From diapers to diplomas, a lifetime of losing for a younger generation of Winnipeg sports fans

There are jock junkies in good, ol’ Hometown who have gone from diapers to diplomas without witnessing or experiencing a championship parade celebrating their sporting heroes.

Those of us with age in our eyes and grey in our hair regard this to be an astonishing bit of business, given that we were weaned on the wonders of Winnipeg’s Blue Bombers, circa Bud Grant and Ken Ploen, and Jets, circa Bobby Hull and the Swedes.

That’s one of the difficulties of aging. We remember the way it was. We sometimes struggle with the way it is.

Do not, however, confuse that as a yearning for the good, old days. As a wise person once said, the trouble with living in the past is that there’s no future in it. So, as much as I don’t pretend to be the voice of all folks my vintage, I believe I’m on secure footing when I submit that we would like these to be the “good, old days” for our younger generations. We want them to feel the way we did back in the day. And we wouldn’t mind feeling giddy again ourselves.

But that isn’t happening, is it.

The once-proud Blue Bombers have been playing bottom-feeder football for so long that most people would be hard-pressed to name the mayor of the day the last time they laid claim to the Canadian Football League title. I had to look it up. It was Bill Norrie. Gary Filmon was the Manitoba premier. There was no such animal as the goods and services tax (GST) in Canada. Doug Flutie was playing quarterback for the B.C. Lions.

That was in 1990, when the Blue Bombers of general manager Cal Murphy and head coach Mike Riley brought the Grey Cup home to River City. That’s a quarter century ago. A lifetime for some.

Alas, we know that this title drought shall be extended at least one more year, because the Bombers’ 2015 crusade has crashed and burned in the accustomed manner and there no longer exists any possibility of their participation in the Grey Cup game at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry on the final Sunday of this month, Nov. 29.

Winnipeg Jets had three victory parades during the 1970s.
Winnipeg Jets had three victory parades during the 1970s.

Hockey fans have been parched even longer than their football brethren.

If you were in diapers the last time a championship parade crawled through the downtown streets of River City to salute our hockey heroes, you not only have your diploma, you also have a wife/husband, a second mortgage and probably a teenage kid who wishes you would stop talking about three old fogeys named Bobby, Ulf and Anders. And hey, pops, can you turn down the volume on that ABBA album?

We’re talking 1979 here, kids, when both newspapers in town were broadsheets and sportswriters kept bottles of booze in their desk drawers.

Would you like some more perspective on that? OK. Don Cherry’s collars didn’t have starch and his face didn’t feature Colonel Sanders chin whiskers. He was a loose cannon behind the big, bad Boston Bruins’ bench back then, not a loose cannon on Curmudgeon’s Corner between periods on Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.

Grapes likely wouldn’t have cared much for our ’70s Jets teams. They were the anti-Bruins. Too many Swedes. We liked Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg and the rest of the Tre Kroner and Finns just fine, though. They won. Three World Hockey Association titles in four years. Yup, parades were as regular as mosquito fogging.

Hull, Nilsson and Hedberg were actually gone by the spring of ’79, but a handful of refugees from the Houston Aeros allied with the remaining Jets to win the WHA title. That was the league’s last gasp. It is gone. So is the National Hockey League franchise into which those Jets morphed. They live in the Arizona desert now and, to this day, remain the sole survivor from the WHA yet to capture the Stanley Cup.

It is no simple task, winning hockey’s Holy Grail. The Stanley Cup is perhaps the most daunting of pursuits on the North American pro sports landscape. In the Jets’ case, it was a matter of what if, as in: What if there hadn’t been an Edmonton Oilers juggernaut to always get in their way during the 1980s? John Ferguson assembled some terrific teams in his time as general manager, but the great regret was not having a scrawny kid named Gretzky in his lineup.

There is, however, no excusing the Bombers. Bad management has trumped bad fortune. They are hapless no-hopers who annually fail to qualify for the playoffs in an eight/nine-team operation.

Perhaps hope is harbored in Jets 2.0. Unlike the squatters in the Bombers’ ivory tower, ownership and management of the reborn NHL franchise seem to have a clue, even as the current coach, Paul Maurice, appears to have a blind eye when it comes to ruffians who ought not be in the NHL, let alone his lineup.

Were I a betting person, I’d be inclined to wager on hockey glory returning to River City before football glory.

One way or another, a sports championship isn’t something you want to tell your grandchildren about…it’s something you want them to live.

(Footnote: There has been no intention here to slight the achievement of baseball’s Winnipeg Goldeyes, who won the Northern League title in 1994 and the American Association crown in 2012. My focus was on the Jets and Bombers because they are the major sports franchises in the city and surely have the greatest following.)

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

Teemu Selanne: A beacon of goodness still shining bright after all these years

My first memory of watching a live sporting event in Winnipeg is colored in a dozen shades of vagueness.

I can see myself sitting in the pews of the old barn on Maroons Road, as Billy Mosienko and the Winnipeg Warriors whirled about the local freeze. I do not, however, recall their foe that evening, or which side won, which side lost or if the skirmish ended in a stalemate. I don’t recall the year, just the vintage. It was sometime between 1955 and ’60. I can’t say if the popcorn was good or bad, although I imagine it was scrumptous because when you’re a sprig of less than 10 years popcorn is generally good. And I can only guess that I attended the Western Hockey League match with family members, most likely my father and older brother.

I do know this, though: After that experience, I was hooked on hockey.

It wasn’t just the game itself that left me spellbound. It was the atmosphere, as well. I had never sat among so many people. Excited people. Loud people. Mostly, they were men, a large percentage of them wearing hats and neckties. I remember feeling so tiny, like a speck of sand on a beach of humanity.

Odd thing is, when I picture that scene in my mind’s eye, it’s in black and white. Not color.

Why that is, I cannot explain. I mean, I know the Warriors wore gold with black trim and their opponents that night surely were adorned in jerseys of some colorful hue. Yet it is a black-and-white memory, slightly grainy and somewhat drab, like a freeze-frame from 1960s Moscow.

imageWhatever, I find myself in retreat to that evening more than a half century ago because of Teemu Selanne, who was to call that same old barn, the Winnipeg Arena, home from the autumn of 1992 until the frigid days of February 1996. And it occurs to me that in more than 50 years of watching hockey, also scribbling about hockey for two River City newspapers, I cannot think of a shinny star whose sheen has remained so intense for so long.

What’s that you say? Bobby Hull? Nope. Don’t wish to go there. All that glitters is not the Golden Jet, mainly due to the tarnish of off-ice improprieties. Domestic violence is never a favorable selling point and tends to serve as a dimmer switch on one’s legacy, so Hull, while still adored by thousands, is loathed by many.

A case, of course, could be made for Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. The passage of time has not been unkind to our favorite Swedes, who, almost 40 years after they spurned Pegtown for the glitz and glam of Gotham, remain hockey deity. Like Selanne, they were not with us for a long time. Just four years. But they helped usher in a different, more artistic, swashbuckling way of playing the game and produced two World Hockey Association championships for the Winnipeg Jets.

The adulation directed toward Selanne, however, is otherworldly.

It’s one year shy of 20 since the Jets general manager of the day, John Paddock, peddled the Finnish Flash to Anaheim in exchange for a string of beads named Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky, yet Selanne still is a rock star. When they raise his No. 8 to the rafters tonight at the Honda Center prior to the Jets joust with the Disney Ducks, no small squadron of River City rooters will have made the pilgrimage to Orange County, Calif., to witness the ceremony.

So, what makes Selanne so special? Why travel halfway across a continent to watch some hokey jersey-raising salute to a guy who played just four of his 22 National Hockey League crusades in Jets linen?

welcome-home-teemu-selanne-from-winnipeg-jets-fans-12-17-111Well, it’s about those 76 goals in his rookie season…unthinkable. Unparalled. Never to be matched. Ever. Perhaps the singular, greatest achievement in the history of River City sports. Any sport. So, that would be the starting point in any attempt to explain Selanne’s immense and enduring appeal.

I believe it to be more than numbers, though. Much more. I think it’s as basic as this: Teemu Selanne is a good guy. No…he’s a great guy.

Many of us have become jaded by the blight of boorish behaviour of pro jocks. We see their names on police blotters and court dockets every day. They’re thugs, cheats, liars, murderers, con artists, rapists, wife beaters, child abusers, drug abusers, racists…name the crime, they’ve done the time.

That’s one reason I believe what most people see foremost in Selanne is his ample goodness. His earthiness. His one-of-usness. To us, he’s still that ever-smiling, unassuming, freshly scrubbed Finnish lad who likes us as much as we like him.

He remains a beacon for that reason, and none shine brighter.

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

Don Baizley belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame

“I don’t know if I can put into words what Don (Baizley) meant to the game. I don’t know if there’s any one individual I’ve met in my life who’s had a more meaningful, more profound impact on the modern game of professional hockey.”

—Mark Chipman, co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets

 

Don Baizley is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, nor the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.

He should be in both. As a builder.

I bring this to your attention today because the HHofF class of 2014 is to be inducted on Monday and none of the select six is named Don Baizley, the Winnipeg-based lawyer whose 71 years of being an honest-to-gosh good guy gave way to non-smoker’s lung cancer in July 2013.

As many of you know, Baizley maintained a small stable of clients that represented a who’s who in the National Hockey League and on shinny ponds on the other side of the ocean—Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Kent Nilsson, Paul Kariya, Theo Fleury, among others. But to brand him as merely a player agent to the stars is insufficient. Baizley was a trail blazer. He helped redefine the game in the mid-1970s, prior to which both the NHL and World Hockey Association were parochial in scope. That is to say, if you weren’t Canadian or American by birth you need not apply.

Oh, sure, there were a handful of Europeans pre-1974. Pentti Lund, born in Finland but raised in Canada from the age of six, was NHL rookie-of-the-year in 1949. Slovak-born Stanislav Guoth, better known as Stan Mikita, was a much-decorated centre with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ulf Sterner played four games with the New York Rangers in 1965. Thommie Bergman was in the employ of the Detroit Red Wings in the early ’70s. Borje Salming was wearing Toronto Maple Leafs linen. Ditto Inge Hammarstrom.

Basically, however, Euros were as rare as buck teeth on a super model. The prevailing logic insisted Euros weren’t equipped with adequate-sized gonads to be successful in the NHL, where ruffians often ruled the day (see: Big Bad Bruins, Broad Street Bullies).

Then along came the 1974 Winnipeg Jets. And Dr. Gerry Wilson. And Billy Robinson. And Don Baizley.

Dr. Wilson, a surgeon whose specialty was sports-related owies, was doing a post-grad gig in Sweden in 1973 when a fleet right winger caught his attention. The name was Anders Hedberg. The good doctor also liked what he saw in a kid named Ulf Nilsson. And, hey, this guy Lars-Erik Sjoberg was none too shabby on defence. So Doc Wilson put in a call to the Jets, then the flagship franchise in the WHA, and they, in turn, dispatched bird dog Billy Robinson to Tre Kroner country for a look-see at these hot-shot Swedes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and goaltender Curt Larsson represented the first wave of Europeans to arrive on North American shores and, in due course, they proved beyond all reasonable doubt that their junk was plenty big enough to not only succeed, but to excel on the frozen ponds of North America.

Hedberg and Nilsson, in particular, were ceaselessly assailed by extremely disagreeable sorts such as Bad News Bilodeau and Frankie Beaton of the Birmingham Bulls, plus a boatload of barbarians employed by other WHA outfits. These “chicken Swedes,” after all, were taking jobs away from good Canadian boys. The nerve. So they were whacked, hacked and brow beaten to unparalleled levels. Their bodies were bruised as blue as the Jets jerseys they wore. Talk about culture shock. But they endured, in large part due to the guidance of Don Baizley.

Baiz’s influence on the game cannot be under-valued. He didn’t just get big bucks for his clients. He took them under his wing. He was their confidante. Their mentor. He provided them a comfort zone, a place where they could grow as hockey players and, more important, people.

His handling of the fabulous Swedes did not escape the notice of other Scandinavians. Soon Veli-Pekka Ketola was with the Jets. Heikki Riihiranta, the aforementioned Bergman, Willy Lindstrom, Mats Lindh, Dan Labraaten, Kent Nilsson were to follow. Those Euro-flavored WHA Jets played a dazzling, free-wheeling brand of hockey. Brute force gave way to beauty, which translated into titles and provided Glen Sather a blueprint in constructing his remarkable Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s.

So, you see, Baizley was at the forefront in the reshaping of the professional hockey landscape. He was there for close to 40 years, yet this man who helped change the face of shinny preferred to operate in the background. It was never about him. He was, if you will, the anti-Eagle.

I refer, of course, to Alan Eagleson, the notorious player agent who landed in lockup after playing fast and loose with his clients’ money. The Eagle was self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. If the Eagle was involved, everything else was background noise.

That wasn’t how Don Baizley rolled.

Baiz wanted to talk about himself like Gary Bettman wants to live in the north end of Winnipeg. He was more interested in others. He placed value on who you were and what you did. He always made you feel better about yourself and your work.

During my 30 years in sports journalism, I never met a better person than Don Baizley. Not one. So when the giants of the game gathered in July 2013 to salute another giant of the game, you had to believe them when they told you that Baiz was an honest, humble, trustworthy, humorous, generous, loving man. It’s all true.

The guy was an honest-to-gosh hall of fame person.

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

Bobby Hull: Spousal abuse or not, they’ll still line up for his autograph

I believe I am on the side of the angels when I suggest men should not beat up women or children. Ever. I also believe most level-thinking people would agree.

What, then, are we to make of the legacy of Robert Marvin Hull vis-a-vis hockey in River City?

Ben Hatskin is, of course, the father of professional shinny in Good, Ol’ Hometown and should forever be recognized as such. It was his vision that delivered the World Hockey Association to Winnipeg and, more significant, it was Benny’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming and bulldog tenacity that brought us Hull in 1972.

That was a favorable development then. It remains so today.

Had Hatskin not convinced the game’s glam guy to accept a $2.75 million bribe and defect from the Chicago Blackhawks and the National Hockey League, the Pegtown sporting landscape would be noticably more barren, figuratively and literally. There would have been no Winnipeg Jets/NHL 1.0.There would be no Jets 2.0. This isn’t a “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” thing. We know what came first: Hatskin and the Jets/WHA. Then Bobby Hull. Then the NHL. Then Mark Chipman and the Manitoba Moose. Then the Little Hockey House on the Prairie. Then the Jets/NHL 2.0.

Thus, the three most noteworthy and influential figures in local lore are Ben Hatskin, Bobby Hull and Mark Chipman.

One of the three is recognized as a man who hits women. So, with the knowledge that Hull whacked his wife, Joanne, on the head with the steel heel of her own shoe and bloodied her, and because she was granted a divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty, mental cruelty and adultery, do we erase his accomplishments while he wore No. 9 in Jets linen? No. We cannot.

Hull still signed that $1 million WHA contract and agreed to accept an additional $1.75 million to coach and play for the Jets, a development which forever shifted the salary structure in not just hockey, but all major professional sports in North America. He still scored all those goals. He still made magic with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. He still brought the first two of three WHA titles to Pegtown.

These realities are stored in memories. For some, they cannot be jarred loose.

I have made no secret of my dislike for Bobby Hull. I am repulsed by his behaviour. He is a cad of high rank. Yet I can separate the man from the hockey player. Just as I can so many other athletes who have led lives of imperfection and are guilty of being human beings.

I mean, retreat to Babe Ruth’s days. The great Bambino bounced from brothel to bar to brothel to bar. Yet he continued to swat home runs at a then-unparalleled pace. The game went on.

Ty Cobb was a nasty bit of business given to fits of anger and fisticuffs. He whacked a hotel elevator operator for being “uppity.” He slashed a security guard with a knife. He choked a woman. He thumped a disabled fan. He fought on the streets. Yet he continued to collect base knocks and steal sacks. The game went on.

Move ahead to the 1950s. In May of ’57, a group of New York Yankees gathered to celebrate Billy Martin’s 29th birthday at the Copacabana at 10 East 60th St. in Gotham. Martin, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford and Johnny Kucks engaged in a brawl with a bunch of bowlers that included Edwin Jones, who was decked by Bauer. The party-boy Yankees were required to appear before a grand jury. Yet they continued to put on their pinstripes and won the American League pennant, before bowing to the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. The game went on.

You want a bad ass? Try former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.

After doing a two-year stretch in the brig for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer, ex-con Liston fought for a group linked to St. Louis underworld bad boy John Vitale. His contract was later taken over by mobsters Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. Liston took the title from Floyd Patterson with a first-round knockout at Comiskey Park in Chicago on Sept. 25, 1962, and it was of little significance that the heavyweight champion of the world was a convicted felon run by the Mafia, who really “whacked” people. The game went on.

Muhammad Ali, long admired worldwide, was a serial philanderer who arrived in the Phillipines for the final fight in his Joe Frazier trilogy with his mistress in tow and his wife at home. He refused induction into the U.S. military, was convicted of draft evasion, drummed out of boxing, then returned three and a half years later to eventually regain his heavyweight crown. The game went on.

Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich of the Yankees held separate press conferences on March 4, 1973, to announce they had swapped wives, children, pets and homes. Combined, they won nine games while wearing N.Y. pinstripes that year. The game went on.

In January of 1984, Craig MacTavish of the Boston Bruins got behind the wheel of his car. He was impaired. He killed a 26-year-old woman and was convicted of vehicular homicide. After spending a year behind bars, he renewed his NHL career with the Edmonton Oilers, and today is the team general manager. The game went on.

This is a tip-of-the-iceberg sampling of athlete misconduct from times that are often romanticized as kinder, more gentle, innocent. Yet the music never died.

If people were truly affronted and truly cared about the egregious trespasses of professional athletes, they would protest by refusing to purchase game tickets. They wouldn’t watch on TV or online. But they don’t protest, do they? The National Football League flourishes regardless how many players’ names surface on police blotters or on a court docket. Fist-fighter Floyd Mayweather Jr. continues to earn $30 million paydays regardless how many women he beats up. Convicted rapist Mike Tyson continues to earn a living simply for being Mike Tyson.

And so it is with Bobby Hull. He will be judged both as a hockey player and as a man, and I believe it’s safe to say that he will grade significantly higher for his achievements on a frozen sheet of water than for what he did behind the closed doors of his home.

That’s why they’ll line up for Hull’s signature the next time he surfaces in River City for an autograph session…and the queue will include women.

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

Hockey Night in Canada: A hip, new host, a ‘Swinn,’ a ‘Fede’ and the Fuddy and Duddy Show

Musings scribbled on a cocktail napkin while contemplating the birth of a shinny season and the birth of Rogers Media’s $5.2 billion multi-headed TV monster…

It might have been the dawning of a new era for Hockey Night in Canada, but it was the same old Don on Saturday night.

Donald S. Cherry sat in his Coach’s Corner bully pulpit alongside Ron MacLean, who plays Waldorf to the star’s Statler, and the old, grey grumps began their five-minute bitch bit by pouting about being “phased out” of HNIC, at the same time squabbling over a musical toy (Chippy) that Grapes had brought to the set. MacLean attempted to take Chippy hostage because he was “loud” and “irritating,” but Donald S. was having none of that.

The Lord of Loud then launched into his sermon, which sounded very much like a cut from his Hits of the 1980s soundtrack—the Toronto Maple Leafs are morons because they draft “U.S. college guys and a Swinn and a Fede” instead of good, old boys from Tranna and other outposts in Ontario.

I assume the U.S. college guys come from our neighbor to the south, but I’m not sure about the “Swin and Fede” that the Leafs drafted Sounds Scandinavian to me. Must be a couple of those dreaded “foreigners,” perhaps out of Gimli, just north of Winnipeg.

That aside, by the time Fuddy and Duddy were finished, it was painfully evident that one of them has nothing new to say and the other is tired of listening to nothing new. 

Rogers might want to “toy” with the idea of pulling the plug on the Fuddy and Duddy Show. Chippy can stay, though. Ditto the Swinn and the Fede.

EAR YE, EAR YE: My ears need a rest. Already. I mean, hockey goliath Rogers came at us with so many gab guys in its first four nights as the grand looking glass on Planet Puckhead that I’m not sure who said what to whom or who said what about whom on opening night Wednesday.

I know Glenn Healy said a lot of things about a lot of things that don’t matter, because whatever he says doesn’t matter. He also punctuated his blather with harsh hand gestures and a jutting jaw that suggest he’s angry about something, although he has nothing to be angry about. After all, most of us don’t get paid to annoy people, whereas Heals (that’s what his hockey buddies call him) receives a handsome stipend just for being the most annoying man on Canadian TV.

Surely the mute button was invented with Heals in mind.

SPELL CHECK: I have one main aim during the next seven months of a National Hockey League season that’s still wet behind the ears—learn how to spell Strombolopolopolopolopolopolous.

Hell, never mind learning how to spell it. I can’t even say George Strombolopolopolopolopolopolous in 25 words or less. I haven’t had this much trouble with a name since Winnipeg Jets defender-turned-forward Dustin Byfuglien arrived in River City with the Atlanta caravan in 2011. I still don’t know why it’s pronounced Buff-lin rather than By-foo-glee-en.

Anyway, I’ll just call the new face of Hockey Night in Canada and Rogers’ toy boy Strombo. Easy to say, easier to spell.

NUMBERS GAME: Rogers’ trumpet-tooters made a big whoop-dee-do about an average of 2.01 million puckheads tuning in for Strombo’s debut on the Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs telecast Wednesday on Sportsnet. Apparently, the other 33 million Canadians had something better to do than check to see if the boy toy would be wearing ear rings that night.

HNIC GOES GOTH: Okay, HNIC has a hip, new host in Strombo, who looks like he’s either on his way to, or just returning from, a goth gig (loved the skull ring he flashed during his chin-wag with Stephen Harper, noted politician and hoarder of hockey memorabilia in his man cave at 24 Sussex Dr. in Bytown). I’m on side with the new boy toy.

Still, there’s a bit of a cringe-worthy, “I’m a little kid who just got locked in the candy store” element to Strombo’s schtick. Like, he was having far too much fun during his little exhibition of foot hockey with Nick Kypreos, and does he really have to shake hands with Mark Messier before and after a two-minute tete-a-tete? I mean, it was the second intermission. It’s not like the Moose had just arrived on the mega-million-dollar set with all the new-fangled gadgetry. He’d been there from the top of the show.

I don’t know if there was a budding bromance at play or if Strombo just likes to slap skin.

AT THE BUZZER: So, Rogers shelled out $5.2 billion to put a fresh face on all things NHL in the Great White North, but they can’t afford a wardrobe consultant for P.J. Stock?…As is his norm, HNIC tongue-flapper Stock surfaced to give logic a lashing. During a rant suggesting the time had arrived for the Edmonton Oilers to give their roster a major makeover, he said, “I’m blaming the players, but I can’t blame them.”…Best bit on Saturday night featured Elliotte Friedman (no surprise there) and Damien Cox (big surprise). Their news, rumors and updates during the intermission was solid. Also on his game, as usual, was Scott Oake…After watching Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh pals dismantle the Maple Leafs, I’m wondering what the over/under is on Randy Carlyle’s gig behind the Toronto bench. I’m not sure he’ll last the month…Don’t normally take in the late-night games on Saturday, but felt obliged to check out the Jets and Sharks in San Jose. What a treat it was to see Dustin Byfuglien lose his mind…Was it just me, or did anyone else want to see Mark Messier shove his hockey stick up Nick Kypreos’s nose when the two former teammates gave a demonstration on positioning for a faceoff? It would have made for terrific TV.

AFTER THE BUZZER: The 30th anniversary of the Oilers’ first Stanley Cup crusade was a not-so-subtle reminder that of the World Hockey Association survivors—Edmonton, Winnipeg/Arizona, Quebec/Colorado, Hartford/Carolina—only the Jets/Coyotes have yet to hoist hockey’s holy grail. They couldn’t win on the frozen tundra, they can’t win in the desert, so we can’t blame the weather. Let’s blame Barry Shenkarow.

LAST SHOUT OUT: Sportsnet talking head John Shannon waxed glowingly of the Oilers outfits that won the Stanley Cup five times, saying they “changed the way the game was played for a decade.”

Whoa, Nellie.

It was the WHA Winnipeg Jets of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson, Lars-Erik Sjoberg et al who changed the way the game was played. The Oilers were copycats.

Glen Sather, first a player then coach with the WHA Oilers and, later, coach/GM of the NHL Oilers during the 1980s, took note of the Jets’ free-flowing, criss-crossing, ad libbing style of play and said, “I think I’ll try me some of that.” Thus, he used the Jets as a blueprint once he started collecting future Hockey Hall of Fame players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and others in Edmonton.

He built our team around watching Ulf Nilsson and Kent Nilsson and Bobby Hull, and he wanted that from day one,” Gretzky told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal during the 1984 team reunion last week.

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

Winnipeg sports: 45 years later, a look in the rear view mirror

It was 45 years ago this week when I first walked into a newsroom. It was 15 years ago when I last walked out of a newsroom.

Those who noticed the former were few. Those who noticed the latter were even fewer.

Somehow, though, I managed to sandwich a 30-year career in jock journalism between those two moments. I know I wasn’t the greatest sports scribe. Cripes, man, to this day I’m convinced I pulled a fast one on a whole lot of people because, with zero journalistic schooling and nothing but blind ambition as an ally, I managed to land gigs at the Winnipeg Tribune, the Toronto Sun, the Calgary Sun, the Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Sun. My copy appeared in every major daily in Canada, a handful in the United States and numerous magazines.

I worked as a color commentator on Winnipeg Jets radio and even hosted my own sports talk show on CJOB. Mind you, that only lasted about seven weeks. I quickly discovered that many of the people who call in to gab on jock radio need a life, which convinced me that I needed a life. So, shortly thereafter, I escaped from mainstream media. Full stop.

I point this out today for one reason: I have a regret.

I left quietly. Too quietly. It’s not that I desired fanfare and pomp and pagentry to accompany my exit, stage west. Quite frankly, I preferred my flee to freedom to be on the down low. That’s why I got behind the wheel of my 1991 Le Baron convertible one morning in early September 1999 and pointed her in the direction of the Pacific Ocean without alerting a soul.

I now, however, glance in the rear view mirror and regard that to have been an error in judgement. It would have been nice to clink some pint glasses together and perhaps shoot a game of pool with comrades while comparing battle scars.

So that’s what I’ll do today, 45 and 15 years after the start and finish lines.

(I should point out that I wasn’t a byline scribe from Day One. I began as the mail kid in the Winnipeg Tribune business office, then moved up to the fifth floor to run copy for the various departments in the newsroom. At the same time, I’d scribble non-byline pieces and rewrites for the boys in the sports department, just to get an early feel for the gig. It wasn’t until 1971 that my byline first appeared in print.)

These are my highs and my lows from 30 years of jock sniffing in Pegtown, plus another 15 as a freelancer/blogger on all matters of sports in River City. (I do believe that 45-year stretch means I have been scribbling about good, ol’ Hometown sports longer than any living creature.)

Matty
Matty

Best writer: Jack Matheson. Not even close. We all wanted to write like Matty. None of us ever did.

Best broadcaster: Don Wittman. Witt was more versatile than anyone in his biz. And very good at every sport he covered. On a personal note, while in high school I sent Witt a letter asking for advice on how to pursue a career in sports media. Imagine my shock when I answered the phone at home one afternoon and it was Don Wittman on the line, offering to meet me for coffee and a chin-wag. Those are the things you never forget.

Favorite broadcaster: Scott Oake. Scott is knowledgeable, glib and witty. He has fun. I like that.

Best pipes: Bob Picken. If Pick were in a room full of cackling hens, laughing hyhenas and braying jackasses, you’d still hear him above all else. His voice carried further than a telegraph wire.

Best play-by-play man: Friar Nicolson and Knuckles Irving. It’s sometimes hard for me to believe Knuckles is still broadcasting Bombers games. But he continues to do so with style, grace and know-how. And I understand his fear of flying is as intense as ever. As for Friar…I worked and travelled with him during the Jets final two World Hockey Association seasons and their first whirl in the National Hockey League. I was forever amazed how a man could lace his conversation with unvarnished profanity, yet never utter a four-letter word on air. I believe the closest he ever came to cursing on air was the night he called Peter Pospisil of Czechoslovakia “Peter Piss Pot.”

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

Most colorful person: John Bowie Fergsuon. Any guy who punches a hole in the wall of his press box bunker and hurls a bucket of ice on the visitors’ bench is either a nutbar or colorful. I choose the latter. Fergy and I had our battles, but I believe there was mutual respect.

Biggest blunder: I was instructed by Gus Collins to write a two-column brite to advise Trib readers that the Major League Baseball all-star game would be played the following evening. I referred to this mid-summer fixture as the “annual Fall Classic.” D’oh!

My favorite moment as sports editor at the Winnipeg Sun: Watching Judy Owen’s reaction when I assigned her the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat. She was, as they say, over the moon. Some people believed I had lost my entire bag of marbles for putting a sports neophyte on a major beat, but Judy never let me down. I rate it as my most satisfying decision during two whirls as SE at the Sun.

Favorite beat: Local tennis. I covered every tournament at the Winnipeg Canoe Club and Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club for the better part of a decade and grew very fond of the tennis crowd. Fun people. Obliging people. Appreciative people.

Favorite athletes: Chris Walby, Troy Westwood, Bob Cameron, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Terry Ruskowski, Vic Peters, Pierre LaMarche.

Least favorite athlete: Mario Marois of the Jets. Just a miserable, miserable man.

Tommy McVie
Tommy McVie

Favorite coaches: Tommy McVie, Mike Riley, Cal Murphy, Muzz MacPherson.

Tommy provided the finest moment of slapstick when, during the Jets initial season in the NHL, he attempted to attack Al MacNeil, his coaching counterpart with the Atlanta Flames. Livid that his players were being bullied by the Flames’ ruffians, the Jets coach assailed MacNeil verbally, then decided he would get physical. Before attempting to scale the glass partition between the team benches, however, he removed his wrist watch and tucked it in a jacket pocket. He then removed the false teeth from his mouth—yes, he took out his tusks—and tucked the faux fangs in a jacket pocket. He then removed his neck tie. He then removed his jacket and made an aborted bid to scale the glass barrier. Alas, his feet kept slipping down the glass. He looked like one of those cartoon characters whose feet move 100 mph but go nowhere.

Free Press writer I most respected: Reyn Davis, who worked the Jets beat. I admired his way with words.

Most talented scribes with whom I worked (excluding Matty): Ed Willes and George (Shakey) Johnson.

Most enjoyable place to spend a summer Sunday afternoon: Assiniboia Downs or the Ballyard by the Forks.

Favorite non-athlete: Lawyer/player advisor Don Baizley, a gentleman.

Seediest promotions guy: Boxing gasbag Tom Burns. I actually liked Tom, but didn’t trust him as far as I could toss Don Lalonde. Tom also wore the worst hair piece on earth.

Least favorite team owner: Sam Katz of the Goldeyes. Sammy spoke out of both sides of his mouth when dealing with the two newspapers. He would tell our beat writer one thing, then tell the people at the Freep the real thing. What a donut.

Favorite moment: The night the Jets beat the Soviet national side.

Favorite quote I: After the local hockey heroes had toppled the mighty comrades, Ulf Nilsson, a Swede who had absorbed so much abuse at the hands, sticks and elbows of Canadians in his first season with the Jets, told me: “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

Most talented player to ever wear a Jets jersey: Kent Nilsson. He was in River City for a good time, not a long time, but nobody could match his skill set.

Best player to ever wear a Bombers jersey: Chris Walby. If someone asked me to describe what a Blue Bomber is supposed to play like, act like and talk like, I would point to Walby and say, “Like that big man over there.” It was rather odd that Bluto was a great quote, yet he seemed to speak a foreign language when doing color commentary on CBC. That aside, the big man was unparalleled.

Cal Murphy
Cal Murphy

Best chin-wags: Gab sessions in Cal Murphy’s office were special. The late Bombers coach/GM could be every bit the curmudgeon, but he was a funny, funny, dear man.

Worst moment I: Collapsing on an airplane while returning from Toronto with the Jets. It’s rather unsettling to be carted off a plane on a stretcher and whisked away to the hospital. The diagnosis was extreme fatigue. I survived to write another day, although many wish I hadn’t.

Most unusual reaction to a piece I’d written: After I had scribbled something about Winnipeg shinny fans showing extremely poor manners by booing during PA announcements made en francais during a Jets-Finland friendly, a man called my home the next day and threatened to “bomb” my house. Yup, the kook was going to “blow it up” real good.

Worst day: When the Trib shut down. I cried and got drunk. But that’s all I have to say about that.

Favorite desker: Dave Connors, aka Homer. I would tell him how I wanted the sports front or a feature spread to look and he’d make it so much better than I had imagined.

Top story: The Bobby Hull signing at Portage and Main.

Top story maker: Ben Hatskin for signing Robert Marvin Hull.

Vic Peters
Vic Peters

Favorite group of athletes: Curlers, by far. I wish I had discovered curlers earlier in my career, but I spent enough time with them in the final decade to truly appreciate they’re a special bunch. Vic Peters was the best and Don Duguid was a close second.

Favorite event: The Brier. It’s a load of work, but a load of fun because of the people. It’s the only sports event I’ve covered since I left the every-day grind of journalism, and I did it twice as a freelancer.

Guys I cheered for (but not out loud): The boys from the Houston Aeros who joined the Jets for the final World Hockey Association season.

Worst moment II: Being at the L.A. airport with the Jets in the 1980s when a 6.something earthquake hit. There was serious panic in our terminal. Supposed tough guy John Ferguson was the first man out the door. Big sissy. Our flight to Vancouver was delayed, but not cancelled. If I remember correctly, it was the final flight out for the rest of the day.

Best quote II: I was sitting with Tom McVie during a Jets pre-season workout when Morris Lukowich burst in from the left wing and snapped a laser-like shot into the top corner.

“Watching that,” coach McVie told me, “is better than having sex.”

“Geez, Tom,” I responded, “that doesn’t say much for your wife.”

“Ya, but she didn’t score 60 goals last season.”

Oddball of oddballs: Mikhail Smith, general manager of the Central Red Jets. Mike was a hockey egghead, an intelligent, book wormish guy who had a different way of looking at, and doing, things. As GM of the Winnipeg Jets, he put in place a make-work-for-Russians project, whereby he seemingly sought to build a team comprised of nothing but comrades. It was an interesting time, but the Red Scare went unrewarded.

Most surreal event: The title fight between Don Lalonde and Sugar Ray Leonard at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. It didn’t seem real that Lalonde, a local kid, was actually in the ring with a legend like Sugar Ray Leonard. It actually happened, though. Lalonde even put Leonard to the canvas before losing by knockout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull
Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull

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

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

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

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

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

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

So everything was cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we don’t care about their roots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if Evander Kane knows that.

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