I’ve told this tale before, but it bears repeating given the shaky status of the Canadian Football League.
In a distant time and place, my friend Chester and I would hop on our bikes and make the trek to St. Boniface, twice a day, to watch the Winnipeg Blue Bombers frolic on a parched patch of earth known as Packers Field, so-named because of the Canada Packers rendering plant across the road.
We were allowed to get up close and personal with Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis and Ernie Pitts and Bud Grant, who actually acknowledged our existence and once presented us scamps with a watermelon to share at the conclusion of the two-a-day, preseason training exercises.
How many kids could say they sat and spat watermelon seeds among sporting deity? Just Chester and myself, and it was magical.
The Bombers, after all, were top dog. The Winnipeg Jets had yet to arrive to adjust the pecking order, and our football heroes brought glory to Good Ol’ Hometown, winning the Grey Cup with great frequency in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
I’m uncertain what became of Chester, but, for me, those morning/afternoon sessions at Packers Field served as the stirrings of a life-long fling with Rouge Football.
I was fortunate. Actually, blessed would be a better word. I grew up with the CFL, then got to cover it for 19 years in three locales—Winnipeg, Calgary and the Republic of Tranna—and that’s something you should understand about the boys and girls on the beat: They’re fans.
Those who chronicle the daily doings of the three-down game care. About the league, about the players, about management, about the quirky rules that differentiate us from the four-down colossus south of the 49th. We embrace the notion of humble community ownership, in the same way the citizenry of Green Bay embraces its Packers.
Thus, we tend to take it personal when we hear squawkings of a sellout to American interests, or when the feds decline to pony up with cash to see the CFL through the COVID pandemic. Who are these snake-oil salesmen from the U.S. planning to butcher our game, and how dare Trudeau the Younger and his pals on Parliament Hill give Air Canada, the film industry and the arts community money hand over fist while leaving the lords of Rouge Football to sit, hat in hand, on a cold, dark street corner?
The iffiness of the CFL’s very existence, let alone a 2021 crusade, rattles us to the core, and we nod in agreement when we hear Russ Jackson speaking our language.
“I think if there was an amalgamation of the American and Canadian side, it would lead towards playing the American game,” the great quarterback told 3DownNation. “I have no interest in that. I have four season tickets here in Hamilton. I’m not sure I would keep those season seats if we turned into an American-type football game.”
You tell ’em, Russ. Maybe they’ll listen to you.
I doubt it, though, because they’ve heard it all before. They know all about the 100-plus-year history of the game on this side of the great divide, they’re familiar with folklore about horses clomping into hotel lobbies during Grey Cup week, and about fog bowls, mud bowls and ice bowls, so nothing a legendary QB says will sway them. Heck, we could trot out a lineup of legends including Jackson, Dirty Thirty, Peanut Butter Joe and Big Angie to preach the gospel according to G. Sydney Halter, but the stewards of the game will do what they’re going to do.
Question is: How many among the rabble would be bent out of shape if the lords of Rouge Football sold out to Americans, or if the CFL disappeared like a slab of beef on Chris Walby’s dinner plate? I mean, I like to think that it isn’t just folks of my vintage who want to preserve our game.
Well, I remind you of an Angus Reid poll conducted last May. Slightly more than 1,500 sports fans across the tundra were contacted and asked if they would be “disappointed” should the 2020 CFL season be scuttled. Only in Manitoba and Saskatchewan did the majority respond with a “damn straight I would!” Elsewhere, there was a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Manitoba: 63 per cent Saskatchewan: 61 per cent Alberta: 45 per cent B.C.: 34 per cent Quebec: 31 per cent Ontario: 28 per cent Atlantic Canada: 17 per cent
Significantly, east of the Manitoba-Ontario border, a greater percentage of people indicated they would miss an NFL season more than a CFL crusade.
We don’t know if those numbers have changed, but something tells me the Lords of Rouge Football and commissioner Randy Ambrosie haven’t attracted any new friends, or brought back old friends, with their fumbled appeals for federal financing and their dithering in the past year.
We’re told the tall foreheads will gather on Tuesday to plot strategy, and I don’t know if I should fear the worst or expect to see Commish Randy pull something that resembles Bugs Bunny out of his hat.
I just know they’re messing with memories, and if they shut down again or sell out to Yankee Doodle dollars I’ll be mad enough to spit. Only this time it won’t be watermelon seeds at Packers Field.
Another Sunday morning smorgas-bored…and Happy Summer to you all…
Now that Hal Johnson has ‘outed’ TSN for racist hiring practices that included a limit on the number of Black reporters (one maximum) in 1988, here’s a question that needs to be answered:
What is the Black quota in 2020?
We know it’s more than one, because Farhan Lalji, Jermain Franklin and Kayla Grey are part of Team Yakety-Yak at TSN, but, in offering a lame mea culpa to Johnson the other day, the network’s spin doctors neglected to confirm or deny that a ceiling on the number of minority hires remains in place.
“There is still much work to do to improve our commitment to on-air and editorial diversity,” was part of a pre-fab statement on Twitter.
So, is what happened to fitness guru Johnson in 1988 still happening today?
If you missed it, here’s the Coles Notes version of Johnson’s TSN tale: Hired in the morning. Fired in the afternoon. By a suit in the ivory tower who believed adding a second Black news snoop was bad for business. So thanks for dropping in, Hal, and you can pick up your parting gifts on the way out. Oh, and by the way, we’d be happy to air your boffo Body Break fitness show with Joanne McLeod, but only if you hire a white actor to replace yourself because we can’t have an interracial couple exercising and having fun together on TV.
The spin doctors describe that as “a shameful part of our past,” (ya think?) but 32 years later TSN remains almost as white as a bowl of rice. It’s a sea of bleached faces, with a few former football players, Grey and John Lu in the mix.
All of which has provided pause for ponder.
The popular thing to do today is discuss diversity, also all the isms and phobias that are a pox on society. Suddenly, everyone has a tale to tell, and the great unwashed nod in enthusiastic agreement whenever it’s mentioned that discrimination, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and bullying are bad manners.
Many have been drawn into the conversation out of genuine concern, a yearning to understand and a will to effect change, while others have felt obliged to participate for fear of a tsk-tsking. Even though mistreatment of the marginalized is older than the ink on the Dead Sea Scrolls, only now are they gazing into the looking glass.
It will be interesting to learn what they discover and, more important, what they’ll do about it.
Be certain that TSN isn’t flying solo here. Denise Balkissoon has written an essay for Chatelaine on racism at the Globe and Mail, and Morgan Campbell hasn’t been shy about detailing his experience with racism at the Toronto Star.
Meanwhile, I’ve been squawking about the lack of diversity in jock journalism for much of this 21st century, and when I look at the sports landscape in the rag trade I see that it’s still whiter than a box of Titleist golf balls. Not only that, finding a female face among jock journos at our daily newspapers is like playing a game of Where’s Waldo’s Sister?
So what’s the scoop? Is there a restriction on hiring females? Or is it a hesitancy owing to the horse-and-buggy notion that women can’t possibly know sports?
The last time there was an opening in the toy department of the Winnipeg Sun, more than 30 wannabes applied. Four of them were women. Scott Billeck landed the gig. It’s proven to be a beneficial hire, even as he’s become the tabloid’s Virus Boy, but it’s worth noting that the Sun’s stable of sports scribes hasn’t included a female since the turn of the century, when Judy Owen discovered better things to occupy her time and left the building.
As for gay jock journos, I know of two in this country’s mainstream—the terrific curling writer Devin Heroux of CBC, and Scott MacArthur of Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
It terms of diversity, it’s a rather bleak scorecard.
Our guy Alphonso Davies set gums a-flapping with his eye-popping lickety-split in a recent Bundesliga soccer match, dashing up the pitch at a dazzling 36.5 km/h. Not sure what the big deal is, though. I mean, I know sports writers who run a lot faster than that every time the bar tab arrives.
Hey, I’m not saying jock journos are cheap, but there’s a reason why Canada took the penny out of circulation—sports scribes had them all squirreled away.
I must confess that I can do without all the fuzzballs that romp around sports facilities, but I’ve always liked Youppi!, one-time mascot of the Montreal Expos and now the official furball of les Canadiens. Youppi! has been inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame (yes, there really is such a thing, in Whiting, Indiana), and I suppose that makes him this country’s best two-sport big-league star since Gerry James, aka Kid Dynamite. For those of you who haven’t been introduced, Kid Dynamite played for both the Tranna Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, sometimes in the same year. He also won hockey’s Memorial Cup and football’s Grey Cup. Youppi! won neither, but kids really like him and that has to count for something.
I’ve been writing about the Canadian Football League since 1980—Toronto Sun, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and now as a blogger—so I must report that, yes, not having anything but Commish Randy Ambrosie’s awkward mutterings to opine about these days is a total bummer. Like all who follow the goings-on of Rouge Football, I would rather be discussing passers and pass rushers than Commish Randy’s panhandling on Parliament Hill, but it should be obvious to all that the large lads in pads will not be grabbing grass and growling this year. And that truly is a shame.
North American professional team sports in 2020: An unhealthy scratch.
Things that make me go Hmmm, Vol. 1: Donald Trump vows he won’t watch soccer or National Football League games if players are allowed to kneel during the U.S. national anthem. Hmmm. Something tells me they’ll all be watching when he takes a knee in November.
While in ponder of diversity, equality and inclusiveness, I found myself wondering if the Football Reporters of Canada will make this the year they finally vote a female into the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. At present, it’s the ultimate boys’ club, with 100 per cent male membership, and that’s something that needs correcting.
By golly, I do believe TSN nailed it with its all-time Blue Bombers team. As long as Bud Grant is the coach, Kenny Ploen is the quarterback, and Leo Lewis is one of the running backs, you can’t go wrong. If I have a slight quibble (of course I do), it’s the absence of Ernie (Zazu) Pitts among the receivers. Pitts is on my team before Rick House every time, but I’m not going to sue TSN for giving Houser the nod.
Just curious: Is baseball still a thing? Seriously. By the time Major League Baseball’s millionaire players and billionaire owners have finished bickering over who deserves how many bucks for playing however many games, nobody will give a damn. Maybe they’ve already arrived at that point.
Things that make me go Hmmm, Vol. 2: In a chin wag last week with Ron MacLean of Sportsnet, sports sociologist Dr. Cheryl MacDonald claimed to have interviewed “openly gay men’s hockey players who’ve played at elite levels.” Hmmm. We shouldn’t be surprised that Doc MacDonald didn’t name names, but I found myself wondering if she meant National Hockey League players. That seemed the logical next query to me, but MacLean declined to pursue that line of questioning. Frankly, his natters have become long on fluff and short on substance.
The lady doctor also suggested that the lack of out gay men in major team sports “might be even a masculinity thing.” Might be? What was her first clue?
It’s incredible how many people are just now discovering that hockey is not for everyone. The latest example of this ‘awakening’ is an essay on the Colored Hockey League by Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star. “Canadians call hockey ‘our game.’ But history tells us it hasn’t been everybody’s,” he scribbles. It’s a well-written, informative piece, but we don’t have to go back 100 years to realize that men’s hockey isn’t an inclusive enterprise. Its lack of acceptance is right in front of us today.
I’m a doctor of absolutely nothing, so COVID-19 is a mystery. I do, however, know that I’d prefer NHL players to be as far removed from me as possible during this pandemic, which means Vancouver is too close for my comfort. We haven’t had an active case of COVID-19 on Vancouver Island in more than a month, so I’m fine with the NHL choosing Edmonton or the Republic of Tranna as hub bubbles for the Stanley Cup tournament, thank you very much.
I like Murat Ates. A lot. He does boffo work for The Athletic. I like Sara Orlesky. A lot. She does boffo work for TSN’s Winnipeg bureau. But I believe Murat’s recent Q&A with Sara is a sure signal that he’s struggling for story ideas this deep into the pandemic.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a jock columnist? Well, let’s have Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna tell us: “Life as a columnist. On Thursday, I write about my dad and Father’s Day and everybody loves me and thinks I’m great. On Friday, I break the (Auston) Matthews (COVID-19) story and I get called every name in the book and some that haven’t gotten there yet. On Saturday, I’m putting this notes column together, which is next to impossible with no games going on. On Sunday, thankfully, I exhale. And now on to next week.” The poor dear. I wonder if he’d like some cheese with that whine.
True, the gig can be a grind, but it isn’t “next to impossible” to churn out a notes column “with no games going on.” I do it every Sunday. I just do it in a different format and, unlike Simmons, I don’t get paid for it.
Simmons also continues to present himself as a hockey historian, even though his lived experience with the game doesn’t predate the 1960s. Commenting on Herb Carnegie, he writes: “Carnegie was more than good enough to play in the National Hockey League in the late 1940s, early ’50s. The Maple Leafs and the rest of the NHL wouldn’t sign him. He never got the chance to play at the highest level because he was black.” Actually, Carnegie did have the chance, even though he was Black. According to Cecil Harris’ book, Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey, the New York Rangers invited him to their 1948 training camp, and he stayed for 11 days, during which time the club presented three contract bids that would have had him begin the season in the minor leagues— $2,700 to play in Tacoma, $3,700 to play in St. Paul, $4,700 to play with the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate in New Haven. In other words, Carnegie was offered the same path to the big leagues that Jackie Robinson took with baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Start in the minors, graduate to the show. But Carnegie rejected each of the Rangers’ bids for his services, preferring to earn $5,100 with the Sherbrooke Saint-Francois of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. His choice.
And, finally, I note that Paul McCartney turned 78 last week. It seems like only Yesterday that I was watching him and the other three Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were fab…yeah, yeah, yeah.
A Monday smorgas-bored coming down in 3, 2, 1…and I’m thinking of Kenny Ploen today…
Those of my vintage remember the glory days, when our local football heroes would make a pilgrimage to the Republic of Tranna or Lotus Land every November.
Our Winnipeg Blue Bombers didn’t go for the weather, understand, because it was usually cold, wet, windy, foggy or flat-out gnarly at that time of the year, and it wasn’t the lure of big-city lights and big-city temptations either. It was business, and that business was to whup the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
We learned to dislike the Tabbies with unharnessed gusto, because they were always in the way. In 1957. In 1958. In ’59, ’61 and ’62.
They were big, menacing and vulgar men named Mosca and Barrow and Nagurski, all raised on sour milk and appropriately dressed in villain black. One of them, Ralph Goldston, was a thug of such ill temper that he once was ejected from a Canadian Football League championship match for punching Winnipeg Blue Bombers sublime running back, Leo Lewis, in the face. Their coach, Jungle Jim Trimble, was a trash-talking loudmouth from coal mining country in Pennsylvania and, in advance of the ’58 Grey Cup game, he considered the Bombers’ roster and declared, “The Winnipeg club didn’t show me anything to worry about.”
Jungle Jim also spewed this legendary line that November: “We’ll waffle ’em. We’ll leave ’em with lumps on the front and back.”
The nerve. The very notion that one of the Hamilton ruffians would have the bad manners to leave lumps on Kenny Ploen was a most disagreeable and distasteful notion. I mean, you didn’t mess with the Lone Ranger, you didn’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you didn’t put lumps on Kenny Ploen.
Ploen, the Bombers quarterback and sometimes ball-hawking defensive back, was a sweetheart. They all were, and I say that based on memories of an urchin who, along with my friend Chester, would ride a bike from Melbourne Avenue in East Kildonan out to a parched patch of hard, scuffed earth known as Canada Packers Field in St. Boniface twice a day during the Bombers preseason training exercises.
Before and after each workout, Chester and I would collect the signatures of our blue-and-gold heroes, asking them to scribble their names on paper scraps, magazines, newspaper articles and footballs.
“How many of these do you have?” Ploen asked one day as he signed my white football.
“I don’t know, Mr. Ploen,” I answered. “I hope we aren’t pestering you by asking for your autograph every day.”
“Not at all. I’m glad to do it.”
None of them complained. They simply signed, sometimes the perspiration from their foreheads dripping onto our paper scraps to make the blue ink smudge and run. Ernie (Zazu) Pitts one day greeted Chester and I with a smile, saying, “Good morning, people of the jury,” and, at the conclusion of the two-a-day sessions, god-like head coach Bud Grant trucked in watermelons for the large lads and handed us one as well.
To announce to neighborhood chums that Chester and I had shared a watermelon with Bud Grant, Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis was a bragging point of considerable heft, believe me.
Like I said, sweethearts.
Ah, but once opposite the dreaded Tabbies, the measure of Blue Bombers’ snark and sass was sizable and more than a match for their black-clad foes. Herb Gray, Jack Delveaux, Dave Burkholder and Norm Rauhaus were no quarterback’s notion of a picnic, while the Lincoln Locomotive, Choo Choo Shepard, Carver Shannon and Zazu made things go bump in the night for Hamilton defenders.
Winnipeg FC waffled the Jungle Jim-coached Tabbies four times in their five Grey Cup skirmishes starting in 1957 and ending in ’62, with one game determined in overtime and another taking two days to finish.
Many years after the fact, I caught up with Winnipeg FC lineman Ed Kotowich during a Grey Cup week and asked him about the dislike between the Tabbies and Bombers back in the day.
“There was nothing made up about it,” he said with a growl and a tightening of his jaw muscles. “They didn’t like us and I guarantee we hated them and their big-mouth coach.”
So now the Bombers and Ticats are set to renew their classic CFL squabble, Nov. 24 at McMahon Stadium in the Alberta Foothills, and I was feeling that 1950s/60s vibe the moment Winnipeg FC took out the Saskatchewan Flatlanders, 20-13, in Sunday’s slob-knocker of a West Division final.
All the old villains are long gone, of course, but it’s easy for me to picture Simoni Lawrence in the Angie Mosca or Ralph Goldston roles. Total cads, every one of them.
I don’t know if the Bombers will waffle ’em, and I doubt either head coach plans to take the Jungle Jim route and provide bulletin board reading, but somebody’s going home without any marbles and the loser of Coupe de Grey No. 107 will remain 0-for-the-century.
That, alone, is a good storyline, but I’m guessing we’ll be hearing more about Zach Collaros and Simoni Lawrence in the leadup to next Sunday’s large match. And why not? It’s good v. evil. The Sweetheart QB v. Darth Defender.
You know, just like the good, ol’ days.
It’s interesting to note that when the Bombers beat the Tabbies in the ’58 Grey Cup game, it ended a 17-year championship drought, and when the two franchises did it all again in 1984, Winnipeg FC ended a 22-year famine. Now they’re hoping to end 29 years of never failing to fail.
Random thoughts from lying on the loveseat and staring at the flatscreen for six hours on Sunday: No doubt the Bombers earned their victory over the Flatlanders on Sunday, but it must be said that they benefited from some incredibly dopey coaching by Craig Dickenson, horrid clock management by Dickenson/Corn Dog Cody Fajardo, and a serious brain cramp by Marcus Thigpen. Just saying…Interesting that the two semifinal skirmishes featured four of the five CFL markets that care the most about Rouge Football—Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Hamilton. The fifth, Calgary, gets the consolation prize—the Grey Cup game…Not since Pinball Clemons and Gizmo Williams has there been a player more fun to watch than Speedy B of the Tabbies…The boys in the TSN booth(s) were all about nicknames on Sunday. They mentioned, Speedy B, Speedy A, Great Dane, Inspector Gadget, Magic and El Diablo, Shake and Bake, the Special Teams Vulture, and Timbits Field in the Hammer was the Cathouse. Hey, I like nicknames. Big fan. But that’s a bit much…Why do all the TSN talking heads call Mike Benevides “Coach?” He isn’t a coach. He’s an ex-coach. So is Matt Dunigan, but no one is calling him “Coach.”…This was weird: They trotted out former Ticat Rob Hitchcock to present the East Division championship trophy to the Tabbies, but he wouldn’t give it to them. He hoisted it instead…
Really annoying people: The 7-Eleven Guy and Matthew McConaughey. I think a perfect commercial would be the 7-Eleven Guy spilling a strawberry Slurpee on the posh seats of McConaughey’s fancy-schmancy Lincoln…Further evidence that Glen Suitor isn’t watching the same game as us: 1) At one point, he informed us that Saskatchewan was going into a “no-huddle” offence, even as the cameras showed QB Fajardo standing in the huddle, looking at his wrist play chart, and shouting out a play; 2) on the Flatlanders’ final gasp, he said, “The Bombers made the last play.” They did nothing of the sort. Fajardo’s final fling of the football went clunk against the crossbar and the Bombers didn’t have to do anything except celebrate…Hey, look who’ll be coaching in the Grey Cup game—old friend Jeff Reinebold, the Ticats special teams guru. Bravo to one of the game’s true survivors…What is it with TSN and the Reklaws? They keep promoting a new album featuring the tune Old Country Soul, which might be the worst country tune ever recorded. Enough already.
And, finally, it’s about my forecasts for the division finals:
Prediction: Winnipeg 29, Saskatchewan 12 (no touchdowns, only field goals).
Actual score: Winnipeg 20, Saskatchewan 13 (no TDs, only FGs and a rouge).
Prediction: Hamilton 36, Edmonton 34.
Actual score: Hamilton 36, Edmonton 16.
Feel free to discuss among yourselves. Or not.
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…
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.
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.
So, here’s what I’m thinking: How do you capture curmudgeonly and penny-pinching in bronze?
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.
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.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
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?”
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?
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.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
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.
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:
Muhammad Ali: One of a kind.
Pinball Clemons: A pure joy to be around.
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.
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.
Vic Peters: The curling legend had an every-man air that was very inviting and appealing.
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.
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.
I’d say Bobby Hull, but I can’t get past the domestic violence stuff.
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.