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 :

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.

Marketing firms are licking their chops at the possibilities that lay ahead for Toronto Maple Leaf, rookie sensation Auston Matthews, and the sports card industry is no exception. Comments from dealers speaking about the impact Matthews is expected to have, projecting that his rookie card should settle around $150. The card featuring him wearing the North American, World Cup sweater was the highlight card but I recently saw one with a Leaf uniform.
The ancestor of the trading card is that in the late 1800’s they were inserted into cigarette packs to protect the product from bending. Kids would wait out the front of stores asking customers for the cards found inside the cigarette packages. They contained information or advertising about the tobacco company and around the turn of the century contained a variety of topics from nature to sports. By 1900 there were thousands of tobacco sets manufactured by 300 individual companies.

Cards in the past were made of paperboard or thick paper while today they come in every form including digital.

Here’s why there is such a difference in collecting. The kids in schoolyards played with the cards; they were placed in bike spokes, stuffed in pockets, wrapped in elastic bands or stored in shoeboxes. The old story of mom clearing out the closets or basements usually meant most of the cards ended up in the garbage. But it was a result of this that tightened the market for cards with less in circulation.

However, with the popularity of cards increasing dramatically in the 1980’s, the demand for product exploded. The card manufacturers flooded the markets with regular card sets but always looking for an edge (greed) added subsets, special cards, signed cards, gold, platinum labeled cards and one group cut up a Babe Ruth Bat to insert pieces in the packs. Some moron did the same here in Canada with George Vezina’s pads. Really? How do you prove they aren’t a $10 pair bought at Play Again Sports? Regardless all these promo type collectables are for the most part worthless.
At the height of the craze in 1990, Upper Deck became the card of choice because they started manufacturing cards made of a plastic like, non-bendable material in sealed packs that were laser cut, so never an issue with condition and centering. Previously the cardboard images were hand cut off sheets of players and placed in wax packages with a stick of gum. The wax packs could be tampered with and the gum could stain the cards. Unscrupulous dealers or collectors could open wax packs searching out the key cards and replacing them with lesser-valued cards, then reseal the wax pack with a drop of glue. Upper Deck’s revolutionary product ended all that, but also ruined the innocence of the hobby because collectors could make a few sets with a box of packs (usually 36 per) and have trader’s left over. Great but where was the excitement of building a set?

From the beginning of the 1995 baseball season through the 1995-96 NBA season, seven trading-card manufacturers issued 105 different sets of sports cards. Fleer alone printed nearly 2 billion cards a year during the boom times.

With the new age way to collect also came a price and no longer could packs be priced at 25 cents or less, because the cost to produce the new product wasn’t just cut off a cardboard pressed sheet anymore. As a result the collector must protect the new treasure and instead of placing a card between a couple of bike spokes or tossed against a wall, the new found treasure was handled like an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and placed strategically in a plastic card holder. If it is a real hot card the enclosure case was impenetrable enough to with stand a rifle shot.

I’ll give you a good example of card collecting and its market affect. Jaromir Jagr with over 700 goals, 1,000 assists, is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players of all time. His 1990 rookie card (Upper Deck draft) was one of the hottest in the hobby and traded in the range of $25 to $40 at the peak. He had seven rookie cards that year. Today those cards can be purchased for less than a dollar and the top card maybe a couple bucks. Sergei Fedorov was the same year as Jagr, became a star with the Detroit Red Wings and his rookie card value shot through the roof. Today most of his cards can be had for pennies and the top card maybe a couple bucks. Remember, he scored 483 goals, 696 assists, won 3 Cups, a Hart Trophy, Selke Award and six-time all-star to mention a few of his accomplishments. Mario Lemieux one of the top 10 players in the history of the game; his rookie card can be purchased for a few hundred dollars depending on condition but even then well below a thousand dollars. How about you Jay’s fans? Remember Roberto Alomar’s rookie card turning Toronto collectors upside down? That $100 card of the Blue Jay Hall of Famer can be owned for well less than $20 and the Donruss version, a buck. Juan Guzman was the flame-throwing star of the 1992-93 Jays with an 11-0 start. His Rookie card topped at $35-$40 and today can purchased for less than the cost of a gummy twist at a variety store.
The point of this exercise is to caution collectors to not become investors when purchasing cards of today’s up and coming stars. Hopeful stars like Mcdavid, Eichel, Matthews and Marner may have Hall of Fame careers (we certainly hope two of those four examples do) but all the card companies are betting they will as well and will flood the market with product centered on these kids. There is a term in the investment business after news is released and a stock doesn’t move. The news was “priced into the stock” as the saying goes, meaning the market anticipated good news and bought the stock in front of it. That’s what we have with the card industry since the greed of manufacturers in the late 1980’s. Remember the cost of that pack of cards you purchase today is also factoring in you may pull a “hot” card from the pack,’ thus the price of the pack is inflated and “priced in” before you’ve opened it.

Still not convinced? Having spent forty years of my life in the investment business I liken the card craze to the affection for diamonds years ago. While diamonds make wonderful gifts, the chance of your diamond purchase increasing in value is very slim. Diamonds may be lost but they are never destroyed, therefore every diamond produced may still exist. Now they may end up in estate sales, pawnshops or auctions but with a new setting, a cleaning, they’re good as new. Since the card explosion of the 1980’s any collector protected all the cards of significance. It’s the old supply and demand scenario and in this case all those cards I’ve mentioned are extremely plentiful. Even the greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, his card is still very affordable and very easily accessible.

Before you start shelling out hundreds of dollars for rookie cards of Auston Matthews and company, remember they are printing plenty of them. Never believe this “limited” nonsense because they are limited to as many as can be sold, besides has anyone ever counted them all? Of course not.

I’m contacted weekly from collectors asking the value of the cards they’ve meticulously protected all these years only to break their hearts informing them they are probably out money in most instances. I suggest they sit their family members down and talk about the great players in the collection and recount stories about why they were the favoured players. That’s what they were originally intended for; to enjoy.

A group doing a documentary on the trading card industry contacted me recently claiming that in the height of the craze 25 years ago; some of the card companies were releasing older cards into the hobby to keep the excitement high.

In 1933 Goudey released a 240-card set but only 239 were made available with card number 106 held back as a marketing ploy to keep kids buying packs of cards. The card number 106 featuring the retired Napoleon Lajoie was issued the following year and today like the Honus Wagner, is a very desirable card.

No one knows how many cards are printed every run including the Honus Wagner card. How do these dealers know someone doesn’t have cards that have never come out of a shoebox or trunk in Grandpas closet?

The other piece of information to check is the hobby price guides. Now I have always frowned on these self-serving publications but look at the size of the cards priced pre 1980 vs. after. The cards priced in the early years could be printed in the size of a small comic book whereas the list of available cards after is the size of an encyclopedia. That should be enough of a cautionary note alone that the cards are not rare.

Finally I’ll leave you with this thought. If you are collecting Auston Matthews’s cards because you are a fan, then purchase packs and keep your fingers crossed. If you are of the mindset that there is money to be made, then buy boxes of the cards and be an immediate seller. Believe me when I tell you the most money made on Bay St and Wall St is by being a good seller. It is certainly no different in this case.

Upcoming Event

Hockey Card Collecting
with Mike Wilson, the Ultimate Leafs Fan
L&A County Museum & Archives, 97 Thomas Street East, Napanee
December 3rd, 10 am
Admission: FREE
It’s all in the cards! On December 3rd, learn about hockey card collecting with the ultimate Leafs fan, Mike Wilson…


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Mike Wilson with Lance Hornby & Paul Patskou

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banner-cupAbout a year ago I received an email from Wayne Parsons who went on to say how much he admired our collection and the blogs. He also commented that he was quite a fan himself and had some items we might have some interested in. This has become a regular occurrence from other Leaf fans or collectors so at first I didn’t give it much thought except to thank him for his kind words. Wayne explained that his father was a longtime Gardens employee who acquired a number of items over the years and that there were some he knew we wouldn’t have. He went on to describe a number of items and then mentioned he had an original Stanley Cup Banner. Well as folklore goes, they had been used as paint tarps during summer cleanups at the Gardens and had been sadly all destroyed. (Cliff Fletcher had hung replicas to relive Leaf history during his tenure as COO, President and GM of the club. ) My immediate thought was, this was one of those and wasn’t that historic. Was I in for a surprise.

Norm Parsons (Wayne’s father) worked at Maple Leaf Gardens for 41 years as the upholsterer who happened to get along with Harold Ballard quite well. Norm arrived at work one summer morning during the summer clean up that included painting throughout the Gardens when he discovered the banners were missing from his 3rd floor shop. To his dismay he noticed that they were strewn over the seats used as tarps to protect paint from splashing. Furious, he then headed back to the shop and discovered one of the banners had been left behind were at that moment, Norm wrapped it up, stuffing it into a cupboard before it too was ruined. When Norm later informed Ballard what happened, not surprising, Harold couldn’t have cared less. Parsons mentioned he saved one of the banners and wondered what to do with it. Ballard said to throw it out because it wasn’t of any use and as he has done over the years with other items being thrown out Norm, asked if he might have the banner for himself. True to form Ballard blurted out an obscenity filled response okaying the request. Norm wrapped the banner up, took it home and presented it to Wayne who has held on to it ever since.

Wayne has made it clear he wanted the banner in a place it would be appreciated and preserved. We are not just collectors but rather consider our collection and purpose as preservers of Maple Leaf historic artifacts, so you can imagine my excitement when Wayne offered the banner to me. It’s all about the story and this 1962 banner is filled with all kinds of intrigue.

Process is a set of interrelated activities that interact to achieve a result. Process philosophy which regards change as the cornerstone of reality or praxis by which a theory or skill is enacted or realized, certainly seem straightforward enough and clearly fit the mandate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Upon further examination of the process the Leafs have under way, change has taken place with a number of financially burdening contacts dealt with or eliminated. The Praxis or theory has been laid out; first by Brendan Shanahan gaining the confidence of ownership, transitioning into Mike Babcock’s (with the help of Lou Lamoriello) playbook, that hopefuls with aspirations to wear the Leaf crest must strictly adhere too or they will be moved elsewhere. This thesis is irrevocable and it’s about the name on the front of the sweater not the nameplate across the shoulders.

Friday May 24th the Leafs took a step closer in the process with the selection of blue chip prospect Auston Matthews as the overall number one pick in the 2016 NHL draft. The previous year the Maple Leafs chose skill over brawn that consisted of a smaller group of players. This year Leaf management offset those selections with much bigger players with the mindset to surround the skilled group with some size.

The emergence and development of theses smaller skilled players was evident during the later stages of the NHL season. A number of them auditioned with the parent club, leaving management, coaches and fans beaming with delight. Thus the Leafs went off the grid with eight of their last selections focusing on players with a more aggressive and effective game.

The Chicago Blackhawks have a blueprint most franchises envy built through the draft, setting a foundation of youth, experience and depth that will ensure them a competitive team for a number of years. Sounds like the perfect model? Did you know that cornerstone defenseman Duncan Keith was a second round pick in 2002? Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford in 2003? Jonathan Toews 2006? Patrick Kane 2007? They won in 2010.

It takes time and that is the crucial component for not only the Leafs but for any success in the world of sports we have come to understand today. So why is that? Well the players are bigger, stronger, faster and better conditioned which all sounds great but what if a player can’t compete at the highest level? Anyone believe Phil Kessel is in great condition or any stronger than the next guy? If you didn’t know him, sitting in his underwear in a dressing room, would you differentiate him from Joe Beer-hack, playing for Buds Esso in the Art Thompson men’s league in Pickering Ontario?

Anomalies and the intangibles are left in the hands of the hockey gods better known as luck. You really think Detroit knew what they were getting in Datsyuk taken 171st in 1998 or Zetterberg 210th, the following year?

Maple Leaf management did not succumb to the “white noise” or frustrations that broke previous regimes when things became bleak. Instead, stayed with the plan laid out very clearly to fans that a winning 2015-16 season and maybe a few more to follow would be non-existent. It was part of the painful process we all must endear to enjoy the fruits of long-term success. The foundation to build a championship franchise can only be accomplished through the draft. Period!

Any Championship team is strong in goal, has an all-star defenseman and center. You may get lucky on a goalie through trade but the other two players are just not available unless acquired through the draft, simply because every team covets them.

The toughest parts for everyone from management to the fans is to stay grounded during the process, ignoring any short-term successes that may come as a result of the change. The easiest thing to do is to say yes. Just look recently how the media and fans started buzzing because Mathews wasn’t signed at the time? Did any smart hockey person really think the Leafs wouldn’t sign him? What people didn’t understand about the entry-level contract was it is incentive laden with goals that should be reached by a player of Mathews stature. Connor McDavid in a shortened season reached his easily and collected almost $4 million as a result. The process consists of the players understanding that personal goals are secondary; the only thing that matters is the name on the front of the sweater.

Think of Mathews being given six to seven digit codes to unlock the Leaf vault. How does he get to the seventh digit? Deliver! He is ranked a snick below McDavid and just slightly ahead of Eichel so it’s all up to him.

The Blue Jays are always a good example for comparison with the Leafs and they face a dilemma themselves this off-season with Encarnacion and Bautista both free agents. As I have stated in the past, the easy thing to do is to say yes and just sign them. That keeps everyone happy but does it work? Remember when both those players arrived about six years ago? They weren’t very good and looked like guys just filling spots on the roster and as a matter of fact they almost released Edwin. Who’s to say Saunders and Smoak aren’t the new Edwin and Jose? Offer both players what you think is fair but on your terms. That’s how you win long term and I hope the Leafs are paying attention, I think they are.

Steven Stamkos the most coveted free agent in many years opted to stay with Tampa for less money. Recall how GM Steve Yzerman balked at paying him after his entry-level contract expired and the owner had to step in and adjust the figures. Yzerman stuck to his guns this time around and Stamkos is still a Lightening. Tampa has kept its core players and is a favourite to compete for the Cup.

Nothing in the world comes without a price and not a bigger price to pay than in sports. The Leafs appear on track to building a team the proper way and piecing a team together can bring short-term happiness but won’t result in longevity or championships. The Leafs have built up a war chest of prospects but at this point in time that’s all they are. The 15 or 20 they have stockpiled including this years selections will be considered a huge success if four work out. That’s roughly 20-25% of your picks you hope give you a chance; those are casino like odds, thus why you cant move away from the plan and continue to develop to the point of overdevelopment at the minor levels for sustained success with the big team.

To be a Champion today, remember it takes strong non-interfering management, respected coaching; a lot of luck and this is were we the fans come in; as Axl Rose sings, “Just A Little Patience.”