By Jeff Paterson
Just like the feast found on so many tables over Thanksgiving, the holiday weekend itself offered up an awful lot for local sports fans to chew on. So it should come as no surprise that there are some leftovers.
Congratulations to the Vancouver Whitecaps for winning their second United Soccer League First Division title in the past three years. The Caps thrilled a capacity crowd at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium on October 12 with a 2-1 win over Puerto Rico in the championship final. The Whitecaps are a good group of guys who work hard at what they do and are almost always overshadowed by the other professional sports teams in the city. So it was terrific to see them have Thanksgiving Sunday to themselves so they could be the star attractions-and they made the most of it. One of the stories that didn't get the play it probably deserved was the decision Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi made almost a year ago to relieve then–head coach Bob Lilley of his duties. A year earlier, Lilley had delivered a USL championship to this city, and it was a gamble on Lenarduzzi's part to make a coaching change. It was another-perhaps greater-gamble to hire Teitur Thordarson, a decorated soccer star in his native Iceland and a coach with plenty of experience in Scandinavia but one who had no firsthand knowledge of the USL or soccer in North America. Lenarduzzi, though, clearly saw what he needed to see from Thordarson in the interview process to hire him last December. And no one can argue now with the success of the coach or his team in their first year together. The Whitecaps couldn't have asked for a better finish to their season or for a better result to take with them as they make their formal pitch to join Major League Soccer in 2011. It's unthinkable to imagine MLS rejecting the Whitecaps' bid now.
While the Whitecaps were winning their league title, the Vancouver Canucks were starting on the long road to what they hope are the National Hockey League playoffs. And a week into the new season, it's almost impossible to get an accurate read on this team. There is no way they are as good as they looked while demolishing Calgary 6-0 on opening night. At the same time, there is no way they are as bad as they looked just five nights later when they were blitzed 5-1 in Washington and suffered their first loss of the season. The true Canucks are somewhere in the middle, probably much closer to the team that, in its second game of the year, fell behind 3-1 in the first period and then rallied to beat the Flames 5-4 in overtime. What is amazing, though, is how a team that did so many good things and seemed to show so many promising signs in the Calgary comeback failed to show any signs of life and pulled a complete no-show just 48 hours later in Washington. Losses are going to happen. That's hockey. But losses when the Canucks are outshot 25-3 through two periods (and 35-10 on the night) like they were in Washington-that's unacceptable and simply cannot happen again this season. A week into the new schedule and all the same questions that followed the team during the summer and even through the 6-0-1 preseason still exist. Clearly, it's going to take some more time for the Canucks to figure things out and for their fans to figure out exactly what this team is made of.
Meanwhile, Vancouver's other hockey team, the junior Giants, suffered one of the most remarkable losses in the franchise's seven years in the Western Hockey League. On October 11, the Giants outshot visiting Prince Albert 44-11, including 21-0 in a lopsided third period, and yet the G-men still wound up falling 5-4 in a shootout. Despite the result, the Giants still had not lost any of their first nine games of the new WHL season in regulation time (7-0-2), were in first place in their division, had scored 12 more goals than any other team in the league through the first couple of weeks, and had the WHL's top two scorers: Evander Kane and Casey Pierro-Zabotel. The names and faces in junior hockey are always changing, and, somehow, year after year after year, Don Hay has his teams at the top. It can't be a coincidence, and it shows how important coaching can be at that level.
And who knows if it's coaching or personnel or a combination of both, but something is missing from this year's B.C. Lions. And it now looks fairly certain that the Leos will not finish atop the Canadian Football League's Western Division for the first time since 2003. After the performance they turned in October 10 at home against Edmonton, they don't deserve to be a first-place team. It's been up and down all season, but the 27-20 loss-a score that absolutely flattered the Lions-was easily one of the lowest points of the year. Having done so well to get on a midseason roll, and with so much to play for, the Lions were terrible for most of the night against their Alberta visitors. First-place teams have an offence that can move the ball and a defence that can make a big play when it has to. The Lions had neither against the Eskimos, and it's getting too late in the season to think this veteran group will find the consistency needed when they need it. For a long time, there was reason to believe the Lions were still the best team in the CFL, even if they weren't playing like it. It's safe to say now that there are better teams in the league. The Lions may still have the best collection of individual talent, but they are not the best team in Canadian football this year. And with each passing week, it's looking more and more like a Grey Cup victory for the Lions can no longer be expected. It's going to have to come as a surprise.