Thursday 14 April 2011

Professional baseball returning to Montreal?

The recent Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors Sports Celebrity Breakfast, for which I was one of the organizers, honoured former Montreal Expos limited partner Mark Routtenberg. There were 650 cheering baseball fans on hand that morning. It was the Expos team of 1994 that was in the spotlight. In attendance was that team's manager, Felipe Alou; pitchers Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Mel Rojas and Denis Boucher; outfielders Rondell White and Marquis Grissom; and first baseman Cliff Floyd. (Pictured above is myself, my dad Larry, Charles André Marchand of CKAC Radio, rapper Annakin Slayd and former Expo John Wetteland at the Sports Breakfast)

There was so much enthusiasm in the room for the return of professional baseball that I mentioned several times how our city could indeed support a minor league pro squad. The Can-Am League is very successful and a team in Quebec has thrived there for years. I looked over at Routtenberg and said that he was the logical person to lead this initiative.

Well, the suggestion has snowballed. Routtenberg has already been in touch with the commissioner of the Can-Am League, Miles Wolfe (below) and plans to meet with him in person. It appears as if White and Floyd might be willing to invest in a franchise. Another former Expo, Warren Cromartie, emailed to remind everyone that he too has been working on such an initiative. Add former Expos broadcaster and one-time prospect Marc Griffin, who wants a Can-Am team on the South Shore.

The stumbling block is the absence of an appropriate stadium that can hold up to 5,000 fans. Forget about the Big Owe. That is not even a possibility. If Premier Jean Charest is willing to contribute $200 million of our dollars for a new hockey arena in Quebec City, then he sure should hand over a tiny fraction of that amount for a nice, outdoor baseball stadium. Ditto for Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, who could use some good publicity at this time.

Where to put the stadium? The former Blue Bonnets/Hippodrome Raceway on Decarie would be ideal. However, after the U2 concerts this summer we should begin hearing stories about multi-million dollar housing development options.

The most simple option? Simply renovate the Centre Claude Robillard Stadium in Ahuntsic, which served as the home of the Montreal Impact soccer team for years. It would probably cost the least amount of money, already has the stands, facilities and parking.

Let's bring pro ball back to this city!

Wednesday 13 April 2011

How the Cotler Camp Competed with Zajdel Campaign Launch

The federal riding of Mount Royal has been a Liberal stronghold for 70 years. Incumbent Irwin Cotler (below) has won five successive elections in 10 years, including his first effort in 1999 with an incredible 92 percent of the vote. The last time voters here witnessed a real close race was in 1984 when Sheila Finestone, who had won the right to succeed former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau as the Liberal candidate, edged out Tory challenger Sharon Wolfe by just over 4,000 votes (22,716 to 18,707).

Cotler's margin of victory has shrunk with each election, gaining 55.64 percent of the vote in 2008 versus low profile Tory Rafael Tzoubari. In light of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strong suppport for Israel, the Tories feel they have a chance to seriously challenge Cotler. Their emissaries succeeded in luring former Montreal City Councillor Saulie Zajdel (above) out of retirement to carry the Tory banner

It has been an interesting campaign thus far, with a number of debates on the schedule. The Liberals are lucky to have someone with Cotler's reputation. He was well known as an international human rights expert before he sought public office and when the Liberals were in power he rose to become Minister of Justice. At the age of 71 he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, I am quite amazed with the way in which he has blazed the campaign trail. He also has an exceptionally politically savvy chief of staff in Howard Liebman.

Take Wednesday night for example. Zajdel had his official campaign launch rally planned for 5 p.m. at the Gelber Conference Centre, the same locale where Cotler kick started his campaign a few days earlier. That very morning a notice to community leaders and media went out from Liebman, inviting them to a hastily called meeting with Cotler and former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

More than 200 people attended the Zajdel affair, including Tory MP Maxime Bernier, Senator Leo Housakos and a number of other candidates.

Mount Royal also has prominent Bialik High School teacher Jeff Itcush running for the NDP.

Cotler is clearly not taking Zajdel for granted. It all makes for an interesting race. Long gone are the days when folks would stay home, automatically assuming a Liberal cakewalk.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Martin Lapointe's NHL career and his Côte Saint-Luc connection

I enjoyed a very nostalgic evening last week. As the guest of Montreal Juniors owner Farrel Miller, I attended the annual Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Dinner at the Hyatt Hotel. Martin Lapointe (pictured with me at the left), Vincent Damphousse and Robert Desjardins were three of the inductees with a local connection; the other was Harold McKay from the Maritimes.Lapointe, Damphousse and Desjardins played at a time when I followed the QMJHL on a very serious basis. The league had some true superstars at the time, from Pat LaFontaine and Mario Lemieux to Stephane Richer, Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso.

In the case of Lapointe, I literally saw him grow up. A native of Ville St. Pierre (now part of Lachine), Lapointe was one of the top players for the Westluc Saints hockey organization. Teams were composed of players from Cote Saint-Luc, Hampstead, Montreal West and Ville St. Pierre. Most of the games were played at the Samuel Moskovitch Arena in CSL. I first met Lapointe, now a youthful looking 38 years of age, when he was the PeeWee level. I covered the team for a local community newspaper called The Monitor, served as the game timekeeper and public address announcer and hosted the annual awards banquet.

I followed Lapointe through four PeeWee and Bantam seasons. He then graduated to the Lac St. Louis Midget AAA Lions. CSL’s Solly Levine, the team’s director of operations, had previously been involved with Westluc and played a role in his development. Lapointe starred for the Lions and was drafted by the QMJHL’s Laval Titans where over the course of four seasons he scored 149 goals and added 189 assists for 338 points in 195 games. He was selected in the first round, 10th overall. In 1991 NHL entry draft by the Detroit Red Wings for whom he helped win two Stanley Cups. Ville St. Pierre celebrated his rise to stardom by naming the local arena after him. He played in the NHL for 16 seasons, scoring 181 goals and adding 200 assists for 381 points in an incredible 991 games.

Lapointe left Detroit when he became an unrestricted free agent. The Canadiens were interested in his services, but the Boston Bruins came up with an offer he just could not refuses: a five year, $25 million contract. Lapointe found himself with the Chicago Black Hawks and the Ottawa Senators at the end of his career. After the 2007-2008 season Lapointe still wanted to continue his career. But no offers were forthcoming. He told me then it was probably related to the salary cap.

Married to the beautiful Tanya, whom he met while playing junior, the happy couple have four children. Martin is devilishly handsome, built like a truck and extremely personable. After taking some time off early on in his retirement, he got an offer to become a full-time scout for the Black Hawks. He accepted the challenge and moved his family to Chicago, one amazing city I might add. “It really keeps me on the road a lot,” he told me. “I think I will scale back next year.”

I asked what he likes to do best when returning to Montreal, he of course focused on visiting with his parents and sisters. But he loves dining on a steamy hotdog and fries at the legendary Lafleur’s Restaurant. He has great memories of his years with the Westluc Saints, the annual banquets at Bill Wong’s Restaurant on Decarie and the people he met along the way.

It was his mom, Lapointe reveals, who taught him how to skate. “I was five years old,” he said. “My mom went in the backyard and watered it down to make ice.”

Damphousse (right), who looks like he can still step on the ice and play, grew up in Anjou. He played three years for Laval and was selected in the first round, sixth overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He spent 18 NHL seasons with Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal and San Jose and tallied 432 goals and 773 assists in 1,378 games. He now operates four spas across Canada and does charity work.

Desjardins, from Verdun, was a standout goalie in the QMJHL and played with four teams: Shawinigan, Hull, Longueuil and Victoriaville. He then went on to play for the Concordia Stingers for four seasons, turning pro with the Wichita (Kansas) Thunder of the Central Hockey League. It was a short three year career, but in an emotional address he told the audience that he met his wife there and still calls Kansas home. He was even a bit worried he might have lost some of his French.

Also at the awards banquet, Montreal Juniors star Louis Leblanc was named the league's personality of the year. The West Island native and a 2009 first round draft choice of the Montreal Canadiens, Leblanc added some sizzle to the league this year. When I met him last summer, before the season I began, I asked if he would visit some public schools. Well, he was good on his word and made a few appearances. Look for him to start next year off with the Canadiens farm team in Hamilton. He will make his way to the big club in no time.