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Hockey Gold and NHL Brass…

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

On Friday afternoon I was out for a run* and as I passed by the local elementary school, a boy, perhaps no more than nine years old, emerged from the parking lot on a skateboard, a Canadian flag tied as a cape on his back. As he skated off, the flag flapped behind him, a vision of the supermen he had surely watched win hockey gold only five days before.

I was struck then by how many young Canadians became hockey fans last Sunday. Fandom is on many levels an obsession and it is an obsession born in various ways. Sometimes it is developed through the love of a parent (for instance, Big Sexy cheers for Les Canadiens, because his father cheered for Les Canadiens), sometimes it is created out of a repetition of watching, but mostly the obsessive quality necessary for fandom is generated supernova style when a juvenile mind watches a superlative game on the grandest of stages.

The passion, the intensity, and the simple poetry of witnessing the very best in the world compete, creates a love of the game and a love of the victorious team. This is a strong bond that can survive decades of lethargy. When I was twelve the Jays won the World Series, when I was thirteen they won again. Since then they’ve never won ninety games in a year, never been to the playoffs, never played meaningful September baseball. Yet, year after year I watch them. I know the names of all forty guys. I know the youngsters who might help one day, and I get excited when in May they’re randomly leading the division.

Last Sunday’s game, which can only be considered one of the greatest games of all time and was nothing other than hockey gold, had that effect on thousands of young minds. It was probably so powerful that it had that effect of thousands of young adults, perhaps even American adults who watched in record numbers to bear witness to a potential upset.

What they saw was not just a game played at the highest level, on the grandest stage, with a last second comeback, and a hero’s ending. What they saw was also unsoiled, pure hockey. Did you know that there were only two penalties each per team? The final thirty-seven minutes of hockey were unblemished by high sticks, by reckless boarding, by holding, tripping, or cross checks. They were quintessential.

The real question then, is whether the NHL can capture any of the audience that witnessed that perfection and keep their attention. As many of you know, while I love Olympic hockey, I’m largely indifferent to the hockey played in the NHL. There are too many teams, which means too many players, which means too many guys who can’t compete with their talent and thus must compete by slowing the game to their skill level.

Over the last five years, blessed with an influx of breathtaking young talent, the NHL has worked hard to improve its product, speed up the game, increase scoring and eliminate the clutching and grabbing that saw 2-1 games become the norm for a decade of play. They deserve credit for this, I guess. But it has not been enough. The game that was played in Vancouver last Sunday, was not the same game I watched this week upon the NHLs return.

Perhaps the biggest issue, is also the most controversial. I’ve long thought myself apathetic to fighting in hockey. It’s not that I want to watch the fights, but I never really felt that they were detrimental to hockey. I was wrong. Fighting has no place in hockey. Why should it? What does it bring to the table?

Supporters of fighting in hockey argue that because it’s an aggressive, physical game, it is necessary for the players to occasionally shed their hostility through fights. A logic that might be dubbed, the self-policing mentality. Yes, hockey is a tough physical sport, but it is no more physical than football and fights in the NFL are rare. NHL players need to fight, because they’ve always been allowed, or more accurately encouraged, to fight. But continuing to do something because it’s always been done is a form of cowardice.

Are there a few fans that follow hockey only for the fights? Sure, probably, but if they are only interested in the sport for the fighting, are they really fans at all? The alternative camp, is the exceptionally larger one that considers NHL hockey to be a mere step above MMA as a violent cult sport. Did some of those people watch on Sunday? Did they reconsider their opinion? And if so, did they then tune in to watch Friday night’s Vancouver-Chicago game, where 37 seconds into play, gloves were dropped and players were fighting. To what point? To settle some previous score? Really? I certainly would not blame fans who tuned in after the Olympics saw that display and thought, ‘nope, not the same game.’

I want the NHL to become stronger and for Canada’s game to be more than a niche sport. I want the league to capitalize on the gold that was last Sunday, but mostly, I want the league to ensure that all those caped children riding down the street on skateboards have a thriving sport to follow for the next fifty years. The first step in ensuring that future, is shedding the brass knuckles whose time has long passed.

*In no way does Sports on the Brain condone the use of exercise, this was a one time mistake brought on by the unseasonably warm weather. The author regrets it and apologizes to any he may have harmed.

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Ten winter moments worth having…

March 1, 2010 Leave a comment

The Olympics are over. When they began, I wondered whether I would pay any attention at all, and for two weeks I’ve done almost nothing else. When I’ve been awake, the Games have been on, sometimes in the background, sometimes with me actively shouting at the TV. I fist pumped Ice Dance, I laughed at Jon Montgomery auctioning off a pitcher of beer, and I mourned the Canadian women’s curling loss harder than any sporting event in years (in part, because the Jays haven’t competed in anything relevant since I was thirteen, and I expect the English national team to lose).

I think part of my reticence heading into the games was that as a warm weather people, I’ve historically only paid attention to the Summer Olympics and honestly, the Summer games cannot hold a candle to the winter games. The summer games just have too many sports and more specifically too many dull sports. Equestrian? 8,000 different wrestling weight classes? Table tennis? Badminton (sorry Grandpa)? And did I mention equestrian?

By contrast, the winter games are almost all good. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have had much of an interest in Ice Dancing if I didn’t have a little crush on Tessa Virtue, but short track skating, bobsleigh, the skiing and snowboarding events, are money baby! And, while I love hoops and baseball, neither sport gives Canadians any shot at gold, so they can’t approach the adrenaline that I feel watching team Canada thump Russia 7-3, or watching Bernard miss a gold medal by inches.

That’s what following sports is all about. Becoming invested in whatever you are watching, as the adrenaline pumps through you during the tensest moments. It’s emotionally contagious, feeding from the arena, through the television, to viewers and, in the case of the Olympics, uniting a community of followers. In the past four years, I’ve only felt that pull for the Suns, a team I cheer for because of a player, not for team, city, or country. Thus, it isn’t quite as emotive.

By contrast, these games have given me that feeling countless times. Sometimes it has been exalting in joy – jumping on the back of Big Sexy after Crosby scored. Sometimes it has been the blank staring, ignominy of defeat – asking the Bride, “how’d she miss?” Either way though, it has been captivating sport.

So, here is a list of my ten favorite moments from the games… Good… and Bad…*

*(And yes, these are all Canadian moments. It’s not that there weren’t other important stories, the Slovenian woman who punctured a lung in a horrific crash and still won bronze was amazing, and Lindsay Vonn managed to be the first woman to ever ski with a make-up bag in her back pocket, but… This was Canada’s games, through and through)

10) Canadian Women win Hockey Gold – Honestly, they can’t rank higher because it was such a foregone conclusion. Yes, they might have lost to the Americans, but it just never seemed likely. The only downside of their victory was the absurd uproar over their celebrating with beer and cigars at center ice. If they had been men, nobody – NOBODY – would have cared, they’d just have been “good old” boys celebrating. Disagree? Then how come nobody made a big stink of Montgomery chugging a pitcher in the streets of Whistler?

9) Jennifer Heil wins silver – Sometimes, most times actually, you can tell more about a person in defeat than in victory. It is one of the hardest parts of being an athlete, having a camera and a microphone shoved into your face, seconds after having your heartbroken. Heil came in to the games with the expectation that she would be the first gold medal athlete to win on Canadian soil. Not just a gold medal winner, but the first on home soil. She skied a great race, but was beat. She was graceful and classy seconds later, only her eyes belying the pain. She said that there would be many Canadian golds to come and thanked all of the country for supporting her. Pure class.

8 ) Joannie Rochette wins Bronze – You’d have to be a robot not to have been moved by Rochette’s skating this week. No one would have blamed her for not skating after her mother died of a heat attack the day after arriving at the games. Yet, Rochette skated and skated well, capturing bronze with two skates that had many eyes wet, and many hearts warm.

7) Jon Montgomery marches through Whistler, Gold in one hand, Pitcher of Beer in the other – I think this was the turning point in the games for Canada. The first week, from Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death, to the torch malfunction, to the litany of fourths and fifths, had the nation reeling, the COC president waving a pathetic white flag, and foreigners mocking the “Own the Podium” campaign. Then Montgomery won gold and took the entire town of Whistler on a victory parade that included a pitcher of beer. With his auctioneers voice, Montgomery was the pied piper of the Canadian success that followed.

6) Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir win Ice Dancing Gold – I’m not going to lie, I have a pretty big crush on Virtue… and an equally big one on Moir.

5) Marianne St. Gelais watches Charles Hamlin win Gold – Seriously, go here and watch the video of silver medalist St. Gelais cheering her boyfriend to gold. It was a spectacular night for Canadians, as within an hour our skaters captured two golds, but St. Gelais exerting more energy in cheering Hamlin’s race than Hamlin used winning his race, well that was a moment. It had a room full of hockey fans jacked up.

4) Kevin Martin wins Gold – Honestly, the biggest revelation of the Olympics, even bigger than me watching Ice Dancing, is that I have become an unabashed, rabid, curling fan. Some might say that it’s the lovely ladies, but I watched all the men’s games too. For two weeks, Martin was all business. With an ace team, that included the stubborn, flame throwing fireman, John Morris, Martin was so in command of the game that gold seemed assured. Of course, the women’s team can tell us all about assured gold. So when, with victory three rocks away, the fans in the Vancouver Olympic Center sang the Canadian national anthem goose bumps appeared on my arms.

3) Alex Bilodeau wins Gold – The first Canadian gold, won on Canadian soil. Olympic gold is an incredible experience, but I believe all the Canadians who won gold in 2010 would say that winning at home took the elation to another level. What pushes this past Martin for third is that, perhaps, the best non-sporting moment of the games was the hug that Alex shared with his brother Frederic just after winning.

2) Cheryl Bernard wins (loses) Silver – Kevin winning was a serious balm, but this loss haunted me, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have hit Bernard. Two shots, inches from gold. It sits above Martin’s win, because tragic losses are so much more emotive the solid wins…

1) Canadian Men win hockey Gold – Come on, you knew this was a given… One last thought about the men’s game. How about Sidney Crosby? Having what could be described as a mediocre tournament, he showed his class when it mattered most. That goal was all his effort. Charging forward, trying to split the defenders to get a shot, pursuing the puck into the corner, fighting the referee’s feet, and Brian Rafalski, to retain possession, slipping the puck to Jerome Iginla, heading to the net, and snapping a perfect shot. Sidney was effort personified and effort rewarded, and for the rest of his life, that goal will make him a legend in Canada. Sigh… That was a moment.

7:40 of Overtime on February 28th, 2010…

March 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Where were you? Where were you at 7:40 of overtime on February 28th, 2010? Were you in a bar, jumping into the arms of someone you met only hours before? Were you gathered together with friends? Were you by yourself at home, preferring to experience the potential pain of defeat alone? Or perhaps you missed it all together, cruelly held to another commitment, only believing that success had been achieved by the horns and shouts from the street.

I was with family, crowded around a television in a way that struck me as entirely Canadian. Hockey has become woven into the fabric of Canadian lives, because for generations families gathered together around small, grainy televisions, the rabbit ears positioned just so… to watch “our boys” play hockey. Sure, there were no rabbit ears, the picture wasn’t grainy, and the screen wasn’t exactly small, but the visceral experience was the same.

We gathered, we ate, we bantered, we cheered, we mourned, we laughed, we (ok, perhaps just me) felt ill, and when Jerome Iginla’s pass found Sydney Crosby’s stick… we jumped. Like a jack in the box wound ever so tight, we sprang upwards, arms extended, fists pumping. I leapt onto the back of my old friend Big Sexy. I landed on his big shoulders and exalted, the queasy sensation in no rush to pass. There was time for hugs, but first there were battle worn sighs to be had, anthems to sing, and, for some, tears to shed.

The shouts of passing flag bearers, and the horns of elated car travelers, reminded us that this was not a solitary experience. There are events that freeze moments in time, uniting entire generations in a collective of “I remember where I was when”… Unfortunately, these events are usually steeped in tragedy: Pearl Harbor, President Kennedy’s Assassination, the Challenger Disaster, 9/11. Each phenomenon resonates with the public, uniting us all in a collective experience of disaster.

But, there are times when sport can fulfill that same effect of freezing a moment in time. Bringing an entire nation together, unifying us all through the superlative power of athletic achievement, is rare. However it happens for nations that win soccer’s World Cup; it happens when a minnow upsets a Lion; and it happens when world politics bring an extra element of emotion to the event. For Canada, it happened in 1972 when Paul Henderson’s goal defeated the Soviet Union. It happened in 1987 when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux played a game of cat and mouse with the Soviet defense, and it happened in 2010 when Sid the Kid became the hero we’d all been waiting for.

This is a goal that I will see replayed again a thousand times in my life. It is a moment that I will remember thirty years from now. Jumping on Big Sexy, watching as my mother in law sprang from her chair, as the Bride and her sister leapt, hugged and squealed. Honestly, there is no number too great for me to tire of seeing that goal.

Someone asked how my life would be different if Canada lost? A question I believe that says more about the questioner, than the answerer. However, had they lost, the nuts and bolts of my life would have remained the same. I would have gone to work today; I would have eaten breakfast all the same, put on pants one leg at a time. I would still be married, but the Bride would have had to deal with a day, or twelve, of moody despairing as I mumbled incoherently about how they lost. The game would have haunted me for years. Not every day of course, but when it was brought up by circumstance. Or when my mind wandered.

Instead, today I will walk with an extra bounce in my step. Smiles will come easy to my face, and the smiles returned will have that knowing hint of shared experience. The heady, euphoric mood wont last forever, but when the game comes up by circumstance, or when my mind wanders… I will smile, I will remember family, remember leaping into the air, and remember falling into a chair thrilled, delighted, and overjoyed that a Kid named Sid found the back of the net at 7:40 of overtime on February 28th, 2010.

Inching away from Gold…

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the words of the late, great Jim McKay… the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Yesterday in the women’s curling final both were on display. Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard and her team had curled a tremendous game, stealing a deuce to take the lead in the 7th and a single in 8th for the two point advantage. In the tenth, Bernard’s team put her in position to win. They cleared all the Swedish rocks out, leaving only their own in the house.

It was all there for Bernard. Two stones to win. Sweden had the hammer, but Cheryl was positioned to keep the Swedes to the single, solitary, lonely point. Throughout this tournament, this is what Cheryl has wanted. The stone in her hand with the opportunity to win. For two weeks she had proven herself woman enough to stick each decisive shot. She had proven herself mighty.

It was a relatively simple shot. Hit the Swedish rock out the back and the gold was Canada’s. Cheryl threw. The line looked good, and as the camera held on her face, the slightest smile appeared. There it was, just a hint around her lips, the thrill of impending victory. The Vancouver Olympic Center was ready to explode.

But sports are funny and sometimes cruel. Despite looking good the whole way, the rock just didn’t quite curl enough at the end. When it hit the Swedish stone, instead of rolling out the back end, it struck a Canadian rock and stuck. Swedish skip Annita Norberg had a dead on hit for two to tie and she didn’t make a mistake. Inches, inches from victory.

How cruel then that with the Hammer in the eleventh it would come down to another shot for Cheryl. Another shot at gold. A slightly harder shot, but still a shot that Cheryl surely hits nine out of ten times… maybe even ninety-five out of a hundred. This time there was no hint of a smile. Despite the imploring shouts of Canadian third Susan O’Connor, the rock came down the ice too straight and as it struck there was no doubt.

Inches, mere inches away from the sun shining bright; from the band playing; from the thousands of hearts in the Olympic center being light; women laughing and children shouting, but there was no joy in Mudville – mighty Cheryl had struck out.

The Women Owned the Podium, but will Rogge Let Them Keep Playing…

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The Canadian women’s hockey team played a strong, structured game yesterday to defeat the U.S. 2-0 and win their third straight gold medal.  Congratulations ladies.  You played an amazing tournament and deserve nothing but acclaim.

Unfortunately, yesterday was also the day that IOC president Jacques Rogge chose to put women’s ice hockey on notice.  The comepetition in the sport could be generously described as lacking.  In three round robin games, the Canadian women had a goal differential of plus 39, with their closest contest being a 10-1 trashing of Switzerland.  So, yes, I can see how competitiveness here is an issue.

BUT… what purpose does whacking women’s hockey from the games serve?  Hockey is a wonderful game, played competitively by men in Sweden, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Norway, Switzerland, and Germany.  Sweden and Finland have put some development into women’s hockey, but the others have shown no effort to develop a game for women.  Instead of making threats, Rogge should be encouraging the spread of the game in hockey rabid countries to the other gender.

North America has shown that women are avid fans of playing hockey.  Young girls love the sport here, they love playing the game, and they deserve the chance to compete at the highest level.  Dropping the game from the Olympics will kill the sport being played by young girls in those European countries, which would be a shame.  Perhaps I am making assumptions here.  Perhaps young girls in Russia do not want to play hockey, but I think given the opportunity to play, to do what their brothers do, Russia and the other countries would find ample young women interested in hockey.

This is a threat that the International Hockey Federation should take seriously.  The IOC has shown itself to be a bully in all respects of sports.  They have already dropped women’s softball from the Summer Olympics for much the same reason that they now threaten women’s hockey.  Unfortunately removing team sports over questions of competitiveness generally affects the women more than it does the men.  Baseball remains in the Olympics, because besides the U.S. it is played avidly by men in Japan, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, the great White North, and to much lesser extents Australia, China, Italy, and the Netherlands.  How many of those countries give equal, or reasonably equal attention to women’s softball?  Canada and probably Australia, but the others?  I don’t know, but I doubt it.  Instead of putting pressure on those athletic federations to give equal opportunity for women to play softball, the IOC just drops the sport.

Instead of unilaterally removing these games from competition, the IOC should be working with individual Olympic federations, international sports federations, and the professional leagues (yes, the professional leagues, the NHL and MLB need to follow the example of the NBA in developing their game for women) to ensure that girls are getting equal opportunity to play and compete in team sports.  Rather than making threats, Jacques Rogge needs to be embracing the Olympic spirit, setting an example by working together with others to develop women’s softball and hockey around the globe.  Young girls out learning a new game, learning to work together as teammates, developing skills and a passion for sport, and then getting the opportunity to compete at the highest level in front of the world, are what the Olympics are all about.  Isn’t that something we should be striving to achieve?

When Grown Men ( ) the Bed…

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

If you missed it, Canada played the U.S. in a little game of hockey on Sunday… and they lost.  In the ensuing twenty-four hours we discovered that this is either a harbinger of inevitable doom, or that it was a necessary loss that will focus the Canadian team as they rally to gold.

Neither stance particularly matters to me, as they are both mere building blocks in the inevitable game of “I told you so…” that will follow the results.  What the loss definitely did do, was make the Canadian’s path to gold a game longer, and considerably harder.  That extra game against Germany might offer the opportunity for the team to gel, but the loss also means that they could very well face Russia in the quarters.  However you might want to color the Canadian situation, facing Ovechkin, Malkin, and Datsyuk (oh my…) in the quarters is treacherous to the home team.

If Canada were to lose in the quarters (or heaven forbid tonight), then barstool pundits everywhere will question whether Patrice Bergeron should have been selected over Jeff Carter (or Martin St. Louis, or whomever), or whether Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer were too old for the back line, or whether Drew Doughty was too young for the back line.  Of course, the second guessing of Marty Brodeur has already begun and baring injury we wont see him again in this tournament.

So, let me make one thing clear, Carter, or St. Louis, or Mike Green, or whomever you think should have made the team is not the difference between 7th and gold.  This team has all the talent it needs to win this tournament, but at some point it is up to the players to make the plays necessary to win.  Brodeur, for all his past glory, clearly did not make the necessary plays on Sunday.  Of course, neither did anyone else.

Canada out shot the U.S. 45-23, they dominated control of the puck, they made hits, but was there any point where you thought they were in control of that game?  When the U.S. struck early did you think, no biggie?  Before Ryan Kessler’s empty net goal, in the waning moments were you confident that they were going to tie it up?  No, no, no.  Some might argue that their sloppy play was related to a lack of familiarity with one another, but a lack of familiarity didn’t stop Canada from dominating Canada Cups in the eighties.  Those players were great and when the chips hit the table, they raised their games to make sure that Canada stood atop the hockey world.  It is time for this team, for Crosby, Iginla, Thornton, Luongo, and the others to raise their games.

Tonight is the first night in the rest of the tournament.  Win gold and the loss to the U.S. will merely be a galvanizing moment that turned the team around.  Lose, and it will be the moment when the tournament turned south.  The players have been given the opportunity by Hockey Canada to do what every Canadian kid dreams of, they have the support of an entire country, and more specifically a rabid arena, it’s time for them to put the excuses to bed, grab this tournament by the scruff, and make plays.  It’s time for them to show that they are indeed great players, and it’s time for them to win.

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A shocking admission, with just a touch of gold…

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment

After a week of mercilessly making fun of Ice Dancing, tonight, when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated for the Gold Medal, my palms were sweaty and a knot was lodged firmly in my stomach (the Bride might even claim that my fingers were crossed while waiting for the judges’ scores, but I deny those allegations).  It might have just been that Canadians were competing for gold, but honestly I think it’s that Virtue and Moir seem so genuine and charming.  They skated beautifully, sensually even and they were perfect.  How could you not be cheered by watching Moir pump his fists and Virtue beam in victory.  Golden indeed.

Before departing for the night, I also have to say that I was equally, or almost equally, as impressed with Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who threw down the thunder with their skate and then were so excited to celebrate with Virtue and Moir even in defeat.  Also, golden indeed.

I will now spend the next twelve hours making “you know how I know you’re…” jokes about myself.

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