Winnipeg Sports 1970-present: The top-50 movers and shakers

Something a little different today, kids.

Rather than the usual Sunday morning smorgas-bored, I give you the top 50-plus movers and shakers in Good Ol’ Hometown over the past half century.

This isn’t one of those hum-drum, greatest-athlete lists. We’re talking positive impact, what a sports figure did to enhance the local sporting landscape, whether that meant the wow factor of Teemu Selanne’s 76-goal rookie season or Harvey Warner keeping the ponies at a full gallop out at Assiniboia Downs.

And, while our play-for-pay jocks tend to gobble up the big headlines on a day-to-day basis, it’s often the owners and managers and coaches and administrators who make things happen when we aren’t staring at the scoreboard, and that also means our amateur playing fields, where we have a rich tradition of magnificence and the impact has been significant.

So here’s the list of the 50-plus most-impactful movers and shakers in Winnipeg sports dating back to 1970, and I should warn you that this list includes jock journos, because once upon a time before the Internet, 24-hour TV and social media, there was a gadget called the radio. Not every game was televised or live streamed. We needed our newspapers and radios to take us to the action.

One final note: Remember, this is only one person’s opinion, so don’t get your knickers in a twist if you don’t see the name of one of your faves.

Ben Hatskin, the day he signed Bobby Hull at Portage and Main.

1. Ben Hatskin: Well, this is the ultimate no-brainer. It’s like naming Pope Francis to an all-Catholic team. I mean, Benny didn’t just bring the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association to Good Ol’ Hometown in 1972, he hijacked Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks in a shocking coup that reshaped the shinny landscape. Without Benny’s derring-do, there would have been no National Hockey League Jets 1.0 and no Jets 2.0.

2. Mark Chipman: The Puck Pontiff filled the void left by the 1996 departure of the Jets to Arizona, but his Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League were just the appetizer. Aided by billionaire David Thomson’s bulging bankroll, there was an NHL rebirth in River City in 2011, with the Atlanta Thrashers moving north. Oh, and did I mention that along the way Chipman and Thomson built a downtown arena?

3. Bobby Hull: The Golden Jet informed Hatskin and the other WHA renegade owners that it would take $1 million dollars for him to leave the Blackhawks and pull on a Jets jersey in ’72. Done deal. The Hull signing legitimized the WHA, and other top-level players soon followed. And, remember, Robert Marvin was also part of the ownership group that took the Jets into the NHL.

Michael Gobuty

4. Michael Gobuty/Barry Shenkarow: I know, I know. Michael is the guy who let Wayne Gretzky get away. Mook. But don’t hold that against him. Michael and his ownership group kept the Jets afloat in the late 1970s, allowing for one final, rewarding whirl in the WHA by purchasing the contracts of a group of Houston Aeros, including Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Rich Preston and Scott Campbell. He also recruited John Bowie Ferguson, and Michael offered a loud and influential voice in the NHL’s decision to absorb the Jets and three other WHA franchises in 1979.  As for Barry, talk about shooting the messenger. By the time the whole thing went south for Jets 1.0, he was front man for the ownership group that sold the club to American buyers, who then loaded up the truck and bugged out to Arizona, lock, stock and jock. So Barry became the fall guy. But it’s a bad rap. No locals were willing to dig into their deep pockets to purchase the franchise and lose millions of dollars every year, so he/they really had no choice.

Cal Murphy

5. Cal Murphy: Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and very funny, Cal ruled the Winnipeg Blue Bombers roost with an iron fist from 1983-96, as either head coach or general manager. Along the way, there were three Grey Cup championships, one heart transplant, and one human rights kerfuffle over female news snoops in the locker room. He also brought the Grey Cup game to Good Ol’ Hometown for the first time, and became a vocal advocate for organ donations. Today there’s a pigeon perch of Kindly Cal outside Football Follies Field In Fort Garry.

6. Wade Miller: The leader of the Canadian Mafia inherited a Sad Sack, laughing stock-level Bombers team and the longest title drought in the Canadian Football League when he was anointed CEO in 2013. He was more like the CE-D’oh! in the early years, but Wade ignored the wolves howling at his door and stuck by his fellow hosers, GM Kyle Walters and sideline steward Mike O’Shea. Today the Bombers reign as Grey Cup champions, with money in the bank, and only the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Miller down.

Anders Hedberg, agent Don Baizley and Ulf Nilsson.

7. Dr. Gerry Wilson/Billy Robinson/Don Baizley: No North American shinny side tapped into the European hockey market as swiftly, deeply and as eagerly as the Jets, and it was this trio of forward-thinkers that brought the first wave of Scandinavians to Good Ol’ Hometown in the mid-1970s. Dr. Wilson caught the first glimpse of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and alerted Robinson, the Jets main bird dog. Robby scampered across the big pond to Sweden and liked what he saw, signing both players pronto. Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Curt Larsson came along for the ride, and player agent Baizley took them under his wing. Championship parades ensued.

8. Anders/Ulf/the Shoe: It’s no exaggeration to suggest Anders and Ulf revolutionized the game once in partnership with Hull. They made magic with their swashbuckling, freestyle frolicking on the local freeze, but it was Sjoberg—the Shoe—who stirred the drink from the back end. Together, they dominated the WHA and—damn them!—also provided Glen Sather with the blueprint for his Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s.

John Ferguson and Ducky at the 1981 NHL entry draft.

9. John Ferguson: So, here’s the irony—he was the cad who lured the ultra-popular Hedberg and Nilsson away from Portage and Main to make them stars on Broadway, then the Rangers fired Fergy and he joined the Jets to oversee their final WHA title and aid the entry into the NHL. Go figure. Full of bluster and occasional rage, Fergy made certain that life around the Jets camp was never boring, which sometimes meant kicking holes in walls and dumping buckets of ice on the opposing team’s bench. As Jets GM, he assembled a string of formidable NHL outfits during the 1980s, even if he couldn’t quite get them over the hump. Stars like Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne, David Babych, Thomas Steen and Dave Christian were drafted during his watch, and we won’t talk about Jimmy Mann.

10. Clara Hughes: When they name parks, playgrounds and schools in your honor, and when they put your pic on a postage stamp, you know you’ve done something right. Clara is a two-sport Olympian—speed skating and cycling—and the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. But it’s her advocacy on behalf of mental health and children’s sports/recreation that makes Clara truly impactful. She’s a leading voice in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and she’s donated/raised many thousands of dollars for various causes.

11. Cindy Klassen: She has as many shiny Olympic trinkets as Clara Hughes (six), including one gold medal, so Clara’s two-sport bona fides is all that separates the two world champion speed skaters.

12. Chris Walby: If ever there’s been a larger-than-life athlete, it was Bluto—all 6-feet, 7-inches and 300-plus pounds of him (give or take a Big Mac and a six pack). Bluto grabbed grass and growled for the Bombers from 1981-96, collecting three Grey Cup rings, nine CFL all-star nods, two top O-lineman awards, and a bust in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. But it wasn’t just what he did on the field and his size that made Bluto stand out. He was among the great characters in Rouge Football, a good-time Charlie and a deliverer of delicious quotes. No surprise he became a talking head on CBC’s football coverage, even if English sometimes seemed to be his second language.

13. Dale Hawerchuk: He came to the Jets as a freshly scrubbed 18-year-old from Cornwall, and much was expected of Ducky. He delivered. Winnipeg HC went from the free space on the NHL’s bingo card to the best shinny outfit this side of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and Ducky was the centrepiece.

Jennifer Jones and Jill Officer

14. Jennifer Jones: The only thing Jennifer hasn’t won is the Brier, and that’s only because the boys won’t let her play. There’s never been a finer female curler in our country, even if some in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia might want to point to Sandra Schmirler and Colleen Jones and debate the issue. Well, let ’em hash it out. We know they’re wrong.

15. Jill Officer: It will be interesting to monitor how Jennifer gets along without Jill throwing second stones. They were together almost as long as Mick and Keith, but Officer retreated from competitive curling in 2018. Jill’s haul is the same as Jen’s: An Olympic gold, two world championships and six Scotties titles in her trophy case. Also one park named in her honor.

Teemu Selanne and the Calder Trophy

16. Teemu Selanne: Like Anders and Ulf, the Finnish Flash wasn’t in Good Ol’ Hometown for a long time, but it sure was a good time. Those 76 goals in his freshman NHL crusade had the burg in a buzz, and it’s a record that will stand as long as there are frozen ponds for kids to skate on. Teemu might have been the most popular Jet ever, give or take Ducky.

17. Don Duguid: The Digit toddled off to two world curling championships as a skip and never lost a game. Yup, 17-0. Dugie then thought it would be a swell idea to go on TV and tell the rest of us how to curl, which he did for 29 years until someone at the CBC had a brain fart and let him go. And just the other day he was made a member of the Order of Canada for his wonderful work as a curler and teacher of the game.

Moosie Turnbull

18. Ray Turnbull: His friends called him Moosie, and he had scads of friends in and beyond the curling community. A true visionary, Moosie’s impact began at the Mother Club on Granite Way, but his influence spread across the globe when he buddied up with Don Duguid for instructional clinics to curling curious nations beginning in the 1970s. So he’s largely to blame for the rest of the world catching up to us on pebbled ice. A broadcasting icon with TSN from 1984 to 2010, Moosie coached no fewer than 17 world champions.

19. Frank McKinnon: Those who knew him best would probably tell us that Frank never slept, because he didn’t have time for zzzzzzs. How busy was he? Let me count the ways: Five years president and 20 years on the executive board of Hockey Manitoba; 10 years commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League; founding father of the Centennial Cup tournament and the inaugural World Junior championship; first chairman of the board of Hockey Canada; two years director Sports Federation of Canada; four years vice-president Canadian Olympic Association; founding member of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association. Frank was based in Carman, but he spent enough time in Good Ol’ Hometown to qualify for this list.

20. Donny Lalonde: The Golden Boy was in the ring with Sugar Ray. Yes, that Sugar Ray, as in Leonard. He even put the boxing legend on the canvas—one of only two men to do so—scoring a fourth-round knockdown in their 1988 bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Alas, Sugar Ray ruled the day, battering Lalonde about the ears in the ninth round and scoring a TKO. But it’s enough that the Golden Boy went from working out in the old firehall gym on Talbot Avenue in Elmwood to champion of the boxing world’s light heavyweights.

21. Jeff Stoughton: It’s easier to break out of jail than win the Manitoba men’s curling championship, but Jeff wore the Buffalo on his back 11 times. Crazy, man. A two-time world champion and three times the best at the Brier, Jeff also has two Canadian Mixed titles on his resume. Once he retired his tuck delivery and his spinorama showtime shtick, he took to coaching and administration, first helping Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris strike gold in Mixed Doubles at the Seoul Olympics, and he’s now coach and program manager for the national men’s team.

Coleen Dufresne and Garth Pischke.

22. Coleen Dufresne: When you spend 17 years coaching and another 15 as athletic director at the University of Manitoba, you’ve had an impact on more young people than you can count. Coleen, who wore the Maple Leaf as a player at the 1976 Olympic Games, coached U of M Bisons women’s basketball teams to three national championships and five Great Plains Athletic Conference titles. She is a member of the Basketball Manitoba Hall of Fame in three categories—builder, coach and player—and the Canada West Hall of Fame.

23. Garth Pischke: Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball in the movies, but Garth made people talk volleyball in real life. Nobody put the W in the word “win” like Garth. He won a staggering 1,353 games in his 38 seasons as mastermind of the U of M Bisons men’s volleyball team, losing just 414 times. Chew on that and digest it—1,353-414. Who does that? Only Pischke, the winningest coach in collegiate V-ball history, on either side of the border. A two-time Olympian and six-time MVP at the Nationals as a player, Garth coached the Bisons to nine national titles and was named the Manitoba amateur athlete of the 20th century.

Brian Dobie

24. Brian Dobie: If this was just about being a nice guy, the U of M Bisons football coach would be at, or near, the top of the heap. Lovely man. He’s been sideline steward of the Herd since 1996, a gig that came on the heels of a 21-year watch with Churchill Bulldogs in high school grid. Do the math. Coach Dobie has been impacting the lives of teenagers and young men for close to half a century. Oh, and he’s also a five-time Canada West coach-of-the-year and a USports coach-of-the-year, plus he brought the Vanier Cup to the Fort Garry campus in 2007.

25. Vic Pruden: There was no women’s or men’s intercollegiate basketball program at the University of Winnipeg (nee United College) until Vic came along, so all the hoops glory stems from there. The annual Wesmen Classic was Vic’s brain child, ditto the Fort Garry Invitational. The Wesmen Classic became such a landmark event that it had to be shuffled from Riddell Hall to the Winnipeg Arena, and was televised nationally. Vic was also founder and first president of the Manitoba Basketball Coaches’ Association.

Tom Kendall and his U of W Lady Wesmen

26. Coach Tom Kendall/University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen: Few took notice of women’s hoops back in the day, but then along came coach Kendall and his fabulous University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen who, from October 1992 to November 1994, never lost a game. Eighty-eight teams tried to topple them, and 88 teams failed. Even fabled UCLA coach John Wooden was talking about the Lady Wesmen. Under Kendall’s watch, the Lady Ws went 101-2, with three national titles.

27. Coach Mike Burchuk/U of W Lady Wesmen volleyball team: The U of W women’s hoopsters received the 250-point newspaper headlines for their 88-game winning streak, but the women on the volleyball court trumped them with 123 consecutive Ws from January 1987 to January 1989. That included a 58-0 record in 1987-88 and, along the way, the ladies won six consecutive national titles and beat the NCAA champion Texas Longhors and a pro team, the Minnesota Monarchs.

Jennifer Botterill

28. Jennifer Botterill: It should be enough to say that Jennifer is the only female player ever inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, but we’ll also mention that she’s a three-time Olympic champion, five times a world champion, two times the Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the top player in U.S. women’s college hockey, twice the MVP at the world championship, and she once had an 80-game scoring streak (beat that, Connor McDavid!). If young girls are looking for a role model, Jen’s it.

29. Paul Robson: Can a sports list be complete without a guy named Mad Dog on it? We think not. So come on down, Mad Dog Robson, architect of the Winnipeg Football Club’s return to glory in the 1980s, a Lazarus-like rebirth that included the 1984 Grey Cup championship crusade, the first in 22 years. His handiwork as assistant GM/GM included going stealth to lure Chris Walby out of Montreal, hiring Cal Murphy as sideline steward, and engineering the Dieter Brock-for-Tom Clements trade. Paul was also once publisher of the Winnipeg Sun, but we won’t penalize him for that.

Harvey Warner

30. Harvey Warner: It’s probably safe to say the ponies wouldn’t be galloping at Assiniboia Downs if not for Harvey and his Manitoba Jockey Club. Harvey is a founding father and current president of the MJC, which took possession of the Downs in 1993. It’s never been an easy ride for Harvey and cohorts like Darren Dunn and Sharon Gulyas out at the racing oval on the western edge of Good Ol’ Hometown, but they’ve managed to keep the barns open and the horses fed and watered. So, yes, the reins have been in the right man’s hands for 27 years.

31. Mike Riley: When Leo Durocher coined the phrase “nice guys finish last,” he certainly wasn’t thinking of a guy like Mike Riley. Aside from bringing the Grey Cup home twice in his four years as sideline steward of the Bombers, Mike might be the most decent man to ever coach a pro team in Good Ol’ Hometown (John Paddock would be second in line), and that counts for something on my scorecard.

Milt Stegall

32. Milt Stegall: The Turtle Man would be higher on this list, except for one thing—every time I look at his hands, I don’t see any Grey Cup rings. For all his personal accomplishments—all-time TD leader in CFL history with 147 and a Most Outstanding Player award—the Bombers had just four winning seasons in his 14 crusades. No player ever looked better while mostly losing, though, and he’d be the first to tell you that. Milt continues to be a Bombers booster as one of the gab guys on TSN’s CFL coverage, and that’s always a good thing.

33. Sam Katz: Full disclosure—I’m not fond of Sammy. I think him to be a snake oil salesman. If he told me today is Sunday, I’d double check the calendar. But he brought professional baseball back to Good Ol’ Hometown, and the Winnipeg Goldeyes frolic in a beautiful, downtown ballyard thanks to Sammy.

Andy Van Hellemond

34. Andy Van Hellemond: Whistleblowers don’t always get respect, but Andy Van did. The kid weaned on the frozen ponds of Isaac Brock was, arguably, the best man to ever pull on a striped shirt, and he was also a trend-setter, becoming the first on-ice official to wear a helmet, in 1984. The NHL made lids mandatory for the zebras four years later (a grandfather clause allowed some to officiate sans head protection until 2006-07). Andy Van refereed 1,475 regular season games, 227 in the playoffs and 19 Stanley Cup finals, all records. He was named Manitoba’s referee-of-the-century.

35. Sylvia Burka: Before Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen and Susan Auch, there was Sylvia Burka, three times a world speed skating champion. She has held over 40 Canadian speedskating records, and once set a world indoor cycling mark at one kilometer. She won 12 national cycling titles. But her true legacy can be found in the skate marks she left for others to follow.

36. Dawn McEwen: I suppose you could say Dawn is to Team Jennifer Jones what Ringo Starr was to the Beatles. She seems content in the background while Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Cathy Overton-Clapham attracted most of the attention, but without her lead stones and robust sweeping they wouldn’t have become the finest female outfit in Canadian curling history. Dawn has an Olympic gold medal, two world titles and five Scotties crowns in her trophy case, so don’t even think of her as a spare part.

Gold medalists Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris.

37. Kaitlyn Lawes: She branched out from throwing third stones for Jennifer Jones to strike Olympic gold with John Morris in the debut of mixed doubles at the Winter Olympic Games. So she has a nice collection of two gold trinkets, a world championship and a Scotties title.

38. Susan Auch: Although never making it to the top level of the Olympic podium, Susan made speed skating front page news in Good Ol’ Hometown with two silver medals and a bronze in the Winter Games, three gold in World Cup racing in 1995, three Manitoba athlete-of-the-year honors and a Canadian athlete-of-the-year salute. There’s a Susan Auch Oval out at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex and a Susan Auch Park in Transcona, and she’s now CEO of Speed Skating Canada.

39. Troy Westwood/David Asper: Board member Asper came up with the concept and gave the Banjo Bowl it’s name, but it was the spinoff of a quote from Ol’ Lefty, the former Bombers place-kicker who, in an interview prior to a 2003 playoff skirmish, called Saskatchewan Roughriders fans “a bunch of banjo-picking inbreds.” Much caterwauling from the Flattest of Lands ensued, and the Banjo Bowl was born in 2004. It’s the most-anticipated event on the local sports calendar every year, and it’s been strictly SRO since 2005. When he wasn’t trash talking Flatlanders, Ol’ Lefty was hoofing more field goals (617) and more points (2,745) than anyone in Bombers history.

40. Connie Laliberte: They called her the Ice Queen, but underneath that cucumber-cool exterior burned a competitive bonfire. Connie gave every female curler in Manitoba something to aim for when she became the first Buffalo Girl to win the world crown, in 1984. She also won three Scotties titles and today is the high performance director for Curl Manitoba.

Sandy Riley

41. Sandy Riley: The former sailor (1976 Olympic Games) and former president of the Manitoba Sports Federation served as chair of Winnipeg’s 1999 Pan American Games, an event that helped revive the sagging spirit of a city that had lost its NHL franchise only three years earlier. As a bonus, it attracted the attention of Ol’ Cigar Breath, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who used his Revolution Day address to go on a mini-rant about mysterious “traps and tricks and schemes and filth” that encouraged his athletes to clamber over the wall to freedom. Cuban defectors aside, the Pan Ams were an artistic and financial success. More latterly, the Riley family donated $500,000 toward construction of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

42. Dayna Spiring: It doesn’t matter that Dayna wasn’t on the receiving end of any passes, nor did she hoof any field goals or tackle any running backs. The lady was a champ in her first year as Chair of the Blue Bombers board of directors, and she became the first woman to have her name engraved on the Grey Cup. For young girls and women, that makes her Dayna Inspiring.

43. Desiree Scott: A former star and coach with the U of M Bisons, the lady they call The Destroyer joined our national women’s soccer side in 2010, and she’s now just one of five to have earned 150 caps. Along the way, she’s collected two Olympic bronze medals and participated in three World Cup tournaments. Away from the competitive pitch, Desiree is heavily involved with soccer camps for KidSport and she’s an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup.

44. Bill Wedlake: A head coach for 32 years, first at St. John’s High where he won two provincial titles, then 16 years at the U of W, Bill was also athletic director at the downtown campus for eight years. A co-founder of the Winnipeg Invitational tournament, he’s written three books on coaching and is a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

45. Mo Glimcher: If you think it’s tough dealing with teenagers these days, consider Mo Glimcher’s gig—he had 30,000-40,000 kids under foot every year between 1975 and 2016. Mo retired after 41 years as Executive Director of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association, and I’d say he’s earned a master’s degree in babysitting.

46. Bob Picken: There are three major sports operatives in Good Ol’ Hometown—the Jets, the Blue Bombers, and curling. Yes, curling. Our Pebble People don’t make the big bucks like the Jets and Bombers, but they don’t want for media exposure, due in large part to jock journos like Pick. Pebble People have never known a better media friend than Pick, whose magnificent pipes blessed the airwaves of CJOB, CKY and the CBC for half a century. He played the game, served as president of the Manitoba Curling Association, worked with both the Canadian Curling Association and the World Curling Federation, and there’s a bonspiel at the Thistle named in his honor. Pick made certain that curling was never back-page news or filler at the end of a sportscast.

47. Jack Matheson: Admittedly, there’s bias in this choice, because Matty gave me my start at the Winnipeg Tribune, but his sassy and brassy sports column was the only absolute must-read in town during the 1970s. And when Furnaceman fired him up for his daily rants on CJOB, it was must-listening. Matty set an incredibly high bar as a sports scribe, and no one has come close to reaching it since the Trib folded.

Friar Nicolson and his former sidekick Sod Keilback.

48. Friar Nicolson: There’s no way of knowing how many young men and women went into broadcasting because of the curmudgeonly Friar, but I’d suggest the number is closer to 50 than one. The longtime play-by-play voice of the Jets, Friar is the man who lured Knuckles Irving to CJOB in 1973, and he also gave one-time do-everything CKY/CTV voice Peter Young his start in the gab game. That’s serious impact.

49. Bob Irving: When Knuckles became the voice of the Blue Bombers, Don Jonas and Chuck Ealey were the starting QBs and Dieter Brock was a little-known rookie who answered to the name Ralph. Bud Riley was the head coach, and there have been 14 more since Knuckles moved in behind the mic. So he goes back some, and he’s still going. At least he was until COVID-19 interrupted regularly schedule play-by-play. We assume (hope) the well-liked and highly respected Knuckles will be back for a 46th season once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror.

50. Don Wittman: How versatile was Witt? Well, we know he covered the CFL and the NHL and tennis and the Olympics and world-class track and top-flight curling during close to half a century with the CBC, but he also broadcast cricket. Ya, cricket. Witt traveled the globe and was on site to call the Ben Johnson race in Seoul and Donovan Bailey in Atlanta, but home base was always Winnipeg.

Let’s talk about the silence of the Puck Pontiff…Barry Shenkarow didn’t hide…big bucks in the blurt box…Fake It Like Beckham…that ain’t chicken feed those pigeons are fetching…fiddle farting around on the snooker table…and other things on my mind

Another Sunday morning smorgas-bored…and you are not required to wear a mask to read this blog…

Is it just me, or does anyone else wonder what’s rattling around in the grey matter between Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman’s ears these days?

Mark Chipman, the Puck Pontiff.

I mean, with the National Hockey League ensnared in a state of iffiness re a 2021 crusade, and the players royally PO’d due to a proposed wave of wage rollbacks (again), wouldn’t you like to know what the Winnipeg Jets co-bankroll thinks about the current state of affairs?

Wouldn’t you like to hear his thoughts on the local shinny side playing in an empty Little Hockey House On The Prairie this winter?

Wouldn’t you like to know if he’d prefer to scrap a 2021 season rather than lose a small fortune paying six- and seven-figure salaries with no game-day revenue?

Wouldn’t you like to hear the Puck Pontiff’s take on the NHL owners’ ploy to renege on the agreement they willingly signed with the work force just this past summer?

Wouldn’t you like to know how he feels about the Jets frolicking in an all-Canadian division?

Wouldn’t you like to hear some assurance that, COVID-19 be damned, the Jets are here for the long haul, even as the pandemic gnaws away at his bottom line like termites on a two-by-four?

I know I would.

I won’t hold my breath, though, because the Puck Pontiff is not a man given to disclosure. He’s more guarded with his thoughts than a Rottweiler growling at the gates of a junkyard. The Kremlin was less secretive during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But that’s his right, of course.

Chipman heads up a private company, True North Sports + Entertainment, so he isn’t obliged to make us privy to any secrets, dirty or otherwise. Except for one thing: There’s ample and rabid outside interest in the centrepiece of his fiefdom, that being an NHL franchise that pigs out at the public trough. The faithful flock to his Little Hockey House On The Prairie a minimum of 41 nights every year, give or take a pandemic, and many thousands of them also spend many thousands of dollars on Jets merchandise. Others purchase TV cable and/or Internet streaming packages to watch their hockey heroes as they fight the good fight hither and yon.

I’d say that warrants a word or two from the guy who signs the cheques, wouldn’t you?

Geoff Molson, the beer baron bankroll of the storied Montreal Canadiens, thought so, which is why he sat down for a natter with Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette recently.

Among other things, Molson pooh-poohed any notion of a lost season, no matter how harsh the financial wallop, and he expressed a hope that there would be patrons in the pews before the close of business on a runted season.

“I really do think it’s the right thing to play,” he said. “I think we can get there. The thought of making a profit this year isn’t even in my mindset. It’s more about returning to play.”

Why can’t the Puck Pontiff poke his head out of the ivory tower and do the same?

Again, he’s under no obligation to address the faithful, but the right to remain silent is a good policy if you’re sitting in the back seat of a police cruiser, not when you’re at the wheel of an NHL franchise in the heartland of Canada.

I’d like to think that one or more of the girls and boys on the beat have requested an audience with His Royal Hockeyness during these most uncertain of times. If not, shame on them. If so (and I suspect that’s the case), shame on him and his hangups. Not so long ago, Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab confessed that he’s never engaged in a verbal parry-and-thrust with the Puck Pontiff. Not in four years on the beat, but not for lack of effort. Mad Mike assured us he has put in a bid to tap the Puck Pontiff’s brain pan more than once, only to be rejected each time. And that’s just wrong.

Barry Shenkarow

Back in the day, Benny Hatskin or Michael Gobuty or Barry Shenkarow were usually just a phone call away, and we were never required to genuflect and kiss their ring fingers before they agreed to talk to us. We had their home phone numbers, for cripes sake, and they knew where to find us. Did Shenkarow enjoy standing or sitting in front of the media mob, painting a gloom-and-doom scenario for the Jets 1.0 franchise? No. He didn’t. I can tell you there was always pain in his voice, sadness in his eyes and a great burden on his slender shoulders whenever he spoke. At times there was also anger. And extreme frustration. But he became the front man for the ownership group and accepted that his voice needed to be heard, even when there was nothing but sad tidings to deliver. Many among the rabble made Barry out to be the bad guy when it became apparent that the NHL couldn’t work in Good Ol’ Hometown in the 1990s, but no one could accuse him of hiding.

It occurs to me that if there’s one thing the rabble dislikes more than jock journos complaining about lousy press box food, tight deadlines and uppity athletes, it’s millionaire jocks and billionaire owners bickering over big bucks. That doesn’t play well at the best of times, so it’s particularly irksome during a global pandemic that’s forcing people out of work, out of homes and sending them to food banks. I mean, if NHL bankrolls get their way in the latest squabble with the NHL Players Association, Kyle Connor of the Jets won’t collect his $8 million salary for a 2021 crusade. He’ll have to get by on $4.4 million in U.S. coin. At the lower end of the pay scale, Jansen Harkins will have to make due on $385,000 instead of $700,000. I agree, boo-freaking-hoo. Hey, I’m all for the workers squeezing every copper they can out of owners trying to weasel their way out of an agreement they signed four months ago, but a money spat is a tough sell when the world is upside down.

On the subject of high finance, the most noted voice in the CBS sports blurt box, Jim Nantz, is looking for a hefty raise in pay from the $6.5 million he now collects for flapping his gums on the network’s NFL, college hoops, and PGA coverage. Nantz’ contract expires next summer and it’s a good bet that he’s aware his sidekick in the CBS football booth, Tony Romo, draws an annual stipend of $17.5 million. I’m sure he also knows that Fox Sports pays its do-everything squawk box Joe Buck $10.5 million per annum. I don’t know what the bookies in Vegas are thinking, but I’d say the over/under on Nantz’ next deal is $12 million.

If that isn’t obscene enough for you, consider this: England footy legend David Beckham will be paid $53 million over the next three years to do nothing. Becks has signed on as an ‘icon’ player in the EA Sports video game FIFA 21, and he’ll be making more money in fake footy than he did while kicking real balls for sides like Man U, Real Madrid and LA Galaxy. Makes for a nifty marketing promo, don’t you think—Fake It Like Beckham!

New Kim, a two-year-old female Belgian racing pigeon, recently sold for $1.9 million at auction. No bird has ever landed that large a windfall. At least not since Elin Nordegren flew the coop on Tiger.

If I owned a pigeon, I believe I would name it Clay.

The most vulgar man in sports, Conor McGregor, has signed to fight someone I’ve never heard of in the UFC octagon next month. I’m pretty sure I’ll be too busy to give a damn that night. Or any other night, for that matter.

Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News calls Derek Jeter “the most famous Yankee since Mickey Mantle.” Apparently Mike nodded off when Reggie Jackson arrived in Gotham and became Mr. October.

TSN has decided that the 1981 Edmonton E-Somethings are the greatest of all Canadian Football League championship sides. No argument here.

Some folks are quite giddy that the CFL has released a 2021 schedule, with a full 18-game crusade for each of the nine sides. Rick LeLacheur is, in fact, “beyond excited” at the prospect of his B.C. Lions performing in front of fewer than the 12,000 bodies that normally gather under the B.C. Place Stadium bubble top in downtown Vancity. What the Leos president and no one else in Rouge Football can tell us, though, is who’s footing the bill. I mean, if they couldn’t afford a mini-season in 2020, what makes anyone believe the three-downs game is good to go next summer/autumn? The schedule is nothing more than a goodwill gesture and, as I scribbled last week, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless the large lads are grabbing grass in June. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer about my favorite league, but it’s true.

The Edmonton Oilers owe a Dallas hotel $55,000 for two stays last season. And here I thought the World Hockey Association was dead.

A most foul wind blew during a recent match between world No. 2 Ronnie O’Sullivan and Matthew Stevens at the Northern Ireland Open snooker tournament. One of the participants farted, you see, and it was no silent bomb. “That was a very unfortunate noise there,” one of the commentators observed while the players and match referee glanced mischievously at one another. “I don’t know who it was from…I’ve got my suspicions.” Eventually, O’Sullivan won the match, 4-2, then copped a guilty plea, saying, “I’m taking full ownership of that one.”

Akim Aliu

The Florida Panthers have hired Brett Peterson, a Black man, as assistant general manager, which prompted this reaction from Akim Aliu of the Hockey Diversity Alliance: “It’s long overdue. We feel there’s a lot of people of color that are deserving of jobs and also people from different genders. Obviously women I think are very adapt at doing a good job in the game of hockey.” Ya, Aliu and his HDA think so highly of women in hockey that there isn’t a Mrs., Miss, Ms or Ma’am in the group. Go ahead. Call up the HDA website and you’ll see nothing but the faces and names of men. I contacted the HDA to inquire about its lack of diversity, but received no reply. Aliu and his boys-only club might want to practise diversity before squawking about diversity.

I get a laugh out of bandwagon jumpers in jock journalism, guys like Jack Todd, whose column has returned to the sports pages of the Montreal Gazette, and Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. Todd called the Miami Marlins’ hiring of Kim Ng as general manager “the best thing that has happened to Major League Baseball since the Red Sox shook the curse. The time is now and Ng is the woman.” Simmons, meanwhile, wrote: “I wish I had a daughter to share this with.” I call BS on that. When was the last time either of them wrote about women’s sports, other than the Olympics when there’s no choice? Where were they when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was still in operation and hungering for coverage? They didn’t notice the CWHL until the doors were shuttered. So they can spare us the faux concern.

Simmons, of course, has a long history of pooh-poohing female athletes and the games they play, and his recent list of the 50 most influential sports figures in the Republic of Tranna over the past 50 years tells us all we need to know about his thoughts on the distaff portion of the playground. His top-50 actually includes 59 people, all but one of them men. That’s right, in half a century, only one woman, tennis player Bianca Andreescu, made the cut. No Fran Rider and no Angela James, each hugely influential in Ponytail Puck and based in The ROT. One of them, James, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and Rider should be.

I don’t know if anyone at the Winnipeg Sun has plans to compile a similar top-50 for the most influential sports figures in Good Ol’ Hometown during past half century, but I guarantee there’d be more than one woman included in the group. Benny Hatskin would top the list, of course, but you can be damn certain there’d be room for Clara Hughes, Jennifer Jones, Cindy Klassen, Connie Laliberte and Susan Auch, among other women.

And, finally, there’s only one thing worse than wearing a mask—not wearing a mask.

Let’s talk about Pontytail Puck, bully tactics and White Knight Gary…a living wage…Grapes and his Bruins…Hall passes for Doc Holliday and Black Hat Barry Shenkarow….D’oh Canada…and more of Mad Mike’s Whodunit

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I had the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, until it wasn’t the winning horse…

If 200 women stage a boycott and nobody notices that they’re gone, does it really happen?

Therein lies the conundrum for Ponytail Puck.

Dani Rylan

Few folks noticed the women when they were active on the frozen ponds of the globe (Olympic Games being the notable exception), so why should the rabble care now that a) the Canadian Women’s Hockey League has hit an iceberg and suffered the same fate as the Titanic, and b) 200 elite female players plan to take their pucks and go home (for the good of the game)?

It’s a ballsy gambit, sitting out an entire hockey season, yet that’s the declared intention of the ForTheGame200. They’ll find better things to do next autumn/winter/spring, then cross their fingers and hope this is how their universe unfolds:

  • Founder/commissioner Dani Rylan of the United States-based National Women’s Hockey League tears down everything she has built up over the past four years, thus leaving a barren landscape;

  • Gary Bettman, a white knight on a magnificent steed, rides to the rescue and creates a little sister operation for the National Hockey League—the WNHL, with franchises (on both sides of the border) that offer the girls all the bells and whistles that guys like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby enjoy;

  • WNHL players earn salaries between $50,000 and $100,000, thereby allowing them to escape the life of a 9-to-5 working stiff;

  • Fans flock to female shinny palaces in robust numbers and everyone lives happily ever after.

Gary Bettman

Less utopian, however, is the picture as seen through the lens of reality, so let’s call out this women’s hockey boycott for what it is: A bully tactic.

Make no mistake, the ForTheGame200 group sit-down is designed to force Dani Rylan’s hand into clearing the deck for Bettman and an NHL takeover, although they’re careful not to use a cut-throat tone in delivering their message. They have the very best of intentions, don’t you know. They’re doing this for the greater good and for little girls.

“I want to set the table for them so that they have a league to aspire to, that they can dream to play this game professionally and not have to work a full-time job,” Team Canada and Calgary Inferno veteran Brianne Jenner told Ron MacLean of Sportsnet.

It’s an admirable, lovely sentiment and, no doubt, genuine. I certainly believe her (them). I applaud her (them), although I must confess that it is the clapping of one hand.

I mean, bullying is bullying is bullying and, to date, Rylan has given no indication that she’s prepared to let the schoolyard toughs steal her lunch money. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Scant moments after the ForTheGame200 declared their plan for a group sit-down, Rylan issued a heels-dug-in communiqué: It will be business as usual for the NWHL next autumn. How she plans to ice a product the rabble will want to support is a mystery, of course, but she’ll soldier on and what we now have is a game of chicken—Rylan vs. the Revolutionaries.

Kendall Coyne Schofield

And, to think, it was just three months ago when the women’s game had its ‘it’ moment, that being Kendall Coyne Schofield’s gobsmacking, 14-second skedaddle against the boys at the NHL all-star game in San Jose.

“Media was buzzing around it for about a week,” Inferno general manager Kristen Hagg recalled, “and then we went back to being Calgary’s best-kept secret.”

Today the Inferno is no more. The CWHL is no more. And 200 players would like the NWHL to be no more.

It’s a fine mess they’ve gotten themselves into. And the question is: Will anyone be there to give a damn by the time they’ve dug themselves out?

Cassie Campbell-Pascall

Cassie Campbell-Pascall participated in the chin-wag with MacLean and Jenner (Schofield also offered her voice), and she delivered this astonishing comment: “We can’t be satisfied anymore with leagues that survive on $50,000 to $100,000 sponsorships. Let’s face it, that should be players’ salaries in the future.” Full marks to Cassie for managing to say that with a straight face—and I didn’t even notice the rose-tinted glasses she was wearing—but it’s pure Pollyanna. The day women are paid 100 large to play in a WNHL, I expect to look out my eighth-floor apartment window and see Miss Piggy flying by.

Hey, I’m not here to piddle in their Corn Flakes. I’d prefer to be part of a world where the elite women earn a living wage, and I hope they get there. For now, though, the ForTheGame200 and their allies aren’t doing themselves any favors by making foolish comparisons between the pauperish wages in Ponytail Puck ($2,000-$10,000) and those of multi-millionaire NHL players. You don’t compare a trail horse to Secretariat, because it only invites rude laughter and ridicule. Like most any enterprise, you get what the market bears, and by no known business plan is $100,000 salaries workable when fewer than 1K people are sitting in the pews 16-28 nights a year.

If it’s comparison you want, let’s look at minimum salaries in the NHL feeder system:
American Hockey League—$47,500US.
ECHL—$14,100 (rookies); $15,300 (returning players).
Southern Professional Hockey League—$4,200 to $14,000/year.
So it seems women aren’t the only people playing pro shinny in North America who can’t afford to quit their day jobs.

Kristen Hagg

The aforementioned Kristen Hagg delivered this observation last week, on Calgary Inferno Day in Cowtown: “We live in a society where people do not value women’s sport. Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sport as dominant and somehow automatically more interesting. The problem is that once society internalizes falsehood, it’s not easy to correct it.” I’d say the lady is spot-on.

Not spot-on is Donald S. Cherry. I really wish the Lord of Loud would cease using his Hockey Night In Canada bully pulpit to prop up his old Beantown Bruins as the shining example of shinny done the right way. Someone needs to remind Grapes that the Bruins never won a damn thing during his time behind the bench.

Just wondering: Does Justin Williams of the Carolina Hurricanes feel cheated when he’s participating in a Stanley Cup series that doesn’t go to a Game 7?

Bob Holliday

Congrats and a heartfelt tip of the bonnet to old friend, colleague and good guy Bob Holliday, known to friends as Doc or Mr. St. Vital. Robert is this year’s inductee to the media wing of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and I’m glad they got around to saluting the old boy while he’s still with us. Doc went about his business in an understated way at the St. Vital Lance, Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Sun, and he always delivered the goods.

Barry Shenkarow

Also going into the MHHofF is former Winnipeg Jets co-bankroll Barry Shenkarow, who, to many among the rabble, wears a black hat (along with Bettman) to this day for allowing the franchise to slip, slide away to the Arizona desert. While it’s true that Barry presided over les Jets on the Day of the Long Faces in 1996, I remind you of a couple things: 1) He was part of the group that got Good Ol’ Hometown into the NHL in 1979; 2) as current Jets co-bankroll Mark Chipman once explained, “No one wanted to own the team in 1995. And for good reason. It didn’t work.” There were a myriad of reasons why the original NHL Jets toddled off to Phoenix and became the Coyotes, not the least of which was a 65-cent Canadian dollar and a fan base that refused to fill a decaying barn on Maroons Road. Frankly, Shenkarow and partners squeezed more life out of the franchise than it probably deserved. I’m pleased that he’s getting his due.

What I can’t believe is that the Winnipeg Sun was a day late and a dollar short on the Hall of Fame story. Like, how do you miss, or ignore, that? The Drab Slab devoted an entire page to the Class of 2019 on Friday, while the Sun tucked it onto a back page on Saturday. Shame, shame.

Lisa Simpson

Loved the burn The Simpsons writers laid on the Ottawa Senators in last week’s lampoon of all things hoser. Actually, the entire D’oh Canada episode was a hoot. Unless, of course, you happen to be a “Newfy” or a Trudeauite. In that case, I suppose it wasn’t all that funny. Since I’m neither of the above, I giggled.

What would a week be without more unbridled speculation from the Drab Slab’s resident conspiracy theorist, Mad Mike McIntyre? Seriously, I really don’t know if Mad Mike is writing sports or a Whodunit novel. You remember those “ruffled feathers” that Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice referenced last month? Here’s Mad Mike’s take on it: “While Maurice didn’t offer any specifics, it says here (Mark) Scheifele was one of the players the bench boss was referring to.” There you have it. Those “ruffled feathers” belong to Rink Rat Scheifele. Mad Mike says so. No specifics, naturally, but that’s his guess. That’s his hunch. Seems like everything in the past month has been a guess or a hunch from Mad Mike.

Mad Mike took to Twitter to answer questions from readers last week. One asked him about his Drab Slab-driven “rumour” of a rotten-to-the-core Jets changing room. “It’s not just a rumour,” he responded. “There were issues, divisions, etc. within the room.” Again, no specifics about the issues, divisions, etc. Just take his word for it and stay tuned for the next exciting chapter in Mad Mike’s Whodunit.

This is interesting: Jason Bell of the Drab Slab asked Matt Hendricks about a rift in the room and the veteran Jets forward had this to say: “The room was as strong as when I left (in 2018), without a doubt.” So Hendricks is blind, deaf or a liar. Take your pick.

And, finally, I think it’s terrific that so many folks have rallied around female hockey players, but where were those people when the CWHL was still in business? And I’m looking at you, mainstream media.

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.