Another Sunday morning smorgas-bored..and it’s foggy where I live and you might find some fog here too…
It’s beef-on-the-hoof time in the National Hockey League, albeit three months and change later than originally planned, and I find myself wondering where the Winnipeg Jets are in their “process.”
From the get-go, of course, Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff have preached draft-and-develop, a tried-and-true template for so many successful outfits, the most recent example being the Tampa Bay Lightning, newly minted Stanley Cup champions with a roster featuring 11 players plucked from the entry draft.
The thing is, the NHL’s annual auction of freshly scrubbed teenagers is usually a crap shoot once past the first half dozen names called out, and there are a lot more misses than hits.
That said, there’s ample evidence to support the notion that Chevy and his bird dogs have profited by the draft since setting up shop in Good Ol’ Hometown—Connor Hellebuyck, Rink Rat Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Twig Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Kyle Connor, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp. And that’s not to forget Jacob Trouba, the dearly departed defender whose yearnings unfortunately did not include a lifetime in Jets linen.
Those are quality core players who ought to have kept Winnipeg HC in the playoff mix for many years to come.
Except that’s not how Planet Puck Pontiff/Chevy is spinning.
The Jets failed to qualify for the playoffs in the just-concluded crusade, that after an optimism-inducing surge to the 2018 Western Conference final and a hasty retreat from the Stanley Cup tournament last year.
Which is why I wonder where the Jets are in their “process.”
Draft-and-develop will never end. It’s every team’s oxygen. There’s no quarrel with that approach. But, after the ransacking of the roster due to the miscalculations of bean counters and the discontent of Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien, it seems to me that Winnipeg HC has retreated to the wait-and-hope part of the “process.”
The Puck Pontiff and Chevy are waiting and hoping on Sami Niku. They’re waiting and hoping on Dylan Samberg. They’re waiting and hoping on Ville Heinola. They’re waiting and hoping on David Gustafsson. Hell, they’re still waiting and hoping on Jack Roslovic, and they drafted him in 2015. And, apparently, they’ll wait and hope on Logan Stanley forever.
Trouble is, they’ve been at it since 2011 and this should be a time for filling in the blanks on a contending roster, not still relying on a crap shoot.
Yet here we are.
Chevy has the 10th shoutout overall at the auction on Tuesday. Hands up anyone who believes he’ll land an immediate difference-maker. I agree, good luck with that. His newest chattel will be of limited or no use in the short-term.
It’s also unlikely that Chevy will attract any high-profile free agents to Good Ol’ Hometown on Friday, even though his jeans will be full of jingle and he can afford to shop for upscale goods. Most likely, he’ll reel in a Grade C player, or two, then follow that up with some dumpster diving on the waiver wire, which has never been a solution.
So how do the Jets return to the post-season frolic and make noise next year?
Well, short of their Central Division foes going for a group pratfall, there’s just one avenue—trade. And that means bold strokes. Something brassy.
That’s not Chevy’s style, though. He only lets go when he’s backed himself into a corner (see Trouba, Jacob; Ladd, Andrew) or someone’s clothing has been soaked in an ice tub (see Kane, Evander), but quality centre-ice men and stud blueliners (his most pressing needs) don’t fall off the turnip truck. There’s a price to pay.
I’m on record as saying there should be no untouchables on this Jets roster, and there’s certainly a number of shiny trinkets to entice dance partners, not the least of which is Chevy’s first shoutout on Tuesday. At No. 10, he’s already in crap shoot territory.
And, really, the time for dithering is past. The Puck Pontiff and Chevy need to cowboy up and move one of their top-six forwards. Or some of the blue-chip prospects. It’s the right thing to do.
Unless, of course, they truly have retreated to wait-and-hope mode and are content with icing a bubble team. In that case, I am once again reminded of something old friend Joe Pascucci tweeted in April 2019: “Another concern, of many, I have about the Jets and the changes sure to come this off-season is that they’ll become a team that is 2 years away from being 2 years away.”
Astute guy, old friend Joe.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet continues to lean hard into the disgruntled Patrik Laine narrative, again suggesting that Puck Finn insists on first-line minutes alongside Scheifele, whereas Chevy and bench puppeteer Paul Maurice refuse to budge on Blake Wheeler. They won’t surgically remove the captain from the Rink Rat’s hip and, if true, it’s a stupid impasse and an easy fix: Inform Wheeler that he’s now a second-line forward. If they aren’t willing to tell a declining 34-year-old he must make room for a 22-year-old sniper, it’s time for new management/coaching.
Look, I think Wheeler is still a useful player, but a year from now he’ll be slower than a sports writer reaching for the bar tab.
When a woman learned that her flight would be landing in Winnipeg last week, she became unruly and belligerent and had to be forced off the airplane kicking and screaming. You know, just like any player traded to the Jets.
The Lightning gave Stanley Cup championship hijinks a fresh twist with a boat parade on the Hillsborough River, rather than a motorcade in sporty, top-down automobiles on the streets of Tampa. In keeping with the water theme, coaches and players drank American beer.
On the subject of suds, apparently Canadians are drinking less beer. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m still doing my part every Saturday.
Yes, I agree, it’s impressive that the NHL pulled off its made-for-TV, bubble Stanley Cup tournament without a hitch. No positive COVID-19 results in more than 60 days. No scandal, other than Mike Milbury’s ouster from the NBC Sports blurt box for telling us that women are a distraction. No asterisk. Most surprising, none of the young studs bugged out of the Edmonton and Republic of Tranna man caves for a little nookie on the side. Mark me down as gobsmacked.
It’s about slapping an asterisk on the Lightning tour de force: Don’t go there. Sure it was different, with the lads zip-locked in their man caves for two months, but only someone who’s been there, done that and wears the T-shirt can compare this Stanley Cup runoff to tournaments of the past. If the players and coaches say it was equally burdensome and challenging, I’m good with that.
It’s often been suggested that the NHL is a copy-cat operation, and teams now will attempt to mimic the champion Lightning. Well, good luck with that. I mean, Chevy will turn water into Molson Canadian before he’ll ever turn Neal Pionk into Victor Hedman.
Apparently Manny Pacquiao and Conor McGregor will go dukes up next year, but no one is saying where or when the fist fight will be held. I think we should keep it that way.
Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain has been selling his collection of sports memorabilia that dates back to the 1930s, and the thousands of items available are said to include license plates. Nice to know Denny put his time in prison to good use.
Clever people in South Korea and Germany have created a curling robot named Curly, capable of beating human beings on the pebble. So what’s the big deal? Canada developed a curling robot last century. His name is Kevin Martin.
I’d really be impressed if the geniuses in South Korea and Germany could invent a robot capable of beating Rafa Nadal at clay courts tennis, specifically the French Open.
Yes, now that you mention it, our guy Denis Shapovalov held quite the pity party following his ouster from Roland Garros. “These conditions were as tough as possible for me to play against here, with the balls being so heavy and it being really cold,” he whinged after twice gagging while serving for the match v. Roberto Carballes Baena, the world No. 101. “These conditions were completely stacked against me. It’s impossible to hit a winner with these balls.” He also muttered something about Paris clay being different than Rome clay. Oh, boo flipping hoo. The balls were just as heavy for Baena, a 7-5, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6 winner, and I’m guessing the Paris chill was the same on both sides of the court. As for it being “impossible to hit a winner with these balls,” Shapo hit 65 of them, more than double Baena’s 31. He also had 106 unforced errors compared to just 42 by Baena, and you don’t chalk that up to heavy balls and unfavorable weather.
Shapo had a legit beef about line calls, one of which might have cost him the match, and his plea for the use of HawkEye at Roland Garros has merit. The rest of it was nothing but a petulant, stomp-my-feet temper tantrum, and I’m hoping it was a one-off. Tennis doesn’t really need another spoiled brat, and certainly not one from Canada.
I sometimes wonder if anyone at the Drab Slab knows the Winnipeg Sun exists. I say that because of recent essays by Scott Billeck of the tabloid and Drab Slab columnist Mad Mike McIntyre.
Here’s Billeck on Sept. 5, under the headline A Bolt of bravado—Jets Cheveldayoff could benefit from a little ruthlessness this off-season by offer-sheeting young Lightning centre Anthony Cerelli: “(Kevin) Cheveldayoff taking a tyrannical approach to this coming off-season might serve him rather well. How does one become ruthless, you ask? In hockey terms, and during the free-agency window of a particular off-season: Offer sheet. But who do you offer one to? Anthony Cirelli, currently with the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
He then outlines, in detail, what the addition of Cirelli would mean to GM Chevy and the Winnipeg Jets.
Now here’s Mad Mike on Sept. 29, under the headline Jets need to chase after Cirelli—Lightning forward would solve Winnipeg’s second-line conundrum: “It may not be the equivalent of Christopher Columbus discovering America or Thomas Edison’s bright idea about the light bulb, but while covering bubble hockey in Edmonton I do believe I’ve come across the solution to some of what plagues the Winnipeg Jets. Eureka! I found it—the second-line centre they’ve long been searching for. Meet Anthony Cirelli, who is currently filling that role for Tampa Bay Lightning.”
He then outlines, in detail, the benefits of inserting Cirelli to the Jets roster, even though Billeck had told Sun readers that very thing 24 days earlier.
I don’t know if that’s arrogance or ignorance, but “Eureka!” my ass. Parroting the other guy’s column and making it out to be a fresh thought is totally bad form. Mad Mike’s essay should have been spiked.
Speaking of parrots, a quintet of the birds in a British wildlife park had to be separated because their language was more colorful than their plumage. Seems the five foul-beaked feathered friends took to dropping F-bombs and spewing other very salty language, none of which was suitable for young, tender ears. Hmmm. Reminds me of some press boxes I’ve been in.
And, finally, fantastic piece by Murat Ates of The Athletic on former vagabond goaltender Gary Smith, who backstopped the Jets to their third and final World Hockey Association title. It’s full of fun stuff from Smitty and totally worth the read.
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.
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.
I’m not fond of all-time greatest lists because they’re too often compiled by people who are not all-seeing.
Take, for example, the recent anointing of Dave Keon as creme de la Toronto Maple Leafs. As someone who witnessed the wonder that was Keon, initially on the family’s black-and-white TV with rabbit ears and then live and in living color with the New England/Hartford Whalers, I offer no quarrel with the salute to the diminutive, balletic centre-ice man. More to the point, I endorse it. Fully.
I wonder, though: How many among the 30 “experts” and 300,000 fans who gave voice to the Keon coronation actually saw him perform? How many can say they watched Syl Apps or Teeder Kennedy, who finished second and third, respectively, in balloting to select the greatest of the greats who have worn Maple Leafs linen in the past 100 years?
Syl Apps retired in 1948, two years before I was born. Teeder Kennedy hung ’em up in ’57. I don’t have the vaguest memory of him.
Time passed is the flaw in the all-time-greatest ointment, and it explains how a thug like Tie Domi can find himself on the same list as Dave Keon. I mean, seriously? Tie Domi belongs in the same company as Dave Keon? Ya, like I belong in the same ballet as Sophia Lee.
All of which brings me to the Winnipeg Jets. (Yes, I agree, the mention of Domi and ballet in the same breath serves as a rather odd, if not odious, segue to a discussion about the local hockey heroes, but work with me, kids.)
The creaky, old boys and the not-so-creaky Teemu Selanne will be back in town this week to participate in True North Sports & Entertainment’s genuflection to the Jets’ gloried past in the World Hockey Association and its limited achievements during the first go-round in the National Hockey League. Many of them, no doubt, shall arrive in River City greater of girth and with hairlines in rapid retreat, but hopefully old habits kick in when they take time away from the mirth and merriment of their reunion to play some pond hockey with the creaky, old Edmonton Oilers.
Slow-motion cameras won’t be a requirement, of course, because the actual-time speed is apt to be in super slo-mo—save for Selanne—but I’m guessing the Alumni Game on Saturday has as much appeal power as the Heritage Classic featuring the present-day Jets and Oilers on Sunday. (For those of you inclined to place a friendly wager on Team Hawerchuk in the old boys’ skirmish, be certain you get favorable odds because Team Gretzky has them out-Hall of Famed, 5-1, with one inductee-in-waiting.)
Anyway, this gathering of the clan puts me in mind of the best of the best, Jets version.
Many of my vintage can say we’ve seen them all, from the original Jet, Norm Beaudin, to today’s current flavor of the month, Patrik Laine, and some of us can say we saw more than most because we had the good fortune of an insider’s view home and away. That doesn’t make me an expert. It simply means I saw the Jets from a different vantage point.
It’s with that in mind that I submit some personal “best of” Jets lists…
My Favorites to Watch
1. Kent Nilsson: Pure magic. The most-talented player to wear a Jets jersey. Bar none. 2. Peter Sullivan: Silky smooth. I don’t care if he was defensively deficient. He was dazzling with the puck on his stick. 3. Anders Hedberg: The Swedish Express. His acceleration off the right wing was unparalleled. 4. Teemu Selanne: Ditto what I said about Hedberg. 5. Alexei Zhamnov: Spectacularly subtle. Perhaps that’s a contradiction in terms, but he was supremely skilled without a shred of flamboyance.
1. Ulf Nilsson: The punishment he absorbed and endured in the WHA was barbaric and criminal. 1a. Anders Hedberg: See above. 1b. Lars-Erik Sjoberg: See above. 1c. Ted Green: How he played so well in so much head pain is a mystery. I used to cringe watching the Seed hobbling on and off buses and airplanes, knowing he was in crippling pain. 3. Terry Ruskowski: He finished the 1979 WHA final with one arm.
Tom McVie: He’d always spice his interviews with comments like, “I’ve been fired more times than Al Capone’s machine gun” or “If life made sense, it would be men who rode sidesaddle. Think about it.” Willy Lindstrom: The great prankster. He always made a pit stop at a joke store on our visits to Quebec City, then would toss stink bombs and sprinkle sneezing powder on our flight out of town. Gary (Suitcase) Smith: Smitty seemed to take life with a wink and a nod.
Moments of Madness
1: Mike Smith: Comrade Mikhail, as I called the Jets GM, sold Kris Draper to the Detroit Red Wings for $1 (U.S. currency, one presumes) and used nine of his 12 selections at the 1992 NHL entry draft to claim Russians, the first of whom was the legendary Sergei Bautin. Smith’s make-work-for-Russians project fell flat. Little wonder Dale Hawerchuk got out of Dodge a couple years earlier. 2. Jimmy Mann: The sucker punch that shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw was every bit as bad as Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore. 3. Tom McVie: Taking his teeth out and trying to fight coach Al MacNeil of the Atlanta Flames was comedy gold. 4. John Ferguson: Punching a hole in the wall of his bunker at Winnipeg Arena? Check. Dumping a bucket of ice on to the Buffalo Sabres bench? Check. Kicking a hole in a dressing room door? Check.
1. Andrew McBain: We called him “Fergy’s son” or “Fergy’s kid” because we couldn’t think of any reason he was on the team, except that he must have been GM John Ferguson’s illigitimate kid. Beaner fooled us, though, with 32- and 37-goal seasons before leaving the Jets. 2. Scott Campbell: Asthma did poor Scotty in. His was never able to tap his full potential. 3. Ray Neufeld: Not because he underachieved, but because I silently cheered for him to succeed more than any other Jet. He became a fan whipping boy due to the Dave Babych trade, and I wanted Neuf to be a star. Never happened.
1. Dave Babych: Always gave thoughtful answers. 2. Terry Ruskowski: Honest, emotional, passionate. 3. Dale Hawerchuk: Ducky was the face of the franchise for so many years and he always delivered the goods. 4. Andrew McBain: No matter how hard the media rode him, Beaner didn’t balk on interviews. 5. Eddie Olczyk: I didn’t talk to Eddie O a great deal, but I could tell he had a future in talking. 5b. Barry Melrose: Friar Nicolson and I called him Kelvington after his home town in Saskatchewan. He loved talking into a microphone or tape recorder.
He’s Got Gonads
1. Tom McVie: Anyone who would bench Bobby Hull, one of the team owners, for arriving at the rink late has size XXXL gonads. 2. Morris Lukowich: A bantam rooster with a tiger in his tank. Luke never picked on anyone his own size, because they were all bigger than him. 3. Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Built like Barney Rubble, the Little General shied away from no man, not even Bad News Bilodeau and the rest of the cement heads who would run him through the boards in the WHA.
1. Laurie Boschman: So belligerent on the ice, so soft-spoken and genuinely nice off it. 2. Dave Babych: A big, friendly bear of a man. 3. Terry Ruskowski: A good Canadian Prairie boy. 4. Barry Melrose: Fun guy, always joking with Friar and I. 5. Jude Drouin/Pierre Hamel: They took care of me after I collapsed on a flight home from Toronto.
Curmudgeons Before Their Time
1. Randy Carlyle: Mostly it was an act (I think), but Kitty played the role of the two old farts on The Muppets. 2. Mario Marois: Forever bitching about the heat on the bus.
1. Teppo Numminen: I think he was only appreciated in Winnipeg. Had he played in Toronto or Montreal, they’d still be talking about him. 2. Ron Wilson: Dawg: Subtly efficient.
What Were They Thinking? (When they Drafted this Guy)
1. Sergei Bautin: Still hard to believe that comrade Mikhail Smith squandered a first-round pick on this pylon. 2. Jimmy Mann: Strike one against Fergy. 3. Hannu Jarvenpaa: Scored four goals in an exhibition game. Scored 11 the rest of his career. 4. Evgeny Davydov: Mikhail was kidding, right? 5. Ryan Stewart: Three games, one goal. Say no more.
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.