Saturday, February 26, 2011


Life's Mysteries from the Twilight Zone

The Minnesota Twins Spring Training Complex is located in the heart of Fort Myers. There are several baseball fields, a main stadium, and other locations for players to ply the trade. You enter the ball park off Six Mile Cypress Expressway, and you can park at any of the crossroads, named after Twins’ great players: Carew, Allison, Perry, and Blyleven, to name a few. (Bert Blyleven is one of this year’s inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

I watched talented outfielder Michael Cuddyer stroking balls in a batting cage under the grandstand of Hammond Stadium. Although only the pitchers and catchers are required to report first to spring training facilities, other players come to get an early jump on the season. One of the coaches lobbed balls underhanded to Cuddyer, who was trying to tweak his stroke.

On one of the practice fields, the coaches had positioned the gun at home plate to work with the catchers. Balls were rocketed into the heavens, much like the recent launch. (That’s a bit much! Sorry about that!) Catchers lined up for their turn to catch these artificial foul popups. Years ago, these were done with fungo bats. Nowadays, such a beast is not in evidence anywhere.

Manager Ron Gardenhire supervised this activity. One by one, the catchers were required to work the drill: remove the mask, fire it out of harm’s way, shield the sun with the glove, circle under the ball, and catch it. A five step exercise. Several got to number four, and dropped the ball, especially if it landed next to the screen. Rookies and veterans alike participated in the exercise: # 27 Steve Holm, # 32 Rene Rivera, # 79 Danny Rams, # 80 Jair Fernandez, # 81 Danny Lehman, # 82 Chris Herrman, and # 7 Joe Mauer. Rookies usually get the higher numbers. Mauer can wear Mickey Mantle’s number because he is an exceptional player, and he has 23 million reasons to acknowledge that fact in his bank account this year.

Gardenhire barked words of encouragement at his catchers. From behind the screen a fan shouted: “Show them how it’s done, Ron!” Gardenhire replied: “No way. It would probably hit me on the head.”

Fans line a gauntlet, perhaps ten feet wide, to seek autographs from players and coaches. One coach signed for a few people, and I enquired as to who he might be. I was told his name was Phil Roof, which I recognized. I wrote his name on my pad. A minute or two passed, and I decided, for all the time it takes, to get his autograph. I passed him my book, and a pen.

He said: “I’ve already signed this,” and returned the book to me. Stunned, I replied, “No, I wrote your name there in my book.” He looked at it carefully, then stated; “I can’t believe it. Pretty darn close.” He signed his name below. It was in fact, spooky close. He moved on, shaking his head.

Roof spent fifteen years in the Major Leagues, primarily as a catcher. He finished his career with the Blue Jays, after stints with the Milwaukee Braves, California, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota, and the Chicago White Sox.

Mauer and the rest of the backstops also ran the gauntlet, signing here and there for young and old---baseball fans gearing up for another summer to enjoy the “great game of baseball”.

James Hurst
February 26, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Take me out to the Hockey Game, Please

At the game: (Left to right) Joanne Hurst, Rhonda Ulrich, Doug Ulrich

Forty years ago, I climbed a tower to the top of Big Walker Mountain. They said that you could see five states from that viewpoint. Since then, they have pared that number down to three. Thus I was able to see North Carolina, and West Virginia, and I was standing in the state of Virginia.

Lynchburg, Virginia, lies just off Interstate # 81 in the eastern confines of the state. A wonderful, friendly place with streets lined with honeysuckle. On any Saturday afternoon, from April to October, you will have to get in line for great ice cream at “Mister Goodies”. You will be met by Rhonda or Doug Ulrich, and they will take good care of you. Up until last Friday night, neither had ever been to a hockey game. And thus began their excellent adventure.

The Florida Everblades of the East Coast League stood eight points ahead of the Gwinnett Gladiators (from Georgia) who were coming to the Germain Arena for a double header on Friday and Saturday nights. Both teams are in the same division of the eastern conference; therefore, these games would be considered to be “four pointers”.

As an aside, may I point out the enormity of the league. There is a Western Conference in the East Coast League. (Somewhat like having the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Eastern Conference of the CFL!) A few of the teams in the west are: Alaska, Victoria, Bakersfield, and Las Vegas.

The arena holds almost 8, 000 fans, and there was a decent crowd on hand. We rose for the anthem played by a local elementary school band, in fine stirring American fashion. The Ulriches were ready for hockey. Naturally, they had a few questions about the game. But after an explanation or two about offsides, and icing calls, they became immersed in the game.

I think we did a decent job selling the product. They shared the experience with everyone at poolside the next day.

Unfortunately, it was not such a great experience for Edward Pasquale, former Wellington Duke. As I am sure you will recall, Edward tended the twine for the Dukes before he got the call to play for the Belleville Bulls. He was later traded to the Saginaw Spirit, where he finished his OHL career. He began this season with the Chicago Wolves, and recently joined the Gladiators to get more time in game situations.

I spoke with Edward after the game, in the company of his parents Jane and Richard. They made me swear that I would pass on their best to all of the Van Vlacks. They were well aware that most of the family now lived on the same street. What they did not know was that Coach Abrams and his family also resided there, just to keep everyone onside, in a hockey sense. He is there to settle road hockey disputes. Edward rolled his eyes at that piece of information.

Another player stopped me in the dressing room and stated, quite firmly: “I also played for the Dukes!” It was Sam Roberts, captain of the Galdiators. I asked him where he had stayed in Welly. He asked me if I knew “Ma” Lloyd. Roberts attended university in the maritimes before continuing his hockey career.

The Everblades prevailed in both of the weekend games. There was a lot of hooting and shouting with each goal, as the fans won chicken wings, or pizza, or something or other with each Blades counter. No mistake about it, the fans are supportive. They chant the chants, they wear the team sweaters, they boo the officials when necessary. They are hockey fans, even though they leave the rink in shorts and sandals.

I presented Rhonda with a puck at the end of the game. No one dropped the gloves the entire game, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Rhonda was looking for a little rough stuff, and she enjoyed the play of # 47 from the Gladiators. Danick Paquette is from Montreal, and played for Quebec in the CHL last year. He has a rambunctious style, and leads his team with 147 minutes in penalties.

Rhonda had thoroughly enjoyed her first hockey experience, an adventure she recommends to anyone.
February 20, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Fighting in Hockey? It Happens.

Three recent National Hockey League games have sparked the fires of controversy yet again concerning the violence of the game. In one match, goaltenders for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders entered the fray. With one swift and mighty punch, the Penguins’ goalie Brent Johnson decked the Islanders’ Rick Di Pietro. Unfortunately, the Islanders’ tender was injured with the punch, and will be out of commission for several weeks.

In a return match, one Pittsburgh player, Eric Godard jumped off his bench to come to the aid of his goaltender, Johnson, who was challenged to combat by a skater from the Islanders. That is against the code of the NHL. I cannot think of a coach who would not approve Godard’s action. Godard received a ten game suspension for his action.

In another nasty tilt, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins renewed rivalries that have lasted for decades for these “Original Six” teams. There were words; there were skirmishes; there were line brawls that resulted in more penalties than could be accounted for with two Crayola crayons.

In actuality, more minutes in penalties were incurred in those games than have been recorded for three games in more than ten years. Those of you with short memories, or with little experience, might have been amazed at the battles. We older observers are not shocked. I referred to the tilts as “line brawls”. Serious hockey fights involved “bench brawls”.

In both instances, referees and linesmen have their hands full. They try to record the numbers of the culprits as the battles ensue. They try to separate the battlers, and send them to designated locations: penalty boxes, benches, dressing rooms. They try to restore order. Not always an easy task.

The Canadiens were seriously undermanned for their game against the “Big Bad Bruins”. They did not ice their toughest squad, and they paid for it. Former player, general manager, and commentator Dave Maloney summed up the Canadiens’ game preparation thusly: “The Canadiens brought slingshots to a gun fight!” That will not likely happen again this year. Every team in the NHL has enforcers in the minors. Rest assured that the Habs will make a few calls before they again face the Bruins.
There are reasons why these situations develop. One is history. Hockey players have pretty good memories. Coaches warn their players not to retaliate, especially in playoff games. Nowadays, teams have such awesome power plays that opponents cannot afford to play short-handed for any length of time. So, when speared, or slashed, or cross-checked, or maligned in some way, most of the time, players take numbers. It’s as if to say to an opponent, “Thank you for that. I will see you again. My coach has me handcuffed at the present moment. But there will a time. By the way, keep your head up.”

Gordie Howe one pummeled an opponent into submission after a brief encounter on the ice. When asked about it after the game, he simply told the reporters: “Payback.”

“Payback? Payback for what?” they asked. Gordie replied, “That guy speared me.”

No one had noticed any contact whatsoever in the game. They asked again. Gordie told them. “Payback for when he speared me SEVEN YEARS AGO!”


Reason number two: Equipment. This includes sticks.

Hockey sticks have been classified as weapons outside the confines of an arena. One cannot use a hockey stick to settle an argument legally on Fifth Avenue. During a game, however, players are entitled to tap, rap, bang away on each other with their sticks. It is all part of the game. Up to a certain point. Beyond that point, infractions occur. Some are witnessed, resulting in stick penalties. Others go unnoticed, but are remembered.

Other equipment worn today is far superior to that used a decade ago, and for many years prior to that. Shoulder pads and elbow pads are as hard as a bullet. A well-placed elbow to an opponent’s head can be lethal, as we have seen. More than a few careers have been shortened by such blows. Helmets are now far superior. Players skate with greater abandon now, far less fear of serious head injuries. There were days, Gertrude, when players did not wear head protection. There was more respect among the players. But fewer teeth.

Reason Number Three: Respect

Fringe players, journeymen who live on the edge of spending their careers in the minor leagues, tend to take greater chances in playing a violent game than do those who have been in the NHL for several seasons. There are also the prototypical bullies who have always played with their sticks held high. They know they are hunted. They play with self-defense.

For the most part, players do respect their opponents. They often see opponents in the off-season at charitable events. Hockey players are more approachable in social situations than are athletes from all other athletic areas. So they mix and mingle, and hoist a few bubblies in the summer, then beat on each other in the winter. It has always been that way. It will not change, not with a suspension, or a fine.

Several years ago, players policed themselves. There were limits, and the limits were respected.

But there are also bad apples in every barrel. In hockey, there are loose cannons who will “go’ at the drop of a hat. Some will even try to take out the best player of the opposition, just to make a name for themselves. Goofy, very goofy.

Number Four: The Instigator Rule

As it sits, any time a players starts an altercation, and fights, he (or she) will get two minutes for instigating, five for fighting, and a ten minute misconduct. This is especially critical in playoff situations. But these situations are usually precipitated by plenty of stick work and goading prior to the retaliation. The charged instigator is simply the one who gets caught.

Number Five: Skates and Speed

The game is played on skates. If you have never been challenged to a fight on skates, and the situation arises, call a cop. Most players would prefer not to scrap wearing their “Air Jordans”, let alone on blades. Fighting on two pieces of steel, on a frozen pond, is an art.

Once a player dons the blades, he or she is capable of moving quickly. Rough measurements have clocked some players at thirty miles per hour. Think about it. A twenty-five year old man, weighing 265 pounds, is at top speed, and is about to plant your face into the glass at the end of the rink. My advice? Keep your head up.

Obviously, the game is not for everyone. For those of us that have played a little, and have observed a lot, there is no better game. Occasionally, the gloves will come off. Usually with mention some justification. Should fighting be banned? Just damned silly to even mention it.

It does not necessarily make it right when one refers to the argument that fans do not vacate their seats when there are fistacuffs; however, the stance taken by Mario Lemieux, the Penguins owner, leaves me mystified.

The former league superstar stated that he thought the Islanders should have been punished more severely for their actions in a subsequent game against the Pens. Now one must remember that “Super Mario” was a very big man on the ice, and could command respect by his size. If you stand five feet ten inches, and weigh 185 pounds, you rethink your position when it comes to dropping the gloves with someone more than 6’ 6”, and in the 250 pound range.

Lemieux says that he “might rethink being part of the league”. A little over the top.

Stu Grimson played tough, really tough. Tough enough to earn the name “The Grim Reaper”. He is quoted in the Tuesday, February 15th edition of USA today: “I would ask everyone to dial down the temperature a little bit. We ask these guys to play on a razor’s edge, and we love it.” He adds that players may slip over the edge from time to time, and lose control.

Mountains out of molehills?

James Hurst
February 15, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Cody McCormick-a Perfect Role

The head honchos of the Buffalo Sabres huddled together about half an hour after their recent victory over the Florida Panthers. The teams had played evenly for four minutes and fifty-five seconds of overtime. Tyler Myers had slipped over the Cats blueline, and had blasted a slap shot at the Panthers’ net. Vokoun reacted just a tad slowly. The biscuit was in the basket. The red light scorched the plexiglass. Game over.

I caught up with Sabres’ coach Lindy Ruff in the coach’s room after the game. I told him I was penning some words on Cody McCormick. He beamed: “Cody has been a great role player for us. He is a fine two-way player.” Great praise from the veteran coach.

Last fall, McCormick went into the Sabres camp looking for employment in the NHL. He had spent the previous season with the AHL affiliate Portland team, and had played three playoff games for the Sabres. He had registered almost 200 games in the NHL in previous years, and another 200 in the AHL with a variety of teams: Hershey, Lowell, Albany, Lake Erie, and Portland.

McCormick had arrived in Buffalo as a free agent in August, 2009. But he began his quest to become a bona fide NHL player in 2001, after a brilliant OHL career with the Belleville Bulls. He was drafted in the Fifth Round, 144th overall in that draft by the Colorado Avalanche. In his final year with the Bulls, he was chosen as an OHL First Team All Star, and led the team in goals and penalty minutes. He was selected in a coaches’ poll as the “Hardest Worker” in the Conference. That, in a nut shell, tells you something about Cody McCormick.

In the recent game in Florida, Cody had a brief encounter with Darcy Hordichuk, the Panthers designated scrapper. This was early in the first period, they danced for a moment or two, then headed to the penalty box to serve five minute majors. At six feet three inches, tipping the scales at around two hundred and twenty pounds, McCormick does not shy away from the tough stuff. He leads the Sabres in penalties, and commands great respect from the opposition while on the ice.

Stirling’s Rob Roy has seen his fair share of hockey in Buffalo for many years, both as a player and as a media observer. He often does colour for Sabres television, and has become a well respected analyst. He did not mince words when assessing Cody’s performance this year. “Cody McCormick has done an awesome job this year,” he told me. “He has been the most consistent performer with the team. He works his tail off each and every game.”

When asked about his own personal performance this season, Cody deferred to the team approach. “At this point in the season, we are trying to get into the playoffs. This was a game we really needed,” he told me after the overtime win.

The Sabres were accompanied on the trip by several family members. I recognized Cody’s dad from his many visits to the Quinte Sports Centre. He had made the trip from Mount Brydges, near London, and he told me that he has enjoyed several games in Buffalo this year. “It’s closer than Belleville,” he told me, with a hint of justifiable pride in his voice.

The Sabres left the Sunshine State with two victories under their belts. They are on a bit of a roll, having won five of their last six games. In their game against Tampa Bay, McCormick tussled for the puck behind the Lightning net. He slid the slickest pass out to Thomas Vanek to earn an assist, and his fifteenth point this season. Yet another way in which McCormick contributes to the Sabres’ fortunes this year.

James Hurst
February 12, 2011

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


NFL Hall of Fame Inductees-2011

“Turn out the lights! The party’s over!”

Those were the words of “Dandy” Don Meredith, a former Dallas Cowboy. Every Monday night, when there was no doubt in the outcome of a National Football League contest, Meredith would sing that tune, horribly.

The Super Bowl party is over in Dallas. The Packers emerged victorious, and Aaron Rogers, the Packer quarterback, won the award as the Most Valuable Player.

Unless cooler heads prevail, the lights could be out for quite some time. The owners and the players are miles apart in terms of a settlement on a collective agreement. The 2011 season is in serious jeopardy.

Last Saturday, the NFL announced the latest group of inductees to enter the NFL Hall of Fame. The selection committee had done their work, and had come up with the chosen few. The envelope was passed to the master of ceremonies, and the names were read.

I have a concern or two about the process.

First of all, the timing of the announcement is just not right. The league is in the midst of a furor of media activity about the big game. The hall of fame announcements pale in comparison to the big game hype. Wait a couple of months before releasing the information. The Induction Ceremony is held in August, so there is no great rush.

Secondly, one of the inductees announced is Ed Sabol. Ed never pulled on the shoulder pads nor laced up the boots. But I would venture to say he did more for the game than any of the other inductees. He was a filmmaker, and began filming NFL games in 1962. He masterminded the brilliant films and documentaries that promote the game, revolutionizing the manner in which sports are presented. His company has won 52 Emmy awards. There was some grumbling from players that they didn’t like a cameraman taking one of the hall of fame slots that should have gone to a player.

Unfortunately, the selection committee is limited to choosing players, owners, builders, officials, and filmmakers in one category. Most other sports halls of fame have several pigeon holes for selection. The format needs to be changed for football.

The Hall does have a wonderful induction ceremony at which each inductee gets the “yellow jacket”, is inducted, and has a chance to respond. Quite often, the response speeches are priceless.

Here are the other six inductees, alphabetically:

Richard Dent-Defensive End. He played fifteen seasons, mostly with the Bears.

Marshall Faulk-Running Back. He split his time of twelve seasons between the Rams and the Colts.

Chris Hanburger-Linebacker. All fourteen seasons were with the Redskins.

Les Richter-Linebacker. He began his career in 1954, and spent nine seasons with the Rams.

Deion Sanders-Cornerback-Kick Returner. He played for the Falcons, the 49ers, the Cowboys, the Redskins, and the ravens for fourteen seasons.

Shannon Sharpe-Tight end. He played fourteen seasons with the Broncos and the Ravens.

It is indeed a great honour to be inducted into the hall of fame in one’s particular sport. Players do not begin their careers with that in mind. At the end of a fine career, an athlete might wonder, for a moment about the possibility. For these chosen ones, that is now about to come to fruition. Thursday, August 6th, in Canton, Ohio.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Super Bowl XLV

A man had 50 yard line tickets for the Super Bowl.

As he sat down, he noticed that the seat next to him was empty.

He asked the man on the other side of the empty seat whether anyone was sitting there.

"No," the man replied, "The seat is empty."

"This is incredible," said the first man.

"Who in their right mind would have a seat like this for the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in the world and not use it?"

The second man replied, "Well, actually, the seat belongs to me. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she passed away. This will be the first Super bowl we haven't been together since we got married in 1967."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. That's terrible. But couldn't you find someone else -- a friend or relative, or even a neighbor to take the seat?"

The man shook his head. "No, they're all at the funeral."

I just couldn’t resist that one! Hope you appreciate it!

I trust that you have recovered from the two dynamic sports events last weekend: the NHL All Star game and the NFL Pro Bowl. So much to do, so little time. Truthfully, I passed on both of them.

Come Sunday, I will be firmly seated for the big game. This will be the first time that I will be able to see the American ads as I will be watching the game in Florida. Personally, not a big deal.

I will not try to intimidate my guests with a “Terrible Towel” from Pittsburgh, nor a “Cheese Head” from Green Bay. For me, the game’s the thing.

I look forward to the classic battle between the quarterbacks. Big Ben Rothlisberger, the Steelers quarterback, already has two Super Bowl rings. He has indicated he has room on his hands for another bauble. Aaron Rogers, on the other hand, has yet to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Many Packer fans still believe he walks, (Runs, passes---take your pick) in the shadow of the other guy who preceded him in Green Bay. Lest you have forgotten, Brett Favre also won only one Super Bowl championship. So if Rogers wins the game, he will be tied with Brett Favre.

Rothlisberger is also chasing a legend in some respects. Terry Bradshaw won the big one three times wearing the Steeler jersey. I am certain Rothlisberger would be comfortable slipping on another ring.

These teams are in the big game because of their defensive accomplishments. They are the top two defensive teams in the NFL. A player from each team has been nominated as the top defensive player of the year: Polamalu for the Steelers, and Clay Matthews for the Packers. Both play with wild and reckless abandon, often creating havoc when least expected.

The Steelers arrived first at the Dallas airport. As is the case with the modern athlete, many wandered around the airport with their “handcams”. One American radio pundit figured these guys would watch these videos about as often as they would watch wedding videos. Right!

Rothlisberger was interviewed at the airport. He began the verbal jousting by indicating that the Steelers had an advantage because they have been through the “Super Bowl Circus” on previous occasions.

Sunday from Dallas. You will likely need to record the game on a VCR or some such device. The Dukes play at the same time. Pickering at 6:30pm at the Essroc. Make your friends maintain silence about the outcome of the game. Mug the announcer. Don’t let him announce the score!


James Hurst
Monday, January 31, 2011

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