Ignore the propaganda that news snoops in the Republic of Tranna have been spewing this week, kids.
Oh, sure, it’s true that the Tranna Jurassics have come out best in their last 15 frolics on the National Basketball Association hardwood, but…contrary to dispatches from The ROT, that does not establish a new standard for the longest run of sustained success in the history of Canadian professional sports franchises.
The Winnipeg Jets, you see, have been there and done that.
That is correct.
The Jets circa 1977-78 were a rollicking, swashbuckling outfit that used a blend of European panache and Canadian growl to lord themselves over the World Hockey Association, at one stretch winning 15 consecutive matches.
It began on Jan. 29, when Winnipeg HC toppled the Stingers in Cincinnati, 8-4, and win No. 15 was delivered on Feb. 26, with the Jets paddywhacking Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell and the Houston Aeros, 9-6, in the friendly confines of ye ol’ and decaying barn on Maroons Road.
Here are the facts, kids:
Jan. 29: Winnipeg 8 at Cincinnati 4
Jan. 31: Winnipeg 7 at Quebec 2
Feb. 4: Winnipeg 7 at Cincinnati 5
Feb. 5: Winnipeg 4 Edmonton 3
Feb. 8: Winnipeg 9 Birmingham 0
Feb. 10: Winnipeg 10, Cincinnati 2
Feb. 11: Winnipeg 5 at Indianapolis 3
Feb. 12: Winnipeg 6 at Houston 5
Feb. 15: Winnipeg 6 Edmonton 5
Feb. 16: Winnipeg 2 at New England 1 (OT)
Feb. 18: Winnipeg 4 at Cincinnati 0
Feb. 19: Winnipeg 5 Quebec 2
Feb. 22: Winnipeg 4 New England 2
Feb. 24: Winnipeg 7 New England 2
Feb. 26: Winnipeg 9 Houston 6
Totals: Winnipeg 93 Opposition 42
Oddly enough, the Jets’ streak was bookended by losses (8-5 Jan. 28, 4-3 March 1) to the Birmingham Bulls, a bottom-feeding side that featured an assortment of barbarians. Go figure.
At any rate, what the Jurassics have accomplished is totally admirable, and they can one-up the Jets with a 16th consecutive W tonight in Brooklyn, where they meet the Nets.
For now, though, they’re Johnny-come-latelies.
Footnote: There were a few other noteworthy items about those 1977-78 Jets: They also had an 11-game win streak; Kent Nilsson was the WHA’s top freshman (“He’s got more potential, more ability than any other 21-year-old hockey player I’ve ever seen,” said Bobby Hull), the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, was the top defender; Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, the Shoe, Hull and Barry Long were all-stars; Bobby Guindon was the playoff MVP; they became the first North American club side to beat the Soviet Union national team (5-3 on Jan. 5); they won the WHA title, losing just one game in their two series.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and bravo to the 20,907 souls who trudged through the white stuff and made it to Football Follies Field in Fort Gary for the Bombers-Larks skirmish on Saturday…
I remember the day Teddy Green retired. He cried.
Not for himself, understand. I don’t recall Teddy ever feeling sorry for himself, even though he never experienced a pain-free day after Wayne Maki clubbed him over the head with a hockey stick.
So, if the tears couldn’t possibly have been for the one-time toughest dude in hockey, who?
“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” Green explained the day he stepped away from a professional playing career that had come full cycle, starting in Winnipeg with the Warriors in 1959 and concluding with the Jets in 1979. “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.”
None of us who traveled with the Jets back in the day ever questioned Teddy’s sand.
We’d watch him hobble onto buses and through airports like an old man on a pair of knees that had endured the slicing and dicing of a surgeon’s scalpel five times, and we knew all about the headaches that often put him into a state of paralysis. But Teddy was tire-iron tough. He played through all the searing discomfort, and did so admirably. We marveled.
“I only missed one game in seven years because of the headaches,” he said with a proper level of pride on the January 1979 day he bid adieu to his playing career, but not the game.
The headaches, of course, were a reminder of his ugly stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 21, 1969. They had clashed near one of the nets in a National Hockey League exhibition game, Teddy wielding his lumber first, striking Maki with a blow to the shoulder. The St. Louis forward retaliated and, unfortunately, he had better aim, chopping down on Teddy’s head with Bunyanesque force.
Teddy lay on the freeze in a contorted mess and was whisked away from the rink to an Ottawa hospital, where medics spent five hours repairing his fractured skull and keeping the Grim Reaper at bay. By the time Teddy was fit enough to rejoin the Boston Bruins, in 1970-71, there was a plate in his head and a helmet on top of it. He helped them win the Stanley Cup in the spring of ’72.
“I never met a guy with more intestinal fortitude,” Phil Esposito said of his former teammate, who drew his final breath the other day at age 79.
The thing you should know about Teddy, is that his on-ice persona didn’t match the man away from the freeze. A bonfire burned in his belly in battle, but once removed from the fray he was gentle, thoughtful and soft spoken, sometimes to the point of mumbling. His words were often accompanied by a devlish cackle, as if he’d just pulled a prank, and he probably had.
As mentioned, Teddy’s career began and ended in Good Ol’ Hometown. He started on the frozen ponds of St. Boniface, and upper-level hockey people began taking notice of the tough guy on defence when he lined up on the blueline with les Canadiens in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Legendary shinny lifers Bill Addison and Bill Allum recruited Teddy to join the Winnipeg Braves for their Memorial Cup crusade in 1959, and they won the national Junior title, beating the Scotty Bowman-coached Peterborough Petes in five games.
Teddy added a Stanley Cup with the Bruins, he captained the New England Whalers to the inaugural World Hockey Association title, and he added two more after joining the Jets in 1975-76.
“I ended up in Winnipeg, which was a real plus, and I won a couple of championships,” he told me at his retirement presser. “I also got to play with one of the best forward lines ever put together in hockey in Ulf (Nilsson), Anders (Hedberg) and Bobby (Hull). And I was part of the European influx.”
Teddy always kept good company on the freeze, dating back to his time with the Braves, an outfit that included Ernie Wakely, Bobby Leiter, Gary Bergman, and local Junior legends Wayne Larkin and Laurie Langrell. He played with Bobby Orr, Espo and the Big Bad Bruins, Hull, Hedberg and the two Nilssons, Ulf and Kent, with the Jets, and he coached Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and the boys on the bus in Edmonton.
Most of the headlines and dispatches since his death have been devoted to Teddy’s time with the Bruins and Oilers, but his formative years on the rinks of River City and three-plus winters with the Jets should be more than a footnote.
He was one of us, a local lad who found his way home to bookend his Memorial Cup championship with two WHA titles.
Great career, better guy.
Shame on the Drab Slab for reducing Green’s death to a sports brief. That’s all he deserves? What, no one at the broadsheet has a phone that works? They couldn’t call some of his former teammates? Do they not realize this guy was hockey royalty in River City? The Winnipeg Sun, meanwhile, ran a nice piece by Jimmy Matheson of Postmedia E-Town, but it was totally Oilers-centric. It’s as if Teddy never played hockey in Good Ol’ Hometown. Well, he did, dammit. He earned his chops on our frozen ponds and he was a significant part of the Jets’ WHA glory days.
Oh dear. After three straight losses, the Tranna Maple Leafs felt obliged to conduct a special think tank to discuss their repeated face plants. “A family discussion,” is how head coach Mike Babcock described the behind-closed-doors to and fro. “It’s just honest. Like any family, you keep each other accountable.” So, when les Leafs huddle on the QT it’s a “family discussion,” but when les Jets do that very thing some zealots in the media tell us the changing room is “rotten to the core” and “fractured.” Go figure.
I note that Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has declared a state of emergency. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterbacking situation is that bad.
Ever wonder why news snoops become such cynical SOBs? Well, consider the sound bites delivered by head coach Mike O’Shea when asked if his Bombers would recruit a veteran quarterback to baby sit Chris Streveler:
Sept. 30 (to Knuckles Irving on the CJOB Coach’s Show): “That’s not gonna happen, and I’m good with it. I like our guys. Very confident in our guys. Dance with the one you brung.”
Oct. 2: “To really think that a guy’s gonna come in and change your franchise this late in the season, it’s pretty difficult in football. Even if you trade for a veteran presence, unless he knows your guys, it’s really hard for even a veteran guy to come in late in a season and lead. I really just don’t think those scenarios work or can be applied to football this late in the season. Especially (a quarterback). Quarterbacks usually do a lot better when they’ve got a playbook and a training camp and exhibition games to play with.”
Oct. 10 (after the signing of veteran Zach Collaros): “I think it’s a good move. We said right from the get-go about bringing in a veteran guy. Now we got a seasoned veteran who comes in and, you know, will have a role and it’ll definitely be a good guy to have in the building. Knowing Zach, he’s a smart guy, a competitive guy, he’s going to pick things up very quickly. I’m sure the concepts are very familiar to him. The terminology will be probably different, but, I mean, that’s the reason we talked about a veteran guy, because it comes that much quicker and understanding CFL defences is something these guys do no matter what the play call is. That’s important.”
So, to sum up: O’Shea never wanted a veteran QB but he wanted one “right from the get-go,” and even a veteran QB is too stupid to pick up the system in a short time, except Collaros isn’t too stupid to pick up the system in a short time. Good grief.
Well lookee here. According to Gaming Club Casino, there’s no better burg to be a Canadian Football League fan than Edmonton, with Winnipeg a solid second. First thought: Obviously, it has nothing to do with winning. Sure enough, the folks at GCC used six measuring sticks, only one of which—touchdowns—
involves the on-field product, so findings were based mainly on ticket costs, precipitation, pollution and the tariff on burgers and beer. Turns out that E-Town has the best burger prices and the second-lowest admission fees, while Good Ol’ Hometown has the cheapest booze, which is probably a good thing. I mean, when you’ve been watching your team lose every year since 1990, chances are you need a drink or two.
A couple of peculiarities in the GCC study: B.C. Lions received the worst mark for all the wet stuff than falls in Lotus Land, except for one thing—the Leos play in the air-conditioned comfort of B.C. Place Stadium. Indoors. Under a $514-million umbrella. Meanwhile, Ottawa scored high marks for being the least-polluted city. Hmmm. Apparently they didn’t watch either of last week’s federal election debates.
This year’s inductees to the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame are former colleagues Steve Simmons (Calgary Sun) and Larry Tucker (Winnipeg Tribune). That brings to 14 the number of CFHofFamers that I worked beside at one time or another during my 30 years in jock journalism. My all-time all-star team from that bunch: Trent Frayne, Jack Matheson, young Eddie Tait, Shakey Hunt, Jim Coleman and Knuckles Irving.
It’s worth noting that the media wing of the Canadian grid hall is the ultimate boys club. There are now 99 card-carrying members and, unless I missed something when I called up the CFHofF website, not one of them is female. Zero. Nada. Seems to me that they should have made room for trailblazers like Joanne Ireland, Ashley Prest, Robin Brown and Judy Owen by now.
The CFL has always been blessed by quality news snoops on the beat, and I don’t think anyone covers Rouge Footballbetter today than Dave Naylor of TSN. Just saying.
This week’s Twit on Twitter: The aforementioned Simmons of Postmedia Tranna.The Vancouver Canucks put on the glitz for their home opener last week, and the production featured an on-ice, in-uniform cameo appearance by Todd Bertuzzi, he of the infamous Steve Moore goon job. That prompted Simmons to tweet, “Sad.” My oh my. How thoughtless of the Canucks for not clearing their guest list with a mook columnist from the Republic of Tranna. Never mind that Bert is among Vancity’s favorite hockey sons and the Canucks had every right to include him in their puck pageantry. A mook columnist from The ROT says it was wrong, so it must be. As freaking if. Simmons’ morality metre is sorely out of whack. He believes Bertuzzi should be persona non grata for mugging Moore, yet he celebrated the arrival of a woman-beater, Johnny Manziel, to the CFL. “Personally, I think the CFL is stronger, maybe more fun, possibly more fan-appealing, with Manziel playing or trying to play the Canadian game,” he wrote. “Where do I sign up?” So, if you’re scoring at home, Simmons believes an on-ice mugging is a more egregious trespass than beating up, and threatening to kill, a woman. The mind boggles.
When soccer’s purple-haired diva Megan Rapinoe shouted “Gays rule!” during last summer’s women’s soccer World Cup, she wasn’t kidding. Rapinoe, a lesbian, was anointed FIFA female footballer of the year. Jill Ellis, a lesbian, was anointed FIFA female coach of the year. Elena Delle Donne, a lesbian, is the Women’s National Basketball Association MVP and league champion with the Washington Mystics. Katie Sowers, a lesbian, is an assistant offensive coach with the San Francisco 49ers, who remain unbeaten this year in the National Football League. Meanwhile, all the gay guys remain in hiding.
Price comparison: A standing-room ticket to see the Jets and Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday in the Toddlin’ Town was $27. Meanwhile, a standing room ticket to watch the Buffalo Beauts v. Boston Pride, or Metropolitan Riveters v. Minnesota Whitecaps, of the National Women’s Hockey League went for $20. I don’t know if the NWHL is overpricing its product or the Blackhawks are underpricing, but a $7 difference seems out of whack to me.
Hey, check it out. Head coach Tim Hunter of the Moose Jaw Warriors has hired a female, Olivia Howe, as one of his assistants. That’s a first for the Western Hockey League, and I say good on Hunter.
And, finally, if you’re having a gobbler dinner with all the fixings today or Monday, be thankful that turkeys don’t fly.
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.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
You want to talk about a tough schedule, kids (we all know Paul Maurice does)?
Well, let me tell you about the mother of all tough schedules. Then I don’t want to hear another word about what the Winnipeg Jets have endured in the first two-plus months of their current National Hockey League crusade.
Here’s the deal…
Beginning on Jan. 1 and ending on Feb. 27 in the final World Hockey Association season (1978-79), the Jets played 30 games (17 road, 13 home). Do the math. That’s 30 assignments in 58 nights. At one point, they played five games in six nights (3-2) and eight games in 10 nights (4-4). Overall, they went 14-14-2. I don’t recall anyone bitching about the grind and unfairness of the schedule. We just spoke to its quirkiness.
During a wacky stretch in February, for example, we were in Cincinnati long enough to qualify as registered voters in the Ohio primaries. Here’s what the itinerary looked like:
Feb. 8: arrive Cincinnati
Feb. 9: play Cincinnati Stingers
Feb. 10: leave Cincinnati, play at New England Whalers
Feb. 11-13: return to Cincinnati; practice in Cincinnati
Feb. 14: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 15: leave Cincinnati
Feb. 16: play at Birmingham Bulls; return to Cincinnati
Feb. 17: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 18: leave Cincinnati, play at home vs. New England
Feb. 19: return to Cincinnati
Feb. 20: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 21: leave Cincinnati, play at home vs. New England
Feb. 22: fly to Birmingham
Feb. 23: play Birmingham Bulls
Feb. 24: fly to New England
Feb. 25: play New England
Feb. 26: fly home.
We spent more time in Cincinnati than Venus Flytrap and Dr. Johnny Fever (Google WKRP in Cincinnati, kids; it was a terrific sitcom). Our home base had become the Cincinnati Marriott. A couple of times, we weren’t required to pack our bags and check out of the hotel because we would be back in less than 24 hours.
“Maybe we should all just have our mail delivered to us at the hotel,” silky-smooth centre Peter Sullivan quipped one day.
Some of us could recite the Marriott restaurant menu from memory.
By way of comparison, here’s how often, or seldom, the six WHA outfits played during that Jan. 1-Feb. 27 time frame:
The Jets were so tuckered out from their 30-games-in-58-nights grind that they only managed to go 19-10 the rest of the way, finishing 11-8 down the regular-season stretch then 8-2 in the playoffs to win the final WHA title. That’s why I refuse to listen to any more whining about the current Jets’ tough schedule. I don’t want to hear it from Maurice, his players, his parrots in mainstream media, or fans. I’ve witnessed worse and saw it conclude with the best result possible.
I’m not into fancy stats. I like my stats like my life: simple. Thus, I look at the numbers in the W and L columns and they tell me all I need to know about a head coach. And here’s what they tell me about Paul Maurice: He has the second-worst won-lost percentage of all active NHL head coaches who have been on the job more than a month and, by the close of business next spring, the Jets bench boss will be the third-losingest head coach in the history of the NHL. At present, he has 550 career losses. Another 12 and he’ll pass Ron Wilson to slide into the No. 3 slot. That, mind you, puts him in mighty fine company, because the only two men ahead of him on the loser list will be Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour, both Hockey Hall of Famers. The difference, of course, is that Bowman and Arbour are also Nos. 1 and 3 on the all-time win list and they’ve coached nine and four Stanley Cup champions, respectively.
I was sold on Mauricewhen he worked wonders with the Jets in his first full whirl behind the bench. He got them into the Stanley Cup tournament. Two seasons later, he no longer is working wonders. Some, in fact, wonder how he’s still working. Worth considering is this: A number of the Jets young players will improve as they mature, but Maurice won’t ever be a better coach than he is today. If the head coach can’t grow with his players, when is the right time to dismiss him?
The best of jock journalism in Canada is no more. Cam Cole of Postmedia has arrived at trail’s end, after 41 years as a jock sniffer. Cam was never a ranter and raver like, say, his Postmedia colleague Steve Simmons, who believes he who squawks the loudest rules the day. Cam, a very nice man, most always wrote in reasoned, measured tones with a subtle wit, and he had a heck of a ride, showing up in time to write about both the Edmonton Eskimos and Edmonton Oilers dynasties. Cam’s retirement means the torch as our nation’s top jock columnist is passed to Bruce Arthur, who’s very socially conscious and actually injects humor into his scribblings for the Toronto Star.
The boys and girls in the toy departments of the land got it right in their salute to kid swimmer Penny Oleksiak as Canada’s athlete-of-the-year. She struck gold in the pool at the Rio Summer Olympic Games and twice at the recent world short course championships. It was a no-brainer. I did, however, find it odd that Andre De Grasse was part of the Lou Marsh Trophy discussion. Yes, I realize his bromance with Usain Bolt in Rio was a warm-and-fuzzy Olympic storyline, but De Grasse never won a race. He finished second or third. Shouldn’t you actually have to win something before you warrant consideration as the True North’s top jock? There should have been just three athletes in that conversation: Oleksiak, hockey player Sidney Crosby and golfer Brooke Henderson.
I don’t know about you, but I find the Auston Matthews-Patrik Laine debate kind of silly. Go ahead and discuss which of the two is enjoying the better freshman season if you like, but to engage in a verbal to-and-fro over who will have the better NHL career is foolish in the extreme. Discuss that amongst yourselves when Matthews and Puck Finn have some mileage behind them. Like, in about 15 years.
Once again, Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail has referred to this as the “golden age” of Canadian tennis and, once again, he has failed to explain himself. Yes, Milos Raonic is the world No. 3 on the men’s side, but he went another year without winning a tournament of significance. Genie Bouchard, meanwhile, has fallen off the grid. So, our premier men’s player can’t win the big match and our top female player can’t find her game. That’s what passes for a “golden age?”
Really enjoyed old friend Paul Friesen’s piece on the fictional Bud’s Diner in the Winnipeg Sun last week. It’s a nice, lighthearted piece that, although some might find hokey, shows imagination, creativity and a sense of humor, something that’s lacking in jock journalism. I was also pleased to see the return of my favorite Grumpets—Paul Wiecek and Steve Lyons—to the Winnipeg Free Press sports pages. Their Say What?! print chin-wag is light, breezy and often self-deprecating, with an appropriate amount of bite.
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.
Perhaps because a broad brushstroke of hockey nostalgia is about to sweep across Good, Ol’ Hometown, I find myself reaching back to distant times and a shinny barn long ago reduced to rubble.
I couldn’t begin to inventory the number of days and nights I spent in the Winnipeg Arena during my three decades writing about hockey in River City, but I confess that the large majority of the games I witnessed have faded to black, lost in the foggy moors of my ever-eroding memory. Mostly, they come back to me in vignettes. A highlight here, an incident there.
There are, however, three matches that remain indelible: 1) The Winnipeg Jets’ victory over the Soviet Union National team; 2) Game 6 of the 1979 World Hockey Association championship; 3) the first Tuxedo Night.
The latter two I recall because one carried historical significance, in that it was the WHA’s final act and the local lads took permanent ownership of the Avco World Trophy, while the other was noteworthy for its marketing quirkiness and behind-the-scenes madness that brought closure to Bobby Hull’s career in Jets linen. Poor Bobby was all dressed up with no place to go on Tuxedo Night, and his clumsy exit is a humorous, oft-told chapter of folklore that I’m certain will be recited and embellished when the old boys gather for their Heritage Classic hijinks this week.
That’s strictly Sideshow Bob stuff, though, when measured against the caging of the great Russian Bear. That was the defining moment for a team and its players whose accomplishments often were pooh-poohed by the hockey establishment because of the company they kept. The WHA and its member teams, you see, were looked upon like the Canadian dollar is today—not up to par. Devalued. Or so the prevailing logic went.
But wait. Don’t talk to us about second-class citizens. The Jets beat the Soviet National side, dammit!
I can still see Ulf Nilsson delivering a short, delicate pass to Dave Dunn, a big, lumbering defenceman with a square, planter-like pot for a helmet. No one had ever mistaken Dunn for, say, the smooth-as-silk Peter Sullivan or Kent Nilsson. More to the point, his was a hunch-shouldered, laborious skating style that evoked imagery of a beast of burden pulling a milk wagon. Yet there was Dunn, suddenly with some lickety-split in his stride as he departed the neutral zone and navigated his way into enemy territory.
Looking up from the end boards, Dunn spied Hull standing at the lip of the crease, and he dished a backhand pass to the Golden Jet, who flicked the puck past Vladislav Tretiak. Game, set and match. The Jets had beaten the Soviets, 5-3.
It is the irony of Dunn’s daring, as much as Hull’s three scores and Ulf Nilsson’s four points, that revisits me when I ponder the events of Jan. 5, 1978.
I recall watching from on high, in the Arena press box, as Dunn accepted Nilsson’s feed and began his foray along the right wing boards and into a corner. I thought it totally out of character for him to be so ambitious. Dunn’s technique and skill level were directly at odds with the shock-and-awe swagger of his playmates, Nilsson, Hull and Anders Hedberg. Not to mention the three Soviet forwards on the freeze at that moment—Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. Dave Dunn belonged in that group like Don Cherry belonged in the Kremlin.
“This can’t possibly end well,” I muttered to myself.
It did, though, and the Jets had their signature game, the one match we can point to after this great passage of time and say “that’s how good those guys were.”
This wasn’t a championship skirmish. It was, as soccer people are wont to say, a “friendly.” A pleasant interlude of sporting pleasure to perhaps soothe the sting of another long and dreary Winnipeg winter.
Yet any frolic with the Soviet National side during the Cold War, circa 1970s, carried political overtones, if not intrigue, plus the promotional wallop of a heavyweight tiff.
And so it was when the Jets, with their blend of smooth Swedes and good, ol’ bent-nosed Canadian boys, engaged the best of Mother Russia. None among the combatants arrived at the rink to make nice. This was a “friendly” like Winnipeg is New York City.
Few beyond the walls of the Jets’ changing quarters expected the WHA’s marquee team to topple the comrades. Even the most rabid of the rabble would have told you victory was less likely than Cherry taking a mail-order Russian bride.
I mean, this was the creme de la borscht of Soviet shinny. It was one thing to whup a club side from Mother Russia, like Wings or Dynamo or, yes, even the National team’s doppelganger, CKSA, more commonly known as the Central Red Army. A few WHA and NHL outfits already had been there and done that. But beat the communist colossus? Nyet.
To further underscore the enormity of the task, the Russkies already had given the Jets three wedgies in “friendlies” in Tokyo, Japan—7-5, 4-2, 5-1—prior to the comrades’ arrival on our shores (at which point Ivan promptly administered a 7-2 paddywhacking to the Edmonton Oilers).
So, yes, the Russian Bear was in full-throated growl.
The Jets, however, were not without bark and bite of their own.
Although appropriately respectful of a foe that collected World and Olympic championships like little boys collected bubble gum cards, the Jets delighted a gathering of 10,315 eye witnesses by laying waste to the Soviets early, building a 4-0 advantage on two goals each from Ulf Nilsson and Hull. Shortly thereafter, taskmaster Viktor Tikhonov removed Aleksandr Sidelnikov from the Soviets’ goal and replaced him with Tretiak.
As if on cue, the great Russian Bear stirred, making it 4-2 before the second period had expired, both goals coming off the stick of diminutive and unsmiling Boris Alexandrov. Vasily Pervukhin then supplied third-period drama, beating Jets goaltender Joe Daley two minutes and 43 seconds in. A collective murmur rumbled from the pews to the rafters in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fans feared the worst.
The Jets quelled the Russian uprising, though, guarding their one-goal advantage with Scrooge-like stinginess until Hull converted Dunn’s pass into his third score and the Jets’ fifth, eight seconds from time.
Never before had the Soviet National side been beaten by a club team.
Scant seconds after the fact, those of us with pens, notepads and microphones were granted access to the locals’ lair, where we discovered half the players still fully adorned in their Jets livery and the other half already baring well-sculpted chests, abs and arms. Some roamed to the four corners of their cramped quarters, smiling and slapping broad-shouldered backs and tousling the stringy, matted-down hair on sweat-soaked heads. A few sat in silent reflection, giving ponder to a job well done and nursing post-work refreshments.
They were properly pleased and proud, these Jets, also weary to the marrow.
They seemed in unspoken agreement that the early after-moments of their conquest of the CCCP was a time for softened celebration, rather than unrestrained revelry, and it is their muffled merriment and a quiet quote from Ulf Nilsson that I also remember about the goings-on of that magical night.
“The Russians are so hard to play against…I don’t think I ever beat them before tonight,” offered Nilsson, a native of Nynashamn who along with fellow Swede Hedberg and Hull combined to outscore the Soviets’ fabled forward troika of Mikhailov, Kharlamov and Petrov 10 points to zero. “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
That sentiment worked both ways, that night and so many others for the Jets and their flock.
(Footnote: To put the Jets’ victory in perspective, the Soviets went 5-0 against five other WHA outfits on that tour, beating the Oilers (7-2), Quebec Nordiques (6-3), Cincinnati Stingers (9-2), Indianapolis Racers (8-3) and New England Whalers (8-4) for a combined score of 38-14).
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.
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.
There is expectation and there is hope. It is only when expectation trumps hope that culture shifts.
And so it is with the Winnipeg Jets.
Last spring’s fleeting fling with playoff hockey notwithstanding, the culture of losing is the albatross that followed the Atlanta caravan as it rolled into River City in 2011, whereupon the Thrashers morphed into the Jets. She’s still there, hanging from the neck of this woebegone National Hockey League franchise.
How do you get rid of her?
Well, you change parts, of course, but you must change the right parts. In a little more than a year, the tallest foreheads in Jets Nation have permitted one Stanley Cup champion, Michael Frolik, to skate away sans compensation, then they dispatched a two-time Stanley Cup champion, captain Andrew Ladd, to a division foe in barter for a fistful of hope.
Meanwhile, the tandem of co-bankroll Mark Chipman and his valet, Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff, have added a few parts from another losing culture, the Buffalo Sabres, they welcomed prodigal son Alexander Burmistrov back from his two-year hissy fit in Mother Russia, and they keep regrettable Thrasher holdovers Chris Thorburn, Mark Stuart and Ondrej Pavelec on payroll.
Dismissing proven winners and clinging to proven losers is not a recipe for success or a seismic cultural shift.
What about all the youth Chipman and Cheveldayoff have brought on board, you ask? Well, yes, the Jets now ice a lineup that is greener than St. Patty’s Day. But youth equals hope, not expectation. And these neophytes are being integrated into a culture of losing, on both the big club and the farm in the American Hockey League.
Who is going to teach Mark Sheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Jacob Trouba what is required to win at the NHL loft? Dustin Byfuglien has a Stanley Cup ring, but after that…nada.
As much as I greatly admire the play of Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler (they can play on my team any time), their body of work in the NHL does not include a great deal of team success. Certainly they can show the whippersnappers how to prepare and what it takes to be a professional, but winning is another matter. For the most part, all they’ve done in the NHL is lose, as has the head coach, Paul Maurice, and chronic losing can consume an entire organization and become as much a part of its brand as the team logo.
How, for example, are the Chicago Cubs viewed if not as losers? Lovable losers, to be sure, but losers just the same. That happens when a team goes more than a century without winning Major League Baseball’s World Series. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a rich, winning tradition that includes numerous Stanley Cup conquests, yet when we see the logo of the NHL’s most-ballyhooed franchise we think laughable loser due to the Leafs’ failure to win hockey’s top bauble since spring 1967.
Once upon a time, of course, there existed a healthy culture of winning in the Winnipeg Jets boudoir and front office. You didn’t join the Jets during the World Hockey Association years just to play hockey. You were expected to win. There was no option. And win they did. In the final four WHA seasons, the Jets participated in 10 playoff series. They won nine of them, including three championship frolics. Their post-season record during that stretch was 39-11. Overall, they appeared in five finals in the WHA’s seven-year run.
That culture of winning gave way to a culture of losing, initially because the championship roster was ransacked by the NHL when it absorbed the four WHA survivors—the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. In 17 seasons, the original Jets NHL franchise won just two playoff rounds and, now housed in the Arizona desert, it remains the only WHA outfit that has failed to secure the Stanley Cup.
Which brings us back to Jets 2.0 and the culture of losing that began in Atlanta and continues in River City, where the local hockey heroes have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament for the fourth time in five crusades.
Apparently, Chipman and Cheveldayoff plan to change the culture by going all-in on a youth movement. Fine. Except one need look no further than Edmonton to discover what a massive infusion of greenhorns might deliver. The Oilers have an array of glittery, young talent, most notably up front, but all Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins et al have learned is how to lose. Even with Connor McDavid inserted into the lineup, the Oilers stand 30th in a 30-team league. They don’t know how to win and there’s nobody who can show them how to win.
That’s not to say the kiddie-corps route cannot work for the Jets. But, again, when you change parts you must change the right parts. Who’s going to teach them how to win?
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 to her 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.