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.

 

 

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AL ARBOUR, THE GUY WITH THE SPECS

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One of the fun things about growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, besides knowing where all your teachers lived for purposes of Hallowe’en, was being able to root for the Toronto Maple Leafs the last time they were a truly great hockey team. Under the hard-nosed but savvy guidance of coach Punch Imlach, the team won three straight Stanley Cups – 1962-1964 – and copped a surprise fourth Cup in 1967, the final year of a six-team NHL. They haven’t come close to winning since. But of course, that was only half a century ago….

Back then, my hockey heroes were anyone who wore the big maple leaf, although a special place in my “love bug” was reserved for Johnny Bower, ageless custodian of the pipes, as the knights of the keyboard liked to call him, and The Entertainer, aka Eddie Shack. And, lest we forget, both also made a contribution to the world of music, Mr. Bower with his classic Honky The Christmas Goose and Mr. Shack, subject of the equally immortal Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack.

But I loved all the players, as only kids can, including the guys who didn’t get much ice time. And here I am thinking of good old Alger “Al” Arbour. Although he never came close to making an all-star squad, everyone who followed hockey in those days knew the lanky, durable defenseman. Not only was he a fearless shot blocker, he did so while wearing glasses. 1958-59 topps 64 al arbourImagine that. Hurling yourself in front of slapshots, face first, with nary a thought of what might happen if the puck shattered your prominent specs. That was Al Arbour, as courageous a player as the NHL ever had. In fact, he was the last guy in the NHL to wear glasses on the ice. No contact lens for him. He really stood out for us kids. Sure, a Gordie Howe hockey card was treasured, but so was the card of the guy wearing glasses. It just seemed so insane.

Alas, for all that, Al Arbour was hardly one of the league’s elite blueliners He was slow, and his shot would barely shatter glass, let alone his own spectacles. In 712 games, he registered a mere 13 goals and 66 assists. Still, you never heard a goalie complain about having Arbour out there, as he dove to stop yet another cannonading drive with his body, before it reached the net.

The Leafs were one of Arbour’s four NHL teams. He was there when they won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and 1964. But he had the misfortune of being the fifth defenseman on a team that had two of the best defense pairings in the league: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, and Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun. The four of them played together for years. It’s not like today, when defensemen are switched around like Parcheesi pieces. On the Leafs, ice-time for Arbour was always a rarity.

Yet it was always a thrill when broadcaster Bill Hewitt would announce his presence on the ice. You felt he was an underdog, too, scuffling for his place among the big boys, as was I in Grade Nine. Despite his lack of flash, I don’t remember him ever making a careless play.

Plus, he was a factor in one of my favourite anecdotes from the good old days of Six-Team Hockey. Punch Imlach was a big fan of the unorthodox, and if that meant putting his five oldest players on the ice during the last minute of the last game of the 1967 Stanley Cup final, he did so. Anyway, one night, with the score close, for reasons known only to himself, Imlach ordered the slow-moving Arbour over the boards to take the face-off and play centre. Unabashed, Arbour calmly stood up and said in a loud voice to the equipment guy: “Get me my stick-handling stick.”

Later, Al was the brains behind the bench of one of the most successful franchises in NHL history, the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s. He was the main reason I became a firm fan of the Isles, who won four successive Stanley Cups, with the no-nonsense, mournful-looking Arbour at the helm. http://www.lighthousehockey.com/2015/9/1/9242695/nhl-islanders-video-tributes-al-arbour

Al Arbour died last week at the age of 82. The hockey world is already a poorer place.

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ANNE OF GREEN GABLES AND THE DEATH OF ‘GILBERT BLYTHE’

statements_524456 Social media reaction to the unexpected death this month of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who so memorably played Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, came almost entirely from the distaff side. Not too many guys were fans of the movie, I guess. Well, I’m a fan. A big one.

Like many of my gender, it seems, I was originally pretty dismissive of the whole Anne of Green Gables thing. Who cares about the adventures of some spunky 11-year old orphan girl in turn-of-the-20th century Prince Edward Island? She hates her red hair. Boo hoo. Bring on Anna Karenina.

But my mind was changed when I went to what I had hoped would be a party at a friend’s house, only to discover all the women heading into the TV room to watch Anne of Green Gables. Thinking they couldn’t possibly be serious, I tried cracking a few jokes. They told me to be quiet. So I reluctantly sat down to watch, too. Of course, much to my surprise, once I parked my prejudices by the door, I was charmed. No violence, except for Anne smashing her slate over poor Gilbert’s head, no sex, no deafening sound effects. Just a tender, perfectly made movie, with a superb cast.

Could anyone have been better than Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and Richard Farnsworth as dear Matthew, the loveliest man on the face of the earth? Then, there was Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe, the sweet-natured soul tortured by his love for the spirited but flinty Anne. Opinion was divided. He didn’t fit everyone’s idea of Gilbert from the book, and at times, he did appear a bit awkward on screen, a tad too old for the part (18 when the movie was filmed). Others found him perfect. Over time, however, since this is a movie that effortlessly absorbs repeated viewings, even those of us who were at first reluctant have grown to cherish him, too, along with everything else about this fine Canadian film. Anne-07 There’s much to be said for a movie that tells a good story, that’s well-acted and gently escapist enough to let you forget about that increasingly bad old world outside. It’s also unapologetically Canadian, in the good sense of that fine word. So, if you’re like I used to be and still dismissive of Anne of Green Gables, now’s the time to give it a whirl, surrender to its charm, and mourn Jonathan Crombie. He was 48, but forever young as Gilbert Blythe.

Here is a full length obituary of Crombie from Saturday’s Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/dreamy-gilbert-blythe-actor-jonathan-crombie-loved-the-stage/article24124077/

And this is an excellent piece from the Guardian that praises the character Gilbert Blythe as superior to many other rejected mail suitors in literature : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/24/jonathan-crombie-dead-gilbert-blythe-novel-anne-of-green-gables

P.S. A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, was pretty fair, as sequels go, but the less said about Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story the better. Anne and Gilbert don’t belong on the battlefields of World War One.

A further personal postscript. My aunt loved Anne of Green Gables and Canada’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her entire life. She read all the Anne and Avonlea books. Having grown up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, the bucolic splendor of Montgomery’s PEI gave her nothing but pleasure. As noted above, I kind of sniffed at this “defect” in my beloved Auntie Gret with that knowing smugness of someone pleased with himself for being into “serious” literature. Don’t need no stinkin’ girlie stuff! But was won over by the movie.

UnknownMy mother, a high school English teacher, was slow to warm to Anne of Green Gables, too. But my aunt’s view had prevailed  by the time she compiled her pioneering textbook in 1973 with the pulsating title, Canadian Literature, Two Centuries in Prose. Believe it or not, this was the first book designed to introduce high school and college students to our own country’s literature in one distinct volume. And she did not hesitate to include an excerpt from Anne of Green Gables, defending it as far more than a “children’s classic”, with its universal Cinderella theme (Jane Eyre, Pygmalion) and particularly Canadian motif of nostalgia for a world of peace and protection.

Later, we all shared the joys of the long-running, spin-off CBC series, Road to Avonlea, that introduced us to the remarkable Sarah Polley. The series also featured fine Canadian actors R.H. Thompson, Cedric Smith, Lally Cadeau, and of course, the late Jackie Burroughs as the indomitable Aunt Hetty. Sure, it wasn’t The Sopranos or The X-Files, or anything like that, but it was well-made, entertainment that everyone in our diverse family could enjoy. We were in China, my brother’s family was in Thunder Bay, Auntie Gret was in Burnaby, and my mom and sister were in good old Newmarket. Watching it made us all feel together, despite our vast separations. There’s a lot to be said for that. (My brother’s step-daughter loved Sarah Polley in the series. When she heard that young Sarah lived with her father in Aurora, just south of Newmarket, she and my sister ferretted out her address to say ‘hi’, but no one was home.)

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Yet the author who created all this enchantment, Lucy Maud Montgomery, had such a sad personal life, herself. She made an unfortunate, late marriage to a minister who suffered from deteriorating mental health. Despite the world-wide fame of Anne of Green Gables, such were the times that Montgomery loyally followed her husband to his modest church posting in Uxbridge, not that far from Newmarket. Their two children disappointed her. Acutely lonely and battling her own depression, she tried to escape by churning out more and more Anne-style books set in Prince Edward Island. They sold well, but there was only one Anne of Green Gables.

Years after she died in 1942, her personal journals were published. They sold well, attracting many new readers with her Unknownfrank, adult descriptions of her struggles with life and the hardships of being a woman, long before feminism. My mother and my aunt read every word. When Auntie Gret came east for a visit, she and her sister went prowling around the wilds of Kettleby and mighty Zephyr, looking for the manse where Lucy Maud lived with her difficult husband. Sort of like us younger folk searching out Dylan landmarks in Hibbing.

When my aunt was forced to move into an assisted-care facility, she took only one book with her. It was, of course, her life-long companion, Anne of Green Gables.

FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.

harmonkillebrewBut the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?

As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)

Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.

Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the allyn2majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.

When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.

Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)

Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.

One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.

RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.

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GOD BLESS US, EVERYONE

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First of all, a big, blustery “Hum……bug!” to CBC, which is “celebrating” Christmas Eve by showing the washed-out, colourized version of A Christmas Carol, the one with Alastair Sim at his most brilliant as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge. All the gloom, dark shadows and winter bleakness that are such a part of the classic 1951 British version of Dickens’ oft-filmed tale are gone, in return for vapid browns and greens. I could barely bring myself to watch the promos. When it comes to CBC management, I am forced to ask, as Scrooge did: “Are there no prisons.”

To make up for this travesty, I offer those of my blog followers who are as devoted to A Christmas Carol as I a pair of web stocking stuffers sure to delight them. But first, a few preambles.

“Waiter. More bread!….Ha’penny extra, sir…..No more bread!”

“Business???!! Mankind was my business!”

“Fetch down Master Scrooge’s box!”

“Isn’t that old Fezziwig?”

“It’s such a goose, Martha!”

“The one as big as me? It’s hanging there, still.”

“I don’t deserve to be so happy….Label, label, label, label, label.”

“Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge. In keeping with the situation.”

“You’ve made Fred so very ‘appy.”

“I am behind my time, sir. I was making rather merry yesterday….I’m sure you were. Step this way, Mr. Cratchit. I’m not going to put up with this sort of thing, any longer. Which leaves me no alternative…but to raise your salary…. No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses, Bob. I’ve come to them.”

Yes, like millions, I watch it every year, as much a part of my Christmas tradition as the pudding singing in the copper. I know as many of the wonderful lines as those in Casablanca. (Come to think of it, both Scrooge and Rick turn from cynics into guys with a heart, however bruised…a similarity little remarked upon….until now.)

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And so it came to pass, long ago, in the little town of Newmarket, that I first became aware of Dickens’ classic tale. On a snowy morning just before Christmas, a time no one referred to as ”the festive season”, all the kids on our street were talking about what they had seen on television the night before. Something about ghosts and chains and a mean old guy named Scrooge and being scared out of their wits. It was, of course, Alastair Sim and A Christmas Carol. But, like the Cratchits without a turkey, we were a family without a television. So it was not until a year or two later, when a small “idiot box” finally made it into our house, that I finally got to see A Christmas Carol for myself.

My appetite for the movie, which is perfect in every way, was whetted by our Grade Seven teacher, who might have been our own version of Scrooge. She was the meanest, crabbiest, fiercest teacher you could imagine, with a well-used black strap she didn’t hesitate to use on whomever might be in her bad books on a particular day. But as Christmas approached, she miraculously turned into a big softie. We sang Christmas carols, put up decorations, and best of all, she read us Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was if she, too, had been visited by the Three Spirits.

Before there were videos, my mother, who also loved the movie, would scour the TV listings every Christmas Eve to see which channel was playing Alastair Sims’ great tour-de-force, and when. Once, I seem to recall, the only showing was midnight on CKVR in Barrie. We watched late into the night, barely disturbing Saint Nick as he filled our stockings ng with such care. Like Christmas Day without Martha in the Cratchit household, it would not have been Christmas Eve without A Christmas Carol.

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But last week, I did something completely different. For the first time since Rocket Richard retired, I read good old Dickens’ original. Verrrrrrrry interesting, as they say. Many scenes in the movie were taken directly from Dickens, word for word. However, much to my surprise, some of the best bits were not even hinted at in the book. They were the creation of the movie’s perfectly-named screenwriter Noel Langley. He did the seemingly impossible. Yes, folks. In my opinion, believe it or not, the movie version is better!

The sheer, unbridled giddiness that courses through the movie Scrooge on Christmas Day, with Sim prancing around in his nightgown, standing on his head, scaring himself in the mirror, frightening Mrs. Dilber before giving her a guinea, hollering at the boy to buy the turkey, and on and on, far surpasses what’s in the book. And is any scene more wonderful than the 1951-xmas-maidheart melting moment when the reformed Scrooge hesitates nervously before going into his nephew’s drawing room? He receives a nod of encouragement from the sweetest maid in the history of filmdom. With the strains of Barbara Allen playing softly in the background, I choke up every time.

Okay, enough of me. Here are those promised treats. First is a definitive account of all the scenes from the 1951 movie that were not written by Dickens. That’s followed by the pièce de résistance, an interview with the young actress who played the maid all those years ago. It was her last appearance before the cameras.

http://www.sheeplaughs.com/scrooge/alastairsim.htm

http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2013/05/meet-the-maid-an-interview-with-theresa-derrington-cozens-hardy.html?cid=6a010536c2d604970c019101ddedd5970c

As Stompin’ Tom liked to say: Merry Christmas, everybody!

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GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINCE

Jean-Beliveau-640x432 As a diehard Leafs fans in the late 50’s and all through the 60’s, I don’t feel qualified to say much about the magnificent Jean Béliveau, who gave up the game Tuesday night, after a long skirmish in the corner with numerous afflictions. As always, it took more than one of them to finally lodge big Jean off the puck.

I hated the Habs in those days. There was no greater joy for this kid in Newmarket than when the Leafs would rise up to smite the mighty Montreal Canadiens, particularly their Stanley Cup win out of nowhere by Punch Imlach’s aging warriors in 1967. Such Leaf victories didn’t happen often. Most of the time, I would sit there glumly in front of our small, black and white TV set, watching the Habs pour it on, while my father chortled with every Montreal goal. images-5

Yet no matter how many times he killed the Leafs with a late power play goal or a perfect set-up, I could never bring myself to hate Jean Béliveau. Deep down, I knew I was watching someone who played hockey on a different level than almost everyone else, a master of the craft, as someone put it. So, instead of hate, my prevailing emotion whenever Beliveau had the puck in the Leafs’ zone was fear. You expected him to score on every play. My memories are not the goals he scored or the plays he made, but the constant anxiety he caused in my tense, blue-and-white, Maple Leaf heart.

Then there was the other stuff. Not only was he incomparably skilled on the ice, Bèliveau was absurdly handsome with perfect teeth, well-spoken and the personification of class. How could a guy who played the same game as Eddie Shack and Moose Vasko have these attributes, as well. It didn’t seem fair. Whenever he was interviewed between periods by Frank Selke Jr. (“Well, Junior…”), he never seemed to shed a drop of sweat, no hair was out of place, his voice as mellow and unruffled as if he’d just stepped out of a boardroom. Smooth, elegant, seemingly effortless, cruising the ice like a big, sleek Cadillac. That was Jean Béliveau.

For heartfelt reviews of a great great hockey player, I first offer this fine obituary by Gare Joyce. The last paragraph says it all. As a bonus, there is also an excellent video tribute at the top of the page by the great Stephen Brunt. http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/beliveau-obituary/

And closer to home, a lovely piece by Tom Hawthorn on what happened when Le Gros Bill came to Victoria in 2005. http://tomhawthorn.blogspot.ca/2014/12/fans-flock-to-meet-part-of-nhls-holy.html

JUST ANOTHER DAY ALONG THE JERICHO TRAIL

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Life is strange at the best of times, but sometimes there’s a confluence of forces that underscores to an absurd degree just how much of a funny old world this mortal coil really is. So it was Sunday morning coming down one of my favourite walks in this good old city, the well-travelled pathway along Spanish Banks, with its all-everything views — sea, sky, sand, mountains, tankers, and the distant, glistening cityscape.

And what should be come together at the end of this lovely trail? Why, what else but a country singer with a flower in her hair, a promotion for Canadian dolls, and, of course, Stompin’ Tom Connors.

The country singer was the genial Jesse Farrel (http://www.jessiefarrell.com), sitting on a log, strumming her guitar, learning the words to a new song. Her voice cut sweetly through the soft, maritime morning breeze. During a break, I asked her what song she was learning. “It’s by Stompin’ Tom Connors,” Jesse said, giving an answer I would never have predicted in a zillion years of hoping for a peaceful round of teacher bargaining. “A Real Canadian Girl. But I do it a little differently than he does,” she added, unnecessarily.

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And why? Well, it turns out the song will be part of a video that was being shot on a nearby beach with a bunch of kids. The video will espouse the merits of a pro-Canada alternative to the all-embracing, ubiquitous American Girl line of hugely expensive dolls that Indigo, our “national” book store chain, is promoting at its downtown Vancouver store. Really, Indigo. Is this the best you can do?

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Why we should be encouraging our young, impressionable girls to buy American-themed dolls is beyond me. So, all hail Maplelea (http://www.maplelea.com/en) for its line of “Canadian Girl Dolls for Canadian Girls.” Who knew? (Yet another aspect of this unexpected, oddball encounter: the headquarters of Maplelea is in my beautiful hometown of Newmarket, also claimed by Hannah Georgas, Glass Tiger and Mike “Shaky” Walton.)

Jesse told me that the video is scheduled to be released on Canada Day. I, for one, will be looking for it. Because, as we should be telling our young girls: Yes, doll-buying Virginia, there is a Canada. Maplelea’s special line of Canada Day apparel is available here.

And, if you’ve read this far, here’s your Stompin’ Tom reward: