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Friday, January 3, 2014

My Favourite Reads from 2013

Last year, I started trying to keep track of some of the favourite things I read over the course of the year. Most definitely, this is a subjective list, so it tilts towards my tastes.

With only so many hours in the day, I have to pick and choose what I'll even get around to reading (and I surely miss many things), but over a year, there are still a lot of fascinating, illuminating, funny, interesting, tragic or devastating stories that catch my attention.

I'm no Richard Deitsch, the Sports Illustrated media writer who always seems to be finding great stories on the web; in fact, Deitsch's recommendations make up a decent part of this list, but these were my favourite reads from 2013, ranging from light-hearted and humourous to some heavy stuff.

I've broken it into three categories, Sports, Entertainment and Other, which basically encompasses the real world, away from the fun and games.

The Best Hockey Player I Ever Played Against
Forgive me for including one of my own; a fun story for me, to look back at some of the best players I competed against in my much younger days as it appears that the best of them is highly unlikely to resume his NHL playing career.

My Life as a Young Thug - Mike Tyson, New York Magazine
I recently watched Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth on HBO and this essay covers some of the content in that show, what it was like for Tyson to grow up as a delinquent in Brooklyn (Brownsville and Bed-Stuy), eventually to be steered towards the heavyweight championship by late trainer Cus D'Amato. Seeing the HBO show, Tyson is much more self-aware than I would have ever expected.

The Gangster in the Huddle - Paul Solotaroff with Ron Borges, Rolling Stone
One of the biggest sports stories of the year centered around Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder and this story provided a lot of the background with respect to how Hernandez ended up on the wrong path.

Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building - Wright Thompson,
Michael Jordan remains a compelling figure, well into his retirement, and with unusual access, Thompson provided a portrait of a competitor who is still adjusting to retired life.

Exit Sandman: Baseball bids adieu to Mariano Rivera - Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated
Interesting recollections from other major leaguers as well as a great story about what Rivera did for a family from Kansas City.

The Founding Fathers of Fantasy - Patrick Hruby, Sports on Earth
I'm not sure I ever expected to see stories about the origins of Fantasy Sports, yet between this one, about a fantasy football league that started in Oakland in 1963, and the 30-for-30 documentary on the first Rotisserie baseball league in 2010, there is actually some history behind what has become a multi-billion-dollar that, near as I can tell, attracts only the best and the brightest.
Verbatim: Stats guru Jeff Sagarin - Andy Glockner,
Part Two
Not everyone will be fascinated by insights from one of the first sports stats/rankings gurus but a rare Sagarin interview was interesting to me.

Meet the World's Top NBA Gambler - Scott Eden, ESPN the Magazine
Getting a little of the inside story on a pro hoops gambler, Haralabob Voulgaris, who was a panelist at the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Theater of Pain - Tom Junod, Esquire
Football players suffer for their careers. This one's a starting point.

Jason Taylor's Pain Shows NFL's World of Hurt - Dan LeBatard, Miami Herald
Had no idea that Taylor was going through some of these things, including playing while he had a catheter taped under his arm to fight a staph infection. "Players play. It is who we are. We always think we can overcome."

Brad Johnson paying physical price for long NFL career - Robert Klemko, USA Today
Current players should all be checking out the effects on guys who have been through the battles already.

Slow Getting Up - Nate Jackson,
An excerpt from Jackson's book, Slow Getting Up, about the grind of being a fringe NFL player.

What It's Like to Get Whacked - Austen Lane,
Any time you can get a look inside the locker room, particularly for something as life-changing as being bounced from the job, it's a fascinating read.

Breaking Real Bad: Inside the Sam Hurd Drug Case - Michael McKnight,
I remembered reading that Hurd was charged in a drug trafficking case, which sounded like an incredibly bad decision, but even with bad decisions, there's more to the story.

Why Sports Gambling Should be Legal - Brian Tuohy, Sports on Earth
It's preposterous to me that this is still an issue and I find a lot of the arguments against to be disingenuous.

20 Minutes at Rucker Park - Flinder Boyd, SB Nation
Boyd tracks street-baller TJ Webster as he makes a cross-country trek, by bus from Sacramento, in the hopes of impressing in the open run at Rucker Park in Harlem.

How the U.S. hockey team was named - Scott Burnside,
Okay, I'm cheating because this was from January 1, 2014 but, since my list is going up on January 3, 2014, take a look at how the U.S. men's hockey team was selected. Fascinating behind-the-scenes dynamics that revealed some not-so-flattering things about the decision-makers, even moreso than the players that they critiqued.

Good Will Hunting: An Oral History - Janelle Nanos, Boston Magazine
Some have argued, over the past year, that oral histories are played out, but not me. I love the background information and for one of my favourite movies, I definitely like them apples.

The Uncensored Oral History of 'The Hangover' - Matthew Belloni, Lacey Rose, The Hollywood Reporter
Not surprisingly, a fun read, that basically makes the case for the Hangover as a Las Vegas infomercial.

Soul Men: The Making of the Blues Brothers - Ned Zeman, Vanity Fair
I think the story here might be that I will read your oral history if it's about any topic about which I'm remotely interested.

Cinema Tarantino: The Making of Pulp Fiction - Mark Seal, Vanity Fair

Matt Damon Interview - Tom Junod, Esquire
A fascinating profile of a huge star, who is famous enough to hang with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and tell a cool story about Bono, yet embrace that he can still do normal things like walk his kids to school.

George Clooney's Rules For Living, Tom Junod, Esquire
Great access for Junod, again, and the paragraph about Clooney's gags on Meryl Streep and Don Cheadle alone made it a fun read.

Here is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie - Stephen Rodrick, New York Times
If not train-wreck television, then how about train-wreck magazine reporting? Also, interesting to see a director, who is convinced he can get a performance out of Lohan as her career is swirling the bowl, like so many coaches who think they can turn around that mercurial talent.

The God of 'SNL' Will See You Now - Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
I've loved Saturday Night Live for a long time, not so much now, but it was cool to hear how anxious and nervous some have been when auditioning for Lorne Michaels.

The Perfect Life of Hugh Hefner - Chris Jones, Esquire
I can't imagine considering Hefner's current life perfect -- he's had some pretty great days, I'm sure -- but Hef and his routine was fascinating.

Wrestling's Greatest Shoots, Volume 1: Bruiser Brody vs. Lex Luger - David Shoemaker, Grantland
I like the way Shoemaker writes intelligently about pro wrestling which, on most days, isn't very intelligent at all. He covered five "shoots" (when something in pro wrestling goes off-script) over the course of the year, but it seems like there should be a whole lot more of these fascinating stories -- the underbelly of what can be an unseemly business.

When We Held Kings - Eric Raskin, Grantland
An oral history of the 2003 World Series of Poker, won by Chris Moneymaker, which really ignited the poker boom over the last decade.

Invisible Child - Girl in the Shadows: Dasani's Homeless Life - Andrea Elliott, New York Times
I'm regularly crushed when reading about kids whose families struggle -- it's not like children ask to be born into these circumstances -- and this story about a talented, yet troubled, girl in New York City was very well done.

After Newtown Shooting, Parents Enter into the Lonely Quiet - Eli Saslow, The Washington Post
Eli Saslow writes some brilliant pieces, and spending time with mourning Newtown parents is a hard read, but I appreciate mourning loss and wish the best for all those shattered families.

In rural Tennessee, a new way to help hungry children: A bus turned bread truck - Eli Saslow, The Washington Post
A story about poverty and helping starving children in Tennessee. A look at a world with which I'm, fortunately, not very familiar but, again, not easy to read about children facing such adversity.

Too Much of Too Little - Eli Saslow, Washington Post
One more from Saslow, showing how people on food stamps are costing more money because they invariably have health issues that are directly related to the dietary choices they make or, realistically, can afford.

Wildcatting: A Stripper's Guide to the Modern American Boomtown - Susan Elizabeth Shepherd, Buzzfeed
A first-person account of the not-so-glamourous, but sometimes well-paid, life of being a stripper in an oil town, Williston, North Dakota.

The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden - Phil Bronstein, Esquire
I realize there is some dispute over the veracity of the story, but it reads like a movie. Maybe something like Zero Dark Thirty?

The Manhunt for Christopher Dorner - Reported by Christopher Goffard, Joel Rubin, Louis Sahagun, Kurt Streeter and Phil Willon and written by Goffard. Also contributing were Joseph Serna, Kate Mather and Nicole Santa Cruz.
Amazing reporting about the former LAPD cop who went on a revenge shooting spree, killing police officers.

Carjack victim recounts his harrowing night - Eric Moskowitz, Boston Globe
There were a number of stories about the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the immediate reporting was excellent, but this piece was quite a slice of life in the Tsarnaev brothers' attempted escape.

Alfred Anaya Put Secret Compartments in Cars. So the DEA Put Him in Prison - Brendan I. Koerner, Wired
Don't do anything that will put you in the crosshairs of the DEA.

The Brand - David Grann, The New Yorker (February, 2004)
This classic story, about the Aryan Brotherhood, only came to my attention this year. Still extremely scary stuff almost a decade later.

The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick - Chris Heath, GQ
A bizarre story about a serial killer who...isn't a serial killer?

What We lost: Remembering Newtown victim Jack Pinto
Got a little dusty reading about one of the Newtown victims, six-year-old Jack Pinto, who was really into sports.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The JFK Assassination: There are reasons for conspiracy talk

As those who know me well know, for quite a while, I have had quite a strong interest in the JFK Assasination, the 50th anniversary of which occurs today.

I've leaned towards an interest in history in my high school and university years (it was my university minor, after all), and that led me to read and, at times, write about true crime stories. A high school history paper on Watergate opened my eyes to government corruption. Writing about the Son of Sam piqued my interest in true crime stories, which eventually led me down a path towards reading a bunch of books about organized crime.

Then, in 1991, I went to see Oliver Stone's movie, JFK. While I really appreciated Oliver Stone's ability to compile so much information into a single movie, I was ultimately left with lots of questions -- which I think was kind of the point -- so I started reading more about the subject. I also watched the JFK movie over and over, probably more than 100 times, so I'm painfully familiar with the theories presented.

Over the next five years or so, I devoured many books on the topic, probably about 25-30, and watched the documentary series The Men Who Killed Kennedy, along with virtually any other docs that made it to television. A tad obsessed, I was. They all had theories about what had happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, which could make it overwhelming, trying to piece together what seemed plausible and what was too outlandish. Make no mistake, when you start down the JFK Conspiracy foxhole, you're guaranteed to come across some ideas that require an extra-special level of belief.

There are reasons that the majority of Americans believe a conspiracy was involved in JFK's assassination. This is only a sampling, but these are some of the issues that stand out to me, 50 years after the fact.

My impression has been that the most obvious reason for people to believe in conspiracy is what people see on the Zapruder Film ("Back, and to the left.") and the thinking that it must have been a shot from the Grassy Knoll, but it's so much more than that.

For one, there are so many ways in which a conspiracy is believable in this case. It starts with all the possibilities when it comes to who might have wanted Kennedy killed. Do some reading or watch a documentary or five and you find that pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the Mob, the CIA, the U.S. military and even Lyndon Johnson could have had their reasons for wanting JFK dead. It's not easy to solve the murder of someone that had such powerful enemies. Nor is it easy to accept that all these powerful enemies were beaten to the punch by a minimum-wage warehouse-working loner.

When there are so many viable options, it seems awfully convenient that, in the final analysis, the assassin is supposedly some lone nut, with no connection to anyone involved in those groups. That is, unless you consider Lee Harvey Oswald's military background or any of the testimony that links Oswald to nefarious figures in New Orleans and Dallas. And if Oswald was some random lone nut, why would so many documents be kept from public view for so long? How could a lone nut assassin have so much information that pertains to national security? (Oh, and really bad luck to have the same fate befall his brother. Man, those lone nuts really had it out for the Kennedys.)

J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, issued a memo about someone using Oswald's birth certificate in 1960, when Oswald was living in Russia. Why would Hoover care about someone using Oswald ID in 1960 when Oswald was merely some lone nut with no connection to U.S. intelligence agencies? Or why would the CIA say that this was Oswald in Mexico City in 1963 (purportedly trying to get to Cuba), a couple of months prior to the assassination? Was it because Oswald wasn't actually in Mexico?

While the Magic Bullet Theory has come under fire, made laughable by Stone's protrayal in JFK, the bigger question to me is: never mind the trajectory, how does this nearly pristine bullet show up on a gurney at Parkland Hospital virtually intact? And how does it come off some random gurney and get attributed to the assassination? It would be one thing if it was taken out of Governor John Connolly's thigh, but that's not what happened. If you believe the word of journalist Seth Kantor, who testified that he saw Jack Ruby at Parkland Hospital following the assassination, well, it starts to feel conspiratorial.

The murder of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit is seen as evidence that Oswald was making an escape after killing JFK and it's entirely possible that was what happened, but it's hard to know exactly why Tippit was patrolling a residential neighbourhood away from his district in the wake of the shooting. If you buy the testimony of Earlene Roberts, that a Dallas Police car honked its horn outside Oswald's rooming house while Oswald was retrieving his revolver, well, then it's even harder to believe that lone nut Oswald just happened to have a coincidental run-in with a cop shortly thereafter.

Nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald live on national television, is a huge reason why people believe in conspiracy because the natural assumption is that if you were going to get away with the assassination, setting up a patsy to take the blame would be a great way to go about it. Even better, silence the patsy before he has a chance to defend himself. My belief in Ruby's involvement in a bigger conspiracy comes and goes because he seemed to be such an erratic person that he would be a strange choice to involve in a planned Crime of the Century, but he was an easily expendable piece if you buy into his having connections with the Dallas mob.

At the same time, I can go back and forth on whether Oswald was involved. Maybe he was a patsy like he said, or maybe he participated and was set-up to take the fall. If someone shot from the Book Depository, and even conspiracy theorists don't argue against that, it could have been Oswald. It appears that he brought the gun to work, at the very least, but if he was the assassin, it was an utterly bizarre plan for a solo shooter. For one thing, he's seen on the second floor 10-15 minutes before the shooting and he's seen on the second floor 90 seconds after the shooting. It's theoretically possible to get up to the sixth floor and back down in that time, but it's not a very believable sequence of actions.

I've been to the museum that now exists on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building (a few times) and, while the sniper's nest is blocked off by glass, when you look out those windows, it's hard to imagine why a shooter wouldn't fire at the limousine as it turned from Main onto Houston, a straight-on shot with probably enough time to get off two or three shots at much closer range than waiting for the limousine to get into Dealey Plaza, where it would be moving away from the lone shooter and, for a time, would have the view blocked by a Live Oak tree.

What struck me the very first time I visited Dealey Plaza was how close it was to shoot from behind the picket fence (on the Grassy Knoll) to the middle of Elm Street. I'm no marksman, but it felt really close. I thought close enough that I could throw something into an open car from that distance.

Then, there was Oswald's "escape" route, in which he ultimately ended up at the Texas Theatre. If he was a lone shooter, where was he possibly going? Did he really make these plans to shoot JFK and not have any idea how he would get away after the fact? I suppose I'm further troubled by the idea of anyone who commits a crime, ostensibly to gain notoriety, but denies involvement and refers to himself as a patsy.

Read enough books and watch enough documentaries about the assassination and all sorts of names start to orbit the space: David Ferrie, Major General Edward Lansdale, Joseph Milteer, Frank Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt (both of Watergate infamy), Maurice Bishop, David Morales, James Files, Mac Wallace, Lucien Sarti, Sam Giancana, Jonny Roselli, Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and more. Connecting the dots between some of these people and the events in Dallas makes up the conspiracy game.

As Donald Sutherland's X character in JFK said, "Well that's the real question, isn't it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia. Keeps 'em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents 'em from asking the most important question, why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up?"

Prior to the JFK assassination there was an inherent (and naive) trust in government that faded awfully quickly through the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Suddenly, the thought that the government might keep secrets from the people became much easier to believe and when there were thousands of documents withheld for reasons of national security, well, it was easier still to believe that they weren't being as transparent as they could be.

That secrecy backfired too. The Zapruder Film, the best visual evidence, was hidden away from public view and then, when reporter Dan Rather was allowed to view it, he told the American public that JFK's head was thurst violently forward with the final head shot. Once the public finally saw the film, the first network television showing was in 1975 -- post-Watergate and near the end of the Vietnam War -- it was easy for the American people to suspect that they weren't getting the whole truth.

Some other reasons why the idea of a conspiracy exists:

For all the witnesses that claimed they heard shots from the Grassy Knoll, and charged in that direction after the shooting, why were people showing secret service badges to turn people away? If witnesses claim that they have been shown secret service badges and the official position is that no secret service agents were in that position, how could that be anything but a conspiracy?

Inconsistency breeds conspiracy talk. So when the doctors in Dallas' Parkland Hospital testify that the back of Kennedy's head was blasted out (indicating a shot entering from the front) or there are witnesses describing a different casket for Kennedy in Dallas at Parkland Hospital and, later that same day, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, well, these are the kinds of inconsistencies that promote conspiracy talk. When the "official" wounds are different than those seen by the first medical witnesses, that's an issue.

White House press aide Malcom Kilduff's description of Kennedy dying from a bullet through the brain, didn't suggest a shot from the rear either. Kilduff's not a doctor, but it was also an initial reaction, one not governed by official stories. Who would ever describe a shot into the back of someone's head by pointing at their temple?

When there are a suspiciously high number of premature deaths for people even tangentially involved or investigating the proceedings, that raises suspicion because, really, all it takes is one of them to be linked to the assassination for conspiracy to exist.

When Allen Dulles, who Kennedy fired from the top post at the CIA, is hired to be a leading part of the Warren Commission, that promotes conspiracy talk. There really weren't any more qualified investigators than the guy who had been unceremoniously dumped by JFK after the Bay of Pigs? Maybe it's just bad optics, or maybe it's something much worse.

What else raises conspiracy suspicions? When relevant notes get destroyed. Commander Humes, who performed the official autopsy (his first gunshot autopsy!) burned his initial notes in his fireplace. FBI agent James Hosty destroyed a note that Oswald left for him a couple of weeks prior to the assassination. Maybe these were completely inoccuous events, but it would be much easier to determine that if the evidence still existed.

In any case, 50 years after the fact, I don't have the answers about who and how and why. I'm still curious and still find some ideas too far-fetched to believe, but I'm still leaning towards others being involved, whether in the actual shooting or, at the very least, in a cover-up after the fact. That it's lasted this long tells me that, if there was a conspiracy, then the conspirators won.

To that end, remember, as Napoleon said, "History is written by the winners."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hockey Players Get Up

Somewhere in my Twitter timeline last week, I caught mention of a column by Ryan Lambert, decrying the attitude of the NHL, and its players, towards injuries. This was in the wake of Gregory Campbell spending a minute trying to gut out a penalty killing shift on what was later determined to be a broken fibula.

I can't pretend to speak for all hockey players, by any means, but I have some small experience with the culture of the sport, so I have at least a little idea how hockey players feel about injuries.

When I was a kid, like eight, nine, ten years old, playing for mighty Kingston Township, we occasionally had some players on our teams that would roll around on the ice for the slightest of injuries and, even at that age, it would generate eye rolls from teammates. We're not talking about serious injuries. A hack, a whack, a bruise or two. Making a big deal out of it was always, always considered unacceptable.

As I got older (moved back to Kitchener), and the injuries could be more serious, my Midget AAA coach, Mike Wright, had simple rules about staying down on the ice with an injury. If you're hurt and stay down on the ice resulting in a stoppage in play, then you're done for the game, which was obviously fine if you were seriously injured, but he wasn't going to tolerate rolling around for minor pains. He was big on hiding any hint of weakness from the opposition.

So with that backdrop, my specific example comes from when I was 17-years-old, playing at a tournament in Toronto (playing against the Marlies, I think, but I can't be sure). I got tangled up in the neutral zone with a defenceman but my right leg got caught awkwardly under me as I fell and pain shot through my lower leg.

It was right in front of our bench, so I got off the ice, walked down the tunnel and into the room, where I tied my skate lace tighter, walked back and forth in the hallway for a few minutes until I figured I was ready to give it another try and returned to the bench. I coasted over to a neutral zone faceoff and the puck was almost immediately dumped into the opponent's end. I tried to push off and there was nothing. Literally, nothing. Back to the bench, coasting on one leg, and to the room for good that day. I walked out of the arena, with my hockey bag over my shoulder, rode more than an hour home in the car and, once home, noticed an ankle that looked like a baseball, maybe a softball. An hour later, at the hospital, they told me that it was broken.

I wasn't trying to be a hero. I didn't think it was stupid (though plenty of people do stupid things without the awareness that it's stupid). I could walk on it, for all I knew it was a sprain and, as is the ingrained culture that Lambert is talking about, part of being a hockey player is playing through injuries.

I'm sure Campbell, who is miles tougher than I ever was, realized something was wrong when he blocked the shot -- you could see it on his face -- but, in that instant, he may not have absolutely known that he had a broken fibula. Part of the reason I was prompted to write this post was that Campbell said today what I expected the case might have been.

"The way I look at it, and it might sound naive of me, but I was just trying to do whatever I could to kill the penalty," Campbell said. "At that point I really wasn't thinking much.

"It was sore. But your adrenaline's going pretty good at that point. You're stuck on the ice with a couple of the best players in the world. You really don't have much time to think about anything else but trying to help out and kill a penalty."

When we find out, after the fact, that Campbell had a broken fibula, it seems ludicrous, but what would the reaction be if Campbell had stayed down and the verdict was a bad bone bruise on the side of his knee, and he would be ready to play in the next game? If you can get up, you get up.

Just look at guys in the NHL and what they do as a normal course of business. Ducks defenceman Francois Beauchemin played the last month of this season with a torn ACL. I remember Brendan Shanahan, on the Tonight Show after a Red Wings Stanley Cup win, saying that, over the course of his career, he had more than 400 stitches in his face. Hockey players lose teeth as a rite of passage. Seriously, who else does that?

What professional athletes -- not least of all hockey players -- do isn't conducive to self-preservation, but that's part of the reason we watch. What they do is hard because, if it wasn't, anyone could do it.

It doesn't make hockey players stupid; it makes a good number of them fiercely, madly, insanely competitive. The same reason that Coach Wright didn't want us to flop around on the ice is the same reason that hockey players all over grit their teeth (what's left of them, anyway) and play through injuries that make the average person recoil. Sometimes, they even share their bruises on Twitter for a laugh.

I don't doubt the sincerity of Mr. Lambert's convictions. I just have a different view on why hockey players are wired the way they are, especially when it comes to playing through pain. Hockey is a macho game and that's not a negative. Playing through pain, doing things that the average person wouldn't comprehend is part of what makes professional athletes a rare breed.

Knowing how much it matters to the guys on the ice also makes it appealing to fans. Knowing that it's the kind of sport in which a guy will try to play with a broken leg, or torn ACL, or re-constructed jaw, or broken foot or whatever is part of what makes hockey different.

To me, a sport isn't as interesting if I don't know how much a player cares about the result. In the case of Gregory Campbell, I have no doubt.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Best Hockey Player I Ever Played Against

It looks like the end of the career is near for the best hockey player I ever played against.

(It may not be. Maybe there is still a happier ending to the story, but it caught my attention in this first week of the NHL season, when his NHL team could desperately use him.)

Every Canadian kid that played a reasonably competitive level of hockey growing up has stories about someone they played with or against that went on to fame and fortune. This is mine.

Hockey is such a pervasive part of Canadian culture that there are countless intersections between okay players (like me) and the really special players who become household names.

We play on youth teams, in summer leagues, shinny at local arenas, maybe junior hockey, whatever, but we all pretty much have at least the faintest connection to someone who has lived the dream of making it to the NHL.

Sometimes we also find out that being a special player as a teenager isn't what makes a player special later on but, if you've been around the rink long enough, there are too many examples of players that seemed destined for greatness that never made it and, conversely, some that didn't have high expectations, yet somehow persevered enough to make it big.

Growing up in Kingston, I played youth hockey with and against some guys who were eventually NHL prospects, but didn't quite pan out, like Brandon Convery.

In various minor hockey tournaments, we would cross paths with players that went on to bigger and better things. As a kid who was always into stats I seemed to take note of names and numbers more than most (if not all). I recall, after moving back to Kitchener, playing against Andrew Brunette and his Rayside-Balfour team in the finals of a Midget tournament in Prescott, Ontario.

Our university team (Wilfrid Laurier) went 21-2-1 one year and still finished second in our division because Steve Rucchin was a force at Western Ontario.

Our Midget AAA coaches told us that a young defenceman on our team would reach the NHL. He was, indeed, a first-round pick in the NHL, but Nick Stajduhar's career (two NHL games) probably didn't pan out the way he or the Edmonton Oilers had hoped.

I'm pretty sure Jason Dawe chipped my front tooth in a summer tournament. It wasn't an incident, not even deserving a penalty, but these things happen, you know?

At my high school in Kitchener, Ontario, Cam Stewart was a local legend, having scored 138 points (with 174 penalty minutes) in 46 games in his final year of Junior B competition with the Elmira Sugar Kings, before getting drafted in the third round by the Boston Bruins and earning a full ride to the University of Michigan. Cam played a couple hundred NHL games as a hard-hitting checking forward before injuries cut his career short.

When I started playing in that same junior Junior B league, our Kitchener Dutchmen team was comprised of mostly local kids, moving up from the Midget AAA Greenshirts. We did win the Sutherland Cup (All-Ontario title) in my second season and had a handful of guys grab scholarships, but that first year we were mostly just a collection of guys while other teams in our league had some players that went on to more prosperous hockey careers.

Scott Walker, a smooth skater who would fight anyone, played for the Cambridge Winter Hawks and played more than 800 NHL games mostly with Vancouver, Nashville and Carolina. Rem Murray was a skilled scorer on a powerhouse Stratford Cullitons team and skated in 560 NHL games with the Oilers, Rangers and Predators.

But the real draw for scouts in our league that year was a trio of 15-year-olds: Chris Gratton in Brantford, Todd Harvey in Cambridge and Chris Pronger in Stratford. In a league in which most players ranged in age from 17 to 20, these highly-touted kids turned heads in every rink.

Gratton was playing on a veteran-laden Brantford team that was full of big bruisers and Gratton already had the size and strength to fit in. He didn't wreak havoc like some of his teammates, but the older guys made sure that he wasn't messed with either.

Harvey was a different animal. He played in the league the year before (as a 14-year-old!) and was both a big scorer and scrapper. That he went on to play more than 700 NHL games (including playoffs) wasn't a surprise. The surprise turned out to be, given all the hype he received as a 14 and 15-year-old, that he was a grinder in the NHL instead of a star.

But Pronger, he stood out. For one thing, he was 6-foot-5 and about 160 pounds, so he was as rail thin as any hockey player I'd ever seen (and if anyone knew about rail-thin hockey players, it was yours truly), but Pronger was also extremely poised with the puck and an excellent skater, especially for a kid who could have been a gangly mess given his size.

Stratford was a perennial powerhouse in the Midwestern Junior B League in that era, with future NHLers like Ed Olczyk, Nelson Emerson and Rob Blake among those that played there before it was Justin Bieber's home town.

Their team that year was no different, and I recall them lighting us up at least once for a dozen goals, but it was easy to see why everyone was so enamoured with Pronger.

While he wasn't as aggressive as, say, Harvey, Pronger was already quite liberal in his use of the lumber (something that carried through to his pro career), in some ways reflecting what hockey was like 20 years ago, when obstruction, hooking and slashing were accepted parts of the game.

He was also doing what it took to survive when playing against guys who had to hit him as often as possible if they were going to have any hope of containing him.

It was easy to see why scouts loved Pronger. With that frame, skill and disposition, he was surely going to be a great pro if he stayed on track (and maybe put on a few pounds).

He moved on to the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League and was the second overall pick in 1993, behind Alexandre Daigle.

There have been challenges along the way, including a wake-up call with a trade to St. Louis after some poor off-ice decisions in his first couple years with the Hartford Whalers and he's still none too popular in Edmonton after demanding a trade following their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.

But, Pronger has played 1167 regular season NHL games, plus 173 more in the playoffs (which is the most among "active" defencemen by a wide margin; Sergei Gonchar, at 125, ranks second), has won a Hart Trophy, Norris Trophy, a Stanley Cup, two Olympic Gold Medals (representing Canada four times at the Olympics) and is a lock to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame when his time comes for induction.

I've been at TSN long enough that I've seen NHL careers begin and end, seeing players go from fresh-faced teenagers to grizzled and worn-down veterans in that time, and the sporting world serves as an accelerated reminder about the cycle of life.

Time stops for no one, least of all those who make their livelihood in such a physically-demanding pursuit.

Word hasn't been good on Pronger ever since he suffered a concussion in November, 2011. Nothing has been made official about his status nor does it need to be anytime soon. Maybe there is still a comeback possible, some way to put a happy ending on his playing career, but that doesn't appear to be the most likely outcome.

His brother, Sean Pronger, recently commented, in a chat on, "I don't think he'll play again but what do I know" and, combined with the fact that Chris Pronger is 38-years-old and hasn't played in more than a year, well, it's entirely reasonable to think that he has played his last game in the NHL.

If that's the case, it's sad news for the Flyers, who miss his presence as a top pair defenceman and it's a day-to-day challenge for the Pronger family, as they deal with post-concussion effects that can be long-lasting and have an immeasurable impact on everyday life.

Most definitely, it would be a sad way to end an illustrious career, one which I was fortunate enough to cross paths with, if only for the briefest of moments.

Posted here:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Favourite Reads from 2012

As 2012 comes to a close, I thought I would, for once, join the fray and compile a list of my favourite articles that I read from the past year. It's certainly not comprehensive -- I can't read everything that's out there -- but I've found a number of great pieces through Twitter. When you follow as many journalists as I do, the really good stuff tends to get passed along.

Playing in the toy department of the journalism world -- and sports is most definitely the toy department -- means that I have a dichotomy of favourite articles that cover a range from fun sports reads to very serious, life and death serious, articles.

These were my favourite reads from 2012. If you have any others to share, don't hesitate to include them in the comments section below.

Tom Brady's Daze of Disappointment - Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports;_ylt=AhGCxSOkBAxO3ZFhyD7mHTE5nYcB?slug=dw-wetzel_tom_brady_super_bowl_gisele_bundchen_defeat_020512
Documenting the aftermath of the Patriots' loss in Super Bowl XLVI. Great access at a difficult time.

The Malice at the Palace, an Oral History - Jonathan Abrams, Grantland
I remember working in the TSN newsroom the night this happened, with Lucas Cooney, and we were the ones alerting the rest of the staff that something serious was going down.

The Consequences of Caring - Bill Simmons, Grantland
Every once in a while, Simmons shows that he can still bring the heat and this piece on what it means to be a sports fan -- and his 6-year-old daughter being devastated by an L.A. Kings loss -- was a good one.

Fear, Loathing and I Can't Believe We're Doing This Again - Bob McKenzie,
Bobby Mac is on TV too much to deliver big articles on a regular basis, but when he decides to drop nearly 4,000 words on the impending NHL lockout, it was, of course, a must-read.

Spoiler Alert - Jeff MacGregor,
While 2012 appeared to be the year of validation for prognosticators, thanks to Nate Silver (at and his bang-on election forecasts, MacGregor bemoans the lack of surprise that makes sports so amazing. My opinion: if we didn't know expected outcomes, then we wouldn't really know which surprises/upsets/breakthrough performances were truly noteworthy.

MVP Aftermath - Joe Posnanski
It wasn't a complete victory for the statheads in 2012, of course, as modern stats that illuminated the all-around value of Mike Trout apparently couldn't touch Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown when it came to American League MVP voting. Posnanski couldn't let that lopsided vote go without comment.

My Daughter's Favorite Sport - Joe Posnanski
Posnanski is a fantastic writer, and his blogs that focus on his relationships with his daughters are always so touching. That I happen to have a daughter of my own makes them all the more relatable.

The Making of Homer at the Bat - Erik Malinowski, Deadspin
One of the all-time great Simpsons episodes warranted this detailed coverage.

The Unfair Significance of Jeremy Lin - Jay Caspian Kang, Grantland
An interesting and thoughtful take in the midst of the Linsanity phenomenon.

The Truth is Out There - Patrick Hruby, The Post Game
For all the sports conspiracy theorists.

The Sound and the Fury - Alex French and Howie Kahn, Grantland
Twenty-Five Years of Schmoozing - Charles McGrath, the New York Times
Fond memories of finding 660 AM on the radio dial and listening as I went to sleep as a teenager in Kitchener, ON.

Worshipping at the Church of Baseball - Chris Nashawaty, Sports Illustrated
You Either Smoke or You Get Smoked - Thomas Golianopoulos, Grantland
Getting to dig into fun sports movies of my youth.

'The Best TV Show That's Ever Been' - Brian Raftery, GQ
Continuing my run on oral histories. It was nice to see the appreciation of one of my first favourite TV shows.

The Innocent Man - Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly
A Texas man wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Only took 25 years for the truth to come out.

Barack Obama and the Death of Normal - David Simon
Simon, who created the TV show The Wire, weighed in on the election. He also had strong opinions on Newtown, Trayvon Martin and, as a former Baltimore Sun reporter, he's deeply concerned about  the future of journalism in America.

Battleground America - Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
The Simple Truth About Gun Control - Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Learned a lot about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the wake of the Newtown Massacre. December 14, 2012 was a day of profound sadness.

"Is he coming? Is he? Oh God, I think he is." - Sean Flynn, GQ
A chilling account of Norwegian psychopath Anders Breivik murdering 77 people on July 22, 2011.

Cocaine Incorporated - Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Times Magazine
The drug cartels in Mexico are ruthless. We went to Mexico on our honeymoon. As long as the bodycount keeps escalating, I don't know how we could ever return.

A Murder Foretold - David Grann, The New Yorker
Political corruption and murder in Guatemala.

I'm Gonna Need You To Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD - Mac McClelland, Good
This is about as raw as sharing gets.

I did my oversharing here.

The Truck Stop Killer - Vanessa Veselka, GQ
Hitching a ride with truckers comes with many risks; death is one of them when a serial killer is behind the wheel somewhere out there.

The Lost Boys - Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly
A serial killer on the loose in Houston in the late 1960s and early 1970s and no one seemed to notice or care.

Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital - Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
The U.S. election wasn't really my business, since us Canadian folk don't get a vote but, after reading this, I was sad for the Republicans, that this was the best candidate they could put forth.

The Year in Pictures - The Big Picture
Love all the collections from The Big Picture, but the year-end shots tell powerful stories.

And, how about a little live music to wrap things up?
Avett Brothers on Jimmy Kimmel Live