Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Thoughts on the Champion’s Cup

April 20, 2021

Normally, curling posts come out on Monday.  The reason for this is that pretty much all of the curling bonspiels have their finals on Sunday, and so it’s the most convenient day to post about them.  While one might expect that the reason this post is coming out on Tuesday is due to my deciding to delay it, instead it is coming out today because the actual bonspiel was delayed.  See, what they’re doing for curling this season is running a bubble in Calgary, containing a lot of events like the Scotties, the Briar, the Worlds, and some others.  Well, the men’s Worlds were right before this event, and right at the end of that event they had a Covid scare, as some players on teams that weren’t making the playoffs tested positive right before they were about to leave.  So the event was shut down for a couple of days while everyone was tested, and they ended up with a shortened playoff and extended things slightly.  Which meant that the icemakers said that they couldn’t get the ice ready for the next event in time, and so they wanted an extra day to prepare things.  Which pushed the start of the event back a day, and thus pushed the finals back a day.  So they happened yesterday.

However, the next Grand Slam of Curling event is happening this week.  They aren’t delaying the start of that one.  It’s the same teams in that one as was in this one, so if a team was in the finals they get an entire day off before having to jump right back into the action.

That one will also be the last Grand Slam curling action this year, as in reaction to Covid what they did was cancel the last two events of the season, cancel the events in the fall, and essentially made it so that they effectively finished the previous season now, with the last two events.  No matter what they call it, that’s really what happened.  They obviously are hoping that in the fall they can return to a normal schedule and a normal season.

This event featured the return of skips to their teams on the women’s side.  First up, Tracy Fleury had had to skip the Scotties because of some medical issues with her child, but with things getting slightly better she was able to play this event with her team, and they only went 4-0 before being beaten in the semi-finals by Sylvana Tirinzoni.  From what I heard, she might not be able to stay for this event, at which point Chelsea Carey, who subbed in for her at the Scotties, will take over.  But I can’t rule it out, because it’s far less likely that she could stay for both events than that the next skip could play in, well, the events she’s already played in.

Rachel Homan went into the Scotties eight months pregnant and played the entire event, and only made it to the finals before losing to Kerri Einarson.  Then, she had her baby.  They had arranged for Laura Walker to join her team for this event, and so Emma Miskew would skip and Walker would play third.  And then, only three weeks after she had her baby, Rachel Homan decided that she was okay to play and came in and played the entire event, and only managed to win the entire thing (6 – 3 over the aforementioned Tirinzoni).  The commentators couldn’t help but note how amazing that was and, yeah, that’s impressive.  Rachel Homan truly is an intense competitor just to even try that, and also is an amazing curler to actually be able to do it so successfully.

However, Emma Miskew in an interview did seem to be looking forward to getting some experience in at skip.  I’ve noted in the past that she’s fully capable of skipping and that given the shuffle on Homan’s team the door is open for her to create her own team, so she might have a reason for wanting to get some skipping in.  Then again, the two of them have been together forever so that might not be a consideration.

The event also tried out a new rule meant to add offense to the game.  A long time back, you could hit any rock at any time and so what ended up happening was that when a team was sufficiently up they’d simply run any guards that the other team put up leaving everything wide open, which made it very hard for their opposition to score multiple points, and also made for a bit of a boring game.  So curling adopted the free guard zone, where for the first four or five stones any guard — a stone that wasn’t touching the rings — could not be removed from play.  In response, teams adopted the “tick shot” — also sometimes called “The Weagle” because Lisa Weagle was so good at it — where they’d lightly tap the rock out of the way without removing it completely, rendering them ineffective.  So at this event they added the rule that any guard that was touching the centre line couldn’t be moved off the centre line.  It could be moved up and down the line, but not off of it.  The effect of this was obvious:  teams put guards on the centre line depending on what they wanted and all the play stayed in the centre, which led to more rocks in play and so far fewer ends with blanks.  However, the play did end up being a little obvious, as in the situations where the tick shot was more likely to be used the team that would have been using the tick shot would almost always devolve into peeling those guards and trying for runback doubles.  And the men, in particular, have enough upweight ability that they were clearing things out anyway almost whenever they needed to.

I didn’t mind it, but I worry that this rule will lead to some other set strategy like the tick shot that will make the rule somewhat pointless.  I also don’t really like combining it with the free guard zone since that really limits what teams can do — they couldn’t hit any guards at all and then on top of that can’t even move the centre line ones — and so would prefer them going with only the no tick zone rule, but then that would mean that any team that puts up corner guards would have them removed making them irrelevant and so making for a new standard play of simply clogging up the centre.  On the plus side — for some, at least — that would make it far more like mixed doubles, which can be exciting.  The rule isn’t going to be in place for the next event, so they’ll evaluate it and we’ll see what happens in the future.

The next event is the Player’s Championship starting … tomorrow!

Thoughts on the Canadian Mixed Doubles Championships

March 26, 2021

I didn’t really watch the Briar — the Canadian Men’s Curling Championships — and didn’t really intend to watch the mixed doubles curling championships either since mixed doubles is not really my preferred sport.  However, it was on at convenient times and there were some reasons for me to be interested in it, so I ended up following it whenever I could after about the first day.

So how does mixed doubles differ from regular curling?  Instead of the normal four person team that is all men or all women, here you have a team of two players, one man and one woman.  The game starts with two rocks in play, and then instead of each team throwing 7 more apiece they throw five more apiece.  So each end is shorter, and an eight end game takes two hours.  This also means that they are given less “thinking time”, which is time to consider their shots.  Also, whereas in the four player game there’s usually someone throwing the rocks, someone holding the broom (that’s literal) as a target (and also judging if the rock is doing what it’s supposed to), and two people sweeping the rock to try to help it do the right thing, obviously that can’t happen here.  So either one person holds the broom for a target and the thrower hops up and sweeps the rock (usually it’s the men doing that) or else the other person is sweeping and no one provides a target and/or judges it from the house.  So a lot of the things that curlers typically rely on to make their shots aren’t available to the curlers, making it a quite different experience for them.

Which is odd, then, in light of the main thing that let me get interested in it in the first place:  the fact that an awful lot of the female half of the teams were players from the Scotties and from the women’s teams that I’ve been following for years.  While there are a few teams and players that are more dedicated to mixed doubles, a lot of the teams had people who were already in the curling bubble for other tournaments, including a number of teams that had never played together and a number of players that had never played mixed doubles before.  This is of course partly because mixed doubles isn’t as big in curling yet and so most of the best players play full team, and also because some of the teams would have to stay in the bubble for the next tournaments and, as the commentators noted, the best place to get practice on what the ice might be like for them given everything else going on was in the bubble, so they might as well try mixed doubles and see what happens.

And then one of those teams actually managed to win it all.  And most interestingly, it was a team of two skips.

See, as you can tell in mixed doubles in general both players need to do the strategy and need to sweep.  In the four person game, in general skips and thirds do the strategy and the “front end” of leads and seconds do most of the sweeping.  However, when the leads and seconds are throwing the thirds are the ones who fill in on their sweeping spot.  So as the commentators noted thirds would be the ones that are best for mixed doubles because they spend a lot of their time sweeping and also planning out the strategy with the skips.  The worry about an all-skip team is that the strategy aspects would be there — if the two of them could agree — but that they wouldn’t be as good at sweeping and so would be at a disadvantage there.

So Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson — who won the Scotties for the second year in a row with a four person team formed from former skips and so non-traditional as well — actually won it this time around, the first time the two had played together which was rather obvious because it was the first time Einarson had ever played mixed doubles, at least in those championships.  They defeated a team that was more dedicated to playing mixed doubles in Colton Lott and Kadriana Sahaidak, running out to a 9-2 lead and holding on for a 9-6 win.  Einarson, then, seems to be bent on proving wrong the adage that you need people in dedicated roles for your teams and that instead if you stick the best players together on one team you’re going to be really, really good and win an awful lot.

Now, I watched mixed doubles curling in the Olympics last time around, and thought it was okay.  What did I think of it this time?  About the same.  Because of the reduced thinking time and the fewer rocks to throw, the main strategic elements of the four person game are pretty much lost.  You really aren’t building up a strategy rock by rock as much anymore.  This is heightened by the fact that without someone holding the broom and without full sweepers there are more misses in mixed curling than there are in the full team game, and so it’s more difficult to work out a full strategy when you aren’t sure what you’re going to be seeing after the shot.  Heck, there tend to be a lot of up weight hits through that are there just to clear rocks out of the centre, and often no one can predict what will happen with that shot (especially since it can’t be swept at all, usually, as it’s moving too quickly.  I remember with amusement some shots where the person who could sweep the rock was no where near it while the other person was calling for it to be swept).  However, the game does retain the suspense aspect of curling, where especially towards the end you are watching to see what this shot will do and what will be the result and what impact that will have on the teams.  In fact, because there are more misses that aspect is actually enhanced, because you don’t know what will happen and, moreover, more shots really are “Let’s toss it here and if it’s really good things will be great and if not it won’t hurt us too badly”.  So as I noted last time it’s more tactical than strategic, which isn’t bad.  To be honest, while I’ve compared the full team curling to chess before, it would be reasonable to think of mixed doubles as speed chess:  faster, more tactical, with more mistakes and less overall strategy.

It’s also interesting to talk about the power play, which is where instead of the first two rocks being placed in the centre, they are placed out in the wings and each team can only do this once a game.  Last time around, I commented that while it was portrayed as being for offence it was obviously more of a defensive tool: you were probably going to get two points out of it unless you screwed up but were quite likely to not give up a steal either, while piling things in the centre tended to be the ones that led to the huge scores.  The commentators noted that it was in general being used for offence in the past but now was being used more defensively to keep the centre open and to guarantee at least one point … and then even in that game it was used to generate a lot of points, which carried on at least in the early rounds (but as the commentators noted was not used as successfully in the later rounds).  I think some of the increase in points is due to the fact that the teams have introduced a “tick shot” to it, trying to move the guard into the rings to open things up.  If it works, it will pretty much guarantee no more than two for the team with hammer (throwing the last rock) but if it misses it’s a completely wasted shot and in mixed doubles you don’t really have any shots to waste.  But that’s just a theory, and I haven’t watched the game enough to say for certain.

Now, Canada, despite winning the gold at the Olympics last time around, has not yet qualified for the next Olympics in mixed doubles.  So we have to hope that this new team can keep up their hot play and do well enough that Canada qualifies for the Olympics … at which point there’ll be another trial and so the Einarson/Gushue team might not be the team that goes to the Olympics.  Curling is funny sometimes.

Next up is the men’s World Championships, which I won’t pay much attention to.  Then there are some Grand Slam of Curling events, the women’s World Championships, and the mixed doubles World Championships, all of which I’ll be watching.

The Scotties …

March 1, 2021

As noted last week, curling returned this past week with the Scotties, inside a curling bubble in Calgary.  The format was modified to include 18 teams and to drop the traditional page playoff format — 1 vs 2, 3 vs 4 for to start, with the winner of the 1vs 2 game going straight to the final and the loser playing the winner of the 3 vs 4 game for the final spot — and instead have the top team after the Championship Round (top four teams from each pool play the teams from the other pool to get the final standings) go straight through to the finals and have the other two teams play against each other for the final spot.  This year, Rachel Homan’s team got that bye by virtue of beating Kerri Einarson’s team in the round robin and both teams losing to Jennifer Jones’ team in the Championship Round.  However, Jones herself was beaten by Laura Walker in a tiebreaker and so she didn’t make the playoffs, and Einarson beat Walker to face Homan in the final for the second season in a row, and she ended up beating Homan for the second year in a row to remain Team Canada.

One thing that I noticed this year was the role that luck plays and can play in a game, with a number of missed shots that ended up doing really good things.  No one would have ever planned that, and they wouldn’t have made those shots if they tried, but I noticed a number of lucky breaks that turned ends and even games around.  There is a notion of missing the right way, which means that you bias your shots so that if you do miss you’ll end up doing less disastrous things, but that wasn’t really the case here.  It was probably a side effect of there being more misses in general, as the teams came in a bit rusty from not being able to play any pre-Scotties tournaments, even the normal playdowns.  Which made for some interesting if not necessarily technically proficient games.

Youth was served in this year’s Scotties, with a lot of young teams making it in, especially on the basis of the Wild Cards where how many games were played mattered and a lot of young teams played a lot of games.  Also, there were some young teams that made it in last year that might not have managed to pull it off again this year that got back because there couldn’t be playdowns.  It was interesting to watch those teams and a number of them through their experiences might be able to get back to the Scotties on a more regular basis.  It also made me more annoyed with the older and regular teams like Kerry Galusha and Suzanne Birt, as they are teams that tend to be middle-of-the-pack and so can upset teams so they get a lot of attention, but I personally wanted to see more of the younger teams.  Yes, the commentators did comment on them, but I felt that those teams got more attention than they should have this time around, especially since neither of those teams made the Championship Round.

At any rate, the curling that I could watch was interesting, although the schedule and my work schedule limited the time I could spend watching.  I don’t know how much of the Briar — the men’s championships — I’ll watch, and the World Championships for the women are already cancelled, so the next curling I seriously watch might be the Grand Slam games in April.

Curling is back!

February 22, 2021

So when Covid-19 started to surge, curling essentially decided to punt on the year.  The World Championships were canceled, and the Grand Slam of Curling, which had two events left in the season running through April, decided that its next events were going to be the two that they had to cancel that they would play in 2021.  Of course, for various reasons sports in general and curling in particular are still challenging, so curling decided to create a bubble in Calgary and play all of the national events there, and the Grand Slam decided to get in on that action and have scheduled their two events inside the bubble as well.  That bubble is getting its first test this week with one of my favourite events, the event that I usually take vacation to watch, the Scotties.

Now, again, things aren’t all that normal at the event.  Things wouldn’t have been all that normal considering all the changes that happened after the season was canceled, but the situation and the bubble and all sorts of other things are making things a lot different.  To start with, normally to qualify for the Scotties each province holds playdown tournaments from which the winner emerges.  Due to Covid restrictions, that wasn’t possible in many provinces.  So the question became:  how in the world do we determine who actually gets to go to the Scotties?  This was left up to the provincial governing bodies, who in general decided to do things the easy way and simply send the team that they sent last year.  There was also an issue with the Wild Card teams, since in general the two teams with the most points where brought in to play a one game play-in to fill the final spot.  Bringing a team into the bubble  for one game really wasn’t going to work, so they decided to add another team and have three Wild Card teams for the entire tournament, selected by their points in the curling ranking system (yes, there is one, mostly used for Olympic qualification).  Except that there was a wrinkle there as well, as the rules say that in order for a team to be considered the same team for qualifications and for points, the team must retain three members out of four (which excludes their alternate).  So some teams that were at the Scotties last year and some of the higher ranking teams that could have been one of the Wild Card teams couldn’t go because, essentially, they weren’t the same team anymore.

And then there were a number of personal issues, as some teams had members who for various reasons couldn’t make it into the bubble for the tournament.  Krista McCarville’s team had two players were the long quarantines clashed with their jobs, and so Krysta Burns, the runner-up from last year, got Northern Ontario’s spot.  And the most notable in-game change is that Tracey Fleury’s team isn’t really her team anymore, as Fleury wanted to stay home with her child, and so Chelsea Carey, who had all of her team bail on her at the end of the season, is taking over as skip, necessitating the commentators having to constantly say “Team Wild Card Fleury, skipped by Chelsea Carey”.

And on top of all of that, provincial restrictions actually made practicing difficult.  After all, most sports and sporting venues were closed during lockdowns and under restrictions, and so the players couldn’t get into curling clubs to practice.  Many of the players, as well, are spread out across provinces — you can have one import on your team — and so couldn’t travel to practice together like they might have been able to do otherwise.  Of course, most of the time the teams then play a lot of tournaments in the fall to shake all of those issues out and to be able to practice together … except, of course, this real all of those tournaments were canceled.  So we have a lot of teams that normally would play a lot of games and practice a lot that haven’t actually managed to do any of that for this Scotties, which could lead to some somewhat random results, at least at the beginning.  On top of that, a lot of the teams that managed to get more tournaments in are younger teams coming out of juniors, which also adds a random element as they tend to be skilled but not necessarily strong at strategy.

The first weekend is over.  I haven’t managed to watch as many games as I would have liked due to the fact that since it’s in Calgary the late game starts right at the time I go to sleep, and Sunday is my insanely busy day so I was only half paying attention to the morning draw yesterday.  But here are my first impressions of the tournament:

1) We knew that the teams would have some foibles in learning how to make their shots again, that wasn’t helped by the fact that the ice has been changing a lot early on, due to things like humidity — the commentators were pointing out that the “pebble” drops of water that they usually use to add some grip to the ice were evaporating before hitting the ice because it was so dry — and differences from temperature and not having fans in the seats.

2) One of the games I watched more carefully was yesterday’s afternoon draw between Quebec’s Laurie St-Georges and PEI’s Suzanne Birt, which drove home the welcome attitude of at least some of the younger teams.  They’re just happy to be here.  Despite giving up some big ends to the extremely experienced Birt, they were laughing at their missed shots and really just seemed to be having fun.  And despite being down 6 – 2 with only two ends to go, the team came back to win that game 8 – 6.  They don’t really have any pressure since they aren’t expected to be as strong as the more experienced team and so can go out and just play.

3) Rachel Homan is playing while 8 months pregnant.  She’s done something like that before, but I was surprised that she did it at this time in this situation … but since they replaced Lisa Weagle with Sara Wilkes if she had they wouldn’t have had three returning players and so wouldn’t have been allowed to play.  There likely will not be a World Championships for the women again this year, so that won’t impact that should she happen to win.

4) So far, the matches I’ve been watching have shown some of the lesser known teams, which means that they’re teams that I don’t have any opinion on one way or the other.  I expect that to change when they get to the championship round later in the week and when the better known teams start to distance themselves from the field.

5) There was actually a Covid scare with one game canceled because one of the players wasn’t feeling well.  They believe that she actually had food poisoning and all tests came back negative.  But if you feel sick at all, they’re planning on punting games until they can be sure.  For me, personally, it means that there’s a game this morning when there wouldn’t have been (the rescheduled game).

So, curling is back.  And since I’m working from home and can see the TV from my desk, I’ll be able to watch it and still get my stuff done.

Losing Sports Showed Me … Just How Much Available Entertainment Sucks

January 5, 2021

So, there’s an article from Stephen Brunt entitled “The year we lost sports showed us just how much they anchor our lives”.  Well, I might only be a causal sports fan, but from the early comments there are lots of people that are essentially saying “Speak for yourself!”.  For the most part, for me when sports went away all it meant was that I had to find other things to do or watch, and when they returned I drifted back to them when convenient, and when they ended I, again, found other things to do.  And when they were on, I didn’t care that they were in empty stadiums or with any of the changes.  In fact, some of the changes were better because they ran more often during the day when I could actually watch, so that was a nice difference.

Due to the pandemic, I ended up working from home, and whenever I do anything at home, at least, I need noise.  At work, I tend to use noise to drown out the noise around me when it gets distracting, and so use music and SF Debris for that.  If I go into work when no one is there — my normal early start time or on weekends — then I don’t really need to have noise and can enjoy the silence.  But at home I don’t like the silence, and so need to have something on to generate some noise.  And my experience with game playing has demonstrated that I like to have something that I can look up at when I don’t need to pay attention to the screen, and so that means having the TV on (my main desk in the office is set up so that I can see the TV from there, although at times if I’m playing a louder game I can’t hear what’s happening on the TV).  And early on in the process, I was looking for there to be something on TV to watch and adjusted my cable packages and the like to try to get stuff like that, because when I’m working the last thing I wanted to do was change the channels every half hour or even every hour, or have to enable the next episode.  What I want is something that I can leave on for a couple of hours at a time, which is why I ended up watching Lifetime-style movies like “Arizona”. 

And, at times, the TV itself was working.  Sure, I watched a lot of game shows and a couple of movies that were average at best, but for a while I could watch TV for good parts of the day.  When hockey and baseball came back, they actually fit neatly into the afternoons and so worked really well for what was indeed their primary purpose for me:  something that I could half-watch at times while working or doing my personal afternoon stuff after work that gave me noise and something interesting to look up at on occasion.  After they ended, what I ended up doing was watching game shows until 10 am and then switching over to music until I watched more game shows after noon, which worked out pretty well.

And then the schedule changed and there was nothing on that I wanted to watch in the mornings.  At all.

Now, I kinda had this problem at the beginning, but I took it as an opportunity and ended up rewatching my old DVDs that I had always wanted to rewatch.  So early in the year I rewatched “Dark Shadows”, “Smallville” and “Charmed”, along with some shorter ones like “Duck Dodgers”.  So I sighed and went back to that idea, and rewatched “Pretty Little Liars”.  But that pretty much left me looking at my cable hookup and wondering “What in the world do I have you for?  You never have anything on that I really want to watch anymore!”.  I even found myself listening to music — especially when I was on vacation — instead of bothering to watch even the few shows that I could watch in the morning.  And no, a streaming service wouldn’t help here because most of the streaming services I’ve had experience with get you to select one episode at a time, which is precisely what I was trying to avoid.  So I ended up rewatching movies at lunch on weekends, and listening to the radio or watching a DVD series in the mornings while working, and leaving on in the afternoon some basic game shows that were mostly tolerable but at times only worked because I wasn’t paying attention at all.

So, essentially, I went back to the state I was in when I ditched cable the first time, except that there weren’t even any sports on to make it worth my while to keep it.  And the fact that I had been able to find other things to do and watch and didn’t even really miss curling, and the fact that when sports went away my sports channels, in my opinion, handled the lockdown very badly left me with the knowledge that, yes, if all of my sports went away and even if I cancelled my cable subscription I’d still do pretty well just with the DVDs I have and perhaps some new DVDs that I could buy through Amazon (although I still hate browsing through them).  So it turns out that if it wasn’t for game shows I might not watch anything on cable at all, and I could easily skip the game shows and have indeed skipped them if I wanted to watch something else.  So, again, I have come to the conclusion that the available entertainment out there is … less than entertaining.

Still, I’m going to keep what I have, because sometimes it’s really, really useful.  But, yeah, losing sports and giving up on TV shows in annoyance has proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yes, I can live without them … contra to Brunt’s comments.

Thoughts on “Dynasty”

September 30, 2020

I was a kid right around the time that the New York Islanders went on their run of four straight Stanley Cups, and I became a big New York Islanders fan. They’re still one of my favourite teams. So when I was looking for sports history/biography type books, I definitely wanted to see if I could get anything about the Islanders, and I found “Dynasty” by Greg Prato, which is billed as an oral history of the team from 1972 – 1984. So roughly from when they entered the league to the last couple of years after the streak was broken.

The book is an oral history, which means that it’s made up of segments of interviews with key people from the time arranged into what looks like one interview. I prefer narratives, so the book’s format doesn’t work as well for me as the more biographical or narrative based ones did. Still, the subject matter is interesting and you get a variety of viewpoints, with things mostly told in their own words. I would have rathered a narrative, but it works well-enough to be interesting. And I do get a lot of interesting personal stories out of each section.

One specific point that it mentions is about how the Islanders seemed to need to lose first and learn what it takes to win a championship in order to be able to win it and to them go on their streak. Their streak was also broken in part due to injuries and the like but also because the Edmonton Oilers had to lose to them to learn what it takes for them to win. And the book also referenced what was clear in the books I read about the Boston Bruins that they had to lose in order to learn what it takes to win. This is something that also seems clear today, as a number of teams that most people thought were more than strong enough to win fall short, often devastatingly so. The Islanders resisted the temptation to blow things up when the team was falling short of expectations, and they believe that that fact was crucial in them winning four straight. It’s about making the right moves and building a strong team, and not just trying to assemble a bunch of strong players.

Part of that was building a strong second line, which is why Butch Goring and John Tonelli were such key components of those championship teams. While the main line of Trottier-Bossy-Gillies would usually get its points, they note that you can mostly shut down one line, and so having a second threat is a huge advantage. This is something that I’ve noted myself for quite a while in Stanley Cup runs: if you only have one line scoring eventually teams will figure that out and focus on that line and shut it down, but if you have two scoring lines things are a lot more complicated for the opposing team.

Ultimately, it was a pretty good book about one of my favourite teams. It made me want to find a way to get to play as classic teams and pit them against each other in some kind of computer hockey version, and I can’t really find a good way to do that. Since I can’t do that, at least for now, I’ll settle for saying that I am likely to read this book again sometime.

Thoughts on “The Rebel League”

September 23, 2020

Continuing my reading of sports biographies, I came across one that wasn’t the normal kind of book I’d read, but sounded interesting nonetheless. It’s “The Rebel League” by Ed Willes, and it chronicles the short but memorable life of the WHA, a competitor in professional hockey to the NHL that actually spawned a number of NHL teams, many in Canada, and ones that left and one that returned and one that is desperately trying to return.

As a new league trying to compete with a strongly established competitor, it certainly had its growing pains, often hilariously so. This allows Willes to fill his chapters with a number of funny anecdotes that complement the more serious discussions in the work. We get comments on how the players interacted with each other, how they acted on the ice, what oddities the owners had and had to face, and even the often bizarre attempts to woo players or fight against the NHL. We also get some personal stories about the coaches and players and owners and why they either tried to get a team or decided to play, including a number of great stories about Gordie Howe and his sons, and about them playing together, which gives the work a bit of a personal touch that’s interesting as well.

But it doesn’t skimp on the history and organizational parts. It talks about how the players were so underpaid that it made it feasible for these teams to draw NHL players to these upstart teams simply by paying them more fairly (or insanely, in some cases) which ultimately had a huge impact on salaries in professional hockey that arguably paved the way for the massive salaries players get today. It also deals with an issue that is resonating today, as one of the reasons they had an in was that the NHL and junior hockey leagues had an agreement that players could not be drafted into the NHL until their 20th year — which was conveniently when the junior hockey leagues stopped letting them play in the junior leagues, so the WHA tried to sign those 18 – 20 year olds by offering them actual salaries compared to what they could earn in junior (effectively nothing). This is relevant because I read about a new lawsuit claiming that the fact that players can’t join the AHL or ECHL until a certain age is anti-competitive in precisely the same way.

The WHA didn’t survive, but it definitely had an impact on professional hockey. “The Rebel League” is a well-written book that definitely highlights that impact while still remaining entertaining and personal.

Thoughts on “Orr: My Story”

September 16, 2020

It wasn’t entirely a coincidence — as a big reason for buying the books I did buy was because they were what was on the early pages at Amazon and were available — for me to pick up Bobby Orr’s biography after after Phil Esposito’s. Obviously, the two of them were on the same team for quite a while and shared some memorable runs. But I’m not a big Boston Bruins fan, and so didn’t try to seek that out to get the memories of those runs. They really did just show up on the page, were available, and seemed kinda interesting.

Now, as noted before, what I like is the descriptions of the games and the series and how things go. Esposito’s book didn’t really give that to me … and neither did Orr’s. While the impression I had of Esposito’s was that his main goal was to get things out there that he thought people should know that they were getting wrong, Orr’s book strikes me as him wanting to do more of an analysis of the state of the game through his experiences like Ken Dryden did in “The Game” rather than a simple biography of his playing career. This means that quite often he diverges in his chapters from what he’s talking about to a comment on what that would mean for the game or say about the game. The issue with this is that the story of his life and career is far more interesting than his views on the state of the game, especially since he just isn’t as analytic a person as Ken Dryden is. So some of his comments are simplistic or even incorrect, and even when he might have a good point there are alternative arguments that he might be missing, and since he never really acknowledges them we aren’t sure if he thinks they don’t stand or if he just isn’t really aware of them.

One big example of this is the interesting point that the modern hockey world treats hockey more like a career even from a young age than something that kids do for fun. So there’s a lot of thought on the part of parents as to what they can do to help their kid make it to the NHL and the leagues that are supposed to feed into that focus much more on systems and practice and skills training than on just going out and having fun and seeing what works for the kid and what doesn’t. This is a good point. However, one of the main reasons for that shift was the influx of European players who had more skill and noting that the reason they were more generally skilled was because, it seems, they started training skills early instead of just letting kids do whatever they want. Does that early training really make those kids more skilled? Does it cost something — like creativity, perhaps — that we wouldn’t want to lose? Is there a middle ground here? These are good questions, but Orr never addresses them or tries to work that out. He merely laments that his skill came from that ability to experiment which is something that today’s players don’t get to do.

Still, the more interesting parts of his book focus on his personal relationships, specifically with his betrayal by Alan Eagleson and his close relationship with Don Cherry. Through those sections, you get a feel not only for those men, but for Orr himself as he explains just why he feels the way he does for those men. Some of his comments on how things were during his career and how he played are also fairly interesting.

It wasn’t a bad book, and I’d likely read it again. I just wish there was more reminiscing and less analyzing, because the reminisces are the best part of the book.

Thoughts on “Thunder and Lightning”

September 9, 2020

When I was a kid, there were a couple of books in some library near me about hockey. I remember clearly that one of them was “Goaltender” by Gerry Cheevers, and I remember reading another one that I think was about the Philadelphia Flyers. I really enjoyed them as a kid, and recently started thinking that getting those books or books like them would be good. I had managed to get one by James Duthie that was interesting, and read “The Game” by Ken Dryden, but neither of those were quite the same, and when I browsed in bookstores I couldn’t really find anything that seemed interesting. But then I decided to browse on Amazon and despite my noted issues with browsing on Amazon managed to find a couple that seemed interesting. This is the first of those, a retrospective by Phil Esposito called “Thunder and Lightning”.

The thing about this book for me is that I recall the previous books talked more and in more detail about the games, especially the big ones, which was a lot of fun, along with a lot of details over what happened in-between the games, including the jokes and pranks and various things that go on there. The mix of the games and the out-of-game moments really worked for me, because I liked the descriptions of the games and the ebb-and-flow, and that left room for the out-of-game stories which were usually interesting but since they were about people and events that I wasn’t that familiar with would probably seem boring if the entire book was nothing but them. “Thunder and Lightning” has these things, but is much less detailed that I recall the other books being, especially about how the games went. And even the stories seem less detailed, more reminisces that happened to come to him than something worked out in detail.

This makes the book a little disjoint and disorganized. Yes, it is roughly in chronological order, but it doesn’t come across as a book where he moves easily from year-to-year and talks about what happened, even though he, again, roughly does that. As noted above, it comes across as him talking about what he happened to think of when thinking about those times, with maybe a prompting at times to talk about the really, really big things. So it does come across more like someone reminiscing about their past than as an organized biography.

Which makes sense, because the big impression I got from the book is that this is less Esposito telling his own story and more him trying to set the record straight, telling people things that he thinks they need to know or that they always get wrong about him and his career. This comes across most clearly when he talks about his time as the GM in Tampa Bay where he tries to correct the impression that he was some kind of mad trader, and also where he talks about how he was, at least to him, kinda screwed over by Tampa Bay and by the ownership. Those sorts of events, even back to his hockey days, are the ones given the most detail and usually the most time. Overall in the book, they are the minority, but they do seem to get the most “love”.

But that’s okay, because they’re interesting. The book is subtitled “A No B.S. Hockey Memoir” and Esposito is pretty honest about his career and his own failings, including in his personal life and with his two divorces, and even when setting the record straight he easily admits his own mistakes in that regard. So while it doesn’t quite have the detail that I was looking for in a hockey memoir, it is an entertaining read because of that. I will likely read this book again.

Thoughts on the Sport Shutdown

August 31, 2020

So, here’s a case where I’d probably get myself in trouble if anyone, you know, actually read this blog, or at least anyone who would care enough to try to get me in trouble over what I say on it. Because in my opinion the sports shutdown was an event that’s being portrayed as heroic but was instead an utterly meaningless gesture. I have some widely varying thoughts on this so this post might be a little disorganized.

Anyway, let’s start with a short description. A number of the major sports postponed some of their games for a couple of days in the middle of the week, at the instigation of the players and, particularly, the players in the NBA. This was done in reaction to the Jacob Blake shooting by police in Kenosha. The first thing that’s striking about this to me is that the reason for the shutdown isn’t exactly clear, from even my brief listening to the discussions on sports highlight shows. The reason most highlighted by sports media is that the players wanted to use their platform to push for change. And yet a number of players gave a different reason, which is that they themselves were having a difficult time focusing on sports when that had happened and all of the things around that were happening. I suspect that the reasons are interconnected, which explains what the players chose to do: the players, especially those closest to the issues, were hearing about the events and wanted to do something about them, and so let those emotions push them into the dramatic actions of threatening to and striking over them. As the emotions were dominant, this would explain a lot about how it all came about and the reactions of them and others to the leagues and people who didn’t really want to participate.

The issue is that this was not a particularly well-conceived or planned event, which is par for the course for events driven more by emotion than by sober thought. For starters, no one believed that the players were going to shut down the playoffs or the season for this protest, especially since they had just started up again when the lockdowns were starting to get lifted. I was actually somewhat impressed when the Lakers and Clippers threatened to leave over these things, but in hindsight they probably weren’t actually going to do that. And for good reason, since shutting down sports likely wouldn’t have had the response they were going for. Shutting down for a couple of days causes as much headaches for the leagues as rained out games and even long overtimes have done, and is often what happens between rounds of the playoffs. So that is a minor concern at best for the fans, and shutting down longer returns sports to the case we already had, with there being no live sports on because of the pandemic. In any other year, shutting down would certainly draw the attention of sports fans, but this year the fans had already had to spend a lot of time without sports. Most of them, then, already knew how to handle life without sports, so it wouldn’t have the impact that they would have wanted it to. And those fans who really couldn’t live without sports might well be angry of them being taken away again, and so would not be that amenable to the cause that spawned the second shutdown unless they already supported the cause, at which point they aren’t the audience the shutdown would need to reach. So it starts to come across as the players feeling that they needed to do something, this was something, and so they did it.

This spontaneous action also royally screwed over the NHL. The NHL didn’t have the ground swell of players demanding something like this, and while people have griped that it is because the NHL is white-dominated it is more likely that it is Canadian and European dominated. As most of players — 75% I’m told — are not from the U.S., and because the games are being played in Canada, most of them were getting their news from Canadian and European news sources which would cover the events but in a way that would make them seem less immediate. They also wouldn’t be as attached to events in the U.S. as NBA players would. And in their countries the racism and police violence situation is better — not perfect — and so it wouldn’t be as big an issue for them. So the players wouldn’t feel that strong desire to do something, anything about it, and the NHL couldn’t have made a move like this without the players being on board even if they wanted to. Add in that the NBA case was last minute and was done without a strong attempt, at least, to co-ordinate with the other leagues and the NHL got roasted in the sports media for not doing something that they couldn’t have had any idea that it would be good for them to do until it was too late. Remember, on that first day — the Wednesday, I believe — as far as I can recall they had already played a game and were definitely preparing for their second, so it was a bit too late to poll the players and make a call once it looked like this was going to be a thing.

(And it’s also odd that the NHL, at least in Canada, got such a strong reaction when baseball, as far as I can tell from the highlights, never shut down completely, despite having a much closer connection to the issue).

I think it would have been better for the NHL, instead of shutting down for the next two days and looking like they were just following along with what had already been done, had simply stood up and said “We missed the boat on this spontaneous action, but these issues are not issues that will be fixed in a couple of days. They will be on-going. So instead of joining this action too late to have any real impact, we’re going to talk to the players and the other leagues and look at doing something coordinated in the next few weeks to really use our platforms to get the message out”. This likely wouldn’t have satisfied most of the people nagging at them, but it would have been better than the solution that no one liked, where their attempts to follow the crowd annoyed those who weren’t sure that this was something worth doing and that they did it too late annoyed those who wanted them to do it in the first place. They really couldn’t win, but at least they could have looked like their own league.

Especially since, as noted above, this approach was flawed from the outset. If they really wanted to use their platform to get the message out, what they should have done was stopped, taken their time, and come up with a coordinated approach across all the leagues in a show of solidarity. First, they should have shut down on the weekend, not during the week, because the weekend is when more people pay attention to sports. Second, what they should have done was taken those days, in conjunction with the sports networks, to run programming in the times when the games would have been played that was aimed at getting out … whatever message it was that they wanted to get out. Yes, it was a short period of time, but sports networks are even better than news networks at putting together interviews and features in a short period of time. On top of that, most of the major sports networks have associations with news outlets anyway and so could have brought in those people and likely features they already had to get the message out. That would have really been using their platform to get the message out, and that people who have money and people to work PR for them — like their agents — couldn’t think of that when it took me about an hour after hearing about it for the first time (I thought of it on my morning walk) is a bit puzzling.

Also, that they needed to shut down games to use their platform is also odd. If someone like Lebron James wanted to talk about these issues, all he needed to do was call up a major American network and say that he wanted to talk about it and they would have paid attention. All of the big stars in the major sports could have done that. So they would have needed to do something for sports specifically or aimed at those fans, but as far as I can tell no one is really trying to determine if doing this will have an effect on reaching that audience. With a shutdown like this, we can presume that the people who agreed with the message already liked it, and those who didn’t hated the action. So they’d be trying to reach the people who aren’t really decided yet, not unsympathetic to the cause but uncertain about all of those aspects. Those in that group who are casual sports fans — like myself — probably mostly ignored it and went to find something else to do. Those who were more dedicated sports fans were probably much more upset at the loss of the thing that they really loved. But would they be more upset at the conditions that “forced” this move … or at those who shut things down unnecessarily, in their eyes? We don’t know, and more distressingly those advocating for this don’t seem to want to know. Instead of gauging people’s reactions to this, most of those kept insisting that people should be bothered by this and should consider it historic and as a great move to combat these problems. Dan O’Toole from the Jay and Dan show waxed semi-eloquently about how if this is bothering you, you should answer the question of what they should have done instead, listing other things that have been done that people complained about. Naomi Osaka opined that if people were uncomfortable it was good because maybe they’d look inside themselves to see why. Both of them and many others were simply presuming the reasons for the discomfort or annoyance and asserting the strong normative statement that you should side with them, without thinking about why some people wouldn’t.

And one of the main issues here is that sports for most people are … escapism. People use sports to escape from all the terrible stuff they see on the news. If they wanted to immerse themselves in these issues and be lectured at about them … well, they’d turn on the news. Instead, they want to put it aside and not think about it for a while. And I can’t see that being something that only or even primarily whites do, because using basic empathy I have to imagine that especially the black-dominated sports like basketball are wonderful escapes for black people, where they can watch black people being judged not by the colour of their skin but instead by how many points they get. So sports, as primarily a vehicle for escapism, are things that people do not want to see get invaded too much by real-world concerns. If they get turned into vehicles for getting the message out, people may well react to what they see as an intrusion that ruins their experience of the game, which is the only reason they watch them in the first place. So we may well be able to answer Osaka with the answer that we are uncomfortable with something that we see as mostly apolitical and neutral getting explicitly turned into something political. We may be able to answer O’Toole by replying that we want the political protests kept out of sports and at least maintain the illusion that all that matters in sports is winning, not the political beliefs of the players. That doesn’t make us bad people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the issues. All it means is that we don’t want people in sports to do the equivalent of arguing about world politics in a code inspection: those issues may be important, but that isn’t the purpose of the code inspection — or sports — and only impedes them.

The other thing the delay would have done would have been to enable them to get experts to talk about the issues and impacts and to come up with a clear message. TSN had Kayla Grey — a relatively new member of their team and one of the few black people on the team — do a lot of talking about this, but it was clear that she didn’t really know all that much about the entire situation. Rod Smith asked her on a number of occasions about what the next steps would be and her reply was always a reiteration of how bad things are with a slight segue into a comment that the question wasn’t one that we could validly ask players since we couldn’t ask them to fix problems they didn’t create (while saying at one point that others and the owners should despite them not creating them either). But if the players are going to take strong actions and try to leverage their platform, it behooves them to come up with a clear and concise message to express with that platform, to get the point across and hopefully to spark the change they want to see. It also behooves them to come up with some clear ways to measure improvement, because this was spawned by a police shooting of a black man, but there was another shooting just a few short months before that, and there will be a shooting again, likely before the year is out. Police officers shoot people. Sometimes, the police are right. Sometimes, the police are wrong. Sometimes, the police are racist. Are they going to feel the need for a shutdown the next time any black person gets shot, even if they are more in the wrong than the police are in that case? Since this is not going to be solved overnight, how can they tell that things are getting better and so they only need to say to trust the process they’ve hopefully initiated, or that things aren’t getting better and they need to take more drastic actions? They don’t know what they want to happen next. They don’t know how they’d tell if things are improving, or even solved. They wanted to do something, and by gum they did something.

But that’s why I say that it’s meaningless. Many people simply ignored the shutdown other than tangentially. Many of the others will forget about it over the next few months, especially once the leagues stop for the year. They got out no clear message. They placed no real pressure on the people in power, especially not more than they were already experiencing. Basically, they did something, but something that is unlikely to lead to any great change over and above what is already happening because, well, they didn’t really do anything but express upset, which everyone pretty much already knew anyway. A better thought out approach would have been far better, in my opinion.