The River City Renegade


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Phil Esposito’s words from 1972 ring true today: It isn’t fair to boo athletes who wear the Maple Leaf

To skewer or not to skewer, that is the question.

I refer to our female footy ambassadors, who, at last sighting, were in the throes of a full-pitched bawl fest on the grounds of B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver, where they had found themselves short of the task in a FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinal joust with an England outfit that had been there for the taking. In their valley of tears, those among the Canadian flag bearers not weeping had the carriage of a pall bearer—ashen-faced, mournful and spent.

In the wake of that 2-1 loss to the English 11 and their ouster from the global tournament, which concluded this Sunday past with the United States’ ascention to the mountain peak, much has been said and written about our soccer side, a good portion of the reviews featuring a favorable theme while others carrying a darker, less charitable hue.

Most notably, Lauren Sesselmann and Melissa Tancredi have been caught in the crossfire of critical commentary, the former for flubbing a pass and an accompanying pratfall that gifted England with its opening score, and the latter for failing to reward teammates whom had provided her with gilt-edged scoring possibilities.

The Sesselmann gaffe was especially slap-stickish. Writer Michael Farber on TSN’s The Reporters aptly described the much-maligned defender’s faux pas as negotiating the ball “like a racoon negotiates a garbage can.”

Farber, a senior scribe whose main portfolio with Sports Illustrated is hockey, later engaged in an interesting exchange of philosophy with Steve Simmons, the loud-barking Toronto Sun jock journalist whose suggestion it was to take a look at the big picture the World Cup offered vis-a-vis the growth of women’s soccer in Canada.

“This is not about 54,000 people in the stands. That’s wonderful. Women are empowered, women are inspired. That’s not the issue,” Farber lectured “This is a national team, playing at home, and if this were, say, the men’s hockey team they would be eviscerated for that kind of performance. These women have to face the same kind of scrutiny. John Herdman, the coach, has to face the same kind of scrutiny and Sesselmann can’t say, ‘I’ll only answer positive questions.’ She has to face the music. If you want to empower women, if you want to inspire women, they have to be held to the same standards as any other professional athlete.”

“We’ve never done that in this country for almost any sport,” insisted Simmons. “We don’t do it with the women’s hockey team when they lose…”

“You’re gonna pat them on the head…nice try, girls.”

“No, I agree with what you’re saying. I’m just saying, the broad view is we don’t treat them the same way. We probably should, but historically we have not.”

So, two of the top jock journalists in our country believe it should be open season on our soccer girls, or any athlete who wears the Maple Leaf at home and abroad. Both men and women. If they soil the sheets, carve ’em up. Eviscerate them!

Well, I’m sorry, we don’t want to go there.

Thought-provoking analysis and hard-edged opinion is one thing, but to advocate the slicing and dicing of our flag-bearers satisfies nothing but the sports media’s morbid preoccupation with blood-letting. Unless one of our athletes pulls a Ben Johnson/Charlie Francis and earns the country a reputation as a nation of syringe-packing cheaters, we do not take them to the figurative woodshed.

I am reminded of the events of September 1972, and I know both Farber and Simmons are old enough to recall the legendary Summit Series between our band of National Hockey League players and the best shinny stars from the Soviet Union.

The universe was not unfolding as we thought it should through the first four skirmishes, with the comrades holding a 2-1-1 advantage as the sides prepared to leave our shores for the Mother Russia portion of the engagement. In the post-Game 4 fallout—a 5-3 Soviet victory in Vancouver—our overwhelmed, exhaustive troops trudged off the ice to a chorus of booing and nasty catcalling which inspired an epic rant and scolding from Team Canada leader Phil Esposito.

“For the people across Canada, we tried. We gave it our best,” a sweat-stained Espositio told a live national TV audience. “For the people who booed us, jeez, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned and we’re disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players like some of the Canadian fans—I’m not saying all of them—some of them booed us, then I’ll come back and apologize to each and every Canadian. But I don’t think they will. I’m really, really, I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really really, really down in the dumps. We know—we’re trying. What the hell, we’re doing the best we can. They’ve got a good team and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150 per cent because we certainly are.

“Every one of us guys, 35 guys that came out to play for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason. They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window, they can throw anything they want out the window—we came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”

Espo’s sermon rings true to this day.

Our women’s soccer players were devastated after their loss to England. They had hoped for so much better than a quarterfinal finish. Not for themselves, for the flag. Still, clinical analysis of offensive shortcomings, player deployment and the national team program is appropriate.

The suggestion that they ought to be “eviscerated,” on the other hand, is irresponsible and shameful.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.


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Alexander Burmistrov: Is born-again Burmi the Winnipeg Jets new Fro Lite or Kane Lite?

Quiz yourself this, kids: Would you trade Michael Frolik for Alexander Burmistrov? Even up?

Didn’t think so.

That, however, is essentially what Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff did last week. For reasons yet to be clearly defined, the man who generally manages the Winnipeg Jets was unable to convince his most useful forward to remain in River City, thus Frolik shall continue his Jack-of-all-trades career while wearing Calgary Flames adornments.

To compensate for the Fro defection, the Grand Master prepared the fatted calf and welcomed home the prodigal player, Burmistrov, who, when last seen prior to resurfacing at the National Hockey League club’s development camp this past weekend, was acting every bit the petulant, pouting punk and skulking off to Mother Russia.

So that’s your exchange: Frolik out, Burmistrov in.

I have heard it suggested that Burmistrov is Frolik Lite, in that he delivers all those special niceties that the Czech forward provided. He just doesn’t do them as well. I believe that to be an accurate assessment.

But, is Burmistrov actually Fro Lite or is he Kane Lite?

The dearly departed Evander Kane was, of course, a skilled (much of it wasted) player with attitude issues. He played cat-and-mouse with defrocked head coach Claude Noel, challenging his authority on more than one occasion. Although never putting it on public record that he wanted out of Winnipeg, we know he liked Pegtown about as much as Phil Kessel likes media scrums. Eventually, he was shuffled off to Buffalo.

Similarly, Burmistrov and Noel were singing from different sheets in the songbook, thus he skedaddled home for a two-season gig with Ak-Bars of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Now he’s back and what the born-again Burmi brings to the party come October will be among the main storylines as the Winnipegs commence their 2015-16 crusade. If he’s Frolik Lite, it’s all good. If he’s Kane Lite, not so much.

As it is, the former teenage prospect is now a 23-year-old prospect with plenty of upside but a past that fuels skepticism, and the Jets surely harbor a morsel of uncertainty about this migrant young man, otherwise they would have welcomed Burmistrov back to the flock with something more than a two-year contract.

The hope, of course, is that he’s finally got his shite together, meaning he knows head coach Paul Maurice is the boss.

Desperate Hockey Wives: Okay, money aside, we still don’t know the intimate details of Michael Frolik’s defection to the Calgary Flames, thus rumors abound.

One such trickle of gossip suggests his girlfriend, Diana, pulled a Lauren Pronger and forced Frolik to sign anywhere but Winnipeg. The way it is whispered, she developed a considerable distaste for all things River City and, much like Lauren Pronger with hubby Chris and the Edmonton Oilers, she held veto power on where they set up house with daughter Ella.

I have neither heard nor read anything to lend credence to that rumor but, if true, I ask this: So what? Should a wife/girlfriend not have a voice in where she lives?

It seems to me she should have a loud voice.

Sam’s Story a Non-Story? Once upon a time, a lot of football people were strictly Xs, Os and bite-the-head-off-a-live-chicken kind of guys. It would seem that at least one of those dinosaurs still walks among us.

I say that because of a snippet in a Kirk Penton piece last week.

It seems an unidentified Canadian Football League coach or manager pooh-poohs the considerable copy and air time devoted to Michael Sam, whose on-again, off-again career appears to be on again, although it’s expected that the Montreal Alouettes will arrrive in River City for their date with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this Friday sans the only openly gay man to sign a CFL contract.

Michael Sam hasn’t played a down of football north of the border and he has gotten a thousand times more recognition than Randy Chevrier, who won the Tom Pate Award (for oustanding sportsmanship and someone who has made a significant contribution to his team, his community and the CFLPA),” Coach/Manager No Name said. “That’s pathetic. You guys (in the media) should be embarrassed.”

Well, no. Here’s what’s pathetic and here’s who should be embarrassed: A football lifer who doesn’t recognize or appreciate the social significance of Sam’s story.

It should never be just about Xs, Os and quarterback sacks. Sam is man-bites-dog copy. Can an openly gay man not only survive but, indeed, succeed in the macho world that is professional football? Is major professional sports in North America still a homophobic hinterland in a day and age when same-sex marriage is legal in Canada and the U.S.? Will Sam pave the way for more gay athletes to come out? That’s why noted sheets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail in the U.K. and so many others track the trials and tribulations of the Alouettes would-be rush end.

But what do those papers know about news? They’re pathetic, right coach?

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.