About $6 million worth of beans and wieners for the Winnipeg Jets…blame Ray Charles for Jimmy Mann…the Shoe fits…hockey teams and their value…hot-buttered takes from The ROT…the missing Munster son…and other things on my mind

Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and don’t think for a minute that I’ve given much thought to any of this…

Fergy

It was mid-June 1979 and John Bowie Ferguson had just examined the list of players available to him in the National Hockey League expansion draft.

He winced. Then scowled.

Fergy rose to his feet and trudged across the main room of his 13th-floor suite in the fabulous Queen Elizabeth Hotel. He stopped in front of a large window, stared at the splendor that is Montreal, and noted that Mary Queen of the World Cathedral was directly across the street.

“Well,” I said, “I guess you have two choices, Fergy: You can go across the street and do some serious praying, or you can jump.”

The Winnipeg Jets general manager did neither. He just grunted.

Tom McVie

Head coach Tom McVie, sitting in a nearby chair, smiled and cracked wise: “You know,” he said, “there’s enough talent available for us to win the Allan Cup. It might be seven games, but if we get home ice in the seventh game, we could win.”

He was joking, but not far from accurate.

I don’t know what $650 million will buy the Seattle Whatsits two years hence when the new kids on the block piece together their expansion roster of rejects, but I do know what $6 million bought Fergy and the Jets in mid-June 1979—sweet petite.

The NHL’s existing 17 outfits, be advised, did not lean toward benevolence when they grudgingly agreed to accept les Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers into their shinny cartel. The plan was to first plunder the rosters of the World Hockey Association survivors—Winnipeg HC suffered the worst body count—then allow them to go on a dumpster dive for dregs.

Bobby Orr

Some interesting names were there for the choosing. Like Bobby Orr. Except the great No. 4 was crippled and retired. The Big M, Frank Mahovlich, was available, except he was 41 and, like Orr, finished. Fergy could have had former Jets head coach Larry Hillman, except Morley was 42 and hadn’t played in three years. Yvan Cournoyer? The Roadrunner was out of gas. I seem to recall there also being a dead guy on the list.

It was so bad that Fergy didn’t even bother to call out names on his final shout on draft day.

“Okay,” he muttered in a tone that suggested both protest and resignation, like a kid being force-fed one more mouthful of Brussels sprouts before dessert, “Winnipeg Jets take the last two players.”

Gene Carr and Hilliard Graves thus were added to a collection of misfits, mostly guys with marginal or diminished skills. Also some undesirable contracts. In sum, Fergy plucked 17 players that day: Peter Marsh, Lindsay Middlebrook, Bobby Hull, Al Cameron, Dave Hoyda, Jim Roberts, Lorne Stamler, Mark Heaslip, Pierre Hamel, Gord McTavish, Gord Smith, Clark Hamilton, Jim Cunningham, Dennis Abgrall, Bill Riley, Carr and Graves.

Still, combined with holdovers from the Jets 1979 WHA championship roster, that bunch easily could have won senior hockey’s Allan Cup, but they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They won 20 of 80 games, and just nine in their sophomore season.

We know the NHL has no plan to be similarly punitive with Seattle, because a $650 million sticker price demands that they get some sizzle with their steak. For the Jets, though, it was $6 million worth of beans and wieners.

The plundering of rosters and a player pool of ragged retreads weren’t the only indiginities inflicted upon the Jets and their WHA brethren. In a penalizing departure from established practice, the NHL ruled that the four expansion teams would choose last, rather than first, in the amateur draft. By the time Fergy used the No. 19 shout-out to pluck Jimmy Mann (talk about cruel and unusual punishment), guys like Ray Bourque, Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Craig Hartsburg, Paul Reinhart and Mike Foligno had already been snatched up. Ahead of the draft, Fergy had said, “Let’s face it, Ray Charles could pick the first-round drafts. We all know who they’re going to be.” So let’s all blame Ray Charles for Jimmy Mann.

Being bad had its benefits for Fergy and les Jets. Their names were Dave Babych and Dale Hawerchuk, plucked in the 1980 and ’81 entry drafts, respectively. With Babs and Ducky on board, les Jets soared from a nine-wins, 32-points season to 33 Ws and 80 points.

The Shoe

Nice to see Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Ab McDonald get the nod as the next inductees to the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. Sadly, both have left us, but I’m sure there’ll be a celebratory mood when some of the old boys gather to salute the two former captains on Feb. 26 at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie.

According to Forbes magazine, the Winnipeg HC franchise is now valued at $415 million, 27th among NHL clubs. Considering that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and co-bankroll David Thomson paid $170 million for their play thing, that’s a handsome hike. Mind you, it’s expected they’ll also be required to fork over $170M to Patrik Laine by the time he’s finished.

If you missed it, here’s how Forbes lists the value of each Canadian franchise: Tranna Maple Leafs $1.35 billion, Montreal Canadiens $1.3B, Vancouver Canucks $735 million, Edmonton Oilers $540M, Calgary Flames $450M, Ottawa Senators $435M, Winnipeg HC $415M. And, yes, now that you mention it, I don’t see how in the name of Cyclone Taylor the Jets can be worth less than the dysfunctional Senators. That’s like saying a pack of smokes is a better buy than gym membership.

This from Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star: “Not to overreact, but Auston Matthews is probably the best goal-scorer in the world. This isn’t a hot take; it’s maybe a take that you left in the microwave for like 15 seconds, long enough to soften butter but not melt it.” Sorry, Bruce, but that’s a totally hot-buttered Tranna take.

John Torotorella

Interesting to see loose cannon head coach John Tortorella adorned in a hoodie rather than a suit and tie behind the Columbus Blue Jackets bench last week. Apparently he was fit to be tied after the game, though.

When did women’s curling become more interesting and more entertaining that the men’s side? And does the curling season really begin before Vic, Cheryl and Russ are in the booth? No knock against Sportsnet’s coverage of Grand Slam events, but it just sounds right when Vic Rauter, Cheryl Bernard and Russ Howard are making the calls on TSN.

Robin Munster

Is it just me, or does anyone else find TSN’s UFC gab guy Robin Black kind of creepy? I think he might be related to the Munsters. Maybe a distant cousin to Herman or Lily. Or separated from Eddie Munster at birth. Black might know his stuff (although anyone who picked Conor McGregor to whup Floyd Mayweather is suspect), but do we really need to see him rolling around inside the octagon? I know I don’t.

Paul LaPolice

Interesting that Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice took his name from the Tranna Argonauts head-coaching hunt. Not surprising, though. I mean, working in The Republic of Tranna is the Canadian Football League equivalent of a witness protection program. The 50/50 draw is larger at a backyard barbeque in Fort Garry than at BMO Field in The ROT. I could see Coach LaPo defecting to B.C., but Tranna? Only on a dare.

And, finally, forestry and lands people have discovered a hole the size of a CFL field in a remote B.C. park. It’s believed to be the biggest opening in North America now that Ondrej Pavelec has taken his five-hole back to the Czech Republic.

Postmedia’s top-100 NHL players: If you never saw them play, how can you rate them?

I recall lying on our living room floor, watching a playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1950s.

The red light behind the Leafs goal was flashing (in black and white, of course) and, not surprisingly, Doug Harvey, who breathed the rarefied air that only the National Hockey League elite enjoyed, had been the mastermind behind the Habs’ successful venture.

doug-harvey2I hate Doug Harvey,” I muttered to my dad scant seconds after les Glorieux had secured a victory, which was the rule rather than the exception in Stanley Cup skirmishing back then.

Why do you hate Doug Harvey?” he wondered.

Because he always has the puck.”

Like most Canadian kids in the ’50s, my eyes would be glued to a black-and-white TV screen every Saturday night during the winter, and every second night during the Stanley Cup tournament, which did not drone on into June. In the case of this particular Habs-Leafs joust, I would have been seven or eight years old at the time. I root, root, rooted for the Leafs. Disliked les Canadiens with an irrational intensity.

At that age, my hockey knowledge was limited mostly to the players’ names and sweater numbers. In terms of grading the skill level of those players, the eye test was far from fully developed. How could it be at such a young age? Oh, I knew Doug Harvey was supreme because, as I lamented, he was loath to share the puck with the other team. Every time he hopped over the boards, the game unfolded at Harvey’s whim and tempo. He was the maestro. He was doing the Savardian spinorama when Serge Savard was still in middle school.

There were others whose skills I recognized and admired. I delighted in the daring of Habs goaltender Jacques Plante, who didn’t glue himself to the goal crease, and the Leafs’ young Big M, Frank Mahovlich, was something to behold, his skating stride longer than a Winnipeg winter. Gordie Howe always seemed to have his way with everyone, even the tough hombres, and I remember Maurice Richard as a dashing sort, but he was in his hockey dotage and always seemed grumpy. So I didn’t like him.

The point is, I can say I’ve been watching hockey since the 1950s, but as much as I witnessed the great Rocket Richard, I didn’t witness his greatness. His signature 50-goal season was in the rear-view mirror when Hockey Night in Canada became a ritual for me on what many kids also knew as bath night. Thus, I cannot possibly rate him as a player. I was too young and he was too old.

I give ponder to such matters this morning because Steve Simmons of Postmedia has compiled a top-100 list in recognition of the NHL’s centennial, which arrives in 2017.

Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr

While an admirable undertaking, his is a fool’s errand.

The most obvious and greatest flaw in someone picking the top 100 players in NHL history is not in choosing Bobby Orr over Wayne Gretzky, or vice versa, atop the list. Or anointing Dominik Hasek the greatest goaltender of all time. Or including only three Russians among the fab 100. The flaw, as I see it, is in the person doing the ranking. Precious few are qualified to do it. Simmons does not walk among those precious few. Age disqualifies him.

Simmons was born in 1957. He’s seven years my junior. As little as I can recall from the 1950s NHL, he cannot possibly have any first-hand knowledge of hockey from that era. Zero. Bupkus. Unless he was some sort of child hockey savant, which I doubt, his ability to grade players with any acceptable level of expertise wouldn’t have kicked in until the latter part of the 1960s, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt there.

Yet, by his own accounting, he has listed two dozen players from the 1950s and beyond. He never saw 25 per cent of his personal top 100 play hockey. Forty of his players are pre-1967, when he was 10 years or younger. Or not yet drawing oxygen.

I’m not prepared to pan Simmons for any of his choices. That’s a mug’s play. I’ll leave it to the Twitter trolls to pummel him (many have; others not so much). I do, however, submit that he doesn’t have the chops to compile such a list, based on his age. Indeed, his comment on Maple Leafs legend Syl Apps, whom he slid into the No. 36 slot, underscores his lack of expertise: “My dad told me he was the greatest Leaf he ever saw.”

Well, my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles told me stories, too. Look, I need not have seen Babe Ruth swing a Louisville Slugger to know that he was among the greatest hitters of a baseball. But, for me, it’s all about the eye test when it comes to hockey rankings. It isn’t what I read about a player in the record book, or what I see on grainy, black-and-white film on YouTube that has three or four different speeds, or what mom and pop told me. It’s what I’ve seen.

My point of reference is 1957—the year Simmons was born. I didn’t realize you could watch hockey from the womb. Apparently, that’s what he did.

As I said, admirable undertaking, fool’s errand.

***

I find it interesting that, on his Twitter page, Simmons gets snooty about age vis-a-vis his overall top pick, advising dissenting followers that “If you’re not 45-50, you never saw (Bobby) Orr play. If you’re not over 50, you didn’t see him at his most dominant.” In other words, how dare the younger generations question his judgement about Orr being No. 1? He’s seen both Orr and Gretzky, don’t you know? You young whippersnappers haven’t. So no one under 50 can make an educated, first-hand comparison between Orr and Wayne Gretzky.

rocketFine. But by that reasoning, if you’re not over 65 you didn’t see Doug Harvey at his most dominant. If Simmons saw Harvey play, he was a 44/45-year-old, dog-eared defenceman whom the expansion St. Louis Blues had dug out of moth balls when Simmons was in Grade 6.

Yet that didn’t prevent a 59-year-old Simmons from ranking Harvey No. 8 on his all-time list, second among defencemen behind only Orr. How can he possibly compare Harvey to Orr or, say, Nicklas Lidstrom? Meanwhile, he ranked the Rocket at No. 6. Never once saw him play. So how can he compare him to Guy Lafleur or Teemu Selanne?

***

My grandfather would tell us Rocket Richard was the greatest player ever. My dad would say Gordie Howe. I’d say Bobby Orr. My eldest son would likely say Wayne Gretzky. His kids are apt to say Sidney Crosby. It’s a generational thing that we should acknowledge and respect, not pooh-pooh or dismiss with a pompous grunt.

***

Simmons writes this of Joe Sakic: “Top five wrist shot in history.” He would know this how? Bernie Geoffrion popularized the slap shot in the 1950s. Prior to Boom Boom, most everyone used the wrister. Since Simmons never saw hockey in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, how can he compare Sakic’s wrist shot to all those old-time players? He can’t rate what he’s never seen. But he does and condemns others for doing that very thing. Go figure.

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.