The River City Renegade

From diapers to diplomas, a lifetime of losing for a younger generation of Winnipeg sports fans

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There are jock junkies in good, ol’ Hometown who have gone from diapers to diplomas without witnessing or experiencing a championship parade celebrating their sporting heroes.

Those of us with age in our eyes and grey in our hair regard this to be an astonishing bit of business, given that we were weaned on the wonders of Winnipeg’s Blue Bombers, circa Bud Grant and Ken Ploen, and Jets, circa Bobby Hull and the Swedes.

That’s one of the difficulties of aging. We remember the way it was. We sometimes struggle with the way it is.

Do not, however, confuse that as a yearning for the good, old days. As a wise person once said, the trouble with living in the past is that there’s no future in it. So, as much as I don’t pretend to be the voice of all folks my vintage, I believe I’m on secure footing when I submit that we would like these to be the “good, old days” for our younger generations. We want them to feel the way we did back in the day. And we wouldn’t mind feeling giddy again ourselves.

But that isn’t happening, is it.

The once-proud Blue Bombers have been playing bottom-feeder football for so long that most people would be hard-pressed to name the mayor of the day the last time they laid claim to the Canadian Football League title. I had to look it up. It was Bill Norrie. Gary Filmon was the Manitoba premier. There was no such animal as the goods and services tax (GST) in Canada. Doug Flutie was playing quarterback for the B.C. Lions.

That was in 1990, when the Blue Bombers of general manager Cal Murphy and head coach Mike Riley brought the Grey Cup home to River City. That’s a quarter century ago. A lifetime for some.

Alas, we know that this title drought shall be extended at least one more year, because the Bombers’ 2015 crusade has crashed and burned in the accustomed manner and there no longer exists any possibility of their participation in the Grey Cup game at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry on the final Sunday of this month, Nov. 29.

Winnipeg Jets had three victory parades during the 1970s.

Winnipeg Jets had three victory parades during the 1970s.

Hockey fans have been parched even longer than their football brethren.

If you were in diapers the last time a championship parade crawled through the downtown streets of River City to salute our hockey heroes, you not only have your diploma, you also have a wife/husband, a second mortgage and probably a teenage kid who wishes you would stop talking about three old fogeys named Bobby, Ulf and Anders. And hey, pops, can you turn down the volume on that ABBA album?

We’re talking 1979 here, kids, when both newspapers in town were broadsheets and sportswriters kept bottles of booze in their desk drawers.

Would you like some more perspective on that? OK. Don Cherry’s collars didn’t have starch and his face didn’t feature Colonel Sanders chin whiskers. He was a loose cannon behind the big, bad Boston Bruins’ bench back then, not a loose cannon on Curmudgeon’s Corner between periods on Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.

Grapes likely wouldn’t have cared much for our ’70s Jets teams. They were the anti-Bruins. Too many Swedes. We liked Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg and the rest of the Tre Kroner and Finns just fine, though. They won. Three World Hockey Association titles in four years. Yup, parades were as regular as mosquito fogging.

Hull, Nilsson and Hedberg were actually gone by the spring of ’79, but a handful of refugees from the Houston Aeros allied with the remaining Jets to win the WHA title. That was the league’s last gasp. It is gone. So is the National Hockey League franchise into which those Jets morphed. They live in the Arizona desert now and, to this day, remain the sole survivor from the WHA yet to capture the Stanley Cup.

It is no simple task, winning hockey’s Holy Grail. The Stanley Cup is perhaps the most daunting of pursuits on the North American pro sports landscape. In the Jets’ case, it was a matter of what if, as in: What if there hadn’t been an Edmonton Oilers juggernaut to always get in their way during the 1980s? John Ferguson assembled some terrific teams in his time as general manager, but the great regret was not having a scrawny kid named Gretzky in his lineup.

There is, however, no excusing the Bombers. Bad management has trumped bad fortune. They are hapless no-hopers who annually fail to qualify for the playoffs in an eight/nine-team operation.

Perhaps hope is harbored in Jets 2.0. Unlike the squatters in the Bombers’ ivory tower, ownership and management of the reborn NHL franchise seem to have a clue, even as the current coach, Paul Maurice, appears to have a blind eye when it comes to ruffians who ought not be in the NHL, let alone his lineup.

Were I a betting person, I’d be inclined to wager on hockey glory returning to River City before football glory.

One way or another, a sports championship isn’t something you want to tell your grandchildren about…it’s something you want them to live.

(Footnote: There has been no intention here to slight the achievement of baseball’s Winnipeg Goldeyes, who won the Northern League title in 1994 and the American Association crown in 2012. My focus was on the Jets and Bombers because they are the major sports franchises in the city and surely have the greatest following.)

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.

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