Whether the rogue rearguard was rag-dolling foes, or simply having a rollicking good time playing unharnessed pond hockey rather than the rigid north-south style preferred by coaches who frowned on freelancing, Big Buff was the whole nine yards.
Many years from now, folks will gather around the campfire and talk about him as some mythical creature, if they aren’t already.
They’ll speak in hushed tones, describing a man-beast on blades, untamed and as tall as a grain silo, as wide as the Canadian Prairies, hairy and swift and capable of Paul Bunyanesque feats of strength. And they’ll talk about his habitat, how he roamed from one fishing hole to the next, catching muskellunge and walleye and trout while the smaller and less adventurous of his hockey species grazed on golf courses or took root in front of their PlayStations.
“I was there the night Big Buff rag-dolled those two Vegas Golden Knights,” someone will whisper with due reverence. “Took one of ’em in each of his big paws and yanked ’em right out of a scrum. Shook ’em and dragged ’em around like they were pom-poms.”
“Same thing one night against Nashville,” another will say, nodding. “Took two Predators by the scruff of the neck, one in each hand, and shook ’em like salt-and-pepper shakers.”
The folklore will include tales of derring-do, rink-length dashes by this hulking figure of few words, a force the likes of which had never been seen on a National Hockey League freeze. There’ll be mention of an ice tub and Evander Kane’s clothing, and the sonic boom of a slapshot that served the Winnipeg Jets so well for eight winters.
And it’ll all be true, even if delivered with a side order of embellishment.
Big Buff truly was unique. He didn’t have a pregame meal like the rest of the Jets. They simply tossed him a salt lick. That’s what you do when a guy is 6-feet-8 (on skates) and 260 pounds, give or take a late-night snack.
I always thought the whole Big Buff shtick would have made for a great sitcom. He could have played himself, except he’d have had to speak, and we all know Big Buff has less to say than a street mime with a mouth full of cotton. It’s kind of tough to do a talkie when the leading man won’t talk. Still, he’s got that impish grin and his peculiar ways, which certainly became more peculiar in the past eight months.
Big Buff’s divorce from the Jets, official on Friday, is the part of the legend that didn’t produce any yuks.
More to the point, Byfuglien was robustly villainized by many among the rabble and some news snoops when he took a powder on the eve of training camp last September. The Jets wanted and expected Big Buff to play hockey, but his druthers were to gaze at his navel while squatting in an ice-fishing hut. His adios left Winnipeg HC in a penny pinch, in that his $7.6 million cap hit was still on the books, and he put them in an on-ice pickle, with a hole the size of his appetite on the right side of the defence. For that he was branded “selfish” and an ingrate.
Well guess what? Life happens. Flames flicker out.
If we are to believe the way Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff tells the tale, Big Buff’s passion for banging heads, quarterbacking the powerplay and goofing around with the guys had run its course. To paraphrase a Yogi Berraism: Buff came to a fork in the road and he took it. Family and fishing won out over Winnipeg HC and shinny.
Was the most popular of the Jets guilty of bad timing? I don’t think Buff was guilty of anything. His life, his timetable. But, sure, from the club and fan perspective he could have picked a better time to bug out. No doubt there would have been a different twist to Chevy’s off-season tactics had he known about Buff’s Tour de Navel before September, except the universe doesn’t always unfold as an NHL GM would like it to.
I don’t know if Buff plans to confirm or deny Chevy’s version of events now that the divorce is a fait accompli, but I’m guessing the big defender will let us inside his head about the same time Lake Winnipeg runs dry.
And, really, he doesn’t owe us the skinny on everything that went down since September. Nor is there any obligation for him to convince us that he isn’t a complete numbskull for walking away when there was a sizable chunk of change ($14 million) still on the table for his taking.
He leaves on his own terms (some of us can relate to that) at age 35, and we should just let it be part of the folklore.
I don’t really like to say I told you so, but sometimes I can’t resist the urge. So, I’ll remind you that this is what I wrote on Oct. 9 last year: “Retire or return, Byfuglien has excused himself from the Jets’ future. I mean, if he lacks the jam to join them for this crusade, I can’t imagine he’ll feel any differently a year from now. Let’s face it, he’s done as a useful member of Winnipeg HC.” So there, I told you so.
Byfuglien has been called a riddle. An enigma. A puzzle. But is he really that hard to figure out? Okay, he’s a hockey hybrid. He has ox-like strength and no one his size has any business looking so light on his feet while skating on two blades barely wider than a butter knife. But that made him unique, not complicated. He also did a lot of freelancing, which led to crippling brain farts that resulted in pucks in the wrong net. But that made him a defensive liability, and there’s an abundance of those players in the NHL. So what is it about Big Buff that’s so confounding? Well, he seemed to play the game with a wink and a nod and, often, with a kid-like glee. He shunned news snoops like they’d give him cooties, but he was aw shucks and warm and fuzzy with a fawning faithful. It’s been oft written and said that he marched to the beat of his own drum, and hockey players aren’t programmed to go their own way. But the only truly unusual thing he’s done is turn his back on $14 million. That doesn’t make him an enigma. It makes him real.
Quick question: Will the rabble think differently about Big Buff if he takes his eroding talents to another NHL outfit? Seems to me they might. The storyline will go from “he didn’t want to play hockey anymore” to “he still wanted to play hockey, just not for the Jets.” Which means some might add another descriptive to the big man: Phony. But I don’t see him playing again.
Over at the Drab Slab, there seems to be some confusion about Big Buff’s legacy, at least that’s the way I read Mad Mike McIntyre’s take on the matter. Here’s what he’s written:
Feb. 3: “A re-charged and rehabilitated Byfuglien was expected to be a pillar on the back end. Instead, his selfish actions created nothing but chaos and uncertainty. Unfortunately for Byfuglien, the entire soap opera has tarnished the legacy of one of the most unique athletes we’ve ever seen in the city.”
April 17: “Forgive me if I have a hard time painting anyone who willingly walks away from US $14 million as selfish,” and “In my eyes, no legacy has been tarnished here, nor should it be.”
So he’s selfish, but he isn’t selfish. He’s tarnished, but he isn’t tarnished. Mr. Flip, meet Mr. Flop.
Frankly, I doubt Big Buff gives a damn what jock journos think or write about him. Just like they don’t give a damn what he thinks about them or their scribblings. It’s a mutual Don’t Give A Damn Society.
Hey, check it out. My man young Eddie Tait has a book out, For the W, the story of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ gallop to the Grey Cup last year. If young Eddie’s doing the scribbling, you know it’s a top-drawer product, and I’m told he has a boffo editor in Rheanne Marcoux. Winnipeg FC radio voice Knuckles Irving of CJOB says the book is “sensational,” and that’s good enough for me. It sells for $54.99 and you can grab a copy at the Canadian Football League club’s shop or online.
This week in jock journalism…
I make an early-morning tour of newspapers and sports websites hither and yon, always searching for something fresh and different, and I found it in a Rob Tychkowski column. Rob’s with Postmedia E-Town, and he did a parody on the recent conference call between Donald Trump and various pro sports leaders. It’s laugh-out-loud funny…I never know what to expect when I call up the Winnipeg Sun, but some issues are more disappointing than others. Today, for example, there are eight pages of sports. Total number of local stories: 0. Total number of local bylines: 0. Total number of bylines from the Republic of Tranna: 4…No, I don’t think sports is important while COVID-19 has us in lockdown, but if you insist on doing it, do it right for gawd’s sake…Not sure what the dumbest story of the week was, but here are the candidates, all from the Drab Slab: 1) Andrew Berkshire’s graphs and numbers-crunching on the Jets’ odd-man rushes and counter-attack plays last season; 2) Mad Mike McIntyre’s top-10 goals in Jets 2.0 history; 3) Mad Mike’s suggestion that the entire NHL (all 31 teams) gather in Good Ol’ Hometown to complete the 2019-20 season sometime this summer. My vote goes to article No. 3. It’s just stupid.
And, finally, Scott Billeck went from the toy department to newsside for the Winnipeg Sun when COVID-19 took grip, and his work has been boffo. Bruce Arthur has done the same thing for the Toronto Star. I’m not sure how many sports scribes could pull that off, but Scott and Bruce are getting it done.
Another National Hockey League trade deadline has come and gone, so what you see is what you get with the Winnipeg Jets. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, who better to sort out general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s handiwork than our all-knowing Two Hens In The Hockey House.
Take it away, ladies…
Question Lady: You sure you want to natter about the Jets this morning, girlfriend? Shouldn’t we be talking about Kerri Einarson and her gal pals instead?
Answer Lady: You might have a point. Kerri, Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur did boffo business in Al Capone’s old hangout—that’s Moose Jaw, girlfriend—and you have to go a long, long way back to find a Manitoba skip not named Jennifer Jones or Connie Laliberte who won the Canadian women’s curling title.
Question Lady: Any idea how long ago it was?
Answer Lady: I’ll give you some hints: You and I were both in training bras. Papa Pierre Trudeau was PM. The Winnipeg Tribune was still publishing. The Bee Gees had the No. 1 hit, Stayin’ Alive. The event wasn’t called the Scotties Tournament of Hearts back then. It was the Macdonald Lassie and the sponsor was a tobacco company.
Question Lady: So who was the skip?
Answer Lady: Cathy Pidzarko. She and her twin sister Chris got together with Iris Armstrong and Patti Vandekerckhove to win the Lassie in The Soo. And here’s what’s noteworthy: Patti Vandekerckhove became Patti Vande, then became Patti Wuthrich and she was coach of the Einarson team in Moose Jaw last week. Talk about coming full circle. Oh, one more thing: The Pidzarko twins and I went to the same high school—good, ol’ Miles Mac Collegiate in East Kildonan.
Question Lady: Well, we’re just full of trivia this morning, aren’t we?
Answer Lady: Many people have told me that I’m full of something or other, and it was never meant as a compliment.
Question Lady: Fine. But can we talk about the Jets now?
Answer Lady: Fire away, girlfriend.
Question Lady: Are you giving GM Chevy thumbs up or thumbs down for his tinkering at the NHL trade deadline?
Answer Lady: It’s more like the sound of one hand clapping. I mean, it’s not like I expected Chevy to go out and trade one of his young, blue-chip forwards in exchange for a top-four defenceman and a Zamboni driver to be named later. He knew one more piece wasn’t going to make his club Stanley Cup worthy.
If we’re being honest, the Jets are playing with house money. They probably have no business being in the playoff discussion today, not when you consider the numerous nights during the first five months of the fray when head coach Paul Maurice’s blueline had the hand-me-down look and feel of an old hobo’s coat. It hasn’t been “next man up” for Coach PoMo, it’s been Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and “eeny, meeny, miney, moe.”
Mind you, it figured to be this way after the defections of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien. But still. Does any combination of Anthony Bitteto, Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa, Dmitry Kulikov, Ville Heinola, Sami Niku, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom scream out “playoff defence” to you? Didn’t think so.
Yet here they are this morning, just a chin whisker away from qualifying for Beard Season.
Question Lady: Can a guy like Dylan DeMelo be the difference between the playoffs and an early tee time?
Answer Lady: You mean Coach PoMo’s porn star? Actually, Dylan DeMelo is kind of a porn star-sounding name, isn’t it? It’s not quite Long John Holmes quality, but I think it has marquee value.
Question Lady: Can you believe that PoMo said watching DeMelo play hockey is coach’s porn?
Answer Lady: Makes you wonder what goes on at a coaches’ bachelor party, doesn’t it? What do they do, sit around watching old film of Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson breaking up two-on-one rushes? Or maybe they get their jollies by watching raunchy film of Nick Lidstrom poke check the puck off Brett Hull’s stick. They sound like a real fun bunch.
Question Lady: Ya, but as long as Coach PoMo keeps delivering those kind of quotes, the scribes and talking heads will continue to be completely hornswaggled. They love the guy, and they’ll be loving him for another three years. Was his contract extension warranted?
Answer Lady: Well, we both knew that Coach Sound Bite was safe this year, even if some of the meatheads in the media thought his seat was a bonfire. But just because a guy signs for three years, it doesn’t mean he gets to coach for three years. I doubt Coach PoMo makes it to the end of his freshly minted deal. I’d almost wager that we’ll be listening to his sound bites on TSN Trade Centre two years from now.
Question Lady: Which brings us back on topic. Chevy made two moves just before the deadline, bringing in DeMelo and Cody Eakin. Is that enough to guarantee there’ll be meaningful matches played at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie in April?
Answer Lady: I already had the Jets pegged for a wild card team, and they’re better with those two guys. So, ya, I don’t see Nashville, Minny or Chicago squeezing them out.
Question Lady: What about the Calgary Flames?
Answer Lady: Have you been paying attention this season, girlfriend? Those young millionaires look like they’re already on the first tee at the hoity-toity Calgary Golf & Country Club.
Question Lady: Question is, are the Jets good enough to make some noise in the Stanley Cup runoff, or will it earn Winnipeg HC nothing more than a third one-and-done participation pin?
Answer Lady: Ideally, this is how it would shake down for the Jets: They secure the first wild-card spot, which means they’d avoid either St. Loo or Colorado in the opening round of Beard Season and meet the Pacific Division winner. Is there anything to fear in the Vancouver Canucks? Nada. How about the Edmonton Oilers? Connor McDavid, Leon D. and a whole lot of McNothing. The Vegas Golden Knights would be problematic, but if either the Canucks or Oilers can hold up their end of the bargain, I can see the Jets getting through to the second round. That might sound crazy, but I believe it’s doable.
Question Lady: Gotta say, girlfriend, that does sound a bit nutso. You’re really convinced the Jets can beat the Canucks or Oilers in a seven-game series?
Answer Lady: As sure as Donald Trump likes Twitter.
Question Lady: If you say so. But I’d feel more comfortable if Chevy had landed a top-four defenceman at the deadline. And if that meant sacrificing one of his young, blue-chip studs, don’t you think he should have done it?
Answer Lady: Unlike many among the rabble, I don’t squirm at the thought of Chevy tossing Jack Roslovic or even Twig Ehlers into the pot, but this wasn’t the right time to do it. It wasn’t going to push them over the top.
Question Lady: So we’re supposed to be satisfied that it’s status quo?
Answer Lady: Hell no. You should be properly PO’d at Chevy and Mark Chipman, because it didn’t have to be this way. When the entire right side of your defence and a quality guy from the left side disappear in one foul swoop, that’s totally on the GM/owner. Just like they’ve known for more than two years that they don’t have a No. 2 centre, they’ve known since last July that they needed an upgrade on the blueline. Waiting until the trade deadline to acquire Coach PoMo’s porn star doesn’t quite cut it as proactive management. That dithering is the reason the Jets weren’t ever going to be anything better than a wild card outfit.
Question Lady: And what do they do with Dustin Byfuglien?
Answer Lady: That’s a discussion for another day, girlfriend. For now, let’s see how this season plays out, then we’ll talk about Big Buff.
Question Lady: Fair enough. What’s up next for you?
Answer Lady: More curling. The Brier’s on deck. If either Mike McEwen or Jason Gunnlaugson can get the job done next week in Kingston, that means Manitoba runs the table this season—world mixed, two world Junior, Scotties and Brier champions. It doesn’t get better than that.
The National Hockey League is in recess, save for the glitterati assembled in St. Loo for the annual all-star festival, so it’s an appropriate time to take inventory of our local hockey heroes. And who better to discuss all things Winnipeg Jets than our two all-seeing, all-knowing Hens in the Hockey House?
Take it away, ladies…
Question Lady: As broadcasting legend Peter Warren used to say, let’s get right down to business. Should Paul Maurice be fired?
Answer Lady: Wow. No small talk, girlfriend? We’re going straight to the short strokes? I thought we’d at least gasbag about Harry and Meghan before getting down to the nitty gritty of the Jets morphing into a team that only a mother could love.
Question Lady: Is that your cutesy way of saying we should talk about the moms’ recent getaway with their boys?
Answer Lady: Now that you mention it, why not? That was a nice touch, having the moms tag along with their lads for whistlestops in the Toddlin’ Town, Raleigh and Columbus. And it truly was the mother of all trips, with the lads going oh-fer and holding a players-only, closed-door meeting. A couple of those sons of mothers were so PO’d with all the losing that they were dropping F-bombs within ear shot of news snoops. I don’t know if anyone had his mouth washed out with soap, but that was always my mom’s go-to threat whenever a four-letter word escaped my lips, even if none of them started with an F.
Question Lady: I believe one of those F-bombs belonged to head coach Maurice, which brings me back to the original question: Should he be fired?
Answer Lady: Well, girlfriend, I thought they should have replaced Coach Potty Mouth in 2017. I seem to recall saying something about him spending too much time selling snake oil and being all hat and no cattle. Nothing since then has changed my way of thinking. He’s the losingest coach in NHL history for a reason. Trouble is, he’s got Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff bamboozled into thinking he’s a Scotty Bowman clone behind the bench. They’ve said more than once that they’re all in it for the long haul, including Coach PoMo.
Question Lady: So how long is the long haul?
Answer Lady: You going zen on me, girlfriend? That’s like asking me what air tastes like. I don’t think any bench jockey since Al Arbour has been with one team for “the long haul,” and he had four Stanley Cup rings by the time he found something better to do than coach the New York Islanders. As far as I know, Coach PoMo has a wedding ring and maybe ring around the collar, and that’s it. Coaches are as disposable as dirty diapers, especially this year, and I’m guessing that topic has been discussed in the ivory tower at True North. But I don’t see anything happening to Maurice in-season.
Question Lady: Is the Jets tailspin really his fault? All he can do is play the cards he’s been dealt, and the defencemen he sends over the boards aren’t exactly Robinson, Savard, Lapointe and Langway. They’re more like Larry, Curly, Moe and Shemp, only with better haircuts. Maurice is trying to win the Indy 500 with a kid’s pedal car and four flat tires. Isn’t that Chevy’s doing?
Answer Lady: Your point is well taken, girlfriend, but here’s the thing with Coach PoMo: He doesn’t have the answers. He’s admitted that. And if your coach doesn’t have a clue, you have to find someone who does. Here’s another thing to ponder: He has a Vezina Trophy candidate in the blue ice, but the Jets are below the playoff line. When was the last time a goaltender with an also-ran was anointed best in the biz? Try once this century (Sergei Bobrovsky) and once last century (Shrimp Worters). Which means if Connor Hellebuyck wins the Vezina trinket later this year, it puts Coach PoMo in the rarefied company of Eddie Gerard and Todd Richards as the only bench jockeys to be blessed with the best ‘keeper in the game and fail to qualify for Beard Season. So if there aren’t any meaningful games being played at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie in April, I say “the long haul” be damned. Get his butt out of Dodge. But the Puck Pontiff won’t do it.
Question Lady: What about Chevy?
Answer Lady: This is definitely his mess. Him and his bean counters. They’ve handled the salary cap like they all skipped math class during high school and hung out at the pool hall instead. I realize they were blindsided when Dustin Byfuglien decided he’d rather go fishing than freelance his way through another winter, but they’re paying Blake Wheeler $10 million this season. At age 33. And they’ll be paying him $10 mill when he’s 35. Come on, man, that’s just not right. Mathieu Perreault’s cap hit for six goals is over $4 million, this year and next. And if Dmtry Kulikov is $4.3 million worth of defenceman, then I’m Hayley Wickenheiser. They put themselves in cap hell and had to watch good contributors skate away because of it. Money aside, some of the term Chevy’s gifted these guys with is mind numbing. Wheeler’s at the front end of a five-year deal. Ditto Bryan Little. He’s 32 and already spent. Big Buff will be 35 in two months, and he’s still got a year to go if they can drag him away from his favorite fishing hole. Crazy stuff. But keep in mind that Chevy doesn’t make a major move without the okie-dokie from the Puck Pontiff. Chipman signs off on everything. So he’s wearing this, big time. But we can’t fire the owner, can we?”
Question Lady: Do you think we’ll see Buff back this season?
Answer Lady: I can’t think of any reason why they’d go there. They should have moved on from Buff last summer. He’s got a modified no-trade clause in his contract, something like 14 teams, so I say unload him if Chevy can convince some sucker to take on damaged goods. Warts and all, he might fetch a decent return.
Question Lady: What did you make of the players’ recent closed-door meeting?
Answer Lady: Meh. Nothing to see there. Besides, the lads have swanned off to warm, sunny beaches and golf courses hither and yon, so I imagine what was said will be long forgotten by the time they return to the fray at the end of the month. Frankly, these private chin-wags are only noteworthy because those pesky news snoops get their knickers in a knot whenever they’re put on ignore. It gives them something to write and yak about, as if we’re supposed to care about their inconveniences. Let’s both give them all a quarter and let them call someone who cares.
Question Lady: Do you consider this season a writeoff? Should the Jets tank for better odds at the draft lottery?
Answer Lady: Hey now. What kind of talk is that? Wash your mouth out with soap, girlfriend. Hockey players don’t tank. Ownership and management might, but not the working stiffs. You can’t convince me that the Arizona Desert Dogs are better than the Jets. At the start of this crusade I called for our hockey heroes to wiggle their way into a wild card playoff spot, and it’s totally doable. Still. It’ll just take a whole lot of smoke, mirrors and Hellebuyck, that’s all.
Question Lady: Any plans while the Jets are away doing whatever it is that young millionaires do on their down time?
Answer Lady: Not sure, girlfriend. Harry, Meghan and Archie live in my neighborhood now, so maybe I’ll play snoopy neighbor. On second thought, no. I’m not a royal watcher. Actually, I’m not a royal anything, except perhaps a royal pain in the ass to the six people who actually read this blog. I’ll probably just chill and visit Jack the Bartender once or twice.
Question Lady: Jack the Bartender a Jets fan?
Answer Lady: Nope. He’s a Canucklehead. But I’ve never held that against him because he pours ’em full and he pours ’em cold. You’d like him. Anyway, must toddle off. Let’s talk again at the trade deadline. You know, when Chevy gives away another first-round draft pick.
You know, the one about Bill Peters losing his job as head coach of the Calgary Flames because he was a bully who used racist language. And Marc Crawford being suspended for bullying. And Mike Babcock being shamed for bullying. And Sportsnet pulling the plug on Don Cherry for going off on immigrants. And NBC Sports making Jeremy Roenick stand in a corner for sharing his sexual fantasies on a podcast.
Somehow, all that escaped Sawyer’s notice.
I know, hard to believe.
I mean, there are different levels of dumb. Like, there’s Homer Simpson d’oh boy dumb. There’s Adam Sandler movie dumb. And there’s doorknob dumb, which is where Kevin Sawyer fits in.
Sawyer, for those who haven’t been introduced, is a former hockey goon and coach who now wears rose-tinted glasses and prattles on endlessly about the do-no-wrong Winnipeg Jets on TSN3, and he attained unparalleled standards in stupidity by sharing his “favorite” Jared Spurgeon story on Saturday.
“He was a 15-year-old, two months into the season we Saran wrapped him to a pillar in the arena, about six feet up in the air. He was tiny. He looked like he was 12. So smart,” Sawyer informed viewers.
Seriously. Sawyer engaged in the boys-will-be-boys hazing of a 15-year-old kid while an assistant coach with the Spokane Chiefs and now, in today’s climate of zero tolerance and retro-punishment for bullying, he’s bragging about it on TV?
What part of “you have the right to remain silent” does he not understand?
I can think of just two circumstances whereby you admit to something like that: 1) Under a withering cross-examination from Perry Mason; 2) when sitting in a bar and you’re surrounded by a bunch of boozed-up, frat-boy lunkheads who still think swirlies and wedgies are a right of passage for every kid who knows how to use a slide rule.
Otherwise, you just shut the hell up and hope no one uncovers your dirty, little secret.
But not Sawyer, whose days as a fists-for-hire thug ended early this century. He believes his “favorite” memory of hazing a 15-year-old kid is good for some yuks. A real knee-slapper. So he goes all blah, blah, blah about it during the Jets-Minnesota Wild skirmish, and we’re left to wonder what TSN, True North Sports & Entertainment, and/or the National Hockey League will do about it.
If not outright dismissal, surely a suspension is in his future.
I have to think Sawyer’s sound bites are particularly galling to Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman, the Jets seldom-heard-from co-bankroll who, I’m guessing, frowns on hazing and doesn’t appreciate one of TSN’s talking heads scrubbing some of the squeaky-clean off True North’s saintly image. Mind you, Chipman has looked past head coach Paul Maurice’s forever potty mouth and his captain, Blake Wheeler, telling a news snoop to F-off, so maybe this is nothing more than a meh moment to him.
I doubt it, though.
There’s been a whole lot of yadda, yadda, yadda lately about a shift in culture—in the NHL and all other levels of the game—and, if they’re serious about it, there can’t be any room for a broadcaster who takes glee in the hazing of teenage boys.
I might also point out that Sawyer was 31 years old at the time and an assistant to the aforementioned Peters. So, given recent revelations about the now unemployable coach, there’s reason to suspect this wasn’t a one-off, and we can only guess how often Sawyer took out his roll of Saran Wrap and used it to bind other 15-year-old kids to a pillar, “six feet up in the air.” Twice? Ten times?
It’s obvious that Sawyer, to this day, doesn’t regret Saran wrapping Spurgeon to that arena pillar in Spokane 14 years ago, but I’m thinking he’s about to regret bragging about it on live TV.
After a long summer apart, the two Hens in the Hockey House are back together to discuss all matters Winnipeg Jets and their fresh National Hockey League crusade, which commences this very night at Madison Square Garden in Gotham v. old friend Jacob Trouba and the New York Rangers. Take it away, ladies…
Question Lady: “Well, girlfriend, time to write your How I Spent My Summer Vacation essay. What have you been up to?”
Answer Lady: “What is this? Grade 5? You become a school marm when I wasn’t looking?”
Question Lady: “Of course not. It’s just that we haven’t talked to each other since the Jets took a powder last April. Sooooo…I’m curious what you’ve been up to. Care to talk the talk?”
Answer Lady: “Do people still talk to each other? What an antiquated concept. I thought they just tweeted, sent text messages or posted on Instagram.”
Question Lady: “I think it’s kind of like a newspaper. Nobody under the age of 50 actually picks up a newspaper, and no one under the age of 50 actually has conversations. It’s the All Thumbs Generation. Whenever they have something to say, they pull a smart phone out of their pocket or purse and let their thumbs do the talking. Anyway, what’s been shaking besides the leaves on the trees and the Jets defence, girlfriend?”
Answer Lady: “I spent a lot of quality time at The Forks, just sipping cocktails, schmoozing and watching the world go by.”
Question Lady: “Did you see Dustin Byfuglien there?”
Answer Lady: “No. Apparently, Big Buff was doing his navel gazing at other pubs. Still is.”
Question Lady: “Think he’ll be back on the Jets blueline, or is he going to retire?”
Answer Lady: “Hard to say. Chevy tells us it’s status quo, but if I were a betting girl I’d say Big Buff is done. Even if he were to come back, I can’t imagine his heart would be in it. We’d be getting Buff Lite. That would be a great name for a beer, but it would probably be as watered down as the Jets blueline.”
Question Lady: “You don’t think another $8 million in the bank account won’t whet Buff’s appetite for more?”
Answer Lady: “The guy’s made north of $50 million in his career, girlfriend. I’m sure he’s got enough bait and tackle to last a lifetime of fishing ponds, frozen or otherwise. So, unless he has as many holes in his pockets as there is on the Jets defence, he needs another paycheque like Don Cherry needs another bad suit.”
Question Lady: “You’ve mentioned the Jets blueline brigade twice already. You don’t like it?”
Answer Lady: “Does Donald Trump like Democrats?”
Question Lady: “Well, it’s true that they’ve had more defections than a Cuban baseball team. Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Buff…all gone. But isn’t there some hope for the newbies GM Kevin Cheveldayoff brought in to replace them?”
Answer Lady: “Hope sometimes goes missing, but it is never lost.”
Question Lady: “Wow. That’s heavy, girlfriend. They have a zen garden at The Forks?”
Answer Lady: “Not sure, grasshopper, but after coach Paul Maurice went all Zen Master PoMo on us during training camp, I visited the Bodhisattva Guanyin and she spoke of the many pundits who look at the Jets defence and see darkness and no light.”
Question Lady: “And what did the lama lady have to say?”
Answer Lady: “She said, ‘Even the optimist accepts that the glass must become half empty when her lips are parched; even the pessimist accepts the glass as half full when her lips are parched.’”
Question Lady: “What in the name of Siddhartha Gautama does that mean?”
Answer Lady: “Either way you look at it, the Jets defence is half of what it once was, but perhaps not half as bad.”
Question Lady: “This new kid, Ville Heinola, isn’t he something special based on his play in the exhibition games?”
Answer Lady: “Do you measure the climber by his first two steps at the bottom of the mountain, or his last two steps at the summit?”
Question Lady: “Am I supposed to answer that?”
Answer Lady: “No. I am the Answer Lady.”
Question Lady: “Good. I thought for a minute we were doing some kind of role reversal thing and, lord knows, I don’t have the answers. I just make it up as I go along, kind of like some of the reporters in River City. Speaking of which, what do you make of those ruffled feathers we kept hearing about all summer and during training camp? Any substance to all that blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda? Were the Jets a house divided?”
Answer Lady: “Show me the smoking gun.”
Question Lady: “I heard some wild and wacky rumors about what went on last spring. Really crazy stuff about fights in the parking lot and girlfriends. None of that true?”
Answer Lady: “Look, I heard and read so much rumor during the summer that I thought Hearsay was some guy they got in the Trouba trade. Again, show me the smoking gun. If you can’t, you can probably get a job at the Free Press.”
Question Lady: “Well, Patrik Laine said some things that weren’t so flattering. He didn’t name names, but it sure sounded like he was taking pot shots at Maurice, Bryan Little and other teammates. They all shrugged it off as a meh issue, but why did Coach PoMo go all the way to Finland to chat with Laine if it was no big deal?”
Answer Lady: “Oh, good grief. The way the boys and girls on the beat have been telling it, you’d think it was Moses coming down from the mountain with a pair of stone tablets clutched in his arms. According to Chevy, Laine was just one of numerous players the coach made a social visit to. Call it Le Tour de Ruffled Feathers. OR NOT! C’mon, girlfriend, show me a player who doesn’t lust for more ice time and I’ll show you a player who doesn’t give a damn. Show me a team that doesn’t bicker and have closed-door meetings and I’ll show you a team that doesn’t give a damn. Show me someone who’s never bitched about their boss and I’ll show you someone whose pants are on fire. It’s no biggie.”
Question Lady: “Do you think Coach PoMo is sitting on a hot seat?”
Answer Lady: “Ya, it’s hot like Portage and Main in January. Mark Chipman and Chevy will part ways with Maurice when the Dalai Lama punches out the Pope.”
Question Lady: “Saaaaay. That would be an interesting fight. One guy would be hitting with Buddhist beads and the other guy would be hitting with a Rosary. Who do you think would win?”
Answer Lady: “I’d bet on Dalai, but those Catholic guys fight dirty and Pope Francis would likely crack the Lama lad on the noggin with a crucifix. Or poke him in the eye with his pointy hat. But let’s get serious, there’s no fighting in the NHL anymore and those guys are too old to be scrapping.”
Question Lady: “On the subject of age, does Blake Wheeler have another 91-point season in him at 33?”
Answer Lady: “I don’t see it happening. We all slow down, so Wheeler’s wheels won’t be churning any faster. I think we’ll see a dip in production from both him and Mark Scheifele.”
Question Lady: “What about Laine?”
Answer Lady: “Forty goals exactly.”
Question Lady: “Connor and Ehlers?”
Answer Lady: “Thirty-one and 29.”
Question Lady: “Is this a playoff team?”
Answer Lady: “On the bubble. It’ll take 40 regulation/overtime wins to get the job done, and I’m not convinced the Jets have that in them. But the Colorado Avalanche got in last spring with just 36, so there’s that. We’re probably looking at a wild card spot, because I really don’t see Chicago, Arizona or Minny squeezing them out.”
Question Lady: “Do you see Chevy making a deadline deal for either a playoff push or to get into the Stanley Cup tournament?”
Answer Lady: “If he does, it bloody well better not be for a first-round pick.”
Question Lady: “What are the odds of a Stanley Cup parade in River City next June?”
Answer Lady: “About the same as Justin Trudeau showing up at his next campaign stop in black face.”
Question Lady: “I guess that covers it, girlfriend. What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
Answer Lady: “I’m off to The Forks. Maybe I’ll look for a zen garden and do some raking.”
Question Lady: “Sounds peaceful. If you see Buff, say hi.”
Answer Lady: “Will do. Good talk. Enjoy the season. Ommmmm.”
Okay, it’s official. Patrik Laine has put more noses out of joint than Mike Tyson in his prime.
Everyone from the Golden Boy to Dancing Gabe is PO’d at the gum-flapping Finn, and it’s only a question of exactly how much tar and feathers it will take to coat his 6-feet-5 frame.
But let’s take a deep breath and a step back, shall we?
Puck Finn isn’t going anywhere just because he shot off his gob—again—and some egos might have been bruised during a 24-hour news cycle.
Oh, sure, it might sound like he wants out, and the blah, blah, blah he’s spewed this summer indicates he wouldn’t kick, scream and hold his breath if Kevin Cheveldayoff were to send a text to Switzerland today, informing the fed-up Finn that he’s got a new postal/zip code.
But do you really think the Winnipeg Jets didn’t see this coming?
The local shinny side knew exactly what it was getting when it marked its territory and claimed Laine with the second shoutout at the 2016 grab bag of teen talent known as the National Hockey League entry draft. By then Puck Finn was already filling notebooks and delivering the kind of sound bites that had news snoops fairly swooning at the prospect of jotting down his bon mots for the next 15 years or so.
June 2016, talking about Auston Matthews: “I think we’re quite even and he’s better than me in some stuff and I’m better than him in some of the things. I wouldn’t say that one of us is better than the other. I think we’re quite even right now.”
September 2016: “I know how good I am. I can say that. It’s not a problem for me. If it’s a problem for somebody else, it’s not my problem. I don’t care what people think. I know I’m a good player. I’m going to stick with that.”
Back then, that meant he had swagger. Confidence. A cocksure strut. The gift that keeps giving.
When Puck Finn backed up the bravado with a 36-goal snot-nose season, followed by 44 snipes as a super soph, he could have scaled the Legislative building on Broadway Avenue and piddled on the Golden Boy and none among the rabble would have batted an eye. Except to say “Betcha Auston Matthews can’t do that.”
Yet here we are today and the faithful want Laine’s mom to wash his mouth out with soap or, at the least, get out the needle and thread and stitch her son’s loose lips together. Even some news snoops want him to zip it.
But why? What has Laine said that’s a get-out-of-Dodge offence?
True, when Chris Johnston of Sportsnet traveled to Lahti for a chin-wag with Puck Finn in mid-August, Mrs. Laine’s boy provided some sound bites that were less than rah, rah, rah for the home side.
“You never know. It’s still a business, you’ve got to be prepared for anything,” he told Johnston. “But, ya, you never know where you’re going to play next year, so I’m just prepared for anything. I’ve got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg, you know? It’s been good so far.”
That ignited a bit of a brush fire and now, almost a month later to the day, he’s skipping more stones across the ocean and an inferno rages.
Puck Finn thinks head coach Paul Maurice is a bit of a tool. The guys he’s forced to skate alongside are beer-league slugs. If only he had someone special to feed him the biscuit, instead of being saddled with Bryan Little, he’d pot 50 goals for sure.
And he’s supposed to say what? I don’t want more ice time? I don’t want to skate with the best guys?
First of all, Puck Finn remains an unsigned restricted free agent. An offer sheet from a predatory outfit is a possibility. What if Chevy and Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman choose not to match (highly, highly unlikely)? So Laine is “prepared for anything.” Makes sense to me.
Is Laine insulting Little and others by saying he’d prefer different playmates? Well, maybe we should let Chevy answer that. After all, the GM has insulted Little the last two springs by surrendering first-round draft picks to bring in rent-a-centres for the playoff push. Apparently Chevy doesn’t believe Little is up to the task, either.
Is Laine insulting Maurice? Hardly. Who among us hasn’t done some serious head scratching over Coach Potty Mouth’s deployment of personnel? The guy juggles more than a street busker. He’s blind to his favorites (hello Chris Thorburn, Mark Stuart) and he allows young talent to rot on the vine (hello Nic Petan).
But that’s for us to say and not Laine, right? As if.
Let me remind you of something else Puck Finn said last November: “You always have to think about what you’re going to say, but you have to be yourself. That’s the most important thing; just be yourself, and say what you think.”
So Laine is saying what he thinks and that’s no longer cool because he had the bad manners to score only 30 goals last winter?
Well, don’t say you weren’t warned. In early June 2016, I wrote this: “Is the Flamboyant Finn and his loose lips a fit for the Winnipeg Jets or will he give them fits?”
Looks like Puck Finn’s gift of the gab might actually be the Curse of the Gob, but I’m guessing that 110 snipes in three NHL seasons means the Jets will learn to live with it.
As for news snoops who want Laine to zip it? As tennis great John McEnroe once said to a chair umpire: “You CANNOT be serious!”
Twin sisters Dr. Patti Puck and Dr. Patti 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, to have their heads examined. The good doctors don’t always have the right answer, but if loving the Winnipeg Jets and Blue Bombers is wrong they don’t want to be right.
(Today: Dr. Puck has Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine and coach Paul Maurice on the couch.)
DR. PUCK: “First, let me welcome you both to the River City Shrink Wrap. My couch isn’t as famous as Oprah’s, but I like to think we get results without having to hand out gifts…you get a car and you get a car and you get a car and you get a car.”
LAINE (snarling): “I’m happy for you. But I don’t need your car. Can we just get on with it?”
DR. PUCK: “Fine, let’s begin with you, Patrik. I’m not going to beat around the bush: Are your feathers ruffled?”
LAINE (still snarling): “Feathers? I’m Puck Finn, not Duck Finn.”
DR. PUCK: “My bad. My bad. But I’m sensing some hostility, Patrik. Do you not want to be here? Did you have a bad flight from Switzerland?”
LAINE: “No, the flight was fine. Played Fortnite the entire way. I have blisters on my thumbs. Wanna see them?”
DR. PUCK: “Perhaps later. But right now we want to focus on the things you said to a Finnish reporter. You told him you aren’t happy with the way Coach Maurice used you last year. Is that true or was something lost in translation?”
LAINE: “The only thing that’s been lost is the coach’s mind. I’m the greatest goal scorer since Ovie and this guy’s got me playing with Bryan Little and whatever spare part he can find. One night it’s Copper, the next night it’s Matty, the next night it’s Nikky, the next night it’s someone who should be with the Manitoba Moose. I’ve had more partners than Don Cherry has bad suits.”
MAURICE: “The way you backcheck, I should have had you sitting beside Nic Petan in the press box eating popcorn! That’s who your linemates should have been—Nikky Petan and Orville Redenbacher!”
DR. PUCK: “Coach Maurice, please! We’ll get to you in a minute! First I want to hear what Patrik has to say.”
MAURICE: “That’s fine, Doc, just as long as he knows that I can make him effing cry in that dressing room.”
DR. PUCK: “I’m sure you can, Coach Maurice. But for now, just chill. Now, Patrik, I’d like you to elaborate on the concerns you have over the way you’ve being deployed.”
LAINE: “Well, I want to play with Scheif and Wheels. I deserve to play with Scheif and Wheels. I’ve scored 110 goals in my first three National Hockey League seasons, and only Gretzky and a few others did that. And none of them played on the second, third and fourth lines.”
MAURICE: “Don’t forget to tell the Doc that you scored 18 of those freaking goals in one month last season! The rest of the time you were all thumbs, like you were playing that friggin’ video game.”
DR. PUCK: “Coach Maurice, please!”
MAURICE: “Mea culpa again, Doc. But Patty’s got it all wrong. He’s one of my sparrows. I love the young man.”
LAINE: “Not as much as you love Scheif and Wheels! They’re both teacher’s pet. You never have them playing with the scrubs from the Moose. You’ve got Scheif and Wheels welded together so tight, it would take the jaws of life to pry them apart. And whatever they say goes. If they want Nikky on the left wing, they get Nicky. If they want Kyle, they get Kyle. If they wanted Jesus, I’m sure you’d walk to the Vatican and sweet talk the Pope into letting you have him. Anybody but me.”
MAURICE: Christ on a cross, man! Didn’t I visit you in Finland during the summer and didn’t we have a nice talk about how I value you as one of my sparrows?”
LAINE: “You talked and I listened, Buddha boy. But I’m not one of those journalists who swallows everything you say like it’s a pint of lager. Why do you think I still haven’t signed a new contract?”
DR. PUCK: Let’s talk about that, Patrik? Do you not want to be in Winnipeg?”
LAINE: “Winnipeg’s not so bad. It’s kind of like Finland. But if I played anywhere else, I’d be on the first line. Here, this coach won’t let me do that because Scheif and Wheels won’t let him. They run the team. Them and Buff.”
DR. PUCK: “That’s a pretty serious accusation, Patrik.”
LAINE: “Go ahead and ask him if he plans to let me play on the first line this season.”
DR. PUCK: “What say you, Coach Maurice?”
MAURICE: “Patty will play with Scheif and Wheels when Gary Bettman is elected mayor of Winnipeg.”
DR. PUCK: “Is that because you don’t want him there, or because Mr. Scheifele and Mr. Wheeler don’t want him there?”
MAURICE: “Six of one, half dozen of the other. Same result either way.”
DR. PUCK: “What’s your biggest concern other than usage, Patrik? Are you afraid the fans in Winnipeg will see you as a greedy, spoiled brat with a false sense of entitlement? That they’ll look at you as the bad guy and turn on you the way they did with Evander Kane?”
LAINE: “No. I’m afraid Buff will throw my clothes into the ice tub.”
DR. PUCK: “I must say, that was a nasty bit of business, but you weren’t with the team back when Mr. Byfuglien did that to Mr. Kane.”
LAINE: “Doesn’t matter. It’s part of the team folklore, like something the elders back home in Finland tell their grandchildren to make them behave. It’s a very scary story that Scheif and Wheels tell all the rookies. I had nightmares about it my first year. I probably would have scored 50 goals if not for that.”
DR. PUCK: “And yet you still want to play with them?”
LAINE: “I deserve to play on the top line, even if that means somewhere else.”
DR. PUCK: “Well, gentlemen, we’re almost out of time. Is there anything you’d like to say to each other before you go your separate ways?”
MAURICE: “I just want Patty to know that I really do think of him as one of my sparrows, and I just want to nurture him and give him his wings.”
A Tuesday morning smorgas-bored…and I’m an unrestricted free agent but my phone still ain’t ringing…
As I was saying not so long ago, if a young player wants out of Dodge, he simply has to bide his time and the Trade Fairy shall grant his wish.
Evander Kane did it. Jacob Trouba did it.
One is now earning top dollar in San Jose, the other will reap his financial reward in Gotham or another National Hockey League locale.
And that, kids, is the main flaw in your draft-and-develop blueprint.
Now, I realize that Kane wasn’t among general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s prize catches in the NHL’s annual garage sale of acne-plagued teens, because he arrived with the Atlanta caravan that rolled into River City in 2011. But Kane was just a sprig of 20 years and, with 30 goals in his first whirl with the Winnipeg Jets, perhaps the shiniest part of the draft-and-develop plan.
Alas, Kane and Good Ol’ Hometown went together like a vegan and a 20-ounce T-bone.
Kane filed a trade request every summer and, 3½ years and one sopping-wet track suit later, Chevy and Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman cried uncle, shipping their controversial conversation piece to the Buffalo Sabres, who passed the problem on to the San Jose Sharks.
Trouba, meanwhile, went looking for a way over the wall in May 2016, skipping training exercises and the first two months of the season that autumn, then signing a bridge deal. He ignored whatever woo Chevy pitched at him last summer, instead calling in an arbitrator to settle a salary stalemate. And now, three years after his original ask for a new postal code, the Trade Fairy has touched his shoulder with her magic dust.
The Jets top-pair defender became a member of the New York Rangers on Monday, and you can be sure that his escape won’t go unnoticed by others in les Jets changing room.
You want out of Dodge, kid? You say you don’t fancy minus-40 temps? The bright lights of the city aren’t bright enough? The WiFi doesn’t cut it? Paul Maurice is feeding you a steady diet of press box popcorn? The guy sitting in the changing room stall next to you is teacher’s pet and collects more coin? Not to worry. Give it 3-3½ years, kid. The Trade Fairy will pay you a visit.
Again, that’s the irritating fly in the draft-and-develop ointment. The club only controls the player for X number of years and there’s nada Chevy or the Puck Pontiff can do to prevent him from bolting.
The trick, of course, is to receive a favorable divorce settlement.
To assess Chevy’s latest bit of handiwork, we must look at it in four-part measure. That is:
* Brendan Lemieux and the 20th shout-out in this Friday’s entry draft went to N.Y. for rental centre Kevin Hayes at the NHL shop-and-swap deadline in late February.
* Negotiation rights to Hayes were transferred to the Philly Flyers in barter for a fifth-round shout-out.
* Trouba went to N.Y. for Neal Pionk and the 20th shout-out that Chevy originally surrendered to N.Y.
* Bottom line: Trouba and Lemieux for Pionk and a fifth-rounder.
I believe there’s a word for that—fleeced.
I mean, when Chevy shook hands with Rangers GM Jeff Gorton to complete the deal, I hope he checked to see if he still had all his fingers.
Oh, there have been worse decisions. Decca records signing The Tremeloes and telling The Beatles to pound pavement leaps to mind. And Manhattan in barter for an assortment of tools will forever serve as the standard for “D’oh!” moves. But shipping out a top-pair defender as payment for a handful of hope named Neal Pionk certainly doesn’t set the heart racing.
Naturally, some among the rabble stress that Chevy has freed up that most valuable of commodities in today’s NHL: Cap Space. The difference between signing Trouba and Pionk is anywhere from $4 million to $5 million. Fine. But I’ll remind you of that next season when Cap Space is losing one-v-one puck battles or trying to shut down Nathan MacKinnon.
Other Chevy apologists suggest that the GM had little option but to accept a lowball offer. Trouba wanted out. He’d be an unrestricted free agent a year from now. Everybody in hockey knew it, thus offers were scant. Chevy’s hands were tied.
But that’s my point.
We know for certain that two players—Kane and Trouba—asked to be moved and they were, at ages 23 and 25. That’s more like a draft-develop-and-depart program.
Just spitballing here, but let’s say Patrik Laine is the next young stud to pull on a pair of grumpy pants. He wants a fresh start. He’s seen how it worked out for Kane and Trouba. So Puck Finn signs a bridge deal, puts in his time like a good soldier, then forces Chevy’s hand. And what do the Jets receive in return? A checking forward?
The adios of Trouba is not a good look on the Jets or Chevy. They lost. And now any young player with an axe to grind knows how to beat them.
A good portion of the Jets constituency is telling Trouba not to let the door smack him on the ass as he leaves Good Ol’ Hometown, but I’m not among their number. Ya he wanted out, but so did Dale Hawerchuk, and Ducky is revered in River City. So the anti-Trouba sentiment makes no sense to me.
If the Rangers can nail down Trouba long term, who was the problem in the ongoing contract saga in River City, Chevy or Kurt Overhardt, the defenceman’s hard-ass agent? Either way, the failure to convince Trouba that Good Ol’ Hometown is the place to be stands as Chevy’s major fail as Jets GM. Then again, you can’t convince a cattle rancher to buy sheep.
Clearly, les Jets are not as good a team today as they were Monday morning. The good news is, Chevy’s only just begun the makeover. Or, based on the Trouba trade, maybe that’s the bad news.
So what’s the scoop on Brett Hull? Is he trying to drink all of Missouri dry? Is he trying to one-up Ovie in Stanley Cup hoorawing? The Golden Brett has become the Golden Blotto, and I wonder why the St. Louis Blues let him anywhere near a microphone.
And, finally, I think Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail is a terrific wordsmith, but, like most scribes, he has a tendency to lose the plot. His recent piece on the National Basketball Association champion Tranna Jurassics would be an e.g. “They’re bigger than the Beatles,” he wrote. Right. A guy who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s would know what it was like when John, Paul, George and Ringo touched down in the 1960s. I don’t think it’s the dumbest thing I’ll read this year, but it has the clubhouse lead right now.
As a free service (no pay wall here), we bugged Kevin Cheveldayoff’s cellphone, his burner phone, his Dick Tracy wrist watch radio/TV and his land line (the guy’s still a bit old school) to listen in on trade talks between the Winnipeg Jets general manager and his National Hockey League counterparts.
Sound of a cellphone ringing (to the tune of the Jerry Springer Show theme music)…
“Morning Chevy. Stevie Y here in Motown. How are things in Pegtown?”
“Oh, you know, Stevie. Same old, same old. We’ve already had 21 homicides and the year isn’t half over, you can’t drive half a block without your SUV being swallowed by a pothole the size of Texas, the WiFi still sucks, and mosquito season has already started—you should see the size of some of those suckers, Stevie; as big as Buff. On top of that, I feel more like a prison warden than a GM.”
“What, you guys don’t have the Internet in Detroit, Stevie? You haven’t heard that I’m dealing with more malcontents than Dr. Phil? There’s so much scrapping in my dressing room that my owner, Mark Chipman, had to create a new position in the ivory tower—Executive VP in Charge of Ruffled Feathers.”
“Who’d you hire?”
“No one. Chipper said we couldn’t afford Oprah, Dr. Phil, Springer or Maury Povich, so we just put it on Zinger’s plate.”
“Isn’t Zinger the dude who used to sew and wash Teemu’s jock strap?”
“Yup. Same guy, Craig Heisinger. He’s our Mr. Everything, except he does all his good work behind the scenes. People here think I’m a bit of a recluse, but Zinger’s got me beat all to hell. I can’t find the guy half the time I need him. It’s like he’s a member of the Green Party…you hear about him but you never really see him. Anyway, what’s on your mind, Stevie…wait…let me guess: You’re calling about Jacob Trouba.”
“You win the cupie doll, Chevy. I’d like to bring Trouba home to Michigan. What’s it gonna take to pry him away from you?”
“Jacob’s gonna cost you Dylan Larkin and a first-round pick in this month’s entry draft.”
“Are you daft, man? I give you Larkin and Mrs. Ilitch will have my left nut. She’s a dear, sweet lady, but my owner can be tougher than 10 days at hard labor. Sorry, Chevy, but Larkin is a non-starter. Especially if you want a first-rounder on top of that. You know the old saying, Chevy: I was born at night, but not last night.”
“Guess we can’t do business then, Stevie. I need a No. 2 centre like Zdeno Chara needs a straw to eat his food. I coughed up two first-rounders—plus Brendan freaking Lemieux—in the last two years trying to plug the hole at centre, and what do I have to show for it? Squat. If I don’t get it right with Trouba, Chipper will have both my balls. Anyway, Stevie, I’ve got another call…good talk though.”
Sound of Dick Tracy wrist watch radio/TV buzzing (to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof)…
“Chevy, my main man, my main dude…Kyle Dooby-Dooby-Doo calling from the Centre of the Universe, where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a Toronto Raptors fan or Drake. What do you say we scratch each others backs?”
“I don’t see how we can help each other, Kyle. We’re both in cap hell. That’s a big problem.”
“There are no problems, Chevy, just challenges. If we get creative, you can have the No. 2 centre you need—Nazem Kadri—plus some added frills and I can have the top-pair defenceman I need.”
“One of those added frills would have to be a first-rounder this month, Kyle.”
“Ouch. No can do, amigo. Already gave that baby away. But here’s what I can do for you: I’ll give you Nazem Kadri, Nikita Zaitsev, Nic Petan and the talking rights to Ron Hainsey for Jacob Trouba and a year’s supply of Pride rainbow tape, because hockey is for everyone.”
“Ron Hainsey?! I know you people in Toronto are big on dinosaurs these days, what with the Raptors leading the NBA final and all, but the last thing I need is a Jurassic defenceman like Hainsey. And Nic Petan? My coach Paul Maurice has already ruined the kid’s career once, why would we let him do it again?”
“Guess we can’t do business then, Chevy. Maybe it’s just as well, though. I hear Trouba won’t sign long term with a Canadian team.”
“Well, Toronto is close to his home in Michigan and his good buddy Bogo is in Buffalo, so…oops, got another incoming call, Kyle. Gotta go.”
Sound of land line ringing (no music, just Bring! Bring! Bring!)…
“Good morning, Mr. Cheveldayoff. This is Miss Tulip from Mr. Holland’s office in Edmonton…could you stay on the line for his call please?”
Lengthy pause (Nickelback elevator music playing in the background)…
“Hi Chevy. Kenny Holland here. Sorry about the wait.”
“That’s actually kind of rude, Ken. I mean, you called me, so why should I be put on hold?”
“Sorry, man, but that’s the Oilers’ way. They fire so many people around here that no job is safe for more than five minutes. So I let my girl Miss Tulip make the calls for me. If I’m still the GM by the time she’s finished dialing, I pick up. Anyway, I hear Patrik Laine is available.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Some blog called The Fourth Period.”
“Fake news, Ken. Patty isn’t going anywhere. Hey, the kid had an off-year, but when an off-year is a 21-year-old kid scoring 30 goals he’s a keeper.”
“Too bad. I was hoping to pair Laine with Jesse Puljujarvi. I figure if I could get another Finn on board, Jesse might finally find his way in the NHL.”
“Who would you be willing to send my way? Like I told Stevie Y and Dooby-Dooby-Doo, I’m looking for a live body and a first-rounder this month. That’s my starting point.”
“How does Ryan Nugent-Hopkins sound? That’s the No. 2 centre you need. I’ll give you the Nuge, our first-rounder, which is eighth overall, and I’ll toss in the Looch, Milan Lucic.”
“C’mon Kenny. You mean you’ll toss me a bloody anchor! Offering me the Looch is like offering a drowning man a glass of water. Who do you take me for, Peter Chiarelli?”
“Hey, didn’t mean to insult you, Chevy, but you know that great feeling you get right after your first dump in the morning? That’s the feeling I’m gonna have when I unload the Looch. But, okay, I’ll take him off the table. You can have the Nuge and our first-rounder, and you give me Laine.”
“Nope. Not gonna happen, Kenny. But you can have Nik Ehlers instead. Playing with Connor McDavid, he’ll score 40 by accident. And I’ll add Sami Niku.”
“Okay, Chevy, the Nuge and our first-rounder it is for Nik Ehlers and Sami Niku. Done deal. Just out of curiosity, Chevy, how will you tell your guys that they’ve been traded?”
“Same way I always do it…I tell Buff to toss their clothes into the ice tub.”
Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.
It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.
Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.
“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”
I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.
So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)
The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.
To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.
This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.
The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”
“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.
There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.
Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”
It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.
“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”
Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.
“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”
“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”
Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.
“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.
Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.
The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.
It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.
It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.
It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.
It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.
Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.
It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.
“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).
“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”
Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.
“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”
Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.
“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”
Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”
There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.
Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.
Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.
“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”
Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.
“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”
It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.
More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.
I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.
“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”
I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.
“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”
There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.
By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.
He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.
“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”
Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.
Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.
We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”
Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.
Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.
On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”
Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”
After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”
More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.
The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.
Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.
“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”
It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.
Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.
The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.
“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”
“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”
“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.
Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.
This was a WHA title that almost never happened.
The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.
There was a money dispute, you see.
The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.
So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?
“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”
The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.
“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”
The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.
As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.
Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.
Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.
“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”
Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”
Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.
“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”
That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.
Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.
If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.
“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”
After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.
Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.
“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”
I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.
Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.
They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.
“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”
No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.
“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”
Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:
Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.
The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.
Fergy hired Tom McVie.
The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.
The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.
Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.