Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and if you don’t like reading about soccer, you’d be wise to move to another blog right about now…
The women’s World Cup is comfortably underway in France, and I sometimes wonder why we in North America have been so slow on the uptake in embracing the beautiful game known around the globe as football but soccer here at home.
True, fitba can be slow, tedious and boring. And, of course, there are the play-actors and their near-death experiences, a dodgy bit of business that is shame-worthy but never Oscar-worthy.
Perhaps it’s the theatrics of the soccer elite—almost exclusive to the men’s side of the pitch—that keeps us at arm’s length. I mean, watching Neymar and other faux thespians flopping and twitching and gasping for their last breath, like so many trout out of water, provides comic relief but it’s also a total turnoff. If I want to see bad acting, I can turn on Mama’s Family any night on MeTV.
But, hey, even with fake injury time added to each half of a soccer match, it’s over in less than two hours.
Cripes, man, the halftime show at the Super Bowl lasts longer than that, especially if Janet Jackson has to put her clothes back on. And yet the National Football League and its Super Bowl is a colossus, even when halftime entertainers aren’t flashing flesh.
The NFL, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League are John, Paul, George and Ringo. Major League Soccer is George Martin or Brian Epstein or Billy Preston. You know, the so-called Fifth Beatle. Or worse—Yoko Ono.
Many myopic mainstream jock journalists are reluctant, or refuse, to acknowledge MLS as a major-league sport.
Steve Simmons in the Republic of Tranna, for example, recently posted this item to his Twitter feed:
Toronto big league championships in my lifetime (with apologies to Argos, Rock and TFC)
64 Leafs (have no memory of 62-63-64)
92 Blue Jays
93 Blue Jays.
Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS title fails to register on the Steve-O-Meter.
Yet MLS qualifies on most measuring sticks as “big league.” Million-dollar player salaries? Check. Global reach? Check. Multi-million-dollar national TV contract? Check. Franchises worth mega-millions? Check. Healthy attendance? Check.
Atlanta United, in fact, has a better average head count (52,000-plus) than every team in Major League Baseball. Toronto FC outdraws the Blue Jays. Seattle Sounders outdraw the Mariners. Cripes, man, as of June 2, Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League had better attendance than nine MLB outfits. See for yourself:
I see a lot of “big league” head counts in there.
Meanwhile, here are a few other points of interest about MLS:
* Forbes valued four franchises at more than $300 million last year (Atlanta United $330M, L.A. Galaxy $320M; Seattle Sounders $310M; LAFC $305M) and Toronto FC at $290M. Again, that spells “big league” to me. * In 2018, 53 MLS players collected $1,000,000 or more at the pay window, while both Zoltan Stieber of DC United and Andreu Fontas of Sporting Kansas City came in at one dollar less. If those aren’t “big league” wages, Pele was a punk rocker. * Among all global leagues, only Poland’s First Division has had a faster growth spurt in the past five years, and MLS average attendance between 2013 and 2018 was eighth in the world.
* Atlanta United puts more people in the pews than Manchester United, Newcastle United, Liverpool, Benfica and Atletico Madrid, among many others, while Seattle Sounders have a larger per-game following than outfits like Chelsea and AC Milan.
Is MLS the premier fitba operation on the planet? Of course not. But it doesn’t have to be on par with the English Premier League, Serie A Italy, La Liga or the Bundesliga to make it a member in good standing of the Big Five—and not the Fifth Beatle—in North America.
No surprise, really, that Simmons would pooh-pooh the MLS as a hamlet-sized dot on our sports landscape. Here’s what he had to say about fitba on the Toronto Mike’d podcast during Toronto FC’s championship run: “I’m almost embarrassed to be at the soccer games, because my knowledge of the game and my interest in the game is so limited. I don’t know the ABCs. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you all the positions. I don’t know how many players are on the field. Honestly, I have no connection to this game at all. I didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t play it, I never watched it, I didn’t care about it.” That’s an astonishing confession from a sports columnist with a nation-wide platform. Let’s hope it means he’ll leave the writing on the women’s World Cup to scribes who actually know how many players are on the pitch.
If you tune in to World Cup coverage on TSN, you’ll see something as rare as a Monday morning without a Donald Trump tweet—an all-female natterbug panel. Instead of simply looking all gussied up and pretty, they’re letting Clare Rustad, Kaylyn Kyle and Diana Matheson analyze teams, break down plays and—oh…my…gawd—deliver opinion. You know, like they actually know what they’re talking about. Imagine that. Women with functioning brains on sports TV. What a concept.
I really enjoyed the lively and spirited banter between Rustad, Kyle and Matheson at halftime of the England-Scotland skirmish. Kyle and Rustad disagreed sharply on what should and shouldn’t be a hand ball penalty, and host Kate Beirness knew enough to zip her lips and let the two former Canadian national team members have at it. Kyle was, to say the least, animated and agitated after the Video Assistant Referee awarded England a penalty kick due to an unintentional hand ball by the Scots. Kyle was emphatic: The game referee and VAR room should ignore one of the most fundamental rules of the game and let the women play on. Which, of course, is total nonsense. Do you know what we’d have if officials stopped calling games by the rule book? The Stanley Cup playoffs.
Fashion note: The aforementioned Kyle has the most magnificent head of hair on TV. I know several drag queens who would give their first-born to have that mane.
Speaking of hair, what are the chances that Brett Hull is looking for some hair of the dog this morning? If Hull wasn’t five sheets to the wind on Sunday night in St. Loo, he was off his meds because he looked and sounded totally wasted prior to puck drop for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final between the St. Loo Blues and Boston Bruins. I’m guessing his head is exploding right about now.
Someone hurled a can of beer onto the ice surface late in the Game 6 skirmish. I’d point to Hull as the most likely suspect, except he didn’t appear to be in the mood to let a good can of beer go to waste.
I never thought I’d see dominance in sports like Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Big Red romped to horse racing’s Triple Crown with a 31-length victory in a world-record time that stands unchallenged to this day, and watching film of that gallop still gives me a shiver and has me reaching for the Kleenex.
Even after the passage of so much time, it seems so unreal. Like a fairytale about a wonder horse that us old folks like to tell our grandkids. But it happened, and so did a different kind of thoroughbred—Rafael Nadal. If anything comes close to Secretariat at the Belmont, it’s Rafa on the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris. In winning his 12th French Open title and 18th tennis Grand Slam on Sunday, Rafa is running neck-and-neck with Big Red on my personal scorecard of belief-challenging accomplishments. He’s 93-2 in France. That is not a typo. Do not adjust your screen. The King of Clay has lost twice—in 15 years! Against the absolute best players on the planet. That’s insane.
Number of different women winning the past 10 tennis Grand Slam tournaments: 9. Naomi Osaka has been the only repeat champion. Number of men not named Nadal, Federer or Djokovic winning the past 10 tennis Grand Slam tournaments: 0.
Fun tweet from Gord Stellick of Sportsnet: “Taking attendance first day of JK at Toronto schools in 2024: Kawhi Smith, Kawhi Jones, Kawhi Murphy, Kawhi Watson…”
And, finally, it’s my understanding that they’ll be playing a rather significant basketball game tonight in the Republic of Tranna. Like the majority of Canadians, I won’t be watching, but I hope Kawhi Leonard and the Jurassics get the job done against the Golden State Juggernaut. I love it whenever we beat the Americans at our own game.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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:
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.
The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.
Fergy hired Tom McVie.
The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
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.
I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
It’s Darian Durant’s fault. A pox on his house for taking the money and running to retirement!
It’s Joe Mack’s fault.
The statute of limitations hasn’t run out on Sleepy-Eye Joe’s stupidity, has it? Nope. So, whenever the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ universe isn’t unfolding as it should, the former general manager and everyone’s favorite whipping boy is still fair game for blame. He’s the reason the Big Blue will begin their 2018 Canadian Football League crusade with a starting quarterback on training wheels.
I mean, think about it.
Had Sleepy-Eye Joe reeled in Mike Reilly in 2013, we wouldn’t be talking about Matt Nichols’ wonky wheels and a QB pool that has all the depth of an Archie-Jughead plot line. Well, would we? Reilly, after all, is Marlboro Man rugged, even when he’s wearing one of his funny, little hats. He’s voted annually by his peers as the toughest hombre in the three-down game, and he hasn’t missed a beat due to an owie since the first week of September 2015.
The sad thing is, Mack could have had Reilly for a song.
The sticker price the B.C. Lions listed for Reilly was a swap of second-round picks in the 2013 CFL college draft, plus a second-rounder in ’14. The Edmonton Eskimos were willing to pay it. Mack didn’t even want to kick the tires. Sleepy-Eye Joe remained convinced and confident that Buck Pierce was the answer at quarterback, and his backup plan was putting the legendary Justin Goltz behind centre. Or Max Hall.
As history records, that worked out about as well as New Coke.
To say Pierce was injury prone is to say Bill Gates has a bit of money. When fit enough to actually start a game, they didn’t strap a play chart to Brittle Buck’s left wrist. It was an IV needle. He didn’t survive the first month of the ’13 season, leaving various body parts and what was left of his marbles strewn on the field.
That QB fiasco, among other things, cost Mack his job generally mismanaging the Bombers, and Pierce finished that season in B.C., from whence he came. He’s now an assistant coach in Pegtown. No word on the whereabouts of Goltz and Hall, but I suspect they’re asking customers if they’d like fries with their Big Macs and Quarter Pounders.
As for Reilly, well, I’m sure you’re familiar with his story after the Eskimos lured him away from the Lions: Grey Cup champion and Grey Cup game most valuable player in ’15; CFL’s most outstanding player in ’17; two-time West Division all-star; one-time league all-star. And, perhaps most significant, Reilly is still with the Eskimos. No drive-thru orders for him. He’ll be barking signals and gutting it out on Thursday night when the Green-and-Gold engage the Bombers in a season-opening frolic at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry.
Reilly remains the ‘what could have been’ and ‘what should have been’ for the Bombers. That’s Sleepy-Eye Joe’s legacy.
None of the above is meant to disparage Nichols. Hey, he’s a tough dude, too. And he’s a keeper. Trouble is, he’s developed a most curious habit of falling down without being touched. His left leg caved on him in a game last October, and his right leg collapsed in a training session last week. Officially, he’s run out of legs that work properly. This, of course, is where Durant was expected to fit in. The Bombers paid the veteran QB $70,000 up front to serve as a safety net, thus, with Nichols in the repair shop for as few as four weeks and as many as six, it would have been his show. Alas, instead of playing catch with an interesting array of receivers, Durant is at home changing his new-born daughter’s dirty diapers, and the Bombers are unlikely to grovel at the feet of man who jilted them on the eve of training camp and trolled them on Twitter. Would Durant be an upgrade on Alex Ross, Bryan Bennett or Chris Streveler, the three lads who auditioned for the starter’s role on Friday night against the Lions in Vancouver? Naw. When last seen, which is to say with the Montreal Alouettes in 2017, Durant seldom delivered a pass without the football bouncing once or twice before landing at a receiver’s feet. He’s spent.
Welcome to TJMN—The Johnny Manziel Network, formerly known as The Sports Network. Seriously. TSN has gone loopy over Manziel. Last week, following a CFL debut that consisted of nine completed passes and zero points, TSN featured nine—count ’em, nine!—Johnny Rotten videos. One video per completion. Sunday morning, after he was good on a dozen of 20 pass attempts (including a TD toss), there were five more Johnny Rotten videos on the main TSN web page. They also featured something called Johnny Football Watch. All that for a guy who won’t start a game for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats unless Jeremiah Masoli is wounded or implodes.
Can you say undécima, kids? Rafael Nadal can. His 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 paddywhacking of Dominic Thiem in the men’s singles final Sunday was his 11th French Open title, and I can’t think of an athlete—in any sport—who is more dominant than the muscular Rafa on the red clay of Roland Garros. What the Spanish maestro has accomplished in Paris is insane. He’s 86-2. Eighty-freaking-six and two! Nobody goes 86-2. Except the Harlem Globetrotters, and their games are as rigged as a Vegas slot machine. Nadal on clay is a one-off. Never seen anything like him. Never will. (By the way, here’s the answer to the trivia question: Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic are the only two men to have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros.)
The Big Four in men’s tennis is no more, but the Big Two remains. While Andy Murray is MIA and Djokovic is trying to sort out things in his head, if not other parts of his body, the younger generation of hot-shot racqueteers can’t kick Nadal or Roger Federer to the curb. Each of the 30somethings has won three of the past six Grand Slam championships and, Federer’s allergy to red clay notwithstanding, there’s no sign of surrender in either man. One suspects Wimbledon will be another episode in the Rafa-and-Roger show. All of which means the distaff side of tennis is much more intriguing. Check it out: In the past six GS tournaments, there have been six different champions—Serena Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep. Wimbledon will be another complete crapshoot, even if a healthy Williams joins the field.
On the subject of great champions, 45 years to the day that Secretariat completed horse racing’s Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes, Justify romped wire-to-wire at Belmont to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. But let’s provide some perspective. Justify ran the mile and a half in 2:28.18 on Saturday. Secretariat did it in 2:24.0 in 1973. In other words, Secretariat would have beaten Justify by more than 20 lengths. Big Red’s Belmont victory (he won by 31 lengths) remains the single greatest sporting achievement I have witnessed.
Starring in the role of grumpy grandpa this week is Toronto Star and Sportsnet gasbag Damien Cox. On the heels of the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup conquest of the Vegas Golden Knights, Alex Ovechkin and the boys have been tooting about in full celebratory mode, carousing and fussing and sharing the moment with the rabble on the streets of D.C. Oh, they’ve also been drinking. How positively scandalous. And that just won’t do in Damien’s delicate, little world. There’s no room for random, unharnessed merriment. Or booze. “Rafael Nadal won his ELEVENTH French Open today,” Cox tweeted in a pious, tsk-tsking tone Sunday morning. “No video yet of him drunkenly rolling around in a public fountain because apparently some believe that’s how champions should behave.” Well, excuuuuuse the Capitals for having fun. I wonder if Damien Cox awakens some mornings and regrets being Damien Cox.
Social Note: It must be spring because sports power couples keep popping up. Not so long ago, noted flinger of footballs Aaron Rodgers and fast-car driver Danica Patrick were observed canoodling in public, and now it’s hockey’s diving diva, P.K. Subban, and Lindsey Vonn, glam gal of the ski slopes and one-time main squeeze of golfer Tiger Woods. Don’t know if going from putters to pucks is a dating step up or a step down for Vonn, but she probably won’t get any late-night calls from P.K. asking for bail money. (For the record, my fave sports power couple is Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe, with Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi a close second.)
I note that a Connor McDavid rookie card recently sold at auction for $55,655. That’s a lot of coin for a small hunk of cardboard. But it made me wonder if kids still stick trading cards in the spokes of their bike wheels. Better question: Do kids still ride bikes, or are they too busy texting each other?
Zero female athletes appeared on the Forbes list of the top 100 money-makers in sports for the first time, but we shouldn’t be surprised. The annual Forbes 100 is based on earnings from June to June, a period of almost total inactivity in 2017-18 for Serena Williams, who slotted in at No. 51 a year ago with total income of $27 million. Her haul this time around was $18M, all via endorsement deals. Maria Sharapova, meanwhile, once was a regular on the Forbes 100, but, after being caught with her hand in the illegal-drug jar, some sponsors abandoned her and she has yet to return to championship form. Sharapova is hardly a pauper, though. Her estimated worth is well in excess of $100 million.
And, finally, an interesting albeit indelicate quote from the elegant Garbine Muguruza, who, after routing the equally elegant Sharapova, 6-2, 6-1, in the French Open, described the five-time Grand Slam champion as “an old-time player.” Ouch. Sharapova just turned 31.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
I looked at the Canadian Football League standings on Saturday morning and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were atop the tables. I know, totally weird.
It was kind of like staring at a solar eclipse without eye protection.
I mean, these are the 0-for-a quarter-century Blue Bombers and, even though the Calgary Stampeders had slipped past them by the end of the day, I’m wondering if it’s now safe to say that general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea actually know what they’re doing. Naw. Probably not.
As much as the Bombers are full marks for their 7-2 log at the midway point of their current crusade, we’ll reserve judgement until all the evidence is in. Six of their final nine skirmishes are against West Division foes, one of whom is a Saskatchewan Roughriders outfit that looked like two gimme wins three weeks ago but suddenly has a pulse.
I’m sticking with my suggestion that the Bombers should finish 14-4, though. Then I’ll agree that Walters and O’Shea know what they’re doing. At least until Coach Mikey asks kicker Justin Medlock to hoof a 61-yard field goal or play quarterback.
Nope. Didn’t watch the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor dust-up at T-Mobile Arena in Glitter Gulch on Saturday. I try not to spend my money in support of a man who spends his spare time beating up women.
I keep hearing how Mayweather broke some sort of a record with his 10-round TKO of McGregor. He’s had his hand raised in a boxing ring 50 times, and not once has he walked out a loser. Is 50-0 exceptional? You betcha. The best ever? Hardly. Julio Cesar Chavez was 87-0 before there was a blemish on his record (a controversial draw against Pernell Whitaker) and he wasn’t beaten until his 91st bout. Willie Pep went 62-0 before losing. Then he went 72-0-1 before his next defeat. That’s one loss in 136 bouts. When Ricardo Lopez hung ’em up, he was 51-0-1.
I don’t believe in perfection. A boxer can have a perfect record, but that doesn’t make him a perfect boxer. With that in mind, here’s today’s top-five list: Near-perfection… 1. Alison Krauss’s voice:Angelic. 2. Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes: The most breathtaking performance I’ve ever seen in sports. 3. Sandy Koufax: How did the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher ever lose? 4. Bobby Orr: He travelled a different orbit than any other hockey player. 5. Jimmy Stewart: Can’t think of a movie I didn’t like him in.
Will Mayweather now do us a favor and exit quietly? That would be nice, but, sadly, I suspect we’ll be hearing from him again, and we can only hope it isn’t because cops have been called to put the cuffs on him for beating up another woman.
Add Jimmy Kimmel to the list of Mayweather enablers. The late-night TV chin-wagger had the serial women-beater on his Jimmy Kimmel Live! gab-fest recently, and it was a shameful exercise in fan worship, fraught with weak humor and fawning. Not once during the schmooze did Kimmel mention domestic abuse. But, hey, we learned why Mayweather got into the business of having women remove their clothing at his Girl Collection strip club in Sin City: “Because I knew breasts, the vagina, music and alcohol would never go out of style,” he said. Jimmy Kimmel giggled. So did much of his audience. Sigh.
Steve Simmons of Postmedia, one of Mayweather’s hypocritical enablers on press row, wrote this in advance of Saturday night’s tiff against the excessively vulgar and obnoxious loudmouth McGregor: “Give Mayweather some credit on press conference Wednesday. He seems to want to say goodbye with some dignity.” Good grief. Dignity is a word that ought never be used when describing a man who beats up women.
Simmons, who fancies himself as a boxing expert because he’s covered more than a dozen prize fights, offered this prediction prior to Mayweather-McGregor: “It could end early. It could go eight or nine rounds. Or it could go the distance. That’s not being wishy-washy.” If that isn’t wishy-washy, then the Pope isn’t Catholic. Simmons then wrote, “Mayweather wins early, late or by decision.” What’s it going to be, Steve? “PREDICTION WITHOUT COMMITMENT: Mayweather in 9 rounds.” In other words, he didn’t have a clue.
Quick review on the Everest Curling Challenge in Fredericton: It was like eating a Sloppy Joe—really enjoyable but kind of messy. The concept is brilliant, with eight mixed all-star teams pieced together in a draft, then shooting for a $200,000 winner-take-all prize. And the bonus extra point for shot stone covering the pin hole is a terrific wrinkle. But the timing is off. Curling in August is like skinny dipping in January. The players, clearly not in fighting trim, were guessing on ice, guessing on weight, guessing in their decision-making. At one point, TSN talking head Russ Howard mentioned something about “amateur” mistakes. Find a better date and the event is a total winner.
Interesting that none of the four outfits skipped by women—Rachel Homan, Jennifer Jones, Val Sweeting and Chelsea Carey—advanced out of the first round in Fredericton. I’m not sure what to make of that. I mean, it’s not like male skips are better strategists.
I note that Sportsnet has declared second-sacker Roberto Alomar the greatest player to ever wear a Tranna Blue Jays uni. Can’t argue with that. When he wasn’t spitting on umpires, Alomar was wowing ’em in the field and at the dish.
Terrific piece on former Winnipeg Jets knuckle-dragger Jimmy Mann by Mike Sawatzky in the Winnipeg Free Press. Jimmy will always be remembered as GM John Ferguson’s most glaring d’oh moment at the National Hockey League draft, but he was a nice kid off the ice.
Bravo to Todd Fanning, winner of the Canadian Men’s Mid-Amateur golf championship last week in Regina. I remember covering Todd on the Canadian pro tour a number of years back. Good guy.
Interesting tweet from young Jeff Hamilton of the Freep: “Montreal update: guy that was using the urinal beside me was holding his toothbrush with his other hand.” Yo! Jeff! My gay friends want to know why you were peeking down there.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
Let’s make something perfectly clear: Stan Wawrinka is very, very good and what he does.
Unless your name is Roger Federer, Stan the Man is the best tennis talent ever produced in Switzerland. He is just one successful Wimbledon fortnight short of a career Grand Slam, having already claimed the singles titles at the Australian, French and U.S. Opens. He is ranked No. 3 among all racqueteers on the third rock from the sun.
Yet Rafael Nadal made No. 3 look like No. 303 in the men’s final at the French Open on Sunday in Paris.
It was like watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. Seriously, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1? In the championship match of a Grand Slam tournament? We haven’t seen a rout like that since Custer threw down on Crazy Horse at the Little Bighorn. Or at least since Rafa paddywhacked Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the 2008 championship match at Roland Garros.
But that’s what Rafa Nadal does. Put him on a tennis court made of clay and you have Secretariat.
The wedgie Rafa delivered to Wawrinka on Sunday reminded me of something Yogi Berra mused about Sandy Koufax, scant seconds after the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander had whiffed 15 New York Yankees in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series:
“I can see how he won 25 games,” said Yogi, the Yankees catcher. “What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”
It’s the same with Rafa Nadal. He’s won the title at Roland Garros 10 times, collecting 79 victories against two losses. How in the name of Philippe Chatrier did he lose twice?
Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2015) are the only foes to vanquish Rafa on the red clay of Roland Garros, and I have to assume French Open officials demanded that both men pee in a bottle immediately after their matches. I mean, you don’t beat Nadal in Paris unless there’s something funny in your drinking water.
Most people go to Paris for the food, the wine, the art, the culture and the romance. Nadal goes to search and destroy. He’s relentless, ruthless and has the steely-eyed focus of an assassin.
Wawrinka mentioned something about playing Rafa on a clay court being the stiffest challenge in tennis, and evidence supports that notion. Nadal has lost only twice at Roland Garros. In 13 years. He’s 102-2 in best-of-five matches on clay.
But Wawrinka is also selling the Spaniard short. It isn’t just tennis. Playing Rafael Nadal on clay is the greatest challenge in the entirety of sports.
There’s hope for the future of women’s tennis, and her name is Jelena Ostapenko, the Latvian lass whose dashing and daring ruled the day at Roland Garros. The winners and unforced errors come in equal number from Ostapenko, but once she brings her service game up to the level of her groundstrokes (she hits her forehead harder than world No. 1 Andy Murray) the 20-year-old will become the face of the ladies’ game the moment Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova take their permanent leave. It isn’t just her substantial game, though. It’s her winning personality. On court, Ostapenko bares her emotions, off court she is the very picture of wide-eyed innocence, often giggling like a schoolgirl and forever smiling. She’s an absolute delight.
While watching the French Open this past fortnight, I found myself wondering this: How did Steffi Graf, Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and other legendary ladies’ champions win all those Grand Slam titles without the orgasmic shrieking and grunting that we hear today?
I heard a rumor that the National Hockey League season is over. If that’s true, someone give Kevin Cheveldayoff a nudge and tell the Winnipeg Jets general manager to “wakey, wakey.” It’s time for him to go to work.
I note that Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press has been tabbed for induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Roll of Honour in October. Good choice. Wiecek is the best sports columnist the Drab Slab has featured since Hal Sigurdson signed off in 1996, even when he’s writing about rock climbing.
Steve Simmons has become the Jose Bautista of sports writing: Tedious, tiresome and time to move on. I mean, it’s one thing for a columnist to be opinionated and rub the rabble the wrong way. That’s a large part of the gig. And Simmons surely has mastered the art of getting up noses with his alphabet farts that appear on sports pages of Postmedia sheets from one flank of the True North to the other. But…the Toronto Sun scribe has grown increasingly nasty and mean-spirited, if not cruel, in his commentary. He is Grandpa Simmons, shaking his fists at clouds and screaming at kids to get the hell off his lawn. A case in point is Simmons’ take on mixed doubles competition in Grand Slam tennis. When our girl Gabriela Dabrowski advanced to the mixed doubles final of the French Open last week, Mark Masters of TSN delivered this tweet: “No Canadian woman has won a mixed doubles grand slam title. Ottawa’s @GabyDabrowski has a chance to change that on Thursday.” To which Simmons responded: “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.” I’m not sure if that was supposed to be funny, witty or clever, but it was none of the above. It was classless, tacky and totally unnecessary, as were a series of insensitivefollow-up tweets belittling Dabrowski’s and partner Rohan Bopanna’s achievement.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Simmons is pooh-poohing yet another event in sports. It’s become his shtick. Last year he was “bothered” by the selection of Rosie MacLennan as Canada’s flag-bearer for the Olympic Games in Rio, because trampoline is “a marginal pursuit” that “seems more backyard and gimmicky that it does Olympian.” He’s also advocated the elimination of women’s hockey at the Olympics, writing: “Women’s hockey is the least competitive, least interesting, least Olympic of all sports in the Winter Games. There should be a cry to end this Olympic charade of imbalance.” And he once told the Ryerson Review of Journalism that “I don’t believe there’s a demand from the public for women’s sports.” I’ll remind you that he writes for a newspaper that’s best known for the tits and ass it displays on Page 3 and, to this day, continues to objectify women with its Sunshine Girl.
Thanks to a study by neuroscientist Tara Swart, we now know what we’ve suspected all along: Journalists’ brains function at a sub-par level. For evidence, see: Simmons, Steve. (See, I can stoop to gratuitous, mean-spirited and nasty comments, too. You know, just like a real sports columnist at a real big-city newspaper.)
Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.
Forty-seven years. That’s how long it has been, to the day, since I began a newspaper career that brought neither fame nor fortune but provided a fair bit of fun.
That’s why I still scribble about sports to this day, 17 years removed from mainstream media—it’s a hoot.
The pay as a freelancer/blogger isn’t nearly as good, mind you. It’s mice nuts. It isn’t enough to keep me well watered and fed. I mean, I can’t afford to make spaghetti and meatballs anymore. It’s one or the other. But, hey, the payoff is the giggles I get by poking the bear, tipping sacred cows or tilting at windmills (I promise, no more cliches for today).
One would think that I’d have gotten the Winnipeg Jets out of my system by now. But no. Some habits are hard to kick, if not impossible. I just can’t let the Jets go. And, to a lesser degree, the Blue Bombers.
I don’t know how many hours I spent in the old barn on Maroons Road, but I do know that Winnipeg Arena was my home away from home for a good number of years. As were various other shinny shacks throughout North America, from the story-studded Montreal Forum to Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum in Tinseltown to the rickety Corral in Calgary to frost-bitten wooden huts that passed for hockey rinks in numerous Western Canada outposts.
And that’s what I am remembering this morning…
I remember Frank McKinnon, a remarkable, special man and the person I interviewed for my first Winnipeg Tribune byline story in 1971. Frank, president of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association at the time, was one of those people I always thought I should address as “Mister,” because he commanded such respect. But he would have none of it. “I’m Frank,” he told me early in our initial conversation, “and I want you to know that you can call me any time.” Frank and I talked often, but probably not as often as I would have liked.
I remember the night in Atlanta when Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie attempted to scale the glass partition separating the two benches so he could fight his counterpart with the Flames, Al MacNeil. Tommy took off his sports coat, took off his necktie, took off his wrist watch, partially unbuttoned his shirt—then took out his teeth! “When he took his teeth out and started undressing,” said MacNeil, “I knew he was serious.”
I remember riding a bus with coach Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers during their successful 1973 Centennial Cup crusade. Muzz liked his hockey with an edge and there was nothing sissified about the way his lads played. So physical were the Terriers that Humboldt Broncos’ coach Dr. Terry Henning took his puck and went home after five games rather than finish their playoff series with Muzz’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. “Can you believe it?” Muzz asked me. “They quit. The good doctor said my guys are too dirty. He says we’re too mean and nasty. So he quit. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him doing open-heart surgery on me—he’d walk out in the middle of the operation!”
I remember interviewing Vladislav Tretiak at a house on Elm Street in River Heights. I don’t recall who owned the house or why I had to meet the great Soviet goaltender there, but he was in town to promote his book and we gabbed for about an hour at a kitchen table (rather, the interpreter and I chin-wagged for an hour). When we parted, Tretiak said something to the interpreter, who relayed to me that “Vladimir thinks you are a hockey expert.” As photographer Jon Thordarson and I walked toward our vehicle, I said, “Imagine that, Tretiak thinks I’m a hockey expert…sure fooled him, didn’t I?”
I remember being in Indianapolis with the Jets on American Thanksgiving Day and Racers coach Pat (Whitey) Stapleton inviting myself, play-by-play legend Friar Nicolson and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis to turkey dinner with his family. It was such a thoughtful gesture, but that’s the kind of relationship media and hockey people sometimes had back then, especially in the World Hockey Association.
I remember Aime Allaire and his never-ending quest to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home to Winnipeg. Alas, Aime’s St. Boniface Mohawks could never get the job done.
I remember the Jets’ first visit to New York City, to play the Rangers. Friar, Reyn, Sod Keilback and I went for a stroll of Manhattan on game-day afternoon and we ducked into magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a look-see. “I’m going to light a candle for the Jets,” I said. “They’re going to need all the help they can get against the Rangers.” Sod greeted that notion with rude laughter. The Jets beat the Rangers that night, 6-4.
I remember another trip to Manhattan. Our bus driver wanted to make a detour down a side street, but he couldn’t navigate the turn because a Volkswagen Beetle was parked too close to the corner. General manager John Ferguson and the driver stepped outside to investigate. Fergy came back on the bus and shouted, “Jimmy! You and a few other guys come with me. We’ve gotta move this car.” Fergy, Jimmy Mann and three or four other players lifted half the Volkswagen on to the sidewalk and away we went.
I remember Muzz MacPherson refusing to talk to me after a Winnipeg Clubs’ game. “I’m too upset,” the gravel-voice coach barked. “I don’t want to talk. Just make up the quotes. You know me well enough by now that you know what I’ll say.” So, for the only time in my career, I made up quotes. The following day, Muzz called me and he was frothing at the mouth. “What are you trying to do to me?” he yelped. “I wouldn’t have said all those things you said I said—I would have done a lot more swearing.”
I remember talking to Ulf Nilsson the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national team, 5-3, and the great Swedish centre saying, “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
I remember Friar Nicolson allowing me to do five minutes of play-by-play one night when Dave Keon and the New England Whalers were in town. It was a classical gas.
I remember watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes with Muzz and various hockey sorts who had assembled at the Viscount Gort for an annual chin wag. As the great Secretariat romped down the home stretch, about 30 lengths in front of the field, Muzz stared at the TV and shouted, “Don’t break a leg! Don’t break a leg!” Big Red didn’t even break stride and became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.
I remember Teddy Green’s headaches. I often wondered how a man could be in such crippling pain and still go out and perform so admirably on the Jets blueline.
I remember riding the iron lung with Gerry Brisson and his Winnipeg Clubs on a junket that took us to Brandon, Regina, Swift Current, Calgary and Kamloops and back. Kevin McCarthy was on that team. He was the most-talented Junior I ever covered.
I remember covering an MJHL that included four Winnipeg teams—the Winnipeg Monarchs, St. James Canadians, St. Boniface Saints and my alma mater, the West Kildonan North Stars. (That’s right, I played in the MJHL and covered it. I believe Doug Lunney is the only other person to do so.)
I remember taking pride in the championship work of Barry Bonni with his River East Royal Knights of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, because his team represented my old ‘hood.
I remember Morris Lukowich barking at me after the Jets’ initial NHL game, in Pittsburgh. Luke had been credited with the team’s first NHL goal, tipping in a Peter Marsh shot. “Where did that shot hit you?” I asked him. “Friar and I never saw it change direction.” He shot me with a stone-cold stare and said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. “No, Luke, I’m not calling you a liar,” I said. “I have a game story to write and I need to know where the puck hit you so I can describe the goal accurately.”
I remember being part of a media team for Schmockey Night. Ray Jauch was our coach and Eddie (Clear the Track) Shack, the clown prince of the National Hockey League, was my left winger. Jauch, head coach with the Blue Bombers at the time, wouldn’t let Shack or I come off the ice in the final five minutes because we needed a goal to tie the game. Neither of us scored.
I remember wonderful conversations with hockey lifers Bruce Cheatley, Ed Sweeney, Bill Addison, Julian Klymkiw, Aggie Kukulowicz and Billy Robinson, who, along with Dr. Gerry Wilson, was responsible for bringing the first wave of Swedes to North America and transorming the Jets into a WHA power.
I remember defenceman Tim Watters buying Friar and I beer when he came in after curfew one night in Vancouver. “You don’t have to do that, Tim,” Friar told him. “We’re not going to rat you out. You’re good people.” I never ratted out any of the Jets. Neither did Friar. What they did on their time was their business.
I remember covering the Jets rookie training camp in Sainte Agathe, Que., in 1979 for the Winnipeg Tribune, and Fergy asking me to play in the final exhibition game because Patrick Daley had pulled a groin during the morning skate. “Are you serious? You want me to play tonight?” I asked him. He did. So I did. Assisted on the first goal, too. All the players at Sainte Agathe moved on to the Jets main training camp in Winnipeg, then some were assinged to the Tulsa Oilers. I went back to the Trib with a grand total of one assist in my only pro game. And I never got paid.
I remember the Jets first visit to the Montreal Forum. Friar and I walked in with Fergy, who was still a hero in Quebec, and he directed us to the concession stands. “Troi chien chauds,” Fergy ordered. He looked at us and said, “These will be the best hot dogs you’ll ever eat.” They were. To this day.
I remember bringing beer to former Soviet referee Anatoli Segelin, who was part of the U.S.S.R. traveling party for the 1981 Canada Cup. Upon his arrival at the Viscount Gort, Anatoli, who loved Canadian journalists, begged me to bring some beer up to his room on the second floor. I asked Stew MacPherson if he could spare a couple of 12-packs from the media hospitality room for Anatoli and comrades, and he agreed. Upon seeing me at his door with 24 beer, Anatoli flashed a smile as wide as Mother Russia and said, “Canada! Come! Come! We drink!” Segelin, myself and two other comrades did just that.
I remember Willy Lindstrom’s pranksterism. Every time the Jets’ travels would take us to Quebec City, Willy would visit a joke shop not far from the Chateau Frontenac and load up on stink bombs and sneezing powder. He would then unleash them on our airplanes. Go to sleep during a flight and it was guaranteed you’d wake up in a sneezing fit, because Willy would sneak up from behind and sprinkle powder on you. And the stink bombs were absolutely paralyzing.
I remember sitting in an airport, listening to Mike Smith deliver a 10-minute oration on the methodology of the Richter Scale after an earthquake hit the West Coast. As he spoke, I thought, “Man, this guy is a different head of lettuce.” I didn’t realize exactly how different Smith was until the day he drafted Sergei Bautin.
I remember going to the draft in Montreal the year Fergy chose defenceman David Babych second overall, ahead of Denis Savard and Paul Coffey. More interesting, however, was the fact Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran were next door, prepping for the Brawl in Montreal, the first fight in their boxing trilogy.
I remember feeling sorry for Ray Neufeld, a truly nice, young man who came to the Jets from Hartford in exchange for David Babych. It was recognized as Fergy’s worst transaction and fans took out their frustrations on poor Ray. That wasn’t fair.
I remember the first time I ever saw Peter Sullivan play hockey and asking, “How is this guy not playing in the NHL?”
I remember Jimmy Mann trying to convince me that he was “not an animal” after his sucker punch had shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw into a dozen pieces. It wasn’t me Jimmy had to convince…it was everyone else in hockey.
I remember Laurie Boschman’s on- and off-ice personalities. He was such a nasty bit of business when they dropped the puck, yet so soft-spoken, sincere and genuinely nice once the final buzzer sounded.
I remember a pilot delaying takeoff from Atlanta when we realized rookie broadcaster Sod Keilback was AWOL. Turns out the big lug had gotten lost in the airport, which was larger than his hometown of Yorkton, Sask., and he heard some serious braying once Friar Nicolson had located him and brought him on board. Sod made a feeble attempt to explain his wandering ways, but we were having none of it. “You’re just a big sodbuster,” I said. The name stuck. He was known as Sod thereafter.
I remember my traveling partners in the WHA, Friar and Reyn Davis, two terrific guys. Both of them are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Sadly, both of them are also dead. I’m neither in the Hall of Fame nor dead, but it’s only a matter of time before I arrive at the Pearly Gates (I probably haven’t been good enough to get in there either).
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.