There are good guys in hockey, there are great guys in hockey, then there are the absolute best guys in hockey.
Alvin Brian McDonald, known to family, friends and on-ice foes as Ab, was among the latter.
If there was a nicer man in the game than Ab, I never met him, and that takes in 30 years worth of time and people on frozen ponds and in puck palaces across our vast nation.
From scrubs on skates to National Hockey League players, Ab had time for everyone, including news snoops who’d call him at home to pick his brain about anything from playing alongside Jean Beliveau to getting the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association off the ground in October 1972.
The return phone call was among the measuring sticks we would use in the rag trade. If they called you back, they were good guys. Ab unfailingly returned calls. Didn’t matter what time of day or night, he’d get back to you. In time for you to make deadline.
Frank McKinnon and Don Baizley were like that. The old goalie, Joe Daley, is too.
Frank and Baiz are gone, and now Abbie is, too. The Jets original captain died at age 82 on Tuesday night, and you know a pall has spread across the hockey community, most notably in Good Ol’ Hometown.
Ab was, in many ways, like the aforementioned Beliveau—a kind, gentle, engaging and obliging man. Respected and admired, he was a proud Winnipegger who left home to play hockey hither and yon but returned to River City each summer. There was a regalness about him, yet, at the same time, he had the carriage and touch of an aw shucks common man.
You’ll find that’s what folks will talk about today when they learn of Ab’s passing.
Oh, sure, they’ll also mention the Stanley Cup rings with the Montreal Canadiens (three) and Chicago Blackhawks (one), the Cup-winning tally against the Detroit Red Wings in 1961, his playing alongside Stan Mikita and Kenny Wharram to form one version of the Blackhawks fabled Scooter Line, and scoring the first goal in Jets history in New York (on the same night the youngest of his five children, Kristina, was born). They might also mention that the past two years have not been kind to the Scooters—Wharram passed away in 2017, while Mikita and Ab left us this year.
But there will be one common theme in all reflections—Ab the man.
Daley, in conversation with The Canadian Press, remembered his former teammate as “just a super nice guy who mentored a lot of the young guys, including me.” Ab was “very humble.”
“I’ve had a weepy day today,” Daley added.
Most likely, he wasn’t alone. In fact, I know he wasn’t alone. Abbie was a dear, dear man.
My two Hens in the Hockey House have surfaced from their summer hibernation, just in time to deliver some blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda on the Blake Wheeler signing. The Winnipeg Jets captain has agreed to a five-year contract extension that will average $8.25 million per season, at which time he will be into his hockey dotage at age 37.
Take it away, ladies…
Question Lady: Well, girlfriend, what’s your take on the Deal on Wheels? Too much money? Too much term? Too little money? Too little term?
Answer Lady: The question isn’t whether or not the Jets gave Wheeler too much of this or too little of that. It’s this: When does the captain go into the inevitable decline?
Question Lady: What makes you so sure his game’s heading south?
Answer Lady: Oh, honey, everything heads south. Just take a look at what gravity has done to our bodies. We know Wheeler’s skills will decay and no tummy tuck is going to change or fix that. As sure as there’s wind at Portage and Main, he’ll experience a drop in productivity. What we don’t know and can’t predict is when, and how rapid, the retreat will be.
Question Lady: We’re pretty confident that his game won’t take a detour south this winter, are we not?
Answer Lady: I’d say that’s a safe bet. I mean, it might not be another 91-point season, but as long as he has Rink Rat Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Big Buff, Twig Ehlers and Puck Finn as playmates he ought to deliver a point a game by accident. Here’s something we must keep in mind, though: Wheeler will be working on his existing contract in the 2018-19 National Hockey League season. At $5.6 million, he’s a bargain. Maybe the best bargain in the game. But he won’t be so much of a bargain if it’s 55 points and $8.25 million four years from now. Guaranteed the rabble will be bitching a blue streak about his contract being an anchor if that happens. I already hear grumbling about the term on this extension.
Question Lady: Are you surprised that the Jets gave a 32-year-old forward an extra five years?
Answer Lady: To be honest, two years ago I was convinced that Wheeler would play out his current contract then vamoose out of Dodge in pursuit of a championship. That changed last spring when the Jets advanced to the Western Conference final in the Stanley Cup runoff. But an additional five years? Ya, totally unexpected. I was thinking three tops.
Question Lady: Do you think Wheeler left money on the table for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the bean counters to divvy up between Puck Finn, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba?
Answer Lady: Since I wasn’t invited to join Wheeler and Chevy for the cup of coffee that led to this deal, I can’t answer that. But I think an argument can be made that he’d have gotten more coin on the open market next summer. So, in those terms, ya, he sold himself short. But, hey, how much is enough? If a guy can’t get by on $8.25 million per annum, he’s got issues that we probably don’t want to know about.
Question Lady: Doesn’t Wheeler strike you as the kind of guy who would take one for the team, so to speak?
Answer Lady: Ya, he does. Never met him, but the guy’s a pro’s pro by all accounts. About the only negative thing I could say about the captain is that he is sometimes—too often—prickly with news snoops. But dealing with jock journos is part of the package when you wear the C, so get over it.
Question Lady: Best-case scenario, of course, is that Wheeler hoists the Stanley Cup next spring or the year after that. What’s the worst-case scenario?
Answer Lady: That he turns into the Looch—Milan Lucic, owner of the most-onerous contract in the NHL. I mean, the Edmonton McDavids are paying the Looch $6 million a year to lurch up and down the left wing like a guy dragging an ATM machine, and he’ll be on their books until 2023. He’ll be the world’s oldest 34-year-old by then, likely scoring five goals a season instead of the 10 he had last winter. How happy do you think they’ll be paying that ball-and-chain $1.2 million per goal? I don’t see that ever happening to Wheeler and the Jets, though. He still has plenty of game. At least three, perhaps four more years as a top-flight forward. But you asked me for the worst-case scenario and I can’t think of anything more grim than him morphing into a right-wing version of the Looch.
Question Lady: The Wheeler signing means much of the heavy lifting is done and, really, there’s only Morrissey without a contract. What’s the holdup there?
Answer Lady: It has to be term. I’m only spitballing, but Chevy’s track record suggests that length of service is the sticking point. He has some kind of cult-leader sway with these guys. He serves them the Kool-Aid and before you can say Pokey and the Bandit they’re locked in for six years or more at a team-friendly rate. It worked with Rink Rat Scheifele and Twig Ehlers and Hellebuyck, so it’s my guess that he’s attempting similar powers of persuasion with Morrissey.
Question Lady: And if Josh doesn’t swallow the Kool-Aid?
Answer Lady: Then he’ll do what Trouba did—sign for two years and carry on carrying on until such time as he’s in a more favorable bargaining position.
Question Lady: Let’s end it with a question about Trouba. What’s his shelf life with the Jets?
Answer Lady: Two years tops, then adios, amigos.
Question Lady: Okay, gotta go and enjoy what’s left of summer. Any plans for you?
Answer Lady: At my age, I don’t make plans or buy green bananas.