Monday, October 17, 2016


It is, arguably, the oldest continuous professional sports franchise in North America. It has won more championships than most teams, including those in other sports. It has given rise to legends and stories going back generations. It has brought some of the greatest athletes to Canada. It was a team linked with the idea of big city, big time, big aspirations, big league. And it has become something of an orphan to the very city that gave birth to it. It is the Toronto Argonauts.

A few readers may, at this point, be rolling their eyes and possibly thinking "oh no, not another nostalgia piece from an old guy. What's next? An elegy to the passing of boxing? A lament for the irrelevance of the CNE? A remembrance for horse races past?" Well, actually, partly.

After all, the Argonauts, along with the Maple Leafs, were the sports face of the city of Toronto and most of southern Ontario for more than one hundred years. Those of my age or older, will remember the arrival of great players like Joe Kroll, one of the great early quarterbacks of the early years of football, and his indelible mark left for all time on this great game. We can also remember well the large crowds, and the legendary achievements in some of the worst conditions that weather could throw at the players and fans. We can remember games at Varsity Stadium  and Exhibition Stadium when crowds of more than 40,000 were the norm rather than the exception. And we remember people talking about the Argonauts, and imitating their players when we played pick up games, and when the sports media was full of the signings of great players, the colourful lines of colourful coaches, and the crazy promotions of crazy owners. In short, we remember when the Argonauts mattered.

So much for nostalgia. The fact is, the Argonauts no longer matter. Crowds have diminished, despite some good teams over the last twenty years and a couple of championships. The media has, for the most part, ignored the football team to concentrate on the Leafs ( as expected, Toronto is, first and foremost, a hockey town ), the Blue Jays ( suddenly a contender with the considerable media clout of Rogers backing them ), and johnny-come-latelies like the Raptors ( hip, urban and ethnic ) and the soccer team I shall not name ( also ethnic ). The Argonauts get the scraps, along with the Marlies and college and minor sports.

Recently, a blog suggested that it was time to move the Argonauts out of Toronto and re-locate them to Quebec City or the Maritimes. I read that blog and, for the first time ever as a football fan, had to concede that the blog had valid arguments. In short, the blog stated that even a move to a "new" and more fan-friendly stadium (BMO Field ) couldn't help the team. Essentially, the blog said that the Argonauts had, after more than 140 years, worn out their welcome and should move.

However, as Hamlet said .... "that would be scanned." A move out of Toronto would surely kill the CFL as a national institution. Like it or not, Toronto is the media capital of English Canada and the mere presence of the Argonauts in the CFL guarantees that the media will pay some attention to it, although largely for the consumption of other markets in the country. A move would also pave the way for the huge National Football League to finally make it's move into the market. The CFL cannot have the NFL on its home turf. So, the Argonauts must stay, but, more importantly, must become relevant again. But how ?

If one thinks back into the recent past, the last time the Argonauts were seen as exciting and big-league was the so-called "Rocket Ismail" era. Ismail was a highly-touted player from Notre Dame in the US. He was much sought-after among NFL teams, and his signing by the Argonauts was seen as a huge coup that elevated the team, the city and the league on a par with the NFL. The sports media paid attention, and the fans cared. The stadium attracted large crowds ( only one sell-out, it must be noted ) and the rest of the country began to hate Toronto again. The Grey Cup was won by the Argonauts, a talented team quarterbacked by Matt Dunnigan and anchored by Ismail. It was reminiscent of earlier teams featuring such talents as Joe Theismann, Leon McQuay, Eric Allen, Terry Metcalf, and others. These were times when the Argonauts could match the appeal and significance of all the other teams, including the Blue Jays.

In recent years, the Argonauts and the rest of the CFL have operated on a strict and rigid business plan implemented by the league. The league went through some very tough times over the last two decades: franchises disappearing, an ill-advised expansion into the US, and external economic downturns that negatively impacted a small league driven largely by gate receipts. The plan has ensured that the league has survived and, indeed, has thrived in the west, and in Montreal and Ottawa. But the plan kept the league and the game small and quiet in the big market of Toronto. The result was the impression that the league was minor and on a par for a town like Regina, not Toronto. Thus, the situation that has been covered in this blog.

The only way for the CFL generally and the Argonauts specifically to become relevant again is to scrap the business plan in Toronto. In other words, no salary cap for the Argonauts, and let them raid to their hearts' content upon the NCAA and NFL to attract some "big name" players. And to let the Argonauts develop a marketing scheme to promote the home-grown Canadian players that provide the backbone of the CFL. The Argonauts must continue to run promotions and get out into the community as they do now. (They are generally recognized as being the Toronto team that does more charity and outreach work than the other teams.) And they must advertise more than any other Toronto team. The league must work with the Argonauts to do this: there must be a huge advertising budget for the Argonauts in the GTA market. And the CFL schedule-maker must do a better job to ensure that the Argonauts do not go up against the Blue Jays ( especially when the Jays are at home ) and avoid home games on week nights, especially in the summer. Football in Toronto must be on either Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, no exception. No more crazy 4 or 5 pm start times: football must begin either at 1 pm or in the 7 to 7:30 pm time slot. And back load home games into the late summer and autumn weeks: Torontonians are at the cottage or attending festivals in the summer.

Toronto is not like the rest of Canada. It is bigger, more diverse, richer, and, yes, more arrogant. One could get into an endless argument as to whether all this is a good thing or a bad thing. The fact is, it is a TRUE thing. So, in order for one of the oldest and most gloried institutions in this city to flourish, the rule book must be thrown out. It might not work: but what does the CFL or the Argonauts themselves have to lose? Clearly, the current model is not working. The time has come to bring this fabled team back to life.

Monday, August 29, 2016


Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the playing of the US national anthem before an exhibition NFL football game has become something of a lightning rod for opinions from all corners of North America. In terms of protests from athletes, it ranks with the "Black Glove" salute from two American athletes during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, and Muhammad Ali's willingness to go to jail for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Athletes have used their position of prominence to advance causes they believe in for years, and Kaepernick is following the tradition. And, like the former athletes, he has been the subject of intense criticism and even threatening backlash. He was, of course, completely aware that he would receive the reaction and, therefore, willing to endure it.

The reason for the protest is the issue of police violence against African-Americans. Kaepernick has stated that he cannot show respect for a country that allows institutional violence against a visible minority. The issue has created groups such as Black Lives Matter, who attempt to keep the issue front and centre in the nation's consciousness in order to get people talking ... and hopefully, to get some kind of solution. The stories in the news of police shootings of unarmed and unresisting black people have been seared into our televisions screens, but little seems to have been done to alleviate the problem, and the violence continues. Keapernick has, apparently, had enough: hence, the protest.

Most of the backlash has come from those who suggest that the protest shows complete disrespect for the anthem, the flag and all that these represent. The accepted sign of respect for any anthem or national flag is to stand at attention, remove headgear, remain silent or sing along with the lyrics. For Americans, a hand-over-heart salute is part of the ritual.  When Kaepernick remained seated on the team's bench, he seemingly violated all of these. There is no doubt he did it: his act was caught on video and, predictably, it has gone viral. It is, without doubt, a massive sign of disrespect.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the criticism is the linking of the anthem and flag with the US military. Yes, it's true that soldiers in many wars have fought and died under the flag. But Kaepernick's actions did not specifically identify the US military as the target of his protest. He identified the nation as his target. For people to become so visceral in their condemnation claiming that he showed disrespect for the military is troubling because it shows that, in many corners of the US, the military IS the country. The flag, they seem to suggest, is the embodiment of the US military. And the anthem is a clarion call to war and bloodshed. (Indeed, the lyrics are warlike and praises the war of 1812.) For them, Kaepernick was giving the military the middle finger. 

The United States is a huge, complex and diverse country. It has a long and fascinating history, complete with amazing achievements and horrible dark moments. It is nation of art, science, technology, and philosophy. It is also a nation of racism, slavery, crime, and the endless glorification of violence. Because of this, it is easy for some people to fixate on things that offer to bring an end to the dark side of the nation. They cling to institutions and symbols that, in the face of the darkness, provide protection of them, their families, and the nation they want to exist. Hence, the military is the embodiment of all that's "good" about America.

Those who criticise Kaepernick on these grounds have some questions to answer. Are they willing to admit that the US is a nation solely devoted to the glorification, establishment and maintenance of its military? Is the US simply a more modern version of ancient Sparta? Or a flashier version of today's North Korea? And are they saying to the whole world that they, Kaepernick's critics, are ready to cast aside all of the humane, creative and inspiring things that their nation has provided to the world in its past?  And are they saying that any sign of protest or criticism is a sign of disloyalty to the military, but not the other things that the US embodies? There are no easy answer to these questions, just as there is no easy solution to the issue of police violence to African Americans, and other minorities also.

Few of us would do what Kaepernick did. The certainty of criticism and backlash would convince most of us to do the expected and stand for the anthem, and keep the strong feelings on the violence against African Americans inside, or reserve our feelings for conversations with family and friends. And most of us have genuine respect for the rituals of national anthems: we feel a true link to the things we hold dear about our country.

But what's truly important are these three things: First, Kaepernick's actions are, at least, to be admired for the courage and principles behind them. Second, the linkage of the protest to the military as the sole vestige of what the country represents is troubling. And third, the conversation surrounding the issue of police violence against African Americans, which is the core of Kaepernick's actions, is long overdue and, perhaps in no small way because of Kaepernick, actually happening.

We can dislike Kaepernick's tactics, but we must agree with his intentions.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Few people saw the stunning result of the Brexit vote coming out the way it did. But, now that the results are known and the dust has settled ( to a point ) some things have become evident.


In many ways, the result could be seen as an anti-trade block vote. Many people have become suspicious of large-scale free-trade agreements. In the case of the EU, there is no doubt that over time it has become a bloated, overly regulated, and puzzling entity. It had, in its origins, the best of intentions. But the hodge-podge of treaties and agreements has made it, at the very least, impossibly confusing and, at worst, corrupt and self-serving. It is quite possible that some British voters had had enough with the inefficiency.

Free trade agreements are meant to be a boon to the economies of those nations who participate. In Canada, the Free Trade election of 1988 was supposed to bring in "jobs, jobs, jobs" according to the Prime Minister of the day, Brian Mulroney. In theory, it did. Canadian firms had access to the huge U.S. market and all seemed to go just as the auto industry had shown before the FTA came into effect. But then, along came Mexico and everything changed. Over time the FTA became NAFTA and many good-paying industrial jobs went south because Mexican workers were willing to work for less money and the Mexican government was willing to stifle any efforts of trade unions to establish chapters in that country. Subsequent trade agreements with other "developing" nations has shown a similar trend.

It has become obvious that free trade benefits only one group of people: investors. Those who seek to invest in economies that crank out product, often cheaply made, environmentally irresponsible, and completely uncaring for the conditions or safety or well-being of the workers, see their investments gain huge returns. Investors love free trade agreements. Other people ... not so much.

Thus, in its most positive form, the Brexit vote may be construed as a repudiation of large-scale free-trade agreements. So, that's the good news. However .....


The vote has badly divided the "United" Kingdom.  Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the City of London ( the financial centre of Europe ) voted to remain, seeing advantages in doing so. The rest of England and Wales voted to leave. This sets up a troubling disunity. In terms of Scotland and Northern Ireland, those countries saw advantages of being able to count on the larger planning and location of economic activities of the EU. They are small markets, and saw their products being available to the large markets on the continent. Voting to remain was their way of telling the larger English electorate that they wanted more opportunity and control of their own economic future. And in terms of London, the economic powerhouse was able to exert influence on EU decision makers. But the English vote is obviously an anti-London vote. Smaller cities and towns have seen their factories close down and their young leave to go to London. And rural voters just do not trust their urban counterparts, in England and elsewhere.

More troubling in the disunity is the fact that younger British voters wanted to remain in the EU. They are more adaptable to new economic realities and were not frightened by the larger markets or opportunities of the EU. But older British voters wanted to get out. Why? Perhaps it's an unwillingness to embrace newer economic realities. Or perhaps it's because they still recall the older days of Great Britain being a world power, and having great influence in world affairs. It could be a type of nostalgia where "Britannia ruled the waves" at work here. Those days, of course, are long gone forever, but older British voters could've seen this as their last act of British defiance in the face of those Europeans that the British either fought against ( ie the Germans ) or traditionally distrusted ( ie the French ).

Whatever the case, the result of the vote has badly fractured the once United Kingdom. Scotland is openly musing about holding another referendum on their membership in the UK: presumably, the vote would be different a second time, with EU membership being linked with leaving the UK. And what of Northern Ireland? Gerry Adams and Sinn Feinn have long advocated continuing membership in the EU, as the Republic of Ireland has. Could this be the spark to have Northern Ireland finally renouncing its links to England and possibly joining the Republic to the south and maintaining membership in the EU?

All the result has really done is prove to the world that the UK in general, and England in particular, is a nation that no longer knows what it is, what it wants, what it's place in the world is, and where it's going. It is grimly trying to hold on to the notion that it is still a "great" nation, that its voice is still heard, and that it matters. Well, it has been heard all right ... but as for the rest ?

How the world might view the UK falls under this category .....


Behind much of the older English voting trend seems to be a nasty fear of people who are different. If one is to be completely honest, one must examine the trend in many English people to fear foreigners, and think that, somehow, England is being "taken over" by immigrants. This is a particularly ugly aspect of the English character that, I am sorry to say, is prevalent in many. In England, it is shown in the institutions like the National Front movement, the UKIP party, and on social media sites such as "Britain First". In these outlets, the knee-jerk and anti-intellectual feelings are given voice. These outlets blame all social problems in England, Britain and the UK on the changing "face" of the country. And the EU was the lightning rod of all this venom. For the troglodytes who support these institutions, the EU was a foreign entity who brought all the immigrants from the darker places of the earth to the once lily-white, pastoral shores of "this England", ruining their little Eden forever. The vote gave them an opportunity to vent their spleen and give the more reasonable world the middle finger.

They have absolutely no idea what they have done. According to Google, the second most googled question on the day after the Brexit result was made known was "what is the EU?" It's almost like these people got drunk and angry, said many bad things in their choler, and then wanted to find out what they'd actually said. Many Britons have petitioned their government to have a second referendum, a type of mea culpa and apology in one. They're not going to get it.

What's done is done. There is no second chance, no sending the world in general and Europe in particular a bouquet of flowers with cute teddy bears on it, shedding tears and saying " I'm sorry, I won't do it again, please take me back."

Older, rural, or small-town Englishmen with small-time mentalities have much to answer for. They have taken the world on a wild ride ... the only problem with that is the rest of the world didn't get to vote.

England needs to take a long look in the mirror. And when it does, it needs to tell the world what it sees. For the rest of us, it's not a pretty image.

Monday, June 27, 2016


"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

So reads the infamous Second Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights has been changed several times over the years, with new amendments added, and others being repealed. But the Second Amendment, a single sentence with only 27 words, has remained since the Constitution was drafted and adopted in 1791. It is, without a doubt, the most quoted and most contentious amendment in our modern world.

And it needs to go.

In 1791, the survival of the new United States was far from a sure thing. The country, which had only won independence from Great Britain a few years before, was a very loose gathering of "states" which had, until the Revolution, very little in common with each other, except for a series of grievances against Britain. But, despite all odds, the colonies won the war and then attempted to created a new republic, using some of the best ideals in the Enlightenment. The first constitution, the "Articles of Confederation" proved to be unworkable. There had also been several examples of discontent in the colonies against the federal government. A second attempt at a constitution had to be made, or the colonies would dissolve into a series of puny countries, ripe for the picking should European powers try to re-establish their supremacy in the New World.

The Founding Fathers had a difficult and delicate task. Americans had, and perhaps still have, a deep distrust for central authority. In the late eighteenth century, that distrust extended to a standing army. The reasoning behind this is that a standing army made it easier for tyrants and despots to assert control over the people. The Revolution threw off such an authority and the colonists grew to support the notion of the sovereignty of the People. Thus, they did not like the idea of a standing army. Besides, the efforts of local militias had, especially in the early going, successfully fought against the British army and their mercenaries. It was only when the fight became more desperate that the U.S. Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Army. The expectation was that, with the end of the war, the army would be disbanded. But security was still necessary against further European incursions and against potentially hostile First Nations who were coming into contact with American expansion of the frontier. Allowing private citizens to keep weapons in their homes, and become skilled in the use of these weapons, meant that a militia could be called up in little time and deal with whatever threat had materialized. And the amendment meant that no authority could take those weapons away from these citizen-soldiers.

Thus, the Second Amendment was crafted and brought into existence. It is a perfect eighteenth century solution to problem of national security, and it satisfied the fears and suspicions of many of the early citizens.

And it created a gun culture the like of which the world has never seen. Today, we have been pummelled with stories and images of mass murder and carnage that has claimed thousands of lives. These atrocities have happened in public places: places of worship, movie theatres, nightclubs, community centres, schools, malls. And the lives lost were, for the most part, innocent victims, unknown to the murderers who killed them, civilians who had been going about their daily activities with family, friends, colleagues and children. And they were killed, for the most part, with military-style weapons: automatic and semi-automatic weapons that repeatedly fire rounds as long as there are bullets in the clip. These weapons are designed for one thing and one thing only: to kill large numbers of people in a short span of time.

The weapon of choice in 1791 was a flint-lock muzzle-loading musket. It could fire 2 to 3 rounds a minute. After firing the weapon, the user had to manually load the next round: if he was a good musketeer, he could do this, as stated above, 2 or 3 times. But, if there were more targets in front of him, the musketeer would be overwhelmed by those targets and disarmed. That's why formations of troops in the eighteenth century were tightly packed and could work together to maximize the effect of their fire and protect each other from retaliation while they reloaded.

The AR-15 was not the weapon the Founding Fathers had envisioned.

Similarly, as the history of the United States evolved through the years, the aversion to a standing army gave way to the creation of a permanent, professional military the like of which the world has never seen. There is simply no need of a "well regulated militia" to exist any more. And there is no further need of the "right to keep and bear arms" for the general population. Despite the several terrible movies and TV mini-series that depict a country in ruins defended by plucky citizens with their trusty rifles, the likelihood of a national emergency of that magnitude is remote.

The only people who benefit from the retention of the Second Amendment are those in the guns and ammunition business, and the people of questionable intelligence and character who belong to semi-secret "militias" who exist either to someday destroy the overbearing federal government or survive some social apocalypse described above.

Repeal of the Second Amendment is long overdue. The act of enshrining the possession of dangerous weapons in a nation's constitution is an anachronism of a by-gone era, and a by-gone way of thinking. It will not mean the elimination of ownership of guns: hunters, farmers and sport shooters will still have them. Lesser legislation can guarantee this ownership. But making it a central part of the national psychology and mythology only puts innocent lives at risk.

The Second Amendment belongs in a museum, along with the muskets and the piece of parchment that created it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


In hockey lore, there is the fabled "Gordie Howe hat trick": a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. It is a venerated achievement, signifying a type of manly approach to the game we all love. To score a goal indicates the tenacity and aggression of a sniper. To get an assist is the consummate act of a good teammate, to set up your fellow so HE can score a goal. And, of course, the fight is the thing the Don Cherrys of the world worship the most: the ability to step in for your team to engage in fisticuffs on ice to better your team's image, to "send a message" to your opponent that, not only can we beat you in skill and according to the rules of the game, but we can also beat you "in the alley", to borrow from Conn Smythe. In the recently completed Stanley Cup playoffs, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks offered a comment on the "Gordie Howe hat trick" as being one of the great accomplishments of his career. I believe he has recorded four of them. Sydney Crosby, of the champion Pittsburgh Penguins, even has two to his credit, and he beams when reminded of this deed.

In point of fact, Gordie Howe himself had only two "Gordie Howe hat tricks", yet he is credited with being the originator of the accomplishment. According to hockey records, the first "Gordie Howe hat trick" was recorded well before Howe entered the league. For a man who has his name attached to the deed, he was never really proud of it. In fact, he was more proud of his Stanley Cup wins, for which he was an indispensable member of the Detroit Red Wings teams which won. He also set records for goals and assists, and won the MVP for the league numerous times. In Howe's world, talent and skill counted for more than the fighting. Because of that, Howe is remembered for being a gentleman, rather than a "goon".

Make no mistake: Gordie Howe was a fierce competitor. He hated losing. In his era, his Red Wings battled the Montreal Canadiens for hockey supremacy often. As a right-winger, he went up against the equally fabled Maurice "Rocket" Richard, a left-winger for the Habs. Their battles were the stuff of legend, and there was no clear winner. That was how it was supposed to be: when two god-like talents square off, there is only the rest of us to stand in awe of their accomplishments. The Rocket passed into immortality years ago. Recently, Gordie joined him.

I am lucky to have seen Howe play, albeit on TV, during the early sixties, when Howe still had much of his immense skill on display. He was a marvel. He had talent that transcended many of the other greats of his time. And he had toughness, not the kind where he was too willing to drop the gloves and duke it out. His toughness was in a single-minded will to win. Yes, the elbows came up often: yes, he would drop the gloves to face a challenger who thought he was tougher: and, yes, that challenger was often beaten soundly. But it was the skill and the will to win that mattered.

There have been many wonderful players to grace the game we love. The pre-war roster is now largely those whose names and accomplishments fill pages in hockey history books: Morenz, Joliet, Clancy, Vezina. And there are those that have their memory live on in the early TV days: Howe, Richard, Hull, Beliveau, Orr, Esposito, Kennedy. And there are the modern heros: Gretzky, Lemieux, Trottier, Perreault, Sittler, Clarke, Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Datsyuk, Tavares. And there are certainly more to come.

But among those greats, there is a small group of Immortals .... those whose names will never die. Men who played the game with superior skill, intense determination, and a humility and humanity that make them stand as giants and demi-gods.

Such a man is Mr. Hockey. Such a man is Gordie Howe. Rest in peace, Mr. Howe.... you were one of the Immortals.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


The English language, in its modern form, is full of mis-used or over-used words or phrases. An example of these words is "great" or "greatest". We are all guilty of incorrectly or inappropriately using them. Baseball fans might say something like "that was a great game last night", when the home team merely eked out an error-filled win in a single game out of 162 in an entire season: nothing special about that game, but if the home team won, then it's a "great game." Similarly, a movie, TV show, concert or song recently enjoyed might be described as "great." Or, if a person woke up without pain or sickness, he/she might respond to the question "how are you today?" with the phrase " I feel great." You get the hint.

The truth of the matter is that the word "great" should be reserved for something out-of-the-ordinary, something exceptional, something rare or not previously experienced. Otherwise, the thing in question should be called "good", "nice", "satisfactory" or something equally mundane or ordinary. We should refrain from calling something "great" simply because it temporarily pleases or satisfies us.

But, on rare occasions, an event or person arises in our consciousness and experience that is truly unusual or exceptional. When it's a person, we view the individual as heroic, gifted and utterly beyond the scope of normal human endeavour. Such a person was Muhammad Ali.

Ali's life story is well known and does not need to be repeated here. Instead, I will use a few lines to express my admiration and affection for the man.

When he first burst onto the scene, after knocking our Sonny Liston, I was not a fan. I was only a young boy, about seven or eight years old, but I loved sports and was a boxing fan because it was a major sport in those days and because my dad loved boxing. When Cassius Clay, as Ali was known in those days, beat Liston, my dad was furious. Not because Clay was the new champion of the world, but because Clay defied all the established norms of behaviour for public figures. He was brash, he was vocal, he was cocky, he was loud. The fact that he was black added to the backlash. Now, I need to be careful here. My dad was not a racist by any means, but the idea of an "uppity black" rubbed all of white society the wrong way. I was strongly influenced by this, and had an innocently negative opinion of Clay. The fact that a black man was heavyweight champion of the world was not the issue: Clay had just beaten Liston, also a black man. My dad admired Liston and other great black fighters, such as Floyd Patterson and the previous "greatest", Joe Louis. But Clay was different and it was his mouth and cockiness that made him unappealing.

As time went by, of course, our opinions changed. As Clay morphed into Ali, as his career took all its bizarre twists and turns, and as the man grew into legend as a boxer, advocate for civil rights, and as a "warrior for peace", my initial naïve dislike grew into admiration and then complete hero worship. I only saw him once, well past his prime and as he was sinking into premature old age from the Parkinsons disease caused by the trauma of numerous fights and, undoubtedly, stress from his public life. It was at an Argos game many years ago, when Ali was honoured for all his humanitarian work. I stood and applauded enthusiastically when many people, including former opponents, lauded him. He was stooped, shaking, but completely aware of what was happening. It remains, for me, one of my own wonderful personal memories.

But the thing I would like to express as my own testimony of his true greatness is this: Muhammad Ali was a man who taught the world that it had choices to make. And that those choices are sometimes difficult, harsh and enduring. But, if choices are based on fundamentally sound and right principles, if choices are not merely expedients that make the tough things in life "go away", if choices are made from a person's heart and done for good reasons, then the difficult, harsh, and enduring pain and backlash can be borne and carried with noble and heroic honour.

Ali did this and more in his life. I will never forget him. I will never really live according to his example. But I will try. And, for this, Muhammad Ali will always be, for me, "the greatest."

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Last night's season-ending loss to the New Jersey Devils ended another season of frustration and failure for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is the latest example of the Leafs' lack of success: they have qualified for the playoffs only once since the lock-out year of 2005-6.

Yet, last night's loss seemed to merely close the chapter on a long process of rebuilding. The Leafs have somehow managed to create a feeling of optimism among their fans and media, based on a stated project of turning the entire franchise around and moving in a new, professional and ultimately successful way. Consider the following:

Last night's loss secured thirtieth place in the NHL's standings for the Leafs: absolute rock bottom. How can this be a measure of success? By securing last place, the Leafs have given themselves the best odds in the NHL's entry draft lottery. The last time the Leafs had the first pick over-all was the year they selected Wendel Clarke. He went on to have a solid, if not spectacular, NHL career and served as the Leafs' captain for many years of good success. A first over-all pick is by no means certain for the Leafs, but the worst they can do is select fourth over-all. Their odds of gaining a top level young player are excellent and this player will become another keystone in the rebuilding programme.

The drive to last place was highlighted by the play of several young players who were called up from the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. At one time, there were a dozen Marlie call-ups in the Leafs' roster. Their play was encouraging, and many of the players showed that they are now NHL ready. In particular, William Nylander, the Leafs' top pick two drafts ago, seems ready to take on a permanent role in the NHL.  The core of young players, many still teenagers, will become the core of the Maple Leafs in the next two or three years.

In addition, consider that the young Marlie players will now return to the AHL team to join them in that team's playoff run. The Marlies have dominated the AHL the entire season, including the period when so many of their good players had been called up to the Leafs. Now that Nylander and company are back with the Marlies, the AHL team figures to have a long run in the playoffs, perhaps even a championship run. Nothing is certain in sports, of course, but a championship run for the Marlies would be a tonic for the entire organization, which has not tasted championship champagne for decades. The young returnees bring with them some valuable NHL experience with them. While the AHL is a good league, it is not the NHL. So, logic dictates that the NHL experience will put these players in a good position to do well in the lesser AHL.

Should the Marlies win the Calder Trophy as AHL champions, it makes the path the Leafs need to take that much clearer. Winning begets winning. Thus, a solid core of Marlies players will be promoted to the Leafs, forming the new core of the NHL team, bringing with them the swagger gained from victory in the AHL and necessary for the confidence needed to take the Leafs to a higher level.

Some good luck in the draft lottery could mean the Leafs will select first over-all and pick up a potential star player. Austin Matthews is the name most often used in this context, although it must be said that he has had very little experience at high-level hockey, either junior or professional. Nevertheless, the possibility of acquiring a good future star is there for the Leafs. Add to that the fact that the Leafs have 12 selections throughout this year's draft and the opportunity to re-stock the Marlies with eager, young players when the Marlies' core is promoted will ensure a continuous stream of young players to the Leafs over the next several years.

There is also the option of picking up players via free agency, and this has been discussed often regarding Tampa Bay Lightning star player Steven Stamkos, the team's captain and best player, who will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Stamkos is only 26 years old and could become the Leafs' captain and anchor for many years to come. But prudence should be exercised here. Stamkos will command a huge salary and this will take up much of the money the Leafs will need to develop the many young players they currently have and will acquire over the next several years. Money becomes the problem for the franchise in this case. The Leafs may be advised to follow their strategy of the last two seasons, and sign veteran journeyman players to one-year contracts, asking them to fill in gaps in the line-up and becoming mentors to the young players who will be in the organization for longer periods of time. The cost of the journeymen will be light, and the obligation to keep them will not exist. It is a solid strategy and in some cases a good player emerges, such as Leo Komorov or P.A. Parenteau.

So, for a thirtieth-place team, the Leafs have done quite well for themselves. During the last quarter of the season, they played entertaining and sometimes winning hockey. It is quite feasible to imagine the management toasting the end of the season with some nice sparkling wine for a job well done: they should save the champagne, however, for the ultimate prize. If they wait long enough, the bubbly will taste very, very fine.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


The recent death of Rob Ford and his subsequent funeral has raised some awkward questions. Certainly Ford's death from cancer at age 46 was tragic. No person, no matter what one may think of him or her, deserves to die so young or from such a horrible disease. Cancer is a terrible disease that destroys lives and families. We grieve for the victim and commiserate with the families and friends, especially when the victim is young and leaves small children behind. The sooner we find cures, the better. We all agree on that.

But the behaviour of surviving members of the family, specifically Doug Ford in this case, creates great concerns. Consider these items:

First, when the death was announced, Doug Ford appeared visibly shaken and upset and asked for privacy for the family. Totally reasonable and appropriate for him to do that. Then the arrangements for Rob Ford's funeral became known. The former mayor would "lie in repose" for a period of time so that supporters could pay their respects. Also totally reasonable and appropriate. Then, a service would be held at St. James' Cathedral and a "celebration of life" would follow. For the third time, this is totally reasonable and appropriate.

But a strange thing began to happen. In that time period, people and publications began to pay tributes to the late mayor. Even the Toronto Star got into the act, as though trying to offer some belated apology for its aggressive reporting of Ford's time as mayor. We heard about all Rob Ford's "great accomplishments" and that he was a "man of the people". To many, it became more than a little uncomfortable to hear and read tributes which lionized a man of questionable accomplishment and even more questionable character. All of this may have all fallen into the "don't speak ill of the dead" file, and, again, it's reasonable to do this.

But, during Doug Ford's eulogy to his dead brother, the magic phrases came out. He ended by assuring one and all that the Ford's work would continue and that the so-called "respect for taxpayers" would not end.  And, just like that, Ford politics ruined what could've been a mature, newly defining moment for Ford nation. No, the grieving family was once again plunged into the petty politics it specialized in. In the "celebration of life" that followed, the political phrases continued. In doing this, Doug Ford took the unfortunate death of his beloved brother and turned it in a campaign launch. He tried to rationalize all the over-the-top rhetoric and elaborate funeral ceremonies by saying that "Rob would've wanted it that way." Thus, the Ford brand remains alive even though it's main standard bearer is dead.

Second, a news item yesterday on CTV ( a news outlet that has been somewhat sympathetic to the Fords, unlike the Star or CBC ) showed a very interesting and bizarre report. The image was of Doug Ford striding into Queen's Park to meet his old friend, Lisa McLeod, for a "coffee". Ford seemed surprised at all the media present and tried to look ingenuous and even a little coquettish. CTV made it known that Ford had alerted some media outlets that he was going to visit McLeod, so the media crowd that greeted him at Queen's Park was not unexpected. It came out in the photo op that Ford was seriously considering running in a Scarborough by-election under the Conservative banner. This caught new Conservative leader Patrick Brown by surprise and left him back-peddling rather clumsily. McLeod tried to act the innocent bystander, saying she would support her friend in whatever he would do, including running for Rob Ford's old council seat when it is declared vacant. The whole thing was a carefully orchestrated "media event" that merely kept Doug Ford's smiling face in the public's eye, and kept fanning the fires of his obvious political ambitions, among the most fiercely partisan in Ontario.

Rob Ford has been dead for only two weeks. He has been in his grave for less than that. But the circus of Ford nation continues. Grieving family? Needing privacy ? Visiting an old friend ? All these stretch the bounds of credulity.

The Fords will never change. They are well dressed hillbillies and they need to go away. They are exploiting the good will generated by the unfortunate death of a family member. They are keeping alive the myth of the Ford family brand. They should let Rob Ford truly rest in peace. Leave his widow and her two small children to get on with their lives without cringing at the buffoonery of a crazed brother and uncle who can't leave things alone. Enough of this shameful activity.

Friday, April 1, 2016


As Paul Simon wrote:

"These are the days of miracle and wonder,
And don't cry, baby, don't cry"

The chorus from "The Boy in the Bubble" echoes a very human refrain. We are constantly fearful of the world we live in and the future we face, but we live in a world of amazing technological achievement. How can we do so many amazing things, yet live surrounded by so much hardship? The chorus seems to suggest that all will be well, that all problems and issues will be solved if we put our faith in the "miracles and wonder". Still, we course onwards, lurching from one problem to another: and we wonder if there is any direction, anyone in control. If we can compare our progress to a bus ride, we seem to be riding ever faster and faster, barely under control ... and we wonder: who's driving this bus?

We, in North America and Western Europe, live in a world of plenty. We have enough to eat, have shelter, clothing, medicine, and expect our children to become educated and live safe, productive lives. We have so much, and we can create more. Yet in so many parts of the world, people suffer terrible privation and have little to guarantee survival. Bare survival and subsistence has been the case throughout history. But privation continues into our current time. How can that be? Surely if we can create comfortable, safe and healthy conditions in our world, we can do the same for others: yet, privation continues unabated.

It's easy to blame the situation on those who, according to our sensibilities, exist only to create evil and chaos. We see armies marching towards us ready to inflict terror and suffering . We grow afraid and suspicious. We claim that the suffering we see in the poor regions of the world grow out of the uncivilized and violent races of people who inhabit these regions. "Life is very cheap there", we like to say in some kind of mantra of complacent superiority. It's easy for us to sweep it all under a rug of denial and contempt. They only know how to destroy and create suffering, we tell ourselves. And they want to bring that to us.

So, we denigrate all of them. And when the terror comes to our shores, we thrash about, looking for a solution. Since we are the "superior" societies, we decide that the only way to solve the suffering and end the evil is to show how strong we are. We mobilize our forces and unleash our technological superiority. We react the way we have reacted for centuries. We cry "havoc" and let loose the dogs of war. This will surely bring the evil ones to destruction and cause those who starve and suffer to become free from the violence and privation and to love us for saving them. And when those who are victims of our bombs and bullets look at us with anger and hatred, we are surprised. "How can they not love us?" we think. "Don't they know that we are trying to save them, to set them free?"

It is sometimes tempting to think that we are in control. By carrying the fight to the enemy, we keep violence, terror, famine, disease, and privation of all kinds at arm's length. Every few years, an element of the horror breaks through to attack us where we live, and this creates fresh terror. We react, we attack and we feel that, somehow, we are winning, although the comfort that should naturally come from winning never seems to be close. As long as the terror is based far from home, though, we feel somewhat safe. We can draw a breath of relief: we sleep at night, although a little fitfully: we can turn our attention to ourselves. And we decide to live crazily, since the terror is only held at bay and can't stay at bay for long.

We seek to live happily. We strive for all the good things that our modern lives can provide. We gather as much as we can, for it could all vanish tomorrow if we are not careful, if we are not vigilant. We believe that by working hard, we earn the right to acquire more. It is ours by right, because we are so intelligent, so virtuous, so entitled. And when we have achieved our goal, we strive to gain more. We see this as our reward for our hard work: the more we gain, the more it proves that we are good. Life becomes more meaningful with the more we attain. And who knows? If the foreign evil ever visits our shores, we might lose all we have gained: better to get more and enjoy it now before it's all gone.

And with material gain, there comes a price. The more we produce, and the more we acquire, the more we discard. We have so much and we cast aside so much. But, with the increasing waste, we develop a unique ability to not see it. We can ignore it because it is taken away from our immediate environment and put elsewhere. But it doesn't really go away. It lingers, like the evil we sought to destroy and contain in foreign lands. The problem is not solved, it is merely swept aside ... for now. How soon before the waste and evil and suffering and privation visits our shores permanently? How much time do we have to come up with a solution?

We like to think that we have the ability to make the important decisions that are needed to provide the solutions. After all, it was we who created all the wealth. It is we who are superior and live such beautiful lives, full of money and material things. Surely we can depend on ourselves to think our way out of the morass. But we are foolish to think this way. Our world has made us venal, and selfish, and subject to temptation. We willingly put ourselves in the hands of a "craven media" who ignore or distort the truth we do not want to see. We are "drunk on popular culture" and think that what we see and hear is the truth. We want to be entertained and kept deliberately silly and immature. Why? Because it's fun. And it allows us to continue as we have always done, not responsible for the consequences of our actions.

We kid ourselves. We believe that, if we are patient enough, if we can keep the bad things at bay, if we can enjoy our little smug and acquisitive world for a few more years, then the solution will be at hand. Technology will be our saviour in the shining new future ahead. Our machines will solve all problems, stop old age and disease from spoiling our lives, end war and hunger and suffering. A brave new world awaits: just live long enough and the machines will save us. Machines are perfect, they do not grow old or sick and they do not fall prey to the temptations and pitfalls of the world we have created. They will save us and will, eventually, become us. And what then? Who will we be? Is there hope for humanity as we ride to the future?

 Decisions made now will have long-lasting effects for generations to come. We look to our leaders for wisdom and guidance. Our leaders must make the right decisions.We can put our faith, as we always have done, in our ability to build things to improve our lives. Or we can realize that these things come with a huge price. Our leaders must find a way to balance technological gain with preserving all that is good about us and our world. Are our leaders up to the challenge? Are they even thinking about this?

The decision they have to make is actually quite a simple one. They must decide if they believe in the innate goodness of people, or if they believe that such a thing doesn't really exist, and that the pursuit of material gain, economic growth and technological progress are the most important goals. One must hope that they have the wisdom to realize that there must be a balance between humanity and gain. They must come to understand that nothing happens without a price being paid. If we pay the price intelligently and without harm, then gain is good. But if we ignore the price and blindly keep moving forward at breakneck speed, heedless of the cost, then we are doomed. Our leaders hold humanity's future in their hands.

And so it goes .... we hope for a victory over all the sham, drudgery, greed, war, suffering and the headlong rush into a technological future of oblivion. We hope we can make good decisions and create a wonderful new world. We hope that our journey forward will be a good and safe one, full of promise and hope. We hope for a good ride.

There's only one problem .... who's driving this bus?

We'd better find out soon. Without a driver, we'll end up going over a cliff. That is not a desired outcome .... for any of us. We need a good driver ... or else the consequences are ....

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Thanks to Joy for the use of this anecdote.

"On a train from Manchester to London, an American passenger was berating an Englishman who shared his compartment. "Look here," the American said. "You English set yourselves apart from the rest of the world, with your stiff upper lip and snobbish pretentions. You should be more like the rest of us. Look at me. I'm part Italian, a little Irish, with some Portuguese and Polish, too. What do you have to say to that?" The Englishman looked over his newspaper, lowered his glasses and said "How jolly sporting of your mother."

Bill Bryson is actually an American-born humourist and writer, but has lived in England for forty years. He is able, therefore, to write about the English as someone who lives with them, but is not quite part of them. His "The Road to Little Dribbling" is a collection of episodes of a walk around the island of Britain. His adventures are amazingly funny, but what strikes the reader is his endless fascination with the strange, endearing, sometimes frustrating, and always entertaining eccentricities of the English people. To a quick reader, Bryson sometimes comes off as insulting, but a careful read shows a writer who is a huge anglophile ... and who loves the strange sense of humour of these people. Bryson is also brutally honest: some of what he encounters on his rambles is unbelievably stupid. He pulls no punches when discussing how many English cities have pulled down wonderful old buildings and put up modern monstrosities, especially in the dour and uncertain post-war period from the late-forties until the mid- to late-sixties. Having toured many of these cities, I would lend my voice to this criticism. Bryson is an unabashed fan of the English countryside. He comments on the fact that England has no natural wonders, no huge mountains, nor impressive wide rivers, and is very crowded. But the countryside is an unbelievable wonder, and almost completely man-made. He is constantly fighting to preserve the countryside from developers, a situation we find here in Ontario at this time. Still, despite the criticisms and negative feeling of these items, Bryson never descends into anger or bitterness. His humour, a combination of an American willingness to poke fun and a British willingness to take a joke come shining through.

The English writer Nick Hornby's latest novel, "Funny Girl" also gives a glimpse at English humour at its best. Hornby has had a long and productive career and his novels and screenplays all have a funny-sad quality about them that I particularly enjoy. In this novel, a young girl from Blackpool wins the title of "Miss Blackpool 1964" and then promptly resigns to pursue a career in television at the BBC. The story is easy to follow and terrifically funny. It also gives insight into how England changed during the early to mid 1960's from a dowdy and quaint little country, still reeling form the privations of the war, into a modern and fashionable country. It is a situation that, to a large extent, England is still trying to come to grips with well into the 21st century. But through it all, through all the trials and uncertainty of the main characters, there is that English sense of humour that Hornby has mastered. It is understated, slightly fatalistic, tremendously ironic, and often self-mocking. It is wonderful and it's good for what ails you.

If England faced nothing but disasters, defeats and humiliations for the rest of its history, they would always be able to make a joke of it.
We could all learn an important lesson from them. Laugh it up when things get heavy .... but do it with style, a sense of flair, a sense of class.

You've got to love the English !