That date, you see, marks the 50th anniversary of my first byline article in the Winnipeg Tribune, and I always wanted to be like Vince Leah and scribble about sports in Good Ol’ Hometown for at least half a century.
Well, as Maxwell Smart used to say, “missed it by that much.” One month and change.
And I’m okay with that.
I mean, Uncle Vince is a legend whose longevity as a chronicler of local jockdom shall forever remain unmatched. Indeed, unchallenged.
He’s won more awards than Meryl Streep, among them the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt, and I’m not in the order of anything, except maybe the Order of Bull Droppings, and we all know that’s how more than a few folks have described my scribblings at the Trib, the Winnipeg Sun and on this blog. So, be certain, there’s no attempt here to parallel my career with his.
In truth, Uncle Vince and I share just two commonalities: We both wrote sports at the Trib and we walked out the door the same day, figuratively if not literally, and neither of us had a choice.
Actually, there is one other thing: Neither of us covered a Stanley Cup parade, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The point is, I’m finally riding off into the sunset, 49 years and 11 months after my initial byline article, a brief report on the 1971 Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association annual meeting tucked into the back pages of the sports section, along with Harold Loster’s horse racing copy.
I’d like to tell you it was a glittering piece of wordsmithing but, in reality, it was unremarkable and totally forgettable, which would explain its positioning on the back pages.
It did, however, serve as the starting point of a career-long, unbreakable link to hockey and, most notably, the Winnipeg Jets.
As much as I covered every sport known to man, it always seemed to come back to hockey for me, and the Old Barn On Maroons Road became my second home.
I watched the Portage Terriers win the Centennial Cup there in May 1973; I watched The Shoe and the Jets parade around the freeze with the Avco World Trophy exactly six years later; I watched one Soviet side and one Russian side win World Junior titles there; I watched the 1981 Canada Cup there; I watched the Jets’ National Hockey League home debut there in ’79 and I watched them say goodbye there on the Day of the Long Faces in ’96. I played alongside Eddie Shack in Schmockey Night there, and I skated with the West Kildonan North Stars against the Winnipeg Monarchs there. Hell, my birth certificate is so dog-eared that I watched Billy Mosienko play there.
So, ya, local hockey and I were a thing. Still are, albeit from a considerable distance.
Back in the day, people would ask me about the Jets, wondering if their favorite player was a good guy or a bit of a twit, or if Fergy really was as tough as 10 miles of gnarly backroad. Even now, whenever I visit Cool Aid here in Victoria to collect the meds that keep me on the green side of the sod, Jim in the dispensary always wants to talk about “your Jets.”
Yes, he thinks of them as my Jets because it’s guilt by association.
The folks out here on the Left Flank, you see, know just three things about Good Ol’ Hometown: 1) It’s bitterly cold, 2) the Jets, 3) the Blue Bombers. In that order.
I’ve spent the past 21-plus years listening to rude laughter about “Winterpeg” and jokes about the Jets and cheap shots about the Bombers, although our football heroes nipped that in the bud in November 2019 when they took custody of the Grey Cup, and it’ll serve all the wise acres right if the Bombers never have to give the thing back.
If only the Jets had been able to do the same with hockey’s holy grail.
A Stanley Cup parade. Was/is that too much to ask? I mean, I’ve covered/watched some damn fine local shinny sides, but the Jets always came undone like a school kid’s shoelace when the games mattered most. I don’t have to tell you it’s happening again this year, although we shouldn’t be surprised given that the general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, twiddled his thumbs at the National Hockey League shop-and-swap deadline last month. Damn him.
But I won’t be here to praise or bury the Jets as they play out the string this year. I’m fresh out of cheek, irreverence, sarcasm, cynicism and goof-balling around. My snark tank is also empty.
I’ll continue to root, root, root for them, of course, because I’ve always wanted the Jets, Bombers, our curlers and all local athletes/outfits to succeed, which is most sports scribes’ dirty, little secret. They’ll tell you they don’t cheer for the home side, but don’t believe them. Oh, they don’t rah, rah, rah and siss-boom-bah out loud, but they want to see the locals succeed. It’s human nature, and I have personal knowledge that a good many of them are human. Honest, they are. The trick, of course, is to not allow a fondness for the girls and boys you cover to creep into your copy.
Anyway, I’m outta here, kids, 49 years and 11 months after the first hot-lead byline.
In closing, if I were to offer one morsel of counsel to jock journos hither and yon, it would be this: Take your job seriously, but not yourself. You aren’t splitting the atom, you aren’t running into a burning building to rescue small children, you aren’t digging water wells in a Third World country. So have fun with the gig. And, remember, the people you’re writing about are just that—people. They aren’t athletes who happen to be humans, they’re humans who happen to be athletes.
Adios and thanks kindly for dropping by. I’ve always appreciated it.
This being Manitoba Hockey Heritage Day, it puts me in a reflective mood, pondering my former life as a rink rat.
It began as a wobbly, Bambi-legged urchin on the outdoor freezes at Melrose Park Community Club, Bronx Park and East End, then moved to shinny shacks both primitive and elegant, from Transcona to Texas, from Sargent Park to Stockholm, from the Old Barn On Maroons Road to the Forum in Montreal (best hot dogs, ever) and Maple Leaf Gardens.
It was a lengthy trip, 30 years of it scribbling for the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Sun (with a couple of brief pit stops in the Republic of Tranna and Calgary), and there were highs and lows and in-betweens. This is what’s on my mind today:
I’m thinking about Mosie and the Winnipeg Warriors. I attended my first live pro game in the mid-1950s, a Western Hockey League skirmish featuring Billy Mosienko in the twilight years of a boffo career that included a 1952 record that stands uncontested to this day in the National Hockey League—three goals in the lickety-split time of 21 seconds. Mosie left the Chicago Blackhawks to wind it down with the Warriors in Good Ol’ Hometown, and it was a treat beyond description for a six-year-old kid to observe hockey royalty in person, in a swanky, new Winnipeg Arena.
I’m thinking about Father David Bauer and our national men’s team, based in River City during the 1960s. Our amateur Nats faced insurmountable odds in a quest to wrestle global supremacy from the U.S.S. R. “amateurs.” We all knew the Soviets were “amateurs” like cherry Kool-Aid is Russian vodka.
I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin and the original Winnipeg Jets, a Junior outfit in the Western Canada Hockey League that engaged in epic battles with the Flin Flon Bombers of coach Paddy Ginnell. Come playoff time, they’d pack the joint.
I’m thinking about Bill Addison, longtime commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. As a journalist and rink rat, I can’t think of anyone with whom I enjoyed talking all things puck more than Bill, a true gentleman in an era when a fellow would wear a necktie and a fedora to the rink.
I’m thinking about Frank McKinnon, the first sports figure I ever interviewed for the Trib, and the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association was the subject matter of my first byline article on June 14, 1971. It was buried on the back pages of the sports section, surrounded by Harold Loster’s horse racing copy, and it included a ghastly error—I wrote the MAHA had elected Frank president of the “1871-72” executive. What can I say? I’m an old soul. And, hey, I was only out by 100 years.
I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin signing Bobby Hull at Portage and Main in June 1972. I was a few blocks away in the Trib building when it all went down to change the shinny landscape forever. A younger generation might suggest Mark Chipman and David Thomson bringing the National Hockey League back to Good Ol’ Hometown in 2011 was a bigger story, but no. Everything flowed from Benny getting Hull’s signature on a World Hockey Association contract.
I’m thinking about the Jets introducing Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg to the masses in May 1974. Some of us were convinced that Benny and his minions had lost the plot because Swedes, thought to be cottony soft, couldn’t possibly survive vs. the barbarians who occupied too many roster spots on WHA outfits. Well, we now know they didn’t simply survive, they excelled, and served as Pied Pipers to numerous Europeans who found their way to the Jets.
I’m thinking about Junior hockey. I remember my first road trip, a milk run from Winnipeg to Dauphin for MJHL playoffs, and there were other junkets on the iron lung with the Winnipeg Clubs and Monarchs. Kevin McCarthy was the most talented local kid I ever covered, and watching him and Doug Wilson anchor a powerplay was special. My old coach Gerry Brisson, who owned the Junior Jets/Clubs/Monarchs before whisking the WHL franchise to Calgary, was a different head of lettuce, and my favorite character was Muzz MacPherson, coach of the 1973 Centennial Cup champion Portage Terriers before moving behind Brisson’s bench with the Clubs.
I’m thinking about the many hours I spent in the company of scouts, guys like Bob Goring, Bruce Cheatley, Jimmy Walker, Bruce Southern and Dino Ball, who made the down time more enjoyable.
I’m thinking about my favorite hockey people, in no particular order: Don Baizley, Jeep Woolley, Tom McVie, Terry Hind, Earl Dawson, George Allard, Gordie Pennell, Bill Addison, Frank McKinnon, Barry Bonni, Spider Mazur, Julie Klymkiw, Rudy Pilous, Teddy Foreman, Mike Doran, Sudsy, Aime Allaire, Bill Juzda, Bones Raleigh, Ed Sweeney, Billy Robinson, Aggie Kukulowicz, Marc Cloutier, Gordie Tumilson, Bill Bozak, John Ferguson, Peter Piper, Brian Gunn, Adam Tarnowski, Andy Murray, Teddy Green, Laurie Boschman, the Swedes (all of them), Portage Terriers.
I’m thinking about covering both the Jets final skirmish in the WHA, vs. the Edmonton Oilers (a 7-3 win), and their NHL baptism, in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins (a 4-2 loss). Reyn Davis and I were the beat writers of the day for both those games, and Friar Nicolson was the play-by-play guy on radio. Sadly, Reyn and Friar left us long ago.
I’m thinking about the 1975 World Junior tourney, with a group of WCHL all-stars facing off against the elite of the Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the U.S. The lads from Mother Russia ruled the day, besting the our kids 4-3 in the final game, prompting this rather peculiar observation of the comrades from Bobby Hull: “I’d like to see those guys in the shower, I’ll bet they’re all muscle.”
I’m thinking about Aime Allaire, the hard-luck case of my time covering shinny in Good Ol’ Hometown. Aime did everything possible to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home, but his St. Boniface Mohawks always came up a day late and a dollar short. I rode the iron lung with the Mohawks one winter, and Aime once hired me to handle stats for the Central Amateur Senior Hockey League.
I’m thinking about refereeing Winnipeg Colts tryout scrimmages for Stan Bradley and Harold Loster before they departed on their annual junket to a PeeWee tournament in Goderich, Ont.
I’m thinking about the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national side, 5-3, and Ulf Nilsson telling me in a noisy changing room that he was “proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
I’m thinking about Mike Smith, the egghead scout/coach/GM of the Jets who shall long be remembered for two things: 1) his make-work-for-Russians project; 2) running Ducky Hawerchuk out of town. The man I called Mikhail had a degree in Russian studies and a maniacal obsession with every Vladimir or Igor who laced up a pair of skates, and he attempted to transform the local shinny side into the Central Red Jets. The plan was a colossal flop and Hawerchuk became a casualty, moving to Buffalo.
I’m thinking about Billy Bozak, a very nice man known as Magic Fingers. Boz was responsible for healing the lame and halting among the Jets, and there wasn’t an owie the longtime team trainer couldn’t cure. How his healing hands made Terry Ruskowski suitable for combat in the 1979 WHA final I’ll never know.
I’m thinking about the day of the long faces, which is to say the final farewell for the original Jets, who packed up and skedaddled lock, stock and jock strap to Arizona. There weren’t many dry eyes in the joint on April 28, 1996, and it had nothing to do with a 4-1 playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings. It had everything to do with a funeral. The NHL was dead in Good Ol’ Hometown. It took 15 years for many among the rabble to recover from the Jets’ departure. Many still mourn the loss.
I’m thinking about piggy banks and pucks and Peter Warren of CJOB roaming the landscape on a flatbed truck, accepting donations from the young, the old and the in-between in a bid to Save the Jets from extinction. It worked once or twice, but kids emptying their piggy banks and little, old ladies signing over pension cheques was never going to be the solution.
I’m thinking about Tuxedo Night and how snazzy all the luminaries and the Zamboni driver looked in their monkey suits. The promo was the brainchild of marketing guru Marc Cloutier, who wanted Good Ol’ Hometown to look its spiffy best for the first appearance of NHL royalty, the Montreal Canadiens. Lafleur and Savard and Robinson and Gainey and Shutt et al were greeted by a gathering of 15,723 on Dec. 15, 1979, and the Jets faithful feared the worst. But a rag-tag roster filled with hand-me-downs rag-dolled the Stanley Cup champions, winning 6-2, with Willy Lindstrom scoring three goals and Peter Sullivan collecting five points.
I’m thinking about Bobby Hull and how he was greeted with such pomp and pageantry at Portage and Main in June 1972, and how he left the building in such an undignified manner seven years later. The Golden Jet was scheduled to be in the lineup for Tuxedo Night, nationally televised on Hockey Night in Canada, but he was confused about faceoff time and arrived late. Coach Tommy McVie, not one for bending rules, informed Hull that he’d be sitting this one out. When advised of Hull’s punishment, GM John Ferguson pitched a fit, kicking a hole in a dressing room door. Didn’t matter. Hull, one of the team owners, was out. He never wore Jets linen again.
I’m thinking about Teemu Selanne’s astonishing 76-goal rookie season, in 1992-93, and GM John Paddock trading the Finnish Flash to the Disney Ducks three years later. D’oh!
I’m thinking about doing color commentary to Friar Nicolson’s play-by-play on Jets radio broadcasts, in the WHA and NHL, and I’m sure I was awful.
I’m thinking about tossing back vodka and beer with the Russians at the Viscount Gort during the Winnipeg portion of the 1981 Canada Cup tournament. They couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak Russian, but we managed to conduct an impromptu and teary-eyed wake for legendary Soviet forward Valeri Kharlamov, who was buried that day back home in Mother Russia.
I’m thinking about all the good guys no longer with us, too many to list.
I’m no longer a rink rat. I haven’t attended a live hockey game since 1999, when I put Good Ol’ Hometown in my rear view mirror after 30 years in the rag trade. But it was a rush. Some might even think of it as a bit of a charmed life, and I suppose watching hockey and writing about the game for a living was every bit of that.
The only thing missing was girls/women’s hockey, and I hope Ponytail Puck receives more ink in the local dailies once it’s back on the ice. Ditto Junior, university and high school shinny. I realize readers can’t get enough of their Jets, but they weren’t the only game in town during my time at the Trib and Sun, and they still aren’t.
Rather than the usual Sunday morning smorgas-bored, I give you the top 50-plus movers and shakers in Good Ol’ Hometown over the past half century.
This isn’t one of those hum-drum, greatest-athlete lists. We’re talking positive impact, what a sports figure did to enhance the local sporting landscape, whether that meant the wow factor of Teemu Selanne’s 76-goal rookie season or Harvey Warner keeping the ponies at a full gallop out at Assiniboia Downs.
And, while our play-for-pay jocks tend to gobble up the big headlines on a day-to-day basis, it’s often the owners and managers and coaches and administrators who make things happen when we aren’t staring at the scoreboard, and that also means our amateur playing fields, where we have a rich tradition of magnificence and the impact has been significant.
So here’s the list of the 50-plus most-impactful movers and shakers in Winnipeg sports dating back to 1970, and I should warn you that this list includes jock journos, because once upon a time before the Internet, 24-hour TV and social media, there was a gadget called the radio. Not every game was televised or live streamed. We needed our newspapers and radios to take us to the action.
One final note: Remember, this is only one person’s opinion, so don’t get your knickers in a twist if you don’t see the name of one of your faves.
1. Ben Hatskin: Well, this is the ultimate no-brainer. It’s like naming Pope Francis to an all-Catholic team. I mean, Benny didn’t just bring the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association to Good Ol’ Hometown in 1972, he hijacked Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks in a shocking coup that reshaped the shinny landscape. Without Benny’s derring-do, there would have been no National Hockey League Jets 1.0 and no Jets 2.0.
2. Mark Chipman: The Puck Pontiff filled the void left by the 1996 departure of the Jets to Arizona, but his Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League were just the appetizer. Aided by billionaire David Thomson’s bulging bankroll, there was an NHL rebirth in River City in 2011, with the Atlanta Thrashers moving north. Oh, and did I mention that along the way Chipman and Thomson built a downtown arena?
3. Bobby Hull: The Golden Jet informed Hatskin and the other WHA renegade owners that it would take $1 million dollars for him to leave the Blackhawks and pull on a Jets jersey in ’72. Done deal. The Hull signing legitimized the WHA, and other top-level players soon followed. And, remember, Robert Marvin was also part of the ownership group that took the Jets into the NHL.
4. Michael Gobuty/Barry Shenkarow: I know, I know. Michael is the guy who let Wayne Gretzky get away. Mook. But don’t hold that against him. Michael and his ownership group kept the Jets afloat in the late 1970s, allowing for one final, rewarding whirl in the WHA by purchasing the contracts of a group of Houston Aeros, including Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Rich Preston and Scott Campbell. He also recruited John Bowie Ferguson, and Michael offered a loud and influential voice in the NHL’s decision to absorb the Jets and three other WHA franchises in 1979. As for Barry, talk about shooting the messenger. By the time the whole thing went south for Jets 1.0, he was front man for the ownership group that sold the club to American buyers, who then loaded up the truck and bugged out to Arizona, lock, stock and jock. So Barry became the fall guy. But it’s a bad rap. No locals were willing to dig into their deep pockets to purchase the franchise and lose millions of dollars every year, so he/they really had no choice.
5. Cal Murphy: Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and very funny, Cal ruled the Winnipeg Blue Bombers roost with an iron fist from 1983-96, as either head coach or general manager. Along the way, there were three Grey Cup championships, one heart transplant, and one human rights kerfuffle over female news snoops in the locker room. He also brought the Grey Cup game to Good Ol’ Hometown for the first time, and became a vocal advocate for organ donations. Today there’s a pigeon perch of Kindly Cal outside Football Follies Field In Fort Garry.
6. Wade Miller: The leader of the Canadian Mafia inherited a Sad Sack, laughing stock-level Bombers team and the longest title drought in the Canadian Football League when he was anointed CEO in 2013. He was more like the CE-D’oh! in the early years, but Wade ignored the wolves howling at his door and stuck by his fellow hosers, GM Kyle Walters and sideline steward Mike O’Shea. Today the Bombers reign as Grey Cup champions, with money in the bank, and only the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Miller down.
7. Dr. Gerry Wilson/Billy Robinson/Don Baizley: No North American shinny side tapped into the European hockey market as swiftly, deeply and as eagerly as the Jets, and it was this trio of forward-thinkers that brought the first wave of Scandinavians to Good Ol’ Hometown in the mid-1970s. Dr. Wilson caught the first glimpse of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and alerted Robinson, the Jets main bird dog. Robby scampered across the big pond to Sweden and liked what he saw, signing both players pronto. Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Curt Larsson came along for the ride, and player agent Baizley took them under his wing. Championship parades ensued.
8. Anders/Ulf/the Shoe: It’s no exaggeration to suggest Anders and Ulf revolutionized the game once in partnership with Hull. They made magic with their swashbuckling, freestyle frolicking on the local freeze, but it was Sjoberg—the Shoe—who stirred the drink from the back end. Together, they dominated the WHA and—damn them!—also provided Glen Sather with the blueprint for his Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s.
9. John Ferguson: So, here’s the irony—he was the cad who lured the ultra-popular Hedberg and Nilsson away from Portage and Main to make them stars on Broadway, then the Rangers fired Fergy and he joined the Jets to oversee their final WHA title and aid the entry into the NHL. Go figure. Full of bluster and occasional rage, Fergy made certain that life around the Jets camp was never boring, which sometimes meant kicking holes in walls and dumping buckets of ice on the opposing team’s bench. As Jets GM, he assembled a string of formidable NHL outfits during the 1980s, even if he couldn’t quite get them over the hump. Stars like Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne, David Babych, Thomas Steen and Dave Christian were drafted during his watch, and we won’t talk about Jimmy Mann.
10. Clara Hughes: When they name parks, playgrounds and schools in your honor, and when they put your pic on a postage stamp, you know you’ve done something right. Clara is a two-sport Olympian—speed skating and cycling—and the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. But it’s her advocacy on behalf of mental health and children’s sports/recreation that makes Clara truly impactful. She’s a leading voice in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and she’s donated/raised many thousands of dollars for various causes.
11. Cindy Klassen: She has as many shiny Olympic trinkets as Clara Hughes (six), including one gold medal, so Clara’s two-sport bona fides is all that separates the two world champion speed skaters.
12. Chris Walby: If ever there’s been a larger-than-life athlete, it was Bluto—all 6-feet, 7-inches and 300-plus pounds of him (give or take a Big Mac and a six pack). Bluto grabbed grass and growled for the Bombers from 1981-96, collecting three Grey Cup rings, nine CFL all-star nods, two top O-lineman awards, and a bust in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. But it wasn’t just what he did on the field and his size that made Bluto stand out. He was among the great characters in Rouge Football, a good-time Charlie and a deliverer of delicious quotes. No surprise he became a talking head on CBC’s football coverage, even if English sometimes seemed to be his second language.
13. Dale Hawerchuk: He came to the Jets as a freshly scrubbed 18-year-old from Cornwall, and much was expected of Ducky. He delivered. Winnipeg HC went from the free space on the NHL’s bingo card to the best shinny outfit this side of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and Ducky was the centrepiece.
14. Jennifer Jones: The only thing Jennifer hasn’t won is the Brier, and that’s only because the boys won’t let her play. There’s never been a finer female curler in our country, even if some in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia might want to point to Sandra Schmirler and Colleen Jones and debate the issue. Well, let ’em hash it out. We know they’re wrong.
15. Jill Officer: It will be interesting to monitor how Jennifer gets along without Jill throwing second stones. They were together almost as long as Mick and Keith, but Officer retreated from competitive curling in 2018. Jill’s haul is the same as Jen’s: An Olympic gold, two world championships and six Scotties titles in her trophy case. Also one park named in her honor.
16. Teemu Selanne: Like Anders and Ulf, the Finnish Flash wasn’t in Good Ol’ Hometown for a long time, but it sure was a good time. Those 76 goals in his freshman NHL crusade had the burg in a buzz, and it’s a record that will stand as long as there are frozen ponds for kids to skate on. Teemu might have been the most popular Jet ever, give or take Ducky.
17. Don Duguid: The Digit toddled off to two world curling championships as a skip and never lost a game. Yup, 17-0. Dugie then thought it would be a swell idea to go on TV and tell the rest of us how to curl, which he did for 29 years until someone at the CBC had a brain fart and let him go. And just the other day he was made a member of the Order of Canada for his wonderful work as a curler and teacher of the game.
18. Ray Turnbull: His friends called him Moosie, and he had scads of friends in and beyond the curling community. A true visionary, Moosie’s impact began at the Mother Club on Granite Way, but his influence spread across the globe when he buddied up with Don Duguid for instructional clinics to curling curious nations beginning in the 1970s. So he’s largely to blame for the rest of the world catching up to us on pebbled ice. A broadcasting icon with TSN from 1984 to 2010, Moosie coached no fewer than 17 world champions.
19. Frank McKinnon: Those who knew him best would probably tell us that Frank never slept, because he didn’t have time for zzzzzzs. How busy was he? Let me count the ways: Five years president and 20 years on the executive board of Hockey Manitoba; 10 years commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League; founding father of the Centennial Cup tournament and the inaugural World Junior championship; first chairman of the board of Hockey Canada; two years director Sports Federation of Canada; four years vice-president Canadian Olympic Association; founding member of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association. Frank was based in Carman, but he spent enough time in Good Ol’ Hometown to qualify for this list.
20. Donny Lalonde: The Golden Boy was in the ring with Sugar Ray. Yes, that Sugar Ray, as in Leonard. He even put the boxing legend on the canvas—one of only two men to do so—scoring a fourth-round knockdown in their 1988 bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Alas, Sugar Ray ruled the day, battering Lalonde about the ears in the ninth round and scoring a TKO. But it’s enough that the Golden Boy went from working out in the old firehall gym on Talbot Avenue in Elmwood to champion of the boxing world’s light heavyweights.
21.Jeff Stoughton: It’s easier to break out of jail than win the Manitoba men’s curling championship, but Jeff wore the Buffalo on his back 11 times. Crazy, man. A two-time world champion and three times the best at the Brier, Jeff also has two Canadian Mixed titles on his resume. Once he retired his tuck delivery and his spinorama showtime shtick, he took to coaching and administration, first helping Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris strike gold in Mixed Doubles at the Seoul Olympics, and he’s now coach and program manager for the national men’s team.
22. Coleen Dufresne: When you spend 17 years coaching and another 15 as athletic director at the University of Manitoba, you’ve had an impact on more young people than you can count. Coleen, who wore the Maple Leaf as a player at the 1976 Olympic Games, coached U of M Bisons women’s basketball teams to three national championships and five Great Plains Athletic Conference titles. She is a member of the Basketball Manitoba Hall of Fame in three categories—builder, coach and player—and the Canada West Hall of Fame.
23. Garth Pischke: Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball in the movies, but Garth made people talk volleyball in real life. Nobody put the W in the word “win” like Garth. He won a staggering 1,353 games in his 38 seasons as mastermind of the U of M Bisons men’s volleyball team, losing just 414 times. Chew on that and digest it—1,353-414. Who does that? Only Pischke, the winningest coach in collegiate V-ball history, on either side of the border. A two-time Olympian and six-time MVP at the Nationals as a player, Garth coached the Bisons to nine national titles and was named the Manitoba amateur athlete of the 20th century.
24. Brian Dobie: If this was just about being a nice guy, the U of M Bisons football coach would be at, or near, the top of the heap. Lovely man. He’s been sideline steward of the Herd since 1996, a gig that came on the heels of a 21-year watch with Churchill Bulldogs in high school grid. Do the math. Coach Dobie has been impacting the lives of teenagers and young men for close to half a century. Oh, and he’s also a five-time Canada West coach-of-the-year and a USports coach-of-the-year, plus he brought the Vanier Cup to the Fort Garry campus in 2007.
25. Vic Pruden: There was no women’s or men’s intercollegiate basketball program at the University of Winnipeg (nee United College) until Vic came along, so all the hoops glory stems from there. The annual Wesmen Classic was Vic’s brain child, ditto the Fort Garry Invitational. The Wesmen Classic became such a landmark event that it had to be shuffled from Riddell Hall to the Winnipeg Arena, and was televised nationally. Vic was also founder and first president of the Manitoba Basketball Coaches’ Association.
26. Coach Tom Kendall/University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen: Few took notice of women’s hoops back in the day, but then along came coach Kendall and his fabulous University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen who, from October 1992 to November 1994, never lost a game. Eighty-eight teams tried to topple them, and 88 teams failed. Even fabled UCLA coach John Wooden was talking about the Lady Wesmen. Under Kendall’s watch, the Lady Ws went 101-2, with three national titles.
27. Coach Mike Burchuk/U of W Lady Wesmen volleyball team: The U of W women’s hoopsters received the 250-point newspaper headlines for their 88-game winning streak, but the women on the volleyball court trumped them with 123 consecutive Ws from January 1987 to January 1989. That included a 58-0 record in 1987-88 and, along the way, the ladies won six consecutive national titles and beat the NCAA champion Texas Longhors and a pro team, the Minnesota Monarchs.
28. Jennifer Botterill: It should be enough to say that Jennifer is the only female player ever inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, but we’ll also mention that she’s a three-time Olympic champion, five times a world champion, two times the Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the top player in U.S. women’s college hockey, twice the MVP at the world championship, and she once had an 80-game scoring streak (beat that, Connor McDavid!). If young girls are looking for a role model, Jen’s it.
29. Paul Robson: Can a sports list be complete without a guy named Mad Dog on it? We think not. So come on down, Mad Dog Robson, architect of the Winnipeg Football Club’s return to glory in the 1980s, a Lazarus-like rebirth that included the 1984 Grey Cup championship crusade, the first in 22 years. His handiwork as assistant GM/GM included going stealth to lure Chris Walby out of Montreal, hiring Cal Murphy as sideline steward, and engineering the Dieter Brock-for-Tom Clements trade. Paul was also once publisher of the Winnipeg Sun, but we won’t penalize him for that.
30. Harvey Warner: It’s probably safe to say the ponies wouldn’t be galloping at Assiniboia Downs if not for Harvey and his Manitoba Jockey Club. Harvey is a founding father and current president of the MJC, which took possession of the Downs in 1993. It’s never been an easy ride for Harvey and cohorts like Darren Dunn and Sharon Gulyas out at the racing oval on the western edge of Good Ol’ Hometown, but they’ve managed to keep the barns open and the horses fed and watered. So, yes, the reins have been in the right man’s hands for 27 years.
31. Mike Riley: When Leo Durocher coined the phrase “nice guys finish last,” he certainly wasn’t thinking of a guy like Mike Riley. Aside from bringing the Grey Cup home twice in his four years as sideline steward of the Bombers, Mike might be the most decent man to ever coach a pro team in Good Ol’ Hometown (John Paddock would be second in line), and that counts for something on my scorecard.
32. Milt Stegall: The Turtle Man would be higher on this list, except for one thing—every time I look at his hands, I don’t see any Grey Cup rings. For all his personal accomplishments—all-time TD leader in CFL history with 147 and a Most Outstanding Player award—the Bombers had just four winning seasons in his 14 crusades. No player ever looked better while mostly losing, though, and he’d be the first to tell you that. Milt continues to be a Bombers booster as one of the gab guys on TSN’s CFL coverage, and that’s always a good thing.
33. Sam Katz: Full disclosure—I’m not fond of Sammy. I think him to be a snake oil salesman. If he told me today is Sunday, I’d double check the calendar. But he brought professional baseball back to Good Ol’ Hometown, and the Winnipeg Goldeyes frolic in a beautiful, downtown ballyard thanks to Sammy.
34. Andy Van Hellemond: Whistleblowers don’t always get respect, but Andy Van did. The kid weaned on the frozen ponds of Isaac Brock was, arguably, the best man to ever pull on a striped shirt, and he was also a trend-setter, becoming the first on-ice official to wear a helmet, in 1984. The NHL made lids mandatory for the zebras four years later (a grandfather clause allowed some to officiate sans head protection until 2006-07). Andy Van refereed 1,475 regular season games, 227 in the playoffs and 19 Stanley Cup finals, all records. He was named Manitoba’s referee-of-the-century.
35. Sylvia Burka: Before Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen and Susan Auch, there was Sylvia Burka, three times a world speed skating champion. She has held over 40 Canadian speedskating records, and once set a world indoor cycling mark at one kilometer. She won 12 national cycling titles. But her true legacy can be found in the skate marks she left for others to follow.
36. Dawn McEwen: I suppose you could say Dawn is to Team Jennifer Jones what Ringo Starr was to the Beatles. She seems content in the background while Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Cathy Overton-Clapham attracted most of the attention, but without her lead stones and robust sweeping they wouldn’t have become the finest female outfit in Canadian curling history. Dawn has an Olympic gold medal, two world titles and five Scotties crowns in her trophy case, so don’t even think of her as a spare part.
37. Kaitlyn Lawes: She branched out from throwing third stones for Jennifer Jones to strike Olympic gold with John Morris in the debut of mixed doubles at the Winter Olympic Games. So she has a nice collection of two gold trinkets, a world championship and a Scotties title.
38. Susan Auch: Although never making it to the top level of the Olympic podium, Susan made speed skating front page news in Good Ol’ Hometown with two silver medals and a bronze in the Winter Games, three gold in World Cup racing in 1995, three Manitoba athlete-of-the-year honors and a Canadian athlete-of-the-year salute. There’s a Susan Auch Oval out at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex and a Susan Auch Park in Transcona, and she’s now CEO of Speed Skating Canada.
39. Troy Westwood/David Asper: Board member Asper came up with the concept and gave the Banjo Bowl it’s name, but it was the spinoff of a quote from Ol’ Lefty, the former Bombers place-kicker who, in an interview prior to a 2003 playoff skirmish, called Saskatchewan Roughriders fans “a bunch of banjo-picking inbreds.” Much caterwauling from the Flattest of Lands ensued, and the Banjo Bowl was born in 2004. It’s the most-anticipated event on the local sports calendar every year, and it’s been strictly SRO since 2005. When he wasn’t trash talking Flatlanders, Ol’ Lefty was hoofing more field goals (617) and more points (2,745) than anyone in Bombers history.
40. Connie Laliberte: They called her the Ice Queen, but underneath that cucumber-cool exterior burned a competitive bonfire. Connie gave every female curler in Manitoba something to aim for when she became the first Buffalo Girl to win the world crown, in 1984. She also won three Scotties titles and today is the high performance director for Curl Manitoba.
41. Sandy Riley: The former sailor (1976 Olympic Games) and former president of the Manitoba Sports Federation served as chair of Winnipeg’s 1999 Pan American Games, an event that helped revive the sagging spirit of a city that had lost its NHL franchise only three years earlier. As a bonus, it attracted the attention of Ol’ Cigar Breath, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who used his Revolution Day address to go on a mini-rant about mysterious “traps and tricks and schemes and filth” that encouraged his athletes to clamber over the wall to freedom. Cuban defectors aside, the Pan Ams were an artistic and financial success. More latterly, the Riley family donated $500,000 toward construction of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
42. Dayna Spiring: It doesn’t matter that Dayna wasn’t on the receiving end of any passes, nor did she hoof any field goals or tackle any running backs. The lady was a champ in her first year as Chair of the Blue Bombers board of directors, and she became the first woman to have her name engraved on the Grey Cup. For young girls and women, that makes her Dayna Inspiring.
43. Desiree Scott: A former star and coach with the U of M Bisons, the lady they call The Destroyer joined our national women’s soccer side in 2010, and she’s now just one of five to have earned 150 caps. Along the way, she’s collected two Olympic bronze medals and participated in three World Cup tournaments. Away from the competitive pitch, Desiree is heavily involved with soccer camps for KidSport and she’s an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup.
44. Bill Wedlake: A head coach for 32 years, first at St. John’s High where he won two provincial titles, then 16 years at the U of W, Bill was also athletic director at the downtown campus for eight years. A co-founder of the Winnipeg Invitational tournament, he’s written three books on coaching and is a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
45. Mo Glimcher: If you think it’s tough dealing with teenagers these days, consider Mo Glimcher’s gig—he had 30,000-40,000 kids under foot every year between 1975 and 2016. Mo retired after 41 years as Executive Director of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association, and I’d say he’s earned a master’s degree in babysitting.
46. Bob Picken: There are three major sports operatives in Good Ol’ Hometown—the Jets, the Blue Bombers, and curling. Yes, curling. Our Pebble People don’t make the big bucks like the Jets and Bombers, but they don’t want for media exposure, due in large part to jock journos like Pick. Pebble People have never known a better media friend than Pick, whose magnificent pipes blessed the airwaves of CJOB, CKY and the CBC for half a century. He played the game, served as president of the Manitoba Curling Association, worked with both the Canadian Curling Association and the World Curling Federation, and there’s a bonspiel at the Thistle named in his honor. Pick made certain that curling was never back-page news or filler at the end of a sportscast.
47. Jack Matheson: Admittedly, there’s bias in this choice, because Matty gave me my start at the Winnipeg Tribune, but his sassy and brassy sports column was the only absolute must-read in town during the 1970s. And when Furnaceman fired him up for his daily rants on CJOB, it was must-listening. Matty set an incredibly high bar as a sports scribe, and no one has come close to reaching it since the Trib folded.
48. Friar Nicolson: There’s no way of knowing how many young men and women went into broadcasting because of the curmudgeonly Friar, but I’d suggest the number is closer to 50 than one. The longtime play-by-play voice of the Jets, Friar is the man who lured Knuckles Irving to CJOB in 1973, and he also gave one-time do-everything CKY/CTV voice Peter Young his start in the gab game. That’s serious impact.
49. Bob Irving: When Knuckles became the voice of the Blue Bombers, Don Jonas and Chuck Ealey were the starting QBs and Dieter Brock was a little-known rookie who answered to the name Ralph. Bud Riley was the head coach, and there have been 14 more since Knuckles moved in behind the mic. So he goes back some, and he’s still going. At least he was until COVID-19 interrupted regularly schedule play-by-play. We assume (hope) the well-liked and highly respected Knuckles will be back for a 46th season once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror.
50. Don Wittman: How versatile was Witt? Well, we know he covered the CFL and the NHL and tennis and the Olympics and world-class track and top-flight curling during close to half a century with the CBC, but he also broadcast cricket. Ya, cricket. Witt traveled the globe and was on site to call the Ben Johnson race in Seoul and Donovan Bailey in Atlanta, but home base was always Winnipeg.
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.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and this post was written without the benefit of performance-enhancing nouns, verbs, adjectives or metaphors, but there are trace amounts of sarcasm, irreverence and flippancy…
Back in April 1989, when drug cheat Ben Johnson still had our attention after his fall from grace at the Seoul Olympics, word drifted out of Stockholm that Randy Carlyle had failed a drug test.
Anyone who’d ever met or seen Randy Carlyle probably laughed.
I mean, you didn’t get Carlyle’s body with daily visits to the gym, augmented by human growth hormone milk shakes. We’re talking Body by Pillsbury. Whatever muscle the Winnipeg Jets defender had was well concealed by a pleasantly soft exterior, most likely the product of jam-filled pop tarts or crescent rolls stuffed with cheese and bacon. His soft under belly really was his soft underbelly.
Thus, after Carlyle had piddled in a bottle at the World Hockey Championship and women/men wearing lab coats didn’t like the color of his pee—they discovered traces of the banned substance mesterolone—there were many giggles, even though he had officially joined Johnson on the Drug Cheat Hall of Shame roll call.
“When we first heard the words ‘steroids’ and ‘Randy’ in the same sentence, everyone in the room laughed,” Dave Ellett, a teammate of Carlyle’s in Sweden and with the Jets, once recalled in a natter with Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun. “John Ferguson Sr. had the best line: ‘If that’s what steroids does for your body, a lot of people will want their money back.’ Then we realized how serious it was.”
As it happened, Carlyle’s ‘B’ sample came back cleaner than a saint’s soul, so neither he nor Team Canada was disqualified from the tournament.
“I’ve been through hell,” the Pillsbury D-Boy told news snoops at the scene of the non-crime. “I was in total shock. How do you live with yourself when they say you’ve taken this and you know you haven’t? I lost a few pounds with sweaty palms.”
So, sure, squints make mistakes, and many among the rabble believe the lab rats did a dirty to Andrew Harris, who won’t join his Winnipeg Blue Bombers teammates in their annual Labor Day Weekend frolic v. the Saskatchewan Roughriders today on the Flattest of Lands. He’s also been told to find something else to do when the large lads assemble for the rematch in Good Ol’ Hometown on Sept. 7.
The Canadian Football League’s now-suspended leading rusher vows he didn’t knowingly take the illegal drug they say he took, but, for every local who believes Harris got a raw deal and shouldn’t be twiddling his thumbs this afternoon, there are probably 10 beyond the boundaries of Manitoba who’ll tell us that his pants are on fire. You’d have better luck convincing them that O.J. is honest-to-gosh looking for the real killers.
And that’s for good reason: When caught with their hands in the juice jar—or, in the case of Pete Rose, cozying up to friendly neighborhood bookie—most high-profile cheats in sports immediately take a trip to Planet Pinocchio. Examples…
Lance Armstrong: “If you consider my situation, a guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence (cancer), why would I then enter in a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy. I would never do that. No. No way.”
Mark McGwire (appearing before U.S. Congress): “I’m not here to talk about the past.”
Rafael Palmeiro: “I have never used steroids. Period.”
Sammy Sosa: Pretended he couldn’t understand English when asked about his steroid use.
Roger Clemens: “I’ve been accused of something I’m not guilty of…I’ve never taken steroids or HGH.”
Justin Gatlin: “I am not using and have not used PEDs.”
Marion Jones: “I am against performance enhancing drugs. I have never taken them and I never will take them.”
Ben Johnson: “When I was a kid, I never took drugs. People who know me in Jamaica and people who know me here know I would never take drugs. I have never, ever knowingly taken illegal drugs, and I would never embarrass my family, my friends, and my country, and the kids who love me. For now, there’s nothing more I can tell you, because I just don’t know.”
Floyd Landis: “I declare convincingly and categorically that my winning the Tour de France has been exclusively due to many years of training and my complete devotion to cycling, to the sacrifice of an entire life to carry out my dream, a dream of thousands of kilometres that I have completed through an absolute respect to the cleanness of the sport.”
Alex Rodriguez: “I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged.”
Pete Rose (gambling): “I’m not going to admit to something that didn’t happen. Never bet as a player. That’s a fact.”
Martina Hingis (cocaine 2007 Wimbledon): “I am frustrated and angry. I believe that I am absolutely 100 per cent innocent.” Notably, she promptly retired rather than fight lab findings and a two-year ban.
Manny Ramirez: “Recently I saw a physician for a personal health issue. He gave me a medication, not a steroid.” After taking another medication that wasn’t a steroid, Ramirez failed another drug test and retired rather than be banished for 100 games.
Ryan Braun: “I truly believe in my heart, and would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point. I am the victim of a process that completely broke down and failed the way it was applied to me in this case.”
Vladimir Putin: “State-sponsored doping system has never been created in Russia, it is simply not possible, and we will do everything we can to make sure such state-sponsored system of doping support never exists.”
That, kids, is the reason people are hesitant, or flat-out refuse, to believe Harris. They’ve heard all the nose-growing excuses before.
And, unlike Randy Carlyle, his isn’t Body by Pillsbury.
So, when Louis-Phillipe Bourassa was banished for being a drug cheat, Bombers safety Jeff Hecht pounced, calling out the Bytown RedBlacks long snapper on Twitter with this post: “Sometimes you just have to work hard instead of being lazy and buying an edge.” It followed, therefore, that he’d deliver the same public tsk-tsking to Harris. But no. “To think that I would treat my teammate the same as I would somebody else, I think, is kind of naive from some people, because I’m a team-first guy,” he said in a chin-wag with Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun. He then told Teddy Football that “I think lying is the tool of the coward, so I’m not going to hide my stance on anything.” Except, of course, he’ll hide his stance on Andrew Harris, thank you very much. Hypocrisy, thy name is Jeff Hecht.
The Bombers are without Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris and Chris Matthews today on the Flattest of Lands, so why do I think they have a snowball’s chance of beating Gang Green? Because they aren’t without Willie Jefferson and the D.
I like most of what young Jeff Hamilton does in the Drab Slab. Grade A reporter. Good writer. On top of the beat. Alas, young Jeff is off the mark when he suggests Saskatchewan and River City are the “two best markets in the CFL.” That’s only half accurate. The main measuring stick for any CFL market is the box office and, yes, Gang Green has developed a most rabid fan base. But Winnipeg? Not so much. Edmonton has been, and is, a better market. Even with this year’s sharp downturn in bodies at Commonwealth Stadium, the Eskimos are attracting 3,335 more than the Bombers per game. More to the point, if the Eskimos don’t nudge their head count up a couple thousand, this will be the first time—the only time!—this century that their average attendance falls below 30,000. Winnipeg FC has averaged 30,000 once. Repeat: Once. That was in 2013, the year Football Follies Field in Fort Garry opened for business and became a destination for curiosity seekers. So, sorry to say, Jeff, Good Ol’ Hometown is a better market than E-Town like Bob Dylan is a better singer than Sinatra.
There are, of course, other methods of measuring a CFL market, one of them being media coverage. That, of course, is subjective. But I submit that no one in our vast land does it better than the girls and boys on the Bombers beat in Pegtown, and I can already hear the squawks of protest from news snoops in E-Town and on the Flattest of Lands. Well, let ’em squawk. They’re wrong.
River City is the only true two-newspaper town in Western Canada, thus Winnipeg FC gets double the print coverage from competing rags. The operative word is “competing.” Standard cookie-cutter, scrum-collected quotes aside, what you read in the Drab Slab won’t be what you read in the Sun, and the Andrew Harris situation is an excellent example of the difference. Paul Friesen’s take in the Sun had a harsh, but fair, tone, while Hamilton delivered a more personal, reined-in essay. Both pieces worked for me in their own way. And that’s something you don’t get in points west, because Postmedia eliminated newspaper competition in other Prairie provinces. In terms of CFL coverage, the E-Town Sun is the E-Town Journal; the Calgary Sun is the Calgary Herald; the Vancity Sun is the Vancity Province; and you’ll read the same Riders copy in both the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. They’re kin. Kissing cousins, if you will. That’s not the way it should be, but that’s what you get when Postmedia is still pinching pennies long after our copper coin went out of circulation.
So, Sportsnet (thankfully) has pulled the plug on resident meathead Nick Kypreos, and we can only hope he’s replaced by someone who isn’t stuck in the 1970s, when clubbing an opponent over the head with a piece of lumber was an oft-used gambit in winning hockey games. Kypreos spent two decades using his Sportsnet pulpit to deliver a “to hell with turning the other cheek” sermon, promoting back-alley bullying to the point of advising skilled players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews to adopt rat-like stickwork and fisticuffs as tactics in dealing with the National Hockey League weasel element. That dinosaur logic is now left to blowhard Donald S. Cherry and the bellicose Brian Burke, although Burkie often delivers juicy insight when he isn’t talking about truculence.
I hope the last person to leave Sportsnet’s stable of shinny voices remembers to turn out the lights. Gone are Kypreos, Doug MacLean and John Shannon, which leaves who to natter with Jeff Marek on Hockey Central At Noon? Muppet head Colby Armstrong and Gord Stellick (meh)? Anthony Stewart and Mike Zigomanis (spare us)? The return of Damien Cox (shudder)? I’m not a Shannon fan, because there’s more than a whiff of arrogance to his delivery and he can be annoyingly interruptive, but he certainly knows where a lot of bodies are buried. I suspect he won’t be in the unemployment queue for long.
And, finally, Mary is gone, Ted is gone, Georgette is gone, and now Rhoda is gone. Thank goodness for reruns so I can still watch The Mary Tyler Moore show every afternoon and keep them and the WJM newsroom in my life. Love that show. Love the characters. I actually have a framed pic of Mary Tyler Moore beside my flatscreen TV, a gift from dear friends Jeff and Paul, who know I still want to be Mary Richards when I grow up and have a friend like Rhoda Morgenstern.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I wonder if the Blue Bombers will ever get to play a game at Lambeau Field…
I am not accustomed to telling others what to do with their money.
Oh, sure, I sometimes wonder why folks spend considerable chunks of their well-earned—or ill-gotten—coin on certain things. You know, like a Nickelback or Luke Bryan concert. Or that phony fist fight a couple years ago between wife-beater Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the planet’s most-vulgar athlete, Conor McGregor. Or an Adam Sandler anything.
But, hey, it’s your dime. Spend it as you like.
I will, however, make an exception in the case of the National Football League dress rehearsal featuring the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers, proposed for Aug. 22 at Football Follies Field In Fort Garry. Tickets are priced from $75 to $340 (plus taxes, plus fees, plus your child’s university tuition)…and people are actually buying them.
To borrow a phrase from one-time tennis wingnut John McEnroe: “You CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”
Think about it, kids. Folks in Oakland will watch those same Raiders play the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 10 for the equivalent of 13 loonies and couch change. Yet the tariff in Good Ol’ Hometown is $75-$340?
We haven’t seen a ripoff like this in River City since the night Dave Hanson ripped the rug off Bobby Hull’s head.
It couldn’t be more of a sham if the two teams were named Con and Job.
So, yes, you can count me as shocked that all the $75-plus seats were snatched up in less than 24 hours. I mean, we’re talking about Winnipeg here. The Ojibwe word for Winnipeg is “wholesale.” Peggers wouldn’t buy a corned beef sandwich from Oscar’s Deli unless it was a bargain. Which, of course, it is. Yet they’re shelling out large dollars for faux football (read: exhibition season).
Someone suggested an NFL game in Winnipeg is comparable to a Paul McCartney concert. I agree. The Raiders haven’t been any good since the 1970s and neither has Sir Paul.
Sticking with Sir Macca and the Packers, the former Beatleplayed Lambeau Field, home of the Cheeseheads, on Saturday night as part of his Freshen Up Tour. Tickets went for $55.95 to $279.95, but they were fetching as much as $3,500 on the secondary market. Imagine that, spending $3,500 just to listen to Silly Lambeau Songs.
I have no quibble with the NFL invading three-down football territory. It’s not like the locals will stop watching or supporting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers simply because Aaron Rodgers and his American Cheesehead pals are coming to town. It might, in fact, confirm what some of us have believed since we were knee high to Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis—our game is more entertaining than theirs.
My goodness. The Canadian Football League season is already upon us, with the fun starting on Thursday in the Hammer. I swear, it seems like only yesterday that Dave Dickenson of the Calgary Stampeders was squawking about the “fucking Canadian mafia” in Winnipeg.
I’ve already made my 29th annual prediction of a Grey Cup parade for downtown River City in November, and it doesn’t matter that my previous 28 forecasts were incorrect. (Hey, if meteorologists can be wrong every day, I can be wrong once a year.) This will be the order of finish in the CFL this season:
East Division 1. Hamilton
Playoffs Calgary def. Toronto
B.C. def. Edmonton
Hamilton def. Calgary
Winnipeg def. B.C.
Grey Cup: Winnipeg def. Hamilton
I hope the kickoff to the CFL season brings Kirk Penton back to his keyboard. Kirk’s take on all things three-down football for The Athletic are must-reads, notably the insider musings from league coaches, GMs, scouts and upper-management types.
If it’s a good read you’re looking for (and who isn’t?), you’ll want to check out Katy Strang’s piece on the NHL rookie combine in The Athletic. It’s lengthy, but worth the time because it provides incredible insight, including this cringeworthy gem:
“One agent mused that the later in the week the combine goes, the more some teams’ scouting staffs get bored and start screwing around for a laugh. But sometimes teams cross a line.
“Take the example of one current NHL player, who recalled his most vivid memory of the combine interview process. The wide-eyed teenager entered the room for an interview with the team, sat down and, rather than being questioned, was met with this jaw-dropping remark instead from one of the team’s high-ranking executives:
“So, I heard you’re a pussy.”
Like I said, it’s cringeworthy, but not at all shocking. That kind of degrading, sexist hockey-speak has been around since road apples were used for pucks and Eaton’s catalogs were shin pads, and hokey slogans like “Hockey Is For Everyone” won’t drown out the misogyny choir. It’s also the reason why any gay players remain hidden so deep in the closet that a team of coal miners can’t find them.
Did he or didn’t he? Aaron Portzline of The Athletic says he did. Ken Robinson says he didn’t. But, to date, Jack Roslovic has neither confirmed nor denied that he asked for a one-way ticket out of Dodge at some point during the Winnipeg Jets’ latest National Hockey League crusade. Unhappy Jack certainly whinged about a lack of ice time, but so did his on-again, off-again linemate Mathieu Perreault and, no doubt, every other guy that head coach Paul Maurice forgot about (hello, Nic Petan). Hockey players bitch about ice allotment on every team, in every town, from peewee to beer league to pro, and I suspect it’s highly prevalent among young players with les Jets. I suppose that’s what passes for “ruffled feathers” these days.
If Coach Potty Mouth put Roslovic, Twig Ehlers and Kyle Connor together, he might have the fastest forward unit in the NHL. Also the most timid.
Had to laugh at a line in Mad Mike McIntyre’s column on Unhappy Jack. “The Roslovic trade bombshell was just another log on the fire for the ‘everything is broken’ crowd out there when it comes to the Jets,” he wrote in the Drab Slab. Apparently it hasn’t occurred to Mad Mike that he’s the dude who created the “everything is broken” mob with his fact-free “rotten to the core” yarn in early April. Since that initial installment of his whodunit novel Scandal, Jets Wrote, speculation and gossip have been running at full gallop, no surprise given that Mad Mike has yet to provide any hard-core evidence of corruption.
Watching Boston Bruins president Cam Neely toss a water bottle in unrestrained fury during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final reminded me of the night John Ferguson, then GM of the Jets, dumped an entire bucket of ice cubes from his press box bunker onto the Buffalo Sabres bench in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fergy was a beauty.
Luke Fox of Sportsnet offered an interesting take on the Neely water-bottle toss, inspired by a non-penalty call that led to St. Louis Blues’ decisive score in a 2-1 win: “So this is how we find out Cam Neely is a lefty. The uncalled penalty was so blatant and so instrumental to the outcome of the game and, possibly, the championship that the president of the Boston Bruins stood up enraged in the press box, snatched a water bottle with his left hand and, in one fluid motion, whipped it against the wall like Pedro Martinez.” Ya, just like Pedro. Except for one thing: Martinez wasn’t a freaking lefty. He tossed right-handed for the Dodgers, the Expos, the Red Sox, the Mets and the Phillies. The only thing Pedro ever did with his left hand was toss Don Zimmer to the turf.
I’m not saying officiating in this spring’s Stanley Cup tournament has been all bad, but it’s not a good sign when the zebras skate onto the ice to the tune of I Go Blind by Hootie and the Blowfish.
Dumbest headline of the week was delivered by Sportsnet: “U.S. TV ratings aside, Raptors-Warriors is dream matchup for NBA.” Oh, for sure. The NBA should ignore the fact that most folks in the world’s greatest basketball nation are watching Gilligan’s Island reruns instead of the hoops championship series. Viewership in the U.S. has reached 10- to 12-year depths. Game 5 in the Republic of Tranna, with the Jurassics positioned to put away the Golden State Juggernaut, could be the lowest-rated final match ever in Trumpland. This is a dream matchup for the NBA like Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman were a dream couple. We’re talking nightmare, kids.
Women’s hockey update: XVI Sports and Sportsground in Sweden have joined forces to produce all games in the SDHL on TV next winter. It’s a six-year, multi-million dollar deal. All that’s missing is a network partner to come on board. Meanwhile, the grand sum of 18 players have signed with National Women’s Hockey League outfits in the U.S., with the Boston Pride leading the way with eight players. That ought to make the Pride a shoo-in for the title. Except they don’t have a goalie.
And, finally, boffo start to the women’s World Cup, with host France beating South Korea 4-donut. Our soccer ladies take to the pitch vs. Cameroon on Monday, and if this is Christine Sinclair’s final whirl with our national side I hope she goes out in a blaze of glory.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and happy Pride Month to everyone in the LGBT collective and all our allies…
Apparently, I’ve been “swept up.” You have been, too, in case you didn’t know.
Oh, yes, (I’m told) we have become a nation of 37 million bouncy-bouncy, hoopster hosers, entranced and enthralled by the antics of those long, tall Jurassics from the Republic of Tranna, a talented troupe that might or might not soon be champions of all the world’s hardwood floors.
It will require three more Ws from the Jurassics before they can be anointed rulers of a game invented by a Canadian and perfected by Americans, but their opening salvo—a 118-109 beatdown of the Golden State Juggernaut—in the National Basketball Association title skirmish has put us (I’m told) in a nation-wide tizzy, the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the last time we were in a nation-wide tizzy.
We in the north don’t get into too many tizzies, understand, because we’re understated and polite. But, when we do go ga-ga, it usually involves a hockey puck, like the one Paul Henderson slid under Soviet Union goaltender Vladislav Tretiak in September 1972, thus plopping the lid on a shinny cold war called the Summit Series and igniting a nation-wide hooraw.
I recall quite vividly where I was the moment Henderson, Espo, ankle-breaking Bobby Clarke et al put the Soviets in their place: At home. In my living room. Going bonkers.
Similarly, I know exactly where I was the other night when the Jurassics and their one-and-done superstar, Kawhi Leonard, took the measure of the Juggernaut in Game 1 of the NBA’s final tussle: At home. In bed. Catching zzzzzzs. And, no, I wasn’t dreaming of Drake.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to learn in the ensuing days that I have been “swept up” by something one Postmedia Tranna essayist labeled “Rapstock,” the jock equivalent of Woodstock.
That same scribe, Joe Warmington, considered the Raptors’ success so significant and global in scope that he sought words of wisdom from that noted authority on pink slips and layoffs, Paul Godfrey, his boss at Postmedia. (Nothing quite like sucking up to the boss to flesh out your copy.)
“It is definitely something we haven’t seen since the Blue Jays 1992 and 1993 years that the whole country got swept up in,” the God-man gushed.
Hmmm. I seem to recall being “swept up” in gold medal crusades by our women and men hockey players at the 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 Winter Olympic Games, but, hey, that didn’t happen in the Republic of Tranna, so it’s total meh, I guess.
I don’t know about you, but I truly appreciate it when people from The ROT tell those of us in the colonies what we’re thinking and feeling.
You know, people like Steve Simmons, who informed us, “The country won.” His columnist colleague with Postmedia, Scott Stinson of the National Post, spoke to a chap in Quebec and advises us that folks in La Belle Province have embraced the Jurassics “in a way that matters.” He didn’t say in what way it matters, but I’ll take his word for it that it matters to les Quebecois. Curtis Rush of Forbes reminded us that “Canadians swelled with pride,” the moment the Jurassics arrived in The ROT late last century. (For the record, the only thing that swells on me are my ankles, and that has everything to do with failing kidneys and nothing to do with a hoops outfit more than 4,000 kilometres away.)
On jock TV, meanwhile, the propaganda machine at Drake-onian Sportsnet went into overdrive, cranking out dispatches that trumpet record-breaking viewership numbers. An average of 3.3 million sets of Canadian eyeballs caught Game 1. Yowza!
You know what that means, don’t you? That’s right, 33.7 million of us found something better to do than watch the Jurassics tame the Juggernaut last Thursday night. Like me…I got “swept up” in sleep.
I’d like to see a regional breakdown of the Sportsnet numbers. It’s my understanding that two-thirds of the 3.3 million viewers live in Ontario. So much for a nation-wide tizzy.
Interesting that the Drab Slab would dispatch their main man, Mad Mike McIntyre, to Games 1 and 2 of the NBA final. Even more interesting is that Mad Mike would eagerly swallow the Kool-Aid they’re serving in The ROT. I mean, he calls a “foul on anyone” who claims she or he isn’t caught up in Rapstock. He also writes: “You’ll have a hard time convincing me that a Raptors championship won’t instill a sense of pride to even the most fair-weather fan out there.” Yo! Mad Mike! Some of us just…don’t…care. And we don’t have to convince you or anyone else of that.
I wonder what the fib count was during this weekend’s 40th anniversary gathering of the 1979 champion Winnipeg Jets in Good Ol’ Hometown. Hockey people, especially a guy like Tommy McVie, like to tell stories, and I’m guessing they’ve been stretching the truth further than the elastic waist bands on some of their trousers. It’s just too bad Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, Friar, Jon and Turbo weren’t there to share the tall tales.
Still surprised when I hear someone suggest the World Hockey Association Jets could have laid a licking on the late-1970s Montreal Canadiens. Wouldn’t have happened, kids. The Jets were very good, but not Habs good.
It’s Sunday morning, June 2, 2019: Do we know where Jacob Trouba is? Does Kevin Cheveldayoff know where he’s sending the young defender? Time to play show-and-tell, Chevy.
Trouba sits in the No. 2 slot on TSN’s National Hockey League trade board, and here’s something to keep in mind when Chevy moves him: We know for certain that two players have asked the general manager for a trade—old friend Evander Kane and Trouba. Kane got his wish. Trouba will, too, one way or the other. Moral of the story: Any player who wants to get out of Dodge simply has to be patient because, in the end, Chevy can’t prevent him from bolting.
Always find the goings-on in Edmonton a curious bit of business, with the Oilers forever hiring and firing scouts, coaches and GMs to be fired and rehired. The latest to step behind the E-Town bench as future ex-head coach is Dave Tippett, who replaces Ken Hitchock who replaced Todd McLellan who replaced…oh, you know the story. Odd thing is, Tippett’s record is no better than McLellan’s. Check it out…
Tippett: 14 seasons, 553-413-28 .563…missed playoffs six times…33-41 .446…twice reached conference final…Stanley Cup titles 0.
McLellan: 11 seasons, 434-282-90 .594…missed playoffs three times…37-38 .493…twice reached conference final…Stanley Cup titles 0.
I doubt this latest changing of the guard will make Looch Lucic’s feet move any faster.
Nice to see Doug Brown’s big words back on the sports pages of the Drab Slab. I haven’t always been a fan of his work, but Doug’s essays on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Canadian Football League serve two purposes: 1) they usually provide readers the kind of insight that only a former player can deliver; 2) they often give my dictionary a good workout.
Bravo and a tip of the bonnet to Emily Clarke and Georgina Paull, both of whom worked the Calgary Stampeders-Saskatchewan Roughriders skirmish on Friday night in Cowtown. Emily (side judge) and Georgina (line judge) are the first women to wear the stripes in a CFL game, and it somehow doesn’t seem right to call game officials skunk shirts or zebras anymore.
Also a tip of the bonnet to the Tranna Argonauts, whose first dress rehearsal of the CFL preseason was a daytime gig at old Varsity Stadium in The ROT. Only 4,313 witnesses watched the Boatmen beat the Montreal Alouettes, 45-20, but that’s okay because most of them were school kids who got to skip class. That, not trips to Mexico and Europe by Commish Randy Ambrosie, is the ticket for the CFL—make nice with Next Gen fans.
Speaking of school kids, the d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y took a beating at the recent Scripps National Spelling Bee in the U.S., when officials ran out of words for the young geniuses to s-p-e-l-l. So they declared the last kids standing co-champions—all eight of them. There hasn’t been that many hands pawing a trophy since Lyle Lovett started dating Julia Roberts.
On the subject of champions and the alphabet, a real shocker in boxing on Saturday night when Andy Ruiz Jr. paddywhacked defending heavyweight chump Anthony Joshua at Madison Square Garden in Gotham. After boxing Joshua’s ears, Ruiz Jr. now holds most of big boy boxing’s title belts—WBA, WBO, IBF. Deontay Wilder owns the other alphabet belt (WBC) and, for those of you scoring at home, Manuel Charr is the WBA Regular champion and Trevor Bryan is the WBA Interim champion, whatever that means. The Ring magazine, meanwhile, refuses to recognize any of the aforementioned pugs as world champeen. Apparently the self-proclaimed Bible of Boxing is holding out for a Mike Tyson comeback.
Ruiz Jr., who stopped Joshua in the seventh round, looks like a guy who spends a lot more time in a donut or ice cream shop than a gym. He’s definitely the Round Mound of the Ring, and his considerable girth did not escape the notice of some of the mooks in MSG. Here’s how Tom Gray of The Ring described the pre-fight scene: “As he stood proudly listening to the Mexican national anthem, Ruiz was heckled by hordes of idiots around the ringside area over his body shape. ‘You fat bastard!’ they cried in unison. ‘Get your tits out for the lads!’ they sang.” Way to keep it classy, New York.
For those of you wondering, here’s the skinny on women’s pro sports in North America:
WNBA: Average attendance 6,721 Minimum wage $40,000
NWSL: Average attendance 6,024 Minimum wage $16,538
NWHL: Average attendance 954 Minimum wage $4,000
As much as I would like women’s hockey to grow and flourish, in whose universe can you earn a $50,000-$100,000 salary when no one is buying what you’re selling? The ForTheGame200 boycotting the National Women’s Hockey League might want to rethink their wants and needs, not to mention their strategy.
And, finally, I’m going to come right out and say it: The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are your 2019 Grey Cup champions. I’m not going to explain myself. Not yet anyway.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and we called Victoria Day “firecracker day” when I was a sprig growing up in Winnipeg…us kids actually got to play with firecrackers and none of my friends ever lost an eye…
On the matter of lighting a fuse, it’s about the Winnipeg Jets.
While recounting the events of les Jets’ oft-turbulent run to their final World Hockey Association title on this very day 40 years ago, it occurred to me how obliging and honest the players were with their thoughts back in the day.
Kim Clackson, for example, pulled no punches when asked about the head coach, Larry Hillman.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” Clacker growled. “I’m tired of all the bull.”
You wouldn’t hear a guy like, say, Dustin Byfuglien go off like that on the current puppet master behind les Jets’ bench, Paul Maurice. Big Buff talks less than an Amazon parrot. On those rare occasions when the Winnipeg HC defender actually grunts something that passes for a complete sentence, it’s usually as bland as dried toast.
From what I can gather, it’s much the same with many of Buff’s accomplices in les Jets’ changing room. Listening to them preach the party line is like a day at the laundromat—all wishy-washy.
They don’t talk. They recite. Play the right way, move our feet, play a 200-foot game, blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s all cookie-cutter quotes from young guys schooled in the art of moving their lips while saying squat, and I’ve often wondered why news snoops even bother collecting the artificial bon mots the players deliver pre- and post-game, not to mention during down time.
Mind you, the players are mostly muzzled by an organization that believes the daily weather forecast should be kept top secret, and they follow the lead of a general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, who’s a practitioner of bafflegab. Ask Chevy for the time of day and he’ll explain the Julian and Gregorian calendars to you, but you still won’t know if it’s half past noon or half past happy hour.
Be advised that news snoops don’t get lousy quotes because they ask lousy question, so let’s reject that notion. They get lousy quotes because they get lousy, limited and rush-rush access to guys who a) would rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair, and b) usually have a PR flack hovering nearby to censor or cut short any interview that travels to close to the truth.
We had no such restrictions.
First of all, we traveled with the team. That is correct. The WHA Jets didn’t fly charter. The players mingled with the rabble on commercial flights, with assistant coach Sudsy Sutherland distributing the boarding passes, and that meant they sometimes were required to sit beside one of us news snoops, meaning myself, Friar Nicolson or Reyn Davis. As I recall, the players regarded that as cruel and unusual treatment, and I often suspected Sudsy of using his boarding-pass powers as punishment.
But, ya, we were part of the traveling party, and practical joker Willy Lindstrom would prank us with his stink bombs and sneezing powder as often as he would a teammate.
We also rode the team bus to and from the airport, to and from the rink. I normally sat in either of the front two seats, right side, across the aisle from Hillman, his successor Tom McVie, John Ferguson and Sudsy. There was an unwritten code: What happens on the bus stays on the bus.
It sometimes became frosty, depending on what Reyn or I had written that day or what Friar had said on air the night before, and we would be blunt in our critiques of the team.
Some examples of my scribblings…
“Jets return from their week-long road trip this afternoon, and if they travel the same way they play hockey, they’ll all come home on different planes.”
“There are too many passengers on this team and the list gets longer every day. There are players more interested in getting an aisle seat on an airplane than digging a puck out of a corner.”
“Winnipeg management doesn’t like to hear references to Houston, but the players who came from the Aeros are the blood and guts of this team and the Winnipeg holdovers are living off them.”
You think any players wanted to sit beside me on the bus or flight home after reading that?
In general terms, however, it was an agreeable arrangement, in part because I like to think that Friar, Reyn and myself recognized we were in the players’ space, so we didn’t tell tales out of school.
In terms of dealing with the players post-game, post-practice, again, we had open access. I don’t recall any player hiding in the showers. And we weren’t required to go through a PR flack to get an audience. We just sat down beside them in the changing room.
By way of comparison, if you want any insight into today’s players you don’t go to the dressing room or grovel to a PR guy—you log in on Twitter, Instagram or another social media platform.
I still recall the first time I stepped inside les Jets’ lair. It was the season of 1977-78, and Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Bobby Hull, both with towels wrapped around their mid-sections, stood nearby. This was their conversation as they sized me up:
Sjoberg: “It looks like we’ve got a new reporter with the team.”
Hull: “Just another asshole to try and stir up shit.”
Nice to meet you, too, Bobby.
I’ve made this confession once or twice, but I’ll repeat it again:You aren’t supposed to cheer in the press box, but I was silently root, root, rooting for the 1978-79 Jets to win the final WHA title. They were a real good bunch of guys, and I was partial to the players who’d come over from Houston. If a news snoop tells you he/she doesn’t have favorites, trust me, he/she is lying.
Yes, it was 40 years ago this very day when les Jets won the Avco World Trophy to bring the curtain down on the WHA. And it’s been almost 30 years since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers brought the Grey Cup home. Thank goodness for our curlers, the Goldeyes, our university athletes and other amateurs who’ve delivered the goods.
Good grief. Did Matthew Scianitti and Marshall Ferguson of TSN actually spend a portion of their first chin-wag from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp talking about Johnny Manziel? As sure as the great Ticat Garney Henley played two ways, they did. “How good does Jeremiah Masoli’s body language look now that we are a year removed, thankfully, from the Johnny Manziel saga?” Scianitti asked Ferguson. Sigh. Will the TSN talking heads ever get past Johnny Rotten? Apparently not.
If the Ottawa Senators can do something stupid, bet on them doing it. And hiring Patrick Roy as head coach would qualify as stupid.
I don’t know which I’ve seen more often, Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater in the NBA playoffs or Vlad the Gifted’s first two dingers with the Tranna Blue Jays. Either way, TSN and Sportsnet can stop showing those replays any time now.
Fashion note: Apparently Brooks Koepka isn’t going to let success go to his clothes. I mean, that NIKE cap that Koepka wore while successfully defending his PGA Championship on Sunday looks like something he picked up in a thrift shop. We’re talking butt ugly.
And, finally, this is what passes for scandal in golf these days: A chain-smoking John Daly rides a cart instead of walking, Brooks Koepka refuses to kiss his lingerie model girlfriend Jena Sims (twice), and Jordan Spieth zips his lips when the Associated Press comes calling for an interview. Whatever happened to the good old days when it wasn’t a scandal until it involved sex, drugs and a club-wielding bride (hello, Tiger Woods)?
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.
The final Sunday smorgas-bored of the year…and congratulations to all you men out there who began your Christmas shopping at 3 p.m. on Christmas eve and managed to finish before closing time at the mall. You are a credit to your species, such as it is…
It is with more than a smidgen of skepticism that I note the well-meaning boys on the beat have begun to pump Rink Rat Scheifele’s tires.
Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun describes him as “a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate.”
Jason Bell of the Winnipeg Free Press writes: “If the Jets maintain their altitude in the NHL standings, the 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., simply must be in the Hart Trophy conversation as the most valuable player.”
Bell’s accomplice at the Drab Slab, Mike McIntyre, joins the hallelujah chorus by scribbling, “No doubt Scheifele is a contender right now for the most coveted trophy in the sport.”
Yes, it’s all rah-rah-rah and sis-boom-bah for the Good Ol’ Hometown hero.
Trouble is, I have yet to hear the “Mark Scheifele for MVP” rallying cry from beyond Manitoba’s boundaries. Mostly, the Winnipeg Jets centre is mentioned in passing while scribes and broadcasters deliver gobsmacking praise for the work of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Ovie, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, John Gibson, Johnny Gaudreau and, of course, Connor McDavid.
I’m not saying the Rink Rat doesn’t belong in the conversation, understand. I’m just saying he isn’t feeling the love hither and yon.
Frankly, the Hart Trophy ought not be a talking point these days, but I suppose news snoops and opinionists were looking for something to write and gab about during the Christmas lull and before we embark on the dog days of the National Hockey League season. So, okay, let’s have at it. The most valuable player is McDavid. I mean, remove McMagnifique from the Edmonton Oilers lineup and the Oil would disappear faster than a Big Mac and a bucket of KFC on Air Force One. The same can’t be said about any of the other “candidates,” including Scheifele.
That wasn’t just a bus that Jim Lites hurled Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin under the other day. It was the entire Greyhound fleet. If you missed it, here’s what the Dallas Stars CEO had to say about his two top-salaried players (reader advisory: includes harsh language): “They are fucking horse shit, I don’t know how else to put it. We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done. These guys are not good enough. They’re not good enough for me, they’re not good enough for the owner, and they’re certainly not good enough for the general manager.” That, be advised, was after a win. Good grief, what does the guy do after a loss? Pluck the wings off house flies? Kick small dogs? Force his players to listen to Celine Dion albums?
The thing that surprised me about the Lites rant was the reaction from hockey pundits (hello Nick Kypreos) who can’t recall anyone in NHL management/ownership going off on a player.
What, they’ve already forgotten about Humpty Harold Ballard?
Not much pleased Humpty Harold, the cranky and cartoonish crook who once bankrolled the Tranna Maple Leafs. He harbored a particularly strong distaste for female reporters (“If they want to take their clothes off and talk to the players, fine. But I warn them they’ll have a lot more trouble getting out than they did getting in.”), and he had no patience for timid hockey players. He lashed out at his workers as frequently as a priest prays, and Humpty Harold’s harrumphing always was on public record.
Of Inge Hammarstrom, Ballard once said the slick Swedish forward “could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them.” Laurie Boschman, one of the nicest kids you could meet, was “soft” because he had “too much religion.” It didn’t matter to Humpty Harold that young Laurie had been laid low with mononucleosis and blood poisoning. Bosch, he reasoned, was a known Bible thumper, ergo a wimp. Not surprisingly, neither Hammarstrom or Boschman lasted long in the Republic of Tranna.
Closer to home, John Bowie Ferguson hurled Bobby Hull under the Greyhound early in the 1979-80 season, the Jets first in the NHL.
Hull, then 40, had come in from the cattle farm to end his retirement, and he struggled mightily due to rust and a wonky left shoulder. His personal numbers were modest (four goals, six assists in 18 starts) and the club functioned better without the Golden Jet in the lineup (6-7-1) than with him (5-10-3). So I called Fergy at home one night to get his take on Hull. Turns out it was a hot take.
“No, I don’t think Bobby has helped our hockey club at all,” the Jets general manager said with the bluntness of a sledge hammer. “Something is missing. He really is a very undisciplined hockey player and I don’t know if he can adapt. That freewheeling style would be fine if it was getting results. But it’s not.”
Hull never pulled on Jets linen again.
I recall one other public flogging, in the Western Canada Hockey League. Gerry Brisson, president and general manager of the Winnipeg Clubs, removed head coach George Dorman from behind the bench during the middle of a game! True story. It was November 1975. The Flin Flon Bombers were laying a licking on the Clubs, leading 4-1 through 40 minutes, and Brisson had seen enough. He therefore instructed Dorman to observe the final period from the pews in the old barn on Maroons Road, replacing him with the team trainer, Adam Tarnowski, who knew as much about coaching hockey as a cow knows about climbing trees. “I did it for shock value,” Brisson said after the fact. Didn’t work. His Clubs lost 5-2. More shocking than Dorman getting yanked in-game? He kept his job. That is correct. Brisson embarrassed the hell out of Dorman by forcing him to sit among the rabble, but he didn’t fire his coach. Go figure.
I believe we have arrived at the end of the annual, year-end trinket giveaway for Jocks and Jills in the True North Strong and Free, and the best of our best during the past 12 months—as decreed by news snoops from the left to right flank of the land—are golfer Brooke Henderson, fancy skaters Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir and moguls skier Mikael Kingsbury. Any arguments? You bet. The girls and boys at The Canadian Press got it right by naming Henderson and Kingsbury the top female and male athletes and Virtue/Moir the best team, but those who voted for the Lou Marsh Trophy coughed up a hair ball. Henderson, not Kingsbury, should have won.
Here’s why we shouldn’t take the Lou Marsh Trophy seriously: It’s a total clown act. I mean, consider Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail. He stumped for tennis player Daniel Nestor, who went 0-for-2018 and quit. Kelly’s boss, sports editor Shawna Richer, had a hissy fit when she couldn’t vote for a team (Virtue/Moir) as the winner of an individual award, so she left her ballot blank.
Then there’s Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. He squawked in support of Connor McDavid, Kingsbury and Marc-Andre Fleury (really?), and pooh-poohed any notion that Henderson should be declared our top athlete. Why? Because lady golfers just don’t rate.
“The LPGA Tour is primarily a one-country pursuit,” he said on TSN radio. “You look at the leaderboards every single week and it’s the same country and it’s the same golfers and it’s the same five or six women. It is so Korean dominated there’s not even any other country that competes, compares.”
This is a guy who clearly does not have a clue, yet he has a vote. Here are some numbers from the LPGA Tour in 2018:
Wins by country: U.S.A., 9; South Korea 9; Thailand, 5; Canada, Japan 2 each; Australia, New Zealand, U.K., Sweden, Mexico 1 each.
Winners: 26 different champions in 32 events.
Multiple winners: 4 (Canadian, Japanese, Thai, South Korean).
Money leaders: Top 20—7 Americans, 5 South Koreans, 2 Thai, 2 Australian, 1 Canadian, Japanese, Spanish, English; Top 50—19 Americans, 10 Koreans; Top 100—34 Americans, 18 Koreans.
Clearly Henderson competes in a sport that is far more global than moguls skiing, and it is dominated by Americans moreso than South Koreans. These facts aren’t difficult to dig up, but Simmons has never been one to let facts get in the way of a misguided rant.
Oh, let’s not forget that the Postmedia chain of bare-bones sports departments anointed Henderson and soccer player Alphonso Davies as the top jocks in the land. Please give Postmedia CEO and noted skinflint Paul Godfrey a quarter and tell him to call someone who cares.
Staying with the dumb and dumber theme, The Associated Press voters totally lost the plot in selecting Serena Williams and LeBron James as 2018 top jocks in Trumpland. Seriously. Exactly what did Williams do in 2018? Well, she put on a catsuit at the French Open and, a few months later, staged one of the most demonstrative, appalling, pathetic pity party’s in the history of professional sports. When not busy putting a horrible damper on Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open victory, Williams won zero tournaments and was 18-6 overall. Meanwhile, gymnast Simone Biles won gold (four), silver (1) and bronze (1) medals at the world championships. Like Williams, King James won zip, yet still got the nod over Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox. The Mookster was the American League batting champion, the AL most valuable player, a Gold Glove winner, a Silver Slugger winner, and a World Series champion. That’s the baseball version of a royal flush. But, sorry Mookie, that just doesn’t cut it. And I thought our jock journos had dumbed down.
And, finally, I’ll end the final Sunday smorgas-bored of the year with a quote from ESPN hoops broadcaster Doris Burke: “I promise you I’m not having plastic surgery. I’m 52. I’ve earned every wrinkle on my face. I actually like my wrinkles. And guess what? There are a lotta 60-year-old men who have wrinkles, no hair, glasses, and nobody gives a damn. It’s about time that woman my age or above, if she chooses to go into her 60s as an announcer, she should be allowed to do just that.”