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Hockey, basketball and volleyball gone from the U of A’s fall and winter to-do lists

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At almost any time in memory, Wednesday’s decision to remove hockey, basketball and volleyball from the University of Alberta’s fall and winter to-do lists would be considered a major surprise.

This year, I suspect fans and athletes should have been at least partially prepared for it. Blame the pandemic. That’s easy.

Explain that sponsorship money has dried up and every available penny must be saved to keep professors employed and students involved. That’s easy, too. Some are sure to suggest that there are deep political motives in this move to move beyond the Bears and Pandas for one year. Maybe. Maybe not. Rightly or wrongly, political movements are seen in every action these days.

If additional explanations are required, Alberta’s UCP government is sure to be singled out as cause number three; they inherited an entity in severe financial difficulty, ensuring that some budget cuts would be made as soon as possible after the NDP lost political control of the province.

This, of course, occurred well before the coronavirus crisis created overwhelming proof that sport, certainly in Canada, is something of an after-thought at all levels of society. As this is written, every professional sport is being exposed on a daily basis as a means for millionaires and billionaires to fatten their bankrolls. If timely political statements are necessary, fine; they’ll be made, but no rational soul would dare to suggest that sport has actual relevance in this time of incoherent arguments and twisted responses.

In one old scribbler’s opinion, good news ultimately will develop, almost as a result of the disappearance of the Bears and Pandas for at least one season. A move so dramatic at a level so vital is sure to create deep thought.

Which is where university sport fits in the puzzle. These organizations are the home of undoubted brilliance. In many ways, they create the model for all amateurs and low-profile professionals to follow. One day, perhaps soon, this world-wide rash of social, physical and emotional misery will be behind us. Then, cohorts of tough and committed leaders across the entire spectrum of athletics will have to step up. They will be obligated to contribute time and effort in a search for the best possible ways to ensure excellence in scholastics, citizenship and competition.

Now, looking back for even a few years, it’s essential to remember that amateur sports were being painfully slammed by financial necessities before COVID-19’s destructive arrival.

Athletic directors at U of A and MacEwan University have spoken of rising costs in tones that sometimes sounded almost desperate. I’m sure the same applies to the University of Calgary.

Similar words have been heard commonly in discussion with coaches and athletic directors at Alberta colleges. NAIT and Concordia leaders know the topic extremely well. So do alumni members working to keep hockey alive in the storied atmosphere of Camrose’s Augustana campus of the U of A.

In a lifetime of hearing old adages, one has stuck out since childhood:

“It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn.”

This corner hopes the dawn comes quickly.

All is Well in Soccer – So Far

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The Votes Tell the Story

Alberta

The Votes Tell the Story

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The Votes Tell the Story

On this amazing day for hockey fans, especially in Alberta, it’s a personal joy to realize two men I have known and appreciated for decades are now members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

As much satisfaction as supporters are sure to feel for Jarome Iginla and his selection in his first year of HHOF eligibility, the same level of pleasure is sure to be shared by Kevin Lowe, who has waited many years for his combination of steadiness, competitive fire and team intelligence to be recognized at the highest possible of the game both he and Iginla have loved since childhood.

It’s a bonus for Edmontonians, and for all in sports, that Ken Holland was welcomed as a builder. He deserves the accolade as much as anyone can and the fact that he achieved most of his front-office success before he was hired as the Edmonton Oilers general manager before the start of last season. It’s still a shock to recall how many dedicated Oilers lovers objected in words and in print to the thought that he would be hired after being escorted away from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

You want another shock? Iginla came much closer to being potentially a career Oiler than media wretches were allowed to know.

He was drafted 11th overall in 1995. Steve Kelly became a mistaken sixth-overall choice in the same year. He was picked as Number 6 — one spot ahead of Shane Doan despite loud demands for the Oilers to go for Doan with their first pick of the graduate draft.

Barry Fraser, Edmonton’s head scout, told me before the draft that Iginla “is going to be a good pick for somebody.” He also Iginla as a potential first-rounder, a clear sign that he would become part of the mid-90s Oilers if rival selections made it possible.

Doan, like Lowe, was a productive but not brilliant offensive player. If his character and leadership are taken into account in a future year, he will also become a more promising candidate for Hall of Fame membership.

Dealing with Lowe during the Oilers’ Stanley Cup run was always a pleasure. When he sensed a criticism, and if he missed some of the credit headed his team’s way, he was likely to be edgy. It was impossible to do a pre-game Sportstalk segment and still find time for a moment to talk. Then I learned that he sharpened his skates very early on game night. That meant he would be available for brief conversation.

Somehow, it evolved that we would speak before the first home game of every series. I still remember the intensity of his preparation.

Iginla’s brilliant junior record and his lifelong connection with Edmonton and St. Albert made it obvious that we would meet during the 1995 junior draft countdown. He and several other top prospects were made available for live appearances for about week.

Iginla was not a logical choice to talk: he did not blow his own horn. Others seemed more interested than he was at the thought of speaking for 30 minutes on radio. After about three days, someone asked about giving Jarome some time on the microphone. Said I: “It doesn’t look like he’s interested” but his supporter suggested that I approach the quiet young man. He agreed to join the chow and was a sensational guest, showing a confident streak that was well-balanced with modesty.

One question was a natural for presentation to any young athlete: “Do you think the NHL will be a good fit for you?” His answer, as I learned gradually over time, was typical for him.

“I know I’ve got a lot to learn,” he said. “I have to improve my skating quite a bit. If I do that, I can probably do all right.”

As they say: Now we know the rest of the story.

Gretzky Was Magic, Now He Sees It

 

 

 

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All is Well in Soccer – So Far

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All is Well in Soccer – So Far

 

The provincial government’s decision to ease the COVID-19 regulations on distancing and group sizes came as a relief to nearly everyone involved in sports of all kinds, but it’s likely that soccer addicts – of which there are many – were happier than most.

A good example is Mike Thome, executive director of the Edmonton District Soccer Association, which provides a year-long competitive home for some male and female 30,000 athletes – 20,000 in the youth category and about 10,000 in the adult bracket, aged 17 to 45.

Thome, who once worked for the indoor Edmonton Trappers and also spent time in the Edmonton Eskimos front office, let his enthusiasm show as he discussed the positive picture that took shape this week for his game and his combination of leagues and divisions covering the Greater Edmonton area and spreading at least as far as Drayton Valley and Camrose.

Almost certainly, the flattest spot came about three months ago, when COVID-19 unsettled Alberta and the rest of the world. As sports officials rushed to make the correct decisions, the Alberta Soccer Association announced the cancellation of all playoffs for 2020. Normally, the finals are staged on Labour Day weekend. This year, almost certainly, league games will take their place.

“We could get started on our league play on around July 15, maybe a little earlier,” Thome said hopefully. “With no playoffs, if things go well, we should be able to keep going until September.”

Certainly, that’s welcome news for teams that rushed to re-submit their 2020 financial applications this week. “We lost about 100 teams right away after the virus hit,” said Thome. “Already, we’ve had several send us money (or at least) notified us that they’re coming back.”

There is, of course, continuing focus on Edmonton FC and Calgary’s Foothills franchise, which renewed their training for what seems to be a promising development in the Canadian Premier League. Thome is among those who remember the arrival of the Edmonton Drillers into international soccer after Peter Pocklington purchased the Oakland Stompers for his outdoor team and the Chicago Power to play indoors.

Soccer’s growth in Alberta’s growth in soccer since those days has been astonishing although, somehow, the province’s high school teams do not compete for a provincial title while rugby and other sports consider any provincial crown to be well worth pursuing.

Thome admitted to some surprise that no such crown is available. Every significant part of the province has youth and adult (even senior) players in abundance.

But there are other, large issues on hand right now.

An admitted highlight was the permission for as many as 50 to gather in a group. “Now, two teams can practice and work out together,” Thome said. But the competitors must stick together; before they can work with other opposition, the familiar 14-day shutdown period must take effect.

“Players are expected to maintain their (two-metre) distance almost all the time,” Thome explained. “Now, thougn, it’s OK for two players to compete for a ball. If they get too close together for a few seconds, it will be allowed.

Under the relaxed rules, goalkeepers ae free to put their hands on a ball, which means live challenge on shots and spreading the ball to teammates. Individuals are permitted to pass back and forth although previously “it would have been best for every player to bring his (or her) own ball. They could work on the skill of dribbling, but they couldn’t pass to other players.”

At this point, the picture is thoroughly positive. Soccer players and fans have their fingers crossed that it will stay that way.

Gretzky Was Magic, Now He Sees It

 

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july, 2020

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