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Missing The Mad Dog

By Mike Toth

I've always enjoyed watching kids sports more than the professional game.

In the late-80's and early-90's I was a broadcaster on "Sports at 11", a popular late night show in Calgary. During that period, the Calgary Flames were one of the top teams in the NHL, capturing the Stanley Cup in 1989. But even though it was a fabulous era to be a Flames fan, I spent most of my time in small rinks around the city watching Midget, Junior, College and University hockey. 

"What are you doing here?," people would often ask. "Aren't the Flames playing tonight?"

Yes they were. But despite owning an NHL media pass that entitled me to a free seat in the Saddledome press box, I rarely used it. I was more than happy watching future NHL'ers (and future doctors, police officers, teachers, etc.) strut their stuff. There's just something about seeing young athletes play the game with great joy while developing their skills that I've always loved. Sure it's amazing to watch Connor McDavid roar around the NHL with his world class speed. But McDavid gets paid McMillions; he should be fast on his feet. Watching a young colt in the first stages of finding his legs is even more satisfying, and my best memories of viewing McDavid are from his early development years with the OHL Erie Otters.

Fast forward 30 years from my "Sports at 11" days and my passion for kids sports has only increased. Funny what having an actual dog in the fight does to you. It's called having children of your own and, as every sports parent will attest, there's nothing more thrilling than watching your kid compete. That's been one of the toughest parts of the COVID-19 shutdown. There's not anybody who hasn't suffered 

during the pandemic. Some people have seen their livelihoods disappear or painfully stood by as a loved one has passed away. In the face of all that tragedy, missing a bunch of kids sporting events is obviously pretty trivial. But that doesn't change the fact that being forced off the playing fields has been rough on kids and parents. After all, there's only so many times a kid can play "Fortnite" before their mind turns to mush and their parents fantasize about hurling the "PlayStation" over the side of a cliff.

During their early years (and before their "Fortnite" careers really took off) I coached both my sons in a bunch of sports. 

What a blast!

So many shared experiences of big games won and lost. But the best memories are of the moments when the kids reminded you of why you were truly there - to have the best time of your life. 

One summer I coached 8-year old ball hockey, a sport that's a really big deal in our Toronto neighborhood. We had a hard working little guy on our squad named Maddox, who I nicknamed "Mad Dog". (That's one of the fringe benefits of coaching kids - you get to hang cool nicknames on them.) "Mad Dog" didn't have much hockey experience but he was enthusiastic, always wore a huge smile and really improved as the season rolled along. Most importantly, "Mad Dog" had everything in the proper perspective. We were in the middle of a tight play-off tilt one afternoon, with both teams flying around the concrete floor. You could feel the excitement on the bench, when all of a sudden "Mad Dog" piped up.

"Coach Mike?"

"Yeah Mad Dog," I answered in a tension-filled voice.

"What do you think I should be for Halloween this year?"

There was a pause in our conversation as I tried to figure out whether to yell at "Mad Dog" to keep his head in the game, or to simply burst out laughing.

"Can I get back to you "Mad Dog"," I finally answered. "I'm kind of in the middle of something right now."

I'm not sure what kind of Halloween costume "Mad Dog" ended up modelling. But I do know that priceless moments like that are the best thing about playing, coaching or watching kids sports. As my boys have grown older, 14 and 12 now, I've turned the reins over to more knowledgeable coaches and gone back to my seat up in the parental peanut gallery. It's not always easy just watching the action and I've yelled at my share of "evil" referees over the years. For the most part, however, I've behaved myself and managed to avoid appearing on one of those "YouTube" channels that feature a crazed parent chasing an umpire across a ball field while brandishing a Louisville Slugger. 

Slowly, it seems the sports world is beginning to return to at least some semblance of normalcy. This week, for instance, MLB is planning to re-launch. It won't be quite the same without fans in the stands but it will still be fun to watch baseball's best display their amazing abilities on television. 

But to me, the biggest sports stars will always be the kids who take the field for the true love of the game. If all goes well in the fight against coronavirus, some of those young athletes will be back on the ball fields and hockey rinks before too long. When that happens, a pack of relieved parents will be there cheering them on. Sure we'll still have to "social distance", but that might not be so bad. For one thing, sitting beyond the outfield fence will make it a whole lot tougher to scream at the umpire.

And the kids?

They can sit on the bench in a much more peaceful environment and talk about what's really important.

Like what ARE they planning to be for Halloween this year?

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