THE OBSERVATION OF TWO MOMENTOUS DATES IN WESTERN HISTORY THIS WEEK ARE OVERSHADOWED BY PRESENT EVENTS THAT SHOW US

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso “Yo tengo un sueño” durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HOW FAR WE REALLY HAVE TO GO

     This weeks celebrates the anniversary of two monumental dates in American history.     On August 27th, the American constitution’s nineteenth

amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote in the entire U S of A, turns 93 yeas of age.  And on the 28th, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luthor King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March for Jobs and Freedom at Washington D.C. in 1963.  Both dates commemorate milestones in the struggle for liberty and equality by all.  But other events this week have shown that, while we may have come far since these two days, we still have so much further to go.

While I didn’t watch MTV’s Video Music Awards this past Sunday (I’ve given the channel a very wide berth since it’s entire programming slate degenerated into teenage moms and the weekly cat fights of pseudo-celebrities), I did take a peek at a video of the Miley Cyrus performance that caused enormous backlash on the entire planet’s social media.  I watched maybe a minute of it before my eyes vomited a little and I had to run away screaming (one online commenter suggested Robin Thicke get a pregnancy test after his Close Encounter of the Miley Kind).  While plenty has already been said about Cyrus’ . . . unique performance, I find myself asking the same question about the price of female success in pop music that I’ve been asking ever since a seventeen-year old Britney Spears wore a mini-skirt and gyrated to seductive choreography while asking men everywhere to hit her one more time; why do women have to be sex objects to be successful?  Cyrus isn’t the first to strut across the stage nearly nude and look like she was auditioning for a porn movie-and she won’t be the last-but I think we need to ask why every major female star in pop music for the past three decades has, at one time another, marketed her sexuality in order to conquer the top 40.  Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, the current queen of shock Lady Gaga, the Pussycat Dolls, the list stretches on and on.  And while it may be argued that the ladies in question are simply cutting loose and having fun, and that Cyrus in particular is trying to divorce herself from her little girl image, would any of these women have enjoyed the same level of success had they not turned themselves into walking sex fantasies?  One notable exception is Kelly Clarkson, yet she could well be the exception that proves the rule as American Idol’s very first winner has had to endure criticism about her weight and body every step of her impressive career.  Would Janice Joplin, Karen Carpenter or Patsy Cline be successful in today’s sex saturated industry?  Or would they be consigned to obscurity?  And while pop music may be one of the biggest and most visual examples of this lopsided social dynamic, it’s hardy the only one.  It seems that more than nine decades after the fairer sex won voter equality south of the border, woman still have miles to go for before they’re seen as genuine equals and not sexual possessions.

And while the entire free world should celebrate both Dr. King’s speech and the pivotal march where he delivered it, every week we’re confronted by evidence that racial equality in the United States is still light years away.  One current story making the viral rounds is about a party of 25 black customers being ejected from a Wild Wing Café in North Charleston, South Carolina.  Michael Brown and the rest of his party were bidding farewell to his cousin, who was leaving the North Charleston area, when they were asked to move by the restaurant’s shift manager.  Apparently, they were making a white customer feel uncomfortable and when one of the offending party began recording the unusual request on their smart phone, the manager became offended and asked the entire group to leave because “she had a right to.”  Brown called Wild Wing’s corporate headquarters repeatedly but didn’t receive a response until he posted the story on the restaurant’s Facebook page.  He immediately received a call from Wild Wing’s head office offering him an apology and a free meal for himself and everyone in the party that night.  Needless to say, he refused both the offer and the apology.  Most telling of all though are attempts to keep blacks (and others) from participating in American democracy at the most basic level.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a number of provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prevented voter discrimination and suppression based on race (legislation that was a direct result of Dr. King and the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington D.C. half a century ago), a number of southern states rushed to begin shoving through legislation that would make voting more difficult for blacks, latinos and other minorities.  Texas waited a mere two hours before introducing its legislation and North Carolina’s laws have resulted in widespread campaigns of civil disobedience across the state (Texas is currently being sued by the American Department of Justice over it’s new restrictive voting laws).  The scarier part is, this fight started well before the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act and last November, hundreds (if not thousands) of black voters waited in line more than four hours after polls closed in Florida in to cast their vote for President.  Most did so in defiance of that state’s attempt to disenfranchise them.  These battles will only grow more intense as next November’s mid term elections for control of the Senate and House draw closer.

The sacrifice of those who inspired and engineered such pivotal moments should always be celebrated.  The women who marched to win the right to vote were often spit on, beaten and worse.  Many were rejected and scolded by their families and church leaders before being disowned or thrown out of their congregations altogether.  Martin Luthor King was arrested dozens of times for frivolous and often fictional offences and he always knew an assassin’s bullet waited for him.  But he, and others like him, persisted and fought the good fight, no matter how much needless blood was spilled and how much their dignity was assaulted.  And the world benefitted from their graceful yet determined resolve.   But as we mark the passage and importance of these unforgettable days, we should take equal measure of how far we sill have to go before the architects of such change are truly vindicated.  We should also take stock how far we’ve fallen since.

Shayne Kempton

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ARE WE THERE YET?

FANS OUTRAGED OVER BEN AFFLECK’S CASTING AS THE DARK KNIGHT DETECTIVE NEED TO REALIZE THAT IT’S ANOTHER NAME ASSOCIATED

English: Ben Affleck at the premiere for He's ...

English: Ben Affleck at the premiere for He’s Just Not That Into You. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WITH THE HIGHLY ANTICIPATED SUPERMAN/BATMAN MOVIE THAT SHOULD BE STRESSING THEM OUT

Take a deep breath.  Have you calmed down yet?  Does your world make sense once more?  Because when the news that Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman in Warner Bros. upcoming Superman/Batman movie (scheduled for a 2015 release) hit the internet like a fanboy tsunami, the response was a seismic outcry of anger, shock and amusement.  I initially wasn’t going to comment on it but when I saw CNN running the story (and fan’s angry reaction) on its ticker while Piers Morgan was interviewing a man convicted of murdering his parents, a good twenty-four hours after the story first broke, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold my tongue (or my keyboard) any longer.  And let’s be honest, while no one expects all that much from CNN these days, my Facebook feed is still going nuts over this.  The story is trending higher than news the United States is planning possible missile strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, that San Diego mayor Bob Filner is being chased from office by a sexual harassment scandal he’s spent months denying or dismissing and that a doctor in the highly catholic Ireland performed that country’s first ever legal abortion.  In fact, the news that Affleck was going to be donning the cape and cowl has trumped every other news story on the planet since it broke.  To borrow a phrase from our British cousins across the pond, everyone needs to calm down and carry on.  Besides, everyone’s so obsessed with Affleck’s casting as the Dark Knight, they’re missing the real reason they should be concerned about the film.  And that’s why I’m dragging out my soap box (see, and you thought I was going to judge your priorities.  Suckers).

I’ll be honest, as a huge Batman fan, I initially had my doubts.  I thought he’d be a make a much better Bruce Wayne than he would a Batman but upon further reflection, I’ve mellowed out.  I overcame my knee-jerk reaction and a lot of other grumbling fans should too.  The man can project a pretty strong screen presence, despite having more than a few duds in his closet.  And honestly, what actor doesn’t have a few roles they’d love to forget.  Kevin Costner, who drew praise for his portrayal as Pa Kent in this summer’s Man of Steel, wrote the book on starring in movie’s you’d wish never saw the light of day.  Affleck was more than solid in 2010’s The Town (which he also directed) and he was impressive in last year’s Argo, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture.  And he looks like he’s showing off some pretty meaty acting  chops later this year as a villainous online gambling mafioso in Runner Runner.  And his portrayal of a fallen angel in Kevin Smith’s Dogma? Arguably it was Oscar worthy.  Before any one brings up 2003’s Daredevil-AGAIN-I agree that it stank more than a thirty year old pair of bowling shoes.  But Daredevil’s epic levels of suck weren’t Affleck’s fault.  Instead, you should blame the story, the directing, and then the story some more.  And while The Man With No Fear’s only cinematic foray has become the butt of more than it’s fair share of jokes, it did make a very handsome profit despite being released in February, Hollywood’s no man’s land of release dates.  Plus, at 41, Affleck still has enough of the physical goods to be convincing as a crime fighter, given the proper stunt work and special effects support.  And remember a few years ago when then relatively unknown Daniel Craig was chosen as the new agent 007, James Bond fans became hysterical, taking to the internet to describe the decision as the worst one ever made in the history of human civilization.  Well, Casino Royale breathed new life into the franchise and last year’s Skyfall became the highest grossing James Bond film of all time, topping the one billion dollar mark (maybe Craig wasn’t such a bad choice after all).

What should truly be concerning fans about Superman/Batman isn’t any of the actors in front of the camera, but the director behind it.  While Zack Snyder did direct this year’s blockbuster Man of Steel, he did so with Christopher Nolan riding shotgun as producer.  Nolan, the mastermind behind the uber successful trilogy of Batman films that came to an end last summer with Dark Knight Rises, has essentially divorced himself from Warner Bros. studios for the time being and has surrendered all rights to DC comic book properties as part of the split.  And while Man of Steel was a financial success, it deeply divided both movie and comic book fans.  Some most die-hard fans of the Big Blue Boy Scout absolutely loathed the movie.  Making matters worse, the few elements Super-fans liked about MoS seemed to have Nolan’s fingerprints all over them.  His absence from Superman/Batman doesn’t bode well for the movie or the marquee characters.

As we saw in 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, Snyder is a visuals man who strives for the spectacle, trying to brand as many shots as possible with a very stylized, signature aesthetic. But what we also saw from those movies was that he favours style over substance, and giving his films a glossy, striking look seems to take priority over telling a story or developing his characters.  How he might decide to indulge that habit with the world’s two most popular super heroes should fill fans with more concern than how Ben Affleck is going to pull off playing Gotham’s Caped Crusader.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Affleck is going to make everyone forget Christian Bale; he could just as easily sink the role-and the movie-worse than an errant iceberg sank a little dinghy called the Titanic.  Nor am I saying that Snyder will destroy the film; there’s a good chance this could be the movie where he realizes the potential so many people believed he’s been capable of in the past, but unable to deliver on.  But if I were to lay money down on who has the greater potential to derail Superman/Batman before it even starts shooting, my bet would be the guy siting in the director’s chair and not the one who’s been handed the keys to the Batmobile.

Shayne Kempton

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BAT-GUANO CRAZY

     THE GROWING CONTROVERSY OVER THE 2014 WINTER OLYMPICS ISN’T MERELY EXPOSING RUSSIA’S INTOLERANCE AND THE INTERNATIONAL

English: GUATEMALA. At the opening ceremony of...

English: GUATEMALA. At the opening ceremony of the 119th session of the International Olympic Committee. Русский: ГВАТЕМАЛА. На 119-й сессии Международного олимпийского комитета. Официальная презентация Сочи – города-кандидата на проведение XXII зимних Олимпийских игр 2014 года. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OLYMPIC COMMITTEE’S INDIFFERENCE, IT’S ALSO REVEALING HOW MANY BIGOTS STILL CALL THE WEST HOME

         Make no mistake, there was nothing coincidental about Russia passing it’s globally renown “anti-gay propaganda” law last June.  Vladimir Putin and company knew full well that their new legal homophobia would cause a backlash and calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics hosted this February in Sochi, but they also knew full well that with only nine months or so until the Olympic torch was lit February 7th to open the Games, it would be virtually impossible to move them to another venue.   And that’s assuming that the International Olympic Committee cared enough to move the Games, which it doesn’t (despite all the wonderful sounding hyperbole in it’s charter, the IOC cares nothing about human rights and is more worried about how the growing uproar may affect the Games’ ratings, and therefore the value of future television deals).  But while Russia’s growing appetite for persecuting gay and lesbians reflect that country’s intolerance and bigotry as well as the IOC’s profit-first-last-and-only philosophy, it’s also allowing those of us in the West a grim glimpse into just how much homophobic prejudice is still alive in the Free World.

Calls for a boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games are currently being championed by actors and equality activists across North America and Europe.  George Takei is currently the most visual, using his extensive social media presence to get his message across (Takei also spent time in a Japanese-American internment camp as a boy, so he knows a thing or two about persecution).  US President Barack Obama has labeled the laws unacceptable and he cancelled a face to face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to take place at the G20 summit next month (though that probably has more to do with Russia granting asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden).  Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird also called Russia out for their draconian laws, a stance that has been supported by media on both the left and the right of the Canadian political spectrum.  British Actor/model Tilda Swinton flew a gay pride flag in Red square, in full view of both the Kremlin and Moscow police (there’s a good chance that, had she not been accompanied by a photographer she’d be cooling her heels in a Russian jail cell right now).  And rest assured, as the Games draw closer, voices of disgust and contempt will grow louder, evolving into a chorus demanding action.  Unfortunately, so will the voices of homophobic intolerance here at home.

As stories on this issue grow more frequent and in-depth, feedback is also guaranteed to become more and more venomous towards the homosexual community.  Some of the feedback on online magazines, forums and message boards borders on hate speech, and it isn’t uncommon to read comments ranging from the casually dismissive “If you don’t like it, don’t go,” and “we shouldn’t tell other countries what to do,” to the more offensive “they (gays) bring it on themselves,” to the morally indignant “it serves them right for living a deviant lifestyle.”  And you don’t have to wait too long until you come across the always fashionable “gay agenda” argument.  In some cases, the owners of such enlightened statements, safely hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet with their amusing little online handles to protect their identities, may be able to claim ignorance about how vicious and Nazi-ish Russia’s anti-gay laws are.  But the majority of the cases can be attributed to pure, unadulterated prejudice and bigotry, the kind that willingly and knowingly looked the other way when a short, paranoid little man named Adolph Hitler lead Germany on a genocidal march across Europe.  Yes, it could very well be that bad.

Signed into law by Russian President-For-Life Vladimir Putin on June 30, Russia has dismissed accusations that the law, whose title was revised to “Anti Propaganda of Non-Traditional Sexual Relations” is anti-gay, painting it as an economic measure that also protects children.  The law states that distributing any literature that promotes or even discusses homosexuality is punishable by a fine and jail time.  Organizations found in violation of the law, such as Russia’s rare independent media outlets, face stringent fines and a mandatory shut down of business for a minimum of ninety days (more than enough time to spell the end of a news or political web site that depends on the daily presence of advertising dollars).  Tourists guilty of violating the Motherland’s new law are also subject to fine and immediate deportation (how much you want to bet they threw that last measure in there just for the Olympics?).  Gay marriage isn’t even discussed and The Russian Orthodox Church supports the law one hundred percent.  Russia’s logic behind these measures are to protect children from being swayed or “converted” by gay “propaganda,” exploiting the myth that homosexuality is a choice, and to promote the continued growth of Russia’s population through a robust birth rate, which cannot be contributed to by same-sex couples (although the law clearly states that it will not target heterosexual couples who cannot or choose not to reproduce).   But the most disturbing aspect is the culture that has led to this law.

This isn’t some ideological measure passed by a small group and opposed by a large portion of the population.  While civilized countries move forward on gay rights, Russia has thrown itself firmly in reverse on the issue.  In 2005, fifty-one percent of Russians supported equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.  That number has since fallen to below forty percent and popular opinion continues to erode.  The law was passed by a unanimous vote of 468-0 in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament.  Violence against gay men in Russia is on the rise, much of it committed by Russia’s growing neo-Nazi community.  It has become common sport among Russia’s thug crowd to use social media to lure young gay men into traps, where they are beaten and humiliated, their ordeal recorded and posted on the internet.  The assailants make no attempt to conceal their identity because Russian police and lawmakers willingly look the other way.  Dmitrey Kiselev, one of the most watched political pundits on one of Russia’s state run television channels, said that Russia’s laws do not go far enough.  In front of an approving audience, he skated up to the edge of inciting further violence against Russia’s gay population and said that no gay man should ever be allowed to donate blood or sperm and that their organs should be buried or burned following their deaths.  Russia has even begun re-writing its history, erasing the fact that some of its greatest historical and artistic figures were gay.  Russia seems to be happily travelling the same road as Uganda, a country that began passing censorship laws and legal barriers that made homosexuals second tier citizens years ago. Now, they’re passing laws that actually make being gay illegal and punishable with jail time.  And death.  While the Vatican has condemned Uganda’s laws, Uganda’s Catholic diocese enthusiastically supports them, much like Russia’s Orthodox Church applauds the Motherland’s current “anti-gay propaganda” law.  History has shown what happens when a state or a government silences a people while persecuting them.  Make no mistake, that’s what Russia’s law is all about.  It isn’t about banning a Pride Parade, the way many online trolls are convinced.  Putin and his cronies have made it illegal to offer counseling to a gay youth struggling with their identity, possibly even considering suicide.  If a gay couple, or even heterosexual friends of the same-sex, hold hands in public it could be sen as breaking the law.  And consider this, if a lawmaker in Russia were to propose a law tomorrow that prevents gay athletes from playing professional sports, any gay organizations protesting would be in violation of this law.  Ask your favorite history teacher one day how that kind of situation usually turns out.

(Warning, the following video clip is graphic in nature but it depicts the decaying situation in Russia, not just for gays but for immigrants as well).

There are signs of larger resistance, in both Russia and the world.  Recently, the Belgian government painted the cross walks outside of the Russian embassy with rainbow pride colours and raised gay pride flags at all government and state-run buildings in advance of a visit by Mr. Putin.  TV news anchor Anton Krasovsky came out on live Russian television while criticizing the law (and was promptly fired), and perhaps the most visible defiance of the law came just days ago when Russian female track stars Kseniya Rhyzhova and Tatyana Firov shared a kiss on the winners podium at the World Athletics Championship in Moscow.  While the pair have claimed there was no political motives behind the move, that particular smooch was caught by thousands of cameras and has made a few viral laps of the planet since.  And New Zealand’s openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup has already declared that he will wear a gay pride pin whenever competing (or accepting a medal).

This will bear much further watching.  Signals about how much Olympic athletes need fear this law change on a daily basis.  Russia has said athletes need not fear any repercussion, then they have to obey it and then they’re back to claiming athletes will have immunity.  Odds are they’re going to play this game right up until the opening ceremonies.  The IOC’s message has been equally murky and last week a spokesman for the American Olympic Committee instructed athletes to follow the law.  The truth is, no one knows exactly how much athletes will have to fear until the Games themselves, and what sort of diplomatic gymnastics will be involved if things hit the proverbial fan.  But make no mistake, Russia loves this and is proudly wearing this defiance like a badge of honour.  And don’t forget, the law has its supporters on this side of the pond as well.  American radio juggernaut Rush Limbaugh, always a pillar of tolerance and equality, supports it and when John Baird slammed the law, he got an earful of brimstone from REAL Women, an organization no one had ever heard of before this (and has been forgotten again by most since).  And Uganda’s heinous laws were helped along by a number of western evangelicals, namely Scott Lively, who brags that he’s the father of Uganda’s “kill the gays” law and is now facing crimes against humanity charges.

But as for the homophobes and the bigots gleefully rubbing their hands over any chance to give voice to their venom, you should keep this in mind, when it comes to this issue, you’re choosing to be on the same page as Russia’s neo-nazis.  Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the ideological company you keep.

Shayne Kempton

THE RUSSIAN BEAR FEEDS NORTH AMERICA’S TROLLS

CANADIANS MAY ADMIRE THE GRASS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD’S LONGEST FRIENDLY BORDER, BUT WHEN YOU SEE HOW OUR

English: Wells Fargo Center in Los Angeles, Ca...

English: Wells Fargo Center in Los Angeles, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SOUTHERN NEIGHBOURS ARE BEING ABUSED BY THE PEOPLE THEY TRUST WITH THEIR HOMES AND LIFE SAVINGS, THE GRASS IS TRULY GREENER IN THE GREAT WHITE NORTH

     I recently found myself in a store that had a talk show on the radio that was discussing the city’s plan to use a scarecrow (or a man dressed up like one) to scare seagulls or crows or some form of avian nuisance away from one of Ottawa’s monuments or parks.  I honestly can’t recall the specifics because it wasn’t the story that grabbed my attention, rather it was the host, who seemed to be working himself up into a ballistic lather over the issue.  He was beyond enraged that the city was contemplating spending money on such an outrageous idea and I found myself briefly wondering if they had paramedics on standby in the studio when he went into cardiac meltdown.  He painted the idea (in very loud audio colours) as an affront to democracy and Ottawa taxpayers needed to rise up and punish their elected officials for such a travesty.  In all honesty, I have no opinion on the matter that got him so riled up, but it was the degree to which a minor issue (in my opinion, anyway) provoked him so dramatically that got my cranium’s wheels turning (not to mention the language he used to vilify both the proposal and those who hadn’t even voted on it yet).  He genuinely sounded like he was the only chicken who knew that it was raining chunks of sky and he was determined to warn the rest of the barnyard.  I actually found it more than a little amusing.

Then later that day I came across a story I had to triple check to believe.

Returning home after being out-of-town for two weeks, Katie Barnett of Vinton County, Ohio discovered that not only had her home been burglarized, but that the locks had been changed and she was locked out.  The culprit?  Welston First National Bank, who was foreclosing on a home.  Not hers, because the company that was responsible for collecting and removing the possessions in said house got the address wrong.  No, you didn’t misread that-the bank, an institution that is supposed to protect money and perform dozens of complicated financial transactions on a daily basis-emptied the wrong house (one of the reasons they gave was that her lawn hadn’t been mowed so obviously she had to have been the delinquent homeowner in question).  But while that may have given you a chuckle or two, the story quickly becomes a downright knee slapper.

When Katie contacted the bank to get her stuff back, they had already sold it.  When she kindly asked that the bank reimburse her for the stuff that they had essentially stolen and then fenced, she was met with attitude, bank president Anthony Thorne gruffly told her that she wasn’t going to get retail value for her possessions.  You know, the ones the bank stole.  The local police pretty much shrugged their shoulders after initially accusing her of being a squatter and Katie quickly discovered she had few options.  The bank had robbed her of an estimated eighteen thousand dollars worth of stuff, and no one apologized, was held accountable or was going to fix it.  And stories like this are becoming frighteningly common in the good old U S of A.

By the end of 2012, there had been more than 50 lawsuits filed against big American banks for improper foreclosures (perhaps that’s why the banks have begun using SWAT teams to deliver routine foreclosures notices), they’ve made a habit out of foreclosing on homes they don’t even own the mortgage on and have even foreclosed on homes where the owner’s crime was making the monthly payment early.  Last week, a court overturned the foreclosure on a woman’s home because she was a mere six dollars short and American banks have recently paid a handful of punitive fines without disputing the charges because it wasn’t worth their time (and the fines amounted to little more than a few minutes worth of revenue for them anyway).  It is estimated that banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citibank (among others) have foreclosed on over 700 veterans, many of them while they were on active duty overseas, in defiance of American federal law.  American banks have also come under fire for knowingly laundering billions of dollars for international drug cartels (it’s estimated that Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo, laundered an amount worth approximately one-third of Mexico’s entire GDP) and lawmakers have been pretty candid that America’s banks have returned to the greedy, negligent behaviour that lead to the economic meltdown of 2008, a collapse that caused catastrophic damage across the entire planet (current lawsuits and investigations against the U.S.’s big banks easily number in the double digits, if not triple).  And for those keeping score at home, you can count the number of American CEOs and major banking figures that have seen the inside of a courtroom for their role in the second greatest economic crisis in history on one hand.   Instead, many of them took multi-billion dollar bailouts, gave themselves bonuses and proceeded to lay off thousands of workers.

Last Canada Day, I wrote a mostly tongue in cheek piece about why we’re fortunate to live in Canada, taking a few good-natured jabs at our American friends along the way.  But the reality is, when it comes to our financial and banking systems, Canadians are truly far better off.  That isn’t to say Canada’s banks are angels.  Last spring the Royal Bank of Canada made headlines when it was discovered that they were laying off 45 Canadian workers and replacing them with cheaper, foreign labour.  To add a little extra insult to injury, the Canadians who were being discarded were forced to train their replacements.  Public outcry was fierce and the government moved swiftly to address the situation, promising to close loopholes RBC had exploited.  Now odds are there were probably a handful of government officials who knew what was going on and may have looked the other way every now and then, but once the story broke, the government at least made the appearance of correcting the problem.  In the land of the Stars and Stripes, banks routinely prey on their customers with neither apology nor regret and the American government rewards their predatory behaviour with obscene subsidies (it’s estimated that the United States facilitated implied subsidies of 83 billion dollars to it’s ten largest financial institutions last year).  Perhaps the most telling fact?  Since the late nineteenth century, the United States has suffered 16 crashes.  Canada has suffered a grand total of 0.

The moral to this little rant?  Well, suffice to say, if I could have put a little birdie (or crow) into the ear of the radio personality who seemed to consider the possibility of Ottawa’s decision to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a glorified scarecrow as a genuine threat to the Canadian way of life, I’d have suggested he calm down and take a breath.  Because if that’s the biggest problem we currently face in our day-to-day lives, we have it much better off then our American friends, who are getting mugged more and more by the guys in the three-piece suits these days then the ones hiding in the alleys.

Shayne Kempton

 

BANKING ON CANADA

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley Cup graces the front entrance of Edmonton’s Rexall Place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

25 YEARS AGO TODAY, THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADED THE GREAT ONE, WAYNE GRETZKY HIMSELF, TO THE LOS ANGELES KINGS IN A DEAL THAT SHOOK ONE NATION TO ITS VERY FOUNDATION AND BROUGHT HOCKEY ALIVE IN ANOTHER

     It was one of those “where were you” moments that happen a handful of times in a generation, the kind where history slaps you in the face to remind you whose running the show.  It was one of those iconic events where you can tell people for the rest of your life where you were when it happened because your memory preserved every detail with brutal clarity.  One of those moments where you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren exactly what you doing when history hit the fan and the world stopped making sense.  The beginning or end of a war; a president, civil rights leader or musician being assassinated; a space shuttle exploding without warning as it touched the heavens.  For most of the world, August 9th, 1988 passed like any other, but in Canada, people from coast to coast to coast spent most of it glued to their television sets, sitting transfixed and unbelieving as they witnessed our National Passion (a National Obsession for many) became an export, a commodity shipped south of the border to a ravenous American empire, changing our game and indeed our very identity as a country forever.

Sounds a little much, right?  A tad excessive to say the least?  Normally you’d be right and you’d be forgiven if you dismissed the previous paragraph as an extra-large serving of hyperbole tossed in a blender with a generous amount of fresh cow manure; a BS shake, so to speak.  Many would find it justifiably offensive to lump the day the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in with Pearl Harbor or the space Shuttle Discovery Disaster.  And normally I’d agree with you, but the fact is when Gretzky, along with teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, became Los Angeles Kings, Canada’s entire landscape shifted forever.

You have to be able to grasp hockey’s importance to Canada at the time to truly understand the relevance of this date.  Gretzky himself summed up Canadians relationship with hockey perfectly.  “In Canada,” he once remarked, “you go to church and you play hockey.”  That may actually be selling it short; Canada is full of atheists who’ll never set foot in a church but there’s a chance most are hockey fans.  The fact is that it’s impossible to find a metaphor that accurately describes how important hockey is to the Great White North.  Sharing the world’s longest friendly border with the richest, mightiest and loudest super power history has ever seen for the better part of a century and a half has nurtured a healthy humility in Canadians, but it’s also burdened us with a mean inferiority complex.  But nothing is so distinctly Canadian, nothing is bound so tightly with our national sense of self as the sport of hockey is.  During the Super Series against the Soviet Union in 1972, the day of the final game was an unofficial holiday north of the border, businesses closed up shop and teachers wheeled television sets into classrooms so their students could watch.  When Canada and the United States clashed for the gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the CBC reported ratings somewhere in the upper stratosphere.  And when the NHL returned from a year-long lockout in 2005, Canada’s public broadcaster tossed all of their previous records out the window as Canadian viewers rushed back to Hockey Night in Canada with savage enthusiasm.  While less than a quarter of the NHL’s teams currently call Canada home, we supply the league with nearly half its revenue and over half its talent.  And those numbers barely scratch the surface of how important the game is to us Canucks.  Hockey is imprinted on our DNA like few other things are.  Which is why the Gretzky trade rattled us so deeply.

Gretzky wasn’t the only future legend the Oilers boasted in the 1980’s, and while number 99 was a once in a lifetime player, he was the centerpiece of a once in a lifetime collection of talent.  They were known as the Boys on the Bus and they were responsible for more nightmares among NHL goalies than Stephen King, George A. Romero and Cold War paranoia combined.  But if Edmonton was a symphony of divine talent, Gretzky was the maestro, conducting the Oilers with surgical brilliance.  The Great One was often knocked for his lack of size (in the days before personal trainers and home gyms) and his skating was often criticized as being average at best.  But Gretzky’s true gift was his uncanny timing, his innate awareness of where everyone was on the ice at any given moment.  He was once quoted as saying that the secret to his success wasn’t knowing where the puck was, but knowing where it was going to be.  He thought the game at a higher level, the way a grandmaster thinks chess miles beyond his opponents.  Gretzky made a habit out of winning Stanley Cups and re-writing the record book, and he made it look easy.   And not only was he Canadian, but he also played for a small market Canadian team.  He belonged, without a doubt, to Canada.  Until that fateful day, exactly a quarter century ago today.

To add a little extra context to the tale, Canada was in the middle of the fierce Free Trade debate at the time, with millions of Canadians genuinely afraid that the trade agreement with the United States threatened Canada’s economic and cultural sovereignty.  Having fifteen million American greenbacks coming back to Edmonton as part of the return for the Great One ramped up the conspiracy whispers that Gretzky had simply been auctioned off to Big American Business and that the rest of Canada’s national treasures would follow.   The trade dominated the headlines of Canadian papers for weeks afterwards and Kings owner Bruce McNall and Gretzky’s new bride Janet Jones became Canada’s public enemy number one, their names cursed in newspaper editorials and on radio call in shows.  Fans held protests outside Northlands Coliseum and then Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was burned in effigy.  NDP House Leader Nelson Riis even demanded that the Canadian government declare Gretzky a national symbol and block the trade.

It wasn’t the biggest trade in NHL history (that honour goes to the Eric Lindros deal that was completed by the Quebec Nordiques and the Philadelphia Flyers just a few years later), but it is without question the most important.  Up until that time, Gretzky was promoting the NHL from the frozen tundra of Alberta.  Now that he was in L.A. and playing in the shadow of Hollywood, the game’s American popularity exploded like a dying sun.  Celebrity spotting became a new past time at Kings games and overnight hockey had become the new cool thing among Tinseltown’s trend setters.  When Gretzky was traded in 1988, the NHL boasted 14 American clubs.  Twenty-five years later, through expansion and relocation, 23 teams now reside in American zip codes, including two more clubs in California, two in Florida and teams in Dallas, Phoenix, Nashville and Carolina, markets the NHL never dreamt of penetrating before The Trade.  And in the wake of Gretzky’s tearful migration south, the United States various amateur hockey programs have improved so much that Canada’s southern neighbours now challenge the Great White North’s previously unquestioned dominance on a regular basis.   None of that could have happened unless Wayne Gretzky had worn a Kings jersey.

Edmonton still managed to win another Stanley Cup despite trading the Great One, capturing Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice in 1990.  But since then it’s been pretty grim for the Oilers and their fans.  They’ve only qualified for the playoffs seven times in the last 21 seasons.  And while they were the NHL’s Cinderella story the last time they did make the post-season, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, they currently own the longest active playoff drought in the League, missing the playoffs the last seven seasons in a row.  The closest Gretzky came to Stanley Cup glory after the Trade was leading the Kings to the Cup finals in 1993, where they were embarrassed by Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games.  When he retired in 1999, the four Stanley Cup rings in his trophy case were all won as a member of the Oilers.  The Great One captured Canada’s collective heart once again in 2002 when he was the most public architect of Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team in Salt Lake City (ending over half a century without Olympic gold), but being an owner and NHL head coach didn’t work out too well in his post-retirement days and the Great One has been pretty silent hockey-wise the last few years.  He leaves behind a legacy of untouchable records though, and remains the biggest reason why hockey was able to plant roots and grow in the United States.

Volumes have been written about the deal that sent Gretzky and company to L.A., and whenever the Trade celebrates a significant anniversary, magazines, newspapers and sports shows run lengthy pieces commemorating it and examining the impact it had.  The question of which team won the deal has been asked until the question has lost meaning, but the truth is the real winner was the game of hockey.  It’s true that August 9th symbolized the end of one era and the beginning of another, when hockey stopped being just a game and became big business.  It also marked the beginning of the game’s explosion of growth in the United States and what it all boils down to is that if, for whatever rhyme or reason, the Edmonton Oilers hadn’t traded Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings on this day a quarter of a century ago, the game wouldn’t exist today as we know it, a multi billion dollar entertainment empire that spans continents and stretches across generations.  Make no mistake, the game would still exist, but you can bet all the money in your mattress that the financial pie the owners and players wind up squabbling over every seven years or so would be a lot smaller and the game would have to settle for a much smaller stage.

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end, Canada shed a lot of tears with Wayne that steamy August day in ’88 (“I promised Mess I wasn’t going to do this,”), but Canada survived and hockey in the Proud North is doing just fine.  The Trade laid the groundwork that allowed hockey to spread and reach new heights of success and popularity.  There have been plenty of bumps along the way, but it was this deal that built the road in the first place.  And the purists can rest easy, the game of hockey still bears one, undeniable label.  It reads Made in Canada.  And no trade will ever change that.

Shayne Kempton

AN UNTOUCHABLE LEGACY

MY INNER GM PASSES JUDGEMENT ON WHICH NHL TEAMS OUTSIDE OF CANADA HAVE DONE WELL SO FAR THIS OFF SEASON, WHICH ONES HAVEN’T AND WHICH ONE IT REALLY, REALLY SUCKS TO BE RIGHT NOW

Face off Red Wings (white and red) versus Pred...

Face off Red Wings (white and red) versus Predators (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About a month ago, I published my thoughts on how Canada’s teams made out over the first part of the NHL’s offseason, including the entry draft and the usual frosh party that is the beginning of free agency (it’s estimated that teams gave away contracts worth nearly half a billion dollars on the first day alone).  Now here we are in the steamy days of August and there are a few other franchises I wanted to share my thoughts on, broken down into categories based on how well they did or didn’t do, as well as those who may provide some interest as the season unfolds.  And as an added bonus, I throw in my two cents on the sad saga of Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils, just to see if I can rile up the conspiracy theory crowd.  Keep in mind though, while most of the big fish are gone there’s still lots of summer between now and the opening of training camp in mid September, with plenty of time and opportunity for change.  Five teams are currently over the NHL’s salary cap and another dozen are perilously close (within a few million dollars or so).  There are a handful of arbitration hearings scheduled over the remainder of August and there are still one or two mildly interesting names still on the free agent market.  Essentially, there’s a pretty good chance anything I write here will be outdated twenty minutes after I publish it.

So without further adieu, I invite you to indulge my armchair General Manager ramblings on the following teams and feel free to leave a comment agreeing, disagreeing or questioning my sanity.

NICE JOB

Boston Bruins:  I’m not a gambler, but if the Stanley Cup playoffs were to start tomorrow, I’d be tempted to lay some serious coin on the Boston

English: NHL Goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Bos...

English: NHL Goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins with mask off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bruins to win it all.  2013’s Stanley Finalists came out of the gate swinging this year, refusing to stand pat at being second best.  After losing out on the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes last April, the Bruins snared the veteran power forward as a free agent and shipped promising but controversial young star Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a deal that saw them nab under-rated but hardworking and versatile sniper Loui Eriksson in return (they also picked up defensive prospect Joe Morrow in the deal, sweetening their return).  Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli also got Tuuka Rask and playoff warrior Patrice Bergeron signed to lengthy contract extensions, removing the distractions of negotiations during the season.  The Bruins are currently over the cap, but once they move effectively retired Marc Savard to Long Term Injured Reserve status, they’ll become snugly compliant.

Detroit Red Wings:  Detroit keeps managing to outrun father time and their efforts last July 5th prove why.  The Wings replaced the inconsistent (and overly expensive) Valteri Flippula with warhorse Daniel Alfredsson and centre Stephen Weiss.  Neither one were signed to be game breakers, but Alfredsson proved he’s still capable of producing 40-50 points when healthy and brings a king’s ransom in leadership and experience.  Weiss, meanwhile, gives the Red Wings a perfect second line centre behind ageless miracle worker Pavel Datysuk.  Detroit has a whole host of capable, over ripe young candidates eagerly waiting to fill their handful of third and fourth line vacancies, and the Red Wings boosted their already decent pipeline by drafting Val d’Or power forward Anthony Mantha, the only fifty goal scorer in this year’s draft.

Philadelphia Flyers:  Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has never shied away from making bold moves in the off-season to improve his team.  This year was no exception.  The flyers bought out injury prone veteran Daniel Briere and disappointing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, using that cap space to bring in Tampa Bay buyout Vincent Lecavalier and goalie Ray Emery.  Emery could prove a steal at one and a half million if he performs the way a lot of people think he can, while Lecavalier, free of the expectations his ridiculous contract with the Lightning burdened him with, could prove to be the perfect second or third line centre for the Flyers as well as an ideal mentor for young forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.  And while drafting Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are long-term solutions to a blue line that struggled last season, veteran Mark Streit offers immediate help.  Streit may not be Chris Pronger, but his leadership, work ethic and offense will help anchor a blue line that was the Flyers’ Achilles heel last season.  Like the Bruins, Philly currently sits over he cap, but also like Boston, the Flyers can become cap-compliant by moving an expensive and all but officially retired veteran (Chris Pronger) onto LTIR as well.

INTERESTING

Nashville Predators:  Predators GM David Poile looked like a kid on Christmas morning when Seth Jones, considered the top prospect in this year’s entry draft and a future franchise defenceman, was still available when Nashville’s selection came up fourth overall at last June’s entry draft. The Preds had Jones name on an entry contract about twenty minutes after he donned a Nashville jersey for the first time, and the hulking blue liner will spend his developmental years being tutored by current franchise defenceman Shea Weber.  Aside from signing 37-year old forward Matt Cullen, Nashville concentrated most of their energy on snagging high energy, defensive forwards like Viktor Stahlberg, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystom.  The Preds won’t be the most exciting team to watch next season (or the highest scoring), but they’ll probably be one of the most difficult to score on.  Nashville may not be ready to return to the post-season dance in 2014, but they’ll have the potential to grind out a victory every night, regardless of the opponent.

Dallas Stars:  When Jim Nill left the Detroit Red Wings (arguably the most efficiently run organization in the NHL) to replace Joe Nieuwendyk as the Stars new GM, he promised change.  Say anything you want about the man, but so far he’s lived up to his word.  Nill kicked off the summer for Stars fans by sending all-star forward Loui Eriksson, young centre Riley Smith, promising blue line prospect David Morrow and forward prospect Matt Fraser to the Boston Bruins for Tyler Seguin, veteran forward Rich Peverley and AHLer Ryan Button.  Drafted second overall in 2010, Seguin is dripping with potential, and if the Stars can get the notoriously rowdy and outspoken young star focused and settled down off the ice, he promises to a superstar on it (the Stars already got a taste of Seguin’s penchant for controversy when a homophobic remark appeared on his Twitter feed immediately following his trade to Dallas; Seguin maintains he was hacked).  Not satisfied with that much depth up the middle, the Stars leveraged their abundance of cap space in a deal that saw them sacrifice young depth defenceman Phillip Larsen and a seventh round pick in 2016 to the Edmonton Oilers for veteran centre Shawn Horcroff.  And in a stroke of drafting luck, the Stars were able to snag promising Russian forward Valery Nichushkin with the tenth overall pick and there are hopes the young power forward may be able to step in right away on the team’s second or third line.  Dallas has spent the last five seasons on the playoff bubble, missing out on the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup by a handful of points every spring.  Now it looks like they may just be poised to chase another banner next April.

What The Hell?

Pittsburgh Penguins:  Pens GM Ray Shero invested a lot of future assets at last season’s trade deadline to load up for a run at the Cup.  He gave up blue chip D prospect Joe Morrow and a couple of B level college prospects along with the Penguins selections in the first, second, fifth and seventh rounds in the 2013 entry draft and their second round selection in 2014 to add rentals Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Douglas Murray and forward Jussi Jokinen.  Pittsburgh became most people’s favorite to win the Cup and they did indeed dominate the playoffs, right up until the third round when they were mercilessly manhandled by the Boston Bruins.  Fast forward a few months and almost all those marquee names are gone (only Jokinen remains, a single season left on his current contract).  Shero spent most of his time making sure winger Pascal Dupuis and veteran forward Craig Adams never hit the free agent market while signing Evengi Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz to rich contract extensions that kick in next summer.  He did manage to repatriate veteran blue liner Chris Scuderi as a free agent, but with all due respect to Scuderi, his addition pales compared to the mass exodus headed out of Pittsburgh (that also includes long time Pens Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke).  Complicating matters further is that their current 22-man roster is more than a million over the salary cap, meaning they’ll have to shed some significant salary over the next six weeks or so.  A team that boasts the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin (among others) in its lineup will always be a regular season powerhouse, but the fact remains that the current Penguins roster isn’t as good as the one who was so easily dismissed by Boston last June.

Washington Capitals:  Alexander Ovechkin pulled double duty on the NHL’s All-Star teams this year, as 2013’s winner of the Hart Memorial and Maurice Richard Trophies was named the First All Star Team’s right winger and the Second All Star Team’s left winger. Given Capitals GM George McPhee’s complete lack of action so far this off-season, Caps fans better hope Ovie can duplicate being in two places at once on the ice.  Washington watched as centre Mike Ribeiro left for the Arizona desert and depth centre Matt Hendricks migrated south to play in Tennessee.  To balance these losses, the Capitals went out and added . . . drum roll please . . . no one.  When other GMs were in a mad dash to improve or complete their rosters for opening night, the only sound coming from the Capitals front office was a chorus of bored crickets.  Considering that the Capitals looked like they were going to miss the playoffs altogether until they put together a late season push (and then promptly returned to their losing ways once they did get to the playoffs), you would have thought McPhee might have been burning up the phones looking for help.  Washington can’t even rely on taking advantage of teams desperate to become cap compliant later this summer because they have very little wriggle room under the cap themselves.  As it currently stands, the Capitals are looking like a one line team with a lot of expensive passengers.

Tampa Bay Lightning:  Last June, Lightning fans were rewarded for enduring a miserable season when Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman drafted Halifax Mooseheads sniper Johnathan Drouin third overall.  And while Drouin will likely join the Bolts this October, possibly even on a line with young super-star Steve Stamkos, that’s about all Tampa Bay fans can look forward to.  While Yzerman made many a Lightning fan’s dream come true when he bought out the remainder of Vincent Lecavalier’s enormous contract, Tampa Bay is likely going to be reminded of the ancient Chinese proverb about being careful what you wish for.  Lecavalier’s replacement behind Stamkos is former Red Wing Valteri Flippula, hardly a case for celebration and very possibly a big step backwards.  And while Tampa Bay’s brain trust may be confident that Ben Bishop, acquired from the Ottawa Senators at last season’s trade deadline, shores up their goaltending, they failed to address the Lightning’s biggest shortcoming; their blue line.  Tampa Bay may not finish second last in the East again, but their moves so far shouldn’t encourage any of their fans to hallucinate about a playoff spot just yet.

SUCKS TO BE YOU

 New Jersey Devils:  The Devils were already having a lousy summer before superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who still had twelve seasons remaining on his monster deal, announced his retirement/defection July 11.  The Devils had already watched as David Clarkson, one of the biggest names available in this year’s crop of free agents, signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the same day Zach Parise signed with the Minnesota Wild last year (July 5th is not a day that has been kind to the Devils organization as of late).  New Jersey already had to part with the ninth overall pick in last June’s entry draft to acquire Cory Schneider, Martin Brodeur’s heir apparent when he almost assuredly retires next summer, and the Devils have no choice but to forfeit their pick in next June’s entry draft as penalty for trying to circumvent the salary cap with Kovalchuk’s deal in 2010.  While Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was able to convince veteran Patrick Elias to return and brought on forwards Michael Ryder and Ryan Clowe, the Devils weren’t looking any better on paper than the team that missed the playoffs last spring.  And that was before Ilya Kovalchuk pulled a Houdini on them.  The Devils have since added 41-year old Jaromir Jagr, but most fans are skeptical that the former Hart trophy winner can replace Kovalchuk’s contributions.

On the matter of Kovalchuk’s “retirement,” I think casting the Devils as the victim might be a bit premature.  The popular thinking seems to run along the lines that if Kovalchuk had informed the team of his decision a few days earlier, they could have been more pro-active during free agency to replace him, possibly re-signing Clarkson.  Kovalchuk was slow returning from his native Russia following the end of the lockout last January, his tardiness inspiring rumours that he may spend the rest of the year overseas (Kovalchuk delayed his return to North America to play in the KHL All Star game).  And according to Lamoriello, the Devils GM and the Russian superstar had a number of conversations over the course of the season on the issue, so unless all of those conversations occurred during the handful of days between the opening of free agency and Kovalchuk’s announcement, you have to think the Devils’ GM had at least some inkling of what was coming.  I’m not excusing Kovalchuk’s behavior, but you have to wonder if New Jersey was doing more than a little acting with their “we’re just as surprised as everyone else” schtick.  After all, Kovalchuk’s absence conveniently frees up nearly six and a half million dollars in cap space a year, for the next twelve years.  And for those interested, Kovalchuk will be eligible to come out of “retirement” in another four years or so, coincidentally right around the same time his current deal with the KHL’s SKA-St. Petersburg expires.  As Dana Carvey’s famous Saturday Night Live Church Lady used to say “Well, isn’t that special?”

Shayne Kempton

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