anighttoremember
There are events in life that stay with us forever, eliciting a “Where were you when…” moment. The Kennedy or Lennon assassination, immediately come to mind for our generation and from a sporting specific, the Henderson goal, the Joe Carter home run or even Crosby’s over-time gold medal winner in 2010. What makes historic memories so special is quite simply, they never start out to be that, in fact it’s the element of surprise that resonates with us and freezes that moment in time.

I was a student at Seneca College in 1976 and waking up that Saturday morning on February 7 it was like any other weekend. After a quick breakfast my pal Andy Tocchet would pick me up and we’d head to our part time jobs working at Sportsworld in Scarborough. The plan after work that night was to spend the evening watching the Leaf game with the girl I was dating. This was a rarity for me because my team played most Saturday nights. Arriving at my date’s residence that evening I was greeted at the door by the woman who owned the house. She wasn’t much older than us and we started a friendly conversation, “Mike I hear you are thinking of leaving school next year and just playing hockey in the States or Europe?

After acknowledging this was true she continued how I should really start working, to have something to fallback on if hockey didn’t work out and since she was a placement agent could direct me to some entry level jobs. It’s funny because I’d never had such a direct conversation about my future with anyone before, but she continued on that the brokerage business maybe a good start and had some good spots to send me for interviews. I then changed the subject asking why she was so dressed up, “Oh I’m going to the bloody hockey game and I don’t even like hockey, but just met this guy so I said yes. Maybe I should stay home with the girls and you go in my place Mike?

I think I even agreed to a wear a dress if that would allow me to go to the game but too no avail.

With the sound down and game on, I had an eye on the TV and one on the girl (you blame me) noticing Sittler was having a good night. I recall Ballard was chirping off as usual through the press and giving Darryl a rough time because the Leafs weren’t scoring and in a bit of a slump. He I figured still wouldn’t get over the fact he had to pay Sittler more for not jumping to the WHA a few years earlier.

It seemed that every time I looked at the TV screen they were showing Sittler celebrating a goal and during that time the score was not permanently displayed so I assumed they kept showing the first couple he was involved in.

sittler

The next morning at practice its all that anyone wanted to talk about and wasn’t until I got home, realized what really had taken place the night before. I remember thinking before the game started that the Leafs weren’t playing very well, Boston was on a roll, so my expectations weren’t extremely high for much of a game; needless to say I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My takeaway from that historic game outside of the obvious result, was the ability Sittler exhibited to overcome the immense pressure he must have felt from the media, fans and management to continue to produce at that level.

The feat itself is remarkable and unmatched forty years later; there is no question about that. But unlike the Bucky Dent moment, Larry Mize miracle chip or the David Tyree Super Bowl catch, those were one shot deals and quite frankly the last we ever heard from those players.

What I remember going forward was how the crowd erupted every time Sittler touched the puck, except the following evening, with hundreds of empty seats at the Gardens, he managed one assist but the Leafs won. Only in Toronto!

My takeaway from that historic game outside of the obvious result, was the ability Sittler exhibited to overcome the immense pressure he must have felt from the media, fans and management to continue to produce at that level. It takes a special kind of not only athlete but also person to over come such challenges and many an athlete has succumbed to the expectations that followed and failed miserably.

Sittler once told me he was baby-sitting Paul Henderson’s children during the 1972 Summit Series, then a young player trying to make his mark as a second year pro with the Leafs. Little did he know watching Paul’s heroics, that four-years later his career would change forever, including scoring the winning goal in the inaugural Canada Cup (I was in a hotel room in Vancouver attending a minor-league camp, when he potted that one). Darryl has said that’s the accomplishment of the most significance that year that also included being named captain of the Leafs and scoring five goals in a playoff game against Philadelphia.

I’d like to offer my heartfelt congratulations on an accomplishment that has stood the test of time the last 40 years. But more importantly aside from becoming one of the most popular Leafs of all time, Hall of Fame induction in 1989, Legends row last year, it is how Sittler has carried himself not only proudly as captain of the Leafs but as a person.

The words dignity, class and pride are adjectives not often associated with the athlete of today, but they sure describe Sittler too a “T” as not only a Toronto Maple Leaf but as a person and that folks is a record no one will ever break.

Ps…I just completed my fortieth year in the brokerage business.

canfund

I have talked in the past of the wonderful opportunities that have arisen as a result of my collection. Aside from the media attention, blogs, talk of a couple books, documentaries, the many athletes, politicians, billionaires and dignitaries that have visited, it’s the charities that really resonate with myself, Deb and the kids.

We support anti-bullying, road to conquer cancer, mental illness and depression, Derringers 13 days, MLSE foundation, just to mention a few. Another on our list is CAN Fund and we recently hosted our third annual event.

CAN Fund has been in existence over 10 years, founded by ex-Olympians Jane Roos and her husband Conrad Leinemann, who have dedicated their lives to help support our Canadian athletes. Our Canadian athletes receive funding that amounts to roughly $1,500 a month, that they use to live, train and support themselves. While some of our elite level competitors have some form of sponsorship, for the majority of the athletes, they are on their own.

CAN Fund distributes qualified athletes a maximum amount of $6,000 at a time which they can apply twice a year. However, they don’t always receive funding as there are over 800 needy athletes currently on the list for support, and there is not always funding for all who apply.

You may at this point be saying to yourself, certainly there must be more pressing causes in Canada than giving athletes money to compete and travel the globe?

We live in a very tough world that is full of hardship, terrorism, incurable diseases and the daily grind to just survive. The beauty of sports at an elite level, for that couple of seconds, minutes or hours allows us to put aside the harsh reality of life and lose ourselves in that moment in time. The event can take a whole different twist when the athlete or team is wearing the Canadian flag across their chest. This is one time we can unite as a country and be represented on the world stage with the chance to be the best. Nothing brings more pride to a country or make life’s miseries seem insignificant, than watching the Canadian flag lifted to the rafters in victory. Remember the Vancouver Olympics in 2010? The Sidney Crosby’s goal? Donavan Bailey’s 100 meter gold medal in Atlanta? But like anything we try too accomplish in the competitive landscape we live in today, not only victory, but also the ability to compete comes with a price.

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London my friend John’s daughter Rosie MacLennan competed for Canada on the trampoline, winning our only gold medal during the Games. I just like anyone watching that Saturday morning, rode the emotional high with Rosie during the competition, leading to the top of the podium while “Oh Canada” played and our flag rose high for the world to see. At that moment nothing mattered except the pride I felt as a Canadian.

Rosie as a Canfund recipient, used the $6,000 to have her car fixed so she could get to practice to train.

I spoke with John and asked if there was anything we could do to help Rosie with some sponsorship because the cost to train was so high. To give you an idea, Rosie as a CAN Fund recipient, used the $6,000 to have her car fixed so she could get to practice to train. Deb and I met with John, Rosie and Jane to enlighten us about CAN Fund and the wonderful work they did. We came up with a plan once Deb and I were comfortable how the process worked and that all of the money went directly to the athletes. (We will not support any charitable events otherwise and with all our charity work, every dime goes direct to the foundation.)

Making our way around our Room, Rosie suddenly stopped us, “Deb and Mike, I just want too really thank you so much for doing this for me. My sport doesn’t get a lot of attention and now that I’ve won, we are getting some notice. There are a number of athletes going too Sochi that could really use some help financially, would you mind if I shared the money you raise with some of them?”

I remember looking at Deb and saying, “Are we backing the right horse or what?

We have risen close to $350,000 the last three years and over 30 athletes so far have benefited directly from our events.

One of the perks for Deb and I has been to be a part of the “call” to the athlete informing them, they will receive financial aid. And what an experience that has been. These kids ask for nothing, never complain and everyone immediately asks what they can do to help. I jokingly inform them it’s mandatory that when they win a medal they have to come to our home and have their picture taken with me. Last year five time Olympian, Jayna Hefford who was one of the recipients of funding from our event leading up to Sochi in 2014, attended our event as a celebrity. I remember standing upstairs talking when I felt a tap on the shoulder and it was Jayna, who then directed me, downstairs in front of the Team Canada case, pulled two of her gold medals from her purse, “Mike I believe I owe you a picture.

Now on to this year’s highlight at our recent event. I was greeting early arrivals at the front door with Conrad when a cab pulled into our driveway, he waved at the car while turning to me, “Oh Mike this is Karine Thomas the synchronized swimmer we helped last year, remember when we called her? Well she flew in from Montreal to be here to not only support the event but to thank you and Deb in person for helping her.

Karine approached with a big smile hugged and thanked me for supporting her. She hugged Deb. Later that evening during the speeches, the athletes say a few words, show their medals and thank the people in attendance for the support. I usually end the speeches with a few words of thanks and praise for CAN Fund and our supporters.

The last speaker before me was Karine who spoke of her career, upcoming Olympics in Rio and the two gold medals she won at the Pan Am games in Toronto last summer. It was at that moment she turned to me and said, “And I really want to thank Mike for all you do for the athletes and especially me, you have no idea how much you helped me,” Her words started to fade as she welled up with tears in her eyes and at the same time took the gold medal from around her neck, “And I want you too have this because without your help I would never have won it.

The room went deadly silent and it was all I could do to keep my composure, never mind the fact I was speechless, which at the best of times is near impossible for those who know me. I could barely get the words out to express the gratitude for such a thoughtful gesture. Needless to say I wasn’t the only one in the room with tears in my eyes. One patron was so moved by Karine’s gesture he purchased a beautiful diamond ring that she was modeling for the auctioneer during the live auction and then gave it too her. Now there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Having now completed our third event for CAN Fund the experience just seems to get better year after year. It’s a rarity that every person attending and supporting our events will know the exact athlete that is receiving money as a result of our evening. That’s a powerful tool watching the Olympics cheering along with fellow workers while Dara Howell wins gold in freestyle skiing, knowing we helped in our small way as an example.

If I managed to hold your interest this long, then you haven’t thought about any day to day nuisance that will still be there the minute you stop reading. Isn’t it nice to read a story about athletes that not only care, are thankful for the opportunity to represent us on an international stage and want to give back?

Karine Thomas said we changed her life forever and will be forever grateful. She shared a part of her soul with me by gifting her gold medal and changed my life forever as a result, because I will carry this emotional, uplifting story until the day I die. How can you not support someone like that?

Anyone who has competed in a sporting activity from a very early age has been taught the principles of good sportsmanship, fair play and respect towards an opponent. Most of the same apply to everyday life and are basically common sense.

I do understand that when competition heats up, body contact accelerates and tempers have a tendency to flare; been there myself. The question remains and its one that may never find the correct solution, but when does a player cross the line or when is a ruling from the officials deemed too lenient? Who decides the “get even” or “appropriate” punishment delivered by the team offended? Simply put, at what point do the players take matters into their own hands and self-police the in-game action?

The common referral to self-policed actions in sports is often a result of a player not abiding by the code. So let’s examine the code and in no particular order what constitutes violations thereof; some examples would be as follows,

1. Showing “up” an opponent
2. Challenging a smaller or the team’s best player to a fight or running them
3. Fighting a player at the end of a shift
4. If the score gets out of hand, rubbing it in with excessive celebration
5. Running a goalie
6. Shooting puck after the whistle or puck into empty net after stoppage in play or crossing center ice during warm-up

These are some of the rules in the player’s edition of the unpublished but vital understanding for survival in the world of sports. Each sport has its own variation and you can see most of the examples above relate to hockey.

Like anything in life, the best way to get someone’s attention is through shock and the element of surprise, when the feeling of wrongdoing has occurred. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that to send a message to an opponent that you are unhappy with, progression of the game or when pure frustration has taken over, that violating the code might be the easiest way?

If we look at the antics of players such as Brad Marchand, Chris Neil and ex-NHLer Sean Avery, these players have made careers of violating the code through acts that can be summed up as cowardly. Why? Because they hide behind the instigator rule rather than face the consequences of their actions, thus in direct violation of the code. When Milan Lucic then with Boston, ran Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, it was viewed as a pure cheap shot and gutless (which it was) clearly violating the code. However Lucic to his credit, (can’t believe I just said that) the next time he faced Buffalo, took the challenge and fought the first player who stepped up to defend the honour of the code. The discipline of the code worked, as it should in that instance. But in the aforementioned examples, all that does is create chippy play, cheap shots, and hits after the whistle and staged fights. Yes folks for those unfamiliar, staged fights occur when tough guys fight just for the sake of fighting, serving no purpose except maybe to justify why they are on the bench and ready to go.

One of my favourite “breaking of the code” moments occurred earlier this year during the Jays/Texas playoff series in game 5 after Bautista hit the 3-run shot giving the Jays the lead for good and clinching the series. The famous bat-flip infuriated Ranger pitcher Sam Dyson, so he charged at the next batter Encarnacion to let him know that Jose’s bat flip was disrespectful to the game. Say what????? The code???

This clown Dyson serves up a batting practice pitch to the best home run hitter the last half dozen years and the only reason the ball didn’t end up in Barrie, it was hit so hard it bounced off the upper deck wall; and he’s worried about being shown up? He just single handedly cost his team an ALCS birth and he’s upset about a bat-flip? Whoa Nellie talk about mixed up values. That sadly is what sports have become.

Now on the other hand, recalling the night Kobe Bryant lite the Raptors up for 81 points, how about the code exhibited that game? The outcome wasn’t in doubt yet the Raptors stood back while this guy kept shooting 3’s with no regard about showing up the opponent but for total selfish, personal gain. He should have been decked, period! That’s what sports used to represent! The code failed.

We’ve examined a few examples at opposite ends of the spectrum but the result, sadly is still the same; the code is no longer an unwritten pledge the players live by, it’s a self-serving mechanism used to enhance reputation, creditability and a bigger paycheck. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because that’s what sports in general has become, which in turn is a reflection of how we live our day-to-day lives.

Some of us remember when things were pretty simple and the code while unmentioned was an integral part of the game. Run the star player, be prepared to take a pounding and fight the tough guy, run the goalie, same result, a pitcher gets lite up, next batter gets off-speed pitch in middle of the back or inside. A takeout at second breaking up a double play or close play at home resulting in the catcher getting run over are infractions the players used to police themselves because they understood the implications for there actions. Now the egotistical umpires think the show is about them; the coaches want to justify their existence; the owner even gets into the act to protect relationships with the fan base and on it goes. The sporting world is made up of discipline committees, boards, legal representatives, hearings and the message from the agent is very clear, if you penalize my client too harshly, we will seek litigation.

It is quite clear to me there is no proper answer to define the code and it has merely become an adjective to hide behind when best suited. However, the sporting world will still try to keep the integrity of the game intact to a degree and may I suggest one look no further than Jim Croce’s words from 1972,
“You don’t tug on superman’s cape,
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger ,
And you don’t mess around with Jim.”

LIKE FATHER LIKE FAMILY?

I’m often asked if my passion for collecting extends throughout the family or am I an anomaly in that regard (some say I’m an anomaly in a whole different world but that’s another story altogether). My two brothers became interested but more from a passive angle, however they did walk many shows with me and at one point helped manage our own table at memorabilia gatherings. Obviously my two children grew up around the hobby attending many shows, swap meets, flea markets and any outlet that may have uncovered an unknown treasure. They dabbled like most kids with the cards of their era, Pokémon and Barney, progressing to pro sports when they started watching the games. Ryan had a fleeting interest, preferring to play the sports instead and it seemed most of the kids he grew up with preferred an x-box over a box-set of trading cards. Andra exhibited a keen interest from an observation standpoint rather than an accumulation one, preferring to ask a question about the significance of a piece rather than acquire it herself although she developed a love for Disney memorabilia, acquiring some vintage pieces that remain a part of her life today.

Of my children, Andra is probably the closest to me when it comes to real passion for the collection. Our first show together I pushed her stroller around the massive aisle-ways at the National in Cleveland that included Gordie Howe giving us his cab. For good measure he helped us load everything in the trunk of the car; she was sound asleep the whole time.

The most memorable outing we attended was the National Sports Convention in Anaheim, California in July 2000; she was eight at the time. The convention center was a short bus ride to Disneyland so the deal was half a day at each. Now the trader in me had red flags popping up everywhere thinking I was getting snookered into a trip to Disneyland with an appearance at the show.

While she did have an obvious interest in Disneyland I found out very quickly that the sports show held her attention as much, if not even more than the family theme park. I should point out that Ryan who was three years behind Andra would attend shows but the minute we’d arrive he’d seek out his “treat” and then want to leave. Proceeding with caution to Anaheim I was prepared for some pushback attending the show.

Not only did Andra enthusiastically engage in all the surroundings of the huge show room she was an excellent spotter of pieces I was searching out. At one point I was in the process of negotiating a Notre Dame four horsemen rookie card and for the life of me couldn’t remember the aisle one of the few I was examining was located, “Dad, are you looking for that good condition Notre Dame card?” “Yes I am, why?” “I know where it is, c’mon I’ll show you.”

In a state of bewilderment I held her hand and she proceeds to direct me to the exact booth with the best-conditioned card I’d err we’d seen. The card is still in the collection today.

And so it began, she was barely tall enough to see over the top of the tables but nevertheless with superman vision sought out items on our wish list.

Not only did she discover items, Andra made suggestions of pieces that may fit the theme of our collection. When she visits the “Room” nowadays there are many items Andra watched me purchase over the years but it’s the items on display from our trip to Anaheim that resonate with us. That bond will last a lifetime.

It’s very apparent how impressionable our children really are and as parents we really set the foundation for them to carry forward. Andra is now a first time parent herself and will soon leave a lasting impression on her own child. Here’s hoping and praying that if I encouraged anything, is a new Leaf fan!!