This Week in the CCHA: March 17, 2005


Okay. Who needs a cigarette?

With two series going to three games, four Saturday contests seeing overtime, and the No. 2 seed echoing its Super Six performance of a year ago — to beat a No. 11 seed — this year’s opening round of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs was intense, emotional, and surprisingly good hockey.

Playoff hockey can often make heroes out of role players, make household names out of unknowns, and shed light on little known corners of the CCHA.

In last year’s Super Six, CCHA fans became much better acquainted with Tuomas Tarkki, who at the end of Northern Michigan’s regular season had to step into the net for an injured and very familiar Craig Kowalski.

Another goaltender, brand-spanking-new to league fans, stepped in for a shaky starter to lead his squad all the way to the Mason Cup.

This year, however, CCHA fans were treated to extraordinary play from everyday guys one week early, in nearly every first-round series.

Mike Brown, Ferris State’s senior goaltender, shut out the prolific Buckeye offense for nearly 90 minutes in Columbus, earning a 1-0 win Saturday to force a Sunday game, which very nearly went FSU’s way.

After giving up more goals than any netminder cares to count in a Friday drubbing — and he certainly wasn’t the only guy in the Irish net that night — Notre Dame senior Morgan Cey responded with everything he had Saturday, shutting out the Wolverines for just over 62 minutes before the heartbreaking end to his collegiate career in the form of Michigan senior Eric Werner’s goal.

But the heroics weren’t limited to the Class of 2005. In spite of Brown’s best efforts, the Buckeyes came from behind three times Sunday to tie the — shades of last year’s Super Six quarterfinal and semifinal games — with goals by three freshmen and a sophomore.

Six of Nebraska-Omaha’s eight goals in UNO’s two-game sweep of Lake Superior State were scored by freshmen. While Brandon Scero had three of those goals, the most dramatic by far was defenseman Joe Grimaldi’s game-winning tally with 6.7 seconds left in regulation Friday night.

And another freshman, Nanook Ryan McLeod, made CCHA history with his goals at :05 and :13 in Alaska-Fairbanks’ 6-3 win over Bowling Green last Friday.

The most notable junior of the weekend just may have been Chad Hontvet.

Chad who? Friday was this Spartan’s eighth game of the season, and his two goals — the sum total of Michigan State’s offense in a 2-1 win over Miami — were the first two of his career

Here are some interesting tidbits from the first round of playoff action:

• Fourteen different players accounted for the 14 game-winning goals in the first round, six by juniors, four by freshmen, and two each by seniors.

• Three of the series paired regular-season clustermates.

• Three shorthanded goals were scored, all three in series that went to three games, and two of those goals were rallying points for the home team. In Marquette, Andrew Contois scored with a man down at 2:08 in the third period Saturday, cutting Western Michigan’s 2-0 lead in half, and the Broncos were already leading the series 1-0. In Columbus, Matt Beaudoin shorthander at 9:55 in the third — bringing the Buckeyes to within a goal of the Bulldogs — was the clear turning point for an OSU team running out of options.

• Among goaltenders who recorded two wins last weekend, Michigan junior Al Montoya had the best save percentage (.967), while Ohio State junior Dave Caruso’s was last (.894).

• With five assists for five points, FSU junior Greg Rallo led all players in the point department. Beaudoin led all players in goals (four). The FSU-OSU series went to three games.

• In 14 games, 26 power-play goals were scored.

Each of the CCHA’s coaches was philosophical Wednesday at the Super Six media luncheon. Each sounded relieved to be there. Michigan’s Red Berenson complimented each of his fellow coaches, a gracious thing to do even if his team weren’t sitting in the position that most lends itself to generosity.

Berenson gave a nod to UAF’s Tavis MacMillan on bringing the young Nanooks to The Joe as a first-year head coach, called UNO’s Mike Kemp the “rebound coach of the year,” said that he knew that NMU’s Walt Kyle would be an asset to the league from the moment he was hired, said without any irony that “it’s good to see Michigan State” in Detroit and complimented Rick Comley on his ability to battle both on the ice and “in the media,” and paid OSU’s John Markell the highest compliment of all:

“I think he’s been good for Michigan, and Michigan’s been good for him.”

And Berenson added, without bitterness, that Ohio State was “the one team that proved last year that the bye doesn’t matter.”

Here’s a look at the two quarterfinal matches and the two teams with the bye.

No. 6 Alaska-Fairbanks (15-15-4) vs. No. 3 Northern Michigan (22-10-7) 4:35 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.

I have to say that I was stunned by UAF’s complete domination of Bowling Green, but that, apparently, was the Nanook game plan all along.

“My biggest concern coming in was how we were going to start the game,” said UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan after Friday’s 6-3 win. “Last time we were down here, BG took it to us and I was really happy how we came out of the gates.”

The Nanooks took a 3-0 lead within the first four minutes of Friday’s contest, with Ryan McLeod scoring at :05 and :13, and Kelly Czuy at 3:19.

In Saturday’s game, UAF led 2-0 after one on markers by Aaron Lee and Ryan Muspratt.

“You got to tip your hat to them,” said BGSU senior Alex Rogosheske after Saturday’s 6-3 decision. “They came into our barn — stole the show and really took it to us all weekend.”

The 12 goals in two games may seem like a departure for this freshman-heavy UAF team; during an eight-game winless streak midseason, the Nanooks were averaging 1.88 goals per game, but since snapping that spell with a 3-2 win over Ferris State Jan. 20, UAF has averaged 3.31 goals per game and has gone 9-4-3 in the stretch since.

“Some of our younger kids have really stepped up,” said MacMillan. “I said at the start of the year that Kelly Czuy, Curtis Fraser, Jared Sylvestre, and Kyle Greentree, a freshmen, would be our offense, but the emergence of Ryan Mcleod has been a great boost.”

The Nanooks routinely dress as many as nine freshmen skaters plus goaltender Wylie Rogers.

“The series at Bowling Green was very interesting,” said MacMillan. “I wanted our guys to get off to a good start; I had no idea that would happen.

“I had a good feeling going on the road that our team was prepared for it. As the season went on, 11 freshmen were no longer freshmen.”

The Nanooks face the Wildcats, whose road to Detroit went through Marquette, but also through a tough Western Michigan team that won the opening game in last weekend’s best-of-three series.

“Quite honestly, I think we were lucky to be able to get that series,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “In my opinion, the real difference in that series was the fans in Marquette and the energy that that building has been able to provide for us all year.

“It was a great series and a hard-fought series and I certainly hope that has prepared us for this weekend.”

Kyle said that the Wildcats “looked out of sync” after the 2-1 loss to WMU, and credited the Broncos for taking advantage of the opportunity.

In Saturday’s 4-2 NMU win, the Broncos jumped out to a 2-0 lead after two, but Andrew Contois’s shorthanded goal early in the third propelled the Wildcats to three more unanswered and their first win of the weekend.

Kevin Gardner’s shorthander got things started for Northern in the 4-1 Sunday win. Gardner, a senior, said, “It sort of had to be done. My year so far has been underachievement. I knew playoff time, guys have to step up.”

Added Tuomas Tarkki, NMU’s stellar netminder, “We just decided that we were not going to lose this game tonight. We just have to go [to Detroit] and do our job.”

The determined Wildcats are more defense than offense, said Kyle. “Early in the year, one of the big questions for us was our ability to score. We are not a big offensive team. We are a team that scores by committee. Tuomas Tarkki has had a tremendous year and has led us in that regard.”

Here’s a look at how UAF and NMU compare, by the overall numbers.

• Goals per game: UAF 2.94 (eighth); NMU 3.00 (sixth)
• Goals allowed per game: UAF 3.35 (ninth); NMU 2.18 (first)
• Power play: UAF 18.2 % (eighth); NMU 15.3% (ninth)
• Penalty kill: UAF 79.4% (ninth); NMU 84.3% (third)
• Top point scorer: UAF Curtis Fraser (17-13–30), Kyle Greentree (11-19–30); NMU Darin Olver (9-33–42)
• Top goal scorer: UAF Curtis Fraser (17); NMU Andrew Contois (19)
• Top ‘tender: UAF Wylie Rogers (2.91 GAA, .903 SV%); NMU Tuomas Tarkki (1.97 GAA, .933 SV%)
• Record against the field: UAF 6-7-1; NMU 7-6-1

These are the only two CCHA teams to play on Olympic ice in their home arenas, and both teams have potentially explosive speed. UAF has more skill up front, but NMU has more offensive depth.

UAF’s Czuy (10-17–27) has three power-play goals and three game winners, Sylvestre (12-6–18) has seven on the PP and four game winners, and the late-blooming McLeod (12-9–21) and Fraser are each seriously dangerous on the power play, with nine tallies each.

NMU does, indeed, score by committee. With the exception of Blake Cosgrove, a freshman defenseman who played 14 games this season, and goaltender Tuomas Tarkki, every Wildcat who has played in 10 or more games has scored at least one goal. Dirk Southern (11-19–30) is the man to go to when you want to end a game, with seven game winners and five power-play goals.

On the power play, Mike Santorelli (16-13–29) has five, Pat Bateman (12-17–29) has four, and Jamie Milam (10-12–22) has nine.

This is NMU’s fourth consecutive trip to the Super Six, having been eliminated in semifinal action in each of the three previous years.

This will be the fifth meeting of the season between UAF and NMU, who were in the same cluster; the Wildcats went 2-1-1 against the Nanooks for the season.

This is the second time that NMU and UAF are meeting in post-season action. Last year, the Wildcats ended the Nanooks’ season with a two-game sweep of UAF in Fairbanks.

No. 5 Michigan State (19-15-4) vs. No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha (19-15-4) 8:05 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.

If you think you’ve had it rough lately, consider what MSU head coach Rick Comley has had to endure.

Not only did sophomore A.J. Thelen, last year’s CCHA Best Offensive Defenseman, show his class with a few parting shots aimed at Comley when he was dismissed from the team, but media types like me asked an awful lot of questions about the inconsistency of this year’s Spartans.

Comley said he “spent more time trying to explain why” the season was going the way it was than talking about the play of the team.

Well, a five-game win streak heading into the Super Six is a good way to stop those tongues from wagging.

“We’ve been tested severely,” said Comley, referring to the tight games last weekend with Miami, rather than to the media. “The series with Miami was a tremendous series. We had to battle and scratch and fight for everything.”

A pair of juniors were the heroes for MSU last weekend. In Friday’s contest, Chad Hontvet did the honors, netting both of the Spartans’ goals in a 2-1 win, and Colton Fretter, who turned 23 Saturday, scored the goal to tie it at 14:54 in the third, and the game winner at 7:45 in OT.

“We’ve had to find leaders, find people who are going to get it done,” said Comley Saturday. “Instead of automatically passing the torch, we’ve had to find people to carry the torch and I think that’s what we see evolving right now.”

The Spartans face the Mavericks tonight, and Comley said that he expects “a one-game series very similar to what we saw with Miami. I think Miami and Nebraska are very similar in their strengths and I think it’s going to be an excellent game.”

The Mavericks swept the Lakers in two games, both by the score of 4-3. Friday’s contest was decided with less than 10 seconds to play — “the bare nubbins of the game,” said UNO head coach Mike Kemp — when Joe Grimaldi netted the game-winner.

Saturday’s game saw overtime, with Scott Parse — who assisted on Grimaldi’s goal — winning it at 5:24.

The Mavericks are another young squad. “We’ll play 17 sophomores or freshmen all night long,” said Kemp. “We’ll have one senior in the lineup [Thursday] night, and as far as juniors we’ll have two or three.”

Kemp said that what the coaching staff was most please with this year — aside from not anchoring the league, as the Mavs did in 2003-04 — was the way in which the young UNO has come along since September.

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity to see our kids mature, develop, grow as a team and learn a lot of lessons along the way. The opportunity to be here is just icing on the cake for us.”

The Spartans have struggled offensively this season, but the Mavericks have a talented, quick group of forwards that can seemingly score at will. Both teams have solid defense and goaltending, but there’s no doubt that Dominic Vicari is an advantage for MSU.

One puzzler: with such great forwards, how is UNO’s power play so mediocre?

Here’s the match, by the overall numbers:

• Goals per game: MSU 2.97 (seventh); UNO 3.50 (second)
• Goals allowed per game: MSU 2.45 (third); UNO 3.13 (seventh)
• Power play: MSU 18.9 % (sixth); UNO 18.8% (seventh)
• Penalty kill: MSU 81.2% (seventh); UNO 79.6% (eighth)
• Top point scorer: MSU Jim Slater (16-28–44); UNO Scott Parse (19-30–49)
• Top goal scorer: MSU Colton Fretter (19); UNO Scott Parse (19) and Bill Thomas (19)
• Top ‘tender: MSU Dominic Vicari (2.30 GAA, .922 SV%); UNO Chris Holt (2.85 GAA, .903 SV%)
• Record against the field: MSU 3-8-2; UNO 5-8-1

For the first half of the season, MSU’s offense was practically nonexistent, but in the second half — even in some losses — the Spartans have been finding the net with more frequency and consistency.

In addition to Slater and Fretter, Drew Miller (17-13–30), Ash Goldie (10-10–20), Jim McKenzie (10-7–17), and Bryan Lerg (10-4–14) have reached the 10-goal plateau. Slater, Fretter, and Miller account for 26 of MSU’s 46 power-play goals.

The Mavericks are loaded with young talent, with Parse, Thomas, and Bryan Marshall (13-20–33) the most threatening on the power play, and Dan Hacker (14-11–25), Alex Nikiforuk (12-11–23), Brandon Scero (11-12–23) rounding out the top of the UNO offense.

The youth and relative inexperience of the UNO team can work for it or against it. “It will be an eye-opening experience for those guys and our young team,” said Kemp. “Nobody in our program has been here before.”

As the Mavericks are returning to The Joe for the first time since 1999-2000, the Spartans may have the edge because of experience. Then again, the Mavericks — being young — don’t know how young they are, which could be a plus.

MSU leads this all-time series 12-5-0, and the teams split a pair in East Lansing way back in October. “We played them so long ago that it might as well have been the 2003-04 series,” said Kemp. “We know that we’re going to have to be at the top of our game in order to be able to compete.”

No. 2 Ohio State (26-9-4)

“We imposed our will on Ferris. You’ve got to compliment not only Ferris but our league. Do they deserve to be where they are? No. It just goes to show you that a goal here, a goal there can change a season. That’s a very good hockey club and they gave us fits all weekend.”

That’s how OSU head coach John Markell described the way in which the Buckeyes beat the Bulldogs in overtime of the third game of last weekend’s first-round series in Columbus, a series that saw two games go more than the distance.

After beating FSU handily Friday night, the Buckeyes lost, 1-0, in OT Saturday, and came from behind three times for an overtime win Friday.

Like the Wildcats, the Bucks were spurred to rally by a shorthanded goal, Matt Beaudoin’s 23rd marker of the season at 9:55 in the third period Sunday, bringing OSU to within one goal of FSU’s lead.

Then, with less than a minute to go and netminder Dave Caruso heading toward the bench for the extra attacker, freshman Jason DeSantis blasted one from the blue line to beat FSU goaltender Mike Brown, sending the game into OT.

Another rookie, John Dingle, had the game-winner.

“It was enormous for us to get these kids through this experience,” said Markell. “That first playoff series as young collegians is really, really tough, especially when we only had two seniors in the lineup.”

The Buckeyes are a surprising team, playing only two seniors and four juniors regularly, including Caruso.

It’s a fast, balanced team with solid defense and goaltending — when the team plays poised, patient hockey. Because of the loss to FSU and some slips earlier in the season, the Buckeyes have dropped to 16th in the PWR, likely out of the NCAA tournament without a successful defense of the Mason Cup, a very, very difficult thing to do.

This is the team, by the overall numbers:

• Goals per game: 3.44 (third)
• Goals allowed per game: 2.26 (second)
• Power play: 22.2% (second)
• Penalty kill: 86.9% (first)
• Top point scorer: Rod Pelley (22-18–40), Tom Fritsche (8-32–40)
• Top goal scorer: Matt Beaudoin (23)
• Top ‘tender: Dave Caruso (2.12 GAA, .918 SV%)
• Record against the field: 6-3-1

Pelley and Beaudoin are monsters on the power play, combining for 27 goals. Dan Knapp (12-21–33) and Dominic Maiani (11-20–31) are the only other Buckeyes with at least 10 goals this season.

Like the Wildcats, OSU scores by committee. Everyone who’s seen more than six games this season with the exception of Caruso has scored a goal, and the goalie’s three assists were not cheap points, but actual contributions to the offensive play.

When this team is on, it wins not only with outstanding special teams, but because with the league’s fastest transition from defense to offense. When it’s on.

This is the fourth straight year of Super Six play for the Buckeyes, who made that incredible three-game run to the Mason Cup — with two come-from-behind overtime victories en route — last year.

Ohio State is 10-9 all-time in CCHA tournament play past the first round.

No. 1 Michigan (28-7-3)

What can be said about the cream of the CCHA crop?

Talk about imposing your will: the Wolverines completely dominated the Fighting Irish in a 10-1 opening game last weekend, a contest in which all three goaltenders for each team saw time in the pipes.

That Irish goaltender Morgan Cey rebounded with an incredible performance Saturday’s 1-0 overtime Michigan win doesn’t indicate that the Wolverines let up, though.

“Last night, the puck went in too easy,” said Berenson after Saturday’s contest. “Morgan Cey is a senior. Let’s face it; he’s won two playoff series on the road and three in his last three years. He’s won every time and taken them to Joe Louis. This guy is not a pushover.”

Neither, of course, are these storied Wolverines, who are making their 16th consecutive CCHA championship series appearance. This Michigan senior class has made two Frozen Four appearances and won the Mason Cup twice (2002, 2003).

Michigan is loaded with seniors, with leadership, with depth, with magic. It’s sickening. Here are the numbers:

• Goals per game: 4.32 (first)
• Goals allowed per game: 2.50 (fourth)
• Power play: 23.0% (first)
• Penalty kill: 84.1% (fourth)
• Top point scorer: T.J. Hensick (22-29–51)
• Top goal scorer: T.J. Hensick (22)
• Top ‘tender: Al Montoya (2.58 GAA, .894 SV%)
• Record against the field: 8-3-2

The scariest thing about Michigan is its offensive depth. All but three players who have seen 10 or more games this season — defensemen Reilly Olson and Tim Cook, and goaltender Al Montoya — have netted at least one goal, and eight Wolverines have registered at least 10 goals this season: Hensick, Jeff Tambellini (19-30–49), Milan Gajic (18-19–37), Chad Kolarik (17-16–33), Eric Nystrom (12-18–30), David Moss (10-19–29), Kevin Porter (11-13–34), Brandon Kaleniecki (11-6–17).

Kolarik has 10 goals on the power play, while Tambellini and Gajic each have seven.

Like the Buckeyes, the Wolverines like to spread the game-winning love around; Kolarik leads the team with four.

You can say what you want about Al Montoya’s “off” year, but the guy has 27 wins, including three shutouts. If you don’t think he’ll be there at JLA, you’re kidding yourself.

Some Season-Ending Musings

Now that most is said and done, here are a couple of things I can see in retrospect from the 2004-05 season.

The NCAA Tournament

The CCHA is in danger of having just one team in the NCAA tournament this season. Perhaps the league’s performance with five teams in last year makes this fitting. I saw an awful lot of good hockey this season, and I don’t think the CCHA is an “inferior” league, but I am tired of hearing the parity used as an excuse for the fact that Michigan is the only sure invitation to the tourney.

For one thing, win more games against opponents you should beat. That would take care of a lot in the PWR.

Another positive step would be to lose the cluster system. I don’t know how to replace it — I’ll think about that this summer, when I see actual sunlight in an actual outdoor place — but I do think that the system hurts the league and the permanent “rival” pairings are also an issue.

The Gents in Stripes

I do think the CCHA officials are hardworking, honest guys, and in seasons past, I rarely noticed them on the ice. With the rules changes this season, though, I saw them everywhere.

I’m not slamming the officials, not at all. For the first two months of the season, everyone was adjusting to the changes, so it’s understandable that the referees and ARs were a little more noticeable than usual.

But from then on, you needed some kind of rubric just to keep each official’s system straight. I honestly believe that every guy was trying to do what the NCAA and the league asked him to do, and that each man did so to the best of his ability, but I also think that this season stripped the officials of some confidence, made it difficult for most gents to call their games.

Of course, I’m not insinuating that anyone who wears stripes in the CCHA lacks confidence in any way that it counts.

You know how touchy men can be.

Super Six

I don’t think there was any doubt, from the very beginning of the bid process, that the Super Six was going to remain in Detroit. It’s not only the most geographically convenient location for the tourney, but the league is too entrenched in that area of Michigan too consider a move.

Again, not a criticism.

Frank Anzalone Deserves a Raise

Two reasons: 1) Lake Superior State fans are so focused on Laker hockey that his job stress level must be second only to that of Condoleeza Rice, or at least Jessica Simpson, and 2) his team has to bus everywhere except Alaska, and if LSSU could bus the Lakers to Fairbanks and get away with it, it would.

Also, his radio guy is his athletic director, Bill Crawford. Can you imagine?

Seriously, Anzalone has come a long way in the past few seasons, having to relearn the college hockey culture and take his lumps in the process. He’s improved the team and the program, and he’s dealt fairly with several student-athletes who found themselves in hot water this season.

And he’s learned to give credit where it’s due.

Speaking of Underpaid …

Every single sports information director in the league is underpaid, especially folks like FSU’s Joe Gorby and LSSU’s Linda Bouvet, people who juggle nearly everything their schools have.

I couldn’t do my job without them, and they are a fantastic bunch.

A special thanks goes out to OSU’s Leann Parker, whose professionalism is guaranteed to make the Frozen Four a success.

12 of the Best Guys I Know

You probably know that the CCHA coaching fraternity is a great big ol’ love fest. Okay, so maybe “respect fest” is a better term.

These are 12 terrific gentlemen. There isn’t one in the bunch that can’t hold a decent conversation about something other than hockey, and that says a lot. For such high-profile people, they’re also accessible and down-to-earth.

And Finally …

Thanks to the league offices for all they do to make my job easier and at times more interesting.

And thank you to my colleagues at I can’t wait to see you all in Columbus.

Game Theory

In the nine years since the birth of as we know it, the world in which we live has changed beyond recognition. When I started this gig, the world seemed a simpler place. We lived in the afterglow of the Cold War — not the one in Spartan Stadium — could laugh at the creepy nostalgia of “Duck and Cover” with Bert the Turtle, and thought the New York skyline was untouchable.

Among the unfashionable were gas guzzlers, blue frost eye shadow, and recent Republican White Houses.

Even the word disrespect had yet to become a widely accepted active verb.

Given everything that has happened in the last four years alone, it’s impossible for someone who writes about entertainment — and that’s what this is — not to question what she does, and why she’s doing it.

Which brings me to game theory.

Hockey can be viewed as a mix of zero-sum game theory and non-zero-sum game theory. In zero-sum game theory, the gain of one participant in any game equals the loss of the other participant.

So, when Team A wins a game, Team B loses. If the teams tie, there is still nothing created from the process, as there is still equilibrium; each team gains — or loses — a point.

Of course, when many teams play in a league over the course of an extended season, there is more at stake than the outcome of any one game, and what other teams — other participants, really — do affect the outcome of all players.

Some folks would argue that this is still a zero-sum game, that in the end it boils down to an either-or proposition. You win. You lose. The end.

But those folks who subscribe to the non-zero-sum game theory would say that the game — the season — is much more complicated than that, and that even though every team is in direct competition with the other in a given league, there is also a cooperative element in the game, even if it’s unintentionally cooperative.

In 2004, for example, Ohio State cooperated with Michigan by beating Miami in the last game of the season, helping the Wolverines attain the regular-season title.

Which brings me to game theory, courtesy, and the fall of civilization as we know it.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a complete naïf. I trust everyone until given a reason not to. I’m outgoing, friendly. After 16 years of living in Columbus, I am still stunned when I’m cut off in traffic and then flipped off by the driver; where I come from, the finger is reserved for the one slighted.

And so I am baffled by the change in tone in recent years in email from readers, mail from this year being the most noticeably different from that of years past. Yes, many nice folks have written to me over the years and during the course of this season, people with whom I have engaged in great conversations, civil and friendly exchanges, even when we have disagreed about significant issues.

But in recent years, this season especially, the discourse has changed. Not only does the hate mail — and it is hateful — outnumber reasonable exchange two-to-one, but it has moved beyond sheer negativity into something intentionally cruel and unintentionally deceptive.

The intended cruelty of many message is just sad, and sadder still is that much of it comes with disclaimers that the writers think save them from looking like the bullies they really are. For that, I blame Dr. Phil.

As for the deception, maybe self-delusion is a better word. In the vast majority of negative email I’ve received this season, each writer thinks he’s engaging me in a debate — and it’s always, unfortunately, a “he.”

These are people who write to tell me how completely and totally wrong I am, what an overwhelmingly rotten writer I am, how awful I am as a person. In these messages, people offer their conclusions about my home life, my personal appearance, my sexual orientation, my intelligence.

I try to respond to each message, try to thank each writer for his interest in and for his opinions. Doing so, however, is what begins the game, a game for which I am just now gleaning the rules.

Every single time I responded civilly to one of these most uncivil messages this season, the writer came back with a disbelieving, “Is that all you have to say?”

To the first dozen or so of these follow-ups, I tried to politely explain that there was no point in saying more, since the writer had so thoroughly explained his position, and I, obviously was wrong.

In almost every case, the writer responded with, “But I want to debate!”

I guess it just saddens me to think that this is what it’s come to, that the most vocal in our society — those willing to express an opinion about anything from sports to politics — think that in a free society the exchange of ideas is actually nothing more than their right to shout louder than you and then become indignant when you don’t mirror their opinion.

It’s zero-sum, stagnant, no possibility for creation.

So, if you see me at the Schott, or at JLA, or Van Andel, please say hello, introduce yourself, and we’ll have a nice chat as time allows. Please don’t physically grab me if you don’t know me — another frequent occurrence this season — to ask about players, stats, or to tell me how much I just suck.

I know that what I do here at doesn’t matter much in the world, that I’m one woman with her own opinion, that I’m infinitely flawed, that this is just entertainment.

But no matter how insignificant this is, I’d still like to think that people matter and that we are capable of creating something important every day, that something can be gained every time we say, “Hello.”

Thanks for another great season, readers, and here’s to a great Super Six!