Tuesday, December 1, 2009

All Things Must Pass

In 1964, when I was nine years old, I had my share of heroes. Certainly, all the adults in my life, particularly my dad and mom, were heroes. And, like so many young boys, I turned to world of sports for other heroes. Hockey and football, baseball and Olympic athletes were somehow exotic to me, because I never saw them in person, only by the flickering shadows of black and white television. Emerging from that eternal pantheon was one hero, who stood out bolder and more majestic: perhaps strangely, that hero was a horse.

Northern Dancer was the premier stallion of his day. He emerged from relative obscurity to capture the imagination of an entire nation. He was small, judged to be unfit for the furious and tumultuous world of thoroughbred racing. And, to underscore the point, he was Canadian. No Canadian horse had ever dominated the world stage before. When the Dancer prepared to race in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, the conventional wisdom was that he would be soundly defeated. He had only run in Canadian races prior to the Derby in May of that year. The greatest jockey of that time, Willie Shoemaker, passed him over in favour of the American champion, Hill Rise.

The rest, of course, is history. The Dancer defeated Hill Rise and the rest of the field to win the Derby with Bill Hartack aboard. The Dancer would go on to win at the Preakness, with Hill Rise fading to third. There was no victory in the Belmont Stakes, only a third place. But in Canada's premier event, the Queen's Plate, the Dancer decimated the field and won handily. It was to be his last race: injury forced him to retire and stand as stud, where he went on to become the most profolic and successful sire in modern times.

I remember cheering for the Dancer and, later, all his progeny. His home stable, Windfields Farms became a kind of sporting vallhalla for all Canadians. Whether you played the ponies or just watched, there was something magical, something proud for all of us to know that a Canadian, albeit a four-legged Canadian, had defied the odds and beaten not only the Americans, but the entire world on their own turf, on their own terms. The little horse with the big heart, owned by a larger than life, geniune Canadian tychoon, E.P. Taylor, and bred on a quiet farm north of Oshawa, had turned the world on its head.

Now, Windfields Farms is no more. Subdivisions are already encroaching on the green grass where the Dancer and his herd galloped under blue skies and bright suns. A university and college are its largest neighbours, and the demand for housing for students who have never heard of the Dancer, are eating up the turf the way the Dancer did in that glorious summer of 1964. Beyond the schools, suburban houses give modern residents a small share of the Canadian dream. It is all so modern, so cookie-cutter, so sprawling. All that remains of the fields of dreams are the main buildings, a few barns, including the one where the Dancer was born in 1961, and graves of some of the greatest athletes Canada has ever produced. The Dancer himself, who died at the ripe old age of 29 in 1990 in Kentucky is there. Such was the respect the nation had for him that we brought him home and buried him at Windfields. He lies there still, along with some of his sons and grandsons.

As the news of the fate of the remaining parcels of land at Windfields, and the remaining horses there, became known, one of the Dancer's decendants, Careless Jewel, was racing in the Breeder's Cup in the US. Careless Jewel is a fine horse, but she suffers a tendency to drift in the race, to lose focus. At the start of the race, Careless Jewel began to drift, but she was brought back by the jockey, Robert Landry, and actually led the race by 20 lengths at one point. But the drift set in again, and the carrier of the Dancer's genes faded, only to finish dead last.

The wrecking balls will swing, the bulldozers will rumble over the green land soon, and the Farm will pass. Careless Jewel lost the race, but the blood line will go on. When the development is complete, I think I'll go back to Oshawa to see what is left of the Farm. I'll get out of my car and stand where I remember fences kept the road away from the herd, and I'll imagine the Dancer arrogantly surveying his domain: probably on some stranger's front lawn on a nameless cul-de-sac.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Pride and The Glory

One of the basic human urges is to compete, to test oneself against an opponent, to strive against the limits of one's body and spirit. The basic competitive urge compels us to seek food, defend ourselves against preditors or aggressors, and to find the best mates to continue the species. As we have evolved and developed civilizations and societies, the urge to compete has taken on the aspect of spectator sport and entertainment, along side the basic instinct to survive, compete, and to live.

Those who do not enjoy or understand the allure of playing or watching sports have, in my view, lost something important in their lives. Granted we do not need the basic urge to survive any more, unless we are caught in exceptional circumstances. Modern life grants us food, water, medical care, shelter and companionship in great abundance. But if life was merely to be measured in the basic necessities to survive, our whole purpose would be simply to exist, to live in a daily exercise of obtaining that which we require to draw breath. What would happen to our humanity, our very souls, if we denied the beauty, the nobility, the exhilaration of achieving high levels of accomplishment?

Thus, we have reached a sophisticated and high level of competition. We aspire to push ourselves to greater heights, faster speeds, marvels of strength and agility because it makes us god-like and helps us aspire to something greater than simple survival.

But there is in sports, as in all aspects of human endeavour, examples of how this lofty ideal has become debased. Greed, avarice, cheating, egotism and cynicism have crept into what should be a pure and ideal practice. Non-sports fans point to current professionalism as examples of how humanity has gone wrong, and how priorities have been turned upside-down.

When an example of the purity and nobility of sport arrives, it is worth note. The recent Yates Cup football game between Queen's University Golden Gaels and the University of Western Ontario Mustangs last weekend stands out as a beacon of hope for all of us. The game was a work of art: two powerful and sublimely gifted teams, evenly matched, gathered for a game of supreme importance. Two talented quarterbacks, playing their last game of university football , prepared to duel. Two coaching staffs hailed as learned and visionary strategists and tacticians brought their creations to the playing field. The weather was almost perfect for the struggle.

Those of us who gathered on Saturday November 14 in Kingston to witness this game saw something more than just a good football game. We were reminded, in no small way, of the greatness of the human spirit when it is applied to a task of extreme skill and difficulty. The game was noble, inspiring and enriching. We marvelled at the athletes, extended to the very limits of their strength, spirit, speed, and intelligence, and stared in disbelief at their exploits. When one team made a great play, the opposing team answered with a greater effort. The lead changed hands no fewer than seven times. The quarterbacks, Dan Brannigan for Queen's and Michael Faulds for Western, passed for more than 500 yards each, an amazing feat in a championship game. Queen's finally prevailed 43-39: the partisan crowd was whipped into a frenzy of elation and joy.

But, tellingly, there was no gloating or trash talk among the athletes. They gathered together to salute each other with handshakes and embraces. Opponents who, moments ago, were trying to exert physical and emotional control and mastery over the other, recognized each other as brothers who had participated in something special. Queen's players and coaches rejoiced and danced on the field: Western players quietly exited the field, their heads held high, beaten that day, but not really defeated.

My friends, Rick and Dave, and I realized as we left the stadium and relaxed for some food and beer that this was the true measure of sports. There was no sordid arrogance in the game. We toasted both teams and to the pride and glory of the fine young men who showed us what we all could be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to Save the NHL, Part 2, A Tale of Two Teams

As an example of how my proposal of setting up a relegation-promotion system for the NHL might prove successful, I offer a "tale of two teams."

The Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL is one of the oldest and most established teams in that league. It has known its share of success over the years, and still has the second most Stanley Cups in league history, shared with the Detroit Red Wings, and trailing only the Montreal Canadiens. Even if you are not a fan of the NHL, you know of the Maple Leafs. Sadly, you probably know more of the futility of their recent history. Since 1967, the Leafs have not won a championship, which makes their accomplishments all the more impressive in their first 40 or so years of history. The recent 42 years ( and counting ) is an embarrassment.

The Leafs are, despite their poor record, an immensely popluar team. Although claims of being "Canada's team" may be exaggerated, there is no disputing the fact that Leafs fans exist across the continent, and show up in impressive numbers at other teams' home games. This loyalty has made the Leafs a relatively rich team, financially, and causes them to be the subject of an inordinate amount of media coverage, certainly more than their woeful performance would seem to justify.

Critics of the Leafs, and there are many, point to this financial and media success as the reason for the on-ice futility. The argument goes that, as long as the building is packed, as long as merchandise is eagerly bought, as long as the media continues to broadcast their games and keep them in a high profile, the Leafs do not have to compete as fiercely as lesser teams, who frantically struggle to get a share of the attention of media and fans against great competition.
This lack of a "survivor" mentality has caused the Leafs to get fat and complacent. It is hard to argue against this logic.

Consider now the case of Newcastle United. This team shares many characteristics with the Toronto Maple Leafs. United play in a city full of rabid fans who worship the team and its players. United has a storied history, beginning as a top flight team in 1892, and having won the FA Cup six times. Like the Maple Leafs, however, United's last championship was in the distant past, 1927. Despite this futile record, United supporters, known as the "Toon Army" fill St. James' Park in huge numbers: crowds of more than 50,000 for Premiership games are routine.

Last year, the on-going futility of United resulted in relegation to the Football League Championship, which is a second-tier league below the Premiership. It was a terrible blow to the Toon Army, but they continue to come out to support their team, with crowds of 35,000 to over 40,000 in attendance.

The similarities of both teams is eerie. Both have loyal fans, and command much media attention. They have both suffered through poor ownership, bad management, over-rated coaches and players, and bad luck.

Where they differ is their situation in their leagues. The Leafs continue along much as they always do: languishing in the bottom of the league, full of bluster about how they will improve and compete... some day, yet still drawing huge crowds of adoring fans. Nothing, it seems, will shake them out these doldrums.

United, on the other hand, have suffered relegation and diminished crowds as a result of the demotion. The result.... United is tearing it up in the second league. They sport the best record in that league, and entertain hopes of promotion for next year. In other words, they have something to gain, something to prove, something to play for. It could be argued, of course, that they are merely the best of a bad lot, and will continue to flounder in the better league next season. That is not the point. The point is that at least they have something to strive for, and something to offer their current fans. Hope reigns eternal in Geordieland: there is always a mythical promised land where the Magpies will eventually become one of the Premiership's top teams. They are actually playing towards that goal.

With the Leafs, it is a hollow hope. There is no sign of change or improvement any time soon. Perhaps a relegation into an imaginary NHL 2 would give them a type of incentive to actually try to improve. There is no substitute for fear of not surviving to make a team re-invent itself.

The time has come for the Leafs to operate like it won't survive unless it changes its fundamental beliefs, plans, and actions.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to Save the NHL

I have several good friends with whom I meet regularly at a philosophical insitution known as the Grey Goat. We discuss several of the burning issues of the day at this hall of learning. As proud Canadians ( well, some of us anyway ) we are concerned about the state of the National Hockey League. Since several of my colleagues are from the British Isles ( including myself ) there is a way to save the NHL from a continuation of the flaccid play we have been subjected to. I have taken the opportunity here to offer a summary of our modest proposal for hockey salvation.

The NHL is currently organized in this way. There are thirty teams, twenty-four of which are based in the United States and six are in Canada. The league is divided into two conferences, East and West, consisting of fifteen teams each. Within each conference are three divisions of five teams. The divisions are organized along rough geographic lines, and done so to allow more games between divisional teams, creating more rivalries, and cutting down on travel costs. The playoffs involve the three divisional champions, regardless of their records, getting the top seeds, followed by the next five finishers, based on their records in the regular season. Teams play off in three conference rounds, with the conference champions going for the Stanley Cup.

The current structure is moribund. It does not create a competitive edge for the member teams. Instead, mediocrity abounds. The time for a change is now.

We humbly suggest that the NHL borrows the structure of the English Football Association and create a type of "premiership" and a relegation-promotion system in order to boost the competitive edge for the teams in the NHL.

We suggest that the NHL create two leagues. Let's call them, for the sake of argument, NHL 1 and NHL 2.

NHL 1 would consist of the 15 top teams in the league. There would be no divisional or conference organization: the league would be a single entity. NHL 2 would consist of the lower 15 teams in the league.

In NHL 1 the top 8 teams would qualify for playoff action. These teams would play three rounds of playoffs, with the winner receiving the highest honour in hockey: the Stanley Cup.

In NHL 2 the top 8 teams would also qualify for playoff action. These teams would play three rounds of playoffs, with the winner receiving one of the lesser trophies in the NHL. ( Prince of Wales Trophy, the President's Cup, the Clarence Campbell Cup, whatever.)

In the post season, the league would insitute a relegation-promotion process. The four lowest teams in NHL1, the teams who had the worst record in that league, would be relegated to NHL 2 for the following season. The four teams making the semi-finals in NHL 2 would be promoted into NHL 1 for the following season.

The NHL entry draft, which is the draft of qualifying junior or college players would be based on the following order:

- the 4 teams promoted from NHL 2 to NHL 1 would receive the first 4 picks, based on a lottery
- the 8 teams making the playoffs in NHL 1 would receive the next 8 picks, based on a lottery
- the 11 teams remaining in NHL 2 would receive the next 11 picks, based on a lottery
- the remaining teams would receive the next picks, based on a lottery

We believe this system would encourage teams to finish as high as they could in their respective leagues. We also believe that teams in the playoff structures would be given incentives to win, not just for the championships of their leagues, but for the best available draft choices.

Relegation-promotion works well in the English FA. We believe it will work as effectively in the NHL.

Hockey fans are encouraged to offer their input on this proposal.

Our second suggestion is for hockey to suspend operations forever, and take up lacrosse.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Who Cares?

Prince Charles and his consort, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are due to arrive in Canada today to begin an 11 day royal visit. It is, apparently, his 15th visit, but her first. He is anxious, the newspapers say, to show off Canada to his new wife because of the great affection he feels to Canada and Canadians.

I suggest that, if Charles really wants to show off Canada to Camilla, he should take her to a lacrosse game. Preferrably in a dank, small-town arena in, say, Orangeville or on the Six Nations Reserve. After the game, they could head off to a Kelsey's or Jack Astor's for some nachos and beers, being very carefull to have a designated driver. Then, when they're home or at their hotel, they could settle in for good night of watching the Rick Mercer Report or the very unfunny This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The next morning, when they're off for another round of sight seeing, they should be sure to start their day with large double-doubles and maybe a pumpkin spice muffin or a breakfast BELT under their belts. Ahhh, now that's Canada.

Seriously, though, should any of us care about this? The fact that these two people are to become my sovereigns in the future makes me cringe. Does Canada need the British monarchy any more? I know all about our British heritage and the fact that our government is modelled after British institutions. But haven't we outgrown that in 2009? The monarchy has as much revelence as teaching modern high school students the proper use of a slide rule: it was once necessary, but , now, who needs to have it?

I have no problems with Charles or Camilla themselves. I've always liked Charles. When he was a young guy, he came across as a type of "action man". He always liked sports, travel, and dating good looking women... and he got paid for it !!! Today, he comes across as slightly eccentric, but he seems to care about such things as the environment, the state of cities in Britain, the state of youth in the world, and sustainable and environmentally friendly farming. Nothing wrong with all that. And, as for Camilla, well we all know that she was the "other woman", but the fact is that she made Charles fall out of love with Diana ( if he ever was in love with her at all ) and, for that, Camilla deserves some credit. I mean, come on, Diana was a sweetheart, but Camilla found her way into Charles' bed and heart, presumably because of her love of horses. To this, I say "giddyup"!

Nor do I have a problem with the fact that they are British. Hell, I'm British by birth, and I still have wonderful aunts, uncles and cousins with their children living in Britain. I like my British heritage, but the essential thing is that I no longer need it to identify myself. I am a Canadian citizen, have been since I was 18, and I'm extremely proud of that. I tell my British relatives that I am a Canadian, and they understand that. I have British friends here, and at our local pub, we tease each other about the fact that I'm a "traitor" to my British roots, but we laugh it off. I have traveled to, literally, all parts of Canada, including 2 trips to the Canadian Arctic. I love this country and I will die here and be buried here. I don't need Britain any more.

So, Charles and Camilla will hopefully understand why the crowds might be a little small when they travel across Canada. We've grown up, we are our own country, comprised of several nations. If we need a monarchy to guide us, can we not at least chose one? I humbly suggest that we invite the Swedish royal family to rule us. The next Queen of Sweden will be Princess Victoria, and her sister is Princess Madeleine. They are a couple of kittens, and I think Canada would be proud to have them as our royal family.

So, when Charles and Camilla land today, I suggest we shout three cheers for them: Hip hip, who cares? Hip hip, who cares? Hip hip, who cares?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shame !

Sports teaches several lessons. We are all geared to celebrate victory, but I've always believed that the true measure of athletic greatness is how an athlete or team carries him/themselves during the contest. Winning is best, to be sure: otherwise, why keep score? But if victory is not within reach, at least comport yourself with grace, dignity and effort. Losing can be a noble experience, one from which an athlete can learn so much, about the game, themselves, and life itself.

Today, in Waterloo, my wife and I witnessed what can only be described as an example of how not to comport oneself in defeat. My alma mater, the University of Western Ontario Mustangs, took on the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks in CUFLA lacrosse. It was a glorious afternoon, warm and sunny and the field was ready for two teams who have been great rivals in athletics through the years. In today's contest, Western was already in the playoffs, while Laurier was eliminated from further competition. One would think that, since this was Laurier's last home game, and many parents of the players were in the stands, and since they were playing their great rivals, Laurier would at least bring a good effort and approach to the game.

Sadly, this was not the case. To be fair, Western was, by far, the better team. That is not the issue. The issue here is the way Laurier comported themselves. Several Laurier players arrived at their bench after the opening whistle. There was much laughter and banter among the Laurier players, normally a good thing, but as the game went on, the Laurier players seemed to be laughing at everything that went on, including plays by their own players. One Laurier player, who wore a different coloured helmet from his mates, was referred to as the "Stormtrooper" by his teammates, who used this phrase laughingly.

When Laurier's coach called time outs, and tried to gather his charges into a huddle to discuss what to do next, the players were lax, did not gather in a huddle, and joked with their mates. One player left the playing area, went under the stands and returned minutes later with a can of pop !! This was while the game was on-going. One other player sought out his parents, who were on the track with their family dog: the player left the bench area and played with his dog for several seconds before returning to the bench.

By contrast, Western's players were focused and engaged in the game. They LOOKED like a team, encouraged each other, and listened to their coaches. Their uniforms matched, and they drilled before the game like a team.

It's easy to criticize a losing team. That is not what I'm writing about here. I understand losing: after all, I'm a Leafs, Argos, and Jays fan. What I find most upsetting is the way some teams lose. If a team doesn't care, why show up? Why play the game? Why embarass yourself? And, most importantly, why disrespect your school, your colours, and the game itself?

My good friend Rick, who is a staunch Laurier fan, was not at the game. I'm glad. As a Western fan, I'd take a lot of pleasure in ribbing him for a Laurier defeat. But not today. I'd sympathise with him, for he'd be terribly unhappy with these kids, and I mean "kids" in the truest sense of the word, for representing his school in a manner unbecoming of Wilfrid Laurier University.

One wonders if any lessons were learned today. For me, I learned that there can be grace in victory, but also that there can be boredom and disrespect in athletes who might otherwise claim to love the game.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Buddies, Beer, Wings and Pucks

I've been told that drinking beer and eating chicken wings is very bad for you. Too much cholesterol and fat in the wings. Too spicy. Too many calories in the beer. Alcohol is very bad: it's an addictive substance.

I've been told that driving long distances is bad. Bad for the environment, wear and tear on the car, gas prices through the roof. Always a chance of an accident, always the chance of bad weather. Too many aggravations.

I've been told that watching sports is bad. You do nothing but sit around and get fat, or drive long distances only to sit in an arena built with tax dollars which should've been allocated for something more worthwhile. Sitting there cheering on over-paid athletes whose egos and salaries are out of touch with real working people.

I've been told that gambling is bad. You waste money. You pin your hopes on an outcome that is improbable at best, and impossible at worst. It brings out a strange competitive streak that is not based on anything you have accomplished. It wrecks friendships and ruins families.

I've been told that you can't go back to the past. It's impossible, and besides that, why would you want to? The past is the past, it can't be recaptured. You have to move on, build for the future, keep your eyes front on what's coming. Going back to the past is for old people, those with no vision, no energy, no hope.

If all this is true, then why did I have such a good time last weekend with my good friends Doug and Dean? All I did was eat wings ( and another Buffalo delicacy: fried balony sandwich: don't knock it until you try it !), drink beer, drive long distances ( NOT while drinking, I wish to emphasize ), complete the 33rd edition of our hockey pool, watch a good NHL game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Atlanta Thrashers, and spend a great deal of time reminiscing of our old days back at Western.

I must be crazy. I'll never do these things again. I mean, why repeat this behaviour? It's absurd and childish. Except that, when next fall rolls around again, I know that those two guys and I will get this unexplainable urge to meet up and do all these bad things. It makes the rest of the year go well: it makes our lives a little more fun and little less serious. It keeps us young. It keeps us alive.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Quick Note

This is probably why York University doesn't have a lacrosse team any more. York, meet the Western Mustangs !!!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Shark Tank

This one's not about lacrosse. But, it does have a sports theme.
Have you ever seen the America's Cup on TV? It's the premier yacht race in the world. I realize that, for most people, watching yachting is not high up on the list of priorities, but, hey, I'll watch anything that has to do with competition.
The start of a yacht race is fascinating. There is a start line, but, as you might imagine, you can't simply line up two yachts on the line, fire off a gun, and off they go. The wind and waves prevent this. So, you have a curious situation where both yachts leave their moorings in the harbour, approach the start line, and then begin an amazing series of manoevers designed to get them into the most advantageous position when the cannon ( yes, it's a real cannon ) fires off, signalling the start of the race. The yacht with the better tactics can not only put themselves into a good start position, they can also try to fool their opponent into taking a worse position ( too far away from the start line, or in bad wind or rougher water etc.) giving the smart tactician even more of an advantage. If a yacht goes over the start line before the cannon, penalties and even disqualification can happen. So it's a battle of nerves, wits, and better seamanship which wins the race.

The specatacle of these yachts trying to out-duel each other, constantly circling each other and looking for better wind or waves, is reminiscent of two sharks warily circling each other in a tank in an aquarium. You never know what's going through their minds, if they even have minds. Sometimes, I think the sharks are positioning themselves to get the bigger, fatter fish in the tank for food. Sometimes, the sharks seem to be sizing themselves up as a meal too !!

Enter Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, and Jack Layton. We all know that another election is coming up soon. But none of these so-called leaders wants to be the guy who gets blamed for triggering the election with a non-confidence vote. So, they circle each other very warily, assessing each situation carefully to measure the voters' mood, their chances of winning, and whether or not calling an election is the right thing to do. While it may seem cynical to most, I find it fascinating. The strategy, tactics and logistics are coming into play big time. Whoever said that Canadian politics is dull doesn't know what they're talking about.

Let's see who the better yachtsman is. Let's see who the biggest shark is !!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Captain, My Captain

Recent events in Canada point out very clearly that leadership is sorely lacking. Once again, we have been inundated by political ads on the airwaves pointing out the shortcomings or abilities of our "leaders". Also, the news has been dominated by threats of yet another election. It is as though the people in power are so desperate for attention that they vent spleen and call each other names as small children who don't get along would do.

The need for a true leader has never been more acute. A strong leader would rise above the petty squabling and childishness and demonstrate vision, control, and poise that our current crop of wannabees could never hope to emulate.
My version of a great leader, a man who was at the undisputed pinacle of his profession, and who dominated it not by words or posturing, but by his daily actions was the late Les Bartley, former coach of the Toronto Rock.

Under Bartley's leadership, the Rock were the cream of the crop in the National Lacrosse League. They played the game with fierce determination and, most of all, a commitment to excellence that bordered on frightening at times.
The Rock's supreme confidence in themselves was created by Bartley. He knew the game like no other. He created a team that, in my estimation, "flowed " rather than played the game. What I mean by that was that the Rock never seemed to waste action or effort, never seemed to lose their composure or focus, always played hard, but never seemed to display any type of desperation or panic in their games. The Rock believed in themselves and, more importantly, believed in their system. All this points back to Bartley.

Bartley knew his players, knew their attitudes, and was keenly aware of their strengths and limitations as athletes. Because of this, Bartley was able to design an approach to the game that met the strengths and abilities of his players. He never demanded his players to do things of which they were not capable . Like so many other great leaders in other fields of endeavour, he knew people and how to mould them and help them achieve their best.

As a result, his players were fiercely loyal to him. When it was learned that Bartley had cancer, the team and fans rallied around him. On a special night in his honour, Bartley heard the greatest tribute a leader can hear. His team captain, Jim Veltman, a true leader in his own right, called Bartley the greatest coach and mentor he had ever had. Invoking Carl Sandberg's elegy for Abraham Lincoln, Veltman called Bartley, "Captain, my Captain." Such a tribute is rare, but this came from the heart of a fine and honest man.
In fact, the combination of Bartley and Veltman was unbeatable. If Bartley was the creator, the visionary, Veltman was the willing instrument of Bartley's will and spirit. Veltman was a great player, skilled on offence and defence, tough and graceful at the same time, a player that opposition players feared and respected. Together, Bartley and Veltman forged an alliance that earned 4 championships for the Rock, and consistently successful seasons of brilliant, crowd pleasing, even artistic lacrosse.

When Bartley died, one day after the Rock won their most recent championship, the game lost one of its most innovative and scholarly figures. In many ways, the game, like the country itself, has not recovered from the loss of true leadership.
Our ship needs a captain.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Strategy, Tactics, and Logistics

The big brother of lacrosse could learn a thing or two from its little brother.

Strategy, tactics and logistics are essentials for success in any form of human endeavour. Without mastery of these three things, nothing can be accomplished, nothing can be won, and nothing can be achieved.

Last Sunday's experience in Waterloo was a clear example of this. In the first game, between Laurentian and Laurier, the Laurentian Voyageurs were the decided underdogs in the match, and they ended up losing because they failed to master the three essentials.

It was clear from the start that Laurentian's strategy was to try to hit Laurier hard and often. The Laurentian players were, generally, bigger and stockier than their opponents. Normally, in most sports, this is a decided advantage, except in field lacrosse, where smaller, quicker and more nimble players are required. Also, the referees in field lacrosse watch the hitting more closely than their box counterparts. As a consequence, Laurentian was able to catch Laurier off guard in the beginning of the match with their physical play, but the referees caught up to them and Laurentian spent too much time either penalized, or giving up possession to Laurier.

When it became clear that the main stragegy failed, Laurentian tried to change their tactics. In the second half, the hitting became less frequent, with the result that Laurentian had fewer penalties. But they had fallen behind in the score and had to rush their offensive forays. The result was too many shots that failed to make the target. Great effort was made by the Voyageurs to attack, but to little or no avail.

Finally, the Laurentian bench was smaller than Laurier's.... they just had fewer players to work with. As the afternoon wore on, and the heat became more noticeable, the Laurentian players began to tire. They had fewer substitutions, whereas Laurier, with more players at their disposal, was able to put fresher legs on the field as the game wore on. This was not the only logistical problem. Often, when a Laurentian longpole was penalized, he had to plead with one of his midfielders or attackers to change sticks, so that there were always enough long sticks on the field.... Laurentian just simply hadn't brought enough long poles to play the game. These, coupled with the growing frustration of the failed strategy and tactics, made the outcome of the game predictable.

Final score, Laurier 14, Laurentian 8. Laurentian gave it a good try, and their players were determined, but, alas, out-gunned and out-manned.... and out-thought.

One wonders if those who are in charge of our mission in Afghanistan have learned anything from similar blunders. Is our strategy sound? Have we made the necessary tactical changes in the face of unexpected resistance? Do we have enough people and equipment to do the job? Warriors of all kinds need to learn the lessons of the past. Surely, lacrosse players have learned that strategy, tactics, and logistics are necessary. They have learned this from over five hundred years of playing the "little brother of war." Have their "big brothers" become blind to history?

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Musing from the Field

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Canadian approach to sports, and how it's, in my view, a reflection of what I call the Canadian inferiority complex. Well, it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy on Sunday at the CUFLA "Great Canadian Lax Bash" in Waterloo.

The day was perfect: sunny and very warm for late summer. There was a beer tent, a bbq, and a great venue for 6 Ontario schools to open their season. And, in University Stadium, with a capacity of about 7000 fans, there were maybe 50 to 80 of us.... oh yeah, and 5 dogs !!! Most of the people watching were parents or siblings of players. I think I was the only "fan" at the event.

I'm not casting blame anywhere. The event was fairly well run, and the day was fun. As I wrote yesterday, the calibre of the lacrosse was quite good. But I had an uneasy feeling in my gut yesterday about the turn-out. I almost felt like I shouldn't have been there, given that a son, brother or friend of mine wasn't playing.

Had this been a US college sports event, I can guarantee that there would have been plenty of support. I'm not saying that 100,000 people would've been there, but there would have been a good number of students and citizens of the town out to watch, just to support their boys. This has been a recurring pet peeve of mine about my countrymen. We just don't get off our asses to support our kids when they play, unless it's hockey, or little kids' soccer. Other sports don't seem to matter. Why is that? It's not that Canadians don't like their kids: far from it. It can't be that Canadians don't have the time to get out: Americans and Australians must be just as busy as we are. Of course, Canadians were probably glued to the TV on Sunday watching..... wait for it.....NFL football. ( Before anyone thinks I'm an NFL hater, I'm not.... although the bloody Packers might drive me to hate it soon! )

The common answer I'll probably get from my sporting buddies is " I didn't know anything about it." We are the world's worst promoters. We are too quiet, too shy, too conservative to promote anything that WE do. And, because of this, we will be perennial doormats in most fields of human achievement.

Wow, all this because only 50 people showed up to watch lacrosse on a lovely sunny afternoon. Imagine how I'd feel if I was really pissed off !!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Of Shooters, Fogos, and Longpoles

Being raised on a steady diet of box lacrosse when I was a mere lad, I'm finding the transition to observing field lacrosse to be an interesting experience. I've seen a few games now, and I must admit that I really like it. I'll never give up box lacrosse, of course. That is the varient that most Canadians who watch lacrosse enjoy. The field version is more international, especially American.

Under a beautiful late summer sun, I began to note the differences between the two games in close detail. The shooters, the fogo, and the longpole are the main differences.

Box lacrosse players are, by far, better shooters than their field cousins. In today's first game, between Laurentian and Laurier, I was amazed at how poor the shooting was, especially when one considers the size of the field net. Laurentian players, in particular, had trouble finding the range, especially when the game was in the late stages. When Laurentian worked the ball into the attack zone, they inevitably blew their opportunity with a poorly placed shot: I've never seen so many balls go wizzing into the end zone, another scoring chance wasted.

In the second game, Western vs McMaster, the unique position of the fogo was in evidence. Fogo is short form for "face off, get off"... this is the face off specialist, a player who takes the face off, fights like a miniature sumo wrestler and then runs off as fast as he can to be replaced by either an attack man or a defender, depending on whether he won or lost the face off. All sports have degrees of specialization, of course, but none can affect the game so directly as the fogo. An example of this is the final play of the game. Western and Mac played a thrilling game, tied 8-8 at the end of regulation. Two 4-minute halves of overtime solved nothing, so they went to sudden victory. ( we used to call it sudden death ). Mac won the face off, worked the ball into Western's defensive zone, and a well-placed shot ( Laurentian please not ) beat the goalie. Mac won in overtime. Fogo may sound like a kid's science project, but he's the most important man on the field along with the goalie.

Perhaps the most dramatic difference in the games is the longpole. These are defenders who wield the lacrosse equivalent of a claymore. The pole is six feet long, taller than some of the players who use it. I watched closely to see if this weapon is unwieldy, clumsy, or awkward. Undoubtedly, a great deal of skill is needed to use it, but it is an effective weapon. Attackers can be kept at bay from a great distance if the defender is skilled and has good, quick hands. Slashes are closely monitored by the officials, so a defender just can't whack his opponent into oblivion. Nor can the defender stab with it, or use it to push an attacker back. A defender has to be deft with it, almost like a surgeon with the world's longest scalpel. And, to top it all off, the defender with the long pole occasionally needs to go upfield and join in the attack. Some good passes and decent shots ( Laurentian !!?? ) were delivered with this tool.

What it all boils down to is the determination of the player. Tools are essential, of course, and specialization is a hallmark of our civilization no matter what the human activity under examination. But it is the player, the athlete himself, who creates the game, who works harder than his opponent, who wants to win more than the other, who succeeds. Teams are a collection of hearts, minds, hands, and skills. Winning teams are those who are best able to use them all at the same time, consistently, with great effect.

Friday, September 18, 2009

This is all so new. I contacted a friend who knows about blogs and computers and such. My knowledge base is so low, I pretty much only know how to type, and not very quickly. So, I have received much advice from her. I hope to impliment some of it soon.

I'm off to watch Canadian University Field Lacrosse ( CUFLA ) on Sunday. They have what they call the Great Canadian Lacrosse Bash at University Stadium in Waterloo. It's the opening face off for the season and it features 3 games, including my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario Mustangs. I'm looking forward to this. I 'm a great fan of university sports, particularly football, and I hope that the lacrosse version of college sports is just as good.

I was able to talk to a young guy this summer who plays for the Mustangs in Lax. We were up at Parry Sound for some kayaking lessons, and I noticed that he was wearing a Balmy Beach lacrosse t-shirt. He told me he played and I mentioned that I was a huge Lax fan. He then said he played in something called CUFLA, probably thinking that I'd never heard of it before. When I said that I knew about CUFLA, we started an instant and far-reaching conversation about the game until it was time to climb into our kayaks and begin the lesson. I promised that I would try to attend some CUFLA games this season and I am going to live up to this promise.

Lacrosse fans seem to know about the NCAA version of the game, and why not? It gathers quite a lot of attention south of the border, particularly at championship weekend. It is one of the best attended NCAA events, outranked only be football, for championship attendance. I have watched it on TV and it's terrific.... I always thought lacrosse was a great TV game, but when it's played in sunny weather in front of 40,000 fans in a big NFL stadium, it looks like an event.

I think the CUFLA event will pale by comparison, but this is typical of the Canadian approach to most sports. Hockey is always the exception in Canada, but other sports do not receive the level of support you would find in the US or Australia. Our country does not have a culture that emphasizes sports like the others. It's not in our DNA. We play some sports fairly well, but our national psyche seems to be directed in other places. We have spent too much of our history just trying to survive, or fighting, either with other countries or internally. Sports, you would think, would be a nice diversion from all of this, but it doesn't seem to be so. We like to go inside, drink, watch TV, or go to movies or plays, or drive our cars. But go to a local sports event? Not a chance, might be too cold or too hot, or too boring. In the US, it's a matter of local and civic pride to go out and watch the local high school or college team in whatever sport represent you in a big event, even if it's just to take on a cross-state rival, or, better yet, a rival from out of state.

Maybe it's all part of the Canadian inferiority complex, which I firmly believe we have. When I travel, I find that Canada is unknown to other people, and it's because we don't promote ourselves very well.

We'll see if the CUFLA boys try to buck the trend. I'm thinking they will, although how many will be in the stands to watch it...... I'll tell you on Sunday.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

First Blog in my life !!

Hello out there! This is my first effort at blogging. I'm absolutely new to this, but I was motivated to try by watching a chessy movie recently and decided to see what happens.

I'm calling this Lacrosse World because lacrosse is my favourite sport. I love everything about it: the speed, the toughness, the skill level, the teamwork, but, most of all, I love the passion and committment that players, coaches and fans have for the game. It is not a hugely popular game in the world, but those who play, watch or follow it become instant fans.

It is a game which has ancient and spiritual roots. The first nations people devoted themselves to the game, making it part of their faith structure, and also used it as a way of healing, training, and expression.

All these things combine to create a strong feeling in lacrosse devotees. But, more than that, these things combine to create a way to approach life itself. The qualities that make a good lacrosse player also make a good person.

Therefore, I plan to use lacrosse as a platform to express my views on all aspects of life itself. I will probably baffle some potential readers who don't "get it" because they probably have never experienced lacrosse. But it is my hope that those who share my love of the game ( and, therefore , love of life ) will enjoy my thoughts and feel free to engage me in honest and open
discussion and debate.

So, there it is. I have no idea what to do now !! Good luck to me !!