Wednesday, 2 December 2015

It's Tough To Be A Girl In Sports

Almost a decade ago I was with my bff in Torino to partake in the 2006 Olympics; it was a little side stop on our 'backpacking Europe' trip idealistic youngsters insist on doing. Being Canadian, we of course, bought some hockey tickets, Canada vs. Italy, which turned out to be one of the best games of the tournament for Canadian fans. On our way in to the arena, we made our way through security in separate lines. As the lady searched through my bag, I looked over to the line my friend was in to see her wildly waving to get my attention and pointing to someone behind me. I turn, to see the great Walter Gretzky dressed, of course, in his black leather jacket covered with gold maple leafs. Oh. My. God. Walter Gretzky. He had to go through security too.

Emerging from security at the same time, we were about to quietly approach him to ask for a picture, this was Walter Gretzky, we had to. But out of no where, with enthusiasm, came this group of 3 Italians, "Walter Gretzky! Father of Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player to ever live!" They go their picture, we did not.

This weekend, I was lucky enough to watch my niece partake in Wickfest, the largest girls hockey tournament in the world, hosted by none other than Hayley Wickenheiser. My niece had just finished playing her last game and we were waiting in the halls outside the dressing room enjoying the many arena smells. Purposefully wandering around was an older gentleman holding up a pen trying to find coaches to sign game sheets. This older gentleman turned out to be Tom Wickenheiser. Tom Wickenheiser...father of the greatest female hockey player to ever live, Hayley Wickenheiser! Oh. My. God. Tom Wickenheiser. He fills out game sheets too.

After not getting my photo with Walter Gretzky, I didn't get my photo with Tom Wickenheiser either. I didn't want to make a big deal, he was, in fact, looking for other people's autographs and had a job to do, I didn't want to get in the way with fanfare. But in that moment, and in Torino, I found myself one degree of separation away from greatness, and since it was those genes that spawned greatness, technically I was in the presence of greatness itself. I know, awesome, right?

My dad used to be one of those dads, wandering arena halls looking for signatures on game sheets, making small talk with visiting teams because that's what you do in tournaments. But meeting my dad will not put you one degree of separation away from greatness. Despite my Olympic aspirations and Patrick Roy obsession growing up, I never became great. I loved hockey, but growing up in a small town, I was ridiculed by all the boys in my class for being a tomboy. I had short hair and could out duel most of the boys in my class in any athletic endeavour, which didn't win me many friends. After finally moving to a bigger town, ringette became a safe haven for me and something that was close enough to hockey to satisfy my desire. With no girls hockey program, I wasn't about to be ridiculed again, not when I didn't have to be. But now, decades later, I have no Olympic memories except for those that I have attended as a fan. I still love sports, but as a adult past her prime, my focus is on commentary.

But there are gender barriers everywhere in sports and working to knock those down is a task not easily achieved. As a fan at Wickfest and a mother of a daughter, I couldn't help but feel excited for her future and the future of women's sports. But as a commentator, the cynicism crept up on me. How much money do women make playing sports? How many female sports analysts do you see? How many guest hosts on Tim&Sid were female? How many sports played by women do we see on TV besides hi-lights from the Lingerie Football League? The answer to all of these questions is "not much." But when I was growing up, the answer would have been none. So cynicism aside, progress has been made.

Last season when I went to a Flames game, I sat awkwardly next to my dad (who has 3 daughters) while girls in short skirts and tube tops scraped the ice during commercial breaks. I noted to my dad how the men cleaning the creases were fully dressed in a track suit since it's probably cold at ice level. He agreed while he shook his head, knowing full well there were many young female hockey fans in attendance...because girls like hockey too. His daughter sitting next to him loves hockey. Instead of watching women play hockey, fix holes in the ice or participate as medical staff, we were watching them be used as sex symbols. Like girls don't get that enough. This season, sitting next to my dad again, the awkwardness was gone: the miniskirts and the tube tops were replaced by a cold weather appropriate outfit. Progress.

But what is progress? Girls cleaning the ice? No. But being just as excited about standing one degree of separation from greatness regardless of the gender of that athlete is a really good start. An all girls hockey tournament is another one. Something that treats female athletes like real athletes; educating them on physical and mental health and showing them possibilities by scrimmaging with a University team like Mount Royal, or watching a professional one like the Inferno is an even better start. Braver than I was at a young age, Hayley Wickenheiser is attempting to push down barriers that I was too shy to even walk up to when I was young. And for all those girls older than me, the same age as me, and younger, I say thank you Hayley Wickenheiser. Being a female in sports is tougher than it looks, having role models such as yourself make it that much more real to all those girls out there who are determined to be great. I know it would have made a difference to me and it will make a difference to my niece and my daughter.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

They Are Who We Thought They Were: The Oilers

It's a painful thing, being an Oilers fan. It's a pain only Oilers fans really understand. Other fans, from other winning teams, laugh at us like we're a weekly Emmy winning sitcom that's been on for years, making our pain all that more torturous. This season is no exception. In fact, it may be worse. With hope finally on the horizon, it was dashed with an awkward fall into the boards. Karma cannot be this cruel, can it? Are we being punished for having so much success so early on? Now, with moral victories abound, the drastic improvements made have still resulted in one thing: losing. That much talent can't exist with such poor results, can it? Hamonic? Sure. Somebody else for somebody else? Sure. Just please, please do something.

This season began with optimism. It's not like Edmonton was planning a Cup parade or anything, but finally there seemed like there could be something entertaining to watch at Rexall Place. The boys on the bus had finally left and it seemed that logic and sense had taken over...or at least someone other than another boy on the bus. Of course getting Connor McDavid certainly helped with the optimism, but for once we didn't overpay in free agency, we made some sensical trades and what needed to be improved, was. I know, crazy. It was like there was a completely new and improved bus that was being driven by a completely sane and rational person.

But to say the Oilers and improve in the same sentence is laughable; a painful sort of laugh that is quickly followed by a whimper and a few tears. But this season, they have improved. You can see it if you watch. When they're in their own end, you don't feel like you're going to have a heart attack every 5 seconds or hyperventilate from panic. When they forecheck, it's not at the expense of everything else. And yet, they still sit in last place, the worst in the NHL. Would they still be in last if McDavid was around? Maybe not. But, maybe; after all they were still below .500 with McDavid in the lineup. But man, he sure was exciting to watch.

And yet the Oilers sit, quietly and patiently, in last place. Yes, strides have been made. Darnell Nurse looks like the stud defenseman he was drafted to be. Taylor Hall is becoming the leader they need. Leon Draistl isn't McDavid, but he's pretty damn good. Their defence has some experience and grit in Sekera and Gryba. And yet still they sit in last place. So close and yet still so, so, so far. A multitude of one goal losses have left the Oilers with moral victories that amount to 0 in the standings and more pain and suffering in a desperate Edmonton fan base. A fan base that is tired of being the laughing stock, the joke and the punchline. Edmonton is a proud blue collar city, a decade of losing is a painful thing to a diehard loyal lot.

So please, please do something Peter Chiarelli. Anything. For years MacT stood by his young talent and his #1 picks, but this group hasn't played a meaningful game past Christmas. It's time to shake it up. Yakupov? He could leave and no one would notice. Only being able to play next to Connor McDavid isn't something to hold on to. With all that talent, the Oilers needs are still plenty. Depth? Depth would be nice. Of course if the Oilers could draft someone past the 1st round they'd have some depth, but that doesn't help them right now. Everyone talks about Eberle being great trade bait, mostly because he is...who wouldn't love that guy? Perhaps it is time to really shake things up and pull the trigger on something major. While I love Ebs, I also love winning. Montreal has a fine crop of good young defensemen waiting to be plucked. The Islanders are shopping a stud that wants to come to Western Canada - which never's time to make something happen.

Seriously, it's not like at this point Oiler fans expect a playoff berth this year, but NOT finishing in last place would go a long way in morale. NOT feeling the wrath of every other fanbase for sucking and winning the draft lottery again would go a long way in morale. Since this year seems to be the year of moral victories, perhaps that could be a valuable one at the end of the year.

But what I'm saying isn't breaking news or even news. And perhaps that's what makes it that much more frustrating for fans. Edmonton isn't a fancy place. It doesn't have crazy beautiful things or high profile anything. It's in the middle of the prairies. It's cold. It's flat. Edmonton's sports teams are an important fixture in the City of Champions...because it's not a city of champions if we always suck. Thank god the Eskimos are coming around. There were a few bleak years there where everything was terrible. Now it's still, still, just the Oilers. Yet still, Oil fans are a proud, hardworking, loyal lot. The Copper and Blue goes to work everyday in the oilfield, on the construction site, in classrooms and in restaurants. We are all suffering. Please. Please. Please. Do something.

Monday, 9 November 2015

James Reimer Has Been the Answer In Toronto For A While

Growing up hating the Toronto Maple Leafs, there has been nothing more enjoyable than watching them struggle the past decade. And it hasn't been a struggle just in the wins/losses columns, it's been an epic, clumsy, decade-long, slo-mo stumble that's been great TV to those of us who will never don the blue and white. But, perhaps nothing demonstrates this comedy of errors more adeptly than the carousel in net. A seemingly impossible question between the pipes that the Leafs have been fumbling to answer has resulted in terrible trades, boos raining down from the ACC, and embarrassing gaffes from centre ice that we all still giggle at. All of this, when ironically the answer to this problem has been in their own franchise since 2006: James Reimer.

What else happened in 2006? Oh ya, the Leafs traded Tuuka Rask to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. Likely a worse deal than the Kessel trade, giving away Tuuka Rask has set the Leafs back a decade. And it was a puzzling move even at the time. The Leafs had drafted Rask the year prior, 21st overall (high for a goalie, but not as high as Carey Price), Rask had just put on a show at the World Juniors tournament, and the Leafs were not vying for a Stanley Cup quite yet. Well we all know how this deal worked out. It worked out so well that the next year, John Ferguson Jr. traded their first round pick (9th overall) to San Jose for Vesa Toskala, a pick the Sharks used to take Logan Couture.

Then it was supposed to be Justin Pogge - remember that guy? The guy that played OK at the World Juniors? Well that didn't last long either, because then it was supposed to be Jonas Gustavsson, bolstered by some old vets in Curtis Joseph and Marty Gerber. That didn't work out so well either with Gustavsson eventually being chased out of town with a damaged ego that has never recovered. Ironically now backing up Rask in Boston, the Bruins are dining on the Leafs stupidity. But then, in 2010-11, with the savvy vet role now being played by J.S. Giguere, James Reimer entered the scene. Making an impressive run at the end of the season and earning the nickname "Optimus Reim," no one expected him to amount to much. For some reason, even still, after 5 seasons are paying his dues, no one expects him to amount to much.

Yet, Remier continues to be turned to when all else fails, in this case, Bernier.

Yes, his numbers are not stellar, there's no denying that. But the Leafs suck, and have sucked, almost the entire time he's been in league. He has more than one season with a GAA north of 3 and a save percentage floating around the .900 mark - numbers that are not good for the NHL, in fact they're pretty bad. But still, almost 10 years later, James Reimer has been the only constant. Yes, trading Rask was a mistake - a colossal mistake. But then the mistakes compounded and got worse. Rather than being patient with a position that cannot be rushed, predicted or bought, the Leafs did all of the latter and are left dancing with the same partner they had when they started this mess.

Over the past few years, it would have taken a superhuman effort to have good numbers in the Leafs crease. It was simply not possible to play behind that team and not let in goals...lots and lots of goals. I mean, if Dion Phaneuf is your number one D-man, and your captain, you have problems.

Yet, James Reimer has worked his way up the ladder and now, at 27, the age most goalies come into their own, Reimer is starting to deliver. Only now, now that the Leafs are no longer epically bad (they're just bad,) now are you seeing the potential of what James Reimer can be. So, while the Leafs didn't sell the farm getting Bernier, did they really need him to begin with? Did they need Pogge? Did they need Gustavsson? Right now, when the going is tough, who's there? Reimer. Of the 8 points the Leafs have this year, Reimer has 7 of them.

So while the Leafs could have had Rask, the insurace policy of Reimer deserves a chance. He's been a hell of a policy and hasn't complained much behind spotty D, faithless management and scrutinizing fans. Bernier has had plenty of opportunities and has shown he has a talent for getting injured and allowing untimely bad goals. It seems obvious: It's Reim time. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Being Dumped by Anthopoulos Hurts - It Hurts A Lot

This hurts, Canada, it hurts a lot. For such a long time, we forgot we cared about the Blue Jays. We forgot how much fun we had when Joe Carter hit that home-run, and how great it felt to be watching baseball in October that we actually cared about. And then we were reminded, and it was wonderful. We were relevant again. We mattered. It was our GM wheeling and dealing and it was our team turning heads. It wasn't about the bottom line or term limits, it was about character and winning games. But now, after October 29th, a week after Donaldson grounded out to end the ALCS, no one knows what it's about anymore. Jays fans are left in a daze and to speculate after Anthopoulos has left the nest because it wasn't a good "fit."

Being in Western Canada, I woke up to this news and was devastated. My initial reactions were angry, and to be honest they still are angry, but my anger has evolved. I've rationalized and gone through the logic in my head many times, and despite my good sense telling me that I shouldn't be, I'm mad. I mean, it seems that AA has abandoned us, not the other way around. My normal reaction would be "screw him, we don't need him." And while part of me feels that way, I'm still devastated. It's like being dumped when you were expecting a proposal. It hurts.

Let's be honest, despite a good 3 months in the magical season of 2015, the 6 years spent as GM of the Blue Jays was relatively fruitless for AA and fans. While he's left the Jays field in good shape, their pitching staff is in a near state of emergency (and last I checked, pitching is pretty important in baseball). They are left, basically, in almost the exact same position they were to start the 2015 season: a bunch of rookies and youngsters as a pitching staff complimented by strong fielding and powerful bats. Where did this formula get them in 2015? Nowhere for a long time until a few bold moves by Anthopoulos at the trade deadline changed that. And yet, despite all of those moves, they still couldn't win with less than 5 runs to their name.

So, did you need Tulowitzki's bat? Not really. You perhaps needed his defence in place of a terrible Jose Reyes, but you already had that in Ryan Goins. Don't get me wrong, I love Tulo, but did the Jays really need him? To start the 2015 season, they needed one thing: pitching. But they traded some top prospect pitchers to get Tulo, a shortstop they didn't really need, to prevent the runs that were being allowed by sub-par pitching.

Now I was thrilled when they traded for David Price. Thrilled. No one was jumping higher than I was. But again, trading their top pitching prospects in Norris and Boyd will be costly, especially since Price will likely part ways with Toronto after the gong show just created by management. So AA filled a need, but, well, gave up a tonne for it. And they are still left in need of pitching for 2016, only now, their youthful potential is depleted making trades tough to make.

Let's go back a little further. R.A. Dickey. He seems like the nicest guy in pro sports and one of the best teammates, but yikes. I'll take the predictability of Noah Syndergaard any day over Dickey's knuckleball, especially in the AL East. Plus, while I love Russell Martin, Travis D'Arnaud is pretty damn good too. How about Mark Buehrle? Also, a really nice guy and a pretty good pitcher, but, did the Jays win anything with those two at the helm of the Jays rotation? Until this year, no, and until AA went and got some help in the name of Price, they weren't going to win anything again.

So all of this begs the question, if the Jays were just a little more patient, a little more diligent in developing their homegrown talent, would they be in the position they are now? For as long as I can remember, the Jays have always needed pitching, "right now." But in their attempts to get that pitching, they have constantly wagered their own.

Consider this, the Jays, just through the draft, could be going in to the 2016 season with a pitching staff that includes: Noah Syndergaard, Sam Dyson, Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman, plus all the youngsters you have now in Sanchez, Osuna, Stroman and Cecil, and, oh ya, Hutchinson. You still need to makes some moves and sign some veterans, but those are some strong young arms that the Jays would have for a long time.

Currently, free agency is the only way the Jays can fill the gaping holes they have. Unfortunately, free agency has not been kind to the bluebirds. Throw in this recent front office gong show and how appealing do you think the Jays are now to a free agent?

So Mark Shapiro, who hasn't even spent a day in the Jays front office, is starting in a difficult, if not impossible position. Hence, anger. It is likely this was a forgone conclusion months ago when they started talking to Shapiro, and again, based on AA's track record, can you blame the Jays ownership for wanting someone else? Someone who is known for being patient, for growing talent and making smart trades that don't mortgage the future?

With the release of the news from ownership that the contract offered to Anthopoulos was basically the same position, with the same amount of freedom to mortgage the future (except he would have been reporting to a different person in Shapiro), the anger takes an unexpected turn. Like all pro teams, there is only one sandbox and Alex couldn't share his toys. Yet another twist in this soap opera, the agony of Jays fans is being tortured with speculation and brief comments. Hints to why this happened but no real explanation. I've seen this before. It's called The Young and the Restless and it's ridiculous.

Yet, despite his track record, despite his unwillingness to play nice with the other execs, despite his selling of the farm, despite all of the evidence, I'm still mad Anthopoulos is gone. Finally all was right in the Jays' nest, finally. Why this year? Why at this critical juncture have we been abandoned by our leader? He could have given it a season to see how things were going. He could have continued things as status quo. Thus we are left to speculate, left to ponder...just how much does Alex Anthopoulos hate Mark Shapiro? Meanwhile, Jays fans are left hurt and jaded; dumped and left with the bill, but still hoping for a proposal that we cannot accept will not come. This hurts.