Let’s talk about the yin and yang of Ponytail Puck…English soccer women hit the mother lode…local treasure Jennifer Botterill…Mike Tyson’s meal ticket…the CFL arms race…Chevy and the Arctic ice melt…and other things on my mind

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and the days are getting longer and so is this blog…

A “shambles.”

That’s the word Kendall Coyne Schofield used to describe the state of women’s hockey in 2019, and it was a harsh truth.

Kendall Coyne Schofield

The mostly ignored Canadian Women’s Hockey League had shuttered its doors permanently, giving rise to a group of malcontents demanding, among other things, a living wage, preferably from billionaire owners in the National Hockey League. Rather than sign on with National Women’s Hockey League outfits and form one super league, 150-200 orphaned players chose to participate in mostly ignored pickup games hither and yon, pose for photos with Billie Jean King, and trash talk the NWHL, which was wrestling with its own credibility demons in its fifth season.

“The women’s professional game is in shambles,” Coyne Schofield, the brightest star in the female shinny galaxy, told the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2019. “I dream of the day a young girl can dream of one day being a professional hockey player, and we’re nowhere near that.”

So, fast forward 15 months, and it’s fair to wonder if that dream is any nearer. Is Ponytail Puck any less in shambles?

Well, let’s take inventory:

The Isobell Cup champion Boston Pride.

The NWHL emerged from its COVID cocoon in January and assembled in Lake Placid for a two-week frolic meant to determine an Isobel Cup winner. Alas, the pandemic put the kibosh on that. The semifinals and final were aborted, but the NWHL returned to the freeze to complete its unfinished business on Friday and Saturday in Boston, declaring the Boston Pride as champions, and all three skirmishes were broadcast live on NBCSN.

Coyne Schofield and friends in the PWHPA, meanwhile, cranked up their second Dream Gap Tour last month, first strutting their stuff in a true sporting cathedral, Madison Square Garden in Gotham, then shifting their barnstorming showcase to the United Center in Chicago. Both friendlies were broadcast live on NBCSN, a first in the United States.

Finally, there’s loud chatter about the NWHL adding a seventh franchise, in Montreal, for its seventh season, and the planet’s elite are scheduled to gather in Nova Scotia for the 20th Women’s World Championship, May 6-16, and TSN will be all-in for the global showcase.

Thus, it sounds like the women are gaining traction. Or not.

As much as the national TV exposure is boffo, certain among the Dream Gappers can’t resist the urge to slag the NWHL, indicating that Ponytail Puck is as much a house divided as in late December 2019, when Coyne Schofield talked about an enterprise “in shambles.”

Cassie Campbell-Pascall

“I don’t think you’ll get the PWHPA and the NWHL together,” Cassie Campbell-Pascall informed Tim Micallef early this month on Sportsnet’s Tim & Friends.

The former Canadian Olympian and current Sportsnet squawk box suggested it would be “awesome” if the NWHL survives, and that it might one day be “a great league,” or grow up and become “a feeder system” to a Women’s NHL featuring Dream Gappers. But it’s “not the future of women’s hockey,” she harrumphed. So there.

“I think the PWHPA is gonna go down as that moment in women’s hockey, that group in women’s hockey, that really, truly made a difference in providing a professional women’s hockey league,” Campbell-Pascall tooted. So there again.

Dani Rylan Kearney

It should be pointed out that Campbell-Pascall is not a member of the PWHPA board. Nor is she an official adviser. But she’s thrown in fully with the Dream Gappers, and Sportsnet continues to provide a pulpit for her unchallenged propaganda. She uses her position for divisive dialogue, sometimes spewing inaccuracies about the NWHL, other times accusing former NWHL commissioner and founder Dani Rylan Kearney of “ulterior motives” without naming her and without introducing evidence.

Others among the Dream Gappers have shown an inclination toward schoolyard banter. Hilary Knight branded the NWHL a “glorified beer league” and former board member Liz Knox tsk-tsked the NWHL for having the (apparent) bad manners to add an expansion team during a sports-wide pandemic shutdown, even as every other jock operation was plotting strategy for a return to the playing fields.

“There is a lot of history there that is uncomfortable,” Tyler Tumminia acknowledged in a natter with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman on their 31 Thoughts podcast three weeks ago.

Tyler Tumminia

Tumminia became a fresh voice in the discussion after stepping forward as interim NWHL commissioner last October. She earned her executive chops in the boardrooms of baseball (she’s named after Ty Cobb), and she’s attempting to apply lessons learned to Ponytail Puck. Not just the NWHL, understand. The big picture. Which explains her sweet tweet saluting the PWHPA for its landmark appearance at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28.

“To me, (the tweet) was saying, ‘I value and I see you and I applaud what you guys are doing for the women’s game, for women’s hockey in particular.’” she said. “I shouldn’t be commissioner of a women’s hockey league if I didn’t applaud that. I’m not dismissing the fact that there’s some raw emotions around it. What I’m saying, is that, you know, some of that narrative is actually outdated now, so let’s sit at the table and have a true sense of what is actually going on here and how we can get to where everybody wants to get to. We all want to get to the same spot. So how can we get together. But, ya, I think that there needs to be some therapeutic conversation, and I’m open to that of course. Now, I don’t have much history there, but I’m open to having those conversations of what had happened but, mostly, what can we do going forward.”

The difference in tone between Tumminia and Campbell-Pascall is startling. One is reaching out with an olive branch, the other is swinging a wrecking ball.

Their views on the direction of Ponytail Puck are just as conflicting.

Here’s Campbell-Pascall: “I think the next step is an announcement, the NHL to step up and make an announcement. ‘This is what we’re gonna do, here’s how we’re gonna do it, and this is when we’re gonna do it.’ That’s the only logical step and the only thing in my opinion that makes sense. Ya, I’m putting pressure on the NHL, because I’ve sat in meetings and worked with them for a long time and talked and discussed this for a long time, and it is time. They know it’s time. They have the infrastructure. Obviously COVID has hit the league hard and they’re losing money as well. Obviously timing is not ideal, but the time is now. The time is now for them to step up and make an announcement about how they want to support women’s hockey.”

And now Tumminia: “I think it’s kinda unfair on the NHL’s part for me to say, ‘Hey, they should take it on themselves and, you know, help this all out.’ Meaning, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, everybody’s hurting financially. For them to take on the entire business model, I don’t know. I think that would be a little unfair at this time to ask them to do that. That’s a little bit tough to ask at this point. Now, in a couple years that might be a little bit different. Right now what I think it should look like, is you get a business model that’s strong in a league that goes past a couple of years, in combination with other parties involved and kinda go in the direction where it’s sustainable on its own. And at the time there’s market share, there’s viewership and there’s tribal fandom in these markets, and the markets are actually showing there’s growth and it’s sustainable and it’s fueling and funding revenue streams that are consistent. Then I think at that time, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s something they take on.”

We can only speculate what’s ahead for Ponytail Puck, but I submit the cause can use a lot less of Campbell-Pascall’s militant mutterings and a lot more of Tumminia’s reasoned rhetoric.

Let’s put it another way: I know which of the two women I’d choose to represent me in a boardroom. (Hint: It isn’t the one making demands of NHL owners who aren’t fishing for fresh ways to squander money.)

Here’s a reason the NWHL and PWHPA need to get their crap together: The English Women’s Super League just hit the mother lode, signing a three-year TV deal with BBC and Sky Sports. Total value: 24 million English pounds, which translates into $33M in U.S. greenbacks. The BBC will show 22 matches and there’ll be as many as 44 more on Sky. Our practitioners of Ponytail Puck will drool at those numbers. That’s where they want to be, visible and with substantial TV revenue. And if it’s doable in English soccer it ought to be doable for shinny in North America, especially in Canada. How do they arrive at that point? Simple: Follow Tumminia’s lead. Sit down and talk. Hash out differences. Clear up misconceptions. Grab an oar and row in the same direction. Campbell-Pascall has said more than once that “this isn’t about one league versus the other league,” but that’s exactly what the Dream Gappers have done to Ponytail Puck. They’ve turned it into a family feud. Now they have a chance to grab an olive branch. We’ll see.

Every time I see and hear Jennifer Botterill talk hockey on Sportsnet, I’m reminded what a local treasure she is and how the decision-makers got it right in making her the first female player inducted to the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. One of the all-timers in local shinny lore, Jennifer is an Olympic champion, world champion, two-time winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in NCAA women’s hockey, team captain at Harvard, CWHL scoring champion, CWHL all-star, and now a respected voice on hockey TV. It’s just too bad Jennifer had to leave home to do all that heavy lifting. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the final notation on her career read: Played professional hockey in Winnipeg?

Having said that, I wonder if the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, harbors an appetite for bringing a women’s team under the True North umbrella. Has anyone asked the Winnipeg Jets co-bankroll about it? If not, why not?

This is an example of what Ponytail Puck is up against in terms of coverage in mainstream media: The Toronto Six met the Boston Pride in an Isobel Cup semifinal skirmish on Friday. Number of column inches devoted to the match in the Toronto Sun pre- and post-game, zero. But, hey, they managed to squeeze in a full-page Sunshine Girl. Meanwhile, both TSN and Sportsnet used the Boston-Minnesota Whitecaps championship joust as bottom-feeder filler on their highlight shows Saturday night/Sunday morning. The Isobel Cup final was a 52nd-minute afterthought on SportsCentre and a 47th-minute snippet on Sports Central, scant seconds in front of two NASCAR mud-racing pickup trucks.

Mike Tyson takes a chomp out of the champ’s right ear.

I note that cannibal boxer Mike Tyson, who once ate Evander Holyfield’s right ear for a late-night snack, won’t be fighting his former foe for a third time, thus losing out on a multi-million-dollar payday. Guess that means Iron Mike will have to find himself a new meal ticket.

Apparently negotiations between the greybeard boxers broke down when Tyson scared off Holyfield by arriving at one bargaining session with a knife and fork.

Here’s a transcript from the final Tyson-Holyfield verbal to-and-fro:
Tyson: “We have an offer you can’t refuse, Evander.”
Holyfield: “Talk to me, Mike…I’m all ears.”
Tyson: “No you’re not.”

There was also a hangup over the marketing slogan for the proposed Tyson-Holyfield III at Hard Rock Stadium. The two sides agreed it should be something catchy like Rumble in the Jungle or Thrilla in Manila, but Holyfield balked when the Tyson camp insisted on Finger Lickin’ Fightin’ ‘n’ Late Night Munchies In Miami.

Chevy

The Winnipeg Jets lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot from their blueline in June/July 2019. Dustin Byfuglien disappeared in September that year. So we started discussing the pressing need for a top-four defenceman 18½ months ago. Question is, why are we still talking about it a year and a half after Big Buff and the boys bailed? What, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t noticed those four guys are missing? Of course he has. Yet we still await his next move. It’s official then: Chevy actually moves slower than the Arctic ice melt.

According to the 2021 World Happiness report, Finnish people are the happiest on the planet for the fourth straight year. Hmmm. Did anyone think to ask Patrik Laine about that?

There’s a large cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal and, after a week of failed attempts to free the vessel, the captain and crew are desperate to get out. You know, just like anyone who plays for the Buffalo Sabres.

Seems to me that the Ottawa Senators might become an NHL force once all their players are old enough to shave. Then, of course, Eugene Melnyk will sell them off like used tupperware containers at a yard sale.

Commish Randy

Go figure the Canadian Football League. One week commissioner Randy Ambrosie is talking tall about a budding bromance with Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and his XFL, and the next week he’s pleading poverty (yes, again) and asking players to take an across-the-board hit at the pay window (yes, again). So let’s no longer wonder why Commish Randy and the lords of Rouge Football would consider an iffy alliance with a fly-by operation south of the 49th, let’s instead wonder why The Rock would consider a partnership with a bunch of guys whose sole game plan appears to be begging. I don’t know if Commish Randy and his bosses are embarrassed, but they should be.

The CFL has become an arms race, and it has nothing to do with quarterbacks. It’s all about how many needles medics can poke into fans’ arms. Rouge Football isn’t doable without patrons in the pews, so what’s the over/under on the number of COVID-19 vaccine shots required before the faithful can flock into ball yards hither and yon? Is it 20 million? Twenty-five mill? Is Vegas offering odds?

And, finally, the other day I watched a replay of Secretariat’s gallop in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and I must report that it remains the most gob-smacking, astonishing individual athletic performance I’ve ever witnessed. And that’s taking in a lot of turf, because I started watching sports in the mid-1950s. I suppose some folks might get emotional gazing upon the Mona Lisa or the Shroud of Turin, but I get teary-eyed watching Big Red romp to the wire in the Belmont. It’s very spiritual.

Let’s talk about L’Affaire Laine…Winnipeg the armpit…a Jumbo fossil in the ROT…Chelsea’s the best free agent available…Jennifer Jones and the ‘Notables’ of Manitoba’s Pebble People…’ear ye, ‘ear ye, Mike Tyson is trying to speak…the Dodgers’ two K men…a Bird named Sue…and other things on my mind

Another Sunday morning smorgas-bored…and someone told me that I really should quit while I’m ahead, but I’ve never been able to get ahead…

So, according to the pundits, the acquisition of Paul Stastny was supposed to accomplish two things for the Winnipeg Jets:

1. Fill the long-standing need for a second-line centre.

2. Put a happy face on Patrik Laine and put the skids on the galloping gossip that has hounded Puck Finn for more than a year.

Chevy and Puck Finn in happier times.

Well, insofar as the first point of the equation, we can continue to debate the pros and cons of the Jets reeling in the aging Stastny—and I’m squarely on the con side of the discussion—but it’s probably best that we allow his play in Winnipeg HC’s next National Hockey League crusade to settle the argument.

As for point No. 2, good luck with that.

It took less than a week for one of TSN’s hockey “insiders” to fan the flames of L’Affaire Laine once again, and this time it isn’t a campfire. It’s a bonfire with possible gusts up to a five-alarm inferno.

Here’s what LeBrun told host James Duthie last Thursday:

“There’s been some scuttlebutt around the National Hockey League of late that Patrik Laine may not show up at camp if he’s not dealt by the Winnipeg Jets.

“I reached out to his representation agents, Andy Scott and Mike Liut, to get some clarity and they absolutely deny that. That Laine has not asked for a trade, he’s not threatening to not be at camp if he’s not dealt.

Pierre LeBrun

“Having said that, his agents also made clear that it’s fair to say that given that Laine knows his name has been in trade discussions as we’ve talked about here, and given that his usage in the lineup the last couple of years has been a constant topic of conversation, the fact that he doesn’t get consistent first-line minutes, his agents Mike Liut and Andy Scott do confirm that it probably would be mutually beneficial to both the player and to the team if Patrik Laine is traded and that there is clear communication between them and Kevin Cheveldayoff, the GM of the Winnipeg Jets, about this.

“Now I spoke to Kevin Cheveldayoff on this day. And he reiterated that he’s looking at all options when it comes to trade and that Patrik Laine remains a big part of the organization.

“What I would say, not Cheveldayoff, is that he’s not going to just trade Patrik Laine for the sake of it, that it’s going to have to be something that makes sense for the Winnipeg Jets. But I will say this, as Andy Scott, the agent for Patrik Laine, said to me, there is a clear understanding between both sides about where this is probably headed.”

Now, you can pooh-pooh LeBrun’s bona fides as an “insider” if you like, but one thing should be abundantly clear by now: Patrik Laine will remain the centrepiece of trade rumors until a) Chevy hands him a one-way ticket out of town or b) Puck Finn signs long term. Nothing else will dim the natter.

I’m just surprised that so many among the rabble and in mainstream media are surprised that it’s come to this.

I mean, I don’t have my feet on the ground in Good Ol’ Hometown, but this is how I read the room 16 months ago: “You think Patrik Laine’s agent hasn’t noticed how the (Jacob) Trouba saga played out? If it’s true that Puck Finn’s nose is out of joint, all he has to do is sign a two-year bridge deal, take les Jets to arbitration down the road, then force a trade.”

So how has it played out to date? Laine signed a two-year bridge deal, he’s eligible for arbitration after next season, and already his two mouthpieces sound like they’re trying to force a trade.

Evander Kane

Yet I keep hearing and reading that the Jets are in control of this game of chicken. To a point, that’s true. But they can only delay Puck Finn’s departure if that’s his intent. They can’t stop him. Just like they couldn’t stop Evander Kane and they couldn’t stop Trouba.

We don’t know who or what is up Laine’s nose. His beef could be with the captain, Blake Wheeler, or the head coach, Paul Maurice, or maybe he’s bought into the silly “Winnipeg has lousy WiFi” nonsense. If it’s Wheeler, it wouldn’t be the first time two teammates refused to exchange Christmas cards. If it’s Coach PoMo, it’s not like there’s never been conflict between a bench boss and a worker (for evidence see: Bowman, Scotty). If it’s the city, he isn’t the first guy who’s wanted out of Dodge.

Whomever or whatever, I repeat what I wrote in February 2019: “I doubt Puck Finn will finish his career in Jets linen.”

But, hey, what do I know? Like I said, I don’t have feet on the ground. Except I predicted in 2012 that Evander Kane would one day walk into Chevy’s office and demand a new postal code. He did that very thing—repeatedly—and Chevy obliged, in 2015. In September 2018, I peered into the tea leaves and predicted Trouba would be gone in less than two years. He left the building nine months later. So tell me I’m wrong about Laine.

Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull

Interesting read from Scott Billeck of the Winnipeg Sun on the challenges Chevy faces in attempting to lure top-drawer free agents to Good Ol’ Hometown, and also navigate his way around no-trade clauses. “There’s no happy ending for this,” he writes. “It’s an ongoing problem for the Jets. What it does underscore is the need to ensure the team is a winner, by whatever means possible, and in spite of unfavorable geography. And it means the organization needs to be that much more creative when it comes to recruitment. Getting players in the door begins with a pitch that centres around winning the Cup. For most, that’s the dream. If you can show a pathway to that dream, you can probably get folks into the house. And that’s when perceptions die and new ones are made, and the word spreads. Winnipeg’s advertising comes via word of mouth. There just has to be something enticing other than frigid winters. And it may be as simple—and as difficult—as putting a winning product on the ice.” That’s fair analysis, but it’s worth remembering that the original Winnipeg Jets lineup was crafted 100 per cent on guys who chose to play in Good Ol’ Hometown, including the most significant free agent signing in pro hockey history—Bobby Hull, at the time the game’s glamour guy. Every player on that team came to River City without kicking and screaming. So can anyone tell me exactly when Winnipeg became the armpit of hockey? I’d really like to know.

When I hear the San Jose Sharks have signed Patrick Marleau, it tells me that they’ve already tapped out on next season.

Jumbo Joe

And what is Kyle Dubas trying to prove in the Republic of Tranna? The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, so the kid GM thought it would be a swell idea to sign Marleau’s former running mate Jumbo Joe Thornton who, coincidentally, broke into the NHL that same year. Okay, okay. Jumbo hasn’t been around quite that long. But Dubas seems to be setting up a Fossil Factory in the ROT, with Jumbo Joe, 41, and Jason Spezza, 37, on board.

Scant seconds after becoming one of the newest Maple Leafs, Wayne Simmonds did the Zoom thing with news snoops and warned foes that “I can punch your head off if need be.” He calls what he does on a hockey rink “functional toughness.” Back it the day we called it “goon.”

I keep hearing about all the free agents still available in the NHL, but the top free agent in sports right now is Chelsea Carey, champion curler without a team to call her own. We don’t know how this season will shake down for our Pebble People, but it’s hard to imagine a two-time Scotties queen being stuck on the outside looking in with her nose pressed against the window.

Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer, Dawn McEwen.

On the subject of our fab provincial Pebble People, the deep thinkers at the Manitoba Curling Hall of Fame want to know what you think. They’re looking to name the Most Notable Team in local lore, and that’s where you come in. The MCHF is accepting votes until Dec. 5 for its 25 Most Notable Teams and, really, this should be a no-brainer. I mean, it doesn’t get more “notable” than winning Olympic Games gold, so Jennifer Jones and her gal pals Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen have to be at the top of the heap. It doesn’t hurt that they were also Canadian and world champions, and they had longer sustained success than any foursome I can recall. Next in line would be the Digit, Don Duguid, and his gang from the Granite—Bryan Wood, Jim Pettapiece and the Arrow, Rod Hunter—who went 17-0 to win back-to-back world titles in 1970 and ’71. Completing my top three would be Bronco Braunstein and his team of brother Ron, Moose Turnbull and Jack Van Hellemond. Still just school kids, the teenagers copped the Manitoba men’s title then fell one game shy of winning the 1958 Brier in Victoria, losing to Matt Baldwin of Alberta in a one-game showdown.

Mike Tyson

Fans of fist fighting were shocked to hear Mike Tyson on Good Morning Britain last week. In a natter with hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, the former heavyweight boxing champion was muttering unintelligibly and slurring his words badly. Hey, cut the guy some slack. It can’t be easy to talk with your mouth full of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Sticking with boxing, I stayed up well past my bedtime Saturday to watch Teofimo Lopez and Vasiliy Lomachenko chuck knuckles in a lightweight title bout. At the end of the night, Lopez had four belts. Hmmm. Four belts—sounds like the Rat Pack at closing time.

So, the Houston Astros have been drummed out of the Major League Baseball playoffs (karma, baby). Some teams run out of pitching, some teams run out of hitting. Some teams run out of time. I guess the Astros ran out of trash cans.

Clayton Kershaw, Sandy Koufax

Is there a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher with a worse post-season record than Clayton Kershaw of my Los Angeles Dodgers? Kershaw will be in Cooperstown one day, but it won’t be due to anything he’s done in the World Series or playoffs. The guy’s 175-75, .697, 2.43 ERA in the hum-drum of spring and summer ball, but a dismal 11-12, .478, 4.31 ERA when it matters most. And, to think, some people have compared him favorably to Sandy Koufax. Ya, like a box of Timbits is fine dining.

Some good reads in the past week: Paul Friesen’s series on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ journey to the Grey Cup; Freezer’s running mate at the Winnipeg Sun, Ted Wyman, dishes on Hockey Hall of Famer Serge Savard; Luke Fox’s Q&A with Brian Burke on the Sportsnet website.

When the National Women’s Hockey League restructured its business model and assigned founder and commissioner Dani Rylan Kearney to a lesser role last week, shouldn’t it have been a big deal in the media? No women would be drawing pay to play shinny if not for Dani, who gave the NWHL its jump start in 2015, but her removal from the big office was a blip at best in most newspapers, websites and on air. Seems to me the story, and Dani, warranted better play than that.

Sue Bird

Speaking of not getting their due, it’s about Sue Bird: Not many hoopsters can boast of her bona fides. When Seattle Storm won the Women’s National Basketball Association title recently, it was her fourth. You know, the same number as LeBron James has won in his NBA career. Sue also has four Olympic gold medals, four FIBA World Cup titles, five EuroLeague titles, two NCAA titles, one national high school title, five Russian National League titles, two Europe Super Cup titles, she’s the all-time WNBA assists leader, she’s started the most games in WNBA history, she’s an 11-time WNBA all-star, a two-time EuroLeague all-star and a former Naismith college player of the year. She’s the High Priestess of the Hardwood, but somehow manages to fly under the radar of most mainstream media. Shame that.

And, finally, this is the 50th anniversary season for the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, and I’d say that calls for some sort of special feature piece in either or both of the Winnipeg dailies. So why hasn’t either the Sun or Drab Slab done something about it?