Saturday, March 27, 2010

Playfair Heats Up

I live in Surrey, B.C., and I'm not exactly rich enough to afford Canucks tickets, so most of the hockey I see live is at Abbotsford Heat (AHL) games. It's a good brand of hockey, and there's always potential for some entertaining moments. Unfortunately, I wasn't there in person for what's quite possibly the highlight of the Heat's tenure in Abbotsford so far, head coach Jim Playfair (the former head coach of the Calgary Flames, Abbotsford's parent team) melting down after referee Jamie Koharski (son of former NHL ref Don Koharski, who's of course famous for being involved in another legendary meltdown) tossed Heat winger J.D. Watt. Here's the video; skip ahead to 2:30 for the start of the play, or 3:20 for the start of the fireworks.

This is pretty impressive. Playfair yells at the ref, breaks a stick, takes off his jacket and then breaks another stick before leaving, probably enough to get this up into the pantheon of the top coaching rants of all time. However, hockey alone offers some stiff competition. Here's some of the other all-time greats:

Jim Schoenfeld on Don Koharski: This is the incident mentioned above, from the 1988 playoffs. "You fell, you fat pig! Have another doughnut!"

John Tortorella ejected for hitting a fan with a water bottle: Funnily enough, this one led to a one-game suspension for Tortorella and resulted in Schoenfeld taking over the team.

Don Cherry's Bruins called for too many men in Game Seven: This is one of the great coaching blunders of all time, and still came to mind 30 years after the fact when a similar error (also against Montreal) lost this year's Grey Cup for Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, his reaction is rather muted. The famous arm-waving introduction to Coach's Corner is from earlier in this game, though.

So, what say you? Where does Playfair's meltdown rank? In pure significance, it's probably below these three, as it happened in the AHL regular season instead of the NHL playoffs. We also don't have any memorable quotes from it (yet). Still, for sheer physical spectacle, this one comes out on top in my mind. Overall, I'd probably slot it behind Schoenfeld and Tortorella, but ahead of Cherry thanks to his muted reaction to the call. Leave your thoughts in the comments or get at me on Twitter!

Update: Completely forgot about Robbie Ftorek's bench-tossing, which Sean Leahy included in his Puck Daddy post along with a couple of minor-league meltdowns I hadn't seen before. This is pretty good; maybe even good enough to take top spot.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Eastern Promise: Gabe deGroot on playing libero and switching from the ACAC to CIS

This is a little old, but I didn't get the time to do it before now, and I think it's still interesting. I've talked about the implications of national recruiting in CIS recently, and this fits right into that. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a feature for the Langley Times on my old high school volleyball teammate Gabe deGroot, who led the Guelph Gryphons to the Ontario final (where they lost a five-set thriller to Queen's).

deGroot's story is interesting from a couple of perspectives. For one thing, he went from high school volleyball at a small AA school in B.C. (Fraser Valley Christian) to playing for The King's University College in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference to spending the last two years with Guelph. For another, he made the transition to CIS volleyball very smoothly, claiming the OUA libero of the year award in both seasons he played with the Gryphons. That's even more impressive when you consider that he changed positions midway through his career; he was a setter in high school and in his first two years at King's, but then switched to libero.

Now deGroot's CIS career is finished, he's hoping to play professionally in Europe, which is another unique element of this story; men's volleyball is one CIS sport that actually sees a lot of players go pro, which speaks to its quality. One example would be former Queen's setter Devon Miller, who I profiled in 2008. Anyway, deGroot had some interesting thoughts on switching schools, provinces and positions; you can check them out in the story below.

Photo: Gabe deGroot (5) makes a dig in the OUA final against Queen's. [Photo supplied by Guelph Athletics]

Andrew Bucholtz
Times Reporter

Gabriel deGroot has found volleyball success in some unlikely places. After growing up in Langley and playing for the local Fraser Valley Volleyball Club and Surrey's Fraser Valley Christian Falcons, deGroot headed to Edmonton to play for The King's University College Eagles in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. He spent three years with the Eagles before transferring to the University of Guelph in 2008 and playing for the Gryphons in Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition, which he said turned into a great decision.

"It's been awesome," he said. "It's been an amazing experience."

It often takes college players a while to adjust to the university level, but deGroot found success quickly. He switched from setter to libero in his final year with the Eagles and carried on at libero with the Gryphons, claiming Ontario University Athletics' libero of the year award in both 2008-09 and 2009-10.

deGroot said the libero position, which was introduced into international volleyball in 1998, has added a lot to the game. Liberos are defensive specialists who sub in for weak passers during their backcourt rotations and often make the crucial first dig on serves or spikes.

As liberos aren't allowed to spike or block above the net, height is less important than it is at other positions; deGroot, at 6'2'', is one of the taller liberos in CIS competition but one of the shortest players on his team. He said his height does give him an advantage, though.

"Being tall, you can cover more ground," he said. "It's still a tall man's game."

deGroot said the transition from setter to libero took a lot of work, but his setting experience has helped him in his new role.

"As a setter, you kind of see the whole game," he said. "Working with my setter, I know what he's thinking; I know what he needs."

deGroot said there was also a significant increase in pressure and level of play when he moved from the ACAC to CIS competition, but he thrived under those higher expectations.

"It's a whole new stage," he said. "I've had to push myself every day, but it's definitely a jump I was ready to make."

deGroot led the Gryphons to the OUA final Saturday, where they lost a five-set thriller against the Queen's University Golden Gaels. deGroot was named Guelph's player of the game in the loss. He said he was proud of the honour, but disappointed to fall just two points short of an OUA championship and a berth at the CIS national championships.

"It was definitely an honour, but I'd trade it for a win," he said. "I keep playing those last five to 10 points back in my head."

The Gryphons placed fifth in the OUA regular season with an 11-9 record, but made a successful playoff run, knocking off the fourth-seeded Windsor Lancers and the top-seeded McMaster Marauders in five sets each to advance to the final against Queen's. deGroot said the Gryphons had more talent than their record indicated, but it took them a while to play cohesively.

"Probably halfway through the season, we had a total turnaround," he said. "We never played as a unit before that."

deGroot said the win over McMaster was particularly sweet, as the Marauders beat the Gryphons in the OUA semifinals last season. The Gryphons lost the first two sets, but rallied to win three straight. deGroot said the atmosphere inspired them, as plenty of Guelph fans made the trip to Hamilton to cheer the Gryphons on and matched the McMaster crowd in volume.

"It was a crazy environment to be playing in," he said.

The OUA currently only receives one spot at the nationals, so the Gryphons' season ended Saturday. The spots are determined based on conferences' past performances, which deGroot said he thinks is fair. He said he thinks Ontario schools will do well enough in the future to earn more berths.

"I'm not bitter about it," he said. "I think it needs to change, but it needs to change from a skill level perspective, Ontario volleyball is getting better."

This marked deGroot's fifth and final season of post-secondary athletic eligibility, so his university career is over. He's hoping to continue with volleyball, though, and is planning to pursue professional opportunities in Europe once he completes his sociology degree this year.

"I definitely want to play at a professional level," he said.

His love for volleyball isn't a recent development, but it still burns strong.

"It's a great team game," he said. "It's been a passion of mine my entire life."

Back to the grind

Apologies for the lack of posting here lately; I've been swamped at the day job and then spent last weekend snowboarding in Vernon, so I haven't had a lot of time to blog. I did get a new piece up at Canuck Puck on how the team's loss to Detroit Saturday night isn't as bad as it looks, so you can check that out if you haven't already. Also, a note to Vancouver (and area) readers; I'm planning to attend the official Canucks Tweetup tomorrow night, so if you're there, say hi! Anyway, we should be back to your regularly scheduled madness shortly; I've got a bunch of CIS thoughts on the way, as well as several professional sports posts set for this week. Until then, enjoy some Skid Row:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hockey: Interviewing Brent Seabrook, and why the Olympics top the NHL

Last week, I spoke with Chicago Blackhawks' defenceman Brent Seabrook for a South Delta Leader piece about what it was like for him to compete in the Olympics at home, so I figured I'd spotlight that here. Let's take a look at what he had to say, consider why Olympic hockey is special and think about if there's a way to use those lessons to make the NHL more exciting.

One of the most interesting comments I thought Seabrook made was about how Olympic competition is in some ways even more intense than the NHL playoffs, thanks to the single-elimination format and the national, not city-wide, focus on the games.

"There was so much at stake in such a short time after the round-robin," Seabrook said. "The qualification and the medal round, it's one game and you're out. Everybody was putting it on the line and making every shift count."

That single-elimination format also makes it tougher to recover from a bad shift or a bad game.

"It was unbelievable," Seabrook said. "It sort of felt like we were back in the playoffs playing like that but at the same time, there's almost more on the line during the Olympics. It's one game and you're out. In the playoffs, if you have a bad game, you still have at least three more to bounce back and be better. It's a little different format which makes it not as nerve-racking, not as crazy."

He said that additional pressure requires players to avoid getting too low after a loss or too high after a win.

"I think you're nervous and what not, but I think it puts you on more of an even keel," he said. "You're playing against arguably the best teams that are put together in the world. You've got your Russia, your Slovakia, your USA, your Canada—all of those teams have a lot of top players. To get up after a big win is tough because its such a short tournament. If you start doing that, you start losing focus and you can find yourself going over."

To me, that pressure and intensity is what makes the Olympic tournament so interesting. The NHL's playoffs are great, too, and they're probably a fairer way to determine a champion (sample size alone dictates that the top teams are more likely to prevail in a best-of-seven series than in a single-elimination tournament), but that fairness comes with a tradeoff; it means there's less on the line in each game (except a Game Seven), and it also means that underdogs are less likely to win.

There's a good reason that most of the memorable underdog runs in the playoffs (1982 Canucks, 1994 Canucks, 1996 Panthers, 2002 Hurricanes, 2003 Mighty Ducks, 2004 Flames, 2006 Oilers) ended with Stanley Cup Final losses; the best-of-seven format makes it awfully tough for underdogs to go all the way. I'm not advocating making the NHL playoffs a single-game knockout tournament; the current format is interesting, and it provides a couple months of good hockey. For sheer thrills, though, I'm not sure it can compare to the Olympics.

Moreover, the Olympics have another big advantage over the NHL; they show us a hockey game with less talent dilution. Sure, there are weak teams in the tournament, but the upper-echelon countries like Canada, the U.S., Russia and Sweden all have more talent than any NHL team (mostly because there are far less elite countries than NHL teams). The focus on offence instead of grinding and goonery also helps; teams tend to roll three or four lines of talented players instead of going with the typical NHL mix of two talented lines and two lines of muckers. Bruce Arthur wrote an interesting piece after the Olympics criticizing the NHL's brand of regular-season hockey, which is almost anathema for Canadian writers; many spend much of their time talking about how great the game is without looking at its flaws. I'd argue that many of those flaws carry over into the playoffs, too, particularly on the talent-dilution side. There are plenty of good reasons the Olympic hockey ratings were so massive and so far beyond what we usually see for hockey, and they go beyond pure nationalism; the Olympics offer a product the NHL can't match.

That doesn't mean there's nothing that can be done. I've gone to a lot of AHL games this year, and one thing I've noticed is that most AHL teams have plenty of players with a good bit of offensive talent. The problem is that, as I pointed out in a Canuck Puck piece before this season started, most NHL teams have very clearly defined forward line identities. The top two lines are expected to score, the bottom two are expected to check and fight. Thus, if an offensively-minded AHL forward isn't quite good enough to crack his NHL team's top-six forwards, he's probably going to remain an AHL forward.

Changing that mentality to one that emphasizes offence from all players might produce a more exciting game, and rule tweaks to reduce headshots and open up the game could also help. That's not a call for banning hitting or fighting; both have their place in the sport in my mind. What I'd like to see in the NHL is more of a focus on players who can both score and hit, like Alex Ovechkin, Brenden Morrow and David Backes. In the meantime, though, pencil me in amongst the crowd that wants to see NHL players in the 2014 Olympics in Russia; the tournament simply offers a fantastically thrilling brand of hockey we can't see anywhere else.

CFL: Argos sign Brannagan

It's nice to see CFL teams actually giving Canadian (and CIS!) quarterbacks a look for once. Shortly after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats added Erik Glavic (of Saint Mary's Huskies and Calgary Dinos fame) to their negotiating list, the Toronto Argonauts announced that they'd signed Queen's Vanier Cup-winning quarterback Danny Brannagan. There's a good piece from Chris Zelkovich in today's Toronto Star on the matter, talking to both Brannagan and Glavic about their invites to the CFL's evaluation camp this past weekend and the proposal that would allow teams to bring a Canadian QB to camp without taking up a roster spot. Of course, this is very early, and there's no guarantee that any of these Canadian quarterbacks will actually get a shot to prove that they belong. Still, progress is always good, and you have to start somewhere. Maybe this can be one of the first steps towards a real evaluation of quarterbacks based on their skills, rather than nationality, combine measurements or college.

[Thanks to Arden Zwelling for the heads-up].

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Underdog Dinos claim national title

The Dinos receive their trophy and CIS banner. [Andrew Bucholtz photo; check out my Facebook profile for more low-quality pictures from the tournament, to be posted Monday night.]

The Calgary Dinos have come a long way in a week. On March 6, they lost a five-set thriller to the Trinity Western Spartans in the Canada West semifinals. They went on to beat Thompson Rivers in straight sets in the bronze-medal match and entered the nationals this week as the sixth seed.

From there, though, things only got better for them; they knocked off the No.3 Dalhousie Tigers in a close five-set match in the quarterfinals, then beat the No.2 Alberta Golden Bears in a five-set semifinal battle and finally got revenge on the Spartans with a four-set victory in the gold-medal match.

Trinity Western head coach Ben Josephson said the Spartans didn't play as well as they could have, but the Dinos turned in a stellar effort.

"A lot of things weren’t quite working the way we wanted, but any time you play a good team, they take you out of a lot of the things you do well," he said. "They made a couple more plays than we did."

Josephson said the Dinos' blocking and passing game in particular was difficult to beat.

"They’re just a really good, stable blocking team," he said. "I felt like our guys were hitting the ball nice and hard, but their blocks slowed it down. They scrambled to the ball real well. I don’t think we matched their defensive intensity in the first half of that match."

Some underdogs in a final would embrace a us-against-the-world mentality, but Dinos' head coach Rod Durrant said his team was confident despite their low seed.

"We didn’t think the seeds meant anything," he said. "We were happy to be here and we knew we had a shot at winning."

Durrant said the talent is pretty evenly spread at the top of CIS volleyball, which means that whoever gets hot at the right time can claim a title.

"I felt everyone coming into the tournament had a chance to win it," he said. "There was no clear-cut favourite."

Durrant attributed his team's success to their self-confidence.

"They believed and they performed as best as they could when they needed to," he said. "I’m so proud of this group of guys. It’s tough to describe."

Durrant said the Dinos showed their ability to battle through adversity.

"They kept believing and kept playing," he said. "To go back to the quarterfinal, we were down 2-0 and they kept believing. To finalize it the way we did is so rewarding."

I've written a lot this weekend about the advantages of facing tough league competition (and conversely, the disadvantages of an easier league). Durrant buys that theory. He said he figures a tough regular-season schedule set his team up well for the nationals.

"Every weekend’s a battle in Canada West," he said. "I think it prepares us very well for this championship. I do think it has a lot to do with it, and I think it’s because there’s a tremendous commitment by the athletes in this conference, and coaches around this conference just prepare their guys. I think we win as a conference."

Durrant's team will experience a fair bit of attrition this summer, as they have several fourth- and fifth-year veterans leaving. He isn't concerned about that yet, though. Instead, he's happy to celebrate a national championship with his veterans (who dumped a bucket of Gatorade on him after the trophy presentation).

"I’m very excited they went out as national champions," he said. "We’ll worry about next year maybe tomorrow."

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Trinity Western - Calgary (gold medal) live blog

This one's for all the marbles. It's an all-Canada West final at the CIS men's volleyball championships here in Kamloops, with the Trinity Western Spartans taking on the Calgary Dinos. Join me in the live blog below!

Alberta - Laval (bronze-medal game) live blog

It's the first game of the medal round at the CIS volleyball nationals in Kamloops, featuring the No.2 seed Alberta Golden Bears and the No.1 seed Laval Rouge et Or. The game can be seen at SSN Canada. Join in the live blog below!

Queen's - Thompson Rivers live blog

The first action of the day at the CIS men's volleyball tournament sees Queen's taking on the hometown Thompson Rivers WolfPack in the fifth-place game. Join in the live blog below!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

TWU downs Laval in a thriller

That has to be one of the most exciting volleyball games I've ever seen. Both teams came out slugging early, but Laval looked to have the upper hand when they won a close third set 25-23 to take a 2-1 lead. Trinity Western refused to quit, though, winning the last two sets to advance to the final. The final set, which ended 20-18 in favour of the Spartans, could have gone either way, but in the end, they did enough to hang on.

Steven Marshall had a tremendous night for the Spartans, finishing with 25 kills. He said the whole team took their game to a new level.

"It was amazing," he said. "It was the best game we’ve had this season. I think we played as a team, as a whole. We helped each other all game."

Trinity Western demonstrated a great deal of depth; Marshall and Rudy Verhoeff (11 kills, 10 blocks) were both huge in the Spartans' comeback, with other players like Marc Howatson (16 kills) and Josh Doornenbal (9 kills) coming up big when called upon. By contrast, Laval relied mostly on the efforts of star hitter Frederic Desbiens (22 kills), with some support from Karl De Grandpre (14 kills); both had solid games, but the rest of the team didn't contribute too terribly much, which may have caused some fatigue down the stretch. Marshall said depth has been a strength for Trinity Western all season.

"We’ve always had tons of guys coming in and helping out," he said. "It’s made a huge difference all season."

I'd imagine the Spartans' experience playing tough teams all year also helped with their resurgence. Marshall said they've played a lot of close games all year, which gave them confidence after they fell behind two sets to one.

"We always felt we were going to get it," he said. "We knew this was going five from the beginning"

Interestingly, this sets up yet another final between Canada West teams. Before last year, when Laval finished second, Canada West had swept the medals seven straight years. The conference has also won 37 of the 43 national championships, and the last 15 straight titles; that streak is safe with Trinity's victory.

As I suggested this afternoon, I don't think it's necessarily an inherent talent advantage that makes western teams so dominant these days; that used to be a larger part of it, but the increased numbers of athletic entrance scholarships in other provinces and the increased role of national recruiting have helped to diminish that.

The little advantages remain, though. Trinity plays in an incredibly competitive conference, where they went 11-7 in the regular season this year. Seven of the teams in the final Top 10, including Trinity, were from the West; they face six of those teams in league play, which has to help sharpen their edge. By contrast, Laval was ranked #1 in that top 10, but they were the lone Quebec entrant; their best league competition was probably the Montreal Carabins, who lost in three sets to Laval in their first match at nationals and in four sets to Queen's in their second match. The rest of the Quebec league was even further behind. That doesn't take anything away from Laval; they certainly proved that they deserved to be at nationals and probably deserved the #1 ranking they received heading in. It does perhaps go towards explaining how an 11-7 Canada West team can upset a dominant Quebec team; those little edges you pick up from facing top competition all year can make a significant difference.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

The Battle Of Alberta: Golden Bears vs. Dinos

In an all-Alberta matchup, the University of Alberta Golden Bears will take on the University of Calgary Dinos in tonight's late semi-final. The winner will go on to face Trinity Western in tomorrow's gold-medal game, with the loser taking on Laval for third place. Watch the game on SSN and join in the live blog below!

Trinity Western - Laval live blog

It's the first semifinal of the CIS men's volleyball championships, featuring the fourth-seeded Trinity Western Spartans and the top-ranked Laval Rouge et Or. Catch the webcast at SSN Canada and join the live blog below!

Conferences, small edges and Canada West

Earlier this week, I wrote a long piece about how the increased availability of athletic entrance scholarships and the increased focus on national recruiting has started to help schools outside of Canada West start to catch up in sports traditionally dominated by western teams. Canada West does still have some edges in scholarships, infrastructure and coaches, but I think the gap is beginning to close a bit.

However, you wouldn't know it from this weekend's CIS volleyball national championships. As I wrote in a feature for the Queen's Journal back in 2008, men's volleyball has been solidly dominated by Canada West since its inception, with the conference claiming the last 15 straight national titles and 37 of the 43 championships that have been held. That pattern hasn't shown any signs of changing so far; there are four Canada West teams here, making up half the field; No. 2 Alberta, No. 4 Trinity Western, No. 6 Calgary and No. 7 Thompson Rivers. Three of the four won their opening games; the only one to lose was Thompson Rivers, who played against Alberta, and they bounced back with a three-set thumping of Dalhousie this afternoon.

The Queen's - Trinity Western game was supposed to be close; that's what you'd expect from a four-versus-five game. It wasn't, though; the Gaels had their moments, but the Spartans won in straight sets. When I spoke to Queen's players and coaches after the game for my recap piece for the Journal, I got some very interesting comments. Consider this one from libero Alex Oneid, who said Trinity Western's speed was one of the main things that threw the Gaels off.

"Their rate of play was pretty similar to ours," Oneid said. "This year, even some of the better teams in the OUA had a slower pace. We came here and we basically saw us, with a little more game experience."

Head coach Brenda Willis offered some thoughts along the same theme.

“I’m not sure things went wrong so much as they went right for Trinity Western," she said. "The tempo of thie offence is something we don’t face in Ontario. We also don’t face that level of serving very much, and I don’t think we passed well enough to run the offence we’re capable of running. They face other teams at that tempo, at that level of serving all the time and we don’t."

Willis said the difference between the teams wasn't so much physical talent as experience against good competition.

"Physically, we matched up very well," she said. "I don’t think we’re too small or too slow. We need to be a little more skilled perhaps and a little more in sync."

Willis said the nationals are a learning experience for the Gaels, with a chance to play some high-calibre teams. She said they have the physical talent to compete with western teams, but they need to work on the small elements of the game against elite competition if they're going to become more precise.

"The biggest thing for us is to go through this tournament learning and getting better so we can go home and realize there’s no big gap, it’s just about getting better in all the areas; faster offence, a little more aggressive defence," she said. "It’s just the little things."

I talked about the importance of regular-season competition a bit in my piece on Dalhousie last night, but I thinks it deserves some more coverage. Queen's doesn't have Dalhousie's problem of not facing high-level teams all year during the regular season, as there are some very good teams in Ontario, including McMaster, Western and Guelph. However, for every match against those teams, they have one against weaker teams like RMC (0-20 this year) or York (4-16). It's tough to learn much from those games, and it's easy to pick up bad habits in them.

Canada West has its own stragglers, like Regina (0-18 this year) and UBC (4-14), but those programs have been good at times, and they're far more the exception than the rule. It's pretty close at the top of Canada West; Thompson Rivers finished sixth during the regular season with a 10-8 mark, but they've done very well at the nationals so far. By contrast, Ontario features less elite teams and many more middling teams. Moreover, the other top-level Ontario teams all have the same problem of playing down to their competition, not being refined by it, so they're not as elite as they might be if they played in a tougher league. This suggests that in CIS sports, it might not be enough just to build your own program into a powerhouse if your league remains at a lower level.

In some ways, this difference might particularly show up in volleyball, where there are so many little changes in serving, passing and attacking styles that can make a big difference. If you're not exposed to the different styles of top teams throughout the season, it's much more difficult to quickly figure out a way to counter them at nationals. There are exhibition tournaments and such that can help with this, and the good programs do make an effort to expose their players to as much competition as possible, but that doesn't make up for a regular season of night-in and night-out battles.

There will be an interesting test of this idea in the 6 p.m. (Pacific) game tonight, with top-ranked Laval taking on No. 4 Trinity Western. Laval is an excellent team and a very physically skilled one. They've also had success at the national level; they finished second in last year's championships, breaking Canada West's streak of seven straight medal sweeps. However, they play in a much weaker league than the Spartans, who were tested night in and night out. Laval will be favoured, and there's a good chance they'll win, but if Trinity does pull off the upset, I'd venture that the strength of their schedule might be part of the reason why.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Thompson Rivers - Dalhousie live blog

It's the second consolation final at the CIS men's volleyball championships in Kamloops, featuring the hometown Thompson Rivers WolfPack against the Dalhousie Tigers. Winner plays Queen's for fifth tomorrow; loser's tournament ends here. Join me in the live blog below. This will be a little more infrequently updated than some of the others, as I'm working on some other posts as well, but I should still have regular score and action updates.

Queen's - Montreal live blog

It's time for the first consolation semifinal at the CIS national volleyball championships in Kamloops, featuring Queen's against the Montreal Carabins. Join in the live blog below!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dalhousie's dominance: is it really a good thing for them?

I was paging through the Dalhousie Tigers' media guide earlier and came across quite an interesting stat. The Tigers have appeared at 31 straight CIS championships. They've won 24 straight Atlantic University Sport championships and 30 of the last 31 (presumably, their other appearance came either when they were hosting or when the AUS wound up with two spots). Current head coach Dan Ota has been there for 11 years and won 11 straight AUS championships; he's also been named AUS coach of the year nine times in that span. Clearly, AUS volleyball is Dalhousie and everyone else.

The question, though, is if that dominance is a good thing or a bad thing for the program. On the plus side, that probably gives them first crack at any Maritime recruits who want to stay in the region. Their almost-guaranteed spot at nationals also can be a significant recruiting advantage, allowing them to draw more national recruits than they probably would otherwise; only three players on the current roster are from the Maritimes, with two from Halifax and one from Newfoundland. The rest are spread out everywhere from Victoria, B.C. to Cobourg, ON. Dalhousie does have a good volleyball program and would draw people even without the guaranteed berth, but it certainly can't hurt their recruiting efforts.

Where it might hurt them, though, is in quality of competition. I'll have more on this later, including Queen's coach Brenda Willis' thoughts on the matter, but for now, suffice it to say that the opponents you play before nationals can make a big difference to how you do once you're there. It's not just in terms of their physical talent, although that plays a role; it's easier to fall into lazy digging habits if the spikes and serves aren't coming hard, and you don't have to execute a hit perfectly if you're up against a shorter blocker.

What may be even more important is the systems. Volleyball is an incredibly tactical game, full of different passing schemes, setting and serving techniques and attack routes, and even minor variations on these can present a problem. If you're playing less-skilled teams all the time, you're probably not going to see as much variety, and you'll be less prepared for what might come your way. Even small changes can have a big effect; a common theme that came up in my conversations with Queen's players and coaches after their loss today was that Trinity Western's fast pace poseed a huge challenge for them. If you're not seeing those kind of different systems from elite competition, you might struggle to adjust to them.

Tonight's game may prove a case in point. The Tigers were seeded third this year and came into the tournament with a strong roster, but after winning the first two sets against Calgary, they started to struggle. The Dinos fought back well, winning sets three and four handily and then knocking off Dalhousie 16-14 in a tight fifth set. Would things have been different if Dalhousie had faced tougher competition throughout the year? We'll never know, but I'd guess they might have.

How has this worked out for Dalhousie overall, though? Well, their results show the same combination of positives and negatives discussed earlier. They've never won a national championship, but they finished second in 1997. Their last four finishes are fourth, fifth, fourth and fifth which seems about right. They always make the dance, and they're rarely the worst team there, but they never seem to quite pull it off, and that lack of elite competition might be a reason why. Still, as a fan or an athletic director, you can make a good case that being there every year might do more for your program and your national profile than making it to nationals a few times during that span and winning once.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Live blog: Thompson Rivers vs. Alberta

The next game in the CIS men's volleyball championships sees the hometown Thompson Rivers WolfPack, seeded seventh, taking on the Canada West champion Alberta Golden Bears, seeded first. It should be an interesting one. Tune in on SSN Canada and join in the live blog below!

Live blog: Queen's vs. Trinity Western

After top-seeded Laval opened the CIS volleyball championships with a three-set thumping of Trinity Western, we're now set for what should be an entertaining second match. Queen's, who took the Ontario title in an extremely close five-set thriller against Guelph last weekend, enters the nationals as the lone OUA representative. They're seeded fifth. They'll battle the fourth-seeded Trinity Western Spartans, who came up just short in their conference final against the Alberta Golden Bears. Both teams have a lot of young talent, which should make this one thoroughly interesting. The game will be streamed live at SSN Canada; watch it there and follow along with the live blog here! We'll get underway at 6 Eastern/3 Pacific.

Checking in from the CIS volleyball championships

The CIS men's volleyball championships are underway out here in Kamloops, but there aren't any surprises so far; top-seeded Laval is up one set to nil on eighth-ranked Montreal. Later today, we'll have Queen's taking on Trinity Western at 3 p.m. Pacific, followed by the host Thompson Rivers WolfPack against the Alberta Golden Bears at 5 and the Calgary Dinos and Dalhousie Tigers at 8. The plan is to live blog all of those games, as well as chipping in a few other previews and recaps here and there. Check back here often for the latest.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How scholarships and national recruiting have changed the CIS

One of the growing trends in CIS athletics in recent years has been a shift towards national recruiting. Local and regional recruits used to make up the majority of most university teams, and while they still have an important role to play, we're seeing more and more athletes head across the country for school. One such case is B.C. product Dylan Ainsworth, who I wrote about recently for the South Delta Leader.

Ainsworth and his teammate Sam Livingston led the South Delta Sun Devils to the 2008 AA high school championship, and both were sought-after recruits locally. They both elected to head to Ontario after receiving athletic scholarships, though, and will suit up for the Western Mustangs next fall. There have always been some prominent athletes who have gone out of province for school, but they used to be few and far between. These days, these stories are becoming more and more common.

There are probably a multitude of reasons behind this shift. We frequently talk about a shortage of CIS media coverage, and there are significant issues there, but at the same time, many schools are likely receiving more national coverage then they have before, thanks to national broadcasts of various CIS regular-season games and championships (both via conventional television and webcast initiatives like the Streaming Sports Network) and the increase in university sport-focused blogs and forums.

Additionally, many schools are looking to market themselves nationally to students, not just regionally, and they're doing more advertising, alumni events, career fairs and other forms of outreach across the country. It's easier to get information on different schools in other parts of Canada these days thanks to the Internet and the focus on websites, and that holds true for athletics as well; many CIS athletic departments have dramatically improved their websites in recent years, adding webcasts, blogs, video content and other information, so a prospective recruit from B.C. can probably get as much information about an Ontario school's athletics program as he or she could about a local university.

All of these factors have an effect on recruiting, but I think perhaps the most important ones are the increased athletic scholarships on offer. The improvements in facilities, and the rising number of full-time coaches have also played significant roles. These factors have created dramatic change in athletics across the country, but an interesting case in point is Ontario.

During my time at Queen's from 2005-2009, Ontario University Athletics underwent drastic change. After a divisive debate, Ontario schools voted 16-3 in 2006 to bring in athletic financial awards for first-year students. Previously, Ontario athletic scholarships could only be offered to upper-year students and were very minimal even then, limiting their effectiveness as a recruiting tool. That meant Ontario schools were at a disadvantage nationally, particularly against Canada West, which had offered athletic scholarships much earlier. The western edge showed up in many sports, particularly men's volleyball and women's basketball.

The new rules changed that to a degree (although Ontario schools still can't offer as much as western schools), but they also brought their own consequences.
Athletic scholarships are one of the largest costs for an athletic program, particularly if you're offering a substantial amount of them across a good number of sports. Moreover, there's extra impetus to offer them in large numbers; if other schools in your conference are providing lots of scholarships in a sport where you're only handing out a few, they'll grab the choice recruits and they'll probably wind up beating you on the field, making your recruiting task even tougher. Money is one factor in recruiting, but success is another, and if you don't put in money at the start, success can be very difficult to come by.

The problem this created is that many Ontario schools had teams spread hither and yon across a wide variety of sports. That worked just fine when each team only needed a little funding, but proved much more challenging with the introduction of scholarships. Furthermore, athletic scholarships present a particularly difficult task, as the funding is needed immediately, but the results (program success, increased paid attendance at games, increased national profile) take much longer to appear. This gives schools a difficult choice. If they bite the bullet and invest heavily, hoping to see returns down the road, they may reap substantial long-term benefits. However, if every other school invests heavily in scholarships as well, their competitive advantage is lost, and the dividends of a successful athletic program may not come in at all, leaving them deeply in the hole.

In a climate of university budget cuts and funding crunches, increased athletic funding was difficult to swallow for most schools, especially when the returns were anything but guaranteed. Most of their athletic departments realized that the status quo couldn't be maintained, though; without increased funding, their sports would fall behind and their revenues would diminish.

This led to difficult decisions on cutting and prioritizing sports, and created a climate of athletic reviews, many of which cited the introduction of athletic scholarships as the motivating factor behind the desire for change. In 2007, nine of the 17 OUA schools were undergoing some form of review. Not all of the reviews wound up in sports being completely axed, but most of them changed internal funding levels and funnelled more money towards the big programs; many, such as the one at Queen's, also asked for more funding from students.

There were still strict limits on the scholarships that could be offered, though, and recruiting has always been about more than just the money. New facilities were needed as well at many schools, and the reviews also turned up just how stretched the largely part-time coaching staffs were. In addition to scholarships, schools began to hire more full-time coaches and build new facilities, all of which carried their own costs.

These factors all help attract prospects nationally, and they also encourage coaches and programs to recruit on a nationwide basis. Full-time coaches who don't have to spend their time juggling with other jobs have more time to investigate recruits on a national basis, and often larger travel budgets as well. Extra recruiting staff also help, as does the ability that scholarships and advanced facilities confer to be more selective with your recruits.

Another key factor is the amount of information out there. In the 1990s, an Ontario coach might have heard of a B.C. prospect like Ainsworth, but probably wouldn't have had much information on him outside of a network of acquaintances. These days, you can watch Ainsworth's highlights on YouTube, read articles about him in local papers and see what others think of him on blogs and forums. There's a much larger conversation about recruits, and that promotes thinking nationally.

You can make an argument that national recruiting efforts aren't necessarily good for CIS as a whole. Certainly, all CIS schools aren't created equal, and they definitely can't all afford to run top-quality programs that attract the best athletes in every sport. There is a danger of a competitive imbalance arising between the poor and the rich; national recruiting isn't the only thing involved in that, but it is a large component. However, that isn't an inevitable outcome; it's very possible for smaller and less prosperous schools to focus on running less programs, but running them all very professionally (Langley's Trinity Western University is a great example of this). This seems to be the way many universities are going, and a large part of the reason for that is the availability of athletic scholarships and the need for national recruiting efforts.

Even that solution has its own downside, though; it diminishes opportunities for athletes to play CIS sports (less schools per sport = less athletes participating), and it could see the demise or severe attrition of some of the lesser-publicized sports, which is sad in its own way. However,its upside is in increasing the quality of athletes and programs, which could increase media attention, broadcast rights and sponsorship revenues. National recruiting also provides more opportunities for and benefits to the top athletes, and could also encourage more of them to stay in Canada instead of jumping to the NCAA; more competitive, professional, high-quality programs in each CIS sport would make CIS more comparable to NCAA competition.

You can decide for yourself if the national recruiting scene and the benefits that come with it are worth the significant tradeoffs; personally, I think they are. Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on, though, CIS sports are changing, and scholarships and national recruitment efforts have played a significant role in that transformation.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Whitecaps hold Sounders off

The Vancouver Whitecaps - Seattle Sounders exhibition match earlier today was a pretty good display of soccer. The final score was 0-0 [Bruce Constantineau, Vancouver Sun], but both teams had their chances. Seattle held most of the possession, which is what you'd expect from an MLS side against a Division II one, but they weren't able to convert on their scoring opportunities. Steve Zakuani was perhaps the Sounders' best player, constantly making things happen on the wing with his speed. He did score once, but it was nullified thanks to an offside. Kasey Keller also turned in a solid performance in net for the Sounders.

On the Whitecaps' side, there was some progress as well. New acquisition Blake Wheeler looked solid in midfield and had one of the team's better chances when he narrowly missed in the second half. Young striker Dever Orgill looked good as well, which is reassuring; he has been dominant with the residency team in the past, but didn't make too much of an impression in his limited time with the top squad last year. Marcus Haber and Charles Gbeke are definitely major losses up front, but if Orgill, Marlon James and Randy Edwini-Bonsu can step up, it may be a strong year for the Whitecaps.

As I pointed out in my preview over at Sounder at Heart, the Whitecaps are in a state of flux this year, both on the pitch and off. They're simultaneously building for MLS in 2011 and trying to compete in the new USSF Division II this season. If last year is any indication, the priority will be the future, but there's enough talent on this squad that they could contend this year as well; they did make the USL final last year, after all, and they have more potentially key pieces coming in than going out.

The biggest question will be up front, as Haber and Gbeke carried much of the weight on that front last season, and that's what makes a 0-0 game a tad troubling. It is just a friendly, though, and the team had plenty of chances. More importantly, their young players acquitted themselves quite well. Holding an MLS side to a draw is no small accomplishment; it's not a unrealistic one, but it's not to be shrugged off either. The Whitecaps played well today; we'll see if they can carry that momentum into the regular season.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

CIS: Queen's - Guelph OUA final live blog

Just a quick reminder that I'll be live-blogging tonight's OUA men's volleyball final between the Queen's Golden Gaels and the Guelph Gryphons. It should be an interesting one; both teams won five-set thrillers yesterday, with the Gryphons upsetting #1 seed McMaster and the Gaels eventually prevailing over a dogged Western Mustangs squad. Both teams feature outstanding defensive players, which should lead to lots of long rallies; Guelph has two-time OUA Libero Of The Year Gabe DeGroot (a former high school teammate of mine), while Queen's has second-year starter and high-school standout Alex Oneid at libero, plus one of the best defensive hitters in the OUA in Niko Rukavina. Up front, Winston Rosser and Jamie Stamler will lead the charge for Guelph, with the ever-dangerous Joren Zeeman and Michael Amoroso, one of the game's most complete middles, responding for Queen's. It should be a great one; the Always OUA guys have a good preview up here. The game can be viewed at SSN Canada, and will be live-blogged here and at The CIS Blog. Game time is 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific; come swing by then!

Looking back at the Olympics: The highs and lows

It's almost a full week since the Olympics wrapped up, so I thought now would be a good time to look back at them. The emotions have faded, allowing for more logical analysis, but the implications of the Games—both positive and negative—will still be felt for some time to come.

Ever since the Olympics were given to Vancouver, I've been juggling excitement and loathing. As I wrote in my initial piece, the Olympics are an interesting topic to write about, because they present such crass commercialism, excess and corruption alongside such genuine moments of inspiration. They bring highs and lows, and they come as a group package. I'm not a fan of those who fall head over heels in love with the Games while ignoring the very real issues and problems they present, but I'm also not a fan of those who lose track of the positives in their rush to condemn and criticize, especially when they hurt their own cause with senseless violence [Doug Ward, The Vancouver Sun]. The Olympics come as a package deal, and ignoring one side of the story is problematic, regardless of which side it is.

There were some brilliant highs for me during the Games. One of the best was the atmosphere that sprung up around town. It was a triumphant atmosphere, but a welcoming one as well from what I saw; it reflected Canadian pride, but embraced people from all nations. Moreover, it was refreshing to see Vancouver, which often seems so strait-laced, truly let down its hair and party for a few weeks [Bruce Arthur, National Post].

There were plenty of highlights from the athletic competitions as well, including the success of athletes like Kevin Martin, one of the best curlers ever [Neate Sager, Fourth-Place Medal], and the Canadian hockey team. There were touching stories, such as Alex Bilodeau's victory in men's moguls over Canadian-turned-Australian spyware king and all-around bad dude [Paul Waldie, The Globe and Mail] Dale Begg-Smith, and the inspiration Bilodeau's older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, provided [Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star], the Canadian teams claiming gold and silver [Joe O'Connor, National Post] in women's bobsleigh, and CIS and CFL star Jesse Lumsden's impressive perfomance [Vicki Hall, Canwest News Service] in the men's bobsleigh.

For me, perhaps the ultimate moment was Jon Montgomery's gold medal [Dan Robson, CBC Sports] in men's skeleton [Jeff Blair, The Globe and Mail] and his ecstatic celebration afterwards, made even more appropriate by his win coming on the heels of [Jesse Campigotto, CBC Sports] Melissa Hollingsworth's defeat. Maybe it's just my hoserism talking, but there was something perfectly Canadian about the way Montgomery accepted and chugged a pitcher of beer on his way through the village to a CTV interview. It seemed to reflect the overarching attitude of Canadians towards the Games, with our desire to show the world who we really are, not some sort of PR veneer.

At the same time, though, those great moments often came in spite of VANOC, the IOC and the Olympic broadcasting consortium, not because of them. Right from the start, the Olympics were marred by the horribly tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, which CTV then tried to sweep under the rug. The IOC quickly went on to blame the victim rather than look at the real issues with the luge track's design, and the story was soon swallowed up by other problems with the Games, such as the bizarre decision to use hay bales for seating at Cypress Mountain (which resulted in massive amounts of tickets being revoked [Erik Rolfsen, The Province] thanks to unsafe conditions) and the failure [Martin Rogers, Yahoo!] of the supposedly green ice-cleaning machines at the speed-skating oval in Richmond, which led to another ridiculous move to bring in a Zamboni from Calgary instead of using one of the infinite supply of the machines available at other local hockey rinks. While all this was going on, CTV, the main Canadian broadcaster of the Games, was ignoring the vast array of problems cropping up in favour of unabashedly draping themselves in Olympic banners, carrying the torch (literally!) for the IOC and VANOC and passing over the stories and achievements of foreign athletes in favour of some good old-fashioned homerism. Don't tell CTV that there's supposed to be no cheering in the press box; much of the time, it appeared that they were organizing a pep rally for the IOC and Team Canada rather than actually trying to cover the Games. The endless corporate involvement also put a damper on things; it's tougher to enjoy an event that's supposed to highlight the purity of sport when you're bombarded with promotions for RBC and Coca-Cola all day.

Yet, a week later, much of what I wrote in my day-after piece still holds true. The commercialism, the mistakes and the problems were on full display throughout, but the Olympics found a way to overcome. There were brilliant highlights from many of the athletic events, some featuring Canadians and others featuring superb athletes from around the world (a few examples include Latvian bobsleigh pilot Janis Minins [O'Connor], Korean figure skater Yu-Na Kim [Maggie Hendricks, Fourth-Place Medal], and American Shaun White putting on [Trey Kerby, Fourth-Place Medal] the greatest snowboarding display I've ever seen.

Perhaps more importantly, there was a genuine enthusiasm and atmosphere that sprung up in Vancouver. It was both patriotic and inclusive, and that truly highlighted the Olympic spirit in my mind, no matter what some morons who fulfilled Godwin's Law [Dashiell Bennett, Deadspin] or trotted out the old Canadian cliches [Jason Brough and Mike Halford, Orland Kurtenblog] might think. Canadians truly embraced the Games, not in the way they were instructed to by VANOC, CTV and the IOC, but in a deeper, more real way that turned out to be much better. The enthusiasm was genuine, not commercial, and the Olympics displayed something pure and exciting despite the best efforts of those in power to reduce them to a sanitized commercial enterprise. That's what I'll take away from these Games, and that's why I'll remember them in a positive fashion.

[P.S. If you're looking to follow any of the writers linked above on Twitter, I highly recommend them. Most of them are listed in these tweets of mine; simpler than linking them individually in here.]

Friday, March 05, 2010

Insta-live blog: Queen's and Western, OUA V-ball semifinal!

This is extremely short notice, but I decided on the spur of the moment to live-blog tonight's OUA men's volleyball semi-final between Queen's and Western (you can watch here at SSN). The OUA's gone to a Final Four this year, and Guelph upset heavily-favoured McMaster in the first match earlier this afternoon, so the winner of this one will face the Gryphons tomorrow. Join us in the live blog below!