The River City Renegade


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2016: It was very good year in the toy department

Top o’ the morning to you, 2016.

Talk about playing to a tough crowd. I mean, a lot of people are saying you’re the worst year. Ever. Ever. Ever. Yes, even worse than 1968, when a presidential candidate (see: Kennedy, Robert F.) and a civil rights giant (see: King Jr., Martin Luther) were gunned down in cold blood.

Chicago riots, 1968

Chicago riots, 1968

The King Jr. assassination in April 1968 ignited race riots in 130 cities and there were 46 riot-related deaths. Riot troops were positioned on the White House lawn and machine gun nests were established at the Capital. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August ’68, 10,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters clashed with 26,000 cops, national guardsmen and soldiers, who beat and wounded at least 1,000 civilians. Just under 200 cops also required medical attention. There were close to 600 arrests.

The black cloud that was 1968 also included…

  • North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, an intelligence ship. The North Koreans accused the 82-man crew of spying, then imprisoned, beat and tortured them for 11 months.
  • The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
  • Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the American Olympic team in Mexico after their silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the U.S.
  • Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.
  • American troops slaughtered 347 civilians in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
  • Richard Harris recorded the regrettable MacArthur Park, where someone left a cake out in the rain and they’ll never have that recipe again.

All that gloom and doom is a tough act to top, 2016. But apparently you trumped it, right down to the last drop of protesters’ blood. Pollster Angus Reid, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all say it’s so, so I guess that’s what you are, 2016—the…worst…ever.

Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos at the Summer Olympics in Mexico.

Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos at the Summer Olympics in Mexico.

But, hey, that’s why we have sports. To escape things like terrorism and an apparent racist, bigot and misogynist moving into the White House. And you didn’t let us down in the toy department, 2016. You were on your game, so to speak.

I mean, any time you can say “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!” the World Series, it has to be a very good year. The best year since 1908, the last time the Cubbies won the annual Fall Classic. That’s why more than 5 million people gathered for the championship parade in the Toddlin’ Town. And Chicago cops didn’t beat up anyone. You delivered a classic Game 7, 2016. Brilliant stuff. It’s just too bad the Cubbies had to beat the Cleveland Indians, who continue to look for their first WS title since 1948.

I guess you just didn’t want Cleveland to get greedy, though, 2016. After all, King LeBron James and his Cavaliers claimed the National Basketball Association crown, toppling the mighty Golden State Warriors in seven games after trailing 3-1. More brilliant stuff.

And what a gift you gave us in the Ottawa RedBlacks. They didn’t even exist four years ago, and already they’re champions of all they survey in the Canadian Football League. Their overtime victory against the star-studded Calgary Stampeders was even more brilliant stuff from you, 2016.

Naturally, a whole lot of folks in River City had been hoping that their beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers would have been in that 104th Grey Cup game, but at least you let them participate in the playoffs, 2016. It’s just a shame that you also chose the final seconds of that one-and-done post-season game to deliver head coach Mike O’Shea his signature moment of madness, when he had place-kicker Justin Medlock attempt an unmakeable 61-yard field goal.

Puck Finn

Puck Finn

You weren’t terribly kind to the Winnipeg Jets on the ice, 2016, but you blessed them with lucky bouncing ping-pong balls at the National Hockey League draft lottery, giving the locals the No. 2 shout overall in June. The harvest from that stroke of good fortune was Patrik Laine. Puck Finn has been dazzling ’em this season. I doubt that your heir, 2017, will give him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top freshman, because the guy chosen ahead of him by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the annual garage sale of freshly scrubbed teenagers, Auston Matthews, isn’t exactly chopped liver. And, of course, he’s sure to earn the eastern bloc vote. That’s okay, though. Puck Finn will be your gift that keeps giving long after your shelf life has expired, 2016.

What other delights did you deliver, 2016? Well, speaking of teenagers, there was Penny Oleksiak, the Toronto high school student who struck for swimming gold and collected three other medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. She’s a real sweetie.

So, too, is Brooke Henderson, who won her first Ladies Professional Golf Association major and one other tournament. A few of the boys on the beat weren’t kind to Brooke, but some jock journalists are always looking for dark clouds in silver linings.

kaepernickOne of the things I liked about you, 2016, is that you had a social conscious. You had San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired a discussion about racial discrimination in the United States. Unlike Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, Kaepernick wasn’t kicked off his team.

You also had 56 openly gay athletes competing in the Rio Olympics and winning 25 medals—11 gold, 10 silver and four bronze—and lesbian Amanda Nunes is an Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder who walloped Ronda Rousey in just 48 seconds on Friday night in Las Vegas. You told North Carolina you wouldn’t tolerate its anti-LGBT legislation and announced that the 2017 National Basketball Association all-star game would be moved out of Charlotte.

You let us watch Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Big Papi ride off into the sunset. A-Rod did, too, although I suppose not a whole lot of folks care that he’s bid adieu.

You allowed us to say farewell to The Greatest, the King and Mr. Hockey—Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and Gordie Howe. We didn’t mourn their deaths so much as we celebrated their athletic accomplishments, their lives and their legacies.

Sour Hope Solo

Sour Hope Solo

All of this is not to say you were without your rough edges, 2016. You did, after all, give us two ugly Americans in Rio. The disgraced duo would be soupuss soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo and swimmer Ryan Lochte. Solo branded the Swedish women’s side a bunch of “cowards” because they refused to play a run-and-gun game with the U.S., while Lochte claimed to have been robbed with a cocked gun pointed at his head. In reality, he was taking a pee on the wall outside a Rio gas station.

Those were mere blips, though, 2016. And they were easily offset by Jimmie Johnson claiming his record-tying seventh NASCAR driving title, Leicester City, a 5,000-1 longshot, winning the English Premier League soccer title, and the great Serena Williams earning her 22nd Grand Slam tennis championship to equal the equally great Steffi Graf.

You were a wonderful year, 2016, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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 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 in 2015.

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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.