Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Olympic Wrap Up 2008
They have extinguished the torch for another couple of years, until they climb the mountains in British Columbia for the Winter Games in 2010.
Undeniably, the Beijing Games were most successful. The Chinese government wanted to show the rest of the world that the country has finally “come of age”, and they spent forty billion dollars to make the point. Granted, there was some controversy about human rights, and certain freedoms that we expect in the West. For the most part, our eyes were opened to a new China. We had better be prepared to compete. Athletically, she let the rest of the world know that she was more than ready to show her stuff; on the fields, in the pool, on the ranges---anywhere there was competition, they were ready.
Never in previous Games have the Chinese excelled the way they did in Beijing. Good for them.
I am certain there are great sighs of relief from the Chinese now that the rest of the world has returned home. The potential for catastrophe was always there during the past two weeks. The Olympic Games have always been very visible, and have been used by terrorists, by radical nationalists, and by almost every other group to get a message out to the world. There is no doubt that a fair amount of the $ 40 billion was spent on security, keeping a lid on potential disaster.
Two athletes captured the attention of the world like no other: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps from the United States. Phelps won eight gold medals in the pool, more than any other in the history of the Olympics. Most were individual, some with relay teams.
Bolt earned the title as “The World’s Fastest Person” by winning the hundred and two hundred metre races, in record time. He also anchored his team to a gold medal in the relay. He is the first to win the 100 metre gold medal wearing the Jamaican colours, although a few others, including Canada’s Donovan Bailey, have won gold for their adoptive lands.
The Canadian contingent returned home with eighteen medals, surpassing the expected total of twelve. For those of us in the Quinte area, we had our proudest moment when Brian Price, an Ameliasburgh resident, coxed the Canadian eight team to gold on the water.
I received a note from Brian this morning. “We had a great race for Canada and really got that medal count kick started…it was a great Olympics as a whole and I was proud to be part of it!”
Ron McLean hosted the Games for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Beijing. He was refreshingly brilliant. He has a relaxed, yet inquisitive candour. He reported that the entire congregation at the Salvation Army Citadel in Belleville rose in unison to cheer when it was announced that Price, a member of the congregation, had finally won Gold at the Olympics.
Price was thwarted in his efforts to win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. His team finished a disappointing fifth, even though they were touted to win the gold. They went to the Chinese Games expecting nothing less than the championship. They succeeded triumphantly, with Price displaying his exuberance metres before the finish line. He is the first Olympian from the Quinte area to win a medal of any colour at the Games.
The President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge from France was elated with the games. “These were truly exceptional games. Through these games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world. The games were a grand celebration of sport, of peace, and friendship”.
And now the ball has been placed in London’s court, for the 2012 games will be held in Great Britain. The Chinese event will be a tough act to follow.
For the sake of argument, I have a few suggestions to improve the games. There are far too many events, some unnecessary, others totally bizarre.
BMX bike racing does not belong. All judged events should be eliminated. Get rid of equestrian events. Most team sports have their own world championships: leave it at that. Out with soccer, tennis, baseball, basketball, (truly a joke), most others.
No flag raising, no anthems, no team medal count. Games for athletes to show who can demonstrate strength, speed, athletic ability.
The Games will be shorter, less expensive, much quieter. But they will be competitive, without political interference.
And the possibility of that? Right up there with refrigerator sales on Baffin Island!
And now it is time to refocus our sports eyes on the Blue Jays, the Canadian Football League, the National Football League, and yes, hockey is just around the corner.
They are already filling the seats at the Duke Dome. Lots of exhibition play-regular season only a couple of weeks away.
Keep your stick on the ice.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Brewers, Packers, Badgers!
Once you have made the sweep around Lake Michigan, crept through the Chicago traffic to the Wisconsin border, you quickly realize that you have entered another sports zone.
Recently, there was a joyful double header for most Wisconsin fans. The Brewers played in the afternoon, and won. The Packers played an exhibition game in the evening on Monday Night Football, and survived their first game without Brett Favre.
The Wisconsin Badgers, the local university’s Division One sports organization, are gearing up for play this fall against other top-ranked American schools. This is big time stuff in those parts. Consider this: the football and basketball coaches made well over a million bucks each last year in salary and outside income, according to a report in the Tuesday, August 12, 2008 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Most minor league and college coaches I know north of the border would settle for the interest on those amounts.
David Thomas Bush began his major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004. He also pitched for the Jays in 2005, and had a combined record of ten wins, fifteen losses. His earned run average was over the 4.00 mark.
The Jays had just lost Carlos Delgado. They needed a strong stick at first base. They worked out a deal with the Brewers which saw Lyle Overbay go to the Jays, and Bush to the Brewers. Overbay was most popular in Milwaukee, and the fans hated to see him go. Other players were involved, but have since proven inconsequential in the trade.
Bush has pitched adequately for the Brewers, supplying plenty of innings, but has lost as many games as he has won for the Brew Crew. He is important to his team at this time, as they are battling for a division title with the Cubs. They currently lead the Wild Card race in the National League. The other main starters for the Brewers---Sabathia, Sheets, and Parra will likely provide enough arm strength for the Brewers to play in the post season.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Bush racked up his seventh victory this season. In his two previous years in Milwaukee, he won twelve games. His victory was important for a couple of reasons. It allowed the Brewers to sweep the lowly Washington Nationals. Lowly yes, but not completely. Manager Ned Yost snapped at one scribe who intimated that the series should have been a cakewalk. “The Nationals are a very good team. They won their last seven games before coming here. We took nothing for granted”.
The Brewers were also headed west to San Diego on a six game road trip following the game against the Nationals. A trip like that is always a little more pleasant with a few wins in their pockets.
Bush had only one minor situation in the fifth inning when the Nationals loaded the bases with none out. Willie Harris hit a nubber in front of the plate which catcher Jason Kendall pounced on to force the runner at the plate. Bush then struck out Pete Orr, and induced Ryan Zimmerman to ground out to second. Final score? Seven to one Brewers.
I ran into Gord Ash, former Torontonian and Blue Jay who is now the congenial Vice President and Assistant GM of the Brewers in the spacious hallways at Miller Park. Ash is now in his sixth season with the Brewers. When I told him I was from the Belleville area, he reflected for a moment and added: “Ah yes. The Thousand Island area.” Not quite, but close. He’s a Queen’s grad as well, which is not all bad.
The Packers new starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, rose above the throng to lead the Wisconsin eleven through four series of downs in Green Bay. He got the job done with little fanfare, under immense pressure. It will take some time for the Packer faithful to accept the fact the Favre has gone.
The situation had become impossible for management, and football fans wish Brett well in New York. But it is pre season, after all, and when the wins and losses are tabulated at the end of the regular season, these games mean nothing. Except that the page has been turned, that there is no Number Four on the field in Green Bay, and that it is time to move on.
Geographically, Milwaukee is closer to Chicago than to Green Bay. You would be hard-pressed to find many Bears fans in the town. Years ago, the Packers decided to play three home games in Milwaukee, and continued to do so until ten years ago; many of those ticket holders from County Stadium had their ticket rights transferred to Lambeau. And their hearts lie there as well.
There you have it. A glimpse of the sporting life in Wisconsin. Put your cheese head on, Myrtle, it’s game time!
Saturday, August 09, 2008
We Want Ray! We Want Ray!
The village of Stirling, Ontario, is one of those small Canadian communities with a big heart.
It also boasts three National Hockey League players: Rob Ray, Matt Cooke, Eric Manlow, and an NHL executive-Mark Dobson, the Director of Player Personnel for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Most hockey pundits would agree that it was Ray who put Stirling on the hockey map.
In order to better understand the trials and tribulations that Ray faced on and off the ice, you need to get a copy of his book: Razor’s Edge-Rob Ray’s Tough Life on the Ice.
A sports writer for the Buffalo Evening News, Budd Bailey, was there when Ray was first drafted by the Sabres in 1988. For years he accumulated a stack of notes with more than enough material to put together a snapshot of Robbie’s life. He wrote about the Sabres for years, and followed the fourteen years that Ray played.
Ray’s good friend Matthew Barnaby wrote the forward for the book. He mentions two important aspects of Ray’s character in the forward. “Rob is a very guarded person. Until you get to know him, you don’t really appreciate him.” (There are more than a few enforcers in the NHL who did get to know Ray well on the ice, and never appreciated him!)
The second aspect to Ray’s character that Barnaby mentions pertains to his community spirit; “Rob is very good at letting good people into his life. Once that happens, though, Rob will do anything for anyone.”
In a previous life, I taught school-primarily in Belleville. I often invited local sports celebrities into my classroom to talk to the students. It was truly a highlight for the kids. Mike Schad from the Philadelphia Eagles, Rick Meagher from the Blues, Darren McCarty from the Red Wings, and Rob Ray came to speak to the students.
Each in his own way was entertaining. But Ray, with a smile and a smirk used to drive me to distraction. The kids knew that Robbie was an enforcer in the NHL. So they would zero in on that area in their questions: “What is your best technique for dropping an opponent?” they would ask. Robbie would reply: “Do you want me to show you?”
With that, some smart-mouthed kid would stroll to the front of the room begging for trouble. In a wink, Robbie had the kid neatly tucked away in a headlock. At the back of the room, I wrung my hands, wiped the sweat from my brow, and prayed I wouldn’t hear from the kid’s lawyer. (Never did!) The girls were more interested in his Dodge Stealth. Such is life.
In a conversation with Budd Bailey, I learned why Ray became so popular in Buffalo. “He was the blue collar worker in a blue collar town. He always gave one hundred percent when he was on the ice. For many athletes, there is a disconnection from the fans, primarily because of the money the athletes receive. Not with Ray. He stayed a fan favourite until the day he was traded to the Senators.”
Robbie attended several book signings in the Buffalo area when the book was first released. Bailey was always amazed at Ray’s interaction with his fans. People lined up at 3:30pm for a six o’clock signing. There were 4000 books sold in the first three weeks, gaining a spot on the New York Times Best seller list!
Rob Ray played exactly nine hundred games in the NHL, all but eleven with the Sabres. His point totals? Forty-one goals, fifty assists. Penalty minutes? Three thousand, two hundred and seven, with another hundred and sixty-nine in the playoffs.
To say that Robbie is fairly busy in his retirement from the NHL would be a gross understatement. He maintains his link with the league and the players as a colour commentator with the Sabres. He is involved with the NHL Alumni, a fine organization that supports former players who failed to make a good transition to civilian life after the game. He has a construction business, and an Auto Repair Shop. And a wife Juliean, and a daughter Jordan. Busy? “Always”, he told me.
He recently was chosen as one of two Sabres to endorse a Signature Wine Series from California. Pat LaFontaine was also chosen to represent Buffalo. The sale from the Rob Ray wines goes directly to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. Other retired players chosen to represent their teams? Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay from the Wings, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita from the Hawks, Mike Richter and Rod Gilbert from the Rangers, Bobby Clarke and Dave Schultz from the Flyers. Pretty good company for Stirling’s “Razor”.
Ray was always involved with the Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, and with the help of a couple of teammates, he would quietly deliver Christmas packages to forty or fifty needy families in Buffalo.
In 1999, he was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions to the community-a fitting tribute.
The West Wings Book Store on the Main Street in Stirling has a good supply of “Rayzor’s Edge”. Some time during the celebrations next week in Stirling, Robbie will be on hand to sign those books. With a smile, and a right hook. Keep your guard up!