Category Archives: Sports (MC Archive)

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

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

Advertisements

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

NHL Free Agency Costly for Have Nots

By Jason Menard

The silly season that is NHL unrestricted free agency is well underway. And with it comes the very thing that the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to avoid – the establishment of the haves and the have nots.

The usual suspects are falling into place: Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, check – your penthouse suites are booked and packed to the rafters with all kinds of luxurious new toys. We’ve sprinkled a little Brière here and a splash of Drury and Gomez over there. Oh, and Dr. Detroit, yes – I think you’ll find the Rafalski we’ve recently added to your collection to be quite exquisite.

Mr. Sabres? Oh, sorry – this floor is restricted access. You’ll have to take the bus down the street to our low-rent district. Yes, we thank you for living in the same city as us, but you’re really not right for this neighbourhood.

Of course, there’s also the eclectic neighbours – the ones who have the money to reside comfortably in the ritzier areas, but lack the right taste when it comes to decorating properly. Yes, we’re talking about you Mr. Maple Leaf, with your two matching goaltenders – unfortunately, there’s too much goalie and not enough crease. And let’s not get into the overpaying for complementing pieces. You added a Blake, yes – Jeff, not Rob… $4 mill is a little pricey for that.

With a salary cap over 50 million US – about six million more than what the NHL teams were claiming represented Armageddon for their franchises – teams have the financial wherewithal to stockpile talent. And we’ve seen outrageous sums of money thrown at various players by clubs looking for that quick fix.

Danny Briere is a nice player. Not eight years nice. Not $10 million in his first year nice. Ryan Smyth, late of the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders? Good kid. Captain Canada and all that jazz. Not five years and $31.5 million worth of heart, though. Nobody has that big of heart.

But what’s happened is we’ve come to a point in time where there are again haves and have nots. There are those who are willing to pay up to the max of the cap. Heck, they’re willing to overspend the cap and demote players to the minor league ranks where there salaries don’t count against the cap.

But then there are a number of other teams who have set their own caps. They can’t – or won’t – spend to the max. They’ll return to their status as feeder teams for the big boys of the NHL. And they won’t have a chance to win.

Although I love what teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh are doing, eschewing the free agent route and preferring to build from their own farm system, one wonders how long they can do that? After all, wasn’t that the model the Buffalo Sabres tried?

Think about it. Darcy Regier had figured out where the NHL was going before anyone else. He built a team from within, drafting wisely, and adding other people’s castoffs for high-priced vets. He created a team that was perfect for the new NHL – fast, mobile, and talented from line one to four. And how was he rewarded? The heart of his team has been removed – and it’s going to take a long time for the good hockey fans of Buffalo to recover.

Sure, owner Tom Golisano could have opened up his wallet and matched or exceeded those offers. But just as one can’t blame the players for taking these exorbitant salaries, nor can we begrudge an owner who finds that the market is too rich for his blood. After all, if he sunk all that money into two players, what would happen in the coming years when that crop of talented youth reaches free agency? Even restricted free agents could be attractive as a capped-out club wouldn’t have the resources to match.

So again we come to a time where some teams can buy their way to glory, while the fans of other teams may feel that they’re unable to compete on a level playing field because of finances. Hey, I’m all for capitalism and paying full market value. But the NHL isn’t an open market – it’s a collective. Having 30 competitive clubs is good business and it’s exactly what the new CBA was supposed to fix.

Wasn’t that why we lost a year of hockey?

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Free Agency Can Cost a Lot – a Team’s Future

By Jason Menard

Seems somewhat fitting that our national holiday marks the official start of NHL unrestricted free agency. After all, there are few things Canadians are more passionate about than hockey – and there are few things that stoke those flames of passion more than speculating about trades and signings, especially when it comes to your favourite franchise.

In large part, though, this silly season is much ado about nothing, but you wouldn’t know that by staying abreast of the action. Yes, big name players will sign astronomical contracts. Yes, pundits and analysts alike will wring their hands in consternation, lamenting the loss of sanity of various general managers and increasing their hyperbolic commentary to the point where it would seem like we’re discussing the advent of the apocalypse.

But in the end, very few of these deals will pan out. More often, the overinflated contracts that are signed will soon act as an anchor, dragging down the franchises fortunes. It is then that fans will realize how heavy a piece of paper can be.

Compounding this problem is the advent of the relatively new collective bargaining agreement, complete with its salary cap. Gone are the days where a club can simply spend its way into contention. Now, forethought, budgeting, and roster creativity rule the day.

And the best thing about this new system? The right players get paid. Players entering, or firmly in the midst, of their prime get the lion’s share of the money. Unlike the NFL, rookies are subject to a wage scale, so that an unproven player won’t be commanding a salary eight times greater than a seasoned vet. And older players get their due as well under the system.

So, if it all seems to work out, where’s the problem? Simply put, you can’t legislate ou stupidity. There will always be an owner willing to choose a quick fix as opposed to looking-long term. The problem with that is that the path of least resistance isn’t always that way. And the ramifications of a bad financial decision now can impact your club for years.

We saw evidence of this at the NHL trading deadline in February. Smart clubs hoarded first round draft picks, knowing that success in the future will be built upon a continual infusion of young talent coming into the season. After all, if you’re going to pay your stars the lion’s share of salary cap allocation for your club, then you’re going to have to have solid, performing players on their entry level contracts.

The desperate or foolhardy teams peddled off draft picks for grizzled veterans. First rounders were discarded like yesterday’s trash, when they are the treasure that represents the coin with which future success will be purchased.

Even on draft night, we saw that some teams still don’t get it. The Toronto Maple Leafs discarded their first and second-round selections for an aging goaltender who may or may not be the answer in net. It’s a similar song with different lyrics from last season when they also obtained a more-established goaltender – but the price then was potentially the goaltender of the future they are now looking for, Tukka Raask.

Arguably the top three free agents on the market are Buffalo’s Daniel Briere and Chris Drury and Montreal’s Sheldon Souray. While it’s hard for the fan’s hearts to say, the head suggests that unless you can resign them for a reasonable cost, then it’s probably best to let them go. Although these are outstanding players, their value to a club may not be what the going market rate is.

But value can be defined in many ways. What Drury brings to a franchise in intangibles can’t have a price tag put on it. Conversely, Souray’s big shot and power-play goal-scoring can be dazzling, but that ledger needs to be balanced by his less-than-stellar defensive play.

In the end, some owner will look at these players not as aging high-end vehicles, but as bright, shiny new toys. They’ll be blinded by the imperfections and see only the positives. Unfortunately, the fans will be the ones paying for this blindness.

After all, it may be free agency, but it can come at a tremendous cost – a club’s future.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Balsillie Makes Owners’ Blackberries Shrivel

By Jason Menard

It doesn’t take much for the money men who run the National Hockey League to get their backs up. So it comes as no surprise that when someone shakes them up as much as Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie has recently, they’re going to stiffen up as if someone spiked the owner’s meeting water supply with Viagra.

If the rumours reported earlier today in a Canadian Press report, it appears that Balsillie will come away empty in his second attempt to purchase an NHL franchise. The latest scuttlebutt suggests that Nashville Predators’ owner Craig Leopold will be entertaining a less-lucrative $190 million US offer from William DelBaggio, a California businessman.

For the Predators to take less money from another suitor than was Balsillie offered must make the Canadian franchise-owner-in-waiting feel as if he’s been kicked in the, well, Blackberries. At the very least, he has to feel that this is a personal rejection.

Even though the Predators are rushing to embrace the California-based DelBaggio, one can easily speculate as to what the man they call Boots’ true intentions are. After all, DelBaggio has made no secret of his desire to bring an NHL franchise to Kansas City. Thanks to Balsillie’s aggressive moves earlier this month, we’re well aware of the opportunities that exist to break the Predators’ lease and move the franchise out of Nashville.

The difference between Balsillie and DelBaggio, other than a passport? Transparency. DelBaggio says and does the right things; Balsillie rattles cages and goes his own way. And it’s apparent that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t want any mavericks on his watch – that is, unless Mark Cuban wants to pony up for a franchise.

So the Preds’ owner is willing to take a $48 million dollar bath – which represents the difference between Balsillie’s original offer and what’s being reported as the sale price to DelBaggio – then the NHL places quite the premium on conformity.

And that’s why the NHL is doomed to stagnate under its current watch. Hopefully Balsillie will find that the third time in acquiring a franchise truly is the charm – but first the NHL better hope and pray that there is a third time.

Yes, Balsillie was less-than-tactful in his bold efforts to extricate the Predators from the land where country music reigns supreme. But in the end, what exactly did he do? All he showed was that he was able to obtain financial guarantees from people about a product that had yet to be secured. He showed that there was a viable and potentially sustainable third Ontario market ripe for exploitation. And he showed that he was willing to overpay for the right to obtain an NHL franchise.

From the moment he was willing to shell out a whopping $238 million for the moribund Predators’ franchise, he showed that he was the type of owner that the NHL should be falling all over themselves to accommodate. And let’s not forget the extra millions he also was willing to pour into the facilities in Hamilton to bring them up to NHL standard.

With that evidence behind him, would there be any doubt that he’d be an aggressive owner consistently willing to pay to put out a quality product for his fans? I think not.

Say what you want about the aforementioned Cuban, but he’s a fan first who is willing to take care of his fellow fans. He spends money on things that don’t bring an immediate return on investment, but pay off huge dividends long-term. Cuban has made going to Mavericks games an event. He has shelled out copious amounts of money to ensure both his paying public and his paid staff – the players – have the best in all available amenities. And he’s spent money to keep his roster consistently amongst the upper echelon of NBA teams.

Balsillie seems to be cut from the same cloth, so tell me exactly why the NHL wouldn’t want him amongst its ownership group?

No, it’s much better to stay conservative, sell a troubled franchise to an owner who will probably move the club to another unproven marketplace within five years, and waste 10 more years in markets that are just not sustainable long-term.

Ironically, the addition of an owner who would have taken an American club and moved it north of the 49 th would, in the long run, do more for growing the sport south of the border than can ever be served by keeping the Predators in the land of the free. The energy, creativity, and fresh approach that Balsillie would bring to the ownership group, couldn’t help but move forward that seemingly lost cause.

No one wants to use the “E” word, but the NHL needs Jim Balsillie more than he needs it. He wants a club, he’s a fan, and he has very, very deep pockets – and that’s exactly the type of owner the NHL needs. So if the league is adamant about keeping all its franchise where they are, they should look at the only other way to bring in a bright, enthusiastic, and forward-thinking owner – by granting him an expansion franchise.

It’s time for the NHL to be a little more flexible. After all, when something’s too rigid, it’s far easier to break.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Hosts Forget Who Stars Really Are

By Jason Menard

It happened at about 5:35 this morning. It was the 1,374,913 th Austin Powers non sequitur that did it, but I’m finally ready to declare war on that most nefarious pox on our society – the television sports highlight show host.

Let me set the stage – although you’ve probably seen this play many times before. In recounting the events of last night’s baseball action, the immaculately coiffed – and slightly unctuous – host prefaced a home run with by shouting, “I’m a Sexy Beast!” and then proceeded to get to the part that mattered: a Randy Sexton home run.

Now, the image on the television continued to show the highlight, but you just know that the living bobblehead who uttered that line was on the verge of dislocating his shoulder in his attempts to pat himself on the back for such a stellar bit of witty repartée. Either that, or he was twisted in internal debate as to whether he should have broken out the ol’ Right Said Fred “I’m Too Sexy” reference. After all, that’s comedy gold.

I know I sit in a precarious position here, as – in hosting a radio show – words are the only tools I have to simultaneously inform and entertain. Yet the question has to be, when is enough enough?

Humour has a wonderful place in all aspects of life and sports, by no means, is immune to its presence. In fact, one could argue that sports of all of life’s follies, is most open to moments of laughter, ridicule, and levity simply because we are talking about – in essence – a game. Yet I’m a firm believer in allowing humour to come naturally from the setting, whether it’s a witty observation, or a clever comment.

But a random outburst based on nothing but someone’s name that has nothing to do with the action on the field? What’s the point?

Unfortunately, TV highlight shows are geared towards a particular demographic and hire accordingly. On-air personalities are trying to hard to be just that – personalities. Vague pop culture references and snide asides are peppered throughout a broadcast as if to allow the host to say, “You see kids, I’m down with you…”

The problem is that each and every bit of allegedly witty repartee diminishes the focus on the game and the real stories therein. Insightful analysis is sacrificed at the altar of lazy writing. After all, it’s much easier to shout “Duncan Hines you do make good cookies,” when someone scores a goal than to explain the how’s and why’s of the action.

Every sports broadcaster has their catch-phrases that are tossed out with semi-regularity. I still remember Howie Meeker semi-screeching that, “You’ve got to put it upstairs!” And play-by-play men like Buffalo’s Rick Jeanneret and Pittsburgh’s Mike Lange are known for their creative ways of describing highlight-reel plays.

Unfortunately, the highlight show desk jockeys try to make every highlight and every opportunity a time for an extraneous comment. Whether or not those comments are appropriate or needed is besides the point. And any value that these aside add to the on-field or on-ice action is accidental at best.

Maybe I’m showing my age. Maybe I’m pining for a show that’s targeted at someone beyond their teen years.

I like a little insight with my sports. It’s why I have trouble with the “he-who-shouts-loudest-wins-the-point” analysis of certain televised NFL pre-game shows and tend to favour the quieter depth provided by radio, print, and on-line pundits.

I don’t need the person on TV to be quick with the catch-phrases. What I need is for him to catch the intricacies of the action and present it in an entertaining fashion. And although the argument may be that highlight shows are too tightly packed and don’t offer the time for this type of commentary, but doesn’t that make the waste of that precious time on self-indulgent non-sequiturs all the more tragic?

Each of us remembers that kid we grew up knowing that wanted so desperately to be funny. He’d try and try to punctuate every situation or comment with a joke – most of which fell flat. And heaven forbid he or she would actually get a laugh – they’d milk that line for life. The kid from my youth spent a year shouting “Soap on a Rope” at every occasion following one serendipitous moment where that phrase proved to be funny.

I always wondered what happened to those types of people. Now I know — they grow up to host TV highlight shows.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved