Let’s talk about riding off into the sunset after scribbling about the sports scene in Good Ol’ Hometown for (not quite) half a century

I wasn’t going to post this essay until June 14.

That date, you see, marks the 50th anniversary of my first byline article in the Winnipeg Tribune, and I always wanted to be like Vince Leah and scribble about sports in Good Ol’ Hometown for at least half a century.

Well, as Maxwell Smart used to say, “missed it by that much.” One month and change.

And I’m okay with that.

I mean, Uncle Vince is a legend whose longevity as a chronicler of local jockdom shall forever remain unmatched. Indeed, unchallenged.

He’s won more awards than Meryl Streep, among them the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt, and I’m not in the order of anything, except maybe the Order of Bull Droppings, and we all know that’s how more than a few folks have described my scribblings at the Trib, the Winnipeg Sun and on this blog. So, be certain, there’s no attempt here to parallel my career with his.

In truth, Uncle Vince and I share just two commonalities: We both wrote sports at the Trib and we walked out the door the same day, figuratively if not literally, and neither of us had a choice.

Actually, there is one other thing: Neither of us covered a Stanley Cup parade, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point is, I’m finally riding off into the sunset, 49 years and 11 months after my initial byline article, a brief report on the 1971 Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association annual meeting tucked into the back pages of the sports section, along with Harold Loster’s horse racing copy.

I’d like to tell you it was a glittering piece of wordsmithing but, in reality, it was unremarkable and totally forgettable, which would explain its positioning on the back pages.

It did, however, serve as the starting point of a career-long, unbreakable link to hockey and, most notably, the Winnipeg Jets.

As much as I covered every sport known to man, it always seemed to come back to hockey for me, and the Old Barn On Maroons Road became my second home.

I watched the Portage Terriers win the Centennial Cup there in May 1973; I watched The Shoe and the Jets parade around the freeze with the Avco World Trophy exactly six years later; I watched one Soviet side and one Russian side win World Junior titles there; I watched the 1981 Canada Cup there; I watched the Jets’ National Hockey League home debut there in ’79 and I watched them say goodbye there on the Day of the Long Faces in ’96. I played alongside Eddie Shack in Schmockey Night there, and I skated with the West Kildonan North Stars against the Winnipeg Monarchs there. Hell, my birth certificate is so dog-eared that I watched Billy Mosienko play there.

So, ya, local hockey and I were a thing. Still are, albeit from a considerable distance.

Back in the day, people would ask me about the Jets, wondering if their favorite player was a good guy or a bit of a twit, or if Fergy really was as tough as 10 miles of gnarly backroad. Even now, whenever I visit Cool Aid here in Victoria to collect the meds that keep me on the green side of the sod, Jim in the dispensary always wants to talk about “your Jets.”

Yes, he thinks of them as my Jets because it’s guilt by association.

The folks out here on the Left Flank, you see, know just three things about Good Ol’ Hometown: 1) It’s bitterly cold, 2) the Jets, 3) the Blue Bombers. In that order.

I’ve spent the past 21-plus years listening to rude laughter about “Winterpeg” and jokes about the Jets and cheap shots about the Bombers, although our football heroes nipped that in the bud in November 2019 when they took custody of the Grey Cup, and it’ll serve all the wise acres right if the Bombers never have to give the thing back.

If only the Jets had been able to do the same with hockey’s holy grail.

A Stanley Cup parade. Was/is that too much to ask? I mean, I’ve covered/watched some damn fine local shinny sides, but the Jets always came undone like a school kid’s shoelace when the games mattered most. I don’t have to tell you it’s happening again this year, although we shouldn’t be surprised given that the general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, twiddled his thumbs at the National Hockey League shop-and-swap deadline last month. Damn him.

But I won’t be here to praise or bury the Jets as they play out the string this year. I’m fresh out of cheek, irreverence, sarcasm, cynicism and goof-balling around. My snark tank is also empty.

I’ll continue to root, root, root for them, of course, because I’ve always wanted the Jets, Bombers, our curlers and all local athletes/outfits to succeed, which is most sports scribes’ dirty, little secret. They’ll tell you they don’t cheer for the home side, but don’t believe them. Oh, they don’t rah, rah, rah and siss-boom-bah out loud, but they want to see the locals succeed. It’s human nature, and I have personal knowledge that a good many of them are human. Honest, they are. The trick, of course, is to not allow a fondness for the girls and boys you cover to creep into your copy.

Anyway, I’m outta here, kids, 49 years and 11 months after the first hot-lead byline.

In closing, if I were to offer one morsel of counsel to jock journos hither and yon, it would be this: Take your job seriously, but not yourself. You aren’t splitting the atom, you aren’t running into a burning building to rescue small children, you aren’t digging water wells in a Third World country. So have fun with the gig. And, remember, the people you’re writing about are just that—people. They aren’t athletes who happen to be humans, they’re humans who happen to be athletes.

Adios and thanks kindly for dropping by. I’ve always appreciated it.

Let’s talk about no sports for writers to write about…dog sled racing and a vasectomy in the Drab Slab…Cheech and Chintzy won’t show arena workers the money…strange scribblings from The ROT…trashing the Thrashers…the Church of Maggie…and Rachel Homan fires Lisa Weagle

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and great Caesar’s ghost, does anything good ever happen on the Ides of March?

My most-distant recollection of sports dates back to the mid-1950s, either ’55 or ’56, when I sat in the nose-bleed pews of Winnipeg Arena, which was rather spiffy in its newness.

Below on the freeze whirled Billy Mosienko and Eric Nesterenko and Spider Mazur and others adorned in the gold-and-black livery of the Winnipeg Warriors, a freshly minted outfit in a nine-team Western Hockey League that stretched from Good Ol’ Hometown to Victoria and dipped south into Seattle.

I would have been five or six years old at the time, my eyes as wide as the centre-ice faceoff circle, and although I don’t recall the Warriors’ foe—nor the final score or whether I had a hot dog, a box of popcorn or both to go with my Coke—I can report that none of us in attendance gave consideration to “social distancing.” We were scrunched into the barn, somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 of us cheek-to-jowl, each delighted to be eye witnesses to a real, live professional hockey match.

That night represents Ground Zero for me in a lifetime of observing the kid’s games that grown men play for what once was a working-man’s wage but now makes them instant millionaires.

I’m now four months into my 70th spin around the sun and I’ve not known a world without sports since my Winnipeg Arena baptism in ’55 or ’56, even if I have sometimes wondered what a world without sports would be like.

Winnipeg Arena circa 1955.

I played sports. I watched sports. I harbored a voracious appetite for sports reading. Had I spent as much time with my nose stuck in school text books as I did jock journals and the sports section of the daily newspapers, I might have achieved higher loft than a C student. And bringing my report card home might not have been done with such paralyzing dread.

That enchantment with all things jock led to a career in sports journalism, not by design so much as circumstance and a favorable nod from Dame Fortune.

But I divorced myself from sports on a professional level 20-plus years ago, three decades after walking into the fifth-floor toy department at the Winnipeg Tribune for the first time. I’d like to say it was a full, never-look-back split, but that would be a mistruth. There have been numerous freelance gigs. There was a brief and self-aborted return to the rag trade. There have been contributions to various websites. And, of course, every time I’m struck with the notion to shut down this River City Renegade blog, something or someone (e.g. my doctor) reels me back in.

“You have to keep your mind active,” has been his repeated reminder, always accompanied by a caution that a rousing game of bingo does nothing to activate my grey matter.

Thus, I have discovered there is no world without sports.

Until now.

Sports is over. It’s been dark since last Thursday.

They won’t flip the switch back on until intelligent women and men in lab coats and with microscopes and test tubes discover a vaccine to corral the coronavirus, then give health authorities the okie-dokie for athletes and the rabble to return to the playground.

So while the squints stare at germs under glass and sports remains in limbo, will it change my life? A smidgen.

I’ll still make my twice-a-week pilgrimage to my favorite watering hole, Bart’s Pub, and the pints Jack the Bartender pours will still be wet and cold. I just won’t be able to sneak a peek at the flatscreen in the corner to see how the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Jets or Manitoba’s curlers are getting on, and I’m okay with that.

Frankly, the suspension/pause/cancellation of sports might be my cue to exit. Finally. I mean, I’ve had my innings. Like, more than 50 years worth of innings scribbling about the jocks in Good Ol’ Hometown.

It’s been a trip. A bloody good trip.

Truthfully, I’m concerned about today’s jock journos, print division. They had no desire to quit sports, but sports has quit them. And now they’ll begin to run on fumes. I mean, they’ve already exhausted their main talking point—shutting down was “the right thing to do; life is bigger than sports”—so there’s nothing left for them to wax on about until the squints have their say, and that will be many, many months from now. Their only hope is for the Olympic Games to proceed, which is a faint and delusional expectation, and I’m sure it’s a shuddering reality for some. I really wonder how many of them will still be there when sports breaks through to the other side.

You think I’m kidding about the ink-stained wretches running on fumes? Consider this: The sports front in the Drab Slab this very day is a full-page pic of a Chinese badminton player and, inside, you can read all about vasectomies and dog sled racing. Meanwhile, columnist Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna was tweeting about women’s Olympic wrestling on Saturday. He cares as much about women’s grappling, and ponytail sports in general, as Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros care about getting caught stealing signs. It’s anything to justify one’s existence, I suppose.

Come to think of it, why were women wrestling in Ottawa when every other sports activity known to man has gone dark (except the UFC, where Dana White insists on showcasing grown women and men beating each other to a bloody pulp)? What, wrestlers don’t touch each other’s face with dirty hands while rolling around on a dirty floor? Odd bit of business, that.

Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman: “No pay for you!”

It’s not my business to tell Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman or David Thomson how to spend their millions and billions of dollars, but I wonder if the Jets co-bankrolls know how chintzy they look by leaving their 1,050 event workers at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie high, dry and out of pocket now that the National Hockey League has hit the pause button. “They work when we work,” the Puck Pontiff informed news snoops last week, his tone as cold and callous as a jury foreman reading a guilty verdict at a murder trial. So the minions don’t get paid, but the millionaire players continue to fatten their wallets, and that’s something Cheech and Chintzy might want to reconsider. It’s a dreadful optic. Just because you don’t have to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

This just in: Cheech and Chintzy now say they’ll pay their casual and part-time workers for postponed events until the end of the month. As I was saying, just because you don’t have to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. But True North Sports+Entertainment took a massive PR hit nonetheless.

Kudos to Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun for calling out Chipman on the no-pay for arena part-timers issue. It had to be written. Scott Billeck of the tabloid, meanwhile, shamed the Jets co-bankrolls on social media.  Unless I missed it, opinionists at the Drab Slab have been mum on the matter, but I suppose they were too busy digging up those compelling vasectomy and dog sled stories.

Cathal Kelly

Some seriously strange scribbling out of the Republic of Tranna last week, starting with Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail. In reference to COVID-19 shutting down 99.9 per cent of the sports world, he offered this:

“When I think of the very best of sports in the city I live in, I remember that night last May when the Toronto Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks for the NBA’s Eastern Conference title. A lot of Canadians hadn’t cared until that moment. Suddenly, every single one of us did.”

We did? My friends and I must have missed that memo.

Kelly then added, “Whatever comes next is not going to be good, but I believe the spirit of that night will hold in this city, and every other one in Canada.”

Oh, good gawd. Only someone from The ROT would believe that those of us who live in the colonies are clinging to the memory of a distant basketball game to get us through the coronavirus crisis. I guess we can all stop stocking up on toilet paper now.

Similarly silly was Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star calling Rudy Gobert “a hero.” I don’t know about you, but my idea of a hero is a war veteran, a firefighter, a cop, a first-responder, a doctor, a nurse, not a basketball player who thought the coronavirus was a big joke and likely infected people because he acted like a complete doofus.

Then there was Steve Simmons, whose weak attempt at humor re pro teams performing in front of empty facilities fell flat. “Anyone who attended Atlanta Thrashers games back in the day knows what it’s like to have a pro sporting event without fans,” he tweeted. That’s rich. A guy from The ROT trashing another burg because of poor attendance. The Tranna Argonauts, with their sub-10,000 head counts at BMO Field, are an embarrassment to the Canadian Football League, and the Blue Jays have led Major League Baseball in lost customers two years in a row. Fact is, the Argos attracted an average of 12,493 last season, and we all know the actual head count was considerably lower than that. In their final whirl in Atlanta, the Thrashers attracted an average of 13,469, and that included audiences of 16,000-plus five times down the stretch. But, hey, let’s ignore the facts and take cheap shots Atlanta. What a d’oh boy.

Pastor Maggie

Hey, turns out there’s an easy fix for the deadly coronavirus—gather all 7.5 billion of us together and squeeze us into the Church of Maggie, otherwise known as the Victory Life Church, a temple in Perth, Australia, created by tennis legend and raging homophobe Margaret Court. Seems Pastor Maggie sent out a communiqué last week claiming: “We are in agreement that this Convid-19 (sic) will not come near our dwelling or our church family. We are praying daily for you, knowing that we are all protected by the Blood of Jesus.” Hmmm. If only Tom Hanks and his bride Rita Wilson knew.

Pastor Maggie’s statement included this ‘oh, by the way’: “For your convenience, hand sanitiser readily available at all of our sites.” Meaning what? The “Blood of Jesus” isn’t enough?

Rachel Homan and Lisa Weagle

So Rachel Homan and her gal pals have fired lead Lisa Weagle from their fab curling team, and apparently Homan, Emma Miskew and Joanne Courtney did the dirty deed behind Lisa’s back. Just wondering, will Homan now be crapped on from high heights, or is that treatment still reserved for Jennifer Jones? If you recall, Jones fired Cathy Overton-Clapham from her championship team back in 2010, and it was as if she’d tied a large rock to a little, warm puppy and dropped her in the middle of Lake Winnipeg. It will be interesting to see if there’s similar fallout for Homan, but somehow I doubt it.

And, finally, I’m down to my last pack of toilet paper, so why do I feel guilty about going to the market and buying another dozen rolls?

About Puck Finn and sports folklore from “back in the day” in Good Ol’ Hometown

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.

Puck Finn

“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.”

Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe

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.”

  • Ken Ploen

    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

    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.

  • Bluto

    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.

  • The Finnish Flash

    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.

About the Winnipeg Jets landing a big fish…mortgaging the future…adios to curling great Jill Officer…a media hissing contest…Damien’s “shitty” tweet…dumb talk on TSN…a tear-jerker in Yankee pinstripes…and other things on my mind

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.

Winnipeg circa 1950s.

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.

Paul Stastny

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.”

Yup.

Kevin Cheveldayoff

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.

Elliotte Friedman

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.

Ed Willes

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.”

Ouch.

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.

Urban Bowman

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.

Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig

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.

Clara Hughes

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.

 

 

 

About Jennifer Botterill breaking into the old boys club and lighting the way for young female hockey players in Manitoba…old friend Barry Bonni from The Bronx in the Hall of Fame…and old friend Vic Grant getting the last laugh about Bobby Hull

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.

Jennifer Botterill

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 good 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 bona fides 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.

Barry Bonni (front row, third from right) and the 1981-82 MMJHL champion River East Royal Knights.

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, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

B-b-b-Benny and the Jets started with Ben Hatskin, and don’t you forget it, Winnipeg

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.

Ben Hatskin
Ben Hatskin

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.

Bobby Hull
Bobby Hull

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.

 

Teemu Selanne: A beacon of goodness still shining bright after all these years

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.

imageWhatever, 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?

welcome-home-teemu-selanne-from-winnipeg-jets-fans-12-17-111Well, 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.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti 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.