TORONTO (Mar. 29) — The plight of former National Hockey League referee Ron Wicks has engendered an outpouring of sympathy and prayer within and beyond the world of ice and pucks.
Having become a dear friend over the past two years, I’ve detailed Ron’s valiant but now ill–fated battle with liver cancer in this space and on Facebook. He has encouraged me to do so — primarily, I believe, to show others that inner–peace evolves from accepting a life sentence. Ron, 76, remains in palliative care at Brampton Civic Hospital, northwest of Toronto — thankfully without pain, yet increasingly frail and with no desire to eat. His choice, clearly, is to allow nature its unrelenting path… or to prolong life by any means.
Not surprisingly, and though his fate is sealed, Ron elected Door No. 2. Determined to watch The Masters golf tournament, Apr. 7–10, on TV — and knowing he won’t survive until then without nourishment — my brave and wonderful friend has chosen to have a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. He’ll be transported by ambulance to Toronto General Hospital for the procedure, before returning to Brampton.
I spent an uplifting 90 minutes visiting Ron on Monday afternoon with two of his long–time NHL officiating colleagues — Bruce Hood and Ron Asselstine. I listened in wonderment as Hood and Asselstine swapped old war stories with their dying friend, whose smile couldn’t be erased. Also on hand were Ron’s beloved wife of 52 years, Barb, and their daughter, Lisa. Initially, I was hesitant to see Ron in such feeble condition — “Should I brace myself?” I asked Hood on the hospital elevator — yet I quickly grew ashamed of any–such fear. Yes, Ron was thin; not eating for a couple of weeks will do that to you. But, his spirit had soared in the previous couple of days with telephone calls from such hockey legends as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Scotty Bowman, Darryl Sittler and Harry Neale. And… he had the appearance of a deep sun–tan.
“That’s jaundice,” Barb said with a chuckle, “but, yes, it does give him some color.”
AILING BUT HAPPY RON WICKS SPENDING TIME ON MONDAY AFTERNOON AT BRAMPTON CIVIC HOSPITAL WITH YOURS TRULY, BRUCE HOOD (GOLF–SHIRT) AND RON ASSELSTINE.
Of all his close friends, no one has been more of a champion to Ron than Bruce Hood, now 80. Their NHL careers virtually overlapped — each became a full–time referee in the expansion season of 1967–68; Bruce working til 1984 and Ron til 1986. Each was largely responsible for the advent of the NHL Officials Association and no one fought harder than Wicks to improve pension benefits for referees and linesmen. Hood, also beset with recent health issues, has been at Ron’s side virtually every day. It was incredibly moving for me to watch these three men — with 4,122 NHL regular–season games among them — openly express their love for one another upon the end of our hospital visit.
DRAFT LOTTERY EXPLOITED
My old pal, Greg Millen, uttered a subordinate clause during Monday night’s telecast of the Maple Leafs and Lightning from Tampa. When briefly discussing — with Sportsnet broadcast partner Paul Romanuk — that the Ottawa Senators have shut down former Leafs Clarke MacArthur and Dion Phaneuf for the remainder of the season, Greg opined “there’s no use in risking further injury for teams out of the playoffs.” He then added, with half–a–chuckle, “and there’s the lottery percentage, too.”
Ahhhha!! The National Hockey League draft lottery — omnipotent among teams looking toward next year and beyond. The scramble for 30th place in the NHL is unlike anything we’ve witnessed. Awash with Canadian cities, it will endure until the final moments of the schedule on Apr. 9, when all 30 clubs see action. Ultimately, the cellar–dweller will possess an 80 percent chance of losing out on the No. 1 overall selection for the 2016 draft in Buffalo. But, a .200 average, in this contest, wins you the batting title.
There is evidence that players withdrawn from competition are legitimately hobbled. There is also deep suspicion. Would the Maple Leafs, for example, have excluded James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul from late–season quarrel had the club been in playoff contention? Van Riemsdyk, the leading scorer on a team without scoring when he blocked a shot in San Jose, Jan. 9, was reported to be sidelined “six–to–eight weeks” with a non–displaced fracture of his left foot. Six weeks would have returned JVR to the line–up on Feb. 20. Eight weeks, on Mar. 5. Instead, the Leafs announced, Feb. 25, that van Riemsdyk would be shut down for the remainder of the schedule after suffering a “setback” in rehab. Naturally, the “setback” wasn’t detailed. If JVR hasn’t yet recovered from his injury, the Maple Leafs should order a bone–density exam.
JAMES van RIEMSDYK: NOWHERE TO BE SEEN SINCE JAN. 9 IN SAN JOSE.
When it was announced, on Feb. 8, that Lupul “will not be traveling with the Leafs” on their journey through Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Chicago, the news barely registered. Though the veteran winger had appeared in 46 of 51 games, he was blatantly overdue for long–term absence. The injury was initially defined as “mid–body” — evoking the image of poor Joffrey shuffling along bent at the waist. Ultimately, it was determined (on Feb. 25, coincidental with van Riemsdyk) that Lupul would undergo a sports–hernia procedure, eliminating him from further toil. Not having earned a PhD in medicine, I’ll reserve judgement here… while reminding you that others play through such discomfort and are mended in the off–season.
The Leafs and Senators are far from the only teams availing of such maneuvers. The NHL has no independent body to adjudicate depth of injury; clubs can deploy personnel in any manner consistent with the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Such an experienced general manager as Lou Lamoriello will exploit minutiae in the CBA to his club’s advantage. Removing van Riemsdyk and Lupul from play before the end of February preserved cap space and helped the Leafs audition their top prospects. It also, theoretically, weakened an already–shallow roster — thereby improving percentage–odds for the draft lottery.
This is offset, undoubtedly, by players on contending teams that battle through pain and medical conditions perhaps even more ominous than those who have been shut down. These NHLers do not receive enough credit for their valor. A playoff spot or division title supersedes discomfort.
There is virtually nothing the league can do about draft–lottery manipulation — shy of putting all 30 teams into a drum and conducting a random draw irrespective of the overall standings. Thus the amendment to the lottery this spring (on Apr. 30) that will determine not only the top selection, but Nos. 2 and 3 as well. The 30th–place club, as referenced earlier, has the best odds of choosing first… but merely 20 percent. Puck–heads in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Columbus cringe at the prospect of Edmonton — with No. 1 pick each year since the Roman Empire — leading off again in Buffalo. But, the Oilers, right now, are favored to land the two–of–ten opportunity for No. 1–ranked prospect Auston Matthews.
In reverse order, here’s how the “race to the bottom” shapes up (GR = Games Remaining):
30. TORONTO — 65 points. GR–7.
29. EDMONTON — 67 points. GR–3.
28. VANCOUVER — 67 points. GR–7.
27. COLUMBUS — 68 points. GR–6.
26. WINNIPEG — 69 points. GR–6.
25. CALGARY — 70 points. GR–6.
As you can see, the Oilers have only three games left in which to compile points — half as many as Columbus, Winnipeg and Calgary; four games less than Toronto and Vancouver. Among these teams, the Leafs have the best record in the past ten games (6–4–0); Vancouver the worst (2–7–1). A major category is in Toronto’s favor. Should two or more teams finish with the same number of points, ROW’s (regulation or overtime wins) becomes the first tie–breaker. The Leafs are last in the NHL with 21. Vancouver has 23; Columbus 24 and Edmonton 26. This “race” will bear much scrutiny in the final 11 nights of the schedule.