Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Down the Home Stretch with the Panthers!

With their win over the Montreal Canadiens last Sunday afternoon, the Florida Panthers inched closer to obtaining a playoff berth for the first time in ten years. They now have seventy points, two shy of their total for last year. With more than twenty games remaining, there is a good chance they will equal, perhaps surpass last year’s total.

There are a number of reasons for this year’s success. On the first of June, last year, the team hired Kevin Dineen to stand behind the bench. Kevin played nineteen seasons in the NHL, coached the last six years in Portland in the AHL, and grew up in a hockey family. He knows the game.

Following last Sunday’s game, I button-holed Kevin for a perspective. The team had dropped four games in a row before rebounding to win twice, the second game against the Habs. “They came out strong against us in the first period, as they usually do. Fortunately, we had an answer for them.”

Prior to the game, the Panthers held a ceremony for Steve Weiss. He had just broken the record for playing the most games as a Panther in team history. Weiss responded by scoring two goals, leading his team to the 4-2 win over the Habs. He was named game’s first star, and had the belt to prove it. Above his locker, a belt remarkably similar to one that Don King would have designed, rested proudly. Weary from the game and the post game media scrum he quietly told me: “I’ve had a great day”.

One reporter commented upon the fact that Dineen had “rolled his four lines” judiciously throughout the game. Dineen smiled, and added, “Better players can make you a better coach. You don’t have to tap the same players on the shoulder time after time. At this point in the season, we are not trying to trade players. We are adding players right now because we are in the hunt”. (The Cats had just signed Wojtek Wolski, who had been with the Rangers. Bulls fans will remember him as a fine player with the Brampton Battalion. He started his junior career with St. Mike’s B’s of the OPJHL.)

I asked Dineen about Shawn Matthias. He chose his words slowly and carefully. “The thing about Shawn that impresses me the most has been his growth this year, both on and off the ice. He has such a quiet demeanour, but I believe his fine play has opened up his personality. He has given us an added dimension with his speed and his size. I have been able to use him as a full-time penalty killer as well.”

During the game, Matthias swept into the Habs zone on the penalty kill, disrupting the breakout pass on several occasions. He covers a lot of ice, and does not shy away from contact.

As expected, Matthias gave credit to his teammates after the game. “We are excited to have Wolski with us. We have had some injuries lately, so he will be a great addition. Following those four home losses, we really needed this win, especially for our fans.”

Another important addition to the Panthers this season is Brian Campbell. He played his entire OHL career with the Ottawa 67s, often a thorn in the side of George Burnett and the Bulls. Campbell told me after the game, “I really like the balance on this team right now. It gives us a chance to win every night, a chance to finish things off”.

The Panthers wrap up the regular season on Saturday, April 7th at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. Another season will begin at that time. It is called “The Playoffs”. The end of it all comes when players sip from Lord Stanley’s mug.

James Hurst
February 28, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The Champions Golf Tour-Naples, 2012

The Champions Tour extends its annual invitation to golf professionals who just happen to have a little gray at their temples, or who are fifty years old. Several years ago, it was decided that the world’s best golfers needed a venue to continue to play the game they love.
This year, the Champions Tour celebrates its twenty-fifth straight year in Naples, Florida, a good drive and a seven iron from our place in Fort Myers. The venue was TwinEagles, and it will take place there for the next three years. There are spectacular homes surrounding the course, with some available “from the 200s up to two million big ones”.
Gary Player won the first tournament in Naples in 1988, followed by Gene Littler and Lee Trevino. Last year, Bernhard Langer led the field from wire to wire. He posted scores of 64-66-66 to win the event now know as the Ace Group Classic.
In the booklet supplied to all tournament visitors, the powers-that-be suggested that Kenny Perry might be included in a group of “notable contenders” for this year’s tournament. Good guess! On Sunday afternoon, Perry played magnificently to win the tournament. He completed the final round in two under par, and finished five strokes ahead of Langer, at twenty under par!
Another five shots back, at ten under, was Rod Spittle. Spittle is a bit of an enigma on the tour, and his name is not exactly household. We decided to follow Spittle for the entire day. He and Jim Rutledge were the only Canadians in the tournament.
The PGA website indicated that Spittle was from St. Catharine’s. (Please remove the apostrophe, folks.) Before he teed off, it was announced that he was from Niagara Falls. After the tournament, I asked him for clarification. “I was born in St. Catharines, but I am actually from Chippewa!” He then asked me if I knew the area. I told him I had taught in Niagara Falls for a year, many years ago. “What school?” he asked, perhaps as a test. I passed with flying colours when I replied, “Maple Street Senior Public School.” I later learned that Spittle’s first job was putting bumper stickers on cars at Marineland!
Playing conditions throughout the day were difficult, to say the least. A nasty thirty to thirty-five mile an hour breeze washed across the course. Not always in the same direction, not always at the same altitude. Other than that, a perfect day for golf!
Spittle played the front nine in one under par, and had three birds and one bogey on the last nine holes. All things considered, a splendid round. When I asked for a quick comment he replied, “I am really pleased with the way I played today”. He scored 69, and with previous rounds of 66 and 71, he finished tied for ninth with Jeff Sluman and Russ Cochran.
At six feet, five inches, Spittle towered over his playing partners: Jim Carter, and P.H. Horgan III. And yet, throughout the round, they drove within five to ten yards of each other. Spittle was able to power a great sand shot on the ninth hole, then sunk a putt into a gale wind to salvage his par.
Most of us who followed the group were indebted to Horgan’s caddie-Victor Velasquez. On every hole, without fail, Victor would grab an extra couple bottles of water for the parched members of the gallery. Most appreciated by yours truly on at least two occasions. Caddies rode golf carts the entire round while the players walked. Just not in Victor’s case. He walked, with the clubs, while Horgan rode the cart!
Several well-known players fell by the wayside during the three-round tournament: Ben Crenshaw, Fred Funk, Jim Colbert, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, and Brad Faxon, to name a few. All results are available at the PGA web site.
Spittle took time to sign autographs for his admirers following the tournament. It likely was not something he could have predicted fifteen years ago, as he sold corporate life insurance, and whacked the ball on the weekends, just for fun. In 2005, he made $ 992 on the tour. Last year, he pocketed $ 731 000. And don’t forget, it’s just a game!

James Hurst
February 19, 2012.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Matthias on the Prowl!

Shawn Matthias is a Florida Panther. At six feet, five inches tall, plus or minus a bit on skates, he is a big cat. He patrols the rink in a sweeping fashion, unless a breakout opportunity arises. He relishes transition opportunities.

He recently notched his ninth goal of the season into an empty net. On our last visit to the Bank Atlantic Centre in Fort Lauderdale, he had a similar opportunity; however, the play materialized as a “two on one” situation. In other words, as he skated over centre ice with the puck, he realized that he had teammate Matt Bradley on his right, with a lone defenceman impeding their way to the empty net. Matthias threw the puck to Bradley, who deposited it into the “yawning cage”. (That is one of the most overworked and horrible clichés used in hockey circles, and I apologize for that.)

It was a most unselfish play, yet typical of Matthias. He is indeed quiet, and unassuming, and often defers to his teammates regarding special plays. Essentially, he is a good teammate. He always speaks in terms of “we” rather than “I”. For example, after the game he told me: “We played really hard tonight. It was a tough game for us, and it was a huge win. The game we lost in Washington really hurt.”

The Panthers had just defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-1, by no means an easy victory. “They really play a hard system. They don’t allow much, in terms of offense.”

The Panthers’ “Game Day” magazine is entitled ”Growl”. I believe it is released on a monthly basis. The current issue contains an article about Matthias with some very honest dialogue.

Shawn began the year thinking that his time in Florida might be finished. “To be honest, I don’t know if they expected me to be here this year. They signed me to a two-way deal. You’ve just got to put your head down and work hard, and try to show them you’re better than what they projected you as.”

At this point in the season, The Panthers know that they made a good investment. Matthias has already topped his point production from previous NHL seasons. Confidence is a key factor.

Teammate Stephen Weiss has been with the Panthers since Shawn’s arrival. “He’s becoming way more confident on and off the ice. He’s starting to figure out if he plays a certain way, he’s going to have success, especially if he uses his size and speed and hangs onto the puck and makes plays.”

Matthias knows he is just at the start of his career. “I’m still young, still learning the league, and I still think there’s better hockey in me. I’m improving every day.”

All of this confidence has led to a good comfort level for Matthias. Add that to the fact that he is enjoying the game he loves, and you have a successful hockey player.

Next year Matthias will play on a one way contract. Assistant General Manager Mike Santos likes what he sees in Matthias’s play. “To his credit, Shawn was willing to earn his way to becoming a full-time NHL player.”

The Panthers have experienced team success thus far this year, to the surprise of most hockey pundits. They are inching toward the playoffs, something that has not happened in South East Florida in ten years.

Matthias has helped put smiles on the faces of the faithful at the Bank Atlantic Centre this year.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Brad Richardson-Los Angeles Kings

Bradley Richardson had just enough time to shake a few hands, hug a few buddies, and bid farewell to friends and family after his recent game in Fort Lauderdale. His Los Angeles Kings had just given up an empty-net goal to the Florida Panthers.

He and his teammates were being herded to the bus for a late night flight to New York. They were scheduled to play the Islanders on Saturday night, and the Dallas Stars the following night, the twelfth of February. The trip had begun on the first day of February, an excursion of packing and unpacking, rushing and waiting, that could resemble one of those ten-day, fourteen country tours in Europe! (Look in your passport. See all the stamps. You were there!)

I am certain that the NHL season is a blur, on many occasions, for the players. Granted, they do travel well, and are seldom seen at Burger King or McDonald’s. Once they had packed all of their individual gear in their bags after the game, each player was responsible for hauling that stuff to the cart to get it on the bus. Bo bus boys allowed in the visitors’ dressing room!

Losing is never fun, and it took the edge off our visit with Brad after the game. But he did remark: “I love the game. I love to play. I’m lucky to be in the position to live the dream by playing in the NHL.” I noted that he was moved around in his assignments during the game. “That’s all part of it,” he said. “You just do what you have to do to win. To lose close games is always disappointing, but you don’t dwell on it. But it will be nice to get back home after this trip”.

There were several other fathers in the “Family and Friends” area at the Bank/America arena. There was some discussion about the upcoming “Father and Sons” trip. It is an annual excursion adopted by NHL teams to provide families with an opportunity to share the dream. Jim Richardson indicated he would not miss that trip, with the possibility of a little golfing on the journey.

Brad Richardson is currently in his seventh NHL campaign. He recently celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday. From the minor ranks of the Belleville Minor Hockey Association, to a cup of coffee with the Wellington Dukes, he progressed to an impressive OHL career with the Owen Sound Attack. A serious injury in 2003-2004 limited his ice time to only 15 games. But he bounced back the following year, notching 41 goals in 68 games. He spent three years in Colorado before being traded to Los Angeles.

There are many reasons why players survive in the NHL. Skating ability is always listed as number one by most scouts. But a player must also possess the vision to see the game, and anticipate quickly. It is not a game for the faint of heart, nor for the timid. Brad Richardson is now playing at the highest level in the world because he has those qualities, those abilities, and the desire to achieve at that level. He talked about the skill level of his team mates, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar in particular. Richardson knows the game, and realizes what it takes to win.

He will likely participate in a number of charity golf tournaments this coming summer. For young sports fans, the golf course is the best place to meet Richardson, to talk about the game, perhaps score an autograph. In the meantime, he and his team mates have a little business to take care of, heading into the final stretches of the season before the playoffs.

James Hurst
February 13, 2012

Monday, February 06, 2012


Super Bowl XLVI

On the last play of the game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady launched the ball into the Giants’ end zone. For a moment or two, it was up for grabs; however, it fell onto the turf, just beyond the reach of Rob Gronkowski, the whistle blew, and the Giants began to celebrate their second recent Super Bowl victory. The Giants topped the Patriots 24-17 in 2008.
Essentially, the New York Giants outlasted the New England Patriots 21-17. Both Brady and Eli Manning had played well, and Manning won the right to drive the Corvette as the game’s MVP. For the most part, however, it was a defensive struggle, with the big men on the line dictating the tempo of the game.
They knocked down passes at the line. The filled gaps, keeping ground games on both sides to a minimum. They hurried both quarterbacks throughout the game, limiting the time that either Eli or Brady could orchestrate a bomb downfield. The secondaries from both teams played brilliantly as well, limiting big gains. As a result, it was a slugfest.
The Patriots began the game in the same manner that they have started several games this year: by digging themselves a hole. In this case, it was one from which they could not extricate themselves. On their first play from scrimmage, deep in their own zone, Brady fired a pass to the middle of the field, with no receivers in the general area. As Brady was standing in his own end zone when he threw the ball, and as it was considered “intentional grounding”, the Giants were credited with a safety touch, awarded two points, and got the ball.
The Giants scored again on a short pass to Victor Cruz, and led 9-0 at the end of the first quarter. The Patriots scrambled back to take a 10-9 lead into the half time break, with momentum.
The Giants added two Lawrence Tynes’ field goals in the third quarter to go ahead 15-9. Tynes has seen the world as a football player. Born in Scotland, he has played in the World Football League in Europe, and spent time with the Ottawa Renegades in the CFL. On Sunday, he picked up his second Super Bowl ring.
The Giants punter also booted favourably during the game. In fact, Steve Weatherford established a Super Bowl record by placing three punts inside the ten yard line, forcing the Patriots to start their drives from deep in their own zone. One of Weatherford’s friends is one of our pool buddies, and I picked up snippets from him during the week leading up to the game. He told us that Weatherford was allotted ten tickets to the game, but that he had to pay for them!
With less than four minutes remaining, Manning threw a sideline pass to Mario Manningham, good for 38 yards. The play was challenged by the Patriots, to no avail. It was a great catch, even better footwork to stay in bounds. Manningham caught the next two passes from Peyton, moving the ball to the Giants 34 yard line.
With a little more than a minute remaining, Ahmad Bradshaw backed into the Patriots end zone to seal the deal. Game, set, match.
Tomorrow evening, I am off to the Germain Arena to watch the final cuts to the Florida Tarpons, the local Arena Football League team. They begin their schedule on March 9th, against the Carolina Aviators a game I would not miss!
Belleville Minor Football League registration the following week! And then, only ten months to the Grey Cup game!

James Hurst
February 5, 2012

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