Monday, September 28, 2009

Henderson's goal still echoes

Twenty-seven years ago, on September 28, 1972, Paul Henderson was centre stage in perhaps the most momentous moment in Canadian sports history. Henderson had led the Canadian comeback in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union, scoring the game-winner in both Game Six and Game Seven of the eight-game series. That was nothing compared to what came next, though.

The eighth game was for all the marbles. Both teams entered with 3-3-1 records, and the atmosphere in Moscow was downright hostile. The Soviet Union led 5-3 after the second period, and it looked as if all was lost. Yet, Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer tallied for Canada to tie it up. At that point, a Soviet official informed the Canadians that the Soviets would claim victory on goal differential if the series ended in a tie. This seemed the latest in a string of dubious Soviet moves to win, and at the very least, would have resulted in one of the greatest hockey matchups ever played ending in disputes and feuding.

Fortunately for the Canadians, Henderson singlehandedly prevented that from happening. With less than a minute left, he was on the bench, but he acted on his own initiative and called Pete Mahovlich off. He jumped over the boards and rushed the net, narrowly missing on his first shot and getting knocked down. He got back up, grabbed Esposito's rebound and drilled it past one of the greatest goaltenders ever, Vladislav Tretiak. The puck was in with just 34 seconds left, and the Canadians hung on for a win.

There's a reason this moment still resonates with Canadians, and it's not just those of a certain age. It happened before my birth, but from the books I've read and the DVD footage of the series I've watched, I'll still take this series over any hockey played before or since then. It featured tremendous storylines, many of the best players in the world and athletes dueling for national pride, as well as some purely fantastic hockey.

A lot of the time, we magnify rivalries well beyond their actual significance. Sure, there's a great history between the Yankees and Red Sox, but players move back and forth between the two teams (and to the rest of the teams in the league as well). Moreover, thanks to their free-spending ways, they have more in common than they do apart. The same could be applied to say, Manchester United and Liverpool, or almost any other rivalry. That's not to dismiss those rivalries; they're still great for fans, and there's still something there. It's just that I think we often overexaggerate the magnitude of the effect on the players.

Even international competition doesn't always bring out the real passion. Sure, it's cool to watch the Canadian and American NHLers take each other on in the Olympics or Spain play the U.S. in the basketball final, but it diminishes the effect a bit when you consider that Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh normally play side by side. There's rivalry, sure, and competition, but there's no real hatred.

Probably the closest thing to the Summit Series is the World Cup, and it does approach this level of magnitude. Players take it to the next level and national pride is on the line for both individuals and teams. However, players still often find themselves matched up against friends and teammates, and the recurring nature of the competition diminshes the impact of a single win.

By contrast, the Summit Series was a one-time-only thing. Yes, there were plenty of other clashes between the Canadians and the Soviets, but this was the key one. This was where the Canadian pros came in and found out just how good the Soviet "amateurs" were. This was where both countries' ways of hockey were tested, and where both sides realized the merits of some of the opposition tactics. Every subsequent competition mattered, but this was an all-in call by both sides. The players knew it, the coaches knew it and the fans knew it.

Many times, applying nationalism to sports doesn't really work. I'm not sure if it really means anything for Canada as a whole if we beat Puerto Rico in baseball, or if our U-20 soccer team loses to Rwanda in the Francophone Games. It's interesting for the players involved and the fans of that sport, but it doesn't mean a lot on the larger scale. The Olympics see much more nationalism writ large, but this doesn't even always work; is it supposed to mean something to me if a Canadian can throw a shot-put further than others? It can be a cool story, and it's nice to see my fellow countrymen and women succeed, but how they do doesn't affect my identity as a Canadian. I'm all in favour of funding Olympic sports, and I'll even watch the Games from time to time, but to me, it's not really nationalism; I like seeing Canadians succeed because of our shared background, but it doesn't really matter to me how the country does in the Games.

I don't even really buy the application of nationalism to hockey most of the time the way many Canadians seem to. Sure, it was nice to see the Canadian team win gold at the 2002 Olympics, and it was disappointing to see them lose in Turin. The first wasn't really miraculous for our national identity in my mind, though (although some would argue it was), and the second wasn't a national crisis to me (although many argued it was). There's still plenty of love for hockey up here, but not even every Canadian is a hockey fan, and that's just fine. To me, it's great if a group of players wearing the Maple Leaf picks up a gold medal. It's an elite hockey tournament, it's fun to watch and I'd rather see Canadian guys win it than anyone else. I'm not going to go into mourning, put on sackcloth and ashes and start demanding heads on a platter if they lose in Vancouver this February though. Identity is what you make it, and if you choose to bottle yours up with a team, that's fine. For me, there's much more to being Canadian than just living and dying with a national hockey team though.

However, the '72 Series is where I'll make an exception. I talked a lot about the importance of narrativium in my Phoenix Pub column today with respect to football, but narrativium is what took the Summit Series above and beyond a mere sporting competition. The historical background here is huge; this came just four years after the Prague Spring, during a period of Soviet expansionism when all seemed to fall before them. The U.S. was led by Richard Nixon, the first details of Watergate were starting to figure out, the Vietnam War was drawing to a bloody and humiliating close and the North American economy was headed for the tank. There wasn't a lot of hope anywhere to be found.

In hockey, the Soviets' supposed "amateur" teams (made up of players who were paid by the government, usually as army officers whose sole duties involved year-round training for hockey) had cleaned up at the Winter Olympics for several years; they first competed in 1956, and won five gold medals and a bronze in six apparances. The Canadians weren't allowed to play professionals in the Olympics, but everyone thought their best would clean up against the Soviets. Boy, were they wrong.

The Canadians lost the first game 7-3 in Montreal and the hockey world was shocked. They rebounded to win 4-1 in the second game in Toronto and tied the third match 4-4 in Winnipeg, but it was a 5-3 loss to Vancouver that was the real crisis point and turned this into something much, much more than just a hockey series. The turning point? Phil Esposito's post-game speech, as he was showered with boos from the crowd.

"To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I'm really, all of us guys are really disheartened and we're disillusioned, and we're disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players, the fans... Russians boo their players... Some of the Canadian fans—I'm not saying all of them, some of them booed us, then I'll come back and I'll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don't think they will. I'm really, really... I'm really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps, we know, we're trying like hell. I mean, we're doing the best we can, and they got a good team, and let's face facts. But it doesn't mean that we're not giving it our 150%, because we certainly are.

I mean, the more - everyone of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada. We did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason. They can throw the money, uh, for the pension fund out the window. They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States, and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home, and that's the only reason we come. And I don't think it's fair that we should be booed."

That speech turned this into more than just a hockey series. It became a surprisingly hot cold war, played out on the ice instead of in government headquarters. It became a clash of not just Canadian and Soviet hockey players, but Canadian and Soviet nations. Canadians from coast to coast got behind the team, with many making the pilgrimage behind the Iron Curtain to cheer them on in person. It wasn't just the fans, either; if you read accounts from the players and coaches involved, many felt they were fighting for their country and their way of life. See Esposito's comments years later about the interview, the booing and the speech: "That's when I realized we were in a war, man. This isn't a game. This is a war and we'd better get ourselves together." Bobby Clarke took that perhaps a bit too literally with his slash on Valeri Kharlamov, but even that dirty play couldn't mar a fantastic series.

Even that motivation wasn't quite enough at first, though. The Canadians were fully invested in this by now, but the Soviets' skill and superior conditioning would be tough to overcome. After a two-week break and a pair of exhibition games, Canada lost a hard-fought Game Five 5-4 in Moscow, and it looked like all hope was lost.

Enter Paul Henderson. Henderson was a talented NHL player, but not a star; he scored a career-high 27-best goals in 1968-69 with the Leafs. He was on Team Canada for his two-way play, but he turned into a saviour. In the Game Five loss, he scored an early goal, crashed into the boards, suffered a concussion, refused doctor's orders to sit out and scored again on the next shift. He scored the game-winning goal in Game Six's 3-2 victory and repeated the feat to give Canada a 4-3 win in Game Seven. In Game Eight, Henderson was once again out there giving it everything he had, and it paid off with his legendary goal.

It's perhaps appropriate that Henderson became the hero. He wasn't a star like Esposito or Clarke, and he certainly wasn't on a level with Bobby Hull or Bobby Orr, the greatest Canadian lights of the day who missed the series thanks to the WHA-NHL conflict and injuries respectively. In fact, to this day, Henderson has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame despite a good NHL career. He brought the guts, the grit and the defensive intensity though, and did something extraordinary with his limited gifts, earning a crucial series victory not just for his coach or his teammates, but for an entire country. In my mind, that's someone to look up to. That's why Henderson will always be one of my sports heroes, and why his goal will remain one of my favourite sports memories, even though I wasn't around to see it.

Related: Check out Magic's great piece on the matter and Joe Pelletier's amazing Summit Series site.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Whitecaps - RailHawks Part Deux!

The Vancouver Whitecaps take on the Carolina RailHawks today in the second leg of their USL-1 playoff series. Vancouver claimed the first match 1-0 at home. It's a total-goals series, with overtime and a shootout if it winds up tied, so today's game should be interesting. Join me in the live blog below starting at 5 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Pacific!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Western - Guelph live blog

It should be a great day in CIS football, as the No. 2 Western Mustangs take on the No. 10 Guelph Gryphons live on The Score's University Rush. I'll be live-blogging it here and at The CIS Blog with Neate Sager and Rob Pettapiece, plus anyone else who can make it out. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific. Come join us then!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Night Football live blog: Stamps and Leos!

It's Friday, and the Stamps are going be hard to tame. Their clash against the B.C. Lions in the second game of tonight's CFL doubleheader should be a great one, though. 5-6 B.C. is coming off an emotional win over Toronto that gave Wally Buono sole possession of the CFL coaching victories record, while 6-5 Calgary enters this one looking to bounce back from a dismal loss to Hamilton. Calgary's in a three-way tie for first in the West Division, while B.C. is just one game back but in last place in the division, so this could have huge playoff implications.

B.C. hasn't beaten Calgary at all in the John Hufnagel era, and they'll have a tough task pulling that one off at McMahon Stadium, but you know middle linebacker JoJuan Armour will be motivated against the team that cut him, and plenty of his teammates are fired up too. It should be a great one; I picked it as my Game of the Week in my latest column, so I'm hoping it won't disappoint. I'll be live-blogging it here and at Out of Left Field, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific. Come join me then!

Note: I'll also be live-blogging the Western-Guelph CIS game here and at The CIS Blog at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific Saturday. Stop by for that one as well!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Whitecaps get a leg up on RailHawks

The first leg of the 2009 USL-1 playoff series between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Carolina RailHawks was a tight battle, but the home team came out on top tonight at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. It wasn't traditional threats Charles Gbeke, Marcus Haber or Marlon James who scored, although they all saw action and created chances. When it came down to it, though, 19-year-old supersub forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu was the only one who managed to find the back of the net, and keeper Jay Nolly preserved the clean sheet for Vancouver. Nolly said holding the RailHawks off the scoreboard was key for the Whitecaps.

"The first game of the playoffs, to get the clean sheet, I think that's great for our defensive mind," he said. "They've been weathering a lot of goals of late, so this will keep them up."

Both sides created substantial chances throughout the game. Vancouver finished with 11 shots, but only three of them hit the target. By contrast, Carolina only managed seven shots, but they forced Nolly to make six saves, some of them tough. The possession was reasonably even, but Vancouver seemed perhaps more determined to attack (likely thanks to the lack of an away-goals tiebreaker in USL-1), and they had the better chances.

Nolly, who was named the team MVP before the match, has played every minute of all 30 USL games this year for the Whitecaps, 2700 minutes in total. He is believed to be the first Whitecaps' goalkeeper to play an entire league season since Arnie Mausser played 26 games in the Whitecaps' 1977 season. Nolly said he isn't fatigued, though.

"When you get a win like this, it's hard to be tired," he said.

Nolly said the workload has helped him maintain consistency and improve his game.

"Definitely," he said. "You pick up little things. Every game, you become better. It's been great for me to play 30-something games this year. It's been great for my development."

Edwini-Bonsu's goal came in the 77th minute after Nolly booted the ball downfield. James flicked it on for the young striker, and he promptly blew past RailHawks defender Jeremy Tolleson before beating Carolina keeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell and neatly tucking the ball into the net. It was his first goal for the senior team, and it came in his first playoff start.

"It feels amazing," he said afterwards. "I've been waiting so long for this, and it finally came at an important time. It's a great win right now."

The Whitecaps now go to Carolina for the second leg of the two-game aggregate series Sunday (5:00 p.m. Eastern, 2 p.m. Pacific, to be live-blogged here). They have struggled on the road at times this year, but Edwini-Bonsu said he's optimistic that will change.

"We just have to come together as a team and work hard for the whole 90 minutes, not let up in the last five minutes like we've been doing lately," he said. "Just work hard for the whole game and we'll get the result."

Head coach Teitur Thordarson said both teams were defensively-minded tonight.

"Both teams didn't want to lose," he said. "It was more that than the will to win."

Thordarson said he brought that defensive mindset to the game tonight because he was confident his strikers would capitalize, even on limited opportunities.

"Our main assignment to the players was don't let in a goal," he said. "We knew we could create chances."

Thordarson said Carolina will have to attack Sunday thanks to being down a goal, which may open up scoring opportunities for Vancouver.

"It will be a new game down there, and they will have to open up," he said. "I just hope we can defend as well as we did today."

Thordarson said he was impressed with Edwini-Bonsu's play off the bench.

"He's done extremely well as a player," Thordarson said. "He has really done his things well every time he's come on."

Tonight's game saw four different Whitecaps' players up front. Gbeke and Haber started, with Edwini-Bonsu and James in relief. Thordarson said he appreciated having players with their speed on the bench to change the tempo of the game.

"It surprises the opponent every time we do it," he said. "It's extremely nice to have opportunities off the bench where you can change the game tactically."

Thordarson said although Gbeke and Haber were the first-choice pairing for much of the year, they may not get the start Sunday. He said he wants to evaluate his options before then. Regardless of who starts, the others may appear in relief.

Team captain Martin Nash said it's a tremendous asset to the Whitecaps to have so many quality attacking options

"We have a lot of depth," he said. "The young players are great. They've taken their lumps over the year, they've been up and down at times, but that's to be expected of young players. All in all, they've been great. They were great tonight, so hopefully they can keep up this effort."

Nash returned to the lineup after missing time with an injury and played all 90 minutes, creating some excellent scoring chances off passes and set pieces. He said his teammates were key to him getting through the match.

"I haven't played for months, so it's not easy to walk back in, but the guys around me gave it everything they've got and that made it easier for me to contribute," he said.

Nash said the team will have their work cut out for them on their trip to Carolina Sunday.

"It's going to be tough; they're a great team," he said. "We've got to go work our ass off and hopefully we'll get the result."

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

Whitecaps - RailHawks live blog

It's USL-1 playoff action, live from the Swangard Stadium press box! The Vancouver Whitecaps take on the Carolina RailHawks. My game preview is here; check it out, then join in the live blog below!

Whitecaps - Railhawks preview: Not as one-sided as it may look

The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their title defence tonight against the Carolina RailHawks, but the Whitecaps squad that will take the pitch will be very different from the team that hoisted the USL-1 trophy last season. Gone are Alfredo Valente, Steve Kindel, Wesley Charles, Nicholas Addlery, Jason Jordan, Eduardo Sebrango, Jeff Clarke and others who were key parts of that team, and as Marc Weber of The Province wrote today, some of the team's tenaciousness may have departed with them.

Unlike last year's championship squad, which was primarily a group of talented veterans hitting their stride at the right time, this season's been dominated by a focus on youth, as I talked about in my post on their first match of the regular season. Young players like Marcus Haber, Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Wes Knight and Luca Bellisomo have all made their impact felt on the team this year. Haber in particular has impressed; many thought the team might struggle to score goals this season after the departure of Sebrango and Addlery, but that void up front was nicely filled by Haber (eight goals, four assists), Charles Gbeke (a league-high 12 goals and one assist) and Marlon James (nine goals). Haber finished seventh in league scoring with 20 points, while Gbeke tied for second with 25 points and James placed eighth with 18 points in 17 games. Meanwhile, Addlery put up 17 points in 22 USL games this year and Sebrango only recorded 10 points in 28 games in all competitions.

If the Whitecaps have improved up front, they have perhaps taken a step back in midfield and defence. The midfield's seen plenty of talented players, including Gage, Ansu Toure, Martin Nash and Vicente Arze, but injuries have made it difficult to establish a consistent lineup there. The same is even more true at the back; Knight (who tied for the league assist lead with eight and was the team's nominee for the USL Rookie of the Year award) and Takashi Hirano have been solid presences on the wings, but the centre's seen a revolving cast, much of it inexperienced. The release of Wesley Charles, the team's most experienced defender, was a good move from a team chemistry point of view after two bizarre on-field incidents (including a punch-up with Gbeke during a game), but it showed that the Caps are painfully thin at the back. The retirement of Justin Thompson didn't help matters either. Goalkeeper Jay Nolly has been solid as always, leading the USL in minutes played, finishing second in saves and recording seven shutouts, but he hasn't received a lot of defensive help this season, and that's one of the key reason why the team heads into the playoffs as the seventh seed.

This isn't a one-sided matchup, though. Carolina was very good this year, finishing with a 16-7-7 record, and Vancouver's 11-10-9 mark is much less impressive, but the Whitecaps turned it on down the stretch, going 4-1-5 to clinch a playoff spot. The team faced some of the typical struggles observed when using young players earlier in the season, but their young stars have found ways to contribute and the team has gelled down the stretch. Moreover, Vancouver may have gone 0-1-1 against Carolina this year, but the Whitecaps played well in both games. They could have won the game in Carolina, and they dominated the August 15 contest at Swangard. I'm expecting a tough physical battle tonight, and a great contest. Tune in here for the live blog at 10:30 Eastern/7:30 Pacific!

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - RailHawks live blog tonight!

It's a big day for the Vancouver Whitecaps as they enter the playoffs to start the defence of their USL-1 title. First up is a home-and-home series with the Carolina RailHawks. The first match takes place at 10:30 p.m. Eastern (7:30 p.m. Pacific) tonight at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. I'll be live-blogging it here and at The 24th Minute and Epic Footy. Come join me here then! I'm planning to have a full game preview posted later today as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lions - Argos live blog: Buono goes for the record

It should be an interesting CFL clash in Vancouver tonight. For B.C., quarterback Buck Pierce returns after missing a couple of weeks with a concussion, thanks to what may have been a season-ending rotator cuff injury to Jarious Jackson. Head coach Wally Buono will also be going for a record-breaking victory that would vault him above Don Matthews (who will be in the building) into sole possession of first place on the CFL's all-time win list. Perhaps even more importantly, a win would improve B.C.'s record to 5-6 and strengthen their push for a playoff spot.

This game is just as important for Toronto. They'll be trying to build on an overtime win against the Tiger-Cats last week and improve their record to 4-7. If they win this one, they're back in the hunt for the playoffs; if they lose, it's going to be a tough slog for them. Playing a late game on the West Coast in the unfriendly confines of B.C. Place won't help, but they may have an opportunity thanks to the injury to Jackson. It all depends on how well Pierce plays and how much protection he gets from his line. For game previews, check out my CFL column here, Jack Bedell's breakdown of last week's action here, Lowell Ullrich's preview here and his game preview chat here. It should be an interesting one, so come join me here for it at 10 p.m. Eastern!

(P.S. If you're interested in the Toronto FC - L.A. Galaxy clash at 10:30 p.m., I'm also live-blogging that one below. Feel free to contribute to both live blogs!)

Beckham. De Guzman. Live blog.

Tonight should be an interesting one. The newly-signed Julian De Guzman makes his debut for Toronto FC against David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy. It will be a match of two of the league's better teams; Toronto's currently fourth in the Eastern Conference with 34 points from a 9-9-7 record while L.A.'s second in the Western Conference with a 9-5-11 record and 38 points. The game kicks off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern (7:30 p.m. Pacific) and can be seen in Canada on Rogers Sportsnet (not sure of the U.S. TV coverage). Join me here then for the live blog! (If you're looking for the CFL live blog of the Lions - Argos game, it's one post above).

Live blogapocalypse now

There are several key sporting events going on tonight, including the return of Buck Pierce in the B.C. Lions' match against the Toronto Argonauts and the clash of Julian De Guzman and David Beckham in the Toronto FC - L.A. Galaxy MLS contest. Which to follow? Well, it's time to make this blog live up to its name of Sporting Madness: I will be live-blogging both games simultaneously. We'll see how it works out, but hopefully, with enough caffeine, I'll be able to keep up with both of them. Both will be posted here in separate posts, so you can follow them both that way; the CFL blog will also be available through Out of Left Field and the MLS one will be available through The 24th Minute and Epic Footy. The CFL game kicks off at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific), and the MLS match starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern (7:30 Pacific). Stop on by for one or both!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Carleton women's soccer program suspended over hazing incident

It's quite the day for disciplinary stories. The Ottawa Citizen is reporting that Carleton has suspended their women's soccer team over a hazing incident. The team will not play against U of T and Ryerson this weekend, presumably forfeiting those games, and will not take the field again until the university's ongoing investigation is finished.

This could be a big scandal. There may be hazing incidents I'm unaware of, but the last time I can remember an entire team being suspended was in 2005 when McGill forfeited its football season. Queen's Journal sports editors of the time James Bradshaw and Dan Robson ran an excellent piece on the matter, looking at the wider issue of hazing. Of course, that also wound up being the year featuring the Windsor Spitfires' hazing scandal and the fight between Steve Downie and Akim Aliu. The two incidents, coming so close together, turned into a big national story and put a spotlight on hazing in sports. Over time, that spotlight's dimmed, but this story may renew it.

However, don't assume that the Carleton team did anything differently than most sports teams. The issue is that "hazing" is often very loosely defined, and there's a fine line between the rookie rituals that most sports teams have and what may constitute "hazing". These also go beyond just sports or particular universities; see this feature by Monica Heisey on the practices that have taken place during Queen's orientation
week over the years for an example.

It's tough to draw a line in the sand against hazing. For one thing, most sports teams are very tight-knit groups, so it's difficult for an outsider to get accurate information on what really goes on. For another, the general issue that seems to be at play in defining hazing versus rookie rituals is if players consent to the activities, but it must be tough for a rookie trying to gain acceptance with a team to resist peer pressure. Finally, it seems that most of the responses to hazing incidents that become publicized involve suspending the team; how many athletes would want to throw away a year of their career (and the careers of their friends) by going to athletic officials or the media just because they felt uncomfortable about something?

The future of the Carleton women's soccer program is rather cloudy at the moment, but it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen on the basis of the extremely limited information released so far. The competitive effects for the rest of the OUA could be interesting, though. The Ravens have played five games so far, winning twice, losing twice and drawing once. They sit fourth in the OUA East with seven points. Their victories came against Ryerson and RMC, and their draw came against Nipissing. If the Carleton program is suspended for the rest of the season, as seems likely, it will be interesting to see if those results are nullified. From a competitive standpoint, that would seem to be the fair thing to do, as every other team will likely gain full points from Carleton's forfeits. However, it's not as if Carleton fradulently gained those victories or was using an ineligible player (the usual reason for forfeits); their suspension is from their own university, not the OUA. Regardless of what's decided, it will be an interesting situation to follow.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

What does SFU probation mean?

A very interesting story came out yesterday that hasn't received a ton of coverage to date. Vancouver radio station CKNW reported that Simon Fraser University's athletic program has been placed on probation by Canada West for the 2009-10 season. Unlike NCAA probation, this move won't affect SFU teams and their quest for regional and national titles. However, it does remove SFU's vote on conference decisions. More importantly, it leaves them in limbo for next season (2010-11), the year before they're scheduled to join the NCAA's Division II (for the 2012 year).

Sandy Slavin, the president of Canada West and the director of athletics at the University of Lethbridge, told CKNW the decision was made thanks to SFU's plan to join the NCAA.

"We don't believe they have a vested interest in our business any more and they shouldn't be voting," she said.

She said they decided to avoid measures that would penalize SFU's teams this year, though.

"At this point, doing anything that would affect Simon Fraser's ability to fully compete in '09-10, we felt was very unfair to the student athletes," she said.

This seems pretty logical. SFU doesn't seem to have a vested interest in the future of Canada West beyond the 2010-11 season. When the original decision to join the NCAA was made, there was some speculation about splitting SFU's teams between the NCAA and CIS (as they currently do with CIS and the NAIA), but that seems to have withered; CKNW's piece says "Beginning with the 2011-12 season, all of the SFU varsity teams will compete in the NCAA's Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference." Thus, if they're not going to have teams in CIS competition beyond 2011, it would seem to make sense to exclude them from voting on CIS decisions. It also appears logical to avoid competitive sanctions for this year; teams are already in action, athletes have chosen their schools and schedules have been set. Taking away SFU's ability to compete would have appeared a merely vindictive move, and one that would have hurt CIS.

Nothing's been decided on the eligibility of SFU's teams for next season, though, and that could be a very interesting debate. Would Canada West be willing to boot a prominent university like SFU from competition? If Canada West decides to kick them out, would they be able to join the NCAA early? What would happen to their teams and athletes? There are plenty of questions, but for now, the best answer comes from what SFU athletic director David Murphy told CKNW:

"Next year is rather up in the air right now."

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

B.C. Lions - Montreal Alouettes live blog

Here's the live blog of today's Montreal Alouettes - B.C. Lions clash. Preview is below. Come join in!

Setting up the Lions - Alouettes

I'll be live-blogging the Lions - Alouettes game in a few minutes, but I figured I'd set up with a quick preview. The most interesting and most-discussed clash of last week was one I got to see in person last Friday, and one which set the table for this week's matchup ; B.C.'s incredible 19-12 upset of Montreal.

That the Lions came out on top was amazing enough on its own. They came into Friday's match reeling from a 37-10 pummelling by Winnipeg in their previous game, where they gave up 393 rushing yards to the Bombers, and their 3-5 record didn't seem to pose much of a threat to the dominant Alouettes, who entered Friday night with a league-best 7-1 mark. Granted, Montreal hadn't won in Vancouver since 2000, and the Alouettes had looked relatively average in their previous game (a 35-24 win over Saskatchewan), so the potential for an upset was here. That potential seemed pretty small before kickoff, though.

What made the night even more unusual was its bizarre conclusion. Late in the fourth quarter with the Alouettes trailing by 7, Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo led a drive deep into B.C territory, starting with a 45-yard completion to Brian Bratton. After a few plays, Montreal faced a third-and-one on the B.C. eight. At that point in the game, you have to go for it, especially in the CFL where the defensive line must start a full yard behind the ball. Montreal head coach Marc Trestman made the logical call, electing to go for the first down, and backup quarterback Adrian McPherson picked up the needed yardage.

Not so fast, McPherson. Everyone but the officials thought he had gained the necessary yardage, but the play was nullified thanks to a timeout from B.C. head coach Wally Buono. The Alouettes then tried again, with even better results; B.C. stacked the centre of the line, but running back Avon Cobourne raced into the end zone on a sweep. It looked like the score would be tied with not much time left.

Not so fast, Cobourne. It turned out that officials in the Toronto command centre had noticed that time ran off the clock on the first attempt. They buzzed the on-field officials, but they didn't get the message until at least partway through the play. They elected to take away the touchdown and have Montreal try again. This time, B.C. stopped their third-down rush. The Lions got the ball back and won the game. Still, that would make sense if the whistle indeed went, as was initially claimed by the league.

Not so fast, CFL. TSN's audio feed didn't detect a whistle. The league eventually admitted it made an error, and Montreal protested, but the Lions' victory was upheld. It did result in some rule changes, though, and should queue up an interesting game for today. B.C. will be eager to build on last week's momentum, while Montreal will feel they were robbed of a win and will want to get it back. Who will triumph? Find out in the live blog above!

CFL: B.C. Lions - Montreal Alouettes live blog

For those who like football of the three-down variety, I'll be live-blogging today's B.C. Lions - Montreal Alouettes CFL match. The game is on TSN in Canada; American viewers can check out the U.S. broadcast schedule and Internet coverage options at the league homepage. I'm hoping to have a preview up here in the morning as well. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Pacific) in Montreal. Come join me then!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pigskin Predictions: Week One

I'm going to try and run my NFL predictions here every week, along with one-line reasons for each pick. We'll see how it turns out!


Tennessee at Pittsburgh: Steelers

Rationale: This will be close, but Pittsburgh's defence is just too good for the Titans.

Miami at Atlanta: Falcons

Rationale: Both of these teams will be good this year, but home-field advantage gives the Falcons the edge in this one.

Denver at Cincinnati: Bengals

Rationale: The Broncos have been a gong show so far under Josh McDaniels. Cincinnati isn't the league's best team or the most stable, but they look positively competent by comparison.

Minnesota at Cleveland: Vikings

Rationale: I think the Brett Favre experiment will implode at some point, but the Vikings are still a much better team than the Browns.

Jacksonville at Indianapolis: Colts

Rationale: The Colts may take a step back this year, but they still have Peyton Manning and a great passing offence.

Detroit at New Orleans: Saints

Rationale: Detroit is still Detroit, and the Saints should be quite good this year as they finally have a bit of defence to go with their offence.

Dallas at Tampa Bay: Cowboys

Rationale: The Cowboys won't be great this year, but they're still better than the Bucs, and they didn't just fire their offensive coordinator.

Philadelphia at Carolina: Eagles

Rationale: The Eagles should be solid again this year, and I'll take Donovan McNabb over Jake "Daylight Come And I Wanna" Delhomme and his five interceptions in one game any day.

Kansas City at Baltimore: Ravens

Rationale: The Chiefs will be one of the worst teams in the league this year, and they're going up against a very tough opponent in the Ravens.

New York Jets at Houston: Texans

Rationale: This one could see some early-season jitters from Jets QB Mark Sanchez, and I think the Texans will exploit that.

Washington at New York Giants: Giants

Rationale: This could be an interesting clash, but I think the Giants' superior defence and running game will see them prevail.

San Francisco at Arizona: Cardinals

Rationale: This one could be close, but I like Kurt Warner over Shaun Hill.

St. Louis at Seattle: Seahawks

Rationale: The Seahawks should be decent with the return of Matt Hasselbeck, but the Rams won't be good any time soon.

Chicago at Green Bay: Bears

Rationale: I expect the Packers' defence to struggle early on as they adjust to the 3-4.

Buffalo at New England: Patriots

Rationale: The Bills are in horrible shape after firing their offensive coordinator and cutting their starting left tackle, while the Patriots should return to dominance.

San Diego at Oakland: Chargers

Rationale: The Chargers' high-powered offence should be more than enough to demolish the Raiders.

Are you ready for some NFL predictions?

Our long (inter)national nightmare is over; it's time for the NFL season to start! I'm excited as anything for tonight's opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans; Pittsburgh should be eager to defend their Super Bowl title, and Tennessee will pose a good challenge for them. The "Terrible Towel" story from last year only ups the ante and adds fuel to the fire. For coverage of tonight's game, check out the Shutdown Corner live blog or Behind The Steel Curtain, where they should have a game thread. Anyway, before the season kicks off, here are my preseason playoff predictions; let's see how they stack up. Week One predictions will follow in a separate post.


Division winners:

North: Pittsburgh*
South: Tennessee
East: New England*
West: San Diego
* = first-round bye

Wild cards:


Wild card:
Baltimore over Tennessee
San Diego over Miami

Pittsburgh over Baltimore
San Diego over New England

Pittsburgh over San Diego

It's going to be a tight race in the AFC this year. I could see any of Pittsburgh, New England or San Diego claiming the conference championship, and I'm reasonably confident that all three will win their divisions. The AFC South is rather up in the air, but I don't trust Houston's line or the health of Matt Schaub, and the Colts might miss the playoffs thanks to coaching turnover and the lack of a dominant run game. Baltimore will be good and should be a playoff team; Miami is more of a risky pick, but I love their pass rush and their offence can get it done unconventionally. Plus, betting against Bill Parcells is usually a bad move. In the playoffs, I think it will be tough to beat Pittsburgh's defence or San Diego's offence; New England isn't far back, but their defence is aging a bit and their running game is questionable.


Division winners:
North: Chicago
South: New Orleans*
East: Philadelphia*
West: Seattle
* = first-round bye

Wild cards:
New York Giants


Wild card:
Chicago over Atlanta
Giants over Seattle

Giants over Philadelphia
New Orleans over Chicago

Giants over New Orleans

The NFC's not as stratified as the AFC, as there are a lot of teams that could wind up making it all the way to the Super Bowl. The NFC North in particular is going to be a three-horse race between the Bears, Vikings and Packers. However, I think the Brett Favre experiment will blow up in Minnesota's face, and I'm not sure the Packers' defence will do all that well in their transition to a 3-4. Chicago has had a great team for years, despite mediocre quarterbacks like Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton; with a legitmate QB like Jay Cutler, they should be pretty good. I like New Orleans to pull enough of a defence together to win a lot of games with their incredible offence, and I think Atlanta will be good again with the addition of Tony Gonzalez. The Giants will probably take a little while to get going, but I like them in the playoffs; they're one of the most well-rounded teams in the conference.

Super Bowl: Steelers over Giants

If the season plays out as I predicts, this could be a great smashmouth football matchup. Both teams boast excellent defences and solid running games. I give the Steelers the edge here based on their defence, but it could be a close one.

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know below!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

David Beckham and the Montreal Impact?

Sean Gordon of The Globe and Mail reported this afternoon that David Beckham may be looking into joining forces with Joey Saputo in the Montreal Impact's bid for MLS. The story's apparently based off this report from Jack Bell of The New York Times over at the paper's Goal blog. Here's the money quote from Bell's piece:

"According to a person with knowledge of Beckham’s planning who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern about jeopardizing a potential deal, Beckham, 34, and his management team at 19 Entertainment (led by Simon Fuller) and Creative Artists Agency (led by Jeff Frasco) are interested in being partners with Joey Saputo, the owner of the Montreal Impact. The Impact plays in the United Soccer Leagues First Division, one tier down from M.L.S."

Obviously, Montreal's push for MLS is no secret, and it's been gaining plenty of force lately. The financing struggles of George Gillett, owner of Liverpool, soon-to-be-former owner of the Montreal Canadiens, and Saputo's initial partner in his bid for MLS are no secret either, and that could leave an opportunity for Beckham. He does have that option in his contract to own an MLS franchise in future, and he's said publicly that he wants to stay involved with the league.

Regardless of the mixed feelings towards Beckham in MLS, my thinking is that he still could be a valuable asset as a franchise owner(and perhaps even an owner/player towards the end of his career in the Mario Lemieux mould). He'd provide a public profile boost for the Impact, as well as a substantial amount of financial backing, necessary for MLS entrance and stadium renovations. The other advantage is that Montreal wasn't in MLS during Beckham's initial stay in the league, so there might not be as much fan resentment towards him as has developed in say, Los Angeles. I can't say that for sure from the outside, though.

Montreal might be a great spot for Beckham, too; it's a very European city, for one thing, which might help him adjust. For another thing, the Impact are the third team in town at best at the moment, behind the Canadiens and the Alouettes. Beckham's involvement would certainly raise that profile, perhaps past the Alouettes, but even with him involved, the Canadiens will still be the big show in town. That might provide him with a good blend of celebrity and obscurity; he'll get plenty of attention, but he isn't as likely to get stalked daily.

In any case, there's nothing solid on this at the moment. It's just a rumour, and one that might take years to fully develop. It's certainly an intriguing idea, though, and one that could potentially benefit both sides.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

Update: Jason Davis has some good thoughts on the matter over at Match Fit USA.