Let’s talk about Ivan Provorov’s ol’ time religion and a God-awful lesson to learn

Now that the thunder-clap clatter has eased to a murmur, what are the lessons learned from L’Affaire Rainbow?

Well, we learned that the Philadelphia Flyers stand by their Russian Orthodox employees, because rearguard Ivan Provorov received not so much as a mild tsk-tsk for skipping out on a pregame warmup last Tuesday night.

While his playmates adorned themselves in rainbow-colored garments and wrapped the blades of their hockey sticks in rainbow-colored tape to signal support for the LGBT(etc.) community on Pride Night, Provorov remained in the Flyers changing room, alone in his gay-is-sin thoughts as his playmates participated in the 15-minute frolic.

Provorov later cited his old-time religion as the reason for his refusal to play Mr. Dressup, telling news snoops: “I respect everybody, I respect everybody’s choices. My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

Oddly enough (but probably not surprising), the Russian Orthodox rearguard refused to elaborate on his choice of religion over rainbow, perhaps because further discussion might have been a bit dodgy, if not prickly. News snoops might have asked Provorov about Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, a man who believes a) his buddy Vlad (The Bad) Putin is a “miracle of God,” b) the Russian invasion of Ukraine is necessary to prevent an eastern-advancing scourge of gay Pride parades, and c) same-sex marriage is “a sin” and similar to “apartheid in Africa or Nazi laws.” Apparently, those are talking points Provorov would rather avoid.

Whatever, his true-to-religion soundbite was sufficient for Philly head coach, John Tortorella (“Provy did nothing wrong”), the organization (“The Flyers will continue to be strong advocates for inclusivity”) and the National Hockey League (“Players are free to decide which initiatives to support”). In other words, nothing to see here, kids.

So that’s another lesson learned: If an NHL player wishes to opt out of a team theme night (Pride, Military, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous, etc.), he need only dust off religious dogma to avoid the sin bin, and we have to assume that’s all-inclusive, meaning it’s an easy out available not only to Russian Orthodox but also Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. (I suppose an atheist would have to come up with a different angle, but I don’t know.)

L’Affaire Rainbow also reminded us that news snoops are quick to rally and kick up a mighty fuss, yet they’re just as lickety-split in finding a new toy to chew on.

I mean, opinionists hither and yon spent three days in full and loud yowl, most of them pooh-poohing Provorov and suggesting an appropriate level of punishment, like deportation to the bosom of Mother Russia or listening to Barry Manilow music 24/7. I swear, we haven’t heard the jock journo machine rage like this since two of its heroes, Bobby Orr and Jack Nicklaus, pledged unwavering devotion to Donald Trump.

Yet, today, mention of Provorov’s work clothing is scant and has been pushed to the back pages of sports sections and the back half of news programs.

But here’s what the scribes and talking heads are ignoring: How many Ivan Provorovs are in the NHL? One per team? Two? Five? Surely he isn’t a lone wolf.

The jock journos decline to pursue the issue for one basic reason: They aren’t gay. Thus they can’t relate and don’t care. They’ve delivered a good and proper bawling out to Provorov, positioning themselves as LGBT(etc.) allies, so they harbor no compulsion for a deep dive into the matter.

Similarly, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants no portion of any anti-gay discussion, unless it provides him an opportunity to apply a coating of sugar.

“When you look at all of our players and the commitments that they’ve made to social causes and to making our game welcoming and inclusive, let’s focus on the 700 that embrace it and not one or two that may have some issues for their own personal reasons,” he told news snoops the other day.

Sure, Gary, and let’s focus on all the banks Bonnie and Clyde didn’t rob.

Perhaps some reminders would be appropriate right about now…

  • In January 2014, TSN ran a three-part documentary, RE/ORIENTATION, which attempted to pry the lid off the issue of gays in hockey.

“We struggled to get participation from players,” said series host Aaron Ward, a former NHL defenceman and TSN talking head. “Over a nine-month period, we reached out to 12 different National Hockey League teams. (We) could not get co-operation. It was a struggle to get guys to sit down and be comfortable and honest in front of a camera. Obviously, it’s easy to sit down and read words for a PSA, but it’s another thing to sit down and be honest and in-depth and be clear about how we feel about this process and this issue. It’s almost a barometer of where we are today.”

Nine months. Twelve teams. That’s more than 200 players. And only three—Andrew Ference, Ben Scrivens and Dustin Brown—agreed to a formal, on-the-record natter. None of the three are in the NHL today.

  • Last month, Hockey Canada revealed results of a study into incidents of on-ice discrimination across all levels and age groups during the 2021-22 season. There were 512 penalties called, 61 per cent involving sexual orientation or gender. Males accounted for 99 per cent of the fouls.

Some of those male shinny scofflaws might grow up to perform in the NHL, which, with its shoulder shrug in L’Affaire Rainbow, has given players the official okey-dokey to go rogue and show the LGBT(etc.) collective, or any marginalized group of their choice, the cold shoulder. They can be just like Ivan Provorov. All they need do is flash a rosary or spew the Lord’s Prayer, then wait out the brief media storm.

What a God-awful lesson to learn.

Cheering in the press box: All jock journos do it, but most keep it on the down low

Until Tuesday morning, I couldn’t have picked out Mike Chambers in a police lineup.

Today I can.

Chambers is the guy wearing wrinkled, brown trousers and a white, beer-stained shirt that battles mightily to conceal an ample belly; he’s also sucking on a celebratory stogie and holding the Stanley Cup aloft, a ritual normally reserved for those who’ve actually accomplished something more than tapping out 1,000-word essays for the Denver Post.

That’s right, Chambers is a jock journo whose task it has been to chronicle Colorado’s blood-sweat-tears-bruises-and-broken bones run to the National Hockey League championship, a mission accomplished on their foe’s freeze Sunday night when the Avalanche laid waste to the title-holding Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1.

As far as it can be determined, Chambers’ contribution to the Avs’ success was nil. He didn’t score a goal, he didn’t help Nathan MacKinnon get on the scoresheet, and I doubt he had a hand in cooking Cale Makar’s pre-game meals. In reality, he did nothing other than make his editors less grumpy by meeting deadline, something that doesn’t qualify him to a) have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup or b) hoist hockey’s holy grail in the manner of a champion.

So one wonders what Chambers was thinking when he posted a couple of pics of himself and Stanley on his Twitter feed. Well, clearly he wasn’t thinking straight, and the half dozen empty beer bottles behind him would be the first clue to support that notion.

He describes it as “probably the most memorable experience” of his career, which began full time at the Post in 2000, but he doesn’t make it clear if he’s referring to the plum assignment of tracking a Stanley Cup champion hither and yon or lifting the battered mug.

The thing is, the boys and girls on the beat (any beat) are there to talk and write about the athletes/teams they follow, not wave pom-poms. It’s that old ‘No Cheering In the Press Box’ thing.

My question is this: Does anybody really give a damn?

Well, certainly Chambers’ misstep is a dent to his credibility, and hard-core adherents to jock journo’s golden rule have hastened to deliver a stern tsk-tsking from their seats on the press row. Meantime, observers on social media have given a hasty thumbs down, while others haven’t been so quick to coat him with tar and a layer of feathers. They note that he had been caught up in the moment and saw it as a harmless bit of carry-on. Besides, they point out, the pics were posted on Twitter, not on the sports pages of the Post.

Except a news snoop need not be sitting on a perch in the press box to be cheering in the press box. Chambers was cheering in the press box, even if on the cesspool of nasty natter that is Twitter. He has made it an extension of his job. Most jock journos do.

Most, however, also keep their cheering interests on the down low.

Trust me when I tell you that the boys and girls on the beat are telling a big, fat fib when they say they don’t cheer for the athletes and/or teams they cover, even if you don’t see their noses growing or their pants on fire. Sports scribes/broadcasters are human (okay, there’s some question about Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless), so they have their favorites.

An example would be Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press. On Feb. 18 this year, he wrote this: “If I’m to be taken seriously as a journalist, I can’t be out here waving pom-poms for the home team.” Fine. Except less than a month later, here’s what he scribbled: “The 2022 MLB season is especially exciting for those of us who root, root root for the home team — as in the Toronto Blue Jays.” In his newsletter to readers, he mentioned his “beloved Toronto Blue Jays.”

His boss, sports editor Jason Bell, admits to cheering “unabashedly for the Toronto Blue Jays.”

So what happens if the Blue Jays advance to the World Series? Does the Blue Jays fan/editor dispatch the Blue Jays fan/scribe to the Republic of Tranna to deliver dispatches from the event? How credible can the reporting be when both parties are waving pom-poms?

Former Chicago columnist Jerome Holtzman wrote the book (literally) on cheering in the press box, and this is what he had to say: “I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?’ I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.”

So, sure, the cheering can be hidden in the subconscious, but that’s one of the reasons newspapers have sports editors. To keep writers on-point and credible.

I recall my time covering the Winnipeg Jets for the Winnipeg Tribune. The team was in disarray, on and off the ice, and I received a phone call from the newsroom while hunkered down in a Marriott Hotel in Cincinnati.

“We don’t think you can see the forest for the trees,” I was informed. “We think maybe you’re missing the problem…the coach. But if you don’t think he’s the problem, don’t write it.”

Larry Hillman, a very nice man, was bench puppeteer of that Jets outfit, and I was quite fond of him. He was sincere, soft-spoken and always obliging of his thoughts and time. Cutting him a new one wasn’t something I had considered. Still, I’d been given pause for ponder, and concluded that better coaching was the very thing the Jets required. I wrote the column. Shortly thereafter, Hillman was dismissed and I felt like throwing up for skewering such a good man in print.

So, sure, there were people and teams I rooted for during my 30 years in jock journalism, and I don’t apologize for it. I believe, as a human, it comes with the territory. You just have to keep it out of your copy and/or commentary, and you certainly don’t post it on social media (that’s just dense).

Whenever the topic is cheering in the press box, I leave the final word to my first sports editor, Jack Matheson, once accused of being too buddy-buddy with Ray Jauch, coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“All right,” he informed his Tribune readers one day, “I’ll come clean, Ray Jauch is a friend of mine, but I didn’t know they had enacted some sort of legislation making it a crime for sports writers to have friends. I don’t see anything wrong with being friendly with a man you work with every day of the week. Where does it say a football writer and a football coach have to have an adversary relationship? Yes, we’re friends. I don’t know about ‘good’ friends, but that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, either, because we have something in common. We’re thrown together into the football jungle, and Ray Jauch wants to win because it’s his job and I want to win because I live here and I like to be proud of the athletes who represent us.”

In praise of Mrs. Grieve and Mr. Peters, two of my teachers at Miles Macdonell Collegiate in the old ‘hood, East Kildonan

Miles Mac

I was in full veg mode the other day, lying flat on my loveseat, staring blankly at my flatscreen and wondering why, with so many channels on the menu, there was nothing worth watching.

It’s sort of like my wardrobe. My closet is full, but I have nothing to wear.

(Quick aside: I’ve long thought that Nothing To Wear would be an ideal name for a women’s consignment clothing store, because most women I know have peered into their closet and arrived at the damnable reality that they have nothing to wear, no matter how many frocks and accessories are staring back at them.)

The difference, of course, is that I always find something in the closet that satisfies my needs and taste du jour, whereas I more often than not can’t find anything on the flatscreen that will entertain, inform or humor me for more than five minutes. Also, the quality fare that snags all the Emmys doesn’t air until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, long after I’ve lowered my eyelids, which means I only get to sneak a peek when they’re featured on commercials.

The Reagans about to chow down and bicker.

It was during a fruitless channel surfing mission the other day when I noticed an advert for Blue Bloods, a New York City cop drama that features Tom Selleck’s mustache and the Reagan family eating dinner. They engage in much bickering between bites, and it’s usually eldest son Danny with the worst table manners. Since Danny solves every case and arrests all the bad guys, usually with one hand tied behind his back, he feels obliged to remind the rest of the clan that they’re all bunglers, and that includes his cop commissioner dad, Frank, his ADA sister, Erin, his cop brother, Jamie, his cop nephew Joe, and his cop sister-in-law, Eddie. Stooges, all of them.

Mostly spared from Danny’s bullying, however, is the patriarch of the Reagan brood, grandpa Henry or “Pops,” an old-school cop and now-retired NYPD commish with no appetite for the coddling of scofflaws. At worst, Danny might say, “Come on, Pops, you can’t really believe that.” Otherwise, the old boy is teflon.

Which brings me to the main point of this essay.

Pops Reagan is played by Len Cariou, and seeing him at the family table is always a reminder that I went to the same high school as Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd.

Len Cariou, aka Pops Reagan

During my time at Miles Macdonell Collegiate on Roch Street in East Kildonan, I had no clue that I was walking the same halls of academia as a guy who would become a Tony Award-winning actor and tread the boards with Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury, among others. He’s also shared the silver screen with Liz Taylor, Diana Rigg, Viola Davis, Rita Moreno, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner and Johnny Depp, among others.

Since Cariou has 11 years on me, we weren’t MMC Buckeyes at the same time, and it’s unlikely we had any of the same teachers, although I suppose it’s possible.

The thing is, I’m guessing there were certain teachers at Miles Mac who had a special influence on Cariou during his two years under their watchful eye (Grades 10 and 11), and perhaps that’s what sealed the deal for him: He would become a star on stage and screen.

I’ve never experienced the same acclaim as Cariou, and high hosannas are unlikely to fall my way now that I’m well into my dotage and far removed from a 30-year career in journalism, but I had two high school teachers whose words pointed me in the right direction in the 1960s, even if their methods were quite contrasting.

Literature teacher Mrs. Grieve planted the first seed, when she awarded me a mark of 29/30 for an essay on baseball. She did so hesitantly. She wasn’t convinced it was an original work, but, apparently unable to find evidence to the contrary, she gave me my mark of 29-out-of-30 and scribbled a note on the margins of my paper, saying, “If this is your writing, I recommend you pursue it as a possible career.”


But then there was Mr. Peters, a teacher with a favorable manner, but one who too often observed me with my nose deep into a sports magazine and/or book at my desk at the back of the room.

“I think you should concentrate on what the rest of the class is focused on,” he said one day, interrupting his lesson to scold me to the tittering of classmates. “You’re wasting your time reading all those sports books. It’s not going to do you any good.”

Not so nice.

Except Mr. Peters’ tsk-tsking served the same purpose as Mrs. Grieve’s encouragement, and sealed the deal: I would get into jock journalism. Not to prove him wrong, but because I admired the wordsmiths in Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine and Hockey Illustrated, etc.

Scant months later, I was working at the Winnipeg Tribune, the start of a 30-year odyssey that would take me into a world that included Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky and Sugar Ray Leonard and Bobby Orr and Gary Carter and Tommy Lasorda and Tom Seaver and Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe and Vladislav Tretiak and Paul Henderson and Don Cherry and Vic Peters and Jeff Stoughton and Jack Nicklaus and Cal Murphy and Benny Hatskin and Dave Keon and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her Special Olympics. I covered Gretzky’s first professional game and Ali’s final fist fight. I had feet on the ground at Grey Cups and Super Bowls and Stanley Cups and Briers and championship boxing in Las Vegas and World Cup skiing. Hockey took me to most major cities in North America, and to the world championship in Sweden, and a few outposts hither and yon that didn’t have traffic lights. I’ve been perched in press boxes at the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens and Madison Square Garden and the Olympia in Detroit and Boston Garden and the Stadium in Chicago. That’s the NHL’s original six. I was sports editor at two major dailies.

I owe Mrs. Grieve and Mr. Peters no small amount of thanks for all that.

If they’re still around, I doubt they include me in their recollections, because there was nothing noteworthy about my grades, or time spent, at Miles Mac. But I’ve often thought of them. Still do.

And it’s never too late to say merci beaucoup.

Why are business people in Canada so eager to lose millions on men’s sports but they treat female pro sports like it has the cooties?

To date, no one is telling us the sticker price on the B.C. Lions.

It might have been 10 bucks in Canadian Tire money, it might have been $10 million in cold, hard Canadian currency, and it might have been nothing more than a few specks of lint from Amar Doman’s deep pockets.

Amar Doman

We just know that Doman dipped into those deep pockets of his and pulled out enough something-or-other to satisfy the wants and needs of the David Braley estate, which had been holding the purse strings on the Canadian Football League franchise since the longtime owner’s death last October.

Logic suggests Doman bought the Leos—lock, stock and perhaps Joe Kapp’s old jock—for a bargain basement price this week because, like all outfits in Rouge Football, they surely did a belly flop into a pool of red ink on their 2020 (un)operation. No games. No revenue. Except perhaps a piddling amount of merchandise sales.

We know the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, for example, took a financial bath ($6.98 million), as did their community-run Prairie kin in Saskatchewan (the Roughriders dropped $7.5 million) and Edmonton (Elks’ losses came in at $7.1 million), so it follows that the Leos faced similar hardship.

Collectively, it’s been reported that the CFL was $60 million-$80 million into the glue on its COVID-canceled 2020 crusade and, during its most recent season (2019), the nine member clubs combined for $20 million in losses.

Little wonder commissioner Randy Ambrosie went hat in hand to Trudeau the Younger and his pals on Parliament Hill, looking for a one-time pogey payment of $30 million.

When the feds told Commish Randy to take his begging cup and go panhandle on another street corner, there was legitimate concern that some outfits might not survive a lengthy shutdown, and a lot of people were looking directly toward the far side of the Rocky Mountains, where the Leos have gone into a Witness Protection Program.

David Braley

Indeed, Braley himself delivered a sizable heaping of gloom and doom in May 2020, telling TSN 1040, “I really believe if we don’t play this year, there’s a very good chance that we won’t survive. There’s no money. How can you afford to lose five, 10 million a team?”

But lose it, and survive, they did.

The Leos were back in B.C. Place Stadium on Thursday night for a grass-grabber with the Edmonton Elks, and (reportedly) 12,500 of their friends and family dropped by for a looksee at Amar Doman’s new toy.

Doman was also in the house (he’s probably still hosing himself down after enduring an in-game natter with TSN’s resident boot-licker and insufferable, gushing groupie Glen Suitor), and his readiness to roll up his sleeves and make the Leos relevant again was evident.

But it also had me thinking this thought: Why are deep-pocketed business people in Canada so eager to go all-in on a losing hand like the B.C. Leos or Toronto Argos, but they won’t do the same for women’s professional sports?

We are a hockey nation, yet look across our vast, oft-frozen tundra and you shall find just one female pro outfit, the Toronto Six of the National Women’s Hockey League, and it’s bankrolled by a group of Boston-based investors headed by Johanna Neilson Boynton.

The NWHL will have a salary cap of $300,000 per team in 2021-22. Amar Doman will pay his main man, quarterback Michael Reilly, $525,000 for 14 games this year, win, lose or wonky arm.

I’m no financial whiz, but it seems to me that any losses would be less staggering in the NWHL.

Meantime, we have become a world soccer power on the women’s side, yet there are zero professional teams in the True North. Nada. Zilch. Squat.

Minimum wage in the all-U.S. National Women’s Soccer League is $22,000. Max is $52,000. The team cap is $682,500. In Rouge Football, the low-end salary is $65,000 and the top-end depends on how stupid an owner chooses to be. Each team is capped at $5.35 millions.

Who figures to drop more coin, Portland Thorns FC or the B.C. Lions?

Yet smart guys like Amar Doman are positively giddy about frittering away great gobs of cash on a CFL business plan that has proven to be broken and, at the same time, they steer clear of female sports like it’s a kid with the cooties.

Go figure.

Money isn’t penicillin, an anti-depressant or a cure-all, so even filthy-rich pro athletes can be laid low by mental health challenges

It has been less than a week since Naomi Osaka took her tennis balls and went home, leaving French Open officials to tip-toe through a puddle of piddle that is of their own making.

The priggish potentates, in concert with their ilk from the other Grand Slam tournaments, had attempted bully tactics in a bid to bring the world No. 2 to heel like an obedient Bichon Frise, but their fines, their threats of disqualification and their dire warnings of additional sanctions failed to sway Osaka into believing post-match natters with news snoops outranked concerns about her mental health.

Thus, rather than play the part of lap dog, the 23-year-old champion chomped into the upper crust of tennis by withdrawing from one of the two Grand Slam venues she has yet to conquer.

In putting Roland Garros, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and a coterie of pompous asses in her rear-view mirror, Osaka doubled down on the pre-tournament reasoning for her preference to skip out on post-match interrogations by the media horde, some of whom wouldn’t know a foot fault from foie gras.

“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote. “Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.

“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”

Some among the rabble didn’t buy what Osaka was selling. Still don’t. They see her as a spoiled rich kid who melts into a pool of tears at the smallest inconvenience on the avenue of entitlement.

Well, part of that is true. She’s a rich kid.

According to Forbes, Osaka collected $5 million in on-court earnings in the past 12 months, and another $55 million from companies using her name and face to peddle product. So it’s not like she’ll be sitting on an L.A. street corner with a begging cap at her feet anytime soon.

That, however, doesn’t exempt her from falling prey to the same demons as us mere mortals.

Naomi Oska

Many seem to believe the filthy rich are immune to the challenges of life, including what goes on between the ears. It’s like, “Poor baby. If she feels the walls closing in, she can hop on her private jet and retreat to the $7 million Beverly Hills mansion she bought from Nick Jonas. How can anyone living in the lap of luxury whine about life? Suck it up, girl!”

Except it’s money, not penicillin or an anti-depressant. No medic has ever stuck a stethoscope on a jock’s bankroll and said, “Take two trips to an ATM and see me in the morning.” No head doctor has ever prescribed great gobs of greenbacks as a cure-all for anxiety.

To posit that professional athletes are free and clear of life’s scatter-shot tendencies is also to believe the characters on Sesame Street are mobsters. (Hey, Oscar might be a Grouch, but I doubt he’s using Miss Piggy and Kermit as drug mules.)

I don’t know if Naomi Osaka’s soul-baring was a cry for help, but it certainly was a call for understanding.

The same could be said for Mark Scheifele, the Winnipeg Jets forward who’s been told to stand down for four games after turning Jake Evans of the Montreal Canadiens into a bug on a windshield in a recent National Hockey League playoff skirmish.

Scheifele refused to cop to any wrong-doing, but he accepted criticism thrust has way, also his punishment, even if he believes it to be excessive. What he didn’t accept was the “hate” hurled toward his parents, as if they’d raised the the second coming of Charles Manson. His younger sister and brother apparently took hits as well, and, as he addressed news snoops, we didn’t have to guess if the abuse wounded him. We could hear it in his voice as he checked his emotions while talking about his “salt of the earth” parents, and we could see it in his eyes as they began to dampen.

My immediate thought: The implications of his absence on the Jets lineup be damned. His real-life issue was the most significant takeaway from his session with jock journos.

No doubt many among the rabble will tell Scheifele to “suck it up,” as they did Osaka, but anyone dealing with a mental health challenge, filthy-rich pro athletes included, can tell you that isn’t what they need. They need an ear—your ear—because listening leads to dialogue and dialogue leads to insight and empathy, even if you can’t fully understand their demon.

Trust me, I know. I’ve been to the dark side. I’ve been crippled by anxiety, I’ve passed out from panic attacks, I’ve battled with depression, and I wrestled with gender/sexual identity most of my life. I’ve also suffered so many concussions that there are times when I can’t walk a straight line, and believe me when I tell you that no prim and proper old lady wants to be seen staggering about the streets like a sailor on shore leave.

Bottom line: We need to stop looking at pro athletes as super-human. They’re super athletes, yes, but they experience every-day, human hurt just like the rest of us, and that includes pain between the ears.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have become a country song and we don’t have to eat our Brussels sprouts anymore

So I’m flipping through the pages of the Toronto Star this morning, and I come across a short essay by Richie Assaly, who, like so many in the Republic of Tranna, feels like he’s living a country song.

Except his dog didn’t die and mama wasn’t run over by a damned ol’ train the day she got out of prison.

No, the long face and world of hurt is the product of another Toronto Maple Leafs’ pratfall, an annual spring ritual observed from one flank of the tundra to the other and points north.

You’d think the citizenry in the Republic of Tranna would be used to it by now, but this latest Leafs loss—to the dreaded Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup skirmish on Monday night—seems to have brought with it a different and deeper level of grieving.

“A monumental collapse. A tragedy on ice. Rock bottom,” went the Assaly lament. “There’s a distinct chance that the last day of May in 2021 will find its way into the history books as one of the lowest points in Toronto sports history.”

Personally, I think Humpty Harold Ballard asking his coach, Roger Neilson, to wear a paper bag on his head behind the bench ranks lowest on the lame-o-meter, but I guess Assaly uses a different measuring stick.

At any rate, it’s official. The Maple Leafs have become a country song. Three chords and the truth about kicking a tin can up the road for 54 years.

Assaly didn’t stop there, though.

It isn’t just the Leafs’ latest face plant that’s got up his nose. It’s us. You know, those of us who live in The Colonies.

“As a dark cloud of misery descended upon Leaf Nation, hockey fans outside of the GTA were taking part in a joyous display of pettiness—a schadenfreude soirée,” he wrote.

Oh my. Pettiness? Naw. Going “na, na, na, na, na” would be petty.

But we don’t do petty. Oh, sure, some of us snicker behind our hands, the way kids bust a gut when the schoolyard bully falls in a mud puddle, while others cackle in glee with gusts up to rude laughter.

The thing is, that’s part of our DNA.

Humpty Harold Ballard

Assaly doesn’t understand that most of us who work and play in The Colonies need the Leafs to cough up a giant hairball every year for comic relief, otherwise we’d have nothing to do but watch curling ice melt or, in my case on the Wet Coast, watch the rain fall.

Would he deny us our giddiness?

Besides, when you drill to the nub of the matter, it’s not so much the Leafs that we poke fun at. The issue is the ram-it-down-our-throats, 24/7 hype from TSN/Sportsnet, who believe the National Hockey League in Canada consists of the Leafs and six red-headed, freckle-faced step-children they acknowledge only when Auston Matthews isn’t grooming his cheesy upper lip whiskers.

After the Leafs stubbed their toes on Monday night, one of the talking heads on TSN, Glenn Schiiler, informed the nation that, with Matthews and Mitch Marner taking their leave, all the “best players” had been removed from the Stanley Cup tournament, as if the rosters of les Canadiens, the Winnipeg Jets and the six U.S. outfits still chasing the shinny grail are stocked with a bunch of beer-leaguers who still need mom and dad to tie their skate laces.

The Globe and Mail, meanwhile, is supposed to be a national newspaper, but its sports columnist, Cathal Kelly, has written three essays on the Leafs losing in the past week and zero on the Montreal Canadiens, who play on while the Leafs play golf.

It’s one thing for the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun to place their focus on the Leafs and declare them “Kings of the North” before the puck is dropped on the annual spring runoff, but the sports columnist at our national sheet? Wrong.

Richie Assaly and others in The ROT need to know this is why we get giddy when the Leafs soil the sheets every spring.

It’s not that we hate the Leafs. Heck, many among us in The Colonies root, root, root for them and attend games adorned in blue-and-white Leafs livery, with the names Matthews and Marner stitched on the back.

But it’s like Brussels sprouts for most of us. Our parents repeatedly told us “they’re good for you,” except we didn’t want to hear it anymore. We just wanted those little green things to disappear.

Same thing with the Leafs.

They’re gone now, so once the talking heads and our national sports columnist have gone through a suitable mourning period and remove the black armbands, we won’t be fed Brussels sprouts anymore. At least not until autumn, when we’ll be reminded once again that Matthews and Marner are the best thing since Canadian bacon, even as they forever fail to bring home the bacon.

In the meantime, the brown paper bag is once again the official gear of Maple Leafs fans/media, who are singing that same old hurtin’ song, only with a fresh twist.

Mum’s the word as Naomi Osaka turns up the volume on mental health

Interesting young woman, this Naomi Osaka.

She has become one of the leading voices in sports and now she doesn’t want to talk. At least not about tennis.

The finest female player on the planet, give or take an Ash Barty, will exercise her right to remain silent at the French Open, even if excusing herself from post-match interrogations results in a piling up of fines as she attempts to navigate her way to a fifth Grand Slam title and first on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Well okay. It’s not like Naomi can’t afford to zip her lips.

I mean, the Japanese world No. 2 hauled in $55.2 million during the past 12 months, more coin than any athlete on the distaff side of the playground. Ever. Of note, only $5.2 million of that $55.2 million windfall was earned on-court, which means Naomi’s face/name alone is worth $50 million.

I can’t think of any woman whose face/name holds such lofty value, unless it’s hanging on a wall in the Louvre.

Mona Lisa

Difference is, Mona Lisa sits and stares at people who stand and stare at her all day long, but she’s never had to stare down neighborhood bully Serena Williams in a Grand Slam tennis final. Naomi’s been there, done that.

She just doesn’t want to discuss it anymore, citing a mental health concern, even if the tab for snubbing news snoops post-match is $20,000 per missed natter.

Not surprisingly, there has been much jeering, tsk-tsking and figurative middle fingers raised in the peanut gallery of social media, with the Nameless Mob painting Osaka as a spoiled-rotten, young-punk diva who wraps herself in the robe of entitlement.

But let’s be very careful when discussing mental health issues.

The post-game to-and-fro between athletes and news snoops might seem a harmless bit of blah, blah, blah to us, but it might feel like badgering to an athlete who, just scant seconds earlier, had been vanquished and must now cop to the error of her/his way.

Everyone is expected to “man up.”

Except, just as there is no one-size-fits-all physical element to athletes, what goes on between the ears of one isn’t necessarily true for others. We call it grey matter, but there are more shades of grey than there are grains of sand in the Sahara.

It explains why someone like, say, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler would tell a jock journo to “f—k off” in the hot-wired atmosphere of a losing playoff changing room, while all those around him manage to keep a civil tongue in dissecting what has transpired, not just in one game but over the course of a seven-month crusade. Different strokes.

Naomi Osaka

I don’t think I’d be mistaken if I submit that, given their druthers, a wide swath of professional athletes would take a hard pass on post-match natters, especially in the rawness of a significant setback.

Tennis, in particular, places extremely uncomfortable and excessive expectations on players who fall short in a Grand Slam championship match. After spending anywhere from two to five hours on court, they are physically and emotionally spent, yet required to sit, stand and stew through a finishing ceremony that might drone on for half an hour. They must also deliver a concession speech and slap on a smiley face for the benefit of photographers, then trudge to a hidden room full of strangers to explain how it came to be that they were the second best of two players. All that when what they really want to do is retreat to a convenient sanctuary and let the tear ducts open a little (or a lot).

Who among us knows the emotional toll of such demands?

So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t join the Naomi Osaka-is-a-spoiled-brat chorus. I’m not inside her grey matter, so who am I, or any of us, to suggest a 23-year-old’s concern about “mental health” is a flimsy coverup to excuse her from an inconvenience?

Now it’s news snoops who will be inconvenienced. They won’t like it, but it could be they’ll have to get used to it, especially on the print side.

Athletes control their messaging like never before, and if they have something to say there’s no need to text the girls/boys on the beat. Osaka underscored that reality by using her social media platforms to say she won’t be saying much in Paris. It was her “scoop” so to speak, and it’s rapidly becoming the way of the sports world.

League and professional sports franchises, meanwhile, remain reliant on, and beholding to, networks that spend millions and billions of dollars on broadcast rights. But it’s a two-edged sword. It buys radio/TV outlets pearls of wisdom (or not) from microphone-friendly jocks like Roger Federer and Brooke Henderson, but it also buys them the monosyllabic mumblings of Bill Belichick and the curt crankiness of John Tortorella.

What’s worse, Naomi Osaka not talking or Torts talking?

Anyway, mum’s the word for Osaka in Paris, and I’d like to think the focus of her position should be on mental health, because the shifting tides of the jock-jock journo dynamic isn’t an everybody issue. Mental health is.

It’s crunch time for Ponytail Puck

They’re talking. Or so they say.

And they’re telling us that the olive branch has been extended, giving rise to the notion that détente has arrived in women’s hockey.

If true, this would qualify as glad tidings, at least for those among us who want the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and the National Women’s Hockey League to find middle ground and make Ponytail Puck work.

For the past two years—which is to say since the PWHPA came into existence—the distaff side of the rink has been a fractious bit of business, even if Jayna Hefford begs to differ.

Jayna Hefford

“Despite what often gets reported in the media it’s never been ‘we won’t talk to you,’” the PWHPA operations consultant tells Donna Spencer of Canadian Press.

Well, Hefford’s nose is growing and her pants are a bonfire.

It has been contentious. I mean, when someone from one side (hello, Hilary Knight) describes the other side (NWHL) as a “glorified beer league,” it leaves little room for interpretation. It isn’t meant to be a compliment.

Most, if not all, of the sniping has originated from PWHPA membership, or its allies in the media, because they view the NWHL as a nuisance and a hindrance in their quest to curry the favor and big bucks of National Hockey League billionaire owners.

They had hoped the NWHL would have vanished by now, like a prop in a David Copperfield illusion, but the six-club circuit that dropped the puck in 2015 refuses to play along. It has more investors, more sponsors, more teams on the way, more media partners, and more coin for the players (the salary cap has been bumped to $300,000 per team next season). It has expressed no inclination toward disappearing.

And what has the PWHPA to show for its two years of existence?

Well, it also has backers, most notably the people at Secret Deodorant who tossed $1 million into the kitty for this year’s Dream Gap Tour, and they’ve also found a best friend in Sportsnet, which has fully bought into PWHPA propaganda and shamelessly panders to the boycotters, refusing to ask the tough questions.

Members of the PWHPA also hit the ice on occasion (a total of six Dream Gap games to date this year), but there is no league, just slapped-together groupings called Team Women’s Sports Foundation, Team adidas, Team Sonnet, Team Scotiabank and Team Bauer (move to the head of the class if you can name the home base of those outfits), and the results of their glorified scrimmages are of such little consequence that the PWHPA doesn’t post them on its website. Even Billie Jean King has stopped showing up for photo-ops.

Part of the PWHPA mission statement tells us the group exists “to promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America that showcases the greatest product of women’s professional ice hockey in the world.”

Toward that end, they are failing miserably with their boycott of the NWHL. They’re no nearer a viable, one-sustainable-league operation than they were at the get-go, May 20, 2019.

Tyler Tumminia

Which is why news that Hefford and NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia have been in natter is a positive development.

“I think we continue to talk to keep that door open,” Hefford tells CP’s Spencer. “As long as I’ve been a part of the PWHPA, we’ve communicated what we believe needs to be a part of the next version of a professional women’s hockey.”

Make no mistake, this is crunch time for Ponytail Puck. Once the world tournament has been played later this year, the Olympic Games will be the next point of focus. Then what? More of the same old, same old? Two groups sparring instead of linking arms and skating in lockstep toward a common goal?

I certainly don’t see the paying public or the NHL buying into that on any significant level.

Like every other business, the NHL has gone through the COVID-19 pandemic with greatly reduced revenue, and I doubt the billionaire owners’ initial instinct once on the other side will be to create a foster home for female hockey-playing orphans.

I’d say the PWHPA and NWHL have about a year to put the Ponytail Puck house in order. If they fail, they’ll have themselves to blame.

Holy estrogen, Batman! Look what the Maple Leafs and ESPN have done to hockey’s old boys’ club

There aren’t many things that make a member of the male species pucker up quite like the sound of a medic snapping on a rubber glove for a prostate exam, but I can think of at least three:

  1. Being asked to hold his wife’s/girlfriend’s purse in the middle of a crowded mall.
  2. Being asked to make a pit stop at the local 7-Eleven on the way home to pick up a box of Tampons.
  3. Women in men’s hockey.

The first two make dudes fidget and squirm like mom just found the porn collection, and the third…well, let’s just say there’s a constituency that still travels to and fro in horse and buggy and grapples with the notion of women earning the right to vote.

Doc Wick

We were reminded of this on Monday when the Toronto Maple Leafs forgot that the National Hockey League is an old boys’ club and had the (apparent) bad manners to nudge Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser up the food chain, anointing her senior director of player development.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Hayley’s first order of business was to boost the Leafs’ estrogen level even higher by bringing her former Canadian national women’s team linemate and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer, Danielle Goyette, on board as director of player development, proving Doc Wick already has a good handle on how hockey’s buddy system works.

“If it’s good with Hayley, it’s good with me,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe told news snoops.

What in the name of Gloria Steinem can possibly be next? Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Jennifer Botterill joining Keefe behind the bench?

Naturally, once word of the Leafs’ appointments worked its way along the grapevine, the oinkers rushed to their keyboards like there’d been a “Sooey!” call, and they unleashed a tsunami of sexist tripe. Some examples:

Next hockey night in Canada will be Hayley, Danielle, Cassie and Jennifer. It will be like watching The View.

Laugh’s org. pulling another Nancy.”

Diversity must be the flavour of the week.”

She’ll be the next leafs GM after Dubas.”

So that would make it two female GMs in succession for the Leafs. Such a progressive, woke organization they are.”

Token appointments.”

Alas, the oinkers’ day worsened.

The New York Post reported that ESPN had recruited Leah Hextall to work the play-by-play mic for X number of games during the 2021-22 NHL crusade and, like Doc Wick and Goyette, Leah is not a penis person, so the Worldwide Leader In Sports has some nerve adding a high-pitched, shrill voice to its stable of hockey squawkers.

Leah Hextall

“Horrible and utterly repulsive,” wrote one reader in The Athletic. “Cannot stand how women have to constantly inject themselves in men’s sports because of a deep gender inferiority complex. Don’t care her background, she has never played NHL hockey (obviously) so she possesses absolutely no direct first-hand knowledge of hockey on that level much less playoff hockey. Whoever approved her to work on hockey games is a piece of garbage.”

Someone else expressed a fear that a female play-by-play hockey voice would steer ESPN into the deepest and darkest of rabbit holes, whereby they’d hire a transgender broadcaster.

Oh, the humanity.

I’m quite uncertain where it’s written that a pair of testicles is a requirement for talking hockey. Or football and basketball, for that matter.

Cheryl with Vic and Russ.

I mean, where’s the hue and cry when Dottie Pepper gives us her thoughts during a PGA tournament? And what about Cheryl Bernard and, before her, Linda Moore in natter with Vic Rauter and Russ Howard/Moosie Turnbull during an elite men’s curling match. Oh, wait. It’s only curling, and if you don’t drive by a wheat field and grain silo on your way to work you probably don’t give a damn.

It’s only a female voice in the blurt box of the he-man sports that seems to put men’s boxers in a bunch, even as Jennifer Botterill serves as living, breathing proof that a female is capable of stringing together three or more intelligent sentences on shinny, something that puts her a notch or two above Anthony Stewart and other penis people on Hockey Night in Canada.

The thing is, as far as I know Jennifer has yet to mention feminine hygiene products during her intermission gig, and I doubt that’ll be a talking point for Leah Hextall, either.

So at ease, boys. It might feel like the Leafs and ESPN have given you a good, swift kick to the gonads, but this shall pass.

In the meantime, just remember that real men aren’t afraid to hold a purse in public and, if you know what’s good for you, you won’t forget to pick up the Tampons on the way home.

Doggone it, the girls and boys on the beat are all barking up the same tree

I feel bad for today’s jock journos.

Not bad as in “sorry to hear that your dog just died,” but bad in the sense that the whole COVID thing has forced them into the world of Zoom, whereby they stare at a monitor and interrogate athletes/coaches from a great distance.

It’s a remote scrum and, unfortunately, the girls and boys on the beat collect the same sound bites.

Consider a Zoom chin wag with Paul Stastny the other day. The Winnipeg Jets forward informed news snoops that head coach Paul Maurice had been channeling his inner Winston Churchill, bidding to rally the troops during their most challenging and fretsome stretch of a National Hockey League crusade that had fallen off the rails.

Sir Winnie

“The one thing you guys don’t see is he’s got these Winston Churchill speeches and I don’t even know how he thinks of them,” said Stastny.

That right there, kids, is sound-bite gold.

It isn’t just a quote, it’s a column. You take it and run with it for 700-800 words. You have fun with it. You have the Jets fighting them on the beaches, fighting them on the landing grounds, fighting them on the fields, the hills and the streets. Just like Sir Winnie said of the British when Hitler was lobbing bombs at London during WWII.

Except everyone else can be, and is, doing the same thing.

I read the Stastny sound bite on Twitter, in the Winnipeg Sun, in the Drab Slab and I’m guessing it made the gab shows in Good Ol’ Hometown.

Because of the Zoom world, the one-off quote has gone the way of the 8-track.

But it never used to be that way.

Back in the day, we had post-game/post-practice scrums, but some, like myself, would listen in only because we didn’t want to miss anything significant. We’d jot down a quote or two and then, once the rabble had dispersed, we would pull a player or coach off to the side for a natter on the QT and ask a question that we hoped would lead to a verbal nugget that no one else had.

Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun was adept at that. He’d base an entire column on a sound bite that had escaped all other ears.

I dug up some nuggets that way, as well. Examples:

Ulf Nilsson chasing Valeri Kharlamov.
  • The night the Jets became the first North American club team to paddywhack the Soviet Union national side, I sought Swedish forward Ulf Nilsson for some insight, given that he had two goals and two helpers in the 5-3 victory. I found him on a rubbing table, waiting for trainer Billy Bozak to come along and use his magic fingers to soothe Ulf’s wonky hip.

“I was proud to be a Canadian tonight,” Ulf told me.

It was an astonishing comment. Here was a Swede repeatedly beaten black-and-blue by Canadian-born ruffians who resented his very existence during his fledgling years in the World Hockey Association, yet he was “proud to be a Canadian.” There wasn’t another news snoops within earshot. The quote was mine.

  • At training camp, I slid beside Jets head coach Tommy McVie during a morning scrimmage and we both watched Morris Lukowich burst in from the left wing and snap a shot into the top corner.

“Watching that is better than having sex,” Tommy said in his big, baritone voice that sounded like it came from the bottom of an oil drum.

“Geez Tom,” I responded, “that doesn’t say much for your wife.”

“Maybe not, but she didn’t score 60 goals last season.”

No one else had that quote.

Bob Cameron
  • At another training camp in another sport, I went on the prowl for veteran punter Bob Cameron, the senior citizen of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I located him, alone, in a small room. He was tugging at his eyebrows, first the left then the right…then the left then the right.

“What are you doing, Bob?” I asked.

“Checking out my eyebrows,” he replied. “I’ve already got old man eyebrows. I’m not old enough to have old man eyebrows. I have to trim these suckers. I need a pair of scissors. You don’t have any scissors on you, do ya?”

I scribbled a column on Bob’s eyebrows, because only I had that quirky quote.

  • I was writing for the Toronto Sun in 1982 when Jimmy Mann of the Jets sucker punched Paul Gardner, breaking his jaw in two places. Not long after that, the Jets were in the Republic of Tranna for a skirmish with the Maple Leafs, and I was sitting with a gaggle of news snoops about two dozen rows from the ice surface in Maple Leaf Gardens. The Jets were below us, going through the motions of a pre-game skate.

At one point, Jimmy wandered off on his own, stopping at the nearby boards and motioning to me. I withdrew myself from the pack of news snoops, and met him.

“There’s something everyone needs to know,” he said.

“What’s that, Jimmy?” I asked.

“I am not an animal.”

That was the big, bold, shouting headline on the front page of our sports section the next day. Neither the Globe and Mail nor the Toronto Star had that quote, but it was used in follow-up articles.

But again, unlike today’s batch of news snoops who have zero access except via Zoom, we had the advantage of going one-on-one with the athletes/coaches. Hell, we could call them at home. And that, in turn, meant the readers weren’t finding the same old, same old in each of the newspapers or on air.

I’m uncertain how it will shake down once we’re past the pandemic, but it will never be the way it was back in the day.

And that’s why I feel bad for the girls and boys on the beat. Nobody’s dog died, but they’re all barking up the same tree, and that’s most unfortunate.

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