John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


March Madness: Day 1 – Ignorance is bliss

Ohhhhh yyeeaaahhhh!!!One of the most peculiar periods in the Canadian sporting year is the last two weeks of March.

That’s when, like everyone else in the civilized world, Canadians become obsessed with the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament. However, unlike our neighbours to the south, we can come at it from an oddly objective place.

Let me explain.

Obviously, there are no Canadian schools in the tournament. There are rarely Canadians to root for, either. Like following the National Football League we’re left to our own devices to figure out which teams to pick. We are unfettered by any kind of loyalty or regional bias.

Really, in general, Canadians are blissfully ignorant of college basketball until about early March. There’s little coverage on Sportsnet or TSN. Only hardcore basketball fans who seek out games on the Score or online have any real knowledge of the NCAA game. Everyone else gleans what they can from American shows like Pardon the Interruption or Around the Horn. Our focus is, and always will be, hockey.

Does that stop Canadians from participating in March Madness pools? Not even a little. Practically everyone I know has at least one bracket, and suddenly basketball is on all kinds of TV channels. After all, there is no better way to while away the time once your NHL team is eliminated from the playoffs.

My only NCAA allegiance is to Syracuse University Orange. Not because of Carmelo Anthony, but because of their lacrosse team. After all, that’s where Gary and Paul Gait went. Not to mention the Powell boys. Also, it’s kind of local to Toronto. I guess that's nice.

Aside from that small preference for the Orange, I can enjoy the tournament bias free. Heck, I’m even indifferent to Duke University which, according to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, people hate.

Personally, I enjoy the fact that as a Canadian I can operate from a point of objective ignorance: It means that I rarely over-think things. My judgement is never clouded by preference or conflicting sources of information.

If 75% of users are picking a team online, it sounds good to me. I’ll never be tempted to pick an underdog, since, hey, I don’t know anything beyond the seeding. Historical trends? Don't know, don't care. It’s wonderfully liberating.

My strategy is to pick teams I’ve heard of, relying on the assumption that if they're on my radar up here in Canada, they must be good. Failing that, I go with the higher seed. If two well known teams meet at some point in my bracket, I follow the lead of my fellow online users. When I feel particularly daring I’ll take an underdog (usually a 12 seed over a five) but that’s as wild as I get.

It’s actually a pretty good system. It leaves me open to upsets, but that’s rarely a problem beyond the Sweet 16.

Now I can just sit back and enjoy the show, along with my free health care. The beauty of being Canadian.


How I fell in love with lacrosse

Bob "Whipper" Watson played a key role in my growth as a lacrosse fan.

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.