Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Avalanche Warning: Back to the Future

As those who don't live under rocks (or south of the 49th parallel) assuredly know already, Tuesday was the NHL trade deadline. They should go ahead and declare it a national holiday already: it makes much more sense than "Family Day", and everyone knows no self-respecting Canadian actually got any work done during the day(particularly because TSN streamed their trade deadline coverage online and got over a million streaming viewers). In fact, James Duthie referred to the day as "Canada's Unofficial National Holiday." Anyways, plenty of interesting deadline deals went down. Far better minds than I, including Stephen Brunt, Tim Wharnsby and James Mirtle, have extensively analyzed what went down. There's one team that I thought deserved special attention for their moves, though: the always-dangerous Colorado Avalanche, who added Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei, but didn't even make Wharnsby's list of deadline winners.

The Forsberg signing wasn't technically a trade, and also wasn't technically at the deadline because it happened yesterday: it still represents an important shift in the Western Conference balance of power. In many ways, this one might have been responsible for kickstarting the flood of talent from East to West, which would go on to reach pre-Berlin Wall proportions (or NBA-esque proportions, if you prefer). Colorado goes from on the margins to make the playoffs to likely to squeeze in, and very few teams would like to face them in the first round. This lineup has offensive firepower to spare, as facing the likes of Sakic, Forsberg, Smyth, Hejduk and Stasny would give most netminders nightmares. They're weaker on the defensive side, but still have some good talent there in the likes of John-Michael Liles (aside: I was definitely expecting Jean-Michel from Quebec when I first heard of this guy, not John-Michael from Indiana), Scott Hannan and Jordan Leopold. The questions surrounding this team are defensive depth and goaltending. They did a bit to address the first question by reclaiming Adam Foote from Columbus, and thus launching the "Avalanche Reunion Tour: Remember When They Were Good?". Too bad Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay didn't get the memo (to say nothing of St. Patrick himself).

Rusty Salei also isn't a bad pickup: I wasn't a big fan of this deal at first, as I like Karlis Skrastins quite a bit: however, the always-insightful Eric Duhatschek reminds us that Salei's a good defensive defenceman who has been chewing up the minutes in Florida and was a key component in Anaheim's 2003 run to the finals. However, goaltending is what's going to hurt this team: in my mind, neither Peter Budaj or Jose Theodore is good enough to get the Avs too far. Tampa Bay proved that you can win with just sheer offense though, so there's always the chance Colorado can sing from that particular hymmnal.

I was watching the new-look Avalanche last night against the Canucks, and I was pretty impressed by what I saw. Foote brings a lot more to this team than many give him credit for: he's a great defensive defenseman who's been toiling in obscurity in Columbus, and those are the toughest type of player to recognize by the regular stats alone (plus/minus, the only common stat that even addresses defensive play, is heavily dependent on teammates and goaltending). He clearly wants to be in Colorado, too, which is always a bonus: he not only waived his no-trade clause, but jumped a quick flight to Calgary Tuesday and joined the Avalanche midway through the first period. Despite his first shift starting at 16:07 of the frame, he went on to eat up 18:30 of ice time, and helped lead the team to a crucial overtime win against a division rival. That's impressive when a 36-year old defenceman can play that much in just over two minutes, despite arriving late. He brings an energy and an enthusiasm this team can surely use.

Foote and Salei were both quite effective last night against the Canucks as well, and the Avalanche were impressive all night long. They played good defense as a whole, tested Roberto Luongo early and often, and Theodore showed flashes of his old brilliance at times. They didn't panic after Alex Burrows gave Vancouver the lead with only two minutes to go, and Burnaby Joe came through in the clutch, scoring the tying marker with only 15 seconds left (with an assist from Salei). Once they get Forsberg back, they'll be a serious playoff contender, and the Canucks will undoubtably be battling them down the stretch. It would be perfect if the Avalanche finish seventh or eighth, setting up another epic post-season clash with Detroit: the NHL could sorely use a rekindled rivalry of that sort, made even more epic by the addition of players like Foote and Forsberg who were there for the old battles. No matter where they finish, no one will want to play them in the first round.

Related: Alanah has a great post on how the old-look Avalanche have rekindled interest in Northwest Division hockey, especially among Canucks fans. Also, apparently the reason Forsberg didn't play last night was immigration issues: those border types need to start recognizing the importance of hockey!

One other note on a trade the Canucks should have made and tried to make, but couldn't pull off:

Dallas snags Richards

This is a big move. Dallas, which looked to be in tough in the playoffs against Western powerhouses Detroit and Anaheim, all of a sudden gets a huge offensive upgrade in Brad Richards. Sure, he's been inconsistent this season, but he's also been playing with some pretty terrible wingers on Tampa's second line: as a top-line centre, he should improve dramatically. Dallas' defense and goaltending will also help cover for his defensive mistakes. The Stars didn't lose that much in this deal either: Mike Smith looks to be a pretty good goalie, but they have a better one in Turco, and snagging Johan Holmqvist from the Lightning should give them a capable backup. Jussi Jokinen is a good two-way player and a great shootout specialist, but there aren't any shootouts in the playoffs. Losing Jeff Halpern isn't too significant in my mind either. The nice thing about this one is they didn't give up too much of their future in terms of can't-miss prospects or draft picks. Sure, Dallas will be on the hook for Richards' massive salary, but if the cap keeps rising, it might not look so bad (also, if Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere and Mike Richards can make similar numbers in this new market, Richards doesn't seem as horrendously overpaid anymore). I bet the Canucks wish they made this deal, but they just didn't have the pieces: Tampa GM Jay Feaster seems to have wanted a goalie with NHL experience, and Vancouver didn't have any to offer (except maybe Curtis Sanford). Apparently, Nonis put in quite a hefty offer for Richards though, which is certainly interesting.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Campus Corner: Live blog of women's hockey playoffs against Laurier

Access to a press lounge with internet access offers me a rare opportunity to try a live blog, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Tonight's game comes to you from the exotic locale of the Strathcona Paper Centre in Napanee, ON: I was able to arrange a ride out here with Queen's Athletics for once, which was an unexpected bonus. It should be a good matchup, as it's a rematch of last year's OUA Final. Perhaps it should be billed as the Battle of the Gold. In one corner, we have the champion: the 23-2-2 top-seeded Laurier Golden Hawks, ranked third in the country and looking to defend their OUA championship banner. In the other corner, we have the challenger: the 12-9-6 Golden Gaels, fresh off beating the York Lions last week and looking to keep moving forward in the playoffs and improve on last year's silver medals. It's the first game of a best-of-three OUA semi-final, which is a new format for the league: they featured a Final Four tournament last year. Updates will come as the game progresses.

Update, 8:08 p.m.: Laurier forward Ashley McMillin takes a hooking penalty at 9:02 of the first period. The Gaels' power play creates some good chances, but can't score.

Update, 8:10 p.m.: Queen's defender Katie Duncan takes a hooking penalty at 12:10. Some good penalty killing from the Gaels, but Laurier gets one great chance from the slot and Melissa John has to make a great behind-the-back glove save to keep the score at 0-0. Queen's kills off the rest of the penalty without incident.

Update, 8:12 p.m.: John makes another great glove save to rob the Hawks' rookie forward Heather Fortuna, who fired a wrister from the slot about fifteen feet out. She follows this up with another nice save off the ensuing faceoff. Laurier's Lauren Barch, the Hawks' goal-scoring leader, fans on a shot in the slot and is then knocked down for her pains: no penalty called.

Update, 8:15 p.m.: Forward Andrea LeBlanc bangs home a rebound from the slot at 16:51 of the first to put the Gaels up 1-0. The puck was lying loose in the goalmouth after a flurry of Queen's chances, and no one could find it until LeBlanc fired it in. Assists go to Amanda Morra and Duncan. Definitely against the run of play: Laurier's outshot Queen's 13-3 so far. John has to make another nice save off a goalmouth scramble soon after to preserve the lead.

Update, 8:18 p.m.: Queen's forward Liz Kench takes a slashing penalty at 18:57. Laurier generates some good chances but can't get a shot through: one point blast is blocked by Gaels' defender Alison Bagg, while another goes wide off the skate of the Hawks' defender Lauren Meschino (3rd in the OUA in assists). Queen's kills off the first period portion of the penalty, but they'll still have just under a minute to kill off in the second.

Update: 8:35 p.m.: Just got the first-period shot totals. 15 shots by the Hawks, four for the Gaels. Laurier dominated the period, but John kept them off the scoreboard and Queen's capitalized on one of the few real chances they had.

Update: 8:39 p.m. LeBlanc gets a partial shorthanded breakaway, stealing the puck near Laurier's blue line and walking in, but she can't beat Laurier goaltender Liz Knox. Knox is one of the best goalies in the country statistically by the way: she's second in Canada and first in Ontario with an astonishing 0.98 GAA, and occupies the same places in the save percentage rankings with a .944 mark. Queen's kills off the rest of the penalty.

Update: 8:43 p.m. Laurier jams the puck in on a goalmouth scramble, but it's waved off by the ref. Meschino then takes a penalty for roughing after the whistle at 2:56, so the Gaels go on the power play.

Update: 8:45 p.m. Laurier does a nice job of killing off the penalty, penning the Gaels in their own end for most of the two minutes. Kelsey Thomson gets Queen's one real scoring chance, walking in on net on a 1 on 1 rush, but she has to deal with a tough angle and is thwarted by Knox. The Hawks get another good scoring chance just at the end of the penalty, but John makes a nice save.

Update: 8:47 p.m. Queen's gets another good chance on a two-on-one, but the puck bounces over LeBlanc's stick in the slot. Forward Becky Conroy then takes a holding penalty in her own zone at 5:22, putting the Hawks on the power play.

Update: 8:48 p.m.: Laurier capitalizes soon after, as Barch wins an offensive zone faceoff, Stephanie Crarey fires a shot from the point and forward Andrea Ironside bangs in the rebound at 6:03. There was a sense that this one was coming.

Update: 8:50 p.m.: More penalty trouble for the Gaels: defender Shannon Smyth takes a holding the stick penalty at 7:19. Queen's does a nice job of killing this one off, though.

Update: 8:54 p.m.: Laurier's keeping the Gaels pinned in their own zone most of the time, aided by some defensive turnovers. The Hawks capitalize at 11:50, when defender Andrea Bevan (the OUA's assists leader) bangs a rebound home to give Laurier a 2-1 lead. Captain Lauren Meschino gets the sole assist.

Update: 8:57 p.m.: Some line-juggling from Gaels' coach Rob Lalonde: he's replaced Amanda Morra on the top line, for the moment at least. Tory Boeckh is now skating with Kench and Victoria Kaufman.

Update: 8:59 p.m.: Queen's gets a good chance off a juicy rebound, but Laurier defender Alison Williams interferes with the Gael forwards driving the net and is called for it. Time of the penalty: 14:02.

Update: 9:00 p.m.: Better pressure from Queen's on this power play. A Kench wrister deflects just wide off the stick of a Laurier defender, and Knox makes a nice kick save off a point slapshot from Queen's defender Alison Bagg (sister of football wide receiver Rob). The Hawks kill off the penalty without further incident, though.

Update: 9:02 p.m.: A potential 2 on 1 for Laurier is averted when the breakout pass goes astray in the neutral zone.

Update: 9:03 p.m.: Morra has the best Queen's scoring chance of the period thus far when she's sprung for a breakaway from the Hawks' blue line. She walks in alone on Knox and pulls off a nice move, but Knox robs her with a kick save.

Update: 9:05 p.m.: Some nice late chances for the Gaels, including a point shot from Shelby Aitcheson that Knox deflects into the netting with a pad. Knox seems to be very strong down low: the Gaels might do better shooting high.

Update: 9:06 p.m.: Knox robs both Conroy and Thomson on low shots from the slot. John then makes a terrific pair of saves, stopping a point shot from Kate Psota and the ensuing rebound effort. The period ends with no further scoring. The Gaels are certainly playing better than they were early on and creating more chances: that should be reflected in the shot totals, which I should have in a moment.

Update: 9:10 p.m.: Queen's had eight shots (better than their four in the first period), while Laurier fired 18 on John. The play didn't seem that one-sided, though.

Update: 9:26 p.m.: Conroy takes a hooking penalty at 1:22 of the third, giving the Hawks another power play.

Update: 9:31 p.m.: Laurier increases their lead as forward Katherine Shirrif sets up Di Felice perfectly with a pass, and Di Felice wires a one-time slap shot from the right faceoff circle over John's shoulder at 5:34. Bevan gets the second assist for her second point of the game. The Hawks almost put the game out of reach soon thereafter as Ironside banged away at a loose puck in the crease, but John somehow kept it out and the defence cleared Ironside out of the area.

Update: 9:44 p.m.: Laurier defender Kate Psota takes a high-sticking penalty at 11:55, but the Gaels can't capitalize on the power play.

Update: 9:45 p.m.: Queen's soon gets into penalty trouble of their own. Chantelle Johnson takes an interference penalty at 13:34, and captain Cassie Sparks takes a body-checking penalty 31 seconds later to give the Hawks an extended two-man advantage. Some good goalkeeping from John keeps Laurier from increasing their lead, but the Gaels lose valuable offensive time as a result.

Update: 9:53 p.m.: Queen's calls a timeout with less than a minute left: tough to see a comeback here.

Update: 9:54 p.m.: The Gaels put on some good offensive pressure with John pulled, and create a goalmouth scramble, but can't get the puck by Knox. They do draw two penalties to Laurier's Bevan and McMillin though at 19:39, leading to a brief 6 on 3.

Update: 9:55 p.m.: Queen's can't capitalize, and the game ends 3-1.

Monday, February 18, 2008

When tragedy strikes

In Truro, NS, for a few days, which is why updates have been a bit sporadic (also, covering three different games Saturday didn't help, but more on that later). Saw something I felt compelled to talk about, though. The Windsor Star is reporting that 19-year old Windsor Spitfires' captain Mickey Renaud collapsed and died in his home today.

This is a huge tragedy for the Spitfires, the OHL, and Canadian hockey as a whole. It illustrates the here today, gone tomorrow nature of sporting potential and fame. One moment Renaud was a fifth-round pick of the Calgary Flames, captain of a respected junior team, and one of the team's best players with 21 goals and 41 points in 56 games: the next, his bright future inside or outside hockey is suddenly stripped away. The Romans perhaps summed it up best: sic transit gloria.

It's these events that break the "fourth wall" between athletes and regular people. There are far too many of them: one of the best cases is soccer, which has had four athletes die during games since last August: Sevilla's Antonio Puerta, Hapoel Beersheba's Chaswe Nsofwa, Motherwell captain Phil O'Donnell and FC 105 Libreville's Guy Tchingoma, who died just nine days ago. Lately, there was also the Bathurst tragedy. Perhaps what this evokes more than anything is the Swift Current crash, one of the last big tragedies to strike major junior. The junior and high school disasters are especially poignant, as these teenagers had so much potential still unfulfilled. These events require us to step outside the sporting lens for a moment, and reflect on the loss to the wider human community.

Related: The Globe's Allan Maki has a good story up on the subject. I first found out about this via a Canadian Press brief on the Globe's website, which has since been taken down. Also, Neate has an interesting post , with a link to an Associated Press story after the New York Marathon tragedy this fall pondering if athletes' heart testing is sufficient.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Diamond Dreams by Stephen Brunt

Stephen Brunt's Diamond Dreams is a classic for any fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Published in 1996, it's an amazing retrospective into the history of the franchise. What's more impressive than the on-field action though is the clarity Brunt brings to the shady backroom maneuverings that are as much of a part of baseball in this day and age as "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" or the seventh-inning stretch. Along the way, we're treated to some interesting vignettes and character sketches of the key personalities involved: Pat Gillick, the withdrawn baseball genius, Don McDougall, the young, ambitious Labatt's president and eventual key ownership figure, and Howard Webster, the eccentric sport-loving millionaire.

Perhaps the most interesting portrait, though, is that of a man still deeply involved with the franchise: Paul Godfrey, who The Tao of Steib recently called "a kitten-drowning baby shaker " for his plans to sell Jays' tickets to Red Sox and Tigers fans before local fans could buy them. Godfrey's recent actions, particularly his deep involvement in the nefarious plot to bring the NFL north of the border , certainly make a lot more sense when you consider his history and his involvement in bringing the Jays to town. He was originally on North York council, a tiny role that was insufficient for his lofty dreams, and chose baseball as his ticket to the big time. He later was the Metro Toronto chairman from 1973-1984, and published the Toronto Sun from 1984-1991 before eventually joining the Jays' front office as president. As he told Brunt in an interview for the book, his involvement with the franchise was always with regards to what it could do for him.

"I figured there was no political downside for me," he said. "Only a political upside in any event. So I started this campaign to try to bring major league baseball to Toronto. I was going to be the guy who brough major league baseball."

In fact, as Brunt so eloquently points out, bringing a team was always going to be a massive effort involving many people, particularly as none of them knew how to do it.
"A politician [Godfrey], a brewery [Labatt's], a bank [CIBC] and an eccentric businessman [Webster] set out to buy a baseball team for Toronto," he writes. Sure enough, the punchline follows: "Not one of them really knew for sure how to do it."

Interestingly enough in the end, Brunt seems to conclude that Godfrey's role wasn't all that essential. As he writes, "...[T]he idea evolved that [Godfrey] was exactly what he had hoped to be—"the man who brought baseball to Toronto"... Some of those more directly involved with bringing the team to town―and especially with paying the bills—came to resent that image, though the friction never became public."

Brunt also quotes a couple of Jays' officials disgruntled with Godfrey for taking all the credit. "The guys at Labatt resent Godfrey being credited with bringing baseball to Toronto, because he didn't put up the money," one says. The overall consensus seems to be that Godfrey was helpful, particularly with Exhibition Stadium, but didn't do as much as he generally gets credit for: not surprising, given that it was always a political matter with him.

The on-field drama is also compelling, from the Jays' poor start to the back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Brunt's strong writing means the reader is never bored even in the midst of long stretches of mediocrity, and the in-depth profiles he provides of Jays' players, coaches, managers and front-office staff means the book always stays interesting even when the team isn't.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book: for a younger Jays fan like myself, it gave a lot of insight into the origins and roots of the team, which I think is vital to an understanding of where they are now. As previously mentioned, many of the same features in the original expansion to Toronto seem now to be repeating themselves with the NFL situation, so this book certainly is still relevant. Moreover, though, it stands as a strong example of sportswriting at its best: telling the behind-the-scenes story of a franchise to the fans who only get to see the on-field product.

A few quick links of the day:
- A post I put up over at my Journal blog predicting the various Queen's teams first-round playoff matchups: 1 for 1 so far, with women's volleyball's loss to the Varsity Blues tonight (my story on that should hit the Journal's website soon).
- Allan Maki has a great feature on Lakehead's basketball team over at the Globe and Mail's website
- Mike's take on the Senators' trade to get Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore
- Neate has a nice piece in the Ottawa Sun about a goalkeeper attending Toronto FC's summer camp
- The Globe's James Mirtle has some interesting stats on defensive forwards up on his blog: also, he wrote a hilarious post on the Globe on Hockey blog about former Canuck goalie Johan Hedberg facing rubber chickens in Atlanta
- The CIS Blog's newest contributor, Rob Pettapiece, has an interesting post up about the possible demise of campus sports radio over at the University of Waterloo

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Campus Corner: An interesting controversy

There's some unusual stuff going on at the University of Ottawa these days, as Ross Prusakowski notes over at blogsketball. According to Prusakowski, Simon Cremer (the sports editor at La Rotonde, the French-language student newspaper over at the University of Ottawa) revealed on the Gee-Gees Hour radio show that Ottawa's Sports Information Coordinator, Dan Carle, apparently let too many details slip for coach David DeAveiro's liking on the injury star point guard Josh Gibson-Bascombe suffered against Toronto. Carle's press release updating Gibson-Bascombe's status contained the following:
"The Gee-Gees are without their leading scorer this weekend. Third-year point guard Josh Gibson-Bascombe (Toronto, Social Science) suffered a partial tear of his right MCL knee ligament and sprained ankle following a awkward fall off a rebound attempt with three minutes left in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s 78-69 home loss to Toronto." According to Cremer, this was part of a private conversation between Carle and DeAveiro that wasn't supposed to be published. Cremer also said other coaches have apparently called DeAveiro and insinuated that they'll target Gibson-Bascombe's weakened leg now, which obviously concerns DeAveiro.

Assuming the particulars are correct, as this has gone through several people before me, this is a bit of a tough situation for all parties involved. First, it's obviously painful for Carle. Carle is a good guy: I met him at the Queen's-Ottawa football game at Frank Clair Stadium this fall, and he was very accomodating. He didn't have even a hint of the snobbery towards university journalists many press relations types often have, which I was quite impressed by. This has to be hard on him, as it's an internal department matter: at least in the more normal situation where a coach disagrees with a journalist over what was published (which I'm all too familiar with), the journalist usually has the backing of their media outlet. Also, journalists are under no obligation to only print what's in the team's or coach's best interests. This is a far more convoluted matter, as both Carle and DeAveiro work in the same organization, and theoretically are working towards the same goals.

This also illustrates the tough nature of a sports media relations officer's job. Unlike many journalists who see them as hacks who have sold out, I have a lot of respect for these guys, particularly at the university level: they face the incredibly difficult job of coordinating stats, hammering out quick game reports for their websites and press releases, being up-to-date on the many different sports their institution competes in, making sure the local journalists can get the interviews they need and keeping their bosses happy, all often at the same time. In addition, many of them have journalistic backgrounds, so they probably often run into conflicts between their instincts for a story and their job description of promoting their department. They also have to balance the need to give journalists the stats and the information they need to do their job with the desire to make their department look as good as possible. That's not an easy line to walk, especially when you have to write tremendous amounts of copy every day.

It's also not a great situation for DeAveiro, and I can understand why he's upset. Providing that Cremer's story is correct, it must be tough for him to think that he's given out information that could hurt the team down the road, and the natural reaction is probably to blame the messenger who put the information out. This is not a minor player we're talking about: Gibson-Bascombe is a key cog in the Ottawa machine. He had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Ottawa's Jan. 29 74-70 win over Queen's, and his absence in the return leg likely led to the Gaels' 64-48 win.

Overall, though, I don't think Carle was wrong. I obviously don't know the particulars of the conversation, but if he felt confident enough to publish said material as a sports information officer, it probably wasn't explicitly said that it was to be kept confidential. If it was a journalist this happened to, I could see who was right being more of a grey area, as then you have competing mandates: the journalist's job is to provide information, whereas the coach's job is generally to promote his team in the media. I'd still probably wind up believing the journalist, partly due to my own media bias and partly because coaches and athletes in every sport have been known to try and retract or change things they let slip without thinking. When it's a sports information officer, you can bet he isn't too likely to publish something a coach makes clear he doesn't want out there. Thus, in my view, it's probably a case of attempted retroactive editing: as mentioned above though, I definitely don't have all the details. What's unfortunate is Carle will probably bear the brunt of the fallout: coaches have a hallowed status at most post-secondary institutions, while sports media types tend to be very much at the other end of the spectrum.

I also think DeAveiro doesn't have all that much to worry about. Sure, the exact nature of Gibson-Bascombe's injury is out there, but which leg it was that was hurt and the relative seriousness of the problem could probably be figured out from the game videotape, which is made available to all OUA coaches. All this does is clarify exactly what the problem is, which is great for the media and the fans who want to know what's going on. It's far better than the "upper-body" or "lower-body" stuff that infects the NHL. Unfortunately, stories like this probably mean that the days of actually finding out about injuries at the CIS level are numbered.

A few notes on the Queen's - RMC game last night: full story to come in the Journal tomorrow.
- This game really didn't mean anything, except if RMC would have somehow been able to pull off a miracle to avoid going winless. Unlike the Patriots-Giants, the expected happened, which meant that the game was a pretty dull affair and resulted in a 75-53 Gaels' victory. RMC scored the first four points, but fell behind soon after and never regained the lead, trailing 48-19 by halftime.
- At the game, Mike Grobe (Queen's Sports Information Officer), Jeff Downie (Queen's Campus Recreation Manager) and I were comparing notes on Carleton's 113-27 win over RMC. Downie calculated that given 40 minutes in a game and a 24-second shot clock, a team that had the ball half of the time would score 100 points if they shot at the end of every possession and hit all of their shots (basically, pushing the argument that Carleton was doing all they could to keep the score down to its logical extreme to see if it holds). Thus, any team scoring over 100 points has to be running up the score. Of course, possession isn't evenly split due to rebounds, steals and how quickly the other team shoots on their own possessions, but I still think Downie has the makings of a valid point. Carleton certainly didn't do all they could to keep the score down: after watching Queen's play holding basketball against the Paladins for the entirety of the second half, I know it's certainly possible to avoid running up the score. The degree to which Carleton ran up the score is questionable, but from this, it certainly at least appears that they might have.
- A good question is why the Paladins still bother to field teams in basketball and volleyball, especially given the small nature of their school. They went 0-22 in both basketball programs this year, 0-20 in men's volleyball and 0-19 in women's volleyball (where they didn't even win a set). This isn't an unusual circumstance: these RMC programs have struggled for a while. In fact, their women's soccer team's upset of Queen's this year was the first time one of their women's teams had made the postseason in any sport. As their athletic director Darren Cates told me earlier this year, their tiny student population makes it difficult for them to recruit. In my view, though, they should shift their focus to sports where they have some success. They've already cut their programs from 30 to 11, but it might make sense to scrap basketball and volleyball and bring back some of the other ones that could have a better chance. At the moment, these programs are just bad publicity for their school, which is the opposite of the usual goal of university athletics.
- Also interesting is that Queen's is already preparing for undefeated Carleton, according to head coach Rob Smart, despite facing either Ryerson or York in the first round. This is certainly unconventional, and opposed to the usual cliche of "one game at a time". Smart told me this is because Carleton's good enough that preparing to beat them will be enough to take care of the first-round opponents. Smart also said that they need to beat the Ravens in order to accomplish anything meaningful. He certainly aims high, perhaps driven by the sibling rivalry? In contrast, men's volleyball head coach Brenda Willis refuses to look beyond Saturday night's clash with sixth-seeded Ryerson to the looming prospect of an OUA Final rematch with McMaster. Time will tell which approach works better, or if they're both valid.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Standing up and speaking out

Good for former Canadian Olympic swimmers Shannon Shakespeare and Nikki Dryden, who delivered an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Chinese Mission to the United Nations today. I've written about this before, but in my mind, politics are inextricably linked with sport, and it's far too late to pull them out now. Kudos to Shakespeare and Dryden for taking a stand on an important issue using their athletic status: I'd much rather see that than just another ad for sneakers or Gatorade.

This also shows the futility of the Belgian Olympic Committee trying to impose a "gag order" on their athletes. As James Christie's Globe and Mail story linked above points out, the IOC already has relegations to allow athletes freedom of speech while at the same time ensuring the entire games don't become about politics: attempts by individual organizations to try and clamp down even harder are over the top.

It was also nice to see Steven Spielberg back out of his involvement with these games due to China's dubious human-rights record at home and abroad. The withdrawal of such a prominent name should do a good bit to raise awareness of the very real world problems China is contributing to, and should show people that this year's Olympics cannot be viewed purely in sporting terms. Sure, the athletic achievements are still the main story, but you can't just whitewash the background.

As I've mentioned before, it's extremely unfortunate that China's doing all they can to spin these Olympics, including keeping a database on foreign journalists. However, stories like this one show that this is essentially futile: in the famous words of Leia Organa, "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." These Olympics are going to get hammered on China's rights record no matter how much the government tries to surpress the media: they'd be better off just presenting their own side of the story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The new kids on the block

Ben Knight has a great post on his globesports.com blog today about the creation of a Canadian Soccer Federation as perhaps the first step in the drastic overhaul or replacement of the troubled Canadian Soccer Association. I've written pretty extensively on the problems affecting the CSA before, so there's no real point in rehashing that.

As Knight points out, probably the major issue at the root of these troublesome symptoms is the unnecessarily factionalized nature of the decision-makers, particularly on a board where provincial representatives looking out for their own organizations' interests make decisions affecting Canada at a national level. It's as ludicrous as those "Team Canada" missions where the premiers conduct international talks: you can't have provincial officials making decisions that affect an entire country, as they will always be looking after their own constituencies before the good of the entire populace.

Knight also points out that the CSA can't really take too much credit for the various successes Canadian soccer has enjoyed recently: they didn't have much to do with BMO Field or Toronto FC, they mismanaged the wildly successful U-20 World Cup and lost millions despite setting attendance records, and they switched the organizational structure of the men's national team immediately after their Gold Cup success. Thus, any counterpoints they raise about good things they've done need to be looked at through a skeptical lens.

I'm not one to condemn people unilaterally for past mistakes: if the CSA is willing to admit they've screwed up, drastically overhaul their structure and move on to what's best for the national game instead of what's best for their members, I don't mind if they keep the reins of Canadian soccer. Otherwise though, the government needs to wake up to the mismanagement under this regime, kick it out and allow some more capable organization to step into their place. Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps have already partially stepped into the void with their own talks about growing the game and improving player development: this new CSF sounds like a potential candidate for other roles of the CSA.

Most importantly, the function of managing the national team system needs to be sharply separated from the regulation of the amateur game, and incompetent amateur officials concerned with the preservation of their own fiefdoms should be kept away from the national program with as long a stick as possible. Hopefully, the formation of the CSF will draw more attention to the plight of the CSA and will raise national awareness of the aforementioned issues. Whether this results in the dissolution of the CSA or merely its drastic retooling, this is a positive first step.

Links of the Day:
- Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail has one of the best sports features I've read in a long time, looking back at the lessons of the tragic Swift Current bus crash. A great piece of writing overall, and especially relevant given the Bathurst tragedy.
- Sticking with the Globe for the moment, James Mirtle has a nice piece up on the introduction of CIS women's hockey at UQAM.
- Neate Sager on the Jays' decision to offer tickets to Boston and Detroit fans before local ones. I tend to agree with the guys from All Your Base Are Belong To Rios (greatest blog title ever, by the way) on this one: I don't mind them selling tickets that wouldn't normally be sold to fans hungry for the game, but the problem is when these fans get greater privileges than your own supporters.
- Neate has another post over at The CIS Blog (great resource for university sport stuff, by the way) on more statistical incompetence by the OUA (see my volleyball post from last weekend for another example).
- Greg Layson of the Guelph Mercury talks about how exactly Ontario University Athletics screwed up the score (which could be important) on his Big Man on Campus blog. It would be nice if this was a one-off, but my experience with OUA statistics indicates it isn't. Greg has more in a follow-up post, and should have a story on this in Wednesday's Mercury. It's nice that someone with a slightly bigger platform is taking the league to task on getting these things right, as it needs to be done: as James Mirtle wrote in the Globe a little while ago, we don't even know if Andrew Spagrud's going to break the CIS basketball scoring record, as no one knows what it is. That's a bit of a problem for a league's credibility.
- Speaking of campus stuff, Mike has a nice post up on everything from Richard Zednik to Gaels' hockey. A pretty amazing choke-job by Toronto leaves Queen's with a nice first-round bye, even after it looked like they'd blown the division with the Ryerson loss.
- And one final one: a tongue-in-cheek humour piece I put up on my Journal blog about possible reasons the Giants beat the Patriots last Sunday.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Campus Corner: Men's volleyball wins in straight sets

Well, that was a surprise and a half: in what I had expected to be a protracted and hard-fought five-set duel between two 13-5 teams, the Gaels instead beat the Guelph Gryphons in straight sets Friday. The Gaels looked quite dominant at times, but I think it was more due to poor play from the Gryphons than a truly outstanding match on their part, as they never seemed to quite hit that top level they're very
capable of.

The first set was actually very close, but didn't produce a great clash due to sloppy play from both sides. By my count, Queen's committed five service errors in the set, while Guelph added six more: there were also far too many net violations, passing mistakes and hits out of bounds for both sides. The Gryphons took a 20-17 lead, but then let Queen's come back to tie, and the Gaels eventually claimed the set
27-25 off an odd play: outside hitter Joren Zeeman went up for a kill (at the middle position, of all places), and slammed the ball right into the Gryphon block, but it came off the block, bounced off his head, recrossed the net and fell for the crucial set-clinching point. He could be a soccer player with moves like that.

The second and third sets were a different story, though. Queen's play improved, while Guelph's dropped even lower. The teams were tied at 8 early on in the second frame, but Queen's went on a run and never looked back, winning 25-17 and 25-18 in the last two sets.

As an aside: OUA needs to work on their statistics and scores, as Neate discussed on The CIS Blog a while back. In the third set, one of Guelph's points wasn't counted on either the official flip chart or the big scoreboard, and the final score was given as 25-18. It's not like it was a reversed ruling or something that I didn't notice, either: one of the points in my (detailed) notes simply was not counted. Thus, I'm pretty confident the real score should have been 25-19, but I'll have to report 25-18 in my Journal piece on Tuesday, which grinds my gears a bit. In this case, it doesn't matter, as Queen's already wins the
tie-breaker against Guelph for playoff seeding (the teams split their head-to-head games, the first tie-breaker, so OUA turns to sets for and against between the teams, where the Gaels triumph 5-3). As far as I understand, the next tie-breaker would have been points for and against between the teams, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that a silly error like this could hurt a team's playoff seeding, which is all the more reason to get it right.

There were some interesting moments during the match, but one of the best came when a honest-to-goodness bat came out of the rafters and started buzzing the players. The bat then proceeded to circle the court and the gym for the next two minutes, which forced the referee to put the game on hold and also led to some hilarious scenes of the Gaels trying to shoo the bat away by waving sweatshirts and such. It reminded me of last year's fake Journal published by Golden Words which included a great send-up of our sports coverage entitled "Gaels Smoke Out Ravens at Jock Harty". In a normal issue, that would be the headline for a story about a Queen's hockey victory over Carleton: there, it was instead a fake story about a group of orientation week leaders ("Gaels") helping University personnel clear out some ravens that were roosting in the rafters.

According to libero Stu Hamilton (who's still recovering from a flu which later developed into pneumonia, and thus saw limited court time tonight), bats have buzzed the Gaels at practice before, but never during a game. Head coach Brenda Willis also said she's seen the bat before during an international volleyball competition at Queen's, where it apparently forced a similar stoppage in play. This new athletic centre is sounding better and better all the time...

The play of the game goes to the Gaels' fifth-year All-Canadian setter Devon Miller (who, by the way, was facing a vastly less experienced counterpart, Guelph rookie starting setter Jon Waito). Queen's was pretty much running away with the second set, and held a 23-15 lead when Miller made an all-out dive and just snuck his palm under a hit from Guelph, popping the ball up in the air. Zeeman delivered a capable set, and Niko Rukavina smacked down a left-side kill to give the Gaels the point. The play didn't mean a great deal in the long run, as the Gaels would almost assuredly have won the set and the match even if they'd conceded that point. What it did show, though, was Miller's hustle and determination: a good reason why an undersized guy like him has consistently been an All-Canadian. He's not only one of the best pure setters in Canada, but also brings a strong defensive and blocking game largely due to his fantastic work ethic and never-say-die attitude. That attitude translates as well, especially when it's one of the team's stars who holds it, and in my mind at least, it's a good reason the Gaels have last year's OUA Championship banner on the wall.

This was a nice turnaround for the Gaels after a disturbing weekend loss to Laurier in just four sets (which perhaps can be blamed on my unfortunately predictive blog post last Saturday night, which said "Queen's should have a pretty easy time of it against 4-14 Laurier ... but you never know when an upset will strike"). Hopefully, tonight's win will give the team some momentum to take into tonight's clash with the 19-0 McMaster Marauders. As Hamilton also pointed out, it's not just Mac that's vying for a perfect record: the Gaels are 9-0 at home this year, so one stretch of perfection is about to end tomorrow: all that remains to be determined is which one it will be.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Campus Corner: Review finally released

At long last, Principal Karen Hitchcock released her recommendations on the Queen's Review of Athletics and Recreation. The initial review was due March 30, 2007; however, it wasn't released until June 27 after Hitchcock spent several months looking over its content. Ultimately, she decided to take until Dec. 31 to accept further input from the Queen's community (many who had already made their views clear to the authors of the review before its release, Drs. Bob Crawford and Janice Deakin). That process wound up stretching out even longer, with Hitchcock stating shortly inside the New Year that it would be issued by the end of January, and then her office issuing a "no comment" after that deadline came and went.

It's nice to see at least one part of this review saga finally come to an end. However, it's a bit disappointing to see that this is essentially again putting off the key decision (whether to cut teams or not, and if so, which ones) for over another year (April 2009). Mike and I will have the complete story on this in tomorrow's Journal, and I'll probably have more about it here thereafter: struggling to get a hold of key people at the moment, though, and the tight deadline pressure means I can't write too much more about this at the moment.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Campus Corner: Thoughts from the Carr-Harris Cup

I watched a great match over at RMC's Constantine Arena tonight between the Gaels and the Paladins. As previously mentioned, RMC's arena is far too small for these sorts of games: fans were crammed into the rink in sardine-esque fashion, including those of us from the Journal: the press box was overflowing (Mike and I, Brock Harrison from the Whig-Standard and the CFRC guys broadcasting the game were all forced into regular seats). As this was the last regular-season game between Queen's and RMC, the Carr-Harris Cup (named after a prominent local family who had members play for both teams) was up for grabs, which meant even more people wanted to come to the game. I don't think the arena could have taken any more, though: all the seats were long gone by puck drop, and students lined the standing-room area around the glass as well.

On the plus side, there was a great crowd and atmosphere: both the Queen's and RMC bands were out in force, along with students from both schools. Also, we had five Journal editors at the game, which is surely some sort of record: three of us were just there as fans though. Mike will have the full story in Friday's paper, so check out that for all the details. Queen's pulled off a rather nice 4-2 win to take this year's edition of the Cup. Here's a few of my thoughts on the game.

1. It was downright disturbing watching RMC's Luke Pierce get concussed off a Pat Doyle hit. I didn't see the hit well enough to definitively declare if it was clean or not (Brock and Mike both said it was), but the results were certainly ugly. Pierce went flying into the boards with a solid thunk, and then lay unmoving on the ice for about eight minutes. After that time, the trainer and several RMC players got him up and carried him off, leaving some blood behind. Obviously, my work this year has broadened my knowledge of concussions and influenced my views on how dangerous they are, however, I would have classified the Pierce incident in the "sickening" category without any prior knowledge. It's tragically ironic that this happened on the same day as CBC's the fifth estate aired a documentary suggesting that wrestler Chris Benoit's murder-suicide may have been partly caused by the damage repeated concussions did to his brain.

2. Among the other bothersome parts of the Pierce situation: there didn't seem to be a stretcher available, so teammates carried him off while the RMC trainer stabilized his head. That's a seriously bad move in head/neck injury cases, as it can cause further damage. This definitely should have been handled better.

3. Final weird thing from the Pierce case: he got stiched up in the dressing room, and returned to the ice in obvious pain partway through the second period. He didn't play a shift after that, and had to be helped to the dressing room after the second, but the real question is why he was allowed to return. I can understand why he'd want to watch the rest of the game, as it was his last game for the Paladins, but he never should have been allowed to. As Richard Rothenberg (men's hockey student trainer) pointed out in my article, there's a good reason to have a regimented system to deal with concussions or suspected concussions: it does a lot to prevent further injury. If it wasn't clear that Pierce had a concussion, I'd be okay with him watching the game: however, this guy was motionless for eight minutes! For his own good, he should have been shipped straight to the hospital, not the dressing room.
(Aside: Dave Ross, Queen's co-ordinator of athletic therapy services was at the game: he probably wasn't too thrilled with the way this was dealt with, given his worries about concussions and their potential to cause internal bleeding)

4. Ryan Gibb is an amazing goalie, but he needs to improve his puckhandling skills. There were several times when an error on his part caused problems for the Gaels, and one directly resulted in an RMC goal (another goal off a Gibb giveaway was called off for goaltender interference). Gibb did make 28 mostly impressive saves (according to the OUA, which hasn't always been too reliable), and had a strong game in the net: he just needs to get better when he ventures outside the crease (much as Roberto Luongo does), or else stay at home more.

5. The Gaels can put together some impressive offence. Jon Lawrance had two goals, including a nice breakaway deke (not sure if it's TSN-quality, though) after Jeff Ovens was sent sprawling in the neutral zone, while Pat McDonough added one off a faceoff and Ovens added another off a lovely through-the-legs pass from Jon Asselstine. They didn't rack up the shots (the OUA gives them 19, which may be generous), but they made the ones they had count.

6. RMC, on the other hand, won the physical battle. Queen's made few meaningful checks, apart from Doyle on Pierce, a couple of Alberta-style crunches by Grant Horvath and a few here and there from T.J. Sutter. RMC pounded Queen's for a good bit of the game, and even looked like they might swing momentum to their side with a string of solid hits early in the third period. The Gaels looked a bit rattled, but they ultimately hung on.

7. Speaking of McDonough's goal: it wouldn't have happened if today's goalies didn't feel a compulsive need to freeze the puck. Ryan Gibb fired the puck the length of the ice, and it went straight to RMC goaltender Matt Hartney. With no one from Queen's closer than the blue line, Hartney froze the puck, Jeff Ovens won the draw, and the Gaels got the winning marker. I wish I could lambast Hartney more thoroughly for this, but he probably was just following what most of today's goalies seem to be taught, freeze the puck at all costs. Not only does this kill the pace and flow of a game, it also leads to the chance of a faceoff goal as happened tonight. Defensive-zone faceoffs should only be conceded when absolutely necessary, in my opinion.

8. Lastly, T.J. Sutter showed he's a worthy bearer of the name, even if he isn't actually related to the famous clan. He got badly high-sticked in the third, and a penalty was immediately called on RMC. As he was skating to the Queen's bench, the RMC bench started heckling him, with one forward a particular culprit. Sutter paused in front of the RMC bench, did a Palmeiroian finger-jab, and called out his critic in a most effective manner, which quickly shut him up. That was some impressive courage displayed in hostile territory. He had a solid all-around game, too, and showed why he's my favorite player on the Queen's team: he works ridiculously hard on every shift, finishes every check and is solid defensively. He doesn't score a lot, but guys like him (c.f. Sami Pahlsson or a modern Trevor Linden) are still a valuable ingredient on any team.

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Keane by Roy Keane and Eamon Dunphy

Keane, the autobiography of Manchester United legend Roy Keane (co-written with famous Irish journalist Eamon Dunphy), is an extremely unconventional book. Most autobiographies of sports stars give sanitized highlights of their careers, gloss over the low moments and generally keep controversy away with a 20-foot pole. However, that style is incompatible with Roy Keane's playing career, so perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising that an intense, outspoken footballer delivers an intensely outspoken book.

This lack of decorum and propriety is what gives the book its real appeal. You can tell that there's no dodging the issues here from the opening pages, which describe Keane's journey home after falling out with the Irish national team just before the start of the 2002 World Cup, perhaps the most controversial moment of his playing career. The usual approach would be to start with something soft, maybe an amusing childhood vignette or a story about the athlete at the peak of his prowess. As many opposing midfielders found out during Keane's playing career, though, he always went straight in for the tackle and he always went in hard.

This work displays the same take-no-prisoners attitude that gave Keane his on-field reputation and even mythology, which is a reader's dream. His views on everyone from former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy ("a fucking wanker... playing fucking Big Boss") to teammate Teddy Sheringham "a bloody good player... the fact that he and I didn't get on personally didn't matter a damn when it came to the business on the field") are truly refreshing, compared to the usual lines athletes trot out when asked about teammates and coaches. Keane firmly breaks down the dressing room door, and in doing so, allows readers an unprecedented glimpse to the reality of professional sport: not just the glamourous matches against high-profile opposition, but the tough realities of training, travel and the rest.

Keane offers some great insight into legends of the game (like Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson, Steve Bruce and Stuart Pearce), but reveals even more about himself and his character. He starts with his humble beginnings in Cork ("Growing up, I was aware that money was always scarce, for example, we never had a car,"), and goes through his upbringing in the game and the beginnings of his reputation ("I got a reputation, which pleased me. He didn't take no shit,"), joining Nottingham Forest ("Considering where I'd come from, this to me was heaven), and his transfer to Manchester United ("A thousand pounds a week was a small price to pay to be a United player,"). Along the way, the reader gets a real sense of what makes Keane tick. As he says, celebrity was somewhat thrust among him: "At nineteen I'm afraid I wasn't ready for the role of well-known person." His early rise to prominence, and his place in sides like Forest, United and Ireland at a young age perhaps explains why he never seemed comfortable in the spotlight.

It's also interesting how he personally shifted from enjoying frequent parties to a more conservative attitude, and how this reflected a wider change in football from sport to big business in the era of television deals and a FA Premier League. Early on, he says "Work hard, play hard was very much my motto." One of the best passages in the book comes late on, where he talks about how this newfound professional focus led to an internal conflict for him. "The professional Roy Keane welcomed the new regime, its disciplines and rewards," he wrote. "But we'd had a lot of fun in the drinking era and the part of me that hankered after the rowdy banter and camaraderie of the best drinking sessions missed those gloriously irresponsible nights." Keane shows the dichotomy of modern football here: on one hand, it's great to see the game going global and taken so seriously at all levels, but on the other hand, it does sometimes feel as if part of the atmosphere has been irretrievably lost along the way.

Perhaps the word that sums up this book, and Keane himself, the most is intensity. Keane never failed to play his guts out on the pitch, and he writes (and now manages) the same way. Dunphy proves both his sporting and journalistic prowess by spinning Keane's writings into a cohesive narrative without losing any of the raw passion and emotion. That combination is what makes this book such a great read.

Related: A piece I wrote on my Journal blog about why United could use Keane's intensity at the moment.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Campus Corner: Thoughts from out of town

Some musings on the Gaels' away games this weekend:

Men's volleyball
The Gaels rode a 16-kill performance from rookie outside hitter Joren Zeeman to a decisive four-set victory over the Waterloo Warriors yesterday night. Middle hitter Nick Gralewicz also had a strong game, recording seven kills on only eight attempts for a .875 kill percentage. Interestingly enough, All-Canadian setter Devon Miller led the Gaels with 12 digs, as libero Stu Hamilton didn't play. I don't know the reason yet, but I'll definitely ask head coach Brenda Willis on Monday, as I'm writing about this game for Tuesday's Journal. It could be injury or illness, or maybe even just a coaching decision to give him some rest: the team's fans will surely be hoping it's the latter, as Stu's a key part of the Gaels' success.

The 20-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-21 victory vaults Queen's past the Guelph Gryphons (who lost in four to 11-5 Western yesterday)into second place in the OUA. These results mean there's a bit of a crunch at the top of the standings at the moment: McMaster's still undefeated at 17-0 (they beat Windsor in straight sets tonight), but you then have Queen's at 13-4, Guelph at 12-5, Western at 11-5 (with a game in hand), and Waterloo at 10-8. The sixth and final playoff spot should go to either 8-9 York or 8-8 Ryerson, as 5-11 Windsor and 5-12 Toronto are too far away to make a challenge. Queen's should have a pretty easy time of it against 4-14 Laurier tomorrow night (the game was rescheduled from Friday due to the crazy weather), but you never know when an upset will strike.

Speaking of upsets, tomorrow's most interesting clash is in Hamilton between Western and McMaster. Western's a very good team: they took Queen's to five sets in a hard-fought battle a couple weeks ago, so they should be able to at least make it interesting against Mac.

Women's volleyball
The women's team fell to 5-11 after yesterday's four-set loss to the Waterloo Warriors, who were 12-4 going into the match. The Gaels made it interesting in the middle sets, winning the second 25-19 and losing the third by the same score, but were never really in the first or fourth set and dropped them both 25-15. Middle hitter Christiane Taylor led the Gaels with a game-high 13 kills, more than double the best of anyone else on the team. Lorna Button had a strong passing game, leading the team with 12 digs. Interestingly, backup setter Jenna Willis played four games and recorded 24 assists, while starting setter Ellen Gray only put up four assists in three games. Again, without being at the game, I don't know yet if this was due to injury, illness or poor performance, but we should have more details in Tuesday's paper.

The women face another tough test tomorrow, as they take on 10-7 Laurier, who are coming off a straight-set demolition of the Royal Military College Paladins (who still haven't even won a set, by the way). They're still in the fight for the fourth and final OUA East playoff berth with 5-12 Ryerson and 4-12 Lakehead, but it will likely down to the wire. Ryerson plays league-leading Toronto (15-2) tomorrow, so they should lose that one, but you never know what will happen between Lakehead and York: after all, the Gaels knocked off the Lions last weekend. Next weekend, Queen's plays two critical matches in Thunder Bay against Lakehead, while Ryerson takes on York.

One final note here: as further proof of the OUA's statistical incompetence, which has already been extensively written about, they now refer to Gaels' middle hitter Colleen Ogilvie as "K" in the game summary. Maybe she's decided to change to just an initial, but she hasn't told me yet, so it's chalked up to another OUA glitch for the moment.

Men's hockey
A painful 6-5 loss to Ryerson Saturday afternoon means the Gaels likely won't win the division. However, they still could crack the playoffs with a good effort in Wednesday's Carr-Harris Cup game against RMC. I'll be there, watching with interest: until then, see Neate's blog for more details on the possible permutations.

Women's hockey
The women's team lost 4-0 to Toronto Saturday, and were supposedly outshot 39-12. If that stat's correct (and as earlier mentioned, I don't have much faith in OUA stats), it doesn't matter if you have the CIS Athlete of the Week in the net, you're still toast.

Campus Corner: Saturday night's all right for b-ball

The 8-11 women's team, fresh off an upset of the 13-6 Laurentian Voyageurs, almost made it two in a row against the OUA East-leading York Lions (16-3 heading in to tonight's game), but came up just short, losing 71-66 in overtime. Queen's trailed 29-21 at the half, but outscored York 22-14 in the third and held them even in the fourth to force the extra frame.

It really didn't need to go that far, though. With less than a minute to go and the score knotted at 60, Queen's star forward Sarah Barnes hauled down a defensive rebound and started a fast break, but point guard Teddi Firmi missed a tightly contested layup that could have given the Gaels the lead. On the ensuing Lions drive, Queen's forward Anne Murphy fouled York's Emily Van Hoof, who led York with 21points on the night. Van Hoof went to the line, but missed both shots, perhaps thrown off by the noise from the stands. They were the only foul shots she missed all night in a 9-for-11 effort from the line. Queen's then took the ball with 18.9 seconds left and drove down the court, but couldn't crack York's defense for a
game-winning basket. Barnes eventually launched a three, but it fell short and the teams headed to overtime.

In overtime, Queen's had plenty of chances. Barnes was outstanding early, making a steal and hitting a layup. She then sunk two free throws after being fouled on the Gaels' next possession, part of her 22 points on the night. Queen's hung with York for a while, but conceded too many free throws, and York went an astonishing 11 for 12 from the line in extra time to clinch the victory.

Barnes, who was playing her final regular-season home game for the Gaels, and head coach Dave Wilson both said they were disappointed not to get the win, but took some comfort from sticking with a top team like the Lions for so long. Looking at their performances this weekend, it's tough not to agree: they've shown they can play with the best in the league. However, the issue now is finding consistency: this is, after all, the team that lost to the 2-18 Ottawa Gee-Gees only last Tuesday. Interestingly enough, the Gaels play Ottawa and 6-14 Carleton again on the road next weekend. A pair of wins would give them some solid momentum heading into the playoffs, especially as there's a good chance they'll face the Ravens in the first round. Wilson, Barnes and Anne Murphy all mentioned that they'd like to avenge Tuesday's defeat to Ottawa, so the Gaels seem to have some extra motivation for that clash on Friday.

One final note from this game: Firmi again had a solid game with five assists, five points and eight rebounds, third-best in the game (behind only Van Hoof's 13 boards and Barnes' nine). However, she fouled out for the third game in a row. Granted, this time it wasn't until overtime, but I'm sure Wilson will be bugging her about that: the Gaels are a better team with her on the floor, so it's important for her to be more careful about fouls.

The men's game was pretty much as expected, as Queen's beat 5-13 York 74-67 to improve their own conference play record to 12-7. As I predicted yesterday, it was closer than the team's records would suggest. This time, however, the prediction worked out but the reasoning didn't. By all logic, Queen's should have run away with this game: they thoroughly outplayed York for most of the game, and they were getting ridiculously good looks at three-point shots, which normally spells disaster for the opposition. This time, though, Queen's couldn't hit a three for love or money in the first half: they were a lousy 3of 17 (18%) from deep in the first two quarters, and were even outscored 16-9 in the second frame, which meant that they held a slender 27-25 lead at the half.

The Gaels turned it around in the second though, and their shots started falling. The outcome was never really in question after Queen's went on a 9-0 run to start the third quarter. Their field goal percentage jumped from 30% to 57%, and they hit eight out of 16 threes for an astonishingly high 50% success rate. They outscored York 21-14 in the third, and only lost the fourth quarter by two points (28-26) despite some horrible turnovers and fouls near the end.

As expected, star forward Mitch Leger led the Gaels with 18 points, but it wasn't one of his greatest nights: he went six for 20 from the field, and hit just one of nine from downtown. He did add seven rebounds, though, which tied him for the team lead with rookie Nick DiDonato. The Mitchell brothers both had solid games: Travis put up 14 points and added five rebounds and three steals, while Simon recorded eight points, four rebounds and three assists. Rookie forward Jon Ogden also played well, notching 14 points and adding five rebounds. Guard Tut Rauch was the story for the Lions, as he recorded 29 points, almost half of their total offensive output. The Lions also went 21-24 from the foul line, which helped them keep it close.

Interestingly enough, Smart, Ogden and Simon Mitchell all agreed that nothing really changed from the first to the second half. They were getting similar looks, but the shots they missed in the first just started to drop in after the break. What I found particularly interesting was the difference in Smart's reactions after tonight's game and last night's thumping of Laurentian. Last night, they had a much bigger halftime lead (40-27 as opposed to 27-25), but Smart was really unhappy with their play in the first half. Tonight, with only a two-point margin, he wasn't all that disappointed in the team's early play: he recognized that they were playing well, but the shots just weren't falling. That's good coaching, if you ask me: knowing when to fume and knowing when your guys are already doing well, but it just isn't working. There's more to sports than the scoreline, as the piece I wrote for my Journal blog on today's Tottenham-Manchester United clash shows.

Next weekend, the Gaels face Ottawa and Carleton in a pair of tough matches. 15-4 Ottawa may be vulnerable, though: they dropped a 78-69 decision to Toronto tonight, and lost star guard Josh Gibson-Bascombe in the process. Sean Peter also didn't dress for the Gee-Gees, and it will be good news for the Gaels if one or both of them can't play Friday night: the duo combined for 31 points in Ottawa's close win over Queen's Tuesday night. Carleton looked invincible as always with a 100-77 win over Ryerson, but as I'm hoping is the case tomorrow, it's not always possible to maintain perfection. Simon Mitchell said the Gaels want to come out of next weekend with at least one win: that would certainly be an impressive outcome, regardless of which side they beat.

- Mark Wacyk's piece at cishoops.ca on the men's game.
- I'll have full stories on both games in Tuesday's Journal.
- Met up with Brock Harrison from the Kingston Whig-Standard at tonight's games: he should have pieces on both in Monday's paper.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Campus Corner: Friday night, time to shoot out the lights

The men's basketball team has been getting a fair amount of coverage lately, but they were upstaged by the women tonight. Only three days after their surprising loss to the 2-16 Ottawa Gee-Gees, the women rebounded with a huge 75-69 upset of the 13-5 Laurentian Voyageurs. They held highly-regarded All-Canadian Cassandra Carpenter to just 16 points, and only two in the first half. Nicely enough, this prevented Carpenter from breaking the CIS record for career points against Queen's. She'll almost certainly attain the record tomorrow night against the hapless Royal Military College Paladins (still winless!), but at least it won't have happened against the Gaels. Laurentian came on towards the end when the Gaels got into foul trouble, but Queen's led for most of the game after the first quarter (aided by outscoring the Voyageurs 32-15 in the second frame).

By the way, Carpenter didn't really impress me. Sure, she's got a good shot and sees the court well, but she flops around more than the Italian national soccer team. There were several times during the game where she'd run into a defender (usually Maddie Soye, Alaina Porter or Sarah Barnes), fall to the ground, and writhe around in mortal agony, only to get up and drain a couple foul shots as if nothing had happened (8 of her points were from the line by the way, as she shot a poor 4/13 from the field). She also had only four assists to go with her atrocious seven turnovers. It might have just been an off-night for her, but on tonight's performance alone, I won't be joining the fan club.

The Gaels also got some help from an unexpected source. The men's volleyball team had tonight's road game against Laurier moved to Sunday due to the storm (for anyone not in Ontario, it's pretty crazy here at the moment), so they showed up en masse at the gym to cheer on the women's basketball team despite their own 8 A.M. departure tomorrow. They were effective hecklers from the front row, and particularly got into Carpenter's head (she turned and gave them the finger at one point). In fact, both Barnes and Porter made special mention of the help from the volleyball guys in my post-game interviews with them. Queen's could use more fans like that.

Tomorrow night, the women face league-leading York (16-3). They'll be trying for two upsets in a row, but it will certainly be a difficult task. Frankly, coming out of this weekend with the two points they've already got is a huge victory on its own.

As an aside, the women's game featured some questionable officiating towards both sides. The Gaels were getting called for absolutely nothing most of the game (one of my favorites was where Carpenter absolutely bowled over Barnes with an elbow and still picked up the foul), which led to head coach Dave Wilson getting a technical partway through for his opinions on the quality of the refereeing. However, partway through the fourth quarter, it was if the officials flipped a switch and went for the even-up calls: they started calling phantom fouls on Laurentian and ignoring real ones by the Gaels. Both coaches wound up criticizing the referees in my interviews, which shows balance, but also that there might be a problem with the quality of the calls. Even though the poor officiating wound up helping both sides, it still wasn't a good showing for the refs, especially in front of a knowledgeable basketball audience. They interfered with the flow of the game far too much, and called too many fouls in general (both Sarah Barnes and Teddi Firmi fouled out, along with a couple of Voyageurs, and there were at least four or five more players sitting on four fouls by the end). This doesn't help a league that struggles for credibility at times.

The men's game produced pretty much what everyone expected, as the Gaels gave the Voyageurs a 81-57 drubbing. Star forward Mitch Leger proved that my injury worries were unfounded, pouring in 24 points in only 25 minutes. He also added 12 boards, 2 steals and an assist to claim the double-double. Travis Mitchell chipped in 17 points, while Rob Shaw and Dan Banister both had 11, and the team as a whole shot an impressive 50 per cent from the field and 43.5 per cent from deep.

Things were closer than head coach Rob Smart would have liked in the first half (40-27 lead at the break), but the Gaels stepped it up in the second and never looked back. The game gave Smart an opportunity to work in more of his rookies than normal, expanding the playing time of those who already feature (like Nick DiDonato and Jon Ogden) while allowing other rookies who normally sit on the bench (Alex Murphy and Patrick Beswick) to get some valuable minutes.

The team's looking pretty healthy at present, too, which can only be a good thing going forward. Point guard Baris Ondul put in 25 minutes, notching six points, four steals, three assists and a rebound, which shows that he's close to 100 per cent. Smart said Beswick's fully recovered from his concussion, and the Gaels were able to dress 11 guys (a far cry from the eight who featured against Ryerson a couple weeks ago). That can only bode well for a stretch run.

The men are in an odd position at the moment. Their 11-7 record means there isn't too much hope of them catching Toronto (13-4) for the third playoff spot, but there's no way 5-12 Ryerson can edge them out of fourth. Thus, it's important for them to keep the pressure on in case the Blues tank, but there's also that sense of meaningless games. Smart and Leger both told me it can be a bit of a challenge to stay focused, which should make tomorrow night's match with York interesting. The 5-13 Lions have been hot lately, demolishing Laurentian and Ryerson by scores of 96-65 and 72-53 respectively, and only losing to No. 7 Toronto by six last weekend. Smart said the Gaels can't afford to take them lightly. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Related: Mark Wacyk's take and news from around the league over at cishoops.ca.

A disturbing background check

Yesterday, Jesse Jackson stepped into the fray surrounding Major League Baseball's ill-fated "background checks" on their umpires. As Jackson pointed out, the checks, which involved Tom Christopher, the supervisor of security and investigations, asking neighbours of umpires if the umpires belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, were highly problematic from the beginning and further perpetuated the racial issues that continue to occur in sports.

"Major League Baseball has done a disservice to its progressive social history by equating southern whites with white supremacists," Jackson said in a statement. "I am surprised the professional league which helped change social attitudes in all sports leagues about segregation, by championing Jackie Robinson, would make such a destructive move. ... In a year with the injustice of Jena Six, nooses hung around the country and the Tiger Woods-Golfweek scandal, Major League Baseball's false impersonations of friendships and ill-contrived questions further press sensitive racial stereotypes, with no basis for suspicion. They have essentially defamed their people in their own neighborhoods."

The question that needs to be asked is who in MLB thought it would be necessary to ask about Klan membership? In the 21st century, is the Klan still a significant enough organization that the question is even somewhat reasonable? My vote is for no, but I could be wrong. The Anti-Defamation League estimates there's about 5,000 members and associates of the Klan in the States, which is a tiny 0.00002 percent of the 303 million people living there (thanks U.S. Census Bureau). The odds that any given person is a Klansman are ridiculously low, so it certainly has no relevance as a general question in a background check. The other problem is that the Klan is pretty far underground these days, for very good reasons: people would be ostracized if they were found to be members. Thus, no one is likely to go around burning crosses and wearing bedsheets in full view of their neighbours. The only way I could see this question possibly turning up something is if umpires' neighbours are as bad as Gordie Howe's.

I used to be an umpire myself (for five years), so I have a lot of respect for the job they do: it's one of the toughest in sports, as everyone usually winds up hating them (and if both sides hate you equally, you know you're doing your job). As World Umpires Association spokesman Lamell McMorris said (appropriately enough, from India, where he was taking part in tributes to Mohandas K. Ghandi: clearly the actions of a racist Klansman), this sort of incompetence on the part of MLB makes all umpires look bad, and leaves suspicions in the neighbours' minds where none were before.

"We did not anticipate that they would approach neighbors posing as a close colleague and friend of the umpire's and asking them questions such as: Do you know if umpire 'X' is a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Does he grow marijuana plants? Does he beat his wife? Have you seen the police at his home? Does he throw wild parties?" McMorris said. To try to link our umpires to the Ku Klux Klan is highly offensive. It is essentially defaming the umpires in their communities by conducting a very strange and poorly executed investigation. It resembles kind of secret police in some kind of despotic nation."

Baseball has really screwed up on this one. They should admit their error, and apologize, which they still haven't done. This is bad timing for them, as they're still dealing with the wake of the Mitchell Report and the subsequent congressional hearings. So far, the party line has been "It's all right, we may have been incompetent for most of a decade, but everything's in good hands now!" (see Bud Selig's contract extension). As this story shows, it's more than just the steroids issue that's been mismanaged. John Hirschbeck, WUA president, summed this up nicely in the Associated Press story. "Once again, baseball's favorite way of doing things: Ready, fire, aim."