Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I wonder if the Blue Bombers will ever get to play a game at Lambeau Field…
I am not accustomed to telling others what to do with their money.
Oh, sure, I sometimes wonder why folks spend considerable chunks of their well-earned—or ill-gotten—coin on certain things. You know, like a Nickelback or Luke Bryan concert. Or that phony fist fight a couple years ago between wife-beater Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the planet’s most-vulgar athlete, Conor McGregor. Or an Adam Sandler anything.
But, hey, it’s your dime. Spend it as you like.
I will, however, make an exception in the case of the National Football League dress rehearsal featuring the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers, proposed for Aug. 22 at Football Follies Field In Fort Garry. Tickets are priced from $75 to $340 (plus taxes, plus fees, plus your child’s university tuition)…and people are actually buying them.
To borrow a phrase from one-time tennis wingnut John McEnroe: “You CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”
Think about it, kids. Folks in Oakland will watch those same Raiders play the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 10 for the equivalent of 13 loonies and couch change. Yet the tariff in Good Ol’ Hometown is $75-$340?
We haven’t seen a ripoff like this in River City since the night Dave Hanson ripped the rug off Bobby Hull’s head.
It couldn’t be more of a sham if the two teams were named Con and Job.
So, yes, you can count me as shocked that all the $75-plus seats were snatched up in less than 24 hours. I mean, we’re talking about Winnipeg here. The Ojibway word for Winnipeg is “wholesale.” Peggers wouldn’t buy a corned beef sandwich from Oscar’s Deli unless it was a bargain. Which, of course, it is. Yet they’re shelling out large dollars for faux football (read: exhibition season).
Someone suggested an NFL game in Winnipeg is comparable to a Paul McCartney concert. I agree. The Raiders haven’t been any good since the 1970s and neither has Sir Paul.
Sticking with Sir Macca and the Packers, the former Beatleplayed Lambeau Field, home of the Cheeseheads, on Saturday night as part of his Freshen Up Tour. Tickets went for $55.95 to $279.95, but they were fetching as much as $3,500 on the secondary market. Imagine that, spending $3,500 just to listen to Silly Lambeau Songs.
I have no quibble with the NFL invading three-down football territory. It’s not like the locals will stop watching or supporting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers simply because Aaron Rodgers and his American Cheesehead pals are coming to town. It might, in fact, confirm what some of us have believed since we were knee high to Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis—our game is more entertaining than theirs.
My goodness. The Canadian Football League season is already upon us, with the fun starting on Thursday in the Hammer. I swear, it seems like only yesterday that Dave Dickenson of the Calgary Stampeders was squawking about the “fucking Canadian mafia” in Winnipeg.
I’ve already made my 29th annual prediction of a Grey Cup parade for downtown River City in November, and it doesn’t matter that my previous 28 forecasts were incorrect. (Hey, if meteorologists can be wrong every day, I can be wrong once a year.) This will be the order of finish in the CFL this season:
East Division 1. Hamilton
Playoffs Calgary def. Toronto
B.C. def. Edmonton
Hamilton def. Calgary
Winnipeg def. B.C.
Grey Cup: Winnipeg def. Hamilton
I hope the kickoff to the CFL season brings Kirk Penton back to his keyboard. Kirk’s take on all things three-down football for The Athletic are must-reads, notably the insider musings from league coaches, GMs, scouts and upper-management types.
If it’s a good read you’re looking for (and who isn’t?), you’ll want to check out Katy Strang’s piece on the NHL rookie combine in The Athletic. It’s lengthy, but worth the time because it provides incredible insight, including this cringeworthy gem:
“One agent mused that the later in the week the combine goes, the more some teams’ scouting staffs get bored and start screwing around for a laugh. But sometimes teams cross a line.
“Take the example of one current NHL player, who recalled his most vivid memory of the combine interview process. The wide-eyed teenager entered the room for an interview with the team, sat down and, rather than being questioned, was met with this jaw-dropping remark instead from one of the team’s high-ranking executives:
“So, I heard you’re a pussy.”
Like I said, it’s cringeworthy, but not at all shocking. That kind of degrading, sexist hockey-speak has been around since road apples were used for pucks and Eaton’s catalogs were shin pads, and hokey slogans like “Hockey Is For Everyone” won’t drown out the misogyny choir. It’s also the reason why any gay players remain hidden so deep in the closet that a team of coal miners can’t find them.
Did he or didn’t he? Aaron Portzline of The Athletic says he did. Ken Robinson says he didn’t. But, to date, Jack Roslovic has neither confirmed nor denied that he asked for a one-way ticket out of Dodge at some point during the Winnipeg Jets’ latest National Hockey League crusade. Unhappy Jack certainly whinged about a lack of ice time, but so did his on-again, off-again linemate Mathieu Perreault and, no doubt, every other guy that head coach Paul Maurice forgot about (hello, Nic Petan). Hockey players bitch about ice allotment on every team, in every town, from peewee to beer league to pro, and I suspect it’s highly prevalent among young players with les Jets. I suppose that’s what passes for “ruffled feathers” these days.
If Coach Potty Mouth put Roslovic, Twig Ehlers and Kyle Connor together, he might have the fastest forward unit in the NHL. Also the most timid.
Had to laugh at a line in Mad Mike McIntyre’s column on Unhappy Jack. “The Roslovic trade bombshell was just another log on the fire for the ‘everything is broken’ crowd out there when it comes to the Jets,” he wrote in the Drab Slab. Apparently it hasn’t occurred to Mad Mike that he’s the dude who created the “everything is broken” mob with his fact-free “rotten to the core” yarn in early April. Since that initial installment of his whodunit novel Scandal, Jets Wrote, speculation and gossip have been running at full gallop, no surprise given that Mad Mike has yet to provide any hard-core evidence of corruption.
Watching Boston Bruins president Cam Neely toss a water bottle in unrestrained fury during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final reminded me of the night John Ferguson, then GM of the Jets, dumped an entire bucket of ice cubes from his press box bunker onto the Buffalo Sabres bench in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fergy was a beauty.
Luke Fox of Sportsnet offered an interesting take on the Neely water-bottle toss, inspired by a non-penalty call that led to St. Louis Blues’ decisive score in a 2-1 win: “So this is how we find out Cam Neely is a lefty. The uncalled penalty was so blatant and so instrumental to the outcome of the game and, possibly, the championship that the president of the Boston Bruins stood up enraged in the press box, snatched a water bottle with his left hand and, in one fluid motion, whipped it against the wall like Pedro Martinez.” Ya, just like Pedro. Except for one thing: Martinez wasn’t a freaking lefty. He tossed right-handed for the Dodgers, the Expos, the Red Sox, the Mets and the Phillies. The only thing Pedro ever did with his left hand was toss Don Zimmer to the turf.
I’m not saying officiating in this spring’s Stanley Cup tournament has been all bad, but it’s not a good sign when the zebras skate onto the ice to the tune of I Go Blind by Hootie and the Blowfish.
Dumbest headline of the week was delivered by Sportsnet: “U.S. TV ratings aside, Raptors-Warriors is dream matchup for NBA.” Oh, for sure. The NBA should ignore the fact that most folks in the world’s greatest basketball nation are watching Gilligan’s Island reruns instead of the hoops championship series. Viewership in the U.S. has reached 10- to 12-year depths. Game 5 in the Republic of Tranna, with the Jurassics positioned to put away the Golden State Juggernaut, could be the lowest-rated final match ever in Trumpland. This is a dream matchup for the NBA like Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman were a dream couple. We’re talking nightmare, kids.
Women’s hockey update: XVI Sports and Sportsground in Sweden have joined forces to produce all games in the SDHL on TV next winter. It’s a six-year, multi-million dollar deal. All that’s missing is a network partner to come on board. Meanwhile, the grand sum of 18 players have signed with National Women’s Hockey League outfits in the U.S., with the Boston Pride leading the way with eight players. That ought to make the Pride a shoo-in for the title. Except they don’t have a goalie.
And, finally, boffo start to the women’s World Cup, with host France beating South Korea 4-donut. Our soccer ladies take to the pitch vs. Cameroon on Monday, and if this is Christine Sinclair’s final whirl with our national side I hope she goes out in a blaze of glory.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and we called Victoria Day “firecracker day” when I was a sprig growing up in Winnipeg…us kids actually got to play with firecrackers and none of my friends ever lost an eye…
On the matter of lighting a fuse, it’s about the Winnipeg Jets.
While recounting the events of les Jets’ oft-turbulent run to their final World Hockey Association title on this very day 40 years ago, it occurred to me how obliging and honest the players were with their thoughts back in the day.
Kim Clackson, for example, pulled no punches when asked about the head coach, Larry Hillman.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” Clacker growled. “I’m tired of all the bull.”
You wouldn’t hear a guy like, say, Dustin Byfuglien go off like that on the current puppet master behind les Jets’ bench, Paul Maurice. Big Buff talks less than an Amazon parrot. On those rare occasions when the Winnipeg HC defender actually grunts something that passes for a complete sentence, it’s usually as bland as dried toast.
From what I can gather, it’s much the same with many of Buff’s accomplices in les Jets’ changing room. Listening to them preach the party line is like a day at the laundromat—all wishy-washy.
They don’t talk. They recite. Play the right way, move our feet, play a 200-foot game, blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s all cookie-cutter quotes from young guys schooled in the art of moving their lips while saying squat, and I’ve often wondered why news snoops even bother collecting the artificial bon mots the players deliver pre- and post-game, not to mention during down time.
Mind you, the players are mostly muzzled by an organization that believes the daily weather forecast should be kept top secret, and they follow the lead of a general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, who’s a practitioner of bafflegab. Ask Chevy for the time of day and he’ll explain the Julian and Gregorian calendars to you, but you still won’t know if it’s half past noon or half past happy hour.
Be advised that news snoops don’t get lousy quotes because they ask lousy question, so let’s reject that notion. They get lousy quotes because they get lousy, limited and rush-rush access to guys who a) would rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair, and b) usually have a PR flack hovering nearby to censor or cut short any interview that travels to close to the truth.
We had no such restrictions.
First of all, we traveled with the team. That is correct. The WHA Jets didn’t fly charter. The players mingled with the rabble on commercial flights, with assistant coach Sudsy Sutherland distributing the boarding passes, and that meant they sometimes were required to sit beside one of us news snoops, meaning myself, Friar Nicolson or Reyn Davis. As I recall, the players regarded that as cruel and unusual treatment, and I often suspected Sudsy of using his boarding-pass powers as punishment.
But, ya, we were part of the traveling party, and practical joker Willy Lindstrom would prank us with his stink bombs and sneezing powder as often as he would a teammate.
We also rode the team bus to and from the airport, to and from the rink. I normally sat in either of the front two seats, right side, across the aisle from Hillman, his successor Tom McVie, John Ferguson and Sudsy. There was an unwritten code: What happens on the bus stays on the bus.
It sometimes became frosty, depending on what Reyn or I had written that day or what Friar had said on air the night before, and we would be blunt in our critiques of the team.
Some examples of my scribblings…
“Jets return from their week-long road trip this afternoon, and if they travel the same way they play hockey, they’ll all come home on different planes.”
“There are too many passengers on this team and the list gets longer every day. There are players more interested in getting an aisle seat on an airplane than digging a puck out of a corner.”
“Winnipeg management doesn’t like to hear references to Houston, but the players who came from the Aeros are the blood and guts of this team and the Winnipeg holdovers are living off them.”
You think any players wanted to sit beside me on the bus or flight home after reading that?
In general terms, however, it was an agreeable arrangement, in part because I like to think that Friar, Reyn and myself recognized we were in the players’ space, so we didn’t tell tales out of school.
In terms of dealing with the players post-game, post-practice, again, we had open access. I don’t recall any player hiding in the showers. And we weren’t required to go through a PR flack to get an audience. We just sat down beside them in the changing room.
By way of comparison, if you want any insight into today’s players you don’t go to the dressing room or grovel to a PR guy—you log in on Twitter, Instagram or another social media platform.
I still recall the first time I stepped inside les Jets’ lair. It was the season of 1977-78, and Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Bobby Hull, both with towels wrapped around their mid-sections, stood nearby. This was their conversation as they sized me up:
Sjoberg: “It looks like we’ve got a new reporter with the team.”
Hull: “Just another asshole to try and stir up shit.”
Nice to meet you, too, Bobby.
I’ve made this confession once or twice, but I’ll repeat it again:You aren’t supposed to cheer in the press box, but I was silently root, root, rooting for the 1978-79 Jets to win the final WHA title. They were a real good bunch of guys, and I was partial to the players who’d come over from Houston. If a news snoop tells you he/she doesn’t have favorites, trust me, he/she is lying.
Yes, it was 40 years ago this very day when les Jets won the Avco World Trophy to bring the curtain down on the WHA. And it’s been almost 30 years since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers brought the Grey Cup home. Thank goodness for our curlers, the Goldeyes, our university athletes and other amateurs who’ve delivered the goods.
Good grief. Did Matthew Scianitti and Marshall Ferguson of TSN actually spend a portion of their first chin-wag from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp talking about Johnny Manziel? As sure as the great Ticat Garney Henley played two ways, they did. “How good does Jeremiah Masoli’s body language look now that we are a year removed, thankfully, from the Johnny Manziel saga?” Scianitti asked Ferguson. Sigh. Will the TSN talking heads ever get past Johnny Rotten? Apparently not.
If the Ottawa Senators can do something stupid, bet on them doing it. And hiring Patrick Roy as head coach would qualify as stupid.
I don’t know which I’ve seen more often, Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater in the NBA playoffs or Vlad the Gifted’s first two dingers with the Tranna Blue Jays. Either way, TSN and Sportsnet can stop showing those replays any time now.
Fashion note: Apparently Brooks Koepka isn’t going to let success go to his clothes. I mean, that NIKE cap that Koepka wore while successfully defending his PGA Championship on Sunday looks like something he picked up in a thrift shop. We’re talking butt ugly.
And, finally, this is what passes for scandal in golf these days: A chain-smoking John Daly rides a cart instead of walking, Brooks Koepka refuses to kiss his lingerie model girlfriend Jena Sims (twice), and Jordan Spieth zips his lips when the Associated Press comes calling for an interview. Whatever happened to the good old days when it wasn’t a scandal until it involved sex, drugs and a club-wielding bride (hello, Tiger Woods)?
Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.
It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.
Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.
“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”
I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.
So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)
The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.
To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.
This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.
The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”
“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.
There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.
Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”
It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.
“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”
Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.
“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”
“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”
Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.
“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.
Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.
The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.
It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.
It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.
It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.
It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.
Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.
It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.
“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).
“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”
Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.
“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”
Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.
“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”
Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”
There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.
Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.
Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.
“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”
Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.
“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”
It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.
More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.
I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.
“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”
I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.
“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”
There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.
By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.
He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.
“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”
Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.
Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.
We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”
Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.
Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.
On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”
Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”
After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”
More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.
The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.
Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.
“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”
It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.
Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.
The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.
“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”
“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”
“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.
Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.
This was a WHA title that almost never happened.
The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.
There was a money dispute, you see.
The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.
So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?
“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”
The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.
“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”
The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.
As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.
Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.
Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.
“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”
Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”
Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.
“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”
That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.
Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.
If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.
“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”
After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.
Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.
“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”
I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.
Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.
They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.
“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”
No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.
“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”
Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:
Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.
The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.
Fergy hired Tom McVie.
The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.
The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.
Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.
The final Sunday smorgas-bored of the year…and congratulations to all you men out there who began your Christmas shopping at 3 p.m. on Christmas eve and managed to finish before closing time at the mall. You are a credit to your species, such as it is…
It is with more than a smidgen of skepticism that I note the well-meaning boys on the beat have begun to pump Rink Rat Scheifele’s tires.
Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun describes him as “a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate.”
Jason Bell of the Winnipeg Free Press writes: “If the Jets maintain their altitude in the NHL standings, the 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., simply must be in the Hart Trophy conversation as the most valuable player.”
Bell’s accomplice at the Drab Slab, Mike McIntyre, joins the hallelujah chorus by scribbling, “No doubt Scheifele is a contender right now for the most coveted trophy in the sport.”
Yes, it’s all rah-rah-rah and sis-boom-bah for the Good Ol’ Hometown hero.
Trouble is, I have yet to hear the “Mark Scheifele for MVP” rallying cry from beyond Manitoba’s boundaries. Mostly, the Winnipeg Jets centre is mentioned in passing while scribes and broadcasters deliver gobsmacking praise for the work of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Ovie, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, John Gibson, Johnny Gaudreau and, of course, Connor McDavid.
I’m not saying the Rink Rat doesn’t belong in the conversation, understand. I’m just saying he isn’t feeling the love hither and yon.
Frankly, the Hart Trophy ought not be a talking point these days, but I suppose news snoops and opinionists were looking for something to write and gab about during the Christmas lull and before we embark on the dog days of the National Hockey League season. So, okay, let’s have at it. The most valuable player is McDavid. I mean, remove McMagnifique from the Edmonton Oilers lineup and the Oil would disappear faster than a Big Mac and a bucket of KFC on Air Force One. The same can’t be said about any of the other “candidates,” including Scheifele.
That wasn’t just a bus that Jim Lites hurled Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin under the other day. It was the entire Greyhound fleet. If you missed it, here’s what the Dallas Stars CEO had to say about his two top-salaried players (reader advisory: includes harsh language): “They are fucking horse shit, I don’t know how else to put it. We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done. These guys are not good enough. They’re not good enough for me, they’re not good enough for the owner, and they’re certainly not good enough for the general manager.” That, be advised, was after a win. Good grief, what does the guy do after a loss? Pluck the wings off house flies? Kick small dogs? Force his players to listen to Celine Dion albums?
The thing that surprised me about the Lites rant was the reaction from hockey pundits (hello Nick Kypreos) who can’t recall anyone in NHL management/ownership going off on a player.
What, they’ve already forgotten about Humpty Harold Ballard?
Not much pleased Humpty Harold, the cranky and cartoonish crook who once bankrolled the Tranna Maple Leafs. He harbored a particularly strong distaste for female reporters (“If they want to take their clothes off and talk to the players, fine. But I warn them they’ll have a lot more trouble getting out than they did getting in.”), and he had no patience for timid hockey players. He lashed out at his workers as frequently as a priest prays, and Humpty Harold’s harrumphing always was on public record.
Of Inge Hammarstrom, Ballard once said the slick Swedish forward “could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them.” Laurie Boschman, one of the nicest kids you could meet, was “soft” because he had “too much religion.” It didn’t matter to Humpty Harold that young Laurie had been laid low with mononucleosis and blood poisoning. Bosch, he reasoned, was a known Bible thumper, ergo a wimp. Not surprisingly, neither Hammarstrom or Boschman lasted long in the Republic of Tranna.
Closer to home, John Bowie Ferguson hurled Bobby Hull under the Greyhound early in the 1979-80 season, the Jets first in the NHL.
Hull, then 40, had come in from the cattle farm to end his retirement, and he struggled mightily due to rust and a wonky left shoulder. His personal numbers were modest (four goals, six assists in 18 starts) and the club functioned better without the Golden Jet in the lineup (6-7-1) than with him (5-10-3). So I called Fergy at home one night to get his take on Hull. Turns out it was a hot take.
“No, I don’t think Bobby has helped our hockey club at all,” the Jets general manager said with the bluntness of a sledge hammer. “Something is missing. He really is a very undisciplined hockey player and I don’t know if he can adapt. That freewheeling style would be fine if it was getting results. But it’s not.”
Hull never pulled on Jets linen again.
I recall one other public flogging, in the Western Canada Hockey League. Gerry Brisson, president and general manager of the Winnipeg Clubs, removed head coach George Dorman from behind the bench during the middle of a game! True story. It was November 1975. The Flin Flon Bombers were laying a licking on the Clubs, leading 4-1 through 40 minutes, and Brisson had seen enough. He therefore instructed Dorman to observe the final period from the pews in the old barn on Maroons Road, replacing him with the team trainer, Adam Tarnowski, who knew as much about coaching hockey as a cow knows about climbing trees. “I did it for shock value,” Brisson said after the fact. Didn’t work. His Clubs lost 5-2. More shocking than Dorman getting yanked in-game? He kept his job. That is correct. Brisson embarrassed the hell out of Dorman by forcing him to sit among the rabble, but he didn’t fire his coach. Go figure.
I believe we have arrived at the end of the annual, year-end trinket giveaway for Jocks and Jills in the True North Strong and Free, and the best of our best during the past 12 months—as decreed by news snoops from the left to right flank of the land—are golfer Brooke Henderson, fancy skaters Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir and moguls skier Mikael Kingsbury. Any arguments? You bet. The girls and boys at The Canadian Press got it right by naming Henderson and Kingsbury the top female and male athletes and Virtue/Moir the best team, but those who voted for the Lou Marsh Trophy coughed up a hair ball. Henderson, not Kingsbury, should have won.
Here’s why we shouldn’t take the Lou Marsh Trophy seriously: It’s a total clown act. I mean, consider Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail. He stumped for tennis player Daniel Nestor, who went 0-for-2018 and quit. Kelly’s boss, sports editor Shawna Richer, had a hissy fit when she couldn’t vote for a team (Virtue/Moir) as the winner of an individual award, so she left her ballot blank.
Then there’s Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. He squawked in support of Connor McDavid, Kingsbury and Marc-Andre Fleury (really?), and pooh-poohed any notion that Henderson should be declared our top athlete. Why? Because lady golfers just don’t rate.
“The LPGA Tour is primarily a one-country pursuit,” he said on TSN radio. “You look at the leaderboards every single week and it’s the same country and it’s the same golfers and it’s the same five or six women. It is so Korean dominated there’s not even any other country that competes, compares.”
This is a guy who clearly does not have a clue, yet he has a vote. Here are some numbers from the LPGA Tour in 2018:
Wins by country: U.S.A., 9; South Korea 9; Thailand, 5; Canada, Japan 2 each; Australia, New Zealand, U.K., Sweden, Mexico 1 each.
Winners: 26 different champions in 32 events.
Multiple winners: 4 (Canadian, Japanese, Thai, South Korean).
Money leaders: Top 20—7 Americans, 5 South Koreans, 2 Thai, 2 Australian, 1 Canadian, Japanese, Spanish, English; Top 50—19 Americans, 10 Koreans; Top 100—34 Americans, 18 Koreans.
Clearly Henderson competes in a sport that is far more global than moguls skiing, and it is dominated by Americans moreso than South Koreans. These facts aren’t difficult to dig up, but Simmons has never been one to let facts get in the way of a misguided rant.
Oh, let’s not forget that the Postmedia chain of bare-bones sports departments anointed Henderson and soccer player Alphonso Davies as the top jocks in the land. Please give Postmedia CEO and noted skinflint Paul Godfrey a quarter and tell him to call someone who cares.
Staying with the dumb and dumber theme, The Associated Press voters totally lost the plot in selecting Serena Williams and LeBron James as 2018 top jocks in Trumpland. Seriously. Exactly what did Williams do in 2018? Well, she put on a catsuit at the French Open and, a few months later, staged one of the most demonstrative, appalling, pathetic pity party’s in the history of professional sports. When not busy putting a horrible damper on Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open victory, Williams won zero tournaments and was 18-6 overall. Meanwhile, gymnast Simone Biles won gold (four), silver (1) and bronze (1) medals at the world championships. Like Williams, King James won zip, yet still got the nod over Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox. The Mookster was the American League batting champion, the AL most valuable player, a Gold Glove winner, a Silver Slugger winner, and a World Series champion. That’s the baseball version of a royal flush. But, sorry Mookie, that just doesn’t cut it. And I thought our jock journos had dumbed down.
And, finally, I’ll end the final Sunday smorgas-bored of the year with a quote from ESPN hoops broadcaster Doris Burke: “I promise you I’m not having plastic surgery. I’m 52. I’ve earned every wrinkle on my face. I actually like my wrinkles. And guess what? There are a lotta 60-year-old men who have wrinkles, no hair, glasses, and nobody gives a damn. It’s about time that woman my age or above, if she chooses to go into her 60s as an announcer, she should be allowed to do just that.”
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and don’t think for a minute that I’ve given much thought to any of this…
It was mid-June 1979 and John Bowie Ferguson had just examined the list of players available to him in the National Hockey League expansion draft.
He winced. Then scowled.
Fergy rose to his feet and trudged across the main room of his 13th-floor suite in the fabulous Queen Elizabeth Hotel. He stopped in front of a large window, stared at the splendor that is Montreal, and noted that Mary Queen of the World Cathedral was directly across the street.
“Well,” I said, “I guess you have two choices, Fergy: You can go across the street and do some serious praying, or you can jump.”
The Winnipeg Jets general manager did neither. He just grunted.
Head coach Tom McVie, sitting in a nearby chair, smiled and cracked wise: “You know,” he said, “there’s enough talent available for us to win the Allan Cup. It might be seven games, but if we get home ice in the seventh game, we could win.”
He was joking, but not far from accurate.
I don’t know what $650 million will buy the Seattle Whatsits two years hence when the new kids on the block piece together their expansion roster of rejects, but I do know what $6 million bought Fergy and the Jets in mid-June 1979—sweet petite.
The NHL’s existing 17 outfits, be advised, did not lean toward benevolence when they grudgingly agreed to accept les Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers into their shinny cartel. The plan was to first plunder the rosters of the World Hockey Association survivors—Winnipeg HC suffered the worst body count—then allow them to go on a dumpster dive for dregs.
Some interesting names were there for the choosing. Like Bobby Orr. Except the great No. 4 was crippled and retired. The Big M, Frank Mahovlich, was available, except he was 41 and, like Orr, finished. Fergy could have had former Jets head coach Larry Hillman, except Morley was 42 and hadn’t played in three years. Yvan Cournoyer? The Roadrunner was out of gas. I seem to recall there also being a dead guy on the list.
It was so bad that Fergy didn’t even bother to call out names on his final shout on draft day.
“Okay,” he muttered in a tone that suggested both protest and resignation, like a kid being force-fed one more mouthful of Brussels sprouts before dessert, “Winnipeg Jets take the last two players.”
Gene Carr and Hilliard Graves thus were added to a collection of misfits, mostly guys with marginal or diminished skills. Also some undesirable contracts. In sum, Fergy plucked 17 players that day: Peter Marsh, Lindsay Middlebrook, Bobby Hull, Al Cameron, Dave Hoyda, Jim Roberts, Lorne Stamler, Mark Heaslip, Pierre Hamel, Gord McTavish, Gord Smith, Clark Hamilton, Jim Cunningham, Dennis Abgrall, Bill Riley, Carr and Graves.
Still, combined with holdovers from the Jets 1979 WHA championship roster, that bunch easily could have won senior hockey’s Allan Cup, but they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They won 20 of 80 games, and just nine in their sophomore season.
We know the NHL has no plan to be similarly punitive with Seattle, because a $650 million sticker price demands that they get some sizzle with their steak. For the Jets, though, it was $6 million worth of beans and wieners.
The plundering of rosters and a player pool of ragged retreads weren’t the only indiginities inflicted upon the Jets and their WHA brethren. In a penalizing departure from established practice, the NHL ruled that the four expansion teams would choose last, rather than first, in the amateur draft. By the time Fergy used the No. 19 shout-out to pluck Jimmy Mann (talk about cruel and unusual punishment), guys like Ray Bourque, Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Craig Hartsburg, Paul Reinhart and Mike Foligno had already been snatched up. Ahead of the draft, Fergy had said, “Let’s face it, Ray Charles could pick the first-round drafts. We all know who they’re going to be.” So let’s all blame Ray Charles for Jimmy Mann.
Being bad had its benefits for Fergy and les Jets. Their names were Dave Babych and Dale Hawerchuk, plucked in the 1980 and ’81 entry drafts, respectively. With Babs and Ducky on board, les Jets soared from a nine-wins, 32-points season to 33 Ws and 80 points.
Nice to see Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Ab McDonald get the nod as the next inductees to the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. Sadly, both have left us, but I’m sure there’ll be a celebratory mood when some of the old boys gather to salute the two former captains on Feb. 26 at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie.
According to Forbes magazine, the Winnipeg HC franchise is now valued at $415 million, 27th among NHL clubs. Considering that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and co-bankroll David Thomson paid $170 million for their play thing, that’s a handsome hike. Mind you, it’s expected they’ll also be required to fork over $170M to Patrik Laine by the time he’s finished.
If you missed it, here’s how Forbes lists the value of each Canadian franchise: Tranna Maple Leafs $1.35 billion, Montreal Canadiens $1.3B, Vancouver Canucks $735 million, Edmonton Oilers $540M, Calgary Flames $450M, Ottawa Senators $435M, Winnipeg HC $415M. And, yes, now that you mention it, I don’t see how in the name of Cyclone Taylor the Jets can be worth less than the dysfunctional Senators. That’s like saying a pack of smokes is a better buy than gym membership.
This from Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star: “Not to overreact, but Auston Matthews is probably the best goal-scorer in the world. This isn’t a hot take; it’s maybe a take that you left in the microwave for like 15 seconds, long enough to soften butter but not melt it.” Sorry, Bruce, but that’s a totally hot-buttered Tranna take.
Interesting to see loose cannon head coach John Tortorella adorned in a hoodie rather than a suit and tie behind the Columbus Blue Jackets bench last week. Apparently he was fit to be tied after the game, though.
When did women’s curling become more interesting and more entertaining that the men’s side? And does the curling season really begin before Vic, Cheryl and Russ are in the booth? No knock against Sportsnet’s coverage of Grand Slam events, but it just sounds right when Vic Rauter, Cheryl Bernard and Russ Howard are making the calls on TSN.
Is it just me, or does anyone else find TSN’s UFC gab guy Robin Black kind of creepy? I think he might be related to the Munsters. Maybe a distant cousin to Herman or Lily. Or separated from Eddie Munster at birth. Black might know his stuff (although anyone who picked Conor McGregor to whup Floyd Mayweather is suspect), but do we really need to see him rolling around inside the octagon? I know I don’t.
Interesting that Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice took his name from the Tranna Argonauts head-coaching hunt. Not surprising, though. I mean, working in The Republic of Tranna is the Canadian Football League equivalent of a witness protection program. The 50/50 draw is larger at a backyard barbeque in Fort Garry than at BMO Field in The ROT. I could see Coach LaPo defecting to B.C., but Tranna? Only on a dare.
And, finally, forestry and lands people have discovered a hole the size of a CFL field in a remote B.C. park. It’s believed to be the biggest opening in North America now that Ondrej Pavelec has taken his five-hole back to the Czech Republic.
If the Jets and Leafs are playing, it’s worth writing about…
Top o’ the morning to you, Paul Maurice.
Bummer, eh? A 4-2 loss to the Tranna Maple Leafs wasn’t what you, your hired hands or the rabble were looking for on Wednesday night at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie. But, hey, sometimes life bites.
Like, it must really bite for Puck Finn right now. I mean, Patrik Laine looks as lost as a guy trying to find a crosswalk at Portage and Main. He plays five-on-five hockey like a milking cow plays the piano. Clumsy? It’s like he’s skating with a sawed-off peg leg he borrowed from Long John Silver. If he doesn’t find his game soon, you’ll have to issue an amber alert for the kid.
What’s that you say, Coach PoMo? You really don’t know what to do with Puck Finn?
Well, here’s a thought: Don’t ever, under any circumstances, play him on the left flank again. Except on the powerplay, of course. I’m not sure what you were thinking when you had him skate with the Winnipeg Jets big dogs—Rink Rat Scheifele and Blake Wheeler—vs. les Leafs, but a card-carrying democrat would be a better fit at a Trump rally.
The good news is, you and Puck Finn have ample time to figure this thing out. You’re only 10 games into the National Hockey League crusade, so eventually the light will go on, figuratively and literally.
You know, like it finally did for Twig Ehlers.
I don’t know what you told the boys after two periods on Wednesday night, Coach PoMo, but I have a hunch you went all potty mouth on them. That’s what a hockey coach did back in the day, you realize. If his team was soiling the sheets—which your Jets surely had done through 40 minutes—he’d blister them and peel some paint off some walls with language not suitable for the dinner table or mixed company. They’d have first-degree burns to their egos.
What’s that? What do I know about back in the day? Listen, Coach PoMo, I was watching hockey 10 years before your mama wrapped you in your first diaper. Hey, I’m an old lady. Old enough to share my apartment with two dozen cats and not notice. Trust me, I’ve seen some things, including hockey when bodychecking was allowed.
But I digress. It’s about Twig Ehlers.
Whatever message you conveyed to the fellas in those gawdawful aviator blue unis during their second recess apparently registered with Twig. It wasn’t just that he scored for the first time in 27 assignments, he played like he was a bit PO’d.
I think Laine needs to play like he’s a bit (or a lot) PO’d, Coach PoMo.
Anyway, Twig’s goal was the sole positive takeaway from a bummer of a night. But, hey, you get another crack at les Leafs in the Republic of Tranna on Saturday night.
You know what we called Saturday night back in the day, Coach PoMo? Bath night. Yup, we’d get ourselves freshly scrubbed behind the ears, then hunker down to watch les Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens on our black-and-white TV screens. The Habs and Leafs usually cleaned up in those days, too. Won the Stanley Cup 13 times in 14 springs (1956-69).
They’re thinking that way in The ROT again, Coach PoMo. Silly people. You and I both know that your Jets are the best bet to hold a Stanley Cup parade in Canada.
It would help, of course, if you could do something to spruce up Puck Finn’s game. But, like I said, there’s ample time. And I don’t think anyone’s prepared to throw the kid out with the bath water just yet.
Just to refresh, Twig Ehlers and Puck Finn combined for 73 goals last season. Today they have four, all three of Laine’s coming on the powerplay. Thus, they’ll need to average a goal a game between them to match their 2017-18 total. Tall order but doable.
I think it’s swell that folks hither and yawn have noticed les Jets, but I wish wordsmiths and natterbugs in The Republic of Tranna would get their facts in order before spewing nonsense about Good Ol’ Home Team.
Consider, for example, old friend and genuinely good guy Lance Hornby’s recent take on Winnipeg HC:
“Bobby Hull’s record $1-million deal in their second season of 1972-73 angered the NHL establishment—led by Harold Ballard—and got the Golden Jet booted off Team Canada while truly stirring anti-Eastern sentiment,” the Postmedia Tranna scribe scribbles. “Hull inspired two other 100-point players, Christian Bordeleau and Norm Beaudin, but the big bang was a year later, when the Nordic invasion of Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Velli Pekka-Ketola and Heikki Riihiranta occurred.”
Wrong. The 1972-73 crusade was the Jets’ first, not their second, in the World Hockey Association. The “big bang” of the Swedes and Finns, meanwhile, followed two seasons later, not one.
Next we had Nick Kypreos weighing in on les Jets:
“Kyle Connor. Nobody’s really mentioned the fact that this guy is quietly gonna lead them in scoring—again,” he crowed on Hockey Central @ Noon on Sportsnet.
Wrong. Connor has never led the Jets in scoring.
Here’s Kypreos on Laine: “When it’s all said and done, this guy’s gonna end up with 30 goals again, easy. He’s not been used in Winnipeg as a No. 1 guy. Think about that for a second. If you really go and study his numbers…he’s been a second-line kinda guy his whole career, short career in Winnipeg. You kind of look at him and go “What happens if he was on another team and they use him like Ovechkin?’ So, maybe he only ends up with 28 or 30 goals this year. Maybe he does have that kind of secondary result off of that type of ice time. There’s some nights he’s played 13-14 minutes. He’s not an 18-to-20-minute guy and probably won’t be. He’ll always be in that kind of secondary…he’s a powerplay guy but he’s also secondary, you know, Ehlers, Little.”
Wrong. I don’t know what numbers Kypreos was talking about but, prior to the engagement with les Leafs, Laine spent an average of 16-plus minutes on the ice in the Jets first nine assignments, not 13-14. His low-water mark was 15:25. He topped out at 21:20. He was averaging 19 shifts per game. Against les Leafs, it was 22:23 and two dozen shifts.
You’ll have to forgive me if I fail to understand why some mainstream media made a large deal about NBC coming to River City to broadcast the Leafs-Jets joust. At best, it’s a footnote. Yet the Winnipeg Free Press came across like the Country Bumpkin Times by splashing it on the sports front, with a feature article by Mike McIntyre. The Winnipeg Sun, on the other hand, devoted exactly one sentence to The Peacock Network’s presence. The tabloid gave it appropriate play. The broadsheet lost the plot.
Department of Irony: On its website, the Freep trumpeted the McIntyre NBC piece as one of its Above the Fold features, yet in the actual print newspaper it ran the story below the fold. Go figure.
Every now and then, a news snoop from the Republic of Tranna gets distracted or lost and mistakenly wanders into the colonies, whereupon he feels obliged to remind the locals that they suck.
Damien Cox is one such news snoop.
Apparently, Cox took a wrong turn on the way to another Auston Matthews revival meeting last week, and he found himself in the Little Hockey House on the Prairie on the occasion of the Winnipeg Jets commencing the home-ice portion of their National Hockey League crusade.
This, be advised, is known in his trade as “slumming it,” because no one from The ROT considers a trip to the frozen tundra a plum assignment, even if the tundra has not yet frozen over. So the Sportsnet scribe/gab guy must have lost a bet or wet the bed in order to draw such an odious chore. In either case, he made a whistlestop in River City, no doubt holding his nose while going about the business of informing the nation that Peggers have been root, root, rooting for a batch of Sad Sack athletic outfits lo these many years.
“There’s a thirst for a championship here,” he advised his vast audience.
That simply isn’t true. How can Winnipeg “thirst” for anything when it’s the Slurpee Capital of the World? Nineteen years running, no less! That, my friends, is literally the ultimate in thirst-quenching titles.
Alas, like so many before him, Cox ignored our 19-year world domination in sucking up sugary slush, focusing instead on how our football and hockey heroes suck. He noted that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have come up empty every year since their Grey Cup-winning crusade of 1990, while les Jets are oh-fer-the NHL.
“It’s been a while since they held a parade in these parts,” he added.
Well, excuuuuuuse us all to hell just because we don’t bust out the floats and marching bands every time one of our jocks or teams brings a title home. If we did that, we’d have no time to shovel the sidewalks or swat mosquitoes.
But Cox wants championships? I’ll give him championships:
Olympic curling: 2
World curling: 5
Canadian curling: 13
Olympic speed skating: 2
World speed skating: 6
CIS football: 1
CIS basketball: 5
CIS hockey: 1
Professional baseball: 4
Slurpee Capital of the World: Nine-freaking-teen!
All that since the Bombers last ruled the Canadian Football League.
But, hey, no parades. And if a championship isn’t parade-worthy apparently it’s like that tree falling in the forest—it doesn’t really happen if no one is there to suck down a Slurpee at the same time.
Having outriders come to town and point out flaws is bad enough, but they really get up my nose when they don’t do their homework. For example, Cox included this in the first of two dispatches from Winnipeg: “Not since the Avco Cup days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson have the Jets been as serious a contender for a championship as they are now.” Totally wrong. Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull weren’t in the vicinity when les Jets won their third, and final, World Hockey Association title in 1979. The Swedes were in Gotham and Hull had retreated to a cattle ranch. Thus, les Jets haven’t been a “serious contender” since the Avco World Trophy days of Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Kent Nilsson, Morris Lukowich, Willy Lindstrom, Peter Sullivan, Scott Campbell, Suitcase Smith et al.
Cox also suggests that June 2019 would be the “perfect time” to hold the next championship parade in River City. Wrong again. Late next month would be the perfect time. That would mean the Bombers have won la Coupe Grey. A Stanley Cup parade in June would be the cherry on the sundae.
Loved the Hometown Hockey feature on No. 4 Bobby Orr on Sunday night. You can have Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or Gordie Howe, but I’ll start my team with Bobby Orr every time. I still get goosebumps watching film of that man skate and sift through foes like they’re pylons.
Fashion note: My goodness but that Jets third jersey is a dreadful garment. Winnipeg HC broke out the new threads vs. the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night, and they actually look worse than I had imagined. Seriously, is it too late for a do-over?
What exactly does Puck Finn of les Jets do when he doesn’t have the puck? Not a whole lot, it would appear. What does Twig Ehlers do when he has the puck? Again, a whole lot of nada. And these guys play on the same line?
If goaltender equipment is supposedly getting smaller, why does Laurent Brossoit of les Jets look like he has a sofa bed stuffed under his uniform?
If you listen to Greg Millen long enough, you’ll become convinced that everything that happens in a hockey game is “unbelievable!” It’s kind of “unbelievable” that he’s still on the air.
Yes, the hype machine in the Republic of Tranna is operating at peak volume now that the Maple Leafs are playing hockey like it’s the 1980s.
Auston Matthews has scored 10 goals in the first two weeks of the NHL season, so surely he’s better than Connor McDavid. And, hey, while we’re at it let’s mention him in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky (yikes!). Then there’s defenceman Morgan Rielly, mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Orr (double yikes!) because he has 13 points half a dozen games in.
I agree, the east media’s rush-to-greatness for the Leafs and their star performers is a tad over the top.
If nothing else, though, the silliness spawned a giggle-worthy, east-west Twitter to-and-fro between two longtime shinny scribes—the aforementioned Cox of Sportsnet/Toronto Star and Jim Matheson of Postmedia E-Town.
Matheson: “Typical Toronto bias that anybody would think Matthews is as good as McDavid. Did I miss the two scoring titles that Matthews has won? Can we just put a halt on the hysteria surrounding Matthews and Rielly here, besting Gretzky and Orr feats. We’ve played two weeks of the schedule folks. If Matthews gets 216 pts in a season call me. If Rielly gets 47 goals in a season call me.”
Cox (being smarmy, of course): “Now if they played for Edmonton, hysteria would be understandable and sensible.”
Debating the best in shinny is nothing new. When I was a kid, the argument centred on Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. It became a Gretzky-Mario Lemieux discussion for the next generation. Then Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Some pundits still believe that Denis Potvin was better than Orr (as if).
Best lip service of the week was delivered by Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals, who had this take on les Leafs. “We were just playing against (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, so everything kind of drops off from there,” he told the Washington Post following a loss to Tranna. “It’s not that special, to be honest. It’s a good team, like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I would think.”
Bravo to Bob Irving of CJOB. The broadcasting legend called his 800th Bombers game on Saturday when the local lads gave the Saskatchewan Roughriders a 31-zip wedgie. I don’t think I’ve done anything 800 times, except maybe go for pints.
This week’s CFL power rankings…
1. Calgary (12-3): Cracks beginning to show.
2. Winnipeg (9-7): From the dregs to the playoffs?
3. Saskatchewan (10-6): Have to do it on D or won’t get it done.
4. Edmonton (8-8): Finally righted the ship.
5. B.C. (8-7): Hard to believe they’re still alive.
6. Hamilton (8-7): Team to beat in the East.
7. Ottawa (8-7): Still can’t get a handle on them.
8. Toronto (3-12): Blah, blah, blah.
9. Montreal (3-12): Worst starting QB in the league.
And, finally, pot becomes legal in Canada this week. Might try some of that whacky tobbacky to dull the noise the next time TSN broadcasts a Johnny Manziel game. Actually, no. Didn’t do weed in the 1960s, not going to go there now.