Winnipeg Sports: I come to praise some (Arctic Ice Hockey) and I come to bury others (you know who you are)

Maybe it’s an age thing, but as I watched our Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil contest the first all-Canadian final in Association of Tennis Professionals history today, I found myself drifting off to another time and another place. A fond time. A fond place.

The same thing happened in June as I watched our Genie Bouchard in the ladies’ singles final on the lumpy lawn of Centre Court Wimbledon.

I saw myself sitting alone in a section of bleachers bordering the har-tru courts of the Winnipeg Canoe Club, where I received my baptism as a tennis scribe. I don’t recall who was playing on Court One that morning and afternoon in the opening round of the Canadian National Tennis Tournament, but I do remember grappling with the quirky method of scoring and the notion that, in tennis, love is nothing. I also remember suffering a case of sun stroke so severe that I was rendered incapable of filing my copy to the Winnipeg Tribune.

Undaunted and with a ball cap firmly in place to shield my noggin from sol, I returned the next day. And the next. And the next. I became a fixture at every significant tennis tournament—and the small events—in River City during the 1970s, covering the matches and the people for the Trib.

So as Raonic dispatched Pospisil, 6-1, 6-4, in an hour and seven minutes in their Washington, D.C., showdown, I saw the old Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club, when it was located where a sprawling Safeway now stands in Osborne Village. I saw Judy Peake and her brother, Rick Borland. I saw Ellie O’Gorman and Pierre LaMarche and Rejean Genois and Jim Boyce and Jane O’Hara and Richard Legendre and Peter Burwash and Vicki Berner. I saw the Campbell sisters, Linda and Sandy, and I saw Jim Matthews and Glen Booth. I saw the lovely Jo Brown, her hubby, Jack, and their kids, Tom and Bonny.

Those were special people. The tennis community was a special, tight-knit group. Those were special times.

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE LA LA: If you’re looking for a terrific piece on the Winnipeg Jets, go to Arctic Ice Hockey and check out Dog Day Afternoon. It’s a creative, fun, light-hearted read written by Mike Fraser (bcjet), a Jets loyalist in New Westminster, B.C., just across the water from my Vancouver Island hideaway. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you it’s the sort of thing you just won’t find in either of the two River City dailies. The mainstream scribes aren’t into fun and creativity. Yet, as much as Fraser is having sport with the local hockey heroes, he’s also making a statement, one that many share…Good on the Anaheim Ducks to honor old friend Teemu Selanne when the Jets are in Mickey and Minnie’s neighborhood on Jan. 11. Nice touch for a nice guy…Ask yourself this: If Rick Dudley were generally managing the Jets, how many player-for-player trades would he have made in the past 3 1/2 years? One? Two? Half a dozen?…Was that really Ferguson Jenkins in town for the American Association all-star hijinks at the Ballyard by The Forks? It sure was. Nice of the Baseball Hall of Famer to drop by and give the event a big-league touch…I’m not sure why head coach Mike O’Shea has put the muzzle on his assistants, but I’m sure it bothers the boys and girls on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat. But hands up if anyone else cares…I like the work Kirk Penton does on three-down football for the Winnipeg Sun. I’d take him on my staff…Gary (La La) Lawless broke away from his True North Toady scribblings this week to pay homage to Drew Willy after the first-year Bombers quarterback engineered a last-minute drive that carried the Winnipegs to a 27-26 victory over Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Incredibly, the Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist wrote Willy is “Part Joe Montana, part Johnny Unitas, part John Elway.” Good grief. How lofty the praise if Willy actually wins a football game in November? You know, like the Grey Cup game, for example. Turn down the volume, La La. Oh, and next time you write something about a football game, mention the final score. It’s a rather significant detail.

DOUG DAYS OF SUMMER: I began reading a Doug Brown piece on the Bombers this week in the Free Press and a Miss Lonelyhearts column broke out.

Seriously, this was lame. How lame was it? Well, apparently Doug had a bowl of relationship metaphors for breakfast because he had the Bombers everywhere from the boudoir to the Palomino Club.

My personal favorite was this gem: “We’ve been on five dates with this new team, and it has only disappointed us once. Sure, it may have shown up late and drunk and got vomit stuck in its hair against Edmonton…”

THE BOW WOW BUNGALOW: Some writers never fail to fail, and Steve Simmons of Sun Media is one of them.

bow wow bungalowIn his three-dot column this very day, Little Stevie Blunder refers to former Blue Jays and current Boston Red Sox skipper John Farrell as “Benedict Farrell.” In other words, he’s calling the man a traitor for defecting from Toronto to Beantown. Hmmm.

As I recall, Simmons was a columnist and sports editor when I joined the Calgary Sun in the early 1980s. Not long after my arrival, he defected to the Calgary Herald. Yup, he left us high and dry for the opposition. And that means he was negotiating his move to the Herald while still in the employ of the Sun. Benedict Simmons then defected to the Toronto Sun.

So, it’s okay for Stevie to jump ship, but not John Farrell. Pot meet kettle.

For that, Little Stevie Blunder earns this week’s stay in the Bow Wow Bungalow.

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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to 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.

Winnipeg sports personalities get their heads examined

2 sports shrinks5

Twin sisters Dr. Patti van Puck and Dr. Patti van Pigskin are internationally renowned sports psychologists who specialize in what makes athletes/coaches/managers/owners/sports scribes/broadcasters tick.

Jocks the world over flock to their clinic, the River City Shrink Wrap, and Drs. Patti and Patti have a waiting list longer than a politician’s nose at election time. They don’t always have the right answer, but if loving the Winnipeg Jets, Blue Bombers and Goldeyes is wrong, they don’t want to be right.

Today’s group session includes Mike O’Shea, head coach of the Blue Bombers, Glenn January, offensive lineman with the Bombers, Evander Kane, left winger with the Jets, Kevin Cheveldayoff, general manager of the Jets, and Gary (La La) Lawless, sports columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press. Gentlemen, start your therapy…

DR. PUCK: “Welcome everyone. Who would like to start?”

COACH O’SHEA: “I’ll start, Doc Puck. I’m puzzled. I’m as baffled as a teenage kid trying to unhook his girlfriend’s bra for the first time. Here I am, a rookie head coach who’s taken over a team that really sucked lemons last year. I mean, they were bad and…”

DR. PIGSKIN: “Sorry to interrupt, Coach O’Shea, but exactly how bad were they?”

COACH O’SHEA: “Plugged-toilet-first-thing-in-the-morning bad. They won just three games. Out of 18! Now this year, my team has already won four games. FOUR! Out of five! But do you think we get any respect? Not so much as a sliver of respect. The fans still won’t fill the building and this bonehead sitting beside me—Lawless—writes that I need to learn how to lose. That was more than a month ago. Now he says the team’s a mirage. A mirage!”

JANUARY: “Not only that. He also wrote that the O-line sucks lemons and that I should be traded. That’s right! He says I’m the only guy on the O-line who doesn’t suck lemons, but then he says the GM oughta peddle my O-line-sized ass outta town. What’s up with that, Doc? Where’s the respect?”

DR. PIGSKIN: “Is all this true, Mr. Lawless?”

GARY LA LA: “Ya, I wrote that the Bombers are a mirage. But then they go and beat the Lions in B.C. to make me look like a complete jackass (as if I need help with that). So the next day I tweeted they might be real. Then two days later I wrote they’re gonna be champions. If they lose in Hamilton, they’ll be a mirage again. It all depends on what day it is, I guess. I just wet my finger, hold it up and see what way the wind’s blowing. Then I spend the next 15 minutes writing my column before lumbering off to my radio gig.”

DR. PIGSKIN: “And is it true that you wrote they should trade Glenn January?”

GARY LA LA: “Guilty as charged. I know he’s the best they’ve got. Without him, the O-line would really suck lemons. So maybe they shouldn’t trade him. Oh, I can’t make up my mind. I flip-flop more than a catfish someone caught at Lockport then tossed on the shore. I need help, Doc. That’s why I’m here.”

DR. PUCK: “My but there’s a lot of lemon sucking going on today? Do you have the same difficulty when you write about the Jets?”

GARY LA LA: “No way. Ask Chevy. He’ll tell you that I never lose my bearings when writing about the Jets. When they came to town in 2011, Chevy and Chipper bought me lunch. That really made me feel like I was part of the team. I wrote a column about it. Trust me, Doc, that lunch told me which side my bread is buttered on. I’ve known it right from the get-go. Right Chevy?”

CHEVELDAYOFF: “Damn straight, La La. My boots have never been so well shined. I can always count on Gary to pump my tires, Doc, whether I do something or not.”

KANE: “What do you mean if you do something? You haven’t done anything for 3 1/2 years. All you do is play with the waiver wire and draft kids who are five-foot-six and weigh 165 pounds. You never make trades to improve the team. Why do you think that blogger chick calls you Kevin the Possum? There’s no winning with you. Why do you think I want out of this two-bit town where everybody hates me?”

CHEVELDAYOFF: “I don’t make trades because I’m afraid to make trades. If I trade you, Evander, you’ll score 40 goals a season for the next 10 years and the guys I get in return won’t score 40 goals total in those 10 years. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

KANE: “So, as long as I’m in Winnipeg, we’re never going to make the playoffs, is that’s what I’m hearing you say?”

CHEVELDAYOFF: “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that as long as I’m in Winnipeg we’re never going to make the playoffs. That’s why I came here today to see the two docs. I’m hoping that they can give me the courage to make a trade for actual players, not draft choices.”

KANE: “Who the hell do you think Dr. Puck is? She ain’t the Wizard of Oz, man! Get a grip!”

GARY LA LA: “Hey, don’t talk to Chevy that way!”

KANE: “You talking to me, Lardo?”

GARY LA LA: “That’s right. I’m talking to you, punk. You should have the initials KCGGM shaved into your hair as a show of respect for your boss, the greatest GM in National Hockey League history. Everybody in this room sucks lemons except Chevy. And the two Docs, of course.”

DR. PUCK: “Gentlemen, please. Let’s keep this civil. Now, our session time is almost up, so let’s summarize. You’ve all come here for a reason—respect. That’s what you all seek. So, my twin sister and I are prepared to offer you some advice. Just remember, if loving you is wrong, we don’t want to be right.”

DR. PIGSKIN: “Coach O’Shea, you seek respect for your team. Mr. January, you seek respect for the O-line and as an individual. Well, it’s obvious what you must do in order to get the respect you desire and deserve: Do exactly what Chevy and Mark Chipman did with Gary La La—buy him lunch. There’s a McDonald’s close by. Take him there when you leave and you’ll never have to shine your shoes again.”

DR. PUCK: “As for you, Chevy, the great baseball manager Tubby Tommy Lasorda once said: There are three kinds of people—those who make things happen, those who let things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Well, young Mr. Kane is absolutely correct—I am not the Wizard of Oz. I can’t give you courage. Remember this: Oz didn’t give nothing to the cowardly lion that he didn’t already have. So make things happen. And, Evander, you wish to move to a city where the fans will admire and respect you and to a team that can win. I can’t say that I blame you.”

DR. PIGSKIN: “And, finally, we come to you, Gary La La. You seek respect as a writer. The trouble is, many readers can’t see past your Jets pom-poms. We know you don’t want to be seen as a True North Toady. So, again, it’s obvious what you must do—buy your own damn lunch.”

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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to 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.

Winnipeg sports: These two Jacks were both aces

Matty was a supreme wordsmith who never, ever mailed it in. His copy was pristine and it sang. He was a writer’s writer who worked at his craft.

Media musings and some other stuff…

Nice touch to name the press box at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry in honor of the two Jacks—Matheson and Wells.

Both Jack Matheson, my first sports editor, and Cactus Jack Wells, the lots-of-yuks broadcaster who never met a multi-syllabic name he couldn’t mangle or a day that didn’t turn out nice, were giants of jock journalism, not just in Winnipeg but on a national scale. I wonder, though: Do the names Matty and Cactus Jack carry any weight with the stable of young sports scribes and talking heads who will occupy Two Jacks Press Box going forward?

I hope so, because there are lessons to be learned from both men.

Matty, left, and Cactus Jack.
Matty, left, and Cactus Jack.

Matty, sports columnist at the Winnipeg Tribune, was a supreme wordsmith who never, ever mailed it in. His copy was pristine and it sang. He was a writer’s writer who worked at his craft. Hard. Matty didn’t write every day (his bride Peggy, aka the LGIW, insisted he take vacation once a year), but few wrote as often and as well. Most important, Matty loved his job, because it wasn’t a job to him.

As for Cactus, he went through life with a wink and a nod. He was fun and he had fun. I think that’s what jock journalists can learn most from this broadcasting legend: Take your job seriously, but not yourself.

ODDS ‘N’ SODS: Since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are 4-1 and joint leaders in the western precinct of the Canadian Football League, I guess I should show some respect and stop calling their digs Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. It seems that the Football Follies boarded the same plane out of town as Joe Mack, Gary Crowton and a cast of quarterbacks who now appear to be in witness protection programs…Interesting how things work out. If the Bombers were still in the East Division, they’d already have a playoff spot locked up…This from Gary (La La) Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press on July 25: “Don’t be fooled by the (Bombers) 3-1 record. It’s a mirage.” And this tweet from Gary La La exactly one day later: “So I don’t know if the #bombers are for real on the field.” I assume a loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday will reduce the Bombers to “mirage” status again. Last time I saw flip-flops like this, they were on Jeff Reinebold’s feet…How much fun would Cactus Jack be having with the name Lirim Hajrullahu? I think he could handle Lirim without tripping over either syllable, but I’m pretty sure the Bomber kicker’s last name would be Hallelujah or Hoolahoopa or Highroller…Ed Tait continues to do boffo work for the Freep. His piece on former Bombers linebacker and National Football League wannabe Henoc Muamba is first rate…Read Steve Simmons three-dot column in the Winnipeg Sun this morning, and I must say that Little Stevie Blunder sounds like a bitter and angry old man in his rant against fancy stats in hockey. You don’t like fancy stats, Stevie? Well, here’s an unfancy stat for you: The next time you make a statement, put a period at the end of it, not a question mark…Again, I don’t understand why the Sun runs a column by a Toronto-based scribe who basically tells us everything he dislikes in the world. Here’s today’s scoreboard on the Simmons column: Toronto issues 17, Winnipeg issues 0…Is there any rhyme or reason to when sports columnists Paul Friesen (Winnipeg Sun) and Gary Lawless appear in print? The columnist is the most important read in a sports section. Why do we have to guess when they write?…Steven Stamkos says he wants to play hockey where he has a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Guess that rules out Canada…If I told you I know someone who’s never smoked pot, never had a tattoo and never taken a selfie, what would you say? I agree. I need to get a life.

WORTH REPEATING: When asked by Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post if Winnipeg deserved a second chance with a National Hockey League franchise, Bobby Hull said

“I don’t think they could afford it. It’s not that they don’t deserve one, but I don’t think they have enough fans, enough corporate businesses, to fund a professional franchise of that magnitude.”

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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to 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.

MY WINNIPEG: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

Keep in mind that many of our adopted jocks are not in Winnipeg by choice. The sports system forced them to drop anchor in Pegtown, so it could be that they feel the system is holding them hostage, which could lend itself to no small level of bitterness about a burg.

Does Winnipeg get a bad rap, or are the good citizens of River City a tad too touchy? Lord knows we have a fragile psyche, because we get our knickers in a knot at the mere suggestion that our burg is not fit for man, beast nor professional athlete. Well, here’s one person’s four-part take on what makes Pegtown tick.

PART ONE: It’s okay if you don’t like us (but we aren’t anybody’s arm pit)

PART TWO: Snub us and we won’t drink your beer (and it’s all Harold Ballard’s fault)

PART THREE: Some athletes we love, some athletes we loath (but we’ll love you more and loath you less if you win)

PART FOUR: Everybody knows this is nowhere (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave)

 

PART ONE: It’s okay if you don’t like us (but we aren’t anybody’s arm pit)

It was the winter of 1998 and I was standing beside Ross McLennan in the Winnipeg Sun newsroom.

We peered out the window as an angry winter storm began to bare its fangs and growl, and we both knew that if we didn’t leave the building in the next half hour, or so, there existed a very real probability that we were hunkered in for the night.

“Ross,” I said to him as I stared at the white stuff swirling about outside, “why do we live here?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

There was a pause for silence. We just stared at the snow.

“You know something,” I finally said, turning to my right and looking up at Ross. “We don’t have to live here. No. We don’t have to live here.”

So I don’t. Live there. But I do. Live there.

I have come to realize, you see, that I don’t live where I live. I live where I used to live. Where I’ve always lived. Where I always will live.

It’s just that I’m now approximately 2,300 kilometres to the left of Portage and Main. I have an ocean view. And a mountain view. There are palm trees, 365 days of golf, a wet rather than a white winter, nobody plugs in their car, and I’ve discovered uses for my arms other than swatting at mosquitos 24/7.

I hang my bonnet in Victoria, but, trust me, I live in Winnipeg.

I mean, I’m ashamed to admit this (and probably shouldn’t admit it), but I can’t tell you the name of Victoria’s mayor. I believe it’s Dean Fortin, but I’m not positive. Yes, I agree, shame on me.

The thing is, I not only can name the (soon-to-be former) mayor of Winnipeg, I know him. Personally. Mind you, I never was particularly fond of Sammy Katz, nor his smarmy smile. Always thought he was a bit like a soccer injury. You know, phony.

I figure Sammy for one of those soccer players who has been mortally wounded by a kick to the left shin bone, yet, as play continues to swirl about him as he lay clutching at his face, he’s peeking through his fingers to determine if the referee will go to his pocket and produce a red card.

The red card is, of course, the miracle cure of futbol. It has the healing powers of Jesus’s hands. The moment a mortally wounded lad is secure in the knowledge that his assailant has been shown a red card—and thereby banished from proceedings—he makes a Lourdes-like recovery and springs back into the fray with renewed vigor and an exaggerated limp that vanishes the very second play is whistled in. To me, that’s Sammy.

But I digress…

My point was/is, I know Sammy Katz is mayor in River City and I even know the names of some of those who would be mayor come October. Like Gord Steeves, who claims to know how many pot holes it takes to fill the streets of Winnipeg, because, by gosh, he’s going to fill ’em all.

I know these things because I left good, ol’ Hometown 15 years ago, but I never left.

I mean, when I make reference to the “local” paper, I’m talking about the Winnipeg Sun or Winnipeg Free Press, not the Victoria Times Colonist or Victoria News. My first order of business each morning is to call up both the Sun and Freep. I need to know what’s happening. Where it’s happening. When it’s happening. Why it’s happening. I need to know who’s happening and who isn’t happening.

I read it all. News, entertainment, sports, arts, Miss Lonelyhearts. Everything. I even stop by Mr. Sinclair Jr.’s neighborhood in the Freep on occasion, just to check out Gordo’s most recent exercise in name-dropping self-indulgence. (Quick question: Does Gordo ever eat at home with his bride, or does he always eat out with somebody who’s a somebody?)

At any rate, I care about Winnipeg. I care about its people. I am, after all, of them. Born and raised. Spent the largest segment of a 30-year career in jock journalism there.

That, however, doesn’t mean I’m under obligation to do the rah-rah, siss-boom-bah thing about all that is River City, and neither are the professional athletes we adopt.

Keep in mind that many of our adopted jocks are not in Winnipeg by choice. The sports system forced them to drop anchor in Pegtown, so it could be that they feel the system is holding them hostage, which could lend itself to no small level of bitterness about a burg.

None of us wishes to be where we don’t want to be, and there are hundreds—correction: thousands—of people living and working in Pegtown who don’t wish to live and work in Pegtown. Some of those people edit copy at a newspaper. Some flip cheese nips at The Sals. Some serve tables in pubs. Some are university profs. Some collect your garbage. And, yes, some are in the employ of the Winnipeg Jets and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

There is mounting suspicion that Evander Kane is among those people. That he wants to hop on the next stagecoach out of Dodge. Well, the Jets left winger should know that it’s okay if he doesn’t like us. It’s okay if he wants out of Winnipeg. That doesn’t make him O.J. or Willie Pickton or Paul Bernardo any more than it makes me Karla Homolka because I dialed up a new area code in 1999.

And it doesn’t make our burg Toronto’s, Montreal’s, Calgary’s or Vancouver’s arm pit, either. So who gives two dumps if an athlete doesn’t like us?

 

PART TWO: Snub us and we won’t drink your beer (and it’s all Harold Ballard’s fault)

Winnipeg has many favorable qualities to offer. A self-deprecating sense of humor is not one of them.

Winnipeg is…it’s…well, it has Napolean Complex. Small man syndrome, if you will. Its skin is thinner than the margin of error on an Angus Reid poll.

A space cadet like Ilya Bryzgalov makes a flippant statement about our burg’s parks, the frigid climes and no Russian playmates for his kids and it’s as if he’s climbed atop the Legislature building and gelded the Golden Boy. Or replaced it with a bronze statue of Joseph Stalin.

Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull
Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull

Shane Doan is tarred and feathered (figuratively) for saying he doesn’t wish to uproot his family from Phoenix when the possibility exists that the Coyotes are about to become buzzard bait in the Arizona desert. Not once does Doan utter a disparaging remark about Winnipeg, though. Nary a discouraging word. He says he doesn’t wish to move his family anywhere. Not to Vancouver. Not to Calgary or Edmonton. Not to New York or Chicago. Yet many in Thin Skin City get their knickers in a knot, in part because of a jingoistic media that includes at least one prominent True North Toady who misrepresents Doan’s feelings in a column that falsely accuses the Coyotes captain of slander.

Dieter Brock cracks wise about the Assiniboine Park Zoo three decades ago and, to this day, there are many among the rabble who would lock him in a cage with the rest of the skunks.

We get our frozen noses out of joint at the slightest suggestion we aren’t where it’s at, don’t we? How dare these filthy rich, pampered ingrates not like us. The nerve. Don’t they know we have The Forks, Folklorama, the French Quarter, Festival du Voyageur, a thriving arts and entertainment community that includes a world-renowned ballet and symphony orchestra, the Museum of Asper, affordable real estate, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda?

And, hey, it’s the Slurpee capital of the planet. No place sucks like Winnipeg. Literally. So if you slag our city, no Slurpees for you!

I can’t say with absolute certainty when we developed our Napolean Complex, but I do believe we should point an accusing finger at Humpty Harold Ballard. And the Molson family.

When I was a kid, you see, Winnipeg didn’t have an inferiority complex, even though we didn’t have a National Hockey League team to call our own. Only Toronto and Montreal did. No big deal. Besides, there was no need to feel like the ginger-haired stepchild because we had a football club that could kick big-city butt. And that’s what the Blue Bombers did. Every year.

So everything was cool.

It even got better when Ben Hatskin hijacked Robert Marvin Hull. We still didn’t have an NHL franchise, but we had the Jets and the World Hockey Association. More significant, we had Bobby Hull. The Golden Jet. The most dynamic player north, south, east and west of Boston was ours. We could turn in any direction and go “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

Our smugness rapidly turned to anger, though, because the hockey establishment refused to play nice. First, they went to court to prevent our Bobby from joining the Jets. Next, they refused to include our Bobby on the Team Canada side that faced off against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. They spent the next seven years pooh-poohing our product as paperweight, even as the Jets iced an outfit that could lay a licking on 90 per cent of teams in the NHL. Eventually, most parties realized there had to be a ceasefire between the NHL and WHA, for financial sanity. There were merger talks. And a show of hands on the NHL inviting Winnipeg, Quebec City, Edmonton and New England to the party. The tally was 12-5 in favor, with Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which landed an NHL franchise in 1970, Boston and Los Angeles on the nay side of the vote. That was enough to defeat the merger.

8-harold-ballard-worst-moments-in-maple-leafs-history
Humpty Harold Ballard

The loudest anti-acceptance voice, that with the most huff, puff and bluster, belonged to Humpty Harold Ballard, resident felon and bankroll of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I feel so elated,” Ballard brayed in celebration. “It’s like the North beating the South in the Civil War.”

“As far as Harold was concerned, Winnipeg didn’t exist,” Jets part-owner and governor Barry Shenkarow recalls in the Ed Willes book, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association.

So, Ballard and his buddies in Montreal and Vancouver were telling us we weren’t big enough. We weren’t classy enough. We weren’t sexy enough. We weren’t sophisticated enough for the NHL.

Well, we were big enough and old enough to drink beer.

The WHA teams needed one NHL outfit to change its vote. Just one. Ballard, ever the curmudgeon, never would be swayed from his position, not as long as it meant receiving a smaller slice of the Hockey Night in Canada pie. So the Molson family, owner of Club du Hockey Canadien, became the target. We stopped swilling their beer. Not just in River City. In Edmonton. In Quebec City. In Calgary. In Vancouver.

The power of the pint won the day and Humpty Harold’s happiness was replaced with a harrumph when Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec City and New England were absorbed by the NHL.

I’m convinced, however, that residue remains from that 1970s scenario. It’s why we get our backs up and go all bantam rooster at the mere hint that we can’t run with the big dogs. And, of course, our fragile psyche took a massive wallop when the original Jets loaded up the truck, lock stock and jock strap, and departed hockey’s high country for the Arizona desert in 1996.

But Winnipeg shouldn’t give a damn what anyone thinks or says of us. We can, and should, feel good about what we see when we look in the mirror.

We shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at ourselves, either. We’ve got our quirks. I mean, we want people to love us. To experience us. Yet we build a perimeter highway around our city just so people can avoid us as they make their way across the country. Go figure.

 

PART THREE: Some athletes we love, some athletes we loath (but we’ll love you more and loath you less if you win)

Carbon dating confirms that I am a relic. A fossil. I am a drawing on a cave-dweller’s wall. The amateurish sketch depicts me sitting in the old barn on Maroons Road in the 1950s, watching Billy Mosienko and the Winnipeg Warriors.

bowlingWe all loved Mosie. He authored an admirable career in Chicago, where he played on the Blackhawks’ famed Pony Line with the Bentley brothers, Doug and Max, and the highlight for Mosie arrived on the final night of the 1951-52 NHL season when he tallied three goals in the lickety-split time of 21 seconds. It remains an unassailable feat of scoring fury.

It wasn’t just his time in the NHL, nor his name in the record book, that endeared us to Mosie, though. He was a local boy who made good, then came home to us in 1955 to lead the Warriors to a Western Hockey League title. And he never left.

There’s now a hockey rink that bears his name. Also a tournament. And, of course, Mosienko Lanes continues to thrive at the corner of Redwood and Main in the gritty North End.

Ken Ploen is another former athlete we love. Unlike Mosie, he’s an adopted son, coming to us from tiny Lost Nation, Iowa, in the late 1950s to play an unparalled role in the golden years of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Grey Cup parades became commonplace once Ploen arrived to play defensive back and quarterback, and there isn’t a River City athlete, past or present, more revered than No. 11. He is our humble hero. He is to Winnipeg football what Jean Beliveau is to Montreal hockey. His affection for us is genuine. Real. It is not pasted on to gain sway. Once here, he, like Mosie, never left.

“I think when you look back at things, you say do you second guess yourself. I think it was a great decision I made back then and I certainly don’t ever regret that,” is what he said when inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. “It’s been a great place to live. One of the reasons I stayed in Winnipeg was warm people.”

He echoed those sentiments when the great Bombers squads of 1959 and ’62 were celebrated by the MSHOF.

“I thought about it a lot today and I said how fortunate we were to play in a city like Winnipeg, with the fans that we had. It was always a great feeling to represent the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg. I think a number of times because of that support we were able to pull off victories that maybe we wouldn’t have pulled off in another circumstance. It was a thrill representing the Blue and Gold, it was an honor wearing their uniforms and we look back at it with nothing but fond memories.”

Young people unfamiliar with Ploen would be shocked to learn that the great QB actually snubbed the National Football League to ply his trade on the lonesome prairie, in part because the Bombers offered him more money than the Cleveland Browns. I know, that’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. The Browns were willing to give Ploen a $500 signing bonus and a $5,000 yearly stipend to play DB. The Bombers went all-in with $3,000 and $9,000 as a DB/QB.

Ken_PloenAs an added bonus, Ploen heard that the “hunting and fishing was pretty good up here.”

Winnipeg prefers its sporting heroes to be a product of the Mosienko or Ploen template. Feet firmly on the ground. Genuine. Blue collar work ethic. Confident, not cocky. Community awareness. Little, if any, bling.

And we don’t care about their roots.

For example, Winnipeg probably holds European hockey players closer to the heart than any market in North America, although Mikhail Smith soured us ever so slightly on Soviets/Russians with his ill-concieved and failed attempt to transform Portage and Main into Red Square. We love Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, two of the many Scandinavians who brought titles to River City before departing for Gotham. The super Swedes have not forgotten us, nor we them. Ditto Teemu Selanne, the fab Finn who took us on a magic carpet ride in his NHL rookie season.

It helps to win, of course. Mosie won. Ploen won. Chris Walby won. Bob Cameron won. Hedberg and Nilsson won. Had Dieter Brock brought the Grey Cup home, we’d talk more about what he did on the football field than what he said about the zoo. Hell, we’d let him pull a Kramer and hurl banana peels at the zoo monkeys.

Win and there’s a chance that some will forgive, or look beyond, your trespasses.

Bobby Hull’s name has been, and still is, linked to spousal abuse, which is a most loathsome bit of business. His ex-wife, Joanne, was granted a divorce on grounds of physical cruelty, mental cruelty and adultery. She has spoken of him beating and bloodying her head with the steel heel of her shoe. He has been convicted of assaulting a Chicago police officer. He had a DUI arrest. He drank excessively. But, hey, Robert Marvin Hull put Winnipeg on the pro hockey map. There would be no NHL franchise if not for the him. Thus, many eyes look beyond, or are blind to, his violent, off-ice nastiness.

Personally, I acknowledge what the Golden Jet did for good, ol’ Hometown as a hockey player. Only Ben Hatskin has done more. But Hull the man was a cad.

I don’t harbor any warm and fuzzies for him, but a great many in River City do. And always will.

 

PART FOUR: Everybody knows this is nowhere (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave)

This isn’t a news bulletin to anyone who’s spent more than a month in the Manitoba capital, but it must be mentioned: Winnipeg is not Shangri-La.

Let’s ignore the usual suspects of winter, mosquitos, crime, spring flooding, middle-of-nowhere location, etc., because every city has acne (have you ever been to Buffalo?). Let us, instead, focus on sports. Explain to me, in 25 words or less, why a free agent hockey or football player would want to pitch his tent in Pegtown, or why those currently under contract would wish to stay? And, no, a lifetime supply of Slurpees is not enticement enough to lure prime jock stock to the Little Hockey House on the Prairie or Football Follies Field in Fort Garry.

Above all, athletes want to win. Well, a championship parade in River City is as rare as a green winter. Our burg has been a Grey Cup-free zone since Wade Miller was knee high to Buzz and Boomer (come to think of it, Wade’s still only knee high to Buzz and Boomer). Meanwhile, the management-by-paralysis stylings of Jets GM Kevin The Possum means our hockey heroes are always first to the tee box each April.

When a number of the Jets core players (Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane) inked long-term deals, they expressed a fondness for the city, the True North organization and confidence that the club was headed in the right direction.

I do not, however, think they anticipated the general manager going completely comatose.

Winning is not part of the hockey equation in Winnipeg. That, alone, makes the acquisition of Grade A free agents remote, if not impossible. At best, our city and the Jets will land a Grade B player, but the likelihood is that River City is the preferred destination of Grade C and D players. Like Mathieu Perreault, who stands as The Possum’s sole free-agent signing to date this off-season.

Many are geeked up about the arrival of Perreault, who replaces Olli Jokinen. But ask yourself this: Why would Perreault rather be the No. 3 centre on a non-playoff team than the No. 3 centre on a Stanley Cup contender?

Whatever, I don’t think Perreault makes the Jets better. Just younger.

So, again, why would someone like Kane wish to remain in Winnipeg? If he’s going to be a much-maligned man, why not go where he’ll cash a playoff cheque for his trouble?

At any rate, the fact that top-quality players steer clear of Pegtown does not make our city unique. John Elway wanted no part of Baltimore. Eli Manning didn’t dig San Diego. Eric Lindros snubbed Quebec City, which, in my experience, is the most beautiful burg in North America. Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo wanted out of Vancouver. Josh Gorges turned his nose up at Toronto. James Reimer wants out of Toronto. Ryan Suter left Nashville. Patrick Roy forced his way out of Montreal. Jason Spezza spurned an entire country.

The reasons, of course, vary, but the sentiment is the same: Nobody wants to be where they don’t want to be.

This all reminds me of the title of a song written by one of our favorite sons, Neil Young: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. That’s what the outside world thinks of River City. But we know better, don’t we? River City is more like the Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

I wonder if Evander Kane knows that.

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

Red Cards and Yellow Cards to you, you, you and my own self

Evander Kane and Kevin (Takethedayoff) Cheveldayoff need to spend some time on Planet Pinocchio.

rooftop riting biz card back sideThe World Cup is in the rear view mirror, but that doesn’t mean we have to put away the red and yellow cards. Matter of fact, I’m going to my pocket because there are some people who need to be carded…

RED CARD: To Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun/Sun Media.

I have often red-carded Little Stevie Blunder because he is, perhaps, the most red-cardable jock journalist in the land. To err is human, but this Sun scribe is never wrong. Just ask him.

I did that very thing once upon a time. Little Stevie had written that the Minnesota Vikings never were champions of the National Football League. I sent him an email, suggesting he might be mistaken.

“The Vikings have never won the Super Bowl, but did they not win the final NFL title prior to the merger with the American Football League?” I inquired. “I’m looking at the official NFL record book as I write, and it lists Minnesota as the 1969 NFL champion. Is the official NFL record book wrong, or are you wrong?”

Well, didn’t that just ruffle his not-so-pretty plummage?

Little Stevie’s response was quite snotty. Basically, he told me I was a ditz who didn’t know pigskin from porcelain and I shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of his high-and-mighty huffing and puffing. Without saying the NFL record book was wrong, he said it was wrong.

So now we have Little Stevie playing loose with history once again, this time in Major League Baseball.

Sitting to the host’s right on TSN The Reporters with Dave Hodge this past Sabbath, Little Stevie went into full bluster and told us this about Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers sensational southpaw: “His last eight starts, two no-hitters, five earned runs.”

Kershaw has one no-hitter in his entire career, not two in eight starts.

Normally, a foul of this nature would warrant only a yellow card, but Simmons gets a red card because he’s so arrogant.

pegsunRED CARD: To the Winnipeg Sun.

Why does PegSun run Little Stevie Blunder’s three-dot columns on Sundays? Too much of it is Toronto-centric. In his most-recent piece, Simmons offered 14 opinions on Tranna athletes/issues compared to just one about Winnipeg. Does anyone in River City actually care about the Raptors and the naming of a Scarborough street after Peter Zezel?

Why doesn’t PegSun have one of its own people do the column? Like Paul Friesen. Or a freelancer who’d make the thing more Peg-centric.

RED CARD: To Kevin Klein, grand poobah of MyToba.ca.

I’m sure Klein has some boffo ideas, because the MyToba.ca website is quite good. But his campaign to have Dancing Gabe Langlois inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame is not among his boffo notions. It is, in fact, a really, really dumb idea.

Klein made his plea in a May column on MyToba.ca, and asked folks to sign a petition in support. Two months later, he has 157 of his targeted 10,000 signatures.

Take the hint, Kevin: Take the story down from your website.

YELLOW CARD: To Gary (La La) Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Gary La La engaged Dave Reid in one of those staged, to-and-fro chin-wags in which both voices talk loud and, often, at the same time on TSN’s That’s Hockey. Their debate focused on the merits of having either Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets or Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators as the centrepiece of your National Hockey League franchise.

“Leadership?” Gary La La said in summation. “You could slap the C on Jacob Trouba in Winnipeg right now and no one would blink.”

Yo! La La! I’m pretty certain Andrew Ladd would blink as they ripped the C off his sweater.

Jets GM Kevin Takethedayoff
Jets GM Kevin Takethedayoff

YELLOW CARD: To Jets left winger Evander Kane and general manager Kevin (Takethedayoff) Cheveldayoff.

These two need to spend some time on Planet Pinocchio. Here’s why: When Kane arrives at training camp (on time but probably not soon enough for the naysayers), the news scavengers will be circling, They will be hungry. They will be prepared to pick at his bones. This will be their first volley:

“Do you want to be here in Winnipeg, Evander?”

This will be the central theme throughout training exercises—and into the NHL season—unless the polarizing player and the pulseless GM stop talking in circles about Kane’s life expectancy with the Jets.

Kane and Cheveldayoff need to do what most hockey people do—lie. The next time Kane is asked if he’s happy in Pegtown, he must say, “Yes.” When Cheveldayoff is asked if he is attempting to peddle his sometimes petulant player’s posterior to the highest bidder, he must say, “No.”

You and I will know both their noses are growing and their pants are on fire, but their big, fat fibs ought to curb the controversy. We then can move on to more pressing training camp issues. Like the size of Dustin Byfuglien’s girth.

YELLOW CARD: To local newsies for sticking their microphones and notepads under Dale Hawerchuk’s nose to get his take on the Kane situation.

Exactly what did the scavengers expect Ducky to say? That Winnipeg is a cesspool? That Kane should run for the hills?

There’s no suggestion that the Jets legend was anything less than sincere when he endorsed good, ol’ Hometown as a swell place to spend an NHL career, but come on, people. That’s not a fresh slant on a touchy issue. It’s not news. It’s True North propaganda.

YELLOW CARD: To my very own self because of what I scribbled about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for The Huddle Magazine last September.

“Be afraid, kids. Be very afraid. Here’s why. What transpired at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry on Friday night might have been a preview of the 2014 Canadian Football League season.

Keep in mind that your Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be keeping company with B.C., Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatchewan next year, so the 53-17 paddy whacking the B.C. Lions laid on the locals could become the rule rather than the exception.

Scary thought, isn’t it?

I mean, if you’re the bottom feeder in the CFL East Division, what’s going to happen when you’re running with the big dogs in the West Division? Well, here’s a hint: The Bombers are 1-6 vs. West outfits in 2013 and they’ve been outscored 238-145 for a per game average of 34-20. So batten the hatches and hide all the women and children.

Oh, I suppose a lot will change between now and next July. Maybe the Bombers will find a general manager. Maybe they’ll find a head coach who knows where the Xs and Os belong on the offensive side of the football. Maybe they’ll find a quarterback who doesn’t give the ball away like candy on Halloween. Maybe they’ll find some large lads who can pass block. Maybe they’ll find some receivers who don’t have alligator arms in traffic. Maybe they’ll find someone who can kick a field goal.

And maybe I’ll be Miss Grey Cup 2013.”

Well, our football heroes are 3-and-oh and atop the Canadian Football League West Division standings.

D’oh!

(FOOTNOTE: I invite your comments. I do not, however, welcome some of your comments. If you believe what I’ve written is the natterings of a nincompoop and belongs at the bottom of a bird cage, let ‘er rip. Tell me why. I enjoy healthy debate. That can be fun. If, on the other hand, your idea of a critique is to attack/insult me about my gender or sexual orientation, then we aren’t going to get along. Let’s put it this way: It is permissible to question the size of my IQ, but not the size of my boobs. Bottom line: I don’t get paid to write this crap, so play nice, kids.)

Young Eddie Tait: My ‘pizza boy’ is a slice above the rest of the River City sports scribes

If there’s a more respected sports scribe in Winnipeg than Ed Tait, I don’t know who it might be. He’s the best of the best, whether he’s writing about the Winnipeg Jets, the Blue Bombers or something on the periphery. No one in Pegtown does it better than Young Eddie.

rooftop riting biz card back sideNot always, but often when I read a quality piece of scribbling by Ed Tait, like his work in today’s Winnipeg Free Press, I think of pizza. A $10 pizza.

It was during the 1990s, you see, when I carried the burden and misfortune of being sports editor at the Winnipeg Sun. Actually, upon reflection, I suppose it wasn’t all that bad, because I had young Eddie and a couple of other good foot soldiers on my staff, but it was a burden, nonetheless.

Anyway, I had dispatched Young Eddie to North Dakota (the specific assignment escapes me, but I believe it was either high school or college hockey). It was a weekend gig, and his first road trip. Ever. He was geeked up, understandly so because this is a significant and signature moment in the life of a greenhorn sports scribe. I don’t recall giving him extravagant or detailed directives, other than to get the story, enjoy himself and come home safely.

“And keep your receipts,” I emphasized. “You’ll need them for your expense report.”

So I’m sitting at the desk in the closet-sized cubbyhole that passed for my office on the second floor of the Sun building when Young Eddie returned from the fray.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“Great,” he answered with the enthusiasm and innocence of freshly scrubbed youth and his boyish charm. “Had loads of fun.”

“Nice. Very nice. You did a great job. We’ll have to get you on the road again. When you’ve got time, fill out your expense form and make sure you include your receipts.”

He left and, scant seconds later, Young Eddie was back in my bunker.

“Here,” he said, handing me the lid from a pizza box.

“What’s this?” I said as I stared at a rumpled piece of cardboard with tomato sauce stains.

“That’s what I ate.”

“That’s it? That’s all you ate for the entire weekend? One pizza?”

“No, but…”

“How much did it cost?”

“Ten bucks.”

“You spent $10 for the entire weekend? Just $10?”

“No, but…”

To this day, I have no notion what else Young Eddie shoved down his throat that weekend, but I have my suspicions that a few bags of chips and Big Gulps were on the menu. He probably splurged on two or three packs of bubblegum, too.

“I remember,” he told me in an email exhange this morning. “My expense reports have changed since then. Steve (Freep sports editor Lyons) has told me I don’t need to put in the receipts from 7-11 for all the Doritos, Gobstoppers, etc.”

Too funny.

I don’t tell this story to bring any level of embarrassment to Young Eddie. I loved working with him. He made my two tours of duty as sports editor palatable and, on those occasions when we collaborated on out-of-town assignments, he was an absolute joy and a boffo traveling companion. We had a great many guffaws.

If there’s a more respected sports scribe in Winnipeg than Young Eddie, I don’t know who it might be. He’s the best of the best, whether he’s writing about the Winnipeg Jets, the Blue Bombers or something on the periphery. No one in Pegtown does it better than Young Eddie. And I’ll tell you something else about him: As good a sports scribe as he is, he’s even a better person. I’m sure his bride, Kathi, and their lads, Wyatt and Finn, would agree.

So you want to read his terrific piece in today’s Freep about Matt Dunigan’s 713-yard passing game with the Blue Bombers 20 years ago. Like Dunigan in that match vs. the Edmonton Eskimos, Young Eddie is at the top of his game.

Dunigan, of course, is the centrepiece of the article, but Eddie tracked down some of the QB’s accomplices and he includes a delightful anecdote from Chris Walby, who was honored for participating in his 200th Canadian Football League game in Bombers linen that night at the ol’ ballyard on Maroons Road.

It’s the sort of feature stuff I’d like to see more often in both the Freep and the Winnipeg Sun.

(FOOTNOTE: I invite your comments. I do not, however, welcome some of your comments. If you believe what I’ve written is the natterings of a nincompoop and belongs at the bottom of a bird cage, let ‘er rip. Tell me why. I enjoy healthy debate. That can be fun. If, on the other hand, your idea of a critique is to attack/insult me about my gender or sexual orientation, then we aren’t going to get along. Let’s put it this way: It is permissible to question the size of my IQ, but not the size of my boobs. Bottom line: I don’t get paid to write this crap, so play nice, kids.)