Giving thanks on Turkey Day in Canada

Turkey Day in Canada seems like the appropriate time to talk about gobblers in sports, but I’m going to give thanks on Thanksgiving Day instead…

Jennifer Jones

Thanks to curling and curlers. Real people. Regular working stiffs who just happen to have better draw weight than the rest of us. Easily the most pleasant, most obliging athletes to cover.

Thanks to Jennifer Jones. Give or take Jeff Stoughton, Dugie, Kerry Burtnyk and Vic Peters, she’s the best curler ever produced in Manitoba. I know all about the nasty Cathy Overton-Clapham business, but it’s one of those things people should have let go of years ago. I don’t understand why Jones hasn’t felt universal love from the rabble. She’s always struck me as a lovely young woman.

Thanks to the Canadian Football League. I was born and raised on the Prairies and weaned on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of Kenny Ploen, the Lincoln Locomotive, Zazu Pitts, Choo Choo Shepard, Kid Dynamite and Tricky Dick Thornton. So I care.

Thanks to the Bombers. See above.

Thanks to the Winnipeg Jets. I no longer reside in Good Ol’ Hometown, but I know how long and harsh the winters can be. (I believe I still have some frost bite from the winter of 1998-99.) The Jets can’t change that, but they do provide locals with a delightful diversion while waiting for the deep freeze to disappear. And, for transplanted Peggers like myself in Canucks country, they’ve become a source of pride.

Thanks to newspapers. I can’t recall the last time I actually held some fish wrap in my wrinkled hands, because I get my daily dose of the rag trade on the Internet. I unfailingly call up the two River City sheets in the small hours each morning and (usually) enjoy the scribblings of the boys on the beats at both the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Sun. I don’t always agree with what’s written, how it’s written, or how it’s displayed, but I’m grateful that Paul Friesen, Ted Wyman, Ken Wiebe, Jeff Hamilton, Mike McIntyre, Jason Bell, Mike Sawatzky et al are there to detail the goings-on in the toy department.

Thanks to the Athletic. A digital sports section, it’s become a gathering place for some very good scribes who either chose, or were obliged, to leave mainstream jock journalism. That includes my favorite football writer, Kirk Penton. (If only they’d hire more people to join Kirk on the CFL beat.)

Thanks to the Republic of Tranna. Yes, I’m grateful for big, bad TO. The (so-called) 6ix unites us out here in the colonies. Oh, there are a few misguided dissidents who actually root, root, root for the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Argonauts, Raptors and Tranna FC, but mostly The ROT outfits provide us with a laugh track. And it’s always good to laugh.

Black-and-white proof that the Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup.

Thanks to the ROT media. Such an annoying mob. Always mentioning the Leafs and Stanley Cup in the same sentence. Totally delusional. But, again, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because they provide more fodder for rude and/or smug laughter. (I’ve actually seen les Leafs win the Stanley Cup. Four times, in fact. But I was 16 years old the last time they did it and I’m guessing I’ll be ashes in a urn before it happens again.)

Thanks to TSN and Sportsnet. Some of the natterbugs drive me bonkers, most notably the gab guys on TSN (yes, I’m looking at you Rod Black and Glen Suitor). Their slobbering over TSN’s favorite lousy quarterback, Johnny Manziel, is embarrassing and makes the viewing experience painful. But, hey, thanks also to the guy who invented the mute button on the remote, right? The point is, our two sports networks usually deliver the goods. If there’s something worth watching, chances are one of them is there.

Thanks to women in sports media. It’s a tough gig. Much tougher when you’re seen as nothing more than a Sideline Barbie. I’d like to see more female bylines and hear more female voices, but as long as the old boys’ network exists in print and on the air, it continues to be an agonizingly slow process.

Thanks to sports blogs and bloggers. Got something to get off your chest? No need to write a letter to the editor that gets slashed down to 100 words. Just create your own blog (guilty as charged). Or join a blog site like Arctic Ice Hockey, Winnipeg Hockey Talk, or HockeyBuzz. The writing on sports blogs is often more pointed and honest than what you’ll read in the mainstream.

And, finally, thanks to everyone who visits this silly blog. I’ll try to get better. I promise.

Bravo to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for putting Cal Murphy in bronze

So, here’s what I’m thinking: How do you capture curmudgeonly and penny-pinching in bronze?

Cal Murphy

I mean, Cal Murphy was cantankerous and a tightwad. Expansion to the United States? “Blasphemy!” Female reporters in the locker room? “Not on my watch!” Chris Walby needs a new jock strap? “Tell him to wear Leo Lewis’s old jock!” The players demand meat sauce in their post-game spaghetti? “Give it to ’em—but dock their pay!”

Ya, Cal was a penny-pincher. You think it was coincidence that the Royal Canadian Mint stopped producing the penny the same year he died? Cal was the last person who had any use for them.

During Cal’s stewardship of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Canadian Football League club’s purse strings were pulled tighter than a bullfighter’s pants. Unless, of course, it meant signing an all-star quarterback (hello, Matt Dunigan). Then he could stretch a dollar like it was a bungee cord.

That’s how Cal rolled, though. Frugal and free-spending. Cantankerous and a cut-up. Crusty and kindly. Fearsome and fatherly. Tight-fisted and tender. Good cop and bad cop. He was a walking, talking contradiction.

Whatever it took to win football games, Cal played the necessary part. No apologies.

He had an eye for talent like Sinatra had an ear for a song. Like Tom Hanks has a feel for a movie role. Like Hemmingway had a mind for muse.

The real Bud Grant and the bronze Bud Grant.

There have been more successful CFL coaches than Cal Murphy, but only one in Winnipeg, where Bud Grant set the kind of standard (102 victories, four Grey Cup titles) that lends itself to legendary status and the chiseling of a bronze statue. You can find a larger-than-life likeness of Grant outside Gate 1 at the Facility Formerly Known As Football Follies Field in Fort Garry, where the hall of fame coach stands 7-feet, 6-inches tall, stoic and arms folded in his trademark trench coat.

Now Murphy is moving into the neighborhood, two entrances removed from Grant at Gate 3, and I wonder how BST Bronze Ltd. will capture the essence of the man who three times brought the Grey Cup home to River City, once as a head coach and twice as general manager.

Well, they can start with Cal’s smile, because that’s what I’ll always remember most about the God-fearing Irishman who marched through life with a wink and a nod, even after medics took out his first heart and replaced it with a second. His loud, always-at-the-ready, belly laughter outdistanced his grumpiness like Secretariat leaving the field behind in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Whether it was scant seconds after one of his 86 wins or his 51 losses, he’d manage to sprinkle his post-match chin-wags with a wry comment or two that would inspire giggles. On off days, a visit to his bunker on Maroons Road was often like a trip to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He was a hoot and a dear man.

Whatever the finished product looks like, there’s delicious irony in the Cal Murphy statue (financed by private donors) that will be unveiled by the Bombers on Sept. 21—according to chief executive officer Wade Miller, the sticker price to honor the noted tightwad is “six figures.”

Imagine that. More than 100K to put Cal in bronze.

That would buy an awful lot of meat sauce for the players’ spaghetti…and you’d still have spare change left over to buy Matt Nichols a new jock strap.

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

About toasting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers…no-fear football…the biggest free-agent catch…the Hamilton Tiger-Cats…and other CFL matters on my mind

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Chris Walby had the bad manners to get too old to play football.
Chris Walby had the bad manners to get too old to play football.

Here’s how positively delightful (that’s sarcasm, kids) it has been for me at my watering hole of choice in downtown Victoria during this 21st century of Sad Sackian Winnipeg Blue Bombers football:

You’re from Winnipeg, aren’t you Patti?” one of the regular bar lumps would ask as I entered the room.

That’s right,” I’d reply, knowing full well that the cad already was aware that I had strayed westward 17 years ago from the land of Slurpees, Sal’s cheese nips and skeeters the size of drones.

Shame about your Bombers,” he’d then say as he strode away to see a man about a horse (what does that even mean, boys?) or to duck outdoors for a smoke, leaving an appropriate sprinkling of rude laughter for me to munch on.

I would offer no rebuttal. What was I to say? Tell him “Ya, the Bombers suck but, hey, I hear the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is having a boffo season?”

Both Mike Riley, left, and Bud Grant skipped town.
Both Mike Riley, left, and Bud Grant skipped town.

Didn’t want to go there, of course. I mean, mention ballet in a barroom full of boys and it’s seldom going to end well. Thus, there existed no possibility of me offering a vigorous defence for the Bombers. They had become bums. So I’d sit alone at my table in the corner of the room, detached from the barside banter, and silently curse Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis and Chris Walby and James Murphy and Stan Mikawos for having the bad manners to grow old. And both Bud Grant and Mike Riley for skipping town. And kindly Cal Murphy’s first heart for failing him.

It got to the point whereby I would only visit my watering hole of choice after Bombers’ victories. Which meant I was on the wagon. Never drank a drop for pretty near two months this season. But just look at those Bombers now. Five successive Ws. And I don’t care if the last one was ugly. They’re in the Canadian Football League playoff conversation. 

Another beer, barkeep! And get one for my favorite bar lump, too!

From where I sit, here’s the difference between the two men who have started five games each at quarterback for the Bombers in this increasingly optimistic crusade: Matt Nichols, currently behind centre, plays like he isn’t afraid to screw up. Willy did. Admittedly, that’s a simplistic analysis, but I believe that’s what basically separates the two. Nichols plays no-fear football.

I suppose there might have been some discussion among the tall foreheads in Bomberville about releasing Willy before the Bombers became obligated to pay their backup QB the remaining $200,000 of his season’s salary, but I like to think it was a brief chin-wag. Very brief.

My goodness, Winnipeg offensive lineman Travis Bond is an extremely large lad, isn’t he? Do the Bombers feed him a pre-game meal, or do they just tie him to a hitching post and let him lick a salt block?

The Bombers have a leg up with Justin Medlock.
The Bombers have a leg up with Justin Medlock doing the kicking.

Quiz me this, kids: Who was general manager Kyle Walters’ trophy catch when he went on his safari at the opening bell of the CFL free-agent hunt in February? All those who said Justin Medlock can move to the head of the class. Yes, running back Andrew Harris has been a major contributor, but the Bombers are in nowheresville without Medlock’s left leg. If you haven’t been paying attention, the Winnipeg offence has skidaddled crossed the enemy goal line twice in their past two assignments. That’s it. Just twice. Medlock, meanwhile, contributed 13 field goals to the cause. That’s 39 points in two games that were decided on, or very close to, the final play. We don’t need Einstein to work out the math. Without Medlock’s limb, the Bombers lose both matches. If Nichols isn’t your team MVP, the place-kicker is.

Since it’s Labour Day, we can begin to pay attention to the crossover standings, even if the league’s website wizards can’t be bothered to post them. Regardless what transpires when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts grab grass and growl this evening at Timbits Field in the Hammer, the Bombers will finish the weekend four points clear of the East Division’s third-place outfit. That’s good enough for a playoff position if their universe doesn’t unfold as it should the rest of the way in the West Division.

I look at the schedule and can’t help but think the Bombers’ post-season aspirations will be determined by two games—the October home-and-home exchange with the B.C. Lions. Win them both and they’re likely in. Lose them both and they’re talking crossover or going home early again.

My pick to come out of the East Division: Hamilton. The Tabbies have been rather dysfunctional this season, but I see them getting to the Grey Cup game as long as quarterback Zach Collaros doesn’t return to the repair shop. And he’ll be the MVP.

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.

About Jim Kernaghan…the Grim Reaper…charismatic jocks…and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Wall of Honor

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Jim Kernaghan
Jim Kernaghan

The trouble with aging isn’t in the living, it’s in the dying.

Not in our dying, understand, but in the passing of so many of our contemporaries, the people we grew up with, worked with, learned with, played with, laughed with, cried with. The people we watched and admired. The people who inspired and delighted.

No one here gets out alive. We know that (although Keith Richards appears to be pushing the envelop). But the reminders come too rapidly once we have arrived at a certain vintage.

On Friday, Muhammad Ali leaves us. Two days later, Jim Kernaghan is gone.

Those who knew him best might suggest that it’s just like Kernaghan to check out so soon after the former heavyweight boxing champion died. That would be ‘Kerny’. Chasing the story. Still. Always.

Kernaghan, one of the flowers of Canadian jock journalism during a 42-year print run that stretched from 1964 to 2006, was someone to be admired and respected as a person and writer. He spent a considerable amount of time chronicling the fascinating deeds and derring-do of Ali, initially for the Toronto Star then the London Free Press. He was on site to deliver daily dispatches to readers for more than two dozen of the champ’s 61 fist fights, including the night he bade farewell in a cringe-inducing tiff with Trevor Berbick.

That was in Nassau, Bahamas, early in December 1981. I remember spending time with Kerhaghan in a Paradise Island bar, talking Ali, trying to soak up his knowledge and listening to tinny Christmas carols being played by a steel drums band.

I never thought I’d ever be sitting in a bar in the Bahamas, a couple of weeks before Christmas, listening to Jingle Bells and Silent Night being played on steel drums,” I said to him. “It’s real strange and different.”

You can’t have a big fight without strange and different,” he said. “Especially if Ali and his people are involved. They’re always strange and different.”

I never saw much of Kernaghan after the Ali-Berbick bout, because I soon was off on other adventures that landed me at the Calgary Sun and Winnipeg Sun. But I never forgot his kindness and I never stopped reading him. He was terrific.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

I know Kernaghan was there. I know legendary Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell was there. And I know I was there. If there were other Canadian jock journalists at the final Ali fist fight in Nassau, I don’t recall. Two of our unholy trinity are dead. As are five of the boxers on the Drama in Bahama card: Ali, Berbick, Greg Page, Scott Ledoux and Jeff Sims. Makes me wonder why the Grim Reaper has spared me.

Just wondering: Would there be a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an Ahmad Rashad if Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. hadn’t become Muhammad Ali in 1964? Somehow I doubt it. There’d most likely still be a Lew Alcindor and a Bobby Moore.

Ali’s passing put me in ponder of the charismatic jocks and/or sportsmen I was fortunate enough to meet and write about during my 30 years in mainstream media. They are:

  1. Muhammad Ali: One of a kind.
  2. Pinball Clemons: A pure joy to be around.
  3. John Ferguson: The former Winnipeg Jets general manager was a keg of dynamite, but he had a compelling, powerful personality. Everyone knew when Fergy was in the room.
  4. Cal Murphy: Yes, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach and GM was curmudgeonly and oft-cranky, but he was also a sackful of howls. Oh, how he would make us laugh. And he filled notebooks.
  5. Vic Peters: The curling legend had an every-man air that was very inviting and appealing.
  6. Chris Walby: The big man on the Bombers’ O-line seemed ever-present. Even when he wasn’t in the room, he was in the room. If you catch my drift.
  7. Pierre Lamarche: Most of you probably don’t recognize the name, but Pierre is a long-time big shot in Canadian tennis. I covered him at the Canadian National Tennis Tournament in the early to mid-1970s, when the event was staged at the Winnipeg Canoe Club. He was a big, happy-go-lucky French-Canadian who delivered great quotes and brightened your day.
  8. I’d say Bobby Hull, but I can’t get past the domestic violence stuff.
Indian Jack Jacobs
Indian Jack Jacobs

So, the debate is on: Which names belong on the Wall of Honor at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry? And in what order? Well, much respect to Chris Walby, one of my top-five fave Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but no, he ought not be the starting point when the Canadian Football League club begins to salute its legendary workers. You begin with Indian Jack Jacobs and the Galloping Ghost, Fritz Hanson. I never saw either of them play, but I know what they did, and anytime you need to build a new stadium basically because of one man (see: Jacobs, Jack) he has to be first in the roll call. Next up would be Bud Tinsley, then Ken Ploen, Leo Lewis, Herb Gray, Gerry James, Frank Rigney and Walby. That’s your starting nine. Old friend Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun has other ideas, but it’s apparent that he’s unaware they played football in River City prior to the Bud Grant era.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.