Monday, March 31, 2008

Happy birthday, Mr. Hockey!

Congratulations are in order to Gordie Howe, who turns 80 today. There are some great retrospectives on his career from's John McGourty and Shaun P. Roarke, as well as the Canadian Press (via The Hockey News). Howe was my favorite player growing up, even though I never had the privilege of watching him play. I fell in love with the Howe legend from reading about him, particularly the part about his move to the WHA to play with his sons Mark and Marty after the Red Wings decided he was too old. Mostly because of him, I was a diehard Hartford Whalers fan growing up (and still have a Whalers jersey). As Kevin Allen of USA Today points out, one of the best things about Howe was he could do anything.

"Bobby Orr was the most spectacular hockey player I ever witnessed," he writes. "Wayne Gretzky is the sport's most creative offensive star and Mario Lemieux is probably the most dangerous scorer ever to lace up skates. But as extraordinary as these three players were, Gordie Howe simply had more tools in his box. He was as ruthless as he was cunning, as powerful as he was skilled, and as durable as he was dedicated. He was the NHL's most complete player."

There have been many who have written great things about Howe over the years, but one of the best pieces is from another legend, Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star. I was reading a great collection of his work (appropriately titled "The Best of Milt Dunnell") the other day, and came across a terrific (and strangely prescient) column on Howe's longevity that ran May 10 1963 (17 years before Howe finally hung up the skates in 1980, if you don't count his one-game comeback in 1997 with the IHL's Detroit Vipers to become the only man to play pro hockey in six decades). Here's some excerpts from "He Can't Read the Calendar":

"Away back in the early part of the Fat Fifties, Jack Adams, who was running the Red Wings, used to say: 'You don't have to tell me Howe is great. But you haven't seen anything yet. Wait until Howe is 30,'" Dunnell wrote. "Adams was just like all shinny men — impatient. He couldn't wait for a boy to mature properly. What Adams must have meant was: 'Wait until Howe is 40.' This big switch-shooter, Gordie Howe, is a slow developer. He's 35 already — and you can't even be sure has reached his potential. Wait until he's 50. He'll be holding the Hart trophy in his hamlike hands — sure as CCM makes hockey skates."

Well, Howe didn't quite win the Hart at 50, but he came pretty close. He won the Gary L. Davidson Trophy as the WHA's MVP in 1974 when he was 46 (it was subsequently renamed in his honour), and he led the Houston Aeros to back-to-back championships. He dominated the WHA for most of its existence, played until he was 52, and had a solid final campaign in the NHL, racking up 15 goals and leading the Hartford Whalers into the playoffs. That kind of longevity is amazing, especially given the rough-and-tumble style Howe played. Current Red Wings GM Ken Holland agrees.

"I think Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player of all time, certainly the greatest power forward of all time," Holland told McGourty. "He was the greatest player in the history of this franchise, and I think that he and Steve Yzerman are without a doubt the two greatest players to wear the Red Wings' uniform."

Think about the other great power forwards in the league's history, and how many of them had to retire early or missed significant amounts of time due to injury. Cam Neely, Eric Lindros, Kevin Stevens and Wendel Clark immediately come to mind, and there are undoubtably many more. Howe was absolutely tough-as-nails, and there's a good reason the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" is named after him, even if he only recorded it once.

Also, good for Gordie for using his time in the spotlight to address a great wrong: the case of his son, Mark, who is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame despite an outstanding career. Gordie called Mark's absence from hockey's most famous shrine an injustice when asked about it by a Detroit reporter.

"Check his record,” Howe said. “He wasn't a troublemaker and he did his job. All his coaches told me that he just doesn't get the credit he deserves. He played on teams that were always first or second, and he led the League in plus-minus several times. He beat everybody by about 20 goals and he was a defenseman. I got mad when they put him on defense because I lost my winger."

Mark started out as a forward, but then converted to defense and was a three-time Norris runner-up (and certainly would have won if his best years hadn't conflicted with those of Paul Coffey). He was great at both ends of the ice: in 1985-86, he scored 24 goals, recorded 82 points, led the league in plus-minus with an amazing +85, and also added 7 shorthanded goals. Over his NHL and WHA career (22 years), he put up 405 goals and 1,246 points. He also is the youngest hockey player ever to win an Olympic gold medal. Bill Fleischman of makes an excellent case for Mark's inclusion. As Fleischman points out, one of the main reasons Mark is likely overlooked is because several of his good years came in the WHA. The Hockey Hall of Fame's NHL bias rises to the surface again...

Unfortunately, there are two things in the Howe coverage that are somewhat lacking. Understandably, the NHL doesn't want to talk too much about Howe's WHA days, but it's disappointing that CP barely mentions them. It's also disappointing that there wasn't more coverage of Howe's birthday in the big Canadian papers, other than the CP story (although the Vancouver Province's Ben Kuzma ran a nice Q&A with Howe a few weeks back and the Globe has a cool photo slideshow up today) Props to the NHL for doing a great job with a historic moment for one of their legends, and to American media for picking up on it, but it would have been even better if the Canadian papers had followed their lead: the man defined our national game.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't you forget about me

An interesting combination of circumstances conspired to form the genesis of this post. Yesterday, I was riding back from a field trip to the Globe and Mail's Toronto office with several Journal colleagues, sitting in a crowded van, listening to 80's music and reading Sports Illustrated's Fifty Years of Great Writing. The Simple Minds song Don't You (Forget About Me) of Breakfast Club fame came on, and it struck me that in many ways, that's what great sportswriting is really all about: capturing the games, events and legends and firmly entrenching them in the readers' minds. The ability to do that turns a talented backfield from merely Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden, who would have been remembered as merely one of the many talented units in 1920s college football and likely forgotten about soon afterwards, into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who have remained outlined against a blue-gray October sky for almost 84 years and seem probable to stay there for many more.

There are many different ways to immortalize someone. Some, like Grantland Rice, the man who transplanted the Horsemen from the realm of fantastic apocalyptic literature to the much tamer gridiron, take athletes and almost mythologize them. However, as revealed in Mark Inabinett's terrific book Grantland Rice and His Heroes: The Sportswriter as Mythmaker in the 1920s, Rice also took pains to humanize his subjects off the field. Others take the approach of negative immortality, or creating legends who will forever live in infamy. A great example of this (to someone who was more than deserving) is Russ Conway's superb takedown of Alan Eagleson in his "Cracking the Ice" series for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, which was later turned into the book Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey. Still others receive immortality for being the traditional role player who steps up to make the big play at the crucial time: great examples of this are Paul Henderson and David Tyree. Then there are those who are famous only because of tragedy: John Malangone, who Gary Smith immortalized in Damned Yankee, and Mickey Renaud, who thousands have wrote about, but Gare Joyce perhaps best chronicled.

The overarching point is that making people and events memorable, whether they're already famous in their own right or not, is the essence of a sportswriting job in my mind. Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time to cover a spectacular event and catch lightning in a bottle: other times, you have to go out and find the story. There are plenty of ways and styles to etch people or events in memories, whether it's Rice's poetic allusions, the emotion Smith conveys to the audience, or Conway's scathing investigative journalism. Sports are one of the best arenas for legends: many of us can recall the "Shot Heard Round the World," the "Rumble in the Jungle", or the exploits of Cyclone Taylor, even though they were long before our time. It's up to this generation of sportswriters to carry the torch, and make it so people 50 years down the road will be talking about events like Manning-to-Tyree (or, as I prefer, "David and Eliath" or "The Great Escape"), Barnsley knocking off Chelsea, or closer to home, the overthrow of the Ravens, and people like Bobby Orr or Michael Beasley.

As an interesting sidebar, I went to a 1920s party last night, and of course chose to dress as Grantland Rice (fedora and all, thanks to Mike). Many people had no idea who he was, but a few of the more sport-inclined types got it, which is pretty impressive considering that Rice died 54 years ago. Perhaps spending a career immortalizing legends sometimes brings its own deserved immortality.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Breaking CSA news

The Canadian Soccer Association announced today that Peter Montopoli will serve as their new general secretary, a new position created to replace the chief executive officer's job and bring the title in line with other world nations. Montopoli's claim to fame is acting as the event director at last year's U-20 World Cup. The CSA press release plays up his impact there, stating, "As National Event Director for the 52-match tournament, he helped Canada 2007 draw close to 1.2-million spectators, engage 469.5-million cumulative television viewers, and spark $259-million in economic impact."

It's good to see the CSA finally filling some of the vacancies, but there's still several curious things about this announcement. First, it came out less than a week after the association appointed Stephen Hart as their new technical director, which seems to indicate that they've had the successful candidates in mind for both slots for the last while. If that is the case, it's curious that they'd announce Hart's appointment first, as his is the junior position. It would have made more sense to bring in the new general secretary first, and have him consult on the technical director's appointment. Even if the CSA wanted to hire their own man for the job, announcing the hirings in the reverse order would have at least created the impression of unity under the new general secretary, rather than having Montopoli start the job with someone else's hire already in place under him.

The Hart-Montopoli dynamic will be interesting to follow in days to come. Hopefully, Montopoli will respect Hart's soccer knowledge and give him a large amount of independence on the technical development side. There are plenty of business issues for Montopoli to look at, including the ongoing struggle to secure sponsors: he doesn't need to complicate things further by trying to impose his own vision. The CSA has several good people already in place, including Hart, men's head coach Dale Mitchell and women's head coach Even Pellerud: he should take full advantage of their talents. Nick Dasovic also did a great job as a contract coach with the U-23 Olympic team, pulling them past heavyweights Mexico and within a hair of qualification: he should be brought back in some role.

Another interesting element of this is how the message came out this time: the CSA pumped out a proper press release, and CP picked up on it with a story, which various news outlets then grabbed off the wire. Much more traditional, professional and effective than having it leak out through Gerry Dobson's blog.

What concerns me, though, is that Montopoli's main qualifications come from his work on the U-20 World Cup. Sure, it was a success in many ways: it set an attendance record, showcased some high-quality soccer, attracted plenty of tourists and got a lot of media coverage, which is a rarity for soccer events in this country. However, this event apparently somehow managed to lose a lot of money, raising questions about the losses that haven't been satisfactorily answered yet (to my knowledge at least). The CSA still hasn't shown that they're the best group to run soccer in this country, and hiring a head honcho whose main experience comes from running a tournament that should have made a huge profit but wound up in the red isn't a good step forward.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Olympics: Total boycott not the solution

I know I've written extensively before about the problems with the 2008 Olympics, but Jack Todd's column in today's Montreal Gazette begs to be addressed. I actually agree with a fair bit of what Todd wrote, which is somewhat rare: he's a skilled writer and he defends his arguments well, but his views on sports are usually a good distance from my own. We draw similar conclusions for drastically different reasons though, and in the end, he goes much farther than I would.

Todd starts off well, talking about how it's terribly disappointing that the IOC and the international community that so graciously awarded China these games as a "force for good" are now washing their hands of the whole bloody mess. "For shame. Under cover of darkness, China is once again inflicting untold horrors on Tibet while the rest of the world looks on, wringing its hands and doing little or nothing else to stop the killing," he writes. "Obviously, the IOC made a terrible, tragic mistake when it awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in the first place, overlooking strong bids from Toronto and Istanbul: arguably the worst mistake since the 1936 Olympics went to Hitler's Germany."

I'm not entirely sure on that one. Yes, the "Nazi Olympics" were terrible, but there have been many others with problems, such as the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where over 200 student protesters were massacred by the army only 10 days before the opening ceremonies, or the 1980 Moscow Olympics, held shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Olympics have frequently been given to countries with problematic human-rights records: this case is only the most recent in a long trend. Still, Todd makes the valuable point that awarding Beijing the games was a mistake.

Todd then brings in an interesting personal story. "I was in Moscow when the vote to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing was taken in 2001," he writes. "The Chinese were doing their best to put on a smiling, friendly face. But when I saw Juan Antonio Samaranch and Henry Kissinger strolling away arm in arm after the vote, it set off alarm bells: those two are not exactly famous for their respect for human rights. The behaviour of 30 members of the Chinese delegation who bulled their way to the front of the customs line on the way out of Moscow confirmed my impression that Beijing had no business hosting an Olympics."

I'm not sure if this is sufficient grounds to condemn the Games on. Yes, Samaranch is a pretty terrible figure, who, among other things, was a member of Franco's fascist regime before he became a corrupt IOC head: I recommend reading Andrew Jennings' fine work The Lords of the Rings if you want more information on him. Kissinger's legacy is more debatable. The support of those two men and poor etiquette by Chinese delegates isn't the best reason to have sent the Olympics somewhere else: what about the human-rights record, the terrible pollution that caused world-record holder Halle Gebrselassie to pull out of this year's marathon, the allegations of organ-harvesting of Falun Gong practioners, the ongoing occupation of Tibet, and everything else? In my mind, those are better factors than if Samaranch and Kissinger like it. Still, even though Todd and I have different reasons, we reach the same conclusion: the Games should have been awarded elsewhere.

Todd then goes on to make the case that the situation continues to get worse. "What was ugly in 2001 is uglier now," he writes. "China in Tibet is the real China: bullying, menacing, threatening. Trying to demonize the Dalai Lama, making this man of peace out to be a terrorist in order to justify the mass slaughter that is going on in Tibet. Chinese authorities are so afraid of the scrutiny of the world that they now want to ban live broadcasts of the 2008 Olympics altogether. This is a government that knows it has something very large to hide and does not want the pitiless eye of the world's television cameras trained on the bloody manner in which those who hold power in China maintain their position."

I agree with most of that. Interestingly, I hadn't heard of this live broadcast ban until now. The only story I could find suggested this was only for Tiannamen Square, which is still severely problematic, but hardly the "ban altogether" Todd suggests. Perhaps he only read the headline ("China may ban live broadcasts during Games)? He's quite right about the absurdity of China suggesting the Dalai Lama's a terrorist though, and he makes some good points about how the government is nervous about the scrutiny they'll get: my column on the planned "press database" speaks to similar concerns raised long before the outbreak of violence in Tibet.

Todd then makes a good point on the economic factors involved, which is perhaps why Western outcry thus far has been muted. "Once upon a time, the nations of the so-called "free world" staunchly resisted Communist China," he wrote. "But now that a brutal communist dictatorship has morphed into a brutal capitalist dictatorship, the world has opened its arms to China or more specifically, to the clout of China's increasingly dominant economy. The EU, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, all increasingly dependent on trade with China to keep their economies afloat, are afraid to confront the Chinese for fear of harming economies which, in the case of the U.S. at least, are already on shaky ground." True enough: I can't find too many bones to pick with that one. In the end, that's why China will probably get away with doing whatever they want: the rest of the world needs them too much.

However, shortly after this is where Todd jumps the shark, going from a sound premise to an illogical conclusion. "In the Beijing Olympics, the world has a big stick to force the Chinese leadership to abandon its Dark Ages approach to Tibet and to its own people: A massive, worldwide boycott, led by the EU and North America, perhaps by the athletes themselves if IOC president Jacques Rogge lacks the courage to lead the way," he writes. "This time, if the boycott is big enough, it will work."

I strongly disagree. As shown by Moscow and Los Angeles, the only thing a boycott does is to let a lot of second-tier athletes come away with gold medals, ruin the careers of many talented athletes who have been training for years for this moment, and cause a drastic oversupply of "What If" books 10 years down the road. The West needs to protest, but a boycott of the games isn't the solution. Instead, I like the idea of athletes or countries boycotting the opening ceremonies (advanced by Reporters Without Borders and Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Union Parliament). By the way, Reporters Without Borders should receive kudos for their protest at the torch-lighting ceremony: it's good to see a media advocacy group taking such a bold stand. Heads of state staying away from either the opening ceremonies or the entire games would also send a powerful message that China's actions are not acceptable without destroying athletes' careers.

In addition, it would be nice to see more athletes make use of the forum the Olympics provides them with after their events, like the courageous sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in Mexico. Even such an establishment figure as IOC head Jacques Rogge, who's busy conducting "silent diplomacy" (the title says it all) with Beijing has said athletes will be free to express themselves outside of Olympic venues. There are plenty of opportunities for countries, leaders and athletes to express their rightful dissatisfaction with China's policies, but a total boycott is not the right action to take.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jays: What else can go wrong?

Update: Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail sees things much the same way I do: that's some validation!

That baseball injuries list I posted yesterday seems to have been ominous: news came out late yesterday that Blue Jays' third baseman Scott Rolen fractured his finger in a fielding drill. Perhaps it was bad karma, coming on the same day as the Jays finally decided to end the controversy in left field by cutting Reed Johnson.

As the Globe's Jeff Blair pointed out, this injury is a severe problem for the Jays and their strategy for the year. "And now it's all out of whack: the lineup, the defence (Rolen's range at third base was supposed to offset the net defensive loss of having David Eckstein start at shortstop over John McDonald) and the karma, for what that's worth," he wrote. "Bad day, indeed — and there's still six more to go before it begins counting."

Dustin Parkes from the always-excellent Drunk Jays Fans has more on the woes that have hit Toronto this preseason. "In no way do I believe in religion, mysticism or any other made up thing, but I'm willing to go out on a limb to suggest that Jesus has an enormous voodoo doll of the Toronto Blue Jays and really gets a kick out of plunking it with needles that he sharpens on the hooves of Beelzebub while God claps," he wrote. "The evidence is fairly irrefutable."

Parkes makes a good point: it's tough to think of what else could have gone wrong thus far, as this spring training has bordered on the ridiculous. Thanks to Rolen's injury, Marco Scutaro is now the starting third baseman. Thanks to A.J. Burnett, many fans have learned far more than they ever needed to about nail salons, their magic potions and the effect said potions have on curve balls. Thanks to Casey Janssen, those fans who never took anatomy now know all about the labrum and the dire effects of tearing it. Thanks to B.J. Ryan, many more people know Tommy John solely for the surgical procedure named after him, rather than his solid career (3.34 ERA and 288 career wins, spread out over 26 seasons). Thanks to Frank Thomas, we now know he starts slow even when he comes to camp early. Thanks to David Eckstein, sports columnists have run out of synonyms for "small", "scrappy", "gritty", and "plucky". It's this kind of stuff that might drive us all to become drunk Jays fans.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The lighter side: Baseball injuries

Ever had an injury so unbelievable or embarrassing that you're afraid to tell people what happened? You're in good company. Check out this list of injuries picked up by major leaguers (link thanks to All Your Base Are Belong to Rios). Here's my favorites:

Outfielder Vince Coleman missed the entire 1985 World Series after being rolled up in the tarp machine at Busch Stadium
Seriously? You know you're in trouble defensively when your outfielders can't outrun the tarp machine. No wonder the Cards lost that series...

Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro was injured while shaking hands.
This provides a new excuse for ballplayers uncomfortable around the public.

John Smoltz burned his chest while ironing the shirt he was wearing.
Proving you don't need to be too smart to be a good pitcher.

Carlos Zambrano was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome after spending as many as five hours daily on the Internet.
Those intertubes can be pretty deadly.

Catcher Brent Mayne missed an entire month in the 2002 season because he turned his head to check traffic as he was crossing the street - and wrenched his back.
See, looking both ways can be harmful!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Canucks: Gunning for the division

Funnily enough, the Canucks have kept up their string of incomprehensible play lately. Things were looking bleak around the trade deadline while the team was hovering on the playoff bubble, and some demands for the head of general manager Dave Nonis were even heard after he failed to do anything more significant than swapping Matts. The team promptly continued their slump, scoring only five times in three games and recording only 10 shots against woeful Chicago, which captain Markus Naslund accurately described as "embarrassing." Since then, they've put up some better results, are now inside the playoff picture looking out instead of the converse, and could take the Northwest Division lead tonight with a win over Minnesota.

It's hard to tell if this string of results flows from better plays or merely better bounces, though. Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun nailed it after the Canucks scraped out a win against Dallas last Saturday.

"Seventy-two games into the Canucks' National Hockey League season, we still don't know what to make of them," he wrote. "In any game, they are as liable to be discouraging as impressive, heartening as alarming. They are praised and they are derided, and are almost never beautiful."

That's been the reality of life as a Canucks' fan since the Luongo trade, when they went from being a fun-to-watch hockey version of the West Coast Offense to beating Jacques Lemaire at his own trapping game. They're probably a better team for it, but they now live on that razor's edge, where the difference between a win and a loss is usually a bounce. Sometimes, they get the breaks, like Brendan Morrison's winning goal in that Dallas game, which MacIntyre appropriately called "a thing of ugly". At other times, they don't. It's tough to tell if the glass is half-full or half-empty. On the one hand, they have Mr. All-World minding the nets, they've got a defence that does a good job despite half of its roster usually being on the injury list, and they're only one point out of the division lead. On the other hand, they rarely win convincingly (even last night's 4-1 win over Edmonton didn't look close to a sure thing for most of the game), and there's the ever-present worry of where the offense will come from. I could see this team making a Cinderella run deep into the playoffs, but I could also see them crashing out in the first round or maybe even pulling off such a drastic collapse that they don't even make the dance. In any case, you never know what you're going to get from this team, which is more entertaining than any firewagon style.

- Matthew Sekeres' piece in the Globe on tonight's game
- Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province seems unusually optimistic on the team's prospects: "When this team is killing off penalties confidently, Luongo is very much on his form and they get goals from unlikely sources the way they did here Thursday, these guys can appear as a mean piece of business to any opponent in the playoffs."
- The Province's Jason Botchford tells us Ryan Kesler's going to be fine after taking that slapshot off the leg last night: given that he's been one of the best Canucks lately, that's certainly good to hear.
- In contrast tp the optimism of Gallagher and Sekeres, Alanah's still worried about the chances of a late-season collapse taking the Canucks out of the playoffs: not unthinkable given the streaky nature of this team and the parity in the West, plus the tough divisional schedule the Canucks play from here on in
- Zanstorm weighs in on the recent injuries to Mason Raymond and Aaron Miller

Thursday, March 20, 2008

And on the lighter side...

For one of the funniest interview/response sessions I've seen in a while, check out this video of Andy Roddick being asked about his love life by a very vocal female reporter. The good stuff starts about 50 seconds in. Thanks to the Globe and Mail's Tom Tebbutt for the link.

(Also in Globe on Sports humour, check out James Christie's post about the "squattie potties", or public toilets in Beijing).

Stephen Hart: Canada's new technical director?

Interestingly enough, it seems Stephen Hart has been hired as the Canadian Soccer Association's new technical director, according to Sportsnet's Gerry Dobson. Surprisingly though, Dobson talks about this as if the story's already come out, but I couldn't find it reported anywhere else. Even the CSA's website has nothing on this, and still lists Technical Director as "TBD" in their staff directory. I don't dispute Dobson on this: he's one of the most connected people in Canadian soccer, and it sounds like he's already talked with Hart. If he had planned to break the news, I think he might have actually explained more about the hiring, though: at the moment, his post seems like a commentary targeted at those who already know the story. Did the CSA decide to hold off on the announcement to avoid diverting attention from tonight's crucial Canada-U.S. U-23 match for an Olympic berth, and forget to send Dobson the memo? One can only speculate. It doesn't seem that out of character for an organization with their recent struggles, though.

Hart is a good choice for the post, presuming Dobson's information is accurate. He's been involved with the CSA for 17 years, and thus is fully aware of the tremendous roles regional politics and infighting have played in the organization. He's also got considerable coaching experience, including leading the senior team on a strong run at last year's Gold Cup before their hopes were dashed by questionable officiating.

Additionally, as Dobson writes, his personality is well-suited to the job.
"I've known Stephen for a while and figure he's a guy with the right temperament for a position that would have most people pulling out their hair or chewing a finger off," he wrote. "The frustration level will be that severe. But Hart is always on an even keel, never too high, never too low," he wrote. He's a thoughtful sort who we all hope finds a way to help dig the CSA out of the hole in which they find themselves."

Hopefully, Hart will be able to navigate the murky waters of Canadian soccer and convince regional associations to buy into a national player development plan, which Canada desperately needs. A systematic way of evaluating, recruiting and nuturing talent is crucial to maintaining and building on the country's recent international successes: young players like Owen Hargreaves and Jonathan de Guzman need to be identified and supported at an early age. De Guzman left Canada for the Netherlands at 12, while Hargreaves moved to Germany when he was 16: if they had had the chance to develop their talent in Canada instead of abroad, they might be wearing our national colours now. It's good to see that we (might?) finally have a technical director: hopefully, he'll be able to continue the long, hard process of advancing Canadian soccer out of its current turmoil.

Originally posted at 3:30 P.M. ET.

Update, 6:40 P.M. So, the CSA finally got around to posting Hart's appointment on their website, and The Canadian Press picked it up (link via TSN). The CP story's quite good, actually: it features detailed interviews with Hart and acting president Dominic Maestracci. Maestracci had some interesting comments, particularly that 15 people applied for the job (six from outside Canada), which surprised me given the CSA's current infamous reputation. Also, the decision to choose Hart was apparently unanimous: that's impressive, given the frequently fractured nature of the CSA board, and is more evidence that he's the right man for the job. Also, Hart's comments are promising: it sounds like he wants to move towards a national structure for player development, but slowly enough to keep the almighty provincial associations on board.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Another athlete dies too soon

Just a week after I wrote this piece about heart failure and athletes dying young, another student-athlete has died. Neate has more on the tragic death of 19-year-old Ereck Plancher, a receiver at the University of Central Florida.

As the Orlando Sentinel's Andrea Adelson writes<, , this is anything but an isolated incident. "The same story seems to play out every year: a seemingly healthy college football player dies suddenly as the result of a workout, and there are no immediate answers why," she wrote. "The last year there were no noncontact college football deaths was 1999. Since 1966, there have there have only been seven years when there were no noncontact college football deaths." The Sentinel also provides a list of athletes who have died recently after workouts.

Those are some scary numbers, up there with the ones I found from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation's national registry of young athlete deaths. Their researchers estimate there are 125 athletes under 35 who die every year, mostly due to heart failure.

The real problem is there aren't any easy solutions. Defibrillators are one of the best methods for preventing these deaths, but UCF had one, and using it didn't make a difference. Initial autopsy reports were inconclusive, as they always seem to be: no one's figured out exactly what killed Mickey Renaud yet either. The school gives its players a physical exam, but it's unclear how much that helps either, as many conditions go undetected. As Dr. Andrew Pipe, the medical director of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Minto Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre, told me last week, even physical exams for all athletes haven't been proven effective yet.

Italy has a law that anyone who participates in competitive sport must undergo a physical examination. Pipe said that would be difficult to implement in Canada due to the doctor shortage, but even compulsory physicals don’t necessarily reduce deaths.
“In Italy, there’s a surplus of doctors, so there clearly are ways in which that can be accomplished,” he said. “The question has been raised and has been looked at very carefully as to whether that is likely to actually reduce the incidence of these kind of deaths, and there’s an ongoing debate about that.”

Even electrocardiogram testing, as is done at some universities, is problematic due to the high number of false positives generated. Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Sport Medicine Centre and a clinical physician who was the Calgary Flames’ team doctor for six years, told me this brings in the question of if we're willing to ban healthy people to ensure no one dies.

“The numbers tell us the risk of a sudden cardiac death in that age group [under 35] is probably one in 200,000," he said. "We know with the current methods we have, with screening with ECGs, you probably have about a two per cent positive rate. If the rate of sudden deaths is that low, almost all of those are false positives. If you use ECG and then find an abnormality and say you can’t play sports, the question is, are you willing to exclude 2,000 healthy people from playing sports to catch the one that might have a sudden death?"

That is the $64,000 question. Personally, I think it's better to let the 2,000 people play. Universal electrocardiogram testing would be great if it was cheaper, just to give people an idea of they might be at risk, but using that to ban people from the sport they love is a poor idea in my mind. The other thing is, as Pipe and Meeuwisse both pointed out, people can get a better idea of if they're at risk of heart problems just from their family histories. Technology may be the answer in the future, especially with the new echocardiograms that provide a much better picture of the heart's functionality via sound waves than an electrocardiogram does. At the moment, it isn't providing any solutions, though.

One thing that can be addressed is the need for and the intensity of these off-season training sessions. As the Sentinel's Mike Bianchi wrote, these workouts have caused too many deaths over the years.

"Almost always it happens during offseason workouts," he wrote. "This is the time of year when football players are programmed to give absolutely everything they have. To leave it all out on the field.To pay the ultimate price. Sadly, yet another one did just that Tuesday when UCF freshman wide receiver Ereck Plancher passed out after completing a conditioning drill." Bianchi later quotes former UCF wide receiver Jimmy Fryzel, who said, "The offseason workouts are usually hell. That's when you have to really push yourself to get better." The question begs asking, how much pushing is too much?

One other point is that these deaths should perhaps scare people from working themselves too hard in athletic training, but they shouldn't stop people from training altogether. As Pipe told me, the majority of young athletes are far better off than those who don't play sports. "Overall, there’s a death rate of about 1 per 200,000 young athletes," he said. "These are very tragic, but relatively rare events, which understandably get a considerable amount of publicity. Ironically, we should also recognize that for the majority of young people in Canada today, a sedentary lifestyle is far more hazardous than participating in sport."

In the end, all the analysis and rationalization can only take you so far, though: it can't get you away from the stark reality of a life full of potential that didn't have to end. As Bianchi wrote. "An athlete dying young -- is there anything more devastating than unrealized hopes and an unexplored future lying motionless on a cold floor?" I'm not sure there is.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Overcoming the odds, or, why Canada is now Mexico's Enemy No.1

Against the odds, the Canadian men's U-23 soccer team pulled off an amazing 5-0 win over group-leading Guatemala Sunday to keep their dreams of qualifying for this summer's Beijing Olympics alive. Although they were last in the group heading into the match, with only one point from two games, the win proved to be just enough to advance to the next stage. It came at the expense of perennial power Mexico, though, who scored five goals of their own in a win over Haiti that drew them level with the Canadians on points: the one goal the Mexicans gave up proved their undoing though, as Canada squeaked through with a +4 goal differential to Mexico's +3.

It's impressive that the Canadians were able to produce so much offense. Usually, soccer teams from this country score a goal or two and then tenaciously defend, perhaps cautioned off from going for the jugular by fear of dispelling the "polite Canadians" stereotype. In international competitions like this tournament though, where a single goal can make the difference between going on or going home, every opportunity to run up the score must be seized. Perhaps Canada is starting to learn that.

It's also great to see some of our younger players coming along. This summer, I watched Tosaint Ricketts, who had two goals for Canada against Guatemala, pour in a hat-trick at Richardson Stadium in a friendly against the U.S. U-20 team. Ricketts is a supremely gifted striker with incredible bursts of speed, and it was disappointing that he wasn't able to do more in the U-20 team's undignified goalless exit from the U-20 World Cup last summer. That team wasn't very impressive in the tournament, but several of their players like Ricketts, Toronto FC's Andrea Lombardo and Will Johnson (who also tallied twice against Guatemala) have gone on to make an impact with the U-23 side. The future looks considerably less bleak than it did last July.

What can't be neglected is how close they came to failure, though. In fact, if it hadn't been for Kyle Hall's 90th minute goal and some several key saves from Haitian goalkeeper Johnny Placide, it would be the Mexicans moving on. Canadian coach Nick Dasovic (a former player and coach with the Vancouver Whitecaps) had high praise for Placide afterwards. "He was unbelievable," he told "He was on fire. I don’t know where he plays, but he definitely deserves a contract somewhere in the world." Placide stopped a penalty and other good chances, and Mexico also missed several chances, including two 5 on 0 breaks. As Larry Millson wrote on the Globe on Soccer blog, "Couldn’t believe the chances Mexico missed. There was the ball that went straight up off a Mexican foot and over the goal instead of in on a gimme from in front and the missed penalty kick and that is just a couple." If any of those had gone in, or Canada hadn't found an amazing outburst of offense, it would be the Mexicans advancing to Thursday's final against the U.S. Dasovic didn't even think that the Canadians could pull off such a lopsided victory. "Not in my wildest imagination did I think we would win that big," he said.

The sad thing in this though is that Mexico's Olympic dreams are crushed. Based on past results, they're probably more deserving than Guatemala or Honduras, the fourth semi-finalist. The vagaries of the pool system, a poor performance against Guatemala and a draw with the Canadians combined to leave them on the outside looking in, though. As Millson related, there are many passionate Mexican fans who had already planned to travel to the semifinals, never believing that their team wouldn't make it. There also have been plenty of calls for the head of coach Hugo Sanchez. As Jeff Blair reports on the Globe on Baseball blog, this is pretty much a national crisis in Mexico. "I watched Contacto Deportivo on Monday night and while I don't know Spanish beyond Dora The Explorer, I do know that there were a boatload of 'person on the street interviews' about Mexico's shocking exit from Olympic qualifying and on at least a couple of occasions I could hear the word 'Canada' spit out derisively," he wrote. "It's nice we're pissing people off, no?"

As Blair wrote, it's good to see our nation put off our lovable-losers tag for a couple of tournaments (this one and the baseball team's Olympic qualification come to mind). The real question is if we can keep that up, though: as the Globe's Ben Knight noted before the Guatemala game, there are still many issues with the national soccer programs, first and foremost a lack of corporate support. The Canadian Soccer Association will need to get their ducks in a row and start obtaining the financial backing required for on-field success at all levels. If they can get their own house in order, it may be a lot easier to convince corporations to tie their image to Canadian soccer.

Monday, March 17, 2008

CIS: Peters settles with TWU

Some interesting news coming out of Langley these days. Trinity Western University announced that they've settled with former men's basketball coach Stan Peters. Peters, who was dismissed Dec. 13 after the Spartans got off to a 4-8 start, filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the university last month as Gary Ahuja of the Langley Times reported. His suit claimed that his firing was only the second time a CIS men's basketball coach had ever been let go in the middle of a season. Terms of the settlement weren't released.

Peters had gone on a solid run with the Spartans since joining the program in 1999: his team made the Canada West playoffs four out of the last five years, and he won a Canada West bronze medal and the Canada West Coach of the Year award in 2003. He's also an experienced coach, with 21 years of coaching at colleges and universities under his belt. To my knowledge, this year was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding one for the Spartans, so I was pretty surprised when they axed Peters partway through.

Of course, it made a little more sense when they announced his replacement: Scott Allen, the coach of the White Rock Christian Academy Warriors, a perennial powerhouse that frequently punches above their weight on the B.C. high school circuit, playing up in the AAA division against bigger schools. White Rock's won three AAA championships since the school moved up to that level, and Allen has the highest winning percentage of any coach at the AAA championships. He's unproven at the university level, but he's certainly got some coaching talent.

Also, as either a side benefit or his main appeal (depending on your degree of cynicism), he's got a lot of connections with some key B.C. players: he's already landed former national rookie of the year Jacob Doerksen on a transfer from UVic. Doerksen led the Vikes to the CIS silver in 2006 and was named a Canada West second team all-star the next year, but then walked away from UVic. He was reportedly considering UBC or Calgary, but instead chose to join Allen, his former provincial U17 coach, at TWU. He's already sat out a year, so he'll suit up for the Spartans this fall. Nick Greenizan of the Peace Arch News called Doerksen "one of Western Canada’s most sought after players." As Greenizan reports in the same story, Allen's hiring and Doerksen's decision then led White Rock Christian star Tonner Jackson to join the Spartans. Jackson reportedly had options in Canada and the States, but the close links to Allen persuaded him. “Knowing (Allen) was definitely part of it, and with all the returning seniors they’ll have next year, and with Jacob coming in, I think it will just be a good environment for me.” Jackson told Greenizan. Allen's also nabbed Louis Hurd, the B.C. Colleges Athletic Association's leading scorer.

The timing is interesting here. Allen takes the new job Feb. 23, and within a month, lands three sought-after recruits. It makes me wonder if Allen's recruiting potential wasn't the real reason Peters was bumped. This sort of move isn't unknown in university sports, but it's more common south of the border (consider the Wall Street Journal's piece on USC giving Lil' Romeo a basketball scholarship despite his lack of talent in hopes of luring Demar DeRozen.) There may have been legitimate reasons for the firing, and I don't know what was going on behind the scenes, but the suspicion lingers that Peters was axed to make way for Allen and his stable of recruits. In any case, firing a long-time coach with Peters' reputation midseason is unusual for any university, but even more so for a university whose human resources department has the bold mission statement "Our mission, as providers of professional human resource services, is to support the people of the TWU community in fulfilling Gods [sic] call in their lives." Guess they decided Peters was being called elsewhere...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

And the upsets continue...

The Brock Badgers just knocked off the giant-killing Acadia Axemen to win the CIS national hoops championship. Pretty impressive when a #7 seed who didn't even make the OUA finals can pull off this kind of a win: it really shows the depth of the league. Plenty of people will probably use this win to further the case for expanding the tournament to 16 teams, which as I mentioned yesterday, I'm all in favour of, as long as it is an actual expansion rather than just a renaming of the regional finals. The game itself was a pretty good match: largely defensive overall, but some excellent play from both sides. I was particularly impressed with Owen White (MVP of the championships, who put up 12 points and 9 rebounds) down low and Mike Kemp's shooting from the perimeter (he put up 23 points, grabbed three offensive rebounds, and made six of 13 attempts from deep). White definitely looks a lot like Edgar Davids (Dutch midfielder currently playing for Ajax) with his glasses and dreadlocks: he did a nice job of pulling Brock into the finals, and put up another great effort with all the pressure on. It was nice to see how close the game was too, keeping viewers interested until the end. In many ways, it was a fitting end to a great tournament: the unlikely underdogs themselves upset by an even unlikelier champion.

Update: The game story from Michael Grange of the Globe. Nice to see a CIS story at the top of

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The upset of the century

Bigger than the Giants and Patriots. More remarkable than the Edmonton Oilers' Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. More unprecedented than the seventh-seeded Winnipeg Wesmen knocking off the undefeated McMaster Marauders. Even more unexpected than Barnsley knocking off Liverpool and Manchester United. There's nothing that's happened yet this century that can compare to the Acadia Axemen's improbable, almost unbelievable 82-80 double overtime upset of the Carleton Ravens tonight in the CIS men's basketball championships. They'll go on to face Brock tomorrow in a final no one would have predicted. As Streaming Sports Network Canada's Mark Masters noted on their webcast, "This is a game that will go down in the history books as one of the best all-time games in national history." I'd go even beyond that.

Carleton has been one of the most dominant programs in any sport ever, winning the last five national championships, going undefeated in OUA competition this year, and winning 18 straight games at the nationals to tie UVic's record. Acadia barely made it into this tournament, squeaking in from the wild-card slot in a somewhat contested decision over Brandon: as Mark Wacyk of noted on the SSN broadcast, "Some people didn't even think they should be here." I for one, picked Brandon by a nose for the wild-card berth. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald's Chad Lucas now looks like a genius for his post defending the inclusion of the Axemen over the Bobcats and the overall strength of the AUS conference.

As Masters commented, it's tough to grasp the significance of this upset. "You try to wrap your head around the magnitude of what just happened here," he said. "It's a game that will go down in the history books as one of the best all-time games in national history." The Globe and Mail's Michael Grange captured the significance perfectly in the lede of his article. "The Acadia Axeman chopped down a giant," he wrote. "It took two overtime periods, countless lead changes and surviving a controversial reversal of a basket that may well have decided the game with 21 seconds to play, but they will be playing Brock University Sunday afternoon after an 82-80 win that not only ended Carleton University's remarkable five-year run of CIS dominance but will likely stand as one of the most remarkable games in CIS history."

It certainly wasn't an easy win. Acadia held the lead most of the way through, but Carleton wasn't ready to give up on their dreams of a sixth straight championship and kept fighting back, forcing first one overtime, then a second, and even having a chance to win at the end buzzer. Acadia might have been able to pull further away if not for a controversial overturn of a call near the end: they airballed a long jumper, but Sean Berry grabbed the rebound, hit the shot and got the foul. After extensive consultations, the referees overturned the basket and gave Carleton the ball, though, determining that a shot clock violation had occurred. Acadia coach Les Berry was furious, but the SSN guys agreed that it was the right call, and I'm in a mind to agree. The nice thing is it didn't wind up making a difference: it would have been bad if Carleton had won off that call, and it would have been worse if Acadia needed the call to complete this upset. This way, there's no asterisk, and nothing to cast a shadow on their triumph.

The key to victory for the Axemen was a solid defence. As Masters noted,
"When it counted the most, the Ravens just could not hit a shot." Wacyk agreed, citing the defensive play of the Axemen as explanation for the Ravens' abysmal 33% field-goal percentage. "Carleton did not get a lot of open looks," he said. Acadia also pulled off the rare feat of beating the Ravens on the glass, outrebounding them 38-33.

Acadia got a particularly great performance from Achuil Lual, who did a fantastic job of shutting down CIS Player of the Year Aaron Doornekamp. Wacyk attributed Luau's performance as the top factor that let Acadia win, and I'm of a mind to agree: Carleton is tremendously deep, which is why they were able to hang around for so long, but minimizing the impact of a star like Doornekamp is vital for an upset. Lual told the SSN guys in a post-game interview that his defence is the main reason he’s on the squad. “Since I started playing ball, I wasn't really a big offensive threat,” he said. He recognized Doornekamp’s talent, but wasn’t intimidated. “All I was thinking was play my hardest and try to stop him.” Acadia coach Les Berry also had high praise for Lual. "He matches up against the best player on every team," he said. "His intensity is through the roof. He's the most intense player in our league."

Offensively, the key for the Axemen was Peter Leighton, who poured in a game-high 23 points on 60 per cent shooting, including making four of seven attempts from deep. As Wacyk noted, "Leighton played the game of his life." Leonil Santil also had a great game for Acadia, chipping in 22 points and adding nine rebounds.

Lual cited historical precedent, where UVic's reign of 18 straight victories at the nationals─which Carleton tied with Friday's quarter-final win over the Alberta Golden Bears─ended at the hands of an underdog. "Nobody thought we were going to do it," he said. "We used that as motivation and went from that."

Wacyk also made a good comment about how Acadia still needed to excel, even with Carleton having trouble from the floor. "1985, everyone had Georgetown and Villanova played a perfect game," he said. "Tonight, Acadia played as close to a perfect game as you'll see."

CIS Coach of the Year Mike Katz of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues told the SSN guys the victory should be properly appreciated for its uniqueness, rather than rationalized. "It's just the beauty of sport," he said. "You can't overanalyze it, just enjoy it and move on." As Dale Stevens wrote on, "The reign is over!" Carleton's dynasty has been good for the coverage of CIS competition, as dominance is always interesting. There's a limit to the amount of times one can expound on that theme, though, and it's good to see that this isn't just a one-horse league. The kings are dead: long live the kings.

One interesting thing that may come out of this win is a strengthening of the push for a 16-team tournament, which Wayne Kondro of the Ottawa Citizen reports already enjoys significant support. If the wild-card team can knock off a five-time defending champion, it suggests that CIS parity is very strong. This is further evidenced by the quality of several of the teams that missed out, such as Brandon, Katz' Blues, and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. If there's a way to make a 16-team tournament work around school commitments and expenses, I'd be all for it. I'm not as big of a fan of the scheme Kondro outlines though, where the tournament is split into four regional ones and only the four champions play. That essentially is a contraction, rather than an expansion, of the nationals, as there already are regional tournaments in the lead-up to the CIS championships. This also won't necessarily lead to the best teams playing at the end, as is evidenced by tomorrow's finalists: Brock finished third in the OUA playoffs, while Acadia picked up silvers at the AUS tournament. One final point against regionalizing the nationals is that most Canadian papers can't afford to send four people to cover university basketball in different locations, so your quality of coverage will be greatly decreased. This isn't just a newspaper issue, either: it would be pretty hard to convince the Score to pay for four different camera crews and commentary teams to fly to different cities and be billeted there for most of a week, in addition to the technical issues with broadcasting from that many arenas. If the nationals go to 16 teams, it should be a full-week tournament in one central location: now that would get some significant coverage.

Regardless of expansion, as Wacyk rightfully concluded on the SSN broadcast, this sort of match bodes well for Canadian university basketball. "Any time a team loses for the first time in six years its a big story, but I think the bigger story is the incredible excitement generated by this ball game," he said. "CIS basketball is a tremendous product, and tonight we got one of the greatest games in the history of the CIS. It just shows you how great CIS basketball can be."

Update: Some new links on this: Neate has good pieces at Out Of Left Field and The CIS Blog, and Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun has a very impressive deadline story.

Stomp the rink

The NHL announced today that Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger would be suspended for eight games for his stomp on Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. Outstanding CKNW and Canucks TV colour man Tom Larscheid nailed it towards the end of the clip, calling it "A deliberate play by Pronger just to stomp on Kesler with his skate." In my mind at least, this was out-and-out dirty, right up there with the infamous Chris Simon on Jarkko Ruutu play. Of course, Simon's a fringe player, so the full book (a 30-game suspension) got thrown at him: Pronger wouldn't even have been suspended without the NHL suspiciously finding a "new angle" after they'd already ruled it was inconclusive. According to Pronger, the league told him Thursday night there would be no suspension, but then re-reviewed the tape on Friday and came up with the new punishment. I don't see how they deemed it inconclusive in the first place: even the original camera angle was far better than most of the footage of the Simon-Ruutu incident. Simon also hit Ruutu's skate, while Pronger went straight for Kesler's leg. Methinks perhaps Simon's widely reported comments and the increasing media and fan pressure targeting the obvious inequity here got league disciplinarian Colin Campbell to reconsider: there are those who agree, like the Battle of California's Earl Sleek.

It would be nice to have things treated fairly, at least," Simon told the Associated Press after the Wild practised on Friday. "I don't think in that instance it's fair at all. I couldn't believe right away that nothing was going to be done about it. I still can't believe it."

Simon should start believing it. Even with a suspension handed out, the NHL's two-tiered system of justice is still blatantly obvious. There's one code for superstars like Pronger and a different one for everyone else: consider Pronger's pair of one-game suspensions last playoffs for offenses that likely would have meant multiple games for anyone else. Campbell cited history as a factor in determining the length of the Simon decision, but Pronger's history is almost as bad: Simon has 8 suspensions in 15 years, while Pronger's racked up 7 in 14 (including three in the last calendar year). The relative lengths further demonstrate the special treatment Pronger gets. The longest suspension he'd ever received previously was four games, and his total suspensions including this one only total 20 regular season games and two post-season games. By contrast, Simon's two longest suspensions amounted to 25 and 30 games each, respectively.

The offenses aren't that dissimilar, either. ESPN has a great breakdown of the incidents involving Pronger, which include hitting Pat Peake in the throat with a stick, swinging a stick at Jeremy Roenick's helmet, cross-checking Brendan Morrow in the face and kicking Ville Nieminen. By contrast, Simon's suspensions are generally less physically harmful: his longest suspension prior to the March 2007 stick-swinging incident (similar to both of Pronger's stick incidents, but worth a 25-game suspension instead of a four-game ban) was three games for alleged racial remarks. Add the incidents up, and it's Pronger who looks like the bigger goon, but Simon with the harsher punishment.

The league's also giving Pronger the benefit of the doubt, as the Vancouver Province's Jason Botchford reports. "In attempting to free himself, Pronger carelessly and recklessly brought his foot down," Campbell said in a statement. As Botchford writes, "The other possibility is that Pronger wasn't careless at all, that he intended to injure in an act of frustration."
Campbell's release makes Pronger's actions sound like an accident, unlike his comments in Simon's case. "But he just snaps," he told the Canadian Press back then. "And we can't have that. Because now we're talking about the safety of other players on the ice. ... You would hope he wouldn't do it again but maybe he can't help himself. I don't know. He's never actually come out and said, 'I will never do this again.'"

Oh really, Mr. Campbell? Where's your concern for other players in the Pronger incident? This guy's done a lot to hurt players over the years: look at the concussion he gave Dean McCammond last playoffs. Playing with skates is a dangerous business: see Zednik, Richard, Perry, Corey, and Bieksa, Kevin, to name just a few. However, he's a star who sells jerseys and draws fans, so he gets the kid-gloves treatment while Campbell muses about ending Simon's career. That's not right, and it's not fair.

I have every bit of respect for Pronger's abilities as a player, but there can't be one standard for stars and one for role players. The Globe's Allan Maki summed that up nicely on the Globe on Hockey blog. "Simon deserved his suspension, no one’s quibbling about that," he wrote. "But letting Pronger go unpunished only raises more incriminating questions, such as: Is the NHL afraid of affecting Anaheim’s playoff push by suspending Pronger? Is the NHL afraid of invoking the wrath of Ducks’ general manager Brian Burke? Is the NHL hiding behind the old bit about not knowing what a player’s true intent is in such heat-of-the-moment moments? Based on what we’ve seen thus far, we certainly know what the NHL’s intent is: suspend the easy targets but let’s not be so hasty when it comes to our superstars."

Another intersting take is from New York Islanders' media relations VP, Chris Botta. Botta hits most of the points I've already elaborated on, but adds this about the initial Simon on Ruutu incident. "I'm going to step out just a bit here and share something that Chris said to me a few times," he wrote. "In all honesty, when he volunteered his thoughts I was torn between being sympathetic and concerned that Chris had lost his way. Basically, Chris felt that on judgment day he was treated differently than other players. I never let the conversation get to the subject of why." What's interesting here is what Botta doesn't say. Clearly, a PR guy wouldn't bring up anything this controversial (I'm impressed that he was so vocal about this in the first place), but one gets the impression Simon might have felt that race could have played a role (Simon is half Ojibwa): there have been suggestions that racism played a role in Islanders' coach Ted Nolan getting blacklisted from the NHL for years after winning the Jack Adams Trophy, and he certainly had to struggle with racist taunts while coaching junior hockey. I really hope that this isn't the case, that our society has moved beyond that, and that Colin Campbell treated Chris Simon the same way he would have treated a white role player (we already know it's not how he would have treated a superstar), but the shadow of possible racism still lingers.

In the league's defence, it wouldn't have been easy to suspend Pronger for 30 games, particularly with the playoffs looming: that would have taken the Ducks from favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup champions back down to the realms of the merely mortal contenders. They did it with Todd Bertuzzi, though, which certainly hurt the Canucks that year. That incident was different, and obviously more serious in terms of its consequences, but the precedent was set that the league didn't mind severely reducing a team's playoff chances via suspension if the situation warranted it. The Canucks of that year took the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames to seven games and overtime in the first round that year: who knows what they could have accomplished with Big Bert? Pronger should have gotten the same treatment as Simon, regardless of where the season was at.

- James Mirtle's take: interestingly, 77% of respondents to his poll (122 people) agree with me that the suspension was too short.
- Tom Benjamin's take
- Alanah's take

Update: As usual, the Globe's Eric Duhatschek nails this one: "Simon's act may have been slightly more egregious than Pronger's, but it's hard to understand why the sentence was almost four times as long – unless you're prepared to consider that Pronger is a former Hart Memorial Trophy winner and an important cog on the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks, whereas Simon is a fringe player and thus a far-easier target for NHL justice. ... Under the current NHL rule of law, it isn't justice for all. It is justice for some."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Three tragedies

Much ink has been spilled this week on the death of J.I. Albrecht by such worthies as Neate, Stephen Brunt, and Earl McRae. One of the prices of young age is missing the chance to appreciate and understand legends firsthand, instead relying on secondary sources. Still, said secondary sources did a marvelous job of filling a young sportswriter in on what exactly will be missed. If you can read those pieces and not be moved, you're a tougher man than I. McRae's piece in particular shows the dichotomy at the heart of
sports fandom: we like our athletes and heroes to go out at the top, and have a hard time combining the bedridden old man with the legendary general manager.

"This is the figure of physical power, of dominating presence, I remember," he writes. "I am not prepared for the J.I. Albrecht before my eyes. His sunken body covered in a white sheet from his neck to his toes. His unshaven face thin and pale. His good eye red and hurting. His left arm and hand immobilized from the stroke. His toothless mouth misshapen by the stroke. His aching legs unable to walk. The catheter so that he can urinate. The diaper for his uncontrollable bowel movements. The oozing bedsore on his buttocks. The medication he's on since the heart attack. The pain killing drugs for the damaged prostate, the pain of which makes him scream out to God during the day and in the middle of the long, dark night."

Andy Rooney's 15 minutes of fame can last for years of a sporting career, but for most, once the glory days of the gridiron are behind, the spotlight never shines again until after the final darkness falls. We don't want to see our legends reduced to sad, pitiable old men. Consider Muhammad Ali, quite likely the greatest boxer whoever lived: we prefer to visualize him at the triumphant heights of the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thrilla in Manila", not the old man whose pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome, an unwanted byproduct of the glory years, has reduced him to a mere shadow of his former self. As Neil Young wrote, "It's better to burn out than fade away."

That logic itself requires some analysis. This week, I wrote a piece for the Journal on the deaths of young athletes Mickey Renaud, Shannon Veal and Rene Ayangma. All of these deaths were truly tragic, and certainly disappointing given the potential of these athletes, both in sports and in life. Yet, the sad fact is, along with others like Dale Ernhardt and Owen Hart, they've probably gained more fame because of their tragic death than they ever would have in life. Look at Bill Masterton, who now has a trophy named after him and became the poster boy for the NHL's helmet campaign. Renaud could have gone on to a great career in the NHL, but unless he cracked that first tier of superstars, few would probably remember him down the road.

Another case is shown by Bill Simmons' moving column this week on the funeral of Jamiel Andre Shaw Jr. Shaw's death is another tragedy, and definitely deserved the full treatment (which Bill delivered in great style: for those who question the man's sportswriting talent, please read this piece). However, the unfortunate fact of life is even if Shaw had lived out his dream of playing in the NFL, it's a pretty slim likelihood that he would have gotten a whole Bill Simmons column devoted to him (unless he led the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl L, but that's another story). It's the age-old myth of Achilles, who chose dying young as the most famous warrior in the world over living to old age as an obscure coward. Sadly, these athletes weren't offered the choice, though.

Another salient aspect to consider is from the Kingston Frontenacs - Oshawa Generals game I attended Tuesday night, where I picked up a souvenir program. Myself and my friend, both being hockey geeks of some description, quickly proceeded to the back pages where the list of franchise alumni who made it to Tom Cochrane's "Big League" is proudly displayed. There are plenty of recognizable names from the current era, such as Chris Gratton, Chad Kilger and Craig Rivet, as well as names out of the past like Mike Gillis, Ken Linseman, Bernie Nicholls and Tony McKegney. Yet, one jumped out by its total inconspicuousness: Jay Wells, who played a terrific total of 1098 NHL games (second only to Nicholls among franchise alumni) and won a Stanley Cup. Until Tuesday, I had never heard of Wells: his Wikipedia page shows that he was a pretty darn good player (a first-round draft pick defensive defenceman who was part of the Rangers' 94 Cup win, but was traded the next year as a reward for his yeoman service). Defensive defencemen don't tend to get the press clippings, though. They toil in obscurity, never hitting the heights . Wells never burned bright enough to go out in a blaze of glory: instead, he kept the coals glowing until the last spark of his career sputtered out. Compared to such spectacular NHL bests as Alexandre Daigle, his legacy is amazing: far fewer people know his name, however.

In the end, there's no real winners and losers. Dying young is tragic: so's being forgotten about in a nursing home, asking writers to stay to provide some desperately needed companionship. Is it better to be an Achilles, who goes out at his peak, or one of the unnamed foot soldiers in that war who made it back unscathed? To drive like the Intimidator and embrace the terrible consequences of doing so, or to peacefully finish in the middle of the pack? Who's better off, Daigle or Wells? Above all, is it really better to burn out than fade away? A.E. Housman, in his famous poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," wrote that it was.

"Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose."

Simmons begs to differ, though, arguing that the true tragedy is the lost potential.

"When it's a star football player with a chance to make something of his life? It matters to people who didn't even know him. Maybe he would have starred in college. Maybe he would have starred in the pros. Maybe he would have injured a knee next season, and that would have been that. There's no way to know. What mattered was the promise that something could happen, that something might happen."

Who's right? Ours not to reason why. In the end though, the blaze of glory and the slow sputter have one thing in common: all that remains afterwards is ash. The sad thing for those of us left learning about the Albrecht, Renaud and Shaw deaths via our computer screen is we never got the chance to meet these amazing people and never experienced their passion for the game. In the latter two cases, we didn't get to see what they'd become; in the first case, we missed out on one of the CFL's great characters. In the end, both missed opportunities are tragedies.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sonics: A last chance to save a historic franchise

Note: this is another piece on the Sonics that was originally earmarked for my Journal blog, but got pulled from there due to an upcoming column on the same issue. Thought I'd put it up here: this situation deserves all the coverage I can give it, in my mind.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer finds himself in an unusual position this week. Instead of the usual vilification and curses that accompany mentions of his company, he’s now seen as a potential saviour—at least in Seattle. As the Associated Press reported Thursday, Ballmer and three other local businessmen—Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, Seattle developer Matt Griffin and wireless magnate John Stanton—have agreed to put up $150 million towards a $300-million renovation of Seattle’s Key Arena, the home of the NBA’s SuperSonics. The rest of the cost would be publicly funded. The cash would go towards adding new restaurants, stores and club space. The money’s desperately needed: owner Clay Bennett has repeatedly threatened to relocate the team to Oklahoma City, and is set to do so if the league approves the move at a meeting next month.

This is the perfect chance to check Bennett’s sincerity. When he bought the franchise, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he would keep it in town if a suitable arena was found. Co-owner Aubrey McClendon later told the Oklahoma Journal-Record what many had suspected all along: the group had no intentions of ever staying in Seattle. "But we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here,” he said. Bennett tried to distance himself from the comments, and the league fined McClendon, but a poorly kept secret wasn’t even a secret anymore. Throughout this process, Bennett has been holding a gun to the city’s head to try and force them to build him a new arena or upgrade the existing one. It has now been shown there are local interests willing to contribute the money Bennett won’t. It’s clear he doesn’t particularly want to keep the team in town, but it would be only reasonable for him to sell to a local group willing to put up this kind of cash. Ballmer and his partners have the deep pockets to pay any reasonable price Bennett asks for. If he turns down this offer, it becomes particularly obvious that he was out to move from the start.

Ballmer, Griffin, Sinegal and Stanton are proving to be local heroes in the best sense of the word. As Griffin told the Post-Intelligencer, none of them particularly wanted to buy a team in the typical manner of millionaire playboys. "These are people with other jobs and lives to lead,” Griffin said. "Being a Sonics owner isn't their objective in life. But knowing we have to save the team and fix Seattle Center is important to them." They saw a need to step up and save their city’s beloved team, and they admirably filled the void. The other great advantage of having Ballmer at the helm is it would further enhance the team’s biggest rivalry—the I-5 duel with the Portland Trailblazers, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who left the company after clashes with Ballmer and Bill Gates.

There’s a time crunch, though. As a story in yesterday’s Seattle Times pointed out, only half of the public money is coming from the city, which has already stepped on board: mayor Greg Nickels is a strong advocate for keeping the franchise in Seattle. The rest would come from the state legislature, via the extension of a King County-only car rental and restaurant tax that’s currently used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field, the recently built home of the Seattle Mariners baseball franchise. This seems like a reasonable proposal, and according to the Post-Intelligencer’s Chris McGann, the legislature and Washington governor Chris Gregoire are far more favourable towards it than they have been towards the previous solutions advocated, largely driven by the massive up-front commitment from Ballmer and company. Unfortunately, the legislature’s slated to adjourn next Thursday, and it seems unlikely a bill could be passed that quickly. Gregoire hasn’t ruled out the possibility of addressing the issue this session, but it will likely take substantial public pressure to cut through the normal bureaucratic red tape. Fans rallied at the state capital Saturday to draw attention to their team’s plight: hopefully, this will get the legislature to act quickly. As the Times' Steve Kelley wrote, unified action is desperately needed. "Now, let's see some action from the legislature," he wrote. "Let's find out who the lawmakers with courage and creativity are. Let's find the politicians who aren't willing to take the easy way out by telling us their "shot clock" has expired." Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like that's too likely at the moment.

There’s yet another villain in the mix—NBA commissioner David Stern, the Emperor Palpatine to Bennett’s Darth Vader, cleverly manipulating events from behind the scenes. Stern’s ties to Bennett run deep, and he served as the presenter at Bennett’s introduction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in November. As Post-Intelligencer columnist Jim Moore rightly pointed out about the Bennett-Stern collusion, “I'm not sure what this reeks of, but it reeks of something.”

Stern has other evil motives at work as well: he would surely hate to see a city refuse to pick up the majority of a tab for a not-really-needed new arena or renovation, as that would set a dangerous precedent for professional sports. Taxpayers are supposed to not only fling their wallets open for team tickets, merchandise and overpriced beer, but also throw money at billionaire owners to buy them new arenas free of charge. As ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons pointed out, this is a ludicrous idea that, if fulfilled, means any team’s owner could pack up and leave if he didn’t get the arena deal he was looking for. “Why should citizens spend tax money paying for a new arena just to make a billionaire wealthier than he already is?” Simmons wrote. “If the precedent is set here—‘Pay for my new arena or I'm leaving’—then really, the same thing could eventually happen to your favorite NBA team.”

The Seattle situation is important for anyone who has ever felt a connection to their local team. Fans in Seattle have been there for 41 years, through the glory days and the dark times. They deserve more than having their team pack up and walk away in the dead of the night. Simmons captured this brilliantly in his column. “I think it's reprehensible to watch someone hijack a franchise away from the people who cared about the team and loved it and nurtured it through the years,” he wrote. “It belittles not just the good people of Seattle, but everyone who loves sports and believes it provides a unique and valuable connection for a city, a community, family members and friends.” I couldn’t agree more.

Things are looking dim for the Sonics, but there’s still a chance they can be saved. Ballmer’s gone from a role in everyone’s favorite evil empire to an unlikely leader of a small band of rebels who won’t accept the unilateral seizure of their team. Stern’s boldly making pronouncements about the inevitability of victory for the dark side, but the fight isn’t over yet. "It's apparent to all who are watching that the Sonics are heading out of Seattle," Stern told the Associated Press during his annual all-star weekend press conference Feb.16. "I accept that inevitability at this point. There is no miracle here." That’s the thing with miracles, though: they tend to show up when you’re not looking for them, especially after someone has just declared their invulnerability. All plans this dastardly inevitably have a fatal weakness—here’s hoping Ballmer and company can find it before it’s too late.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A weekend of Cupsets

I'm still in a bit of shock after watching Manchester United knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth yesterday. United dominated the match, and looked sure to score at many points, including when a Michael Carrick effort was cleared off the line, but they could just never put the ball in the net. A perhaps overconfident halftime substitution saw Tomas Kuszczak take over in the goal for Edwin Van der Sar, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson can't really be blamed: at that point, it seemed inevitable one of United's efforts would slide home, and given the crucial fixtures upcoming in United's quest for league and European glory, it made sense to try and get Van der Sar some rest.

Kuszczak had played pretty well thus far this campaign in the limited action he saw as well, so it didn't seem like an unreasonable decision at the time. Unfortunately for United, Kuszczak made a critical error, taking Milan Baros down on a breakaway (one of Portsmouth's only legitimate scoring chances of the game), and received a red card as a result. Defender Rio Ferdinand was forced to replace him in goal, and guessed the right way on the ensuing penalty, but that wasn't enough to stop a terrific blast from Sulley Muntari. Portsmouth then tenaciously hung on for the last few minutes, and in the process booked a place in the final four. It was their first victory at Old Trafford since 1957.

In the aftermath of this shocking debacle, Sir Alex found perhaps the conventional scapegoat: the referee. However, his comments were unusually vitriolic. "It's absolutely ridiculous," Ferguson told the Associated Press. "Managers get sacked because of things like that and he's going to referee a game next week. He's not doing his job properly and he needs to be assessed. I'm assessed as a manager, players are assessed, referees should be assessed properly by the right people. That performance today should not be accepted by our game." It didn't seem quite that bad from my perspective watching it, but there were certainly many things that went uncalled: apparently, you can do anything to superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and get away with it. Good on Ferguson for speaking his mind: those kind of quotes are what us journalists love to hear, as they're far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill 'We gave it our all' stuff. Unfortunately, the FA was not impressed, and there may be a fine in the offing.

The most interesting story of the weekend came from another game, though. League Championship side Barnsley, fresh off a defeat of Liverpool at Anfield, slayed their second giant in a row with a win against Chelsea to put themselves into the semifinals. That's something you don't see every day: Barnsley, a mere four points clear of the Championship relegation zone, knocking off one of the few sides still in the hunt for the Premiership crown. Manager Simon Davey was appropriately at a loss for words as he spoke to the Associated Press. "I'm speechless at the moment," he said. "I can't believe we've really done it. We're in the semifinal of the cup, I've never been to Wembley."

Two more Championship sides also advanced to the Final Four Sunday. West Bromwich Albion beat Bristol Rovers and Cardiff City knocked off Middlesbrough at the Riverside, leaving Portsmouth as the sole Premiership representative in the competition. This is the greatness of the FA Cup: none of these sides could hope to compete with the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea over a long season, but in elimination play, anything can happen. It will be most interesting to see who winds up in the final.

Related:'s Ben Knight has a great piece on the upsets, including where all the Premiership teams bowed out.