It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not at age 57.
Dale Hawerchuk should have been allowed to grow very old and grey and gather his grandchildren around the fireplace, where he could tell them tall but true tales about the good, ol’ days in the ol’ barn on Maroons Road.
Or how he helped gut the Russians in the 1987 Canada Cup final, winning a faceoff in the defensive zone then hooking one of the Ivans to the freeze, allowing Mario Lemieux an unopposed path to the decisive score in a 6-5 victory.
But Ducky won’t be doing that. He left his bride, Crystal, and their children—Eric, Ben and Alexis—and the rest of us on Tuesday, a victim of cancer, and if you feel the urge to give the year 2020 a good, swift kick to the groin be my guest.
While you’re at it, you can also wrap a black arm band around Good Ol’ Hometown, because Ducky’s death will produce long faces from South St. Vital to West St. Paul, from Transcona to Headingly. And, if you look closely enough, you’ll probably catch the glint of a teardrop in the Golden Boy’s eyes up there atop the Legislative Building.
Actually, I’m selling Ducky short. We need a much larger black arm band, something we can stretch around the entire province. From Churchill in the north to Emerson on the Manitoba-U.S. Border.
It’s not that Ducky was our first shinny superstar. Bobby Hull, Ulf, Anders and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, were there before him, albeit in a different league and, ironically, playing a brand of hockey that Slats Sather would copycat in Edmonton and use to torment Ducky and some very good Winnipeg Jets outfits in the 1980s.
But he might be our most enduring shinny superstar, in part because he was the leader of a gang that just couldn’t quite finish the job.
Once into the National Hockey League, you see, the Jets repeatedly were confounded by those damned whirling dervishes known as the Oilers. Six times the two Prairie sides met in the Stanley Cup tournament, and six times it was the Albertans grinning in the handshake line at the end of the night. Try as they might—and no one was more determined than Ducky—the Jets never managed to wipe the smug look off Edmonton coach/GM Sather’s face, a reality that still rankles to this day.
But nobody’s holding that against Ducky, the captain of those Winnipeg HC sides. Not today. Not ever.
Nor was/is there bitterness about his exit following the last of those half dozen spring disappointments. Ducky had served his time admirably and became an adopted son. He took Crystal, a country girl from Arborg, as a bride and they made their home on a spread outside the city. He toured the province during the off-season, playing in charity slo-pitch and golf events, always smiling, always glad-handing, always obliging in his aw-shucks, country boy manner. He and Crystal maintained a cottage in Gimli once they had moved on.
Few, if any, wanted Ducky to leave after watching and enjoying him in Jets linen from 1981 to ’90, but the winds of change forced his hand.
Out was the man who had brought him to Portage and Main as a freshly scrubbed teen of 18 years, general manager John Bowie Ferguson, and in was Mike Smith, a book-wormish oddball with a degree in Russian studies, a fondness for any hockey player with a Moscow postal code, and a very different way of doing things.
Suddenly, Ducky didn’t fit in. His ice time was cut back by head coach Mud Murdoch, and negativity at the rink and in the media wore him down (more than once he called my scribblings “crap” and I can’t say he was wrong).
“I’m tired about reading bull in the papers,” he said in 1989. “I’m tired of coming to the rink with a negative-type attitude here. Maybe it’s best for the hockey club to get a few players for me. That’s not saying I want to be traded.”
There was talk of a Ducky-Denis Savard swap with the Chicago Blackhawks, but that’s all it was, talk between coaches Murdoch and Mike Keenan that was meant to be hush-hush. The Philly Flyers were said to be interested. But it was the Buffalo Sabres who pitched the right kind of woo, and Smith dispatched Ducky to upstate New York at the 1990 NHL entry draft, accepting Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and a first-round pick, Keith Tkachuk, in barter.
The Ducky-less Jets were never quite right again. Murdoch was fired a year later. Comrade Mikhail Smith received his walking papers in 1994. And the franchise was playing in an Arizona desert by ’96. Talk about curses.
Ducky’s shadow has stretched across the path of every player who’s skated in Jets livery since his departure. It still does to this day, which explains the hosannas raining down since word of his death began to spread on Tuesday.
He left Good Ol’ Hometown many years ago, but he’s never been gone. Not really.
And, the way current team co-bankroll Mark Chipman tells it, there’ll eventually be a permanent reminder of Ducky, a statue outside the Little Hockey House On The Prairie in downtown Winnipeg.
Anyone have a problem with that? I didn’t think so.
I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
I didn’t think anyone would buy the “everything goes under the radar when you play in Winnipeg,” bunk that Jets captain Blake Wheeler was selling last week. Other than the gullible, fawning faithful, that is.
But along comes Paul Wiecek and he’s actually swallowing that cup of Winnipeg Jets Kool-Aid.
Right to the very last drop.
Here’s what the Winnipeg Free Press columnist wrote about Wheeler’s “under the radar” malarkey: “That might have been true before this season. In fact, it almost certainly was true.”
In fact, it almost certainly was not true.
Which National Hockey League outfit, the Jets (versions 1.0 and 2.0) or the mega-market Tranna Maple Leafs, do you suppose has produced more individual regular-season award winners and more all-stars since River City was invited to join the fun for the 1979-80 season (excluding, of course, the years when Winnipeg was dark)? I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t the team that skates in the shadow of the CN Tower.
Here are the facts, ma’am…just the facts (they aren’t hard to find):
Winnipeg Jets 1979-80 to 1995-96; 2011-12 to 2016-17
Calder Trophy: Dale Hawerchuk 1981-82, Teemu Selanne 1992-93 Jack Adams Trophy: Tom Watt 1981-82, Bob Murdoch 1989-90 King Clancy Memorial Trophy: Kris King 1995-96 All-star teams (1st or 2nd): Hawerchuk 1984-85, Selanne 1992-93, Keith Tkachuk 1994-95, Phil Housley 1991-92, Alexei Zhamnov 1994-95 Rookie all-star team: Selanne 1992-93, Bob Essensa 1989-90, Iain Duncan 1987-88, Boris Mironov 1993-94, Patrik Laine 2016-17 Total: 5 individual awards, 5 all-star teams, 5 rookie all-stars—15.
Tranna Maple Leafs 1979-80 to 1995-96; 2011-12 to 2016-17
Calder Trophy: Auston Matthews 2016-17 Frank Selke Trophy: Doug Gilmour 1992-93 Jack Adams Trophy: Pat Burns 1992-93 All-star teams: Borje Salming 1979-80 Rookie all-star team: Felix Potvin 1992-93, Wendel Clark 1985-86, Dan Daoust 1982-83, Kenny Jonsson 1994-95, Jake Gardiner 2011-12, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews 2016-17 Total: 3 individual awards, 1 all-star team, 7 rookie all-stars—11.
We all know les Leafs fly “under the radar” like Donald Trump is subtle on Twitter, yet voters have ignored them season after season after season.
Consider the Calder Trophy as an e.g. Until Auston Matthews was anointed the NHL’s leading freshman last spring, do you know how long it had been since a member of les Leafs won the top frosh bauble? Fifty-one freaking years! Half a century! When Brit Selby accepted the trinket, Lester Pearson was Prime Minister of Canada. Neil Young had just joined Buffalo Springfield. Hockey Night in Canada was still televised in black and white.
But two Jets—Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne—copped the Calder after Selby and before Mathews. And a third, Patrik Laine, was runnerup last year.
This whole Winnipeg is “under the radar” thing is a total copout. It’s such a lame lament. It sounds like the theme of an “Oh, woe are we” pity party. I can hear Leslie Gore singing “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” as I type. Rodney Dangerfield should be their poster boy. No respect, I’ll tell ya…no respect. Look, I get the drill. Winnipeg is mocked, maligned and ridiculed as a backwater burg. It’s so remote, you have to drive 500 miles just to get to the Middle of Nowhere, also known as Regina. But I invite anyone to provide evidence in support of the notion that a Jets player or coach has been cheated out of an award due to locale.
Wiecek didn’t stop at one swig of the Jets Kool-Aid. He doubled down on the conspiracy theory in a follow-up essay: “There has been some loose talk in recent weeks about Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler having an outside shot at taking down this season’s Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player,” he wrote. “That’s not going to happen for a lot of reasons, beginning with the fact the Hart Trophy is voted upon by the media and Wheeler plays in the smallest media market in the entire NHL.” He wants to talk about size? Like size matters? Okay, let’s talk size. If Winnipeg is the nail on your little toe, Edmonton is the nail on your pinky finger. Yet the Oilers won 30—count ’em, 30—individual awards that are voted on (mostly by the media), 10 of them going to players not named Wayne Gretzky (in the years Winnipeg wasn’t dark). There were also 32 first- or second-team all-star selections, including six chosen to the rookie team. In the National Football League, tinytown Green Bay can boast of eight Associated Press MVP awards from five players, dating back to the early 1960s. The Goliath known as New York City, with two teams since 1970, has had just two NFL MVPs. Size doesn’t matter, performance does.
So, the mighty Jets juggernaut couldn’t put a puck past a bean counter who plays goal in a beer league at Johnny’s Ice House West in Chicago. They tried for 14 minutes and one second. They tested him seven times. Nada. Scott Foster, the Blackhawks backup goaltender to the backup goaltender, was perfect on Thursday night at the United Center. His NHL career goals-against average is 0.00. I swear, there hasn’t been a better emergency replacement story in sports since Lou Gehrig took over at first base for Wally Pipp and the New York Yankees. Difference is, Gehrig hung in there for another 2,130 consecutive games. Bean Counter Foster didn’t quit his day job. He went back to his spreadsheets the following morning, knowing he’s the NHL’s feel-good story of the year. Brilliant stuff.
Speaking of Chitown goaltenders, does the name Al Rollins mean anything to you? Didn’t think so. Well, he tended goal for Chicago in 1953-54. The Blackhawks occupied the cellar in the NHL that season. They won just 12 of 70 assignments, missing the playoffs by a whopping 43 points. Rollins’ 3.23 goals-against average was worst in the league. Guess who was NHL MVP. Yup, Al Rollins. So don’t tell me Connor McDavid shouldn’t be considered for the Hart Trophy simply because his Oilers teammates suck and didn’t qualify for this spring’s Stanley Cup tournament. History records that numerous outriders have been MVP, in all leagues. Andre (Hawk) Dawson, for example, was MVP on a Major League Baseball bottom-feeder. Ditto Alex Rodriguez. Here’s a partial list of non-playoff MVPs: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers,1975-76; Larry Walker, Colorado Rockies, 1997; Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants, 2001, 2004; Alex Rodriguez, Texas Rangers, 2003; Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies, 2006; Albert Puhols, St. Louis Cardinals, 2008; O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills, 1973; Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts, 1967; Andre Dawson, Chicago Cubs, 1987; Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals, 2015; Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins, 2017; Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, 2016; Robin Yount, Milwaukee Brewers, 1989; Cal Ripken, Baltimore Orioles, 1991; Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1958-59; Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1987-88; Andy Bathgate, New York Rangers, 1958-59.
If I had a vote, I’d be inclined to give serious consideration to Brad Marchand as MVP in the NHL, because the Boston Bruins would be in Nowheresville without him. But I’d have to hold my nose if I included him on my ballot, because he’s a skunk. A total dweeb. People say Marchand plays “with an edge,” but I disagree. He plays dirty. He’s also a diver. Ultimately, I’d have his name on my ballot, but not at the top. I’d put Nathan MacKinnon and his 93 points/11 game-winning goals for the Colorado Avalanche first, followed by McDavid. Yup, possibly two non-playoff participants one-two. I’d have Blake Wheeler of les Jets third (he plays an honest game as opposed to Marchand’s shenanigans), then Sidney Crosby (Evgeni Malkin has marginally better numbers, but Sid the Kid still makes the Pittsburgh Penguins tick) and Marchand.
I’m not a hoops fan. Never have been. But it’s boffo that Victoria’s Steve Nash will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in part because he was a two-time National Basketball Association most valuable player. Mind you, his former sidekick with the Phoenix Suns, Shaquille O’Neal, figures Nash’s two MVP awards were a rob job. “(I should have won) three, easily. (I should have won) the two that Steve Nash got over me. It pisses me off. (Nash) knows,” Shaq once told SI.com. Get over it, Shaq.
How unusual, also refreshing, to hear an all-female broadcast team work a hockey game. Sportsnet pulled it off with Leah Hextall handling the play-by-play, Cassie Campbell-Pascall providing the backup vocals in the booth, and Nikki Reyes standing at rink-side for the Clarkson Cup, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League title match between the Markham Thunder and Kunlun Red Star. Wonder how long it will be before we hear three women working an NHL game? No doubt the very thought will make a lot of men cringe and feel like they’ve been gelded. Well, it’ll happen one day. Deal with it, boys.
Le Grand Orange has left the building. That would be Rusty Staub, who died Thursday, three days before his 74th birthday. I have one vivid memory of Staub—he stole a base in the first Major League Baseball game I witnessed live. An original member of the Montreal Expos, Staub was with the Detroit Tigers at the time and I was sitting in the first base bleachers at old Exhibition Stadium in the Republic of Tranna. Because he had the foot speed of an ATM, the Blue Jays thought it unlikely that Staub would bolt. Yet away he went. It was like watching a man pull a milk wagon. I could have poured back three pints by the time he arrived at second base. But he got there safely. Standing up, no less. Staub stood there, smiling, like a schoolboy who’d pulled the perfect prank. A nice memory.
And, finally, this week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: Not so long ago, he described the induction of Pedro Martinez to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as a “ridiculous choice. He spent four seasons in Montreal. That’s all.” Apparently, that made the Hall “look cheap.” And “Do you honestly believe a player with four years service belongs in a Hall of Fame? Any Hall of Fame?” Ah, but now he writes glowingly of Staub as “the baseball player in Canada so many of us cared about. The first who mattered across the country.” Staub actually spent less time with the Expos than Martinez, just 3 ½ season with the Expos, but he was inducted into the CBHF in 2012 and I don’t hear Grandpa Simmons shouting that it was a “ridiculous choice.” Nor should he. So shut up about Pedro, Steve.
Dale Hawerchuk had street cred as a hockey player and, perhaps more important, as a citizen. His street cred was borne of a 53-goal season. Six 40-plus goal seasons. Half a dozen 100-plus point seasons. A Calder Trophy. And he married a Manitoba farm girl, Crystal.
Okay, it’s agreed that Evander Kane is Public Enemy No. 1 in River City.
The guy is about as welcome as mosquitos at a picnic table. He probably couldn’t get himself a free lunch at a soup kitchen. Heck, Kane likely couldn’t score a pint on the house if he bellied up to the bar with Mike O’Shea and Drew Willy as his wing mates on a Friday night at the Palomino Club.
Ya. I’m told it’s that bad.
So here’s what I would like to know: What is Kane’s crime?
There’s a school of thought, of course, that suggests he wants out of Winnipeg. That he feels as if playing hockey in River City is the equivalent of cleaning up after the circus elephants. We’ve been hearing that since he arrived with the National Hockey League club’s caravan from Atlanta in 2011. Well, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never heard any such words fall from Kane’s tongue. When asked about it point blank, he acts like a ninny and skates around the issue without providing a yes or no answer.
Thus, it’s all gossip. Innuendo. Rumor. Kane, himself, has yet to approach general manager Kevin (The Possum) Cheveldayoff and request a trade. Not for public consumption, anyway.
Why, then, is the young Winnipeg Jets left winger so disliked?
I mean, Dale Hawerchuk demanded his ticket out of Dodge, yet he is revered in River City.
The difference, of course, is that Ducky had street cred as a hockey player and, perhaps just as important, as a citizen. His street cred was born of a 53-goal season. Six 40-plus goal seasons. Half a dozen 100-plus point seasons. A Calder Trophy. And he married a Manitoba farm girl, Crystal.
One other thing: There was no belief that Ducky considered his adopted hometown the crotch of the country.
Ducky wanted a new postal code for one reason: GM Mike Smith.
Some of you might not be old enough to remember comrade Mikhail, who generally (mis)managed the Jets in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He was, shall we say, a different head of lettuce. Rumpled in a slept-on-the-street sort of way and an egghead who viewed hockey not so much as sport but science, he had a degree in Russian studies and a fascination, if not a fetish, for players whose names ended with the letters ‘ov’. Under comrade Mikhail’s watch, the Jets had more Ivans and Igors and Sergeis and Vladimirs than the Kremlin. Or the Moscow phone book. Winnipeg was Red Square West. That’s why I called them the Central Red Jets back in the day.
Anyway, Hawerchuk was caught up in, and eventually swept away by, the undertow of comrade Mikhail’s diabolical plot to paint the town red.
As with the Kane scrutiny, gossip abounded about Ducky being dispatched hither and yon. Chicago Blackhawks coach Iron Mike Keenan and his Jets counterpart, Bob (Mud) Murdoch talked about a one-for-one swap: Denis Savard for Hawerchuk. Prior to the 1989 NHL trade deadline, there was discussion of a deal that would have sent Ducky to Philadelphia for Dave Poulin, Scott Mellanby and one of their the Flyers’ No. 1 picks.
To that point in time, Hawerchuk had made no trade request or demand. He was, however, wavering.
“I would accept a trade more easily now than I would have a year ago,” he said. “I’m tired about reading bull in the papers. I’m tired of coming to the rink with a negative-type attitude here. Maybe it’s best for the hockey club to get a few players for me. That’s not saying I want to be traded.”
Both Hawerchuk and comrade Mikhail were singing from the same sheet in the songbook by the end of that season.
“He basically would like a change,” the GM told reporters. “He’d like an opportunity to go to another team and play in another organization.”
Shortly thereafter, Ducky was shuffled off to Buffalo in barter for Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and an exchange of first-round draft picks (the Jets chose Keith Tkachuk). It was a favorable deal for the Jets, certainly the best return anyone could have expected.
Despite his defection, Hawerchuk is revered and considered hockey deity in River City. And rightly so.
Kane, meanwhile, is reviled.
I still don’t know what crime Kane has committed, other than he enjoys yanking everyone’s chain. I do know this, however: Dale Hawerchuk earned the right to request a trade because he earned his street cred through his deeds. To this point in time, Evander Kane has done and earned squat.
You know, just like The Possum, whose management by paralysis has paralyzed the Jets.
(FOOTNOTE: I invite your comments. I do not, however, welcome some of your comments. If you believe what I’ve written is the natterings of a nincompoop and belongs at the bottom of a bird cage, let ‘er rip. Tell me why. I enjoy healthy debate. That can be fun. If, on the other hand, your idea of a critique is to attack/insult me about my gender or sexual orientation, then we aren’t going to get along. Let’s put it this way: It is permissible to question the size of my IQ, but not the size of my boobs. Bottom line: I don’t get paid to write this crap, so play nice, kids.)