Monday, November 13, 2017

Game Change by Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden, goalie, lawyer, author member of parliament, has written an important book.  Game Change The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey focuses on the very real crisis hockey faces as evidence mounts that concussions are shortening the lives of its players.

Montador was a serious, hard working player from a young age until his own untimely death at the age of 35.  He played mostly as a defenseman for six NHL teams in nearly 600 NHL games.

The more or less routine (for hockey) hits to the head from those games and years of minor, junior and AHL took a toll on his brain.

He was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a post mortem examination.
Steve was a victim of how the game has changed, says Dryden (pictured below.)
Ken Dryden - photo by Sergey Smirnov

Hockey is about speed.  It is its “defining element.” And “over time it has learned to become faster.” 

“The ice got better, skates got better, coaches got smarter, shifts got shorter, players got fitter, rules changed.   Now more than 140 years after that first game in Montreal, there is almost nothing that stands in the way of speed, or the consequences of speed: the increased number of collisions: the force of those collisions; the increased severity of brain injuries.”

Dryden has two ideas for change.  They aren’t that complicated.

The idea of finishing your check should be eliminated.  Even within the current rules it is interference.  The book discusses many situations where concussions resulted after a player passed the puck or merely was skating without the puck and was hit.

Secondly, all hits to the head should be against the rules.  Dryden compares it to football where rules have been put in place so that any hit to the quarterback’s head is a penalty.  There is no reason hockey can’t do the same.

Dryden lays the responsibility for making these necessary changes on Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Dryden frequently refers to Bettman as a clever lawyer suggesting who hides behind legal technicalities to avoid dealing with the real problem of concussions. Bettman should convene a meeting of experts and pose the question how of how to reduce the frequency and force of blows to the head.   The experts will have an answer, Dryden believes.

Hockey purists will resist, stuck as all purists are with memories of good old days that didn’t really exist.

For example, Gordie Howe is considered one of the great players of all time.  That is because the right winger could score goals, played good defense and was tough.  The Gordie Howe Hat Trick (a goal, an assist and a fight) is held up as something equivalent to the ultimate game.  But as Dryden notes in more than 2000 games in the NHL and WHA, Howe (who scored nearly one thousand goals, made more than 1,300 assists and served 2,000 minutes in penalties) only achieved two Gordie Howe Hat Tricks.

Hopefully, Dryden’s call for change will be heeded but one wonders if the views of  those Rock’em Sock’em hockey types will hold sway.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Winfield and the "Seagull"

Are you aware of how important a date August 4 is in the history of Toronto and the planet?

Yes, I remember where I was when JFK was shot (Grade 9 English Class, Nelson High School). When Apollo 11 landed on moon I was working at the #2 Rod Mill at Stelco in Hamilton.  And I have a clear memory of September 9, 1956 when this six-year-old surreptitiously crawled down the back hallway, apparently undetected by unsuspecting parents, to watch Elvis gyrating on the Ed Sullivan show.
Dave Winfield - Hall of
Famer and Gull Slayer

I also remember where I was thirty four years ago (August 4, 1983) - an historic date. That day at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium Dave Winfield  “slew a gull.”  My memory is foggy, as the Stadium often was, though. I guess I should have taken notes.

Along with about 36,000 others I was taking in the game from the cheap but covered seats in left-centre field at what later became known as the Mistake-by-the Lake.   Burlington Post reporter Dennis Smith and I spent four dollars each for our seats (Could they really have been $4.00 dollars then?)  Between innings I had my 7x50 Dienstglas binoculars trained on this bird.  It had been sitting in the same place in right-centre field for several innings.  While I looked at the gull through the binos,  it was smacked by a baseball.  Someone sitting near us called out:  “Winfield killed that poor pigeon.”

The “pigeon” was indeed dead.  A hapless ball boy was dispatched to cover and remove the dead bird.  While some booing began I, clearly identifying with that ball boy, flashed back to a similar incident in my past.   As a student Steelworker I had been ordered by the foreman to “bury that poor effing cat” that had been found dead in Stelco’s #2 Rod Mill.  Poor ball boy.

As I’ve suggested some of the details of this important day are lost to me.

The Toronto Star says the charge against Winfield, later dismissed, was “cruelty to animals.” I can’t say I remembered that specific but for some reason I do recall Winfield’s manager’s response to the charge:   Said Billy Martin: “Cruelty to animals?  That’s the first time he’s hit the cut-off man all year.” 

I remember, too,  that the birding community was irked.  Peter Whalen of the Globe and Mail wrote about it. His column lamented the fact that the deceased bird was continuously referred to by the media and public as a “seagull.”    There is no such species, as any birder worth his feathers would tell you.  It was a ring billed gull or larus delawarensis, if you prefer.

Imagine the audacity of a wannabe world class city hauling an American celebrity off to the Hogtown Hoosegow?  I recall, then Metro Chairman, Paul Godfrey grovelling to the Americans over our  misfeasance.   But didn’t that have to do with getting a NFL franchise for Toronto?

All these memories coming back to me……

Oh, and where were you on August 4, 1983?
The Queen and Prince Philip in the North Grandstand...
but not that night
Where they are now. 

Dennis Smith, who attended the game with this Blogger, is semi-retired and does freelance work for the Burlington Post including a regular Entertainment column.  Dennis reminds me, often, that another team  played at the CNE in the ‘Year of the Dead Bird.’  That team, the Toronto Argonauts, won the Grey Cup in 1983.

While the Toronto Blue Jays lost to the Yankees that August day they did go on to record their first winning season in 1983 winning 89 times against 73 losses.  This year they are on pace for a record of 76 wins and 86 loses.

The #2 Rod Mill was opened by the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) in 1966.  Once North America’s largest manufacturer of hot rolled wire rods, the mill closed for good in 2004.

Dave Winfield is now 65 years old.  A Hall of Famer,  he was member of the Blue Jays 1992 World Series Championship team.

Bob Wood lives in Port Rowan Ontario and hasn’t attended  many games at the SkyDome/Rogers Centre.  He preferred the Mistake-by–the-Lake even if they were cruel to animals there.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jimmy Breslin on Branch Rickey

The American journalist and author Jimmy Breslin died on March 19th this year.
Jimmy Breslin

Over the years, I had occasionally read his column and essays in magazines.  Some time back I read one of his novels – World Without End, Amen, I think.

Upon his death, it was easy to find some of his better-known pieces like Digging JFK Grave was His Honor and, after John Lennon’s death, A Part of Cop’s Past Live Dies.

In 1986 Breslin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens".

He could write.  I figure I can learn something (well, many things) so I picked up his last published book Branch Rickey.

Breslin liked to talk with his subjects. Rickey, who died in 1965 was long gone by 2011.  Nevertheless, the author was confident he could “rely on big-name historiansand that this (experience) would be immensely pleasurable.”
The historians disappointed Breslin.  “History writers should be put not in jail but under it.”

Breslin’s book used a lot from Arthur Mann’s earlier work on Rickey that had formed the basis of The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 film (starring Robinson himself and Sandra Dee).
Branch Rickey

Although I knew a fair bit about Rickey and the story of him bringing Robinson up to major league baseball, I certainly picked up new insights from Breslin.

Robinson was some athlete. It is arguable that baseball wasn’t even his best sport.  
Seventy years ago today (July 26th), at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field he stole home and hit a home run in the same game. 

That feat is perhaps a good indicator of his athleticism.  1947 was his rookie season with the Dodgers.  His numbers that year were .297 (Batting Average), .383 (On Base Percentage- OBP), 29 stolen bases and 12 home runs.  He retired with a lifetime .311 batting average and a.409 OBP.

I have vague memories of Robinson at the end of his career.  I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate what he had to endure in order to excel over 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson stealing home in 55 World Series.  Yogi Berra says he tagged him out 

Rickey and Robinson faced incredible bigotry.  Significant portions of white America at large, sportswriters and the other owners weren’t interested in change.

The owners, for example, issued a statement in the summer of 1946.  That was the year that Robinson was tearing up the International League playing second base with the Montreal Royals. Entitled Race Question the statement read in part: 

“Baseball will jeopardize its leadership in professional sport if it fails to give full appreciation to the fact that the Negro player and the Negro fan are part and parcel of the game. Certain groups in this country, including political and social-minded drumbeaters, are conducting pressure campaigns in an attempt to force major league clubs to sign Negro players.  Members of these groups are not primarily interested in Professional Baseball.

Signing of a few Negro players for the major leagues would be a gesture-but it would contribute little or nothing towards a solution of the real problem. Let’s look at the facts:”

Those “facts” identified requirements of a major league player.  Things like technique, coordination and discipline. You apparently need seven years in the minors to gain these skills and attitudes.

As a result, the “young Negro player never has a good chance in baseball.  This is the reason there are not more players who meet major league standards in the big Negro leagues.”

Fifteen of sixteen owners voted for this declaration.  Rickey’s was the only opposition.  I guess you could call him a social-minded drumbeater.
Branch Rickey

This particular statement the owners issued was in response to the Ives-Quinn Act of 1945.  Sponsored by the New York Republican Irving Ives, it was the first state law to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. Rickey, a Republican himself, had lobbied hard for this legislation.  Its passage meant that the Dodger boss had the legal backing to bring Robinson up to the majors.

It goes without saying that Rickey was a principled man. He jeopardized his own major league career, he was a catcher, as he had promised his mother he would never play on Sundays. Managers weren’t impressed.

Rickey earned a law degree, practiced for a day or so before returning to his alma mater to coach baseball.  And baseball was where he stayed.

Branch Rickey invented the baseball farm system changing the “look of baseball long before he ever heard of Jackie Robinson.”

Rickey was a baseball man but “nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty.” He sold hundred of players and took a 10% commission on their sale.  

When future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize wanted too much money, Rickey sold him for $50,000 and took his 10%.  That was 1941 and Rickey’s salary was $50,000.

Rickey understood better than anyone that there was a business case for Negro League players to play in the major leagues.

He did a great thing in American life, says Breslin.  Later in the McCarthy era, together with Robinson, he got caught up in attacking actor/singer Paul Robeson alleged communist views and later threw in with Richard Nixon.

Breslin would have told them that “the wise shoemaker sticks to his trade and maintains a mouth filled with nails.

Rickey argued that, “ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.” 

That was a tough case to make and he made it.

Baseball and society are better places for his contribution.  Breslin’s too.