Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with the slide_338904_3464758_freefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.


The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.


But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.


In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.


He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

 — Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

It was one of the great epic battles of that long-ago time. From there, Cassius Clay went on to become Muhammad Ali and perhaps the most famous, admired athlete of all time. My friend was one of the few to see his greatness ahead of time, in 1964.



We are all Canadians. As I write, thick snowflakes are falling in usually-balmy Vancouver, as if to underscore that yes, indeed, we are all winter. (sorry, Sweden…) This is one of those increasingly rare times when, despite tireless efforts to reshape the country in their own image by those cold, calculating politicians in Ottawa, we can reach back to our roots and celebrate just being Canadian. Together, as a nation, we rose yawningly early (4 a.m. on the West Coast!) to watch a game for ice supremacy taking place thousands of miles away in Russia.

Of course, there was really no doubt we would rise to the occasion, There is something about Canada and hockey that grips us, still, and today, it seems, more than ever. Perhaps this renewed embrace of our national game was nourished a few decades hence, when Canada seemed to be losing its place in the sports world. Olympic medals were few and far between. In fact, we made Olympic history as the only host country to fail to win a gold medal on its own soil. Not once, but twice!

Our hockey teams also fell short ar more often than they succeeded. We bemoaned our lack of skill, our emphasis on being tough and crashing opponents into the boards, while hockey players from other countries seemed wondrously fast and agile.  Articles on “our troubled game” abounded. Fans despaired. Many fell off the bandwagon. Then, surprisingly, much against type, we began to learn from the Europeans. We found we could pass, skate and move the puck quickly, too. We didn’t have to brawl our way to the top. Our junior teams started the trend, winning a dozen world championships through the 1990’s and 2000’s. They did it with basic hockey, abandoning the fighting that yet mars junior play back home, and buying into good, positional team play.

And now, at the Olympics, our hockey guys have won three of the last four gold medals. Canadians are way back on side. Though nothing could equal the magic of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal before the home folks in 2010 (“Iggggy…!”), this was pretty wonderful, too. The thought of us all, collectively bleary-eyed, blinking back sleep or shedding hangovers, in bars and living rooms across the country, from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, is moving. A nation, once more.

The Olympics also demonstrated that, in spite of fighting, sky high salaries and Gary Bettman, hockey remains at heart a winter’s game, beautifully played by Canadians. The Sochi version of Team Canada is arguably the best national shinny squad ever assembled. From the hesitant opening match against Norway to the final seconds of their dominant gold medal showdown against Sweden, the players never abandoned their composure or commitment to team play. Egos and individualism were put on hold. The forechecking and backchecking of star forwards paid millions of dollars to play in the NHL was relentless.

At the Olympics, they were not playing for the big bucks but for national pride, corny as that sounds, and their work ethic was exemplary. Though scores were sometimes close (three one-goal games), Canada was the better team in all six of its matches. Most IMG_1715of all, they smothered teams with a suffocating defense, from impeccable Carey Price between the pipes, to their solid defense core, to forwards coming back to help whenever their opponents ventured across the blue line. And Canada’s goals were almost always the result of skilled plays, rather than the boring old style of putting the puck on the net and trying to cram it in during a scramble.

Vintage hockey at its best.

Afterwards, assistant team captain Jonathan Toews, still only 25, waxed rather elegant about their gold medal achievement:

“It’s a great team that we had in this tournament. You could see it developing, the chemistry, in the locker room. The guys start to understand their roles,” he told reporters. “It’s not easy for some guys. You look at Roberto Luongo or Marty St. Louis or even Sharpie tonight, guys that have made sacrifices to win the gold medal.

“But you ask them, I don’t think they care. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of a team like that, whether your role was big or small. You watch us tonight, we’re an amazing team to watch, the way we work together. We were just all over them.”


There’s a good chance this may be the last Winter Olympics to have NHL players competing.  The USA did poorly, some top players suffered serious injuries during the Games, and a large majority of NHL owners hail from south of the border. Not much national pride there. But right now, it feels pretty  good. Eh, Canada?




Hockey, schmockey. What about curling? Let’s see. Not only are we a moguls behemoth and a hockey colossus. We rock at throwing rocks. Hardly news, of course. But these Winter Games are the first time both our men’s and women’s rinks have claimed gold at the same Olympics. Do I feel your eyes glazing over? Hey, it’s the roaring game!

But the women’s gold medal curling final, which almost got lost in the national euphoria over the thrilling victory by Canada’s never-say-die distaff hockey side, brought back some fond memories. It was Canada versus the tough Swedes, and the first crack at Olympic glory for one of this country’s greatest skips. Jennifer Jones had won so much at home, but often faltered internationally, and twice flubbed out at the country’s Olympic trials. This time, she was ready.

But it was no rock in the park, so to speak. Jones curled wonderfully, the rest of her rink not so much. In fact, without a key miss by the Swedes in the 9th end, and a measurement that gave Canada a point in the previous end by the width of a cat’s whisker, the result might have been silver, rather than gold.

The Jones girls were the first rink to go through an Olympics competition without losing a single match. Much was also made of the fact that this was also the first Olympic gold medal for Canada’s crack women curlers since the legendary Saskatchewan rink skipped by another great competitor, Sandra “The Curler” Schmirler.

That took place at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and I was there. It’s one of my favourite memories.

This was the first Winter Games to include curling (thank you, IOC), and the competition took place at a small, chilly venue in the charming, snowbound village of Karuizawa. There wasn’t much to recommend the host city. Rain, dreary streets, not a hint of winter. But when I got off the fast train from Nagano, I was immediately charmed. Little Karuizawa was beautiful, blanketed by great piles of snow everywhere, which lent a pristine silence to the air. There was no Olympic buzz, no hype, no noise. The Japanese knew nothing about the game. Matches took place before friends and family of the competitors, and that was about it. Those of us who made it out to the curling rink felt like stranded travellers, holed up in a snowbound inn.

But that made it more intimate than any other Olympic event I’ve ever covered. I happened to catch the Canadian team as it crossed a wooden pedestrian bridge on its way to the Olympic final. “Hey curlers!” I yelled. And I was rewarded with lovely warm smiles from the often serious Schmirler and her fun-loving third Jan Betker.


The match, itself, was rather anti-climactic. Canada was in firm control from the beginning as they easily toasted their Danish opponents. When Schmirler’s last rock made a routine takeout to clinch the gold medal, the Canadians gathered together for an emotional group hug. There was almost no noise from the small spectators’ area. It was if they’d just won a bonspiel at their local curling rink.


There was no holding back, however, when Schmirler, Betker, lead Marcia Gudereit and second Joan McCusker received their Olympic gold medal. Their eyes welled with tears. As they sang along to O Canada, Betker shed more tears, streaming down her face. And I headed back through the snowy streets, my own heart was glowing, too.

But my look back is also bittersweet. Two years later, Schmirler was dead, felled by a lethal, rare cancer at the age of 36.



It is hardly a tragedy when someone dies after a long, fulfilling life at the age of 91. But nonetheless, the thought that Mavis Gallant has passed away brings sadness, nevertheless. Though minus the high public profile of other celebrated Canadian women writers such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, all of whom she influenced, Gallant was one of our best. And she experienced so much — from reporting for the old Montreal Standard, jaunty beret in place, to the glamour of Paris, where she mentored the young, rambunctious Mordecai Richler then a fixture of the city’s brasseries, to her front-row seat during the fierce student uprising that virtually took over Paris during the summer of 1968, to her continued, meticulous writing that brought her the Governor General’s literary award in 1982, and made her a Companion of the Order of Canada 10 years later.

Yet Gallant was off the beaten track for many Canadians. In part, that was because she lived most of her life in dreamy Paris, so there was little national literary buzz about her. As well, her forté was the short story, which, Alice Munro notwithstanding, is not generally a road to fame. At her death, however, there was a flood of appreciation from writers and critics for her long writing career, not least of which from the none-too-shabby Michael Ondaatje. “I just adored her writing,” he told the Globe and Mail in an email. “Hers are the great stories of our time. So subtle, dangerous, hilarious. The full human condition. My hero.” American writer Joyce Carol Oates suggested the Nobel Prize awarded recently to Munro could easily have been shared by the two Canadian masters of the short story.

She wrote of outsiders, immigrants trying to cope and societal change. Many of her stories were set in Europe, but she was ever a Canadian, never losing touch with her home and native land. She often quoted with approval Robertson Davies’ succinct comment, during yet another Quebec referendum debate: “Canada is not a country you love. it’s a country you worry about.”

I can’t profess to having read oodles of her short stories, preferring the more accessible, crafted work of Alice Munro, but those I did read had a remarkable clarity and reality about them. And whenever she wrote about Paris in The New Yorker, I lapped it up. Gallant, who left Montreal to try and survive as a writer in Paris while still in her twenties, once said no other city appreciates writers quite as much as the City of Light. “I found for the first time in my life a society where you could say you’re a writer and not be asked for three months’ rent in advance.”

In 1990, I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful, magical afternoon with Mavis Gallant in the heart of her beloved Montparnasse. I was preparing a CBC radio documentary on “the changing face of Paris”, and Gallant agreed to be interviewed. When she suggested we meet on the outdoor terrace of the storied Dôme Café, one-time haunt of Hemingway, Capa, Picasso, Anaïs Nin et al, I was thrilled. Here was I, talking to a famous writer at Le Dôme! And Gallant loved to talk. She was a natural and easy conversationalist, without a trace of writerly airs, her lively mind darting from topic to topic. It was so much fun.


When news came of her death, I thought immediately of that grand day of long ago. After a surprisingly brief rummage through the legendary Mickle archives, I came up with the tape and gave it a listen on my ancient, wheezing tape deck. We sounded like old friends.

Gallant was surprisingly unsentimental about Paris, sharing none of my far-away romanticism for my favourite city in all the world. I kept trying to get her to agree with my thesis: wasn’t it a shame that Paris was losing its neighbourhood charms to fast food joints and garish modernity? She would have none of it. “I don’t like the bourgeois sentimental vision, that other people are supposed to live in slums because they’re attractive,” Gallant declared. “The picturesque slum is not my idea of how people ought to live. I think Paris has changed for the better.” However, she did profess a loathing for the notorious Tour Montparnasse, a garish black office tower plunked down in the middle of the low-rise arrondisement.

She also rebuffed my nostalgia for the good old days, honed by my long love affair with expatriate Paris of the 1920s, entranced by Hemingway’s fetching tales of how it was. “I don’t think Paris is being ruined,” said Gallant. “When I first came here, the city was rather dirty. You see the soft beige, sandstone colour on a lot of buildings? All that had been blackened by soot, since the turn of the century. Now it’s been cleaned, and the light is extraordinary.

“I have arguments with Canadians over this, because they like the grime,” she continued, over the café hum and clinking of cups and saucers. “But this is Paris as it was built. Suddenly we see those grand old buildings the way they were. That gives one much more a sense of history than a foot of grime.”

I finally hit the motherlode, when I asked her to describe the historic area where we were sitting, surrounded by other of the renowned cafès of Montparnasse. This was the clip I used for my documentary.

“Across the street, there’s been no change at all. That cinema has always been there. La Rotonde has always been there, of course. The Select has always been there. This café has always been here. Those two or three shops between here and La Coupole have always been there. The stationer, the tobacconist, that news agent across the street. They’ve always been there, too. So, you can’t say Paris has all been changed.”

Hearing those grand old cafés enumerated with such familiarity by Mavis Gallant, whilst gazing out at them from Le Dôme, itself, was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

RIP, Ms. Gallant. We’ll always have Paris.


Sandra Martin’s elegant obituary in the Globe and Mail:

And a recent Ideas segment on The Four Seasons of Mavis Gallant:



So much has happened since Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe snared gold and silver in the women’s moguls competition, with the usual dramatic emotional highs and heartbreaking lows that are part of every Olympics. But Q’s Jian Ghomeshi finally caught up with the sisters on Friday, and the interview with Justine and Chloe was just so lovely, I couldn’t resist sharing it. Even after all the interviews they had done before, the two sisters still managed to sound refreshing and completely open. There doesn’t appear to be a cynical bone in their bodies. You just kinda end up smiling at everything they say.  I dare you to try to resist their charm. I certainly couldn’t.

Anyway, here’s the interview, with its many enchanting moments. This might be a bit longer than the version I heard on radio…Just sit back and listen.

Now about Denny Morrison, Charles Hamelin, Patrick Chan, and those multi-fourth place lugers…..coming soon to a blog posting near you.


The Today Show Gallery of Olympians

Like hundreds of thousands other tense Canadians, I sat transfixed in front of ye olde TV set on Saturday, willing a not-quite-good-enough run by the American mogul superstar, Hannah Kearney. Not that I wished any ill on Kearney, but I had watched in the cold driving rain at soggy Cypress Mountain four years ago, when Kearney had snatched the gold medal from favoured Canadian and defending Olympic champion, Jennifer Heil. So, what the heck, turnabout was fair play.

Besides, those captivating Quebecois sisters, Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe had already finished their bouncy runs and stood first and second, awaiting only Kearney’s final dash down the steep, mogul-strewn incline. Dared we perchance to dream of gold and silver? By now, all Canada knows the result. Kearney buckled under the pressure, her form just a little bit off.  The Winter Olympics had it’s fairy tale, and Canada had a wonderful, good news story for the ages. I would wager even those hardy anti-Olympians out there had to feel a little bit of happy in the night.

Image 4

Imagine being 19, standing on the Olympic podium, with your sister beside you. In a touching moment at the informal, track-site ceremony, the two sisters briefly held hands. Later, they hugged and gave each other big kisses on the cheek. None of it was forced or staged. It was all spontaneous. These are sisters beyond friendly. They love each other. Said Justine: “This may be unique for the Olympics, but for us, it’s normal.”

And when ‘O Canada’ played during the official medal ceremony, tears rolled down the Olympic champion’s cheeks. See if you can manage to watch this, without tearing up, too. I couldn’t.

As if all this were not compelling enough, there is yet more to this story. A third Dufour-Lapointe sister also competes in moguls. Against all odds, Maxime, though not as skilled as her younger sisters, still managed to claw her way onto Canada’s Olympic team, through the preliminaries and into the final 12. How appropriate to have an Olympic retelling of The Three Sisters in Chekhov’s native land.

And, lest we forget the parents, Yves and Johane. A salt of the earth couple who deflected all talk about making sacrifices on behalf of their daughters. We just gave them the space to develop. They are the ones who deserve the praise, not us, said mom. “They showed us the way,” added dad.

In 2010, the New Yorker sent one of its writers to Vancouver to report on the Winter Olympics. Long before there were any headlines, he was entranced by Dufour-Lapointe sisters Maxime and Chloe, who finished fifth in her first Olympics at the age of 18. Justine, then 15, was merely in the background, with braces on her teeth and a Canadian flag painted on her cheeks. The writer’s prescient story contained these immortal words from the sisters’ aerials coach, Luc Bellhumeur: “Sochi will be a Dufour-Lapointe Olympics.” Little did he know.

With its myriad angles, starring sisters who seem to charm every time they open their mouth, this is one of those stories where words are mostly inadequate to what actually took place. About a hundred times better than all the TV-reality shows combined. So I’ll sign off here, leaving you with this very nice summation of an unforgettable Saturday from the slopes above Sochi by Postmedia’s Vicki Hall.

Plus, the ever-elegant Bruce Arthur:

And almost best of all, no one asked them about Justin Bieber…



The country’s pokiest Top Ten List for 2013 continues its merry, snail-like pace. Oh, for a deadline, now that 2014 is here. Just six more not-so-great things by the Clark government and it will all be done, on earth as it is on Mickleblog. To think I complained about the lack of a fall session. For those who have lost track, you can access previous installments of my list of government misdeeds in 2013 here and here. And, to remind you that I do indeed have a soft heart, my list of good government deeds is right here. of Now, where were we? Oh, yes, number 5.


5. How’s that good old Job Plans going? Well, not so good. It  turns out that B.C., instead of creating well-paying jobs, has lately been actually shedding full-time positions in the private sector. At the same time, more people are fleeing the province for other parts of Canada than are arriving here from God-knows-where in this great land of ours. I don’t think that’s from despair over the Canucks’ woeful power play.

However, fair-minded fellow that I am, I don’t blame Christy Clark and the Liberals for the basic failure to date of the Premier’s paltry, but ultra-hyped Jobs Plan. Mostly, it’s the fault of the province’s relatively-lacklustre economy and the accelerating tendency of employers to invest in part-time employment, rather than full-time jobs.

The Liberals can’t really be yelled at for that. The ability of provincial governments to affect the basic economy is minimal at best, despite all the rhetoric. We all know the routine: healthy economy, governments take credit; stumbling economy, governments blame external forces. “That’s the reality of the Western world,” sighed Clark, in one of her year-end interviews. Guess which economy she was talking about.

No, what puts the ongoing Jobs Plan on my list of government misdeeds leading to the 2013 “chateau bow-wow” was all that irritating, tub-thumping hyperbole over the Liberals’  vaunted employment scheme. Remember that ridiculous rallying cry: Canada Starts Here. I was never quite sure what that meant. (Newfoundland, anyone?) But apparently, we were “gonna” show the rest of the country how it’s done. Number one in economic growth. Number one in job creation. Blah, blah, bloody blah. Of course, no such thing has happened. Tempting it is to paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s pithy description of her hometown, when assessing ‘Canada Starts Here’:  “There’s no here, here.” But hey, how about that election?

It’s all part of the Christy Clark style of perpetual campaigning: repeat something over and over again, complete with simplistic slogan. If it doesn’t work out, who really cares? The point is to say it as if you believe it. Add hard hat and spin. And, lo and behold, if it does actually show some results, well: “Oh, what a good girl am I!” To which I say: “Phooey!”

6. There is lots of blame to share in the abject waste of millions of dollars on services for young aboriginals, as detailed by the province’s web-bc-turpel-lafond06no-nonsense, children and youth representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. In her customary blunt manner – and I mean that in a good way, Turpel-Lafond concluded in a scathing report released late last year:  “More than $66 million has been spent without any functional public policy framework, no meaningful financial or performance accountability, and without any actual children receiving additional services because of these expenditures.” A truly shocking indictment.

For the Liberals, the matter is a collective responsibility, inherited by the current government. At the same time, native authorities, themselves, have by and large failed to demonstrate accountability for the large sums they receive to improve child youth services on reserves. So, as with the stuttering of the jobs plan, this is certainly not all Christy Clark’s faul. But the situation has continued on her watch. It’s long past time to take this complex, difficult issue head on and do something to make it better. Let’s have less money tossed into structures and process and much more into services for those in need.

The dire reality was underscored on Thursday with the release of another heart-rending report by Turpel-Lafond, this one on the tragic suicide of an abused 14-year old girl on a First Nations reserve up north. She concludes:  “The story of this girl’s short life is painful to learn. The Representative appreciates that many British Columbians will find it unbelievable that what happened to her could be allowed to occur in our province, with its legal and other protections for the safety of children.

“It is a story of a virtual collapse of a system of services – or more accurately, a story of the shadow cast over the lives of many girls and boys on-reserve where there is no opportunity to bring out what is going on in their lives in a way that connects them to supports or services.” Read it, and weep. Then, get angry.

Herewith, an excellent column by the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason on the subject, followed by Turpel-Lafond’s comprehensive, earlier report last November.

7. The growing tendency for government communications people to respond with emailed statements, rather than make themselves or their ministers available for real questions. “In an emailed statement, spokesman Bloggs reiterated government policy, without addressing the issue at hand.” Reminds me of the long-standing tradition of ministers, whenever they are accused of underspending on certain services, to point how much the government has spent on these particular services since 2001, as if the fact that they spent anything at all shows what good folks they are. ‘nuff said.

It should be pointed out that there are some excellent communications people over in Victoria, and thankfully, some ministers remain quite good at getting back to reporters. The overall trend, however, is worrisome. Of course, the B.C. Liberals are hardly alone in this disturbing reliance on  response by email. The federal Tories are far worse. But this is a B.C. list, so boo!

To be continued….(sigh)