Friday, September 24, 2010

The 2010 NHL Season - A Fresh Start for Carey Price?

This article was first published in the September 24th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

Training camps are underway throughout the National Hockey League, as all thirty teams prepare for the long march towards the Stanley Cup playoffs in April. After numerous roster moves during the summer and a clean slate for a new season, it is the time of year when every fan believes their team has a chance to compete for the Cup. However, with that clean slate, expectations for a successful season are at their peak; nowhere are those expectations higher then in Montreal.

The Canadiens were the Cinderella story of the 2010 playoffs, weaving their way past the high-powered Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before the clock struck midnight against the Philadelphia Flyers. While the journey to the Eastern Conference Final was an exciting one, it does not guarantee a return trip this year. The Eastern Conference is tighter then ever and the battle for playoff positioning begins with game one. With the extra point available for a shootout win, victories in October are just as important as victories in March.

At the forefront of every analyst’s mind heading into the season is how will Carey Price react to the responsibilities of becoming the number one goaltender? According to reports out of Montreal’s camp, Price looks fit and prepared after his summer workouts, and he will need to be ready for a strong year with the departure of Jaroslav Halak. Newly acquired backup Alex Auld is a good number two goaltender but he is streaky - when he is hot, look out... when he is not, watch out.

Montreal does not have the luxury of a 1A and 1B goaltending scenario this year; if Carey Price does not become the “thoroughbred” Bob Gainey and the Canadiens management group believe him to be, it could be a very long year. Having said that, it is important for Habs fans (and sports writers) to remember that the clean slate applied to the rest of the team, also applies to Price; while it is easy to expect the worst from him after his recent struggles, he has proven to be a winner at every level of hockey. Through hard work and his playoff performances, Jaroslav Halak earned his playing time and a place in the hearts of Habs fans. In his new role as the official number one goaltender, Price deserves the same opportunity to shine in Montreal.

One date Habs fans will have circled on their calendar is February 20, 2011 when the Canadiens travel to Calgary’s McMahon Stadium to battle the Flames in the 2011 Heritage Classic. The first outdoor Heritage Classic occurred in 2003, as the Oilers and Canadiens played an alumni game, followed by a regular season NHL game. The event was such a success, the league has continued staging the event as the Winter Classic, held every New Year’s Day in the United States. This will be the first outdoor game in Canada since the 2003 event.

Where will Montreal finish in the Eastern Conference this year? While I do not believe the Canadiens will take the top spot in their division (I have Ottawa winning the Northeast Division this season), they will certainly challenge for a playoff position. Their playoff success last year demonstrated it does not matter where you rank in the Conference, as long as you qualify anything can happen. The regular season starts Thursday, October 7th in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, with the first home game on Saturday, October 9th versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. Let the games begin! Have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Another 20-Win Season for Roy Halladay

With the MLB season winding down, former Toronto Blue Jays pitching ace Roy “Doc” Halladay is preparing for a long awaited journey - a trip to the post-season. In his first year in the National League, Halladay and his Philadelphia Phillies teammates have extended their lead in the NL East to five games over the Atlanta Braves. The five game lead is crucial for Philadelphia, as the two teams finish the season with a three-game series in Atlanta - the division title could be on the line.

On Tuesday evening, Halladay picked up his twentieth win of the season, joining only a handful of pitchers to accomplish the feat in the American and National League during their career. It is the third time he has reached the 20-win plateau (2003 and 2008 with Toronto), and the first time since 1982 a Philadelphia pitcher (Steve Carlton) reached that milestone.

After 12 years in Toronto, Halladay made the difficult decision to move on from the Blue Jays, but unlike other star players that have left that city under a cloud of controversy; he left with the blessing of Jays fans. While he would still look good in a Blue Jays uniform, fans understood and respected his decision. The trade allowed Doc to aim for the post-season and it gave the Blue Jays the opportunity to acquire several prospects as they entered a rebuilding process.

In the modern sports era, many familiar sports milestones have lost their significance, rushing for 1,000 yards in the NFL for example, but one mark of greatness that still maintains its allure is the 20-win plateau. While so many factors go into a 20-win season, it takes a total team effort to be consistent night after night, Halladay’s ability to shutdown the opposition bats and his work ethic are second to none and he deserves any accolades sent his way. In fact, after pitching a perfect game earlier this season, the Philadelphia media reported that he was in the gym at 8:30am the next morning preparing for his next start!

A first round selection in the 1995 amateur draft, Halladay has a career win/loss record of 168-86, with a remarkable .661 winning percentage, which ranks first among active MLB pitchers and 16th on the all-time list. The 2003 Cy Young Award winner and seven-time All-Star is proud of his season, but when speaking to the media after Tuesday evening’s game, he reminded everyone that his sights are squarely on the MLB’s second season.

“It’s definitely special, but the best part about it is it’s been secondary for me. Being able to get to the playoffs is the priority.”

While it has taken time for Toronto fans to grow accustomed to seeing Halladay in a Philadelphia uniform, there is no doubt they are cheering for Doc and hoping he reaches his ultimate goal - a World Series championship ring. Perhaps it is a good thing Halladay left Toronto, now the baseball world can witness first-hand what Blue Jays’ fans have known all along - Roy Halladay is one of the greatest pitchers in the modern MLB era.

To borrow a line from Stephen Colbert, “A tip of the hat!” to Roy Halladay - even if it happens to be a Blue Jays cap... Congrats Doc!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quebec Capitales win 2010 Can-Am League Championship

A portion of this article was first published in the September 17th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

The summer is wrapping up and sports fans are preparing for the second half of the CFL season, the MLB’s World Series, and the start of the NHL, NFL, and NBA schedules. So many leagues, so little time... As regular readers will know, one league I enjoy watching every summer is the Can-Am Baseball League.

Once again, the Quebec Capitales thrilled their fans with another winning season in the six-team league and the team had another strong showing at the turnstile; 147, 978 baseball fans visited Quebec City’s Stade Municipal this summer. With a win/loss record of 30-17 in the first half of the split-season schedule, the defending Can-Am champions finished first in the league and qualified for the post season. The Capitales rolled through the second half as well and finished the year with a league best 57-37 record.

The Pittsfield Colonials, New Jersey Jackals, and the Brockton Rox joined the Capitales in the first round of the Can-Am playoffs, with the Capitales and Colonials advancing to the next round. Quebec and Pittsfield began battling for the Can-Am championship in a best-of-five series on Tuesday evening. After dropping the opening game 6-5 when Pittsfield rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Capitales evened things up with a 5-4 victory before the series shifted back to Quebec City. In front of their home fans, Quebec grabbed the series lead with a 1-0 victory in game three thanks to an RBI triple by Ivan Naccarta in the eighth inning. With the opportunity to win their second consecutive Can-Am Championship, the Capitales wasted little time in game four; taking an early 2-0 lead in the first inning and added three more runs in the third. Sebastien Boucher went 3-5, with two home runs and five RBI’s as the Capitales cruised to a 6-1 victory and the Can-Am League Championship.

Leading the way for the Capitales at the plate this summer was Ottawa native Sebastien Boucher. The right fielder powered the offence with 11 home runs, 75 RBI’s, and a .336 batting average. A seventh round selection of the Seattle Mariners in the 2004 draft, he played at various levels from Class-A to Triple-A baseball before joining the Capitales last season. Equally impressive at the plate this year, was shortstop Ivan Naccarta. The Montreal native led the league with 124 hits, was fourth overall with 68 runs scored, and his .316 batting average placed him in the top-six in that category.

The Capitales pitching staff began the playoffs on a roll again this year; led by Mathew Rusch, Karl Gelinas, and Dan Sausville. Rusch finished the season with 11 wins, second overall in the league, and his 108 strikeouts left him only seven behind the league leader. Gelinas, a member of the Capitales since 2007, had the second best earned run average in the Can-Am League with an ERA of 3.07 in his 16 appearances. Sausville pitched 115 innings this season in 22 appearances and posted an equally impressive 3.11 ERA.

Congratulations to team owner Miles Wolff, GM Alex Harvey, Manager Patrick Scalabrini and everyone in the organization for another great season; back-to-back championships in any league is a tremendous accomplishment and the celebrations will continue until the journey begins again in 2011. The championship is the third Can-Am title for the Capitales (2006, 2009, and 2010).

In other Can-Am news: Last season, the Can-Am League was in the headlines when former Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne joined the Capitales pitching staff. This year, a former Montreal Expo joined the Brockton Rox for a game - a pitching performance that baseball fans in attendance will never forget. At 63 years young, Bill “Spaceman” Lee took to the mound for the Rox and pitched 5-1/3 innings, allowing two runs, and picking up the win in a 7-3 Brockton victory. Way to go Bill!

In case you missed it - After 20 years and many failed attempts, I have decided to kick a nasty habit to the curb... The Voice of Sport will now be a “smoke free” column! Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher Dirk Hayhurst is raising funds for the people of Pakistan affected by the devastating floods. My mission: quit smoking and donate one month’s cigarette money to Dirk’s fundraising efforts. You can follow my journey to better health online - I hope to see you there!
Have a great sports day everyone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blue Jays and Canadians sign 4-year deal - Great day for baseball in Canada!

The Montreal Expos and Triple-A Ottawa Lynx have moved on in recent years, but with the Quebec Capitales in the Can-Am League, the Intercounty Baseball League in Ontario, the Golden League (which includes Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria), and the Northern League (Winnipeg), baseball is alive and well in Canada. This fact was confirmed today, as an affiliation agreement between the Toronto Blue Jays and Vancouver Canadians was announced.

The nation’s last MLB team and the lone affiliated team will work together to grow the game at the professional level. Toronto’s future stars will now hit the field in the Northwest League at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium. The Class-A Canadians spent the past ten years working in association with the Oakland A’s.

In a press release from the Blue Jays, the team explained their decision to create a working relationship with the Canadians.

“Having always received strong support from the west coast and particularly with British Columbia becoming a hotbed for baseball, this partnership will enhance the success of both organizations.”

Next season, the Canadians will mark their 60th anniversary at Nat Bailey, a wonderful stadium in downtown Vancouver; the connection to the Jays will improve on an already successful business plan. For the past two seasons, the team has set franchise records in attendance, with 154,592 fans taking in the action in 2010.

In a release at the Vancouver Canadians website, team owner Jake Kerr expressed his excitement to begin working with the Jays organization.

“This is something we are all very proud of,” said Kerr. “One of the goals we set out to achieve when we purchased this club (in 2007) was to ensure that baseball fans locally felt like the C’s were their team. I think this pairing with the Blue Jays will bring baseball fans closer together from coast-to-coast.”

The Canadians served as a Triple-A organization in the Pacific Coast League until the end of the 1999 season; the team was then relocated to Sacramento. The Canadians franchise was reborn in the Northwest League as a Class-A team in the Oakland system in 2000. Several MLB players began their journey in Vancouver with the Canadians organization, Rich Harden, Nick Swisher, Troy Glaus, and Tim Hudson to name a few.

Personally, during the twelve years I lived in Vancouver, I made many trips across the Second Narrows Bridge from North Vancouver, heading to “The Nat” in downtown Vancouver. It is a great venue for baseball, and now that the Blue Jays and Canadians are working together, it is a great day for baseball in the city of Vancouver, and a great day for baseball in Canada.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fernand Lapierre Provided the Soundtrack to "Nos Amours"

This article first appeared in the September 2010 edition of Main Street and is reprinted here with permission of the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper.

Remembering "Nos Amours"
Photo by TVOS
The Montreal Expos may have moved on, but for baseball fans in the region, “nos amours” will always hold a special place in our hearts. For twenty years, Pointe-Calumet resident Fernand Lapierre provided the soundtrack to those memories at Jarry Park and the Olympic Stadium as the Montreal Expos organist. While he was not a baseball fan when he took the job, he enjoyed the atmosphere at Jarry Park and his rich, textured organ playing brought the sounds of the game to life.

“I was there from the beginning in 1969, there were maybe four games already played. They talked with me and asked me to start the next day,” Lapierre explained. “I was very excited, it was really something - I could not believe it! They were the talk of the town; everybody was watching what was happening with the Expos.”

“I was not a baseball fan at the time, I was always skiing or swimming on my own, I was not part of a group or a team sport. I did not know anything about baseball, and maybe that is why my style was different music-wise, because I did not know the rules. Jim Fanning (the first General Manager of the Expos) brought me to the organ room and said, there’s the organ, there’s the people, have fun with them.”

Lapierre’s unique style caught the attention of fans and baseball players alike. During a rain delay early in his career with the Expos, Lapierre was informed he would be having a visitor in the organ room. Baseball legend Roberto Clemente wanted to meet him, and the two men quickly became good friends.

“The first year he came to Montreal, during a rain delay, he came upstairs to see me. He wanted to meet the organist, so they showed him where I was,” Lapierre said with a laugh. “We chatted for about an hour because there was no one in the stadium because of the rain. He asked me out for lunch the next day. We went to a restaurant and I felt seven feet tall. Everybody was looking at me - they did not know me but they knew Roberto! He treated me like a brother; he was truly a great friend.”

Lapierre witnessed many great moments in baseball history and one event that stands out for him occurred in 1981, when the greatest MLB players converged on Montreal for the annual All-Star Game.

“It was a good twenty years, I really enjoyed it all,” said Lapierre. “I have many good memories, like the All-Star Game, it was really something to be part of that. I have an All-Star Game ring, like the one they give the players as a souvenir. In my time there, the Expos really treated me well.”

This summer, Expos fans were delighted to see Andre Dawson join Gary Carter in baseball’s Hall of Fame. As the only two players in the Hall inducted as Expos, Lapierre was pleased to hear that Dawson acknowledged the Montreal fans in his speech.

“I am very happy for Andre Dawson,” Lapierre remarked. “He did a good job for us and we met many times when we were doing the Caravan, the tour across Quebec every January. A real good guy, it’s good that he did not forget the club.”

Recently, the Washington Nationals began to embrace their past, organizing a pre-game ceremony to honour Dawson and Carter, and including their names on a new “Ring of Honour” at their stadium. When I mentioned this to Lapierre, his response, accompanied by a hearty laugh, is my favourite answer to any question I have asked in my career.

“They should invite the organist!”

A wonderful idea... Have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Waiting Game - Bryan Helmer and Will Colbert talk with TVOS

Perhaps Tom Petty said it best in one of his classic songs when he said, “The waiting is the hardest part...”

Whether it is the result of the salary cap era or the possibility of another economic downturn, a new hockey season is set to begin and several notable NHL players are still available on the free agent market. Teams are delaying their spending decisions and this is having an effect on several unsigned players in the AHL.

Winchester native Bryan Helmer and Will Colbert of Arnprior are two of the players still waiting for word on where they will suit up this season.

Colbert, the former captain of the Ottawa 67’s, began his pro career last season after attending St. Francis Xavier University and earning a degree in Kinesiology. After splitting the year between San Jose’s AHL affiliate in Worcester and the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings, he is ready to display his talents full-time at the AHL level.

“From University to pro, it’s two very different worlds - pro hockey is a business,” said Colbert. “There is some talk now, and there are a few offers that I have to choose from.”

“I would be hesitant to sign a two-way AHL contract (AHL and ECHL) because of the situation last year. Too often, the contract you are on determines the opportunity that you get with the organization, and I don’t want to be in this exact same situation next year.”

For Helmer, the contract delay creates a different set of problems. As the father of two school age children, he must consider the needs of his family and providing a stable environment for them while he finds a spot on a roster.

“This is something new,” Helmer explained. “Usually, I have been able to get a deal done at the end of July; this is the longest I have ever been without a contract. The hardest thing for me is obviously my family. The kids are asking where they will be going to school and where we are going to be. It’s hard when you hear them asking questions like that, it gets a little stressful.”

Complicating his situation, the AHL caps the number of veterans on each team, and Helmer is heading into his 17th season. Eighteen more games in the league and he will reach the 1,000 game plateau; six more points and he becomes the all-time scoring leader for defencemen in the league. When his career does conclude, a place in the AHL Hall of Fame will be waiting for the three-time Calder Cup champion.

“It’s definitely on my mind,” said Helmer. “It would be quite a milestone for myself, and maybe if I wasn’t so close I would think about giving Europe a try, but I want to play at least another year or two in the AHL. It would be really nice to reach those two goals.”

Regardless of whether they have a contract or not, it is full-speed ahead for Colbert and Helmer as they continue their off-season workouts, preparing for the upcoming season. Both remain positive, but as September begins, they realize that teams are making the final decisions for their rosters.

“From talking with some of the guys, I gather that it is kind of a rough year for free agents,” said Colbert. “I don’t know if it has been the same in other years because I haven’t been through this before, but it certainly is getting close to training camp and the time for making a decision.”

“Sometimes it goes through your head that it’s not going to happen,” confided Helmer. “You’re sitting there and your mind starts racing, what if I don’t get anything. I’m a big believer that if you stay positive something is going to happen. Having my wife’s support is really important too, she obviously understands and is my biggest fan.”

With the success of NHL teams like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, organizations in both leagues are experiencing a youth movement, but Helmer believes there will always be the need for a veteran presence in the dressing room.

“It just seems that the GM’s want to go younger in the American League,” said Helmer. “Maybe they will get to rookie camp and they’ll look at the players and say, ‘we need a veteran defenceman here to help out our team.’ That’s what I am hoping will happen and then they come calling for me.”

While both players expect to finalize a deal before training camps begin, they are eager to know what uniform they will be wearing. For second year pro Colbert and a seasoned veteran like Helmer, waiting until September for a contract is a new experience, one they hope to avoid in the future.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Business Garfoose" goes to Parliament Hill in Ottawa...

"Business Garfoose" cancelled his meetings and hostile takeovers, and journeyed to Parliament Hill in Ottawa with a special message - Dirk Hayhurst for Prime Minister of Canada!
"Business Garfoose" arrives on the Hill...

Dirk Hayhurst for Prime Minister!
Access Denied...

"Business Garfoose" wonders which province to buy...

"Business Garfoose" ponders the future...

Will "Business Garfoose" be successful in his mission?
To be continued...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dirk Hayhurst and Mercy Corps need your Help!!

In the 24-hour news cycle in which we live, tragedies often capture our attention and newspaper headlines for a moment, only to be replaced by the latest Hollywood scandal. The news cameras often disappear, leaving those affected to pick up the pieces on their own.

Whether it is the Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf, and now the devastating flooding in Pakistan, our hearts ache momentarily before we get on with our lives. We have the ability to shape the world around us, and thanks to technology, our world is connected like never before; yet at times, it feels like our differences are dividing us at an alarming rate.

One man that is making a difference with technology and social networking is MLB pitcher and best-selling author, Dirk Hayhurst. Once again, Hayhurst, also known as The Garfoose on Twitter, is calling on his “Garfooslings” to help those in desperate need of help in Pakistan as he did when the earthquake struck Haiti.

Hayhurst has reached out to his friends and fans, seeking donations for Mercy Corps - an organization that hits the ground running in devastated areas, offering aid and assistance. When raising funds for the people of Haiti, Hayhurst called those that donated to thank them personally. This time around, he is sharing excerpts from his best-selling book The Bullpen Gospels. For a small donation, you can help Hayhurst help others, and while helping out, you can be entertained with never before released material from a thoroughly entertaining author. (Trust me folks, I am on my seventh reading of The Bullpen Gospels - you will be entertained!)

It is a simple act, sharing his work, rallying the Garfooslings to action, but it speaks volumes about the man. Hayhurst truly has a heart of gold and I consider him a friend. We have spoken several times for interviews, and every time it is the most invigorating, enlightening, and entertaining conversation - he is a reminder that there are good role models in this world. Remember when you were a kid and you said you wanted to be like a certain person when you grow up? Well, I want to be like Dirk Hayhurst when I grow up! Sure, I’m 36 and a few years older then him, but that is not the point... When we look outside ourselves, we see that others are in need too - Hayhurst’s call for assistance to raise funds has reminded me of that.

Take a moment, reflect on all the goodness in your life, all the blessings in your life, and remember that others are not as lucky. Any amount helps, no amount is too small!!

Click here to visit Dirk’s page at Mercy Corp to make a donation.

Thank you from The Voice of Sport and I know The Garfoose thanks you too!!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Olympic Sized Double Standard - Amateur or Professional Athletes?

This article was first published in the September 3rd edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

In this week’s column, I would like to discuss a topic that has concerned me for several years and has resurfaced in the news yet again; are the Olympic Games for amateur or professional athletes? For years, more and more sports in the Games have included professional athletes, while the Olympic Committees continue to claim it is a wonderful gathering of amateur athletes from around the world. Recent events involving one of the greatest men’s figure skaters, Evgeni Plushenko, has The Voice of Sport all fired up!

While I never thought I would be writing a column that involved men’s figure skating, the decision by the International Skating Union (ISU), which is the governing body for the sport, to disqualify Plushenko from all future ISU events, which includes the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia is beyond ridiculous. His crime? Participating in exhibition events without the permission of the ISU or Russian Skating Federation - how dare he! The rule is in place to prevent the top figure skaters from claiming an injury to skip the World Championship and then taking part in paid events shortly afterwards, but if nothing else, Plushenko’s actions only increased the popularity of his sport. He had the opportunity to appeal the ban, but missed the deadline.

In an era when multi-millionaires are competing for Olympic gold in the Summer and Winter Games, why does the ISU continue to rule their sport in such a heavy-handed manner? There is a double standard applied to Olympic events and the International Olympic Committee must address this issue. When Canadian skater, Joannie Rochette, wished to honour her mother after the Vancouver Games, the ISU threatened her with the same punishment because the event was an “unsanctioned” one. If not for a last minute change of heart by the ISU, Rochette would have to choose - honour her mother or continue her Olympic and World Championship dreams. It is a decision that placed an extra burden on the skater, viewed by the world as a true role model after her heart-warming bronze medal performance in Vancouver.

Television ratings for the 2010 Games in Vancouver were through the roof in large part due to the inclusion of NHL players in the hockey tournament. Since the American “Dream Team” competed in the Summer Games’ basketball tournament in 1992 and the IOC cashed in on their presence, athletes from North America’s professional leagues have slowly made their way into numerous events. When Major League Baseball refused to suspend their season and send MLB players like Alex Rodriguez (a player that makes $30 million per year by the way), to the Summer Games, the IOC dropped the sport from competition. Now the IOC has rolled out the red carpet for professional golfers in 2016 - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and the entire PGA field will have the opportunity to take their private jets to the Olympics and compete for a gold medal. However, if you are a figure skater and wish to spend the off-season skating with the Ice Capades and Cookie Monster and Big Bird, well then you just became a “professional” athlete and you are no longer welcome at the World Championship or Olympics.

My interest and respect for the merchandise machine known as the Olympics continues to dwindle. In my view, what was once a strong river of national pride is becoming a muddy, stagnant, outdated pond of greed. Here’s hoping the ISU and the IOC get their act together and include Plushenko in the 2014 Games. An injustice in the world of figure skating has The Voice all fired up - Trust me folks, I am as surprised as you are... Have a great sports day everyone.