Monday, November 26, 2007


Grey Cup 2007-Paint it Green

I will not bore you with the details of the Grey Cup game played in Toronto this past weekend. You are well aware that the Saskatchewan Roughriders defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers by a score of 23-19. You are also aware that the Blue Bombers were forced to rely on a rookie quarterback who was starting his first professional game. He kept them in the game until late in the fourth quarter when a young cornerback named James Johnson snuck in front of the Blue Bomber receiver to pick off his third pass of the day.

The entire central core of the city of Toronto was turned upside down with the festivities, and rightly so. All of the shades of blue that dominate the Toronto professional teams were turned to green and gold and blue. But mostly green. The Roughies brought the western spirit with them, and they do know how to party.

The CFL orchestrated the week magnificently, almost to perfection. Just before the opening kickoff, cheerleaders from all of the CFL teams flooded the field to do their thing. I counted 243 of them, thought carefully about it, and returned to my notes.

The Bare Naked Ladies opened the night by singing the National Anthem. They also performed at one of the pre-game parties which you could attend if you wished to fork out $ 295 in Canadian funds.

There were some mighty happy people in the Roughrider dressing room after the game, perhaps none more thrilled than General Manager Eric Tillman.

He beamed from ear to ear while the boys from the west enjoyed the early moments of their victory. He has been there before, having won the Cup with the Lions from British Columbia and the Argos. His first words? “I really want to savour this victory.”

The dressing rooms at the Rogers Centre are by no means enormous. When you pack in fifty football players, following a game, it tends to heat up. I will let you imagine the aroma all by yourself. Beads of sweat poured down Tillman’s cheeks. It didn’t bother him one little bit. During our chat, a young and happy player named Tristan Clovis approached Tillman. He gave Tillman an enormous hug.

They then spoke to each other, face to face. Clovis told Tillman that he wanted to thank him for giving him an opportunity to play for the Roughies. He thanked him for having the confidence in him. Tillman then spoke slowly and carefully to Clovis. “I want you to enjoy every minute of this. I want you to know that you will not forget this day for the rest of your life. You deserve this, and you should be very proud of yourself.” It was indeed a fine tribute to the young McMaster grad.

Tillman told me he was proud to share the victory with the fans from Saskatchewan. “There are generations of fans. Fathers bring their sons and daughters. Grandparents bring their grandchildren. Every game has a family atmosphere. They are great fans. The absolute best. This is an old fashioned team. This is like sunshine in the spring for the Rider fans.”

Eddie Davis had also won a Grey Cup with Calgary in 1998. “It’s great to win,” he told me. “Losing is sick. We kept believing in each other. We wanted to get the Cup back in Regina. I am going to enjoy this and then I am looking forward to spending time with my daughter and my family.”

He was exhausted as were competitors on both sides of the field.

Coach Berry of the Blue Bombers made no excuses. He praised the work of the defensive co-ordinator of the Roughriders, Richie Hall. “They played physically. They came hard at us. They created a lot of pressure. They knew they were dealing with a rookie quarterback. In fact, both defenses played really well.”

Down four points with a little more than a minute left in the game, the Bombers needed a yard for another first down. Ryan Dinwiddie called the play---a pass into the Rider secondary. That was James Johnson’s ball, and with his interception he earned Most Valuable Player honours.

Berry was justifiably proud of the effort of all of his players. He knows that his young quarterback will return, and will find success in the Canadian Football League.

In the end, however, Saskatchewan quarterback Kerry Joseph got the opportunity to sip champagne from the Cup. Although Joseph did not have his best game, it was adequate. From 1995 when he graduated from McNeese State, he has worn a lot of uniforms: Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, (as a safety), and the London Monarchs and the Rhein Fire of the NFL Europe League. The Roughriders picked him up as the first overall choice from the Ontario Roughriders when the franchise folded in Ottawa. A justifiable selection.

The Grey Cup game will take place in Montreal next year. There were suggestions that they may also hold the Vanier Cup in Montreal as well. Both championships were held in Toronto this year, with the University of Manitoba besting St. Mary’s in the Canadian Collegiate final.

The Grey Cup-a great game, a great weekend, a great Canadian tradition.

James Hurst--- November 26, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007


American Football Mecca

For the National Football League fan, there is one place that requires a visit once in a lifetime. It is Green Bay, Wisconsin, the home of the Packers. In that city you will also find Lambeau Field, and that is where the Packers play their home games.

Once you get within a hundred miles or so of the city of just over 100 000, you quickly realize you are in Packer Country. There are no other games in town, of much significance. There is a Junior hockey team in the USHL called the Green Bay Gamblers which plays out of Resch Arena, adjacent to Lambeau Field. There are the Badgers at the University of Wisconsin with teams participating in a wide variety of sports.

But the Packers make the whole thing go, and when it goes, it is a breathtaking experience. No matter what the team brings to the field, Lambeau Field will be filled to the brim, and they will be there to support the team wearing Green and Gold. This season, somewhat surprisingly, the team is in the very upper echelon of the NFL-only one loss in their first ten games.

Much of that is due to team play, offensively and defensively. But a significant amount of their success is due to the stellar play of their quarterback, Brett Favre. Supposedly in the twilight of his career, he has rekindled the fire that has driven him to become a future Hall of Fame inductee-first ballot, no question.

Number Four on your program is number one in the Packer fans’ hearts. Shirts with his name on the back outnumber all others by a ten-to-one margin. The parking lot at his restaurant is jammed with fans at the tailgate party a couple of hours before the game. There is at least an hour line up at his restaurant the night before the game. It is an almost frightening thought how the Packer faithful will cope when Brett decides it is time to go. He is now in his mid thirties, and the clock is ticking. But ever so slowly this year. There is a stand-in in the wings, but as long as Favre keeps playing the way he did against the Vikings, we will not see him start for some time.

The tailgate party has become a rich and necessary football tradition. There is an article in the Sunday, November 11th edition of the Green Bay Press-Gazette about a man named Jay DiEugenio. Not only does he tailgate every week, at a different stadium, he has also written a book about it. He sets up his grill with Bar B Cue ribs and Southwest grilled avocados and holds court before the game. He also has a nationally broadcast radio show called-you guessed it-“The Tailgate Guy”.

On his last visit to Green Bay, DiEugenio sampled the fare of local tailgater Steve Muck. Steve was serving up a Wisconsin hunter’s specialty-BBQ racoon. His recipe? “You got your onions, mushrooms, garlic, jerk seasoning…look through the cupboard, throw stuff in, and taste.”

The fare at Favre’s Party was a little tamer: burgers and brats, cole slaw and macaroni salad, and all the Bloody Marys and screwdrivers and beer you could drink for $25. At nine o’clock in the morning. After a relatively long night. This is indeed a hearty crew.

A local radio DJ was there to warm up the crowd. He played tunes from his favourite new CD. The best loved tune caught the attention of the entire crowd; a little ditty called “The Bears Still Suck”.

Only a few of the party goers dared to wear the purple and white Minnesota colours. Faces were painted, green and yellow everywhere. Mike Swick makes the trip faithfully with his friends from the band Harley Packers. Mike is a dead ringer for Vince Lombardi, the venerable Hall of Fame coach who won the first Super Bowls for the Pack. He spent the entire morning posing for photos

And yes, there was a football game. The Packers laid the worst beating the Vikings have ever suffered in Green Bay, 34-0. The faithful went home happy. Although not entirely satisfied. The fan sitting beside me wanted the offence to reach the 500 yard mark. In the dying moments of the game, they let the clock run out a few yards short of the mark. Yet another disappointment. I pointed to the scoreboard. He shrugged his shoulders.

Favre completed 35 passes in the game. He began slowly, and threw more than his share of errant passes in the first quarter—behind the receivers, in the dirt, out of reach. But he did settle down, and ended the game with more than 60 000 yards total thus far in his career. He is now only 20 000 yards short of the mark set by Damon Allen of the Argonauts. Ah, but that is another story, and another league, and another series of arguments.

We caught a break as far as the weather was concerned. The sun shone upon the Packer faithful most of the day. It reached the sixty degree mark, almost 14 here in Celsius. The benches throughout the stadium area test for tiny rumps; you would have though that they would have installed seating when they refurbished the place in 2001. I do not believe there were benches in the recently added luxury boxes.

The cheapest ticket in the house is $59, but scalpers were asking $ 300 for the same ticket at the gate. There are a couple of web sites attainable through the Packers’ NFL site which explain a method for procuring tickets. Good luck.

With a little less than half a season remaining, the Packers will be tough. But they do play home games at Lambeau Field, with Brett at the helm. And it is getting colder, much to their advantage. Not exactly frozen tundra, but not too hospitable.

November 15, 2007

Friday, November 09, 2007


Michael Neal-Learning the Ropes

Michael Neal has learned a valuable and very necessary lesson this year as a member of the Belleville Bulls-patience. But not something he really wanted to learn.

Entering his third year as a Bull, he spent the summer preparing for the season. He ran, he lifted weights, he skated, he worked out. He established himself as a ferocious hitter last year, and wanted to continue to assert himself physically this season.

At one point in the summer, he spent a week in Dallas at their conditioning camp. “It was first class,” he told me in a recent interview. Not too strenuous.”

He worked under the watchful eye of Coach Dave Tippett and GM Doug Armstrong. Brett Hull also wandered in and out of the facility. Two current Stars, Brendan Morrow and Trevor Daley also worked out there.

As a Dallas draft pick, Michael knows that their eyes are upon him. All draftees realize the importance of showing their best. After all, they are not under contract until they sign on the dotted line. But they cannot align themselves nor affiliate with any other NHL team. Michael Neal is in the Dallas camp, as is his older brother James.

All players that are under the Dallas umbrella went to Frisco, Texas, just outside Dallas, for further evaluation. The rink there is occupied during the season by a Junior “A” franchise. Attached to the facility is a full-sized indoor football stadium. Players were put through their paces on the field. “We had to run in competitions.”

When asked how well he fared, he begrudgingly admitted, “Well, I never like to admit it, but my brother beat me. He is, after all, two years older than I am. But I will keep working at it. There will come a day when I will catch him.”

Michael Neal does not consider himself to be a well-rounded athlete. “I began playing hockey at an early age. I joined the “AAA” program in Whitby at the lowest level. My Dad was the coach. From that time on, I played “AAA” hockey every year. I didn’t really have a lot of time for other sports. A towering six feet, four or five, he was never attracted to basketball. “Not my game,” he admitted.

He shared the transportation routes with his three brothers who all are involved in hockey at higher levels. James is currently with the Stars’ American League affiliate in Iowa. His younger brother Peter was drafted by the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in the 12th round.

Michael’s father is also involved as a part owner with the Bowmanville Eagles of the Ontario Provincial “A” League. Michael vividly recalled the game seven against the Wellington Dukes in the 2003 playoffs when the Eagles won in the DukeDome. “I screamed so loudly I couldn’t even talk the next day.” I told him I wasn’t interested. (As the vice-president of the Dukes, and the announcer at that game, I still feel the pain.)

Near the end of the summer, at the Bulls’ pre-season training camp, he tweaked his knee in a rather innocuous contact. The training staff, the coaching staff, and Michael himself exercised caution.

He then headed to Traverse City south of the border to the NHL prospects camp. Hundreds of would-be professional hockey players, amassed at one location, under the watchful eyes of scouts and executives.

He roomed with John Lammers who is currently with the Dallas minor league team in Idaho, the Steelheads. Other Dallas prospects from the minor leagues and draftees played together.

As can be expected in this situation, Neal felt the pressure to do his best. “I knew I had to impress them. I did tell them before I got to the camp that I had hurt my knee. An orthopaedic surgeon from one of the NHL teams had a look at it and suggested that I ice it, but that I could play easily on it.

I put on my gear. I skated, slowly at first. I found that the more I skated, the worse it felt. I thought I could get through it. But once I started doing crossovers and quick turns, it was really painful. I knew I didn’t look my best.

I iced it three or four times a day. It started to feel better and the swelling eased. I so much wanted to show them what I could do. And even near the last day, it didn’t feel too bad.”

But once he returned to Belleville, he knew something was seriously wrong. There was only one decision to make. He went “under the knife”. He had serious knee surgery. His season was done. For an eighteen year old on the cusp of an exciting career, truly heartbreaking.

Michael is fighting back. He works every day on his upper body strength, critical for young bucks trying to make the grade at NHL camps. He has begun exercising his legs on the bike. It will be some time before he can get back on the blades. But he is determined, and he is receiving excellent care.

He would like to follow in the footsteps of his favourite NHL players-the Primeau brothers, and Adam Foote , the Whitby graduate who has excelled in the NHL. “He has taught me to train like a pro. I have learned what it takes from him.”

There will come a day when we will see Michael Neal back on the ice with the Belleville Bulls. It will bring a smile to the lips of the coaching staff. But it will also widen the eyes of his opponents as they cruise through centre looking for errant passes. The message will be clear. Though unspoken, it will say, “I’m back”.

It will be followed by a tremendous crunching sound. None too soon for Michael Neal.

James Hurst
November 9, 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007


The Blues from St. Louis

Whenever you run into a team with a hot goaltender, you always have mixed feelings. You know you need to bury your chances whenever they arise, but you also have doubts that you will be able to sneak one by him (or her, as the case may be!).

Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets is not simply hot. He is sizzling. He has five shutouts in his first nine games, his Goals Against Average is a miniscule 1.12, and his save percentage is .957. If he keeps it up, he will be in the Hall of Fame before his thirtieth birthday! As long as they use the trap!

Last Sunday night, the St. Louis Blues were his latest victims. He stoned them 3-0.

The Blues are brimming with confidence this year. For the first time in a while, they are gunning for a playoff berth; once the post season games begin, anything can happen. They have two brilliant rookies in Johnson and Perron. They are getting good goaltending. They are strong on defence.

Above all, they locked up one of the premier playmakers in the game today during contract negotiations last summer. His name is Paul Kariya, and he is currently playing on a line with veteran Keith Tkachuk, and a well-travelled youngster named Brad Boyes.

That would be the same Brad Boyes that the Leafs drafted in the first round a few years ago. He was then dealt to Boston, then to San Jose. He landed in St. Louis at the trade deadline last season. Naturally, he has had a few stops in minor league cities along the way.

When he first stepped on the ice at the Scottrade Centre in St. Louis, he would have noticed the retired sweater numbers adorning the rafters: Bob Gassof, Al MacInnis, Barclay Plager and his brother Bob, Brian Sutter, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Doug Wickenheiser, and one for announcer Dan Kelly.

More than 16 000 fans brought their energy to the rink a couple of weeks ago, and Boyes rose to the occasion. He added his eighth and ninth goals of the season in the Blues’ victory over the Washington Capitals. (Yes, the same Capitals who flew to Toronto after the game and laid a 7-1 pasting on the Leafs.)

Boyes is currently in fine company in the scoring race. His fellow scoring leaders include the amazing Zetterberg from the Wings, Cammelleri from the Kings, and a few other household names: Iginla, Kovalchuk, Nash, Ovechkin, the Hurricanes’ Staal, and Daniel Alfredsson.

After the game, he summed up the team’s efforts; “We need these points. Fortunately, we got some timely goals.” He also appreciated the crowd’s participation. “We should play all our games at home. It helps a lot.”

On a personal note, he is thrilled to play with Tkachuk and Kariya. When I asked him about that opportunity, he smiled at me and added “Who wouldn’t? I can hide in the weeds a little bit while we are on the ice. Then when I get a chance, I can use a screen to take a shot.”

After 12 games, Boyes had scored on 33% of his chances, more than twice the average.

Boyes also has uncovered a well-kept secret about St. Louis. There is a box in the rafters reserved for retired players. Bob Plager, Bernie Federko, Bruce Affleck and the like wander in and out of the suite during the game. In fact there are about forty retired players who have stayed in St. Louis. He told the Canadian Press; “I really do enjoy it here. Just right away when I got here last year, Andy Murray gave me that confidence. It’s been great. It’s all about getting the chance.”

True to some extent, but one still has to bury those chances.

Blues president John Davidson told me he is pleased with the Blues thus far this year. With regard to Boyes, he added: “There is that little bit of chemistry between Boyes and Kariya that you look for.”

The organization hopes that it has the ingredients for success. There have been experiments over the years---even involving the Great One and Brett Hull. To no avail. The Blues have yet to raise Lord Stanley’s mug, and there are a few faithful fans who would like to see that happen this year.

The season has just begun. The signs are good. A trip to the playoffs would be an important first step. From 1979 to 2005, the Blues played in the post season. The past two seasons, they have been shut out.

A victory parade under the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Arch would be a welcome sight in the Gateway to the West.

James Hurst

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