Thursday, December 27, 2007

John Burns Dekes, Scores

The winter solstice brings back the light, sure, and not a moment too soon. It also brings lots of salt and butter and crabbiness and, phew, World Junior Hockey from far away lands.

Yesterday against the Czechs and this morning versus Slovakia—the wee nation that has already given us Hossas, two magic Marians, a pre-concussion Richard Zednik—the Canadians were snoozy and robotic. Great (fascistic) coaching is one thing, and “yay, we win again!” but must our junior tourny teams all play the same way and look like table hockey on big ice? Positionally sound, okay, but also predictable and machine-steady. Blame the salt and butter, but I nodded off—this was before 8 o’clock in BC, home of Kyle Turris—during the first two periods.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht teaches the aesthetics of sport at Stanford and is the author of the neat little book, In Praise of Athletic Beauty. He's an egghead, sure, but Gumbrecht talks about how the greatest pleasure in sport (or in art), why we watch and cheer, is when the unexpected happens. Seems kinda duh put that way, but I like how it explains that faster heartbeat and instant call to attention when a mistake happens on ice, or a spasm of uncontrolled creativity. This morning, Drew Doughty (great name for a Canadian, or in the case of westcoasters, Self-Doughty) decided to spinorama in the neutral zone when we all thought (cause we know the game's usual rhythms and patterns) he was going to retreat and regroup. He’s long practised that move and apparently had been told by coaches to tone down such hotdoggery for this tournament, to take fewer chances. Even before the move led to the Turris goal, it was thrilling to see the game stop in its tracks and to watch imagination and spark—things we value in all teenagers—squeeze the game off those tracks and send it bumping and grinding toward the net.

So far, things seem controlled and interesting and maybe we’ve moved beyond this as a nation (since the Super Series last year and the ’72 series before it) but: please. I don’t want to see the Canadians headshot the other team’s best forward so he can’t play, possibly ever again.

And speaking of spinoramas: anyone remotely interested in Canadian sports writing should be sad that John Burns has announced he will soon be leaving the Georgia Straight. Over the last ten years, Burnsie has always let me review the sports books I wanted to, has always given sports writing a place to be considered and criticized as legitimate cultural commentary and as literature. During the writing of Cold-cocked: On Hockey (and also my forthcoming book, Flirt: The Interviews), he listened, cared, encouraged and let me read and review many of the books that informed my take on hockey and how we feel, read and write the game. Let’s hope he’s not feeling too Self-Doughty and knows that extreme change (aka “the old spinorama”) is truly the only way to become better and more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Captain Emo's Wrister

Hockey gets us worked up, sure. But at this time of the season, when no one’s yet running and gunning for the Cup and flu weakens road-ravaged teams of young men with germy preschoolers at home, sports coverage still suggests we should have opinions, should care about a player’s plus-minus, should review a slo-mo porn shot of a skate blade stomping a mouthy Finn’s ankle a million times to be sure our opinion matches everybody else’s.

Likewise, coverage of Todd Bertuzzi. The sports headline in this morning’s Vancouver Sun: “‘Let’s go,’ new court papers reveal Bertuzzi wanted to fight Moore before sucker punch.” This is news? At the risk of having an opinion about something unknowable and past its best-before date as stories go, here are a few things about this so-called new information.

Watch the tape of the March 8th game even once, and you will see Bertuzzi invite Steve Moore to fight again and again; if you are a practised lip reader, you will even see Big Bert toothlessly use the naughty language he was reluctant to repeat when recalling the events during discovery hearings because, he said “There’s two women in here.” (The Sun reporter refers to Bertuzzi as “sheepish” for this avoidance; must reporters speculate via the editorializing adjective?) We are informed—newsflash—that certain players even told management that coach Marc Crawford suggested they go after Colorado’s star players, Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk. Really, news?

Many interesting questions about that terrible night in Vancouver persist, but nothing media have passed on from these new documents should be considered newsworthy, or interesting. The Sun’s Cam Cole reported at the time of the sucker punch on Moore that Bertuzzi was only 50% to blame and that officials, the league and coaches were to blame for the other 50%. Tellingly absent from his equation were complicit media and fans, those who called for retribution, made a circus of the games following Moore’s own slo-mo porn hit on Captain Emo, Markus Naslund, those who wanted to see something happen and then were outraged and suddenly blameless when something did.

Watch the tape even once and you’ll wonder: how did Dan Cloutier play so badly—in March, against a division rival, the playoffs a month away—that the score raced so high; why did Brad May come out of the second intermission so crazy, crazy enough to score on David Aebescher and then take a penalty for what he said and did to the goalie, not just once; why was Bertuzzi on the ice without Naslund; why did Moore’s coach, the soon-to-be demoted Tony Granato, have him on the ice in the third period in a one-sided game without any protection and why did Granato allow the score to rise in a perpendicular way (final: 9-2); why wasn’t the Cooke fight with Moore in the first period enough; why didn’t Captain Emo and Colorado’s captain Sakic engage in some act of diplomacy so that necks weren’t broken and careers and seasons forever screwed. But mostly, why was anyone surprised by any of it, given what we know about the brotherhood of the game, the secret society of players and coaches and management, the money and power involved. And why be surprised now?

The surprise came back then because we had, once again confused professional sports with entertainment. They are not one and the same (well, David Beckham). That season, Bert and Nazzie and Mo were incredible to watch, on and off the ice. The story of that season was uplifting and exciting, and the team was winning with a brilliant first line that was getting a ton of press across the continent. Even their post-game smirks were heart-stopping. We were heading to the climax—A Cup win! Cue the cops downtown on horseback!—and the boys were so happy, the coach was letting them be creative (except when Bert wouldn’t backcheck and then Crawford benched him on Saturday night national tv), and the city was silly with optimism. We thought the team reflected us—fun, spirited, socially responsible and willing to visit the sick kids and cheer them up, to wear our hair in interesting Eurostyles—and that we would all be winners in a fine way.

We got caught up in a really realistic fairy tale—a delightful bit of entertainment—and allowed ourselves to forget that professional sports is, okay, entertaining, but not necessarily entertainment. Hockey is not Celine in Vegas, or even the Beckhams in Hollywood: skinny, melodramatic and bland. It’s unpredictable. It goes where it wants, regardless, and the players—and the testocrats—are in charge. The story’s subtext belongs to them, the engine driving the story is theirs and fans will never really get it. And players don’t care if we don’t.

Sucker punch, retribution, skate blade as weapon: all outrageous, okay, duh. But it was lovely and more interesting last night to watch Captain Emo beat Martin Brodeur—twice.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

St. Trev in No Man's Land

Coach Vigneault won’t let Trev play. Trev who is skating like a happy stallion this year, who is often the only Canuck finishing checks and causing turnovers, who is bigger than 80% of the team, who was dangerous always versus Chicago the night I went, who looks unbelievable without a helmet in the warm-up skate, who resembles Christ—or a real human being—in the new pics from Children’s Hospital. I’m not saying he’s got what Selanne or Modano or Kariya still have—he’s not a miracle vet—but the games are no fun to watch without him.

I’m feeling shunned by the game and I’m so cranky I’ve gone back to the essays of Jean-Marie Brohm in Sport: A Prison of Measured Time, a dandy little anti-capitalist, anti-organized sport tirade from seventies post-Vietnam France.

Here’s a sip of its Red Bull elixir. According to Monsieur Brohm,

Sport is a concentrated form, an officially promoted microcosm, of all the ideological prejudices of bureaucratic, bourgeois society:

--the cult of the champion and star-system;
--the cult of promotion, social advancement, and the hierarchy;
--the myth of transcending one’s own limitations through effort;
--character building;
--sexual repression, the healthy life etc;
--the brotherhood of man, everyone united on the sports field;
--nationalism and chauvinism

Sport is also, for example, a type of opiate of the people and a means of militarizing and regimenting youth and repressing sexuality and reinforcing the commodity spectacle.

Trev, in other words, doesn’t have a chance in today’s NHL and neither do Canucks fans.

We’re told that our kids should play sports in order to build character, confidence, fitness. But studies—and Brohm—also suggest what every nine-year-old picked last for field hockey knows: sports can breed and reward aggression, selfishness, arbitrary hierarchies; it can destroy self-esteem and permanently injure pride and knees. The ideology of sports celebrates discipline, competition, self-abnegation and chauvinism. It is bureaucratic and hierarchical. Those don’t always help kids be kids or grow up to be kind, helpful, and healthy adults. Like Trev.

Superstitious or just faithful? Addicted or merely loyal? Obsessed or just really focussed? Sports fans are clever justifiers. Scoring is down in the league and so fans are upset because the game isn’t thrilling. Oh please. Scoring is down and fans are upset because every morning when they look at their fantasy pools and they’re still not winning their own little game, they think it’s the fault of players, or the neutral zone trap, or the schedule, or the refs. There is nothing aesthetically or psychologically bad about a 2-1 game, unless the guys who scored and assisted on the 3 goals are 4th liners and not in your pool, and you’ve got the goalie who coulda hadda shutout.
(Derek Roy, I beg you: Get. It. On.)

Lack of scoring will not kill hockey in Vancouver. Violence and headshots won’t. Never winning the Cup, no. In Vancouver, hockey will fizzle to its pre-Bert and Nazzie lukewarm insignificance if

a) zealots can’t see this many games because Pay Per View is the only way to get them and we refuse to give the greedy and infatuated cable companies any more of our paycheques and

b) gritty no-name call-ups become the face of the team and we have to watch Trev look spiffy but sad up in the press box.

Linden says he has faith that he can “make a difference” for the team by staying ready and being positive around the guys. It isn’t reasonable for fans to prefer the positionally sound Linden to the scrappy little terriers who have replaced him and who might Alpha-dog their way to the playoffs. The difference he makes is not reasonable, or statistical. It is sentimental. Of course, we can’t win if we give in to emotion. But some of us don’t want to win without it and we will, once again, turn away from the game.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

No Leafs, No Sens: Go Coastal

~TSN’s Darren “The Dregs” Dreger guesses out loud that Ryan Kesler is due to be traded to Philadelphia and pretends to be reporting an inside scoop, which makes me throw a pillow at the set and also sends my daughter to bed early from woe: “First Jovo, now him,” she says. Kesler is a Canucks-Hockey specialist—defensive, surly, big, mobile, Lindenian—and won’t be going anywhere so we can afford a slow-developing and intermittent Jeff Carter. Dregger also suggests that Alex Edler could sweeten the deal. Edler is now playing in every key situation—offensive, defensive, up one, down two, shutout (or three) to protect—and most nights looks like Nick Lidstrom as a much younger man. He’ll stay, too. But remember: All the TSN boys predicted at the start of the season that Vancouver would miss the playoffs and practically guffawed in glee at the possibility. This was before surly bright boy, Kevin Bieksa, had most of his leg cut off and Sami Salo got a full-metal face.

~Todd Bertuzzi returns to oppose for the first time as a Duck. He looks great during the press conference: slim, bright-eyed, mocking and yet semi-respectful. He gets some cheering from the few thousand who attend the warm-up at 6:30 and then gets nothing else from the fans. Game broadcaster TSN repeatedly reports that the fan response to him is lukewarm and muted, his return a non-event, and implies that Bertuzzi doesn’t interest fans here. I left GM Place the Sunday night before, after the game versus Chicago, and the young mouthy guys striding up Dunsmuir St. behind me were all, “Ya, I hope Bert scores a goal—I do—but I hope we score more” and “I totally wish him well.” The absence of booing or cheering or responding whenever Bert touched the puck was the highest form of flattery and respect from very smart and still wrecked Vancouver fans; it was the only way to show him the sort of deep and enduring feelings they have: we love you and so we’ll let you be.

~The morning after that game I attended versus Chicago, I caught a floatplane home from Vancouver harbour at 7:30 a.m. And there’s Brendan Morrison sipping a coffee, big legs stretched out, off to do some fishin’ before tomorrow’s game, and the sky’s not yet bright. Game-winning goal the night before, a cheery-faced and lisping coastal fun-lover the next morning.

~Versus Anaheim: Ryan Kesler chest-to-chest with Ryan Getzlaf: provoking, challenging, mocking. Kesler scored twice that night despite a rib-cracking post-goal crosscheck by Chris Pronger. My friend Hoggwild suggests that Colin Campbell is likewise afraid of Pronger’s wife.

~Coyote Jovo’s suspended a game for bonking Marian Gaborik on the head with only seconds to play. Is it possible this was a cross-fertilizing retaliation for Gaborik’s elbow to the head of Ryan Kesler, the game in which Mattias Ohlund was suspended four for a bone-breaking whack on Mikko Koivu’s ankle after the Finn’s elbow somehow found Ohlie’s noggin? Nope, but my daughter would like to think Jovo still has feelings for us all.

~The unbelievable Pinky and the Brain live and in person.

~Last night, I attended a local ECHL game and watched the Victoria Salmon Kings (and super-dancer Marty the Marmot) get down 4-1 in the first period versus the Phoenix Roadrunners and come back to win 5-4 in overtime after losing their starting goalie.

~All I want for Christmas: the Derek Sanderson nude which sold this week in Boston: http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/gallery/hockey_paintings?pg=5

Friday, November 2, 2007

Not a Winning Game

I’m delighted that Cold-cocked: On Hockey was named last week to the longlist of the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-fiction. It’s the award’s fourth year, given by the BC Achievement Foundation in recognition of worthy literary non-fiction nationwide. The value went up this year from 25k to 40k making it the most generous non-fiction prize in Canada. (That would buy a lot of deer fence, I’m just saying.)

For writers, it feels better to be on a list than off. And when you’re shunned by prize lists—my books, plenty of times—the typical response is both fight and flight: “Screw the bad jury, anti-creativity culture, youth-centric publishers, all the dirty capitalists,” and then in the resulting midnight bubblebath, “I’m a fat old ugly stupid loser.” So what I have to say is, of course, influenced by the intoxicating fumes of semi-formal recognition.

The fine 31-year-old writer, Stephen Marche, has recently criticized the state of CanLit, specifically the shortlist for the Giller Prize. In an urbane and punchy—and erratic—article in the Toronto Star, and today on CBC Radio’s hip afternoon show, Q, Marche suggests that the Giller list represents all that’s wrong with Canadian writing: the writers are too old, the lit too oatmealy, too reliant on a literary style he believes came into vogue in some bad past decade, too establishment. He wonders, Where on the list are the young edgy writers, the CanLit equivalent of those he saw in Brooklyn where he was working recently? We call it a novel, he says, because it’s supposed to be just that. And he was mean to John Metcalf and Martin Levin, assuming that these men are more problem than solution. (Seems an undeserving nest to shit it: Metcalf has long edited and consoled unconventional writers like me who seem to fit Marche’s preferred formula, and Levin is likely the reason Canada’s newspaper still has a Books section at all and gives writers something to do Saturday morning while scarfing the day’s first tea and apple fritter.)

What’s old? For Marche, 40 might be the cut-off, but then he says, really, it’s more to do with a writer’s sensibility and willingness to ride a skateboard to work. What’s good? Well, the good CanLit is that which is endorsed by Americans before being accepted here. In other words, the Yanks know their art, we don’t because we’re messed up still by pesky post-colonial blah blah. See, the writers of ours the Yanks love—Douglas Copeland, Sheila Heti, etc—haven’t made it to the Gillers. Marche’s logical fallacies are dizzying, his assumptions about excellence and hierarchies worrying, his essentializing and generalizing and prescribing seem cranky and old-fashioned. Cue the bubblebath.

The Giller shortlist may be tepid, and we can and should debate the relative merits of the books on it, but to discover all those boxes he wants to check, Marche need only have looked at the 15 titles on the Giller longlist: young writers and their first books; innovators in form, technique and plot; small presses taking chances (Oops, wait. He didn’t complain about the major publishers taking over the industry and foregoing creative risk-taking because their marketers are making editorial decisions. That was me. Marche is a Penguin man, lucky duck.)

The jury system is the democratic way to decide these things—and come on: it’s now the Scotiabank Giller Prize; it’s not all about art—and as with any other democratic dance, missteps happen. And as in any cultural or social endeavor when elders, based on their lifelong commitment to a mostly thankless pursuit, earn the honor and privilege of mentoring and adjudicating their peers, mistakes are made, or we think they are and then realize, twenty years later, that we didn’t understand as much as we thought we did. Any book reviewer (me, for example) knows how flittery aesthetic judgement can be. But we keep reading and judging because we believe the debate matters, that writers deserve our considered attention, our hardest thinking. Silly old fools.

I feel very lucky to be included on such a great longlist. Many worthy books are not on it (the bad part of longlists: more statistical reasons for self-doubt in those left off). The jury has selected 5 men and 5 women from diverse geographies; some small presses (Goose Lane, Biblioasis, Nightwood), some medium (Anansi, Thomas Allen) some big (Viking, M&S, Knopf); a couple of poets (Tim Bowling and Lorna Goodison) and a rock star (Naomi Klein); literary non-fiction has been allowed a wonderfully broad definition that includes history, biography, religion, memoir. And, yippee, sports.

After listening to Marche this afternoon, I looked at the many Governor General’s Award non-fiction lists over the years, and only three times, I think, has a sports book made that shortlist. Dave Bidini’s brilliant and beautiful Baseballissimo? Nope. In 1983, Ken Dryden’s The Game lost out to a biography of Lord Byng. Aside from really really wanting deer fence, I hope my book’s inclusion on the BC Award list will offer reassurance, consolation and maybe inspiration: keep at it long enough, write how and what thrills you, work so hard your brain smokes, and eventually you may be read a little by nice people, even if you’re a woman with bad knees in her fifties writing about hockey, sheep, Vancouver Island, and war, even if you wrote a book that the medium and large presses ignored, shunned, refused to risk.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Desperate

from InsideHockey.com

It usually happens to me early October, Hockey Night in Canada on the little television upstairs, Maple Leafs home to Tampa Bay maybe. Colour man Don Cherry pitches his first mega-snit of the year, tells the kids at home that hockey players should be manly warriors and not visor-wearing Franco-sissies, and my teenaged daughter leaves the room because I’m shouting and shaking so much she can’t enjoy Vincent Lecavalier’s post-goal hug with Martin St. Louis. This year, though, my first rage came late, and Dandy Don didn’t start it.

Another network—the usually relevant TSN—recently commissioned a poll to track Sidney Crosby’s relative celebrity status in Canada. He’s likely the best hockey player in the world, they figured, but does that make him a cultural icon? Quiet the irritated voice in your head shrieking why why why would anyone waste the time of 1000 (500 men, 500 women) busy folks. On a list of Can-stars of all ilk—actors, musicians, celebs—Sid finished #6, between Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado and a couple behind Wayne Gretzky. (Even though they didn’t ask anybody in Quebec—huh?—Celine Dion was still #1.) On its own, the poll seems a silly and undignified way to treat athletes, but not enough to make me shout and shake.

But then: “In a game dominated by male fans,” says the report’s voice-over, and my mad-o-meter starts to rise, “it’s no surprise that men appreciate Crosby’s play with the Pittsburgh Penguins.” Men, ya see, know what it takes to finesse circus-assists from your knees while demon d-men hack your Nova Scotian face with sharp sticks, or to use your impossible quadriceps to power through a surly Slovakian centre’s desperation backcheck. Because men get it. They know stuff. They dominate the game with their amazing hockey sense.

And women? They who make up close to half of ticket buyers, depending on where you find your stat? “Crosby’s popularity is surprisingly high among women.” Cue the cute blonde on the street: “He’s young, he’s hot, he’s got tons of money…” she says. And cue the pretty gossip girl-slash-cultural critic from Entertainment Television: “You know what?” she sporty-spouts, “Youth and wealth are powerful aphrodisiacs.”

Back to HNIC. The Canadian public broadcaster is doing fine work to respect female fans and to acknowledge that women watch the game, understand it, are passionate about NHL hockey and its players, and get it from the inside, too: women play. Cassie Campbell—of the gold-medal-winning 2002 Olympic team—interviews players rinkside and gets them to seem personable; between periods, we get on-ice lessons with a veteran player/coach drilling pre-teen co-ed players. The goalie usually has her hair ponytailed. For a league desperate to woo new fans and re-stoke its old ones, this approach to broadcasting seems not only sensible, but strategic. There’s plenty of game for everybody.

Do women enjoy the next-door handsomeness of hockey players? Do men see in Crosby the boy they couldn’t be or the son they never had? Of course, and vice versa. Fans choose athletes not only for talent and competitive star-power, for their ability to bring home the Cup. They also align themselves with character. In Vancouver, veteran Trevor Linden sets the standard for civic duty and humanitarianism, and men admire him as a gentleman and a saint who raises his game for the playoffs. He’s also the one guy women from 14 to 90 would marry in a minute, providing he quarterbacks the 5-on-3 kill, wins every draw from Joe Sakic, and doesn’t stiffen those curls with too much gel. Drafted into the city at 18, Linden has grown up in front of fans for almost two decades and has shown skill, grit and heart on the ice. His hand-eye may be on the downslide, but his appeal is still complex and important.

One day, Crosby’s appeal will be, too. In the meantime, those who profit from the game and its #1 draw are a little too desperate to assign legendary status to a kid so young his whiskers droop.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

New Game, Same Old

An interview I did a few weeks ago with www.thetyee.ca reveals the startling revelation that I did not pick Markus Naslund in my hockey pool this year and tells why. But so guilty and disloyal did I feel after that interview, I joined another pool and chose Naslund while others scoffed. I’m glad I did.

Last night versus Calgary Flame Mikka Kiprusoff, he picked up the puck in his own end, powered Swedishly—teamless and bleak like an Ingmar Bergman character—down the wing and wristed a quick, off-balance and screened shot between goalie and post. Jim Hughson—congenial, articulate and smooth Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play dude—has said Naslund-of-old could shoot into a teacup, but this retro-Nazzie goal drew only excuses and justifications: Kiprusoff, as they say in the latest and lamest of hockey cliches, “would like to have that one back”; it was a softy, a fluke. Seriously?

In overtime, a handful of seconds to go, Hughson was already mid-chewout—he believed that had Naslund not left the point to dig for a scrambled draw he would have been in position to grab it and shoot—when Naslund found the puck anyhoo, muscled around a defender, passed improbably to Mattias Ohlund who shot hard and clean high-slottishly. Daniel Sedin, as always, tucked the wee rebound across the line.

Fave moment of the game: third period and amazing hulk, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, chases down the puck in his own end thinking icing call; Naslund goes after him on the boards, believing no-call. Phaneuf is about 6’3” and 210 pounds. Naslund is 5’11” and 195 and 12 years older than the gifted 22-year-old. The whistle to signal icing comes late, just as Naslund bumps him as he should. And we catch young Phaneuf outraged and shouting at Naslund like a cranky kid up past his bedtime, “That was fucking late!” as Vancouver’s captain does his familiar fed-up and testy removal of mouth guard, reasons tilty-headed with the ref, and stutters off to the penalty box for so-called roughing.

So the Canucks win the game with seconds to go. Daniel: goal and assist. Naslund: same. Ohlund, too. Alex Burrows was a wizard on the penalty kill, five-on-three a couple of times. And who gets picked for the 3 stars (remember: a couple of nights ago analyst Kelly Hrudey referred to Calgary as “we”)? First: a Flame. Second: a Flame.

In the earlier televised game—Montreal and Toronto—what last year was the Mastercard 3-star selection is now sponsored by Steelback beer, which host Ron MacLean suggested should make sidekick Don Cherry happy. Steelback, we recall, acquired naming rights to the new home of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, and so what used to be the Sault Memorial Gardens became the Steelback Centre, yet another hockey arena named to erase the ghosts of veterans in favour of the false god of commerce. (Here in Victoria, the new arena for the Salmon Kings was to be called Save-On Foods Arena until veterans and their families lobbied to restore the Memorial from the original Memorial Arena.) Later, the Steelback beer commercial comes on: gorgeous blonde shimmies her estimable cleavage up to the bar, asks for her beer in a can, and then a double-entendred flirt about size ensues with the bartender. The punchline: “size matters.” Beer, blondes, boobs and boytalk: if this is the new NHL, axe the shootout and sign me up for the old game. Saturday night shouldn’t be so confusing, or so adolescent.

It was an evening of mixed messages. I love the new instructional breaks. Former players get host MacLean on the ice to run drills with a bunch of hotshot kids and they learn a new skill. Smart, clear, fun: hockey. But then, later in the broadcast, MacLean and Colin Campbell (Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL) and retired winger Scott Mellanby, sit suited and handsome in their sleek leather club chairs, and they watch a pornographically large flat screen play and replay and play again and again—slower this time—young (and now ultra-suspended) Steve Downie’s headshot on veteran Dean McAmmond. We watch them watch. We have all seen this hit many times. And Mellanby’s expertise is welcome, but the three men look at the screen and so do we, and none of us is given the option to look away. Over and over, Downie leaves his feet, launches himself to attack another man’s head, and we are expected to watch.

Once—the night it happened—was enough. Why must we see it so often and so slow? Cherry tells the kids it was a dirty hit and wags his don’t-do-it finger at his implied audience. But any kid still awake and paying attention can see that if you do that kind of thing, the world makes it look big and important, watches and seems to enjoy watching.

We’re told that over the summer, the League sent teams instructional DVDs in order to qualify and quantify the criteria by which to judge a shot to the head not only illegal but punishable by suspension. Players were warned; it didn’t sink in for Downie. Instead of watching MacLean watch the hit last night, I’d like to hear those criteria and hear the pundits apply them to certain hits that have stained my imagination. Kyle MacLaren’s playoff clothesline of Richard Zednik a few years back. Should Chris Pronger’s elbow to the same concussed head of Dean McAmmond in last year’s playoff have gotten more than that measly one-game suspension? Would the outcomes of Steve Moore’s unpenalized hit to the head of the reaching and vulnerable Markus Naslund—the concussion, the bone chips vacuumed from his elbow, the missing wrist shot, Moore’s own broken neck—been different had the League made Moore sit for a few games?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Big Bert in Britain

The Best American Sports Writing series collects some of the year’s finest North American writing about sports into one hugely entertaining and inspiring volume. I’m into 2006 and, as usual, some are profound—young and determined wrestling champ without arms and legs—and a few ultra-quirky—poaching bass on golf courses. But the writing is always good, the angles often unexpected. I remember a few years ago a piece that explored that form of extreme fighting boys did in backyards: if they fell, they fell onto nails poking up from the ring’s floor. “Sports” gets a wide definition in these anthologies, as it should. Editor Michael Lewis writes:

“At any given time, it seems, there are a surprising number of writers of serious literary ability who are out there beating the bushes and scaring up moving and delightful stories—even when higher literary culture has no particular interest in them. They are doing the important work of explaining us to ourselves. What’s reassuring about great sports writing is what’s reassuring about great sports performances: facing opposition, and often against the odds, someone, at last, did something right.”

Big Bert in Britain. It seemed like a wacky road movie—Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and Bob Hope do Piccadilly Circus—to see Brian Burke, Brad May, and Todd Bertuzzi in the NHL’s first game of the season on Saturday morning. Or maybe I’m thinking of that Monkees movie, Head. Much will be made, no doubt, of the crowd’s extreme pleasure when gloves were dropped and punches attempted. Yes, they stood and the cheering was hooligan loud, Parros on Thornton. But it seemed folks were simply trying to take part in the game according to a script. They boo-ed Chris Pronger, too, in what seemed a parody of North American fans.

Bert, though. He has slimmed and toned and healed. He looks less like a Hummer, now, and more like a stretch limo. His number has shed half its weight, too: he seems dignified and demure in the number 4, whereas he was arrogant and overloaded in 44. We’re told the Ducks want him to play a north-south game, as opposed to the east-west he perfected on the big line here with Naslund and Morrison. I’m worried. North-south is for young gods like Getzlaf and Perry, those with a good, strong compass and quadriceps the size of pumpkins. (Lest we forget what happened to another #4 who loved north-south so much his knees came apart like rotten jack-o-lanterns.) Bertuzzi appeared limber at last this weekend, but how many times can that new long and lean torso survive the physics of Willie Mitchell at the blue line?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sermon on Bear Mountain


Scoot down the list of Canadian hockey clich├ęs and you’ll get to “hockey is our religion,” a slick little sound bite masquerading as a truism. Since I haven’t been to church since they left me off the Sunday school picnic roster (St. Mary’s Anglican), it’ll do. But come on: different quality of worship, depth of contemplation, spiritual dimension. Plus, no need for shiny shoes.

Let’s get tautological and just make religion our religion. I did not get up, dress nice, and go to church this sunny Sunday morning. I got up, dressed warm, and watched Canucks prospects while Canada geese ripped up the nearby soccer pitch, silverhairs chortled over on the Par 3, and no one yet guzzled sports drinks seductively on the beach volleyball court.

Bear Mountain Arena didn’t smell of century-old Douglas fir floors and the choir’s crop-dusted Evening in Paris this morning. The French fries already promised transfat paradise and the thongsters c-phoning in front of me—Britney/Chelsea/Tiffany—wore such fragrant unguents in their hair I had to move seats or tempt migraine.

I didn’t sing high and warbly, but I did gasp and say “Holy shit” to no one when big Swedish-Iranian Daniel Rahini refused to back off his check.

I didn’t pray at all, but I did hope hard that our terrier du jour, Mason Raymond—who the Canucks vets good-dogged last week—continues to root out and chew up loose pucks. But even a terrier has to back check, right? And how many of these fast little buggers have we tried (Brandon Reid et al) only to watch them skate snout-first into Alpha-dog Chris Pronger’s big ugly knee?

Sunlight didn’t stream through stained glass and fall colourfully across the shoulders of a chosen one, but I must say defenceman Alex Edler—6’3” and 194 pounds—resembles the second coming of a skinnier Mattias Ohlund, or a taller Nick Lidstrom. Bless the Swedes for they will become us.

I did not worship, no. But I really liked Dan Gendur, Shaun Heshka and Taylor Ellington.

And, lo, I didn’t regret my trespasses or vow to improve myself, but I really wanted to explain the Protestant work ethic to Luc Bourdon—(as mediocre David Foster once said to under-achieving Michael Buble, “Good is the enemy of great, kid.”)—and also eyeball the stats he put up in last week’s fitness tests. He’s looking a little New Testament for my liking.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ufa, then Omsk



Gripe #465: Kenya Airways over-booked my daughter’s flight and made her spend another night in Nairobi. NOW where is she?

Gripe #466: A huge bloated grey squirrel is snatching plums off my tree, skittering along the veggie patch snake fence, up the arbutus, and then in through the attic window above my office.

Gripe #467: Read almost any book on hockey from the last 50 years, and you’ll be told that a) we all grew up wanting to play in the NHL; b) hockey matters because we’re a nation of ice-dwellers in a land of non-stop winter; c) Leafs and Habs matter most.

By 6 a.m. yesterday morning, I sat puffy-eyed on the couch with a pot of Murchie’s Library tea, multigrain (organic) toast heaped with blackberry jam (my berries), two dogs, two cats (zero daughters). Later, I’d mow lawns, harvest basil, hang wet towels on the line, but for a couple of hours while the sun got high, I was in Ufa, Russia with the boys and their Super Series.

Not a moment too soon. Sure: go Mariners! (someone please help Ichiro get underpants that fit). Sure: woo-hoo! to a Federer-Djokovic final (see p. 631 of Sept. Vogue Magazine). Sure: will Dave Dickenson ever get his brain back? But I can’t tell you how relieved, happy and calm I felt settling in to watch hockey yesterday morning. And listen: I didn’t dream of the NHL growing up in Vancouver; in Victoria, primroses bloom in February, Matt Pettinger trains on the beach, and the Courtnalls still hold court; here, we’re not that into Leafs, Habs, or Sens.

There’s little that’s more pleasurable, even at 6 a.m. at the end of summer, than panicking when a Canadian hockey team blows the first ten minutes of a game (or the first game of a tournament), then watching the coaches tinker with systems and combos, and the players adjust their hearts and minds to turn it around.

If yesterday’s kind of win is thanks to the backyard rink, then explain my pride when Milan Lucic was named captain of Team Canada, a boy whose Serbian parents met and married in Vancouver, who after years as a Vancouver Giants punisher will captain the Memorial Cup defenders next year.

Explain wee Kyle Turris, he who deked and kicked and head-faked his way through big-stage pressure to score on that penalty shot, who grew up near the Fraser River in temperate New Westminster, played for the Burnaby Express in the BCHL, Junior A Player of the Year, drafted 3rd overall by Wayne “Backyard” Gretzky.

Hockey doesn’t have to rely on the familiar patterns and standard storylines. It doesn’t belong to men, or easterners, or athletes, or North Americans. The game is big; we can share. Tomorrow morning, Omsk. But Sept. 9, they’ll be home to play in Vancouver.

Friday, August 17, 2007

After Toro


It gave us the world according to Toronto’s penis. It unforgivably Photoshopped Steve Nash’s acne scars. But each year Toro also gave us The Sports Issue. Now that it’s gassed, where to find magazine writers getting paid by the word to think hard and write smart about the cultures of sport?

Newspapers have stars and I admire them—Iain MacIntyre on hockey at the Vancouver Sun for his courage to take a metaphor and bend it like …um…okay, just bend it; Stephen Brunt on boxing at the Globe for knowledge that is wide and deep. But I want glossy paper, many words and a great photo. I want to make a fat mug of milky tea, wedge the good cushion at the small of my back, welcome the two dogs to lie at my feet, and know I’ve got a ways to go before I’m done reading. And I want to feel as much on that couch as I do watching the best minutes of sports (at midnight, Frank Dancevic’s first set versus Rafi’s left bicep).

See Adam Gopnick’s “Last of the Metrozoids” (originally in the New Yorker and collected in Through the Children’s Gate). Try not blubbering at the end. It’s a stunning pastiche of art history, pedagogy, and football that depicts the final year of art historian, Kirk Varnedoe. One minute he’s explaining Stella and Cezanne to SRO crowds in Washington, and the next he’s teaching the ol’ flea flicker to eight-year-old boys on a small field in New York after yet another round of chemotherapy.

Or Bruce Grierson’s profile of squash antihero, Jonathan Power—“Court Jester”—originally in Saturday Night and collected in Brunt’s The Way it Looks from Here.

John McPhee’s in his seventies now and gets to write about anything he wants—plate tectonics and contemporary rail transport, for example. His father was physician to U.S. Olympic teams for more than a decade and for forty years treated college athletes. Some of McPhee’s most wonderful writing is about athletes. The books A Sense of Where You Are—about Bill Bradley as a college basketball player—and Levels of the Game—a deconstruction of one of Arthur Ashe’s early matches—are classics. Read Dave Bidini’s The Best Game You Can Name and certain chapters of Brunt’s Searching for Bobby Orr, and witness the McPhee model celebrated and emulated to perfection.

In the August 6 issue of the New Yorker, McPhee writes about this year’s U.S. Open golf tourney in Oakmont, Pennsylvania and all the great McPhee moves are there. The present-tense description of icons with a weird verb and a suggestive comparison—“Woods stands motionless, feet together, his gaze levelled on the fairway, his posture as perpendicular as military attention.” The bit of personal history expressed in witty restrospect—“…aged twenty-four, clearly, if not for the first time, I envisioned golf as a psychological Sing Sing in which I was an inmate.” And the lovely bits of hand-polished research—“Oakmont greens are not covered with bent grass, as greens are on most Eastern courses. Oakmont uses a Poa annua of its own creation which bears few seeds and therefore results in what golfers describe as a ‘less pebbly’ surface.”

A couple of years ago, I griped to writer Arley McNeney about how hard it is to make sports writing as interesting and artful as a good short story or a perfect pop song. Arley was working on her first novel, Post, and still soured by only a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics playing for Canada’s wheelchair basketball squad. “Somebody wins, somebody loses. That’s sports,” she simplified. “How interesting can it be?” Her novel, of course, is about much more than that: the body and its betrayals; the heart’s great short stories and stupid pop songs; about New Westminster, spirituality, determination; the brain’s connection to a body with a mind of its own.

These elements—and the wisdom, patience and cash to explore them at some length—also make for great sports writing in magazines.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

In which Markus the Swede encounters Juan de Fuca the Greek and concerning Max the dog


When I moved to Metchosin on the southern tip of Vancouver Island fourteen years ago, we—there are five—were called the Western Communities. I like the sound of that: a hint of cowboys and agrarians, of gentler enterprise and neighbourliness. Enter big-box everything, then 1200-acre Westin Bear Mountain golf resort—“a true lifestyle experience”—and now we are called West Shore.

The shore belongs to Juan de Fuca Strait. From where I’m sitting—well, if I stand tall and the wind blows from the south—I can glimpse across the strait to where Raymond Carver wrote “Cathedral” late in life. Turn around and look past the trunk of the balsam that crushed my car in December (demon wind from the west), there’s where Emily Carr set up late in life to escape the city and paint forest. Metchosin is still pretty rural. For weeks I’ve been trying to outsmart a huge and clever white-tailed buck that sleeps on my septic field, rises to dismantle my gate, and clearcuts the romano bean plants. Bats hang in the attic above my office. Rats, mink, owls, turkey vultures.

Cold-cocked: On Hockey is mostly a meditation on the game and a recap of the Big Line seasons of the Vancouver Canucks. By writing it, I wanted to answer the hockey questions, “Why me, why now, why them?” and figure out why many were so drawn to the game again after the Salt Lake Olympics. In part, too, the book is about the difference between Vancouver, where I grew up, and Metchosin where I grow now. While I wanted to know why a man like Todd Bertuzzi could turn so violent and ruin the fun we were having, the book also says this is simply a violent world: from the cougar that killed my sheep, to the wind that wrecked my car, to citizens who deny the dignity of their neighbours. A violent and also beautiful world thanks to its violence.

For one season, I travelled a dozen times to games in Vancouver and weathered the undignified half-hour interview window the NHL allows media after practices and games. A few weeks from now, it was announced yesterday, many of those players will arrive on Vancouver Island’s West Shore, check into their swank suites at Langford’s Bear Mountain resort (thanks to former NHLer and now-CEO land developer/philanthropist, Len Barrie, and a bunch of co-investors including Rob Niedermayer and Ryan Smith), and then shuttle down to Colwood to Bear Mountain arena for training camp.

Cold-cocked is also about my right knee and how its rehabbing—and the muscley renaissance of my sporty self—became symbolic of the reasons I left and came back to hockey. My gym is at the Juan de Fuca Rec centre, a short hike up the hill from Bear Mountain Arena where the team will attempt to re-gel after last season’s surprising successes and chemistry.

I spent so much time and energy and brain cells trying to enter and understand their turf. It seems apt that just as Cold-cocked comes out, the lads will skate on mine.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

O Brothers


Pro basketball has point spread manipulation by a gambling referee. The highest-paid player in the NFL is implicated in a dog-fighting ring that reportedly executed passive pit bulls by hanging, drowning, shooting, slamming, and electrocuting. There’s the Tour de France and whatever those skinny dudes take to get so oxygenated. And the big batters of baseball: who’s born with a neck like that (besides pit bulls)?

Hockey scandal: a couple of naughty redheaded brothers—Eric and Jordan Staal—get busted for noisiness after a bachelor party at a swank resort in Minnesota. We’re not appalled. We feel for the nice parents (turf farmers). Male fans chortle, shake their summer-shaggy heads, and skyhook another t-bone onto the grill. Women just know bachelor parties are stupid, but still: their poor mother.

Brother stories tickle and delight us (maybe not Hamlet/The Lion King). In hockey, brothers make for great characters in a story that can be light on subplot. But real brothers don’t interest me. The Sedin twins are amazing, sure, and I’m glad they play on my team. But they’re more circus act than brother act. It’s shocking when a Henrik slap pass through the crease doesn’t find a millimeter of Daniel’s stick and scoot behind the whiplashed goalie. They lived inside the same person together for almost a year; of course they think alike. And the Staal brothers—all 4 of them—might as well be twins, given their hairdos and chin cleavage. Skill City, but Dullsville.

Players who develop bro-chem and rip it up a deux make for great stories in hockey. With Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, you get the brotherly hijinx, the circus, and also ironies and incongruities that make a better story: Vinnie’s the long lean slickster, the Swimsuit Edition hunk whom supermodels covet, the first overall. Marty’s the monster-thighed family man, the college boy who did gymnastics, the small forward no team would draft. On different lines, they seem distracted. Put them together on the power play and the dance gets smoother, fancier. Yes, they score plenty at key moments. But it’s more than that: the embrace when they do, the brotherly bliss, a bunk beds and GI Joe camaraderie that’s unexpected and familiar.

Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, same thing. Consider the NHL’s last TV ad campaign: Ontario Joe, the GQ-handsome needle-voiced city boy, burns toast in his little kitchen; Moose Factory’s black-eyed and smirking Jonathan paddles a surfboard on calm open water, a sexy nature boy in the great outdoors. They’re such different characters, and yet their rapport—their mutual ribbing off-ice and their Thornton-to-Cheechoo-shoot-score on it—could only be described as fraternal. The goals are the product of brotherly love and Sedinian prescience. How can that be?

It still hurts to remember the glory days of Bert and Nazzie. The dark-haired naughty outlaw Todd and the golden-haired Nordic god Markus: best friends, brilliant line mates, excitement personified on the ice and adolescent glee off it. And more compelling because these brothers were undone by a loyalty so scandalous and Shakespearean it could only happen to brothers.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

St. Trev in the Dolomites


Maybe training camp. Maybe pre-season. I was going to wait to start writing, but then shots of Trevor Linden snugged into spandex in Europe surfaced—shell-shocked, jubilant, shirtless by a cold river in Italy, dehydrated and schnitzelling in Germany.

When I finished writing Cold-cocked: On Hockey, I wondered if I’d ever be that hell-bent drawn to the game again. Would players still inspire, thrill, disgust, delight and bore me? I guess so, starting now.

Linden’s lately been the topic of fan snits and on-air sport-gripes. Canuck fans are choked with management for not re-signing St. Trev the minute he scraped off his (grey) playoff beard. Fan favourite. Heart and soul. Great playoff stats (for a team that couldn’t cut-and-paste a goal post-season). “Beg him to stay! Pay him double!”

Last week’s 2007 JEANTEX Bike Transalp was 725K through the German and Austrian Alps and Italian Dolomites in 8 stages. Vertical gain: 20,836M. The winners took 27 hours; Linden and his partner went 40 and finished a stunning 48th in the Masters category. His partner’s blog describes Linden’s harrowing cartoon careen—hey! no brakes!—down a perpendicular hill and it’s clear to me the team would be nuts to sign the naughty daredevil before he passes his next physical.

Also clear: Linden is not a guy who’ll be lost without hockey. Let’s see: relax—tanned, handsome, beery—in an icy river in Predazzo after an epic 12-hour bike ride, or get 20 minutes of penalty-kill ice time 5-on-3 playing against this year’s Edmonton Oilers for 8 hours?