Archive for ‘Sports Writing’

August 5, 2013

Eugenie Bouchard ready for the Rogers Cup

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Eugenie Bouchard is the top-ranked Canadian female tennis in the world and is 58th overall. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 5, 2012.]

Many Canadians skip off to travel the world when they’re 19. Eugenie Bouchard, though, is doing so in a high-stakes, high-style environment that only professional athletes would be involved in at such a young age.

The tennis sensation from Montreal is in her first full year on the WTA tour, which covers 59 tournaments in 20 countries. This week, Bouchard joins the Williams sisters and other top-ranked players at the annual Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto. The rigorous schedule that’s filled with practice sessions, media commitments, more practice sessions, and whirlwind scheduling that keeps her hopping from one destination to the next limits how much Bouchard can enjoy her world travels. But she does try to get out and see what she can of the stops on WTA.

“It’s tough travelling all the time, because you are always living out of suitcase for your job, but I love it. I love travelling, and seeing all of these different cultures,” she said Sunday during a press conference that followed a practice session at York University’s Rexall Centre, site of the tournament whose main draw begins Monday.

Bouchard will play Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova in the first round and will also team with retired champ Monica Seles for an exhibition doubles match against Venus and Serena Williams on Monday night. At 5-foot-10, Bouchard is a rangy, powerful player who has made a blazing ascent up the rankings since cracking the world’s top 200 last August. She’s currently No. 58 on the WTA and is no longer catching opponents by surprise after upsetting 12th-seeded Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon in June. In a conference call last week, Serena Williams said Bouchard was “a talented player with improving control of her groundstrokes.”

With Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 player in the world, pulling out of the tournament, Tennis Canada is leaning on Bouchard to be a face of the Rogers Cup. With a quick smile and witty personality (see her Gangnam Style video with British player Laura Robson), Bouchard is poised to be Canada’s sporting sweetheart for years to come. Having the fans behind her in Toronto this week will be a help, she predicted.

“Coming home is special. I know I’m going to have great crowd support and that always helps. I’ll be using that to my advantage,” she said.

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July 13, 2013

James Hinchcliffe revs up for Honda Indy in Toronto

James-Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe is ready to floor it on Lake Shore Boulevard during Honda Indy weekend. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on July 12, 2013.]

James Hinchcliffe grew up blocks away from Lake Shore Boulevard, the thoroughfare that runs for more than 100 kilometres in the Greater Toronto Area. Raised in Oakville, Hinchcliffe, like many civilians, would cruise down the road and itch to accelerate past the speed limit, which could be as low as 50 kilometres per hour in some stretches. This weekend, he’ll be paid to floor it on that same road — a turn of events that makes him chuckle.

“It’s funny blasting down Lake Shore Boulevard in an IndyCar at 250 kilometres an hour, rather than 50. It’s fun to say, ‘Take that, OPP,’” said the race-car driver, raising a fist playfully while thinking of the Ontario Provincial Police radar guns.

Hinchcliffe will be among 24 drivers zipping 1,900-pound race cars through the street course in Toronto on Saturday and Sunday. The Honda Indy is one of three events in 2013 to feature two races in one weekend on the Izod IndyCar Series. The race series has added second races in Detroit, Houston and Toronto to increase ticket sales and take advantage of the festival atmosphere in those cities.

Having dubbed the doubleheader “2 in TO,” race organizers were forced to hold their collective breath this past week as record rainfall flooded parts of the city, including Lake Shore Boulevard. But Honda Indy president Charlie Johnstone said the event was fortunate to see no damage to the venue. “Like everyone else, we were shocked by what happened and how fast it happened, but everything held up the way it was supposed to hold up,” Johnstone said of the course that blocks off one of the city’s most active commuter routes during Indy week each year. He pointed out that the event and the city were lucky that the rain occurred on Monday night, before any of the less-secure vendor and sponsor tents were put into place.

With the two races, he expects the Indy could top the $50 million in economic impact that it provided the city in 2012. There’s also the added benefit of more global media attention, with the races being broadcast in 200 countries. The race on Saturday will be the first time in the history of the racing series that a standing start will commence the chase for the checkered flag. Formula One races feature standing starts, where cars rev up before the green signal is given and then shift into drive. IndyCar races have traditionally begun with cars rolling forward to a start line, maintaining their pre-determined position until the green flag is waved. After changes were made to the manufacturing of cars used in the series last year, standing starts became possible for IndyCar and many race fans will be curious to see how the drivers adjust to the change. Sunday’s race will feature a rolling start.

For casual race fans, the 2 in TO format may seem confusing. If someone only wants to go to one race, which should they attend?

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April 16, 2013

Seeing the Ottawa Senators in action is sensational

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Jim O’Brien of the Ottawa Senators goes head over heels during a game against the New York Rangers. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article on my favourite NHL team was a labour of love 🙂 — and was first published on Vacay.ca on April 16, 2013.]

Marc Dupont takes 20 minutes to put on his game-face. It’s thick black paint that the night would envy. When complete, the soft-spoken government worker looks like a menacing warrior ready to terrorize. Along with the paint, Dupont wears a gladiator outfit that cost $1,200 on eBay, carries a plastic sword and sometimes a giant flag with the emblem of his team, the Ottawa Senators.

His outfit is made of metal and hard plastic, with enough bulk that it makes it hard to do anything but stand. Turns out that’s a good thing, because when Dupont and his fellow gladiators — self-professed “Superfans” — go to a game they don’t have a seat anyway.

“We have an agreement with the team that they give us access to the arena and we come to boost up the crowd, add some spirit to the rink,” he said during a recent game against the New York Rangers, which the Senators won at Scotiabank Place.

Dupont and his friend Jesse Jodoin began the ritual of donning gladiator outfits in 2007, the year the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in five games to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They and other gladiators attend about 10 games a year each in costume.

Tips for Seeing the NHL Senators

The Sens’ gladiators have become one of the attractions at the NHL rink that seats 19,153. Along with the kid-friendly mascot, Spartacat, the gladiators pump up a crowd that is regarded as too quiet. When theToronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens play road games in Ottawa, it’s routine to hear fans of the visiting side drown out the home team’s supporters. This year, the Senators asked season-ticket holders to refrain from selling their seats to fans of rival teams, particularly the Leafs and Canadiens. The request was met with snickers from observers around the league, several of whom said the team should focus on getting more out of its own fans rather than thwarting efforts of others trying to reach the rink.

It’s a perplexing situation that has existed since the team’s inception in 1992. Despite the fact the Senators have been one of the NHL’s winningest teams over the past 12 seasons, the rink isn’t always full and it’s not always loud.

One reason is because of location. Scotiabank Place is the only NHL arena in Canada that isn’t within the urban centre of a city. It’s in Kanata, about 20 kilometres from downtown Ottawa, a drive that can be aggravatingly long, which is why most weekday home games start at 7:30 pm rather than 7 o’clock like in other Canadian markets. A downtown rink attracts a boisterous crowd ready to make a night of it, win or lose.

At Scotiabank Place, the overwhelming majority of attendees must drive. That means less drinking, which means less noise — and that’s not a bad thing. Senators fans are among the league’s most polite and respectful. If you’re a fan, you can follow the action without worrying if the hooligan next to you is going to drop his beer on your lap (unless of course your neighbour is wearing a Leafs jersey, in which case you’d be advised to find Dupont or Jodoin to heckle him into an early departure).

Before and after the games, Bert’s is jumping, with live music and sports action on 23 large TV screens. It’s a festive place, with tiki bar decor and other Caribbean touches inspired by Bert’s in Barbados, which Senators owner Eugene Melynk has a stake in. Concession booths at Scotiabank Place are, not surprisingly, overpriced but Bert’s prices and fare are what you would expect to find at any sports bar.

Ottawa Hotel for the NHL Stars

When making your decision on where to stay for the game, your first option should be the Brookstreet Hotel. Besides being extremely comfortable, the Brookstreet is the place where visiting NHL teams choose when they’re in town for a game. The players aren’t off-limits either. I found myself in an elevator with the Rangers’ Rick Nash and dining alongside some of his teammates at Perspectives restaurant.

“All of the teams have very specific menus they want us to create,” chef Clifford Lyness said. “More and more, we’re seeing requests for organic dishes. We work closely with the team’s nutritionists and sometimes the requests can be a challenge, but we always do whatever we can to meet their needs.”

While you likely won’t be eating from the same menu as the NHL stars at the Brookstreet, you’ll still enjoy a good-quality meal and a relaxing atmosphere with a nice view of the property’s golf course in the rear. The jazz lounge features music and local beer on tap, including brews from Ottawa’s Kichesippi Brewing Company and Beau’s.

The rooms are spacious and modern, with outlets for all your gadgets, HDTV, and room-darkening curtains. A minus is the lack of in-room complimentary WiFi (it costs $13.95 for 24 hours), but Options on the lobby level has a connection you can utilize.

Catching the On-Ice Action

The Senators are an admirable team to watch. Under second-year coach Paul MacLean, they compete, stick to their system and move as a unit, limiting the gap between the forward and the defence. (Yes, I’ve watched a few of their games.) With offensive stars Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza injured, they’ve managed to hold down a playoff spot (they’re currently sixth in the Eastern Conference) with strong team defence, outstanding goaltending and timely goals. Put on red jerseys and move them to Detroit and they might resemble some of the Red Wings teams that MacLean coached as an assistant under Mike Babcock.

The Senators have taken advantage of being underestimated this year. They put up an energetic effort, especially at home where they have a 13-3-3 record entering Tuesday night’s game against Carolina. If you want to see an NHL game and find it difficult or too expensive for a game in Montreal or Toronto, the Senators are a terrific third option in the eastern part of the country.

Ever since Scotiabank Place opened in 1996 as the much-cooler-sounding Palladium it has been graced with some of the best sightlines available in any NHL arena. The front rows of the upper deck will put you on top of the action. Like the Bell Centre in Montreal and Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the back rows don’t have any of the intimacy of the older hockey rinks, but that’s a situation fans have to get used to these days.

The lower-bowl views are outstanding. You’ll get a clear view of the action and because of the hush of the crowd be able to hear every scrape, whack and smack that takes place on the ice.

Read more on Vacay.ca.

April 1, 2013

Gearing up for a promising Blue Jays season

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Jose Bautista and the Jays are poised for a big year. (Owais Qureshi/Vacay.ca)

“It’s designed to break your heart,” A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote about baseball. “The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Giamatti was one of those tormented Red Sox fans of the 20th century. Their autumns and winters were never warmed by the memories of a championship, only the torturous thoughts of “what if?” He died in 1989, while in office as the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a few weeks before the Red Sox swooned again in September and lost the American League East title to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Back then, the Jays and Red Sox were similar because their fans shared a sense of doom. While what Torontowent through was nowhere near the devilish grief Boston endured for 86 years, the Blue Jays had suffered monumental and historic collapses. In 1985, they led the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals 2-0 and 3-1, but George Brett’s bat blasted the Jays into winter earlier than anyone in Canada wanted, and baseball fans in Toronto became familiar with the meaning of the term “die-hard.” The pain became more intense after the team lost its final seven games in 1987 and missed the playoffs, even though it appeared for months that Canada’s first World Series title was a certainty.

Blue Jays supporters went through a discontented winter waiting for redemption and the sense of hope that flourishes in the sport each April. But 1988 was a failure and 1989 started out terribly and the Oakland A’s had assembled a juggernaut that dispatched the Jays with ease in the playoffs. Even though the Blue Jays owned baseball’s best cumulative record over a six-season period dating to 1984, it seemed like the window of chance had closed like an umpire’s fist on a strikeout call.

The rest you know. On December 5, 1990, the Blue Jays revamped their lineup — and their identity — through trades and free-agent signings. They reached the postseason from 1991-93, and won back-to-back championships, bringing euphoria to the city, as well as an indelible source of pride for all of those who zealously followed the team from spring to fall, season after season.

Fans today may find it hard to believe, but the Blue Jays once were the most successful team in baseball, becoming the first franchise to draw 4 million fans, selling out home games at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) at record levels. In recent years, the same stadium has seen its attendance rank among the lowest in baseball, with the Jays averaging just 25,921 fans in their 81 home games in 2012.

As Opening Day arrives, however, change comes with it. In 2013, the Blue Jays are in a position they haven’t been for two decades: They enter the season as World Series favourites.

The addition of three elite starting pitchers — Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson — as well as All-Star position players Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera ensure the Blue Jays will be one of the most exciting teams to watch. The offseason moves have rekindled thoughts of the feats former general manager Pat Gillick pulled off in the early 1990s. Whether this team truly can bring the glory days back to Toronto will not be revealed for months. For now, what we do know is the electricity that has been absent during the past 20 years — as the Jays have failed to come within even a warning-track flyball of the postseason — will be back. They are going to be competitive. Game days will be exciting, bars and restaurants will be full, hotels will enjoy a boost with visitors coming in to see the hottest show in town.

If you’re going to see a game, here are tips to enjoying the Blue Jays experience:

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January 23, 2012

Archie Manning’s restaurant in New Orleans is a winner

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Eli Manning is headed back to the Super Bowl and, thanks to his dad, his hometown will have a hot new place to watch the big game.

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The burgers at Archie Manning's restaurant feature his uniform number and those of his sons.

A restaurant in New Orleans bearing the Manning name was going to pack the house no matter what. Archie Manning’s a classy guy, though, so you could expect that he would deliver an establishment with style and sophistication. At Manning’s, you’ll find a big, airy sports bar that has plenty of hospitality and enough warmth to make it appeal to women too.

The newly opened restaurant in the Big Easy’s trendy Warehouse Arts District features a large patio, which will host live music, as well as a banquet hall and 300 televisions, including a dominating 13.5-foot-by-7-foot screen that will catch the eye of anyone passing by. The menu from chef Anthony Spizale includes well-known southern favourites like Shrimp Po Boy sandwiches and Gumbo, along with some eccentric choices (Pig Skin Sliders and Alligator Sliders) that might surprise tourists.

“I’m real excited about it,” Archie Manning told me on Thursday, a night after the 210-seat restaurant held a grand opening celebration at its 519 Fulton Street location. “I’ve been on the road a lot and this business will help me stay closer to home.”

Manning, the former quarterback for the Saints, lives in the city’s Garden District (his home is on the walking tour of the posh neighbourhood) and is one of the most popular figures in New Orleans. He was walking around the restaurant on Thursday taking photographs with all of the guests and smiling wide inside his new digs. He had the idea for the restaurant about five years ago and opened it in time for this weekend’s NFL playoff games, which included his youngest son, Eli, quarterbacking the New York Giants to victory over the San Francisco 49ers. They will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on February 5 in Indianapolis, on the field where Peyton Manning, Archie’s other quarterback son, has led the Colts.

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September 22, 2011

From Slovenia, hockey scholar Jason Blake writes about Canada’s passion

The author of the most thoroughly researched analysis of hockey literature you’ll ever have the delight of reading hasn’t seen a full NHL game in about 10 years. Needing a topic for his Ph.D thesis, Jason Blake recognized a lack of commentary on a subject that is ubiquitous in Canadian culture. Plus, “I had a hell of a lot of time on my hands in Slovenia and figured what the heck.”

Jason Blake - Author

Jason Blake wrote "Canadian Hockey Literature" as his Ph.D thesis.

So, from that tiny Eastern European country that has produced just one elite player, came “Canadian Hockey Literature,” a smart compilation of Blake’s observations about the game’s meaning to writers, readers and everyone else in Canada. For what has to be one of the coolest Ph.D theses ever, Blake read more than two-dozen hockey novels for adults — including “50 Mission Cap” — and “perhaps a hundred short stories.”

Published last year, “Canadian Hockey Literature” (University of Toronto Press) reveals how deeply ingrained the game is in our collective consciousness.

“It’s everywhere. Hockey shows up effortlessly, or seemingly effortlessly, in all kinds of literature. It’s something that resonates with every Canadian. Even those who don’t like hockey, or have never played it, can relate to its importance,” Blake told me during a Skype conversation the other day.

The Torontonian also noticed that the mythic moments of the game — those scenes where hockey helps bring about epiphany and meditative introspection for its characters — occur in the pastoral setting of a public rink or private frozen pond.

“You couldn’t really have those moments in organized hockey. It would just be too hard to sell to readers,” Blake said, noting the cynicism that surrounds all sports, where greed and corruption spoil any attempts to romanticize the feathering of a puck toward twine or the ardor you feel when muscle ripples down the back of your leg upon the letting go of a shot that has a chance.

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September 19, 2011

Record salmon caught at Queen Charlotte Lodge

Record Queen Charlotte Lodge Fish

This 84-pound female Chinook salmon broke a Queen Charlotte Lodge record and made one fisherman very happy.

It took 30 minutes, weighed 84 pounds and was beyond priceless for Chris Lewis — it was historic.

The Queen Charlotte Lodge guest reeled in the Chinook salmon that broke the famed fishing lodge’s 11-year-old record by more than two pounds. Located in pristine Haida Gwaii — the Galapagos of the North and one of Canada’s greatest treasures — the QCL is a delightful place run with some of the finest people you’ll find in the hospitality industry. Duane Foerter, the marketing manager at QCL, reported to me that Lewis, his fishing partner Stephen Mason and guide Derek Poitras “were fishing along the kelp just east of Klashwun Point when both rods went off in a matter of seconds.”

Mason had hooked a 31-pound Chinook while Lewis battled with his monster catch, reeling in and then letting it run for half an hour until they could force it closer to the boat.

“They could tell by the wide shoulder on the fish that this was no ordinary salmon,” Foerter wrote about the silvery fish caught on August 20 in northwest British Columbia.

Chris Lewis and his record Chinook

Chris Lewis and his record Chinook.

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September 13, 2011

Steve Nash opens TSX, says ‘no good news’ on NBA lockout

Steve Nash opens Toronto Stock Exchange

Steve Nash opens the Toronto Stock Exchange, which was up in early trading on Tuesday. (Julia Pelish photo)

Just because the NBA is locked out doesn’t mean Steve Nash isn’t taking shots in a competitive environment.

The two-time MVP from Victoria, British Columbia rang the opening bell at the Toronto Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning as part of Liquid Nutrition Group, a maker of nutritional beverages. Nash is a partner in the Quebec-based chain that serves juices, smoothies and electrolyte-rich mineral water.

While he was excited about the prospects of the company, which plans to open nine franchises across Metro Toronto, he was downbeat about the odds of a quick settlement to the NBA’s work stoppage.

“I wish I had good news for you,” the Phoenix Suns’ point guard said shortly after trading commenced on the TSX. “I sense that it’s getting toward the place where it needs to get but I don’t think we’re there. Maybe next week people will start to say, ‘Okay, let’s cut the crap and get a deal in place.’ I don’t mean to be flip about it. This is a serious negotiation.”

Talks are expected to become more intense as the deadline nears for the season-opener on November 1. Both the players’ union and league owners resumed discussions with full bargaining committees at the negotiating table on Tuesday. Training camps are supposed to start on October 3, but it seems unlikely they will.

“The players are unified but having said that we want to get back to work as soon as we possibly can,” said Nash, who arrived in Toronto at 3 a.m. from Winnipeg, where he received a humanitarian award from a hospital charity. “At some point we have to come together, come to a middle ground. Right now, the owners are pretty adamant they don’t want to come to the middle ground. They want us to come down. That’s the main issue.”

Asked if the players might consider starting their own league, Nash said anything would be on the table if the lockout prolonged.

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