Category Archives: Sports (MC Archive)

Sports columns that appeared on Jason Menard’s previous Web site, Menard Communications.

All Star Appetizers Better than Main Course

By Jason Menard

Have you ever been to a restaurant and had the experience of ordering an entrée that completely and utterly overwhelmed the following course? You know those meals – where the gustatory promise created by the appetizer is left unfulfilled by a less-than-inspired main course.

That’s what all-star games are like — a dynamic, tapas-esque appetizer followed by a bland, stale, and hard-to-swallow main service.

What is it that makes those appetizers so, well, appetizing? By design, those entrees are quick, colourful, and vibrant. Because they have to make an impression in just a couple of bites, they are decadently crafted works of culinary art. By comparison, a main course can get bogged down in its own sense of self-importance. The gravitas of its composition can, ironically, leave one less-than-overwhelmed by the experience.

Yet you’ll remember that appetizer – light, flavourful, enjoyable, fun.

Think about what you remember from your last few all-star games. How many of the highlights have come from the game itself, and how much of what leaves a lasting impression comes from the so-called ancillary aspects of the festivities?

Do you remember who scored the 12 th goal in a 15-14 hockey game that featured no checking, no passion, and no defense? Or do you remember being blown away by Al Iafrate’s 105-plus mile per hour howitzer blast from the skills competition?

The only memorable moment from a baseball all-star game (with all apologies to Ray Fosse who may just be now coming out of that Pete Rose-induced fog caused by a 1970 overzealous play at the plate) came in 2002 when Bud Selig made the ill-advised decision to leave the game a tie. However, the home run competition continues to thrill, despite its inherent cheesiness.

Basketball? It’s all about the dunk competition and the three-point shootout? Jordan became Jordan with that leap from the foul line – and ABA dunk contests featuring Dr. J are still talked about in reverential tones.

Heck, even the anthems are more memorable than the games themselves. And if you don’t believe me, search on-line for a copy of Marvin Gaye singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game – if you’re not clapping along with the fans and bouncing with the players, then you are serious deficient in funkiness.

The simple fact of the matter is that these Battle of the Network Stars-style competitions are more engaging to the fans than any so-called game could ever be. Players don’t put out the maximum effort in fake games and fans know it. Even artificial incentives like giving home field advantage in the championships to the league that wins the All-Star Game can’t foster passion in a passionless game. The players are going through the motions, so instead of seeing the best of the sport we’re seeing a mockery of the games we love.

But individual competitions offer an opportunity for the league to showcase the players’ respective skills. They afford the broadcasters a chance to place microphones and cameras on players that they couldn’t do in a regular game. Essentially, they allow fans to get right on the ice with the stars.

And that’s marketing gold for any sport. If you can get to know the player, if you can be entertained by them, then you – as a fan – are more likely to get engaged in the sport. A fan can be created with one positive interaction, so if you’re able to showcase the personalities in your sport then you stand a chance of solidifying your fan base.

The other thing that’s important to note is that players try in these competitions because it’s one on one. Athletes at this level love to compete, whether it’s on the ice, playing pool, or even with cards and video games. So by making this a mano-e-mano event, you’re appealing to the base-level competitiveness these athletes possess. When it’s their name on the line, they want to win at all costs – which improves the quality of your presentation.

After all, the point of All Star celebrations is to showcase the best the league has to offer. A passion-filled individual competition is far more palatable than yet another bland, emotionless impersonation of a game. That type of contest is tough to swallow and will have fans calling for the cheque early.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Ferguson Training Wheels an Accident Waiting to Happen

By Jason Menard

When John Ferguson Jr. was brought in to run the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was brought in as a purported thoroughbred, champing at the bit to burst out of the gates and lead the beleaguered Buds down the home stretch and into the winner’s circle.

Whew… I think I may have exhausted all my equine metaphors. Well, all but this one – if the Leafs bring in John Muckler as a senior advisor, then they’ll have effectively taken that thoroughbred and turned him into a gelding.

Seriously, if the Leafs are that desperate to bring someone into the front office who will be, for all intents and purposes, a glorified baby sitter to the 40-year-old Ferguson, then it’s time to stop riding that dead horse, take off the saddle, and send him to the glue factory.

OK, I promise, no more horse metaphors.

Ferguson burst onto the scene back in 2003 as a 36-year-old wunderkind who was going to free the Leafs from the shackles of the Pat Quinn regime. Where Quinn represented the past and a fear that the game may have passed him by on a managerial level, Ferguson was supposed to represent the future.

Of course, looking back to his past, you could see the future didn’t hold much promise of being bright. After all, he had spent a few years in the St. Louis organization and as vice-president and director of hockey operations for the club he helped make the moves that caused the Blues to miss the playoffs for the first time in 24 years – and have left them as perennial doormats since.

And now one could argue that those same seeds have been planted in Hogtown – and Leafs fans can only hope that the same yield will not be reaped. Unfortunately, there is no time to learn in the top job – you’ve got to hit the ground running. And Ferguson’s shown that when it comes to running, he’s got two left feet – and those shoelaces are tied together.

Signing Pavel Kubina to an overly long and overly expensive deal only exacerbated the fact that he dumped a pile of money into a questionable blueliner in Bryan McCabe. And let’s not forget the third defensive blunder – the handsome three-year deal handed out to lumbering blueliner Hal Gill who continues to collect his millions while the game – and its players – pass him by.

And the worst deal of all? Peddling off all-world netminder Tukka Raask, who is arguably one of the top two goaltending prospects in the world with Carey Price, for a quick fix in Andrew Raycroft. Compounding that error by trying to fix it, Ferguson peddled away more of the club’s future for Vesa Toskala. Sure, there may be an improvement in net, but under the new CBA and salary cap, the first and second-round selections he gave up are worth their weight in gold.

These moves – and a handful of others – show that Ferguson’s not ready for the big time. But what the Leafs are doing by bringing in a senior advisor is simply greasing the skids for JFJ’s exit from the Air Canada Centre.

Not only does Ferguson lose face amongst his peer group – the other NHL general managers, but he suddenly becomes in danger of losing the respect of his coaching staff and players. After all, when the buck no longer stops at Ferguson’s desk, why would anyone respect his word as final?

The Leafs are setting themselves up for inner turmoil of an epic proportion. Does Ferguson have to vet every trade with Muckler? What happens if the senior advisor says no? Is Ferguson allowed to go on his own and veto that opinion, or is he bound to respect those wishes? If a coach doesn’t like Ferguson’s directive, can he go above his head to Muckler and lobby him to advise JFJ of a new change in philosophy?

Toronto thought it was getting a sleek, new-model sports car that was perfect for keeping pace with the new league. If they’ve determined that they’ve bought a lemon, bringing in an old reliable truck won’t make him run any better.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs is ready to take the wheel out of John Ferguson Jr.’s hands, they might as well go all the way and hand the keys to someone new.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Alberta’s Tale of Two Cities

By Jason Menard

Forgive a little literary indulgence here.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

As you know, that’s the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. And while the two cities to which the title refers are London and Paris, these lines also provides an apt description of the situations currently existing in Calgary and Edmonton.

The aforementioned epoch of belief is evidenced by the fact that yesterday star players like Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr have re-upped for five years apiece at less-than-market value. Why? They and their families believe in their franchise, believe in the city, and believe that the grass isn’t always greener.

And by taking less than what they would have received on the open market, they also allow Flames’ fans the opportunity to believe that their club can acquire and retain the pieces it needs to challenge for the Stanley Cup – this year and into the future.

The epoch of incredulity is taking place further north along Provincial Highway 2, where Edmonton Oilers’ fans are rivaling Buffalo Sabres’ supporters when it comes to frustration and sadness.

The Oilers keep taking hits – and yet it could be argued that they had the brighter future just over one year ago! The advent of the new CBA enabled them to bring IN a marquee free agent in Chris Pronger, they were able to trade for a number-one netminder in Dwayne Roloson, and they had talented youth who were ready for prime time. Two years ago, the Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup final and all looked promising.

Oh what a difference a year makes. Pronger, under a veil of secrecy and misdirection, bolted the City of Champions to help hoist Lord Stanley’s Grail in Anaheim, Roloson proved to be mortal, and the promising youth showed that they were about as ready for prime time as the current dismal Saturday Night Live lineup. To add salt to the wounds, the club’s heart and soul was deemed too costly and peddled off to Long Island – only to have General Manager Kevin Lowe admit now that the move, in hindsight, was a mistake.

Free agency was supposed to provide a breath of fresh air, but fans’ hopes have been choked by Michael Nylander’s alleged reneging on a verbal deal and other free agents treating the idea of coming to Edmonton like they were being exiled to Siberia.

So while Edmonton suffers through its winter of despair, Calgarians continue to enjoy their spring – and summer – of hope. And it’s a wonderful thing to see for all fans of hockey.

After all, it’s so refreshing to see two players who are not just at the top of their game, but arguably amongst the upper echelon of their profession, choosing to leave money on the table for the sake of family harmony. It’s a wonderful thing to know that there are still people out there who put a premium on quality of life instead of just quantity. And hopefully their relative lack of selfishness will inspire others to make similar quote-unquote sacrifices for the greater good of the team.

Note, I qualified that last statement with the term relative and adding imaginary finger-quotes because the level of sacrifice is all relative. Personally, I think I could live quite nicely on seven million per season, as Iginla is, instead of the eight million per season he would have earned on the open market. But a million bucks per season isn’t anything to shake a stick at – yet still he shook his head no.

After all, would any of us begrudge a player from getting all they can? A hockey career, on average, is very short, so how could anyone fault a player from taking all that’s offered them? Would you turn down that money if someone offered you that in your chosen profession? No.

There’s still time left to change the text, but it looks as if it’s going to be a season of Light in Calgary, and a season of Darkness in Edmonton. One can only hope for Oilers’ fans that this Tale of Two Cities ends with a happy ending.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Tough Time Swallowing Eating as a Sport

By Jason Menard

The lead headline on the Nathan’s Web site reads, “World Readies for Hotly Anticipated Kobayashi – Chestnut Rematch.”

Really? It does?

OK, sure. 1.5 million people last year tuned into ESPN to watch the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating championship, but can we ease up on the hyperbole a little. After all, while competitive eating may live up to its name, it’s certainly not a sport. And I’m sure there’s not some guy in France saying, “Guillaume, viens-t’en. It’s time for zee stuffing of zee crazy people.” And that’s in a nation that’s crazy for fois gras!

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a very strict definition of what is and isn’t a sport. For one, I don’t believe that anything that deals explicitly in the realm of subjectivity should be considered a true sport. When you win based not upon what you do, but rather what a third-party think you have done, then it’s time to change the channel.

And I know this angers many people – especially fans of such non-sports like figure skating, gymnastics, and diving. Hey, I’m not saying they’re any worse than other sports, nor am I denying the incredible amount of effort, dedication, and training that goes into become an elite practitioner of those activities. But I don’t really see a difference between those aforementioned quote-unquote sports and disciplines such as ballet or other forms of dance.

In fact, all of these should be respected as art forms and appreciated as such. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t make them a sport.

That being said, by my definition competitive eating should be considered a sport. But come on… I know common sense isn’t all that common, but really. Let’s face it. Competitive eating is more circus sideshow than athletic endeavour. It’s safe to say that the 1.5 million people tuning in to this tournament either fell asleep at the remote, or enjoy rubbernecking at accidents on the highway.

After all, that’s what this event is – a train wreck. We’re subjected to watching people shoveling food down their throats in a manner that’s equal parts repulsive and revolting. Like NASCAR fans waiting for the inevitable multi-car pile up, some competitive eating fans wait for that serendipitous moment when vomit enters the equation.

Sorry, I’ll pass. This is no more of a sport than if I decided to start a league to see who can hit themselves in the head the most times with a ball-pein hammer. In fact, maybe I should suggest that and see if we can get a cross-over league going – after all, ESPN is sure to fork over the dough.

Beyond the inane spectacle of watching people force hot dogs down their gullet or whatever other gustatory challenge lies before them, the fact of the matter is that this sport is dangerous. After all, we only have to remember back to September when a Chubby Bunny contest that involved seeing who could pack the most marshmallows into one’s mouth went horrible wrong.

And let’s not forget about what this is doing to the athlete’s bodies. At a time when legitimate sports like football, baseball, and cycling, along with its illegitimate pseudo sport cousin wrestling are under the gun for not showing enough concern for the long-term effects of performance-enhancing drugs or concussions, why is competitive eating exempt from this scrutiny?

After all, Joey Chestnut’s world record performance of 59 ½ hot dogs in 12 minutes meant that he ingested 18,000 calories – or roughly nine days worth of the recommended caloric intake for an average person. And let’s not forget the 2,000 grams of fat – which represents a whopping 18 days worth of fat at one sitting.

I guess it’s all fun and games until someone blows an artery. And can anyone actually argue that these competitors aren’t going to be subject to long-term health ramifications resulting from their participation in various eating competitions?

Hey, I’m all in favour of social Darwinism. I figure if you’re dumb enough to wolf down half a month’s worth of fat in one sitting, then you probably missed a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder. So maybe I’m more concerned with those who sit and watch this spectacle – encouraging its growth.

Then again, from the circus geeks who would eat live animals to the travelling performers who impale themselves for our pleasure, society’s always shown that it loves a good freak show. And I guess that’s a void that competitive eating is trying to fill, one hot dog at a time.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Men’s Tennis, Not Just Wimbledon, Boring

By Jason Menard

Recently, the fourth-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, Nikolay Davydenko said that he thinks that Wimbledon, the tournament that we’re currently in the midst of, is the most boring tournament in the world.

You know what? He’s right, but not for the right reasons.

Davydenko, apparently all-too-accustomed to that life of privilege he’s currently living, doesn’t just hate the tournament – although his noted success, or lack therof, at the tournament may make you want to take his comments with a grain of salt. He hates the surrounding regions, the nightlife, and pretty much everything within a 50-kilometre radius of the All England Club.

The poor guy. Like he said, “there’s absolutely nothing to do besides tennis.”

And that’s a problem how? Perhaps a little more focus on the grass and a little less focus on the nightlife and Davydenko would actually be a threat to compete at this tournament.

However, he’s right – in general – about Wimbledon and boredom. But he’s a little to narrow of scope with his comments. Men’s tennis, in its totality, is one of the most boring sporting spectacles on the global landscape.

Notice I say men’s tennis. There’s a reason for that clear distinction. But technology, training, and money have robbed men’s tennis of any of its allure. A point in a current men’s tennis match all-too-often goes like this:

Serve, ace. Or maybe, serve, fault. Or, if you’re very lucky: serve, return, winner. Or, and if this happens you better go buy a lottery ticket, serve, return, return, return again, winner.

Gone are the days when drama could be built and sustained over the duration of a rally. Better equipment, more powerful players, and scientific influence that’s able to refine technique to elite performance levels means that the men’s game has grown out of the confines of the court.

Look back at the glory days of men’s tennis: the days of Connors, McEnroe, Borg, and Lendl. If you have the luxury of watching an old match, do so. Once you get past the wooden rackets and all-too-revealing short shorts, what you’ll see is drama unfolding on the grass, clay, or hardcourt. You’ll hear the rising crescendo of a gallery building in anticipation of the eventual winner. You’ll see drama that’s allowed to play out over five, six, seven shots. You’ll see people actually strategically returning a service to a particular point on the opponents side of the net instead of blindly flailing for dear life and hoping to put twine to ball.

In short, you have women’s tennis.

There’s really no question why women’s tennis outpaces men’s in terms of overall popularity amongst the rank and file. Sure, nubile young women in short skirts and tight clothing has its appeal for most red-blooded males, but that type of eye candy only remains sweet for so long before boredom sets in. What makes women’s tennis so compelling is that they are able to engage the audience with rallies, strategic play, and excitement. They’re actually playing a game, displaying multiple skills, and allowing the viewing public to come along for the ride.

Men’s tennis isn’t alone in this challenge. Many of the complaints that tennis faces are the same that are levied against men’s basketball. Too much dunking, too much one-on-one, not enough team play or complementary skills like jump shooting and passing.

Unfortunately, machismo has turned men’s sports into a metaphorical pose down, with the one displaying the biggest, uhm, racket the winner. It’s a sporting debate that’s been reduced to nothing more than shouting, instead of a poetic swaying of the audience’s affections. Sure, yell loud enough and you may win the game, but you’ll never win the crowd’s heart.

So Davydenko is right. Wimbledon is boring – but no more so than the rest of men’s tennis.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved