Let’s talk about the aging of the Winnipeg Jets…to Tokyo in denim…Aaron Rodgers’ sticky notes…MLB grappling with lack of sizzle…old friend Big Jim takes a paddywhacking…Canadian Football Hall of Fame gets it right…what about Tricky Dick Thornton?…nightmare on TSN…and other things on my mind

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and still no word on the if and when of a CFL season, but here’s something else that’s real iffy…

Stop me if you’ve heard this before:

“I believe we’re close to having a team that has a chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup, and I’m really looking forward to that…we’re a lot closer than some people will give us credit for…I look forward to these next five years.”

Sound familiar? It should.

Blake Wheeler said much the same as Adam Lowry scant seconds after scratching his John Hancock on a six-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets.

Blake Wheeler

“I believe in people like (owner) Mark Chipman and Chevy, what everyone stands for and especially in my teammates. I have believed since I got here that we have what it takes to get to the next level, so this is just a part of that process. I truly believe that great things are in store for this group,” the then-future captain told news snoops.

Wheels was 26 at the time. There will be 35 candles on his birthday cake in August.

Lend an ear to Rink Rat Scheifele who, upon agreeing to an eight-year contract in 2016, expressed a robust belief in “the organization, in the players on the team, in the future prospects.”

The Rink Rat was 23. He’s now 28.

Connor Hellebuyck, the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender, locked in for six years and said, “The tools are in this locker room to be a championship team. I love it here and I want to be here and I really believe this team has what it takes.”

Hellebuyck was 25. He turns 28 next month.

Adam Lowry

And now we have another long-hauler, Lowry, parroting his teammates’ faith in a process that began in 2011 and has delivered the grand sum of two post-season series victories, both in the spring of 2018.

Lowry is 28. The freshly minted contract he signed on Friday will take him to 33.

So what’s my point? Just this: Unless your name is Evander Kane, Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrik Laine or Jack Roslovic, the Jets have all gulped down the Kool-Aid in a cultish-like obedience. They believe. And that’s the reason what went down at last week’s National Hockey League shop-and-swap deadline rankles.

We know Kevin Cheveldayoff kicked some tires on top-four defencemen, and we know the sticker price sent the Jets general manager running like a guy trying to stay two steps ahead of a loan shark.

We can assume his contemporaries were eager to fleece him and take Ville Heinola, Cole Perfetti and other shiny objects off his hands in exchange for their lame, halting and hard of seeing, but that was never going to happen because Chevy places premium value on his young studs. You might have a better chance of prying his bride, Janet, and their two kids away from him.

Chevy

So it was no sale. Chevy allowed the NHL trade window to close with a whimper, and the Jets are no closer to the Stanley Cup today than a week ago, unless you consider a bottom-end, plug-in blueliner (hello, Jordie Benn) a shiny object.

Oddly enough, many among the rabble, also some news snoops, have given Chevy a tip of the chapeau and a slap on the back for his do-little day, because he “protected assets,” meaning he clung to young wannabes Heinola, Perfetti and others like gum to the bottom of a shoe.

Well let me tell you something about assets: They don’t stay forever young.

Chevy is protecting the future when most of the parts are in place for today’s Jets team. Add the right top-four defender and we might be talking about a parade route. But the Jets GM chose to stand still, even as time refuses to stand still for his significant core workers.

Wheeler’s prime years have been wasted. Scheifele and Hellebuyck are into prime time. Same with Lowry, Andrew Copp and Dylan DeMelo. And don’t look now, but Josh Morrissey is 26.

Rink Rat Scheifele

Which begs this question: If the Jets GM was unwilling to go all-in now, when?

This was the time for derring-do, an opportunity for Chevy to orchestrate what could have become his signature moment, lifting the Jets to that “next level” Wheeler spoke of all those years ago.

Well, here’s something else the captain said, when he re-upped in September 2018: “It kind of looks like that (Stanley Cup) window is opening up.”

Apparently Chevy missed the memo.

I don’t know if the GM will reflect on this crusade five years from now and view it as the one that got away, but Blake Wheeler might. Rink Rat Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck and others like Lowry who’ve committed long term might, as well.

Chevy should be kicking himself. Right in the assets.

Something Bryan Little said when the Jets’ playoff aspirations had been dashed in March 2017 is haunting: “It’s another year of your career that you can’t get back. Some of the best players in this room are the youngest. There’s definitely a bright future, but some guys are older and want to do something right now. That’s the thinking going into next year.” Little was 29. He’s now 33, wounded beyond repair, and there is no next year. Not for him. But why must it always be “next year” for Scheifele, Hellebuyck, Lowry et al?

As I was saying last week, I don’t buy into the Jack Campbell hype that news snoops in the Republic of Tranna have been spreading like thick, gooey peanut butter. He’s been a career backup goaltender for a reason, and Maple Leafs loyalists are beginning to see why. For all their talent, the Leafs are vulnerable in the blue paint, whereas Hellebuyck gives the Jets the best puck stopping in the Hoser Division (yes, including Carey Price). And we all know what that means when the boys begin to play for keeps, which is the very reason Chevy shouldn’t have dithered last week.

I don’t know about you, but I’m digging the threads our Canadian athletes will be wearing for the closing ceremonies at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, if there is a Tokyo Olympics, that is. Ya, sure, you can say the denim jacket looks like a teenage graffiti artist had a moment of madness, but I look at it more as a stroke of genius. There’s a youth-cool vibe to the kit, something you might wear on a pub crawl, or wherever it is that our young people go these days. It’s totally boffo compared to the get-ups that noted needle-and-thread guy Ralph Lauren designed for our American friends. I can’t tell if he’s dressed the U.S. team for the next space shuttle mission or an expedition to the South Pole.

I’ll take nose-pickers for $2,000, Alex. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed his gig as guest host on Jeopardy!, and he let us in on a little secret about the sticky notes he used to aid his performance. One of them read: “Don’t pick your butt/nose.” Seriously. He needs a sticky note to remind himself not to pick his nose on camera? And the Packers trust Rodgers to call audibles in the red zone?

Curt, Terry, Howie, Michael and Jimmy.

Apparently, producers of Fox NFL Sunday were so impressed with Rodgers’ work on Jeopardy! that they plan to equip Terry Bradshaw with sticky notes to improve his work:
1. “Remember, this ain’t Hee Haw.”
2. “Powder shiny head during every commercial break.”
3. “Do not mention gap in Michael’s teeth.”
4. “Do not laugh at Howie’s 1950s haircut because at least he has hair.”
5. “Resist all urges to muss up Jimmy’s hair.”
6. “Do not tell Rob Riggle he isn’t as funny as Frank Caliendo.”
7. “Remember, guy sitting beside you is Curt, not James.”
8. “Jay Glazer is human, he just looks like a garden gnome.”
9. “Mention four Super Bowl rings whenever Jimmy mentions two Super Bowl rings.”
10. “When in doubt, always refer to sticky note No. 1.”

Favorite headline of the week was delivered by the New York Post: “How Yankees can address their crappiness.” Anything that combines New York Yankees and “crappiness” is right by me, although I’m sure George Steinbrenner’s son Hal wouldn’t agree.

If your product needs to add some sizzle and pizzazz, who you gonna call? Well, Major League Baseball has called Brian Stedman, now responsible for strategy and development. That would be the same Brian Stedman who, for the past seven years, carried the sizzle-and-pizzazz portfolio for Vince McMahon’s cast of characters in World Wrestling Entertainment. That will be quite an adjustment for Stedman. I mean, the play actors in wrestling are allowed to hit each other with everything including the kitchen sink, but the Yankees can’t hit anything.

Old friend Big Jim Bender took a bit of a paddywhacking on Twitter last week, after he made a flippant remark about the Brendan Bottcher foursome failing to win a trinket at the world curling championship but securing an Olympic berth for Canada. “Was the very least they could do,” Big Jim wrote. The Pebble People pounced. Darren Moulding, third on the Bottcher team, called the former Winnipeg Sun scribe “a joke,” adding, “You’re a stain on our country, not me.” Harsh. Olympian and TSN talking head Cheryl Bernard weighed in, describing Bender’s comment as “crap.” Oh my. Who knew the delightful Cheryl could be so undelightful? Anyway, not that he plans to call me to the stand as a character witness, but let the record show that Big Jim is a friend of curler’s everywhere. He’s spent more time in chilly two-sheeters than most people I know, so, as Strother Martin told Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Rachel Homan

Speaking of Pebble People, Rachel Homan played in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts title match on the final day of February while eight months pregnant. She then went home to bring daughter Bowyn into the world, and now the former Canadian/world champ has returned to the fray, skipping her team in the Humpty’s Champions Cup just three weeks after giving birth. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard won’t be available to the L.A. Clippers today because he needs a rest—after sitting the last four games. I swear, if men could get pregnant and give birth, there would be no male sports.

Nobody asked me, but I’d say the selection committee for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame got it right when they chose Marv Levy, Nik Lewis, Will Johnson, Mike Walker, Orlondo Steinauer, Don Wilson and Doug Mitchell as this year’s inductees. These things are always ripe for debate, of course, and we usually hear some squawking whenever a sports body salutes the best of the best, but I don’t hear any arguments about the class of 2021, nor should there be.

And that’s not to ignore broadcasters Bernie Pascall and Bob Hooper, who got the nod from the Football Reporters of Canada and will go into the CFHF media wing. Hooper was a long-time Hamilton Tabbies play-by-play voice, and Pascall’s career chatting about Rouge Football on radio and TV spans decades. Unfortunately, Bob’s not around to enjoy the honor, but Bernie’s still with us, so he has something fresh to talk about with the neighbors on beautiful Vancouver Island.

Ashley Prest

The CFHF media wing is the ultimate boys’ club. By my scorecard, there are now 101 members, all men. Yup, 101-0. I realize there haven’t been a lot of women on the beat, but in my 19 years covering the Canadian Football League in three cities (Winnipeg, Calgary, Republic of Tranna), I can recall sharing a press box at Grey Cup games with Ashley Prest of the Drab Slab and Joanne Ireland of the Edmonton Journal. Ashley also knew her way around the University of Manitoba campus to cover coach Brian Dobie’s Bisons, and there might be some high school grid in her resumé, too, because that’s what most of us did back in the day. We started at the bottom and worked our way up. So it seems to me that the boys on the beat should find room for trailblazers like Ashley or Joanne.

Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna has made his annual plea for Dick Thornton’s induction to the CFHF, and I can’t disagree with Sy. Tricky Dick certainly has the bona fides, including two Grey Cup victories with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and multiple all-star salutes, and he also happens to be one of the more colorful characters in CFL lore. Legendary Bombers coach Bud Grant once said this of his defensive back/wannabe quarterback/kick returner/kicker: “When most players arrive in a new town, the first thing they do is phone a girl. When Dick Thornton arrives, he phones a sports writer.”

Tricky Dick had an ego the size of a football field, and here’s how the great columnist Jack Matheson once described him in the Winnipeg Tribune: “The writers and broadcasters treat No. 14 with considerable respect because he’s hot copy, in or out of uniform. His eccentricities are always guaranteed to liven a dull scene and for conversation Thornton holds all records for Blue Bombers of the modern era. The conversation always seems to revolve around Dick Thornton, but he has a magnetism and I’ve never seen anybody walk away from Dick Thornton when his mouth was open.” Another time, Matty wrote this of Thornton: “An incurable extrovert who played harder with his larynx than his limbs.”

Final note on Dick Thornton: The Bombers traded him to the Toronto Argos the same day the Maple Leafs cleared the track and sent Eddie Shack to the Boston Bruins. I guess the Republic of Tranna just wasn’t big enough for two clown acts.

Gino Button and James McKenzie, or is it Craig Reda and Bob Duthie? Either way, it’s scary, kids.

Still getting creepy vibes from those face mashups TSN featured on its NHL trade deadline coverage. It’s clever work by Matty Go Sens, but morphing the faces of Gino Reda and Craig Button into one is the kind of stuff that will keep kids awake at night. Ditto the James Duthie/Bob McKenzie blending. I haven’t been so frightened since Alfred Hitchcock had all those nasty birds attack Tippi Hedren.

This from Steve Simmons: “The top four goaltenders in all-time wins are Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo and now Marc-Andre Fleury. All of them Quebecois. And there’s not a single Quebec goalie of consequence (apologies to Jonathan Bernier) playing in today’s NHL.” Hmmm. Last time I checked, Marc-Andre Fleury was still a Quebecois and leading the NHL in shutouts.

Patrick Marleau will lace ’em up for his 1,768th NHL skirmish on Monday night, moving past Gordie Howe for most games played. It’s a terrific achievement. Worth noting, however, are their birth certificates. Howe was 52 when he finally shut down, Marleau is 41. And, at 52, Howe was a significant contributor for the Hartford Whalers, scoring 15 goals and 41 points in 80 games, plus another two points in three playoff jousts. Marleau is 4-4-8 in what looks to be another lost season for the San Jose Sharks.

And, finally, on the subject of legendary performers, I discovered a DVD of Tony Bennett: An American Classic at a local video story the other day, and I snapped it up immediately. Fan-freaking-tastic. Tony’s duets with Barbra Streisand and our Canadian songbird k.d. lang brought on the water works (sheer brilliance renders me very emotional), and there was only one sour note struck—the November 2006 TV special was far too short, just 42 minutes. I wanted at least an hour more.

Let’s talk about death threats and bomb threats in Good Ol’ Hometown…the Buddha and Brees…Jackie Robinson and the American flag…Chris Cuthbert goes over the wall…another jock journo out of work…the Winnipeg Sun’s six-pack…and Fidel Castro’s angst

At first blush, the inclination was to suggest that Khari Jones had it all wrong. That he was misremembering.

Khari Jones

I mean, death threats? To the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback? Naw. Can’t be.

Look, I realize the football faithful in Good Ol’ Hometown can be a demanding lot. They’ll turn on a starting QB faster than Judas on Jesus (hello Dieter Brock, Matt Nichols, etc.), and they’ll get louder and more ornery as the beer snakes grow longer and longer in the fourth quarter of a losing skirmish.

But threaten to snuff him out? That’s something you’d rather not believe.

Except as Jones told the tale the other day, his nose wasn’t growing and his pants weren’t on fire.

He delivered his revelation in a calm, matter-of-fact cadence, like he was telling us what he had for lunch or what his kids ordered the last time at a McDonald’s drive-thru. He even smiled, almost as if he recognized that some among the rabble might suggest there was a tich of far-fetchedness to the disturbing narrative of his 2002 Canadian Football League crusade.

“In Winnipeg,” Jones began, “I received death threats, you know, because my wife is a different color than me. We had police officers staying at our house, kinda patrolling our house while I was at away games. There was a series of letters, and I still have those letters.”

I don’t know about you, but those words produce chilling imagery for me:

Justine Jones

A woman—Jones’ bride Justine—home alone with her newborn, Jaelyn, while hubby and dad is flinging footballs hundreds of miles away, unable to protect his family from a wingnut lurking in the shadows of a darkening night. The stalker might have a gun. Or a knife. Maybe both. Stealth, slow-moving cop cars appear in the haze of dimly lit lamp posts, then disappear into the same darkness that protects the unseen scoundrel, prepared to pounce. It’s positively Hitchcockian.

It was just one person, we’re told, a racist who believes black and white belong together on piano keyboards, salt-and-pepper shakers and Oreo cookies, but not in the skin hue of a married couple. He penned a dozen letters to Jones, each peppered with vulgar language and threats. He was never caught.

Eighteen years later, Jones is finally talking about it because racism is the topic du jour in North America and he recognizes that his is a story people need to hear, even if they’d prefer not to hear it.

It’s the kind of stuff that gives pause for ponder, and you try to convince yourself that such a level of hate can’t possibly exist in Good Ol’ Hometown.

I was born, raised and spent most of my working life in Winnipeg and, sure, I recognize that racists, bigots, homophobes, etc. walk among the throng, but death threats because a quarterback is black and his bride is white? Come on, man, isn’t that supposed to be a 1960s Alabama thing? If only.

Truth is, I had my own close encounter with one of the wackos back in the day.

It was late March of 1979 and, with the Parti Québécois beating the separatist drums with gusto, the political climate was a tinderbox. Anti-Québec sentiment flowed freely in Western Canada and peaked in full, ugly voice the night the Finnish National B shinny side was in town for a friendly with the Winnipeg Jets, then still the World Hockey Association’s flagship franchise but soon to be a charter member of the National Hockey League.

Because the skirmish was televised locally on the CBC’s English and French channels, public address announcements were delivered in both our official languages. That didn’t work so well.

Each time PA announcer Germain Massicotte would parlez vous, the audience of 10,113 filled the Old Barn On Maroons Road with a robust chorus of boos, which ramped up in volume with each word he uttered en francais. By the time Morris Lukowich scored in overtime, Massicotte’s voice had totally disappeared beneath the might of the anti-Québec outpouring.

“It was kind of rude,” said young Rich Gosselin, a product of nearby St. Malo and one of two francophones wearing Jets linen that night.

Bobby Guindon

“I just consider the source,” muttered Bobby Guindon, the veteran forward who, a year ealier, had been anointed most valuable player in the Jets championship crusade.

Like Gosselin and Guindon, I was unamused, so I scribbled as essay in the Winnipeg Tribune, giving the booing, bigoted boors a stern tsk-tsking.

“Winnipeg, if this is how you’re going to act next season when you’re in the National Hockey League, then you don’t deserve to see the Montreal Canadiens,” is how I signed off.

The following morning, the ringing of my kitchen telephone stirred me from slumber. It was a man. An angry man. He didn’t appreciate the tone of my column and volunteered to provide me with one-way passage to the Great Beyond. Yup, he’d bomb my house. Blow it up, me and my family with it. Apparently, that’s what you do with a “frog lover.”

Unlike Khari Jones, I didn’t call the cops. I told the boys at work about the bomb threat and we had a giggle, although I must confess mine was a bit of a nervous chuckle and there was some skittishness to my step for a few days.

But, hey, that house on Leighton Avenue in East Kildonan is still standing, a block away from the Red River, and I’m still ticking, so I guess the guy had a bad batch of dynamite or he was a graduate of the Wile E. Coyote School of Mayhem.

I don’t know if you’ve been following Paul Friesen’s work on the Khari Jones file for the Winnipeg Sun, but it’s boffo stuff. Top drawer in every way. Makes me proud that I played a part in poaching Paul from CJOB all those many years ago, and it all began with a chance meeting in a checkout line at the Safeway on Roslyn Road in Osborne Village. So, if you like Paul’s work, kudos to him. If you don’t like it, blame me.

Really hard to believe the boys at the Drab Slab basically ignored the Jones death-threat narrative, except to run one Canadian Press piece. That’s shoddy. Or lazy. Maybe both.

The Donald and Drew.

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are supposed to be bright guys. They aren’t allowed to be the dullest knife in the drawer, although Terry Bradshaw tests that theory every time he opens his squawkbox on Fox Sports NFL coverage. So what’s Drew Brees’ excuse for being such a D’Oh Boy? I mean, seriously, he thought Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was about the American flag and not social injustice and police brutality? That’s like believing the Bible is porn. But wait. The New Orleans Saints QB experienced an awakening, as if he’d shared a bodhi tree with the Buddha, and a couple of days after dumbing down he was schooling Donald Trump, advising the Commander-in-Chaos that kneeling protests have “never” been about the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. I swear, we haven’t seen a retreat that rapid since Tiger Woods’ wife came at him with a 9-iron. Makes you wonder how Buddha Brees ever mastered the Saints playbook.

Every time I hear someone like Brees rage against Kaepernick and other National Football League kneelers, branding them as disrespectful ingrates, I am reminded of this excerpt from baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s book, I Never Had It Made: “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only the principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.” So there.

Jennifer Hedger

The other night on TSN SportsCentre, anchor Jennifer Hedger said racism is an “uncomfortable” conversation. Why? And who’s uncomfortable? Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down social gatherings, my friends and I discussed racism, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, etc. on numerous occasions, with zero discomfort.

Big shakeup in the Tower of Babble On, with Chris Cuthbert defecting from TSN football to Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada. Initial reaction: Geez, can he take Glen Suitor with him?

Apparently Suitor was unavailable for comment on his longtime sidekick’s departure. “He’s still in rehab after having his nose surgically removed from Keith Urban’s butt,” a TSN spokesperson familiar with the situation confirmed.

Chris Cuthbert

Seriously, this is an opportunity for TSN to bring a new, fresh sound to its Canadian Football League broadcasts. Surely there’s a vibrant, young voice out there who can slide behind Cuthbert’s play-by-play mic and, at the same time, they can spare us another season of groupie Glen’s gushing over Urban. If they insist on going with the old guard, I say give the job to Gord Miller, who’s solid whenever he calls Rouge Football. And, for gawd’s sake, keep Kate Beirness away from the CFL on TSN panel.

Oh, dear, the body count continues to grow in the toy department, and Ken Wiebe is among the latest casualties. The Athletic slashed salary and scribes the other day, handing out 46 pink slips, and that leaves Murat Ates to fly solo on the Jets beat. I never met Ken, but I’m told he’s one of the good guys, and we can only wonder when this carnage will end and who’ll be left standing.

The Winnipeg Sun made it through the week without anyone heading to the pogey line, but the overlords at Postmedia have decided to eliminate one day of the week—Monday. Commencing June 22, the tabloid will become a six-days-a-week print publication (Tuesday-Sunday), which means they’ll be a day late and a dollar short whenever something big breaks on the Sabbath. You know, like the Bombers winning the Grey Cup. Or—dare to dream—the Jets hoisting the Stanley Cup on a Sunday.

And, finally, news that the Sun is becoming a six-pack provided reflection on my time with the tabloid.

Now in its 40th year (the official anniversary date is Nov. 5), the Sun wasn’t supposed to have a shelf life longer than four months, never mind four decades, but a three-days-a-week sheet bulked up to a seven-day production in 1992, and they’ve been going toe-to-toe with the Goliath on Mountain Avenue every morning since.

You don’t survive that long unless you deliver something the rabble is looking for and, in the case of the tabloid, that’s meant a heavy emphasis on cops and robbers, entertainment and, of course, sports scribbling served with sizable portions of sass, irreverence and 200-point headlines.

Oops. Almost forgot Page 3 (or was it Page 2?), which once featured a damsel in her scantilly-clads and heels as high as a giraffe’s forehead.

The Sunshine Girl was just one of the oddball things we did at the Sun. I also recall management’s curious fascination for Panda bears, and there was a cheeky promo during the 1999 Pan American Games that attracted the attention of El Presidenté, Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro

Seems ol’ Cigar Breath was so distraught over Cuban defectors prior to/during the Games that it became the focal point of his annual Revolution Day natter, with the Bearded One barking about “traps and tricks” and “schemes” and “filth.”

We ran a “guess the number of Cuban defectors” contest, offering airfare and a one-week vacation in Havana, cigars not included.

“If this is a goodwill gesture, it is a perverse one,” noted José Fernandez, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee.

I don’t recall if it was eight or 10 Cubans who went over the wall during the Pan Ams, but that was us—the perverse paper.

Let’s talk about the Uproar Over the Rodent…Chevy’s smarts and the Winnipeg Jets jail break…Ben Chiarot hearing boo birds en francais…Aho’s contract and other RFAs…the Yankee Doodle Damsels go Dutch…macho Matt Nichols’ head games…Pencil Neck Paul…and dining with Matt Dunigan

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on out here on the Left Coast… 

I try not to obsess on things, other than breathing which, at my age, is a worthy obsession.

I mean, the way I have it figured, the longer I can keep breathing, the longer I can continue to draw enjoyment from the obsessions of sports fans whose every breath is linked to their favorite clubs. And, depending on the locale in our vast land, those obsessions greatly differ.

Old Gainer, new Gainer.

In Good Ol’ Hometown, for example, it’s Chevy and all things Jets

In the Republic of Tranna, it’s been Kawhi Leonard 24/7 and now it’ll be Mitch Marner 24/7 until he puts pen to paper.

In Montreal, it’s Marc Bergevin and his silly offer sheet.

In Bytown, it’s whatever toxic goop that spews from Eugene Melnyk’s mouth.

In Calgary, it’s Bo Levi Mitchell’s wonky throwing wing.

In E-Town, it’s the never-ending search for someone to skate alongside Connor McWasted.

On the West Coast, it’s…well, I live on the Left Flank and the rabble doesn’t obsess over anything but the weather and annoying tourists. (There is, mind you, a strong constituency that frets over every breath that Jim Benning takes, because it usually means another lousy player has been given a Canucks jersey.)

Meanwhile, on the Flattest of Lands, it’s the Uproar Over the Rodent.

Oh, yes, a rodent.

Summer swathing and happy banjo plucking came to a halt on the Flattest of Lands last week, after Gainer the Gopher went missing and was feared to be lost in a corn maze or abducted by body-snatching aliens. Left behind was a hairball that looked like Chucky’s pet rodent.

The new Gainer was introduced to Flatlanders on Canada Day, and he definitely was not their grandmother’s gopher. The beloved fuzzball of the Saskatchewan Roughriders had been given the most abrupt makeover since Bruce became Caitlyn. I don’t know who Gainer’s plastic surgeon is, but I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock. Or the guy who played nip-tuck-and-yank with Joan Rivers’ face seven or eight times. And what of Gainer’s Kardashian-sized caboose? Has the once-pleasantly plump rodent been sharing Nutrisystem shakes with Marie Osmond? We haven’t seen that big a weight loss since Angie dumped Brad. 

As for his peepers, we’re talking psycho rodent (seriously, Hitchcock had a hand in this). Clearly Gainer was off his meds, and there was a chainsaw and a massacre in his future.

Not surprisingly, up went a hue, also a cry. Free the real Rodent! There hadn’t been that much commotion on the Flattest of Lands since someone discovered a crop circle near Langenburg in 1974. Everyone from radio gab guys to former premiers weighed in on the maniacal-looking muppet, while Mothers shielded their children’s eyes to spare the urchins nightmares and many years of costly psychiatric treatment for gopheraphobia.

Alas, the story has a happy ending. Plow jockeys can climb back aboard their swathers and combines, folks can break out the banjos, and it’s safe to let the kiddies out of the house again—Gainer has had yet another facelift. Gone are the psycho, green eyes. He no longer looks like the neighborhood peeping Tom. Life on the Flattest of Lands is good. 

Meanwhile, on the field, the rabble’s favorite football team lost another game on Saturday night, and hardly anyone noticed.

Chevy

Let me see if I’ve got this straight: Because Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t swallow a stupid pill, many among the rabble—and a few news snoops—are showering him with hosannas. It doesn’t matter that we’ve witnessed the equivalent of a jail break since the close of business in April, with Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev, Kevin Hayes and Par Lindholm going over the wall to chase dreams and fortune, if not fame. The Chevy fan boys and girls instead point to all the coin the Winnipeg Jets GM hasn’t spent since the National Hockey League free agent market opened.

He didn’t spend $50 million on Hayes. Bravo!
He didn’t spend $30 million on Myers. Atta boy, Chevy!
He didn’t spend $21 million on Tanev. Pure genius!
He didn’t spend $10.5 million on Chariot. Smooth move!
He didn’t spend $1.7 million on Lindholm. Beauty, eh!

Add it up and Chevy didn’t spend $113.2 million, or an AAV of $20,992,857, for next season and, apparently, that’s a feather in his cap. Never before has doing nothing been so widely applauded. Why, our man is the Einstein of Puck. Well, spare me.

There was nothing clever or intelligent in Chevy’s (in)activity during the initial week of the NHL free agent frolic. He didn’t shell out all those big bucks for one basic reason: Whatever loose change he has left is earmarked for bank accounts belonging to Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk. Even a mathematical midget, and some sports scribes, could see that. So why the serenade to his genius?

The measure of Chevy’s smarts comes this summer as he attempts to rebuild a back end that has lost Trouba, Myers and Chiarot. That will take savvy. He pulls it off, let the hosannas rain down.

Noodles McLennan

I looked long and hard in search of someone beyond the boundary of River City who endorses Chevy’s handiwork, but I’m afraid that person doesn’t exist. Pierre McGuire of TSN/NBC cited the Jets as the biggest “loser” on Day 1 of free agency. Noodles McLennan, another TSN natterbug, chimed in with this: “Winnipeg Jets, I can’t give them a grade because they haven’t done anything yet. Incomplete work so far. Now, that’s Kevin Cheveldayoff. He works methodically, at his own pace. Now they got Nathan Beaulieu, brought him back, other than that did nothing.” Scott Burnside of The Athletic gave Chevy a C-plus: “This is a deep, well-built team that just happens to be a little bit less than what it was.” If I discover an outrider who actually embraces what Chevy has done, you’ll be the first to know.

Ben Chiarot

I don’t know about you, but I found some of Ben Chiarot’s comments interesting, also curious, after he checked in with les Habitants, at $10.5 million for three years. “The opportunity to play for the Montreal Canadiens and be in a city like that on a team that is up-and-coming like the Canadiens was hard to turn down,” the useful blueliner said. So what’s big Ben telling us? That Good Ol’ Hometown isn’t “a city like that?” That he doesn’t view Winnipeg HC as an up-and-coming outfit? The nerve. I mean, Pegtown’s streets can match les rues de Montreal pothole-for-pothole, and les Jets can match les Habs prospect-for-prospect. He added: “The Bell Centre has been my favorite place to play since I came into the NHL. To me, it’s not like playing in any other building in the league. In Montreal on a Saturday night is something special. There’s nothing better in hockey. So to get to experience that every week now is a dream come true.” C’mon, Benny. What does the Bell Centre have that the Little Hockey House On The Prairie doesn’t? Oh, that’s right—24 Stanley Cup banners and 15 retired jersey numbers in the rafters. Ya, I guess that trumps a Winnipeg Whiteout.

The arrival of Chiarot did not meet with unanimous approval among the rabble in Montreal. It was, in fact, quite bitter and did not escape the notice of Postmedia columnist Jack Todd. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the appalling reaction to the Ben Chiarot signing. It’s Montreal, it’s Marc Bergevin—so of course they hate it. Why do a silly thing like wait and see how it goes when you can start with the hate NOW?” he tweeted. Sounds like our boy Benny already has a bull’s-eye on his back. Wonder how much he’ll enjoy getting the raspberry in both official languages. Les oiseaux boo can be very loud en francais.

Puck Finn

So, how will the Sebastian Aho contract ($8.454 million AAV/five years) impact on the way Winnipeg HC conducts business with blue-chip restricted free agents Laine and Connor? It won’t. Prevailing wisdom suggests it was dumb of Montreal to tender such a faint-hearted offer sheet to the Carolina Hurricanes centre, so agents won’t use it as a guideline. Frankly, I’ll be shocked if Puck Finn gets Blake Wheeler money ($8.25 million), or even if he’s in the Rink Rat Scheifele neighborhood (($6.125M). As for Connor, he won’t make as much as Scheifele. He can’t. He won’t get a penny more than Twig Ehlers ($6M).

Happy American soccer players.

I find myself wondering if the Netherlands will actually attempt to score in their winner-take-all skirmish v. the Yankee Doodle Damsels today in France, or will they play for a stalemate and take their chances on penalty kicks to determine a champion in the women’s World Cup? I’m guessing the Dutch will play 11 back. Final score: U.S.A. 4, Netherlands nil, Alex Morgan 4 (fake injuries/dives).

Alex Morgan: A spot of tea before a dive.

I’ve watched a lot of the World Cup and truly enjoyed the mostly dive-free soccer. But Morgan cranked the theatrics up a notch in the Americans’ semifinal victory over England, and I’m not talking about her mockish, tea-sipping goal celebration. That was cute, even if cocky. But she came across as a graduate of the Neymar Academy of Faux Faceplants, and it wasn’t her most charming look. With global supremacy at issue today, I’m thinking as little as a menacing stare from one of the Dutch will have her twitching and writhing in make-believe distress and adding to fake injury time. Too bad. The Yankee Doodle Damsels are better than that.

Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird.

If it’s a different kind of read you’re looking for, check out Sue Bird’s piece in The Players’ Tribune. Sue, for those of you who haven’t been formally introduced, is the main squeeze of Donald Trump’s favorite Yankee Doodle Damsel (not!), Megan Rapinoe. After the Trumpster had a little hissy fit over Megan’s (apparent) bad manners, girlfriend Sue sprung to the nearest keyboard and assailed the Rude Man on Twitter. “O.K. I’ll answer The Question. The one that’s probably most on your mind,” she scribbled. “And by that I mean: What’s it like to have the literal President of the literal United States (of literal America) go Full Adolescent Boy on your girlfriend? Hmm. Well…it’s WEIRD. And I’d say I actually had a pretty standard reaction to it: which was to freak out a little.” Sue has an interesting writing style, but she gets her point across: She loves her soccer star girlfriend, and a menage-a-president is out of the question.

Matt Nichols

Memo to Matt Nichols: You don’t have to prove to us that you’re a tough guy. We’ll take your word for it. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback didn’t finish what he started on Friday night in Bytown because, well, he did the macho thing instead of the smart thing. As a result, the Canadian Football League lost its fifth starting QB in four weeks. Observing him in civvies on the sideline while Chris Streveler mopped up in a 29-14 W over the RedBlacks, Nichols seemed fine. He said he felt “great.” But blows to the head have a way of their own. He might find himself in a room with the drapes closed tight and all the lights turned out in a day or two. Next time you see the whites of a linebacker’s eyes, Matt, make like Neymar—dive, dive, dive.

So, the Bombers are 3-nada on the season, the CFL’s only unbeaten outfit. Richie Hall’s defensive dozen has surrendered 12 field goals and exactly one touchdown in those three skirmishes. Any more complaints? Didn’t think so.

Just wondering: Did TSN place its cameras for the Winnipeg-Bytown skirmish on the Quebec side of the border? I shouldn’t need the Hubble Telescope to watch a football game on a flatscreen 10 feet away in my living room.

Did TSN newboy panelist Mike Benevides really call Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun “some pencil neck” during the pregame natter? As a matter of fact he did, without naming him. Well, just who does Benevides think he is? A journalist? You just talk football, Benny, and leave the cheap shots to the experts.

Speaking of experts, no surprise that Paul would have the perfect comeback: “My ears are burning. You know, the ones above my pencil neck.” So we add Pencil Neck to some of the all-time nicknames in River City jock journalism: Cactus Jack, Coconut Willie, Friar, Knuckles, Knobby, Doc, Sod, etc. 

And, finally, I don’t know if TSN squawker Matt Dunigan has an endorsement deal with Fatboys Southern Smokehouse in Bytown, but I have to think anything he eats and drinks is on the house next time he’s in the nation’s capital. How many free plugs did he give Fatboys during the Bombers-RedBlacks broadcast? Four? Five? Made me want to pick up the phone and order a side of beef and some fries, except I doubt they could have delivered in 30 minutes or less.