Ray Ratto

Ratto: Niemi stands tall amongst elite NHL goalies


Ratto: Niemi stands tall amongst elite NHL goalies


Creepy alert: When Doug Wilson wants you bad enough, you surrender.Not-so-creepy alert: Antti Niemi left some money on the table to stay out of the free agent market.The Sharks goaltender who started slowly but is now one of the teams biggest assets agreed to a four-year, 15.2 million deal, making him the 17th-highest paid goaltender in 2011-12. That last number is important because Wilson had to convince Niemi and his agent Bill Zito (no relation, as if you needed to be told) that signing now for less was a better idea than waiting until July 1 and be smeared with riches from the Flyers, Red Wings and other bigger spenders with goaltending issues.NEWS: Niemi signs 4-year extension
I met with Billy in Chicago and Boston within the last month, and I talked with Antti today, Wilson said. I just tried to let him know that we wanted him, but that we didnt want to have to tear the team down to get him. He likes it here, he likes his teammates, and he bought in. Im no genius. Hes just a guy who gets it.And will get it, with an escalating contract that starts low and builds from there. He apparently is satisfied where he is that he can stand comfortably behind the following goalies for 2012:1. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers, 6.875M
2. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver, 6.716M
3. Cam Ward, Carolina, 6.3M
4. Ryan Miller, Buffalo, 6.25M
5. Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary, 6M
6. Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota, 6M
7. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh, 5.5M
8. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey, 5.2M
9. Tim Thomas, Boston, 5M
10. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim, 4.5M
11. Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders, 4.5M
12. Pekka Rinne, Nashville, 4M
13. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton, 3.75M
14. Kari Lehtonen, Dallas, 3.7M
15. Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis, 3.5M
16. Carey Price, Montreal, 3M

And ahead of:18. Steve Mason, Columbus, 2.6MIn other words, his 2012 actual number is around 2.7 million, which it can reasonably be inferred would have been significantly higher had he entered the market. Even allowing for owner penury entering a CBA year, goalies still get paid, and Niemi has a ring and the makings of an excellent second season on his resume.We just told Bill and Antti, We want you here, and if you want to be here, lets work on this so we can keep this group together. And they both understood, Wilson said.Now the question of whether the group should remain together is always a dicey one, but it is clear that Wilson is in a stand-pat-with-the-nucleus-tinker-at-the-edges mode (see Ian White, Ben Eager, Kyle Wellwood).In fact, he sort of has to be, as the biggest names and highest price tags (Thornton, Heatley, Marleau, Boyle) have no-move deals and are due 28.567 million next year. The biggest name among available free agent Sharks is Devin Setoguchi, who will be a restricted free agent, followed by White, Scott Nichol, Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins, Eager and Wellwood.In short, Niemi was the biggest piece for Wilson to take care of today. Setoguchi comes next, with just those 19 pesky regular season games and some as-yet-undetermined number of playoff games in between.Or, as Doug (Dont Call Me Svengali) Wilson put it, We can live with this. I will sleep better tonight.Thursday, of course, is another matter.

National SOB League can never forget the noble man who brought them together


National SOB League can never forget the noble man who brought them together

So after one day, the NSOBL (the National Son-Of-A-Bitch League, as if you couldn’t guess) has survived the contemptible brain-burps of the Panderer-In-Chief. Now we’ll see if the players’ fury has true staying power.
And by staying power, we don’t mean whether they will continue to defy the call of the National Anthem (an easy enough task), but whether they view their newfound solidarity as something that needs to be nurtured to truly endure.
After all, it’s easy to be galvanized by the noisy neighbor who spends his day on the porch shouting irrational obscenities at the neighbors. But Donald Trump isn’t the issue; he never was. All he did was put a face to the idiocies that prevent us from being the country we should be.
But this started a year ago with a single knee, a single person, and a broader cause than a President who needs to pick fights the way a vampire needs naked necks. Colin Kaepernick, whose career as a football player is essentially over because he caused the NFL a headache by honoring his conscience, took his knee to protest police excesses, and didn’t need to be called a son of a bitch to do so. He was later, of course, part of the medley of all the other insults that followed, but he didn’t kneel because he was insulted. He knelt because other were, and worse.
But the beauty of these days is that we take any idea or action and immediately change its meaning to fit our own prejudices. Kaepernick’s message was too nuanced for a lot of people’s facilities because they value symbols more than people, but nobody doesn’t understand being called a son of a bitch by a boss you hate.
So the new NSOBL is just starting to coalesce. There will not be a shortage of reasons for players to find their voice and conscience, and to break the bonds that required them to ask permission before speaking or thinking. If they are as they purport to be, they will remember that change happens with a single son of a bitch.

In retirement, Andre Ward will have days when he desperately wants back in


In retirement, Andre Ward will have days when he desperately wants back in

Andre Ward finally did what he said he would do – retire before the sport of boxing retired him.

Now we’ll see if boxing intends to leave him be.

Ward announced his retirement via Twitter Thursday morning, seemingly ending the career of one of the world’s greatest fighters in the elusive pound-for-pound category. He now plans to get into media, which is a battle of its own (ask Teddy Atlas when he talks with Stephen A. Smith how rewarding that can be).

But there’s that word “seemingly.” Boxers have a greater incidence of unretirement than any other sport because they miss what they do, they are typically surrounded by people who like the paydays the boxer’s fights provide, the unpaid tax debts some incur never go away, and sometimes they just don’t have anything better to do.

And then one day they find out they can’t do anything at all because of the punishments that come with violent sport, and then they become either tragedies or cautionary tales. Almost nobody gets to 95 like Jake LaMotta did.

Ward has said repeatedly that would never happen to him, that he was in control of his destiny and would remain so. And you want to believe him, because he would be that rarest of boxing stories – the unmitigated success.

It will be his toughest fight, however, far tougher than Sergei Kovalev. Boxing has this weird thrall upon its practitioners that can prove irresistible, if not outright necessary, and Ward will have to train as hard to repel its call as he did when he was neck-deep in it. It will not be easy, and he will have days when he desperately wants back in.

But retired fighters typically make poor unretired fighters, and the more one unretires, the worse the future becomes. So Andre Ward has to win this one more than any other fight.

And maybe it will be an easy victory for him – but it is a victory that will have to be achieved every day, almost like fighting alcoholism. Boxing is bad for you, and though it has been good for Andre Ward (as far as anyone knows), being an ex-boxer will be even better. He has done what needs to be done, and now he needs to do something else, one that doesn’t require putting his body and brain at risk for our amusement.

If this can be done, Andre Ward can achieve it. But neither he nor anyone else should think it will be any easier than understanding an Adalaide Byrd scorecard. Post-boxing will be difficult and rewarding business. All he has to do is master it every day for the rest of his life.