Oxford Dictionary defines superstition “A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”

One morning while living in Markham years ago and working downtown, I used a car service after a late evening the night before. As the sedan slowed in front of our building at York and King St. it suddenly dawned on me the driver had taken a different route than was the norm. It was my error not instructing the driver the preferred directions, so to right the situation he circled back to the DVP and drove my regular arrival route.

John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders during the glory years of the 1970’s and adamantly insisted that travelling to road games the team used the same airline and stayed at the same hotels. Everything was exact in each city, including room floors, taping and meeting rooms, dining Hall, bus departures to and from the stadium, along with the travel itinerary given to the wives of each player.

In 1984 Wayne Gretzky went on a 51 consecutive games point streak that actually extended 10 games from the previous year but wasn’t recognized. In this remarkable time frame Gretzky put up astounding numbers (61 goals, 92 assists, 153 points) and would go on to break the 200 point total (in 74 games) for the 2nd time in his career.
During the streak he wore his traditional Daoust skates, but constant wear split the leather heel inside the boot piercing his Achilles tendon, causing Wayne considerable discomfort. The Oilers training staff failed miserably attempting to correct the problem because usually a player would just replace the skates with new ones but double 9’s wouldn’t change. He wore them through the streak.

Between periods the late Pelle Lindbergh drank a Swedish Beer (had to be Pripps) with no more than two ice cubes in the glass, served by the same trainer.

Wade Boggs only ate chicken on game days and with 40 recipes to choose from his wife would make hundreds of meals each season.

Players are known for rituals that may seem trite or trivial but it’s more about feeling comfortable without distractions. John Madden’s anal-like approach to team travel was directing focus to the opponent rather than a player upset the Westin didn’t blend milkshakes like the hotel they usually stayed or the egg-salad wasn’t made similar.

Nothing defines the copycat world of sports more today than the also ran’s trying to match the winning formula of the successful teams. Five times Wimbledon Champion Bjorn Borg prepared for the tournament each year by growing a beard and wearing the same Fila shirt. Teams in the NHL (1980’s Islanders were thought to be the first) picked up on the beard ritual that’s become almost a pre-requisite to participate in the playoffs. For some players everything from sitting on the team bus, getting dressed, taping a stick, to leaving the ice, is a process Batters choreograph an approach for each plate appearance, from the walk up song to getting set for the pitch.
Patrick Roy talked to his goal posts during games; Mark Fidrych became an overnight pitching sensation with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, spoke to himself between pitches and manicured the mound to start every inning. Glenn Hall threw up before every start in goal; Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform every game; Gretzky drank a diet coke, water and Gatorade between periods, in the same order; Ken Dryden wouldn’t leave the pre-game warm-up until he made one last save. Certain players like to be last on or off the ice after every period; the Pens broke the supposed jinx of touching any Cup other than the Stanley Cup a few years ago, they won.

Throughout my career I refused to listen to the news driving to work for fear I’d have preconceived ideas about what was happening in the markets, choosing instead to play rock music loud. My objective was to react to the impact of what was happening when I turned on the News screens at my desk, creating my own ideas.

Incidentally before turning in each night, I religiously checked the wake-up time on my alarm clock and tested the radio 3-times to make sure it was perfectly positioned. I was up 10-minutes before it was set each morning and the alarm never woke me once throughout my time on Bay St.

It’s of no consequence whether you play sports professionally or are a part of the working world; we all have our own quirky habits to get us through the day.

On a daily basis you may wake up, have breakfast, arrive at work by car or transit, read the paper with a Tim’s coffee sitting at your desk and answer emails before you start work. Is this superstitious because you follow the same ritual everyday? Of course not!

Do really think because Stan Mikita used to smoke between periods and then toss the butt over his left shoulder it contributed to his Hall Of Fame career? Goalies who religiously clean there crease every stoppage packing snow around the goalposts; does this slow a puck from entering the net? (Some used to place snow along the goal line). During the 1976 Playoffs against Philadelphia, Leafs coach Red Kelly without the player’s knowledge placed pyramids under the bench and dressing room. The Leafs came back and tied the series but lost in 7-games.

According to scientist our brain represents, “3% of our body’s weight but uses 20% of the body’s energy;” thus the clearer the mind, the more energy to concentrate on the challenge presented. If you apply that to a professional athlete, by ridding the mind of distraction by a set routine, ritual or if you insist a superstition, then they should react quicker in game situations. It makes sense.

Failing that you could apply ex-Maple Leaf Jim McKenny’s approach to success in the NHL, “Half the game is mental and the other half is being mental”

Recently I posted a piece about collecting autographs as part of the hobby. While I’ve never really been a big acquirer of signatures (funny I have a few hundred) I get the attraction to collect theme autographs of 500 goal scorers, Hall of Famers, teams, photos, etc. My passion is more about the artifacts that carry the story of the piece than having it signed. If the signature adds additional provenance or closure concerning the item, then by all means if the opportunity arises I’ll have the player sign. Standing in lines, waiting outside a hotel or rink, have never been things I’ve done with respect to my collection. While most of my experiences have been nothing but pleasant with the athletes there have been a few that didn’t go so well.

Years ago I attended the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago and with the weekly pass I purchased entitled me to a couple of autographs. I didn’t really have any interest in standing in a line but my curiosity got the best of me and decided to see what actually happens in the line (nothing) and waited for Johnny Unitas to sign a football. I thought by adding a Hall Of Fame quarterback would not only diversify my collection but also broaden the scope of topics to discuss. After forty-five minutes passed I started questioning myself why I was enduring this painful experience. Approaching the table set on a platform and handing Johnny the ball, he looked irritated with zero interest engaging in any kind of conversation with me, let alone a friendly nod. The feeling was mutual believe me.

I started to ask Unitas if he’d write his Hall of Fame induction year under his signature, but before I could blurt half the sentence, the staff member standing beside him shouted, “Mr. Unitas will only sign his name, so move along”

That would’ve been fine except for Unitas’s snicker of disgust that I could be so stupid asking such a thing.

My blood was boiling as I said, “Geez I guess after standing in that line for forty-five minutes my simple request must really be a burden on you Johnny. Just so we are clear I’m not trying to date you, just a little courtesy on your part might have been sufficient. You’re lucky I don’t drill this back in your face, but you’d probably sell it”

That certainly got Johnny’s attention as we glared at each other for what seemed a minute but was more likely a few seconds. I gave the ball away.

Joe Morgan ex-star of the Cincinnati Reds had just started his career hosting Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and was a guest signer at a Sports Collectors show.

Again I had a free autograph and reluctantly stood in a small line to get Joe to sign a baseball. Approaching the table I thought I’d offer a comment about something he mentioned about the Jays on a telecast, but he didn’t even acknowledge my presence. He took the ball, scribbled his name while gazing in another direction making me feel like a stalker and a foot tall. Leaning over the table I said, “Sorry to disturb you but in case you aren’t aware, you’re getting paid to do this, at least humour us, Jesus.”

He looked through me and said nothing. I decided that unless a player was in the same room with me, I’d never ask for a signature again.

I appreciate they are busy (so am I) but clowns like these two fail to realize the reason they are seated at the table is because of the fans standing in line.

I’m asked constantly what certain athletes are like to deal with and if I ever feel intimidated? Never.

They are superior athletes at sports we all played as kids (and even as adults) but I always say give one of them a seat at a trading desk on Bay St and we’ll see who’s the star.

My firm was a major sponsor of the Special Olympics black tie dinner held every December broadcast live on TSN. It was a star-studded affair with Toronto society out in full force along with a who’s who of celebrity guests.

It was near the end of the evening and I was walking back to check on a few things Deb and I were bidding on in the silent auction. I noticed Raptors star Vince Carter who was having a breakout season, capturing the hearts of Toronto including our two young boys at home. Carter was standing by himself so I decided to break my own rule and ask him to sign the two programs I had for Ryan and Jules. Approaching I said, “Vince you will make two young boys very happy and me a star if you can sign these to Ryan and Jules.”

He continued leaning against the wall, rolled his eyes and said, “Really man?”

Stunned I look at him and replied, “If its too much trouble don’t worry, they’ll never know”

He snatched the programs, scribbled his name shaking his head the whole time staring at the roof of the Convention Hall. It was all I could do to restrain from ripping into this goof but I just said thanks and walked away a non-Carter fan.
Carter was paid to be at the event and mingle; it wasn’t like I was following him around a mall or interrupting his dinner at a restaurant. The look on his face was like I’d asked him if he wanted a dose of aids!

Players like Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Ernie Whitt and Darryl Sittler showed the classy side of athletes taking photos and signing autographs until the end of the evening. By the way, Shawn Green had been traded to LA but still made a point to attend the event even though he easily could’ve bowed out.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson was also at the same Special Olympics event and Deb’s son Jules was a fan of his. Deb bought his book in the silent auction and when Johnson had a free moment she approached him to mention what a fan Jules was and how much she was sure he was going to enjoy reading this book. Dwayne Johnson couldn’t have been nicer, personalized the book and passed a message along to Jules appreciating his support as a fan. Is it a coincidence The Rock is regarded as one of the classiest and truly “good guys” in Hollywood?

Most of the athletes I’ve encountered have a sincere appreciation for the fans and nothing defines a person’s character both professionally and personally than by the way they treat others.

Vince Carter is the same guy who attended a morning graduation ceremony rather than preparing for a game seven-playoff later that afternoon. Really Man!!

This same jerk quit on his team, played soft, sat out a game supposedly hurt but was spotted at a night club after the game and so on. Really Man!!

And they want to bring this stiff back and retire his number? Really Man!!

When someone is in the public eye I get the fact fans can be overbearing and demanding; it’s a small price to pay to afford the life they live. The public pays the freight and even though they have no financial interest in the team outside of purchasing merchandise and tickets, fans still think they own the franchise.

Fans Matter!

Maybe these Prima Donna’s forget they were kids once themselves and may have asked an athlete for an autograph or just a friendly handshake or greeting? The short encounter with an athlete can leave a lasting impression forever on a fan that’s either pleasant or otherwise.

If guys like Carter, Unitas, Morgan and so on, are so put out dealing with public life, then maybe they should say no in the first place? Oh but do you really think they would give up the money they are paid to attend card shows, fundraisers etc.? Not on your life would they.

I’ll guarantee when they get free meals, comp tickets, deals on houses, cars, boats or whatever it may be; they have a friendly smile for that fan.

A few years ago a friend of mine was escorting Jean Beliveau to a number of Hall of Fame events over a few days and was walking him back to the Royal York one night. Beliveau’s health was failing, it had been a long day (now close to 11pm) and there was a crowd of fans in front of the hotel waiting for the players to arrive.
My pal said to Jean,

“Mr. Beliveau I know you are tired so I have way through the back of the hotel that can avoid this big crowd and get you quickly to your room”

Jean looked at Kevin, “Thanks but those people made me who I am today and I wont disappoint them”

He stood and signed autographs for 45 minutes.

Last year I wrote about my return to play beer league hockey after a 12-year hiatus and the seamless transition getting back up to speed. Well that’s provided you consider the constant pain, knee operation and getting old, part of the process. My acceptance to the league was made easier by childhood friend Andy Tocchet aided by the fact that of the 300 players in the MMRHL, he’s probably had a beer with 299 of them!

I never realized how much I missed playing until I started again and liked it so much I’m up to 4-skates a week and once a week throughout the summer. However any player will tell you that competition aside, the real enjoyment of beer league hockey is the guys in the “Room.” Period.

Talent aside, the character of the player is the key component when the teams are selected through a draft in the off-season. At our one day Christmas tournament I said to Tocc, “I thought we had 15 guys on our team? How come we had 30 in the Room after our last game?”

Unlike any other sport, the post game beer rehashing a win or loss with verbal shots coming from around the room allows 15-guys in that moment to forget about anything that might have occurred earlier in the day. Priceless.
Unfortunately there is only so much time for the post-game socializing with other teams waiting for the dressing room so team bonding moves to another venue.

This may seem like a simple procedure but walking from the dressing room to the car can quickly change a guy’s thought process to just go home. Thus the next stop better be worth the effort, especially in the middle of February.

The Duchess of Markham (est. 1980) is a rustic neighbourhood English Pub located on Main St. within walking distance for a lot of the locals.

Upstairs is the unofficial headquarters for the Markham Men’s League with a horseshoe shaped bar tucked in the corner and table seating for around fifty. The upstairs is only open in the evenings and patronized regularly by the players in the league.

Like a superstar player that needs only a first name to be identified, the Duchess is simply “Duch.”
Players exiting the dressing room while nodding good-bye utter one word, “Duch” and the recipient without hesitation respond usually with a thumbs-up.

The straw that stirs the drink at the Duch is John Ruscetta the head server on the second floor. Johnny is a friendly, outgoing family man with a permanent smile and warm greeting to all who frequent the bar. As far as I can tell Johnny’s only shortcoming is his non-affection for the Leafs but rather the Philadelphia Flyers.

The second time I patronized the Duch, before summoning the server, a pint of the beer I’d ordered the previous visit was placed in front of me. To the average guy this wouldn’t mean anything, but bar etiquette carries a code of priority, especially ones first visit to a clubhouse environment. They also wouldn’t understand that everything from seating around the bar to ordering a drink is all based on seniority. It’s widely believed that hockey players are very superstitious regarding everything they do, but that’s not the case at all. Its not superstition; rather routine that not only applies to the way he tapes a stick, sits in the dressing room or orders from a favourite spot in the bar. Having been around the game all my life I respected the “code” and stayed away from the bar until I established who sat where along with the general order of balance. An “all-star” server like Johnny has a way of welcoming a newcomer like myself without disrupting the semblance of order with respect to the regular perched on his designated barstool. I quickly figured out who occupied designated seats (Bruce, Gerry and Hayden; the rest are first come) and have become good friends with them.

During summer months the upstairs bar shifts outside to the patio that is probably one of the best in city of Toronto. One Thursday night the patio was packed and the bar was four or five people deep, so I decided to wait to order because Johnny was jammed, but to my amazement I suddenly felt a nudge and one of the servers working the floor tables was handing me a beer. How he saw me I have no idea.

Dealing with inpatient beer drinkers I’m sure can be a nerve-racking experience and even with three or four teams in the room at once Johnny in “machine like” fashion, remembers every order. Aside from making sure everything on the second floor operates smoothly, seasonal NFL, NHL pools,” draws and lotteries are managed by Johnny as well. Even with this buzz saw of activity he still manages to have three or four conversations going at the same time around the bar. And if that isn’t enough to keep a guy busy, he still finds time to send jars of Italian sauces, hot peppers and sausage home with me because he heard Deb is a fan (so am I). All homemade of course!

One thing is certain that no matter what kind of day I’m having, I know arriving at my favourite bar I’ll be greeted by a friendly smile and a cold beer. To our humble barkeeper, similar to Stars known by name only like, Wayne, Sid, Mario and Auston, we respectfully include Johnny!

Like most sports fans in the Toronto area, I watched with pride as the FC won the MLS Championship last weekend. It was the second game I’ve watched in it’s entirety the previous 12-months, with the other being last year’s heartbreaking loss to Seattle. Obviously not a big soccer fan, I am a Toronto fan and cheer for all our teams. The Leafs are the number one favourite sports team in the city by an insurmountable margin over the others, but I wonder if we could see the order of preference shift?

The obvious number 2 and 2A falls to the Jays or Raptors depending on the sport of choice; bundled in the third tier has the FC, Argos and Rock. It’s extremely difficult in a large city like ours to gage the popularity of teams besides attendance. But maybe the numbers do lie? The Raptors sell out most of the season but while still working (2 years since retired) it would be a rarity for a client of mine to request seats to a Basketball game. As a matter of fact, when Miami with the loaded LeBron lineup played in Toronto the first time seven-years ago, a client took me to the game. At half time I remained in the Chairman’s Lounge bar and watched the Leafs playing in Buffalo. I wasn’t alone.

The consensus is the Raptors have a good team but is that really the case or rather the abundance of inept talent throughout the league? Toronto’s next six opponents have a combined won/loss record of 53/101 and won’t play a 500 team until a back-to-back set with Philadelphia just before Christmas (the Sixers are exactly 500).

The Jays temporarily won our hearts with some great baseball after the blockbuster trades in August 2015, but the bumbling ways of management are threatening to set the franchise back a number of years. The Blue Birds painstakingly won back the fan base after a twenty-year absence and they rewarded us with a 17% ticket price increase after a 75-win season. After 9 years as season ticket holders (we attended 50 games a season), Deb and I didn’t renew for the upcoming season. The troubling part is that no one from Jay’s management bothered to ask us why we cancelled.

The Argos during my youth was everything to all Toronto sports fans, because next to the Leafs they were the only game in town. With the emergence of new professional teams and unlimited access to games every night, they have become an after thought. True, they won the Grey Cup this year and made the front pages for a few days, but even a 50% increase in ticket sales next year will still register attendance below 20,000 a game. How many people do you know after the exciting Cup win a few weeks ago said they would buy tickets next year? I haven’t found one.

The Toronto Rock took the city by storm almost 20-years ago filling the ACC regularly and increasing interest at the youth level exponentially. Today they receive minor coverage and are barely mentioned in sporting circles.

That brings us to the Toronto FC who currently holds the distinction of “The Team” basking in the aftermath of a MLS Championship.

Before you shoot me down with the obvious “band wagon syndrome,” lets recognize an individual whose barely been mentioned yet put in place the foundation for the successes we are enjoying. Tim Leiweke. Remember him?

With complete autonomy, Leiweke joined the MLSE Management Team in 2013 and immediately made a lot of noise with at times, reckless abandon. But he got things done!

His mandate was to solidify management starting with hiring of Masai Ujiri to revamp a struggling Raptors franchise coming off a 5th place Atlantic Division finish in 2012-13. Under the rule of Ujiri the following year they improved from 14 games below 500 to 14 games above, winning the Division.

Next on the agenda was the tough task dealing with the jewel of the MLSE family, the Maple Leafs. With names like Wayne Gretzky being tossed around as possible candidates to lead the recovery of this broken franchise back to respectability, he settled on unproven ex-player Brendan Shanahan. The last time the Leafs chose the route of inexperience to operate in a pressure cooker environment like Toronto, it failed miserably. John Ferguson Jr. while respected in the hockey world, was unceremoniously tossed to the wolves and the predictable poor results surprised no one.
Both teams haven’t looked back since, although the honeymoon appears to be over for Raptors with weak post season play the last few years. The natives are getting restless.

The feather in Leiweke’s cap was the handling of FC and using a phrase from the investment world, he took a “bottom up” approach towards the fledging club, which was once voted the worst soccer team in the world.

Signing Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley to $100 million worth of contacts seemed at the time ludicrous but that was only the beginning. Leiweke fought for the expansion of BMO field to make it the exclusive home of the FC. With Teflon like resistance after the Defoe failure, Leiweke coaxed Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore into FC uniforms. Even a casual fan (like myself) understands the monumental contribution these two along with Bradley have made the past few seasons capped by finishing the greatest season in MLS history this year.

The real carrot in all of this is the message I believe Leiweke was sending to the sporting world. Everyone loves a winner in any sport but if a major organization like MLSE can spend mega-dollars on a team down the chain (FC), then the sky must be the limit for the core teams of the group? It reassures players that anyone under the MLSE banner will be not only be rewarded for exceptional performance, but treated as equals. It not only brings league recognition but also gives the city and fans hope.

The recent successes of the Leafs, Raptors and now FC, are attributed to strong management teams defining what’s expected of players, coaches, staff or anyone associated within the organization. Strong Leadership is the common denominator the most successful companies in the Fortune 500 strive to attain.

The Raptors played in Memphis last week and with Toronto trailing by 17 points a Grizzlies player decided to showboat a dunk and missed. He was benched and his idiotic antics lite a fuse under the Raps who rallied to win. People will say its “basketball culture,” but that’s a lame excuse for selfish, non-caring play and the said player sitting on the bench laughing while his team coughed up another loss is just plain disrespectful to the fans. The point is people are getting sick of spending money on spoiled athletes that for the most part, don’t care unless it’s self-serving.

It’s refreshing to see raw emotion from a player like the FC’s Bradley who appreciates the support from the people in the stands and doesn’t take the game he loves to play for granted.

Similar passion from players in the CFL and MLL exists but unfortunately for the Argos and Rock, they are missing the key ingredient for consistent success, Leadership.

The Jays baring a miracle at the winter meetings have another losing season in store for us fans this year, although they have rid the organization of numerous administrative personnel that must be the reason for team’s failure on the field.

Toronto fans appreciate hard work and dedication, so is it time we gave the lesser teams the opportunity to challenge for the number 2 spot in the pecking order?

Fans attending Raptors, Jays or even Leafs games, are they there because they really root for the club or because it’s the fashionable thing to do? I’m not referring to the “real fans” in the upper sections spending their own money and not on a corp boondoggle or business night out. The Jays proved in the summer of 2015 that the fan base would come in droves if the end product were worthy.

The Argos founded in 1873 is the oldest sports team in North America still using its original name and the Rock play our National sport of lacrosse.

There’s no reason the Argos and Rock cannot join the FC and become relevant again.

They just need the right leader to find the winning combination.

PS. After I wrote this piece it was announced that MLSE had purchased the Argos.

Now that flip-flops and T-shirts have been replaced with shoes, hoodies and jackets, the change of seasons is official. Driving to my Sunday night hockey game three weeks removed from a knee operation, I was anticipating how things may go, but instead the sprinkling of snowflakes across the 401 took my thoughts elsewhere. The Leafs passing the 25-game mark and the Grey Cup now complete are clearly signs that winter was around the corner but something was still missing.

With Led Zeppelin playing on the car radio, it finally dawned on me what was missing. Over the past few weeks I haven’t noticed a single road hockey game on the street or at one of the many schoolyards in the neighbourhood. It’s not a new revelation that street hockey has become a fading pastime, even illegal in some parts of the city; it still doesn’t make it any less sad to see.

In the fall of 1961, I was playing in the basement of our Scarborough home when my dad bounded down the steps with a bag of hockey equipment. He quickly outfitted me before making the 15-minute drive to McGregor Park for what would be a life-changing moment that day.

Looking around a stuffy, cramped room with a bunch of kids my age wearing the same sweater pulled over winter coats, dads tightening their skates, we all had that same puzzled expression on our faces. “Where the heck are we?”

Making our way onto the freshly shoveled ice surface with a crisp winter breeze filling our lungs, we were playing hockey for real. McGregor was an outdoor facility at the time so the slapping of sticks, pucks hitting the boards, the smells, seeing your breath, were all magnified beyond playing on the streets or running around our backyards.

At one point the puck ended up on my stick in front of the other teams net and with cat-like reflexes (more like a rusted door in slow motion) I slapped, make that pushed the puck towards the goal. What followed was that magnificent feeling of elation players experience when a puck goes in the net. Even playing 60-year old beer league today that feeling never goes away. The puck I shot that day hit the back bar of the square net, never leaving the ice and made a loud ringing clang (more like a ting) sound. Looking up I immediately caught eyes with my dad standing behind the goal who in a delayed reaction lifted his arms. Norman Rockwell had his next cover for the Saturday Evening Post, what a moment! The fact I was 25 feet offside and supposed to be playing defense, nullified my heroics. That wasn’t the moment!

On the way home my dad asked if I enjoyed playing and did I want to go back? I quickly answered yes to both; that was the moment!

I became obsessed with hockey, playing any chance I could, whether on the street, basement, or the local schoolyard outdoor rink. Most of the kids in the neighbourhood had the same passion to play so I always had someone to take shots with or start a pickup game. Granted it was a much simpler time with no Internet, game boy or 500 channels on TV as distractions. Our version consisted of tuning in the cartoons on the family black and white television, with rabbit ears for reception.

Today the game has become extremely technical with specialized shooting, passing and skating, motivated by the fear of failure or falling behind your age group if these vital fundamentals are ignored.

Challenges entering high school, not only in the classroom, but athletics, social activities and earning money with part time jobs are forcing kids to quit the game. The pressure of upcoming adulthood is tough enough for a teenager; why add the game of hockey with a full-time commitment and no end game? Those kids figure out pretty quickly that it’s more rewarding to have A’s on your report card rather than a hockey jacket.

But what if that kid is a late bloomer and never given the opportunity to find out how good he could become? Growth spurts, training, maturity are traits a late bloomer may develop or an early phenom may lose.

I believe Global warming has been impactful because in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, winters were long and cold, with lots of snow. Activities for kids were very limited so hours spent outside playing hockey, filled the void. The team each kid played for in competitive hockey was never a consideration because on the street or local outdoor rink everyone was equal.

The game of hockey at the pro-level has gotten younger, faster and more skilled; clearly the most competitive of the entire major sports today.
My concern isn’t the pro-level but statistics showing a significant decline of kids playing today. The cost along with limited ice facilities is deterrents limiting the growth of the game in Canada and that’s a fact. However kids lucky enough to play are encouraged by parents and friends, more as a necessity than for the right reason, to have fun.

There is something to be said playing an outdoor game of shiny trying to stickhandle around a dozen players on the other side. Most kids today rarely experience the thrill of playing outdoors therefore the passion and fun is lost in the demands of shooting clinics, off ice training or 3 practices a week.

About 10 years ago I played in a charity game at Leaside Arena and took my then 12-year old son Ryan to watch me play. I was very excited because it was at Leaside, I watched my dad play as a kid and knew the rink inside out. I recounted to Ryan how before my dad headed down the steps to the dressing room, he’d hand me 25-cents for the snack bar. I’d stuff the quarter in my pocket and make a beeline into the rink hunting for broken sticks, stray pucks or strands of tape to make shooting objects.

What made the Sunday morning trips to Leaside Arena even more exciting was Frank Mahovlich’s dad ran the skate-sharpening booth. Proudly I recalled hanging around his booth, hiding from the rink attendants trying to breaking up our impromptu mini games. A father cherishes sharing a childhood adventure with his son hoping one day he’ll pass the bonding moment along to his own.
Finishing my quick summary of life as a rink rat, I took a breath and waited anxiously for Ryan’s reaction; with his hand out for his treat money he said,

Dad why didn’t you just bring your mini-sticks from home?”

Dejectedly I handed him a toonie, he mumbled thanks, looked down at his game-boy and headed into the seating.

How many times have you heard someone speaking of their favourite team utter the sports cliché “they’re three to five years away?”

Now that the Leafs appear to have established a sound foundation through the draft, the logical query for the fan base is how long before we see a Champions parade?

It’s a very interesting request because the beauty of sports is the unknown thus why they play the games. Parity in the NHL is head and shoulders above the other Major Professional Leagues in North America which begs the question, “Who are the legit contenders to win it all?”

The immediate responses usually heard range from, 3-years away, they are “too young”, “need more experience”, “need confidence”, “missing a couple players” and so on. These are nothing more than “white noise” excuses to ease the burden of growing pains, but mostly losing.
Players play a long time before they reach the NHL and the concept of the game has been the same for 100 years. Out score the other team. Period. Granted, the approach, systems, analytics and training have all changed over the decades along with the player that continues to get bigger, stronger, faster and younger.

They say a player is young but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to play the game once he reaches the highest level because since the said player first laced on a pair of skates, he’s adjusted to the level of compete, speed and execution. The challenge is whether the new player can produce at the highest league.

Confidence is not something that just arrives by Fed-ex one day, its earned.

A student can show up for school everyday for a year but when an exam is placed in front of them, they implode. Yet if the student has studied hard and put in the time at the library or at home, the chances of success are accentuated immensely because being prepared is confidence. No different than the player who trains beyond his limits vs. the one who coasts through the summer. Who do you think will have more confidence entering training camp?

Sophomore jinx? The second year player has not forgotten how to play the game but other teams are aware of how quickly he adapted warranting more attention and if not prepared to push his level of compete; teams will adjust to shut him down.
The sophomore jinx is an excuse.

Management’s role is critical because obviously not only must they acquire the players, they must also nurture the team’s progress through the peaks and valleys the club will experience.

If a coach isn’t prepared, how can he expect his team to execute at an elite level game in and out? In today’s NHL, a player can’t hide if the preparation is substandard because as the game continues to get younger, the competition for jobs is at an all-time high and the depth of most organizations has never been stronger.

There is a fine line between the “win now” and “win at any cost” scenario because team fortunes are a bad bounce, break or injury, a shift away.
There is no time frame for a team to win today and yes you must draft well and fill in the holes with roll players. There is a growing curve, no question, but it’s much shorter than it’s ever been. I’m not talking about an instant Stanley Cup Championship because even the most ready team can lose at the hands of a fluke goal or injury but my contention is if a player is good enough to play at the level, he’s good enough to win. But like anything in business it all starts from the top and how management handles the day-to-day challenges and the attention to detail filters throughout the organization. Like losing, winning is contagious.

The difference between winning and losing narrows as the years pass and this past Stanley Cup final witnessed a sixteenth seed as a finalist. So the message is quite simple; anyone can win at any time and the team that wants it more usually wins. That same mantra can apply to everyday life but I’ll leave you with this great quote from Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock that sums it up,

“Never let your talents override your work ethic.”

The level of “compete” in the NHL has never been higher or more promising as team’s gear up for the 100th season a few weeks from now. The league continues to get younger albeit a few of the older signings over the summer may refute that statement but nevertheless. The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs on the second last day of the regular season and gave the first place Washington Capitals all they could handle; yet a spot in the Stanley Cup dance next year has no assurances. The Leafs a couple of regular season wins or losses from first or elimination weren’t alone with injury plagued teams like Tampa, Philly, Carolina, Florida all knocking on the door; they’ve all upgraded their lineups and will be in the thick of the playoff race this season.

The Western Conference is similar with the Kings, Stars, Jets all improved; remember Stanley Cup finalist Nashville was an 8th seed.

I believe the term for this is parity!

In the 2016-17 NBA season 13 teams were below 500 and 3 even board; that’s over half the league below 500 or barely even. Toronto won 51 games matching Cleveland’s number of victories, but was embarrassingly manhandled in the playoffs trailing a few of those games to the Cavs by 50+ points! Boston finishing two games better, experienced the same humiliation in the Eastern Final, making a mockery of the postseason. The Western teams didn’t fare much better against Golden State and the landscape outside of an injury doesn’t look any rosier for the NBA also ran’s. The league is a joke and nothing but an 80 game exhibition season for two teams (Lebron James has pretty much stated he’ll go easy during the regular season and save for playoffs).

Major League Baseball defies all logic and who says, “Money can’t buy Happiness” as the rich, continue to get richer. As a player, the logo on the front of your jersey better be one of a half dozen teams with a chance or you’re an innings eater for the big boys. Yes some teams will experience the unexpected lights out season every couple years and expansion of the wildcard chase on occasion make for an interesting September. But by and large 20 teams are done by the end of May most years.

The NFL while the most popular by a wide margin, finds itself in a similar situation as baseball. The field is tilted in favour of the same half a dozen teams year in and out (believe me I know, I cheer for the Bills). The game-day rituals, tailgating, house parties, office pools, gambling, short schedule, games once a week, dwarfs the actual game, unless your team is one of the chosen few. Brilliant marketing has turned Sundays into an event rather than the actual outcome for most of the league, unless you’re in a pool or have action on the game. This is unmatched in any sport.
But it still doesn’t take away from the fact that the product from an entertainment standard is decent, but the disparity between the upper and lower echelons is widening at an alarming rate.

While some may point out that this anomaly will correct itself and the NHL will slip back over time, I’m not so sure that will happen. The NHL continues to expand globally within countries like China who want to introduce the game at the school level of sport (or at least that’s the hope). They will ice a team in the 2022 games in Beijing along with a current KHL participant, a Junior team and a Woman’s team competing in Canada. They are currently hosting a couple NHL exhibition games this week.

The game continues to grow in the USA and the potential is unlimited. The game will always be popular in the obvious European Nations and Russia; if anything leaves the door open for a World League in the future.

Hockey fans have reason to be excited by turning on a game knowing the product is at an elite level for most of the league. Agreed that some teams like Colorado and Arizona are struggling, but the hunt for talent is opening untapped markets worldwide and with prospects getting younger, rebuilds offer hope. Limited expansion along with the league getting younger is creating competition for ice time. And because “young veterans” are losing jobs with the parent NHL team, it’s creating more competition at the minor league level enforcing the depth of today’s teams filtering throughout most organizations.

While the NHL still trails the other Leagues in popularity, the gap is starting to narrow. Fans are tired of selfish athletes like Lebron James or the other stiff Kyrie Irving that was upset he played under 23’s shadow so wanted a trade to be top dog! The domestic violence troubling the NFL, drug issues or even the Colin Kaepernick situation are embarassing and the bumbling antics of their commissioner to deal with these issues, magnifies the problems. MLB has similar problems dealing with the steroid scandals, domestic violence and drugs. The NHL isn’t squeaky clean but compared to the other leagues? They are angels.

Hockey fans enjoy the resurgence and growth of the game we all love and admire. It’s nice to share the game of hockey with new fans or even the casual observer who are finally waking up to the fact they are watching the greatest game in sports.

We are Canadian and don’t like to brag, but we already knew that!

Most of you that follow are aware a major part of our collection which has been deemed to be of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review has been acquired by the Canadian Museum of History, located in Ottawa. When the official announcement was made last Friday it ended three long, tedious, onerous, stressful and emotional years of negotiations. The response from the masses has been greatly supportive and for that we are forever grateful, however there has been some pushback from Toronto and Ottawa patrons.

The pressing question seems to be Why Ottawa? That’s Senators territory. It’s in Quebec? That’s Montreal! Aren’t these the sworn enemies on the ice? The Museum is located across the river or a driver, wedge (or in my case 2 lost balls and a drop) from the Parliament buildings.

Let’s be clear about one thing; this is Canada’s National Museum, located in the Nations Capital and has absolutely nothing to do with the Ottawa Senators or Montreal Canadiens. Deb and I carefully examined the many options that were presented to us and all the obvious players were considered. The Leafs were in transition rebuilding the fine product we are about to be presented with in a few weeks. Tim Leiweke’s departure a few years ago certainly didn’t help our process or the movement of personnel during that period, but we did have many conversations. MLSE lead by Brendan Shanahan have been nothing but supportive of our efforts and we have hosted events attended by numerous members of the team including Larry Tanenbaum and Mike Babcock and will continue to work with them moving forward.
The HHOF is in a different situation and a first class group that would have happily welcomed us but they cover hockey globally and that didn’t fit with our objective. Because they have to rotate the exhibits frequently with so many areas to cover, they couldn’t possibly commit to a permanent display. That is basically what the decision came down to.

Our goal is to have a permanent display that focuses on Canada’s contribution, past, present and future to hockey from a Canadian only perspective. We want to be a part of the initiative and continue to help build the program.
Canada has been instrumental in the development of the four major sports (much to the chagrin of our friends south of the border) and while an argument can be made either way regarding baseball, football and basketball, there is no denying hockey and the Canadian role.

How many of you know about the Coloured Hockey League founded in Nova Scotia in 1895 that operated until 1925? It employed 400 African Canadians, was credited with the first slapshot used in a game and allowed goaltenders to leave their feet to cover a puck.

We have a Canadian National Team for the deaf (I’m in process of setting a day for them to visit) along with a league for the blind. What do we know about the aboriginal contribution to the game of hockey? With the demographic of Canada changing, diversity certainly has played a role in the advancement of the game.
The Women’s game has grown organically and internationally; a team from Beijing will compete in the CWHL this year challenging for the Clarkson Cup as the league expands.

The game is much more than the seven NHL teams, the National men and women’s programs; how about the development at the grassroots level?

Our dream to have a permanent site that addresses the game from everything Canadian is very possible at the Museum of History; they have the space, time, location and ingenuity to see this through to fruition. The HHOF has enough to continue their great work on all things pertaining to hockey including internationally covering the Olympics, World Championships and European Leagues.

The Canadian Museum of History should be our version of the Smithsonian. Period. They have as I mentioned earlier, deemed our collection to contain “historical artifacts of National importance.” Researchers, historians and fans alike should have the opportunity to view these items along with hundreds from the archives.

The Museum hosts over 1 million visitors a year; the “Hockey More Than Just a Game” exhibit will draw 200,000 visitors when it ends its 6 month run the first week of October this year. In November it’ll open in Montreal followed by Winnipeg; negotiations with other locations are on going. I suggested to the Museum, Beijing as a possible destination; the game continues to grow in that country exponentially leading up to the 2022 Olympics. During the past NHL final the Chinese TV feed averaged 22 million a game; our networks are over the moon with 4-5 million.

Sadly my dream like anything at this level takes time and the ever present elephant in the room, funding. What doesn’t? A proud Canadian has to start the ball rolling on this initiative and I plan to spearhead this project to find the means.

I firmly believe a permanent display on Canada’s role in sports, lead by Hockey of course, will one day be realized and my collection, which also includes Team Canada artifacts along with numerous historic Wayne Gretzky items, will be the foundation to build.

So have the faith folks and think long term, because nothing bridges the gap of unity in Canada more than Hockey.

As I said in Ottawa on Friday it’s about time we step up and take pride in the great game of Hockey and our contribution, because nothing identifies us more as Canadians or defines us more as a nation.