As usual, I've divided the list into my favourites, the ones I'm glad I read, and the few that just weren't for me. Tried to keep it chronological within each section...
A life-long Toronto Maple Leafs fan comments on the team, the media and the exasperation...
With the news that the Leafs have extended coach Randy Carlyle, I found myself asking what the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise stands for?
They’re no longer about their storied history. Tim Leiweke rejected the club’s past within minutes of arriving in Toronto.
They're not about innovation. Has any sports team in any league so loudly and proudly proclaimed their ignorance about and rejection of what new statistical insights might yield?
They're not about process. This is a team that has only won games when they’ve had unsustainable goaltending and/or unsustainable shooting.
Surely, if they're not about process they must be all-in on outcomes -- except the Leafs had just four regulation wins between November and January and just three wins in their last 15 games.
Their rejection of outcomes is strong evidence that they're not about accountability. Nonis and Carlyle were handed rewards that are completely incommensurate with their mediocre results.
Perhaps it’s irony or hypocrisy that best defines the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
I can think of no greater irony than the men who run the team believing the building blocks for a successful hockey team are identity, leadership and accountability --- the very characteristics that these men and this organization are completely devoid of.
Cheering for laundry is defensible, cheering for an organization that willfully rejects history, innovation, process, outcomes and accountability is not. I won't do it.
With the news that the Leafs have extended coach Randy Carlyle it’s become all too clear what the Toronto Maple Leafs stand for and it’s something I just can’t stand.
Tipped in by MF37 at 1:02 pm
There was a time when the hiring of a new President for the Toronto Maple Leafs would have mattered to me. I would have passionately researched the new hire's history, draft records, trades, business deals, professional associations -- just about everything materially imaginable to gain some insight into what the move might mean for the blue and white.
Tipped in by MF37 at 11:44 pm
I used to think the best sporting event I ever attended was the Canada-US game at the 1987 Canada Cup. Lemieux, Messier, Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Gilmour, Coffey, Borque all on the same team. Lemieux had a hat trick in a 3-2 win.
Then I went to Spain.
* * *
I only purchased two tickets to see AC Milan play Atletico Madrid. When we were planning the trip, my daughter did not want to go to a game and my wife did not think it wise to look into babysitting services so far from home.
My son wasn’t sure about going. We’d watched Atleti and Barca play to 0-0 draw earlier in the year and the boy said Atleti coach Diego Simeone looked like a very bad man. An evil man. At one point in the game, he actually hid behind me on the couch. (Simeone does look like the bad guy from a 1980s Kurt Russel film).
If I had known what we were in for, I would have purchased four tickets and I would have worn a GoPro camera on my head.
If the Barcelona game was like Christmas, the Atleti game was like Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve and my 19th birthday compressed into about three hours.
* * *
At Alonso Martinez Metro the crowds were already thick. We squeezed into a subway car full of red and white striped fans of all ages. At each stop more people somehow managed to crush in. People sang and chanted on the subway. Old men chatted to the boy in Spanish and rustled his hair.
Crowds can feel crushing and crowds can feel ominous but there was almost a giddiness to this experience - a bubbling over of good will and happy expectations.
We emerged from Piramides metro into an ever larger crush of people. I had no idea how to get to Vicente Calderón Stadium but our lack of directions didn’t matter, if we had stood still we would have been carried there by the crowds.
The size and mood of the crowd reminded me of when the Jays won the World Series in 1993, but this was pre-game. It was as if someone was running the film in reverse – the elated crowds going back into the stadium.
Flares were going off. There were giant homemade banners. The gutters were overflowing with beer bottles and plastic cups. Everywhere people congregated they were signing and happy. It was amazing. And it was soon to get better.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is my annual trip to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad. He’d get us one game in the greens each year. We’d enter off Carlton Street and head for these narrow escalators with their round, crenelated handles. When you stepped off the escalators, if you looked through the narrow entries into the seats, you’d get your first glimpse of the ice. The TV lights made it so bright and vivid, the massive Dominion score clock hanging from the iconic roof, a shocking whiteness to that light and to the ice that I've rarely, if ever, seen replicated.
Vicente Calderón Stadium looks like it might be of the same vintage as Maple Leaf Gardens. It has the cinder block and chain link aesthetic I associate with Buffalo – either the old Aud or Ralph Wilson stadium. It might be the most bare bones sporting venue I’ve ever seen.
After passing through the turnstile, we entered into a wide tunnel where one security agent kindly held my son’s hand and had a friendly chat with him while I was frisked by another (note to self – give the contraband to the boy to carry).
The entrance to our seats was just to the left, as we passed through it I was taken aback by the stadium lights, the green of the pitch and the proximity of the field. I had not prepared myself for the shock of entering right at field level at the half-way line.
Suddenly, I was the eight year old boy back at Maple Leaf Gardens, surprised by the whiteness of the lights and the startling proximity of the field of play. We could almost touch the grass.
The entire stadium was a pixilated mass of red and white. Flags, banners, signs, even the railings at field level were carrying Atleti’s colours. And the noise. Oh my, the noise. We were at least 20 minutes to kick-off and the crowd was in full voice. The supporters section full of drums, all of them jumping and bouncing.
I finally pulled the boy away from the field-level rail and we walked up to our seats. They were filthy. Plastic bucket chairs that wouldn’t have been out of place at Exhibition stadium in 1979. They likely hadn’t been cleaned since 1979. There had to be an inch of sunflower seed shells trapped in the rim of my chair. The boy’s had a solid patina of bird droppings. The group in front of us brought newspapers and spread them out on their seats before sitting down. They were clearly old pros.
We were given red and white flags to wave and we joined the throng. The stadium reverberating with songs, drums, chants, jumping fans. It felt like more energy was being expended per minute than at 41 Leafs games at the ACC combined.
When the teams emerged (Milan in uniforms that called to mind Elvis’ gold lame phase) the roar was something you felt more than heard.
I was into it, so was the boy.
Our seats were sensational, 16 rows up from mid-field. Even over the roar of the crowd we were close enough to hear the players calling out, arguing calls, scuffing the ball.
The fans surrounding us were great. When an AC Milan player got a yellow that I did not understand, the man to left my did his best to explain in simple English: “When he fall on floor he hand the ball.” (Confession: my Spanish is so pitiful that it was only after about 10 minutes of fans randomly screaming “Asiento!” that I realized they weren't cheering on a player or calling for a play, they were telling other fans to take to their seats so we could see the game.)
When Diego Costa opened the scoring just a few minutes in the stadium boiled over. The fans, already at a fever pitch, somehow found another more frenetic level. The boy stood on his seat and waved his flag joyously, screaming alongside the 50,000 supporters.
My little Barca fan, terrified of Diego Simeone, had been swept up in the fever and joined the masses.
When Raul Garcia just missed on an incredible bicycle kick before the half, it was as if 100,000 arms went into the air in exclaiming "if only!"
At half time, we took to the bowels of the stadium in search of snacks. The boy tried his first ever Coca-Cola, which he did not like claiming it tasted like donuts. I, wisely, stuck to beer.
The second half was all Atleti and we did our best to sing and chant along "Ole, ole, ole, Cholo Simeone!"
It was an incredible experience to be a part of -- the fans were so welcoming, so passionate and so enthralled by the game -- I’ve never experienced anything like it.
And then Atleti scored their fourth and final goal. It was bedlam. The gentlemen to my left pulled off his Atleti scarf and gave it to the boy who accepted it with wide-eyed enthusiasm. We joined the chorus shouting “Atleti! Atleti! Atleti!”
The night was complete. It couldn’t get any better.
And then the film was played the right way through – tens of thousands of elated fans spilling out of the stadium and into the narrow streets of southwest Madrid. Deliriously happy. The crowds continue to sing, chant, celebrate and congregate around the few bars that were open.
The boy, smiling broadly, carried both our flags and wore his new Atleti scarf.
As we approached Piramides Metro, he did have one moment of startling clarity: he begged me to turn on my phone to check the Barcelona – Man City score.
* * *
Three small post-scripts:
My son has carefully hung his Barcelona FC and Atletico Madrid scarves on his bedroom door with a team Spain “a por ellos” scarf acting as a demilitarized zone of sorts. I occasionally have a guilty pang (wracked with guilt is a better term) that the Atleti scarf was only for the boy to wave or to hold, that it wasn't for him to take and keep from that kind fan. It’s a lovely 10 year anniversary scarf 1993-2003 and I only hope the gentleman who passed it over realizes how happy it’s made my son.
The boy is no longer terrified of Diego Simeone.
Even though I occasionally hear the boy somewhere in the house chanting “Atleti, Atleti, Atleti” or even singing “Oh Simeone!” (to the Macarena), his heart remains with Barcelona. When the teams drew against each other in the UEFA Champions league quarter finals he was quite sad as he knew one team had to lose and be eliminated. With that elimination game just hours away, he wants Barcelona to win – but only just. He doesn’t want Atleti to lose in a blow out. Ever the realist, he also said that if any team is going to eliminate Barca, it’s best that it be Atleti...
Tipped in by MF37 at 12:30 pm
Some kids rebel by growing their hair long, others drop out of school. I sometimes think my son rebelled by rejecting hockey.
I play hockey two to three times a week year 'round. I sit on the board of a community hockey league and even ran my own one-day tourney last year.
From the age of three, the boy has wanted nothing to do with hockey. Won’t play it, discuss it or even watch it on TV. He sulked through the last Leafs game I took him to. I didn't even bother asking him if he wanted to go to a game at the ACC this year.
When the boy was in grade one, he came home from school one day with questions about Lionel Messi and a team called Barcelona. Soon thereafter, we were regularly watching youtube clips and La Liga highlights together.
It wasn't long before he was coming home from school asking questions about transfer windows and what players would generate the highest fees.
For his seventh birthday he asked his grandmother for a number 10 Barcelona jersey. When he turned eight, it was a Messi Argentina World Cup jersey.
He sometimes struggles with maths but can easily explain the away goal rule and calculate which team needs to score what to win on aggregate.
Last year, when our family went to Washington D.C. for March break, I asked the boy what he most wanted to do. His request? Watch the second leg of AC Milan vs. Barcelona at a bar or restaurant that served chicken fingers.
We went. He wore his Messi jersey, ate his chicken fingers, and boldly predicted a 4-0 Barcelona win.
The boy was into that game. He screamed in delight with each goal, yelled at each chance and was positively elated that his team won. I think he did a lap of our section when Barca went up 3-0. He didn't even brag that he got the score right.
It might be the most fun I've ever had watching sports on TV.
* * *
This past March break, we took the kids to Spain for two weeks.
On our third day there, still jet lagged, we all went to Camp Nou to see Barcelona play Almeira.
It was magic.
It was dark when we emerged from the Collblanc metro stop. The game didn't start until 9PM. Camp Nou is only about 600 metres away from the station but it doesn’t reveal itself at first. A block and a half stroll through a few narrow streets with the growing crowds and suddenly there it is – huge lighting stands atop the stadium creating a corona in the night sky, the structure lit like an enormous spaceship on the horizon.
The boy was humming with excitement as we walked up to the stadium, pausing for dozens of photos before we got to our gate. Drinking it all in. A curious mix of excitement and acute observation. He told me getting to go to the game was better than Christmas Eve.
We bought a bag of Barca brand patatas fritas and a few Fanta Naranjas from a tiny concession stand tucked away behind the seats and access stairs and then took to our seats in the middle deck.
There was an entire row of grandmothers behind us eating bocadillos brought from home. Other families appeared to have brought entire picnics to the match. It was clear we weren't in the corporate confines of a North American stadium.
The boy watched warm-ups with his mouth agape. Alves, Neymar, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyols - his Sunday afternoon heroes just a few hundred yards away. And there they were doing some of the same drills he does each Sunday at soccer.
We sang the Barca Anthem (clap clap clap) and then the game began. He was mesmerized. Huge stretches of football passed and I don’t think he even blinked. He roared when Alexis opened the scoring and leapt out of his seat like a rocket when Messi made it 2-0 with a beautiful curling free kick over the wall, high fiving the fans sitting around us.
My pouting distracted boy from Leaf games past had been replaced by a kid who was equal parts fixation and euphoric. I could almost feel the happiness exuding from him, like it was palpable.
He chanted like a madman standing with the crowd when Puyols, in his return from injury, bundled in a goal right beneath us to make it 3-1. Xavi's strike late in the game brought him out of his seat one more time.
The boy declared seeing Barca play as "Better than Christmas."
We stayed long after the 4-1 final. Taking photos, re-living the goals, chattering about Puyol’s return (the funny video of him heading flower pots to save a flight attendant) and wondering about who might replace Valdes in net next year (I tease him it will be Begovic).
Even my daughter, who didn't want to go to the game, was a convert, taken in by the quickness of Neymar and the spectacle of the game.
* * *
Often the stories we tell, the stories that help shape us and become part of our lexicon, take a while to form and even longer to burnish. Our night at Camp Nou was one of those rare moments where you're aware of the weight and significance of an event as you experience it. It was already a story we were telling post-game in the stadium and re-telling as midnight approached and our family strolled together towards Collblanc Metro to catch a subway home, with five more wonderful days in Barcelona to look forward to...
Tipped in by MF37 at 11:08 pm