Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Bronko Nagurski-Chicago Bears

In the early days of the Twentieth Century, the eastern ports of Canada and the United States were inundated with immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were often fleeing the turmoil of revolution-Russians, Poles, Ukranians. They were young men and women some not yet in their teens, hoping to find a better life after arriving on the shores of North America.


Many headed west, encouraged by civic officials to help populate the lands west of the Mississippi. Others headed north to the forests on both sides of the Canadian-American border. That was the beginning of the Nagurski story in North America.


Bronislaw Nagurski was born in Rainy River, Ontario, on November 3rd, 1908. At the age of four, his family moved to International Falls, Minnesota, a five minute walk across the Rainy River from Fort Frances, Ontario. His mother spoke English with a thick Ukranian accent, and the first grade teacher could not understand her pronunciation of her son’s name. From that moment on, he was known as “Bronko”.


Nagurski attended the University of Minnesota, and starred for the Gophers. Needless to say, he was a versatile football player. He played several positions: tackle, fullback, defensive end, linebacker, offensive end, and even quarterback. He earned All American status at fullback and tackle in his senior year in 1929, the only player in college history to be so named in one season.


At that time, Nagurski was considered to be a giant, standing at six feet two inches, weighing more than 230 pounds. He ran the “one hundred yard dash” in 10.3 seconds, and was known for incredible feats of strength.


Chicago Bears’ coach George Halas saw Nagurski play in his final college season with the Gophers. He signed him to play for $ 5 000, a considerable sum at the height of the depression.


Bronko led the Bears to three National Football League Championships as a fullback. Hals recalled a game against Washington, when the Bears shared Wrigley Field with the Cubs. “Nagurski barrelled in the middle of the field, and sent two linebackers flying in different directions. He then ran through the end zone, and bounced off the goal post, finally bulldozing into the brick wall that bordered the dugout used by the Cubs. The wall cracked.”


After the play, the dazed Nagurski was asked about the run. “That last guy hit me awfully hard”, he told his teammates on the sideline.


“Nagurski relied on his strength, rather than special technique to get the job done. When he ran, he tucked the ball under his arm, lowered his giant shoulders, and charged full speed ahead-ramming through and over people.” The quote comes from a hand out at the Bronko Nagurski Museum in International Falls, Minnesota.


Nagurski was a charter member of the National Football League Hall of Fame, which is located in Canton, Ohio.


G. A. Richards, the owner of the Detroit Lions at the time when Nagurski was at the peak of his career, told the fullback: “Here’s a cheque for $ 10 000. It’s not to play for the Lions, but just to quit and get the hell out of the league. You’re ruining my team!”


Hall of Famer Red Grange, beloved coach and football historian, also played in the Bears’ backfield with Nagurski. “I have said it a thousand times. Bronko Nagurski was the greatest player I ever saw, and I saw a lot of them in my lifetime. Running into him was like getting an electric shock. If you tried to tackle him anywhere above the ankles, you were liable to get killed.”


Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach once said, “Nagurski is the only football player I ever saw who could have played every position”.


Another highly respected American football observer, Grantland Rice, also had good things to say about “The Bronk”. When asked to select an all-time all star team he said, “That’s easy. I’d pick 11 Bronko Nagurskis. I honestly don’t think it would be a contest. The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field-with 228 pounds of authority to back him up”.


In 1937, he hung up his high top cleats, threw his leather helmet on the shelf, and became a professional wrestler. It was a decision he would later regret. “I never liked wrestling.” Life in the wrestling ring was not as glamorous as he had hoped, but it was a way to make a living.


“The promoters told me I could make a million in no time, but it didn’t happen. I wrestled guys like Jim Londos and Ed “Strangler” Lewis. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of money in it. It was a sport where you worked every night and traveled a lot. I had a family at the time, and I didn’t want to be away from home.” He wrestled professionally for more than a dozen years.


He was a three-time Heavyweight Champion, defeating Dean Dutton in 1937, Lou Thesz in 1939, and Ray Steele in 1941.


In 1943, the Bears asked Nagurski to come out of retirement for one final season. At the age of 35, he scored the game-winning touchdown of the NFL final game against the Washington Redskins. He ended his career averaging five yards per carry. Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle: “My greatest thrill in football was the day Bronko announced his retirement. There’s no question he was the most bruising fullback football has ever seen. I know, because I still have the bruises!”


He returned to International Falls when he retired from wrestling, and opened a gas station. All of his children helped at the station, including his youngest son Kevin. Kevin was in Fort Frances during the Dudley Hewitt Cup in 2003, the trophy for the Central Canadian Tier II hockey championship. Kevin’s son “Critter” played for the Borderland Thunder, one of four teams vying for the title.


Kevin told me his daughter Erin also wears hockey skates, and played intercollegiate hockey for the University of Minnesota at Duluth.


I spoke at length with Kevin about growing up in the shadow of a legend. Kevin told me his dad’s happiest moments were spent on Lake Kabetogama, at his cabin. He loved to fish, particularly on Rainy Lake. “The cabin is south of International Falls, only reachable by boat. We still hunt goose and duck there. When we were growing up, Dad was our camp cook. He loved to fix our meals, listening to University of Minnesota football games on the radio.”


Bronko also liked the cold weather. International Falls has earned the reputation as being a cold place in the winter. Bronko’s interpretation? “We don’t have summer, just a season in the middle of the year when the sledding is poor!”


Bronko’s football sweater hangs in the Bronko Nagurski Museum in International Falls, also home of the Koochichin Museum. The curator of the museum, Edgar Oerichbauer, passed on a couple of tidbits about “The Bronk”. “When you gassed up at Bronk’s gas station, you were left with a choice: either you had to return there for your next fill up, or you had to buy a specialized pipe wrench to remove your gas cap.” Nagurski’s incredible hand strength came from years on the farm, and from his size 22 fingers.


Oerichbauer also told me that Bronko’s daughter used his Bears’ sweater as a night shirt. His son Kevin added, “We all wore that shirt, especially when we played football in the yard.” It has been conservatively valued at $ 50 000.


Bronko Nagurski Junior enjoyed a stellar career in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger Cats. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1959, where he had been a regular tackle for three years. In 1958 he played in the “East-West Shrine All Star Game.” On the back of his Topps football card, he is listed at 6 feet, one inch, weighing 235 pounds, when he was 25 years old.


Bronko Jr. won the Grey Cup with the Cats in 1963 and 1965, and was an All Star along with John Barrow, Don Sutherin, Angelo Mosca, and Hal Patterson.  He also attained All Star status in 1964 and 1965.


Bronko Nagurski died on January 7, 1990, at the age of 81.





Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Belleville Bulls 2012-2013

The Belleville Bulls are gearing up for their thirty-second season. They split a pair of games last weekend against the Kingston Frontenacs, winning Saturday night at home in front of a respectable crowd of more than 2700.


Before I sweep into a nuts and bolts hockey discussion, might I suggest a trip to the rink where the Bulls ply their trade? Most of you have been to the “Yardmen Arena”, the proper name of the sheet on which the Bulls skate. There is another pad across the hall entitled the “Wally Dever Arena”, named after a former councillor and member of the Belleville Sports Hall Of Fame.


But over the past couple of years, there has been serious activity in and around those iced surfaces. It behooves you to have a gander at the results. There are now more ice pads in that area than you can shake a hockey stick at. (Bad grammar, horrible choice of words). The entire complex is entitled a “Health and Wellness Centre”. I suppose they had to call it something.


There is also a wonderful swimming pool, and a splash pad for those of you like myself who panic when the water is deeper than six feet. There is a gymnasium, with basketball, volleyball, and badminton capabilities. There are rooms to strengthen your muscles, to stretch your arches, to expand your every horizon. They also have therapists to put you back together after your Humpty Dumpty experiences.


There are countless other cubicles for young and old. It is truly a complex that will take care of the citizens of the Quinte area for years to come. Certainly worth a look.


Belleville Bulls fans can expect a better year on the ice this season. In a nutshell, the team is bigger, stronger, faster, and older, and they have arguably, the best goaltender in the Canadian Junior ranks, Malcom Subban.


The Bulls will rely on a couple of hulking forwards this year who have Major Junior experience. Austen Brassard came to the Bulls in a trade a couple of years ago, and has improved steadily since that time. In the few games that he played after arriving from Windsor, he amassed 17 points in his rookie season. In his second season with the Bulls, he potted 19 goals and had 15 assists, but posted a discouraging minus 19 figure in the plus-minus category. Last year, he had 27 goals and 24 assists. But he improved to a plus 6, a remarkable 25 point turnaround in just one season. The Winnipeg Jets drafted Brassard in the fifth round.


Brendan Gaunce hails from Markham, and was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the draft this year. He is in his third year with the Bulls. He posted respectable numbers for the Bulls in his rookie season, with 11 goals and 25 assists. But his plus-minus figure, minus 31, required some adjustment. Last year he ended up with a plus four in that category. He also tallied 28 goals and added 40 assists.


The coaching staff took notice of both players following last weekend’s tilts. Assistant Coach Jake Grimes: “It was nice to see some of the guys looking pretty sharp. Gaunce and Brassard looked particularly sharp”.


Gaunce and Brassard sat out Friday’s game at the K Rock Centre in Kingston. I spoke with them during the play in the second period. When I asked Gaunce about sitting in the stands, he stated, “When you watch the game, even an exhibition game, you want to be out there.” He told me he had been to Europe twice this summer on hockey excursions: to play in the World Championships, and to play in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Both events took place in the Czech-Slovak areas. He also played in Sweden and Finland earlier in his career.


He pointed out one significant difference in the hockey cultures. “We are really blessed to have the facilities that we have in Canada. There is certainly better funding for the game in our country.”


Both players are in a state of limbo because of the current bargaining situation in the NHL. There are no “mini camps” or rookie camps slated at this time.


For both, it is business as usual on the Olympic-sized ice in Belleville. Opening night at home is September 29th against Oshawa. Be there!


James Hurst

September 11, 2012 


Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Tiger Cats and Argonauts-Home and Home, 2012

Classic confrontations between two teams are usually steeped in history. The football game played in Hamilton on Labour Day was a prime example. The Toronto Argonauts traveled down the Queen Elizabeth Way to take on the Tiger Cats in their final Labour Day game at the aging Ivor Wynne Stadium. At the end of the season, the football field is going under the wrecker’s ball, with a new edifice to be constructed on the site for the 2014 season.


Veteran Canadian Football League commentator Chris Schultz summed up the importance of the game. Playoff games are the most intense, followed by the first game of the season and the Labour Day game. There is justification for that. Most teams are at the half way point in the season. They have likely faced the opposition at least once this season. And yes, of course, there is the history.


The Argonauts and the Tiger Cats have tangled 43 times on Labour Day! The Ticats have won 28 of those contests, the Argos just 14, and one game ended in a 30-30 draw. They will do it all again next Saturday! A great piece of scheduling by the league office. Most of the time, these teams play again the following weekend, to add a little more spice to the rivalry.


The Argos went into the half time break trailing the Ticats. When the final score was posted on the board, the Argos had broken a nasty streak, with a 33-30 victory. It was the first time in 16 games that they had come from behind at half time to post a win. To do it in Hamilton, in front of some of the craziest football fans on the planet would have been extra special.


For three quarters, the Ticats led the way. Argo receivers dropped balls, and the team was penalized at the most critical times. On one occasion, the Argos scrimmaged the ball inside the Ticat twenty yard line. With the momentum building, the Argos were penalized for having 13 men on the field instead of 12. They gave up ten yards, a likely touchdown, and settled for a field goal. A really dumb mistake.


Rickey Ray continues to work his way into the Argo machine. He had to contend with a stubborn Ticat rush, a few questionable calls, and butter-fingered receivers, especially in the first half. But he had one key weapon in his backfield, and that was the difference in the game.


Chad Owens came to play, once again. He proved to be really difficult to bring down, for the Ticat defenders. He caught great passes, he knifed his way through tiny holes, and exploded on defenders. He ended up amassing 402 “all purpose” yards, breaking an Argo record. Expect the same this coming weekend in Toronto.


Following the game, Owens provided a wonderful interview for CFL fans on The Sports Network. He always gives credit to his teammates, sums up the game succinctly, concludes with a smile and says, “Aloha”. He is, after all “The Flyin’ Hawaiian”!


The Ticats’ Chris Williams electrified the crowd in the first quarter with his sixth punt return for a touchdown this season. He now has sole ownership of the record, surpassing such greats a Henry “Gizmo” Williams from the Edmonton Eskimos. The Ticats botched the convert attempt. Those miscues almost always have ramifications later on in a tight game.


Gas up the van, Martha. We are heading to the Rogers Centre for the rematch next Saturday! Should be another great game!



James Hurst


September 4, 2012  




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