SALUTING AND MOURNING THE PEERLESS, TWO-OF-A-KIND SEDINS

(Most pictures by me!)

The outpouring of admiration and affection for the incomparable Daniel and Henrik Sedin, as they played their final three games for the lowly Canucks, was like nothing I’ve witnessed in my more than half a century of following sports. Fans, scribes, commentators, competitors, all the way down to the referees and well, just about everyone, joined in the celebration and heartfelt farewells in a way that went beyond the usual tributes to the end of a great player’s career. They seemed to be an acknowledgment that, in the 100-year history of the National Hockey League, the Sedins were something special.

Image 22TImage 19They were not the equal of Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, the Rocket, or some of the other NHL greats of the past, but they played the game as it had never been played. Their ability to find each other with a no-look perfect pass, whether behind the back, through a crowd or simply by directing the puck to a seemingly innocuous part of the ice where the other Sedin would suddenly appear was other-worldly. At times, they seemed hockey-playing aliens from another planet.

They did so without howitzer shots, blinding speed or bruising physical play, absorbing all the hacking and physical punishment from lesser players without retaliation.  Daniel and Henrik were the antithesis of Don Cherry and that old-school consensus of “the way the game should be played.” Rather they were all about Finesse. With a capital F.

Even during the Canucks’ difficult last few years and beginning to age, whenever the Sedins hit the ice, you knew there was still a possibility of magic, a play that left you gasping with its brilliance. It was a magic that came to be known as “Sedinery”, an uncanny combination of dexterity and puckwork that surely had something to do with the chemistry of being identical twins. At their peak, they made journeymen linemates into 30-goal scorers, if they knew enough to merely wait for the puck near the net, where one of the Sedins would find them with a pinpoint pass.

sedin-twins-nhl-gallery-6Yet it’s often forgotten that their success was far from immediate or inevitable. They were not Gretzky or Lemieux, who were dominant pretty much from game one. One look at the pair of red-cheeked, innocent-looking teenagers drafted by the Canucks, and you could see the problem. How could these seemingly fragile kids from beautiful Örnsköldsvik possibly survive the rough and tumble, often brutal NHL? During their sometimes difficult, early years, they were mocked by many. Belittlers included some so-called Vancouver sports personalities, who shamefully dubbed them “the Sedin sisters” for their endless cycling of the puck and allegedly being Swedish soft. They also took a beating on the ice. But they never whined, never complained. Their extraordinary strength of character saw them through it.

Realizing that what had worked in Sweden wasn’t going to cut it in the rough, tough NHL, through sheer hard work they gradually got it right, improving their skating and building up their strength and stamina. Teammates attested to their fitness. No one showed up at training camp in better shape, a status they maintained religiously throughout the rigours of an NHL season. While their artistry with the puck grabbed the headlines, few remarked on how many plays began with Daniel or Henrik using their physical strength and toughness to protect the puck in the corner or along the boards, before passing. I have never seen players more skilled at operating in such little open ice. By season four, their climb to hockey’s elite had begun. Even this year, at the age of 37, with an unending rotation of nondescript wingers, both still had more points than in any of those first four seasons with the Canucks.

Image 23.jpgOver the years, there were so many good times, so many nights when they would get on one of their dazzling cycles and absolutely mesmerize the other team, before chalking up another goal. In 2009-2010, Henrik won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. The next year, not to be outdone by his older brother, younger Daniel also won the scoring title, plus the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player. There were also the not so good times, of course, particularly the devastating loss in the seventh game of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. And the last few years have been a challenge. But through it all, they never shied from the media or making themselves accountable when they had not been at their best.

In the three games that followed their retirement announcement, the way opposing players waited patiently for a last handshake with the Sedins before heading to the dressing room attested to the great respect they engendered around the league, a respect that extended to rabid supporters of the hometown Edmonton Oilers. At the end of their final game, they kept cheering as Daniel and Henrik skated around the ice, as if they, too, could not bear to see the end of their special talents. And, lest we forget the incredible, rollicking send-off in Vancouver two night earlier. Not only were there ovation after ovation for the local heroes, Daniel scored the winning goal in overtime, setting off a roar the likes of which hadn’t been heard since the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was his second goal of the game, each assisted, naturally, by Henrik, as the twins cranked up their game one last time for a story-book ending to their astounding careers.

The reception in both their home and enemy rinks was as much a recognition of the Sedins’ exemplary character. They didn’t trash talk, didn’t make excuses, didn’t bemoan bad luck. They both remain married to their high-school sweethearts and are raising their kids as normally as possible right here in Vancouver. They are common visitors to city hospitals and involved with select charities, without attracting attention to themselves. When the Sedins gave $1.5 million to BC Children’s Hospital, only at the insistence of the hospital was their donation made public.

Late in their final game against the Oilers, hearing broadcaster john Shorthouse announce for the zillionth time: “Daniel, back to Henrik, pass to Daniel…over to Henrik…”, a wave of sadness, swept over me, as it sank in just how much I will miss them. They were as much a part of Vancouver as the rain, unaffordable real estate prices and the North Shore mountains. Watching the Sedins over their 17 seasons with the boys of Orca is one of the absolute highlights of my many, many years as a hockey fan. I still can’t quite grasp the fact that the twins will not be lacing up their skates for another season, and sweaters 22 and 33 will be missing from the Canucks’ lineup for the first time this century. A magnificent chapter has closed, and we will never see its like again.

I do have one last, mischievous thought. For the longest time not even their coaches could tell the Sedins apart. Now that the tumult and the shouting have died, I can’t help wondering: did Daniel and Henrik ever switch jerseys, just for the fun of it?

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THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

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 thefastest 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.

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

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

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.