Saturday, 27 April 2013

Canada’s greatest basketball moment

Jay Triano
Eli Pasquale
Tony Simms

Karl Tilleman
Gerald Kazanowski in white
Long before Steve Nash, and Jamal Magloire, and all those other Canadians who played in the NBA, and long before the NBA returned to Canada in 1995 with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, there was a group of relatively unknown Canadians who shocked the basketball world.

Shocking the world
The year was 1983, and the setting was the World University Games in Edmonton, Alberta. The Canadian men's basketball team was assembled from a group of college players, mostly from Canadian schools, but also a few American NCAA schools. At the time, the University of Victoria Vikings ruled men's basketball, and they were well-represented at the Universiade.

The team was coached by Jack Donohue, who had more success with the Canadian national team in international play than any other coach. He took them to fourth place finishes in the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games. No one knows what could have happened in 1980, but Canada chose to boycott the games that year, held in Moscow, over the Soviet Union's aggression in Afghanistan. He also coached Lew Alcindor in high school. Alcindor would go on to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest college and professional players in history.

The heavily-favoured team from
the USA, loaded with talent
There is not a lot of information readily available on the 1983 World University Games tournament. We pick up the story after Canada managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals.

Awaiting them were the heavily-favoured and star-studded team from the United States. According to USA Basketball, the Americans had captured four straight gold medals and were loaded with talent. The team featured Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Johnny Dawkins, Ed Pinckney, and Kevin Willis. They cruised to the semi-finals with five straight wins, including a 156-75 win over Lebanon. In fact, the Americans hit or surpassed 100 points in each of their first four games. Their first test came against Cuba, but the U.S. still won by 15. This team averaged 112.7 points and had six players average in double figures.

Back in those days, unfortunately, it was before TSN or Sportsnet, so there was no wall-to-wall sports coverage. We missed the game that shocked the world. In front of 10,000 fans at the Butterdome in Edmonton, Canada defeated that world powerhouse the United States of America. It was not even that close, as Canada won by a score of 85-77, connecting on 29 of 40 free throws.

The win put them in the gold medal game against Yugoslavia, who was led by future NBA star Drazen Petrovic. By then, the Canadian team had drawn some attention. The game was broadcast on CBC, and I stayed up relatively late to watch it. So, on the campus of the University of Alberta, on a warm Saturday night, a group led by players with names such as Pasquale, Triano, Wiltjer, Kazanowski, and Tilleman, Team Canada claimed gold by defeating Yugoslavia, by a score of 83-68.

Greg Wiltjer
Bill Wennington
Relative obscurity
It is a crime that so few people know about this team, and their tremendous achievement. There is no information readily available on the Internet, and barely a mention from Basketball Canada. This team won a major international tournament, unlike any other Canadian men's team. It is true many of the players from this team would take fourth the next year at the Olympics, and that team has been inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet, this team won, and no one knows it. They were loaded with talent as well, and virtually all the top players were drafted by NBA teams. Consider this:

Eli Pasquale – Drafted in the fifth round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Seattle Super Sonics, and played professionally in Argentina and Europe.

Jay Triano – Drafted in the eighth round of the 1981 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, and played professionally in Mexico and Turkey. He went on to coach the Toronto Raptors, and is in his second stint as head coach of the Canadian national team.

Greg Wiltjer – Drafted in the second round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, playing professionally for 12 seasons in Italy, Spain, and Greece. His son Kyle currently plays for the Kentucky Wildcats.

Howard Kelsey
Danny Meagher
Gerald Kazanowski – Drafted in the seventh round of the 1983 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, and played professionally for teams all over Europe including Spain, and Argentina and Mexico.

Karl Tilleman – Drafted in the fourth round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets.

Danny Meagher – Drafted in the sixth round of the 1985 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, playing professionally overseas for eight years in Europe.

Bill Wennington – Drafted in the first round of the 1985 NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks, and would go on to win three NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls.

Howard Kelsey – Played professionally in Mexico, and now is heavily involved in Basketball Canada.

Tony Simms – Drafted in the sixth round of the 1983 NBA draft by the New York Knicks.

As much talent as the Americans had, that was not on the team, Canada had had two first-round picks who could have played for them as well: Leo Rautins and Stewart Granger.

Parting thoughts
It's funny how things can stick with you. I remember this team so well, and it has been 30 years since they won that gold medal. I remember the way Pasquale controlled the tempo of the game, and how Kazanowski dominated the boards. He wore this big bandage on his chin from a cut he suffered in a previous game. He also had this uncanny ability to find the open man, especially with the baseball pass. The announcers even said he had become proficient at it at UVic where he often connected with his brother. Wiltjer was another great post player, and Triano was the perfect complement to Pasquale in the back court. Tilleman was the one I knew best from his time at the University of Calgary. He was just a deadly outside shooter. As I watched that gold medal game, I hoped so bad he would play, and he did, but not that much. He was a guard too, and it was difficult to displace Pasquale and Triano.

Recently I just realized something as well. Four short years after the Canadians won gold, I was playing basketball on that same court when I attended the University of Alberta. A year after that, I was even playing ball wearing a UVic sweater, a gift from my sister who went there in 1988.

Anyway, maybe some day the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame will see how important this team really was and induct them. After all, they are some of the few Canadians who can call themselves champions. They provided Canada's greatest basketball moment – ever.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Canada’s best soccer team – ever

The 1986 Canadian World Cup soccer team on June 9, 1986. In back from left are Bruce Wilson; Ian Bridge; Dale Mitchell; Randy Samuel; Bob Lenarduzzi; and Gerry Gray; while in front from left are Carl Valentine; Dave Norman; Tino Lettieri; Randy Ragan; and Paul James.

The 1986 Canadian World Cup soccer team on June 2, 1986. In back from left are Bob Lenarduzzi; Ian Bridge; Paul Dolan; Igor Vrablic; Randy Samuel; and Randy Ragan; while in front from left are Dave Norman; Bruce Wilson; Carl Valentine; Paul James; and Mike Sweeney.
It is so easy to dismiss the past. Today, with professional soccer teams in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal in the best soccer league in North America, It is easy to forget that no matter what they achieve, to this day only one Canadian men’s soccer team has qualified for the World Cup: the 1986 team.

Canadian Goalkeeper Tino Lettieri makes a save.
Check out the CBC Sportsweekend sign behind him.

They seemed to be the only broadcaster of Team
Canada games.
Tino Lettieri, my favourite
soccer player ever
Over the years much has been made about the fact they did not even score a goal in the World Cup, held in Mexico in 1986. The answer to those critics is easy: what have you done? Until another team qualifies for the world’s most elite soccer tournament, everyone is second best. Anyone who criticizes that team really should criticize everyone who came after them for failing to build on their groundbreaking victory.

We are the champions
I remember that team well, especially their goalie the catlike Tino Lettieri (He used to have a stuffed parrot for good luck by his net). Canada benefitted from the fact we had various professional leagues, be it the North American Soccer League, and later the Canadian Soccer League, as well as indoor leagues and other incarnations of pro soccer. It gave players the competition they needed to develop. Our growth was retarded without any such league until the A-League and United Soccer League came along, and finally Major League Soccer.

That qualification in 1985 was an amazing run.

In the first round, Canada was in Group 2 along with Guatemala and Haiti. They opened on April 13, 1985 in Victoria with a 2-0 win over Haiti. Igor Vrablic and Mike Sweeney scored for Canada. They followed that up a week later on April 20 with a 2-1 win over Guatemala in Victoria, as Dale Mitchell had both goals. They travelled to Guatemala City where they tied the host team 1-1 on May 5 as Mitchell scored his third goal of the tournament. Canada closed out the first round with a 2-0 win in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on May 8 as Vrablic and Mitchell scored. The result gave Canada seven out of a possible eight points and first place in the group. They advanced to the final round against Costa Rica and Honduras.

The final round was an epic battle, waged Saturdays on CBC Sportsweekend. Canada opened at Varsity Stadium in Toronto with a 1-1 draw against Costa Rica on August 17. Paul James scored the lone Canadian goal. Their next game was a 1-0 victory over Honduras on August 25 in Tegucigalpa (I thank the CBC's Steve Armitage for teaching me how to pronounce that). George Pakos scored the Canadian goal. On September 1, Canada  played Costa Rica to a scoreless draw in San Jose. That meant they had to beat Honduras to claim the CONCACAF championship and qualify for the World Cup. With the teams tied 1-1, on the strength of another goal by Pakos, Vrablic scored in front of 3,000 fans at King George V Park in St. John's, Newfoundland, to win the game 2-1. Canada had won its first CONCACAF championship, and the only one in our history. The tournament was discontinued in 1989, replaced by the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

I remember that goal and the end of the game. Most of all, I remember the trophy, the first one I had ever seen with ribbons tied to it. And I remember the captains, most notably Bob Lenarduzzi, hoisting that trophy in front of the home fans. It was incredible.

It should be noted Canada did not have to contend with Mexico, a traditional power and winner of the most CONCACAF championships along with Costa Rica. Mexico hosted the 1986 World Cup and, as host, was an automatic qualifier. Even so, when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, it did not make it easier for Canada to qualify.

The reality of soccer in Canada
Back then, in the days before TSN and Sportsnet, the Canadian team’s games were broadcast on CBC Sportsweekend. I used to wait for those games and watch them closely. My interest in soccer came early in life. I recall watching the 1982 World Cup with my Dad, and Germany coming from behind to beat France in the semi-final to advance to the final. In 1986, I watched the Germans play in Brooks where we were visiting for a wedding. Obviously, the Germans were our team because that’s where my family came from. Until Canada returns to the World Cup, I will continue to sport the Black, Red and Gold of the Allemania.

That’s why 1986 was so cool. Canada had made it. With names like Lettieri, Lenarduzzi, Bridge, and Valentine, we qualified for the world’s toughest tournament – without even losing a game.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The last time I could stomach cheering for the Patriots

Irving Fryar, number one pick,
and one of my favourite Patriots.
Steve Grogan, the toughest
Patriot quarterback.
Was it always this way?
As I watched the New England Patriots go down in flames to San Francisco on a Sunday night back in December, I thought to myself: “Was there ever a time I could stomach cheering for the Patriots?”

The wild card team that could: The 1985 New England Patriots
Oddly there was, and strangely, I was talking about that period earlier the same evening. It was 1985 and the Patriots had come out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs. They had fired their coach midway through the year and hired Raymond Berry, who had been best known for being a hall-of-fame receiver catching passes from Johnny Unitas. As important as Berry was, his defensive coordinator Rod Rust was probably more instrumental.

Fred Marion, my favourite
Patriot defensive back
Roland James, part of
that amazing secondary
The Patriots finished third in the AFC East, behind division champion Miami and the second-place New York Jets. That meant all their playoff games, if they kept winning, were on the road. They opened with the AFC Wild Card Game at the New Jersey Meadowlands against the Jets on Dec. 28. I was home for Christmas and recall watching that game, thinking no one was going to beat Miami in the AFC. After all, the Dolphins handed the unbeatable Chicago Bears their only loss of the season in a Monday Night thriller. It was conventional wisdom the Bears and Dolphins were destined to meet in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots had other ideas, and were led by their defence. That Patriot defence, especially the secondary, was possessed. They forced four turnovers and sacked the quarterback five times en route to a 26-14 victory in the AFC wildcard game. That set up a date with the AFC West champion and number-one seeded Los Angeles Raiders in the  LA Memorial Coliseum on January 5, 1986. The defence forced six turnovers, converting them into 17 points, on their way to a 27-20 win. Awaiting them for the AFC Championship was arch-rival Miami in the Orange Bowl on January 12. The Dolphins, led by quarterback Dan Marino, looked beatable after barely escaping with a win against Cleveland the week before. Bernie Kosar was the Browns' rookie quarterback and one of my favourite players of all time. He almost engineered a huge upset, as the Dolphins had to score late to squeak out a 24-21 win.

Ronnie Lippett, he windmilled
Jim McMahon in the Super Bowl
Raymond Clayborn, voted one
of the Patriots' 50 gretest players.
However, the Patriots were ready for Marino and his vaunted passing attack. The Patriot secondary would riddle them, intercepting Marino, and forcing six turnovers in total. The game was never really close, as New England left the Orange Bowl with 31-14 win and a date with the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. The Patriots had become the first team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games on the road, and only the second wildcard team to go to the Super Bowl.

The clock struck midnight for the Cinderella Patriots in the Super Bowl as the Bears blew out New England 46-10. Yet that month of football was magical to watch. I loved defence, especially the secondary, and there was no group of defensive backs more captivating than the Patriots. Fred Marion, Ronnie Lippett, Roland James, and Raymond Clayborn. Household names, right? I still remember them. They were the four starters in the Patriot secondary, and the four legs that propped up that underdog.

What had me thinking about that 1985 Patriot team earlier in the day was probably my favourite Patriot of all time (I cannot even believe I am even typing these words given the current Patriots): Irving Fryar. First round pick, number one overall from the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He was electrifying in college, and became a great pro. Actually, to be honest, I liked their two quarterbacks – Steve Grogan and Tony Eason – and offensive lineman John Hannah, runningback Craig James, Fryar’s companion wide receiver the ageless Stanley Morgan, there were lots of cool players. Interestingly, that team was all about the run and ultraconservative on offence. Most Eason passes were long handoffs. They rarely stretched the field vertically, even with Fryar and Morgan. Not like now.

There were all kinds of interesting stories. Julius Adams, who wore number 85, announced he was retiring at the end of the 1985 season. It was a storybook finish to go to the Super Bowl. There were all kinds of high draft picks that finally matured, like Andre Tippett and Garin Varis.

The times are a changin'
How times have changed. Raymond Berry was a gentleman as a coach. The current coach won't even come out to talk to the media when his team loses in the playoffs. It makes him look like a poor loser and a poor sport. The Patriots were also sanctioned by the NFL for taping the practices of the Philadelphia Eagles in the lead up to their Super Bowl encounter. Their record is impeccable, and their current quarterback Tom Brady is a class act. Yet, the attitude of some make them all hard to cheer for.

Unlike the current edition of the Patriots, there was no hype, no arrogance, no swagger to the 1985 team. Instead you had a bunch of guys who worked hard, scratching for every yard, and just happy to be where they were.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Reveen: Remembering the Impossiblist

The man they call Reveen
"Coming on, the man they call Reveen"
"You'll never forget – Reveen"
- from the commercial advertising
Reveen's show in Lethbridge

The other day I heard that Reveen died. It was a name I had not heard in a long time. I didn't even know his name was actually Reveen – Peter Reveen. It brought back some fond memories, not just of a great show, but a particular time in my life that was changing.

A night on the town
It was the first time I ever got to go out with a friend. It was junior high and the call came around 7 p.m. on a school night. It was Mike Hartman, my old friend and basketball teammate. He got straight to the point

"Do you wanna go see Reveen?"

I jumped at the chance. I'd seen the commercials, like the one at the right here. I'm pretty sure Mike had seen Reveen before, and was quite impressed. I sure was when the night finally came.

If memory serves, Mike's dad Gary actually picked me up on the farm, and took us to the Sportsplex in Lethbridge, home of the Lethbridge Broncos of the Western Hockey League. I'd been there before with my parents for Bronco games, but never with a friend. Now, it's called the Enmax Centre, home of the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL. It was cool. We found our seats, and Mr. Hartman stayed put while Mike and I wandered around the arena for awhile.

On with the show
Then the show started. Reveen took the stage, and looked to me like Wolfgang Jack, only with an Australian accent.

Reveen never used the word hypnosis. Instead, he used the description "a state of super consciousness". I read all about that in the program Mike bought. The other striking memory was that he never made fun of the people on stage who were "under his spell". It was a clean show, something Reveen prided himself on.

He asked for volunteers who had to be a certain age. They all made their way to the stage, and Reveen had a "try out". People were asked to close their eyes and concentrate. They had to lock their hands or arms together, and do some other stuff. Reveen wandered among them, eventually determining who could achieve "super consciousness" and who could not. He announced an intermission so those not chosen could return to their seats, while the chosen ones remained on stage.

Then it was show time.

There were a lot laughs. The one guy in particular that I remember was in love with a fictitious wife named Chloe. Reveen told him Chloe had run off, so the guy went all over the arena chasing after Chloe. There were other performances, and periodically this guy would appear somewhere around the arena yelling for Chloe. Even when the performance was over, and Reveen was bringing everyone around, the last thing this guy said was, "Look Chloe, I know you're around here somewhere."

We laughed all the way home.

It was a great night, and life changing. I began to go out with my friends more and more, but that was pretty much the first time. I hadn't thought about it in years, until I heard Reveen had died.

So there he was providing entertainment one last time, and a chance to reminisce. Rest in peace Peter Reveen – hopefully you've achieved your own state of super consciousness.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Trying to catch lightning: Game 1 of the 1988 World Series

One of the things I regret just a little bit about getting involved in university life was losing track of the greater world outside me. I got so absorbed in campus life at the University of Alberta, I lost track of a lot of news, sports, and even music, which had been touchstones for me, especially growing up on the farm.

Probably the two things I regret missing most, but only after hearing how great they turned out afterwards, were the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami football game, and Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Then the Internet came along, and I have found both. The football game is in another post, and the entire bottom half of the ninth inning of the baseball game is above. I'm sure the entire game would be interesting to see, but the drama, one of the most dramatic moments in World Series history in fact, occurs in the bottom of the ninth inning. I'd seen highlights before, but never the entire bottom half of the inning. And it is amazing. See for yourself

1988 World Series - Game 1 - Bottom of 9th... by senatork

Free agent
Kirk Gibson had made his name as a Detroit Tiger, breaking the hearts of my beloved Blue Jays many times. He was a double letterman at Michigan State, playing both football and baseball. He had a deadly combination of speed and power. He was also tenacious and tough.

That tenacity went beyond the baseball diamond. In 1988, the owners in Major League Baseball were found guilty of collusion, and Gibson was one of the players granted immediate free agency. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, taking his show to the National League.

Just like a movie
The Dodgers won the National League West pennant and faced the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. Gibson had home runs in Games 4 and 5, winning the game in one and breaking the game open in the other.

However, he was hobbled and unlikely to play in the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, who were appearing in their first of three consecutive World Series. With a bad left hamstring, and a swollen right knee, he was physically unable to play, according to announcer Vin Scully.

Then, with the Dodgers trailing 4-3 and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning, L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda chose to pinch hit for shortstop, and former Toronto Blue Jay, Alfredo Griffin. Mike Davis stepped in and worked a walk.

The entire stadium took a deep breath. What would Lasorda do? Then, out of the dugout came Kirk Gibson, slowly limping to the plate. The anticipation built.

"You talk about a roll of the dice, this it," Scully said as Gibson dug in.

"So the Dodgers, trying to catch lightning right now."

Facing Gibson was Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever in baseball, who had quickly recorded two outs before Davis' walk. He had not allowed a home run since August 24.

After Gibson fouled off the first pitch, Scully said the leg injuries prevented Gibson from pushing off, or landing.

"He's going to use all arms," colour man Joe Garagiola said.

After two more foul balls, Scully said Gibson was so banged up, he was not even introduced and did not come out onto the field at the start of the game.

He fouled a nubber down the line and you could see the pain on his face as he tried to run to first.

"You can really see the limp," Garagiola said.

"He almost has to talk to his legs and say hey, let's go, we gotta get outta here."

Gibson worked the count to 3-2 when Davis stole second, putting himself in scoring position. A base hit would now tie the game.

"Now the Dodgers don't need the muscle of Gibson as much as a base hit," Scully said.

Eckersley delivered. Gibson swung, and you could hear the crack of the bat. The right fielder could just watch as the ball sailed out of the park. Gibson had delivered. As Scully said, "In a year that has been improbable, the impossible has happened."

"And now the only question was could he make it around the base paths unassisted."

Bob Costas described it best in "Ken Burns' Baseball": It was like a scene from a movie.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

World Juniors 1981: Beginning a dynasty, leaving a legacy

When Hockey Canada was is in the process of selecting its under-18 World Junior team back in December of 2012, there was talk, with the NHL lockout making all the young talent available, that that year's group could be the best team ever.

Anytime there is talk of the best team, the one that gets lost is the very first team. To me, they will always be the best because they did what none of their predecessors did – bring gold back to Canadian soil. I guess it wasn’t really back, because the tournament was co-hosted by Winnipeg and Minnesota. Still, Canada won its last game in the United States, so in essence, they did bring the gold home.

No superstars
This team was remarkable for several reasons. It was the first team made up of players from different teams across Canada and the United States. No one knew how this new approach would work, but it could be no worse then sending actual complete junior teams, because they never won gold. More remarkable than the way the team gelled, was that there were no superstars. No Jonathan Toews, no Jordan Eberle, no John Tavares, no Sidney Crosby, no Eric Lindros, no Mario Lemieux, no Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky’s team came closest but still no gold. Instead, it took a team to achieve what had never been done.

Dwelling in obscurity
It was a magical run too, largely achieved in anonymity. The World Juniors has become so popular, families gather around the TV at Christmas to watch the games on TSN. The ups and downs of each team, each player, are chronicled daily by the mainstream media and on social media. Back then no one broadcast the games, like TSN handles them all now. In fact, TSN would not even go on the air for two more years. Only after Canada won its first few games, with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia still to play, did CBC pre-empt its regular holiday programming for the game against the Soviets. Many who watched that game, me included, thought it was exactly what we needed, not just for that tournament, but for our pride.

Canadian hockey was reeling
Back in 1981, Canadian hockey was not in a good place on the international stage, as the Soviets seemed to beat us at every turn.

1979 Challenge Cup
The National Hockey League decided in 1979 to forego an all-star game. Instead a team of NHL all-stars would play a three-game series against the Soviets' best. Nominally an NHL all-star team, it contained 23 Canadians and three Swedes, making it a de facto Canadian team. It featured some of the best players ever: Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Gilbert Perreault, as well as three solid goaltenders in Gerry Cheevers, Ken Dryden, and Tony Esposito.

All three games were played at Madison Square Garden in New York. Ken Dryden got the start in net in Game 1 on Thursday, February 8, and backstopped the NHL all-stars to a 4-2 win. I recall the all-stars dominating that game, and scoring a fifth goal that was disallowed because the ref ruled Bill Barber kicked it in. Dryden was back in net for Game 2, which I missed most of because we were on our usual weekly Saturday shopping trip to the city. I did catch part of the third period, including a great skate save by Dryden, when we stopped to visit at my Uncle Ed's in Lethbridge. The Soviets won that game 5-4, setting the stage for a tie-breaking third game Sunday night. I was thrilled because Gerry Cheevers got the start, and he played for my favourite team, the Boston Bruins. He did not play well, and neither did the team in front of him. The Soviets attacked wave after wave and the all-stars seemed helpless. They poured in six goals while legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak had been replaced in net by rookie Vladimir Myshkin. He boarded up the net, as the Russians left with a 6-0 victory. Perhaps most telling was the sixth goal, where most of the all-stars were caught up ice, leaving Guy Lafleur helpless on a two-on-one break. I vividly remember Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov hoisting the Challenge Cup. It's probably still sitting somewhere in Moscow, probably in Vladimir Putin's office.

1980 Winter Olympics
Canada had refused to send hockey teams to the Olympics after our bronze medal finish at Grenoble, France in 1968. We were protesting the fact Canada could not send professional or semi-professional players to the world championships. An agreement was eventually reached to allow professionals in the world championships, although still not in the Olympics, so Canada iced its first Olympic team in 12 years at the games in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. The darling of that Olympics was the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. hockey team. Canada, who was coached by Tom Watt who eventually would coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, were not in the same pool as the Americans. Instead, Team Canada would have to beat the Soviets or Finns to make the medal round, as only the top two advanced. The Canadian roster was largely made up of university and college players, most notably Randy Gregg, who captained the team, Paul MacLean, current coach of the Ottawa Senators, and hall-of-famer Glenn Anderson. The goaltenders were Bob Dupuis and Paul Pageau.

Canada opened by beating the Netherlands 10-1, then Poland 5-1, before facing Finland. The winner of that game likely would go to the medal round, because the Soviets were pretty much a lock for the other spot. We were at a family thing in Calgary, so I had to listen to the game on the radio on the drive back to the farm. I recall, Finland leading, and Canada coming on. Then Dupuis let in a long, weak goal, and Canada could not recover. They lost 4-3, but still had the Soviets to play. Canada beat Japan 6-0, on my birthday, then faced the Soviets two days later. I recall riding the school bus and someone yelling they heard Canada was leading. It was true. The teams were tied 1-1 after the first period, then Canada took a 3-2 lead into the third period. The Soviets took control, but not without controversy. Canada suspected the Soviets of using illegal sticks. The first time Watt called for a measurement, the Soviet had disposed of his stick. The second time they got caught. The joke was the Russians had used all their good wood in the war in Afghanistan. Anyway, the Russians scored four times to skate away with a 6-4 victory. I remember cursing Dupuis as the final whistle went. Hey, I was immature at 10 years and two days of age.

Canada went on to finish sixth, which oddly, is still better than Canada's NHL all-star laden 2006 Olympic hockey team.

1981 Canada Cup
Canadians did not put much stock in the Olympics because Canada could not send its best, while the Soviets and Czechs could. We always held on to the belief that in a contest of our best against their best, we would win. We did in the 1972 Summit Series and the 1976 Canada Cup.

Now, five years after that last Canada Cup we could walk the walk. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the West had led to a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and delayed the Canada Cup from its scheduled 1980 date to 1981. It was again full of the best players in the world, many who suited up in the Challenge Cup over two years earlier, with one notable addition: Wayne Gretzky. The goaltenders were Don Edwards, Mike Liut, and Stanley Cup champion Billy Smith. Something that stuck in my craw was that Tony Esposito, now an American citizen, started for the USA. This after representing Canada, most notably in the 1972 Summit Series.

Canada sailed through the round robin unbeaten with four wins, including a 7-3 win over the USSR, and a 4-4 tie with Czechoslovakia. That set up a semi-final match where Canada beat Esposito and his American teammates 4-1. Meanwhile, the Soviets beat the Czechs in the other semi-final by the same 4-1 score. The showdown everyone expected was set for the Montreal Forum for Sept. 13. After skating to a scoreless first period, the floodgates opened as the Russians scored three in the second and five in the third, for an embarrassing 8-1 loss on home ice (Keeping in mind, it was the only Canada Cup with a one-game, sudden-death final, instead of a best two-of-three series). Adding insult to injury, the Soviets tried to steal the trophy and take it back to Moscow. The tip of the maple-leaf-shaped trophy is still bent, when they dropped it while stuffing it into a hockey bag.

Three shots at the Russians, three crushing defeats. Canadian hockey was in a state of self-doubt. It was into this environment that the Canadians entered the World Junior Hockey Championships. It was a chance for redemption – on home ice.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it doesn't get colder than Winnipeg
There was no playoff round back then. Instead the team with the best record after the round robin was awarded the gold medal. Canada opened by beating Finland 5-1, then Sweden 3-2. That set up a showdown with the Soviets in Winnipeg on Boxing Day, 1981. I recall watching the game on CBC when I was out of school for the holidays. I was so nervous because I feared the Russians. I still had visions of the Challenge Cup, the Olympics, and especially the Canada Cup. I was also pretty stoked because the Moller brothers, Mike and Randy, were playing for Canada. I had watched them play junior in Lethbridge, so it was cool to see them on TV.

In the end there was no need to worry, because Canada was all over the Russians. They out-skated and out-hit them. Goaltender Mike Moffat made the saves when he had to, but his defence was strong, and the offence was relentless. The top line of Mike Moller, Scott Arniel, and Marc Habscheid created scoring chance after scoring chance. The Canadians skated away with a 7-0 victory. It was the worst loss ever inflicted on the Soviets in international play.

During the game, John Ferguson who was general manager of the Winnipeg Jets at the time, had gone done to the bench and encouraged the Canadians to keep pouring it on. He urged them to try for a seven-goal victory, the same margin Canada lost by in the Canada Cup. He was one of the broadcasters for the CBC and called it a good measure of revenge as the final seconds wound down. He was absolutely right.

Canada went on to beat the Americans 5-4, the West Germans 11-3, and Switzerland 11-1. The only thing standing between them and gold was Czechoslovakia, who had also beaten the Soviets. Canada was 6-0, so all they needed was a tie and gold, the country's first ever gold, was theirs. The teams faced off in Rochester, Minnesota on January 2, 1982. Canada fell behind, but rallied to take the lead, only to have the Czechs tie the game at 3-3. That was the way it ended, and Canada had their first-ever World Junior gold medal, and had signalled the country was back internationally. Moffat was named the top goalie, Gord Kluzak the top defencemen, and Moffat, Kluzak and Mike Moller made the tournament all-star team.

Once the final whistle blew, and Canada received their gold medals, they made a startling discovery. There was no recording of O Canada to be found anywhere in the arena. So, as Canadians do so well, they improvised and sang the national anthem themselves. It was a fitting way to end the tournament, and start a tradition of players singing the national anthem.

One of the best ever
Every member of that team played in the NHL, even if just for a handful of games. More than anything they could accomplish in the pros though, they set in motion a process that has led to a harvest of gold medals at the World Juniors. Their names are rarely mentioned among the best ever Canadian teams because too many people are enamoured by statistics and personalities, and quite frankly take the gold medals Canada has won as a given. These men didn't and couldn't. Instead, they restored our pride in our country. Dave King was their coach, and he and general managers Sherry Bassin and Bob Strum took a chance, with a system that Canada had never tried before. Has it ever paid dividends since then. Here are the 1982 World Junior Hockey champions:

Scott Arniel
Paul Boutillier
Garth Butcher
Frank Caprice
Paul Cyr
Bruce Akin
Marc Habscheid
Gord Kluzak
Moe Lemay
Mike Moffat
Mike Moller
Randy Moller
Dave Morrison
Mark Morrison
Troy Murray
Gary Nyland
Jim Patrick
Pierre Rioux
Todd Strueby
Carey Wilson

Thanks for everything boys. You began the dynasty, you left the legacy.

You can find more information by visiting:

The Kessel Run

Phil Kessel played nine games for
the Calgary Stampeders in 1982
It had been bugging me for a few months, but not enough to inspire even a Wikipedia search. Every time I heard the name Phil Kessel, I didn't think of the forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The player who the Leafs got from my Boston Bruins in exchange for the talent that helped them win the Stanley Cup two years ago.

Instead, I thought of this obscure quarterback who took a few snaps for the Calgary Stampeders in the 1980s. It must not be the same name, it couldn't be.

My curiosity was satisfied Tuesday night (April 9), when Amanda Kessel scored the game-winning goal for the U.S. women's hockey team against Canada in the Women's World Championship in Ottawa. During the broadcast, the announcers referred to her brother Phil, and their Dad who was also named Phil. That peaked my curiosity. Then they actually said he played quarterback in the CFL – for Calgary. All doubt had been removed.

Memories of a journeyman quarterback
Phil Kessel suited up for the Stampeders at a dark time in their history. They had been a solid team
under coach Jack Gotta in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, they were in the same division as the Edmonton Eskimos who were a dynasty, winning five straight Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982.

After that success, the franchise went into decline, and had a parade of quarterbacks come through the turnstiles at McMahon Stadium. At the same time, CBC Calgary hosted a weekly show called "Catch 22" on Thursday nights which was about the Stampeders. The title referred to wide receiver Tom Forzani, who wore number 22. Incidentally, his son Johnny catches balls for the Stampeders now. Anyway, Gary Arthur hosted "Catch 22" and I recall one episode in 1982 where they talked about their quarterback situation and how this guy named Phil Kessel would get some playing time.

Phil Kessel plays for the Toronto
Maple Leafs. He looks like his dad.
Kessel had a good career at the University of Northern Michigan. He was: 1980 Associated Press All-American second-team quarterback; 1980 Mid-Continent Conference Player of the Year; and 1979 and 1980 team most valuable player. He was taken in the 10th round of the 1981 draft by the Washington Redskins, but didn't catch on.

Kessel played one season in Calgary, largely backing up Canadian quarterback Gerry Dattilio. He played nine games, completing 30 of 56 passes for 399 yards, four touchdowns, and four interceptions, with his longest completion going for 74 yards. I seem to recall liking what I saw when I watched him. According to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, Calgary was not satisfied with his play and it motivated them to go out and sign Bernard Quarles, who had a serviceable CFL career, and Danny Barrett, who was one of the best. I do recall Quarles and Barrett coming to the Stampeders' camp in 1983, along with Ron Reeves, a quarterback who was cut.

Kessel was inducted in 1992 into the Northern Michigan University hall of fame.

The Kessel Run
When I asked my buddy if he knew anything about Phil Kessel the quarterback, he said: "All I know is Han Solo said the Millennium Falcon can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs." Not the same thing.

Parting shot
Even if Amanda Kessel broke my heart on the ice, and her dad didn't really pan out for my Stamps, I can still thank the trade involving her brother Phil for helping return the Stanley Cup to my Bruins.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Mike Tyson: Tainted legacy?

The rise in popularity of Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts is due in part to the rapid decline in entertainment value and the credibility of professional boxing. Among all the causes for that decline, the actions of Mike Tyson are a part.

When you hear the name Mike Tyson many images come to mind: that odd tattoo on his face; him spitting out a piece of ear he bit off Evander Holyfield; charges of domestic abuse; and time in jail.

Yet there was a time when he was the greatest boxer in the world. That was an undisputed fact. In the 1980s he mowed down every challenger in his path on his way to unifying the World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA), and International Boxing Federation (IBF) championships. It was a site to behold when he walked into the ring with all three of those belts tied together.

More than the sheer force and certainty of each knockout victory, was the reality Tyson fought more than anyone, as many as four times a year. He always seemed to be on TV, destroying James “Quick” Tillis, or Marvis Frasier, then Canadian Trevor Berbeck for his first title, the WBC belt, in 1986, then James “Bonecrusher” Smith for the WBA title and Tony Tucker for the IBF title, both in 1987. This clip illustrates in full force the pure power Tyson possessed. The problem was it was cable TV. Peasant vision never carried much boxing beyond the odd bout on CTV's "Wide World of Sports", or Canadian fighters on CBC "Sportsweekend", so I never saw an actual Mike Tyson fight – until the fall of 1987.

First fight
The first time I ever saw a complete Mike Tyson fight was when he was already well on in his career. It was actually his 32nd fight, his first title defence after beating Tucker to unify the heavyweight division. It was in October of 1987, against Tyrell Biggs, the 1984 Olympic champion who I have to say I did not like. In those 1984 Olympics Biggs beat Canadian Lennox Lewis in the super-heavyweight division. Lewis, along with Shawn O'Sullivan and Willie DeWitt were our best medal hopes in the ring, so I was disappointed when Biggs beat Lewis in the quarter-finals. Lewis would return, and move on to achieve greatness as an Olympian and a professional. Tyrell Biggs would not.

We were living in res, and me and my roommate and best friend Chris Vining had made some friends on another floor, so we went down there to watch the fight. We took Rick Taniguchi along with us. He was from Lethbridge and lived across the hall from us, and he was a big boxing fan. He was in physiotherapy, so he was always studying. Even then, he took some flash cards to study during the fight.

The TV room was packed with anticipation. It turns out Mike Tyson hated Tyrell Biggs a lot more than I did. Vining told me Tyson was still mad at not making the 1984 Olympic team, and resented Biggs who had. Well, it sure showed as he took his anger out on the reigning Olympic champion. Tyson absolutely dismantled Biggs, bloodying one eye, then the other, then his nose. I still remember seeing Taniguchi look up from his flash cards just in time to see Tyson land another haymaker, and all he could say was, "Ooooh." That happened a few times. Biggs' face was a meaty pulp by the time Tyson finally knocked him out in the dying seconds of the seventh round.

After the fight, Tyson showed little class, claiming Biggs was crying in the ring. It cemented my dislike for the champion. He must never have heard the phrase: "When you lose, say little. When you win, say even less." However, he was a wrecking machine like Clubber Lang in "Rocky III", with the mouth to match. I hoped someone would take him down, but was certain he would never lose. Boy was I wrong. 

What could have been: A Canadian aside
“I can’t believe it,” Mike Golding said. “Did you hear?”

I was sitting in the hallway at Lister Hall chatting with some friends of mine. It was February of 1990, just over two years after the Biggs fight and a lot had happened.

“No,” we said.

“Mike Tyson lost!”

Unknown Buster Douglas had not only beaten Tyson, but knocked him out en route to the victory. It had come as a shock to everyone. Tyson was virtually unbeatable, but he had lost.

That fact left us all with a question: what could have been? Tyson had been scheduled to fight Canadian Razor Ruddock in November of 1989 in Edmonton in what was being dubbed the "Cold War". Yet Tyson pulled out. After his loss to Douglas, suspicions began to surface he had not taken his training seriously and it cost him. The reason his trainers pulled the plug on the "Cold War" was they feared Tyson would lose to Ruddock. Instead, an easier opponent was chosen. We all wondered if Tyson had fought Ruddock in Edmonton, would the Razor have been world champion? We’ll never know.

History shows the two of them would fight twice, and Tyson would win both. The first was by a controversial technical knockout, and I still blame referee Richard Steele for that debacle. The second was a 12-round decision. I still believe it all came down to timing. Tyson was vulnerable in 1989, and everyone knew it. By 1991, he was angry again.

Mike Tyson taking a shot from Razor Ruddock. Tyson would
eventually beat Ruddock twice, once with a controversial
technical knockout, then in a 12-round decision.
Tainted legacy?
It is truly unfortunate Mike Tyson's career ended the way it did, becoming a three-ring circus of trash talk, tattoos, and jail time. It is hard to separate the man from his sport, especially when he brought some of that bizarre behaviour into the ring. Read here, biting Evander Holyfield's ear, or claiming he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis' children. Yet, at his peak there may have been no one better. He never ducked an opponent, he defended his title against all comers, and he put on a good show.

When I saw him absolutely destroy Tyrell Biggs for the better part of seven rounds, it left an indelible impression – he was unbeatable.

His legacy as a boxer, pure and simple, is as a devastating champion. It is only tainted by the fact good boxers aren't necessarily good people.

Why I like Notre Dame football

Not what you may think
You'd think with my grandfather and his twin brother being born on their Dad's birthday, and 86 years later my niece being born on that same day, and that day being St. Patrick's Day – that's why I would be a fan of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Yet March 17 is not a big date on the calendar of your typical German. Nor is it because I was raised in an ardent Catholic family and subsequently raised to love  Notre Dame, a Catholic university.

Why then?
As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish continued preparations for their improbable appearance in the American college football national championship team just before Christmas, I asked myself: why do I like Notre Dame football?

It was not always so. When I was young, the only college football games we got on the farm were the bowl games on New Year’s Day. One day a year and that was it. That meant the Cotton Bowl (on CBC), the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl (both on CTV). No Fiesta Bowl, until a bit later, and never the Sugar Bowl. So essentially three games a year.

Based on that limited exposure, I came to like the Oklahoma Sooners. They played in the Orange Bowl it seemed like every year. The first time I saw them, they had an exceptional runningback named Billy Sims. He had won the Heisman as a junior, and had a great senior year, but not as good as the year before so the Heisman was awarded to Charles White of USC.

But it was never Billy Sims that did it for me. It was the Sooner quarterback – JC (Julius Caesar) Watts. He is still one of my favourite players of all time, and I will devote an entry to him some other time. After Sims graduated, Watts still kept the Sooners winning. The best was the Orange Bowl, where he rallied the Sooners late to come from behind to defeat the Florida State Seminoles. They even scored a rare two-point conversion.

After Watts, the Sooners rebuilt with various good players – Marcus Dupree being the best example. Then, led by California quarterback Jamelle Holieway, they won the national championship. Two years later, they had another shot, but fell to the Miami Hurricanes, thus beginning a dislike I have for the Hurricanes that I still have today.

A funny thing happened to the Sooners then too. They developed an attitude and an arrogance, led by linebacker Brian Bosworth. I never liked that blustering. It was too much like the Hurricanes who were all about talking trash and humiliating their opponents.

So I was ripe for another college team.

Tim Brown won the 1987 Heisman Trophy
The return specialist
It was 1987, and along came return specialist Tim Brown. The man electrified college football games and vaulted him to the Heisman trophy. Notre Dame played in the Cotton Bowl after that season, and I remember watching the game in Vining’s living room. It was not Brown’s best game, but I liked what I saw in Notre Dame.

The next year, they challenged for the national championship. They were still unbeaten when they hosted the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes. A mistake by security meant the two teams entered the field through the same tunnel, and a fight started. Someone grabbed Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice's face mask and tried to punch him. It set the tone for a wild game. At one point during the game he came to the sideline and wiped a big gob of spit on his forehead.

In the first quarter Notre Dame scored first on a touchdown by Rice. Notre Dame would go on to beat Miami, and win the national championship that 1988 season after defeating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. That team boasted some great players. On defence they had Chris Zorich, Jeff Alm, Pat Terrell, Mike Stonebreaker (with perhaps one of the best football names ever), and Frank Stams. On offence, they had Rice, Ricky Watters, Derek Brown, and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

The next year, Michel Ouellette became a mentor of mine and he was a big Irish fan.

My love for the Irish was cemented.

More than football
Tony Rice is more than a national champion:
he is a college graduate.
Tim Brown would be their last Heisman trophy winner, and 1988 would be their last championship. It has been a long time in the wilderness – not 40 years mind you – but a long time. It does not matter though, because Notre Dame is much more than a football program. Winning is important, but it is more important to develop good men. Where Oklahoma had become arrogant, Notre Dame was humble. Bosworth was suspended before the 1987 Orange Bowl for testing positive for steroids. Tony Rice, who was a long shot to graduate, graduated. So did Tim Brown and most of the rest of the team. That speaks volumes for me.