While Winnipeg Jets’ ownership/management fiddles, careers of older players waste away

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc.

That’s the unstoppable sound of the clock rapidly and relentlessly ticking down on the National Hockey League careers of certain able-bodied players whose bodies soon will begin to betray them, if that isn’t happening already.

Toby Enstrom will be 33 at this time next year. Dustin Byfuglien 32. Captain Blake Wheeler 31. Bryan Little 30. They were in, or about to enter, their prime playing years when the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011 and the Thrashers morphed into the Winnipeg Jets. Since then, each has swallowed the Kool-Aid and put his signature on a long-term contract, convinced that the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, and his obedient servant, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, would deliver on a promise of better days.

Toby Enstrom
Toby Enstrom

Well, those four men are still waiting for deliverance. Their biological clocks are still ticking. And they have every right to ask: When is when?

Except the Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff won’t, or can’t, provide a definitive answer. Unlike Enstrom, Byfuglien, Little and Wheeler, they aren’t on the clock, so they simply recite the draft-and-develop mantra and add more pimples than puck sense to their roster, all the while allowing four careers to waste away.

There is no urgency in ownership/management. The Little Hockey House on the Prairie is sold out every night. There’s a waiting list for season subscriptions numbering in the thousands. Many among the rabble remain in swoon, still giddy to have an NHL outfit to call their own, no matter how inferior the product. The Secret Society that is True North Sports & Entertainment can’t sell enough $10 Jumbo Jet hot dogs, $10 pints of beer and $300 jerseys. That isn’t a hockey rink tucked between Hargrave and Donald in downtown Winnipeg. It’s a cash register.

Much of that money is, of course, funneled into player wages and, to be sure, the Jets’ on-ice workers are handsomely compensated. They draw enough pay to purchase every $10 Jumbo Jet dog ever put on the grill. But once the contracts are signed, sealed and delivered, it’s no longer about the number of zeroes behind the dollar sign. It’s about winning. Period.

Do you think Blake Wheeler is interested in a draft-and-development plan that won’t bear any fruit for another, say, four-five years? Indeed, head coach Paul Maurice spoke to that very issue last April, when he began sifting through the charred leavings of another dumpster fire that put the Jets on the outside when the real fun began in the Stanley Cup tournament.

If we put a really, really young lineup again in the Central (Division) and have a couple of tough nights, as long as those are the best guys we have then I’m all for it,” coach Potty-Mo told news snoops.

Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler

At the end of the day, I don’t care who’s in that lineup, we’re going to try and figure out a way to win with that group. We’re going to put that expectation in our room, instead of saying, ‘Hey, just come out and try hard and follow us and then in five years we’re going to…’ Blake Wheeler doesn’t want to hear that, he doesn’t want to play like that.

Our expectations have to be higher. The players have to be under that pressure because I think they develop faster.”

But, as in the case of when is when, how fast is fast?

I mean, the Jets commenced their current crusade with two goaltenders still on training wheels. The tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson has crashed and burned. What’s old is new again, with Ondrej Pavelec back in the blue paint. And if he doesn’t return as the second coming of Dominik Hasek, what then? Back to Hellebuyck and Hutchinson?

I doubt that rate of development is fast enough for Wheeler and the others.

It is said today that 70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, but it doesn’t work that way in hockey. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, 31 wasn’t considered old in the NHL. Today, 30 is the old 35 and 35 is the old 40. (No, that doesn’t explain Jaromir Jagr, but some things defy logic.) The point is, Wheeler cannot afford many more failed experiments and wasted seasons before rot sets in. None of the ‘old’ boys can. Their clocks keep ticking while ownership/management keeps talking. The Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff have failed them. Miserably.

Little wonder Wheeler seems to be owly much of the time.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

Winnipeg Jets: Putting Chevy-speak into plain English

Depending on which River City rag you read, Kevin Cheveldayoff sat down with either two news snoops or a group of news snoops on the weekend for some fireside blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Naturally, the Winnipeg Jets general manager droned on in Chevy-speak, so, as a public service, we have hired a professional linguist to translate and distill his comments. Here, then, is the Reader’s Digest condensed version (3,160 words reduced to 1,050) of Chevy’s state-of-the-union chin-wag…

Kevin Cheveldayoff
Kevin Cheveldayoff

How would you assess your team just past the halfway point of the National Hockey League season?

“Are you kidding me? All those kids in our lineup, those two goaltenders, the schedule that Paul Maurice keeps complaining about, all those injuries…I’m surprised we’re even in the post-season discussion. I mean, I wrote this season off before it even started because of our youth movement, so it’s a bit of a bonus that we’re so close to the playoff line.”

Your head coach, Paul Maurice, says there should be an asterisk beside your record because of the schedule and all the injuries. What say you?

“Damn straight!”

What’s your take on Maurice’s work?

“Paul said it best when he said, ‘You are who your record says you are.'”

What level of job security does Maurice have?

“Look, Mark Chipman told me that it was time for a full-scale youth movement. He’s the Puck Pontiff, and I do what I’m told. So it was out with the old and in with the new. I saddled Paul with a very young team. He didn’t necessarily like it. But he knew what he was getting into when he signed on. He knew it wasn’t going to be all flowers and roses. This season is a gimme for Paul. I’m not going to toss him under the bus. But, at the end of the day, you are who your record says you are.”

You decided to go with the kids, Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson, in goal and waived the incumbent, Ondrej Pavelec, then shipped him to the minors. How’s that working so far?

“The fact none of the other 29 teams claimed Pavs on waivers ought to tell you all you need to know about him. I like Pavs, but it was the right thing to do. As for Connor and Michael, do the math. Why do you think coach PoMo tossed them under the bus a week or so ago? Paul is right…we don’t have a No. 1 goaltender. Not yet. We’re building toward the future. Is the future here yet? No. When is the future? Your guess is as good as mine.”

What say you about Patrik Laine, your prize rookie?

“God bless those bouncing ping pong balls at the draft lottery! Sometimes you need a horse shoe up your butt instead of skill. I mean, eight teams passed on Nikolaj Ehlers at the 2014 NHL draft. Eight teams passed on Jacob Trouba in 2012. Having the ping pong balls fall our way last year meant we were getting either Patrik or Auston Matthews. We got the player we wanted.”

Pictures on a wall say it all.
Pictures on a wall say it all.

Now that you mentioned Jacob Trouba, how is your relationship with him after his trade demand and failure to attend training camp?

“I still have pictures of Jacob and I shaking hands at the 2012 draft on my office wall. What does that tell you about our relationship?”

Dustin Byfuglien signed a five-year, $38-million contract last summer. Are you getting enough bang for your buck?

“Buff is earning his keep. But if coach PoMo keeps playing him 29-30 minutes a game, there’ll be nothing left of Buff by the final year of that contract. Quite frankly, I’d like to see some of Buff’s minutes go to Jacob Trouba. As it is, Buff is all over the map. Nothing’s really changed since this team arrived in Winnipeg in 2011. Buff is still being Buff.”

Tylers Myers has missed most of the season due to injury. Any chance of bringing in help to shore up the back end?

“You mean trades? Hey, after I fleeced the Buffalo Sabres in the Evander Kane deal and fleeced the Chicago Blackhawks in the Andrew Ladd deal, you think anyone wants to deal with me? Seriously, though, I think everyone knows I don’t do anything unless there’s the proverbial gun to my head.”

Has Blake Wheeler been a suitable replacement for Ladd as team captain?

“Are you kidding me? Did you see what he did after Patrik Laine scored that selfie against the Vancouver Canucks? He wrapped his arm around him and whispered sweet nothings in his right ear. Awwwww.

What have you to say about the progress of Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey?

“Like I said, eight teams passed on Nikolaj at the draft. D’oh! We’re extremely happy those eight teams all had a Homer Simpson moment. As for Josh…he’s been a revelation. He ought to receive extra pay just for cleaning up Buff’s mess every night. I imagine it’s kind of like cleaning up after the elephants at the circus. That’s not a cheap shot on Buff’s size, by the way. Just saying.”

Bye bye Burmi.
Bye bye Burmi.

How difficult was it to put Alexander Burmistrov on waivers? He’s a former top-10 draft pick.

“Whoa Nellie! Don’t pin that rap on me. I didn’t draft Burmi. That was Rick Dudley or Don Waddell or one of those other nitwits who left the cupboards bare when Chipper bought the Atlanta Thrashers. I thought I’d washed my hands of Burmi when he defected to Russia, but coach PoMo took a fancy to him and kind of adopted him. Guess that’s why they call him Pa Ingalls. Whatever, the Arizona Coyotes are welcome to him. It’s kind of ironic, though. I mean, going from Winnipeg to Phoenix is the first time Burmi has gone north-south his entire career.”

How will next summer’s expansion draft for the Las Vegas franchise impact the Jets?

“They’ll get a player to be named later. That player won’t be named Laine or Ehlers or Scheifele or Trouba or Little or Morrissey or Wheeler or Connor or Roslovic or…well, you get the picture.”

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

Evander Kane can’t get over Winnipeg and Winnipeg can’t get over Evander Kane

Evander Kane is the gift that just keeps giving…and giving…and giving.

By now, I’m guessing you’ve heard that old friend Evander can’t play hockey these days due to a wonky left knee, an owie that will keep him on the shelf for four to six weeks and provide the Buffalo Sabres forward with plenty of time for his new hobby of renting private jets and/or helicoptors for weekend getaways.

I understand Las Vegas is lovely at this time of year, so perhaps we can expect an Instagram or two featuring the self-proclaimed Natural flaunting stacks and stacks of American greenbacks in Sin City.

Evander Kane
Evander Kane

Then again, perhaps Kane will discover more constructive ways to spend his free time. You know, something like flapping his gums like two flags in a stiff breeze. He already has a healthy head start in that area, what with word of his recent chin-wag with The Hockey News arriving on Monday.

Depending on one’s perspective, of course, any time Kane opens his pie hole it is a wonderful thing (for news scavengers on a slow day) or a cringe-worthy bit of business (for those who view him as an uppity, my-stuff-don’t-stink-but-this-city-does, underachieving prima donna). Either way, a tempest is certain to ensue and, sure enough, what he told THN vis-a-vis his troubled and turbulent times as the most-maligned—and surely the most-polarizing—player to ever pull the blue-and-white linen of the Winnipeg Jets over his head has put his name back at the top of the page for all the wrong reasons.

What he served up was part pity party, part confession and part accusation (he played the race card, don’t you know).

“I asked for a trade every off-season in Winnipeg,” confessed Kane, who was with the Atlanta Thrashers’ caravan that rolled into River City and morphed into Jets 2.0 in 2011. It took him slightly less than four National Hockey League seasons of sometimes oddball antics, bad press, bad attitude and sub-standard productivity to wear out his welcome, at which time he was shuffled off to Buffalo in a package that included Zach Bogosian going to the Sabres and Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers and add-ons coming back to the Jets.

“There are lots of guys I could point to that everybody knows publicly who have done a lot worse or been accused of doing a lot worse things than I have,” Kane continued. “But they don’t look like me. They don’t look like me. Jealousy is a disease. It really is.”

He added that he “didn’t feel as though (the Jets) had my back at all.”

This, no doubt, will lead to open hostility when Kane and the Sabres surface at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie for a Jan. 10 gig with the Jets. His reception would have been bad enough based on the residue left behind from his tempestuous tour of duty in Pegtown, but surely the volume will be amped up and there shall be heightened creativity and increased venom in the cat-calling of his accusors.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Why do so many people give a damn what Evander Kane thinks about the Jets and Winnipeg?

I know I don’t. Sure, I write about Kane, because he’s fun fodder and I get a kick out of him. I used to enjoy it when he’d yank the media’s chain, often playing cat to their mouse. But get my knickers in a knot over his parting shots at Winnipeg? Puh-leeze. So what if he asked for a new area code every summer and lied about it? He wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last, athlete who’s wanted out of Winnipeg and told fibs. The Jets didn’t have his back? Oh, boo freaking hoo.

As for his playing the race card (again), only those of a similar skin hue can say for certain if they’ve experienced discrimination or other forms of ill-treatment based solely on pigmentation. But if you believe racism doesn’t exist in good, ol’ Hometown, you might want to speak with one of your Native neighbors about that.

Look, Kane and Winnipeg didn’t work. He wanted the fast lane and he got caught in a collector lane. You like your athletes humble and respectful, he’s loud, vain and swashbuckling. Bad marriages happen. The thing is, he hasn’t gotten over you and you haven’t gotten over him. Come on, admit it.

Should make for an interesting night on Jan. 10. Keep it clean and classy, Winnipeg.

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.