About $6 million worth of beans and wieners for the Winnipeg Jets…blame Ray Charles for Jimmy Mann…the Shoe fits…hockey teams and their value…hot-buttered takes from The ROT…the missing Munster son…and other things on my mind

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…

Fergy

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.

Tom McVie

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.

Bobby Orr

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.

The Shoe

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.

John Torotorella

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.

Robin Munster

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.

Paul LaPolice

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.

Jimmy Piersall was a funny guy, but there is nothing funny about mental illness

It was in the autumn of 1964 and, as we gathered around our TV set with the black-and-white screen and rabbit ears to watch Hockey Night in Canada, we were puzzled.

Frank Mahovlich, the Big M of the Toronto Maple Leafs, wouldn’t be playing that night.

The Big M, Frank Mahovlich

None of the talking heads (I can’t recollect if it was Foster or Bill Hewitt calling the game, or if it was Ward Cornell or Ed Fitkin as the studio host) provided us with the definitive why and wherefore of the Big M’s absence from the Leafs lineup, except to say something about fatigue. Mahovlich was plum tuckered out. The remainder of the story was a mystery.

How can Mahovlich be tired?” the 13-year-old version of my former self wondered. “The season has just started.”

As history records, the Big M was bedded down in a Toronto hospital that night, a victim of depression. Acute depression. The Leafs and their tyrannical head coach Punch Imlach, later identified as the main source of Mahovlich’s emotional undoing, had to get along without him for a month. And there was always a hush-hushness about his absence. Mental illness, you see, was among the taboo topics of the day. Most folks didn’t talk about their “crazy uncle in the attic.” It was looked upon not as an illness, but a weakness, if not an embarrassment. And, in the case of a National Hockey League star like Mahovlich, any whisper of mental frailty implied a softness, which seldom found favor with fans or media and certainly not Imlach.

The abrupt, abrasive Leafs’ dictator once said this of Mahovlich: “Hockey is a streetcar named desire and too many days Ma-hal-o-vich doesn’t catch the train.”

The Big M, whose life under Imlach seemed so much like a Shakespearean tragedy, managed to flee the tyrant and the Leafs, but not before surviving a second major bout of depression, exactly three years after the first. His escape led him to Detroit, then Montreal, where he played a significant role in two Stanley Cup-winning crusades, then the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Canadian Senate and, by most accounts, a happily-ever-after life.

I thought of Mahovlich when I heard about Roberto Osuna, the Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher who booked off work the other night because he’s been feeling “a little bit anxious, a little bit weird, a little bit lost” and doesn’t know why (been there, felt that). I also thought of the late Jimmy Piersall, the original poster boy for athletes dealing with mental illness.

Piersall was 22 years old and 56 games into his rookie Major League Baseball season when the Boston Red Sox thought it wise to have his head examined, thus they sent him to a mental hospital, whereupon medics probed the young centre fielder’s mind and determined what to do about his bipolar disorder.

Jimmy Piersall ran the bases backwards after hitting his 100th home run in 1963.

Unlike the Mahovlich situation, there was nothing hush-hush about Piersall’s descent into depression. He wrote a book with Al Hirshberg, Fear Strikes Out, which became a TV movie then a feature film, and he followed with his 1985 memoir, The Truth Hurts. People called him an oddball, a kook and a basket case because of his antics and fits of rage that would sometimes lead to fisticuffs. He labeled himself “crazy” and a “gooney bird” and confirmed it by running the bases backwards after hitting his 100th career home run, shimmying up a flag pole during a game and wearing a Beatles wig to home plate.

I remember reading Fear Strikes Out as a teenager and thinking, “Wow, this guy has some serious issues. But he’s funny.”

When his issues struck close to home—visiting a family member in a psych ward and hearing a heavy, metal door clank shut and locked tight—Jimmy Piersall didn’t seem so funny anymore. When I was confronted by my own mental challenges—blackouts from anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, uncontrollable crying, elaborate mood swings, panic attacks—it wasn’t funny at all.

To this day, I sometimes feel like a recluse because the thought of stepping out of doors can be a serious challenge. Like Roberto Osuna, I feel anxious, weird and lost. Also afraid. And that depresses me.

Osuna is 22. So young, so vulnerable, such a shame. But not helpless or hopeless.

Here’s what Piersall wrote in Fear Strikes Out in 1955: “I want the world to know that people like me who have returned from the half-world of mental oblivion are not forever contaminated. We have been sick. The best way to help us get well and stay well is to treat us like human beings—as I’ve been treated. We don’t have to talk about our sickness in whispers or prowl about on the edge of society with our hands to our ears to block out the whispers of others. We have nothing to be ashamed of. All we want is to be understood by those who have never been where we have. There is no better therapy than understanding.”

I’d like to think people will try to understand about Roberto Osuna, even if they’ve never been where he’s at.

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

Postmedia’s top-100 NHL players: If you never saw them play, how can you rate them?

I recall lying on our living room floor, watching a playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1950s.

The red light behind the Leafs goal was flashing (in black and white, of course) and, not surprisingly, Doug Harvey, who breathed the rarefied air that only the National Hockey League elite enjoyed, had been the mastermind behind the Habs’ successful venture.

doug-harvey2I hate Doug Harvey,” I muttered to my dad scant seconds after les Glorieux had secured a victory, which was the rule rather than the exception in Stanley Cup skirmishing back then.

Why do you hate Doug Harvey?” he wondered.

Because he always has the puck.”

Like most Canadian kids in the ’50s, my eyes would be glued to a black-and-white TV screen every Saturday night during the winter, and every second night during the Stanley Cup tournament, which did not drone on into June. In the case of this particular Habs-Leafs joust, I would have been seven or eight years old at the time. I root, root, rooted for the Leafs. Disliked les Canadiens with an irrational intensity.

At that age, my hockey knowledge was limited mostly to the players’ names and sweater numbers. In terms of grading the skill level of those players, the eye test was far from fully developed. How could it be at such a young age? Oh, I knew Doug Harvey was supreme because, as I lamented, he was loath to share the puck with the other team. Every time he hopped over the boards, the game unfolded at Harvey’s whim and tempo. He was the maestro. He was doing the Savardian spinorama when Serge Savard was still in middle school.

There were others whose skills I recognized and admired. I delighted in the daring of Habs goaltender Jacques Plante, who didn’t glue himself to the goal crease, and the Leafs’ young Big M, Frank Mahovlich, was something to behold, his skating stride longer than a Winnipeg winter. Gordie Howe always seemed to have his way with everyone, even the tough hombres, and I remember Maurice Richard as a dashing sort, but he was in his hockey dotage and always seemed grumpy. So I didn’t like him.

The point is, I can say I’ve been watching hockey since the 1950s, but as much as I witnessed the great Rocket Richard, I didn’t witness his greatness. His signature 50-goal season was in the rear-view mirror when Hockey Night in Canada became a ritual for me on what many kids also knew as bath night. Thus, I cannot possibly rate him as a player. I was too young and he was too old.

I give ponder to such matters this morning because Steve Simmons of Postmedia has compiled a top-100 list in recognition of the NHL’s centennial, which arrives in 2017.

Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr

While an admirable undertaking, his is a fool’s errand.

The most obvious and greatest flaw in someone picking the top 100 players in NHL history is not in choosing Bobby Orr over Wayne Gretzky, or vice versa, atop the list. Or anointing Dominik Hasek the greatest goaltender of all time. Or including only three Russians among the fab 100. The flaw, as I see it, is in the person doing the ranking. Precious few are qualified to do it. Simmons does not walk among those precious few. Age disqualifies him.

Simmons was born in 1957. He’s seven years my junior. As little as I can recall from the 1950s NHL, he cannot possibly have any first-hand knowledge of hockey from that era. Zero. Bupkus. Unless he was some sort of child hockey savant, which I doubt, his ability to grade players with any acceptable level of expertise wouldn’t have kicked in until the latter part of the 1960s, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt there.

Yet, by his own accounting, he has listed two dozen players from the 1950s and beyond. He never saw 25 per cent of his personal top 100 play hockey. Forty of his players are pre-1967, when he was 10 years or younger. Or not yet drawing oxygen.

I’m not prepared to pan Simmons for any of his choices. That’s a mug’s play. I’ll leave it to the Twitter trolls to pummel him (many have; others not so much). I do, however, submit that he doesn’t have the chops to compile such a list, based on his age. Indeed, his comment on Maple Leafs legend Syl Apps, whom he slid into the No. 36 slot, underscores his lack of expertise: “My dad told me he was the greatest Leaf he ever saw.”

Well, my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles told me stories, too. Look, I need not have seen Babe Ruth swing a Louisville Slugger to know that he was among the greatest hitters of a baseball. But, for me, it’s all about the eye test when it comes to hockey rankings. It isn’t what I read about a player in the record book, or what I see on grainy, black-and-white film on YouTube that has three or four different speeds, or what mom and pop told me. It’s what I’ve seen.

My point of reference is 1957—the year Simmons was born. I didn’t realize you could watch hockey from the womb. Apparently, that’s what he did.

As I said, admirable undertaking, fool’s errand.

***

I find it interesting that, on his Twitter page, Simmons gets snooty about age vis-a-vis his overall top pick, advising dissenting followers that “If you’re not 45-50, you never saw (Bobby) Orr play. If you’re not over 50, you didn’t see him at his most dominant.” In other words, how dare the younger generations question his judgement about Orr being No. 1? He’s seen both Orr and Gretzky, don’t you know? You young whippersnappers haven’t. So no one under 50 can make an educated, first-hand comparison between Orr and Wayne Gretzky.

rocketFine. But by that reasoning, if you’re not over 65 you didn’t see Doug Harvey at his most dominant. If Simmons saw Harvey play, he was a 44/45-year-old, dog-eared defenceman whom the expansion St. Louis Blues had dug out of moth balls when Simmons was in Grade 6.

Yet that didn’t prevent a 59-year-old Simmons from ranking Harvey No. 8 on his all-time list, second among defencemen behind only Orr. How can he possibly compare Harvey to Orr or, say, Nicklas Lidstrom? Meanwhile, he ranked the Rocket at No. 6. Never once saw him play. So how can he compare him to Guy Lafleur or Teemu Selanne?

***

My grandfather would tell us Rocket Richard was the greatest player ever. My dad would say Gordie Howe. I’d say Bobby Orr. My eldest son would likely say Wayne Gretzky. His kids are apt to say Sidney Crosby. It’s a generational thing that we should acknowledge and respect, not pooh-pooh or dismiss with a pompous grunt.

***

Simmons writes this of Joe Sakic: “Top five wrist shot in history.” He would know this how? Bernie Geoffrion popularized the slap shot in the 1950s. Prior to Boom Boom, most everyone used the wrister. Since Simmons never saw hockey in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, how can he compare Sakic’s wrist shot to all those old-time players? He can’t rate what he’s never seen. But he does and condemns others for doing that very thing. Go figure.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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 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.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs: Legends Row and more appropriate statues

I’m so old I remember Tim Horton before he became a pot of coffee and a box of Timbits.

rooftop riting biz card back sideWhen I heard there was big news about the Toronto Maple Leafs and a statue, my first thought was that perhaps they’d traded Dion Phaneuf.

My second thought? I sure hope he isn’t coming to Winnipeg to join the Jets.

Silly me. We all know that Jets general manager Kevin the Possum doesn’t make trades, so no worries about adding another pigeon perch to the Jets blueline corps.

As it turns out, the deep thinkers in the Leafs’ ivory tower (now there’s a contradiction in terms) plan to honor the giants of a National Hockey League franchise that long ago lost its luster. The idea is to plop a Legends Row statue outside the Air Canada Centre in the Big Smoke, and we know for certain that former Leafs’ captain Teeder Kennedy will be among the players honored. The others remain shrouded in secrecy.

Little wonder.

I mean, they’re dealing with a 30-foot slab of granite in the form of a players bench. It would take at least 10 players to fill it. A dozen at the most. How in the name of Humpty Harold Ballard are they going to come up with that many Leafs legends? They tell us Teeder and two others will be unveiled in early September. So they’re stuck at three.

That’s going to be a short bench. Sort of what current head coach Randy Carlyle has to deal with.

Cracking wise aside, there are many legends in the Leafs’ closet. Honest. There are. It’s just that all of them played before the invention of color TV. So the difficulty isn’t in compiling a list of Leafs legends—it’s finding enough hockey people in Toronto who can reflect that far back to make informed choices.

I could assist them. I’m so old I remember Tim Horton before he became a pot of coffee and a box of Timbits. I recall watching the Leafs on our family’s rabbit-eared, black-and-white boob tube during their glory years of the 1960s. I still know the players and their jersey numbers: The Chief, George Armstrong, No. 10; the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, No. 27; Davey Keon, No. 14; Bobby Baun, No. 21; Johnny Bower, No. 1; Allan Stanley, No. 26; clear the track here comes (Eddie) Shack, No. 23; Bob Pulford, No. 20; Dickie Duff, No. 9; Carl Brewer, No. 2; Red Kelly, No. 4; Tim Horton, No. 7; Billy Harris, No. 15.

No doubt some of those guys will find a spot on the bench. It would be fitting if Eddie Shack made the final cut, because the bench is usually where Punch Imlach planted him.

At any rate, by the time sculptor Erik Blome puts down his hammer and chisel, there’ll be a bench full of legends for the Leafs’ legions to gawk at and pigeons to poop on whenever they’re in the vicinity of 40 Bay St. in Tranna.

It’s a nice touch. Classy. So unLeaf-like.

I should point out that there are reports (unconfirmed) that the Leafs don’t want their younger generations of fans to feel left out, so they plan to erect a statue near the old Maple Leaf Gardens to symbolize what the franchise has been all about since the last Stanley Cup parade in 1967.

Here are some candidates:

leaf statues