Friday, 11 September 2015

Three years of Rob Vogt80s


Today, we celebrate three years of RobVogt80s.

One of the reasons I chose Sept. 11 to start this blog is because, as I wrote in that first post, “I have always respected milestones and anniversaries and been interested in the interconnectedness of the world. In the past, I have launched new projects on Sept. 11 to commemorate the occasion. For a long time I have also thought about how I could reflect on a formative period in my life – the 1980s. I have so many memories and thoughts I would like to share. Being a writer, it seemed logical the best place to do that would be to start my own blog. So, bearing all this in mind, I am starting a new adventure – my own blog about the 1980s“.

It was also because it is an easy date to remember.

A lot has happened over the past three years, and it has been an interesting journey.

In the beginning
Ironically, I came across some old newspapers last week from the days leading up to the launch of this blog. It again illustrated what life was like for me before I had a blog. So many times, I thought to myself, “I’ve got to start a blog”, because something I came across or was talking about would make perfect fodder for it.

Now, looking back over the 217 entries over these three years, many of those ideas have turned into posts. And that is gratifying, refreshing, and a bit inspiring to me.

Starting this blog symbolized some things for me. The biggest one was that I stopped being all talk. That has always been an Achilles heel for me. I’ve had so many ideas, yet rarely followed through on them.

This blog was different. Having determined to launch it on Sept. 11, I had a deadline, which has become a friend since I started working in newspapers, so I had to teach myself how to blog. It really wasn’t that hard – once I started. And that is one of the biggest lessons I have learned in life: the hardest part of anything is starting.

So, on Sept. 11, we launched RobVogt80s. It was a little rough at first, and unfocused. Eventually I settled on a structure that works.

The voice
Another thing I often thought about was if anyone would be interested in reading my blog. My goal was always to get these stories out and, eventually, I would stitch them together into some sort of book. As it turned out, there are people out there who are interested. I have received some comments, both directly to the blog and by private e-mail. That in itself is gratifying.

It's funny because, one of the things I used to say back then if you asked me what I want to do with my life was, "I just want to be heard." It was nebulous and cryptic, and I was just trying to be philosophical, pseudo-intellectual really. Yet, with the 14,000 newspaper stories I've written, the five NaNoWriMo novels, and the 217 entries on this blog, that is exactly what I have done.

Interesting.

The neverending story
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned, is a belief I actually just had confirmed. Once upon a time, while I was musing about starting this blog, someone asked me if there was really enough to write about.

After 217 entries over three years, I can honestly say I have barely scratched the surface. There are so many things I want to write about that I have not got to yet. Topics I thought I’d address right away, have been set aside in favour of more timely ones. So, even if the hopper was empty, there is this whole other pile of things waiting.

It is very comforting.

Parting thoughts
One of the things I have kept trying to do with this blog is set goals. At first, they were completely unrealistic. Three hundred entries in a year? That’s crazy. This blog would be my full-time job. Then I thought maybe 100 in a year. Given, I am now averaging a little more than 72 a year, that seems high but more realistic.

The one thing about goals is, once I set them, I try hard to meet them. That’s why, if you look at the entries, they tend to come in bunches – right after I set a specific goal.

The challenge with that is that I really need an entry to percolate. I want every entry to have an introduction, body, and conclusion, hopefully with some insight, lesson, or observation to end it. That takes time.

The best part is, that this blog is whatever I choose to make of it. For now, as I look back on three years in the “blogosphere”, I’m pretty happy with 72 entries a year, which works out to a little more than one a week. Not the worst situation.

So, having said all that, I will see you at the next milestone – be it 30,000 hits, 300 entries, or four years. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Pat Quinn: Coaching success at all levels


This is Pat Quinn from the era of the 1979-1980 NHL season when
he coached the Philadelphia Flyers and won the Jack Adams Award
for NHL coach of the year. Photo from the Hockey Hall of Fame website.

As the calendar flipped to start the 1980s, there was one team in the National Hockey League that
everyone was talking about: the Philadelphia Flyers. They had reeled off a record-breaking 35-game unbeaten streak and were favoured to win the Stanley Cup.

They were led by their sophomore coach, a former player known for being tough and hard-nosed. His name was Pat Quinn and, after that memorable rookie season, he would go on to have one of the most distinguished coaching careers in Canadian hockey history.

Quinn was back in the news recently because, after his death last year, he recently had a street in Vancouver named after him in March.

Almost unbeatable
The 1979-1980 season was Quinn’s first full year as head coach of the Flyers. His team would record the longest undefeated streak in league history, going 35 straight games without a loss. They finished the season in first place overall with 48 wins, 12 losses, and 20 ties for 116 points.

The Flyers advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Awaiting them was the New York Islanders, a team that had come close many times, and was on the verge of breaking out. They were loaded with talent, featuring the likes of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Denis Potvin. The Islanders prevailed, winning in six games. The cup-winning goal is still one of the iconic moments of the 1980s: Islander Bob Nystrom tipping the puck past Flyer goalie Pete Peeters in overtime at Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

There was some consolation for Pat Quinn, as he was awarded the Jack Adams trophy as the league’s best coach at the end of that season.

The rest of the decade
Quinn coached two more years with the Flyers, going 41-24-15 for 97 points in 1980-1981, then getting fired in 1981-1982 after 72 games with his team sitting with a record of 34-29-9.

He resurfaced with the Los Angeles Kings for the 1984-1985 season, engineering a turnaround for the franchise and taking them to the playoffs. That year his team won 34 games, lost 32, and tied 14, losing in the first round of the playoffs. In the 1985-1986 season, the Kings won just 23 games, losing 49, and tying eight to finish out of the playoffs. Quinn resigned 42 games into the 1986-1987 season, after his team had won 18, lost 20, and tied four.

He had signed a contract to coach the Vancouver Canucks while still under contract with L.A. The resulting dust storm led to his resignation. He was banned from coaching until 1991, but went to work as president and general manager of the Canucks starting in the 1987-1988 season.

Truly, the 1980s had been an up and down decade for Pat Quinn.

The years after
It would be the 1990s that Pat Quinn had his greatest success. He started coaching the Vancouver Canucks for the last part of the 1990-1991 season, taking them to the playoffs. The next year, the Canucks won the Smythe Division regular season title, and repeated the feat the following season in 1992-1993. Quinn also won the Jack Adams trophy again as the league’s best coach in 1992. In 1993-1994, the Canucks finished second in their division, but advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final, before losing to the New York Rangers in seven games, in one of the most thrilling finals of the decade.

After that magical run, he stepped back from coaching and concentrated on his front office duties until he was fired in 1997.

He joined Toronto in 1998, coaching the Maple Leafs until 2006, then coached the Edmonton Oilers for the 2009-2010 season. He never repeated the success he had in either Philadelphia or Vancouver.

However, he was legendary on the international scene. He coached the Canadian Men’s Olympic team to gold in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. He followed that up by coaching Team Canada to a championship in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. Not quite done yet, he took the helm of Canada’s World Junior team, and led them to gold in 2009. He had one other gold medal from coaching Canada’s Under-18 men’s team in 2008.

Parting thoughts
Pat Quinn really was just getting started as a coach in the 1980s, but what an incredible start it was. I recall that 1979-1980 Flyers team very well. Everyone kept an eye on them as their unbeaten streak grew and grew. Would they ever lose? They didn’t for three months, which is just incredible.

The Flyers may have come up short in the Stanley Cup final, but that season set the stage for an incredibly coaching career. It is telling he took two teams to the Stanley Cup final 14 years apart, and won the coach of the year two times, 12 years apart. That shows longevity, and truly an amazing ability to adapt to a changing game to keep experiencing success.

He also proved to be one of Canada’s greatest, if not their greatest, international coaches, with Olympic, World Junior, and World Cup gold medals to prove it. What makes these accomplishments more profound is the different types of players he had to mould into a team. With Olympic and World Cup teams, he had to take mature professionals and turn them into a cohesive group on the ice. Many were used to being the stars on their respective teams, and some had to accept taking on a lesser job as a role player. That same situation existed with the World Junior team, but in that case he was taking literally boys and trying to make them into a team. It is quite an extreme from young to mature hockey players, and Pat Quinn was able to coach them all.

It was a remarkable career, truly remarkable.

Church dance: “We don’t have to take our clothes off”


You ever wonder how different life would be if you said yes to something instead of no, or vice versa? I’ve had a few of those in my life.

Recently, I thought of one when I heard “We don’t have to take our clothes off”, this one–hit wonder from the ‘80s by an artist named Jermaine Stewart.

I cannot think of a more fitting song at a church dance.

The decision
It was the fall of 1986 and I was at the Sportsplex in Lethbridge watching a high school football game with my buddies Randy and Dave. Our beloved Kate Andrews Spartans had lost again, and we were leaving the field when Randy pointed to a nearby church.

He kind of liked a girl who went to that church. Through his connections, he heard there was a church dance that night. She might be there, and he kind of wanted to check it out.

Dave and Randy were always up for trying something new.

I, on the other hand, was always the cautious and tentative one. My first thought was, that we weren’t invited. What would happen if we got caught? I was afraid of making a scene.

The others all scoffed, so I just went along.

There really was no need to worry.

The dance
We could hear the music pulsing as we approached the front doors. Again, I was ready to turn around.

Dave and Randy said we just had to act like we belonged, so Randy grabbed the door pulled it open boldly and walked through, with the rest of us following behind.

“We don’t have to take our clothes off” was playing. We hovered near the back of the room. Dave and Randy took the initiative and asked two girls to dance. I thought that was awesome. I was also just struck by how everyone looked so good.

Then it happened.

This girl walked up to me and asked me to dance.

It was the moment of truth for an insecure 16-year-old high-school kid.

“No, thanks,” I said.

Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

The song ended, the guys seemed pretty thrilled with themselves, and we left. All they really wanted to do was check out the dance, which they did.

We spent the rest of the night cruising up and down Mayor Magrath Drive, then grabbed a pizza at Buffalo Bill's and went home.

The song
“We don’t have to take our clothes off” reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100, as well as number two in Canada and the United Kingdom. The song also appeared on "Miami Vice", as so much pop music of the time did as well.

Parting thoughts
Every time I hear “We don’t have to take our clothes off”, I think of that church dance. I can even still picture the blue striped flannel shirt I was wearing.

I sometimes wish 45-year-old Rob Vogt could go back and give his 16-year-old head a shake. It seems like such a little thing, but I wonder every so often what would have changed in me had I said yes. Would it have given me just a bit more self-confidence when I needed it most? Would we have hung around and danced more? Would we have met some interesting people? And what about the girl? It took courage to ask, and I rejected that? How did that make her feel?

Maybe we would have just left after that one dance was over anyway.

Obviously, without a hot tub time machine, we’ll never know.

But knowing myself, had I had fun I would have wanted to stay, and I know it would not have taken too much to convince the others.

But we’ll never know.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Cam Neely: The gift that keeps on giving


Cam Neely, at right, my favourite Bruin of all time
with another favourite – Ray Bourque.
There have been some lopsided trades in the history of the National Hockey League. Ranking right up there has to be one, engineered by my beloved Boston Bruins in 1986, where they sent Barry Pederson to the Vancouver Canucks for Cam Neely and a draft pick, that would turn out to be Glen Wesley.

Neely would go on to a hall-of-fame career in Boston, and then into the front office where he would finally have the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup as the Bruins’ president in 2011. Wesley would be on two Bruin teams that made the Stanley Cup finals, before signing as a free agent with the Hartford Whalers where, as the Carolina Hurricanes, the Whalers would make the finals two more times and win the Stanley Cup in 2006.

It was the compensation for the Wesley signing, three draft picks from the Whalers, that gave Boston the gift that keeps on giving, as they still had players directly linked to that trade right through the 2014-2015 season.

The best
Cam Neely is my favourite Bruin of all time. He was the consummate power forward even before that term existed. He was big, tough, and could put the puck in the net with a great set of hands. He was left-handed so, when he had to fight, he always seemed to get in the first shot.

But it was that grit and leadership that made Cam the best.

Scoring sensation
Neely found his scoring touch in Boston. His first season with the Bruins was 1986-1987, and he scored 36 goals and 36 assists for 72 points. The previous year he had recorded 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points. The best was yet to come for the rugged right winger from Comox, who played his junior in Portland with the Winter Hawks.

In his second season with the Bruins, his numbers kept improving, as he scored 42 goals, and added 27 assists for 69 points. His point total increased again the next season, 1988-1989, to 75 points. He had fewer goals with 37 but more assists with 38.

The 1989-1990 would be a major breakthrough for Cam Neely. He broke the 50-goal mark with 55 goals. He added 37 assists for 92 points, a career high. The Bruins also advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years, losing to the Edmonton Oilers for the second time in that same stretch.

The next year would be full of highs and lows. Neely again surpassed 50 goals with 51 in the 1990-1991 season, and added 40 assists, giving him 91 points, one short of his career high. Neely, along with Phil Esposito became only the second Bruin, to have back-to-back 50-goal seasons.

The Bruins advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals against Pittsburgh, and even took a 2-0 lead to start the series.

Then tragedy struck.

Injury issues
In those 1991 playoffs, Neely suffered an injury after a questionable, some would even say dirty, hit by Ulf Samuelsson. His condition, from that hit and others, worsened as the muscle began to calcify. It was literally turning to bone. Doctors would remove a chunk of calcified muscle the size of a grapefruit from his leg, and his return was questionable.

It appeared Neely’s production would never be the same. He missed almost all of the next two seasons. In the 1991-1992 season. He only recorded nine goals and three assists in nine games. The next season, 1992-1993, was not much better, as he again was hampered by those recurring injuries, playing in just 13 games, where he scored 11 goals and assisted on seven others.

Things looked bleak.

Amazing comeback
That grit and perseverance was evident when Cam Neely did return to the line-up for the 1993-1994 season. Turning heads across the league, Neely went on a goal-scoring tear. He would only play in 49 games that season, but scored an incredible 50 goals in his 44th game, and recorded 24 assists. Only Wayne Gretzky scored 50 goals in a season in fewer games. However, the distinction of scoring 50 goals in 50 games eluded him. Because of his leg, it was not consecutive games because he had to sit out and rest.

No matter, that season was remarkable because it showed more than just goal-scoring prowess, it showed character – and that’s what Cam Neely was all about. For his efforts, Neely won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for exemplifying the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey after the 1993-1994 season. 

He would play the following two seasons then retire. In 1994-1995, he recorded 27 goals and 14 assists for 41 points in 42 games, and in 1995-1996 he recorded 26 goals and 20 assists for 46 points in 49 games. It says a lot of the expectations of Neely that many consider these two 20-plus goal seasons a failure, when any 20-goal season is a success for most players.

The re-match
What I will always remember about Cam Neely though, was waiting for his next meeting with Ulf Samuelsson. It did not come for some time, because Ulf mysteriously sat out with injuries the next couple times Boston played Pittsburgh.

Then, when he could run no longer, they met. It was all over Sportsdesk on TSN. Samuelsson punched Neely in the back of the head. Neely grabbed Ulf, and dropped his gloves. Before he could do anything else, the big Swede turtled. Neely punched wildly at his shoulders. Then, out of complete frustration grabbed Ulf and tried to get at him. It would not have hurt anyway, because Ulf was turtling.

It showed to me the frustration Neely had pent up for years, that he was still unable to get out.

I think his best revenge was still scoring 50 goals in 49 games, and going into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005. He also had his number eight retired by the Bruins.

Parting thoughts
The reason it is the gift that keeps on giving became apparent to me when I celebrated my last birthday. An old and dear friend, who happens to be a Canucks fan, sent me a link entitled: “The gift that keeps on giving”. It detailed how the Neely trade continued to have benefits for the Bruins right to the end of the 2014-2015 season. Here is a link to that thread of trades: http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=1349045

The Neely trade always strikes a sour chord for Vancouver Canucks because of everything that transpired.

The one thing they never had to endure was the agony of his slow decline, resulting from events beyond his control in so many ways.

Yet, I know I will be eternally grateful for the Canucks for sending us Cam Neely. It wasn’t because he was “The gift that kept on giving.” That was just an added bonus. Instead it was because Neely became he heart and soul of the Bruins and their avowed leader. He was so tough, gritty, determined, and skilled.

Much was made of his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame. There were those who said he did not play long enough, put up good enough numbers, or win any Stanley Cups. His election was based purely on emotion.

There is nothing more central to the game of hockey than emotion. There are so many intangible qualities that cannot be distilled into statistics: courage, leadership, determination, heart, character. If Neely was elected based on that, then he’s deserving in my book because the hall of fame should be representative of all aspects of hockey.

To quote Herman Boone from “Remember the Titans”: “You’re hall of fame in my book.”

The last great memory I have of Cam Neely is just a four short years ago. A couple years before that, a buddy of mine phoned to let me know he found a website to order sports jerseys from. He wondered if I wanted anything.

I went on line and staring me in the face was Cam Neely’s No. 8 black road jersey from the 1980s. I ordered it instantly.

That jersey got worn out during the 2011 playoffs. I went down to this local pub to watch every game I could of the Bruins’ playoff run, and I have two outstanding memories.

One, in the semi-finals against Tampa Bay, this Lightning fan came out of the washroom and saw me sitting there in my jersey. He accused me of being a bandwagon jumper.

“Look at the back,” I growled.

He did then, with a look part of drunkenness and part puzzlement, he wobbled slightly as he looked me in the eye.

“Isn’t he like the president?”

I couldn’t help but smile. This guy was way too young to ever have seen Cam as a player, much less in his prime.

The other memory was during the finals against Vancouver. This time, an old buddy came out of the washroom (did I mention I sat near the bathrooms?). He has been a diehard Canucks fan his whole life. He frowned when he saw my jersey.

Before he could say anything, I told him to look at the back.

“I’ve never liked the Bruins, but I have always loved your guy,” he said.

Not a single mention of the fact his team traded him to mine. Instead, the deep respect hockey fans had for Cam Neely.

I had a tear in my eye a few days after that encounter when Cam Neely finally hoisted the Stanley Cup – even if he was “just” the president. Fittingly, he shared the ice with Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, three players whose acquisition can be traced back to the Neely trade.

For me it marked the fitting and logical conclusion for a man who gave everything he had for almost 30 years to the Bruins.

Where so many players, coaches, and executives leave teams in pursuit of a championship, Neely stuck with the same team.

His presence there for the past 30 years, now that’s the real gift.

Thanks Cam.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Broken dreams: The saga of Tony Mandarich

Tony Mandarich warming up as
a member of the Indianapolis Colts.

He was supposed to revolutionize the offensive line in pro football. Instead a combination of attitude, ego, injury, drug use, and bad luck de-railed the career of Tony Mandarich. However, he would find some redemption. Good thing, because he was Canadian – and he played for the Indianapolis Colts.


Canadian content
It was when I recently watched the 1988 Rose Bowl that I recalled what was actually my biggest memory of that game. Michigan State had a young offensive lineman they simply described as “Canadian”, named Tony Mandarich.

My first thought was I wondered if he was related to John Mandarich who, at the time, was terrorizing quarterbacks in the CFL as part of the Edmonton Eskimo defensive line. Unlike today, where you just Google it and find out instantly, I had to wait to get back to Edmonton where over the next few weeks, I found out Tony was John’s brother. They were both from Oakville, Ontario.

Brotherly love
Tony moved in with John while he was going to school at Kent State, so the younger Mandarich could play a better calibre of football in the United States. That would help him catch the attention of major U.S. colleges, and ultimately a spot on the offensive line of the Michigan State Spartans. Tony was also first exposed to steroids, which would become a mill stone around his neck as his football career progressed, by his beloved older brother.

College sensation
Mandarich would go on to become an All-American with the Spartans. By the time he entered the NFL draft, he was considered by many to be the best offensive line prospect ever. He brought a unique combination of strength, speed, agility, and he even had an exceptional vertical. It seemed his technique was sound, and there was no weakness in his game. He seemed a can’t-miss prospect a team could build their offensive line around.

Storm clouds
He had also developed a bad-boy reputation, where he missed appearances because he was either drunk or hung over. That attracted more publicity, and seemingly added to his aura. The increasing hype, including a cover story in "Sports Illustrated", also inflated his ego.

At Michigan State, Tony’s steroid use increased, as he routinely abused them to bulk up and recover quickly from hard workouts. Colleges were not testing for steroids back then. They did at bowl games, but Mandarich and other users easily gamed the system at the Rose and Gator Bowls, avoiding detection. Just before the draft, he was first exposed to prescription narcotics. It would begin a slow descent into hell.

Tony Mandarich as
a Green Bay Packer.
Draft day
The 1989 NFL draft was one of the deepest of the ‘80s. The Dallas Cowboys, in the midst of the rebuilding program that would bring them three Super Bowls in four years, held the number one pick, using it to select quarterback Troy Aikman. Detroit had the number three pick and selected Barry Sanders, while Kansas City had the fourth pick, selecting Derrick Thomas, and the Atlanta Falcons used the fifth pick to take Deion Sanders. All four of these players are in the hall of fame. The Green Bay Packers held the second pick overall, and were roundly praised for selecting Tony Mandarich. Dallas was even criticized in some circles for not selecting Mandarich.

He is still the highest Canadian-born player ever taken in the NFL draft – and routinely appears on top ten lists of biggest first round draft busts.

Not in Michigan anymore Toto
I recall a piece on one of the sports shows that began simply with this name: Alan Veingrad. He was the lineman on the Green Bay Packers whose job would be taken by Tony Mandarich. I always remembered that every time I saw the Packers play on TV. By then I was living in res at the University of Alberta, far away from peasant vision, so I got to see a lot of football. I silently cheered for Veingrad to keep his job.

Mandarich held out of training camp because the Packers would not pay what he was asking. Eventually they caved with a $4.4 million contract, making him the highest paid offensive lineman in history to that point.

I had grown tired of all the hype and worse, all the attitude, so I was not too fussed when the rumblings started. Mandarich did not have good enough footwork for a professional offensive lineman. The NFL was pass-oriented where Michigan State ran most of the time, and pass blocking was not Mandarich’s strong suit. He had missed all of training camp and was not ready for the pro game.

Worse still, by the time Mandarich got to Green Bay he was now hooked on pain killers.

He would not start any games in his first two years in Green Bay, appearing in 14 games in 1989 and 16 games in 1990. He never was able to displace Alan Veingrad. Mandarich would start 15 games in 1991, but, by 1992, the final year of his contract, he did not even get on the field. With a new coaching staff coming on board, Mandarich was out. They did not elect to re-sign him.

No one else took a chance on him either.

Purgatory
Mandarich returned to Michigan where his drug use continued. His brother John was also dying of cancer, and doctors had already amputated his ring finger. I remember reading about that in the "Edmonton Journal". Meanwhile, Tony continued to descend into hell, failing to be at his brother’s side when he finally succumbed to cancer. Instead, he was in pursuit of his latest hit – drugs more important than his dying brother. Rock bottom approached.

Finally, in 1995 he saw the light. He checked himself into rehab and got clean and sober.

He was not yet 30, so the chance for an NFL comeback was still there.

But would any team want him? Would it be worth the risk?

Tony Mandarich in action on the comeback
trail with the Indianapolis Colts.
On the comeback trail
I remember the day very well. It was the fall of 1996 and I was living in a place in Edmonton called Colorado Plaza. My Indianapolis Colts were fresh off a season where they shocked the football world as a 9-7 wildcard team, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship Game and coming within just under two minutes of going to the Super Bowl. The Colts were tuning up, and their first exhibition game was being televised. I probably still have it on tape somewhere. Anyway, I always like to pay attention to see which CFL guys are trying out, what old college favourites are playing, and who just might come up to the CFL after the last NFL cuts.

Then I saw it. Listed there, starting on Indy’s offensive line was – Tony Mandarich. I honestly wondered if I heard right? Or if there was another player with that name? Or maybe it was a publicity stunt?

None of the above. The Colts were giving Mandarich a legitimate shot to make the team. He was not dominating, but he was effective. More importantly, he was humble. Just happy to be in the NFL

He would go on to play in 15 games, starting six, for a Colts team that returned to the playoffs, losing again to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second consecutive year. The next season he would start all 16 games for a woeful team. The next year, they were just as bad. Their claim to fame was they were so bad, their record earned them the number one pick in the draft, which they used to select Peyton Manning. What a stark contrast that would be. Two top two selections – one a bust leaving just as the other, who would go on to put up hall-of-fame numbers right into the present, arrived. They never played together, as Mandarich was finally forced into retirement with a shoulder injury. This was after he started the Colts’ first 10 games of the season.

By then, he had salvaged a bit of dignity, and put together a serviceable NFL career.

Parting thoughts
Is Tony Mandarich to be commended or condemned? I’m of two minds on the matter. Initially, I was happy to see him achieve some measure of redemption when he played for the Colts. It took a long time for me to come to that point, given how much I detest cocky, arrogant athletes who have not proven anything yet. I was happy to see him fall, and cheer for unheralded, but hard working Alan Veingrad, whose job Mandarich never took away in Green Bay. In fact, Veingrad had a compelling story himself, overcoming a career-threatening injury to outperform Mandarich.

However, Tony Mandarich’s fall from grace was spectacular. Not only was he humbled and humiliated, but he was deprived of everything he treasured – fame, fortune, that magnificent physique. He was exposed as a liar and a cheater, and confined to the trash can of the NFL – until he got clean and sober.

It was at this point my opinion changed. In the simplest terms, he had learned his lesson. Maybe he earned a second chance. That was my thinking in 1996.

Reading for this post though has provided me another perspective. Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts said Mandarich damaged the game. Not only did he lie about his steroid use, but he served as a role model for young players who wanted to be like him. Essentially, he helped foster a generation of steroid users. He also used that enhanced body to dominate, humiliate, and belittle players who were clean, players who were not cheating or benefitting from performance enhancers.

Yet Irsay also said Mandarich had done his penance.

“His story is one of the great stories of redemption. There was a massive price he paid. But it shows that everyone is salvageable. For you, well, everyone should remember that when you forgive, you become free,” Irsay is quoted as saying in a story written by Rick Telander in Sports Illustrated.

Mandarich also now wants to talk to young players and share his experiences with them. For that, he should be commended – if he’s sincere. If that’s the case, as soft-hearted as I am, I come down on the side of redemption.

If nothing else, the rise, fall, and rise of Tony Mandarich is a cautionary tale for all those who come after him. Fame can be fleeting. Cheaters will be caught. There is no joy or happiness at the bottom of a pill bottle. Once someone is gone they never come back. Tony Mandarich has experienced all these things and much more. Let his life, and all those broken dreams, be a lesson to those who come to follow.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Penny carnival 1986

The album cover for "Foreigner 4"
The words stuck with me for months: “If you ever come across the album ‘Money Talks’ by Trooper then pick it up for me.”

My cousin Fred was a musician and an aficionado of music. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at his place in Brooks. The last summer was in 1986. Fred was finishing up Grade 12, and I was preparing to go into Grade 12. I spent my two weeks there and we talked, and cruised around town, and listened to a lot of music.

A couple times he told me he was looking for this album by Trooper, that he just could not find. The name stuck with me.

A few months later, in the oddest of places, I found that album – well the tape version of it – and I did pick it up. But I would not see Fred again for five or six years.

The album cover for Trooper's "Money Talks"
Still I enjoyed “Money Talks” and the two tapes I bought with it, for a long time.

Penny carnival ‘86
For nine years, I attended St. Joseph’s School in Coaldale. One of the highlights of every year was the annual penny carnival. Every grade would come up with a game of some sort and we’d all gather in the gym and enjoy each other’s games.

I was in Grade 12 at Kate Andrews High School, talking to my good friend Dave on the phone. He had two younger sisters. One was in Grade 10 at Kate Andrews, the other was back at St. Joe’s. I wanted to get together, and he did too, but he had to do something first.

The album cover for the album "Run for Cover"
by Canadian band Straight Lines
He hesitated telling me, figuring I wouldn’t be interested in coming over because of it. Why was that, I asked. He had to take his sister to the penny carnival.

Dave was quite surprised at my enthusiasm in wanting to go to the penny carnival. The truth was, I knew I was leaving Coaldale for university, and I kind of wanted to see some of my old teachers, and my old school.

The fact there was a rummage sale was an added bonus.

There among all the old toys, tattered books, and odds and ends were three tapes: “Foreigner 4” by Foreigner; a self-titled album by Straight Lines called “Run for Cover”; and – you guessed it – “Money Talks” by Trooper.

All three tape cases were beat up and a bit dirty. Still the tapes inside all played fine. They still sit in my closet to this day.

I had varying levels of familiarity with all three.

The tapes
“Money Talks” was at the top of the list, because I wanted to get it for my cousin. When I listened to it, I was struck by a couple things. One was that I had actually heard one of the songs before. That was “Only a Fool”, and it was a great ballad. The other thing was the title track, “Money Talks”, uses the word “bullshit”, which was pretty daring, especially back then.

“Foreigner 4” was actually the third album by Foreigner that I owned. There used to be this massive garage sale every spring at the Lethbridge Exhibition Pavilion. That’s where I bought a slightly bent version, on vinyl, of Foreigner’s latest album to that point called, “Agent Provocateur”.

A new comic store had opened in the Park Meadows Mall on the north side of Lethbridge, and it sold used records in really good condition. They even came in their own clear plastic sleeves. That’s where I bought “Foreigner Records”, which was a kind of greatest hits compilation. The cover looked like an old juke box. It contained “Urgent” and “Juke Box Hero”, two songs that were also on “Foreigner 4”.

LA-107 also did a spotlight on Foreigner, where they talked about “Foreigner 4” among other things.

“Run for Cover” was known strictly for the song, “Letting Go.” I recall listening to it in junior high on the bus on a ski trip to West Castle near Pincher Creek. Then, on an episode of “Good Rockin’ Tonite” they were interviewing Michael Damian who, at that time was best known for playing Danny on “The Young and the Restless.” One of the video clips they showed was of him covering “Letting Go”. The band Straight Lines was also in the news a bit because some of their members had formed a new band called “Body Electric”.

Parting thoughts
It was another transition for me. I was leaving home at the end of the school year. St. Joe’s had been such a big part of my life for so long, over half my life at that point. It was nice to go back one more time to see the place and some of my old teachers. It was the last time I was in there before I left home to go to university.

Every time I hear one of those songs, like “Letting Go”, “Only a Fool”, or “Urgent”, I am reminded of that penny carnival and the end of that part of my life.

James Garner in the 1980s: Life after Rockford


James Garner had a long and distinguished acting career, including several major roles in movies in the 1980s.
James Garner remained a prolific actor throughout his life. To audiences today he is probably best remembered as “Duke” in “The Notebook” or the grandpa in “8 Simples Rules to Date My Teenaged daughter”, but back in the 1980s, he excelled in a number of theatrical and TV movies, garnering (all pun intended) an Oscar nomination and seven primetime Emmy award nominations.

The 1980s showed that not only was there life after “The Rockford Files”, but that James Garner was a talented, versatile actor, who may have been most comfortable in movies.

End of series TV – for a decade
When “The Rockford Files” went off the air at the outset of 1980, Garner still had a contract to fulfill. Not before he was nominated one last time for an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for the role of Jim Rockford. He left Rockford behind and returned to the past, reprising the role of Bret Maverick in a show of the same name for the 1981-1982 season. It had reasonably good ratings, but was cancelled after one season. When Emmy nominations were announced, James Garner was on the list for outstanding lead actor in a drama series again, this time for his work in “Bret Maverick”.

“Bret Maverick” was not shown on peasant vision. Instead, I enviously read about it each week in TV Guide. Eventually, the pilot aired on Channel 13, wetting my appetite for a series that had already been cancelled. Reruns were also aired in the summer of 1990, a full eight years after cancellation, to fill the hole left by a writers’ strike.

When the smoke cleared, James Garner was done with series TV, finding a home, and a lot of success in TV and theatrical movies.

Oscar calls
It was the middle of the decade when Garner struck it rich as Murphy Jones in “Murphy’s Romance”, starring opposite Sally Field. The role would earn him an Oscar nomination in 1985, losing out to William Hurt for his role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.

Theatrical releases
Garner would also have roles in Robert Altman’s satire “Health” in 1980; play opposite Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria” in 1982; and become a bit of a vigilante in “Tank” in 1984 after his grandson is wrongly accused.

In 1988, he played an aging Wyatt Earp opposite Bruce Willis who played legendary western actor Tom Mix in the comedy-western “Sunset”, directed by Blake Edwards. They team up to solve a murder in Hollywood in 1929.

I vividly recall going to see “Sunset” with my best friend Chris Vining. I picked him up in Coaldale, but he was running late, so we got to the brand new Cineplex-Odeon theatre in Lethbridge a few minutes after the movie had started. I remember not quite getting the gist of the story. Was James Garner really playing Wyatt Earp, or was it a part in a movie within the movie? And was Bruce Willis, still the guy from “Moonlighting” back then, playing Tom Mix? Was it based on a true story? Neither of us knew in advance what it was really about, but we either had seen pretty much everything else, or found nothing else that interesting. It turned out to be an okay show, partly because James Garner was always worth watching.

A life of TV movies
James Garner always excelled on television. By the 1980s, he had firmly entrenched himself playing opposite Mariette Hartley in a series of Polaroid camera commercials. They had so much on-screen chemistry, many viewers thought they were an actual, real-life couple.

He also found a life acting in television movies.

The first was “The Long Summer of George Adams” in 1982. I never saw this movie, but I recall seeing the commercials on Channel 13. My sister saw it, and really enjoyed it. Garner played a man working for the railroad in the 1950s whose job may become obsolete.

Next came “Heartsounds” in 1984, another move I never saw and have regretted not seeing. The movie is produced by Norman Lear, who made his name with such shows as “All in the Family”. This time around, he gets serious, telling the story of his cousin Harold Lear, a renowned surgeon who becomes a patient himself, facing his own mortality and an unfeeling medical system. Garner played Harold Lear, earning an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or special. Mary Tyler Moore played opposite Garner as Lear’s wife Martha. The movie was shot largely in Toronto as Hollywood began coming north to take advantage of the low Canadian dollar.

James Garner played a senator lobbying for
he space program in the 1985 miniseries "Space".
The next time I saw James Garner was in an epic TV mini-series called “Space” in 1985, based on the novel of the same name by James Michener. It details the history of the development of the space program in the United States, from the end of the Second World War right through to the moon landing. It had a star-studded cast of TV actors that included Beau Bridges, Harry Hamlin, Blair Brown, Michael York, David Dukes, and so many others. Garner played a senator who was a tireless supporter of the space program.

“Promise” followed in 1986, in which Garner plays a man who returns home after the death of his mother to take care of his mentally-ill brother, played by James Woods. “Promise” would be one of the most decorated movies in TV history, winning five primetime Emmy awards, including one for outstanding drama/comedy special. Garner was also nominated for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or special.

Garner was back three years later, to close out the decade, with “My Name is Bill W.”, which tells the story of the two men who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Garner again starred opposite James Woods. “My Name is Bill W.” was nominated for Emmy awards for outstanding drama/comedy special and Garner was nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or special. Woods won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or movie.

As a side note, Garner made another movie in 1990, called “Decoration Day”, one of those “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movies. I recall that vividly, because I had to reserve the TV in res on a Sunday night to watch that movie, enduring all the snips and snipes of people not interested in the movie, but taking up space in our lounge. Garner played a retired judge trying to find out why a man refuses to accept a medal of honour awarded decades earlier in the Second World War. Again, Garner was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or special.

Parting thoughts
James Garner would continue to act into the 1990s and well into the 21st Century. I had the opportunity awhile back to read his autobiography, “The Garner Files”, and it was incredibly enlightening. It gave details on so any aspects of his life, from his upbringing in Oklahoma, and the reason he had to change his name from Bumgarner to Garner, to why he actually left “The Rockford Files”, and his relationship with Mariette Hartley.

What I will always remember about James Garner is his versatility as an actor, and the fact he was just so likeable. That and his ability to say so much without saying word. He was a master of the facial expression, shrug, and dramatic pause.

Jim Rockford may have been one of my favourite characters of all time, but James Garner proved, in the decade after Rockford’s departure from primetime TV, that he was not to be defined by the private detective who lived in a trailer on the beach.

There indeed was life after Rockford.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Battle of the bands 1987


It was a strange time in my life. Kind of a “no man’s land” between the past and the future. It was the summer between Grade 12 and my first year of university, and I got a job with the Lethbridge Exhibition Board. I saw a lot of things and I am always reminded of them when I think of two songs. Not just any two songs, but two that dominated the “Catch a Rising Star” at the 1987 edition of Whoop-Up Days in Lethbridge.

Summer jobs
The summer of 1987 was an odd one, because I spent it doing a bunch of different jobs. It started with my last few weeks at Gergely’s Greenhouse, then I spent a week or so painting fences at my friend Dave’s place.

After that, I kind of moped around and killed time, hanging out, shooting hoops on an outside court in Coaldale, and basically waiting for summer to end. It would be the end of that phase of life, because I was heading off to university in the fall.

One day, my friend Mat phoned. We had been friends since before school began, riding the school bus together, and living on neighbouring farms. He was going to Lethbridge to apply for a job at Whoop-Up Days. It was the annual fair with a midway and grandstand show, put on I believe by the Lethbridge Exhibition Board. Every summer they hired dozens of workers for the week, mostly as parking attendants, to pick up garbage, and other jobs like that.

When we got to the Exhibition Pavilion, there was a huge line of people just like Mat and I, high school kids looking to make a little cash.

There were forms to fill out, but I didn’t even have a resumé. They didn’t actually ask for one either. I do remember giving Mr. Ed Ryan, my high school guidance counsellor, and Ida Gergely, my boss at the greenhouse, as references.

Finally, we were at the front of the line, and I got called to sit in front of a man with an English accent who asked me a few basic questions. Had I swept, had I picked up garbage, and so on.

I honestly never went to get a job, as much as to have the experience, and hang out with Mat.

A couple days later I got a call from a fellow named Len from the Lethbridge Exhibition board. He wanted me to start on Monday. I thought that odd, because the fair wasn’t for a couple weeks.

It turns out, and I only found this out later, I was hired to replace a guy on the regular crew, not to help out for Whoop-Up Days.

Battle of the bands
Our coffee room, and kind of base of operations, was underneath the seats in the Exhibition Pavilion. We had lunch and a couple coffee breaks each day. It was, I think part way through the week of Whoop-Up Days, that I heard this familiar sound midway through the afternoon coffee break. We got free pop from one of the cantinas, so I was sipping on a cool fountain Coke on a really hot day, and I heard this song playing.

Back then I listened to a radio station called 1090 CHEC. They had this countdown of the most requested songs every week night. Probably a month earlier, I recall hearing two songs that were really cool, but I had never heard of the bands who played them.

One was called “Please Hold Me” by a band called Credit, and the other was a song called “Fantasy Child” by a band calling itself Barricade. Both songs struck a chord and sat on those nightly charts for weeks.

It turned out they were both local bands from Lethbridge.

Well, during my coffee break, I heard “Please Hold Me.”

Oh that’s cool, I thought. Someone found a radio to listen to while we worked. Well, break was over and I had to go through the pavilion.

There, standing on stage in street clothes were a bunch of guys singing “Please Hold Me” and they weren’t lip synching. It had to be Credit. I couldn’t stay to watch, but I wish I had, because they sounded good.

It turned out they were rehearsing for "Catch a Rising Star" which was sponsored by 1090 CHEC. Barricade was there too.

Because I had to work, and I had some other things going on, I never did see  that battle of the bands and I’m not even sure who won.

Still, it was cool to see, even just for a minute, a band I had heard on the radio. It was the first ever piece of live music I had ever heard too.

Parting thoughts
I‘m not sure how much success Credit had beyond those few months in 1987. As I write this, I think they may have won that talent contest, and that may have been their peak.

Barricade is another story.

I was working in Fort Macleod in 2001, and I was previewing a fundraising concert. I was set to interview one of the members of the band, a guy who lived in Fort Macleod named Rob. He was at home that week, so I paid him a visit to interview him at his place. While we were talking, we got on the subject of his musical background.

He starts telling me about this band he was in back in the 1980s, and how they even charted a song on 1090 CHEC. I asked what the song was.

“Fantasy Child,” he replies. It turns out, he was part of Barricade.

He laughed and said they even had an old poster still hanging in the place where his current band rehearsed.

So, the night of that fundraising concert, I’m walking back to the office after the concert is finished. It was late and dark, and I see this vehicle slowly driving parallel to me. Suddenly, the window opens and it’s Rob.

“Hey Rob,” he says. “Have this.”

It was a poster of Barricade.

Fourteen years later, but it was just as cool.

It reminded me of a unique summer in my life, when I had closed one chapter and was about to open another.

Looking at that poster reminds me how cool that last summer was.