- Listening to Russ Howard talk about curling, as he has done in expert fashion during TSN’s coverage of the Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts in recent weeks, a seasoned scribe cannot help but be reminded of Ron Lancaster. The Little General loved to hold court on all matters relating to football. Whether he was regaling listeners with an anecdote or diving into the intricacies of the game while making them comprehensible for the average fan, the iconic Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback was engaging, informative, relatable and funny. Every syllable was must-hear material. Howard is of the same ilk.
- My favourite Lancaster quote is a self-deprecating beauty from 2006: “They said there were all these seasons in Saskatchewan. The wind blew in the winter, the spring and the summer, and Lancaster would blow playoff games in the fall.”
- The silver-medal-winning Lancaster quote references the events of Oct. 29, 1978, when No. 23 played his final CFL game. His heir apparent, Larry Dick, got the start at quarterback against Edmonton at Commonwealth Stadium. In the fourth quarter, then-head coach Walt Posadowski inserted Lancaster into the game. While trotting on to the field, he shook hands with Edmonton cornerback Larry Highbaugh. Years later, Lancaster quipped: “He should have shook my hand. With all the interceptions I threw to him, I put him in the Hall of Fame.”
- That game, by the way, will always be my all-time No. 1 sporting event — period. It mattered not that Edmonton had sewn up first place in what was then known as the CFL’s Western Conference, or that Saskatchewan was destined to miss the playoffs. Just one week after Lancaster had been booed in his final game at Taylor Field, he guided Saskatchewan to a come-from-behind, 36-26 victory over Edmonton. Lancaster’s 333rd and final CFL touchdown pass — to Joey Walters — was followed by a Bob Macoritti convert that gave Saskatchewan a 27-26 lead. For insurance, Lancaster scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak. Even before the game, Edmonton fans saluted the retiring legend by posting signs such as “Thank You, Ronnie, For All The Good Years.” There were repeated standing ovations to salute a member of the visiting team, even after he orchestrated a victory over the home side. It was the sweetest conceivable ending — one more patented fourth-quarter rally, as a punctuation mark to an incomparable career.
- In the same game, Bill Baker also signed off in storybook fashion. The future Hall of Fame defensive lineman concluded the scoring when he sacked Edmonton rookie quarterback Warren Moon for a safety touch late in the fourth quarter.
- Then 14, I sat beside my mother and the rest of the modestly sized Saskatchewan delegation in the end zone that was furthest away from Lancaster’s fourth-quarter magic. We travelled to and from Edmonton that weekend via Dash Tours. Unimaginably now, it cost a mere $50 per person for transportation to and from Edmonton, one game ticket and one night’s hotel accommodations. According to an online inflation calculator, $50 spent in 1978 is equivalent to $230 today. Good luck finding a hotel room for $230 these days.
- As the Brier winds down, anticipation builds for the 2024 Canadian men’s curling championship, to be held March 1-10 at the Brandt Centre. While at the Regina Leader-Post, I covered the Briers of 1992, 2006 and 2018, while always silently wishing that I could simply sit in the crowd and vegetate during a week-plus of curling. So … cross one off the bucket list! On Thursday, I purchased a full-event pass for the 2024 Brier. The cost: $603.86.
- Confidential message from my wife, Chryssoula Filippakopoulos, who has requested anonymity: “Now that you no longer have media credentials and are paying to get into sporting events, you are spending far too much money.” Guilty as charged.
- Also charged: My credit card.
BEDARD’S THE BEST
- It may seem preposterous or premature to proclaim that, at 17, Connor Bedard is the greatest of all Regina Pats players. But his statistics already rival or exceed those of many previous Pats stars who enjoyed their peak years at 19 or 20. Bedard is putting up numbers that are a throwback to the run-and-gun era, when nary a coach was heard to utter (ugh) “structure” and defensive systems (if there were any) were far from impenetrable. With 124 points (including 60 goals) after 49 games this season, Bedard was scoring at a pace that would have produced 88 goals and 182 points in what used to be a 72-game schedule. The Pats’ single-season records are 89 goals (by Doug Wickenheiser in 1979-80) and 190 points (Jock Callander, 1981-82).
- Wickenheiser tallied 89 times during a season in which 9.30 goals were scored per WHL game. The average was 10.21 when Callander piled up 190 points. Bedard is scoring at a comparable clip even though the average goals per game across the league has descended to 6.89.
- Bedard is the first Pat to score 60 goals in 50 or fewer games since Dale Derkatch accomplished that feat just over 40 years ago. On Feb. 11, 1983. Derkatch notched four goals — swelling his season total to 61— in a 9-4 victory over the visiting Portland Winterhawks. The outburst took place in Derkatch’s 49th game of the season. On Wednesday, Bedard also notched No. 60 in his 49th game — albeit in a head-scratching, 3-2 loss to the lowly Edmonton Oil Kings.
- At 17, Derkatch averaged 0.87 goals and 2.00 points per game. Bedard’s averages as a 17-year-old are 1.22 goals and 2.53 points entering Friday’s road game against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
- Bedard’s statistics would be even better, actually, if the referees didn’t routinely look the other way as the CHL’s marquee player is hacked, slashed, cross-checked, interfered with, punched, et cetera. The treatment of Bedard is yet another lamentable example of a hockey culture that allows for open season on superstars. An NBA equivalent of Bedard would be attempting 25-plus free throws per game. The stars are protected in basketball. Hockey people, take note.
- Entering Friday’s game in Lethbridge, the Pats had the second-fewest power plays in the league — another indication of the referees’ propensity to look the other way while Bedard is treated like a pinata. In one recent game, Bedard was twice hauled down on the same shift — without the whistle being blown, of course — before a third such infraction finally awakened a referee. Even then, the howling home crowd helped to call the penalty, which was too obvious for even a see-no-evil official to disregard.
- Worse yet, two referees are somehow making a mess of all of this.
- The Saskatoon Blades look very much like a team that could enjoy a long and prosperous playoff run. Blessed with depth and talent throughout the roster, their disciplined style of play is conducive to playoff prosperity. If anyone is overdue for a WHL championship, it is the Blades. A charter member of the league, which was formed in 1966, the Blades have appeared in five championship series — in 1973, 1975, 1976, 1992 and 1994 — but have yet to win one. Could this be the year?
- The Swift Current Broncos’ Josh Filmon is filling the net with some frequency. A seven-game goal-scoring streak, during which he sniped 10 times, swelled his season total to 43. Six of those goals came in one game — an 8-4 victory in Edmonton on Dec. 16.
• Congratulations to erstwhile L-P colleague Darrell Davis on his new weekly gig as a sports columnist for my favourite newspaper. Darrell’s presence in the L-P for the first time since 2008 ensures that the rich legacy of Bob Hughes and Gregg Drinnan — our mutual mentors and people we will always revere — is upheld. Bob and Darrell are in the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Gregg is the most important, influential and enduringly excellent writer in WHL history.
- Also applaudable is the selection of the University of Regina Cougars’ Dave Taylor as this season’s U Sports women’s basketball coach of the year. It is easy to take Taylor for granted because of his long-standing presence with a program that is typically top-10 material. But when you really take time to ponder what Taylor has accomplished, it truly is remarkable. The same can be said of this province’s feeder system, which perennially produces premier players for the Cougars and University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
- Is anyone better at anything than TSN’s Vic Rauter is at describing a curling match?
- Spring is coming, right?
ROLL CREDITS …
- Nice people who deserve a plug: Bev Lutz, Craig Smith, Dale Isaac, Don Hewitt, Kelly Peterson, Kyla Stringer, Moises Canales-Lavigne, Cyndi Cherney, Carter Haroldson, Lila Haroldson, Lorne Cherney, Mary Anne Cherney, Jim Hopson, Mark Melnychuk, Barb Pacholik, Sydney Matheson, Peter Godber, Philip Blake, Stefen Banks, Micah Johnson, Gary Nickel, Bruce Arthur, Russ Howard, Dave Taylor, Bucky Dent, Lana Mueller, Larry Mueller, Marc Mueller and Bev Lancaster.