While Winnipeg Jets’ ownership/management fiddles, careers of older players waste away

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc.

That’s the unstoppable sound of the clock rapidly and relentlessly ticking down on the National Hockey League careers of certain able-bodied players whose bodies soon will begin to betray them, if that isn’t happening already.

Toby Enstrom will be 33 at this time next year. Dustin Byfuglien 32. Captain Blake Wheeler 31. Bryan Little 30. They were in, or about to enter, their prime playing years when the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011 and the Thrashers morphed into the Winnipeg Jets. Since then, each has swallowed the Kool-Aid and put his signature on a long-term contract, convinced that the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, and his obedient servant, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, would deliver on a promise of better days.

Toby Enstrom
Toby Enstrom

Well, those four men are still waiting for deliverance. Their biological clocks are still ticking. And they have every right to ask: When is when?

Except the Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff won’t, or can’t, provide a definitive answer. Unlike Enstrom, Byfuglien, Little and Wheeler, they aren’t on the clock, so they simply recite the draft-and-develop mantra and add more pimples than puck sense to their roster, all the while allowing four careers to waste away.

There is no urgency in ownership/management. The Little Hockey House on the Prairie is sold out every night. There’s a waiting list for season subscriptions numbering in the thousands. Many among the rabble remain in swoon, still giddy to have an NHL outfit to call their own, no matter how inferior the product. The Secret Society that is True North Sports & Entertainment can’t sell enough $10 Jumbo Jet hot dogs, $10 pints of beer and $300 jerseys. That isn’t a hockey rink tucked between Hargrave and Donald in downtown Winnipeg. It’s a cash register.

Much of that money is, of course, funneled into player wages and, to be sure, the Jets’ on-ice workers are handsomely compensated. They draw enough pay to purchase every $10 Jumbo Jet dog ever put on the grill. But once the contracts are signed, sealed and delivered, it’s no longer about the number of zeroes behind the dollar sign. It’s about winning. Period.

Do you think Blake Wheeler is interested in a draft-and-development plan that won’t bear any fruit for another, say, four-five years? Indeed, head coach Paul Maurice spoke to that very issue last April, when he began sifting through the charred leavings of another dumpster fire that put the Jets on the outside when the real fun began in the Stanley Cup tournament.

If we put a really, really young lineup again in the Central (Division) and have a couple of tough nights, as long as those are the best guys we have then I’m all for it,” coach Potty-Mo told news snoops.

Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler

At the end of the day, I don’t care who’s in that lineup, we’re going to try and figure out a way to win with that group. We’re going to put that expectation in our room, instead of saying, ‘Hey, just come out and try hard and follow us and then in five years we’re going to…’ Blake Wheeler doesn’t want to hear that, he doesn’t want to play like that.

Our expectations have to be higher. The players have to be under that pressure because I think they develop faster.”

But, as in the case of when is when, how fast is fast?

I mean, the Jets commenced their current crusade with two goaltenders still on training wheels. The tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson has crashed and burned. What’s old is new again, with Ondrej Pavelec back in the blue paint. And if he doesn’t return as the second coming of Dominik Hasek, what then? Back to Hellebuyck and Hutchinson?

I doubt that rate of development is fast enough for Wheeler and the others.

It is said today that 70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, but it doesn’t work that way in hockey. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, 31 wasn’t considered old in the NHL. Today, 30 is the old 35 and 35 is the old 40. (No, that doesn’t explain Jaromir Jagr, but some things defy logic.) The point is, Wheeler cannot afford many more failed experiments and wasted seasons before rot sets in. None of the ‘old’ boys can. Their clocks keep ticking while ownership/management keeps talking. The Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff have failed them. Miserably.

Little wonder Wheeler seems to be owly much of the time.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

If the Winnipeg Jets have sent an SOS to Ondrej Pavelec, it must be fake news

We now take you inside the Winnipeg Jets’ changing room, where the third players-only meeting in less than a week is in progress…

Dustin Byfuglien: “Okay, guys, let’s make it snappy. I wanna get outta here and get up to Lockport for some ice fishing. I got my hut set up and I hear the catfish are biting real good.”

Captain Blake Wheeler: “Ya, sure Buff. We’ll make the meeting as short as your attention span on the ice.”

Byfuglien: “You dissing me, Wheels?”

Wheeler: “Just saying. You seem to be in a bigger hurry to get to your fishing hole than you are to get back to our end after another one of your colossal blunders in the O-zone.”

Byfuglien: “Hey, my bad pinches and brain cramps wouldn’t seem so bad if Beavis and Butthead sitting over there in the corner would stop the puck once in a while. I’m not half as bad as those two make me look.”

Ondrej Pavelec giving up a goal.
They shoot, they score on Ondrej Pavelec.

Wheeler: “Don’t blame Bucky and Hutch for your screwups, Buff. Besides, help is on the way. They’re bringing Pavs back.”

Byfuglien: “The hell you say!”

Wheeler: “True story. Ondrej Pavelec is starting in goal Wednesday night when we play the Arizona Coyotes.”

Mark Scheifele: “That’s fake news! Fake news, fake news, fake news! That’s Donald Trump-level fake news! I won’t believe it until I see Pavs flopping and flailing in the blue paint.”

Wheeler: “I’m telling all you guys that Pavs is coming back. He’ll be here in five, 10 minutes.”

Scheifele: “Whose brain fart was that?”

Wheeler: “You ever heard that saying about how crap flows down from the top? Figure it out. Starts at Chipper, trickles down to Chevy, trickles down to coach PoMo, then the steaming mess stops in here.”

Bryan Little: “Stops in here? Nice to know someone in this room can make a stop!”

Wheeler: “Boys…boys…boys. Let’s not be sniping at one another. If you want to bitch and bark at someone, save it for the media. They’ll be in here as soon as our meeting is over. I’ll have to talk to the sons of B’s ’cause I wear the C. The rest of you guys can draw straws to see which two have to join me. Buff, you just hide in the showers as always.”

Chris Thorburn: “Why does Buff always get to duck out on interviews? That ain’t fair?”

Byfuglien: “Who asked you, Thorbs?”

Thorburn: “I’ve got a right to speak! I’m great in the room! Everybody knows that. If I wasn’t great in the room, you think I’d still be in the National Hockey League?”

Byfuglien: “If you’re so great in the room, maybe you should just stay in the room and let someone else have your five minutes of ice time.”

They shoot, they score on Michael Hutchinson.
They shoot, they score on Michael Hutchinson.

Wheeler: “Knock it off, you two! I told you, save your cattiness for the media.”

Jacob Trouba: “Wheels is right. We’ve lost four games in a row and we’re quickly losing contact with the wild-card playoff teams. We’ve all gotta haul together. One for all, all for one.”

Mathieu Perreault: “Oh, isn’t that rich? Look who’s talking about pulling together. It’s Mr. Trade Me, Mr. Holdout. It was nice of you to join us halfway through November, Troubs. What happened, mom finally kick you out of the house?”

Trouba: “Eat my shorts, Matty! You’re the most overpaid waste of skin in this room. I hope you and your 13 points enjoy playing in Las Vegas next year.”

Ondrej Pavelec enters the changing room…

Wheeler (standing to greet the Jets’ longtime scapegoat goaltender): “Pavs! Get over here, you big lug! Man, are we glad to see you, dude!”

Byfuglien: “Nobody’s happier to see you than me, Pavs. The two guys we’ve had in goal this season…we’d have been just as well off with that little twerp Justin Bieber in net. Every time I wave my stick at someone instead of actually trying to check them, the puck seems to end up in our net. Can’t be my fault, ’cause coach PoMo never benches me.”

Pavelec: “Well, I should warn you all, I haven’t gotten any better in my time with the Manitoba Moose. Check out my numbers. Just so-so. Same as my nine years in the NHL.”

Scheifele: “Ya, I guess the brass recalling you is kind of like offering a drowning man a drink of water. But Buff’s right. It’s been brutal. You can’t be any worse.”

Pavelec: “You have a short memory, Scheifs.”

Connor Hellebuyck giving up a goal.
They shoot, they score on Connor Hellebuyck.

Connor Hellebuyck: “Excuse me. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hutch and I are in the room. We can hear you.”

Byfuglien: “Nice to know something is working for you guys. Maybe you should have been trying to stop the puck with your ears.”

Wheeler: “Okay, enough! Time to draw straws and see who has to deal with those knobs in the media. They’ll wanna ask you all their dumb questions, Pavs. You in?”

Pavelec: “Just call me Strawman!”

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

About Blake Wheeler’s snooty attitude…the athlete-media dynamic…fake news…untouchable Winnipeg Jets…and needing 23 more wins

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

It was a simple question, one put forth in the wake of yet another failed mission in a crusade full of failed missions and an equal measure of frustration and angst.

Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler

Your room was closed an unusually long time tonight. Was there a meeting?” Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press inquired of Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler on Friday night at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

What do you think?” replied Wheeler, turning and fixing Wiecek with a stare that suggested he was the worst form of pond scum. “What do you think, we were just silent in here with the door shut? Obviously there was a conversation had between us, obviously I’m not gonna give you anything that was said in this room.”

Obviously Wheeler was being a dink, obviously he didn’t have to be a dink.

Wiecek didn’t ask what was said behind those doors that stayed closed for 17 minutes. He likely didn’t care. He merely wanted confirmation that the Jets were late in allowing news snoops into their changing chamber because they had held a chin-wag following the 22nd loss of their National Hockey League schedule. He didn’t pose the question in a provocative, challenging or confrontational manner. Still…

What do you think?” came the snotty reply, the words dripping with unbridled contempt. “What do you think, we were just silent in here with the door shut?”

Look, I understand these are tense times in Jets Nation. That happens when your head coach has told anyone who cares to listen that all his players are “horse shit,” your supposed No. 1 goaltender can’t stop a runny nose, and you’ve just received a pair of paddywhackings, 7-4 against the Montreal Canadiens and 4-3 vs. the gawdawful Arizona Coyotes, who win about as often as Dustin Byfuglien passes on second helpings. Given those dire circumstances, the last thing a player wants or needs is a parry-and-thrust with people holding notepads and microphones. Newspaper deadlines be damned.

Trouble is, once that ‘C’ was stitched on to his Jets jersey, Wheeler became the official voice of the workers. Dealing with news scavengers, in good times and bad, is part of the gig. And I would expect he do it with a civil tongue.

The Jets captain could have—no—he should have said something like, “Yes, we had a players’ meeting and, before you ask, I’m not prepared to share what we discussed.” That’s how a true professional would have handled it. Not Wheeler though. He had to be rude, biting and dismissive. But, hey, if the president-elect of the United States can get away with calling the great Meryl Streep a bottom-feeding thespian, surely a hockey player dissing a news snoop is small potatoes.

I’ve never met Blake Wheeler. I doubt I ever will. I admire the way he plays the game, with a favorable blend of skill and naked intensity. And, really, that’s all that should matter. But, again, he’s the team captain. If Wheeler doesn’t like the media component of the job, simply surrender the ‘C’. Then he can be just like his mime-like buddy Big Buff, who apparently only shares his five-word pearls of wisdom with the Fourth Estate when the moon is full.

fake-newsFewer professional athletes genuinely embrace the ritual of news scavengers invading their space, before or after games. It’s tolerated as a necessary evil. But I’ve got news for Blake Wheeler and those of his ilk: Most news snoops I know and worked with don’t enjoy visiting changing rooms, either. I’m guessing that Paul Wiecek would be quite content if he never saw the inside of a sports boudoir again. But, as with the players, the athlete-media dynamic is a necessary evil. And without reporters in those rooms to ask questions, you get fake news. And fake news begets rancor, distrust and a Twitter-angry president-elect who can’t keep his thumbs to himself. So play nice and just answer the damn questions, boys.

While watching the Jets gag on a late lead and lose another hockey game Saturday night, 3-2 to the Kings in Tinseltown, it occurred to me that one of them is apt to be playing in Las Vegas at this time next year. So I scanned the roster, searching for the Jets whom I consider untouchable. I came up with seven: Jacob Trouba, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Josh Morrissey and the entire Lickety-Split Line of Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and Rink Rat Scheifele. Vegas can have their pick of the rest, including Byfuglien.

It will take 90 points, minimum, to qualify for the western portion of the Stanley Cup tournament. The Jets need 46 points in 36 games to get there. In basic numbers, that’s a 23-13 record the rest of the way. Good luck with that.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

About a Hall pass for “hell-ya!” girl Hayley Wickenheiser…keeping it behind closed doors for the Winnipeg Jets…fickle fans…and a new turn for the CFL quarterback carousel

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

I suppose the manner in which Hayley Wickenheiser walked away from hockey says something about the women’s game, if not her: Under-stated. Under the radar.

Hayley Wickenheiser
Hayley Wickenheiser

There was no ballyhoo. No emotion-charged, tear-jerker live press gathering on TV or streaming across the Internet. Just a simple tweet from Wickenheiser at 4:02 in the afternoon on a Friday the 13th , stating, “Dear Canada. It has been the great honour of my life to play for you. Time to hang ’em up!! Thank you!”

In the world’s greatest hockey nation, that’s how the greatest of all our female players bid adieu. A 22-word tweet, almost one for each of the 23 years the product of Shaunavon, Sask., wore the Maple Leaf with Canada’s national women’s team. As farewells go, you can’t do it at a lower volume than that, unless you say nothing at all.

That’s the nature of the beast, though.

I don’t believe I’d be off the mark were I to submit that female hockey operates under the radar three out of every four winters. We get geeked up about the girls’ game only when the Olympics arrive. Then it roars into our consciousness, like a hell-bent Hayley Wickenheiser dropping a shoulder and driving to the net against those always troublesome American girls.

Think Sochi 2014. Anything at those Games more dramatic, breath-halting and inspiring than the finish to the women’s gold-medal game? Nope. At least not for us. Our neighbors to the south, no doubt, don’t share such romantic sentiments.

The point is, we genuflect in the direction of the women’s game during the five-ring circus that is the Winter Olympics, otherwise it’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind venture.

The two main organizations in North America—the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League that operates in the northeastern U.S.—basically function in anonymity. I mean, until the Wickenheiser tweet on Friday, the only headlines in female shinny this season were the coming out of Harrison Browne, a transgender forward with the Buffalo Beauts, and the Edward Scissorhands-like slashing of NWHL salaries.

Not many people were shocked to read about a transgender hockey player or a 50-per cent cut in wages—they were gobsmacked to learn that something called the NWHL actually existed.

I doubt many are aware that the CWHL, in which players are not paid, is enjoying its 10th season.

All hail Hayley.
All hail Hayley.

So, Wickenheiser doing her thing on the down low was rather in lockstep with the women’s game, but no doubt any and all tributes that accompany her into retirement won’t be so muffled.

Wickenheiser is deserving of fanfare, not merely because of the unprecedented numbers (168 goals, 379 points in 276 games with the national side) or the gold trinkets she collected at the Olympics (four) and world hockey championships (seven). Most significant, it’s about what she has done for girls and women who wish to play hockey without being viewed as freakish or not quite right.

It wasn’t so long ago when boys wore the black skates and girls wore the white skates with the toe picks. It was considered the natural order of things. Any deviation was viewed with cynicism, if not open ridicule and bullying. Indeed, Wickenheiser speaks of her early days on the frozen ponds of Western Canada, when she felt obliged to conceal her identity in order to play hockey.

I remember when I was a kid, I hid in the bathroom and tucked my hair up so no one would know I was a girl,” the 38-year-old told Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press. “I just went through hell really, to play. Girls don’t have to go through hell anymore to play hockey.”

No they don’t. And much of that is Hayley Wickenheiser’s doing.

Does she belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hell ya, girl! And that will be worth more than a 22-word tweet.

I’m not sure what’s worse, being paddywhacked 7-4 by the Montreal Canadiens or surrendering four first-period goals to the Arizona Coyotes. I mean, the Desert Dogs are the only National Hockey League outfit that has yet to reach double digits in wins this season. They’ve collected nine Ws in 41 assignments. But here’s the deal: The Winnipeg Jets, in dropping a 4-3 verdict to the ‘Yotes on Friday night, now have 22 losses for their 2016-17 crusade. Only one club, the Colorado Avalanche, has more Ls. Grim.

So, the Jets were late in allowing news snoops to enter their inner sanctum at Gila River Arena on Friday, because they thought it would be a swell idea to discuss their misgivings amongst themselves before captain Blake Wheeler surfaced to share a terse bon mot with the media. Next up was a chin-wag with head coach Paul Maurice on Saturday morning in Tinseltown. It’s official, then: The Jets have had more emergency meetings than wins this week.

It has come to my attention that there are those among us in Jets Nation who believe much-maligned goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is the remedy for what ails the local hockey heroes. Yes, oh ye fickle fans, and Donald Trump will fix the great racial divide in the U.S.

Oops newspaper headline of the week comes from the Winnipeg Sun: “Jets catching Canadiens at right time.” D’oh. I’m guessing Paul Maurice would disagree, since coach Potty-Mo has expressed nothing but four-letter displeasure in the wake of the 7-4 wedgie the Habs gave the Jets at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie on Wednesday night.

I note there might be a starting quarterback vacancy in Saskatchewan, where Roughriders’ chief cook and bottle washer Chris Jones parted company with Darian Durant by dispatching him to the Montreal Alouettes for a song. One line of logic suggests this is an opening for Matt Nichols, potential free agent QB. That might make sense if not for the fact Jones tossed Nichols into the dumpster when they were both with the Edmonton Eskimos. Once the Canadian Football League QB carousel stops spinning, I believe you’ll find Nichols where he was last year—behind centre with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

The Hens in the Hockey House go off on Coach Potty-Mouth, Puck Finn, Brock Lesnar’s bad manners and classy fashion Winnipeg Jets style

The two Hens in the Hockey House hadn’t planned on getting together to discuss the Winnipeg Jets for another week, or so, but here they are to flap their gums about the eventful goings-on of the past half dozen days.

Take it away, ladies…

question-lady-and-answer-lady2Question Lady: My goodness, there’s so much to talk about. Paul Maurice went orbital, Patrik Laine landed in La La Land, the boys met Brock Lesnar, and the Jets made a lovely fashion statement by wearing the Heritage Classic unis. I suppose we should start with coach PoMo. Don’t you think his hissy fit during and after the 7-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens was a bit over the top?

Answer Lady: Hissy fit? That’s what you call it when a man’s head almost explodes in front of 15,000 people and a national TV audience? A hissy fit? That was no hissy fit. It was Mount St. Maurice erupting. His face was redder than communist Russia. His head was a beet with two eyes, two ears and a really bad haircut. One of the veins in his forehead was so thick it looked like he had a boa constrictor hiding under the skin. But I can’t say that I blame him. Watching some dude named Phillip Danault dart through my entire team would send me to the ledge, too. I mean, no one not named Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey should be allowed to do that. Quite frankly, I’m surprised Mount St. Maurice didn’t blow sooner.

Question Lady: Okay, maybe it wasn’t over the top. But what about his language? Coach PoMo was dropping F-bombs during the timeout after the Habs’ fifth goal and after the game. He said the Jets were “horse shit.” He wasn’t much better the morning after, either. They better be “damn” sure they’re not dragging their “asses” in Phoenix or there’ll be plenty of “hell” to pay. Do kids really need to hear our head coach using that kind of language?

Answer Lady: Hockey people swear? Who knew? So he’s Coach Potty-Mouth. Big deal. You think kids don’t use that kind of language, and worse, in the schoolyard? Listen to some of the language that’s used on TV these days.

Question Lady: Profanity aside, it seems to me that Maurice might be moving on to a field full of land mines. A couple of weeks ago, he hurled his goaltenders under the bus, saying neither Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchinson was a true No. 1, and now he’s done the same thing with his entire team. Isn’t there a danger in too many public floggings of today’s athletes?

Answer Lady: Yup. Coach Potty-Mo might want to bite his tongue the next time he feels the urge to publicly call out an individual player, a select group of players, or the lot of them. I don’t blame him for the in-game meltdown against the Habs. No coach can abide such shoddy play. But the workers will tune him out quickly if they keep hearing and reading about what a bunch of bottom-feeders they are. I’d say one more scolding in print or on air and he loses them.

Question Lady: On the subject of losing players, when do you think we’ll see Patrik Laine again?

Answer Lady: That’s impossible to know, or guess. Concussions are a nasty bit of business. People don’t really understand them because they’re invisible. I mean, we all saw Puck Finn wobble on his way off the ice after he and Jake McCabe of the Sabres went splat in Buffalo, but he looked perfectly normal after the game. He actually looked better than McCabe, whose face was a stitched-up mess. But those of us who’ve been concussed can relate to what Puck Finn is going through. It can be a very, very dark place. For a long time.

puck-finn-fallout
After Puck Finn was felled, there was a bit of fallout.

Question Lady: You’ve had a concussion?

Answer Lady: Plural. Many of them.

Question Lady: Well, that explains a lot.

Answer Lady: Why do people always say that when I mention my concussions? They’re nothing to joke about.

Question Lady: A tad touchy, aren’t we?

Answer Lady: Hey, I know I’m a bit loopy, but I don’t need to be reminded that I’m brain damaged. Besides, it’s like Toronto Maple Leafs’ former gasbag owner Humpty Harold Ballard said when told that his general manager, Gerry McNamara, was brain damaged—“Name me one person in hockey who isn’t.” I think that also applies to anyone who stays in jock journalism for 30 years or more.

Question Lady: Mea culpa. What do you think of the Jets’ response to McCabe’s hit on Laine?

Answer Lady: Rink Rat Scheifele acted according to hockey’s unwritten code. You stick up for your stars when they’re roughed up. Some people think the Jets didn’t go far enough in seeking retribution, and now other outfits will see them as a soft touch and it’s open season on smurfs like Twig Ehlers and Toby Enstrom. I don’t see that happening. I doubt this will signal the beginning of a lawless frontier.

Question Lady: A few of the opinionists are calling for a ban on such open-ice hits. Even though they’re legal and clean according to the rule book, they’re dangerous and send people to the infirmary and can end careers. Agree or disagree?

Answer Lady: What you’re really asking is should you hit a guy with his head down. Probably not. At least not the way McCabe hit Puck Finn. But the game is played at a split-second pace. Instinct kicks in. I don’t know how you get rid of that. And, quite frankly, I’m more concerned about players running each other from behind, into the boards, or running defenceless goaltenders. Mutual respect is not in overabundance in the National Hockey League.

Question Lady: Speaking of big hits and tough guys, pro rassler Brock Lesnar paid a visit this week, and he had the bad manners to walk on the Jets logo in the dressing room. Does that make him the world’s biggest doofus, or what?

Answer Lady: Oh, pu-leeze. If you don’t want people to walk on the damn logo, don’t put the damn thing on the floor. A freaking floor is for walking on. Put the damn logo on a wall or the ceiling. Sorry about the language. Coach Potty-Mo must be rubbing off on me.

heritage-uni
The best uniforms in the NHL.

Question Lady: Final thing. What’s your take on the Jets wearing the old World Hockey Association uniforms against the Calgary Flames?

Answer Lady: Boffo. Brilliant. Classy with an uppercase C. They should ditch the gawdawful logo and those colors that the Puck Pontiff introduced in 2011 and reactivate the WHA unis. Maybe that would inspire them to play some retro hockey. You know, like the WHA Jets, who actually made the playoffs and won championships.

Question Lady: You’ve living in the past again.

Answer Lady: Not true. I just know class when I see it, and those WHA unis are classy and so were those WHA Jets. Gotta go. See you next month. We’ll start spreading rumors about Mathieu Perreault being traded at the NHL swapping deadline.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

Winnipeg Jets: Putting Chevy-speak into plain English

Depending on which River City rag you read, Kevin Cheveldayoff sat down with either two news snoops or a group of news snoops on the weekend for some fireside blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Naturally, the Winnipeg Jets general manager droned on in Chevy-speak, so, as a public service, we have hired a professional linguist to translate and distill his comments. Here, then, is the Reader’s Digest condensed version (3,160 words reduced to 1,050) of Chevy’s state-of-the-union chin-wag…

Kevin Cheveldayoff
Kevin Cheveldayoff

How would you assess your team just past the halfway point of the National Hockey League season?

“Are you kidding me? All those kids in our lineup, those two goaltenders, the schedule that Paul Maurice keeps complaining about, all those injuries…I’m surprised we’re even in the post-season discussion. I mean, I wrote this season off before it even started because of our youth movement, so it’s a bit of a bonus that we’re so close to the playoff line.”

Your head coach, Paul Maurice, says there should be an asterisk beside your record because of the schedule and all the injuries. What say you?

“Damn straight!”

What’s your take on Maurice’s work?

“Paul said it best when he said, ‘You are who your record says you are.'”

What level of job security does Maurice have?

“Look, Mark Chipman told me that it was time for a full-scale youth movement. He’s the Puck Pontiff, and I do what I’m told. So it was out with the old and in with the new. I saddled Paul with a very young team. He didn’t necessarily like it. But he knew what he was getting into when he signed on. He knew it wasn’t going to be all flowers and roses. This season is a gimme for Paul. I’m not going to toss him under the bus. But, at the end of the day, you are who your record says you are.”

You decided to go with the kids, Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson, in goal and waived the incumbent, Ondrej Pavelec, then shipped him to the minors. How’s that working so far?

“The fact none of the other 29 teams claimed Pavs on waivers ought to tell you all you need to know about him. I like Pavs, but it was the right thing to do. As for Connor and Michael, do the math. Why do you think coach PoMo tossed them under the bus a week or so ago? Paul is right…we don’t have a No. 1 goaltender. Not yet. We’re building toward the future. Is the future here yet? No. When is the future? Your guess is as good as mine.”

What say you about Patrik Laine, your prize rookie?

“God bless those bouncing ping pong balls at the draft lottery! Sometimes you need a horse shoe up your butt instead of skill. I mean, eight teams passed on Nikolaj Ehlers at the 2014 NHL draft. Eight teams passed on Jacob Trouba in 2012. Having the ping pong balls fall our way last year meant we were getting either Patrik or Auston Matthews. We got the player we wanted.”

Pictures on a wall say it all.
Pictures on a wall say it all.

Now that you mentioned Jacob Trouba, how is your relationship with him after his trade demand and failure to attend training camp?

“I still have pictures of Jacob and I shaking hands at the 2012 draft on my office wall. What does that tell you about our relationship?”

Dustin Byfuglien signed a five-year, $38-million contract last summer. Are you getting enough bang for your buck?

“Buff is earning his keep. But if coach PoMo keeps playing him 29-30 minutes a game, there’ll be nothing left of Buff by the final year of that contract. Quite frankly, I’d like to see some of Buff’s minutes go to Jacob Trouba. As it is, Buff is all over the map. Nothing’s really changed since this team arrived in Winnipeg in 2011. Buff is still being Buff.”

Tylers Myers has missed most of the season due to injury. Any chance of bringing in help to shore up the back end?

“You mean trades? Hey, after I fleeced the Buffalo Sabres in the Evander Kane deal and fleeced the Chicago Blackhawks in the Andrew Ladd deal, you think anyone wants to deal with me? Seriously, though, I think everyone knows I don’t do anything unless there’s the proverbial gun to my head.”

Has Blake Wheeler been a suitable replacement for Ladd as team captain?

“Are you kidding me? Did you see what he did after Patrik Laine scored that selfie against the Vancouver Canucks? He wrapped his arm around him and whispered sweet nothings in his right ear. Awwwww.

What have you to say about the progress of Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey?

“Like I said, eight teams passed on Nikolaj at the draft. D’oh! We’re extremely happy those eight teams all had a Homer Simpson moment. As for Josh…he’s been a revelation. He ought to receive extra pay just for cleaning up Buff’s mess every night. I imagine it’s kind of like cleaning up after the elephants at the circus. That’s not a cheap shot on Buff’s size, by the way. Just saying.”

Bye bye Burmi.
Bye bye Burmi.

How difficult was it to put Alexander Burmistrov on waivers? He’s a former top-10 draft pick.

“Whoa Nellie! Don’t pin that rap on me. I didn’t draft Burmi. That was Rick Dudley or Don Waddell or one of those other nitwits who left the cupboards bare when Chipper bought the Atlanta Thrashers. I thought I’d washed my hands of Burmi when he defected to Russia, but coach PoMo took a fancy to him and kind of adopted him. Guess that’s why they call him Pa Ingalls. Whatever, the Arizona Coyotes are welcome to him. It’s kind of ironic, though. I mean, going from Winnipeg to Phoenix is the first time Burmi has gone north-south his entire career.”

How will next summer’s expansion draft for the Las Vegas franchise impact the Jets?

“They’ll get a player to be named later. That player won’t be named Laine or Ehlers or Scheifele or Trouba or Little or Morrissey or Wheeler or Connor or Roslovic or…well, you get the picture.”

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

About a guard dog for Puck Finn…the goalie blind Winnipeg Jets…soccer stupidity in hockey…a classy King…classy curlers…and adios to a classy Ken Fidlin

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

puck-finn2As Dire Straits advised us in the early 1990s, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. We know which one Patrik Laine was on Saturday afternoon, and let’s agree that the Winnipeg Jets rookie extraordinaire was the victim of a clean hit. Not clean-ish. Clean.

If you can’t agree, please proceed to another blog, because I’m not prepared to debate it.

I will, however, happily engage in a verbal to-and-fro re the suggestion that the Jets ought to send an SOS to former guard dog Anthony Peluso.

I mean, seriously? Anthony Peluso?

Yes, some among the rabble think it a swell idea to insert Peluso’s bare knuckles into the Jets’ lineup to discourage ruffians like Jake McCabe of the Sabres from taking liberties with the likes of Puck Finn, as he did in Buffalo. Well, sure. And some people also believe Donald Trump in the White House is a swell idea.

Look, it’s bad enough that a roster spot is occupied by Chris Thorburn, a loyal foot soldier whose sole purpose when not munching on popcorn appears to be dropping his hockey mitts and wrestling a foe of equally limited skills for 30 seconds or less. Unless this is 1975 and the Broad St. Bullies are pillaging the National Hockey League, adding another no-talent thug who would be tethered to the end of the bench or banished to the press box is not a wise use of personnel.

So no. Anthony Peluso is not the answer.

Puck Finn
Puck Finn

As one who has suffered multiple concussions (10 at last count), I know what a dark and nasty place La La Land can be. The nausea, the dizziness, the ringing in the ears, the headaches, the imbalance, the forgetfulness…horrible. I was first concussed at age 13. Got hit in the head by a baseball. When I awoke in St. Boniface Hospital, the kid in the bed next to me had control of the TV. I asked him to put on Hockey Night in Canada. It was mid-July. I thought it was winter. I hope Laine knows it’s winter and there’s plenty of hockey to be played. More to the point, I hope Puck Finn doesn’t miss too much of it.

Almost lost in the hue and cry that arose after McCabe sent Laine to La La Land was the numbing reality that the Jets coughed up a huge hair ball in losing 4-3 to Buffalo. Ahead 3-1 less than 20 minutes from time, they gagged and it didn’t help that they received more minor league-level goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck. I’m not prepared to close the book on Hellebuyck, but I do find it odd, also annoying, that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his bird dogs can recognize blue-chippers up front (the Lickety-Split Line of Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and Rink Rat Scheifele, as an e.g.) and on the blueline (Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey) but they continue to be goalie blind. Should it really take six years to find a legitimate starting goaltender?

Interesting to note that Jets head coach Paul Maurice doesn’t discuss the NHL standings with his workers. “I don’t talk about the standings and I don’t talk about any of that in the room,” he says. “It’s on a board somewhere and they can look at it if they like.” Perhaps that explains their lack of urgency some nights.

Netherlands' Arjen Robben, right, reacts after being tackled by Brazil's Michel Bastos, left, during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Brazil at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Friday, July 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
We can do without this and the shootout in hockey.

At the risk of sounding like Don Cherry, it occurs to me that Europeans have brought two things to hockey—soccer’s twin evils of diving and the shootout. Yes, of course, some hockey players (hello, Bill Barber) were acting like Italian footballers in their death throes before the great European wave arrived on our shores, but it got so bad that the NHL was motivated to pass anti-diving legislation in an effort to nip it in the bud. As for the shootout, I’m sure most of us would agree that it’s the devil’s handiwork. Under no circumstances should the gold-medal match at the World Junior Championship be determined by gimmickry. The Canadian and American kids put on a boffo show the other night, and they deserved better than soccer stupidity to decide the issue. I mean, it’s not like anyone was in a hurry to leave the rink.

So nice to see Dave King acting like a kid on Christmas morning after Canada’s success at the recent Spengler Cup tournament in Davos. King, who was Luke Richardson’s associate coach at the Swiss event, is among the finest men I met in 30 years of covering sports in mainstream media. He was always classy, always honest and always obliging. No doubt he still is.

Speaking of classy, former world champs Kerry Burtnyk and Jeff Ryan were two of the reasons I enjoyed working the curling beat back in the day, and now their names are in the news again. Only this time, it’s their kids chasing glory. Laura Burtnyk and Hailey Ryan teamed up to win the Manitoba Junior women’s title, while J.T. Ryan skipped his team to the men’s crown. The kids will be wearing the Buffalo on their backs at the Canadian championships later this month in Victoria, and it’s never wise to bet against a Manitoba outfit at a national curling event. Especially if their names are Burtnyk and Ryan. Go get ’em, kids.

Ken Fidlin
Ken Fidlin

Another good one has left the toy department. That would be the now-retired Ken Fidlin, longtime jock journalist with the Toronto Sun. Fids and I arrived at the Sun at the same time, in late 1980, after his Ottawa Journal and my Winnipeg Tribune both ceased operation in the same 24-hour period. I bailed after a year and a half in the Republic of Tranna, moving to Calgary and then back to Pegtown, but Fids never left and the Little Paper That Grew was always better for it. He’s a terrific writer and an even better person.

Postmedia truly has done a nasty number on sports writing in Canada. Fidlin joins a lengthy parade of quality writers and people who have been bought out, forced out or walked out on the newspaper chain in the past 12 months—George (Shakey) Johnson, Cam Cole, Bill Lankhof, Dave Stubbs, Randy Sportak, John MacKinnon, Joanne Ireland and Kirk Penton, among others. I suppose Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun will be next on the chopping block. Sad.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing crap about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

If newspapers don’t like pro sports franchises controlling the message, then do something about it

Let’s not be naive about this controlling-the-message business.

We all do it. Or at least we attempt to do it. Government does it. Coca-Cola does it. McDonald’s does it. General Motors does it. The Catholic church does it. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills do it. Parents do it. Professional sports franchises do it.

And—I hope this doesn’t come as a bulletin—newspapers do it, too. Every day.

peg papersWhat do you think is happening in most newsrooms in North America this very day? I’ll tell you what: Editors are gathering around a large table (or small, depending on the size of the sheet) and, either in person or via conference call, they’re deciding what message(s) to send to the great unwashed. Not only that, they are deciding how to torque said message, depending on the whims and biases of the editorial board and/or ownership.

A member of the Winnipeg Jets has a slight brush with the law?

“Who’s the player?” a managing editor demands to know.

“Patrik Laine,” the sports editor advises him.

“Oh. We like him. He has 20 goals. We can’t bury a nice kid like Laine. We’ll bury the story instead. Report the facts but, remember, he’s just a kid. Kids make mistakes. Be gentle with him.”

“There’s one more thing…Ondrej Pavelec was with Laine. They both got arrested.”

“Perfect. Pavelec is in the minors now, so we don’t give a damn about him. There’s your lede—’Young, impressionable Laine being led astray by former Jets goaltender who once spent a night in jail on a drunk driving charge and kept it a secret from the club while negotiating a multi-million-dollar contract.’ We’ll bury Pavs.”

Yes, newspapers can be that deceitful and conniving, and the faster they get that click bait on their website the better.

There’s more.

Newspapers control the content in the Letters to the Editor section. They control the online comments that accompany articles to the point of censorship. The Winnipeg Free Press is forever running propaganda pieces about rising readership and circulation, even as print newspapers and their ink-stained employees throughout North America are falling like bowling pins. The Winnipeg Sun will do the same if the numbers are favorable.

Spin. It’s all about spin. Promoting and protecting the brand.

So, can newspapers tsk-tsk the Jets or Winnipeg Blue Bombers for dictating club spin and vigorously controlling the club message if the dailies are doing that very thing? Seems to me it’s a goose and gander situation.

In our 140-character, dot.com, Snapchat, Instagram world, the divorce rate between pro sports outfits and newspapers has advanced rapidly, and breaking up is not hard to do for the clubs. They have devised a method of spreading their gospel that is brilliant in its simplicity: Poach the best available print journalists from local rags and pay them to do the their official bidding on the team website. Presto! You’ve strengthened your product and lessened your reliance on theirs.

They won’t stop there, either. Pro sports franchises will find fresh ways to increase the disconnect between press row and their inner sanctums, thus making it more difficult for news scavengers to perform their duties.

newspapers2What must newspapers do to combat this? Well, bitching won’t help. They can caterwaul about lack of access as much as Jets’ coach Paul Maurice whinges about the National Hockey League schedule, but that doesn’t solve anything. They have to be innovative.

The way the Sun and Freep work the Jets and Bombers beats is dog-eared. Dated. They still cover the two clubs the way we did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It seemingly hasn’t occurred to them that the traditional game story died the moment a fan could reach into a pocket or purse and place a breaking news story in the palm of her or his hand. Really, is anyone waiting for a newspaper to land on their doorstep in the morning so they can read about something they watched and heard on a hand-held gadget 12 hours earlier?

Same old, same old doesn’t work in this push-the-send-button climate. Coverage needs to be more off-beat and upbeat, with more personality and cheek. Snappier and snazzier. More bloggish, if you will. Hit ’em with hot takes rather than an antiquated reliance on monotone, rehearsed quotes in a comatose post-game story that drones on. Have some fun with it, even if it puts noses in ivory towers out of joint.

And newspapers must remember that they have the greatest weapon of all in their arsenal—harsh truths.

Truth sells. Ditto opinion. Not the kind of lap-dog opinion that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman or Bombers CEO Wade Miller want to read. We’re talking opinion that readers among the rabble want. Unvarnished, unharnessed and honest truths that you’ll never find on a club website.

Newspapers must stop choking on their indignation and feeling sorry for themselves. It isn’t up to pro sports franchises to revert to the old ways of doing business, it’s up to the newspapers to discover new and better ways of doing their business.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 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 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 in 2015.

Shhhhh…this is a press box…please don’t disturb the writers who are eating popcorn

Most people, I dare say, have not spent an afternoon or an evening in a press box, observing the little girls’ and boys’ games that big girls and boys play for great gobs of money or international acclaim.

So allow me to tell you a little something about the press box.

The press box, as I remember it, is generally occupied by gruff, hard-bitten, beer-swilling, middle-age wretches who failed miserably at sports and are now settling that score by writing nasty things about those who didn’t fail miserably at sports. And those are the female journalists. The men are unspeakable.

press-box2Again, as I recall, your basic male jock journo is white, middle-to-vintage in age, thinning on top, a confirmed heterosexual, unkempt, unfit (I’m being very kind when I say that), he’s dressed like he ought to be retired in Florida (with his pants hiked up to his arm pits), he’s usually seen filling his face with free popcorn or hot dogs (with the obligatory mustard drippings on his wrinkled golf shirt), and it’s not uncommon for him to be recovering from a hangover when he arrives at the rink or stadium for a night-time assignment.

There is nothing high brow about the male jock journo when observed in his natural habitat. As much as wry wit can be found in abundance in the press box, it is also a cesspool of irreverent, caustic, biting and ruthless humor. Adult humor. It would be rated R. You’d probably allow your 10-year-old daughter or son into a peep show before exposing her or him to three hours in a press box.

Seriously. If the scribes were to scribble what was said in the press box, they’d be sued, arrested or shot on sight. Yup, it’s that raunchy and raw.

Perhaps that’s changed. After all, I haven’t sat in a press box perch in almost 20 years.

I doubt it, though.

I mean, a football beat writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeff McLane, was ordered out of the press box during an Eagles game on Sunday because he was a loud-talker. Seriously, the guy got punted for being a loud-talker.

Now, I realize that the so-called City of Brotherly Love has a rep for being less than a warm-and-fuzzy locale. It was said long ago that the citizenry of Philly go to the airport just to boo bad landings. But come on. They kick a guy out of the press box for being a loud-talker? That’s like telling Santa he can’t go on his annual gift run because he’s fat and jolly. Santa is supposed to be fat and jolly. He has to be fat and jolly. And a male sports scribe has to be loud.

Well, okay, I suppose a case could be made that a male jock journo need not be loud. But trust me, he is. It’s in his press box DNA. So is being obnoxious.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what went down between McLane and the Eagles public relations staff on the Sabbath. I wasn’t there. But I’m quite certain that there was more at play than the Inquirer reporter being a loud-talker. There had to be.

Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press has addressed the larger issue of professional sports teams attempting to control the message by eliminating the naysayers and those in the Fourth Estate who dare ask the difficult, uncomfortable and challenging questions, and I don’t think he’s far off the mark. Actually, he’s likely spot on.

The question I ask is this: Does anyone really care if the press box is full or empty?

Not likely. Among the rabble, there is little sympathy for the devil and, quite frankly, I’m not sure that the girls and boys on the beat should care if they’re sitting in the press box or not. I mean, is the free popcorn really that good? If it is and that means writing fluff, will the last jock journo to leave the press box please remember to turn out the lights?

What does a press pass for the Winnipeg Jets actually get a news scavenger these days? Access? I suppose that depends on your definition of access. To the Jets, access is making a player available to say “we just have to keep our feet moving and play the right way.” Then some PR flunky arrives to rescue him from the indignity of a post-game interrogation. To the jock journo, that isn’t access. It’s a waste of time.

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

The most interesting insight in Wiecek’s excellent piece was confirmation of something many of us already knew or suspected—the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, is a control freak of the highest rank. The way the Freep sports columnist tells it, the Jets’ co-bankroll is known for his in-game temper tantrums and, for fear a scribe might alert the rabble the next time he holds his breath and stomps his little feet, the Puck Pontiff banished the print posse to the press box outback. They’re now in a different area code and time zone than His Hockey Holiness’s bunker. Ballsy move by Wiecek, especially given that the Drab Slab is the official newspaper of the Jets. Whatever access he already didn’t have, he’ll have even less. Not that he should care.

John Ferguson didn’t worry about crap like that back in the day. His atomic explosions as Jets general manager are as legendary as his fists during his playing days as one of the toughest hombres in National Hockey League history. At worst, he would wince if we wrote about him dumping a bucket of ice on the Buffalo Sabres’ bench or kicking/punching holes in the walls of his bunker on press row, but he usually greeted us with an embarrassed wink and a grin.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 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 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 in 2015.