Many years from now, when people of a certain vintage gather to advise young’uns what it was like “back in the day,” Patrik Laine surely will occupy a place in the spinning of yarns.
The tales the elders tell will be tall and, no doubt, embellished to the point whereby Puck Finn is remembered as a larger-than-life National Hockey League player who, when not scoring goals, rescued babies from burning buildings and single-handedly dug a mile-wide trench around Duff’s Ditch to spare River City from cataclysmic spring flooding.
“I was there when he dug that trench,” they’ll swear. “Took him a week. And danged if he didn’t go out an hour after putting down his shovel and score five goals on five shots. I was there when that happened, too. Still have the ticket stub to prove it.”
And that’s okay. It’s what us old farts do. We traffic in folklore and expect whippersnappers to accept that everything “back in the day” was better than everything today.
I recall my oldest son, for example, sitting at the dinner table in the mid-1980s and pooh-poohing the notion that Gordie Howe might have been a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky.
“What did Howe ever do that was so great?” he asked with considerable adolescent cheek and a smirk that needed to be wiped from his face.
“Excuse me? What did Gordie Howe do?” I replied, almost choking on my pork chop. “You mean aside from the six scoring titles, the six MVPs, the four Stanley Cup rings, the five goal-scoring titles, the most goals and points in the history of hockey, the 20 all-star teams? You mean aside from all that? And let me tell you something else…Gretzky was spoiled as a kid. His dad built him a rink in his back yard. Mr. Hockey—that’s Gordie Howe—wasn’t spoiled. He had to trudge two miles barefoot through three feet of snow just to get to the rink and back when he was a kid. All of us kids had to do that.”
My boy bowed his head. He had been properly chastised, yet he remained unconvinced of Howe’s superiority before finishing the last of his green peas and slinking off to the living room.
“Gretzky’s better,” were his defiant, parting words, “and I don’t believe that stuff about Howe walking barefoot in the snow. I’m sure they had buses back then.”
“They did, but Howe got kicked off for elbowing all the other boys,” I replied.
Similar tall tales will be told about Patrik Laine, his five goals on five shots in Winnipeg Jets’ 8-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues last weekend destined to be included in the I-was-there-when-it-happened folklore 40-50 years hence.
And that set me to thinking…
I began watching and following River City athletes more than 60 years ago, in the mid-1950s just as Billy Mosienko was returning to Good Ol’ Hometown to join Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League. So I’ve seen some jocks. And these are the 10 I mention most when asked about the way it was “back in the day.”
Kenny Ploen: Once upon a time, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup. Repeatedly. And Ploen was usually at the forefront of those powerful 1950s-60s Canadian Football League outfits—as a quarterback, a defensive back, or both. Oh, yes, Ploen played two ways. Sometimes in the same game. And he was an all-star at both positions. He also might be the nicest man alive. I recall riding my bike, twice a day, out to Packers Field in St. Boniface during Bombers training camp. I’d ask Mr. Ploen for his autograph after each of the morning and afternoon sessions. Every day for a week. He never once declined my request for his signature.
Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Hedberg was a cheetah on skates. Nilsson had four eyes, two in the front of his head and two in the back. The Shoe was short and squat, kind of like Barney Rubble. It was as if an unseen giant had put his thumb on the top of the Shoe’s head and squashed him. But move the puck? The best. And the beatings those Swedish boys took from North American ruffians after joining the Jets in the World Hockey Association? Rented mules don’t get whacked that often.
Terry Sawchuk: The great goalie grew up in the same area of town as I did, East Kildonan. When I began playing Little NHL hockey at Melrose Park, rumor had it that a pair of goalie pads we used once belonged to Sawchuk. That set of pillows had magical, mystic powers. The kid who wrapped the Sawchuk pads around his legs always got a shutout. Honest. He did.
Donny Lalonde: I remember the first time I saw the Golden Boy working out in a firehall-turned gym, his every move in concert with the sound of Bob Dylan’s great album Infidels. He struck me as kind of scrawny for a light-heavyweight boxer. He wasn’t much of a ring technician. And he fought with his left arm tied behind his back. But his one good arm won a world championship and he became just the second man to floor the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.
Chris Walby: If it’s possible for anyone to actually be larger than life, Bluto is your man. He went from total junior hockey goon with the West Kildonan North Stars to a career as arguably the best offensive lineman in CFL history. He later became a talking head on CBC football coverage, mangling the English language while actually making sense. If you ever see Walby, check out his hands. His fingers are as gnarled and as bent as tree bark. They’ve been broken more often than a politician’s promises.
Jeff Stoughton: A curler who didn’t drink. Go figure. And I don’t recall ever hearing cuss words escape his lips. That certainly made him suitable for mixed company and, in fact, mostly forgotten is that his breakthrough on the national stage came in the mixed game, where he skipped his rink to a pair of Canadian titles before beginning his run as the most successful male curler in a curling-rich province. His spin-o-rama delivery is legendary.
Teemu Selanne: I’m not convinced that the Finnish Flash actually happened. I mean, 76 goals and 132 points as an NHL rookie? Go on. You’re making that up. That’s pure fiction. But it’s not. Teemu actually did it in real life, not PlayStation. Then—poof!—he was gone, like Col. Flagg on M*A*S*H.
Vic Peters: Like Selanne, seemingly too good to have been real. Forget that he was a champion curler. Vic was the loveliest of lads. A total people person who, when not winning curling championships or making pebbled ice, could be found at Larters or The Meadows golf courses, grooming the fairways/greens or playing a few holes while still wearing his superintendent’s galoshes. If K. Ploen isn’t the nicest man, Vic was and he left us far too soon.
I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
Paul Stastny. For real?
The Winnipeg Jets actually pried Paul Stastny away from the St. Louis Blues? And they didn’t have to twist his arm? No fuss, no muss, no whinging about mosquitoes, spring flooding, crime, potholes, brown tap water and the Arctic winds at Portage and Main?
Something doesn’t add up here.
I mean, nobody goes to Winnipeg. Except on a dare. Or unless they’ve lost a bet. Cripes, man, even the premier of the province, Brian Pallister, gets out of Dodge as often as he can.
I think Billy Mosienko was the last hockey player who went to Winnipeg voluntarily. That was in 1955, when the locals were still riding around in streetcars. Mosie had an excuse, though. Pegtown was his ‘hood. He knew all about the potholes, Arctic winds and skeeters the size of a Zamboni, so they weren’t going to scare him away.
But there’s no explaining this Stastny thing. Except to say he must have missed the memo. You know the one. Certain members of the San Jose Sharks sent it out earlier this National Hockey League season. River City is cold. River City is dark. And don’t even think about WiFi service. You want to text a friend? Here’s your carrier pigeon, kid.
The thing is, a lot of us know Winnipeg isn’t the backwater burg most folks make it out to be. It’s a boffo place. And the winters don’t seem quite so long, dark and cold when les Jets are putting on the ritz at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie.
Will Stastny’s willingness to disregard his no-trade clause influence others to regard Good Ol’ Hometown as a favorable destination? Perhaps not, but it’s worth revisiting something general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said last summer, scant seconds after convincing goaltender Steve Mason and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov that River City is an NHL hot spot.
“Ultimately,” he said, “when it comes to free agency, the players want to know that they have a chance to win.”
Prior to last Monday’s NHL trade deadline, TSN natterbug Jamie McLennan had this caution for Cheveldayoff and Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman: “You never want to mortgage the future. There’s no weaknesses whatsoever in this lineup. All you can ask for really is health. You want Adam Lowry back. You want Jacob Trouba back. I believe this team is built to go on a Stanley Cup run. They’re that good. But, if you want to tinker at the deadline, add some depth, add a little Stanley Cup experience, absolutely, but do not mortgage the future with those young players.” So, the Puck Pontiff and Chevy surrendered college kid Erik Foley, their first-round pick in the 2018 entry draft and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2020 for Stastny, plus a fourth-rounder this year for rearguard Joe Morrow. Did they mortgage the future? Nope.
Now that the Buffalo Sabres have rid themselves of the headache known as Evander Kane, what do they have to show for the original deal with les Jets that sent the sometimes wacky winger to upstate New York? Not much. If my math is accurate, here’s how the February 2015 trade now shakes down: Winnipeg has Tyler Myers, Joel Armia, Jack Roslovic, Brendan Lemieux and a sixth-round pick in the NHL entry draft this summer (for Drew Stafford); Buffalo has Zach Bogosian, Danny O’Regan, Jason Kasdorf, a conditional pick in 2019 (first or second round) and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020. It’s still a total fleece job by Cheveldayoff.
With the exception of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, I can’t think of a partnership that’s lasted as long as Jill Officer and Jennifer Jones. What’s it been? Twenty-three years? Twenty-four? Thus, when Officer announced her intention to retreat from full-time competition next season, it was a big deal. She’s one of the most-decorated curlers in Manitoba history, with nine provincial titles (two in Junior), seven Canadian titles (one in Junior), one Olympic Games gold medal, and one world championship. Only six women have played in more games at the Canadian Scotties than Officer. And there’s a park named in her honor in North Kildonan. All that and, unless I missed it, the Winnipeg Sun completely ignored the story. Shame, shame.
The Sun’s snub of Officer is the latest example of the tabloid’s near-total abandonment of curling coverage by local scribes. The Sun didn’t have a reporter on the scene at last month’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Penticton, nor does it have feet on the ground in Regina for this week’s Brier. Coverage is being handled by Terry Jones of Postmedia Edmonton and Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post. By way of comparison, the Winnipeg Free Press continues to do it the right way. Melissa Martin was in Penticton and Jason Bell is in Regina. And the Freep posted the Officer story on its website at 11:05 a.m. Friday, and followed with a video interview in the afternoon. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.
Holy hissing contest, Batman! Broadcaster Elliotte Friedman, whose home base is the Republic of Tranna, went on Sportsnet 650 last week to discuss the steaming mess of dog hooey that is the Vancouver Canucks, and it turns out that it’s the media’s fault. Also the fans’ fault. Everybody’s to blame except the team president, Trevor Linden, and the GM, Jim Benning.
“I see your market right now and I think it’s a really brutal place to be,” Friedman said. “These guys feel like they are under siege…like they’re getting torn apart by wild dogs.”
He described the situation in Vancity as “toxic” and “edgy” and “nasty” because of the media.
Not surprisingly, Vancouver news scavengers and opinionist sprung into action, including old friend Ed Willes of Postmedia.
“Why would Elliotte Frickin’ Friedman care so passionately about the Vancouver market, and why would he launch such an impassioned defence of Linden and Benning from The Big Smoke?” Willes asked. “Fair questions, yes? As for the answers, we’d suggest they lie somewhere in the towering arrogance of Toronto’s media titans and the uncomfortable relationship that exists between ‘insiders’ and their sources. Friedman is a made man in that world but his information sometimes comes at a cost. Consider his radio diatribe a down payment on his next scoop.”
Totally dumb tweet of the week comes from Damien Cox of the Toronto Star and Sportsnet: “Remember the old days when independent media used to ask serious, critical questions when NHL expanded. Now there’s mostly just cheerleading. Yay, Seattle, look how many tix you sold. Yay, more shitty teams, more diluted NHL hockey. It’s a sad thing.” Ya, those Vegas Golden Knights are a real “shitty” team, Damien. But, hey, if it makes you happy, perhaps we can go all the way back to the six-team days when goaltenders played with their bare faces hanging out and Charlie Burns was the only NHL player who wore a helmet.
Sad to hear of the passing of former Winnipeg Blue Bombers (interim) head coach Urban Bowman. Had many enjoyable chin-wags with Bowman during his time subbing for Cal Murphy, who was away getting a new heart. Urban had a folksy, cowboy charm that made him the Bum Phillips of the Canadian Football League, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear him talk of chickens, cattle and such instead of Xs and Os. He did, mind you, have one memorable quote about football. “We’re going to breathe our nasty breath on those folks,” he said prior to a playoff game. “Yes, sir, we’re going to breathe our nasty, bad breath on those folks.” Urban was a good man…with bad breath.
So, I’m watching Pardon the Interruption on TSN the other day and the boys, Keith Olbermann and Tony Kornheiser, are gasbagging about Johnny Manziel potentially getting a second chance in the National Football League. “Why not?” asks Olbermann, who’s all in on the return of Johnny Football. “He’s a misdemeanor case.” That’s what we’re calling woman beaters these days? A misdemeanor case? Is there some sort of TV rule that says you must be a complete goomer to talk sports? I mean, two weeks ago NBC gab guy Mike Milbury referred to former Los Angeles Kings defenceman Slava Voynov’s brutal assault on his wife as an “unfortunate incident.” Now a man putting the boots to a woman is a “misdemeanor case.” Clearly, the culture of misogyny extends from the clubhouse to the old men in the press box.
Watched Pride of the Yankees the other day. A total tear-jerker. But I got a kick out of the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech Gary Cooper delivered at the end of the movie. “I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box, my friends, the sportswriters,” Coop said in his role as New York Yankees legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig. An athlete’s “friends?” Sportswriters? That has to be the biggest fib on the face of the earth.
Let’s give Rosie DiManno big points for honesty. In her wrap from South Korea, the Toronto Star columnist admits that the Olympic Games of Snow and Ice Sports is about “sports some of us only cover every four years but, of course, feign instant expertise at.” Totally true. And it showed, especially with the guys who attempted to cover curling. Dave Feschuk of the Star, for example, wrote about curling guru “Russ” Turnbull, but the late Moosie’s actual name was Ray. And Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail prattled on about Rachel Homan burning a rock when it was actually one of the Canadian skip’s opponents who inadvertently touched a stone while sweeping it into the rings.
And, finally, this week’s Stevie-ism from the ever-bombastic Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “The list of all-time Canadian Olympic greats is not particularly long. In summer, you start with Percy Williams and Donovan Bailey and turn somewhere to Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle and lately Penny Oleksiak. In winter, there is a place for Cindy Klassen and Catriona Le May Doan and Marc Gagnon and Hayley Wickenheiser and a few others.” Excuse me? Clara Hughes, the only Olympic athlete to earn multiple medals in both Winter and Summer Games, doesn’t qualify? Her two cycling (bronze) and four speed skating (gold, silver, two bronze) medals aren’t enough? Sorry, Stevie, but any list of Canada’s great Olympians has to begin with the smiling redhead from Winnipeg.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
Bathgate, Broda, Belfour and now Botterill…as in Jennifer Botterill. Female. Alongside the giants in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. As a player.
Step aside, boys, your old club ain’t what it used to be.
The historic significance of Jennifer Botterill’s nomination as the first female inductee to the MHHofF’s players roll call seemed lost on Tuesday when the class of 2017 was introduced. The focus was on Michael Gobuty. And for just reason.
Gobuty, to be enshrined in October as a builder, is a very nice man who long ago secured his place in local shinny lore by a) tossing the Winnipeg Jets a $250,000 lifeline when the World Hockey Association flagship franchise was about to go glub, glub, glub, and b) assuming one of the lead roles in the Jets’ move from the WHA to the National Hockey League.
Quick digression: We’re duty bound to point out that Gobuty, a mover and shaker in the local rag trade back in the day, also is the man who looked a gift horse in the mouth and balked at spending another quarter of a million dollars (chump change in today’s inflated market) on a scrawny kid named Gretzky.
“Wayne spent two days in my house,” Gobuty was saying on Tuesday. “I had the opportunity to get him.”
Except Rudy Pilous, a learned man with a rich pedigree that included coaching Memorial Cup and Stanley Cup champions, wasn’t keen on this Gretzky kid. Believed him to be “too skinny.” Thus, the Jets general manager counseled Gobuty to consider better ways to spend $250,000. D’oh! We all know how well losing Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers worked out for the Jets. But, hey, let’s not be too hard on ol’ Rudy. I mean, someone at Decca records once rejected The Beatles, so there’s been at least one bigger gaffe.
So we won’t hold the Gretzky thing against Gobuty, who, not for the first time, also debunked the folksy myth that he lost the Great One at a backgammon table.
“We played backgammon,” he confirmed in recalling a rendezvous with Nelson Skalbania during which the Indianapolis Racers bankroll offered up Gretzky for the sticker price of $250,000, “but it was not for Wayne.”
Anyway, as much as Gobuty’s tales make for terrific copy and get gums flapping, it’s about Jennifer Botterill.
I’d like to say that the Harvard honours grad (psychology) and much-decorated member of our national and Olympic women’s shinny side is keeping great company with legends like Andy Bathgate, Turk Broda, Ed Belfour, Bobby Clarke, Mosie and the rest of the boys who’ve been inducted since the creation of the MHHofF in 1985, but it must be said that they are in great company, as well.
Jen Botterill’s bonafides are exceptional:
* Five times a world champion.
* Three times an Olympic champion.
* The only two-time winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top female player in NCAA hockey.
* National champion with Harvard.
* MVP at the 2001 and 2004 women’s world hockey championship.
* Best forward at the 2001 women’s world hockey championship.
* Leading scorer in the 2007-08 Canadian Women’s Hockey League season.
* Manitoba’s female athlete of the year in 2001.
The Botterill induction in October won’t be all about the trinkets, decorations and records, though. It’s a message. The Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame no longer is an old boys club for players. It’s an anybody’s club. And young girls playing hockey in Manitoba can follow Jen Botterill’s path. She lit the way for them.
It should be emphasized that there are other female members of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. Referee Laura Loeppky, for example, is enshrined in the Officials wing, while Dianne Woods and Jill Mathez are honored as Builders. Jen Botterill, however, is the first to go in based purely on her playing cred.
So pleased to see old friend Barry Bonni get the nod in the MHHofF Builders category. Both Barry and I froze our tootsies more than once on the outdoor freezes at Bronx Park in East Kildonan, but we survived to tell tales about Dunc the Rat and other oddball characters in The Bronx. Barry went on to build a dynasty with his River East Royal Knights in the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League.
Also pleased to know another old friend,Winnipeg Tribune colleague Vic Grant, will be enshrined in the Media category in October. Whenever I think of Vic, I retreat to the spring of 1972, when he’d arrive in our sports department bunker on the fifth floor of the now-vanished Trib building in downtown River City. He was usually wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jacket, a gift from scout Jimmy Walker I believe, and he’d advise us that Ben Hatskin was about to take Bobby Hull hostage and sign him to a Jets contract. We guffawed. As history records, however, Vic had the last laugh.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, whichmeans she is old and probably should think about getting a life.
I thought we were perfectly clear on this, but apparently some people still believe Bobby Hull is the reason professional hockey came to River City in 1972 and exists today.
So, as much as I dislike repeating myself, let me say this for the 8,151st time: Robert Marvin Hull is not—repeat NOT (and, yes, I’m shouting)—the reason pro shinny arrived in Winnipeg. Ben Hatskin IS (yes, shouting again) the reason. Always was, always will be. Benny is the godfather, grandfather and father of pay-for-play hockey as we know it in good, ol’ Hometown.
Again, this is not a chicken-and-egg thing. We know who and what came first.
Benny and the original Jets arrived in 1967 as a Junior outfit in the Western Canada Hockey League. But Benny and a few of the boys had bigger fish to fry. They thought it would be a swell idea to form a rebel league and yank the National Hockey League’s chain. You know, poach some of its players and minor league properties. Pay them big bucks, much more than they would earn in the NHL. Thus, the World Hockey Association was born.
So, here’s your overall lineage to that point: Ben Hatskin, Junior Jets, World Hockey Association.
The next trick was to get NHL players whose contracts had expired and the paying public to take the rebel league seriously. No better way to do that than take the NHL’s glam guy hostage. Thus, Benny set his sights on Hull, who wasn’t feeling the love from Chicago Blackhawks ownership. Benny tossed some large numbers, like $250,000 per annum, at the Golden Jet. Hull basically scoffed. He could pry that out of tightwad Bill Wirtz in the Windy City.
“Tell ’em to give me a million dollars and they’ve got themselves a hockey player,” Hull advised his agent, Harvey Weinberg.
Benny alerted his accomplices at the WHA ownership level that the sticker price for Hull’s good looks, charisma and 110-m.p.h. slapshot was $1 million. They might have winced at that figure, but Benny somehow convinced each of them to kick in to the B. Hull kitty. The deal was done.
Make no mistake, though. There would have been professional hockey in Winnipeg in ’72 with or without Hull. Hatskin was all in before signing the Golden Jet. What Hull’s presence did, however, was provide the Jets and the WHA with star power and staying power. Without him, the league’s shelf life would have been shorter than a Winnipeg summer. With him, they survived seven seasons and moved into the NHL.
I point all this out not to minimize or trivialize Hull’s contribution to shinny in good, ol’ Hometown. His role was immense, although I believe some people err when they romanticize his signing. Don’t think for a minute that Hull agreed to come to River City for altruistic reasons, like giving legs to a fledgling operation. He wasn’t sitting at home in the Toddlin’ Town saying, “You know, I think I’d like to spend the next 10 years of my life playing hockey in the middle of nowhere. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see how my skills stack up against Frankie Beaton and Bad News Bilodeau.”
Bobby Hull came to town because the WHA member teams and Ben Hatskin showed him the money. Period.
“They kept calling and I kept telling everyone that would listen that I wasn’t going anywhere, least of all to Winnipeg,” is how Hull explained it to Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun on the occasion of the Jets’ 40 anniversary.
A $1-million signing bonus and a $1.75-million contract changed Hull’s thinking and the professional hockey landscape.
“Who would have thought that any cowboy was worth $1 million in 1972?” Hull told Friesen. “Seabiscuit didn’t make that. No four-legged animal made that. No athlete had made a million dollars until then.”
Which is why players from back in the day still thank the Golden Jet for doubling, tripling and quadrupling their salaries. Some team owners, meanwhile, probably still curse his name.
Again, the point of this essay is not to discredit Hull. It’s to reaffirm Ben Hatskin as the starting point and the most significant figure in Winnipeg’s pro hockey lineage as we know it today. It goes like this: Ben Hatskin-Winnipeg Jets/WHA-Bobby Hull-NHL-Mark Chipman-Manitoba Moose/IHL/AHL-David Thomson-NHL/Winnipeg Jets.
It started with Ben Hatskin and there would not be an NHL franchise in River City today except for his vision and bull doggedness in the pursuit, and signing, of Bobby Hull.
(Footnote: There was pro shinny in River City pre-Jets. The Winnipeg Warriors, featuring Billy Mosienko, Ted Green, Gerry James and Fred Shero among other notables, competed in the Western Hockey League from 1955-61.)
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.
My first memory of watching a live sporting event in Winnipeg is colored in a dozen shades of vagueness.
I can see myself sitting in the pews of the old barn on Maroons Road, as Billy Mosienko and the Winnipeg Warriors whirled about the local freeze. I do not, however, recall their foe that evening, or which side won, which side lost or if the skirmish ended in a stalemate. I don’t recall the year, just the vintage. It was sometime between 1955 and ’60. I can’t say if the popcorn was good or bad, although I imagine it was scrumptous because when you’re a sprig of less than 10 years popcorn is generally good. And I can only guess that I attended the Western Hockey League match with family members, most likely my father and older brother.
I do know this, though: After that experience, I was hooked on hockey.
It wasn’t just the game itself that left me spellbound. It was the atmosphere, as well. I had never sat among so many people. Excited people. Loud people. Mostly, they were men, a large percentage of them wearing hats and neckties. I remember feeling so tiny, like a speck of sand on a beach of humanity.
Odd thing is, when I picture that scene in my mind’s eye, it’s in black and white. Not color.
Why that is, I cannot explain. I mean, I know the Warriors wore gold with black trim and their opponents that night surely were adorned in jerseys of some colorful hue. Yet it is a black-and-white memory, slightly grainy and somewhat drab, like a freeze-frame from 1960s Moscow.
Whatever, I find myself in retreat to that evening more than a half century ago because of Teemu Selanne, who was to call that same old barn, the Winnipeg Arena, home from the autumn of 1992 until the frigid days of February 1996. And it occurs to me that in more than 50 years of watching hockey, also scribbling about hockey for two River City newspapers, I cannot think of a shinny star whose sheen has remained so intense for so long.
What’s that you say? Bobby Hull? Nope. Don’t wish to go there. All that glitters is not the Golden Jet, mainly due to the tarnish of off-ice improprieties. Domestic violence is never a favorable selling point and tends to serve as a dimmer switch on one’s legacy, so Hull, while still adored by thousands, is loathed by many.
A case, of course, could be made for Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. The passage of time has not been unkind to our favorite Swedes, who, almost 40 years after they spurned Pegtown for the glitz and glam of Gotham, remain hockey deity. Like Selanne, they were not with us for a long time. Just four years. But they helped usher in a different, more artistic, swashbuckling way of playing the game and produced two World Hockey Association championships for the Winnipeg Jets.
The adulation directed toward Selanne, however, is otherworldly.
It’s one year shy of 20 since the Jets general manager of the day, John Paddock, peddled the Finnish Flash to Anaheim in exchange for a string of beads named Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky, yet Selanne still is a rock star. When they raise his No. 8 to the rafters tonight at the Honda Center prior to the Jets joust with the Disney Ducks, no small squadron of River City rooters will have made the pilgrimage to Orange County, Calif., to witness the ceremony.
So, what makes Selanne so special? Why travel halfway across a continent to watch some hokey jersey-raising salute to a guy who played just four of his 22 National Hockey League crusades in Jets linen?
Well, it’s about those 76 goals in his rookie season…unthinkable. Unparalled. Never to be matched. Ever. Perhaps the singular, greatest achievement in the history of River City sports. Any sport. So, that would be the starting point in any attempt to explain Selanne’s immense and enduring appeal.
I believe it to be more than numbers, though. Much more. I think it’s as basic as this: Teemu Selanne is a good guy. No…he’s a great guy.
Many of us have become jaded by the blight of boorish behaviour of pro jocks. We see their names on police blotters and court dockets every day. They’re thugs, cheats, liars, murderers, con artists, rapists, wife beaters, child abusers, drug abusers, racists…name the crime, they’ve done the time.
That’s one reason I believe what most people see foremost in Selanne is his ample goodness. His earthiness. His one-of-usness. To us, he’s still that ever-smiling, unassuming, freshly scrubbed Finnish lad who likes us as much as we like him.
He remains a beacon for that reason, and none shine brighter.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.”
“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.
As 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.
Patti 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.