A special Saturday morning smorgas-bored…and a trip down memory lane only hurts if you trip…
I cried. Then got drunk. And cried some more.
I don’t recall who bent elbows with me that day. It might have been Ketch. Maybe Swampdog. Could have been the Caveman, Davey Boy, Shakey and Ringo. I can’t say for certain.
What I do know is this: Aug. 27, 1980, was the bleakest 24 hours of my first 30 years on the third rock from the sun. That’s why we called it Black Wednesday. Some of us still do. I’ve experienced darker days since, to be sure, but when Southam pushed the stop button on the Winnipeg Tribune presses for the final time 40 years ago, it also put the brakes on something inside me.
I loved working at the Trib. I loved the people.
My plan was to stay for 50 years, just like Uncle Vince Leah had done, then retire. That would have taken me to 2019. As it turned out, I made it through 11 years, less 14 days, before Southam mucky-muck Gordon Fisher clambered atop a desk in the fifth-floor newsroom and informed those assembled that they were now among the great unemployed. Oh, and we could pick up your parting gifts on the way out.
I wasn’t there when Fisher did us the dirty on Black Wednesday, but I arrived in a funereal newsroom scant minutes later to find Jack Matheson in our sports bunker. His eyes were red, if not damp.
“It was a helluva run,” he said unconvincingly, head bowed and shaking.
I glanced at the final front page, and fidgeted with one corner of the broadsheet.
“It’s been 90 great years!” the headline blared.
“Ya,” I muttered, “maybe the first 89 years were great, but this 90th year isn’t so shit hot.”
Matty managed a weak smile, but my first sports editor was gutted. Totally. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a man so deflated, and I immediately hurt a hell of a lot more for him than I did myself.
Matty was Trib sports, you see. The rest of us? We were the backup singers to his Sinatra, and we all knew it. His coattails stretched from one coast to the other, and we were happy to go along for the ride.
It wasn’t a sports department that Matty put together, it was an assembly line. It produced six sports editors, eight columnists, one newspaper owner/publisher (Jack Gibson), one radio program director (Vic Grant), one hockey play-by-play voice (Lester Lazaruk), and one happily married couple (Shakey Johnson and Rita Mingo).
Matty had no business hiring me, fresh scrubbed and not a lick of experience other than my time running copy in the newsroom and doing rewrites for Gus Collins, but he did. He also didn’t have to sweet-talk me into staying at the Trib after Maurice Smith had offered me more money and better opportunity for advancement at the Winnipeg Free Press. But he did.
Smith, the Freep SE, had wanted me to back up the fabulous Reyn Davis on the Winnipeg Jets beat, and write feature articles. It was very appealing, also tempting.
“We’d love to have you join us,” Smith told me, “and this chance won’t come again.”
Matty caught wind of our tete-a-tete and invited me to a fireside chat. It was very brief. I stayed strictly because of him.
Have I ever regretted not defecting to the other side? No. But I have thought about it many times, knowing my life would have been so much different had I made the move.
Like I said, though, I loved working at the Trib and I loved the people.
The roll call during my tour of duty included Matty, Eddie Dearden, Uncle Vince, Gus Collins, Vic Grant, Larry Tucker, Dave Komosky, John Cherneski, Gregg Drinnan, Jack Gibson, Ian Dutton, Glen Dawkins, Dave Senick, Murray Rauw, Jim Ketcheson, George Johnson, Bob Holliday, Les Lazaruk and Gordon Sinclair Jr. Those were the boys. Our rays of sunshine were Peggy Stewart and the delightful Rita Mingo, who harbored an unreasonable fanaticism for Italian fitba and the Montreal Canadiens. I always thought of photog Jon Thordarson as one of us, too, because he was a great guy and he and Hughie Allan took the best sports pics. And we had regular freelancers like Harold Loster and Ronnie Meyers, a lawyer back then who went on to become a His Honor.
Harold Loster worked for Labatt brewery and, every so often in the swelter of summer, he would stroll into the sports department to drop off his horse racing or bowling copy (yes, bowling copy), and there’d be a large paper bag tucked under one arm. It contained bottles of brown pop, which we would empty after putting the section to bed sometime in the small hours of the morning.
Matty didn’t object to our occasional beer swilling, but he cautioned us to keep the volume down “and don’t leave any dead soldiers lying around.”
We always tried to be gone by the time Matty arrived to proof the sports pages at the crack of dawn, but we weren’t always successful. He’d smile, tell us we were “crazy” or “nuts,” but I doubt he appreciated walking into a work space that smelled like a beer vat. We’d bug out faster than mice when the lights go on, and we’d be gone by the time he returned from the sixth-floor comp room with the page proofs.
Our late-night natters in Matty’s bunker were unremarkable in depth, but Dave Komosky had a knack for livening up the banter with outrageous claims.
“You know something,” he said one night without prompting, “I could hit a home run off Nolan Ryan.”
The rest of us guffawed, of course, and informed him that no sluggo sports scribe could walk off the street and swat a dinger off baseball’s foremost flame-throwing righthander.
“Okay,” he replied, “maybe not a home run, but I could definitely hit a single. For sure I’d get a base hit. Give me enough practice swings and I’d hit .300 against Ryan.”
Another night, Davey boy gazed down at the concrete alley five stories below Matty’s bunker and asked: “What do you think would happen if I jumped out this window right now?”
We told him he would be dead.
“No way,” he yelped. “At worst I’d break my ankles.”
“Not if you landed on your head,” someone said.
One thing that did fly out the window was Eddie Dearden’s copy.
Early on, we wrote on Underwood typewriters and were required to hand in two copies of our work, one for us to edit and send upstairs for typesetting in the comp room, the other to keep for the desker’s reference.
On this occasion, Dave Komosky was laying out the section and he put Eddie’s copy aside, placing it in a metal basket on a ledge behind him. It was also next to an open window. Oops.
A couple of hours later, Davey reached back for Eddie’s copy, only to discover it missing. We searched for those three pieces of paper like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think one of us actually went down to the alley below to hopefully retrieve the scattered pieces of paper. We’d have had better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa. An uneasiness enveloped us, knowing Eddie would not be amused.
That copy (I believe it was a piece on a golf tournament) became the Amelia Earhart/D.B. Cooper of our operation—never found. And Eddie never believed our “the doge ate your homework” story. He was convinced we had pulled a nasty prank.
Computers were introduced to the Trib newsroom in the latter half of the 1970s, and Eddie and Matty warmed to the “green monsters” like sheep to timber wolves. They insisted on filing hard copy, meaning one of us slugs was required to transfer their stuff into the computer, so it served Eddie right that his copy blew out the window. I mean, no wind ever blew a computer out a window. Mind you, I have seen at least one fly out of a press box.
Nicknames were big in the Trib toy department: Ed Dearden was Steady Eddie; Murray Rauw was Swampdog; Ian Dutton was Caveman; George Johnson was Shakey; Glen Dawkins was Otis; Bob Holliday was Doc; Rita Mingo was Ringo; Les Lazaruk was Ronnie (because of his striking resemblance to Ronald McDonald); Dave Komosky was Komo; Gregg Drinnan was Greaser; Dave Senick was Sinch; and Jim Ketcheson, affectionately known as Ketch, decided all newcomers were Snippets. “I’m up to my chin whiskers in Snippets!” he wailed one night, then punctuated his thoughts with a series of crow calls. “Caw! Caw! Caw!” Ketch often would cry into the dark night, although I never understood the reason why, except he knew it made me laugh.
Every so often, legendary Southam columnist Jim Coleman would make a pilgrimage from his home base in the Republic of Tranna to the colonies and grace us with his attendance on the fifth floor. Such a nice man. And always impeccably attired. Between puffs and chomps on his stinky cigar, the esteemed Jeems would use part of his expense account to put us on the feed bag, ordering cheese nips and fries from the Salisbury House across the parking lot from our building at Smith and Graham. Eight months after the Trib folded, we worked the World Hockey Championship together in Sweden for the Toronto Sun. I was disappointed there were no Sals restaurants in Stockholm for late-night takeout. Jim wasn’t.
There were some fine scribes on those Trib staffs. Matty and Shakey Johnson were the best. Matty was sassy and cheeky and witty and irreverent and clever and in your face, and he mentioned Sinatra quite often. Shakey was smooth and painted pictures that usually included a reference to a movie or Broadway play in the lede.
And, finally, to all with whom I worked at the Tribune, my thanks for making it the most enjoyable 11 years of my newspaper career. As Matty would tell us when he approved of our work, “damn good job.”
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.
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.
If you’ll permit me a personal note right off the top (and you must, because this is my blog), this morning marks the 49th anniversary of my start in the rag trade.
Yup, it all began in the mail room on the second floor of the Winnipeg Tribune building on Sept. 10, 1969, me an 18-year-old, know-nothing kid fresh out of Miles Madonell Collegiate working at what had always been my newspaper of choice.
After a brief time running incoming and outgoing mail to the various arms of the Trib operation at the corner of Smith and Graham, directly across the street from the main post office, I was shuffled up to the fifth floor, whereupon I became a midnight-to-8 a.m. copy runner and began scribbling non-byline Manitoba Junior Hockey League rewrites in 1970.
Legendary sports columnist and editor Jack Matheson was somehow struck with the notion that I might be a suitable replacement for a departing sports scribe, and my first byline appeared in print on Page 16 of the Trib on June 14, 1971.
It was back-of-the-section, bottom-of-the-page stuff—a short blurb about a Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association financial shortfall of $8,753—nestled between the Assiniboia Downs form chart and horse racing writer Harold Loster’s graded selections. Humble beginnings, indeed.
My first beat was local tennis, which I totally enjoyed. Then high school football, a good place to earn your chops. But Matty had me mostly on hockey, at all levels and all leagues, at home and riding the bus across the frozen tundra with Gerry Brisson, Muzz MacPherson and the Winnipeg Clubs in the Western Canada Hockey League.
There wasn’t a hockey league I didn’t cover and, in fact, my final writing assignment at the Trib was to pen a sports-front, up-close-and-personal piece on local lad Butch Goring, weaned on the frozen ponds of Windsor Park/St. Vital and a Stanley Cup champion with the New York Islanders. Photog Jon Thordarson and I had visited Butch at his home. Spent more than an hour with him. The article and pics were in the can and good to go as a late-summer feature. Alas, the mucky-mucks at Southam had the bad manners to shut down the joint on what we called Black Wednesday, Aug. 27, 1980, and the Tribune was no more.
But, hey, here I am 49 years later, and old bag of bones still scribbling about shinny, football, curling and athletes in Good Ol’ Hometown, albeit from a distance. Don’t know when or how to stop.
Which means you’re right—there’s definitely something wrong with me. Like, does the term ‘get a life’ mean anything to me?
Apparently not. I might actually make it to 50 years.
A tip of the bonnet to Ted Wyman, soon to be the latest inductee to the Manitoba Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour. Ted’s been cranking out the good stuff for 26 years, earning his chops at the Moose Jaw Times Herald and Brandon Sun before bringing his act to Good Ol’ Hometown in 2003. He’s been a steady hand on the wheel of the Winnipeg Sun sports department since 2006.
Really enjoyed Melissa Martin’s piece on Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler in the Winnipeg Free Press last week. Melissa doesn’t stray into the toy department too often, but I always enjoy her take on sports and athletes. She’s my favorite scribe at the Drab Slab.
So I’m sitting in my local watering hole, watching the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders duke it out on Saturday afternoon. They were down to the short strokes, with about three minutes remaining and Gang Green clinging to an iffy lead. The end result was very much in the balance. And what does TSN do? It cuts away to the Calgary Stampeders-Edmonton Eskimos skirmish, which had yet to start. You talk about your WTFTSN moments.
Here are this week’s Canadian Football League power rankings…
1. Calgary (9-2): Bo Levi was brilliant; the defence not so much.
2. Saskatchewan (7-4): Four straight Ws.
3. Edmonton (7-5): Got it done vs. Calgary this time.
4. Hamilton (6-5): Wicked offence, wicked QB, wicked Speedy B.
5. Ottawa (6-5): Continue to be a puzzle.
6. Winnipeg (5-7): A bye week just what the doctor ordered.
7. B.C. (4-6): Still say they’re done like dinner.
8. Montreal (3-8): Took the week off.
9. Toronto (3-8): QB woes continue.
Last week in CFL quarterbacking…
It’s about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: Wow. Just wow.
Still baffled by Serena Williams bringing motherhood into the equation during her epic hissy fit in the women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. “I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her!” she shrieked, in full bully mode, at chair umpire Carlos Ramos. That simply does not compute. It makes no sense at all. What did Ramos’s rulings—questionable or not—have to do with Williams’ little girl? Can you say completely unhinged, kids?
For those of you scoring at home, the last eight Grand Slam tennis tournaments have delivered eight different champions on the women’s side and only three on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the same three guys winning everything now—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic—have been winning everything since Wimbledon 2003, when Federer claimed his first Slam title. The scoreboard reads: Big Three 51, Rest of Guys 11. And who are those Rest of Guys? Stan Wawrinka (3), Andy Murray (3), Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro, Marat Safin and Gaston Gaudio. So, 10 champions total. In the same time frame, 24 different women have won Slam tournaments.
And, finally, this from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “I really hope the Maple Leafs pick a captain soon—so everybody can just shut up about it. The captain stuff: Relatively meaningless.” Interesting. In July, Simmons went on Tranna 1050 TSN radio and flapped his gums about the “relatively meaningless” Leafs captaincy for more than seven minutes. But now that he’s had his say on the topic he wants the rest of us to “shut up.” As if.
Forty-seven years. That’s how long it has been, to the day, since I began a newspaper career that brought neither fame nor fortune but provided a fair bit of fun.
That’s why I still scribble about sports to this day, 17 years removed from mainstream media—it’s a hoot.
The pay as a freelancer/blogger isn’t nearly as good, mind you. It’s mice nuts. It isn’t enough to keep me well watered and fed. I mean, I can’t afford to make spaghetti and meatballs anymore. It’s one or the other. But, hey, the payoff is the giggles I get by poking the bear, tipping sacred cows or tilting at windmills (I promise, no more cliches for today).
One would think that I’d have gotten the Winnipeg Jets out of my system by now. But no. Some habits are hard to kick, if not impossible. I just can’t let the Jets go. And, to a lesser degree, the Blue Bombers.
I don’t know how many hours I spent in the old barn on Maroons Road, but I do know that Winnipeg Arena was my home away from home for a good number of years. As were various other shinny shacks throughout North America, from the story-studded Montreal Forum to Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum in Tinseltown to the rickety Corral in Calgary to frost-bitten wooden huts that passed for hockey rinks in numerous Western Canada outposts.
And that’s what I am remembering this morning…
I remember Frank McKinnon, a remarkable, special man and the person I interviewed for my first Winnipeg Tribune byline story in 1971. Frank, president of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association at the time, was one of those people I always thought I should address as “Mister,” because he commanded such respect. But he would have none of it. “I’m Frank,” he told me early in our initial conversation, “and I want you to know that you can call me any time.” Frank and I talked often, but probably not as often as I would have liked.
I remember the night in Atlanta when Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie attempted to scale the glass partition separating the two benches so he could fight his counterpart with the Flames, Al MacNeil. Tommy took off his sports coat, took off his necktie, took off his wrist watch, partially unbuttoned his shirt—then took out his teeth! “When he took his teeth out and started undressing,” said MacNeil, “I knew he was serious.”
I remember riding a bus with coach Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers during their successful 1973 Centennial Cup crusade. Muzz liked his hockey with an edge and there was nothing sissified about the way his lads played. So physical were the Terriers that Humboldt Broncos’ coach Dr. Terry Henning took his puck and went home after five games rather than finish their playoff series with Muzz’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. “Can you believe it?” Muzz asked me. “They quit. The good doctor said my guys are too dirty. He says we’re too mean and nasty. So he quit. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him doing open-heart surgery on me—he’d walk out in the middle of the operation!”
I remember interviewing Vladislav Tretiak at a house on Elm Street in River Heights. I don’t recall who owned the house or why I had to meet the great Soviet goaltender there, but he was in town to promote his book and we gabbed for about an hour at a kitchen table (rather, the interpreter and I chin-wagged for an hour). When we parted, Tretiak said something to the interpreter, who relayed to me that “Vladimir thinks you are a hockey expert.” As photographer Jon Thordarson and I walked toward our vehicle, I said, “Imagine that, Tretiak thinks I’m a hockey expert…sure fooled him, didn’t I?”
I remember being in Indianapolis with the Jets on American Thanksgiving Day and Racers coach Pat (Whitey) Stapleton inviting myself, play-by-play legend Friar Nicolson and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis to turkey dinner with his family. It was such a thoughtful gesture, but that’s the kind of relationship media and hockey people sometimes had back then, especially in the World Hockey Association.
I remember Aime Allaire and his never-ending quest to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home to Winnipeg. Alas, Aime’s St. Boniface Mohawks could never get the job done.
I remember the Jets’ first visit to New York City, to play the Rangers. Friar, Reyn, Sod Keilback and I went for a stroll of Manhattan on game-day afternoon and we ducked into magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a look-see. “I’m going to light a candle for the Jets,” I said. “They’re going to need all the help they can get against the Rangers.” Sod greeted that notion with rude laughter. The Jets beat the Rangers that night, 6-4.
I remember another trip to Manhattan. Our bus driver wanted to make a detour down a side street, but he couldn’t navigate the turn because a Volkswagen Beetle was parked too close to the corner. General manager John Ferguson and the driver stepped outside to investigate. Fergy came back on the bus and shouted, “Jimmy! You and a few other guys come with me. We’ve gotta move this car.” Fergy, Jimmy Mann and three or four other players lifted half the Volkswagen on to the sidewalk and away we went.
I remember Muzz MacPherson refusing to talk to me after a Winnipeg Clubs’ game. “I’m too upset,” the gravel-voice coach barked. “I don’t want to talk. Just make up the quotes. You know me well enough by now that you know what I’ll say.” So, for the only time in my career, I made up quotes. The following day, Muzz called me and he was frothing at the mouth. “What are you trying to do to me?” he yelped. “I wouldn’t have said all those things you said I said—I would have done a lot more swearing.”
I remember talking to Ulf Nilsson the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national team, 5-3, and the great Swedish centre saying, “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
I remember Friar Nicolson allowing me to do five minutes of play-by-play one night when Dave Keon and the New England Whalers were in town. It was a classical gas.
I remember watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes with Muzz and various hockey sorts who had assembled at the Viscount Gort for an annual chin wag. As the great Secretariat romped down the home stretch, about 30 lengths in front of the field, Muzz stared at the TV and shouted, “Don’t break a leg! Don’t break a leg!” Big Red didn’t even break stride and became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.
I remember Teddy Green’s headaches. I often wondered how a man could be in such crippling pain and still go out and perform so admirably on the Jets blueline.
I remember riding the iron lung with Gerry Brisson and his Winnipeg Clubs on a junket that took us to Brandon, Regina, Swift Current, Calgary and Kamloops and back. Kevin McCarthy was on that team. He was the most-talented Junior I ever covered.
I remember covering an MJHL that included four Winnipeg teams—the Winnipeg Monarchs, St. James Canadians, St. Boniface Saints and my alma mater, the West Kildonan North Stars. (That’s right, I played in the MJHL and covered it. I believe Doug Lunney is the only other person to do so.)
I remember taking pride in the championship work of Barry Bonni with his River East Royal Knights of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, because his team represented my old ‘hood.
I remember Morris Lukowich barking at me after the Jets’ initial NHL game, in Pittsburgh. Luke had been credited with the team’s first NHL goal, tipping in a Peter Marsh shot. “Where did that shot hit you?” I asked him. “Friar and I never saw it change direction.” He shot me with a stone-cold stare and said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. “No, Luke, I’m not calling you a liar,” I said. “I have a game story to write and I need to know where the puck hit you so I can describe the goal accurately.”
I remember being part of a media team for Schmockey Night. Ray Jauch was our coach and Eddie (Clear the Track) Shack, the clown prince of the National Hockey League, was my left winger. Jauch, head coach with the Blue Bombers at the time, wouldn’t let Shack or I come off the ice in the final five minutes because we needed a goal to tie the game. Neither of us scored.
I remember wonderful conversations with hockey lifers Bruce Cheatley, Ed Sweeney, Bill Addison, Julian Klymkiw, Aggie Kukulowicz and Billy Robinson, who, along with Dr. Gerry Wilson, was responsible for bringing the first wave of Swedes to North America and transorming the Jets into a WHA power.
I remember defenceman Tim Watters buying Friar and I beer when he came in after curfew one night in Vancouver. “You don’t have to do that, Tim,” Friar told him. “We’re not going to rat you out. You’re good people.” I never ratted out any of the Jets. Neither did Friar. What they did on their time was their business.
I remember covering the Jets rookie training camp in Sainte Agathe, Que., in 1979 for the Winnipeg Tribune, and Fergy asking me to play in the final exhibition game because Patrick Daley had pulled a groin during the morning skate. “Are you serious? You want me to play tonight?” I asked him. He did. So I did. Assisted on the first goal, too. All the players at Sainte Agathe moved on to the Jets main training camp in Winnipeg, then some were assinged to the Tulsa Oilers. I went back to the Trib with a grand total of one assist in my only pro game. And I never got paid.
I remember the Jets first visit to the Montreal Forum. Friar and I walked in with Fergy, who was still a hero in Quebec, and he directed us to the concession stands. “Troi chien chauds,” Fergy ordered. He looked at us and said, “These will be the best hot dogs you’ll ever eat.” They were. To this day.
I remember bringing beer to former Soviet referee Anatoli Segelin, who was part of the U.S.S.R. traveling party for the 1981 Canada Cup. Upon his arrival at the Viscount Gort, Anatoli, who loved Canadian journalists, begged me to bring some beer up to his room on the second floor. I asked Stew MacPherson if he could spare a couple of 12-packs from the media hospitality room for Anatoli and comrades, and he agreed. Upon seeing me at his door with 24 beer, Anatoli flashed a smile as wide as Mother Russia and said, “Canada! Come! Come! We drink!” Segelin, myself and two other comrades did just that.
I remember Willy Lindstrom’s pranksterism. Every time the Jets’ travels would take us to Quebec City, Willy would visit a joke shop not far from the Chateau Frontenac and load up on stink bombs and sneezing powder. He would then unleash them on our airplanes. Go to sleep during a flight and it was guaranteed you’d wake up in a sneezing fit, because Willy would sneak up from behind and sprinkle powder on you. And the stink bombs were absolutely paralyzing.
I remember sitting in an airport, listening to Mike Smith deliver a 10-minute oration on the methodology of the Richter Scale after an earthquake hit the West Coast. As he spoke, I thought, “Man, this guy is a different head of lettuce.” I didn’t realize exactly how different Smith was until the day he drafted Sergei Bautin.
I remember going to the draft in Montreal the year Fergy chose defenceman David Babych second overall, ahead of Denis Savard and Paul Coffey. More interesting, however, was the fact Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran were next door, prepping for the Brawl in Montreal, the first fight in their boxing trilogy.
I remember feeling sorry for Ray Neufeld, a truly nice, young man who came to the Jets from Hartford in exchange for David Babych. It was recognized as Fergy’s worst transaction and fans took out their frustrations on poor Ray. That wasn’t fair.
I remember the first time I ever saw Peter Sullivan play hockey and asking, “How is this guy not playing in the NHL?”
I remember Jimmy Mann trying to convince me that he was “not an animal” after his sucker punch had shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw into a dozen pieces. It wasn’t me Jimmy had to convince…it was everyone else in hockey.
I remember Laurie Boschman’s on- and off-ice personalities. He was such a nasty bit of business when they dropped the puck, yet so soft-spoken, sincere and genuinely nice once the final buzzer sounded.
I remember a pilot delaying takeoff from Atlanta when we realized rookie broadcaster Sod Keilback was AWOL. Turns out the big lug had gotten lost in the airport, which was larger than his hometown of Yorkton, Sask., and he heard some serious braying once Friar Nicolson had located him and brought him on board. Sod made a feeble attempt to explain his wandering ways, but we were having none of it. “You’re just a big sodbuster,” I said. The name stuck. He was known as Sod thereafter.
I remember my traveling partners in the WHA, Friar and Reyn Davis, two terrific guys. Both of them are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Sadly, both of them are also dead. I’m neither in the Hall of Fame nor dead, but it’s only a matter of time before I arrive at the Pearly Gates (I probably haven’t been good enough to get in there either).
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.