A midweek smorgas-bored…and it’s a good day for stepping into the Junior shinny Way Back Machine to a time when some hockey coaches wore fedoras…
Major Junior hockey. Winnipeg.
Some of us are old enough to recall the days when those two went together, like Johnny Carson and late-night laughter.
That’s right, kids, once upon a brief time Major Junior worked in Good Ol’ Hometown.
Oh, they didn’t exactly sardine-can them into the old shinny barn on Maroons Road every night, but it wasn’t just family and friends who surfaced to watch the Winnipeg Jets. Especially when the Flin Flon Bombers of Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach rode into River City with a sneer and something to prove to the big-city boys.
Logically, the Brandon Wheat Kings, being just a hoot and a holler down the road, should have been cast in the role of the Jets’ antagonist in what was then known as the Western Canada Hockey League. But no. It was the bunch from the northern Manitoba mining town named after the fictional Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin who wore the black hat.
The dreaded Bombers were piloted by Paddy Ginnell, a rascalish head coach given to filling news snoops’ notebooks with goading, in-your-face candor.
In the spring of 1969, for example, the Jets evened a playoff joust with the Bombers at 2-2-1 (yes, there was a tie game), which meant the eight-point series was heading back to intimidating Whitney Forum in Flin Flon.
“How the hell are they going to win up there?” a cocksure Ginnell scoffed. “They’ve never won there. If I was Ben (Hatskin, Jets bankroll), I’d forfeit the series and save the money.”
Turns out Paddy was right.
The Jets couldn’t quite figure out a way to win in the Flin Flon Forum, which provided cozy comfort for the Bombers but served as a chamber of horrors for the Winnipegs in ’69 and the following spring.
The thing is, whatever pre- and post-game hype Ginnell and his counterpart, Eddie (Pistol) Dorohoy, were selling to anyone with a notebook or microphone, the rabble was buying. The Jets topped out at a head count of 7,326 and totaled 20,516 for three home dates in ’69, and upped that in 1970 with a WCHL single-game record of 9,043 and 33,206 for their four home dates vs. Flin Flon.
Queen Liz looked down approvingly from the north end of the barn.
That all changed, however, when the aforementioned Ben Hatskin saw two bigger pies in the sky. One was called the World Hockey Association. The other was Robert Marvin Hull.
Five years after Benny and the WHA Jets reshaped the local shinny landscape in 1972, Major Junior hockey disappeared, despite the earnest intentions and heavy sledding of people like Gerry Brisson, Muzz MacPherson, Gordie Pennell, George Dorman and so many others.
My perch in the press box allowed me to witness the slow, steady decline of a franchise that morphed from the Jets to the Clubs to the Monarchs, and customers disguised as empty seats was not only a bad optic but a killer on the bottom line.
“I don’t understand why people won’t come out to watch us,” Brisson would lament the day after a home assignment would attract an audience numbering no more than 1,200 diehards.
It didn’t help, of course, that Brisson did some goofy things, like replacing his head coach with the team trainer in the middle of a game and later demoting the same head coach to assistant coach, to scout, then firing him via Canada Post. Correct. He sent George Dorman a Dear John letter. And, in general, Brisson iced outfits that could scarcely lick their lips.
Bottom line, though, was the WHA and the Jets. That was the nut nobody could crack.
I’m guessing that Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell are aware of this unfortunate history (not to mention the aborted re-entry of the WHL in the early 1980s), yet they’re still planning to pitch their tent in the boonies (RM of Macdonald) and swim upstream next autumn. Their Kootenay Ice will become the Winnipeg Ice, and Fettes/Cockell seem convinced they can make a go of it in a hockey pool that includes the NHL Jets and American Hockey League Manitoba Moose. You can take them for fools if you like, but, hey, it’s their coin.
Someone please tell me that Fettes and Cockell plan to rename their franchise. Ice doesn’t work for me, nor does an angry Sasquatch as a team logo. We haven’t seen anything resembling a Sasquatch in Good Ol’ Hometown since Jimmy Mann was dragging his knuckles around the freeze.
Among the selling points of the old WCHL were the owners/operators. Guys like Brisson, MacPherson, Ginnell, Pistol Dorohoy, Punch McLean, Scotty Munro and Wild Bill Hunter were Sideshow Bobs, equal parts Barnum, Bailey and Ringling Bros. Some, notably McLean and Ginnell, were maestros of mayhem. It wasn’t uncommon for all hell to break loose on any given night, and the lads really frothed at the mouth with Flin Flon in town. Then it was Mayhem on Maroons Road, and much of it seemed orchestrated. Neither Fettes or Cockell strikes me as a carnival barker, and I somehow doubt their head coach, homeboy James Patrick, is inclined to hurl garbage cans onto the ice when his universe isn’t unfolding as it should. Oh, the good, old days.
Here’s how popular the Junior Jets of Ben Hatskin, Pistol Dorohoy and coach Nick Mickoski were: Some fans actually purchased passage on the team charter to attend playoff skirmishes in Flin Flon.
Young Jeff Hamilton of the Drab Slab writes this about the Ice’s entry into the River City shinny glut: “A WHL franchise in Winnipeg, together with the unprecedented investment in hockey development, would create a unique sports marketplace and position Winnipeg as the hockey capital of North America, home to teams in the NHL, AHL and the Canadian Hockey League.” Whoa there, young fella. There’s this little burg I call the Republic of Tranna that trumps Good Ol’ Hometown. The ROT has the Maple Leafs, the Marlies, the Mississauga Steelheads, plus the Furies and the Thunder. Unless young Jeff is one of the many men who pooh-pooh the distaff side of the game, The ROT’s two Canadian Women’s Hockey League franchises give it the edge. If young Jeff isn’t convinced, let’s see him beat Kendall Coyne Schofield in a foot race and then we’ll talk.
Something tells me the Maple Leafs made a trade this week. And I think it involved Jake Muzzin. I could be wrong, though. I mean, maybe I was just dreaming when I saw those 12 headlines about Muzzin on the front page of the Leafs blog known as the Sportsnet website on Wednesday. They usually reserve that kind of over-the-top coverage for Auston Matthews’ grooming habits (film of toenail clipping at 11). So I guess I’m mistaken and Muzzin is still working the Los Angeles Kings blueline.
Let’s be clear about something: Les Jets do not have to make a significant move just because les Leafs snared Muzzin. This isn’t tit-for-tat. The Muzzin transaction has no impact on Winnipeg HC unless they’re the last two National Hockey League clubs standing in the Stanley Cup runoff. If that’s how it shakes down, it won’t be because general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was prodded into action by Leafs GM Harry Potter.
Tough week thus far for Patrik Laine. The young Jets winger still can’t score, he spent most of Tuesday night in Beantown glued to the pine, and the natterbugs in print and on air went off on the kid. According to my scorecard, Ted Wyman, Jason Bell, Tim & Sid, Noodles McLennon and Jeff O’Dog all had a go at Puck Finn and, to sum up their deep, penetrating analysis, Laine “isn’t moving his feet.” Tough to move your feet when you’re sitting on the bench.
I’m not saying coach Paul Maurice was wrong to plop Puck Finn on the plank vs. the Bruins, but there’s more at play here than the moving of feet. I say Laine’s issues are at the opposite end of his lanky body—between the ears.
If you’re looking for a good read, check out Mike McIntyre’s piece on former U.S. Navy SEAL James Hatch in the Drab Slab. Hatch is in town as part of a dumb bet he made against les Jets last year, and Mike M. hits it out of the park with his yarn. Also worth a look is Ted Wyman’s feature on former Jets forward and all-round good guy Randy Gilhen in the Winnipeg Sun. Good stuff.
And, finally, I have personal links to two of the main players in the old WCHL. Pistol Dorohoy is the only coach who ever cut me, and I played for Gerry Brisson. So, ya, I feel the warm and fuzzies for Junior shinny and I hope it works for Fettes and Cockell.