The most indelible televised images of 2011 courtesy of Usual Suspects:
Boston Bruin Brad Marchand speed bags Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin's head in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. An ugly Stanley Cup Final had its defining image, before the riot. Had a rookie done this to Tom Brady or Dirk Nowitzki what might the NFL or NBA have done? The NHL dissed Sedin for not punching back.
The September plane crash that killed the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team was a reminder of the travel risks taken by all sports teams who fly millions of miles a year. The footage from the memorial ceremony in Russia was as poignant as it was heartbreaking.
Christine Sinclair breaks her nose at Women's FIFA World Cup. The flattened proboscis epitomizes Canada's dire effort at the tournament, as the country loses ignominiously in the first round. Undaunted, Sinclair parks a beauty of a goal off a set piece against Germany.
David Freese of St. Louis Cardinals ends the greatest World Series game ever played with a walk-off home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 against Texas. This follows a two-strike, two-out triple in the ninth that scored two to tie the game. All by a hometown kid.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is concussed in the rain at the Winter Classic by this glancing hit from Washington's David Steckel. Intentional? Accidental? Didn't matter as Crosby was sidelined till November as a result of this and one other hit. After a glorious comeback of three games in November, Crosby has returned to the injured list with more concussion symptoms.
Former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky attempts to vindicate himself of pedophila charges in an interview with NBC's Bob Costas. The ugly sub-culture of NCAA sports comes into sharp focus as the Penn State program and its legendary coach Joe Paterno are disgraced - even as the team's fans rally to support the coaches. Added to scandals at Syracuse, Ohio State and other major programs, it was not the best year on American campuses.
In second playoff hole of the FedEx Cup/Tour Championship Bill Haas chips from out of the water hazard to within two feet on the 17 hole to remain alive against Hunter Mahan. Haas went on to win the $10-million first prize on the next hole. That almost makes up for the Tiger Woods/ Steve Williams cat fight that dominated golf headlines in 2011.
Burke's Law: Usual Suspects doesn't have a horse in the Brian Burke/Toronto media sweepstakes. Whether the Leafs sink to the bottom of Lake Gitchigumi or rise to the heights of the Stanley Cup is immaterial to us. You root for the story, not the team. That's how it's supposed to be in our biz. Presumably that's how the media plankton army following the Maple Leafs feels, too.
But Burke, the general manager/impresario of the hockey team, apparently believes that the press corps has a rooting interest in negative outcomes for his team's games. Like Captain Queeg giving the ball bearings a workout, Burke thinks everyone in a fedora with a press card is out to get him and his humble squad.
How else to explain Mr. Tie Askew choosing Christmas Day - traditionally a tools-down holiday in the press business - to announce a contract extension for head coach Ron Wilson? Not only did Burke force a bunch of the ink-stained types to work on a holiday, he also foiled their incessant demands that Wilson be forced to earn an extension as Leafs coach. In short, a joyous December 25 for Herr Truculence. Which, frankly, is amusing stuff to those not vested in the Leafs' fate.
If you are a fan of the team, however, it is never a good sign when your GM is spending intellectual energy on feuds with the media when his club hasn't mounted a respectable power play or penalty kill during Wilson's tenure as his head coach. Trading bon mots and bombshells with the vast collection of second guessers and pack followers is not the pursuit of a serious general manager. Especially when said team is several spoons shy of a table setting.
Fine, give Wilson his extension. But the entire Christmas Day/Red Rider BB gun reference is beneath Big Bang Theory, let alone a team trying to make the postseason for the first time since Jim Parsons was doing summer stock. An old boss of ours once said you shouldn't get into arguments with someone who buys printer's ink by the gallon. Burke might be wise to heed that advice.
What's My Call: Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden is supposedly the top coaching candidate in the NFL. Which is odd, considering his perpetual fog over the NFL rule book. Monday night, Gruden was again befuddled by a roughing call, this one on Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton who clearly led with his helmet in hitting a Saints receiver in the noggin. This led to Gruden's patented, "What's he supposed to do, Jaws? How's he supposed to stop him?" lament to fellow analyst Ron Jaworski.
Gruden's embarrassed colleagues thankfully waited for the former coach to bitch himself into exhaustion. Until later in the game, when Falcon receiver Roddy White was hit in the small of the back by a Saint defender while attempting a catch. Gruden then asked the musical question, "How is this not a penalty when the other hit was?" Uh, because one hit is to the head while the other is in the back? That didn't stop Gruden, and another session of bitching commenced.
But remember, NFL teams are lined up to sign Gruden. Supply your own punchline.
Jock Talk: Back when Usual Suspects was growing up we never heard locker room speeches. It was Ward Cornell serving batting practice fastballs on the Hockey Night In Canada set. These days, the proscenium arch of the locker room has fallen. You can see all manner of half-dressed-men and half-baked locker-room logic. How you feel about that depends on how you feel about a lot of sweaty guys looking like they want to take a shower. Occasionally, though, it's worth the peeping tom.
Such as Monday night when Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's record for passing yards gained in a season. ESPN brought us a locker-room talk right out of the movies. Our favourite bits? When Brees thanks the equipment guys for "rubbing up our balls", and when the Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife shamelessly try to crash the photo op. This, folks, is pro sports in 3:22.