“Every Battle is Won or Lost before it’s ever fought.”

That quote from “The Art of War”, attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu dates back to the 5th century. The subtle meaning is not lost on everyday life and in this instance our Toronto Maple Leafs.

In what we Leaf fans enjoyed immensely this season was the emergence of a young talented group, on the verge of becoming a real threat to compete for Lord Stanley’s Prize.

Auston Matthew’s skill set is off the charts; a talent arguably never seen before in the history of the Maple Leafs. Mitch Marner makes plays leaving anyone watching shaking their heads in amazement. William Nylander’s speed, creativity and puck handling is breathtaking at times. Connor Brown scored 20 goals while carrying himself like a seasoned veteran, and along with Zach Hyman, made life miserable for opposing defensemen with their tenacious pursuit of the puck. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner both elevated their games, showing real leadership on defense. The relentless energy of the young forwards brought out the best in veteran players such as Bozak, Kadri, JVR and the addition of Brian Boyle shored up the fourth line but also offered a voice in the room. Fredrick Anderson was the rock in goal that’s absolutely essential to be considered a challenger for the Stanley Cup.

The depth of the organization is the deepest in decades, creating competition at each position, putting the onus on the players to perform at the highest level.

After pushing top seed Washington to the limit in the playoffs, the off-season is filled with promise, a rarity in the last 50 years. However as expectations percolate; losing is no longer acceptable as a means to get better. Or is it?

The NHL is fast becoming a young mans league as teams constantly look to upgrade talent, for fear of falling behind the curve. While Toronto was the surprise team of the league this year, no longer will that be the case in the 2017-18 season. And as the young Leafs found out in the post season, the level of compete escalated beyond anything they’d imagined and became targets.

The glaring weakness in the Leaf lineup is on the blue line or more to the point in their own end of the rink. The forwards aren’t big and struggled to keep the puck out of their zone. This is a common problem amongst a lot of teams and one need not look any further than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburg Penguins, whose Achilles heel is in their own end with small forwards.

The big power forward is highly coveted, with availability scarce; Mike Babcock’s mantra since the day he arrived entails the need for players to have “good” summers, meaning in the gym, eating properly and getting stronger.

“You can’t let your talent make up for your work ethic”

The advancement of the Leafs is ahead of schedule, but they must stay with the plan; keep the young assets and develop from within. If an asset in free agency will fit the need, then by all means at minimal cost fill the hole.

The Chicago Black Hawks, the model franchise for success in the modern NHL, drafted Duncan Keith in 2002, Seabrook, Crawford 2003 and Toews, Kane in 2006-07; they didn’t win until 2010.

Toronto qualified for the playoffs on the second last game of the season but only had one regulation loss less than first place Montreal. The difference between advancing or going home, came down to a couple losses. The point is, advancing into the playoffs will be a challenge for all teams each year therefore it’s imperative the foundation remains solid and the days of “going for it” are extremely risky.

The concern we Leaf fans must prepare for, is that the chance the team gets off to a slow start next season. Remember injuries were limited, a record number of rookies played in excess of 70 games, a number of team records were broken and everything went pretty smooth. The fact that the team has depth will remind players to never take a shift off and do not cheat yourself in the off season. The coach’s strong message for two years is consistent.
No spot will be given unless it is earned regardless of the player’s seniority or draft position.

There are no shortcuts to success and accountability begins at the top with Brendan Shanahan. Free agency will be interesting with Polak, Hunwick and Boyle tough decisions for Lou Lamoriello because the easy move is to sign them; the bold move will allow a younger player from the Marlies to grow into the position.

Elite players find a way to overcome challenges and how quickly the Matthews, Marners and Nylanders adjust to the added attention they will attract next year will determine how successful the Leafs will be going forward. In that regard I feel comfortable that Leaf management has nurtured the expectations of the players the same way they have for us fans.

As it has been said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” – John D. Rockefeller

“It’s about the team, I don’t think about individual statistics.”

How many times over the years have we heard that line from players in all sports? Or another dandy, “I don’t read the papers.” Now in fairness, this isn’t to paint all players with the same brush because it is quite possible some may indeed not read the papers, simply because they can’t.

It got me thinking a few weeks ago while reading the sports page about the NBA and a few of the players lobbying for the MVP award. Well actually that’s being kind, Houston Rockets James Harden says he’s the best player in the game. Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers had already claimed that distinction while Russell Westbrook was too busy passing off an easy bucket to grab an assist to continue setting a record for triple doubles, to keep his name in the race. He claims he’s the winner regardless. And oh yeah my favourite self-serving athlete, Lebron James was “resting” for the playoffs while his team was in the midst of a losing streak.

Then there’s Michael Jordan at 50, making noise about returning to the NBA because the players aren’t as tough anymore and he’d dominate. In between calling out the self proclaimed “King James” (Lebron) he couldn’t resist letting the world know he was still the best ever.

Shaq suggested he was mad at Canadian Steve Nash for winning back-to-back MVP’s in 2005 and 2006 because he was more deserving. Outside of Shaq, these guys may be right, but how about concerning yourself with winning and leave the awards in the hands of the voters or fans? And by the way, let me be the first to thank you for doing your job.

Wade Boggs could be considered the most unassuming baseball Hall of Famer, yet epitomizes the word selfish in sports. Consumed by the notion he had to hit everyday to get paid, rarely would he sacrifice himself, move a runner by going the other way or try to gap a ball late in a game to help his team. I must admit I always thought of him as a great hitter like Tony Gwynn and it wasn’t until his marital problems became public that his self-absorbed behavior was revealed. When he hung on for the MLB minimum salary at age 41, it was simply to get to 3,000 hits.

Alex Ovechkin, star goal scorer in the NHL whoever, I’d classify him as the Wade Boggs of hockey. His team lost 5-3 but he scores two goals and he’s happy (in Boggs case it would be a couple hits). Ovechkin’s lack of respect for the Tampa Bay Lightning after scoring his 50th in their building, with the infamous “hot stick” antics, says it all about this guy. His 3-minute shifts, playing the whole power play, are selfish examples of why he’s a coach-killer and his team will never win. How can a franchise in the USA trade a 50-goal scorer that is the face and draw of the team? They can’t. They’re stuck with this stiff.

We get the point that while it’s great to be a team player and win, it is also about earning a living. When a player negotiates a contract, inevitably his statistics will become a factor in the process. But selfish greed prevails in these circumstances and the recently departed Blue Jay Edwin Encarnacion is the poster child for that script. He allowed his agent, who had incompetently misread the market for his client, to turn the fans against management. The public is used to morons like this, but it’s Edwin who’s to blame; he could’ve easily accepted the Jays very generous offer and stayed.

Scottie Pippen once refused to play the last minute of a game because the possible game winning touch wasn’t going to him. The minute the NHL announced it wasn’t attending the Olympics next year, Ovechkin said he was going anyway. Of course he is. He misses one game, suspend him from the league without pay and block him from playing in the NHL. It’s a privilege to play in the greatest league in the world and if so called Great 8 doesn’t like it? Go play in Russia; zero loss. My bet, he’d take the money.

Pittsburgh Penguin’s Evgeni Malkin is another beaut who will take nights off and been known to sulk if not playing with the guys he prefers. The sad part; he’s extremely talented and like all these guys, has become the modern “me” athlete.

Vince Carter, the day of game 7 for the 2001 Eastern Conference final, chose to attend his college graduation that morning. Raptor fans are aware this clown missed the winning shot on the last play of the game later that afternoon.
Two of the highest paid players in baseball at the time, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds, once charged fans $5,000 for a meet and greet with them. No, the money wasn’t directed to a charity.

Brett Farve was another one who wouldn’t let go and embarrassingly left the game a washed up has been.
Randy Moss in a career defining moment said, “I play when I want to play.”

We have our fill of jerks that call out teammates and it’s never their fault when things go wrong.

Guys like Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson and Lebron will use the word “we” in losses and “I” for wins.

A lot of these athletes miss the limelight, fan adulation, media and all the trappings that go with fame and that is sad. See Michael Jordan.

Jaromir Jagr defying the dreaded incurable disease A G E, is still playing in the NHL at 47. While noble and a great marketing tool for the Florida Panthers, it’s really about the money. If not, why did Jagr bolt the NHL a few years ago and now decide to comeback if he really cared about the league?

The world will always be filled with guys like above but with pro sports becoming younger, shorter playing careers on the horizon, the selfish self-serving athlete will be hopefully, minimized.

Having said that, most athletes have the self-centered gene to a certain degree. Even the selfless “team first” types are driven to beat the opposition, feeding their own egos. You don’t think players like Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Larry Bird or the late Gordie Howe didn’t have egos? They certainly did and it’s what drove them to greatness.

The difference between them and the selfish player today is that those iconic figures let their play on the ice, court and field do the talking.

Youth is not defined chronologically as a stage that can be tied to specific age ranges nor can its end point be linked to specific activities; like a 60-year old dating a 20-something; it’s just a number. I wish!

The youthful Maple Leafs have embarked on the exciting challenge to hoist the coveted Holy Grail; The Stanley Cup. The entertaining team enjoyed a thrilling ride this past season and now after splitting the first two playoff games against the powerful Washington Capitals, return home to a series that’s a best of five. Now what?

Pressure is defined as the force applied perpendicular to the surface of an object per unit area over which that force is distributed; similar to an Auston Matthews snap shot maybe? I noticed while familiarizing myself with the definition of pressure, that age wasn’t a factor or even mentioned.

The point I’m trying to make is all this nonsense about the Leafs playing with nothing to lose and should just enjoy the moment. Does anyone really believe that the players would actually think like that? The difference between them and the average fan is they’ve been the star player, go to guy, player to be stopped, expected to deliver, most popular and so on at every level of competition since childhood. What isn’t pressure filled about that?

Playoffs are an exciting time for all who watch or participate in the sport at any level.

The 60+ men’s league in Markham I play, games look in reverse at times, but come playoffs, you’d think millions of dollars was up for grabs instead of a $5 “Fruit of the Loom” XL- T-shirt.

The adjustment an NHL player has to make entering the playoffs besides competing is the mental toughness to block out the white noise. The added media coverage, fans, family, friends, the guy you haven’t spoken to since grade four looking for seats, are a few examples of distractions that can be overwhelming, no matter the age. It’s thought once the puck’s dropped, it’s just another hockey game or is it?

The game can be equally challenging for newcomers to the playoffs because the intensity level magnifies the further your team advances. The sense of urgency, fluke goals, bad bounces, clutching, grabbing, late hits, shoves after the whistle, guys finishing their checks, are ingrained in playoff hockey and after a few shifts, the elite players will adjust very quickly.

Discipline and confidence define the character of champions who adjust the quickest. The Leafs after some undisciplined penalties seemed to realize the error of their ways as game two progressed, with the confidence level increasing as well. Matthews and Nylander let their talents carry them as the game went on and while Auston didn’t have a lot of room because he was so closely watched, it opened up the ice for the likes of Hyman, Reilly and Gardiner; they can’t cover them all!

There aren’t any bad teams in the playoffs. NHL parity is the tightest in sports with the separation between first and twelfth a meager half dozen wins or so. Ask pre-season Cup favourite Tampa Bay Lightning how they feel? The Leafs gave up 15 OTL points this year (worst in league) and imagine if they had won half of those or protected some blown early season leads? They would have challenged for top spot and before you say it, yes I gave all the other teams half wins for OTL losses; the math still had the Leafs higher.

The window to win in any sport is narrow; the NHL is becoming a very young league and will only get more difficult to qualify never mind to win.

The 1980 Edmonton Oilers who squeaked into the playoffs did upset the mighty Montreal Canadiens who finished as the 3rd seed with 103 points vs the Oilers who had 74. That was an upset no question but was also the coming out year for a certain number 99. Just saying.

Make no mistake, upsets are the fun part of sports, otherwise what would be the point of watching if things always went according to rule? But that’s what whets our appetite as fans. The actual participants have a different mindset than ours.

Players are wired to win and there isn’t a man in the league worth his weight in pucks that doesn’t think once the post season begins his team has a chance to advance.

And as far as the pressure they may be feeling? Legendary golfer Lee Trevino was once asked after he was the first pro golfer to win the Canadian Open and CPGA in the same year if he felt any pressure to close out the Open to complete the feat,

“Pressure?” said Trevino. “That’s not pressure, pressure is playing a $50 Nassau with $5 in your pocket.”

After some serious consideration, I agreed to participate in a Celebrity game, during the World Cup last year. Beforehand, I’d skated with a number of ex-NHL players and friends of the group, consisting mostly of gliding on one leg, trying to stay out of the way. While I didn’t embarrass myself during the game, it was quite apparent work to be competitive, was necessary.

A few weeks later Andy Tocchet, a friend of mine, asked if I was interested in joining his team in Markham’s Over 60 Division. The previous year I’d casually mentioned to keep me in mind if he was ever looking for players. I confessed that I hadn’t played for 12 years and even after a few skates the previous month, still a long way from contributing like he’d expect. He mumbled not to worry and didn’t care when I mentioned Punchy, a childhood friend of ours, who is a great guy, but not much of a hockey player (that’s being kind) was probably better than me. Andy immediately replied,

“Yeah but you will get better every game, pylons will always be pylons. Besides, the most important rule on our team is “don’t forget the beer!”

My new teammates did a double take when I limped into the dressing room our first game that I managed to get through without coughing up the puck, or making any real bonehead plays. The extra slow play also benefitted my game, matching the pace extraordinarily in sync. I had that feeling a player never loses arriving home very sore that first evening, how much I missed the game.

To see any improvement, I knew it would take more than one skate a week and now play three times on a weekly basis. I skate with a number of fellow retirees; some who play 3-5 times a week and these guys can really play. Tournaments are plentiful and in February, I will be playing in the Ontario Senior Games in Cobourg, representing Markham.

Some of the subtle differences during my 12-year absence besides the obvious older looking faces, weren’t much different. Once the puck’s dropped, the competitive juices fire up, igniting the banging, hacking and hooking from both teams; all part of the game. Most infuriating is the slashing at the shaft of sticks, like lumberjacks at a woodchopper’s ball. With composites $150+, this drives me bananas.

I noticed our bench shorten as the opening game progressed, due to pulled hamstrings, sore backs or groins; players preferring to sit, thus avoiding further damage. Unlike years ago, it would be life and death to sit out a shift with a minor knick or sore, but at our older age, pains don’t fade as easily the next day.

Beer League Hockey is still beer league hockey, regardless of what age you are a participant and ours is no exception. “Going Up” is substituted with “The Duch” in reference to the Duchess Pub in Markham, the unofficial clubhouse and a staple for men’s sports in the area. A player’s evaluation in ranking (for drafting purposes when selecting the teams each year) is dependent upon his patronage at the “Duch” with teammates after games. A “third line” plugger who contributes to the camaraderie in the dressing room and “The Duch,” has a greater market value than the “superstar” who just shows up for the hockey, departing immediately following the game.

Guys point out it’s irrelevant if they win or lose, but surprisingly know the teams ranking in the standings; a common occurrence in beer league hockey. After all, first pick for the colour T-Shirt bestowed on the Champions of the League, is at stake.

Accumulating 12 minutes in penalties, garners a warning letter; crossing the 18-minute threshold lands you in the stands for a game. It’s fascinating how over the years, applications from guys that consistently don’t “get it,” are somehow misplaced or lost.

There is always that one guy who thinks he can still really dangle at the expense of the guys he’s playing with (doesn’t pass), thus no one wants to play with him. Best remedy for playing on the same wing as this hotshot is to go offside a few times on purpose.

Every team has that nuisance player who competes like the Stanley Cup is the prize and seems to regularly be in the middle of every skirmish. Yet this win at all cost player who acts like he has a handful of rings and a bio to match; is playing in the best league he’s ever played.

Every team also has that one guy who never has any tape, forgets socks or some piece of equipment, which is a laughable misdemeanor. However, arriving with no beer for post game is an unforgiveable offense. One of the veterans (tough to single out on a team of 60+ year olds) was extremely upset recently because he left home without his post game beer. He considered not playing, sighing it seemed pointless until a few guys came to his rescue offering to cover his shortcomings.

A beer-leaguer’s biggest fear while waiting for the Zamboni to clean the ice is the sudden movement of the dressing room door, sending an eerie silence amongst the ten players; the dreaded arrival of the eleventh man! The late straggler means one forward will work through the lines, and even at 60-years of age its still mathematically challenging for some players to rotate through six players over a 45-minute game.
After our game the other night, a very serious conversation took place at the Duch concerning an alarming incident that had taken place earlier in the evening. A player on another team apparently broke a commandment of the Code. In sports, the Code is a critical component of the game because the players police themselves. Don’t run up a score; never fight a player at the end of a shift, avoid contact with a goalie; mostly common sense. In our league, a code violation could lead to expulsion, i.e. another application misplaced. The individual in question prior to his game entered the dressing room while the previous team was still in the midst of enjoying post-game pops. The Code emphatically states no entry until 10 minutes left in the game; coupled with the 15-minute flood leaves plenty of time to get changed. This guy plunked himself down, informing the team it was time to leave, even though 14 minutes remained on the clock. He was severely chastised by the team’s captain. It was decided he’d be subject to a further reprimand from his own teammates with a warning if the problem persists, another future application may vanish.

The common denominator for any player is the competitive environment that exists no matter what the level of hockey. It’s what distinguishes the sport from others because of the challenge to master more than one skill (skating, passing, shooting). The camaraderie created in every dressing room is unmatched in anything we will accomplish in our lifetime. Only a hockey player who has experienced this feeling will grasp the concept. Rarely does a player finish a game, change and bolt without taking part in some of the post game banter.

In summary I’ll leave you with one thought that is undeniable; in beer-league hockey no matter whether you win or lose, you won’t drink any less!

Deb and I are involved with a number of fundraising endeavors that we are extremely proud to be associated, but our latest initiative has risen to another level.

Madison Ambos, a 3-year girl was diagnosed at 13 months with Cerebral Palsy and for the past two years her parents have been researching therapies and treatments for CP. Their tireless efforts were finally rewarded a year ago when they discovered a surgical procedure called SDR that cuts nerves in the Spinal Column to relieve the spasticity that causes difficulty in balance and walking. This also doesn’t take into account the constant pain Madison incurs, likened to a nagging muscle cramp. Katherine (Madison’s Mom) can’t remember the last time Madison had a pain free night of sleep.

The surgery once available in Toronto but no longer, is now performed by Dr. Park at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. The great news is Madison has been accepted to have this operation in May of this year. The bad news is the price tag of $140,000 that is not covered by OHIP. Some of the costs can be absorbed by OHIP if a Canadian Surgeon will sign off on the operation but its not guaranteed. The family cannot afford to wait because another opportunity might not occur.

If the family exceeds the $140,000, they will pass any additional funds to another Canadian family in need of this procedure; the fight continues.

Through numerous small fundraisers, donations and a “GofundMe” page, the challenge to raise the massive sum has been on going. We have a family connection and have followed Madison’s progress since the devastating news was delivered.
What has amazed us following Madison’s progress is the positive spirit from the family. They have rallied in unison (32 family members attend meetings to discuss fundraising) and not once was any “self pity” or “why me” ever posted or even discussed. It’s all about overcoming the setback and nothing but positive energy. I’m sure there has been many tears shed and every time I see a photo of Madison with her walker, it wells me up.

On Feb 8, we held a fundraiser at our house, and with the driving force of the Gregoire family, friends and the media, it was a huge success. We didn’t want this to be a down evening but rather a celebration that Madison will receive the funding needed and over come the challenge that lays in front of her. It was awesome!
The media exposure went viral and donations poured in from across the country and south of the border as well. Wednesday the “Gofundme” account was at $80,000; two days later sits north of $130,000.

Madison’s story has attracted mass public appeal that has been overwhelming to say the least. A number of families in similar situations have reached out to Katherine (she knows of a dozen) and I received a note from friend of ours who knows a family that has been accepted for the operation in St Louis as well. They are financially challenged to meet the $140,000 but because of Madison’s family efforts, they are inspired to move forward. Katherine will give them some guidance.

Sadly the fight is not over and a number of Canadian families need help with this dreaded setback. The fundraising is still open and we encourage people to push the number over the line. If the family exceeds the $140,000, they will pass any additional funds to another Canadian family in need of this procedure; the fight continues.

Deb and I would like to thank everyone who has stepped up to assist in changing Madison’s life forever. Feel proud this little angel will be given a chance to experience something we all take for granted everyday of our lives; Walking!

Madison’s GoFundMe Page : www.gofundme.com/madimovesahead

This past September, I was invited to play in the Phil Esposito Hockey Classic, by a friend of mine, who organized the charitable event, during the World Cup. I hadn’t played men’s league for twelve years after hip replacement and the other waiting for its day to be transformed into a fabricated steel hinge as well. After some coaxing with assurances I wouldn’t be the worst and the friendly contest consisted of guys my vintage, playing mostly in slow motion, I decided to give it a try.

Early in 2016, freshly retired from Bay St. and after some coaxing, went for a skate, convincing myself it was how retirees spent their days. It was a very short-lived comeback and wasn’t a pretty site skating on one leg, no hands, a fear I was going to fall over at any moment; feeling everyday of my 61 years. Admittedly ego played a part, because after a brief time many years ago playing the game for a living, this certainly wasn’t how I wanted to be remembered. From the look of the guys in the room after my disastrous debut, I was making the right decision.

My introduction to men’s league, oh lets call it what it is, beer league hockey, began 30 years ago, at the urging of my younger brother who’s team was short players one weekend. I’d reluctantly skated with them one night at MacGregor Park in Scarborough, and truthfully, the motivating factor was to see how bad they were, particularly my brother Paul. Needless to say I wasn’t surprised and chuckled during the short drive home that evening, how far I’d lowered myself to play.

Against my better judgment agreed to play that Saturday on the condition I played defense (normally a forward but figured with only four defensemen I’d get more Ice). Leaving for the rink that afternoon, I asked my brother the name of the team, “The Stones,” he said.

I immediately thought I would regret this day but at the same time could be quite entertaining, so I kept an open mind. It was extremely tough to do when I arrived at Art Thompson Arena in Pickering, an hour later.

Walking into the rink I passed guys leaving who’d already played, dressed like they were headed to an Ozzy Osborne concert, hair past their shoulders, cigarette in mouth or hand, awkwardly carrying hockey bags and sticks, in a very unconventional hockey manner. Still shaking my head in bewilderment, I looked at the chalkboard listing game times; the Stones were playing on rink 1, dressing room 4; taking a second glance in hopes of seeing a more familiar name like the Whitby Dunlops or Barrie Flyers, it still read, Stones vs Green.

I knew most of the guys, but not all by name, monikers from the previous year like Greenie, Streeter, JW and Smitty were now substituted with Buzzy, Speedy, Hoovy and Peaky. The Blue and White, Leaf crested, Orillia Terriers classic sweater, was replaced by a god awful Polyester bright yellow jersey, with black and red stripes, without a crest (I still have it). The manager of the team said, years before they’d had sweaters designed with the Stones “Tongue” as the team logo, but were late ordering for this year.
On the bench one of the coaches with the seemingly pre required long scraggily hair, got things stirring by screaming the team anthem, “Start me up”.

My first shift was into the opening minute and before I knew it, I was paired off with a guy wearing a wire mask (another first). Beer league brawls I’d learn were quite common, although rarely was a punch thrown but rather, loud life threatening verbal blasts. Holding this guy back, he persisted to get in the scuffle; instinctively I grabbed him by the mask, jerking him to the ice.

Once things calmed, one of the referees tapped me on the shoulder and quietly said, “You look like you’ve played somewhere so you probably aren’t aware if you grab a mask it’s a 3 to 5 game suspension, so Ill give you break.”

Following the game, the soon to be familiar phrase, “Going up” echoed throughout the dressing room as players slowly peeled off their equipment. This of course meant, upstairs for a beer.

I hadn’t realized there was a watering hole upstairs and like a good teammate headed “up” with the lads.

My initial visit to the bar at Art Thompson that Saturday afternoon, wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced before and unmatched today. After placing my equipment in the car and heading up the stairs, the noise level increased every step. Entering the lounge was a sight too behold, even pausing momentarily, stunned as the sound magnified to rock concert proportions and before me was a room jam packed, rock music blaring from a juke box, smoke so thick, the other end was barley visible.

Once I adjusted to the surroundings, after a couple of pops, it really hit home. Here was a room full of guys playing hockey with their buddies joined by girlfriends, wives, other friends and even parents, first watching the game, then gathering in the lounge for drinks and socializing with other teams; everyone having a great time.
This was pucks, beers and rock n roll!!

It wasn’t a hockey lifestyle I was familiar with, but whose got it right I remembered thinking? These guys played once or twice a week, made a social day and night of it; having a blast with their friends. Or be a dope like me thinking it’s below my level of play, sitting at home by myself?

I played for the next twenty years, the same core of guys and at one time, was playing on four teams, loving every minute. The most enjoyment over the years was introducing friends who played high-level hockey to the beer leagues. The initial shock was consistent, very much like my own and similarly most played for years and many continue to play today.

Where else but beer-league hockey can you find teammates that arrive as the Zamboni circles the ice before your game?

Played in a six period overtime, to win a Championship and even today running into guys who were at the rink that day, fondly remembering the chaos created with all the games backed up for hours.

Played against guys emulating NHL players; the Gretzky impersonator who wore his equipment similar, sported a tucked in, number 99 sweater, copying all his on ice mannerisms, was my favourite, but the Tie Domi wannabe was a close second.

Once, a player on our team dropkicked his helmet over the glass landing on the top row of the stands, after a non-call against him. What he failed to realize was he couldn’t play with out a helmet and not one of his buddies standing nearby would toss his bucket back on the ice. He then had to trudge halfway around the rink, walking on cement followed by a hike up a dozen or so metal stairs, before one of his pals then tossed the helmet to him.

I spoke to a guy who once played three games in three days over a weekend and never went home; choosing to sleep in his car so he could enjoy the post game cocktails eliminating the worry about driving.

Every team had that one guy we all hated, who wanted to show the world his talents, by dangling around overweight, house league level, usually hung over, defensemen. He would never pass of course and the one time in ten he’d make a play, have a quick glance into the stands to see if his girlfriend was impressed.

The tough guys provided the most entertainment by far however. The game of hockey is a contact sport even in non-contact leagues, but the combination of buddies, girlfriends, pre-game beer or a hangover creates a lethal sense of bravery. These guys challenged the other team, their fans, and referees but outside of the odd skirmish, it was a lot of posing.

Years ago, the opposing teams tough guy was up to his usual idiotic tactics, without throwing a punch and rightfully tossed from the game. Our crowd of faithful followers proceeded to give him the jeers pretty good, as he was a well-known offender in the league. He was exiting the ice with the crowd above hurling obscenities; getting louder, the closer he got to the exit. He suddenly flipped his helmet off his head and in one motion head-butted the glass that made a sickening loud thump. The jeering spectators, along with the players on both teams, watched dumbfounded at this spectacle. He left the ice laughing hysterically.

I played with a group of my close friends Sunday mornings that not only were the team to beat most years, but held that distinction upstairs as well. The league scheduled our games late morning, knowing the Shandon boys guaranteed a busy afternoon (the bar opened at noon so the lads would only hang around after games if close to serving time). It was good business not lost on ownership at Art Thompson.

The life lesson taken from the game of hockey, whether house league, beer league, or pro is the friendships cemented, over the years of dressing room banter. It’s the number one regret 99% of hockey players miss the most when out of the game. By the way, over the years, the hockey at Art Thompson was very competitive and became known for some of the best men’s leagues in the city.

The long lasting friendships I’ve made playing with that first group, the Stones, I wouldn’t trade for anything. I love those guys! We still stay in touch today. They exemplified what the game really means, play hard, be good teammates, back each other up and have fun on and off the ice. What could be more Canadian than that?

How often have we heard “Loves Toronto,” “Fans are the Best,” Teammates, like Family”, when a player is negotiating to resign with one of our teams? This could apply to any free agent in any city but we only care about Toronto teams in our case. Unlike AJ Burnett, who signed a big ticket with the Jays in 2006 and failed miserably, citing nagging injuries from delivering, until miraculously his final year with the Jays and free agency looming. Suddenly those nuisance injuries became footnotes; astonishingly this stiff posts a 18 – 10 record in 35 starts, a career high! That was quickly parlayed into a fat contract with the Yankees. He didn’t “love” us anymore, he just floated through his time in Toronto.

Al Leiter was another beaut with limited outings for the Jays because of a nagging blister on his finger. Really? Toronto stuck with him and when he finally put up a decent season, how does he pay the patient Jays back? He bolted as fast as he could, for a bigger payday. These guys are a few examples of players over the years that showed absolutely no loyalty to a team that believed in their talents yet exhibited no “Love” when it counted. Which brings me to our latest fleeing free agent, Edwin Encarnacion.

Without a doubt, double “E’s” posted great number after arriving from Cincinnati in 2009. Early in his tenure with the Jays, he was brutal, labeled “E5,” sent to the minors, and a 0-fer day from an out right release.

After a scolding from his father, a loss of 40 pounds, weight training, confidence from Jay’s management, and a Major League career was saved.

It was very enjoyable watching the mild mannered Encarnacion develop his game into superstar status with the Jays. However, is it a coincidence that double E’s never played more than 134 games (2011) until 2012 (151) when his contract was up for renewal? Hmmmm. The next 3 years those nagging injuries (ball players wouldn’t last a week in the NHL, save Josh Donaldson) returned until you guessed it, last year and with a big pay increase due, played the most games of his career (160).

I will not slam the player for milking all he can from the owners because if their dumb enough to sign players to David Price numbers, God Bless Them! (Boston will be choking on 4 years of that idiotic contract and as a Jays fan, couldn’t be happier).

But what irks me is Edwin’s agent Paul Kinzer speaking on behalf of his client, how much “He Loves Toronto” and Toronto management blew it. Really?? What’s not to like? Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, located in the best country in the World, with a fan base second to none in sports.

What’s more disturbing is the media and fans blaming Jay’s management for double “E’s” departure because they offered Edwin a contract too soon. Seriously?

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Shapario or Aitkins to start and believe Alex Anthopoulos should still be running the club, but I’m slowly coming around. This is a business and the Jays cannot afford to sit, waiting for a player to decide; they did the right thing and it’s about time. They made Edwin a great offer (the most lucrative it turns out) and when he delayed, the Jays moved on, signed Kendrys Morales who hit 30 home runs last year in a bigger park than the hitter friendly Rogers Center. Great move.

Anyone knocking Steve Yzerman for the way he handled Steven Stamkos? He’s in a more precarious situation in a non-hockey market like Tampa Bay than Toronto concerning baseball; yet he offered Stamkos the exact contract he eventually signed, months before he spoke to anyone else.

Despite what players like LeBron James and Michael Jordan think, they are not bigger than the game. The game will be around long after they are much to Lebron’s chagrin (you knew I couldn’t go a blog without dissing this clown did you).

The real culprit is agent’s like Kinzer who remember, gets paid a percentage on the size of the contract. This dope misread the market and when failing to do his job, used the lame excuse, Edwin “Loves Toronto” card again.

Why is it that Edwin remained silent? Keep in mind this guy cashed cheques totaling $50 million during his tenure in Toronto and unless he has more STD lawsuits outstanding, I’m guessing he’ll be comfortable upon retirement. Of course he “Loves Toronto” but its time for players to own up and be clear of their intentions. If he loved Toronto so much he’d still be here. This is on Encarnacion as much as the agent and yes I know they were playing the game of negotiations. Jays management realized they were being played and made their own move. With no leverage Encarnacion was left no choice, and his agent to save face, signed with Cleveland.

The key to success for the Jays is to uncover the next Edwin and Jose. Jose is another of our favourites who unfortunately epitomizes the ego of today’s athlete. In spring training he stated the number he expected to remain a Jay going forward. He arrogantly stated what a bargain he’d been the last 5 years, because he outplayed his contract. This coming from a guy who hasn’t played a full season since 2010; yes folks you guessed it, his last contract renewal year. Jose should think back to that last contract made possible as a result of one great year. Anthopoulos received considerable pressure for signing this possible “one year wonder” “another Brady Anderson”, “steroid infused season?” “Guy’s been a dud most of career;” to a lucrative five year deal.

Coming off a 116 game season producing the weakest numbers in his tenure with the Jays, on the strongest club since arriving in 2008, didn’t make for a strong case, sorry 19. Jose must come to the realization when he arrives in Dunedin this winter, he has that incurable disease befalling us all, A G E.

Except for the qualifying offer of 17.2 million he flatly refused from the Jays, 19 never saw another bid for his services. All was forgiven and Bautista resigned for one year at 18.5 million with Toronto. Jose “Loves Toronto” and is “were he always wanted to be.”

What athlete isn’t going to say he “Loves Toronto” playing here (well maybe Larry Murphy) with a new contract at stake? Who would be stupid enough to ostracize themselves from the fan base while negotiating a new contract?

Edwin may have another bang up year (I doubt it) but regardless; I like the fact Jays management made a stand and set the bar. The inmates have run the asylum for too long and it’s the fan base that suffers in the long run. One thing is true in business, you get the most out of an employee when you control their head and the quickest way to control someone’s head is through their wallet.

It certainly doesn’t help matters when a dumb ass like the Orioles GM Dan Duquette suggests that Baltimore couldn’t sign Jose Bautista because the fans hate him. Hate Him? He’s a walk off game winning hit, or homerun from them loving him and him “Loving Baltimore.”

We should remember one quality about players “Loving Us” can be summed up with this Mumford and Sons quote, “Love will not betray you, dismay you or enslave you-it will set you free”.

Some of us old enough to remember, can reference classic “catch phrases” from the 1980’s including, “Cheque’s in the Mail” or “Yes the Mercedes is paid for.” Folks I think its time to update the list to capture the essence of society today and what better way than through the eyes of sports? The above-mentioned phrases were more a reflection of the explosive economy creating a need to be relevant or pretending to be a part of the game thus becoming a necessity to baby boomers. Since the market crash of 1987 along with the continued turbulence of markets and the economy, pretty much make those comments passé.

Long suffering fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are enjoying a resurgence of this stored franchise with the blossoming of the young talent assembled under the watchful eye of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and tutelage of coach Mike Babcock. I used the term “young” to describe the “ New-look Leafs” because with nine rookies in the lineup they are still kids. However my problem with the word is that it’s become the new catch phrase every time something goes wrong or a mistake is made.

At the just played Winter Classic, with less than a minute remaining, the Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, Connor Brown had the puck at the top of the faceoff circle in his own end with complete control. He decided to make a short pass to Zach Hyman who was still inside the Leaf zone and as we all witnessed, disaster ensued with puck kept in and the game tied with 1 second remaining. Now this isn’t to pick on Brown because he’s been terrific and redeemed himself with an assist on Matthews OT winner. The point is whether a player is in first year hockey, Junior, Pro or Beer-league, he is taught in that situation to get the puck out. Period! Absolutely nothing to do with “ they’re young” and “ they’ll learn”. Once again the press and fans alike have created this built in excuse when things go wrong by stating, “they’re young”.

Remember when the Edmonton Oilers were considered “the team of the future” a few years ago, but making no progress, (until luck of the draw landed them McDavid) yet ,“they’re young,” “wait a few years and see how good they’ll be”, was the constant reminder for the uneducated. Today, Taylor Hall (25), Sam Gagner (26) and Nail Yakupov (23) all top picks, are no longer a part of “they’re young” progression in Edmonton.

I know its tongue and cheek with this analysis, but my contention is, once the puck is dropped, age has no bearing whatsoever. If a player is good enough to make the team, he’s good enough to compete with the level at hand. Do you think Auston Matthews stops before he goes into a corner and lets Sidney Crosby just walk out because he’s only 19? Mitch Marner on a breakaway can’t score on Roberto Luongo because he’s young? Of course not!

The other new built in excuse is, “When they learn to win”. This was once a punch line, and is now a thesis like analysis for failure. The number one way to “learn to win” is very simple; don’t let your man score. That isn’t a secret; it’s been the formula for longevity in the NHL since the game commenced in 1875. Ron Ellis was the exemplary example of this type player and why he has over a thousand NHL games on his resume patrolling the right side as a Maple Leaf for 18 years. By the way, the results are still the same; don’t allow your man to score, chip in a few of your own and you have a job. If you fail to execute this basic principal, then someone else will and you can “learn to win” watching from the stands.

The biggest challenge for most young players entering the NHL is that for all their hockey lives they’ve been the center of attention on every team, playing the most minutes, captain, and the main attraction. However, after a first glance around an NHL dressing room, the young phenom is suddenly thrust into a world of 25 players with the same pedigree as him. They too were the center of attention on every team from novice to pro. Why do you think later picks have longer careers a lot of the times? Simply because they had to make every team they’ve ever played on while the star never had to make a team because he was so good, until now. Why do you think teams spend so much time on the kid as a person, his family, upbringing etc. It’s more than just talent.

The game is very simple in principal, extremely difficult to execute, because the skill level, skating, strength and size of the players continues to accelerate year to year. We sugar coat failure with terms such as the “200 foot game,” “he has to be better in the neutral zone,” “has a good stick” and so on. We can use analytics, video, chalkboards and any means you choose but the bottom line is, win more shifts than you lose and your team will come out on top.

What is critical however, is that the coach and management not only prepare but also make sure the position is earned in the first place. If a kid takes a vets job, then he better perform or guess what? The vet will take the spot back or someone else will. Its incumbent on management to put the player in a position to succeed and this is the biggest role a coach can fill. Here’s a good example; Bruce Boudreau was a marvelous junior player for the Marlboros and natural goal scorer as there was during his era. However playing for the Leafs they insisted on placing him with fourth line pluggers instead of surrounding him with players to advance his progress as a pro. That time players had to work up the ladder, no gifts, which explain the difference in the game today. To be successful at anything takes practice and repetition. The 10,000-hour principle suggests that it takes this many hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in any field. Think of the hours a kid puts in from his first road hockey game, house league game, off ice training to the professional ranks.

I like to think, “they’re young,” means we as fans will have extended time enjoying the talent before us. With time they will learn to hold the puck longer, shoot quicker, know when or when not to rush and all the nuances of the game undiscovered; that my friends is known as experience.

How about we label our young talent with inexperience and with time they work to eliminate the “I” and “N”? Or as I’ve said before, kids like Marner, Nylander and Matthews have been given six digits of a 7-digit code to success and all they have to do is figure out the last number.