A Singular Moment in our Political Ethos

20130708-100036.jpgI am a voracious reader of newspapers everyday. The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, The Leader Post (back home), The National Post, and the Toronto Sun (for a laugh) all find their way past my scanning eyeballs in the morning. The headlines are mostly the same, and the takes on those headlines are mostly the same (the Sun being the lone, right wing paranoid exception).

I find myself drawn to the opinion columns. Politics captures my attention first. Articles on transit come next. For these reasons, it’s a great time to be living in Toronto – the place where City Hall has devolved into reality television, and transit has become some sort of ball our politicians kick around for sport.

The city is at a gridlocked crossroads, both politically and logistically. Queen’s Park is now driven by an ‘activist’ left-leaning government in Kathleen Wynn. Austerity measures from past regimes have been exposed for the devastating, socially divisive, and economically stagnant policies that they are. The next mayor of Toronto will be somebody who recognizes the need for collaboration and massive spending on infrastructure to repair the deficit previous political generations left us with.

Federally, the Conservatives have never been more unpopular in the polls, and this is due mostly to their own style of governance, and not the emergence of Justin Trudeau. The next 15 months could see a massive, massive shift in the ethos of our political landscape.

Around the world, austere right wing governments are falling. The first world gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider. America is at war with itself and ill-equipped to deal with the damn about to burst. Climate change is a reality, and our political thinking is two decades behind our scientific prognostications. Social media fuels a democratic activism in the political process that previous generations could only envy (or fear).

History is right here, right now. It’s exciting. It’s scary. And it all makes for a good read.

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The Fallacy of Perception in the Art of Swag

Here’s an article I published yesterday on argosadmirals.com

***

by JARRETT RUSNAK

The light glistening off his bling was almost too much.  Chains.  Rings.  Studs.  Earrings.  Nose rings.  I didn’t even want to speculate about other piercings that may have been present, but hidden.

Crap.  I just did.

The fact of the truth is that Aaron Rabinovits, Communications Intern with the Toronto Argonauts, is a rather intimidating lad to behold.  He’s even got one of those beards that’s razor thin, and you can tell that it takes longer for him to trim and maintain it, than it does for him to shower.

I’ve always felt you could peg a guy such as Aaron, as being rather unsavoury – to put it politely.  Real men don’t spend more than 10 minutes in a bathroom unless they’ve first walked in with a magazine.

“His wardrobe choices are at the best times… well… questionable,” said Maxmillien Rosenberg, Digital Media Coordinator with the Argonauts.  “I’m all for expressing oneself through clothing choices, but one does not simply wear the same black suit everyday… especially with the same pair of navy socks and the terrible purple watch that my girlfriend had in middle school.”

Fortunately, perception is clearly NOT the same thing as reality.   I couldn’t have been more wrong about the impeccability of Aaron’s character.  Stand up guy.  I’d trust him with many things that are semi-important to me.  He’s passionate about his work, and he makes everyone around him better.  He’s a super duper nice guy as well.

Max put it thusly, “A hard worker he is, a fashionista he is not.”

***

“What the F*%k is a ‘onesie’?” Aaron asked, as the light shining through his beer cast a hue upon his bling.  I had just sat down next to him, in a pub on King West, to broach the subject.

“A onesie,” I said, “you know, for babies to wear.”

“You want to stamp an Argos’ logo on one?”

“No!,” I said, “Don’t they have those for sale somewhere already?”

“Huh?”

“The Roughriders have motor oil.”

“The f*^k you talking about?”

“Shot glasses.  Underwear.  Coffee cups.  Can openers.  Patio furniture.  Pickup trucks.  And baby onesies.”  I paused for a moment to check in with him, but the blank look on Aaron’s face spoke volumes.  I continued, speaking slower this time, so that the thickness of my Regina accent would not obscure my words.  “The Roughriders are selling over $10 million dollars worth of merchandise every year.  Anything that anyone would ever want to buy, can already be found somewhere in Saskatchewan with a Roughrider logo stamped to its side.”

He pondered that for a moment.  “That’s just because you guys are weird.”

***

I don’t blame Aaron for not being able to relate to the Roughriders’ penchant for merchandise.  As the ‘perceived’, 4th most popular team in the GTA, one doesn’t see a lot of Argos’ swag on the streets.  I don’t recall seeing much of it in stores either, though Argos’ Marketing Coordinator, Jessica Taylor was able to point me (and you) in a direction.

“Argos fans can purchase Argos merchandise at the Jays Shop at Rogers Centre and CFLshop.ca.  Other retailers such as Walmart, Target and various independent retailers carry some Argos merchandise.”

It’s a start methinks, but that’s still a long ways away from my experience with Rider swag in Regina.  Perhaps there’s more to it than mere availability.

Beyond the hardcore fan base, wearing the double blue just doesn’t seem to mean as much to the people of Toronto, as green and white does to those sporting addresses from the ‘Land of the Living Skies’.

***

This wasn’t always so however.  I remember a time when wearing a Roughrider logo around Regina prompted scorn and ridicule.  In the 1990s, the province’s fortunes seemed to mirror the team’s, and nobody wanted to be reminded of hard times.

It took a fundamental push, a concerted effort, a shift in the cultural thinking – to change what Roughrider swag meant to the people of Saskatchewan.  We came to see that we weren’t just showing Rider Pride when we bought a jersey, we were fundamentally ‘supporting’ OUR team.  Every dollar we spent, went to our community owned team’s bottom line.

Once the Roughriders’ bottom line began to stabilize with contributions from merchandise sales, something else began to change in the cultural mindset of the Rider Nation – another shift in perception.

Roughrider merchandise became a symbol for something greater than one’s relationship to the team.  It became a statement about one’s own character.

***

Saskatchewan is not the GTA.  The community owned Roughriders are not the privately owned Argonauts.  There are major challenges in Toronto, that the Roughriders will never have to deal with.  Still, there is much the Argos could learn from the Roughriders in terms of merch.

As with Aaron Rabinovitz, the Argos are fighting a ‘perception’ problem.  Double blue needs to transcend the team – to become a statement about who Torontonians are, and what they stand for – whether they attend games or not.  Argo swag has to become a statement about character.

If only there were some major figure in the city somewhere who could go around getting himself photographed in an Argos’ sweatshirt.

Perhaps the photograph could go viral.  Perhaps it could become so popular, it gets picked up as a story on major US networks – and every time someone in the media would mention the story, the Argos’ logo would be there, featured prominently, being associated with whatever the media types were talking about.

That is character!  Maybe then, Torontonians would rush in and drape themselves in the double blue – wanting to be characters too – and the city would emerge as a vast double blue sea of Argo swag.

If only we could be so lucky.

***

Of course, we must all be careful for what we wish for.

Throughout  the 1980s and 90s, the Los Angeles Raiders were the number two selling brand in the NFL.  According to an article by Tim Goldman in the NY Times, it was for reasons only slightly related to sports.

“While sports analysts tend to credit the team’s personalities, victories and hard-bitten mystique for its sales, police officials in some cities believe that the image now attached to Raiders apparel stems as much from Los Angeles street gangs. The gangs, particularly the vast Crips alliance, developed a passion for Raiders caps several years ago, about the time they began to expand their drug-dealing and recruitment around the country.”

The perception of the Raiders’ brand moved dramatically from football paradise to gangland turf warfare, prompting schools across the nation to ban the team’s jackets and caps.

Wearing Raiders’ swag at the time was a clear statement about your character.

***

For any team, it should never be enough to simply strive for merchandise sales.  A fan’s expression of support for a team through the purchase of swag is admirable, but certainly not the symbol it could be.  Something incredibly powerful happens when those colours come to represent something about yourself personally.

I remember a playoff game a few years ago.  The Roughriders were in Calgary.  It was bitterly cold.  Prairie cold, with a wind chill to match.  Late in the game, Saskatchewan was driving the ball, and a play came under review.  There was some question about the Riders losing possession.

Several long minutes passed while officials conferred.  Calgary’s defence wasted no time retreating for the sidelines, where they huddled around propane heaters.

To a man, Saskatchewan’s offence remained on the field, bare arms to that cold bitter wind.  That act was a statement about who they were, and what they believed in.  It was a symbol that warmed the hearts of anyone who ever called Saskatchewan home.

We know bitter cold like an old friend.  We know the harshness of nature.  Our faith in what lies beyond our control is resolute.  We fight hard against long odds and we win.

That’s what the green and white now means to the people of Saskatchewan.

The Roughriders not only retained possession on that drive, but they scored a touchdown and went on to play in the Grey Cup.

***

As for the Argos, perceived as the 4th most popular team in the 1st most cosmopolitan city in the world, what does the double blue mean?  Who are the Argos really?  Who are Torontonians?

Champions.

Over the past 19 years, the Argonauts are the only professional team in the city to be crowned as such – and in that span, they’ve done it four times!  They did it with superstars who, while extraordinary, remain ordinary – just like the rest of us.  These are not millionaires with team assigned handlers, living and working beyond anything we could ever dream of.

Toronto is a city of immigrants, from across the country and around the world.  The Argonauts are a team of faces, from places across the country, around the continent, and from within our own communities.

In the 18 months that I’ve lived in the T-dot, I’ve failed to see any single symbol that represents the city, as well as the Argonauts do.  They are a team of the people.  They’ve been around for almost as long as Canada has been a country.

That’s what the double blue needs to mean to Toronto.  That’s what it can mean.  How do we get there?  I don’t know.

What I do know is, there’s a place on this boat for every culture, and every ethnicity.  There’s a place for a prairie boy like me, and there’s certainly a place for someone as fashionably challenged as Aaron Rabinovits.

AMerican Road Trip Through Chicago Sports Radio

After two days, one night, six states, and two-thousand seven hundred seventy three kilometres, I was able to reach my long sought after destination – a beautiful little girl named Jasmine, in Regina, Saskatchewan – where she’s old enough for a part-time job, but still young enough to jump into my arms and call me ‘daddy’.

There was also still snow laying about.  WTF?

Toronto to Regina, via Chicago.  I like long road trips.  Yoga for the mind.  Nothing to do but keep it between the lines.  Traffic moves between 130 and 140 km/h.

Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis were the only major spots where I lost time, but I didn’t mind.  I like seeing the big cities from my view out the windshield.  8 lanes.  10 lanes.  Merge lanes.  Big glass towers.  Old brick industry.  Ball parks.  Park parks.  Highway lines and back bumpers.  Mind my place in the left lane flow, and I’ll be just fine.

Sometimes I drive in complete silence.  Sometimes I listen to audio books.  This time I stuck mainly to AM radio.  Just picked up what I could as I passed from place to place.

There’s something about AM radio that makes me feel like I’m actually traveling somewhere.  The crackle of the distance between me and the signal’s source is more tangible than FM band somehow.  AM signals never really fade – they go down fighting.  The background static just gets louder and the signal screams for dear life.

And as the mile markers blink passed me, that crackle takes me through time.  I imagine myself 80 years ago, stuck in some distant nowhere – big vacuum tube radio, picking up something from anywhere – especially on a starry clear night.

I travel the dial as I put miles behind me.  Talk radio voices – accents from places laid out like road markers on the side of the highway.  Old country music stations.  Gun advocates.  Preachers.  Politicians.  Local news.  Weather reports.  Flood warnings.  Sports.

I caught the Chicago Bulls playoff game just as they went down by 14 points with 3 minutes left to play.  Someone from Brooklyn missed an easy dunk.  I was on I-94, crossing from Indiana into Illinois.  Hit Chi-town just as the game went into overtime.  Was heading into the tunnel downtown as the 2nd overtime began.  Cleared traffic on the north side of town as the team pulled out the win at the close of the 3rd overtime period.  Every radio voice on the air said it will go down as one of the greatest playoff games ever played.  I really wouldn’t know.  It was the first NBA game I ever heard on the radio – and for that matter, I’ve never seen an actual NBA game on TV either.  Reminded me of the time I caught seven periods of overtime between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals in 1986.  I was a kid and hadn’t really taken an interest in hockey yet.

The signal faded as I approached Rockford, Illinois on I-90.  The next clear signal on the dial was a NASCAR race in Richmond, Virginia.  Listened to the first 192 laps until that signal faded, somewhere northwest of Madison, Wisconsin on I-94.  Next clear signal on the dial was a Chicago Whitesox game in Tampa Bay.  Caught an inning before that signal broke up.  Next turn on the dial made me laugh out loud – a Chicago Cubs game in Florida!  What’s with all the Chicago teams?

Baseball broadcasts lack the action of basketball or hockey.  They’re more like conversations between announcers that get interrupted by bits of action from time to time. Almost seems like an inconvenience.  Still, it remains perfect platform from which to experience a game.  AM radio, baseball, and a late-night road trip go together like nostalgia, old photographs, and painted memories.  Imagination takes the stage for a crack at the miles barraging my soon-to-be heavy eye-lids.

Further up the road, near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I turned to the next clear signal on the dial, a home broadcast of the St. Luis Blues.  Guess who they were playing?  The Chicago Blackhawks!

It’s good to be home.  Turned the dial one last time as Regina’s lights came into view.  620 CKRM.  The most nostalgic of all AM radio to me.  Roughrider games.  Pats.  Childhood memories of late night polka parties, playing cards with my Grama in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan.  Willie Cole & Fred King.  Geoff Courier.  Carm Carteri.  Rod Pedersen.

I’m getting together with my buddies for a hockey pool draft on Tuesday night.  I was thinking I’d take Penguins as much as possible, but there’s something about this road trip that has me thinking seriously about Chicago’s chances.

The Art and Not-Exact-Science of Scouting Players

Here’s an article I wrote for Rod Pedersen’s site over the weekend.

***

BY JARRETT RUSNAK

TORONTO – “I like that kid! Point him in the direction of something green and he’ll blow it up!”

It’s something I overheard Bobby Jurasin, say to offensive guard, Pooch Hendrickson, during the Roughriders’ training camp in 1997. He was talking about Dan Comiskey, the team’s 6th round draft selection that year.

Scan the list of names of 6th round draft picks in the CFL over the past decade or two, and you’ll see a vast empty wasteland of forgotten players who never saw the field beyond a few exhibition games.

Comiskey went on to have a 12-year, all star career. He played in four Grey Cup games and won two as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos.

I was in camp as the Roughriders’ ‘Super-duper Chief Executive Director in Charge of Film Personnel’ that year. Came up with the title myself. I was responsible for shooting practice video, then distributing footage to the various coaches.

The best thing about that gig, was that I could hang out with the coaching staff as easily as I could with the players. I was able to see the game from a variety of perspectives. Held on to that gig for years and I wish I would have kept some kind of a journal about it. I saw a lot of things.

One of the things I remember seeing during that time was the parade of high draft picks, from every team, who came and went over the years.  If the 6th round is a dirge of forgotten names, the 1st and 2nd rounds aren’t a whole lot better.  Google the drafts over the past decade or more.  For every Scott Schultz, there are three Ian Williams.  There seems to be a lot of fickleness to the high rounds.

“You’re right,” began John Hufnagel, as he agreed with me about that very correct observation I made about how right I think I am/was.  He said something else afterwards, but I really wasn’t paying attention.  Too busy musing about John Hufnagel agreeing with me about a football matter – this image of me ‘n Huff, running in bromantic metaphorical slow motion together down the gridiron, passed all my buddies who I ever got into a football argument with – and Huff telling ‘em all that I was right and they were wrong and…

Ahem.  I digress.

“Draft day is not an exact science,” he added.  “How important is the game to a player?  If it’s important and you bring ‘em to camp they’re, going to do everything they can to stick around.  And once they stick around, they’re going to do everything they can to get better, and that’s the whole key to being a professional football player – is getting better.”

Ted Goveia, Argos’ Director of Canadian Scouting concurred.  “Are they getting better?  Are they continuing to work at it?  Guys don’t necessarily think that way when they’re 19 or 20 years old, but those are things that I would look for to see that there’s some increase – that the kid hasn’t tapped out – or even how interested he is in being a pro athlete.”

It seems desire is as important as ability.

“Sometimes it fits in where the player had a great college career,” said Riders’ Defensive Coordinator, Richie Hall, “but you don’t play right away, and you might get discouraged, and your skills deteriorate, or all of a sudden you go from being the star, to being just another player.  When you look at it, there’s a lot of history over the last 15 years of 1st round picks – how many are playing three years later?  The number’s very low.”

A closer look at names in the high rounds will reveal other factors that skew the ratio of long career verses anonymity.  Sometimes a player is/was the ‘real deal’, as me ‘n Huff would say, but that player goes to the NFL and never comes to Canada.  Sometimes the player weighs the complete uncertainty, volatile instability, and relatively low earning potential of life in the CFL against a career in the real world.  Sometimes a player is injured in camp, and never gets his shot.

“The meat and potatoes are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th round that you gotta find players that play for you, whether they’re special teams or they turn out to be starters for you,” said Alouettes‘ GM, Jim Popp.  “A lot of it sometimes is 3 or 4 years down the road before they really develop playing for you.  We as the Alouettes never go into it thinking we’re going to draft somebody to be our starter.  We never look at it as ‘the guy’s going to be a hall-of-famer’.  You don’t know anything like that.  We just draft guys that we feel are the best players and whether they develop into it or not is a whole other story.”

Popp drafted Dave Stala (50th overall) as a kicker in the 6th round of the 2003 draft.  Other notable names to come out of the later rounds over the years include; Kevin Eiben (26th), and Kelly Bates (32nd) in 2001, Jon Ryan (24th) in 2004, Dan’s brother John Comiskey (19th) in 2005, Dominic Picard (23rd) in 2006, and Chris Getzlaf (33rd) in 2007.

“You can find a lot of players in the later rounds,” added Hufnagel.  “Maybe they don’t quite have the height, maybe they don’t quite have the speed as the earlier round guys, but they get on the field and they’re football players.  The other thing is their maturity rate.  Maybe once they get into the CFL and get into a couple training camps that maturity and the progress they make, makes them surpass the guys in the earlier rounds.”

That indeed seems to be what happened with Comiskey.

Eskimos Defensive Coordinator, Greg Marshall, was with the Roughriders at the time.  “Part of Dan’s deal is for whatever reason coming out of college, he wasn’t getting a lot of push from his college coach at the time – and a lot of it back then was word of mouth.  You call the coaches and find out who they recommend and he wasn’t getting highly recommended, but the reason we kept after him is because a lot of the coaches he played against were recommending him, so we decided to take a chance.”

The 2013 CFL Combine in Toronto was the largest and most robust to date.  It’s a reflection of how sophisticated the operation has become.  Every team in the CFL is expending significant resources to conduct thorough research on every player.  This is a sharp contrast from years ago when scouting in the CFL looked a lot more like a hurry-up offense, rather than a long, methodical, sustained drive.

“When I came into the CFL with Saskatchewan, I think I was on the job maybe 3 or 4 weeks and I had to do a rapid fire look at players, and we were going into a draft that was much larger,” said Popp.  “This is my 22nd year in Canada and the facilities have been built, there’s places for players to train year-round.  They’re in better shape.  There’s a bigger spotlight on it, so there’s more and more prospects.  This event has grown a lot.  We didn’t get to interview players in the past, we kept asking for that.  Now, our team, we interview every prospect that’s here.  We split up into two groups and do it in two nights.  It’s rapid fire, getting it done.”

Grey Cup Spirit Alive at CFL Combine

IMG_8139BY JARRETT RUSNAK

TORONTO – In the CFL, the superstars are ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ at the same time.  Players are accessible to fans through a variety of means.  The players are down to earth and that’s one of the things that makes the league so beloved by those who follow it.  You could say the same thing about those who run the league.

I was asked to cover the 2013 CFL Combine for the Argonauts.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, and when I arrived, I needed some time to make sense of it all.

The room looked more like something I remembered from Grey Cup week in November last year.  Argos sitting with Ti-Cats.  Roughriders sitting with Eskimos.  People were mingling together, wearing all manner of team colours – and they were laughing and telling stories.  Except, these were the CFL’s coaches, general managers, and player personnel types – not fans.

And they were sober.

“It’s one of the few times that coaches and other coaches get together in the same room,” said Calgary Stampeder Head Coach, John Hufnagel, “It is a nice little get together.”

“There’s a lot of camaraderie until you start competing,” said Edmonton Eskimo Defensive Coordinator, Greg Marshall, “There’s not too much sharing of information, but there is a lot of kibitzing and exchanging stories and laughs and all that kind of stuff.”

Everyone was approachable.  I chatted briefly with Hamilton Ti-Cat Head Coach, Kent Austin – who thanked me afterwards for talking to him.  Eric Tillman is someone whom I met only once, and then only for a couple minutes.  When I shook his hand he looked at me and remembered the time and place of our meeting.  Jim Popp and Joe Mack had a real bromance going on.  Scott Milanovich nodded politely in my direction as I walked passed him.

“It’s a small league right, so you get to see people,” said Argos’ Director of Canadian Scouting, Ted Goveia. “You play each other 3 or 4 times a year, and at the end of the day, you’re competing.  But that’s the joy of working in pro sports, is that you can have a rapport with guys.”

The combine itself has become a much bigger event than it ever was in the past.  The room was as much a TV studio as it was an evaluation centre.  Lights were hung, banners raised, and the CFL’s best foot was definitely put forward.

I guess there were players there too.  They were being evaluated for the 2013 draft or something.  I wasn’t really paying attention.  My focus was on evaluating the vibe in the room.

The League has never been in a stronger position.  There’s a shiny new TV deal afoot.  Marketing opportunities abound.  Sponsors lining up.  Fans buying tickets.  Stadiums being built.

For the CFL in 2013, the sky’s the limit, even as it remains completely down to earth.

100th Grey Cup: Home

This was published this morning on rodpedersen.com

***

100th Grey Cup: Home

I remember a conversation I had with a colleague a couple weeks ago.  We’re both from Saskatchewan, though he’s been in Toronto 17 years, while I’ve only been here a year.  I was telling him about how the longer I’ve been away from home, the more ‘Saskatchewan’ seems to be coming up in my everyday conversations.  He smiled and looked down at his coffee, “Jarrett, bringing up Saskatchewan in everyday conversations actually never goes away.”

So now it’s Monday morning.  The Argos have just won the 100th Grey Cup.  I’ve been writing about the team all season long as part of the Argos Admirals – the official fan voice of the Toronto Argonauts and the 100th Grey Cup.  ‘Room 31’ is set aside for us at Argo HQ to do our blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc.  I got to be good friends with some very passionate and knowledgeable football fans in the process.  More than that, I got to be part of a Grey Cup run.  Quite honestly, I’m overwhelmed with something akin to emotion.

I felt it most last night from my seat in Rogers Centre.  The stands were a mosaic of colour.  I was wearing my green Rider jersey.  The Argos had just won the Grey Cup and I felt tears welling up – not so much for the Argos, but for something much bigger.

Sometimes a thing is just a thing.  Sometimes a football game is just a football game.  And sometimes a thing is a symbol.  What can be more symbolic than two Mounties, clad in their scarlet-red uniforms marching the Grey Cup to the podium to present it to my adopted team.

I felt like I was a part of history.  I felt like I was one small piece of a mission that we all played a tangible role in.  We all truly did.  We came together and we moved the hearts and minds of the citizens of Toronto – some more than others mind you – but regardless, we gave the city something it hadn’t felt in years.

When the Grey Cup was passed to the Toronto Argonauts, no single individual accepted it.  The team raised the Cup together.  They raised it for all of us, because this wasn’t just a game.  We watched a century-long celebration of our history, our trials, our culture, our triumphs, our names, our faces, our differences, our memories, and ourselves.  Nothing in this country brings people together like how that silver mug does.

Having an opportunity to contribute in some small way, to something I’m passionate about, meant a great deal to me.  There is nothing that symbolizes home for me more than the Roughriders.  There is nothing that symbolizes a new life in my adopted city more than the Argonauts.  There is nothing that symbolizes my living connection between the miles and faces between those two places like the CFL.

I want to thank Rod Pedersen for giving me a channel homewards and a place to pen nationwide.  You are an outstanding radio personality and play-by-play man.  With your professionalism and genuine folksy way of connecting with people, you’d own this town in five years if you actually lived here.

I want to thank the Toronto Argonauts for welcoming me into your fold.  You are a first class organization full of genuine good people.  I am proud to be an Argo Admiral.

I want to thank everyone who reads my columns.  Without you I’d just be talking to myself.  Hopefully there will be more down the road.

Take care everyone.  I’ll see you at Christmas.

100th Grey Cup: The Grass Roots

This article was submitted yesterday to rodpedersen.com  It is a passionate defence of our city’s reputation after being attacked by a media type from Moose Jaw.

***

100th Grey Cup: The Grass Roots

This column was going to begin with lessons I learned from concluding an abusive relationship I had with a bottle of gin last week (turns out there were others involved), but instead I’m going to take a shot at Scott Schultz.

I don’t know the man personally.  Never had a single conversation with him.  Like most of us, my only acquaintance with Schultz came through watching him from afar, as he plied his trade from the middle of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ defensive line.  On one occasion I swear I saw him stop a Toronto running back by unhinging his jaw and swallowing the man whole – although my memory of the event could have been influenced by the Romanian fire water we smuggled into Mosaic Stadium that day.

Schultz was on 620 CKRM’s ‘The Sportscage’ last night.  He was flapping his pie hole about how Toronto doesn’t deserve a football team because attendance at Argo home games has been terrible over the last number of years.  He then added that Toronto as a whole doesn’t care about the Argonauts or the CFL in general.  The franchise and the league would be better off if the team were located somewhere else.

Mister Schultz, unhinge your jaw and bite me.

It wasn’t that long ago that I found myself sitting on a frozen bench in Taylor Field with 16,000 other fans.  The Roughriders would have gone bankrupt had the Saskatchewan government and the NFL not stepped in.  I remember ticket rallies prior to a game against Sacramento in 1993.  Kent Austin threw for 6,000 yards that season, and the team couldn’t put bums in the seats.  I remember a telethon only a few years prior to that game.  Let’s not be too smug when it comes to judging the attendance of other teams.

Over the course of a generation, Toronto stopped caring about the Argonauts because  Argonaut owners stopped caring about Toronto.  The Maple Leafs are currently following that same blueprint.  More average-everyday people in this city HATE the Leafs, than there are corporate-suit ‘spectators’, who sit on their well-dressed asses to attend games.

If you want a city to love you, you need to capture the hearts of its citizens, not their wallets.  With the Argos, too many flash-in-the-pan attempts at big signings, marketing failures, business and football mismanagement have led to where the team currently finds itself.  Courting a fan base takes years, not weeks – and over the last couple of years, the current ownership and management group have slowly been getting things pointed in the right direction.

The on-field product is championship caliber.  What other Toronto sports team can say that?  Fans are responding.  Attendance has been respectable this year.  The final home game of the season drew over 27,000.  Fans at the beginning of the season would go to games wearing whatever happened to be in their closet.  At the Eastern Semi-Final, they donned Argo Blue en-masse.  I’m hearing stories all over the city of fans returning to the team.

Off the field, the effort to capture hearts has been even more intense.  That’s ultimately the mission of The 100th Grey Cup Festival.

A football game was played yesterday morning at W.A. Porter Collegiate in Scarborough.  Though the game took place well away from the festivities downtown, I’m sure Scott Schultz would have given Rod Pedersen’s left nut to be a part of it.  The school needed a new field.  The Argonauts saw an opportunity.

This game was planned months ago to be one of the 50+ events set to take place throughout the festival.  Porter’s field was soaked with water, making conditions perfect for a recreation of the 1950 Grey Cup game played at Varsity Stadium – also known as ‘The Mud Bowl’.

Media, local celebrities, school staff and alumni, and Argos’ alumni participated in the game.  Porter’s dance team performed with the Argo cheerleaders while the marching band played.  Football clinics were held throughout the day for Porter’s students.  The actual Grey Cup Coin was used for the coin toss.

You can watch a video of the game on the Toronto Sun’s website http://www.torontosun.com/2012/11/19/legendary-grey-cup-mud-bowl-match-recreated

In Spring 2013, the field will be completely refurbished by the 100th Grey Cup Festival and the Toronto Argonauts with materials donated by RONA, to benefit the football program – a team that was restored through The Argos Foundation’s Level the Playing Field program.

Another event will be held today as part of the Festival at the Nissan Family Zone in Young-Dundas Square.  As part of the Argonauts’ season-long in-school efforts with the Huddle Up Bullying Prevention Program presented by Tim Hortons, a celebration and massive rally dedicated to the cause, will be taking place.  Scott Schultz outta be there too so he can learn how to not hurt the feelings of sensitive artists like me.

Those are but two of the over fifty events planned for the 100th Grey Cup Festival.  I’ll close with a quote by Argos’ president Chris Rudge, “A large part of the 100th Grey Cup Festival’s goals is to give back to the community and the City of Toronto throughout the celebrations.  Working with the TDSB, the staff at Porter, and RONA has allowed us to fulfill this goal while at the same time paying homage to an historic moment in Canadian sport.”

The Argonauts deserve a lot of love for their efforts.  Re-sodding football fields and working on anti-bullying programs in schools, doesn’t lead directly to bums in the seats.  They do however, make our community stronger – and contrary to the opinion of one notorious former defensive tackle with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, this community needs the Toronto Argonauts as much as the Toronto Argonauts need the community.

100th Grey Cup: A Call to Action

Here is an article I published in the top rated sports blog in Canada yesterday – rodpedersen.com

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It is now Tuesday of last week.

I’m sitting at a bar in Stratford with this actress friend of mine.  We fall into a conversation about Grey Cup.  Turns out, she’s never heard of it.  Neither has our bartender (who’s also a composer).  I get on my sandbox and start speeching about Grey Cup – how more than just a football game, it stands as a symbol of who we are, a festival, a celebration.  Grand gestures.  Flowery language.  Patriotic music spills from my vibe.

The actress is quite moved.  Bartender, not so much.

I then mention The Toronto Sun Zip Line that will be running from between the iconic towers of Toronto City Hall down to the foot of Queen Street.  It’ll be the tallest urban zip line in North America.  His eyes perk up.  I go on to mention concerts by K’naan, Sam Roberts, Matthew Good, and tons of others.  Over 50 events in all, including alcohol soaked street festivals and a couple of football games.  He’s still not interested in the game, but the festival around the game has him sold.  I caught wisps of enthusiasm motivating his keystrokes as he marked the calendar in his phone.

So now it’s last Sunday afternoon.

The actress is sitting beside me as we take in the Eastern Semi-Final at Rogers Centre.  It’s her first football game ever and she’s loving it!  Moved nearly to tears at times.  She never expected a live football game to be such an emotional roller coaster.  I keep thoughts of the 2009 Grey Cup to myself.  By the third quarter, she declares herself to be a football fan.

My thoughts now turn homewards, back to Regina.

I remember a friend scoffing when it was first announced that Toronto would host the 100th Grey Cup.  He felt that TO didn’t deserve the honour because the city doesn’t care about the CFL.  I couldn’t really argue with him – but I did anyway because that’s how we relate to each other.  Still, he had a point.

Despite being the 5th largest market in North America, attendance at Argos’ home games over the past decade has been somewhat not reflective of that population in proportion to what other CFL cities draw based on their populations – to put it politely.  ‘Embarrassing’ would another way to state it.

I’ve been living in Toronto a year now and I’m getting a feel for the character of this city.  Indeed, Toronto doesn’t care about the CFL – but then again, en-masse, Toronto doesn’t care about any one thing in particular.  That’s the secret charm of this place.  So much is happening at any given time, that you don’t really hear much hype about anything.  It all gets drowned out by the cultural noise.

To really understand Toronto, you need to drill deeper.  For me, the city doesn’t feel like a city (unless I’m downtown, or stuck in traffic somewhere).  Toronto is a thousand small towns crammed together.  Each of these small towns have a distinct character, with their own language, foods, and culture.  I’m writing this article from a coffee shop in ‘The Junction’.  Feels more like Melfort, or Esterhazy, or Assiniboia.  Very old two and three story buildings lining one main street, with residential beyond – but with better shopping.

Just as Toronto is divided into a thousand small towns, it’s equally divided into a few hundred different vibrant ‘scenes’ that all play out loudly and simultaneously – music, art, culture, sport, politics, academia, people who dig tofu, entrepreneurs, fashionistas, writers, keepers of the phrase ‘bunny hug’, and among many many others, CFL fans.  Five million people are dispersed throughout these scenes.  They cross pollinate with other scenes and they are passionate about what they’re into – CFL fans included.

The 100th Grey Cup Festival is a reflection of this diversity – though on a national scale.  There’s a caption on the front page of 100thgreycupfestival.com that reads, “A cultural and sporting event a century in the making… uniting our country with an invitation to Our Nation…  Coming to Toronto this November… The celebration starts now…”

As much as the 100th Grey Cup Festival is an invitation to the nation (and that includes you), it stands as an invitation to the city itself.  By design, the festival will be making a lot of cultural noise.  It will be taking up massive chunks of Toronto’s downtown, including Young-Dundas Square, Nathan Phillips Square, and street closures along Simcoe, Front, and John Streets.

The Argonauts have been enjoying respectable attendance figures this season.  The Sun had something like 18 sports pages dedicated to the CFL last weekend.  The Argo’s on field performance has people talking.  Organizers of the 100th Grey Cup Festival have pulled out all the stops to make this once in a lifetime event, truly memorable and lasting.

Masses of humanity, from a wide swath of Toronto’s scenes and neighbourhoods will have no choice but to be gobbled up by the festivities – and what’s good for Toronto’s motley assortment of people creatures, is even better for you.  Take in the live music.  Consume the diversity.  Party.  Be loud.  Discover the people, places, and faces this city has to offer – and while you’re at it, bring non-football types into OUR scene, and OUR league.

Ultimately that’s the mission here.  Grow the CFL’s footprint across the country and around the city.  I truly believe we’re all in for something special over the next 10 days and 11 nights.  Buy a plane ticket.  Get in your car.  You’ll find yourself in good hands upon arrival.

I’ll get into details on specific events over the next few days.  In the meantime, start making travel plans.

Cheers!

Jarrett

Politically Incorrect

With 40% of the popular vote, the Conservatives won a stunning majority in the Canadian election last night.  I was expecting them to take a minority, and shortly thereafter, fall to the left wing New Democratic Party, with support from the centre-left Liberals in Parliament.  It would have made for a hell of an interesting political story over the next little while.  Instead we have Darth Vader free to run amok for the next four years.

Next up on the agenda; all first borne children shall be eaten.  Women must chain themselves to their kitchens.  Federal arts funding may only be applied for in fantasy realms.  Social programs will give way to larger newer jails.

On a brighter note, Conservative majorities in Canada have a tendency to eat themselves within one or two election cycles, never to be heard from again for 20 years or so.  Most interesting, the separatist Bloc Quebecois has been decimated, winning only 4 seats (down 46 from their previous result).  The sovereignty movement in Quebec is dead.  The Liberals are also looking hard in the mirror this morning.  ‘The Natural Governing Party of Canada’ won only 34 seats, their worst result ever.  Not even their leader, Michael Ignatief, could hold his own seat.  He resigned this morning.  Most of the carnage from the Bloc and the Liberals led to a record number of seats for the NDP, who for the first time in history, will form Canada’s official opposition.  The Green Party also won a seat for the first time in history.

I am a bit of a political junky and I found this election fascinating.  Everyday I was consuming news articles.  Sat on the couch with my friend Tanya last night, drinking beer and watching the results come in.  Politically, the landscape is upside down and sideways.  It will take some getting used to.  Hopefully my country will still be recognizable four years from now.

Sad News Stories

In 36 hours Japanese nuclear technicians have seen their facilities rocked by the largest earthquake in the country’s history, plowed over by one of the largest, fastest moving tsunamis on record, and exploded as a result of their efforts to prevent a meltdown.  Multiple systems failures, meltdowns, explosions, and radioactive leakage are either taking place right now or remain on the horizon.  Oh… and 10s of thousands of their countrymen are dead or missing.

If this were a video game, I’d have hit ‘reset’ by now.  If it were a Hollywood screen play, the writer would have scaled it down to make it more believable.

Unfortunately, it is reality and I just can’t wrap my mind around it.  My world is a million miles away from that news story.  Woke up this morning, played backgammon, recorded voice over for a project, and now I’m sitting in Atlantis musing about world events.  My small little world keeps on turning.

But for this nuclear disaster, I truly wouldn’t have given it another thought.  Seems like there’s always trouble somewhere.  Revolutions, natural disasters, biological epidemics, and global economics, measured in death tolls, injustice, and humanitarian relief campaigns.  More of the same, over and over again.

Water is wet, the sky is blue, and some future disaster looms on the horizon.  Hearts will pour out.  News will cover it.  Broken humanity will be on display for people like me dissect in conversation over water coolers.

I’m drinking coffee in a nice cozy place while some poor bastard is sacrificing himself so that others may live.  Does feeling guilty help?  Perhaps I could write some impassioned article about the completely unimaginable events transpiring across the world from me.  Would that accomplish anything?

WHAT CAN I DO?

I choose not to empathize with their situation.  I don’t mean to be callous.  It’s just that, they don’t need my pity.  I don’t have any skills or means whatsoever to help their situation.  Instead, I choose to focus on my own backyard.

I do have the means, skills and ability to help people in my community.  I volunteer at my old high school and I try to help kids find themselves through their art.  Some of these kids are inner-city, low income types.  Maybe in some small way I can affect a positive change in their lives.  Maybe they’ll go on to do the same for a handful of others.  Maybe those handful of others will go on to do the same for others yet.  Maybe, without even realizing it, the simplest effort can yield the greatest force of positive change.

The world doesn’t need revolution, disasters, and other sad news stories to remember to care about the rest of the world.  The world doesn’t need super-human efforts from a handful of ‘heros’ to become a better place.  The world needs all of us to put forward the least little effort to make our own communities stronger.

Imagine what kind of world we’d live in then.