Let’s talk about death threats and bomb threats in Good Ol’ Hometown…the Buddha and Brees…Jackie Robinson and the American flag…Chris Cuthbert goes over the wall…another jock journo out of work…the Winnipeg Sun’s six-pack…and Fidel Castro’s angst

At first blush, the inclination was to suggest that Khari Jones had it all wrong. That he was misremembering.

Khari Jones

I mean, death threats? To the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback? Naw. Can’t be.

Look, I realize the football faithful in Good Ol’ Hometown can be a demanding lot. They’ll turn on a starting QB faster than Judas on Jesus (hello Dieter Brock, Matt Nichols, etc.), and they’ll get louder and more ornery as the beer snakes grow longer and longer in the fourth quarter of a losing skirmish.

But threaten to snuff him out? That’s something you’d rather not believe.

Except as Jones told the tale the other day, his nose wasn’t growing and his pants weren’t on fire.

He delivered his revelation in a calm, matter-of-fact cadence, like he was telling us what he had for lunch or what his kids ordered the last time at a McDonald’s drive-thru. He even smiled, almost as if he recognized that some among the rabble might suggest there was a tich of far-fetchedness to the disturbing narrative of his 2002 Canadian Football League crusade.

“In Winnipeg,” Jones began, “I received death threats, you know, because my wife is a different color than me. We had police officers staying at our house, kinda patrolling our house while I was at away games. There was a series of letters, and I still have those letters.”

I don’t know about you, but those words produce chilling imagery for me:

Justine Jones

A woman—Jones’ bride Justine—home alone with her newborn, Jaelyn, while hubby and dad is flinging footballs hundreds of miles away, unable to protect his family from a wingnut lurking in the shadows of a darkening night. The stalker might have a gun. Or a knife. Maybe both. Stealth, slow-moving cop cars appear in the haze of dimly lit lamp posts, then disappear into the same darkness that protects the unseen scoundrel, prepared to pounce. It’s positively Hitchcockian.

It was just one person, we’re told, a racist who believes black and white belong together on piano keyboards, salt-and-pepper shakers and Oreo cookies, but not in the skin hue of a married couple. He penned a dozen letters to Jones, each peppered with vulgar language and threats. He was never caught.

Eighteen years later, Jones is finally talking about it because racism is the topic du jour in North America and he recognizes that his is a story people need to hear, even if they’d prefer not to hear it.

It’s the kind of stuff that gives pause for ponder, and you try to convince yourself that such a level of hate can’t possibly exist in Good Ol’ Hometown.

I was born, raised and spent most of my working life in Winnipeg and, sure, I recognize that racists, bigots, homophobes, etc. walk among the throng, but death threats because a quarterback is black and his bride is white? Come on, man, isn’t that supposed to be a 1960s Alabama thing? If only.

Truth is, I had my own close encounter with one of the wackos back in the day.

It was late March of 1979 and, with the Parti Québécois beating the separatist drums with gusto, the political climate was a tinderbox. Anti-Québec sentiment flowed freely in Western Canada and peaked in full, ugly voice the night the Finnish National B shinny side was in town for a friendly with the Winnipeg Jets, then still the World Hockey Association’s flagship franchise but soon to be a charter member of the National Hockey League.

Because the skirmish was televised locally on the CBC’s English and French channels, public address announcements were delivered in both our official languages. That didn’t work so well.

Each time PA announcer Germain Massicotte would parlez vous, the audience of 10,113 filled the Old Barn On Maroons Road with a robust chorus of boos, which ramped up in volume with each word he uttered en francais. By the time Morris Lukowich scored in overtime, Massicotte’s voice had totally disappeared beneath the might of the anti-Québec outpouring.

“It was kind of rude,” said young Rich Gosselin, a product of nearby St. Malo and one of two francophones wearing Jets linen that night.

Bobby Guindon

“I just consider the source,” muttered Bobby Guindon, the veteran forward who, a year ealier, had been anointed most valuable player in the Jets championship crusade.

Like Gosselin and Guindon, I was unamused, so I scribbled as essay in the Winnipeg Tribune, giving the booing, bigoted boors a stern tsk-tsking.

“Winnipeg, if this is how you’re going to act next season when you’re in the National Hockey League, then you don’t deserve to see the Montreal Canadiens,” is how I signed off.

The following morning, the ringing of my kitchen telephone stirred me from slumber. It was a man. An angry man. He didn’t appreciate the tone of my column and volunteered to provide me with one-way passage to the Great Beyond. Yup, he’d bomb my house. Blow it up, me and my family with it. Apparently, that’s what you do with a “frog lover.”

Unlike Khari Jones, I didn’t call the cops. I told the boys at work about the bomb threat and we had a giggle, although I must confess mine was a bit of a nervous chuckle and there was some skittishness to my step for a few days.

But, hey, that house on Leighton Avenue in East Kildonan is still standing, a block away from the Red River, and I’m still ticking, so I guess the guy had a bad batch of dynamite or he was a graduate of the Wile E. Coyote School of Mayhem.

I don’t know if you’ve been following Paul Friesen’s work on the Khari Jones file for the Winnipeg Sun, but it’s boffo stuff. Top drawer in every way. Makes me proud that I played a part in poaching Paul from CJOB all those many years ago, and it all began with a chance meeting in a checkout line at the Safeway on Roslyn Road in Osborne Village. So, if you like Paul’s work, kudos to him. If you don’t like it, blame me.

Really hard to believe the boys at the Drab Slab basically ignored the Jones death-threat narrative, except to run one Canadian Press piece. That’s shoddy. Or lazy. Maybe both.

The Donald and Drew.

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are supposed to be bright guys. They aren’t allowed to be the dullest knife in the drawer, although Terry Bradshaw tests that theory every time he opens his squawkbox on Fox Sports NFL coverage. So what’s Drew Brees’ excuse for being such a D’Oh Boy? I mean, seriously, he thought Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was about the American flag and not social injustice and police brutality? That’s like believing the Bible is porn. But wait. The New Orleans Saints QB experienced an awakening, as if he’d shared a bodhi tree with the Buddha, and a couple of days after dumbing down he was schooling Donald Trump, advising the Commander-in-Chaos that kneeling protests have “never” been about the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. I swear, we haven’t seen a retreat that rapid since Tiger Woods’ wife came at him with a 9-iron. Makes you wonder how Buddha Brees ever mastered the Saints playbook.

Every time I hear someone like Brees rage against Kaepernick and other National Football League kneelers, branding them as disrespectful ingrates, I am reminded of this excerpt from baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s book, I Never Had It Made: “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only the principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.” So there.

Jennifer Hedger

The other night on TSN SportsCentre, anchor Jennifer Hedger said racism is an “uncomfortable” conversation. Why? And who’s uncomfortable? Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down social gatherings, my friends and I discussed racism, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, etc. on numerous occasions, with zero discomfort.

Big shakeup in the Tower of Babble On, with Chris Cuthbert defecting from TSN football to Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada. Initial reaction: Geez, can he take Glen Suitor with him?

Apparently Suitor was unavailable for comment on his longtime sidekick’s departure. “He’s still in rehab after having his nose surgically removed from Keith Urban’s butt,” a TSN spokesperson familiar with the situation confirmed.

Chris Cuthbert

Seriously, this is an opportunity for TSN to bring a new, fresh sound to its Canadian Football League broadcasts. Surely there’s a vibrant, young voice out there who can slide behind Cuthbert’s play-by-play mic and, at the same time, they can spare us another season of groupie Glen’s gushing over Urban. If they insist on going with the old guard, I say give the job to Gord Miller, who’s solid whenever he calls Rouge Football. And, for gawd’s sake, keep Kate Beirness away from the CFL on TSN panel.

Oh, dear, the body count continues to grow in the toy department, and Ken Wiebe is among the latest casualties. The Athletic slashed salary and scribes the other day, handing out 46 pink slips, and that leaves Murat Ates to fly solo on the Jets beat. I never met Ken, but I’m told he’s one of the good guys, and we can only wonder when this carnage will end and who’ll be left standing.

The Winnipeg Sun made it through the week without anyone heading to the pogey line, but the overlords at Postmedia have decided to eliminate one day of the week—Monday. Commencing June 22, the tabloid will become a six-days-a-week print publication (Tuesday-Sunday), which means they’ll be a day late and a dollar short whenever something big breaks on the Sabbath. You know, like the Bombers winning the Grey Cup. Or—dare to dream—the Jets hoisting the Stanley Cup on a Sunday.

And, finally, news that the Sun is becoming a six-pack provided reflection on my time with the tabloid.

Now in its 40th year (the official anniversary date is Nov. 5), the Sun wasn’t supposed to have a shelf life longer than four months, never mind four decades, but a three-days-a-week sheet bulked up to a seven-day production in 1992, and they’ve been going toe-to-toe with the Goliath on Mountain Avenue every morning since.

You don’t survive that long unless you deliver something the rabble is looking for and, in the case of the tabloid, that’s meant a heavy emphasis on cops and robbers, entertainment and, of course, sports scribbling served with sizable portions of sass, irreverence and 200-point headlines.

Oops. Almost forgot Page 3 (or was it Page 2?), which once featured a damsel in her scantilly-clads and heels as high as a giraffe’s forehead.

The Sunshine Girl was just one of the oddball things we did at the Sun. I also recall management’s curious fascination for Panda bears, and there was a cheeky promo during the 1999 Pan American Games that attracted the attention of El Presidenté, Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro

Seems ol’ Cigar Breath was so distraught over Cuban defectors prior to/during the Games that it became the focal point of his annual Revolution Day natter, with the Bearded One barking about “traps and tricks” and “schemes” and “filth.”

We ran a “guess the number of Cuban defectors” contest, offering airfare and a one-week vacation in Havana, cigars not included.

“If this is a goodwill gesture, it is a perverse one,” noted José Fernandez, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee.

I don’t recall if it was eight or 10 Cubans who went over the wall during the Pan Ams, but that was us—the perverse paper.

About a Hall pass for “hell-ya!” girl Hayley Wickenheiser…keeping it behind closed doors for the Winnipeg Jets…fickle fans…and a new turn for the CFL quarterback carousel

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

I suppose the manner in which Hayley Wickenheiser walked away from hockey says something about the women’s game, if not her: Under-stated. Under the radar.

Hayley Wickenheiser
Hayley Wickenheiser

There was no ballyhoo. No emotion-charged, tear-jerker live press gathering on TV or streaming across the Internet. Just a simple tweet from Wickenheiser at 4:02 in the afternoon on a Friday the 13th , stating, “Dear Canada. It has been the great honour of my life to play for you. Time to hang ’em up!! Thank you!”

In the world’s greatest hockey nation, that’s how the greatest of all our female players bid adieu. A 22-word tweet, almost one for each of the 23 years the product of Shaunavon, Sask., wore the Maple Leaf with Canada’s national women’s team. As farewells go, you can’t do it at a lower volume than that, unless you say nothing at all.

That’s the nature of the beast, though.

I don’t believe I’d be off the mark were I to submit that female hockey operates under the radar three out of every four winters. We get geeked up about the girls’ game only when the Olympics arrive. Then it roars into our consciousness, like a hell-bent Hayley Wickenheiser dropping a shoulder and driving to the net against those always troublesome American girls.

Think Sochi 2014. Anything at those Games more dramatic, breath-halting and inspiring than the finish to the women’s gold-medal game? Nope. At least not for us. Our neighbors to the south, no doubt, don’t share such romantic sentiments.

The point is, we genuflect in the direction of the women’s game during the five-ring circus that is the Winter Olympics, otherwise it’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind venture.

The two main organizations in North America—the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League that operates in the northeastern U.S.—basically function in anonymity. I mean, until the Wickenheiser tweet on Friday, the only headlines in female shinny this season were the coming out of Harrison Browne, a transgender forward with the Buffalo Beauts, and the Edward Scissorhands-like slashing of NWHL salaries.

Not many people were shocked to read about a transgender hockey player or a 50-per cent cut in wages—they were gobsmacked to learn that something called the NWHL actually existed.

I doubt many are aware that the CWHL, in which players are not paid, is enjoying its 10th season.

All hail Hayley.
All hail Hayley.

So, Wickenheiser doing her thing on the down low was rather in lockstep with the women’s game, but no doubt any and all tributes that accompany her into retirement won’t be so muffled.

Wickenheiser is deserving of fanfare, not merely because of the unprecedented numbers (168 goals, 379 points in 276 games with the national side) or the gold trinkets she collected at the Olympics (four) and world hockey championships (seven). Most significant, it’s about what she has done for girls and women who wish to play hockey without being viewed as freakish or not quite right.

It wasn’t so long ago when boys wore the black skates and girls wore the white skates with the toe picks. It was considered the natural order of things. Any deviation was viewed with cynicism, if not open ridicule and bullying. Indeed, Wickenheiser speaks of her early days on the frozen ponds of Western Canada, when she felt obliged to conceal her identity in order to play hockey.

I remember when I was a kid, I hid in the bathroom and tucked my hair up so no one would know I was a girl,” the 38-year-old told Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press. “I just went through hell really, to play. Girls don’t have to go through hell anymore to play hockey.”

No they don’t. And much of that is Hayley Wickenheiser’s doing.

Does she belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hell ya, girl! And that will be worth more than a 22-word tweet.

I’m not sure what’s worse, being paddywhacked 7-4 by the Montreal Canadiens or surrendering four first-period goals to the Arizona Coyotes. I mean, the Desert Dogs are the only National Hockey League outfit that has yet to reach double digits in wins this season. They’ve collected nine Ws in 41 assignments. But here’s the deal: The Winnipeg Jets, in dropping a 4-3 verdict to the ‘Yotes on Friday night, now have 22 losses for their 2016-17 crusade. Only one club, the Colorado Avalanche, has more Ls. Grim.

So, the Jets were late in allowing news snoops to enter their inner sanctum at Gila River Arena on Friday, because they thought it would be a swell idea to discuss their misgivings amongst themselves before captain Blake Wheeler surfaced to share a terse bon mot with the media. Next up was a chin-wag with head coach Paul Maurice on Saturday morning in Tinseltown. It’s official, then: The Jets have had more emergency meetings than wins this week.

It has come to my attention that there are those among us in Jets Nation who believe much-maligned goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is the remedy for what ails the local hockey heroes. Yes, oh ye fickle fans, and Donald Trump will fix the great racial divide in the U.S.

Oops newspaper headline of the week comes from the Winnipeg Sun: “Jets catching Canadiens at right time.” D’oh. I’m guessing Paul Maurice would disagree, since coach Potty-Mo has expressed nothing but four-letter displeasure in the wake of the 7-4 wedgie the Habs gave the Jets at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie on Wednesday night.

I note there might be a starting quarterback vacancy in Saskatchewan, where Roughriders’ chief cook and bottle washer Chris Jones parted company with Darian Durant by dispatching him to the Montreal Alouettes for a song. One line of logic suggests this is an opening for Matt Nichols, potential free agent QB. That might make sense if not for the fact Jones tossed Nichols into the dumpster when they were both with the Edmonton Eskimos. Once the Canadian Football League QB carousel stops spinning, I believe you’ll find Nichols where he was last year—behind centre with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.