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.