Will Blake Wheeler want to hang around if the Winnipeg Jets can’t win?

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

Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler

So, you’re Blake Wheeler, sitting in the Winnipeg Jets changing chamber.

You look around. You see all those freshly scrubbed faces, with less fuzz than a well-used tennis ball. You have arrived at your peak years as a National Hockey League worker. You are at your most productive, on the scoresheet and in team-related intangibles. But you remind yourself that there’ll be 30 candles on your next birthday cake, in August. More than anything, you want to win. Alas, you cannot win, not with team ownership/management operating the NHL’s equivalent of a day-care centre.

Given that you are contracted to wear Jets linen until 2019, you might feel trapped. So, do you get on the blower to your agent and demand he get you the hell out of Dodge? Or do you buy into this youth build and play the part of the loyal foot soldier? After all, you might be wearing the ‘C’ on your Jets jersey next autumn. Unless, of course, the deep-thinkers in the Secret Society that is True North Sports & Entertainment anoint one of the sprigs, such as Mark Scheifele or Jacob Trouba, team captain.

It’s a tough call.

I don’t know Blake Wheeler, but I do know professional athletes, and what they want most is to succeed. That’s why you won’t see players, as a group, tanking. Ownership and management tank (hello Mark Chipman and Kevin Cheveldayoff), but players do not tank.

So I can’t help but wonder what Wheeler is thinking these days, as opposed to three years ago.

For me it was virtually a no-brainer,” the Jets power forward told news scavengers after putting his signature on a six-year contract in July 2013. “I sat down with my agent in April or May and we had the discussion. I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘This is where I want to be.’ I believe in people like Mark Chipman and Chevy, what everyone stands for and especially my teammates. I have believed since I got here that we have what it takes to get to the next level, so this is just part of that process. I truly believe that great things are in store for this group.”

Much of that group in which he expressed faith has been dispatched hither and yon, including his longtime stablemate, captain Andrew Ladd. The next level remains the next level. There have been no great things. And he has already heard his head coach, Paul Maurice, advise one and all that the Jets’ growing pains will not be short-term.

Which means, by the time these young Jets resemble anything close to a competitive outfit, Wheeler will be leaning into his long-in-tooth years.

All of which begs the question: Does he really want to play the role of Daddy Day Care, or does he want an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup?

Interesting read from Paul Wiecek, who uses his column in the Winnipeg Free Press to lament the lack of access scribes are given to pro jocks, notably those in the employ of the Jets and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Among other things, he notes that the Jets have two people who “cover” the club for the team website, thus they don’t require the media to deliver the message. But he describes their dispatches as “mostly pap.” I’ve got news for Wiecek: With the exception of Freep freelancer Scott Campbell, I’ve been reading nothing but “mostly pap” from the beat guys at the Free Press and Winnipeg Sun for the past month. Limited access means there are less boring, cookie-cutter quotes, but it shouldn’t prevent scribes from delivering strong critical analysis and opinion. That’s why blogs are so popular. So boo freaking hoo.

What's not to like about Winnipeg?
What’s not to like about Winnipeg?

Oh, woe is Winnipeg. In a recent Postmedia poll of NHL players, River City was voted the worst and least favorite Canadian burg to visit. Then there was Craig Custance of ESPN advising us of his findings from a poll whereby he asked 10 player agents which locales pop up most frequently on no-trade lists. You guessed it, Good Ol’ Hometown is second, behind only Edmonton. Okay, I get it that no one wants to go to Edmonton, but Winnipeg? I mean, what’s not to like about a town where it’s snowing and the wind chill is minus-20 two weeks into spring?

Why are so many people in Jets Nation convinced there would be serious interest in Michael Hutchinson on the trade market? Other than a couple of terrific months at the beginning of last season, he’s provided no indication that he’s a No. 1 goaltender at the NHL level. He’ll be a career backup at best.

If Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t the most annoying player in the NHL, will someone please tell me who is. Kadri is the new Rat. He’s no Ken Linseman, but he’s out-ratting Brad Marchand, who apparently decided to spend most of his time scoring goals for the Boston Bruins rather than annoying foes this season.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 

About cantankerous columnists…best burgers ever…lumberjacks…Eskimos…and a commish with his head up his something or other

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

waldorf and statler
Waldorf and Statler or Terry Jones and Steve Simmons?

The boys on the beat are not impressed with Pegtown’s pigskin party. Not by a long shot.

“My report card of Grey Cup Week in Winnipeg: Just so-so,” is how Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun describes the hijinks in River City leading up to Sunday’s argument over Canadian Football League bragging rights. “Not as much fun as Winnipeg usually is at Grey Cup time. A touch disappointing.”

Sounds like Little Stevie Blunder is as bored as some of his readers.

But, hey, perhaps the Edmonton Sun‘s been-there, done-everything wordsmith Terry Jones has a different, more favorable take on the preamble to the CFL championship skirmish between the Edmonton Don’t Call Them Eskimos and the Ottawa RougeNoir.

Nope.

“It was a Grey Cup Week that didn’t quite make it,” he harrumphs. “Maybe it was just because this is Winterpeg and folks are still thawing out from the Grey Cup here in 1991, the all-time record for ridiculous, the coldest Grey Cup ever played with a minus 16 degree game time temperature.”

And here I thought Statler and Waldorf were a couple of cantankerous, grumpy Muppet characters, not two flowers of Canadian sports prose.

vj'sActually, I hasten to point out that Grey Cup week was not a colossal waste of time for old friend Steve Simmons. During his stay, he stumbled upon a River City treasure—V.J.’s Drive Inn, a greasy spoon on south Main Street that serves up “great, I mean great, cheap lunches,” he tweets. Oh, yes, the way to a sports scribe’s heart is through his wallet (even when he has an expense account), and how convenient that V.J.’s is located no more than a Henry Burris Hail Mary pass from the Fort Garry Hotel, where you’ll find the official CFL media hospitality suite. What better way to wash down those greasy double cheeseburgers and fatty fries than with an endless supply of free booze? Party on, boys.

I worked Grey Cup games in every CFL city and, in terms of hoopla, the worst host towns were, by far, Toronto and Vancouver. In 1994, when American interlopers from Baltimore arrived on the West Coast with the single-minded purpose of taking the three-down game’s holy grail south of the border, colleague Ed Tait and myself were caught off guard by the indifference of locals, especially given the fact their B.C. Lions were to meet the Stallions from Maryland. One morning as we stepped outside the Westin Bayshore, an elderly gent noticed a gathering of out-of-towners in the lobby and asked, “Is there something important going on this week?” To which Tait replied, “Yes, the Grey Cup.” The old fellow then asked, “The Greek what?”

loggersportsSo, Football Follies Field in Fort Garry has been declared a chainsaw-free zone when the Don’t Call Them Eskimos and les RougeNoir grab grass and growl in the 103rd Grey Cup game. That is to say, the Ottawa tradition of punctuating a touchdown by lumberjacks/jills sawing a log has been forbidden by the CFL. Loyalists of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers simply cannot understand this directive. I mean, Big Blue fans are usually seen sawing logs by halftime at every home game.

If the deep-thinkers in Edmonton wanted to do something positive, they would worry a lot less about lumberjacks and listen a lot more to Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Obed is the mouthpiece for Canada’s 60,000 Inuit, and he’s of the opinion that the name Eskimos is both outdated and offensive. What would a renamed Edmonton CFL outfit be called? Well, I suppose we can rule out Lumberjacks. So, what is Edmonton best known for, other than trading away the greatest scoring machine in National Hockey League history? A big mall and not much else, really. Tough call when the best the locals can say about their own burg is “at least it isn’t Winnipeg.”

Apparently, CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge has been doing his grand poobahing with his head up the part of his anatomy that he sits on. Not until his inaugural Grey Cup chin-wag with the country’s football media the other day did the commish realize that there exists a barrier between the wants and needs of news scavengers and the control-freak messaging of the league’s nine member outfits. He vowed to address the matter of limited media access “if that’s an issue.” If? If? If? Yo! Commish! You have a head coach in Winnipeg, Mike O’Shea, who cannot answer a question without first watching the film, and he duct tapes his assistant coaches like they’re part of a Flashpoint hostage-taking. What part of that do you not understand?

No surprise that old friend Ed Tait would serve up the best read during Grey Cup week in Pegtown. His piece on the Blue Bombers circa 1980s-early1990s in the Winnipeg Free Press is boffo stuff. It is to Grey Cup coverage what V.J.’s is to the double cheeseburgers and fries. Worth every cent.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll.

 

The boys on the football beat in Winnipeg are second to none

It occurs to me that…

There is no city in the Great White North with as superb a stable of scribes detailing all things three-down football than River City.

Start with Ed Tait of the Winnipeg Free Press. Best beat writer in the whole land. His accomplice at the Freep, Paul Wiecek, and Kirk Penton over at the Winnipeg Sun complete a menage-a-terrific that keeps readers fully informed of the goings-on of not only the Winnipeg Blue Bombers but the entirety of the Canadian Football League.

I also like Herb Zurkowsky in Montreal and the tandem of Rob Vanstone and Murray McCormick in Regina, but the quality and quantity that Messrs. Tait, Wiecek and Penton churn out is unmatched.

* There were fewer, if any, finer people on the Winnipeg/Manitoba sports scene than Frank McKinnon.

Frank McKinnon
Frank McKinnon

Frank, who passed away at age 80 last week, was the first person I interviewed and quoted in a byline story as a rookie reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune. It was at a Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association annual meeting, and he was gracious, obliging and generous with his time. We spoke often over the ensuing 30 years and the former head of hockey in the province never changed. He always was a delight.

When I reflect on all the truly wonderful people I met during my time in mainstream jock journalism, Frank’s name is at the top of the good-guy list, alongside former player agent Don Baizley and University of Manitoba Bisons football coach Brian Dobie.

* I’m wounded. Crestfallen. And it’s all Gary (La La) Lawless’s doing.

La La, you see, has made an attempt to find a proper place in the pecking order of hockey homebrews for Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks centre who’s three wins away from adding to his collection of Stanley Cup rings. The main mouthpiece in the Freep sports section reckons that legendary goaltender Terry Sawchuk is the pre-eminent Manitoba born-and-bred shinny star. How did he arrive at this conclusion? Well, he claims to have talked to a number of writers and former scribes who cover(ed) the local shinny scene.

Well, I’ve been following hockey in Winnipeg since the 1950s. I’ve been scribbling about it for the past 44 years. Nobody’s been at it longer. Alas, my phone still isn’t ringing, so I assume it still ain’t La La calling. Perhaps I was out or in the shower when his call came. Or maybe he just didn’t call.

This hurts, Gary. You never write or phone anymore. Is it something I wrote?

* If you’re looking for an example of what some sports scribes do when they’re bored with themselves, take a looksee at this Cathal Kelly offering in the Globe and Mail last week.

Cathal Kelly
Cathal Kelly

Kelly piddles on our prairie cousins in Edmonton because…well, because, in the world according to Cathal, Edmonton has the bad manners to not be the Republic of Toronto. Apparently, Edmonton is supposed to behave like the backwater burg Kelly believes it to be and excuse itself from hosting elite sporting events. You know, like the FIFA Women’s World Cup that commenced with Canada’s 1-nil verdict over China on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium in The Chuck.

He cites the 2011 WWC as an example of how things ought to be done. That footy extravaganza was showcased in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, a stately, magnificent structure that, again, in the world according to Cathal, makes Commonwealth seem like a shelter for the homeless.

“It’s actively ugly,” Cathal gripes about Commonwealth. “The field is circled by a track—the perfect bush-league touch that says ‘high school.’ “

Berlin Olympic Stadium, complete with track around soccer pitch.
Berlin Olympic Stadium, complete with track around soccer pitch.

Ah, yes. Nothing says high school quite like a running track around a football pitch. You know, just like the running track that encircles the football pitch in the BERLIN OLYMPIC STADIUM!

We wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good hissy fit, though, would we, Cathal? You just go right ahead and rant. Stomp your little feet and hold your breath. Perhaps one day your beloved Republic of Toronto will grow up to become a city big enough to host a prestigious event like the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

For now, though, it’s shut out of the soccer circus and I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for the Pan American Games in July. Those would be the same Games that Winnipeg has already hosted. Twice.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.