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?