It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not at age 57.
Dale Hawerchuk should have been allowed to grow very old and grey and gather his grandchildren around the fireplace, where he could tell them tall but true tales about the good, ol’ days in the ol’ barn on Maroons Road.
Or how he helped gut the Russians in the 1987 Canada Cup final, winning a faceoff in the defensive zone then hooking one of the Ivans to the freeze, allowing Mario Lemieux an unopposed path to the decisive score in a 6-5 victory.
But Ducky won’t be doing that. He left his bride, Crystal, and their children—Eric, Ben and Alexis—and the rest of us on Tuesday, a victim of cancer, and if you feel the urge to give the year 2020 a good, swift kick to the groin be my guest.
While you’re at it, you can also wrap a black arm band around Good Ol’ Hometown, because Ducky’s death will produce long faces from South St. Vital to West St. Paul, from Transcona to Headingly. And, if you look closely enough, you’ll probably catch the glint of a teardrop in the Golden Boy’s eyes up there atop the Legislative Building.
Actually, I’m selling Ducky short. We need a much larger black arm band, something we can stretch around the entire province. From Churchill in the north to Emerson on the Manitoba-U.S. Border.
It’s not that Ducky was our first shinny superstar. Bobby Hull, Ulf, Anders and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, were there before him, albeit in a different league and, ironically, playing a brand of hockey that Slats Sather would copycat in Edmonton and use to torment Ducky and some very good Winnipeg Jets outfits in the 1980s.
But he might be our most enduring shinny superstar, in part because he was the leader of a gang that just couldn’t quite finish the job.
Once into the National Hockey League, you see, the Jets repeatedly were confounded by those damned whirling dervishes known as the Oilers. Six times the two Prairie sides met in the Stanley Cup tournament, and six times it was the Albertans grinning in the handshake line at the end of the night. Try as they might—and no one was more determined than Ducky—the Jets never managed to wipe the smug look off Edmonton coach/GM Sather’s face, a reality that still rankles to this day.
But nobody’s holding that against Ducky, the captain of those Winnipeg HC sides. Not today. Not ever.
Nor was/is there bitterness about his exit following the last of those half dozen spring disappointments. Ducky had served his time admirably and became an adopted son. He took Crystal, a country girl from Arborg, as a bride and they made their home on a spread outside the city. He toured the province during the off-season, playing in charity slo-pitch and golf events, always smiling, always glad-handing, always obliging in his aw-shucks, country boy manner. He and Crystal maintained a cottage in Gimli once they had moved on.
Few, if any, wanted Ducky to leave after watching and enjoying him in Jets linen from 1981 to ’90, but the winds of change forced his hand.
Out was the man who had brought him to Portage and Main as a freshly scrubbed teen of 18 years, general manager John Bowie Ferguson, and in was Mike Smith, a book-wormish oddball with a degree in Russian studies, a fondness for any hockey player with a Moscow postal code, and a very different way of doing things.
Suddenly, Ducky didn’t fit in. His ice time was cut back by head coach Mud Murdoch, and negativity at the rink and in the media wore him down (more than once he called my scribblings “crap” and I can’t say he was wrong).
“I’m tired about reading bull in the papers,” he said in 1989. “I’m tired of coming to the rink with a negative-type attitude here. Maybe it’s best for the hockey club to get a few players for me. That’s not saying I want to be traded.”
There was talk of a Ducky-Denis Savard swap with the Chicago Blackhawks, but that’s all it was, talk between coaches Murdoch and Mike Keenan that was meant to be hush-hush. The Philly Flyers were said to be interested. But it was the Buffalo Sabres who pitched the right kind of woo, and Smith dispatched Ducky to upstate New York at the 1990 NHL entry draft, accepting Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and a first-round pick, Keith Tkachuk, in barter.
The Ducky-less Jets were never quite right again. Murdoch was fired a year later. Comrade Mikhail Smith received his walking papers in 1994. And the franchise was playing in an Arizona desert by ’96. Talk about curses.
Ducky’s shadow has stretched across the path of every player who’s skated in Jets livery since his departure. It still does to this day, which explains the hosannas raining down since word of his death began to spread on Tuesday.
He left Good Ol’ Hometown many years ago, but he’s never been gone. Not really.
And, the way current team co-bankroll Mark Chipman tells it, there’ll eventually be a permanent reminder of Ducky, a statue outside the Little Hockey House On The Prairie in downtown Winnipeg.
Anyone have a problem with that? I didn’t think so.
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.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…because Mark Scheifele and the Jets keep working overtime, I will too…
The thing about Rink Rat Scheifele is that he’s already one of those cool “Remember when?” stories.
Remember when the Winnipeg Jets chose him seventh overall in the National Hockey League’s annual auction of freshly scrubbed teenagers and most folks said, “Huh? Who’s he?”
Remember when he initially arrived in River City and took more tumbles than a load of laundry? Clumsy? Bambi was Tessa Virtue compared to this kid. If he stayed vertical for more than 15 seconds, someone would alert the media and there’d be film at 11.
Remember when he was so scrawny he could have qualified as poster boy for a UNICEF famine relief campaign? I’ve seen more flesh on a Christmas turkey wishbone. He rattled like a pair of dice when he walked.
But just look at nice guy Scheifele now.
You need a goal in OT? Who you gonna call? Mark Scheifele. He did it twice in three days, in two different cities. He’s done it three times this month. He’s fifth in NHL scoring, just 10 points out of the lead and three in arrears of Connor McFabulous in Edmonton.
It’s kind of a rags-to-riches story when you consider they didn’t even have a team jersey for Rink Rat to wear on stage the day general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff plucked him in the entry draft. Remember, les Jets were a team with no name ahead of the 2011 teenage rummage sale, so why not pick a no-name player, right? And drape him in an NHL sweater, just to add a touch of humility to the moment.
Not that the hockey nerd from the Barrie Colts seemed to mind. He beamed, his smile measured in megawatts. Ditto Chevy, who cared little that many observers considered his selection of Scheifele to be something of a head-scratcher.
Turns out les Jets scouts knew exactly what they were doing. And it’s a terrific, feel-good story about a guy who, by all accounts, is the sort you hope your daughter brings home for dinner.
If you kids out there want to grow up to be just like Mark Scheifele, eat your veggies. But you can pass on the mushrooms. “That’s the only vegetable I don’t eat,” the fitness freak told GQ magazine last summer. “Other than that, I am good with anything. If you put a mushroom in front of my face, I will not go anywhere near it. If I’m in a restaurant, I’ll tell them to hold the mushrooms. I don’t want mushrooms on any of my food at all.” But bring on the broccoli!
The biggest surprise in the NHL standings this year? Five Pacific Division outfits currently are in playoff positions. Who saw that coming? No one. The big dogs of the Western Conference are supposed to be in the Central Division, but the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars are major disappointments. Bruce Boudreau, meanwhile, will be the next head coach looking for work if his Minnesota Wild don’t get it together.
I’ve always been a Bryan Little fan, but I still say les Jets will need a guy like Paul Stastny once it’s crunch time (read: the Stanley Cup tournament). That and an upgrade on left defence. I fully expect Chevy to tinker with his roster before the trade deadline.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe the Calgary Flames are for real. I’m not sold on their goaltending. Just saying.
Something tells me Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Starmight like a do-over on his “Auston Matthews is the greatest goal-scorer in the world” column. Every time I check the leaders in the chase for the Rocket Richard Trophy, that Gr8t 8 guy in Washington is atop the chart. I suppose if Matthews could stay out of the repair shop he might challenge Alexander Ovechkin, but until then any suggestion that he’s the planet’s premier sniper is pure propaganda from the Republic of Tranna.
Apparently Connor McDavid has become Connor McMugged, and that’s made Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock a Mr. McGrumpy. After his lads dropped a 4-2 verdict to the Canucks in Vancouver on Sunday night, Hitch went all squawk-a-lot about the guys in striped shirts:
“The stuff that really bothers me is what is happening to Connor, and that really bothers me because we’re in a league that is supposed to showcase our top players, and you don’t want to give them all the freedom, but the tug of war on him was absolutely ridiculous today,” said Hitchcock.
“And that’s a little bit discouraging to be honest with you. Because I can see the whackin’ and hackin’ going on when he’s got the puck, but to me it’s all the stuff behind that doesn’t allow him to showcase his speed. And if that’s what we want, well, that’s fine. But I think it’s a real disservice to a player like him. He’s not allowed to play give-and-go. It’s give-and-hold. So we’re going to have to figure out a way to fight through it. We’ll just play toughness with him and figure it out from there.”
Can’t fault Hitchcock for spouting off, but, let’s face it, it’s nothing more than mind games. He’s looking for an edge, as if McDavid needs it.
In the boo hoo, cry me a river department, I present Postmedia Edmonton scribe David Staples, who, in an exercise of blatant homerism, cranked up the wah-wah-wah machine and eagerly provided the backup vocals for the Hitchcock lament.
“Hitchcock has now made clear the truth of the matter, making comments that should embarrass the refs for their slack work and the National Hockey League for allowing its greatest star(s) to get repeatedly mugged,” Staples wrote about the “mauling” of McDavid. “I hope ears are burning at NHL head office. They should be.
“If you think my own comments are the self-indulgent whining of an Oilers fan, you are correct. But what of it? Because I’m mad that the hometown hero gets a bad shake from the refs doesn’t mean Hitchcock isn’t right. He is right. McDavid gets mugged repeatedly and the NHL doesn’t do anything much about it. It’s a bad joke. This isn’t a league for superstars to shine, it’s a league for hookers, holders and hackers to slow down those superstars and to thwart them with the complicity of incompetent refs.
“Wayne Gretzky never hesitated to blast the officials. Some folks called him a whiner, but I call him a winner. Glen Sather was a master of getting under everyone’s skin, be it opposing coaches, players, the league or the refs. It’s time the Oilers stood up for themselves verbally. Why? Because it works. Calling out rubbish for what it is has an impact.”
Wow. Take a pill, man. Maybe have some mushrooms.
The TSN World Junior Hockey Championship will be coming to a rink exactly two blocks from my humble home next week. I can hardly wait to see that big Kazakhstan-Slovakia showdown.
Talk about your bad days at the office. What Kerri Einarson endured in the women’s final of the National curling tournament in Conception Bay South, N.L., on Sunday wasn’t pretty. It was painful to watch. The Manitoba skip did a lot of wincing, but not much shot-making, and finished at just 54 per cent in a 4-1 loss to Rachel Homan. Not to worry, though. The Pebble People are done for the year, so Kerri and her all-skip team of Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur can enjoy their Christmas turkey and have ample time to regroup. They’ll be the ladies to beat at the Toba Scotties late next month in Gimli.
And, finally, the Winnipeg Sun sports section on Sunday: 13 pages, 1 local story. Sad. The Sun sports section this morning: 15 pages, 1 local story. Really sad.
I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
The boys are back in town, so let’s settle this Habs-Jets thing once and for all.
Let me begin by saying that I stand second to few people in admiration for the Winnipeg Jets, circa Hedberg-Nilsson-Sjoberg-Hull-et al. They played hybrid hockey. Canadian grit met Scandinavian swirl to form a swashbuckling brand of shinny not seen on this side of the great waters until the two cultures dovetailed in the mid-to-late 1970s.
If we are to believe Slats Sather, those Jets provided the blueprint for his rollicking Edmonton Oilers outfits that ruled the frozen ponds of the National Hockey League a decade later.
So, ya, the Jets were good. Good enough to give the mighty Soviet Union national side a 5-3 paddywhacking one January night in 1978.
But…were they Montreal Canadiens good? That is, how might the World Hockey Association’s signature team have measured up against the Habs juggernaut that featured a Hockey Hall of Fame head coach and nine HHOF players who produced Stanley Cup parades in four successive springs, 1976-79? Well, let’s ask three people who ought to know—Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Bobby Hull.
The three members of the legendary Hot Line were in Good, Ol’ Hometown this weekend for a gathering of the players who conspired to win the club’s second WHA title 40 years ago this month, and Kathy Kennedy summoned them to her CJOB studio for a gab session. Also sitting in for the 40-minute chin-wag were veteran broadcasters Peter Young and Sod Keilback, who steered the chatter in the direction of les Canadiens.
Keiback: “Would you have beaten the Montreal Canadiens?”
Hull: “No, but it would have been a great game.”
Keilback: “I want to ask this to Ulf, because Friar Nicolson told me the most honest man he ever met in his life—the guy couldn’t lie—was Ulf Nilsson. Ulf, would you have been able to win the Stanley Cup with the WHA Jets?”
Nilsson: “No, I don’t think so. I agree with both Bobby and Anders. We were short maybe a few defencemen. Goaltending was good, though, and I think we had enough good forwards, but defence, we could have used one or two more.”
Hedberg: “We could have reached the final, no question.”
So, there you have it. While hundreds (thousands?) of locals to this day remain convinced the Jets could have given the Habs a wedgie, three of the WHA club’s four most influential players (defenceman Lars-Erik Sjoberg was the fourth) insist it’s a notion built on fantasy.
It would have been a boffo series, though.
Former Jets general manager John Ferguson has been bones in the ground since 2007, but Hull won’t let his feud with Fergy go to the grave. Proudly talking about the open-door policy the Jets had with fans during the WHA days, Hull said this during the ‘OB gabfest: “They wanted me to take over the team, and they brought in a guy by the name of Ferguson and Tommy McVie, and that was all the goodwill we’d built up in all those years from 1972 to 1979 or ’80, or whenever it was that they joined with the NHL, went out the window. Doors were closed, there was rippin’ and cursin’ and kickin’ buckets and throwin’ oranges.” When host Kathy Kennedy relayed a story about an angry Fergy once kicking a hole through the Jets’ dressing room door, Hull said, “He not only had the foot in the door lots of times, he had that size 13 in his mouth.”
As the present-day Jets continue their Stanley Cup crusade vs. the Vegas Golden Knights, give a thought to the WHA Jets, because they’re the reason what’s happening today is happening today. Had original owner Ben Hatskin folded his tent, the NHL wouldn’t have given River City a second glance. Edmonton and Ottawa probably wouldn’t have franchises either.
Interesting take from Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun on the Jets-Golden Knights skirmish for bragging rights in the NHL Western Conference. “I get that Vegas being good is beneficial for the league, but it still doesn’t seem fair that an expansion team can come in and contend for a Stanley Cup right away.” Fair? You tell me what’s fair. I mean, the Golden Knights entered the fray last October with a roster of rejects. Nobody thought it was unfair back then. So now that same roster of rejects is eight wins from hoisting the holy grail in Glitter Gulch and it isn’t fair? As if.
It occurs to me that it isn’t just the clubscompeting in the NHL’s annual spring runoff. It’s also the daily rags. And, two series and one game deep into the playoffs, I’d say the Sun has opened a big, ol’ can of whupass on the Winnipeg Free Press. The tabloid troika of Wyman, Paul Friesen and Ken Wiebe have been cranking out the good stuff daily since the puck dropped on the Jets-Minnesota Wild series. Over at the Drab Slab, Mike McIntyre, Jason Bell and Mike Sawatzky are doing boffo business, but it doesn’t help that the Freep’s Sunday edition is an after-thought and the sports columnist seems to be MIA every second day.
I turned on the TV the other day to watch the coronation of Kyle Dubas as GM of the Tranna Maple Leafs and they introduced Harry Potter instead. Seriously. If Dubas isn’t Harry Potter, he’s Harry’s big brother. The question now is this: Can he do anything about the boggarts on the Leafs blueline?
Nick Kypreos has come clean about running off at the mouth. Sort of. If you’ll recall, our man Kipper implied that Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and his star player, Auston Matthews, have been giving each other the ol’ stink eye. “Babcock lost Matthews. There was no trust anymore. For whatever reason, Babcock lost Matthews,” he said after les Leafs had bowed out of the Stanley Cup tournament. Kipper offered zero evidence to support his suggestion of a spat. And now? “It is based purely on my instincts following a 12-year professional career,” the Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada gab guy tells us. “It is nothing more, nothing less. To my knowledge, there is no major rift between Babcock and Matthews. There is no conspiracy, but trust me, it isn’t fake news either. I have no idea how Matthews feels about his coach.” I think that last sentence sums it up: Kypreos has no idea.
Loved the chatter between Daren Millard and “smarmy” Damien Cox on Hockey Central at Noon last Wednesday, when they engaged in a to-and-fro about ice time for elite NHL performers.
Cox: “Good teams don’t give their best players 23 minutes. Or, if they do it’s very rare. Or they’re coached by John Tortorella.”
Millard: “Barkov plays…Sasha Barkov plays 23 minutes.”
Cox: “Oh, Connor McDavid plays more than 22 minutes and they’re horrible. So, that’s what you want? The idea is to have a well-balanced team. Now…”
Millard: “You’re so smarmy sometimes.”
Cox: “Why is that smarmy?”
Millard: “You just…you are. You’re just…”
Cox: “I was giving you an example.”
Millard: “It’s the way you say it. ‘No, they’re terrible. Is that what you want?‘”
Cox: “That is not smarmy. You can say it’s overcritical, but it’s not smarmy.”
Well, let’s see. Smarmy is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “Of low sleazy taste or quality; revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, or false earnestness.” The urban dictionary describes smarmy as: “A certain attitude often accompanied by a squinty look and a superior smile that makes you instantly hate a person.” It’s settled then: Millard is correct—Cox is smarmy.
Old friend Evander Kane, soon eligible for free agency, has revealed his needs-and-wants list for re-signing with the San Jose Sharks or moving to another NHL club: “Common sense tells you there are three priorities that you look for as a player: money, chance to win and lifestyle. Those are the three priorities and it just depends on how you rank them.” In Kane’s case, considerations of lifestyle would have to include proximity to Las Vegas, a private jet and, of course, comfy jail cells. Okay, okay. That was a cheap shop. I mean, it’s been at least a year since cops have had to slap the handcuffs on Kane in public. Shame on me.
Quote of the week comes from the Boston Licker, Brad Marchand, whose filthy habit of licking opposition players commandeered much of the chatter during Round 2 of Stanley Cup skirmishing:“I have to cut that shit out,” he said. Ya think? What was your first clue, Inspector Clouseau?
I’d like to feel sorry for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers today. I really would. I mean, they got stiffed. That dirty, no-good, rotten scoundrel and noted green guy Darian Durant took their money and ran. Paid him $70,000 and he flat out quit. Didn’t even have the good manners to bid a polite adieu. And now the Canadian Football League club is left without its security blanket for starting quarterback Matt Nichols, a week before the large lads in pads gather to grab grass and growl at their 2018 training sessions. Well, here’s a thought: Stop relying on other outfits to do your dirty work. That is, find and develop your own damn QBs instead of this decades-long dependency on others’ retreads. I think Dieter Brock was the last in-house starter of note, and the Bombers haven’t groomed a backup who could toss a spiral since Hal Ledyard rode shotgun for Kenny Ploen.
Having said that, Durant’s departure was totally lame. Really bad form. You want to quit, fine, quit. That’s cool. Get on with your life. But, good gawd, have the gonads to tell the people who invested $70,000 in you. Pick up a phone and call them. Don’t let them find out on social media.
Meet Phil Mickelson, fashionista. Who knew? If you missed it, the normally frumpy and flabby Phil has taken to wearing button-up dress shirts on the golf course, complete with starched collars and cuffs. What, no cufflinks, Lefty? No ascot? Not sure if Lefty is caught in a middle-age crisis, but this is a good look like Hair In A Can was a good idea. It’s Giorgio Armani bogies the back nine.
The good news is, Drake has been eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs. The bad news is, jock journos in the Republic of Tranna will have to scramble to find another groupie to fawn over. Are there any rapper/hip-hop stars who like the Blue Jays? If not, I’m sure they’ll settle for a B-list celeb like Dave Foley or Steven Page.
Boxing is on the menu in The ROT next Saturday, with champion Adonis Stevenson defending his WBC light-heavyweight title against Badou Jack. It’s quite the seedy main event: Stevenson has spent time behind bars for pimping out women; Jack is known as The Ripper, an obvious reference to Jack the Ripper, serial killer of prostitutes; and the challenger is among the stable of boxers promoted by Floyd Mayweather Jr., himself a convicted woman-beater. That’s not a sports event, it’s a jail break. And yet people will part with their money to watch. Go figure.
This week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna (Volume 1): “The greatest Toronto athletes in my time: Donovan Bailey, Ben Johnson. @De6rasse has a chance to surpass both.” Can you say hypocrite, kids? I mean, Simmons sits on a horse named Morality and refuses to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in Baseball Hall of Fame balloting because they flunked his smell test. That is, they stuck needles in their butts. They cheated. Yet he lists this country’s most-disgraced cheater, druggie Ben Johnson, as one of the two greatest Tranna athletes during his 61 years drawing oxygen. A freaking cheat! Can you say zero credibility, kids? Zero!
This week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna (Volume 2): “The Leafs can’t beat Boston three straight. Probably no team in hockey can.” Tell that to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who just beat the Bruins four straight.
This week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna (Volume 3): “It’s entirely possible that all four conference finalists in the NHL will be teams that have never won the Stanley Cup before.” No, it was not possible. Tampa and Boston, who met in the eastern semifinal, have both won the Stanley Cup. Simmons explained his gaffe by saying he was soooooo “tired,” then deleted the tweet.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
Quiz me this, kids: What does Mark Chipman have against Ben Hatskin?
I mean, okay, the notion of bridging the Winnipeg Jets’ present to the past in the form of a Hall of Fame is an admirable enterprise. And few of a certain vintage will quibble with the inaugural inductees—Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Bobby Hull. The Hot Line, after all, delivered two World Hockey Association titles to River City and, if we are to believe Glen Sather, it served as a blueprint for the run-and-gun Edmonton Oilers who made a mockery of the National Hockey League during the mid-1980s.
But Benny is ground zero. He is the father of professional hockey in Winnipeg as we know it. There would not be an NHL franchise in River City today if not for Hatskin, whose dreaming and scheming lured Hull away from the Chicago Blackhawks in 1972.
“I don’t think the NHL would have ever been in Winnipeg without the vision that Ben Hatskin and others had to bring the WHA to Winnipeg in ’72,” is how Chipman put it to Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun in 2012. “The credit for the name that we still use today begins and ends there. And signing Hull completely legitimized the league and gave Winnipeg a chance to be the gold standard team within the league.”
Why, then, is His Holy Hockeyness not saluting Hatskin?
According to the club website, “the new Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame is being created to honour the impact and accomplishments of the team’s hockey legends and celebrate the rich history of professional hockey in Winnipeg.”
If it’s meant to be a players-only club, fine. Then say so. Otherwise, in any celebration of “the rich history of professional hockey in Winnipeg,” you must start with Ben Hatskin.
Chipman knows this. He has acknowledged this. So, why the reluctance, or flat-out refusal, to deliver Benny his due, other than spew a few kind words on the occasion of the original Jets’ 40th anniversary? Does Chipman harbor an anti-Ben bias? Is ego at play here? That is, does the grand poobah of True North Sports & Entertainment fear that a tangible tribute to Hatskin will shake some of the glitter from his own hockey halo?
Chipman, more so than his deep-pocketed co-bankroll, David Thomson, has heard the hosannas ring out loud and long, from far and wide, for his role in the resurrection of NHL shinny in River City. The bravo chorus has been deserved.
But this isn’t a chicken or egg thing. We know who and what came first. Ben Hatskin and the World Hockey Association. Then Bobby Hull. The rest is, as they say, history.
Do the right thing, Mark Chipman.
It’s a slight and a horrible omission that the late Lars-Erik Sjoberg isn’t going into the Hall of Fame in lockstep with Hedberg, Hull and Nilsson. The three Hot Liners gathered most of the glory in the WHA days due to their offensive exploits, but the man who made it all happen, and made it look so easy, from the back end was The Shoe. They didn’t stitch the ‘C’ on the Little General’s sweater by accident. Sjoberg also one-upped the three members of the fabled Hot Line—he won the Avco World Trophy three times compared to their two. He didn’t bail on the Jets, either. While Hedberg and Nilsson swanned off to Gotham and the Rangers, and Hull refused to play for John Ferguson, Sjoberg captained the Jets to their final WHA title and in their inaugural NHL season before retiring. The Shoe is a fit for the Hall.
In the case of Bobby Hull being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Jets are following the lead of the Chicago Blackhawks by separating the hockey player from the guy away from the rink. There can be no quarrel over Hull’s worthiness as a shinny star and his contribution to the WHA. He’s an icon. Like all of us, though, Hull is a flawed human being. Among his flaws is the most distasteful bit of business that is the physical abuse of women. It was among the reasons a judge granted one of his ex-wives, Joanne, a divorce. But a known history of spousal abuse didn’t prevent the Blackhawks from a) erecting a statue of Hull outside the United Center, and b) hiring him as an official ambassador of the NHL club. Now the Jets are looking past Hull’s trespasses. My guess is that most in Jets Nation will do the same. I can’t. I don’t think men who beat women should be deified.
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 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.
“I don’t know if I can put into words what Don (Baizley) meant to the game. I don’t know if there’s any one individual I’ve met in my life who’s had a more meaningful, more profound impact on the modern game of professional hockey.”
—Mark Chipman, co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets
Don Baizley is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, nor the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.
He should be in both. As a builder.
I bring this to your attention today because the HHofF class of 2014 is to be inducted on Monday and none of the select six is named Don Baizley, the Winnipeg-based lawyer whose 71 years of being an honest-to-gosh good guy gave way to non-smoker’s lung cancer in July 2013.
As many of you know, Baizley maintained a small stable of clients that represented a who’s who in the National Hockey League and on shinny ponds on the other side of the ocean—Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Kent Nilsson, Paul Kariya, Theo Fleury, among others. But to brand him as merely a player agent to the stars is insufficient. Baizley was a trail blazer. He helped redefine the game in the mid-1970s, prior to which both the NHL and World Hockey Association were parochial in scope. That is to say, if you weren’t Canadian or American by birth you need not apply.
Oh, sure, there were a handful of Europeans pre-1974. Pentti Lund, born in Finland but raised in Canada from the age of six, was NHL rookie-of-the-year in 1949. Slovak-born Stanislav Guoth, better known as Stan Mikita, was a much-decorated centre with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ulf Sterner played four games with the New York Rangers in 1965. Thommie Bergman was in the employ of the Detroit Red Wings in the early ’70s. Borje Salming was wearing Toronto Maple Leafs linen. Ditto Inge Hammarstrom.
Basically, however, Euros were as rare as buck teeth on a super model. The prevailing logic insisted Euros weren’t equipped with adequate-sized gonads to be successful in the NHL, where ruffians often ruled the day (see: Big Bad Bruins, Broad Street Bullies).
Then along came the 1974 Winnipeg Jets. And Dr. Gerry Wilson. And Billy Robinson. And Don Baizley.
Dr. Wilson, a surgeon whose specialty was sports-related owies, was doing a post-grad gig in Sweden in 1973 when a fleet right winger caught his attention. The name was Anders Hedberg. The good doctor also liked what he saw in a kid named Ulf Nilsson. And, hey, this guy Lars-Erik Sjoberg was none too shabby on defence. So Doc Wilson put in a call to the Jets, then the flagship franchise in the WHA, and they, in turn, dispatched bird dog Billy Robinson to Tre Kroner country for a look-see at these hot-shot Swedes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and goaltender Curt Larsson represented the first wave of Europeans to arrive on North American shores and, in due course, they proved beyond all reasonable doubt that their junk was plenty big enough to not only succeed, but to excel on the frozen ponds of North America.
Hedberg and Nilsson, in particular, were ceaselessly assailed by extremely disagreeable sorts such as Bad News Bilodeau and Frankie Beaton of the Birmingham Bulls, plus a boatload of barbarians employed by other WHA outfits. These “chicken Swedes,” after all, were taking jobs away from good Canadian boys. The nerve. So they were whacked, hacked and brow beaten to unparalleled levels. Their bodies were bruised as blue as the Jets jerseys they wore. Talk about culture shock. But they endured, in large part due to the guidance of Don Baizley.
Baiz’s influence on the game cannot be under-valued. He didn’t just get big bucks for his clients. He took them under his wing. He was their confidante. Their mentor. He provided them a comfort zone, a place where they could grow as hockey players and, more important, people.
His handling of the fabulous Swedes did not escape the notice of other Scandinavians. Soon Veli-Pekka Ketola was with the Jets. Heikki Riihiranta, the aforementioned Bergman, Willy Lindstrom, Mats Lindh, Dan Labraaten, Kent Nilsson were to follow. Those Euro-flavored WHA Jets played a dazzling, free-wheeling brand of hockey. Brute force gave way to beauty, which translated into titles and provided Glen Sather a blueprint in constructing his remarkable Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s.
So, you see, Baizley was at the forefront in the reshaping of the professional hockey landscape. He was there for close to 40 years, yet this man who helped change the face of shinny preferred to operate in the background. It was never about him. He was, if you will, the anti-Eagle.
I refer, of course, to Alan Eagleson, the notorious player agent who landed in lockup after playing fast and loose with his clients’ money. The Eagle was self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. If the Eagle was involved, everything else was background noise.
That wasn’t how Don Baizley rolled.
Baiz wanted to talk about himself like Gary Bettman wants to live in the north end of Winnipeg. He was more interested in others. He placed value on who you were and what you did. He always made you feel better about yourself and your work.
During my 30 years in sports journalism, I never met a better person than Don Baizley. Not one. So when the giants of the game gathered in July 2013 to salute another giant of the game, you had to believe them when they told you that Baiz was an honest, humble, trustworthy, humorous, generous, loving man. It’s all true.
The guy was an honest-to-gosh hall of fame person.
Patti 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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to 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.
Musings scribbled on a cocktail napkin while contemplating the birth of a shinny season and the birth of Rogers Media’s $5.2 billion multi-headed TV monster…
It might have been the dawning of a new era for Hockey Night in Canada, but it was the same old Don on Saturday night.
Donald S. Cherry sat in his Coach’s Corner bully pulpit alongside Ron MacLean, who plays Waldorf to the star’s Statler, and the old, grey grumps began their five-minute bitch bit by pouting about being “phased out” of HNIC, at the same time squabbling over a musical toy (Chippy) that Grapes had brought to the set. MacLean attempted to take Chippy hostage because he was “loud” and “irritating,” but Donald S. was having none of that.
The Lord of Loud then launched into his sermon, which sounded very much like a cut from his Hits of the 1980s soundtrack—the Toronto Maple Leafs are morons because they draft “U.S. college guys and a Swinn and a Fede” instead of good, old boys from Tranna and other outposts in Ontario.
I assume the U.S. college guys come from our neighbor to the south, but I’m not sure about the “Swin and Fede” that the Leafs drafted Sounds Scandinavian to me. Must be a couple of those dreaded “foreigners,” perhaps out of Gimli, just north of Winnipeg.
That aside, by the time Fuddy and Duddy were finished, it was painfully evident that one of them has nothing new to say and the other is tired of listening to nothing new.
Rogers might want to “toy” with the idea of pulling the plug on the Fuddy and Duddy Show. Chippy can stay, though. Ditto the Swinn and the Fede.
EAR YE, EAR YE: My ears need a rest. Already. I mean, hockey goliath Rogers came at us with so many gab guys in its first four nights as the grand looking glass on Planet Puckhead that I’m not sure who said what to whom or who said what about whom on opening night Wednesday.
I know Glenn Healy said a lot of things about a lot of things that don’t matter, because whatever he says doesn’t matter. He also punctuated his blather with harsh hand gestures and a jutting jaw that suggest he’s angry about something, although he has nothing to be angry about. After all, most of us don’t get paid to annoy people, whereas Heals (that’s what his hockey buddies call him) receives a handsome stipend just for being the most annoying man on Canadian TV.
Surely the mute button was invented with Heals in mind.
SPELL CHECK: I have one main aim during the next seven months of a National Hockey League season that’s still wet behind the ears—learn how to spell Strombolopolopolopolopolopolous.
Hell, never mind learning how to spell it. I can’t even say George Strombolopolopolopolopolopolous in 25 words or less. I haven’t had this much trouble with a name since Winnipeg Jets defender-turned-forward Dustin Byfuglien arrived in River City with the Atlanta caravan in 2011. I still don’t know why it’s pronounced Buff-lin rather than By-foo-glee-en.
Anyway, I’ll just call the new face of Hockey Night in Canada and Rogers’ toy boy Strombo. Easy to say, easier to spell.
NUMBERS GAME: Rogers’ trumpet-tooters made a big whoop-dee-do about an average of 2.01 million puckheads tuning in for Strombo’s debut on the Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs telecast Wednesday on Sportsnet. Apparently, the other 33 million Canadians had something better to do than check to see if the boy toy would be wearing ear rings that night.
HNIC GOES GOTH: Okay, HNIC has a hip, new host in Strombo, who looks like he’s either on his way to, or just returning from, a goth gig (loved the skull ring he flashed during his chin-wag with Stephen Harper, noted politician and hoarder of hockey memorabilia in his man cave at 24 Sussex Dr. in Bytown). I’m on side with the new boy toy.
Still, there’s a bit of a cringe-worthy, “I’m a little kid who just got locked in the candy store” element to Strombo’s schtick. Like, he was having far too much fun during his little exhibition of foot hockey with Nick Kypreos, and does he really have to shake hands with Mark Messier before and after a two-minute tete-a-tete? I mean, it was the second intermission. It’s not like the Moose had just arrived on the mega-million-dollar set with all the new-fangled gadgetry. He’d been there from the top of the show.
I don’t know if there was a budding bromance at play or if Strombo just likes to slap skin.
AT THE BUZZER: So, Rogers shelled out $5.2 billion to put a fresh face on all things NHL in the Great White North, but they can’t afford a wardrobe consultant for P.J. Stock?…As is his norm, HNIC tongue-flapper Stock surfaced to give logic a lashing. During a rant suggesting the time had arrived for the Edmonton Oilers to give their roster a major makeover, he said, “I’m blaming the players, but I can’t blame them.”…Best bit on Saturday night featured Elliotte Friedman (no surprise there) and Damien Cox (big surprise). Their news, rumors and updates during the intermission was solid. Also on his game, as usual, was Scott Oake…After watching Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh pals dismantle the Maple Leafs, I’m wondering what the over/under is on Randy Carlyle’s gig behind the Toronto bench. I’m not sure he’ll last the month…Don’t normally take in the late-night games on Saturday, but felt obliged to check out the Jets and Sharks in San Jose. What a treat it was to see Dustin Byfuglien lose his mind…Was it just me, or did anyone else want to see Mark Messier shove his hockey stick up Nick Kypreos’s nose when the two former teammates gave a demonstration on positioning for a faceoff? It would have made for terrific TV.
AFTER THE BUZZER: The 30th anniversary of the Oilers’ first Stanley Cup crusade was a not-so-subtle reminder that of the World Hockey Association survivors—Edmonton, Winnipeg/Arizona, Quebec/Colorado, Hartford/Carolina—only the Jets/Coyotes have yet to hoist hockey’s holy grail. They couldn’t win on the frozen tundra, they can’t win in the desert, so we can’t blame the weather. Let’s blame Barry Shenkarow.
LAST SHOUT OUT: Sportsnet talking head John Shannon waxed glowingly of the Oilers outfits that won the Stanley Cup five times, saying they “changed the way the game was played for a decade.”
It was the WHA Winnipeg Jets of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson, Lars-Erik Sjoberg et al who changed the way the game was played. The Oilers were copycats.
Glen Sather, first a player then coach with the WHA Oilers and, later, coach/GM of the NHL Oilers during the 1980s, took note of the Jets’ free-flowing, criss-crossing, ad libbing style of play and said, “I think I’ll try me some of that.” Thus, he used the Jets as a blueprint once he started collecting future Hockey Hall of Fame players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and others in Edmonton.
“He built our team around watching Ulf Nilsson and Kent Nilsson and Bobby Hull, and he wanted that from day one,” Gretzky told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal during the 1984 team reunion last week.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg hockey and the Jets for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of hockey knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for literary contributions to the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.