Let’s take a trip down memory lane on Manitoba Hockey Heritage Day

This being Manitoba Hockey Heritage Day, it puts me in a reflective mood, pondering my former life as a rink rat.

It began as a wobbly, Bambi-legged urchin on the outdoor freezes at Melrose Park Community Club, Bronx Park and East End, then moved to shinny shacks both primitive and elegant, from Transcona to Texas, from Sargent Park to Stockholm, from the Old Barn On Maroons Road to the Forum in Montreal (best hot dogs, ever) and Maple Leaf Gardens.

It was a lengthy trip, 30 years of it scribbling for the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Sun (with a couple of brief pit stops in the Republic of Tranna and Calgary), and there were highs and lows and in-betweens. This is what’s on my mind today:

  • The Old Barn On Maroons Road, when it had that new-rink smell.

    I’m thinking about Mosie and the Winnipeg Warriors. I attended my first live pro game in the mid-1950s, a Western Hockey League skirmish featuring Billy Mosienko in the twilight years of a boffo career that included a 1952 record that stands uncontested to this day in the National Hockey League—three goals in the lickety-split time of 21 seconds. Mosie left the Chicago Blackhawks to wind it down with the Warriors in Good Ol’ Hometown, and it was a treat beyond description for a six-year-old kid to observe hockey royalty in person, in a swanky, new Winnipeg Arena.

  • I’m thinking about Father David Bauer and our national men’s team, based in River City during the 1960s. Our amateur Nats faced insurmountable odds in a quest to wrestle global supremacy from the U.S.S. R. “amateurs.” We all knew the Soviets were “amateurs” like cherry Kool-Aid is Russian vodka.

  • I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin and the original Winnipeg Jets, a Junior outfit in the Western Canada Hockey League that engaged in epic battles with the Flin Flon Bombers of coach Paddy Ginnell. Come playoff time, they’d pack the joint.

  • I’m thinking about Bill Addison, longtime commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. As a journalist and rink rat, I can’t think of anyone with whom I enjoyed talking all things puck more than Bill, a true gentleman in an era when a fellow would wear a necktie and a fedora to the rink.

  • I’m thinking about Frank McKinnon, the first sports figure I ever interviewed for the Trib, and the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association was the subject matter of my first byline article on June 14, 1971. It was buried on the back pages of the sports section, surrounded by Harold Loster’s horse racing copy, and it included a ghastly error—I wrote the MAHA had elected Frank president of the “1871-72” executive. What can I say? I’m an old soul. And, hey, I was only out by 100 years.

  • I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin signing Bobby Hull at Portage and Main in June 1972. I was a few blocks away in the Trib building when it all went down to change the shinny landscape forever. A younger generation might suggest Mark Chipman and David Thomson bringing the National Hockey League back to Good Ol’ Hometown in 2011 was a bigger story, but no. Everything flowed from Benny getting Hull’s signature on a World Hockey Association contract.

  • I’m thinking about the Jets introducing Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg to the masses in May 1974. Some of us were convinced that Benny and his minions had lost the plot because Swedes, thought to be cottony soft, couldn’t possibly survive vs. the barbarians who occupied too many roster spots on WHA outfits. Well, we now know they didn’t simply survive, they excelled, and served as Pied Pipers to numerous Europeans who found their way to the Jets.

  • Kevin McCarthy

    I’m thinking about Junior hockey. I remember my first road trip, a milk run from Winnipeg to Dauphin for MJHL playoffs, and there were other junkets on the iron lung with the Winnipeg Clubs and Monarchs. Kevin McCarthy was the most talented local kid I ever covered, and watching him and Doug Wilson anchor a powerplay was special. My old coach Gerry Brisson, who owned the Junior Jets/Clubs/Monarchs before whisking the WHL franchise to Calgary, was a different head of lettuce, and my favorite character was Muzz MacPherson, coach of the 1973 Centennial Cup champion Portage Terriers before moving behind Brisson’s bench with the Clubs.

  • I’m thinking about the many hours I spent in the company of scouts, guys like Bob Goring, Bruce Cheatley, Jimmy Walker, Bruce Southern and Dino Ball, who made the down time more enjoyable.

  • Billy Robinson

    I’m thinking about my favorite hockey people, in no particular order: Jeep Woolley, Tom McVie, Terry Hind, Earl Dawson, George Allard, Don Baizley, Gordie Pennell, Bill Addison, Frank McKinnon, Barry Bonni, Spider Mazur, Julie Klymkiw, Rudy Pilous, Teddy Foreman, Mike Doran, Sudsy, Aime Allaire, Bill Juzda, Bones Raleigh, Ed Sweeney, Billy Robinson, Aggie Kukulowicz, Marc Cloutier, Gordie Tumilson, Bill Bozak, John Ferguson, Peter Piper, Brian Gunn, Adam Tarnowski, Andy Murray, Teddy Green, Laurie Boschman, the Swedes (all of them), Portage Terriers.

  • I’m thinking about covering both the Jets final skirmish in the WHA, vs. the Edmonton Oilers (a 7-3 win), and their NHL baptism, in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins (a 4-2 loss). Reyn Davis and I were the beat writers of the day for both those games, and Friar Nicolson was the play-by-play guy on radio. Sadly, Reyn and Friar left us long ago.

  • I’m thinking about the 1975 World Junior tourney, with a group of WCHL all-stars facing off against the elite of the Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the U.S. The lads from Mother Russia ruled the day, besting the our kids 4-3 in the final game, prompting this rather peculiar observation of the comrades from Bobby Hull: “I’d like to see those guys in the shower, I’ll bet they’re all muscle.”

  • I’m thinking about Aime Allaire, the hard-luck case of my time covering shinny in Good Ol’ Hometown. Aime did everything possible to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home, but his St. Boniface Mohawks always came up a day late and a dollar short. I rode the iron lung with the Mohawks one winter, and Aime once hired me to handle stats for the Central Amateur Senior Hockey League.

  • I’m thinking about refereeing Winnipeg Colts tryout scrimmages for Stan Bradley and Harold Loster before they departed on their annual junket to a PeeWee tournament in Goderich, Ont.

  • I’m thinking about the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national side, 5-3, and Ulf Nilsson telling me in a noisy changing room that he was “proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

  • Mikhail Smith

    I’m thinking about Mike Smith, the egghead scout/coach/GM of the Jets who shall long be remembered for two things: 1) his make-work-for-Russians project; 2) running Ducky Hawerchuk out of town. The man I called Mikhail had a degree in Russian studies and a maniacal obsession with every Vladimir or Igor who laced up a pair of skates, and he attempted to transform the local shinny side into the Central Red Jets. The plan was a colossal flop and Hawerchuk became a casualty, moving to Buffalo.

  • I’m thinking about Billy Bozak, a very nice man known as Magic Fingers. Boz was responsible for healing the lame and halting among the Jets, and there wasn’t an owie the longtime team trainer couldn’t cure. How his healing hands made Terry Ruskowski suitable for combat in the 1979 WHA final I’ll never know.

  • I’m thinking about the day of the long faces, which is to say the final farewell for the original Jets, who packed up and skedaddled lock, stock and jock strap to Arizona. There weren’t many dry eyes in the joint on April 28, 1996, and it had nothing to do with a 4-1 playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings. It had everything to do with a funeral. The NHL was dead in Good Ol’ Hometown. It took 15 years for many among the rabble to recover from the Jets’ departure. Many still mourn the loss.

  • I’m thinking about piggy banks and pucks and Peter Warren of CJOB roaming the landscape on a flatbed truck, accepting donations from the young, the old and the in-between in a bid to Save the Jets from extinction. It worked once or twice, but kids emptying their piggy banks and little, old ladies signing over pension cheques was never going to be the solution.

  • I’m thinking about Tuxedo Night and how snazzy all the luminaries and the Zamboni driver looked in their monkey suits. The promo was the brainchild of marketing guru Marc Cloutier, who wanted Good Ol’ Hometown to look its spiffy best for the first appearance of NHL royalty, the Montreal Canadiens. Lafleur and Savard and Robinson and Gainey and Shutt et al were greeted by a gathering of 15,723 on Dec. 15, 1979, and the Jets faithful feared the worst. But a rag-tag roster filled with hand-me-downs rag-dolled the Stanley Cup champions, winning 6-2, with Willy Lindstrom scoring three goals and Peter Sullivan collecting five points.

  • John Ferguson

    I’m thinking about Bobby Hull and how he was greeted with such pomp and pageantry at Portage and Main in June 1972, and how he left the building in such an undignified manner seven years later. The Golden Jet was scheduled to be in the lineup for Tuxedo Night, nationally televised on Hockey Night in Canada, but he was confused about faceoff time and arrived late. Coach Tommy McVie, not one for bending rules, informed Hull that he’d be sitting this one out. When advised of Hull’s punishment, GM John Ferguson pitched a fit, kicking a hole in a dressing room door. Didn’t matter. Hull, one of the team owners, was out. He never wore Jets linen again.

  • I’m thinking about Teemu Selanne’s astonishing 76-goal rookie season, in 1992-93, and GM John Paddock trading the Finnish Flash to the Disney Ducks three years later. D’oh!

  • I’m thinking about doing color commentary to Friar Nicolson’s play-by-play on Jets radio broadcasts, in the WHA and NHL, and I’m sure I was awful.

  • Valeri Kharlamov

    I’m thinking about tossing back vodka and beer with the Russians at the Viscount Gort during the Winnipeg portion of the 1981 Canada Cup tournament. They couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak Russian, but we managed to conduct an impromptu and teary-eyed wake for legendary Soviet forward Valeri Kharlamov, who was buried that day back home in Mother Russia.

  • I’m thinking about all the good guys no longer with us, too many to list.

I’m no longer a rink rat. I haven’t attended a live hockey game since 1999, when I put Good Ol’ Hometown in my rear view mirror after 30 years in the rag trade. But it was a rush. Some might even think of it as a bit of a charmed life, and I suppose watching hockey and writing about the game for a living was every bit of that.

The only thing missing was girls/women’s hockey, and I hope Ponytail Puck receives more ink in the local dailies once it’s back on the ice. Ditto Junior, university and high school shinny. I realize readers can’t get enough of their Jets, but they weren’t the only game in town during my time at the Trib and Sun, and they still aren’t.

Happy Hockey Heritage Day.

About Puck Finn and sports folklore from “back in the day” in Good Ol’ Hometown

Many years from now, when people of a certain vintage gather to advise young’uns what it was like “back in the day,” Patrik Laine surely will occupy a place in the spinning of yarns.

The tales the elders tell will be tall and, no doubt, embellished to the point whereby Puck Finn is remembered as a larger-than-life National Hockey League player who, when not scoring goals, rescued babies from burning buildings and single-handedly dug a mile-wide trench around Duff’s Ditch to spare River City from cataclysmic spring flooding.

Puck Finn

“I was there when he dug that trench,” they’ll swear. “Took him a week. And danged if he didn’t go out an hour after putting down his shovel and score five goals on five shots. I was there when that happened, too. Still have the ticket stub to prove it.”

And that’s okay. It’s what us old farts do. We traffic in folklore and expect whippersnappers to accept that everything “back in the day” was better than everything today.

I recall my oldest son, for example, sitting at the dinner table in the mid-1980s and pooh-poohing the notion that Gordie Howe might have been a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky.

“What did Howe ever do that was so great?” he asked with considerable adolescent cheek and a smirk that needed to be wiped from his face.

“Excuse me? What did Gordie Howe do?” I replied, almost choking on my pork chop. “You mean aside from the six scoring titles, the six MVPs, the four Stanley Cup rings, the five goal-scoring titles, the most goals and points in the history of hockey, the 20 all-star teams? You mean aside from all that? And let me tell you something else…Gretzky was spoiled as a kid. His dad built him a rink in his back yard. Mr. Hockey—that’s Gordie Howe—wasn’t spoiled. He had to trudge two miles barefoot through three feet of snow just to get to the rink and back when he was a kid. All of us kids had to do that.”

Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe

My boy bowed his head. He had been properly chastised, yet he remained unconvinced of Howe’s superiority before finishing the last of his green peas and slinking off to the living room.

“Gretzky’s better,” were his defiant, parting words, “and I don’t believe that stuff about Howe walking barefoot in the snow. I’m sure they had buses back then.”

“They did, but Howe got kicked off for elbowing all the other boys,” I replied.

Similar tall tales will be told about Patrik Laine, his five goals on five shots in Winnipeg Jets’ 8-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues last weekend destined to be included in the I-was-there-when-it-happened folklore 40-50 years hence.

And that set me to thinking…

I began watching and following River City athletes more than 60 years ago, in the mid-1950s just as Billy Mosienko was returning to Good Ol’ Hometown to join Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League. So I’ve seen some jocks. And these are the 10 I mention most when asked about the way it was “back in the day.”

  • Ken Ploen

    Kenny Ploen: Once upon a time, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup. Repeatedly. And Ploen was usually at the forefront of those powerful 1950s-60s Canadian Football League outfits—as a quarterback, a defensive back, or both. Oh, yes, Ploen played two ways. Sometimes in the same game. And he was an all-star at both positions. He also might be the nicest man alive. I recall riding my bike, twice a day, out to Packers Field in St. Boniface during Bombers training camp. I’d ask Mr. Ploen for his autograph after each of the morning and afternoon sessions. Every day for a week. He never once declined my request for his signature.

  • Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Hedberg was a cheetah on skates. Nilsson had four eyes, two in the front of his head and two in the back. The Shoe was short and squat, kind of like Barney Rubble. It was as if an unseen giant had put his thumb on the top of the Shoe’s head and squashed him. But move the puck? The best. And the beatings those Swedish boys took from North American ruffians after joining the Jets in the World Hockey Association? Rented mules don’t get whacked that often.

  • Terry Sawchuk

    Terry Sawchuk: The great goalie grew up in the same area of town as I did, East Kildonan. When I began playing Little NHL hockey at Melrose Park, rumor had it that a pair of goalie pads we used once belonged to Sawchuk. That set of pillows had magical, mystic powers. The kid who wrapped the Sawchuk pads around his legs always got a shutout. Honest. He did.

  • Donny Lalonde: I remember the first time I saw the Golden Boy working out in a firehall-turned gym, his every move in concert with the sound of Bob Dylan’s great album Infidels. He struck me as kind of scrawny for a light-heavyweight boxer. He wasn’t much of a ring technician. And he fought with his left arm tied behind his back. But his one good arm won a world championship and he became just the second man to floor the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.

  • Bluto

    Chris Walby: If it’s possible for anyone to actually be larger than life, Bluto is your man. He went from total junior hockey goon with the West Kildonan North Stars to a career as arguably the best offensive lineman in CFL history. He later became a talking head on CBC football coverage, mangling the English language while actually making sense. If you ever see Walby, check out his hands. His fingers are as gnarled and as bent as tree bark. They’ve been broken more often than a politician’s promises.

  • Jeff Stoughton: A curler who didn’t drink. Go figure. And I don’t recall ever hearing cuss words escape his lips. That certainly made him suitable for mixed company and, in fact, mostly forgotten is that his breakthrough on the national stage came in the mixed game, where he skipped his rink to a pair of Canadian titles before beginning his run as the most successful male curler in a curling-rich province. His spin-o-rama delivery is legendary.

  • The Finnish Flash

    Teemu Selanne: I’m not convinced that the Finnish Flash actually happened. I mean, 76 goals and 132 points as an NHL rookie? Go on. You’re making that up. That’s pure fiction. But it’s not. Teemu actually did it in real life, not PlayStation. Then—poof!—he was gone, like Col. Flagg on M*A*S*H.

  • Vic Peters: Like Selanne, seemingly too good to have been real. Forget that he was a champion curler. Vic was the loveliest of lads. A total people person who, when not winning curling championships or making pebbled ice, could be found at Larters or The Meadows golf courses, grooming the fairways/greens or playing a few holes while still wearing his superintendent’s galoshes. If K. Ploen isn’t the nicest man, Vic was and he left us far too soon.