Let’s talk about the way it was on the beat 40 years ago…hello Bobby…playing favorites…championship droughts…TSN and Johnny Rotten…calling St. Patrick…scandal on the links…and other things on my mind

Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and we called Victoria Day “firecracker day” when I was a sprig growing up in Winnipeg…us kids actually got to play with firecrackers and none of my friends ever lost an eye…

On the matter of lighting a fuse, it’s about the Winnipeg Jets.

While recounting the events of les Jets’ oft-turbulent run to their final World Hockey Association title on this very day 40 years ago, it occurred to me how obliging and honest the players were with their thoughts back in the day.

Kim Clackson, for example, pulled no punches when asked about the head coach, Larry Hillman.

“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” Clacker growled. “I’m tired of all the bull.”

Big Buff

You wouldn’t hear a guy like, say, Dustin Byfuglien go off like that on the current puppet master behind les Jets’ bench, Paul Maurice. Big Buff talks less than an Amazon parrot. On those rare occasions when the Winnipeg HC defender actually grunts something that passes for a complete sentence, it’s usually as bland as dried toast.

From what I can gather, it’s much the same with many of Buff’s accomplices in les Jets’ changing room. Listening to them preach the party line is like a day at the laundromat—all wishy-washy.

They don’t talk. They recite. Play the right way, move our feet, play a 200-foot game, blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.

It’s all cookie-cutter quotes from young guys schooled in the art of moving their lips while saying squat, and I’ve often wondered why news snoops even bother collecting the artificial bon mots the players deliver pre- and post-game, not to mention during down time.

Chevy

Mind you, the players are mostly muzzled by an organization that believes the daily weather forecast should be kept top secret, and they follow the lead of a general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, who’s a practitioner of bafflegab. Ask Chevy for the time of day and he’ll explain the Julian and Gregorian calendars to you, but you still won’t know if it’s half past noon or half past happy hour.

Be advised that news snoops don’t get lousy quotes because they ask lousy question, so let’s reject that notion. They get lousy quotes because they get lousy, limited and rush-rush access to guys who a) would rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair, and b) usually have a PR flack hovering nearby to censor or cut short any interview that travels to close to the truth.

We had no such restrictions.

Friar Nicolson and sidekick Sod Keilback.

First of all, we traveled with the team. That is correct. The WHA Jets didn’t fly charter. The players mingled with the rabble on commercial flights, with assistant coach Sudsy Sutherland distributing the boarding passes, and that meant they sometimes were required to sit beside one of us news snoops, meaning myself, Friar Nicolson or Reyn Davis. As I recall, the players regarded that as cruel and unusual treatment, and I often suspected Sudsy of using his boarding-pass powers as punishment.

But, ya, we were part of the traveling party, and practical joker Willy Lindstrom would prank us with his stink bombs and sneezing powder as often as he would a teammate.

Tom McVie

We also rode the team bus to and from the airport, to and from the rink. I normally sat in either of the front two seats, right side, across the aisle from Hillman, his successor Tom McVie, John Ferguson and Sudsy. There was an unwritten code: What happens on the bus stays on the bus.

It sometimes became frosty, depending on what Reyn or I had written that day or what Friar had said on air the night before, and we would be blunt in our critiques of the team.

Some examples of my scribblings…

  • “Jets return from their week-long road trip this afternoon, and if they travel the same way they play hockey, they’ll all come home on different planes.”

  • “There are too many passengers on this team and the list gets longer every day. There are players more interested in getting an aisle seat on an airplane than digging a puck out of a corner.”

  • “Winnipeg management doesn’t like to hear references to Houston, but the players who came from the Aeros are the blood and guts of this team and the Winnipeg holdovers are living off them.”

You think any players wanted to sit beside me on the bus or flight home after reading that?

Reyn Davis

In general terms, however, it was an agreeable arrangement, in part because I like to think that Friar, Reyn and myself recognized we were in the players’ space, so we didn’t tell tales out of school.

In terms of dealing with the players post-game, post-practice, again, we had open access. I don’t recall any player hiding in the showers. And we weren’t required to go through a PR flack to get an audience. We just sat down beside them in the changing room.

By way of comparison, if you want any insight into today’s players you don’t go to the dressing room or grovel to a PR guy—you log in on Twitter, Instagram or another social media platform.

Pity that.

B. Hull

I still recall the first time I stepped inside les Jets’ lair. It was the season of 1977-78, and Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Bobby Hull, both with towels wrapped around their mid-sections, stood nearby. This was their conversation as they sized me up:

Sjoberg: “It looks like we’ve got a new reporter with the team.”

Hull: “Just another asshole to try and stir up shit.”

Nice to meet you, too, Bobby.

I’ve made this confession once or twice, but I’ll repeat it again: You aren’t supposed to cheer in the press box, but I was silently root, root, rooting for the 1978-79 Jets to win the final WHA title. They were a real good bunch of guys, and I was partial to the players who’d come over from Houston. If a news snoop tells you he/she doesn’t have favorites, trust me, he/she is lying.

Yes, it was 40 years ago this very day when les Jets won the Avco World Trophy to bring the curtain down on the WHA. And it’s been almost 30 years since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers brought the Grey Cup home. Thank goodness for our curlers, the Goldeyes, our university athletes and other amateurs who’ve delivered the goods.

Good grief. Did Matthew Scianitti and Marshall Ferguson of TSN actually spend a portion of their first chin-wag from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp talking about Johnny Manziel? As sure as the great Ticat Garney Henley played two ways, they did. “How good does Jeremiah Masoli’s body language look now that we are a year removed, thankfully, from the Johnny Manziel saga?” Scianitti asked Ferguson. Sigh. Will the TSN talking heads ever get past Johnny Rotten? Apparently not.

If the Ottawa Senators can do something stupid, bet on them doing it. And hiring Patrick Roy as head coach would qualify as stupid.

I don’t know which I’ve seen more often, Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater in the NBA playoffs or Vlad the Gifted’s first two dingers with the Tranna Blue Jays. Either way, TSN and Sportsnet can stop showing those replays any time now.

Brooks Koepka

Fashion note: Apparently Brooks Koepka isn’t going to let success go to his clothes. I mean, that NIKE cap that Koepka wore while successfully defending his PGA Championship on Sunday looks like something he picked up in a thrift shop. We’re talking butt ugly.

And, finally, this is what passes for scandal in golf these days: A chain-smoking John Daly rides a cart instead of walking, Brooks Koepka refuses to kiss his lingerie model girlfriend Jena Sims (twice), and Jordan Spieth zips his lips when the Associated Press comes calling for an interview. Whatever happened to the good old days when it wasn’t a scandal until it involved sex, drugs and a club-wielding bride (hello, Tiger Woods)?

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Troubles before Triumph: An Ode to the 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets on the 40th anniversary of their final WHA championship

Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.

***

It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.

Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.

“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”

I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.

So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)

The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.

***

To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.

Morris Lukowich

This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.

The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”

“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.

There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.

Kim Clackson

Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.

“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”

It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.

“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”

Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.

“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”

“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”

Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.

“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”

That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.

***

Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.

The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.

It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.

Larry Hillman

It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.

It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.

It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.

Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.

It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.

“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).

“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”

Sudsy Sutherland

Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.

“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”

Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.

“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”

Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”

***

There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.

Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.

Fergy

Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.

“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”

Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.

“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”

***

It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.

More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.

I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.

“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”

I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.

“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”

***

There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.

Suitcase Smitty

By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.

He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.

“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”

Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.

***

Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.

We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”

Tom McVie

Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.

Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.

Examples…

On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”

Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”

After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”

Tom McVie in the champions’ changing room.

More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.

The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.

Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.

“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”

***

It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.

Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.

The Shoe

The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.

“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”

“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”

“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.

Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.

***

This was a WHA title that almost never happened.

The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.

There was a money dispute, you see.

The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.

So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?

“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”

The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.

“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”

The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.

As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.

***

Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.

Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.

Jacques Demers

“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”

Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”

Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.

“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”

That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.

***

Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.

If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.

“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”

Roscoe and Clacker

After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.

Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.

“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”

***

I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.

Bill (Magic Fingers) Bozak and four of the boys—Scotty Campbell, the Shoe, Luke and Roland Eriksson.

Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.

They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.

“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”

No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.

“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”

***

Michael Gobuty

Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:

  1. Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.

  2. The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.

  3. Fergy hired Tom McVie.

  4. The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.

  5. Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.

The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.

Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.

Let’s talk about Carolina Cornball…Grandpa Grapes…snack time for the Winnipeg Jets…clock ticking on CFL-CFLPA talking…no living wage overseas…Trump trumps Vlad the Bad’s eight goals…the Big One in tennis…baseball a yawn-a-thon?…and other things on my mind

Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and we’ll have fun, fun, fun until daddy takes the T-Bird away…

Contrary to popular belief, if you look up the word ‘fun’ in the dictionary, you won’t find a team photo of the Carolina Hurricanes.

No, the Bunch of Jerks and their “front-running fans” didn’t invent merriment and crazy hijinks, but we’re led to believe that they’ve cornered the market on mirth, what with their Storm Surge and their admirable, albeit stalled, push in the current Stanley Cup tournament.

I mean, consider these headlines I stumbled upon during a Google surf on the weekend:

  • The Guardian: “How the Carolina Hurricanes hit back on the NHL’s war on fun.”

  • YouTube: “Carolina Hurricanes/The Importance of Fun.”

  • For the Win/USAToday: “Rooting for the Carolina Hurricanes is rooting for fun.”

  • NHL.com: “Hurricanes embrace fun, victory celebrations.”

  • Boston Globe: “Are Carolina Hurricanes jerks or just having fun?”

I imagine the Boston Bruins (especially), the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks are also having themselves a royal hoot since they, along with the Hurricanes, remain standing in the National Hockey League spring runoff. It’s just that, unlike the Bunch of Jerks, none of those outfits spent the entire winter playing post-match parlor games like Duck, Duck Goose, so we don’t really know for certain that they’re having fun.

More to the point, would they even know how to be good time Charlies?

Fun, after all, is not historically an NHL thing. Except, of course, when the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup and Alexander Ovechkin goes swimming in a public fountain. But even Ovie and the Caps stopped short of playing Duck, Duck Goose in the fountain, perhaps owing to the fact they were too tipsy with gusts up to flat-out legless

At any rate, the NHL has never been known as a knee-slapping, belly-laughs enterprise, something an opinionist at The Guardian felt obliged to emphasize in an ode to Carolina Cornball:

“The NHL can’t really take a joke. Which is maybe all the more reason to laugh at it sometimes, like a bunch of jerks.”

Certainly the Hurricanes’ marketing department is having fun, also generating scads of American greenbacks with its Bunch of Jerks and Bunch of Front Running Jerks t-shirts. It’s a merchandising windfall and, yes, now that you mention it, Donald S. Cherry likely deserves royalties on sales, since it was the Hockey Night in Canada curmudgeon who inserted the phrase(s) into the hockey lexicon.

Here’s the thing, though: Sixteen outfits qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament. Fifteen of them did not play post-match parlor games during the regular season. We are now down to the NHL final four, and even the Hurricanes long ago abandoned the Storm Surge and its accompanying shenanigans.

So are we still having fun?

Perhaps the Canes will re-introduce Carolina Cornball now that they’re down 2-nada and heading home for the next two skirmishes in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final vs. the Bruins. Whatever works, right?

I doubt they’ll resort to parlor games, though, because there’s a time and place for everything and Ring Around the Rosie won’t help them out of their hole. Mind you, they could try Pin the Tail On the Donkey—seeing someone stick it to Brad Marchand is always fun.

This whole Hurricanes-and-fun thing has inspired considerable pro-and-con dialogue, and my favorite line was delivered by the Charlotte Observer editorial board. Noting that it was Cherry who fanned the flames by describing the Canes as a “bunch of jerks” and Carolina fans as “front runners,” the Observer wrote: “Front-runners, if you haven’t figured it out, is Canadian for bandwagon fans. Don Cherry is Canadian for ‘get off my lawn.’” That, kids, is a classic burn. Also true.

Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab dipped his pen into the Carolina Cornball discussion, offering this: “At their practice Monday in Raleigh, players gathered at centre ice in a big circle and took turns sharing their weekend activities, which included a couple of well-deserved days away from the rink. From Storm Surges, the team’s cheeky Twitter account and merchandise, it’s obvious they’ve got a good thing going on, which is translating to their spirited play on the ice, and in a copycat league, perhaps the (Winnipeg) Jets might want to try and emulate some of the good vibes going forward. Maybe they can start by sitting everyone in the circle at the start of training camp and talking about how they spent their off-season.” Oh, for sure. And maybe they can bring snacks, too. Blake Wheeler is in charge of the crab cakes, Rink Rat Scheifele the nutribars, Jacob Trouba the beef stew, Big Buff the catfish, and Twig Ehlers the Danish for dessert. Sorry, but if there was anything to Carolina Cornball, all 31 NHL clubs would be playing Pictionary and Parcheesi between periods.

Nice to see Paul Friesen and Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun do some day tripping down memory lane, revisiting the last of les Jets World Hockey Association glory days. Paul had a chin-wag with funnyman coach Tom McVie, while Ted checked in with lickety-split left winger Morris Lukowich, and it’s all good stuff. Next Monday marks the 40th anniversary of Winnipeg HC’s third and final WHA championship run, and I’m glad the two Sun boys are reminding youngsters in the audience that there was a time when victory parades were routine in Good Ol’ Hometown.

Yes, now that you ask, I think it’s boffo that Chris Matthews is back where it all started for him in the Canadian Football League, which is to say as part of the pass-catching ensemble with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I just wish I could be confident he’ll have a league to play in for his second go-round in blue-and-gold.

Apparently, negotiations between the CFL and the CFL Players Association has been reduced to an exchange of notes on cocktail napkins. That’s not to say the two sides aren’t working in good faith on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but with training exercises due to begin in less than a week it’s awful close to last call. And I’m getting a tad antsy.

Dani Rylan

On the subject of work stoppages, next time you hear someone say women who play pro shinny “deserve” a living wage, remind them that the average head count across the National Women’s Hockey League last season was 954. Sorry, but no one— expect perhaps founder/commish Dani Rylan and her second in command, Hayley Moore—makes a living wage based on those numbers.

It’s important to note that the 200 women who say they won’t be playing hockey next winter have limited their boycott to North America. There’s nothing to stop some of them from suiting up with an outfit in either Finland’s Naisten Liiga or the SDHL in Sweden. Trouble is, no one watches distaff shinny on that side of the pond, either, so they still wouldn’t be earning a living wage.

So, John Daly has been given the okie-dokie to ride a cart in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black Course on Long Island this week. Hmmm. I thought every golf course in America already had a beer cart.

Vlad the Bad

Russian dictator Vlad the Bad Putin scored eight goals in an exhibition hockey match last week. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump claims to have scored eight holes-in-one on the weekend and has already declared himself winner of the PGA Championship. A victory lap in John Daly’s beer cart is scheduled for the White House rose garden next week.

Trump’s paid Pinocchio, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, hopes to be remembered as “transparent and honest” once she’s no longer telling lies for the president. Ya, and I hope to be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

Is it game, set and match for the Big Three in men’s tennis? Might be that it’s been reduced to the Big One, Novak Djokovic. The Joker laid claim to the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and he won the Madrid Open on Sunday, beating upstart Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. But the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, hasn’t won on his favorite surface this year and Roger Federer couldn’t get past the quarterfinals in Madrid. Still, I’ll reserve judgment until Rafa is beaten at Roland Garros and Roger falls on Centre Court Wimbledon.

Interesting take on baseball by Mad Mike McIntyre. He reckons the rounders game is losing traction among the rabble because sitting through three hours of sputtering action is “asking a lot of spectators to endure, especially when you factor in time to travel to and from the stadium.” (I’m not convinced travel time to the ball park is greater than to any other sports venue, so that’s a silly comment.) Mad Mike cites statistics from the Wall Street Journal to support his theory, but does a ball game actually take longer to complete than other sports? Nope. It’s middle of the pack. Here are some event times:

And, finally, the dreaded Grip Reaper has come to collect another old friend and colleague, Marten Falcon. A good man, Marten and I started in the rag trade together, working as copy runners at the Winnipeg Tribune, and he spent his newspaper career as one of those necessary behind-the-scenes people who put the sheet together at both the Trib and Sun. Lost contact with Marten after I left the tabloid, and that’s going on 20 years, but I won’t forget him.

About those “rotten to the core” Winnipeg Jets…cranking up the gossip mill…putting Wheeler and others on ignore…parting gifts instead of banners for the Habs…nothing but bridesmaids in Canada?…talking about Ponytail Puck…and lady golfers at Augusta

Another Sunday smorags-bored…and you are under no obligation to grow a beard during the Winnipeg Jets playoff run…

Apparently, the local hockey heroes have issues.

They might be Dr. Phil-level issues. They might be let’s-drag-Oprah’s-couch-out-of-storage-and-give-everyone-in-the-audience-a-gift issues. They might be order-another-pint-and-vent-to-a-bartender issues. Whatever the case, after a week of stick-shattering hissy fits, an airing of grievances behind closed doors, giving news snoops the cold shoulder, and canceled practices for the airing of additional grievances, we’re advised that the Winnipeg Jets are not right in the head.

It’s nothing specific, understand. No details. Just a strong suggestion from the boys on the beat at the Drab Slab that les Jets have come undone like a school kid’s shoelace.

And we all know what happens with kids and undone shoelaces, don’t we. That’s right. Face plants.

So I suppose Jets Nation should fear the worst as Winnipeg HC preps for its opening salvo of Beard Season vs. the St. Louis Blues. I mean, it can’t be very comforting for the rabble to learn that the behind-the-scenes situation with their favorite National Hockey League club is “rotten to the core” and “anything but rosy” as they enter the Stanley Cup runoff.

That, at least, is the picture painted by Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press, and you can choose to believe him or pooh-pooh his take on the local lads. I mean, he ought to have some insider intel because he’s been dogging the local lads across North America since October, but, at the same time, Double M fell short of providing anecdotal evidence of squabbling in the inner sanctum. He merely referenced Multiple Sources who, along with Reliable Sources, is every reporter’s go-to informant when no one is willing to say what needs to be said out loud.

Let’s accept that he’s accurate, though, and Winnipeg HC is a house divided. Does that mean les Jets best-of-seven playoff assignment vs. St. Louis beginning Wednesday at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie is a no-hoper? Not at all.

Allow me to direct your attention to the Winnipeg Jets circa 1978-79.

Rich Preston and Terry Ruskowski

Those of a certain vintage will recall the unique makeup of that outfit, in that it was actually two teams in one. On the heels of their second World Hockey Association title, les Jets were scuttled by a number of defections, most notably Ander Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to Gotham. To shore up a depleted roster, management purchased the nucleus of a Houston Aeros franchise that had gone belly up, with Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich and Scotty Campbell among the recruits.

It was a stroke of genius. Except for one thing: To say the Houston guys and the Winnipeg holdovers got along is to say hard-core Beatles fans were giddy when the dreaded Yoko Ono showed up on John’s arm one day. Some, myself included, still think of that as the day the music died, but I digress.

The Aeros-Jets had been fierce rivals on the freeze, and the residue of bitterly contested battles won and lost still existed when they began to share a changing room. Larry Hillman, the head coach of the day, could do nothing to achieve détente, in part because the Houston portion of the amalgamated roster was doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

“You don’t think the rest of the players in this league don’t know that?” Robbie Ftorek said one night after he and the Cincinnati Stingers had laid a licking on les Jets.

Tom McVie

It wasn’t until Tom McVie arrived in River City, bull whip in hand behind the bench, that the boys clued in and began working in concert, a collaboration that resulted in an unlikely third WHA championship.

“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich told me the night the Jets put away the Edmonton Gretzkys to gain permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”

“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski confirmed.

So, when they drop the puck for the Jets and Blues skirmish, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the “rotten to the core” home side. Even squabbling outfits can get the job done.

Mind you, it would help if these Jets had Ruskowski, Lukowich, Preston and Campbell on board.

Coach Potty Mouth

You can dismiss McIntyre’s essay as nothing more than click-bait sensationalism, if you like, but my only issue with him is this snippet: “I’m not about to start feeding the rumor mill…” Good gawd, man, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Use the terms “rotten to the core” and “anything but rosy”—especially without supporting quotes and/or facts—and you’ve got rumor and innuendo running faster than a scalded dog. Are the players PO’d because Patrik Laine spends more time playing Fortnite than backchecking? Has coach Potty Mouth lost the dressing room? Whose track suit is Dustin Byfuglien dunking in the ice tub? Gossip, gossip, gossip. And if les Jets don’t get past the Blues, it’ll really crank up.

Craig Button of TSN had this to say about les Jets in advance of the Stanley Cup tournament: “They’re a weak team giving up a lot of goals. They’re the weakest (Western Conference) team going into the playoffs.” Ouch. That’s “anything but rosy.”

Blake Wheeler

After all the pomp, the praise, the worship, the Sportsnet headlines, the tributes, the mattress commercials, and the blah, blah, blah about John Tavares, he finished with three fewer points than Blake Wheeler’s 91. Now, I don’t buy the pre-fab bunk that players in Good Ol’ Hometown fly under the radar, because people around the league know what Wheeler has done. But I will submit that les Jets captain gets ignored. But, then, so do other elite performers with Canadian-based outfits. Five of them—Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner and Wheeler—outscored Tavares this season, yet all but McDavid received less than half the ink devoted to the Tranna Maple Leafs centre by national media. Just saying.

If you’re keeping score at home, another of the over-ballyhooed Leafs, Auston Matthews, scored at a clip of 1.07 points per game. Twenty players were as good or better. Again, just saying.

Just wondering: Can Dave Poulin of TSN talk without holding a pen in his hand?

Sam Pollock

I keep hearing pundits say this was a successful season for the Montreal Canadiens. I’m sorry, but I don’t follow. I mean, the Habs will be on the outside with their noses pressed to the window when the playoff fun commences this week. When did parting gifts replace championship banners as a suitable reward for the most storied franchise in NHL history? It’s like Tom Hanks being happy about losing an Oscar to Adam Sandler. I swear, ol’ Sammy Pollock must be spinning like a lathe in his grave.

Really strange headline No. 1: “Jets’ Patrik Laine evolves from sublime scorer to all-around player.” Ya, Puck Finn is an all-around player like a box of Timbits is a seven-course meal.

Really strange headline No. 2: “Even Oilers not stupid enough to trade Connor McDavid.” No, the Edmonton Oilers would never be so dumb as to deal away Connor McDavid. You know, just like they would never be so dumb as to trade away Wayne Gretzky.

Felix Auger-Aliassime

I think Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail is a terrific wordsmith. A truly gifted writer. It’s just that sometimes he totally loses the plot. Like his take on the rise of Canadian tennis teens Bianca Andreescu, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov: “Our tennis was becoming like everything else this country does on the international stage—a strong second.” Right. We’re always the bridesmaid in sports like hockey and curling. As if. And Brooke Henderson, Penny Oleksiak, Clara Hughes, Donovan Bailey, Mike Weir, Virtue and Moir, Mikael Kingsbury, Percy Williams, Daniel Nestor, Lennox Lewis, Barbara Ann Scott, Nancy Greene, the Crazy Canucks, Cindy Klassen, Susan Nattrass, Jim Elder, Northern Dancer, Steve Nash, Larry Walker, Jacques Villeneuve, etc….I guess they all finished second best, too. Come on, man, give your head a shake.

So nice of mainstream media to finally notice women’s hockey in a non-Olympics year. Too bad it took the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League to grab their attention. I think their newly discovered interest in Ponytail Puck was best summed up in a tweet from Diana Matheson, a member of our women’s national soccer side: “Speaks volumes to the problem that my initial response to a discussion about women’s hockey on the radio, is to be surprised they are talking about it.” Now we’ll see if the MSM attention span lasts long enough to actually cover whatever teams emerge from the ashes of the CWHL.

And, finally, scientists say Canada is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world. In other weather news, women golfed at Augusta National this weekend, so hell just froze over.

About the Winnipeg Jets dominating the Edmonton Oilers…Wayne Gretzky stinking for not stinking…a lady in red…Queen Liz…Suitcase Smith…what big ears you have Kris King…and fine writing

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

shoe
Once upon a time, the Winnipeg Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs.

Okay, as Howie Meeker was given to squawk when he was a Hockey Night in Canada blabber mouth, “Stop it right there! Back it up!”

I’ve heard quite enough blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda about how often the Edmonton Oilers repeatedly put a good and proper paddywhacking on the Winnipeg Jets back in the day. I mean, I get it already. The Copper and Blue beat the Jets like a rented mule. In the National Hockey League. In the 1980s.

But what? The World Hockey Association never happened? Whose mule was being mauled then?

Let the record show that the Jets made a habit of stealing the Oilers’ lunch money in the WHA, holding a substantial 41-31-3 advantage in regular-season skirmishing and twice ousting them en route to two of their three successful Avco World Trophy crusades. The Jets whupped the Oilers 4-zip in a 1976 quarterfinal argument, and 4-2 in the ’79 WHA championship series. Final WHA score: Jets 49, Oilers 33.

Oh, and let’s not forget the WHA title tally: Jets 3 (five finals), Oilers nil (one final).

So there.

A vintage Wayne Gretzky, with Andrew McBain in slow pursuit.
A vintage Wayne Gretzky, with Andrew McBain in slow pursuit.

Yo! Wayne Gretzky! You’re right. You stink, man. But you don’t stink because you went without a point in Saturday’s slo-mo Alumni Game between your vintage Oilers and the vintage Jets, who ruled the day, 6-5. You stink because you didn’t stink like that 30 years ago.

Someone who didn’t stink back in the day and still doesn’t stink is Jennifer Hanson, noted singer of O Canada and wearer of skimpy, red dresses. That was a nice touch to bring Jennifer in to deliver a rousing rendition of the national anthem for the 31,317 folks who attended the Geritol Generation Game.

Okay, the vintage game wasn’t a sellout. Big deal. I don’t want to hear anyone say approximately 1,700 unoccupied seats at the Facility Formerly Known As Football Follies Field in Fort Garry makes River City a second-rate hockey town. It’s a great hockey town. One of the best in Canada or anywhere else that people skate on frozen ponds.

queen-liz2Seeing that ginormous portrait of Queen Liz displayed on the outside wall of The Pint pub last week brought to mind a vintage quote from vintage Jet winger Morris Lukowich. “Terry Ruskowski was on our team,” Luke once told now-departed Ottawa Sun scribe Earl McRae. “He married a former Miss America. She and my wife were together in the stands for a game. She looked up at the big picture of the Queen and said to my wife, ‘That lady, does she own the Arena?’ ”

Lukowich and Ruskowski, of course, were significant contributors on my favorite Jets outfit, the 1979 champions who toppled Gretzky and the Oilers to claim the final WHA title. Also central to that success was nomadic netminder Gary (Suitcase) Smith, whose late-season arrival coincided with the return of captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg from the repair shop. “(Smith) came walking into the locker room,” Ruskowski recalled a few years back. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Ax Smith because I’ve been on around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals-against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you…I’m not that good.”

What would Little Red Riding Hood say to vintage Jet Kris King? “My, what big ears you have.” Apparently, it isn’t just King’s ears that have grown. The former grinder also has developed a nose for the net, scoring twice in the Geritol Generation Game. Skating alongside Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk helps, of course. I do believe those two could turn Jimmy Mann into a goal scorer. On second thought, probably not.

Some good scribbling from local scribes in advance of the old coots game. Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press served up two terrific pieces, one about Bobby Hull attempting to woo Gretzky to the Jets, and the other revisiting the night Dave Ellett’s double-OT goal slayed the Oilers in Game 4 of their 1990 Stanley Cup playoff series. The staying power of the Ellett goal mystifies me, though. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it was meaningless. The Oilers won the ensuing three games, the series and the Stanley Cup.

Apparently, Bobby Hull missed quite a party by not attending this week’s Heritage Classic hijinx in good, ol’ Hometown. But did the party miss the Golden Jet? Apparently not. Too bad, so sad.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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 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 in 2015.

 

Winnipeg Jets: Their victory over the Soviets was the signature moment for an undervalued team

Perhaps because a broad brushstroke of hockey nostalgia is about to sweep across Good, Ol’ Hometown, I find myself reaching back to distant times and a shinny barn long ago reduced to rubble.

I couldn’t begin to inventory the number of days and nights I spent in the Winnipeg Arena during my three decades writing about hockey in River City, but I confess that the large majority of the games I witnessed have faded to black, lost in the foggy moors of my ever-eroding memory. Mostly, they come back to me in vignettes. A highlight here, an incident there.

There are, however, three matches that remain indelible: 1) The Winnipeg Jets’ victory over the Soviet Union National team; 2) Game 6 of the 1979 World Hockey Association championship; 3) the first Tuxedo Night.

jets-sovietsThe latter two I recall because one carried historical significance, in that it was the WHA’s final act and the local lads took permanent ownership of the Avco World Trophy, while the other was noteworthy for its marketing quirkiness and behind-the-scenes madness that brought closure to Bobby Hull’s career in Jets linen. Poor Bobby was all dressed up with no place to go on Tuxedo Night, and his clumsy exit is a humorous, oft-told chapter of folklore that I’m certain will be recited and embellished when the old boys gather for their Heritage Classic hijinks this week.

That’s strictly Sideshow Bob stuff, though, when measured against the caging of the great Russian Bear. That was the defining moment for a team and its players whose accomplishments often were pooh-poohed by the hockey establishment because of the company they kept. The WHA and its member teams, you see, were looked upon like the Canadian dollar is today—not up to par. Devalued. Or so the prevailing logic went.

But wait. Don’t talk to us about second-class citizens. The Jets beat the Soviet National side, dammit!

I can still see Ulf Nilsson delivering a short, delicate pass to Dave Dunn, a big, lumbering defenceman with a square, planter-like pot for a helmet. No one had ever mistaken Dunn for, say, the smooth-as-silk Peter Sullivan or Kent Nilsson. More to the point, his was a hunch-shouldered, laborious skating style that evoked imagery of a beast of burden pulling a milk wagon. Yet there was Dunn, suddenly with some lickety-split in his stride as he departed the neutral zone and navigated his way into enemy territory.

Looking up from the end boards, Dunn spied Hull standing at the lip of the crease, and he dished a backhand pass to the Golden Jet, who flicked the puck past Vladislav Tretiak. Game, set and match. The Jets had beaten the Soviets, 5-3.

It is the irony of Dunn’s daring, as much as Hull’s three scores and Ulf Nilsson’s four points, that revisits me when I ponder the events of Jan. 5, 1978.

I recall watching from on high, in the Arena press box, as Dunn accepted Nilsson’s feed and began his foray along the right wing boards and into a corner. I thought it totally out of character for him to be so ambitious. Dunn’s technique and skill level were directly at odds with the shock-and-awe swagger of his playmates, Nilsson, Hull and Anders Hedberg. Not to mention the three Soviet forwards on the freeze at that moment—Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. Dave Dunn belonged in that group like Don Cherry belonged in the Kremlin.

This can’t possibly end well,” I muttered to myself.

It did, though, and the Jets had their signature game, the one match we can point to after this great passage of time and say “that’s how good those guys were.”

***

This wasn’t a championship skirmish. It was, as soccer people are wont to say, a “friendly.” A pleasant interlude of sporting pleasure to perhaps soothe the sting of another long and dreary Winnipeg winter.

Yet any frolic with the Soviet National side during the Cold War, circa 1970s, carried political overtones, if not intrigue, plus the promotional wallop of a heavyweight tiff.

Dave Dunn
Dave Dunn

And so it was when the Jets, with their blend of smooth Swedes and good, ol’ bent-nosed Canadian boys, engaged the best of Mother Russia. None among the combatants arrived at the rink to make nice. This was a “friendly” like Winnipeg is New York City.

Few beyond the walls of the Jets’ changing quarters expected the WHA’s marquee team to topple the comrades. Even the most rabid of the rabble would have told you victory was less likely than Cherry taking a mail-order Russian bride.

I mean, this was the creme de la borscht of Soviet shinny. It was one thing to whup a club side from Mother Russia, like Wings or Dynamo or, yes, even the National team’s doppelganger, CKSA, more commonly known as the Central Red Army. A few WHA and NHL outfits already had been there and done that. But beat the communist colossus? Nyet.

To further underscore the enormity of the task, the Russkies already had given the Jets three wedgies in “friendlies” in Tokyo, Japan—7-5, 4-2, 5-1—prior to the comrades’ arrival on our shores (at which point Ivan promptly administered a 7-2 paddywhacking to the Edmonton Oilers).

So, yes, the Russian Bear was in full-throated growl.

The Jets, however, were not without bark and bite of their own.

Although appropriately respectful of a foe that collected World and Olympic championships like little boys collected bubble gum cards, the Jets delighted a gathering of 10,315 eye witnesses by laying waste to the Soviets early, building a 4-0 advantage on two goals each from Ulf Nilsson and Hull. Shortly thereafter, taskmaster Viktor Tikhonov removed Aleksandr Sidelnikov from the Soviets’ goal and replaced him with Tretiak.

As if on cue, the great Russian Bear stirred, making it 4-2 before the second period had expired, both goals coming off the stick of diminutive and unsmiling Boris Alexandrov. Vasily Pervukhin then supplied third-period drama, beating Jets goaltender Joe Daley two minutes and 43 seconds in. A collective murmur rumbled from the pews to the rafters in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fans feared the worst.

The Jets quelled the Russian uprising, though, guarding their one-goal advantage with Scrooge-like stinginess until Hull converted Dunn’s pass into his third score and the Jets’ fifth, eight seconds from time.

Never before had the Soviet National side been beaten by a club team.

***

Scant seconds after the fact, those of us with pens, notepads and microphones were granted access to the locals’ lair, where we discovered half the players still fully adorned in their Jets livery and the other half already baring well-sculpted chests, abs and arms. Some roamed to the four corners of their cramped quarters, smiling and slapping broad-shouldered backs and tousling the stringy, matted-down hair on sweat-soaked heads. A few sat in silent reflection, giving ponder to a job well done and nursing post-work refreshments.

Ulf Nilsson
Ulf Nilsson

They were properly pleased and proud, these Jets, also weary to the marrow.

They seemed in unspoken agreement that the early after-moments of their conquest of the CCCP was a time for softened celebration, rather than unrestrained revelry, and it is their muffled merriment and a quiet quote from Ulf Nilsson that I also remember about the goings-on of that magical night.

“The Russians are so hard to play against…I don’t think I ever beat them before tonight,” offered Nilsson, a native of Nynashamn who along with fellow Swede Hedberg and Hull combined to outscore the Soviets’ fabled forward troika of Mikhailov, Kharlamov and Petrov 10 points to zero. “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

That sentiment worked both ways, that night and so many others for the Jets and their flock.

(Footnote: To put the Jets’ victory in perspective, the Soviets went 5-0 against five other WHA outfits on that tour, beating the Oilers (7-2), Quebec Nordiques (6-3), Cincinnati Stingers (9-2), Indianapolis Racers (8-3) and New England Whalers (8-4) for a combined score of 38-14).

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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 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 in 2015.

About the Winnipeg Jets betting their scouts got it right…the Buck and Hutch Show…Nolan Patrick…and the boys skate down memory lane at The Pint

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Patrik Laine
Patrik Laine

Be careful what you wish for, Jets Nation. You might get it.

Actually, you’ve already got it. Connor Hellebuyck is in goal. Josh Morrissey is on defence. Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev and Nikolaj Ehlers are up front. The first five are National Hockey League rookies. The latter is a sophomore who can’t order a beer in the United States until February.

The Jets are greener than a nauseous Kermit the Frog on St. Patty’s Day.

That’s okay, though. That’s what you wanted. That’s the new NHL order and you wouldn’t want your hockey heroes to be left behind, right? And they won’t be. Not as long as general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s bird dogs have flushed out more blue-chippers than scouts with the other 29 outfits in a league where fewer and fewer players are old enough to grow a respectable playoff beard.

That’s really what the Jets are betting on, isn’t it? Their talent sleuths. The guys who roam the terrain like so many truffle hogs seeking to unearth hidden treasure.

I mean, it’s not like the Jets invented the light bulb, sliced bread or the dot.com. The draft-and-develop blueprint is older than the back of Jaromir Jagr’s head. The trick, therefore, is to do it better than the other guy(s), and we like to think the Jets’ scouts have assembled a glittering collection of raw, untapped talent. Better than most, if not all. Ah, but loyalists of the Edmonton Oilers likely thought much the same thing at different times during the past decade.

If the Jets bird dogs did their job, the kids will be alright. Perhaps not this season, but eventually.

I like what the Jets have done. I don’t see it as risky business. Not even in goal. Technically, Hellebuyck isn’t a rookie. He stood in the blue paint 26 times during a Jets crusade that fell off the rails last winter, so he won’t be eligible for the Calder Trophy. But let’s face it, he’s a freshman. Michael Hutchinson isn’t, but he’s no one’s idea of a No. 1. He was given ample opportunity to supplant everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Ondrej Pavelec, and he couldn’t do it, which probably should tell you all you need to know about him. But, really, the Buck and Hutch Show doesn’t need to be all-world. Anything above average is an upgrade.

Nolan Patrick
Nolan Patrick

Can you say Nolan Patrick, kids? The Jets can. Unless I miss my guess, the local shinny side will finish closer to the back end rather than the front of the pack this winter and, given another stroke of good fortune when the NHL makes the numbered ping-pong balls go bouncy-bouncy at the draft lottery next spring, Patrick might be the Jets’ reward. The bonus, of course, is that the Brandon Wheat Kings forward is a homebrew.

Oh, the good times (not to mention the brown pop) will be flowing at The Pint on Fort Street next Thursday night (Oct. 20) when yesterday’s heroes gather to tell tall tales and swap fibs at the Heritage Classic Launch Party. A great number of former Jets dating to the World Hockey Association glory days shall be on site, as will the Avco World Trophy. At the same time, it’s a sad reminder that we’ve lost some people along the way. I hope they take a moment to remember CBC voice Don Wittman, Jets radio legend Friar Nicolson and former Winnipeg Free Press hockey scribe Reyn Davis. Friar, Reyn and I were the only three news scavengers to work the Jets beat, home and away, during the final WHA season. It was a hoot. The Jets were a real good bunch of guys, too. They made my job enjoyable. It was a privilege and a pleasure to cover that team.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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 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 in 2015.