own well-being above that of a ridiculous, underpaying job, I likely would have saved myself a lot of future turmoil.

Because I did nothing, I not only embraced but endorsed a culture of mediocrity. My advice for you is to refuse to do the same, both now and in the future. If you have learned how to underachieve and how to do the bare minimum, Now would be an excellent time to reverse that line of behavior.

Challenging Yourself vs. The Challenge of Others

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As I wrote above about my experience with LA Fitness, an insidious Challenge becomes when you have to differentiate between Challenging Yourself and the Challenges others present to you.

Let’s say you a talented, goal-scoring soccer player. You work your tail off, you’re physically talented, and you have a great mind for the game. Yet, you are failing to reach your potential on your current team because the moron playing Center Midfield refuses to pass you the ball.

When you have controlled all of your personal factors – your commitment, your conditioning, your work habits, and so forth – and external factors begin limiting your personal success, the Challenge of Others comes into play.

This is an experience I personally understand very well, because I have spent my life playing Team Sports. While many athletes are naturally cooperative and team-oriented, quite a few thrive despite being relentlessly selfish. A unique frustration sets in when the selfishness of someone else undermines your personal success, and this idea is never more prevalent than with Team Sports. One indifferent or lazy player can often derail the efforts of 10 or 20 committed, hard-working ones.

The Challenge of Others is one area in which I have to admit Writing is superior to Sports: in Writing, the Writer becomes the only true impediment to his or her success. All of the brainless editors and bureaucracy in the world cannot stop you if you properly hone your writing ability.

Anyone who has spent considerable time in the Dating Scene will also know what I mean. The ongoing Battle of the Sexes, and the continued unwillingness of most Men and Women to admit that they need each other, is a Biblical-era classic. Men and Women present continual and never-ending frustrations for each other because their genetic goals are diametrically-opposed. It’s the oldest rib in the history of the human race, and it’s hysterical.

One thing that most of us will agree is that you cannot force other people to be attracted to you. There are ways in which you can influence others and enhance your own attractiveness, but I’m sure all of us have that “one that got away” who we seemingly couldn’t seduce under any circumstances.

The Challenge of Others in this case is that there is only so much we can do to make another person attracted to us. If you Challenge Yourself properly, it’s possible to climb Mount Everest or lift 500 pounds, but most of us have yet to unearth the secret to making someone special fall in love with us. It’s like trying to use a net to catch a mist.

The only thing you can really to combat the Challenge of Others is to stack the deck in your favor as much as possible. You may not be able to make anyone fall in love with you, but it certainly helps if you’re a handsome, talented, wealthy actor. The freedom comes in knowing that there are external factors that you can control, if you Challenge Yourself appropriately. Focus on yourself, and do not let the Challenge of Others frustrate you to a debilitating degree.

Grow or Die: the Atrophy Principle

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In Exercise Science, there are a number of terms that refer to the state of Muscle Tissue. Muscles, like all tissues, can grow (Hypertrophy) or they can wilt (Atrophy). Homeostasis, a state defined by little or no change, is possible in Muscle Tissue, but many factors make it uncommon.

Meatheads like myself are obsessed with Hypertrophy, not because we are obsessed with growing to the size of gorillas (most of us), but because of how unpalatable the alternative, Atrophy, happens to be.

“Muscle Loss” will make a fitness enthusiast break out in a cold sweat. There are many fitness-minded people, myself included, who would rather lose a job than consistently lose muscle. Atrophy, or the idea of erosion and wasting away, is powerful enough to compel people to go to the gym at 5:30 AM or to eat Protein Powder by the spoonful.

Speaking of fitness-minded people, as noted above one of my all-time favorite people is Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s safe to say that he played a heavy influence in my decision to pursue a degree in Exercise Science. In my estimate, Arnold Schwarzengger is the real Most Interesting Man in the World, having had such a variety of experiences that encapsulating them would go beyond the scope of this article.

If you want to talk about someone who never stopped Challenging Himself, take Arnold. All of the details are in his outstanding book Total Recall, but here are some of his accomplishments:

* Went from being a poor boy in Austria to being a five-time Mr. Olympia, champion bodybuilder, and fitness icon

* Parlayed his bodybuilding career into an acting career, in which he was one of the highest-grossing box-office stars in the history of entertainment

* Parlayed his acting career into a political career in which he was elected and re-elected as the Governor of his adopted state, California

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More recently, Arnold has returned to his roots and become an Action Movie and Fitness icon. He is absolutely revered, and rightly so. If you were to ask Arnold the key to personal success, I strongly suspect he would cite the fact that he never grew complacent, and never stopped Challenging Himself, a concept he largely drew from his experiences as a bodybuilder.

One of Arnold’s first films was called “Stay Hungry“, an idea he frequently acknowledges in interviews. I think most would agree that a big reason for Arnold’s success is that he has continued to evolve and grow as a human being, if only because the alternative – Atrophy – was completely unacceptable. Again, I think Arnold would agree that this was a lesson he learned moving heavy weights and subsequently applied to other arenas.

This lesson applies to you and I, as well. Grow or Die. If you fail to Challenge Yourself, you will assuredly regress. Embrace competition and reach beyond your comfort zone, in all areas of your life, and always pursue growth.

Areas of Challenge

I could describe specific examples, but I believe those of you still reading will know how to Challenge Yourself in all of the following Areas of Challenge:

Challenge Yourself Intellectually

Challenge Yourself Mentally

Challenge Yourself Psychologically

Challenge Yourself Physically

Challenge Yourself Sexually

Challenge Yourself Socially

What you may or may not have articulated or considered are specific methods of Challenging Yourself, or that you have become complacent or worse, resigned, in certain areas of your life. My suggestion to you would be to consider the Areas of Challenge I listed above, and to seek balance, as in my view they are all interconnected.

As a fitness trainer, I came to know many people who would endlessly Challenge Themselves physically, but would not pick up a book or strike up a conversation with an attractive stranger. Like bad bodybuilders, some people overdevelop certain areas of competence while completely ignoring others. As written above, failure to regularly Challenge Yourself in all areas will lead to Atrophy, compromising the Areas of Challenge you are striving to hard to enrich.

The Final Lesson

Writing is not a major challenge for me, at least under most circumstances. I have a clear voice, and I love the sound of it, so I am almost never short for ideas or material. My Challenge becomes making my writing more and more worthwhile.

Any idiot with Microsoft Word and a stolen WiFi Connection can compose an article that looks and reads adequately, but fewer writers can consistently entertain, invigorate, or motivate their readers. At this point, simply putting words to paper is not an adequate Challenge for me. My Challenge as a writer is to write exceptionally, rather than just passably, because I’m capable of doing so.

However, obtaining my EMT-Basic certification was a major, major Challenge for me, for reasons I’ve written about. There were people in my class who I was pretty positive could not read the nutrition label on a box of Ritz Crackers or operate a can opener, but were excelling while I was floundering. But as I wrote in the EMT article, I was extremely proud of myself for leaving my comfort zone of Barbells, Hockey, and MILF Porn long enough to complete something that I do not have a natural aptitude for.

The Final Lesson is to keep Challenging Yourself. I separately and deliberately underlined those words so they sear into your brain. What Challenges me may or may not Challenge you, and vice-versa. Do what Challenges YouIf you are lacking for inspiration, consider and evaluate the Areas of Challenge I’ve suggested. Look for Challenges every where and in everything. Upcycle. Do whatever it takes to continue evolving and growing, for the alternative (Atrophy) is not just undesirable, but unacceptable. Grow or Die.

Jack

Jack Reviews: AAA Car Care – Oleander Drive, Wilmington, NC

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Almost all of us need a reliable, trustworthy Auto Mechanic. This was something I had  taken for granted, as my cousin is a Mechanic. Paying for extensive Auto Repair in exchange for beer or my mother’s baked goods was a major perk for most of my life.

After relocating to Wilmington, NC, it became an immediate necessity to find a Mechanic, as I could no longer just dial up my cousin every time the car started acting funny. The move from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, which involved multiple 900-mile jaunts each way, put a lot of very hard miles on my Honda CR-V.

I had long been a AAA Roadside Service club member, but had never used a AAA Car Care Center prior to moving to Wilmington. My first experience with AAA Car Care was memorable, though: as I detailed in my article “The Walking Dead Diet“, on the Saturday before Memorial Day in 2012, I was driving down Military Cutoff Road in Wilmington when the front passenger wheel flew off my CR-V. The most of the studs on the rotor had broken off, largely due to the insane amounts of travel I was putting my poor car through. Driving excessive highway miles with only two intact studs on the rotor is obviously not an ideal condition for your vehicle to be in, and it’s the definition of a major safety issue.

One of my minor claims to fame is that I have twice survived having a wheel fly off my car, the other time being when a front wheel came off my Eagle Talon while I was driving down I-79 in Pittsburgh at 85 MPH. Fun stuff, but I digress.

Almost as if by fate, my car came shrieking to a halt in front of AAA Car Care on Military Cutoff at about 3:30 PM on the Saturday afternoon of a Holiday weekend. Somehow, for the second time in my life I had the presence of mind to “guide” the car off the road while sparks flying from the rotor threatened to detonate the engine. Looking around after my CR-V mercifully slowed to a stop, I had both a Dunkin’ Donuts and a AAA Car Care Center within my immediate line of sight.

After briefly collecting myself, I sighed, calmly turned off the engine, and did the only rationale thing I could think to do: I walked to Dunkin’ Donuts and got an iced Hazelnut coffee. While I drank my coffee, I  found the number for the nearby AAA Car Care Center, and had my CR-V towed to the soon-to-close facility.

Long story short, AAA repaired my car. I must say that I have nothing to complain about, as none of the wheels have fallen off the CR-V since AAA on Military Cutoff did the work. However, the repair bill was so egregiously-high – the figure $843 is permanently seared into my brain – that I was discouraged from using AAA Car Care Centers for future service.

I ended up using a small shop in Wilmington called Performance Auto for a great number of repairs in the interim, including a complete engine replacement. I am going to hold off on most of my thoughts on Performance Auto for the moment, as their irresponsibility in not detecting  major safety issues on my CR-V warrants a separate article.

In any event, recently my CR-V needed extensive work, which I entrusted to Performance Auto. Not only did Performance Auto fail to diagnose the main issues I brought to their attention, but they let me leave their shop five times under the pretense that the CR-V was fine to drive on an extended road-trip. Meanwhile, in actuality the CR-V was one hard turn away from something truly catastrophic happening. My contact at AAA literally winced when I assessing the condition of the CR-V’s front suspension, which told me all I needed to know.

Speaking of which, my contact at AAA was Mike Coyle, to whom I was referred by a guy I play Hockey with. The Hockey Locker Room is my go-to resource for legal and medical advice, financial planning, computer services, etc. I trust my teammates implicitly. My teammate Kevin was kind enough to refer me to Mike, and having become completely disgusted with the arrogance/incompetence over at Performance Auto, I went to see Mike at the Car Care Center on Oleander Drive.

I am pleased to report that Mike did everything in his power to mesh my demands – and I assure you, I was very demanding – with the work that he deemed necessary to make the car safe to drive. My experience with AAA Car Care on Oleander Drive, on the whole, was extremely positive.

This is my Review of AAA Car Care Center on Oleander Drive in Wilmington, NC. This location is not to be confused with the location on Military Cutoff Road. Wilmington residents are aware the same stretch of road is called Military Cutoff Road on one end and Oleander Drive on the other, but this may confuse people visiting or otherwise new to the area.

Pros

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One of my favorite things about dealing with AAA is that they have a hierarchy of Mechanics, all of whom are ASE Certified. After Mike took a quick look at my CR-V, he realized that he would need his “A” Mechanic for this particular car. I greatly appreciate that sort of honesty over the fast-food mentality some shops take. I would rather wait an extra day and have the best guy for the job examining my car, rather than the first guy available.

AAA does a full Diagnostic examination, the details of which can be found here. In a situation like mine, in which my CR-V was coding for a “Random Misfire”, this sort of Diagnostic scan is much more effective than the ol’ “let’s try a Valve Adjustment at your expense” tack that the geniuses at Performance Auto had chosen to take. My view as a moonlight medical professional is that doing a Valve Adjustment (or whatever) when it’s nothing more than an educated guess on the Mechanic’s part is like amputating a patient that needs Heart Surgery. The depths of stupidity at play bother me too much to discuss further.

(Note to Mechanics: What was causing the Random Misfire on all four cylinders? A loose bolt on the Distributor housing that was causing the Distributor to shake back and forth like a Shakira/Rhianna Twerk-off. Again, much thanks to Performance Auto for wanting to perform expensive, major surgery on my CR-V for a problem that was fixed with four turns of a hex wrench.)

After I authorized the Diagnostic (the cost of which Mike ultimately waived for me), Mike gave me 15-20 minutes of his time to discuss options. The Diagnostic scan made me much more confidant in eventually authorizing the work, which ties into my absolute favorite part about dealing with Mike Coyle at AAA:

Mike gave me the proposed Work Order up front, clearly itemized. In my experience, this is a drastic departure from how many Auto Mechanics operate. Many Auto Shops give the consumer a vague description of work that they may or may not do, generally putting the consumer at a severe disadvantage in negotiation. At AAA on Oleander, I had a complete understanding of all of the work that could or should be done on my vehicle, complete with a straightforward breakdown of prices.

This is a major Pro in favor of AAA that you absolutely should not overlook. It’s critical as a consumer that you know exactly what you’re paying for.

I impressed upon Mike in my inimitable way that the only work that would be done on the car was the absolute minimum that would make the car drivable to Pennsylvania from North Carolina. While Mike may not have agreed with the minimalist work that I ultimately authorized, he spoke to me like an adult of reasonable intelligence and respected my decision. That fact in and of itself makes someone like me about 500 times more likely to deal with him in the future.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that each and every member of the staff at the Car Care Center was unfailingly polite. By itself, this would not affect any of my purchasing decisions, but it is a nice feather in the cap of the Care Center on Oleander Drive.

Cons

AAA has locations all over America, and as such is subject to Common Denominator pricing.

For example, on the CR-V’s latest work order I noticed that the standard cost for a four-wheel Alignment at AAA was $89.99. This is about $20 more than the average cost in the Wilmington area (and believe me, I heavily researched the local cost of a four-wheel alignment).

While Mike was prepared to discount this cost to $69.99, putting it more-closely in line with local prices, the fact remains that some of AAA’s costs are generally going to skew high.

It’s not my intent to go on a complete expose, but what I found was that in some cases the price for Parts at AAA was oppressively-high. To use one example from this latest Car Repair adventure, I ended up purchasing Spark Plugs and Wires. as well as a Distributor Cap and Rotor, and doing a self-install because AAA’s quote on those Parts with Labor was prohibitive:

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Most people are not dime-squeezing Control Freaks like I am, and would thus be amenable to having someone else do the work at a reasonable cost. AAA’s quotes were certainly not outrageous, but again my goal was to do this round of work on the CR-V at a rock-bottom figure.

It’s worth mentioning here that AAA’s overall Labor Rates were surprisingly low compared to the few smaller shops I price-compared them to. It’s also worth mentioning that their Hourly Shop Rate was significantly lower than the rate I had been given at Performance Auto, which I had given a very healthy amount of recent business.

Other than AAA’s company-wide mandates on Parts pricing, I have no complaints. I was given a very clear, detailed Work Order prior to a single screw being removed, and I was thus able to pick-and-choose which Services I wanted and which I wanted to decline. Even knowing that some of the Parts prices were more than I was willing to pay, Mike Coyle worked to Add Value to my overall Work Order in a variety of creative ways, which I greatly appreciated and detail in the next section.

Value

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This is the area in which I give the most credit to Mike Coyle at AAA.

Mike had the distinct privilege of meeting my alter ego Jack the Ruthless. As many of you likely know, my years spent working in Asset Management have made me an absolutely barbaric negotiator. Mike was kind enough to call me “extremely demanding”, but the fact is that I am blood-on-the-lips savage when it comes to business transactions. I have literally made grown men cry dealing with the negotiation of gym memberships or the return of defective Hockey Equipment.

Mike is the friend of a teammate, so believe it or not he actually got the PG-13 version of Jack the Ruthless. However, I am the type of guy who would blackmail his own father-in-law if it made sound business sense, so be certain that I made Mike Coyle work for my business.

Some aspects of this recent Repair job were non-negotiable. For example, there were Parts of the Front Suspension that were in such terrible condition that Mike and his Lead Technician had strong reservations about me driving the car off-premises after the Diagnostic scan. I don’t speak Car Repair fluently, but from what I understand, one wrong turn would have led to the front of the car collapsing on itself.

Both Mike and his Lead Tech were good enough to walk me through all of the car’s major safety issues while the car was up on a rack. All of my regular readers know that I love full disclosure, and despite being dense with mechanics, I had a good grasp on the major issues with the car. The work on the Front Suspension was mandatory, meaning it should have been detected and done by Performance Auto months ago.

Working around the mandatory chuck that the Suspension job was going to take out of my Checking Account, Mike did his best to provide strong Value wherever else he could. For example, my vehicle needed two new Tires (due to the front end’s hideous misalignment), and not even my cousin could beat the price on Tires that Mike gave me on behalf of AAA. As noted above, he waived the $100 Diagnostic Fee for me. He even cleaned my headlights, which had become so cloudy that my business partner Randy refused to ride with me after dark, free-of-charge. In short, Mike Coyle added as much Value into my investment as he could, which was music to my Business Accountant ears.

Due to the damage to the Front Suspension, my CR-V could not be properly Aligned. Rather than attempt a failed Alignment and irresponsibly bill me the $70 (as a competitor I won’t again name might have), Mike Coyle very openly told me that I would not be billed if an Alignment could not be done. He kept his word and did not bill me, which I greatly appreciated. He very easily could have failed to properly Align my CR-V, told me otherwise, and just tacked an extra $70 onto my final tab. I would have known no different. He instead chose to earn my trust and future business.

This situation speaks to the advantage of dealing with a National company such as AAA: the local shop has a National reputation to protect. Even if he were so inclined, Mike would not have authorized the billing of a failed Alignment simply because that would have reflected poorly on every other AAA Car Care Center across America. This speaks to the two distinct advantages Big Businesses have over Mom-and-Pops: Consistency and Standardization.

For all the perceived Biases working against using AAA Car Care Centers (described below), a major advantage is that I can walk into a AAA Car Care Center in Des Moines, Iowa or Atlanta, Georgia and expect a similar standard of quality. Even if the prices fluctuate somewhat, a consumer can purchase confidently knowing that at least their vehicle will be repaired properly, lest the shop in question tarnish AAA’s sterling reputation.

Personal Biases

I am not biased against AAA, as I am actually a AAA Platinum member. Every year, I gladly pay the $60 membership fee, as I have had more automotive breakdowns in recent memory than I want to recount.

Having said that, AAA is among the last places I would have previously considered for Auto Repair. While this bias may be somewhat unique to me, my view as a someone with a strong understanding of Brand Building and Marketing is that AAA is a stale brand. Concepts such as “Consistency” and “Dependability” are not sexy sells, especially when the sticker prices for work at your average AAA Car Care Center are higher than those at your average small shop.

When asked to compare AAA to another Brand, after a moment of consideration, the first Brand that came to mind was Sears. Here is the comparison: both AAA and Sears are so established as Brands that they have lost a lot of their luster. AAA, like Sears, is your father or possibly your grandfather’s go-to place for Parts and Service. They have been around so long that both brands have become “quaint” to a certain degree. And while both Brands are synonymous with “Quality”, neither are typically associated with rock-bottom pricing.

I believe the general impression is that while the quality is high, the prices of both Brands are somewhat inflated compared to small shops (some of which can cut corners due to lack of Standardization) without seemingly offering the exclusivity of a Dealership shop. My view as a Marketer is that both AAA and Sears are trying to recreate their niche, as both have lost footing to cheaper alternatives in recent years.

I also have to recount that I had a relatively-expensive experience getting my CR-V repaired when the wheel came off back in 2012. “Wheel flying off car, extensive Rotor damage” is not an easy order to price-compare, but the final bill – which again totaled $843 – kept AAA Car Care off my radar for several years. I take full responsibility for that bias, as the total likely would have been similar regardless of which shop provided the repair. But still, that number…ouch.

Final Thoughts

As I sit here writing this in early September 2014, I have to wonder exactly how much money I have cost myself in-sum by deferring to a cheaper alternative in Performance Auto. I will save much of that line of thought for my Review on Performance Auto, but this is the lesson:

My preconceived notions about AAA prevented me from utilizing them sooner. Had I done my homework and given them the opportunity to win my business earlier, I may have saved myself a good deal of time and money. I certainly couldn’t have spent more using AAA, as my receipts from Performance Auto read like a Greek tragedy.

The truth is that Mike Coyle worked tirelessly to complete the work needed on my car while whittling the total cost down to a number that I deemed acceptable. While my main problem with using AAA had always been their pricing, I sincerely doubt I could have gotten as much Value at a similar cost. In short, Mike Coyle gave me everything I asked for. The car drives much better, and I have nothing to complain about whatsoever.

If AAA Car Care on Oleander can make a satisfied customer out of me, they should have no problem meeting the needs of a less-demanding consumer. In short, AAA Car Care on Oleander Drive comes Highly Recommended.

My advice to you is to strongly consider using AAA Car Care on Oleander Drive, and to do so without any preconceived notions. You may be pleasantly surprised at how low the final bill dovetails with the quality of work.

Jack

Jack Reviews: X-Men Days of Future Past

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I’m writing under the assumption that you are interested in seeing X-Men Days of Future Past and have an idea of what’s going on, since it’s a novel Sequel/Prequel/Spin-Off concept. I will write without giving away too many spoilers, but I will indicate if a spoiler looms at the onset of a given paragraph.

I took in the Thursday night early premiere of X-Men Days of Future Past with Mike and Kacey, neither of whom are huge fans of the source material. It’s useful to go with people who aren’t big fans, because it allows you measure how well the story is relayed to someone experiencing it for the first time. It also lets you know which plot devices are confusing or poorly-explained.

In contrast to my pals, I am a lifelong X-Men fanatic, and have been mostly-disgusted with the films to date. I thought the franchise finally got it right with 2013’s The Wolverine, which I fully credit to the fanatical dedication of actor Hugh Jackman to both the character and the source material, but on the whole the films having ranged from “brutal” to “dumpster fire”, in my humble opinion.

Regarding the prior X-Men films, I’m in that situation as a fan where you try to like the films because you love the characters, lying to yourself about the quality of the movies and unable to form an unbiased opinion. Most of the films, especially 1998’s X-Men and 2008’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine hold up about as well as tissue paper in a rainstorm, but thankfully DOFP doubles as a soft reboot to the franchise, which I will get into below.

The setup is Crazy Time Travel Plot Device, which made my friend Kacey’s head spin. I knew what was going on, but as someone who has only seen the films and not read the comics, Kacey couldn’t figure out if the opening sequence was happening in the far future or an alternate present or what. It was apocalyptic and dark and ominous, but somewhat VAGUE as to the approximate time-frame. I can absolutely see where this would be confusing to a non-fan.

But non-fans are not going to come out in droves to see this film, or maybe they are. Regardless, the film should be a box-office smash because the nerds are going to pay to see this thing multiple times. Bold point: It lacks some of the finish and the mainstream appeal of the Avengers franchise films, but with DOFP, Bryan Singer has made an outstanding period-piece film.

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Most of the film takes place in 1973, and this is where both Singer and the franchise finally get it right. The biggest problem restricting the X-Men franchise, other than the absurd stories used in X-Men I and III and especially Origins, is the ridiculous miscasting and awful characterization. The franchise’s strengths on-screen are in Jackman (who is insanely committed to the Wolverine character) and in the X-Men: First Class cast, most notably the off-and-on bromance between James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto.

Singer wisely puts McAvoy and Fassbender (and Jackman) on screen the majority of the time. Their use takes the film away from awkward, geeky sci-fi fest into something the mainstream audience can enjoy. Firmly setting the film as a 1973 period-piece, complete with Richard Nixon as President and the conclusion of the Vietnam War, solidifies the absent core that plagued most of the prior X-Men films. Like The Wolverine, DOFP is actually a high-quality movie, rather than just a nonsensical, soulless blockbuster. DOFP is basically the opposite of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, in that the substance greatly outweighs the style.

Not that DOFP lacks style. I thought numerous times while watching the film how much more credibility and depth Fassbender gives to the Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto character. Rather than just making him a genetic elitist and genocidal maniac (which is played up in the prior films), Fassbender makes Magneto extremely charismatic and likable. He continues the portrayal he started in First Class, playing Magneto as more of a slick James Bond-type than recycling the tired evil-villain concept.

Most of the performances are outstanding, again in a tasteful and understated way, rather than, “ME AM MAGNETO, ME AM EVIL”. Jennifer Lawrence is great as Mystique/Raven. Nicholas Hoult is perfect as young Hank McCoy/Beast. As I’ve stated a number of times, Jackman is beyond committed to the Wolverine character. Props to Singer for putting these people on screen most of the time, even though it might have been more attention-grabbing to have the Sentinel robots in repeated battles with the X-Men in the apocalyptic future.

Much credit to the writers for modernizing and layering a two-issue X-Men story from the early-1980s. For example, the X-Men decide to send Wolverine/Logan back to 1973, rather than Kitty Pryde (as in the comics) because A) Jackman is the star of the franchise, but also B) because Wolverine regenerates and could potentially withstand something as catastrophic as time travel. It’s a tweak that makes a ton of sense on all levels.

Similarly, they use Mystique in a central plot device, to A) highlight mega-star Lawrence but do so in a way that B) explains why the Sentinels – giant robots that the X-Men ordinarily have no problems smashing to pieces – managed to subdue not only Mutantkind but also humanity. The film makes the Sentinels menacing for the first time ever, while paying homage to the source material.

Ok, that was a sufficient tongue-job in praise of the film. Now time for nit-picking (Warning: Foul/Insensitive Language because this part gets me worked up. It’s 15 years’ worth of pent-up aggression over how bad some of these movies suck):

Since we are now spoiled by the unbelievable quality of the Avengers franchise films, the retarded casting and characterization of the foundation X-Men films really looks bad here, especially compared to the First Class casting of Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Hoult, etc.

See, in 1998, before we established what a good Comic Book Movie was supposed to be, roles were cast based on looks alone with almost zero thought to how a given actor would fit the character. Here comes a franchise-long tirade on how bad the prior movies were miscast:

Storm: Halle Berry is a prominent actress, and you can talk yourself into thinking she would be good as Ororo Monroe, but Storm is a freaking African Goddess. She’s a strong-willed leader with a surprising mean streak, but in the films Halle Berry (on orders) plays her like a Gap ad. She looks and sounds like she just walked out of a suburban Starbucks. The problem is so bad that they barely let her speak in DOFP.

Cyclops: Don’t get me fucking started. James Marsden, the ultimate beta male, plays Cyclops like a complete twat. He basically consents to Wolverine fucking his wife, then blogs about it on MySpace or whatever the fuck while crying ruby-red tears. He’s the central character in the X-Men comics, a concept the comics themselves have mercifully corrected. He just got done kicking the Avengers’ collective asses, actually. However, he’s such an afterthought in the film franchise that he gets killed in the first 10 minutes of X-Men III with zero fucks given. People are happy to see him die in the films because he’s such a malcontent pussy.

Here is Cyclops as he should be, beating Captain Freaking America’s ass:

cyclops2Here’s Cyclops having just given Emma Frost 10 orgasms, yet too preoccupied with being Awesome to look at her:

Emma_Frost_and_Cyclops_bed

Here he is beating on Wolverine:

cyclopswolverine

But here is how the movies want to present Cyclops:

sadclops

You think I’m done? I’m not done.

It’s not a rivalry if Wolverine is constantly tooling Cyclops and banging his wife. I like Wolverine plenty, and I understand that Jackman is the franchise and rightfully so. But Cyclops is the X-Men. A main reason why these movies have sucked so awful up to point is that Cyclops is written and played as this emo douchebag, which I pray will be corrected when the franchise is fully reboot. But I digress.

This is one of my favorite comics of all-time, Classic X-Men #44:

classicxmen44It’s a recap of Cyclops burying his dead wife, banging random chicks, punching Wolverine in the dick, and telling Professor X to blow him before gunning off on his motorcycle to go grief-bang the Pacific RimThat is how Cyclops is supposed to be depicted, not bringing Logan extra lube and massage oil to use on his cheating fire-crotch wife.

I’m done with Cyclops. Moving on.

Beast: Hey, it’s Frasier! Fuck off and die.

kelsey_grammar

Thankfully, Nicholas Hoult does a great job in the role, but the ass-jockey that cast a man named Kelsey as Beast needs to be drawn-and-quartered.

Magneto: he’s a fine actor, by why the fuck did you cast 8,000-year old Ian McKellan to be Magneto? He doesn’t look like a very-imposing Master of Magnetism when his jowels are quivering in anticipation of the early-bird special. There is nothing enjoyable about beating up on Grandpa.

Jean Grey: Famke Janssen was too old for the role when she was cast in 1998. Of course a woman in her mid-30s would rather bang Logan than her inept 23-year old boy toy. But again, Janssen was cast in 1998, when the logical process was apparently, “dude, the Russian chick from Goldeneye would look hot as a redhead.” The lack of forethought is obnoxious.

Also, having Janssen, who plays a terrific cheating, manipulative skank in most of her roles, cast as the puritanical Jean Grey was a major swing-and-miss. Too late now though, as the 48-year old Janssen will be playing Jean Grey in the next X-Men film, presumably next to the 109-year old Ian McKellan. Normally, I would be fully behind the concept of Jean Grey: Insatiable Cougar, but it looks and plays ridiculous within the the context of the character.

X-Men III: I am lumping all of the casting of X-Men III into one category, because it was all just rotten. I like Vinnie Jones, but the thought process apparently was “WOW! A limey accent! Let’s make him Juggernaut!” I’ve blocked most of the movie out of my memory, but the fact it caused me PTSD says most of what you need to know about the casting/plot.

Gambit: LOOK! Shiny!

Sabretooth: Replacing whatever was going on in the first film with Hugh Jackman’s secret lover Liev Schrieber was not progress. He’s like a big cat, you see! So he growls and hisses, you see! And has the fingernails of a bag lady!

Deadpool: is Awesome, and Ryan Reynolds gets it, so why was Origins the biggest disappointment that’s ever happened outside of your bedroom? They gave the Merc with the Mouth NO FUCKING MOUTH. Thankfully, they are going to act like none of the prior films, especially Origins, ever happened.

Will.i.am: was in an X-Men movie, as some kind of gay Country-Western bouncer. I want to scream.

I could go on, but the obvious point is that the first four or five movies in this franchise sucked something terrible. DOFP does the world a great, great service by soft-rebooting the franchise, so we can live in a world without Singer’s errant S&M leather exo-suit experience as well as whatever the fuck was going on in the non-Singer films.

Luckily, the franchise got the casting right in First Class (aside from vapid wench Betty Draper Francis as Emma Frost), and the producers wisely toned down the S&M uniforms in lieu of something a non-sexual deviant would wear in public.  This trend further improved in DOFP, as all of the decor and outfits were very time-appropriate without cutting into the plot.

The next issue is the continuity. Havok (Alex Summers) and Toad were in Vietnam? What the fuckity fuck. And didn’t Wolverine fight in Vietnam? Why does William Stryker keeps radically changing ages and appearances? What year did Wolverine get his Adamantium, 2009? Why are there two fucking Toads? Why does Jean Grey’s face look like a withered baseball glove? GOD I HATE THESE FUCKING MOVIES.

My buddy Kacey was tripping balls trying to logically-integrate the prior movies, and I don’t blame him. This is not a criticism of DOFP, which goes to lengths to try to corral the nonsense logical inconsistency of the prior films, but a main reason the X-Men franchise lost steam was that things normal people notice – like dates, times, and ages of the participating characters – were all over the fucking place. It’s like they let a five-year old storyboard Origins on a piece of yellow construction paper.

In a practice that hit it’s nadir in Origins, the producers just threw a bunch of CGI at the screen and expected to hit a $100-million domestic box while insulting the audience’s intelligence. This practice was so obnoxious that is greatly damaged the gate receipts for The Wolverine, which in my view tied DOFP for strongest film in the franchise.

Anyway, know that going forward that the X-Men movies will be story-driven, which makes sense because the films have 60 years of excellent material to draw from.

(This concludes the disproportionate-outrage portion of the review.)

Thankfully, Singer fixes most of the aforementioned problems by effectively ret-conning all of the previous films. You see, because the X-Men changed the timeline, it’s like X-Men 1, 2, 3, and Origins never happened. This would be wonderful news, except that Singer brought back the entire principal cast from the prior films in a series of one-line cameos that peppered the film.

In that respect, DOFP ties a nice bow on the franchise while setting up a partial relaunch. (SPOILER!) Because the events of DOFP essentially cancelled-out all of the terrible decisions that were made in the prior films, Singer and friends have a brand-new playpen from which to create some strong X-Men films. Since The Avengers franchise (as well as the Chris Nolan Batman franchise) reset the bar for acceptable Comic Book Movies, the next wave of X-Men films will likely feature both considerate casting and strong storytelling. (END SPOILER).

So, in closing, pay the $12 to see DOFP? Obviously.

It’s a really strong film that will likely get better upon repeated viewings. Unlike a film like Origins, i.e. a cringe-inducing atrocity that you want to pretend never happened, DOFP is the kind of film that you will always stop to re-watch when it’s on HBO or TBS or whatever. Rather than beat us over the head with CGI and too many character, Days of Future Past focuses on telling a unique story, which will ultimately make the film hold up better over time.

Again, the worst thing you can do is compare DOFP to a Marvel film like Avengers or the recent Captain America 2. Those films were well-ahead before the race started. What DOFP does is wash the stink off of a nearly-ruined franchise, and it does so in a very measured, tasteful fashion. Go see it.

Jack

 

Jack’s Final Rant on the 2014 Pittsburgh Penguins

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This is a rant. It’s not going to be meticulously-edited, and it’s going to be light on the links and the pics.

(Update: I wrote this thing Jerry Maquire’s memo-style, in one sitting until the wee hours of the morning, practically frothing at the mouth. I went back today at lunch and noticed I left entire paragraphs incomplete. So, I filled those in. Thanks.)

You already know what happened, or you wouldn’t be reading this. The way things unfolded wasn’t quite my nightmare scenario, but it was in the Top 5. Losing three straight to get bounced in the Eastern Semifinals – including two at Consol Energy Center – and scoring a total of three goals in the process is about as much of an organizational backslide as one could imagine, given the sky-high standards now set by Penguins’ fans and ownership.

I want to say my final piece before Mario or David Morehouse get in front of a microphone in the coming days and announce one or more firings. If you want to skip to the ending, it’s this:

This thing needs to be burnt to the foundation. “End of an Era”. The core – and by that, I really only mean Sid and Geno – needs to be rebuilt around entirely. The contributions of every player need to be mirco-analyzed, and weighed against the contributions other Stanley Cup Contenders are getting from their supporting casts.

I’ll get to the players in a minute. But I’ll start with a few comments on Disco and Showtime.

On Dan “Disco” Bylsma

Trolls like to point out that the Penguins are only a Regular Season team, but give Dan Bylsma a ton of credit for becoming the Franchise Wins leader. Morons and Yinzers (basically interchangeable) are seemingly eager to dance on Disco’s grave, they conveniently forget that Dan Bylsma has won a lot - a lot – of games as Head Coach of the Penguins.

People sometimes ask me what I think about Dan Bylsma. Here is a typical reply:

“In my view, Dan gets a 10 for managing player’s personalities. He’s immensely likable. He’s well-spoken, and constantly shows great poise in the public eye. That’s huge. However, like a lot of other people, his adjustments – or lack thereof – confuse me. He steadfastly believes in his system, which is admirable, but he often continues to run both his stretch-pass/tip breakout and his aggressive forecheck against Trapping or defensive-minded teams to negative results. And while it’s understandable given his background, he practically dotes upon low-talent fringe players, sometimes at the expense of both common sense and attention that needs to be given to his stars.”

Many forget that Bylsma had minimal head-coaching experience when he inherited the Penguins from Michel Therrien in Spring 2009. Disco is outstanding with people and the textbook definition of a Player’s Coach, but he still has a lot to learn about tactical coaching at the NHL level. He has certainly proven that his system can be highly-successful, but I will be very interested to see how he looks with a few more years of experience.

More recently, some people have asked me about Disco’s potential firing. A typical recent response:

“For 2014, he got a hell of a lot out of a highly-flawed roster. He’s going to take the fall, but he gave his all trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”

There are only so many ways you can mix up the lines when you have an AHL bottom-six at Forward and a patchwork defense every night. Disco did an amazing job ringing as many Wins as he did from the 2014 Penguins, who lost more Man Games to injury than any other team. The assembled media is practically ready to canonize Mike Babcock for his efforts in Detroit this season, but Disco won more games with less NHL talent. How quickly we forget.

Disco needs to go. It’s time. It’s not because he suddenly became a bad NHL coach – in fact, in my view he’s easily one of the best five or ten – but it’s simply time for a culture change. In this case, Good has become the enemy of Great, and Disco’s continued reliance on what has brought the team prior success is retarding the team’s growth. The field – particularly the Bostons and LAs and Chicagos – has passed the Penguins. A fresh approach is needed.

If the Pens do fire Disco, he will take his pinch like a man. He will sit with poise at the microphone and say all of the right things. He will answer questions thoughtfully, as he always has. He will take the fall for being unable to work miracles with a top-heavy – and frankly, mediocre – NHL team. It will be a shame, but he will be out of work for about 12 minutes. He will land a plum job with Washington or Vancouver or maybe San Jose.

That’s not to say Disco won’t be missed. He will, greatly. But this is where Disco and the Pens part ways.

On Ray “Showtime” Shero

RaySheroMic

I have repeatedly written that Ray Shero is my Religion. My emotions cloud my judgement concerning him.

I honestly don’t know if Showtime could have done better with the 2014 roster. The lowered Salary Cap certainly handcuffed a lot of other NHL Managers. But it was infuriating the watch the grossly-overmatched Penguins slog through the post-Olympic break before sputtering out against the Rangers. Again speaking frankly, Columbus probably should have beaten Pittsburgh in the first round.

Disco is going to take the fall for the 2014 team, but my view is that he got every ounce of production that he could have from a team that looked much better on paper than in-actuality.

I love most of Showtime’s moves on paper, especially in recent years. Bring back Alex Kovalev? Snag James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Go Go? Bring in Jarome Freaking Iginla for fifty-cents and a can of Coke?

I remember calling my friend Mac like a giddy schoolgirl when I heard we reacquired Alex Kovalev. Showtime righted a ten-year old wrong by bringing Kovy back the Penguins, even if Kovy never got to play with Sid or Geno. Showtime made the type of roster moves in real life that I would make on my Sega Genesis. My affection for him become blind and canine.

I was not a huge fan of Showtime at first. I was pretty vocal about my displeasure over his drafting of Jordan Staal ahead of a winger for Sid (at the time, I wanted American Phil Kessel). His early personnel moves were so un-Penguins – bringing in grit and muscle like Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts, Chris Thorburn, Matt Cooke, and so on – that they were off-putting. The Marian Hossa-Pascal Dupuis trade was so jarring that I didn’t even know how to feel about it.

But the team was trending in the right direction. Maybe Showtime knew better than I did, bringing in hustlers and in some cases scumbags instead of skilled-but-soft guys. After a while, I just said, “Fuck it. In Ray Shero I trust.”

Today, I am here to take a cold, sobering look at his roster decisions and drafting. Based on results, is he really the genius I’ve thought him to be? Or have I lost my religion?

Let’s say you inherit a team with Sid Crosby, Geno Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury. You just picked Jordan Staal with the #2 Selection in the 2006 NHL Draft. You inherited hard-nosed defensive coach Michel Therrien. How are you going to fill out the roster? How are you going to reconstruct this organization?

I am a disciple of Mario Lemieux. To build a successful Mario Lemieux team, here is the formula:

1) Have the Best Two Players in the World, and ideally at least two or three other all-world players like Ron Francis or Alex Kovalev

2) Add in no less than two or three potential offensive dynamos, such as Mark Recchi, Marty Straka, or Brian Smolinski, at Forward. You should basically roll three Scoring Lines and a fourth line that plays about six minutes per game.

3) Have at least one big hitter and fan-favorite (such as Ulf Samuelsson, Matt Barnaby, Darius Kasparitis, Bob Boughner, etc). Showtime inherited Brooks Orpik, who would seemingly fill the role once he reached maturity.

4) Have a big offensive catalyst on your defense. Prior examples include Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy, Sergei Zubov, Big Dick Tarnstrom, etc. Again, Showtime inherited Sergei Gonchar, who was signed to be this player. Kris Letang was groomed and eventually re-signed to his mega-deal to ostensibly fill the role.

5) Have a knuckle-dragger, but make sure he can take a regular shift with your superstar center. Mario seemed to somewhat enjoy skating with the likes of Dennis Bonvie, Steve McKenna, Frankie Leroux, Krystoff Oliwa, and so forth.

6) Make sure your Coach is a completely-replaceable organizational guy (Rick Kehoe, Eddie Olcyzk) and if needed bring in Eddie Johnston for 40 games to “get things back to normal” if your Coach gets too far off the rails with a defense-first system ala Kevin Constantine.

7) Make sure your goaltender understands that the team is an “Offensive Carnival”, and that minimal attention will be paid to defense. Make sure your goalie also understands he will be expected to see and stop 35-40 high-quality shots from the other team, and that shot-blocking is something maybe one or two guys on the team knows how to do.

8) Assume each and every one of your forward prospects, or anyone with a hint of offensive upside, is a burgeoning 30-goal scorer. Tomas Surovy, Shane Endicott, Rico Fata, Randy Robitaille, Toby Petersen, Jan Hrdina, Marcus Freaking Naslund…I could go on.

Pardon the aside, but that was the 20-year old formula when Showtime arrived in Pittsburgh, ostensibly to clean up Craig Patrick’s ineptitude.

Rather than continue with this approach, Showtime brought a hard-hat mentality to the Penguins, retaining “Iron” Mike Therrien and surrounding his jewel #1/#2 Overall Picks with low-salary muckers. Showtime did not want Sid, Geno, etc. to grow up to be the snotty rich kids from the down the street, and tried to circumvent entitlement by surrounding his superstars with blue-collars players.

Showtime also showed a marvelous deal of restraint, refusing to spend big on Free Agents and capping deals for new players at two years in the interest of maintaining flexibility. The bigger-ticket players he eventually did bring in to solidify the core – Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, even Marian Hossa – were much grittier than those that Craig Patrick may have sought out.

Again, I was slow to buy into this new approach – after all, why the hell would you make Sid Crosby play with something called Nils Ekman or Andy Hilbert – but again, the team was trending in a positive direction. Showtime’s build peaked with the 2009 Stanley Cup, and has been on a slow-but-steady decline ever since.

This article is so damning that I included it twice in this post:

http://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=6761

Most will agree that Showtime inherited a pretty enviable core group, and that his primary responsibility on a year-to-year basis is to competitively fill out the remainder of the roster. The reason I linked the article above is that the evidence is statistical: the 2014 Penguins’ bottom-six forwards were so collectively-terrible that a tremendous strain was placed on Sid, Geno, and Flower, the three guys who always receive the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.

The longstanding tack has been, “We’re paying Crosby and Malkin and Fleury the big bucks, they can do the heavy lifting.” Rather than maximizing the value of these respective assets – you know, by acquiring elite wingers for Sid and Geno and playing strong team defense around Flower – the approach for most of Showtime’s tenure has been to surround these world-class players with replacement-level players. 2013 was a notable exception, but the 2014 team came by their playoff flame-out honestly. When guys like Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc are a massive upgrade, you know something has gone horribly wrong.

It’s possible that Showtime’s approach to team building, at least while constrained by the gigantic Cap Salaries of Sid and Geno, has handcuffed the team in a similar fashion as Disco’s approach to systems play.

As with Disco, it’s time for a new direction, one that isn’t constrained by past successes. Showtime, like Disco, did not become an idiot overnight, but after four years of underwhelming playoff performances (2011 doesn’t count), it’s fair to question if a different approach might convert more of the Penguins’ potential into post-season results.

I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I would like to see Showtime shown the door along with Disco. Showtime signed off on the crap 2014 roster, has failed to draft a respectable amount of complimentary players, has recently handed out a few very-troubling contracts, and was unable to reload the team at this year’s deadline despite knowing how thin the forward corps was (notwithstanding the Ryan Kesler situation, which could have changed everything).

Is this an overreaction? Very possibly. I’m way too close to the situation to be objective. But forcing myself to look at just the rough data – the general direction the team is trending in, the general draft record, the roster going forward, the way the team looked slow against Columbus and the pitiful performance against New York in Games 5-7 – I have to logically conclude that someone else deserves a turn at the wheel.

If Ray Shero were to become available, like Disco he would be unemployed for all of 36 minutes, and his place in the revitalization of the franchise will forever be secure. But the evidence seems to indicate that his decisions are restricting the team’s growth.

There is are huge disclaimers to everything I’ve just written. The Penguins lost 500+ man-games to injury in 2014. The loss of Pascal Dupuis for the season was cataclysmic. The addition of Ryan Kesler at the trade deadline likely would have gotten the Penguins into the Conference Finals, and thus spared all of you this article and saved both Disco and Showtime. The team played a huge chunk of the season with Matty Niskanen and the Seven Dwarves on Defense. Showtime certainly tried the “All-Star Team” approach in 2013, and shouldn’t automatically be crucified for staying the course in 2014.

But if a disheartening loss in the Eastern Semifinal is going to cost Disco his job, it should cost Showtime his, as well.

I have no idea who will run the team if Showtime is canned, especially with the 2014 Draft right around the corner. But keeping him at this point is endorsing the flawed, good-but-not-great culture in the same way keeping Disco would be.

On Sid and Geno

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They are the franchise. Deal with it.

A troubling report came out from the Tribune-Review in which Sid and Geno apparently stated how unhappy they were with Disco. If it’s true, than Disco goes.

Since Showtime arrived in 2006, the tack the team has taken has been to make things as difficult as possible for their two superstars, Sid especially. Instead of drafting a winger for Sid, let’s draft another defenseman or another center. Let’s trade Sid’s buddy Colby Armstrong. Let’s play a defense-first system. Let’s give Sid linemates like Jani Rita and Andy Hilbert and past-his-prime Miro Satan and Nils Freaking Ekman. Let’s make Sid take half of our defensive-zone draws.

This article by Serbian Reactionary Dejan Kovacevic brought me around to my former way of thinking: why are the Pens doing anything to limit their superstars’ chances of success?

The Penguins have the League’s top-two offensive generators. I realize goal-scorers don’t come cheap, but there have to - have to be – players available who can better support and utilize Sid and Geno’s gifts, just like there have to forwards available who can do the digging and the hitting necessary to make room for them. The fact Sid had to take so many defensive-zone draws, just because there wasn’t a viable alternative, was a disgusting misuse of the 2014 scoring champ.

On Sid specifically:

Yeah, Sid had a shitty playoff. He will swear to the grave that he was healthy, but I continue to suspect otherwise. Putting that line of thought aside, as Kovacevic suggested: why the fuck were the likes of Brandon Dubinsky, Dominic Moore, and Marc Staal allowed to carve Sid into shreds with no repercussions? Why didn’t someone like the continually-useless Tanner Glass just maul Dubinsky or Moore? Why did no one make a better effort to protect not only the team’s captain, but also the League’s scoring leader and consensus best player?

I understand that “elite players need to fight through checking”, but it was comically-easy for both the Jackets and the Rangers to hound Sid because A) there was no reasonable offensive threat on his line to account for, until Geno moved up to play with him, and B) there was no reasonable offensive threat on the lower lines that could thin the checking, and C) no one on the Penguins was interested in making Dubinsky, Moore, et al. pay for their actions.

I fully expect Sid to bounce back. These whispers about his decline – at the old age of 26 – are preposterous. Maybe the combination of the Olympic schedule, the weight of his country’s expectations, a nagging soft-tissue injury that robbed him of his explosiveness, and the constant ball-punching from the Dubinsky/Staal demographic combined to limit him in the second half of the season. But he’s not even close to being washed up.

On Geno:

He’s a Beast. Getting him two linemates who potentate him, rather than the other way around, would likely lead to a 150-point season.

On their new status quo:

Until this year, Sid and Geno were always cordial, but never overtly buddy-buddy. The perception seems to be that they bonded after Sid helped pull Geno out of his post-Olympic funk. All of the sudden, Geno wanted to play on Sid’s wing, perhaps to pick up his struggling friend, perhaps because got tired of James Neal coasting and taking stupid offensive-zone penalties.

Anyway, the two seem united going forward. The Penguins can take solace in that their two superstars are both under contact (forever), seemingly on the same page, and not resentful of each other as some pundits would have you believe.

For the next stage of their careers, I would like to see a management team in place that recognizes how fortunate the franchise is to have these two generational players, rather than complaining about petty nonsense like Cap Math or line-juggling. Those are called Quality Problems. 29 NHL Teams are insanely jealous of the Penguins’ perpetual “dilemma”, which is how to maximize the contributions of Sid and Geno.

On Flower

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Flower is plenty good enough to win with. In my view, his resolve in the 2014 Playoffs proved that the 2012 and 2013 Playoffs were aberrations, or at least struggles that he’s seemingly put behind him.

Even his most staunch detractors would have a hard time blaming him for the 2014 Playoffs. He kept the Penguins competitive throughout their brief run, and was arguably the most-composed player for the Penguins in their 1st Round Series versus Columbus. I can easily argue that the Penguins don’t escape the First Round without Flower’s play in net.

We all know the book on Flower. He’s going to let in a terrible goal from time-to-time, but he also makes a plethora of circus-saves because the team in front of him has a very tentative, or at least inconsistent, commitment to defense. He might have a pile of personal NHL awards if he played for team that insulated him better.

As far as stay or go, my view is that Flower has earned the right to play out the final year of his deal, and to stay through the probable regime change. I think we are seeing the beginning of a more-mature, settled Marc-Andre Fleury, and a goaltender who can carry a rebuilt team to additional Stanley Cups. Whether he stays beyond 2015, or gets swept away with as a remnant of the Disco/Showtime culture, will be up to future governors of the franchise to decide.

Quickly, through the rest of the roster:

Chris Kunitz/Pascal Dupuis: should be thoroughly evaluated. Are these really the best two wingers we can find for the Best Player in the World? Sid does a lot more for them than they do for him. It would be nice to see Sid playing with someone who can make him better in bursts, rather than the other way around all the time.

James Neal: needs to be shopped. Not necessarily dealt, but put on notice. The bullshit – the retarded penalties, the lack of discipline, the dangerous hits, the lapses of apathy – need to come to a screeching halt. If the new regime wants to move him out to create some flexibility, or deal him straight-up to Vancouver for Ryan Kesler, that’s fine too.

Brandon Sutter: has established himself as a worthwhile player to build with. Remember all the Sutter-for-Kesler talk? I’m thinking trade Neal and keep Sutter. Kesler can play wing, and having all of those Centers available lets Geno slide up to Sid’s line whenever.

Kris Letang: won’t be going anywhere due to both his contract and his health condition. He should be given a chance to round out his game under a new coach.

Paul Martin: should play out the final year of his contract in 2015, as he’s our best defenseman right now and will help other Penguins’ prospects develop.

Brooks Orpik: It’s shameful his Penguins’ career will end the way it does. Some Western Conference team – please not New York or Boston or Philly – will pay him handsomely, way more than the Pens can afford. Thanks for the leadership and the memories.

Jussi Jokinen: deserves to get paid well by someone else. Thanks for a caring and for a great season/playoff.

Matt Niskanen: Same as above, but if you want to come back, please, it would help a ton. You’ve emerged as a leader and in my view are a big difference between a Rebuild versus a Reload. Take a Hometown Discount from Showtime’s replacement and take the other “A”.

Olli Maatta: Another reason to keep Nisky? If only to maintain his stellar pairing with Olli Maatta, who should continue to develop into a two-way rock for the Penguins.

Rob Scuderi: must be bought out. I realize he isn’t eligible for a Compliance Buyout, but the traditional buyout – 2/3 the remaining salary paid out over double the term, or $1.11 million against the Cap for the next six years – remains an option. I like him as a person, but he was getting crushed out there against Columbus and New York. Even on the 3rd pairing, he is impeding future success.

Craig Adams/Tanner Glass: NO. Seriously, happy trails. I’m not Mr. Stats, but you guys got killed all season in Corsi/Fenwick numbers, which confirmed the obvious.

Deryk Engellend: Tough player, but he’s impeding progress. He’s not a top-six defenseman on a Cup Contender.

Joe Vitale/Brian Gibbons: Both should be re-signed by whoever is in-charge because they at least play like they give a fuck. Given that both are veterans minimum-level paychecks, retaining both to fill out the fourth line is a fine idea.

Robert Bortuzzo/Beau Bennett/Simon Despres: need to play somewhere. If not in Pittsburgh, then move them out. They need to be allowed to make the occasional mistake, because not everyone is a 19-year old phenom like Olli Maatta.

Jeff Zatkoff: is a fly-on-the-wall. Backup Goaltender is the least of the organization’s concerns.

The Penguins will be back sooner rather than later, with the dynamic play of Sid and Geno at the forefront. In the coming days, I suspect Ownership – by which I mean Mario and Burkle – will demand to see a higher return on their investment, or at least a better protection of that investment on the behalf of Management. It should be fascinating to see how the team is reinvented, should Ownership part ways with Disco and/or Showtime.

I’m spent. Now comes the waiting.

Jack

Honest Hockey Review: CCM Crazy Light Skates

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(UPDATE: All Hockey-related content is being shifted over to our sister site, Reboot Hockey. There’s a lot of similar content on the Reboot page. If you like Reviews like this, Like Reboot Hockey on Facebook and Follow Reboot Hockey on Twitter. Thanks.)

I had the opportunity to pick up a pair of CCM’s top-of-the-line skates from 2011, the CCM Crazy Light, at an absolute steal of a price. While I was thoroughly disappointed with a lower offering from the same line, the CCM U+10, the allure of a $700 skate at a fraction of that price was too strong to forgo. I gave the Crazy Lights a whirl, and here is what I have to report.

All Honest Hockey scores on the 1-10 scale, with 10 being “Must Buy” and 1 being “Avoid at All Costs”:

(UPDATE: 5/26/14 – I had a critic question my ability to review the CCM Crazy Light skates, so I have added two sections called, “Basis of Comparison” and “Personal Biases”. I think both of these will help add objectivity to the Honest Hockey Reviews going forward.)

Basis of Comparison

I have skated in CCMs since I began playing at age 7. I believe I used a pair of Bauer Supreme 1000s for a season or so when I was around 10 or 12, but for the most part I have always been a CCM guy. My feet are ridiculously-shaped, and traditionally CCM skates have almost always fit better than Bauer skates.

I currently have in my possession the following skates: 2008 CCM U+Pro, 2009 CCM U+Pro Reloaded (with a Bauer Lightspeed 2 Holder/9′ Radius), Reebok 11K Pumps, CCM 1052 Super Tacks, CCM Custom Pro Tacks (Pro Stock), and CCM 852 Tacks. I will put up a pic of all the skates to validate this shortly.

(UPDATE: Here’s a pic of my CCM skates, including the CLs on the bottom right:)

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In recent memory, I have also tried the 2011 CCM U+10, Graf 535 Supras, Graf 709 Texalites, and Easton Mako skates, all of which I re-sold for one reason or another. I wore a pair of 2006 CCM Vector 10.0s until they fell apart. As a kid, I had a number of other Tacks-era CCM skates.

In short,  I am qualified to review the Crazy Light because I have used many skates that are directly comparable within the CCM/RBK family. Because I have purchased a CCM boot every 1-2 years on average for the past 20 years, I believe I am well-suited to note changes in the Crazy Light from prior models. As written above, I currently skate on two skates directly comparable to the Crazy Light in the U+Pro Reloaded and the RBK 11K Pump.

Looks

The Crazy Light is a gorgeous skate. I picked up a pair of the original silver/black skates with the red accents, and I was wowed by how sharp they look. In fact, I may have somewhat fallen into the trap of overlooking fundamental flaws in the skates because of how good-looking they are.

CCM has generally made a more meat-and-potatoes line of skates, based more on substance than style. However, the Crazy Light was a strong step toward revitalizing their brand from an aesthetic perspective. The Crazy Light compares very favorably looks-wise to other 2011/2012 offerings.

HH Rating: 8.5

Fit

The Crazy Light features CCM’s patented U+ Foam, which they included in their U+ models from 2008-2012. This technology is fantastic for people such as myself who have misshapen feet, as it provides instant customization in most cases. The skates are meant to be baked and re-baked until the proper fit is achieved.

One of the best things I can say about the CL is that the U+Foam used in the skates is a marked upgrade from that found in the U+10 boot. I have not seen a U+12 to compare the bridge between the two, but the foam in the CL boot is professional grade. You can take it as a positive that CCM includes such great materials in their top-end boot, or take it as a negative that there is such a marked drop-off to their mid-level boot, but Crazy Light buyers have nothing to be disappointed about.

Having said that, this is an extremely-stiff boot. That’s a positive or a negative depending on your personal preferences, but I found the Crazy Lights to be oppressively-stiff along the Eyelet Row. This prevented me from skating in my natural mechanics, which are pitched aggressively-forward.

Even after hours and hours on the ice, I was not achieving the uptick in performance that I had been hoping for. As with the U+10s I had purchased the previous year, the Crazy Light hindered my performance by greatly restricting my ankle mobility. While they felt fantastic as I laced them up in the locker room, I was not achieving the desired carryover onto the ice. I tried 6 or 8 different lacing styles, and none of them really allowed me to skate to my potential.

Along the outsole (the bottom of the boot), the fit could not be better. The U-Foam in the Crazy Light – called “U+Grip Rebranded” – could not have conformed to my foot better. The U-Foam in the Crazy Light may have conformed even better than the U-Foam in the 2008/2009 U+Pro models, which is really saying something.

However, I prefer the customization of the Reebok Pump on my 11K skates. The 11Ks give me tremendous support around the achilles as well as superb Heel Lock. As a direct comparable, my view is that the fit of the 11K is better than that of the Crazy Light, though the Crazy Light certainly fits very well along the outsole.

My main criticism – and this is a criticism of modern skates themselves, rather than the Crazy Light in particular – was getting an appropriate fit along the top of the boot and the ankle. Due to the nature of the composite materials themselves, I could not achieve acceptable “Foot Wrap” in the Crazy Lights.

CCM completely rebuilt their skates for the 2013 RBZ line, and presumably will do the same for their 2014 Tacks re-release.

HH Rating: 7.0

Durability

Again, I was most struck by the quality of the Crazy Light compared to it’s sister skate the U+10.

I looked, but I don’t have any pics remaining of the U+10s. You will have to take me at my word: I used a pair of CCM U+10s for no more than four or five months, and they looked like they had been used for four or five years under an NHL schedule. The U+10s were so misshapen and warped from routine use after half a year that I eagerly re-sold them for $50 on eBay.

While I did not have a picture of the U+10s, I did have a picture of the Graf 709s I eventually purchased to replace them. Here is a pic of what my foot did to the 709s after two months of routine use:

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Notice the huge crease my ankle bones put into the skates at the 3rd/4th/5th eyelet. I did something similar to the CCM U+10, the Graf 535, and a number of other comparable skates. The never-ending battle for me, since the introduction of modern composite skates, has been to find a skate pliable enough allow proper skating mechanics while durable enough to support my 210-lb frame.

I’ll say this about the Crazy Light, which again compares favorably as the top-of-the-line offering from CCM for 2012: while I was not able to skate as fluidly as I can, I certainly didn’t crease them the way I had other mid/high-level skates. The Crazy Lights are meant to withstand someone with an athletic build and a powerful stride.

The rigid materials that somewhat limit forward foot-flexion are, as you would suspect, extremely protective. I feel like the quarter package could withstand a bullet at close range. No one in my local league shoots at NHL caliber, but I think beer-leaguers could block shots in the Crazy Lights without much trepidation.

Ditto for the tongue, which I would not describe as especially soft or forgiving. “Rugged” – like the skin of a crocodile – would be a more apt description. If you are a flopper, i.e. you wear the tongue of your skates outside the shin-guards, note that the tongue of the Crazy Light skate is not particularly lengthy or plush. It’s not uncomfortably by any means, but it’s not cotton-soft, either.

Finally, the Crazy Light skate was considerably less “rickety” than the U+10. Out of the box, with the U+10, the steel felt loose in the holder. It rattled as I walked to the ice. Meanwhile, the CL feels like it could withstand a chainsaw attack. As you would expect from a $700 retail boot, it’s incredibly well-constructed.

HH Rating: 8.5

Performance

With skates, fit and personal preference become the issue. Here is what I will say on behalf of the Crazy Light skate:

1) As the name suggests, it’s hard to envision a lighter set of skates. CCM apparently lowered the weight by 25% for their 2013 RBZ line, but the Crazy Lights feel weightless. That’s going to appeal to a great number of buyers.

2) With the U+Foam, the skate will mold to your foot like few others. “Hot Spots” are easy to work out, and you can achieve tremendous fit around the bottom of the foot. This will undoubtedly improve performance in a great many skaters.

Here’s the deal-maker or deal-breaker:

The CCM Crazy Light is exceptionally-stiff. Depending on your skating style, this can be a boon or a major hindrance.

Like the U+10 and many contemporary skates, the stiffness of the boot along the Eyelet Row (and to a lesser degree the tongue) limits forward flex. Many players, pros especially, combat this by dropping or skipping one or more eyelets. I was never able to achieve desirable forward flex with either the U+10 or the Crazy Light, though again the CL fit 10 times better due to the superior U-Foam.

HH Rating: 7.5

Personal Biases

I apparently have to state that I am not a professional hockey player. Having said that, I played in college and have been playing continuously for since I was seven. I can properly skate in high-end retail skates, assuming a proper fit, since I am frequently mistaken for being a young Bret Hedican.

I am quite biased in favor of CCM/RBK. Despite the bad experience with the U+10, I convinced myself that the Crazy Light was going to work fine for me and that the U+10 was just a defective, low-end boot. Frankly I wanted to Crazy Light to fit identically to my 2008 U+Pros and save me further aggravation, but that simply wasn’t the case.

I did not compare the Crazy Light to a price-similar Bauer skate because I cannot get my foot into one comfortably. I do feel the Reebok 11K is a strong comparable, noting that both are made by the same parent company. The Easton Mako is a one-of-a-kind fit, and does not serve as a great comparable to the Crazy Light because of its uniqueness. I dislike Graf, and the models I tested (535 and 709) were not terribly comparable to the Crazy Light.

Again, the Crazy Light is a massive upgrade on the U+10, but the most glaring problem with the U+10 (the oppressive stiffness of the Eyelet Row, and the inability of the skate to properly flex and wrap my foot) persisted.

My feet are just hideous, and I have major problems finding skates that fit. However, I got 4-5 years each out of both the CCM Vector 10.0 and the original CCM U+Pro. It’s worth nothing that a number of veteran NHL skaters – Joe Thornton, Loui Eriksson, Brad Richards, and Brendan Morrow, to name a few – continued to use the U+Pro after the release of the Crazy Light. My view is that the U+Pro is a stronger overall boot than the Crazy Light.

While the Crazy Light’s U-Foam wrapped the bottom of my foot wonderfully, the top half of the boot would not conform properly around the top half of my foot. If you have more normal or less-damaged feet, you may not experience the problems I do with most skates, but if you are a long-time or more-traditional skater, you may find the Crazy Light to be too much of a “ski boot”.

I skate in an aggressively-forward posture ala American Hero Bret Hedican or Sergei Fedorov. If you skate with a very upright torso and 90-degree angles at both your hip and your knee (like Jordan Staal), the Crazy Light will certainly aid you in maintaining this form. If you skate more like Sergei Fedorov – i.e. with extreme forward-flex – you may find that the Crazy Light is so stiff through the front and tongue that it prevents adequate flex. I had to drop the top two laces to make the Crazy Lights usable.

Final Considerations

If you’re considering a Crazy Light, than you are likely considering a close-out skate from 2012, which at this point would include the Easton Mako (2013) and the Easton EQ50. I’ve never tried an EQ50, but compared to the Mako, my assessment would be that the Crazy Light will provide inferior fit but superior durability and protection.

The Crazy Light is “meant” to be baked and re-baked. I personally think that one or two bakes should be more than sufficient, but again the Crazy Light is also crazy-stiff. If you decide to go with Crazy Lights, know that you’re in for a lengthy break-in period, and adjust your patience accordingly.

The Crazy Light uses CCM’s trademark holder prior to the RBZ line, the E-Pro. The steel comes factory-contoured at 10′. Most people, for whatever reason, prefer the Bauer TUUK holder, which comes factory-contoured at a 9′.

As written above, CCM completely rebuilt their boot for the 2013 RBZ line. Additionally, the 2014 Tacks line is about to be released to the general public. If I were doing the purchase over, I would make sure to at least get my foot into both an RBZ and a 2014 Tacks boot before I made a purchasing decision.

In keeping with this line of thought, the reason CCM has undergone a massive re-branding is that the company has gradually lost more and more market share to industry giant Bauer at the retail level. While the RBZ line was a major positive step for CCM and the Tacks line looks to make a similar leap in sales, the Crazy Light could in some ways be considered a low point in the CCM line.

The Crazy Light could potentially be a steal for you at closeout prices, but with updated offerings available, it’s also possible that the Crazy Light represents a failed concept. Read as many reviews as you can, and try to get into as many price-comparable boots as possible.

HH Overall Rating: 7.5

Jack

In Defense of Sid Crosby I

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I incited a minor Twitter war when I made a comment in response to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/TribLive columist Dejan Kovacevic’s article, “Embarassed? Not Penguins”. I was less-than-thrilled with a few of the opinions Dejan submitted, and I felt something needed to be said in defense of Sid Crosby in-particular.

My view is that the Penguins, like anyone else, are subject to due criticism. But being a huge Penguins’ homer, I view undue criticism of the team, and a few players in particular, very unfavorably.

I have no problem with the majority of the article. The Penguins have played inconsistent and often uninspired hockey for most of the 2014 Playoffs.  But I take issue with Dejan singling-out Sid Crosby, who in my view is playing through a mid-body or soft-tissue injury, for poor performance. I consider it undue criticism to cite a player for underwhelming play when he’s clearly struggling through an injury.

This is the remark I made in response to Mr. Kovacevic’s column:

I think it’s irresponsible for @Dejan_Kovacevic to call out Sid when he is obviously injured

Casual or ignorant fans can easily latch onto the idea that Sid is simply “not trying hard enough”. It’s the classic situation of blaming the best player when a team fails to meet expectations. When a respected columnist such as Dejan suggests that the team’s captain might be giving less than his best, it fuels the wrong kind of fire.

This is the main excerpt from Dejan’s column that tweaks me:

Crosby has to be better, even if he’s playing through some kind of injury. He’s out there getting star minutes. He has to be a star.

That’s very easy to say or write. Play better, dummy. Dejan admits that Sid is injured, but the tone of his article is that Sid, like the rest of the team, has this untapped reservoir that they aren’t reaching due to lack of desire. That may or may not be true in the case of some players, but in my opinion, Sid is giving absolutely everything he has. My view is that lying on the goal line trying to block a Benoit Pouliot wrister ala Doug Glatt is about as much as a player can reasonably be expected to give.

I am not going to pick apart Dejan’s column point-by-point. For the most part, I enjoy his columns and agree with much of his insight. I agree with the overall theme of his most-recent column, which is that the Penguins need to find an emotional charge from somewhere if they hope to advance past the Rangers. But I think it’s poor form when a columnist with Dejan’s access cites Sid’s recent play without throwing up a huge asterisk.

Dejan is right in this regard: for the Penguins to get to where they want to be, Sid has to be better. The 2014 Penguins are not a deep team, and Sid is clearly the engine that makes the team go on-ice. The team and the coach all know this. Rolling out a column that suggests the team’s captain is satisfied with his below-standard play is inappropriate, in my view.

As I wrote on Twitter:

Because a stat line of minus-3, 30% face offs, and 25-second shifts is obviously normal for the Best Player in Hockey

That’s not Sid’s standard. It’s not even close. Believe me, he knows it. The tack that Dejan took in his column – that Sid could simply turn it up a few notches, and that he was opting to give less than his best in the NHL playoffs – offends me because of the disrespectful subtext: that a dignified hockey player such as Sid Crosby would dog it under any circumstances, particularly these.

Almost all hockey players, especially those at the NHL level, do not know how to give less than their absolute best. They routinely play through pain that would cower lesser men. Sid is no exception, but I apparently need to remind some people that Sid ate through a straw for two months last year before returning to play the 2013 Playoffs in the Hannibal Lecter bite-collar:

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Let’s agree based on recent precedent that Sid is willing to play through pain and injury. Is criticizing him in various local media for not playing better while clearly injuredreally the most appropriate stance to take?

It must be incredibly frustrating to be Sid Crosby and to know that you are playing well-below your personal standard during the most-critical part of the season. But it must be doubly-frustrating to have a local writer imply that your mediocre play stems from lack of will.

Can the team play better? Certainly. Can the team give more? Maybe or maybe not, at least not without deviating from the game-plan that Dan Bylsma and his staff have constructed. But Sid is out there giving everything his body will permit. I think in this scenario, praise and support would be much more appropriate than swipes at his integrity as a hockey player.

Maybe I should have a better sense of humor about this, but questioning an NHL player’s commitment at this time of year, particularly Sid’s, is really offensive to me. Sid Crosby is far too classy to dignify any media mischaracterizations, so I’ll take the role I usually take against unwiped Flyers and Bruins’ fans and defend his character.

He’s playing hurt, and he’s refusing to complain about it. That’s extremely noble.

As for getting “Star Minutes”, anyone watching can see that Sid is bailing out early on shifts. As per Eliotte Friedman, Sid’s shift average was down nearly 10 seconds per shift in Game 4 of the Columbus series. He played 19:36 in Game 1 versus the Rangers, and 19:48 in Game 6 against Columbus. Right now his body, for whatever reason, is simply not allowing him to sustain pressure in the Offensive Zone as he has in the past. He’s taking brief swings at the opposition and heading quickly to the bench, because right now, he has to.

Sid’s playing 1st-line minutes, yes, but who would you rather give those minutes to in a must-win environment: Sid Crosby at 50%, or some combination of the Penguins’ bottom-six? Dan Bylsma must have thrown up in his mouth when he saw Brandon Sutter hobble off in Game 6 against Columbus.

He also lacks his trademark explosiveness. He’s practically slogging through the Neutral Zone as he’s receiving outlet passes. Anyone watching can also see this. Again, this screams “back/sciatic injury” to me.  Most impressive to me is that despite the loss of his acceleration, he’s continuing to impact games with his hockey IQ and his passing, which Mike Colligan of the Hockey Writers noted in his article, “What’s Wrong with Sidney Crosby?

My sudden ally Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada also mused that Sid has a back injury of some sort. Based on personal experience, I would have to agree. The only thing worse for a hockey player than localized sharp pain in a limb is when a problem with your back steals your ability to separate from opposing players. If you ever have the chance, ask Mario Lemieux about that.

It’s easy to feel sympathetic for an injured player when the injury is highly visible. We all wince when a player takes a puck off the face, and most of us feel pangs of compassion when we see bags of ice or soft casts on a wrist or knee. But when a player has a less-obvious injury – such as a concussion, or as I believe Sid currently has, a moderate spinal injury or sciatic nerve impingement – some people raise eyebrows. It’s as though some people need to see the blood or the bone poking through to take an injured player at his word.

I have recently read and heard much more-pointed attacks on Sid than those opined in Dejan’s recent column. But unfortunately, Dejan’s suggestion that Sid has another gear that he’s simply refusing to hit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The notion that Sid isn’t giving his all offends me as both a hockey player and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan.

I am highly biased. I love the Pittsburgh Penguins, and have since I was young. I am prone to defend the Penguins’ superstars, as you can read elsewhere on this blog. I take issue with Dejan’s assessment that Sid is  half-assing it. Sid Crosby is one of the most competitive people in sports. Even if Sid were inclined to take shifts off, the Eyeball Test verifies that he has a hitch in his giddy-up.

Most of you reading this are also highly-biased. The Penguins, and Sid Crosby in particular, are lightning rods. Most NHL Hockey fans have an extremely-strong opinion one way or the other about both Sid and the team he plays for, and these opinions cloud tend to cloud the truth. Just for a moment, put your own biases aside and consider the rough data:

Does Sidney Crosby look like himself?

Does he have a reason to suddenly play at half of his ability?

Have his many of his raw statistics – Goals, Plus/Minus, Faceoff Win Percentage, Shots – drastically and suddenly fallen off since, oh, I don’t know, April 3rd versus Winnipeg?

Sid has thick skin. He’s been picked apart since he was 14. But having a local writer question his level of play while most evidence points to a significant injury is something he shouldn’t have to endure. Since neither the Penguins nor Sid, admirably, will not own up to his injury, I defended him. I am sure it will not be the last time.

Jack

 

Most informed observers will agree that the Penguins took a downturn following the Olympic break in mid-February. This makes a good deal of sense because a number of Penguins represented their respective countries at the Sochi Games. This idea is well-covered by Mike Colligan of the Hockey Writers in his article, What’s Wrong with Sidney Crosby?”

I’ll be lazy and let Mike Colligan’s

 

On Will and The Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken

book

The picture above is the cover of the Textbook I’ve been living in for the last seven months. It contains almost 1500 pages of single-spaced, tiny type and weighs more than an oxygen tank. It is almost thicker than a clenched fist. I am certain it could stop a large knife and possibly a small-caliber bullet.

I would gladly burn the book in effigy or sell it if I were not sure that I will be referring back to it with frequency in the future. Even if I didn’t need the book as a reference, I would probably keep it as a reminder of an accomplishment I view as a minor miracle: that I passed my EMT Certification Course.

I have no interest in nor any exceptional talent for Medicine of any kind, but to fulfill my dream of becoming a Firefighter, I have to be EMT Certified. So, I’ve spent the past seven months grinding my way through this wretched book. The last leg of the course involved these insane 12-hour class days (Thanks, #Snowpocalypse!) in which I had to sit there for hours on end and feel my body disintegrate while my head continually threatened to explode.

On the day of my Final, I contracted what has come to be known as the “Goddamn Bear Flu” from my roommate. I am part-Navajo, and thanks to 170 years of white people sneezing on my people, I almost never get sick. Ordinarily, I go years between colds or sinus headaches. But my roommate was exposed to some freak who picked up this obnoxiously-virulent strain from a bear, which he regrettably passed onto me at the worst possible time.

As I took my practical final, I was seeing double and doing that awkward shivering/sweating thing people do when they are extremely-feverish. I had already thrown up everything I had eaten in the past week. I wish I could attribute some of that to nerves, but in reality I wasn’t nervous at all, except about possibly passing out from hypovolemic shock in the middle of my Scope of Practice. February 28th, 2014 will go down as one of the 10 Most Miserable Days of My Life, unless I move to Canada or Philadelphia for some inexplicable reason.

My Practical Final was what I would call a “Game 7 Overtime” victory. To continue with the Hockey analogy: I got an early lead in the series, then fell behind. At the last possible moment – cold-sweating and shivering thanks to the Goddamn Bear Flu – I managed to eke through with a Passing grade. I have seldom been so relieved as when I saw the words “Adequate” on my Review Sheet.

(“Adequate?” Bet you can’t wait until you see me coming at you with a hypodermic needle and a grin, can you?)

I don’t even remember my Written Final. I literally blacked-out, again thanks to The Goddamn Bear Flu. Apparently, I got a 94, so, uh, good on me.

Afterwards, I was too exhausted, both mentally and physically, to even celebrate. My big celebration involved me forcing myself to stay conscious while I drove home, glaring at my stricken, strung-out-on-NyQuil roommate for passing along the GBF to me on the day of my Final, then crawling into bed and going into a 15-hour coma.

EMT is the Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken, for reasons I’ve explained and reasons I’ll touch upon below. It’s basically taken my body a full week to recover from the chronic stress of the course, and for me to gather myself enough to write a post about it. The Textbook is my $170 Trophy, reminding me of what I accomplished and how hard I worked to get through. Plus, in the event of a home-invasion, the book can double as body armor.

On Jack the Student

I am the definition of a Professional Student. Following a leisurely, Van Wilder-esque five-and-a-half year tour at my beloved Duquesne University, I almost immediately rolled into a nine-month Personal Training Certification course. After working as a Trainer for a few months, I went to a school I completely despise for about 18 months to get an additional Undergrad in Sport Physiology.

I worked full-time as a Strength Coach/Personal Trainer for another year or so before I grew dissatisfied. I had an honest conversation with myself, and decided I was wasting time not actively pursuing my dream of becoming a Firefighter. I abruptly quit my job as a Strength Coach (though my employer will tell you I was fired – it was one of those, “You can’t quit! You’re Fired!” deals) to start over again.

I couldn’t get someone to pay for my training, so I paid for my own. I decided to put myself through an EMT Certification course, one of the necessary Certifications to being a Firefighter, at significant cost to my own bottom-line, health, and sanity.

As I wrote above, I finally got through the EMT Certification course about a week ago. I have taken almost 250 College Credits and on-going Continuing Education since I was eighteen, and I can say again with no hesitation: EMT is the Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken.

This seems to be a fairly-common view. I’ve spoken with a number of successful Paramedics or even Doctors who have told me that EMT is the most-difficult course they’ve gone through. Here is my quick overview on why I believe that is:

To be an EMT, you have to know a good chunk of what a Physician has to know. You do not have to be able to practice all of it, but you need to know much of the Anatomy/Physiology, effects of Medications, Medical Conditions, and so forth. The catch is that you have to learn all of this information in a relatively-short amount of time. In my case, EMT – AKA, “How to be a Street Doctor” – was crammed into a Semester + Four Weeks of Hell in February. The volume of information is just staggering, especially if you are not used to such an informational overload.

Beyond that, most EMT students are getting this tsunami of information with little or no background in Medicine. I’ve worked extensively in Preventative Medicine as a Strength Coach/Trainer, and I have an excellent understanding of the Human Body and Orthopedics. I was still drowning at times due to the sheer volume of facts I had to be able to recall and apply at a moment’s notice.

But I got through. By the skin of my teeth and with a number of good people pulling along, but I got through. It may not be a giant accomplishment for some people, but it took every ounce of my effort and Willpower to force myself  through it. It’s been an extremely-rough seven months, but it’s finally over, and I am one step closer to my dream of pulling people out of  burning buildings.

On Hockey, Golf, and What My Family Doesn’t Know About EMT

happy

I love Hockey. Breaking News, I know.

One of the reasons I love Hockey is that there is a direct correlation between Effort and Results. If you work harder, the vast majority of the time you will get a better outcome. Usually, you can compensate for a lack of talent with determination and guts.

I am the type of person who will punch through a brick wall, if I want something on the other side of it badly enough. My Willpower – my ability to drive myself through duress – is probably my greatest character strength.

Meanwhile, one of my greatest weaknesses is my complete inability to think like other people. One of the people I recently took the EMT course with noted that I could read the same paragraph as ten other people and take something entirely different away from it.

This is what gives me such a talent as a scoring forward and a purveyor of girls with low self-esteem: I have an uncanny knack for seeing the flaws or holes in something – the negative space, if you will. I can look at a Goaltender and see the 1/100th of the net he or she doesn’t have covered. I can look at a neatly-stacked defense and see how they are slightly misaligned. Many of my gifts lie in Creative Problem Solving and taking an unconventional approach.

And really, that’s Hockey. Unlike Football, in which a Coach draws up a designated play and the Players execute it to the letter, Hockey is best-played when it is free-flowing and unscripted. Hockey involves chemistry and constant reaction, but it’s very difficult for anyone to compel a Hockey game to unfold in a step-by-step fashion. Hockey lacks the predictability of Baseball, Football, or Golf, and in my view, that’s one of the things that makes the game so great.

The other way Hockey differs from those other sports, and Golf in-particular, is again that there is direct correlation between Effort and Results. Golf is a game of notorious frustration, one that requires a consistent and methodical approach. You cannot play Golf harder, only better.

I liken EMS to Golf. It doesn’t matter how hard you try – it only matters if you can do a given procedure or if you know the appropriate solution to a given problem. Like Golf, EMS requires an individual to take an extremely-systematic approach, and like Golf, EMS involves a dedication to perfection. You can treat a patient properly in 99/100 ways, but if you mistreat them in even the slightest – for example, if you forget to ask if the patient has taken Sildenafil before you administer Nitroglycerin for his chest pain – you could kill someone. This stress – the knowledge that one wrong move could kill someone – is chronic and constant.

You all know me pretty well – I am not great at following orders. I excel when I am allowed to think creatively and unconventionally, and I struggle mightily when I have to follow protocol. Someone smart wrote this about me:

“…Your overly-relaxed nature can make it difficult for you to focus on projects that require organized sequences of steps or stages. Thus, your ability to accomplish may be inconsistent. Indeed, it’s possible that you might be criticized periodically for being unreliable or unable to “stay within the lines…”

Guess what? To be an EMT, you have to do exactly that. EMS is predicated on following protocols and sequences to the letter. To use the Golf analogy, you can hit the ball as hard as you want, but it doesn’t matter if you send it slicing into the woods or line-drive it into the water. In Golf and in EMS, you have stay on the course, avoid a litany of traps, and do so with very limited margin-for-error. The difference with EMS is that you must do all of this while a patient is gushing blood and people are screaming at you.

There are people who are simply wired for the error-free, systematic approach. These people often gravitate toward Medicine or Mechanical Engineering at a relatively-young age. These are the people who have the discipline to ensure that parts of our society run like a metronome, and have the ability to completely block out external factors and stress while doing so.

Meanwhile, there’s me, Mister “Artistic Temperament,” who needed the support of an A-Team of confidants and friends as well as a minor Act of God to get through a course that some incredibly-dense people have no problem with.

While acknowledging that I would not have gotten through this course were it not for some exceptional support, I am very proud of myself for sticking with it. EMT was not easy for me, at all. I couldn’t apply my strength, my Willpower, to internalizing the material itself, but I could apply it in how relentlessly I fought through the frustration and stress of the course. I succeeded, which is going to do nothing to rein in my ego.

Now, as for what My Family Doesn’t Know About EMS:

I have always been academically-gifted. One of my favorite jokes is that the first time I took the SAT (back when it was a 1600-point test), I was sober and well-rested and only got a 1250. The second time, I came in hungover and sweating Black Velvet, and I got a 1390. One of my minor claims-to-fame.

As such, the expectation of me has always been that I will pass any course or test thrown my way with flying colors. One of the reasons I took so long to finally commit to Firefighting was that my family insisted it was not a proper use of my intellectual gifts. From a very young age, I was told, no joke, that I could be a Doctor or a Lawyer.

So when I would occasionally talk to my mother about the course and she would hear that I was struggling, she was stunned. She would ask me questions like “Did you get hit in the head again?” and “Are you drunk or retarded?”

There are some people who can barely spell their own name who are very successful EMT/Paramedics, and there are some academic geniuses who cannot get through the course. It’s a fine line between knowing a tidal wave of material, and being able to recall/apply that knowledge instantly and under duress.

Also, one has to take my personal biases into account. As I wrote above, I am probably the last person in the world who should be an EMT. I am a mistake-making, risk-taking free-thinker (WOO!) if ever one existed. It’s hard for people like myself to remember Step #34 in a 100-Step process when we are busy dreaming of Manhattans and ways to seduce the Madame of the Office.

But the bottom-line? EMT is Hard. I would double-underline that if I could. If I could convey one point to my family, it would be that my Hockey-related concussion issues aside, I did not suddenly go from being an academic all-star to being a dolt. Again speaking from the position of a Professional Student, it’s hard to envision a more-demanding course.

So, in Conclusion:

Ask anyone who has completed it: EMT Certification is rough. No matter what happens from here, I can say that I got through it. As someone who lacks the natural attributes that most successful EMTs possess, I can say as a proud Hockey Player that my well-refined Will was what allowed me to get through.

On to the Next,

Dr. Sexy

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