Autumn has arrived once again and with the changing of the leaves comes the busiest time of the year in the world of sports.
That applies to the journalists who cover sports as well, so this blog has fallen into disuse for the past week as I’ve been cranking out articles for other outlets. Here’s a quick rundown:
On Tuesday the Globe and Mail (and other websites) ran an article I wrote about the Ontario Hockey League indefinitely postponing their All-Star Game.
Wednesday the Winnipeg Free Press picked up a bit of an OHL season preview I did.
I’ve been busy over at HockeyPrimeTime.com as well, writing pre-season looks at the Northeast Division starting with the Boston Bruins and then moving on to the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators before finishing with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hockey’s not the only sport I’m following this fall either, as field lacrosse has started up. I’ve got a vested interest as I’m continuing my involvement in the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association as its Communications Director.
I’ve already written a review of the first week of play for the league’s website and I'll be penning a second one today.
That’s a quick update for you, but you should expect more content from me in the next week, starting with the return of My Weekend in Junior Hockey on Monday.
I can still remember the exact moment when I fell in love with lacrosse. My godfather had given me tickets to the Toronto Rock as a Christmas present. They were the newest team in the National Lacrosse League, having played in Hamilton the previous season as the Ontario Raiders, and this was their home opener.
I’d heard of lacrosse, but never seen it played. But, hey, it was at Maple Leaf Gardens, a treat by itself. It was easy to persuade my friend Ruben to come along.
As the fourth quarter wound down, Toronto’s goaltender Bob “Whipper” Watson stopped a shot and came out of his crease to pass to a streaking “Speedin’” Stevie Toll. As Watson released the ball, one of the Buffalo Bandits cross-checked him in the back of the head and knocked him out cold.
I seem to remember Toll scoring on the play, but I was distracted by the mayhem that exploded around me.
As players paired off to fight, the crowd chanted “BUFFALO SUCKS”. The offending player got free of his dance partner (possibly after knocking him out as well) and ran around the floor, giving the finger to the crowd. Fans tried to climb over the boards to get at him while the referees and arena security tried to gain control of the situation.
It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.
Ruben and I didn’t know it at the time, but we were watching the birth of a dynasty. The Rock would win the championship that year, and win another four in the next five years. They’d win their division from the team’s inception in 1999 and every year after that until 2005.
For a championship starved city like Toronto, it was incredible.
Ruben and I didn’t understand half of what was going on in that first game, but sitting in the Reds of Maple Leaf Gardens we decided that we were going to pick up the sport.
We went to more games that season and got a small petition together to start a team at our high school. Unfortunately, the head gym teacher told us that he just didn’t have the staff to coach another team and our dreams were dashed.
In my second year at the University of Toronto I ended up playing a few minutes with the varsity team, but I was much too late to the sport to be any good. The next year I became an assistant coach, and became more and more involved in the administration of the game.
I watched as many games as I could, read magazine and internet articles, played intramurals and gradually began to understand the Xs and Os of lacrosse.
Eventually, I became the Director of Communications for the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association and interned with the Toronto Nationals, a professional field team that plays in Major League Lacrosse. I’ve been lucky enough to meet greats like Gary Gait, Colin Doyle and Dan Dawson, as well as interview Paul Gait and the legendary Syracuse University coach Roy Simmons Jr.
Even though I'm relatively new to the sport, everyone I've ever met in the lacrosse world has been nothing but kind, friendly, and accommodating. It's the most accessible professional sport that I can think of, with fast action, cheap tickets and athletes that the average fan can relate to. In a crowded sports market like Toronto, there's nothing like the Nationals or Rock.
Although I’ve written about lacrosse extensively and seen a lot of the behind-the-scenes action of pro teams, I’ll always be a fan first. That’s why I’m so glad that I’ve been able to watch all of the Rock’s televised games this winter. Lacrosse has a spot in my heart that no other sport will ever be able to occupy.
The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor wrote an article Tuesday morning about former NHLer Mike Danton joining the St. Mary’s Huskies in which he criticized Canadian Interuniversity Sport for having eligibility loopholes that will allow the former professional to play for a university team.
MacGregor is a fantastic writer, and his heart is in the right place, but I humbly disagree. Having former professional athletes playing varsity sports does no damage to the sport, whatsoever.
For those of you not familiar with Danton’s sad tale, the CBC’s Fifth Estate has a very detailed timeline of his personal and professional life that includes links to interviews and news stories. Further, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman has an excellent article on his one interaction with Danton and his agent David Frost.
In short, Danton is a 29-year-old former professional hockey player who was convicted of a murder-for-hire plot. Now released from prison, he is enrolling at St. Mary’s in Halifax to complete the degree he started while incarcerated and is going to play hockey in the CIS.
MacGregor is all for giving Danton a second chance at life, but does not think he should be allowed to play hockey with university students.
“The notion of a still-growing high school graduate challenging a mature man with three years of NHL hockey to his credit is simply preposterous,” says MacGregor.
Only, really, it’s not that dangerous. Teenagers and adults can easily play full-contact sports without any risk of injury.
After all, how old was Luke Schenn when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs last year? What about Steve Yzerman when he became a Detroit Red Wing? Sidney Crosby? Wayne Gretzky joined the World Hockey Association because they let him play before he turned 18.
Although Danton will undoubtedly play some teenagers, most starting players on CIS hockey teams will be in their early-to-mid 20s, just like the NHL.
“As for ‘professionalism,’ the rules are mild – one year of eligibility lost for every year of pro – which still leaves Danton with two years eligibility for university hockey,” says MacGregor.
I have some hands-on experience with eligibility as the former Director of Communications for the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association, and have dealt with issues like this.
CUFLA is an independent league that has 12 member teams from Ontario and Quebec. The league’s eligibility rules line up those of the CIS, including allowing active professional athletes from the National Lacrosse League to join teams.
What’s the logic? Simple. CUFLA plays field lacrosse, while the NLL is indoor lacrosse. Although many of the skill sets are the same, the field of play is completely different, much of the equipment is different and many of the rules are different.
The pro lacrosse players that end up on these teams act as role models that improve the level of play on the team and often serve as leaders during games and in the locker room.
What kind of effect Danton has on his Huskies teammates is anyone’s guess. Honestly, Danton is not in a position to serve as a positive example to the young players at St. Mary’s, but he could have some useful advice for them or at the very least serve as a cautionary tale.
Danton will probably be one of the best players on his team, if not all of CIS, but that doesn’t mean he should be banned from playing.
His inclusion on the St. Mary’s Huskies is not going to start a flood of NHLers joining collegiate teams. Teams are not going to be able to load their teams with ringers because there are rules that restrict scholarships as well as academic standards that guarantee the purity of the varsity game.
Frankly, today’s professional athletes have so much earning power that there is not much a university or college could offer them except tuition incentives. And really, if you could potentially earn millions per year, is a few thousand a year and mandatory class that exciting? I doubt it.
The only other player to downgrade from the NHL to CIS was Jared Aulin. Ever heard of him? No? That’s because his impact was minimal. University hockey survived that experience just fine, and I am sure that it will continue to thrive with Mike Danton playing a couple of years of hockey.