Sunday, December 8, 2013
The Shawn Thornton-Brooks Orpik incident has a chance to be a seminal moment for the NHL, but it won't be. Wayne Maki pole-axing Ted Green didn't stop Dale Hunter from ambushing Pierre Turgeon, which didn't stop Todd Bertuzzi from bushwacking Steve Moore. Thornton mugging Orpik won't prevent the next round of thuggery, because the league won't do the right thing, which is send the message that criminal conduct on the ice is intolerable. That would mean kicking Thornton out of the league, which will never happen, because the NHL doesn't have the stomach for the legal battle that would inevitably ensue with the Players Association. If there's ever going to be real change to hockey, it's going to have to come from outside the game - specifically, from elected lawmakers with the resolve to legislate changes to a game that's lost the ability to govern itself.
Not to harp on Ron MacLean, who's done a credible job for a long time, but the veteran hockey host has been coming visibly unglued since the announcement that Rogers would assume creative control of Hockey Night in Canada. Last night, MacLean congratulated colleague Rob Pizzo on being "very smooth" in Pizzo's Hockey Night studio debut, but then added, "it's irritating" - an apparent reference to the much younger Pizzo's polish and poise. I can understand MacLean's insecurity over potentially being usurped by younger talent in a time of transition, but referencing it on the air was as unprofessional as it was bizarre.
I read a letter to the Montreal Gazette sports editor yesterday from an elderly gentlemen who noted that there were far fewer head injuries in the NHL when the overwhelming majority of players didn't wear helmets, in no small part because of a much greater mutual respect than exists among today's players. The letter didn't give me pause for thought on concussions as much as it made me wonder what element of the game today's generation of hockey fans will pine for in 50 years. Younger generations who condescend to their elders for pining for the good old days would do well to remember that these are their good old days, and 50 years hence they'll be derided for their long-held convictions, unless they set an example of courtesy and respect for the voice of experience.
Speaking of which, when I read that Jacoby Ellsbury had bolted Boston for a 153 million dollar free agent deal with the Yankees, my first thought was that Yaz would never have signed with the Yankees, nor would Fisk nor Dewey Evans and especially not Bill Lee. Thirty-five years ago, voluntarily jumping from the Red Sox to the Yankees was the closest thing in baseball to high treason. Today, it's business as usual.
I'm Old Man Bird.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
One of the fundamental differences between Don Cherry and his Coach's Corner sidekick, Ron MacLean, is that when Cherry says something outrageous, it's usually calculated. Cherry is many things, but stupid is not one of them. MacLean, on the other hand, has an earnest naivete that sometimes manifests itself in misguided attempts at being profound. His suggestion Saturday night that the involvement of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed in a multi-billion dollar television deal was a glowing example of how Jews and Muslims can get along was next-level cringeworthy, and proof enough that MacLean didn't learn his lesson from the time he clumsily compared hockey players to first responders in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. MacLean is a solid hockey broadcaster, but he'd do well to leave the global geopolitical punditry to the experts.
On the surface, at least, the concussion lawsuit filed by former NHL players is a transparent attempt to piggyback on the success of their retired football counterparts, who got a 765 million dollar out of court settlement after suing the NFL. There are, however, significant factors that point to this looming battle taking a different path. The NFL didn't admit culpability as much as it paid its former players what was tantamount to a nuisance fee when the settlement is taken in the context of current and projected NFL revenue, which is about five times what the NHL generates. Also, if Gary Bettman's labor relations history is anything to go by, the NHL commissioner will practically delight in a protracted court battle aimed at wearing down his adversaries psychologically and financially. The former NHLers might eventually get a settlement, but it's not likely to be nearly as easy nor as lucrative as the NFL payout.
I was willing to give Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane a pass when he posted a picture of himself flashing wads of cash in Las Vegas because it had context, but Kane crossed a line when he Instagramed himself getting handcuffed by a New York City police officer against the side of a patrol car. There's unavoidable symbolism in the image, and the smile on Kane's face makes light of an ongoing social stigma facing young black men who are too often assumed to be suspect because they're young and black. Someone needs to have a talk with Kane, and the smirking police officer in the picture could benefit from a few days off without pay.
It occurs to me on a semi-regular basis that if sports teams and leagues want to get around the all too frequent butchering of pre-game national anthems, they should have a policy of playing recorded versions if they can't hire polished professionals. I'm not talking Beyoncé or Placido Domingo, but a guy like Canadiens anthem singer Charles Prevost Linton, who has solid professional chops and can get through both anthems - one bilingually - without kicking it around the block like the dingbat on Long Island or the dope in Lethbridge, Alberta this past week. Better still, just play the damn thing on the organ and let the fans take care of the singing, like the crowd did in spectacularly uplifting fashion at the Bell Center last night. You get what you pay for - and sometimes what you don't pay for.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
It's impossible to overstate the enormity of the NHL's new Canadian television deal, and not just because of the dollar figure - although 5.2 billion is a pile of dough, even in the era of multi-trillion dollar government budgets (and - more ominously - public debts and deficits).
The most staggering number in the new hockey TV contract is the term: 12 years. Twelve years for exclusive rights holder Rogers/Sportsnet to shift and consolidate the balance of Canadian sports broadcasting power against Bell/TSN.
When the new television deal expires, Sidney Crosby will be 39. Connor McDavid, the heir apparent to Crosby as the next "best player in the world", will be pushing 30. Chris Chelios will be 64 and considering a comeback. But here's the clincher: the next time Canadian television broadcasting rights for the NHL are up for grabs, Bob McKenzie will be 70. Canada's best and most influential hockey journalist and analyst will spend the rest of his career working the beat for a network with no substantial skin in the game - unless he crosses the street, and that's where things get interesting for the country's handful of prominent hockey broadcasters and the millions of people who hang on their every word, whether spoken or delivered via social media.
TSN's talent pool is significantly deeper than Sportsnet's, which puts guys like McKenzie in the enviable position of being targets in a potential bidding war. That's not to say Sportsnet is devoid of talent, but off the top of my head, the only guy I can think of in McKenzie's class as both a broadcaster and an analyst is Scott Morrison, whose star will definitely ascend to even greater heights if he's given the prominent role he deserves. Sportsnet doesn't have studio hosts or play-by-play announcers on the level of James Duthie, Chris Cuthbert, Gord Miller or Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman, all of whom should benefit from the seismic shift in the hockey broadcasting universe, whether through offers from Rogers to join the in-crowd or equally (or more) lucrative counteroffers from their existing employers to keep them in the fold. My spider senses, honed through 35 years in the broadcasting business, say Don Cherry's goose is cooked, because Rogers executives refused to give Cherry a vote of confidence when the deal was announced, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in full bobblehead mode whilst vomiting insincere platitudes about the iconic Coach's Corner carnival barker. Ron MacLean's wagon is so firmly hitched to Cherry's that he's probably on the outs as well, although CBC will probably keep him around to carry the mail on the network's other sports broadcasts - especially if Friedman makes the jump to Sportsnet. Cherry and MacLean had a tremendous run and made a nice chunk of change along the way, but with Sportsnet assuming full creative control over Hockey Night in Canada, they'll probably want to hang a new set of grapes, er, drapes. There will be other job losses at HNIC as Rogers moves its own people into place, and at TSN, where hockey-specific production staff will become significantly less relevant, but premium talent on both sides of the camera should land on their feet and be compensated according to their worth.
At a time when the industry generally eschews experienced talent that commands a good salary in favor of cheap, disposable labour, it's enormously gratifying from an individual broadcaster's perspective to see talent get its due, and even more gratifying that it's happening because the corporate overlords who've been busy devaluing real broadcasters came out of the biggest deal in Canadian sports television history looking like the north end of a southbound horse.
Monday, November 25, 2013
There wasn't a dry pair of pants in the house last night as the drunken denizens of Rider Nation celebrated a Grey Cup victory in their own backyard. As insufferable as they can be as a travelling circus, there's something oddly endearing about legions of grown adults wearing hollowed-out watermelons on their heads when they do it in the relative privacy of their own home stadium. Either way, there's no currency in begrudging the CFL's most fanatically faithful fans their moment in the OH MY GOD IT'S TOM HANKS! TOM HANKS IS AT THE GREY CUP! TOM HANKS! IN REGINA! HE MUST LIKE CANADA! AND THE CFL! And that's what I brought away from the 101st Grey Cup: an appropriate result for the unswervingly loyal (if moderately batshit crazy) Saskatchewan fan base, and widespread Canadian self-validation because Forrest Gump showed up at our national football hootenanny. Canadiana at its finest.
Talk about not being in Kansas anymore: members of the Hamilton Tiger Cats suffered frostbite while practicing outdoors in Moose Jaw, despite the availability of indoor practice facilities. I'm as enured to the northern elements as the next ski-doo suit wearing hoser, but there's a time and place when common sense comes into play.
Much has been made about Stephane Waite and the wonders Waite has worked with Carey Price, but as the Canadiens goaltending coach, Waite's fingerprints are also all over the early season work of backup Peter Budaj. Like Price, Budaj has lifted his game to another level: 4 wins in 5 starts, a .942 save percentage and a sparkling 1.58 goals against average. With George Parros and Douglas Murray in the press box more often than not and Daniel Briere pulling substantial fourth line minutes, Twitter associate Tony Braca isn't far from the truth when he calls Stephane Waite general manager Marc Bergevin's best off-season acquisition.
Disgraced New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez's grandstanding at a grievance hearing last week was an act of desperation, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Demanding to face his accuser in the person of baseball commissioner Bud Selig was effective spin control. Perception is everything, and Rodriguez left the impression that he's being denied due process.
Note to kids in Sierra Leone: everybody line up in an orderly fashion - there are plenty of "Hamilton Tiger Cats 2013 Grey Cup Champions" hats and t-shirts to go around.
Monday, November 18, 2013
I threw up in my mouth a little bit listening to Toronto media mouthpieces feign outrage last week at the three game suspension for Leaf center Nazim Kadri. I'll grant you that the Montreal media campaign to get PK Subban on the Canadian Olympic team smacks of blatant homerism, but at least it's a credible case. There's no credibility in blaming Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom for getting steamrolled by Kadri in Backstrom's crease.
People who argue the merits of Carey Price based on his won-lost record this season automatically disqualify themselves as contributors to intelligent hockey discourse. Price has completely turned his game around from last season, when he had a more respectable winning percentage but was at best a middle-of-the-pack NHL goaltender - and that was on his better nights. To watch him on a game in, game out basis so far this year is to recognize that this at long last is the elite goaltender the Canadiens hoped and believed they drafted fifth overall in 2005. That he's presently not getting any goal scoring support is an issue, but it's not his issue, and as long as Price plays to the level that was all along expected of him and that he's finally attained, the Canadiens will ultimately reap substantial benefits.
Miguel Cabrera was a physical wreck in 2013 but still flirted with another Triple Crown en route to his second consecutive American League MVP Award and third straight batting title. With due respect to other multiple batting champions like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Rod Carew, it's not even a debate: the additional element of Cabrera's game-breaking power makes baseball's best pure hitter since Ted Williams, hands down.
It's a shame the Toronto Argonauts didn't win the CFL Eastern Conference final, just for the outcry that would have ensued when Rob Ford put a kilo of crack and a hand job up against a side of western beef in the traditional Grey Cup mayors' bet.
Monday, November 11, 2013
It was shitty of Montreal Mayor-elect Denis Coderre to go on Twitter and publicly humiliate David Desharnais by recommending a one-way ticket to Hamilton for the embattled Canadiens forward. I can fire brickbats at Desharnais with the best of them, but that's my bailiwick as a marginal media figure, and elected officials need to be held to a higher standard than internet blowhards.
We didn't learned anything new about the Canadiens during their recent tailspin as much as we've been forced to acknowledge pre-existing realities. In particular, the losses to San Jose and St. Louis provided a window into how the Canadiens are still a level below the NHL's elite teams. With a solid core of talented players in their early to mid-20s and blue chip blueline talent developing in Hamilton, the potential is there for the Habs to reach the elite level within the next two or three seasons - contingent on how the front office and coaching staff handle the assets, which is more critical than ever in the era of inside media access, salary caps and restricted free agent offer sheets.
It hasn't been a banner season for the National Football League's public relations department. With the league already in full damage control mode over traumatic head injuries, a second front flared up when Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin quit football rather than endure the incessant bullying of teammates - in particular Richie Incognito. It's easy to vilify Incognito - and he certainly has a lot to answer for after allegedly harassing a younger teammate to the point where Martin walked away from a lucrative, high profile living - but even the most cursory look at Incognito's personal background and pro football's locker room culture reveals Incognito himself is a tortured soul who was placed in an environment that enabled him to lash out. Root causes aren't always a popular topic (see Islamic jihad) but credible conclusions and effective solutions are impossible without an honest examination of the complete picture.
I don't care that it smacks of jingoistic bias: if Calgary running back John Cornish's numbers compare favorably to co-nominee Ricky Ray's (and they do) the BC born-and-raised Cornish should be honoured with the CFL's Outstanding Player award. It's the CANADIAN Football League, and there's nothing unseemly about seizing a rare and legitimate opportunity to celebrate a Canadian player above all others.
I'm not sure if it speaks more to stress, genetics or the lottery of life when seemingly fit former pro athletes like Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak collapse and get rushed to the hospital, while human train wrecks like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford careen from one personal disaster to the next with no apparent ill effects. Meanwhile, has it occurred to anyone that if Ford was actually addicted to crack, he probably wouldn't weigh 350 pounds?
Friday, November 1, 2013
Well-meaning people with honest agendas might reject racism as a factor in the debate over PK Subban's suitability as a potential Team Canada Olympic defenceman, but in the absence of a logical explanation, what else is there?
Subban was honored last season with the Norris Trophy as the best defenceman in the best hockey league in the world. That alone should make him a slam dunk for the Olympic team, but Subban's detractors are quick to trot our a parade of half-baked arguments against him, including but not limited to:
- the Norris Trophy is awarded on the basis of offensive statistics
- Subban is a defensive liability whose own NHL coach won't play him in crucial situations
- Canada is already loaded with right-handed defencemen who are better than Subban
- his personality makes him a potentially disruptive force in the dressing room
I've watched Subban on a regular basis since he joined the Canadiens, and while I've seen him make mistakes - like all defencemen do - for anyone who watches and knows the game to call him a defensive liability is intellectually dishonest. Coaches make mistakes, too, and one of Michel Therrien's shortcomings is his bullheadedness when it comes to using Rafael Diaz instead of Subban on the penalty kill or in the closing minutes of close games. The very idea of Diaz being defensively superior to Subban is the stuff of fairy tales, and Therrien needs to get off the pixie dust.
The left vs. right-handed defenceman argument is the lamest of them all. With all due respect, the notion of Dan Hamhuis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Karl Alzner or Jay Bouwmeester making the Olympic team ahead of Subban solely on the basis of dextrality is beyond preposterous.
So where does that leave us? Ah, yes: Subban's personality - his flamboyance. When was the last time you heard a white athlete referred to as "flamboyant"? White athletes with Subban's outgoing personality are inspirational leaders and sparkplugs. Give a black man the same personality and he's a "potential problem in the room". Flamboyance is code for "uppity", and Subban should "know his place". Want another example? When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady loses his shit on the sidelines and screams at coaches and fellow players, he's hailed as a fierce competitor who's motivating his teammates with his unbending will to win. When Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant does the same thing, he's vilified as an immature prima donna and an embarrassment to the franchise. Same scenario, but the difference is Brady is white and Bryant is black.
None of this racism is necessarily overt. It's a product of centuries of social conditioning. It's only been two generations since the last vestiges of institutionalized racism against black people went by the wayside, and in the context of human history and social evolution, two generations is the blink of an eye. Much of the residual racism is implicit, latent or subconscious, but it's racism nonetheless.
Lastly, there's this: ample precedent exists for racism in professional sports. The examples are numerous and well documented. There is no precedent for a Norris Trophy winner being left off an elite hockey roster, or for such an omission even being a consideration.
Do the math.