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Under Further Review – 

In Memory Of – In many ways, Jason Botchford was a throw-back to the hardscrabble scribes of a bygone era. He had the same doggedness and relentless pursuit of a story. Hard-working and old school but make no mistake, he was a trailblazer in the way he covered the Vancouver Canucks, crossing over from print to radio and ultimately, incorporating video and social media posts into his regular everyday reporting. It was fresh and funny and totally innovative. In fact, ‘Botch’ was so unique he would become his own brand. His own intellectual property.

His death at 48 has shaken the Vancouver sports media. Jason had joined The Athletic Vancouver as its senior hockey writer just last summer after a long stint with the Province. He was a regular hockey analyst on TSN 1040, often serving as a co-host.

Jason lived his life with the volume up. He could be loud and combative and opinionated but he could always back it up because he had done his homework. He was passionate and it showed in his work. The ‘Provies’ and more recently, the ‘Athletties’ were a must-read for Canuck fans. Jason would labour over each post until it was just right. His followers would wait up after a Canucks game to read his post-game report. Botch leaves a massive hole in the marketplace. His legacy will be that he spawned a whole new generation of disciples in today’s new digital blogosphere. They may try to emulate him but they won’t replace him. He leaves behind his lovely wife Kathryn and three young children. So tragic.

Company Men – Is it just me or is the officiating in every major professional sport at an all-time low? The NFL playoffs were rife with controversy. Just ask New Orleans Saints fans who were deprived of a trip to the Super Bowl by inept zebras. You will remember that a Saints receiver was hit by a defender about 15 minutes before the ball got there and it cost them the game. We all know about the NHL and its monotonously perpetual string of bad calls.  Vegas is on the sidelines thanks to the officials. In MLB, the strike zone changes from inning to inning let alone game to game. And please, don’t get me going about the NBA. Their officials are highly suspect.

Here’s my take. I think most officials in all major sports are ‘company men.’ They know what side their bread is buttered and they don’t need to be told what result is best. During the regular season in the NHL, except in Vancouver of course, you can be guaranteed the home team will get a power-play in the final ten minutes if trailing by one goal.  In the NBA, all the calls will go to the home team.  The leagues want the home fans to go home happy and that’s the way the game is officiated. This is especially true in markets where ticket sales are down. If the home team wins, the fans are more likely to return.

The referees know what’s going on and they don’t have to be told. You don’t think they know the league wants the 76’ers and the Celtics in the NBA Eastern Conference final rather than Milwaukee and Toronto. You don’t think they know the league wants Golden State in the final. They would have Lebron in the final every year if they could make it happen. You don’t think the NFL was delighted to have teams from L.A. and Boston in the Super Bowl rather than New Orleans and Kansas City. Major league baseball can’t get enough of the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. Just watch Sunday Night Baseball.  They show about six teams and the rest of the league can go to hell.

I will stop short of saying games are fixed but we know there’s six degrees of separation. You will recall the Western Conference final in 2002 between the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. The Kings led the series 3-2 and the Lakers were headed to elimination. But wait! The Lakers were gifted 27 free throws in the final quarter, more than the Kings had in the entire game.  Check it out for yourself!  It was blatant and shameful.

Then, of course, there’s the story of Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee who worked games for 13 seasons from 1994 to 2007. He refereed 772 regular season and 20 playoff games. Donaghy resigned in July of 2007 after reports of an FBI investigation into allegations that he bet on games that he officiated and that he made calls affecting point spreads. Donaghy reportedly had a serious gambling addiction. According to reports, he tried to get himself out of debt by betting on games he officiated.  Donaghy would end up serving 15 months in prison.

In 2008, Donaghy’s attorney filed a court document alleging, among other things, that game six of the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings was fixed by two referees. The letter states that Donaghy “learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew Referees A and F to be ‘company men’, always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series.” The Lakers won game six, attempting 18 more free throws than the Kings in the fourth quarter, and they would go on to win the 2002 NBA title. The document also claimed that Donaghy told federal agents that to increase television ratings and ticket sales, “top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees.”

Now you know why I have a lot of reservations about officiating in all major sports and we haven’t even touched on soccer.

Home Swede Home – After all the international refereeing controversies over the years, we should not have been surprised by what happened in Sweden at the World U-18 Hockey Championships. Team Canada lost to Sweden 4-3 in the semi-final and the refereeing was atrocious.  The two refs assigned to the game were from Finland and Switzerland.  The two linesmen were from Finland and Russia. There were no North American officials assigned to the game.

The refs called five straight penalties to Canada to close out the game including two in the final ten minutes. The winning goal was scored with two and a half minutes to go when the referee stood and watched a Team Canada player get dragged down right in front of him. Instead of whistling the play dead, he allowed the play to continue and the Swedes proceeded to head up ice and score the go-ahead goal.

It was a clear case of homerism and for Canada, it’s an all-too common theme when playing on international ice. Sweden would go on to win the gold medal. The stands were full.  Had Canada reached the final, they would have probably been playing in front of family and friends. The refs did their job and made sure the result was just what the IIHF would have wanted. Case closed.

Time to Panic – I get a kick out of the ink-stained wretches in Toronto who are trying to blame Mike Babcock for the Leafs playoff shortcomings. They might want to look elsewhere, namely the guy who put the roster together. Any nine-year-old knows the Leafs are in dire straits with nearly half their salary cap tied up in four players. Get Babcock better players and he will get better results, plain and simple. If this is the ‘Shanny Plan’, it’s not working.

When I look at the Leafs failures I can’t help but think at how they have messed things up since this time last year. The Leafs had an outstanding brain trust in place led by GM Lou Lamoriello and Assistant GM Mark Hunter. They chose to promote Kyle Dubas to GM and ended up losing both Lamoriello and Hunter. It was massively foolish, even irresponsible, to let your two best hockey minds and player evaluators depart. Kyle Dubas had run a junior team in Sault St. Marie. Lou Lamoriello has three Stanley Cup rings.

So what happens? Sweet Lou goes to the Island where he hires the best coach in the league in Barry Trotz and promptly gets the Isles further down the playoff trail than the ballyhooed Leafs. Trots installed his system and in one year, the Islanders go from the worst goals against in the league to the best with two unheralded goaltenders.

In Edmonton, the Oilers are reportedly close to naming a new general manager.  The job is Ken Holland’s to take if he so wishes. Holland and Oiler President Bob Nicholson are friends from childhood in Vernon, BC so you can be sure Nicholson is pushing hard. Holland may also be getting overtures from Seattle. Edmonton has offered full control so we will see what happens but I still doubt whether Holland will accept. Even with the best player in the world, the Oilers GM post is still not very attractive.

I also doubt whether Mark Hunter, another reported candidate, would take the job. Sean Burke is more likely.  He has a connection with Nicholson from his days with Hockey Canada. If the Oilers had half a brain they would go after Ron Francis. He built the roster in Carolina that is busting out in this year’s playoffs. It’s clear now he was let go prematurely.

Owning the Draft – No team manipulates the NFL draft quite like the Seattle Seahawks. The so-called draft experts always seem to give the Seahawks a poor draft grade following the draft yet they always seem to unearth gems. What you have to remember is the Seahawks are drafting for THEIR needs and according to THEIR performance model.  

Once again this year, the Seahawks nailed it.  They came into the week with only four selections yet walked away with 11 total picks. Remarkable. They used the first pick acquired from Kansas City for Frank Clark to maneuver their way into a bounty of selections, trading down three times before moving up twice to land the players they coveted most. Getting receiver DJ Metcalf at the end of the second round was a huge bonus. He was rated in the first round by every draft pundit. He’s got great bloodlines.  He’s the son of former Bears guard Terrence Metcalf, the nephew of all-purpose back Eric Metcalf and the grandson of former Cardinals All-Pro running back Terry Metcalf. The kid is 6’3” and 230 pounds with tremendous speed so he finally gives Russell Wilson the big target the Seahawks have been missing. Think Calvin Johnson.

What the experts fail to recognize is Seattle’s understanding of their own system and who profiles where. You may not have heard of Marquise Blair, Ben Burr-Kirven or Cody Barton but these guys can hit people and will be big additions to the Seahawks special teams which last year, were not up to normal standards.

We should not have been surprised that the Hawks would be aggressive following the draft.  They have made a living with undrafted free agents so as soon as the draft concluded they went to work on acquiring some of the players they had targeted who went undrafted.  Don’t forget, this is a team that has used this route to acquire numerous players who have been big time contributors including Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and more recently, Poona Ford.

As of today, the Seahawks have the second most homegrown players on their roster in the NFL with 40 and that doesn’t include this year’s draft picks, plus they have already accumulated 11 picks in next year’s draft. I don’t think there’s another team in all of professional sports that I admire more than the Seahawks. They can not only identify talent, they know how to develop it.

One final thought about the Seahawks Russell Wilson. You can be sure that Kyler Murray would never have been the number one pick in this year’s NFL draft if it wasn’t for Wilson changing everyone’s mind about shorter quarterbacks. Wilson has been completely underappreciated.  He has thrown less than 10 interceptions in four of his seven seasons and his highest one-season INT total is eleven. Wilson also throws the best deep ball in the NFL. Murray should send Wilson a thank you note.

Can’t Catch a Cold – After an unexpectedly fast start to the season, the Seattle Mariners have fallen back to earth and what’s precipitated the nosedive is historically bad defense. The M’s are butchering everything hit to them.  They lead the majors in errors with 38 in 33 games and are tracking to set an all-time modern era record for errors in a season. The Mariners have only two decent defensive players in their current lineup, Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger. The rest of the bunch can’t catch a cold.

If you are a Blue Jay fan, keep an eye on a couple of fast-rising young prospects in their minor league system.  Big right-hander Nate Pearson, who pitched here in Vancouver for the Canadians, has just been given a promotion to Double ‘A’ New Hampshire.  Pearson had 35 K’s in his first 21 innings at Dunedin with a 0.86 ERA.  He can hit 100 MPH on the radar gun so he is not long for Toronto.  The other kid to watch is infielder Cavan Biggio, son of the former Houston Astro.  He is off to a fast start at Triple ‘A’ Buffalo with a .361 batting average in his first 21 games. The Blue Jays are grooming him to play all over the diamond so don’t be surprised to see Biggio in a Blue Jay uniform sometime this summer.

Who is George Orton – My colleague Mark Hebscher wrote a book a few years ago entitled “The Greatest Athlete” (you never heard of).  It was the story of Canada’s George Orton who blazed an amazing trail during the early part of the 1900’s.

George Washington Orton was born in Strathroy, Ontario in 1873. He was paralyzed when he fell out of a tree at the age of three. He suffered a blood clot on the brain and his right arm was severely damaged. He could not walk until age ten, and didn’t regain full mobility until age twelve.

Orton would make his mark as the top middle distance runner in the world. In 1892, while attending the University of Toronto, he set a mile record of 4:21.8 which lasted for 42 years. The following year, he earned a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and Orton won an astounding 17 national titles in the US. In 1900, he became the first Canadian to win a medal at an Olympic Games. He won a bronze in the 400 metre hurdles, and then, 45 minutes later, won the gold medal in the 2500 metre steeplechase.

Unlike today, early Olympic athletes did not represent their birth country. They ran as individuals, or members of a university delegation or athletic club. Including the name of a country alongside a competitor’s name did not begin until the 1908 Olympics. At the time, the IOC retroactively added a nationality alongside the names of previous performers, and that is how Orton became known as an American. Next to his name in the record books it read “George Orton-U.S.A. The mistake would go unnoticed for over 70 years before the IOC took those medals away from the U.S tally and awarded them, correctly, to Canada’s medal total. Orton is also the first disabled athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. For many years, he managed to hide his disability, a “dead” right arm and hand, permanently damaged by the childhood accident.

Orton introduced hockey to Philadelphia while at Penn and is largely responsible for the popularity of the sport in that city. He would later manage the Penn Relays and nurtured that event to the point where it would become the top track event in the world. He was an amazing all-around athlete. In addition to hockey and track, Orton played competitive soccer and cricket. And oh yes, did I mention that he spoke nine languages fluently? For more, check out Mark’s book.  It’s a great read!

From the Music Archives – We leave you this week with a classic video featuring George Harrison, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton. Leon Russell sings lead on “Come On In My Kitchen” from the rehearsals for the Concert for Bangladesh. There’s a good view of George’s sanded-down Fender Stratocaster toward the end.