Saturday, April 30, 2011
An evening with the Senator
Senator Jacques Demers recently spoke to a group of businessmen in Belleville. Now approaching his sixty-seventh birthday, he spends a little time nowadays on the road, sharing a message or two with anyone who cares to listen.
To say that he has had a fascinating trip to the present is a serious understatement.
He was appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister Harper on August 27, 2009. At that time, more than a few questions arose regarding the appointment. Most hockey observers knew that he had coached for many years. We had heard his analysis on television during intermissions. Other than that, we knew very little about the man.
In 2005, Demers revealed that he was “functionally illiterate”. In essence, he was incapable of reading anything of significance. In his address to the Belleville Men’s Sales and Ad Club, he admitted that he could decipher sufficiently to get by, to get the significance of a newspaper article, for example.
The crux of the matter stemmed from a difficult childhood. “My father was an alcoholic,” he said, “and he was abusive”. “He was always telling me that I was stupid, and dumb. It was very difficult for me to grow through that. Then my mother died of leukemia when I was sixteen. That made it really tough.”
Demers remembered the trouble he had at school. He was terrified, and anxious. “I was a loner. I did not want to deal with people. I never liked being judged by other people.” As a result, he slipped through the educational cracks in Quebec and became successful as a hockey coach, unable to read.
He began his coaching career in the minor ranks in Quebec, and caught on with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. He coached the Cincinnati Stingers in 1977-1978, then headed to Fredericton to coach the Express in the American League. He coached the Chicago Cougars and the Quebec Nordiques in the WHA.
The Nordiques then entered the NHL, with Demers at the helm. He followed that stint with years in St. Louis, Detroit, Montreal, and Tampa Bay. He coached the Habs to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993.
Demers always insisted upon respect from his players as a coach. “Three things are most important,” he told the gathering. “Character, discipline, and drive.”
When he took over the Red Wings, they were in rough shape. “The Dead Wings,” he called them. They had not been in the playoffs for seven years in a row. He asked the players to “pay the price”, and to “make the commitment to success”. At that time, he knew he needed a leader for his team. He did not have to look too far. Steve Yzerman was ready for the task.
After the Wings first training camp in Flint under Demers, changes were in order. “I told them that I did not care if they liked me. I told them that they must not think that any of them is bigger than the team. I knew I had to get rid of some of them, even a 40 goal scorer. On player threw his sweater on the floor, in disgust. It did not take me long to get rid of him.”
Demers believes that adversity can bring out the best in people. In a series against the Nordiques, the Wings lost the first two games. He then told his players: “Now we have them exactly where we want them.” There was a little doubt; however, the Nordiques took the Wings lightly, the Wings dug deep, and they won the next four games.
Demers excused himself quickly after his speech. The “tweeters” in the crowd told him the Habs were ahead of the Bruins 2-1 in the second period of the sixth game. He just had to watch the rest of the game. He answered a question about the former Belleville Bull P. K. Subban. “I know that he has had a tough time occasionally this year.” He said that Subban has had to deal with a lot of different issues, some with racial undertones. But Demers did predict that some day Subban will win the Norris Trophy as the best defenceman in the NHL.
In an interesting twist to his life, he revealed that he reads quite well now, but that he learned to read English before French. He recognized the efforts of his Anglophone wife.
He finished by telling the group that winning the Stanley Cup was “the icing on the cake”, then bolted for the exit to watch his beloved Habs. His big disappointment came a day later, when the Habs were eliminated. No worries. Still lots of great hockey to follow!
May 1, 2011.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011
This year’s version of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been the most exciting in years. The first round has not yet been completed. Many of our favourite teams are still hanging in there, some by mighty fine threads.
Latest results show that television ratings are through the roof, particularly because the two Canadian teams still in the hunt are in real dog fights.
The Habs are involved with their friends from Boston. The Big Bad Bruins of old are starting to bare their gums, and the Canadiens are ready for them. It has been a most entertaining series, back and forth.
Those of us in the Quinte area have a special interest in Montreal, because of a certain P. K. Subban. Subban spent his entire Ontario Hockey League career with the Belleville Bulls, and made believers out of many Bulls’ fans along the way. There are others who still have not been convinced about P. K.’s style of play. He has driven coaches mad with his free-wheeling ways. For the most part, however, he has learned enough about the game to qualify as a fine blue-liner for the Habs.
Prior to Game Six, he spoke with Sun Media about their prospects, and about the play of Habs’ goalie Carey Price: “He’s played so well for us. He’s been our best player every night.” Price, however, has lost seven straight playoff games at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Subban added, in reference to Tuesday’s game in Montreal; “We will get that win”. Perhaps a little more fuel for the Bruins!
But that is Pernell Karl’s style, and he isn’t about to change. “When my team has put me in that situation so many times, I know they need me to play that way. I know I have to bring it every night.”
Another local player has already wrapped up the first round of the playoffs. A very special win, at that. The Nashville Predators have won a playoff round for the first time in their history. Shane O’Brien has been a rock on defence for the Predators all year long. He toiled for the Canucks last season. He began his career with the Ducks, moved to Tampa Bay, then Vancouver.
A most affable guy off the ice, O’Brien spends his summers in the area, often working out with Brad Richardson, now with the Los Angeles Kings. O’Brien is a tough customer on the ice, and often comes under the scrutiny of Colin Campbell and the other league officials who determine right from wrong in the NHL. O’Brien has been asked to sit for a game or two during his career. He plays, as they say, “with an edge”. He is almost six feet, three inches tall, and tips the scales at more than 220 pounds, and has never shied away from the rough stuff.
In the current set of O Pee Chee hockey cards, there are fifteen cards of interest to local collectors. Dwayne Roloson, a former Belleville Bobcat, is pictured on card # 415. He is doing his best to keep Penguin pucks out of his Lightning net, with game seven slated for Wednesday night. If the Penguins advance, Matt Cooke, the Wellington Duke graduate on card # 227, will dress for the Pens, following his suspension.
Daniel Cleary is pictured on card # 471. He and his Wings have been resting following their first round success. It says here the Wings will be a force in the playoffs this year. Matt Beleskey, another former Bull on card # 451, has been getting plenty of ice time this year with the Ducks. He and his team mates are now on holidays, following their loss to the Predators.
The other game that will garner most of the nation’s attention will be the battle between the Chicago Black Hawks and the Vancouver Canucks. It has been a mystery, to be sure. Just when the Canucks had pretty well aced the Hawks with three straight wins, the Windy City boys have clawed their way back into the fray. The pundits have questioned the goaltending of Roberto Luongo. He has even been benched this series. Nerves are seriously frayed on the West Coast.
By the time you read this, the die will be cast. The winners will be moving on, the losers will be polishing their golf clubs.
This will all be settled some time in June.
April 26, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Bundle Up in Beantown!
The Blue Jays were in Boston last weekend for a four game series. They are winding down a road trip that has been satisfactory, although a little bumpy in Seattle. Any time you lose a game, after leading 7-0 in the latter stages……They will remember that on for a long time.
They ran up the steps of the dugout in Fenway only to find very nasty weather. Certainly not baseball weather. Even on the television screens, cuddled in our favourite blankets with a hot cup of cocoa, we could see the players’ breath. Pitchers were given special dispensation to blow (spit?) on their hands, while standing on the mound.
The game was not designed to be played in such conditions. We know that. That is why there is a dome in Toronto. There is also a retractable roof. We like that because we can go to the ballpark in the summer and bask in the great Canadian sun while watching the game. But we also know that if we have driven a couple of hundred kilometres to get to the stadium, there will be a game. No rain outs here.
Any team that plans to build a baseball park north of the Mason-Dixon Line must have a roof on the stadium. Plans must be submitted to Bud Selig for his approval. That will cut down on rain outs, and snow outs. It just makes sense.
Last Friday night, Brett Cecil did not have his overwhelming stuff. But he used what he had effectively, and picked up the win over the Red Sox. Jays fans were kept on the edge of their seats as there was a partial meltdown by the bullpen. But the Sox fell short by one run, and their record fell to 2-10.
As one of the teams that spend a considerable amount of money on its players, the Sox are not thrilled with failure. Their affable giant, “Big Papi” David Ortiz spoke about his concern before the game. Rarely do players speak about failure. Bobby Jenks has arrived in Boston from the Chicago White Sox. His comment: “When is it time to worry? I think we’re there now. To come back now, it’s going to take all year long.”
The Blue Jays have been hit with a rash of injuries already this season, and they were hoping to get a few things in place before facing the Yankees this week. The Bronx Bombers lead the division by a whisker ahead of the Jays. The Jays bolted from the gate to start the season, and are keeping pace with a .500 road trip.
New manager, John Farrell, has brought a refreshing change to the way of doing business on the field. The Jays are running the bases. They are stretching their leads, they are taking more risks. They lead the American League in stolen bases. They are playing exciting baseball.
Last year, they led the Major Leagues in home runs, led by the incomparable Jose Bautista. All Blue Jays fans enjoyed his exploits throughout the season. The rest of the team followed suit, swinging from their heels, on occasion, to bang out round trippers. It became infectious, and successful. But they did not win the division, and they knew that more was required.
So they are now running, with success. And they are receiving unexpected dividends from their bullpen. Time after time, at this early juncture in the season, the bullpen gate has been opened to usher in another successful stopper to the mound for the Jays. The best in the American League, at this point.
Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men can sometimes go array. The Red Sox decided enough was enough, and proceeded to bomb the Jays in the last three games of the series. Not a thing went right for the Jays. All went well for the Sox.
The Jays will try to get back on the winning track this week, starting with the Yankees Tuesday night. They certainly got schooled by the Sox, and there must be a few fragile egos at this time.
The dialogue in the Toronto papers will run along the lines of “It is still early in the season”, or “The Sox were due for a turn around”, or “We must be patient with all of the young players in the lineup”. All well and good, but the size of the Blue Jay faithful will dwindle if they continue to stumble.
A couple of wins against the Yankees would be the perfect tonic to get back to good health.
April 18, 2011
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Hockey Playoffs in the ECHL
During my winter visit to the south, I focused on the teams in Florida. Let me take a moment of your time, with your permission, and update you on the current status of those teams. First of all, the Panthers are not headed for the playoffs, having lost more games by one goal than any other team in the history of the NHL. Always so close, no cigar. The Tampa Bay Lightning finished the season quite strongly, and they anticipate a long playoff run. Their captain, “Vinnie” Lecavalier, has picked up the pace.
The Everblades have their backs to the wall in the opening round of the playoffs. They are playing the Kalamazoo Wings, from Michigan. Nick Bootland, whom we remember from his days with the Guelph Storm, coaches the Wings. You will also find Justin Taylor’s name on the roster.
Justin played for the Wellington Dukes for the entire 2005-2006 season. He started the following season with the Dukes, but was called up to the OHL to play for the London Knights, much to the chagrin of Dukes’ fans and coaching staff. He played four seasons for the Knights, putting up impressive numbers throughout his OHL career. He was a fine player, and continues to play well, spending some time this season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League.
The Wheeling Nailers are also involved in the ECHL playoffs. They lead the South Carolina Sting Rays two games to one in their opening round playoff series. Stan Drulia stands behind the Nailers’ bench. This is his first season in Wheeling, but he has been in the coaching ranks for almost ten years. He began with the Orlando Seals in 2002, following a successful playing career.
Local hockey pundits remember Drulia from his playing days with the Belleville Bulls. In his rookie season in 1984-85, he had 55 points including 25 goals. As a sophomore, he potted 43 goals for the Bulls. He played two years with the Hamilton Steelhawks and then finished his OHL career with the Niagara Falls Thunder. In his final year in the Falls, he did not dress for all of the games. But in 47 games, he had 52 goals, 93 assists, averaging more than three points per game! As a final result, he still holds the career record for scoring the most points in the OHL.
Drulia spent the next several years in professional hockey, either in the AHL or in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His career was shortened by a back injury suffered in a game in Detroit while he was playing with the Lightning.
Always a classy individual, Drulia reminisced about his days in Belleville when I caught up with him prior to his game against the Everblades. “I lived with the Dolans, and I still keep in touch with them. They were great billets!”
He proudly told me that seventeen of his players had been called up to the American Hockey League this past season. He also reaffirmed my opinion that the ECHL is a big step up, even for players from the CHL. “Men and boys”, he put it succinctly.
He has kept track of the Belleville Bulls over the years. “I really loved the place,” he told me, “and I would love to work there.” In the meantime, he will try to get his troops into a position to take home the Kelly Cup.
April 9, 2011
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
NCAA Basketball Finals 2011
There is a certain fanaticism surrounding the college basketball championships every spring in the United States. The entire nation embraces the game, and the hype surrounding the annual tournament never diminishes.
There are sixty-eight teams invited to participate in the championship tournament, often referred to as “The Dance”. Four teams are eliminated, resulting in the brackets. The sixty-four remaining teams are seeded, and the games begin: win, and you play again, lose, and you go home.
Even President Obama got into the action. He was interviewed while he carefully made his bracket selections, hoping to end up choosing the eventual winner. Alas, he did not choose perfectly, nor did most of the other basketball experts. In one contest consisting of five million entries, only two participants chose correctly.
I was pleased to be invited to take part in the process at poolside in Florida. There was a good deal of banter surrounding the process. One expert quipped, “What does the Canadian know about basketball?” Another suggested I stick to hockey pools. Ah! The challenge! So many choices, so little time.
I buckled down and gave a lot of consideration to my choices. Ohio State was a given. They led the country, and could be counted on to advance to the finals. Kentucky was strong, but faced Ohio State in the early going. Kansas was also a sure thing, as was BYU, led by “Jimmer” Fredette. (Fredette was named the outstanding player of the year, and received the Naismith Trophy at half time in the final.)
One by one, teams were eliminated as the tournament progressed. This is serious stuff, south of the Canadian border. One of the residents at our complex, the congenial Kentucky Colonel whose real name is “Phil from Louisville”, was devastated when his beloved Cardinals were eliminated by Morehead State in the first round.
When the final eight teams moved on, I was eliminated from the pool, the only player in that position. As luck would have it, all of the experts at Majestic Palms also went home empty handed. Carlo took home the cash. He is a wonderful guy, but very Italian, and has no interest whatsoever in basketball. He basically made his selections with coin flips.
Butler gained entry into the final with a victory over Virginia Commonwealth. Considered to be a Cinderella team to some extent, Butler was playing in its second consecutive National Championship. They would play the Connecticut Huskies, a powerful squad that had knocked off Kentucky in the semi-final.
NBA players take a keen interest in the game, especially if their colleges are represented. Ben Gordon of the Detroit Pistons, played for the Huskies. Butler got support from Gordon Hayward, now with the Utah Jazz.
When the final buzzer sounded last Monday night, the Huskies prevailed over the Butler Bulldogs 53-41. For a variety of reasons, Butler had difficulty putting the ball in the hoop. They made less than 20 % of their shots from the floor, the worst shooting percentage in the history of the tournament.
Kemba Walker hit key three point shots for the Huskies, and earned the player of the game award. His coach, Jim Calhoun had won his third NCAA Championship. He is, in fact, at 68 years of age, twice as old as the Butler coach, Brad Stevens.
The ladders were in place under the baskets at the trophy presentation. According to tradition, players on the winning team climb the ladders and cut the twine from the hoops. A most satisfying conclusion to a rather bizarre championship game.
James Hurst April 5, 2011