Canadians Expected to Compete in Every Sport

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A couple of observations from this past weekend. Abbotsford, British Columbia’s Adam Hadwin won the Valspar Championship, his first victory on the PGA TOUR. Meanwhile, Team Canada were winless at the World Baseball Classic. Two sporting moments, two different outcomes, but both had the same expectation: to win it all.

Maybe it is too much to say that the Canadian WBC team was expected to win it all or even advance to the next round. Even if you had every Canadian Major League Baseball player on the team, there are holes in a few positions, namely in middle infield, where they are lacking significantly. In the case with Hadwin, he has been close to winning before, most recently at the CareerBuilder Challenge where he shot a round of 59. It was simply a matter of time before he would eventually be in the winner’s circle. Next stop for him is the Masters in Augusta.

It used to be if a Canadian was in an event such as the Masters, or Wimbledon, or the Indianapolis 500, the notion is: “we are just glad to be here.” Not anymore. With the exception of perhaps soccer, Canadians are expected to compete, if not win, on a regular basis in every sport, not just hockey. That is a different mindset than say 10 years ago or even longer where we would settle for a participation medal. With better athletes and better training, Canadians are expected to take home the hardware when they take on the rest of the world.

The difference I believe is attitude. At one time, winning a championship was seen as too difficult of a task. Now it is looked at as a challenge everyone wants to face. To me, that is a good sign that Canadians have goals, some albeit lofty, that they expect to meet. The days of just hoping and praying are over. Today’s Canadian athletes are able to control their own fate more often.

Now, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to actually winning championships. Canada’s baseball team needs a middle infield to go with the strong pitching and power hitting. Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard will have to overcome their physical setbacks before they can compete in major tennis tournaments. Canada’s basketball team is one Center away before they become a serious threat to the dominating US team.

But one thing is for sure, athletes need to continue to aim high. That separates the participants from the contenders and it will bode well for Canada in producing not just great athletes, but champions.

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Lessons From the World Juniors
Olympics are All About the Games

 

Play ‘Til You’re Dead: Why Overtime is the Best Way to Decide a Game

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when-playing-for-a-championship-only-the-strong-survive

Two recent events added to the case against having penalty shootouts decide a game, the gold medal game of the World Junior Hockey Championships and the MLS Cup final game.

I’m not sure if Team Canada would have won the gold medal game against the Americans last Thursday in Montreal if they were able to continue playing in overtime. If anything, the Canadians looked pretty listless after coughing up their second 2-goal lead of the game. The last ten minutes of regulation and all of the 20-minute sudden-death OT, save for a power play, was controlled by the US. Perhaps Canada’s only chance to win the gold medal was to have the game decided in a shootout. Had Canada lost in overtime, there would have been disappointment but I can bet you no one would be complaining about the method used to decide the winner.

The same goes with soccer (or football as Europeans call it). Fans of Toronto FC were left disappointed that the MLS Cup final was decided on penalty kicks. Unlike Canada’s Junior Team, Toronto FC players were dominant nearly winning it in extra time. Only a great acrobatic save by Seattle’s goalkeeper prevented the game from ending. Often the championship game in soccer in any level ends in penalty kicks. And like the hockey shootout, it is also a dull, lazy way to decide a game.

One argument for a shootout or penalty kick to decide a game is that players can not play for that long a period. But I would say that if these athletes are indeed the most fit and are in great physical shape as everyone claims, then they should be able to play as long as it takes until someone scores. In fact, stamina and fatigue should be as much of a factor as skill when determining a winner. If you can’t overcome being out of breath then you probably shouldn’t deserve being called a champion. The game should take as long as it wants to decide a winner. That to me is a true champion.

Overtime in the NHL playoffs showed us why playing until the next team scores is not only the best way to decide a game, it is also the most exciting. Hardly anyone leaves before the winning goal is scored regardless of how late it goes. I was at a pair of Blue Jays regular season games this past season, both went into extra innings and both ended in Blue Jays comeback victories. My friend and I stayed until the very end and so did many of the fans at the Dome. This despite the fact both games were played on a weeknight and many in attendance probably had to get up early the next day.

The consensus against shootouts to decide a championship game, and even in regular season games, is growing. I’m not sure how anyone can continue to allow games of this importance to be decided this way. But until people start to become tired about hearing players getting tired, or that the game goes too long, the skills competition portion will continue to reign in sports.

Also see:

International Rules in the NHL? No Thanks
Lessons From the World Juniors
The Lack of Animosity is Hurting the World Cup of Hockey

 

2016 Saw the Return of Toronto as a Sports Town

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Getty Images

Getty Images

In 2016, Toronto showed the world why it is a sports town. For the record, I never thought for a moment that Toronto lost its place in the sports world. But over the last number of years it became dull, predictable, and snobbish. Nothing could have lit a fire under a Toronto sports fan. Then came the recent playoff runs of the Blue Jays, Raptors, and Toronto FC. The Blue Jays went 22 years without a post-season berth before making back-to-back playoff appearances the last two years. People would point out that Blue Jays games rarely sold out or that there are those still burned by the player’s strike in 1994. These folks must have bad knees because they like to use crutches. The fact there are at least 20,000 coming to every game means those who are there are not only Blue Jays fans but also true baseball fans.

A year before Josh Donaldson’s dash home, Jose Bautista brought fans to their feet:

If you watched the NBA playoffs, you would have witnessed Jurassic Park, an area outside the Air Canada Centre where Raptors fans gather and watch their team play whether the team was at home or on the road. Thousands of people braved the elements to watch their team play. LeBron James noticed it moments after he and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Raptors in the NBA Eastern Conference Final. So did actor and comedian Jamie Foxx when he made an appearance on ESPN after the game. People do pay attention.

Then you have fans of Toronto FC who are in a league of their own. 20 years ago, no one would even think about watching an outdoor sporting event by the lake in the middle of December. But there it was, BMO Field, filled to capacity for the MLS Cup Final. A number of spectators probably wore the same attire at that game as they did to one on a hot, sticky summer day. The loud noise may have caused residents living in Liberty Village across the railway tracks to lose some sleep that night. Passionate? Dedicated? Vocal? Did Donald Trump become President of the United States?

USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

Part of the resurgence is due to rapper Drake. Yes, we’ve had other Toronto-born celebrities showing off their hometown pride (i.e. Mike Myers, Will Arnett) but no one has made an impact quite like Mr. Graham. He is also the reason Hogtown is now known as The Six.

The CFL’s Argonauts missed the boat (no pun intended) when they failed to make the playoffs in the year where BMO Field hosted the 104th Grey Cup. The Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 seasons. But the foundation is now in place after the Brendan Shanahan regime took over in 2014. It will only be a matter of time before they join the likes of the Blue Jays, Raptors, and TFC.

Toronto is often ridiculed (and sometimes rightfully so) for being a fairweather sports town. They sit on their hands, offer a polite applause, wondering why can’t they let us win? Not anymore. Things have changed. There are new people living in the city have they have brought their own approach to watching sports. Some we are not used to seeing: large gatherings outside stadiums to watch games on big screen TVs, wearing the team colours with pride, and screaming so loud it would blow out ear drums. This is not your father’s Toronto sports fans. I can only imagine what 2017 will be for Toronto sports fans.

Also see:

People Don’t Watch Sports, Fans Do
Habs Fans Becoming Snobs
Leafs Nation Needs a Housecleaning

 

The Perils of Diving

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Kadri-Girardi DiveA couple of recent on-ice incidents got my attention. During a game between Toronto and New York, Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri lifted his right leg high in the air after getting bumped by Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. Kadri went down, had his skate blade up, and got the back of the neck of Girardi. It wasn’t a deep cut but the incident took the steam out of the Air Canada Centre. The Flyers’ Luke Schenn had his head down when he was pushed into the boards by Avalanche forward Nathan McKinnon during a game. It was hardly a push on McKinnon’s part and Schenn put himself in a bad spot. But he went down and McKinnon got a 5-minute major and was kicked out of the game.

The recent acts by Kadri and Schenn trying to draw penalties through embellishment should be a lesson to young hockey players: diving can kill you or you can end up killing someone. Just ask Richard Zednik. In 2008, Zednik’s Panther teammate Olli Jokinen tried to draw a penalty by lifting his skate and inadvertently got the blade under the neck of Zednik. The cut Zednik suffered was more severe than Girardi’s. He had to be rushed to hospital and missed a considerable amount of time. Max Pacioretty is another example. The Canadiens forward got caught trying to get around the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara during a playoff game in 2011. But instead of getting out of the way, Pacioretty allowed himself to be drilled into the boards. Chara got ejected from the game and received some death threats from Habs fans.

Then there’s Steve Moore. I don’t have to repeat myself how his dive ended his career.

Diving happens in every sport. Players that do it are an embarrassment to the game. But it’s also dangerous particularly in hockey where you have skate blades, sticks, ice and boards that are solid as a rock to deal with. If this continues, one of these days a player will try to draw a penalty and it will end up getting someone killed. I understand it’s a competitive environment and you have to do what it takes to win. But is it really worth it to dive and risk endangering the lives of your opponents or teammates for a 2-minute power play? I can’t understand why players dive in the first place. Believe it or not, diving takes planning and practice. No one I know considers exaggerating an injury at the very last second. A lot of effort and energy is needed to dive. That could be better used to help improve a player’s ability to play hockey the right way.

Too bad there is no push to eliminate diving like there is with fighting. But I also believe people need to learn things the hard way in order for them to change their habits. Time will only tell if Kadri and Schenn will learn from their experience.

 

Everyone has World Cup Fever… Except Me

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World Cup Trophy
While millions around the world are tuned in to see which country is the best in soccer, you won’t see me joining the crowd. It not just the World Cup tournament, I’m just not into soccer (or football to my European friends) at all.

I played soccer when I was in school. I wasn’t a great player but it was to fun to play with my friends. I usually played goalkeeper mostly because that position utilized my skills in baseball, basketball, and (North American) football. But as much as it is a beautiful game to play, I can’t push myself to watch it on TV. Same with basketball and golf: I’m good at playing both sports but it is tough for me to watch. On the other hand, hockey is a great game to watch but I couldn’t shoot a puck, deke out an opposing player, or deliver a crushing open ice body check if my life depended on it.

One of the reasons I can’t watch soccer is the slow pace of the game. I’ve seen rush hour traffic in Toronto go much faster. There is also hardly any contact, at least legal contact, one that won’t get you a red card. Another is penalty kicks, whether it is to serve as punishment on the offending team or to decide a game after regulation. That part of the game is too easy in my mind. Those are just three reasons and I haven’t even touched on the diving that often occurs.

You kind of wonder what is it that attracts people to the game of soccer? Allegiance to one’s team or country maybe one reason. Perhaps if Canada had a team in the World Cup it would have been worthy of my attention. I haven’t gone to a Toronto FC game since they joined Major League Soccer. None of the hype during the off-season, though, has made me reach for that red scarf.

Soccer maybe a beautiful game but, for me, an ugly hockey game with more players in the penalty box than on the bench is a sight for sore eyes.