Sunday, March 25, 2012
By the Way, You Lost!
Losing is always painful. In the sports world, there are certain traditional methods employed to remind the vanquished that the deed is done. In other words, we won, you lost. It is time you left the building.
Hockey fans in Montreal for many years have used a traditional chant to remind opponents that they should pack up and leave, near the end of their games. When there is a lead of sufficient proportion, and an appropriate amount of time left on the clock, the Hab faithful can be heard chanting, “Na, na, na, na….na, na, na, na….hey, hey, hey….god-bye”. That may not be phonetically correct. For many years, an effective taunt. Perhaps not this year.
Another effective manner of shaming the foe takes place in the confines of the arenas in America College hockey. Near the end of a game in which there is little doubt that the home team will win, the fans dig into their pockets for their car keys. They begin to jangle them in unison. Hundreds of fans, tinkling their car keys. They follow this with their traditional chant: “Start the bus! Start the bus!” In other words, we win, you lose, get on the bus and get out of town!
Hockey fans in Fort Lauderdale have chosen a rather bizarre way to celebrate victories for their beloved Panthers. (For the first time in ten years, they finally have something serious to celebrate!) A hockey tradition that began in 1996 has been revived this season, and is well worth witnessing.
Here is the history behind the tradition. The Panthers formerly played in the old Miami Arena, not a lot unlike many old barns in Canada. While suiting up for a game one night, Scott Mellanby spotted a rat scurrying across the dressing room floor. A quick snap shot against the wall led to a quick demise.
Mellanby had two goals that evening, leading goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to quip, “Mellanby had a rat trick tonight”. One word got out about the incident in the dressing room, the tradition stuck. Plastic rats are sold in the souvenir shop. Fans write their names on the rats and claim them after the games. Following Panther victories, they shower the ice with the nasty-looking rodents. The NHL even went to the extent of initiating a rule that would punish a home team for delays caused by objects thrown on the ice.
Ed Jovanovski, who is having an outstanding season with the Panthers, remembers the raining rats. “It means that we’re winning games and fans are getting into it. It’s always good to see them”. Bill Lindsay also remembers the rats. The affable panthers’ colour commentator told me that it meant good times. “Sometimes the goalies would have to hide in their nets when the rats came down. We really got a kick out of it”.
Years ago, games would be interrupted by fans when they disagreed with rule interpretations by referees. They usually began by throwing programs and coffee cups on the ice. This was done, of course, when there was no restrictive glass surrounding the ice surface---with a cage protecting fans behind the goals. The ultimate protest occurred when patrons removed their toe rubbers and flung them on the ice. Alas, we now have high glass partitions, and no toe rubbers!
Panther fans are warming up their arms to prepare for this year’s Stanley Cup dance. Enjoy the rodents!
March 25, 2012
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Blades Gearing up for Playoffs
In late January, things did not look good for the Florida Everblades. At that time, coach Greg Poss hoped that he could pilot his team into the ECHL playoffs. With their win last night against the South Carolina Sting Rays, the Blades locked up a playoff spot, even moving up to fifth place in the standings.
There were more than five thousand boisterous fans in the rink last light, but none louder than a contingent of about thirty die-hard hockey fans from Hanover, Germany. For the past few years, this group has descended on Florida to catch the sun and a bit of shinny. They made their presence felt at the Germain Arena, from start to finish. They chanted the typical “Ole, ole, ole” throughout the game, and ended with “Na, na, na, na” as the Blades skated to a 5-2 victory.
They were in Fort Myers in support of Coach Poss who spent several years behind the benches in the German professional leagues. They also indicated support for Zach Tarkir, who played for their beloved Hanover Indians last year.
Tarkir was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2003, following his college stint at Northern Michigan University. He spent four seasons in the American Hockey League, and won the Kelly Cup with the sting Rays in 2009. He played 44 games for the Indians last year, in the German league.
The Indians play in the Second Division in the German Professional League. Alex Otto was outfitted with an Indians hockey sweater, as were all of the fans from the city near Hamburg. He told me that last year they attended two Panthers games in Fort Lauderdale. When I asked him about his choice of beverage, he replied, “Ya, the beer is good, but not as good as German beer”. Dumb question.
Another member of the group told me loved the game, and that their favourite player was “99”. He looked at me when I said, a bit inquisitively, “Wayne Gretzky”?. “Ya”, he added, and I think I heard him say “dumkoff” under his breath.
Former Belleville Bull Philipp Grubauer has spent the entire season with the Sting Rays. I looked forward to speaking with him about the game, and about the strong German contingent at the game. Alas, to no avail. He was called up to the parent Hershey Bears just before the Rays headed to Fort Myers.
I did track down Blades forward David Rutherford in the stands during the game. He is on the shelf for a game or two with an “undisclosed injury”. He played most of his minor hockey in British Columbia, and spent some time with Belleville native Nathan Moon in the playoffs last year. They played together for the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. I had a chat recently with Moon, and tried to pry some information about Rutherford from him. No way. His lips were sealed. There are players, and there are civilians. Darn!
Rutherford’s services will be important to the Blades in the playoffs. He is a crafty centreman, third in team scoring with 24 goals and 27 assists in 56 games. He will miss three or four regular season games until the playoffs start in a couple of weeks.
It is always an added pleasure to leave the arena into Florida heat, plus 24 Celsius. I left the window scraper in the glove compartment.
James Hurst March 25, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Chasing the Dream 2012
I went to the ball park early yesterday morning to pick up a ticket for last night’s game against the Blue Jays. I had been informed that there might be a few tickets available at the box office on game day; otherwise, I was out of luck. Tickets for Spring Training games here in the “Grapefruit League” in Florida are rarer than hen’s teeth.
There are scalpers (ugh!) who station themselves along the routes to the games. They also hang around the parking lots on game day. Then there are the ticket agencies who market the tickets, having collared hundreds of tickets for sale. One should expect to pay four or five times the face value of a ticket, depending upon the teams that are playing. Simply disgusting.
I strolled through the grounds of the magnificent new structures that have been established near the airport. The stadium itself is called “Jet Blue Park”. The grounds are called “Fenway South”, perhaps a tribute to the old girl who is celebrating her hundredth birthday in Boston this year. There are six full-sized ball fields surrounding the main structure, as well as several batting cages, bullpen mounds, and other areas for players to get ready for the upcoming season.
The Red Sox organization is made up of several different teams at several different levels, from rookie ball to the major leagues. The parent club maintains teams at all of these levels, supporting several hundred players. They are all at this spring training complex, under the watchful eyes of scouts and coaches, trying to put the pieces together for the season ahead.
Chorye Spoone is one of those individuals. (To be pronounced as COR-EE, according to the Sox Media Guide! ). Chorye has been around baseball for a long time. He spent the first seven years of his professional career in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, having been selected by the Orioles in the eighth round of the first year player draft. He is 26 years old, stands a little over six feet, and tips the scales at 215 pounds.
He told me he is thrilled to be wearing a red uniform this year. “This is a first class organization. I am thrilled to be here”. Obviously, Chorye has been through the baseball wars, fighting his way up through the ranks to get to the “Show”. He now knows that is within his grasp. Last year he spent some time in Norfolk at the “AAA” level, and at Bowie at the “AA” level.
He began his career at the “Rookie” level in Bluefield, and has had stops at Delmarva, Frederick, Aberdeen, on more than a few occasions, as well as in the Gulf Coast League with the Orioles. Last year in November, he was plucked from the Orioles by the Sox as a minor league free agent. He is signed through 2012.
Spoone hails from Pasadena, Maryland. He attended Northeast Senior High School in Maryland, as well as Catonsville Community College. I asked him what he did to occupy his time as a kid. “We played sports all the time,” he told me. I loved playing football, basketball, and baseball. In the summer, we would knock on each other’s doors, and play all day, especially ‘Home Run Derby’, and ‘Run Down’. I had a Sega game system at the time, but did not use it much. We just wanted to play”
When I used the expression “chasing the dream” to him, he did not flinch. “That is why we are all here,” he stated. He told me he has a wife, and is expecting the birth of his first child. He maintains that driving passion to get to the Big Leagues in the game that he loves.
He told me he is a passionate football fan, Baltimore Ravens, thank you. He said that he had been to a couple of Washington Capitals’ hockey games, but that he is not a big fan. I told him I could change that in a hurry. He smiled. I am not sure he has enough time right now to think about much other than the quest.
The Blue Jays stroked their way to a 9-2 victory over the Red Sox last night. Expectations remain high for the Jays, as all of the teams in the American League East are making note of the Jays’ excellent spring. Aaron Laffey gave the Jays several strong innings, giving up three hits. The Jays have to contend with the Sox, the Yankees, the Orioles, and the Tampa Bay Rays in the toughest division in baseball. So be it.
In the other dugout, Chorye Spoone continues to prepare for the season, in hopes that new Sox manager Bobby Valentine and his staff will need his right-handed pitching services. Spring Training. Game time temperature? Eighty-two degrees.
James Hurst-March 21, 2012
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
I strongly encourage you to pay attention to the game when you are in a hockey arena or at a baseball game. Public address announcements inform you that you might get hit with a puck or a ball or other projectiles that may enter the seating area during the game. It can happen.
They have erected screens behind goals and home plates to protect the patrons from screaming foul balls and ricocheting pucks. There is no protection against balls and pucks flying into the crowd above or outside the screening. In those instances, you must be on your toes.
Last Tuesday, the Blue Jays came to Fort Myers to play the Twins. Well, to be more correct, some of the Blue Jays were here. In these early days of Spring Training, teams will play “split squad” games. Half the team here, half the team there. The rest of the Jays were in St. Petersburg playing Team Canada, at Al Lang Field.
We parked in the outfield of a softball diamond, and watched another van from Ontario pull in beside us. I suppose it is only natural to make a comment or two to provincial cousins. We struck up a brief conversation with a crew from Comber, Ontario. One of the group was sporting a Toronto Maple Leafs hat, and he told me that he was going to the Leafs game in Tampa the following Thursday night.
Inside the park, it warmed the heart to hear the strong ovation for Justin Morneau, the Canadian who has been beset with a serious of injuries, potentially jeopardizing his career. He is a wonderful player, and all baseball fans would like him to hang around first base for the Twins for years to come. The Twins looked dapper in their sparkling white uniforms. The Jays were bedecked in gray pants and blue jerseys, not exactly old school baseball attire.
The anthems were belted out of a trumpet, and the game began. In the first inning, a ball was fouled behind home plate into the second section of Hammond Stadium. It came into the crowd with a full head of steam. A young man stood, prepared himself in an instant, and snatched the ball out of harm’s way with his bare hands. He was given a rousing ovation. He was wearing a Leafs cap. Same guy from the parking lot! There’s a story!
Kevin Tracey is 22 years old, and loves his sports. He listed lacrosse as his number one sport, having carried the stick in Intermediate play with the Sun County Crows. He also has had some sand lot experience with the Woodslee Orioles, part of the Mic Mac League. Since he lives closer to Detroit than Toronto, he goes to Comerica more frequently than to the Rogers Centre. Nonetheless, an avowed sports fan.
By the time that I got over to his section to chat with him about his fine catch, he had already given the ball to a youngster sitting on the bench in front of him. When I asked him about his strategy for catching the ball, he replied: “None. The ball came right to me. I had no choice but to catch it”. Cassie was tickled pink with her new possession.
The Blue Jays rewarded their faithful with yet another win, spanking the Twins 8-2. They chased starter Francisco Liriano with four hits and four runs in the third inning. Travis Snyder and Travis d’Arnaud hit back-to-back doubles to plate the four markers. After his stint, Liriano shrugged off the outing. “I missed my spots. I made a couple of mistakes. I just tried not to get mad at myself for that, and tried to stay back, relax, and hit the right spots.”
The Jays now have a record of 9-2-1 for the spring, with many positive signs. It is early, but a few of the old observers have penciled the Jays in for much improvement this coming season. And you will likely find Kevin Tracey in Toronto or in Detroit, away from his desk at REM Insurance, looking for stray balls in the stands.
March 14, 2012.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Arena Football-Part Two
I am certain that I must have heard this from my Irish friends. They told me that the definition of a true Scottish gentleman is a Scot who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t. There have been occasions when I have found that opinion to be most enlightened.
But a touch of the heather now and then can be refreshing.
Before the anthems, well before the kickoff, I heard the bagpipes at the Germain Arena. I was somewhat mystified. The Toronto Maple Leafs always have a Highlander Pipe Band on the ice for their opening games. But for an arena football game? Then again, why not? Perhaps someone should have informed the owners of the Florida Tarpons that the Leafs have not won the championship since 1967.
No matter. The finished up the ceremonies and let the players play. To some extent. One had to expect some rough edges in this inaugural affair; however, there were far too many inconsequential penalties. The game clock was difficult to see from field level, and the quarterbacks lost track of time before taking the snap. Thus, there was at least a dozen procedural penalties of that description.
I could be mistaken, but I believe I have neglected to mention the cheerleaders, up to this point. They were there, in full force. A dozen beauties, with flashy silver pom poms, dancing and twisting and bumping their way through the night, and into our hearts.
The game announcer, who is listed in the program as “Big Mama from B103.9”, never missed an opportunity to say a few words. Between his very loud messages, the music man really stretched the boundaries. There were tunes from the Fifties to the present. Even Jimi Hendrix was given his fair due.
I bumped into one of the partners of the franchise, Andrew Haines, before the game. He and his General Manager, Scott Chadwick appeared quite pleased with the overall reception of the fans. The game was the first to be played in south west Florida in a couple of years.
Several years ago, more than fifteen, in fact, I accompanied a basketball team to South Florida on a brief exhibition run. The players represented the Napanee Guardsmen, from Eastern Ontario. They were coached by Dave Smart, undoubtedly the best basketball coach in Canada, bar none. Smart has a dozen college championship rings in his jewelry case to back up my assertion.
One part that Smart made to me on the bus trip south was that the teams we would face would be made up of outstanding athletes. His opinion was bang on. The same applies to all athletic endeavours, here in Florida. There is a huge amount of talent from which to choose, and both teams were made up of fine, very tough athletes.
Did I mention the cheerleaders? A certain guest from Vermont thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the evening. A picture is always worth a thousand words.
There were not many disappointed fans filing out of the building. The game was exciting, the beer was cold, the hot dogs were excellent, and the cheerleaders………enough, already!
March 12, 2012
Saturday, March 10, 2012
Florida Tarpons Open Arena Season
The Florida Tarpons opened their inaugural season in the Ultimate Indoor Football League last Friday night with a resounding 58-35 win over the Mississippi Hound Dogs. The UIFL is an arena football league, with teams from the southern States, with a couple of exceptions.
The league is the brain child of Andrew Haines and Michael Taylor, also co-owners of the Tarpons. In a nutshell, the league gives football players an opportunity to play the game at a high level, hoping to catch on with an outdoor professional league. There have been many arena football league players who have found a niche in the NFL, or the Canadian Football League, for that matter. The most recent example of a notable player now toiling in the arena ranks is Terrell Owens. It would be nice to see him strutting his stuff; however, he plays in a different arena football league. Kurt Warner moved from the arena ranks and won a SuperBowl with the Rams.
Both Haines and Taylor had busy evenings. Haines was responsible for the entire product, while Taylor spent his evening on the football field. He is the head coach of the Tarpons, and coaches are permitted to stay on the playing surface throughout the game. Players use the hockey benches, but are not allowed to change on the fly!
Many of you have caught a game or two on television, or perhaps in upper New York State. There are significant differences from outdoor football, although there are some nice touches borrowed from the Canadian game. There are eight players on the field for each team. The field is fifty yards long, with eight yard end zones. Understandably, a quarterback needs to get the job done quickly, with several three hundred pound linemen charging on every play.
The Hound Dogs’ quarterback, Jamie Boland, was under pressure throughout the game. He is listed on the roster sheet at 5’ 11”, and at 170 pounds. Both of those approximations are generous. To his credit, he took a pounding all night long, and played well. He is a deceptive runner, and the Tarpons had their hands full when he tucked the ball away, failing to find a receiver.
That sums up the biggest problem facing the Dogs. They did not have a deep threat, and had to be content with completing short passes over the centre and at the sidelines. It did not appear to be much fun for receivers who caught passes in the end zone, or on short out patterns. They were immediately sandwiched into the boards, more correctly the padding over the boards.
Carlos Singleton had a wonderful evening for the Tarpons. He was announced at 6’ 8”, and towered over the Dogs’ defensive backs, He ran fine patterns, snagged nine catches, one for a major. “I played previously for the Jacksonville Sharks,” he told me after the game. He was surrounded by young admirers, as fans are permitted on the field once the game ends. “I am really enjoying Fort Myers. We have had a chance to go into the schools to meet kids, to speak about the game. It has been a most positive experience”.
Tarpons quarterback Brian Harris threw six touchdown passes in the game. He has two arena seasons under his belt, critical experience in a game such as this. Harris was most impressed with his receivers: “This is probably the most talented receiver corps I’ve played with in arena football”, he told the Fort Myers News-Press after the game.
Billy Dobbs is a wide receiver for the Dogs. “I have really enjoyed myself tonight,” he told me. “I like this game. It is different. I love football, and appreciate the opportunity to play the game.” He is an Ole Miss graduate who played in Tupelo last year.
Mike Richey is a die-hard Indianapolis Colts fans attending his first arena game. “I am truly impressed with the speed of this game.” Don Cole, a Vermont resident now enjoying the spoils of his Giants’ SuperBowl victory, suggested that the Tarpons invest in a long snapper. Several convert attempts went awry due to ugly snaps.
The Tarpons take on the Lakeland Raiders on Sunday, March 25th at 7:30pm, at the Germain Arena. Hope to see you there.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Justin Taylor-Enjoying the Hockey Life
Outside the visitors’ dressing room in the Germain Arena, there is a stationary bike. There was a lineup to get on the bike following the game last Friday night. When I caught up with Justin Taylor, he was busy on that bike. Like many other hockey players, he likes to wind down after a game. I introduced myself to him so that he could put my visit into proper perspective.
He had just finished a difficult evening. He is in his second season with the Kalamazoo Wings, and his team had just suffered an old fashioned shellacking by the Florida Everblades at the Germain Arena. It was the second game of three that the Wings played against the Blades here in south west Florida.
The Wellington Dukes were thrilled to include Taylor in their lineup at the start of the 2005-2006 season. The young London skater scored 18 goals in his rookie season. In the following season, he continued his excellent play for 37 games; however, he was coerced, at that point in the season, into joining his parent club, the London Knights. He played 31 more games that season for the Knights, then added ten points in the playoffs. He played three more seasons in London, putting up large numbers during the regular season and in the playoffs.
No more than one minute into our chat he asked, “How are the Greers? Sandi, Paul, and the boys-Brady and Riley.” Taylor had billeted at the Greers, with fond memories of his time there. “You know,” he added, “I really didn’t want to leave Wellington. It was great there.”
Such is the nature of the game and its demands. Taylor had to move up at that time. Last year he did get to play 14 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League, yet another stepping stone to the NHL. That is the ultimate goal for any young hockey pro.
“When you play the same team three straight times, there is bound to be a build up of animosity. But it’s what it is,” Kalamazoo coach Nick Bootland told me after the game. He also noticed my Dukes’ jacket. (A natural conversation starter!). He began his Junior career in the OHL with the Petes, then moved to the Guelph Storm.
A veteran of the hockey wars, Bootland began his pro career with the Hershey bears of the American Hockey League. Following stops in Cleveland and Cincinnati, he settled into Kalamazoo. After playing four seasons with the Wings, he settled in behind the bench.
He told me that he appreciates the contributions that Taylor makes to the team. “He’s still young,” he added, “but he is a leader on this team. He always steps up and tries to improve his game whenever possible.” He then chuckled and added, “And he is a bit of a disturber”.
Taylor concurred. “I do like to mix it up on the ice. I try to get guys off their game.” He then added, “I really love to play this game. And to get paid to do it is a real bonus.”
As I wandered away from him, he lifted his head while peddling and shouted, “Say hello to Marty and Woody for me.”
Just another night in the hockey wars. The rubber match on Saturday night was won by the Blades on a shootout goal. The Blades now embark on a 12 day road trip while the Florida Tarpons of the Arena Football League come to town.