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Bruce Dowbiggin

Snuffed-Out Flames: From Beatdown To Teardown in 18 Months

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8 minute read

“Sic transit gloria” There have been rude collapses in the NHL’s recent past, but few have happened with such alacrity as the Calgary Flames’ descent into hell. Two years ago this April, the Flames were favourites to beat their provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, in the second round of the 2022 playoffs. The Flames had beaten the Dallas Stars with a Game 7 OT snipe from Johnny Gaudreau. Meanwhile, the Oilers had been life-and-death to subdue the L.A. Kings in their own seven-game ordeal.

For two franchises looking to make a statement, this first playoff meeting of the Alberta rivals since 1991 was perfect timing. Led by the incomparable Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers had been knocking on the door to a long playoff run for a few years. The high-scoring Flames, meanwhile, had shocked the NHL by taking the Pacific after just one playoff series win since 2004. All three players on their top line— Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuck, Elias Lindholm—had scored 40 or more goals, while goalie Jacob Markstrom was a Vezina Trophy nominee.

Yes, there were clouds on the Flames’ horizon. Gaudreau was weeks from being an UFA. His cohort Matthew Tkachuck, was likely to be asking for a boatload of money in contract talks. Numerous key veterans would also be up for pay raises within the next two years. But a win over their Edmonton rivals could dampen that downer.

Edmonton had no such contractual distractions, having sewn up their core of McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse. It showed. The series was over quicker than anyone expected. Even Game 1’s 9-6 decision for the favoured Flames saw them blow a 5-1 lead before salvaging the game. They also led Gm. 2 by 2-0 before Edmonton mounted another (successful) comeback. In fact, Calgary’s defence would not hold leads in the remaining four games of Edmonton’s 4-1 series triumph.

As the series dragged on, Calgary’s top line seemingly could not match the speed of McDavid and the Oilers’ deadly attack. Outside his series-opening hat trick, Tkachuk had just a single assist and a -4 rating in the series. Gaudreau had just two points in the final four games while Lindholm was held to a single goal and one assist in Games 2-5. (McDavid, by contrast, ended up with three goals and nine assists against suddenly porous Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom).

For those looking for the moment this Flames’ iteration fell apart, the blown leads in Games 1 & 2 is a good place to start. Coach Darryl Sutter did not gild the lily for his underperforming stars. “It’s not being critical, that’s just true. They’re going to tell you that, too. Missed opportunities go the other way.” For much of the next 18 months, the team would go into free-fall.

In the weeks after elimination, Gaudreau walked away from a max contract offer to sign in… Columbus? That led to Tkachuk forcing the ill-fated Jonathan Huberdeau trade from Florida after refusing to renegotiate a new deal in Calgary. Having signed an eight-year contract Huberdeau then collapsed to just 15 goals and 55 points. His staggering 60-point drop-off represented one of the worst in NHL history among non-injured players between two seasons. At one point Sutter even put enforcer Milan Lucic on Huberdeau’s line.

A dazed Huberdeau fumed. He had company as seemingly the entire team feuded with Sutter. As the Flames dropped to fifth in the Pacific (and out of the postseason) the noises began about which veterans wanted out if Sutter was retained. Sutter was finally dumped, but the damage had been done for new GM Craig Conroy in his first GM job. Unless his team started fast in 2023-24 he’d be conducting a rummage sale.

The Flames did not improve off their dreadful collapse in 2023-24. (Not helped by news that forward Dylan Dubé was arrested in the Team Canada 2018 sexual-assault scandal.) Yes, some youngsters like Conor Zary, denied a shot by Sutter, have shown well. But 14-16-5 in late December wasn’t enough. Having shipped Tyler Toffoli to New Jersey earlier (stealing Ygor Sherangovich) Conroy had to find suitable deals for his departing veterans when everyone in hockey knew he had no leverage. In short order, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev and Noah Hanafin were peddled for Andrei Kuzmenko, prospects Hunter Brzustewicz, Joni Jurmo, Artem Grushnikov, and Daniel Miromanov. The deals also bagged two more first-rounders, another second, four thirds, a fourth and a fifth pick— all spread over the 2024/25/26 drafts.

In a surprise move, Conroy hung onto ace goalie Markstrom to go with remaining veteran forwards Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Mikael Backlund, Blake Coleman and defensemen McKenzie Weager and Rasmus Andersson. Maybe Conroy deals him at the Draft? Depending on your outlook, the team is now gamely trying to a) sneak into a playoff spot or b) hurt its draft position by playing spirited, if undermanned, hockey.

There is much potential in the draft haul Conroy has engineered (he has two first rounders and two second rounders this June), less so in the actual bodies he obtained. A safe estimate might be that the Flames will not return to the postseason till their long-delayed arena is finally completed by 2027-28. Maybe a phenom will appear— a la Gaudreau—to speed things up.

But it’s a reach to say that Flames fan watching puck drop of the Edmonton series in April of 2022 could have foreseen this teardown happening so fast and so brutally to a team that sped out to a 5-1 lead over the Oilers that night. But it did. The only thing making it worse will be an Oilers Stanley Cup win in 2024.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Reverse Discrimination: The Bullying Of Caitlin Clark

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“@TheBabylonBee cheekily sums it up. “Caitlin Clark Canonized As Saint After Performing Miracle Of Making Women’s Basketball Watchable.” 

What a month or so it’s been for basketball star Caitlin Clark as she starts her WNBA career with the Indiana Something or Others. She’s had moments of triumph (30 points in a recent game). And a couple of duds. She’s also been roughed up physically with veteran players flagrantly fouling her, going out of their way to intimidate her physically. Initally, no foul was called on Chennedy Carter.

The League response to all this has been tepid refusal to rein in the veterans. NBA commissioner Adam Silver glibly called it a “welcome to the league” moment. (Clark says no hard feelings.) Most of which has played out in front of sellout crowds in a league that has papered more houses than a dry waller. “Confused WNBA Player Asks What This Huge Crowd Of People Is Doing At Game

And now women’s basketball’s young pole star has been left off the U.S. Olympic basketball team for Paris this July. You’d almost think the stars of the WNBA— a secondary sporting league at best propped up by the NBA— resent her being in their midst. That they fear she’ll break up the cozy LGBTQ/ BLM clubhouse they have going on. But we predicted as much in an April column entitled Now Comes The Complicated Part when her college career ended.

“The most interesting reaction may come from the women already in the WNBA. The intrusion of a white, conservative, straight Catholic woman in their midst won’t sit well in a league where women of that description have been made to feel unwelcome in many dressing rooms. She’ll need a tough hide to survive the resentment of other players who see themselves as the stars and Clark as a product of white privilege.”

That resentment has been naked and ugly from many who see themselves eclipsed by Clark’s obvious drawing power— and by their own inability to break the glass ceiling. “As we have written on multiple occasions, women’s sports has been in search of a marketable messiah to change it  from an ESPN liberal hype to mainstream. For too many in the audience— including women— the image of these sports has become too political. As the gender revolt took hold, fans were turned off by the strident lesbian soccer player Megan Rapinoe and WNBA star Britney Griner who turned every game into a referendum on the latest #BLM talking points. 

“There was a resistance to their defiance and the craven submission of corporate voices infatuated by DEI praise. To some, players on opposing hockey terms marrying each other was jarring. But Clark seems to be breaking the mold. The advertising world will beat a path to her door despite the second consecutive defeat in the Women’s Final. She’ll be honoured with woman athlete of the year and more.”

And, apparently, she’ll be resented for it. Days ago stories claimed that a Clark fan harassed Chicago star Carter and other players when they got off their team bus and outside their hotel. Wonder why? Oh yeah, Carter levelled Clark with the cheap shot.) That stirred the pot until it was revealed that— holy Jussi Smollett— it was all made up. (Must be something about Chicago.)

If you needed more evidence that Clark is living rent-free in the brains of these prima donnas, the rebellion by the veterans of the Olympic basketball team tells you all you need to know. It’s a scene reminiscent of the played-out Rapinoe getting a spot on the U.S. National Women’s team in place of a younger player to placate the team’s “equilibrium”.

WNBA star Cheryl Reeve explained the Clark snub. “I’ve never been in the trenches with her. Not even at a USA Basketball camp. Asking a coach to integrate someone she has no history with, at tournament with highest stakes, is a lot. A lot a lot.” Similar noises came from other resentful players. Which is so much twaddle.

First, Team USA hasn’t lost an Olympic match since 1996. So the twelfth spot is hardly a game changer. Second, you could hire Joyce Behar to coach this team, and they wouldn’t lose. Third, Clark has played on USA FIBA teams winning gold in 2017, 2019, and 2021 with MVP honours . She won Nike Elite national championship during high school. Named Iowa Gatorade player of the year twice. She’s got the resumé.

But she doesn’t tick the right cultural boxes for the WNBA players and their political allies. That’s what happens when players coddled by ESPN and the Title IX zealots call the shots. Noted humanist and hooper Barack Obama made lots of noise about women athletes getting equal pay as their due, but he’s gone mute when black stars acted nasty toward a white athlete.

There’s no question that, having made tin gods of the WNBA players for political purposes, few in authority want to check that privilege. “Women’s basketball decision-makers are not dumb,” writes black journalist Jason Whitlock on X to explain the silence. “They’ve been bullied by the BLM-LGBTQIA+Silent P Alphabet Mafia bigots.” Adds Clay Travis, “Women’s basketball hates its fans and doesn’t want to grow their game. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from their treatment of Clark. She would quadruple their (Olympic) viewership by herself. No brainer.”

To say nothing of the USA jerseys she’d sell. But the political water carriers don’t care. They would return the WNBA to what it’s always been, a subsidized pet project for the progressives in media and government. Perhaps the most on-the-nose indicator about the WNBA’s image is that Toronto is getting a team in the league. It’s a non-binary marriage made in progressive heaven.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Ben Johnson: Can You Railroad A Guilty Man?

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The Incredible Life Of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man by Mary Ormsby, Sutherland House, 286 pages

It’s a short list of sports events that Canadians can remember where they were when the story broke. Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal in the USSR Summit Series. The Gretzky Trade. Ben Johnson tests positive after winning the 1988 Olympics 100 metre gold.

It’s long been established that Johnson was guilty on the positive steroid charge. But many questions have lingered for Canadians. Why was Johnson the only one singled out when five other runners in that race have drugging histories? Why did Canadian officials abandon Johnson to his fate in Seoul?

Our friend Mary Ormsby, longtime former reporter at the Toronto Star,  has wondered the same things for years. So when Johnson asked her to cooperate on a book, she decided to conduct a cold-case investigation into a story that has flummoxed Canadians for decades. We spoke about The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man

Why is Ben Johnson still relevant to Canadians 35 years later:? I think, he still strikes a nerve with the Canadian consciousness. He took everybody on that 100-yard run with him in 1988. And then, of course, this historic, disqualification during the Seoul Olympics for his doping offence. That was seared in the Canadian mindset at the time, and I found over the decades that Canadians have never really forgotten about that moment.

People are still curious about him, and I think over time, people have become very much more aware and educated about the prevalence of doping in sport. We were quite naïve as Canadians, at least back in 1988. And we’ve learned a lot more since including that five of the other guys in that 100 metre final, became linked to doping infractions in some way. So it’s a wiser population that thinks that Ben is interesting, and they want to know what happened to him in the interim.

How did you get Ben to agree to the book: Actually, Ben said, “do you think there’s a book in this?” He’s the one who asked me to write it? And I said no, for a long time. Then I said, well, why not look into it after I left the Toronto Star?

What did you discover: The crux of the book is how is it possible to railroad a guilty man? Was he denied or deprived of due process at his hearing in Seoul? A lot of the people I talked to for the book, they all seem to say that Ben got screwed in Seoul. Meaning he wasn’t the only one using something at the time or of that generation or later. Only he was singled out. Now, that’s not to say, Ben is blameless. We all know he broke a rule, he willingly took steroids and he lied about it. He made it bad for himself. But again, I think people have learned to understand sport in a way that is much more cynical and much more educated, through, all the anti-doping news that continues to this very day almost.

That’s one of the questions I really want to explore in the book. So all this is to say it, it came to be at one point.

Why should people read the book?: The way to engage people was to really focus on what I would call the cold case aspect of the Ben Johnson story. And that is how was he represented at that very critical hearing that Monday night in Seoul when it was all or nothing trying to hold on to his gold medal. As I said, Ben is not blameless. We all know what he did. He lied about it. It took a $4 million inquiry and testimony under oath to get the truth out of him. “Yes, I did know what I was doing and yes, I did take steroids.” Then I try to weave the idea that there is an injustice, surrounding the mystique of Ben Johnson that Canadian officials didn’t go to the wall for him, as they should have. It was pretty much an open-and-shut case very quickly. But following the paper trail, you can see where evidence wasn’t looked at, the Canadian officials didn’t even look at his drug test. They just assumed that everything was correct and all the paperwork was absolutely topnotch. Then the IOC Medical Commission members dropped a second test on him that showed he was a longtime anabolic steroid user.

It was an unofficial test, and also no one took exception to the many conflicts of interest of the IOC doping panel that was actually hearing his appeal. They had many conflicts in my opinion. They developed the testing, they ran the testing, they supervised the testing. They were the prosecutor and the judge and the jury. And they were the ones who could recommend whether he be disqualified or not. So, the trick— and I hope I did it properly— was to get people involved in this idea that there was an injustice that happened. You can support someone’s right to a fair hearing and he was entitled to a fair hearing. That doesn’t mean you support or endorse the behaviour. Those are two separate matters.

How did Canadian officials drop the ball?: Ben made it trickier, because he, said yes, please have IOC VP Richard Pound represent me when that option was presented to him that night. Everybody was in total shock. Richard Pound, he stood to lose something too. He was one of the golden boys of the IOC movement. He was hoping to be in the running for next IOC president. From talking to IOC Medical Commission member Arne Ljundqvist after the fact, the panel weren’t very pleased to see him there running the show when, in their opinion, it should have been Canada’s chef de mission Caroline Anne Letheren. I asked Pound, why did you not look at his drug test? Why, did you not look at the supporting paperwork? And he said, you know, I didn’t want to be someone who got somebody off on a technicality. Perhaps, but if you’re fighting for your life, I would like my representatives to go to the wall for me whenever possible.

How was his late coach Charlie Francis responsible for this?:  He really did influence Ben and convince him— based on Charlie’s own research and knowledge and beliefs— that everybody at the highest level is using performance enhancing drugs. You know, that famous line, you don’t have to use, but you’re always going to be a metre behind. Ben thought about it for a week or two and said, yeah, let’s do it. Charlie was a huge influence on Ben moving forward. So much so that Ben would claim, when he got caught lying, that he lied to protect Charlie Francis. He didn’t want Charlie to be caught up in the big disaster. To this day he, he talks about Charlie with, with great love and affection. So that was a very strong bond. And Charlie Francis did take advantage of that. Ben was the one who was able to help fill Charlie’s ambition as a coach.

Why wasn’t Ben caught when he set the world record at the Rome 1987 World Track & Field Championships?: Amazingly, he said he wasn’t tested in Rome. In fact, he was in the doping control room, and Primo Nebbiolo’s bodyguard went in to get him (Nebbiolo was president of the World Track & Field Federation). He says, “The boss wants to see you at this horse track”. So he spirited Ben out of the doping control room. Ben went in a limousine to this horse-racing track where he met Primo’s friends and horse racing friends and some championship horse, and then he was eventually taken back to Rome to his hotel. Nobody ever bothered him about providing a urine sample after he set the world record. (Nebbiolo later erased Ben’s 1987 world record for embarrassing him with the incident.)

How Is Ben today?: I think Ben has been broken many times in his life about this, and he tried really hard to fight through it. It’s been a lonely fight. At different times, he surrounded himself with people who didn’t always have his best interests at heart (Muammar Ghaddafi) and he retains a bitterness about Seoul and what happened to him and why he was the only one. But there’s also a resilience there that I’m pretty impressed with, because in all that time he’s had to scramble to make a living. He is still hoping with this book and maybe with more time, he will be able to clear his name. He sees that at the end of the day. I don’t know. But what we do see, even just walking down the street in Toronto or down in Jamaica, people will still call out to him. “Hey, world’s fastest man” and give him the thumbs up. You know, what a great guy.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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