About the rise and fall of Ponytail Puck…mainstream media no friend of CWHL…Puck Finn’s shot-blocking style…Ice’s man playing Peggers for rubes…spit happens in golf…tennis teens…banjo pickin’…and other things on my mind

April Fool’s Day coming down in 3, 2, 1…and I guess the joke’s on me because I’m still writing this crap when I could be doing diddly in my dotage…come to think of it, that would be a good title for a book: Doing Diddly In My Dotage…

Anybody remember the heady days of women’s hockey?

Of course you do.

Kendall Coyne Schofield

I mean, who can forget all those jaws dropping as Kendall Coyne Schofield raced the dudes around the freeze during the National Hockey League all-star hijinks, followed by her landing a gig on NBC as rinkside chin-wagger with Pierre McGuire? (Let’s forgive Pierre for talking to Kendall as if she’d just stepped off the boat from Bimbo Island and accept that her presence/voice was high exposure for the women’s game.)

Then there was this:

  • The three-game exhibition Rivalry Series between the national sides of Canada and the United States was contested in front of an SRO audience in London and crowds numbering approximately 9,000 in the Republic of Tranna and Detroit.

  • Minnesota Whitecaps of the National Women’s Hockey League sold out each of their home assignments at TRIA Rink in St. Paul, and turned a profit.

  • The Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship skirmish between the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal attracted a record 175,000 sets of eyeballs to flatscreens across the land.

Yup, those were the days.

And now, just eight sleeps after the Inferno had collected the Clarkson Cup at Coca Cola Coliseum in The ROT? Nothing but long faces. The CWHL has disappeared from Planet Puckhead.

But wait. Let’s not be so hasty in passing out the black arm bands scant hours after the CWHL’s deep thinkers announced they won’t be dropping the puck next autumn, after 12 years of trying to convince the rabble that their product is worth a looksee.

I simply don’t believe the collapse of the CWHL is the death knell for Ponytail Puck in this country.

Will it look the same when the leaves are on the ground again in October? Of course not. There won’t be six teams stretching from Boston to Montreal to The ROT to Calgary to China, but I struggle to accept that Montreal and the Republic of Tranna are about to fall off the women’s shinny map. Not going to happen. Perhaps Calgary still fits into the puzzle, as well, although geographic isolation makes that a challenge. Mind you, being in the middle of nowhere didn’t hurt the Whitecaps in Minny. Ten games, 10 sellouts.

So, ya, they’ll re-calibrate and we’ll have women’s pro hockey on Planet Puckhead again. That might mean NWHL expansion north, or it might mean a Women’s National Hockey League built from ground zero by Gary Bettman and the NHL. And it will definitely mean a league that’s two-thirds U.S.-based. But, hey, that’s always worked for the NHL, so why not the WNHL?

Sami Jo Small

Here’s the question I asked myself when word of the CWHL collapse began to spread on Sunday morning: How much blame do we assign to mainstream media?

Basically, MSM treated the CWHL like a leper league. Same can be said for women’s hockey in general. Unless it’s played under the Olympics banner or, to a lesser degree, at the world championship, Ponytail Puck gets less ink/air time than darts, poker and the Mitch Marner-Auston Matthews performance in The Nutcracker.

TSN broadcast all three of the Rivalry Series skirmishes, but it stuck them on the boondocks channels and not all of us subscribe to the complete TSN package. How many CWHL matches did Sportsnet televise? Two? Four? Our  national celebration of shinny—the marathon Hockey Day In Canada—shockingly did not include a women’s game, even though a Tranna Furies-Montreal joust was available.

It’s no different on the print side. Actually, it might be worse. If any of our flowers of jock journalism scribbles as many as two essays on women’s hockey in Olympic off-years, it’s considered an avalanche of copy. Indeed, Furies general manager Sami Jo Small lamented the lack of exposure in conversation with Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star not so long ago.

“People are supportive of women’s hockey,” she said. “They love to watch it, but they don’t know how to watch it. That’s one of my biggest battles, to get people to know where to watch these games, how to watch these games, where to buy the tickets, and get them into the venue. Not just watching the Olympics.”

Let’s be clear, MSM indifference wasn’t the official cause of death, but it helped nudge the CWHL toward the graveyard.

Here’s rich irony: Sports scribes and talking heads spend the time between Winter Olympics pretending women’s hockey doesn’t exist, but when the CWHL caved on Sunday they rapidly rallied to the cause. Pierre LeBrun, Elliotte Friedman, Jeff Marek, John Shannon, Gord Miller, Bob McKenzie and James Mirtle, among others, were found on Twitter, bemoaning the development. Guilty conscience, boys?

It’s shameful that Sportsnet basically ignored the demise of the CWHL on its Hometown Hockey broadcast Sunday night. They didn’t even attempt to pretend to be a news outlet. It was more important to air fluff— like a sappy interview with an actor I hadn’t heard of before the pre-game show—than dig into the top shinny news story of the day. A terrible blunder.

Puck Finn

I don’t know about the rest of the rabble, but I’m not prepared to rule out the possibility of another long spring run by the Winnipeg Jets. True, they’ve looked a lot like a fire drill gone bad lately and the advantage of home ice is in jeopardy, but I’m keeping the faith. As long as they don’t depend on Patrik Laine to block shots, there’s hope. I mean, what can I say about Puck Finn’s shot-blocking effort on Jeff Petry’s goal Saturday vs. Montreal Canadiens? He looked like some poor shmuck on a street corner, trying to dodge the spray from a huge puddle of water as a car speeds by. Easily the most comical shot-block attempt since Guy Lafleur did the flamingo vs. the Russians.

Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun did the Q&A thing with Matt Cockell and, among other things, the Winnipeg Ice (will never like that name) general manager had this to say: “At the end of the day, the passion for hockey is really what’s exciting about Winnipeg. When you look across Canada, there really isn’t another city that embraces hockey the way Winnipeg does. We really believe it’s the hockey capital of Canada.” Whoa boy. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Good Ol’ Hometown has already let one NHL franchise get away (no, it wasn’t Gary Bettman’s fault) and two Western Hockey League outfits. Pegtown is the “hockey capital of Canada” like Pierre’s boy Justin is a man of all the people. And that’s coming from someone born and raised in River City, someone who recalls seeing a lot of empty seats in the old barn on Maroons Road. Yes, I realize that Cockell is going to say all the right things in order to sell his freshly minted WHL franchise to the rabble, but I’m not sure that faux flattery is the way to go about it. Peggers are hockey wise, they aren’t rubes.

Paul Azinger

Turned on the PGA Tour match play final on Sunday, just in time to hear NBC lead analyst Paul Azinger say this about eventual champion Kevin Kisner: “He spits like a baseball player. Impressive.” And to think, a lot of folks figured Zinger wouldn’t be worth spit as a replacement for Johnny Miller.

If you’re looking for an excellent read, check out Stephen Brunt’s ode to Charlie Montoyo on the Sportsnet website. Like most everything Stephen scribbles, his yarn on the Tranna Blue Jays first-year skipper is boffo.

A tip of the bonnet to our own Leah Hextall, who became the first woman to call play-by-play for a men’s NCAA playoff hockey game on ESPN. Leah worked the East Regional semifinals and final on the weekend in Providence, R.I.

Felix Auger-Aliassime

Some classic stuff from Steve Simmons, the Postmedia Tranna columnist who offered this on Twitter after our teen sensation, Felix Auger-Aliassime, spoon fed the boring John Isner a victory with a series of ill-timed double faults in their semifinal match at the Miami Open tennis tournament: “Felix served for both the first and second sets in Miami and couldn’t pull it off in either set against John Isner. That’s what happens when you’re 18.”

Really? It didn’t happen to 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu in the semifinal or final at Indian Wells two weeks ago. It didn’t happen to Denis Shapovalov a couple of years ago when he beat Rafa Nadal. It didn’t happen to Bjorn Borg, who won 10 ATP events, including the French Open, at age 18. Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Maria Sharapova, Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams all won Grand Slams before turning 19.

So, no, our Felix didn’t lose because he’s 18. He lost because of a seriously flawed service game.

Kenta Nilsson

Sigh. The young talking heads on TV continue to refer to a sleight-of-hand goal as “the Forsberg,” as if Peter Forsberg created the move. As I have written, old friend Kent Nilsson is the first person I ever saw perform that particular bit of hockey hocus-pocus, and there’s video evidence to prove he did it before Forsberg arrived in the NHL. Ditto another old friend, Alexei Zhamnov, who showed us his wizardry more than once while in Winnipeg Jets linen. So knock it off, girls and boys. It’s the Nilsson, not the Forsberg.

And, finally, numbers cruncher Derek Taylor is leaving TSN to become the play-by-play voice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders on CKRM in Regina. Who knew Taylor played the banjo?

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About Auston Matthews and Puck Finn, who ya gonna take now?…hockey goals and soccer goals on TSN…a swing and a miss for the Hockey Hall of Fame…no gay curling champion…Tiger, Tiger burning bright…and a “golden standard” that ain’t so golden

I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Puck Finn, Patrik Laine

Okay, let’s ask the Tranna Maple Leafs if they’d like a do-over.

That is, given the opportunity to revisit the 2016 National Hockey League entry draft, would les Leafs still use their first shout-out to select Auston Matthews? Or would they choose Puck Finn, more commonly known as Patrik Laine?

Matthews and Laine went one-two, respectively, in the annual garage sale of freshly scrubbed teenagers in ’16 and, almost two complete crusades into their NHL careers, a case can be made that the Leafs chose the wrong guy. Laine, after all, has lit more lamps this winter than anyone other than Alex Ovechkin and a Kentucky coal miner. He’s just 10 shy of a 50-goal season as a sophomore. Only two players in history, Jimmy Carson and Dale Hawerchuk, scored more often as NHL teens.

In short, Puck Finn has come as advertised.

Auston Matthews

Matthews has as well, though, and going by the numbers the difference between the Leafs centre and the Winnipeg Jets winger is just six games, eight goals and a horrible mess of scraggly chin whiskers that make Laine look like an Amish bread, butter and egg man (worst…beard…ever). Matthews is 135-68-51-119; Laine is 141-76-51-127.

So, would the Leafs do things differently? Nope. Would the Jets want them to do things differently? Hell no.

I recall being puzzled by the results of a Postmedia preseason poll, whereby 25 NHL players were asked to read the tea leaves and predict the winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy, which goes to the league’s top sniper. Eight players were mentioned, not one of them named Patrik Laine. They were, in order, Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, Steven Stamkos, Vladimir Tarasenko, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. (Seriously, Jack Eichel?) What is it, I wondered, that the players didn’t see in Laine? I mean, they’re on the ice with him. They have intimate knowledge of the shot that Puck Finn snaps off faster and is more lethal than a Donald Trump tweet. Surely they know more about pure talent than us lumps on bar stools. Guess not.

Lionel Messi

Speaking of lumps on stools, I direct your attention to The Quiz boys on TSN—Jeff O’Dog, Dave Poulin and Bob McKenzie. Quiz master James Duthie asked the three wise men to choose between Ovechkin (598 hockey goals) and Lionel Messi (600 soccer goals) as the greatest sniper of this generation.

O’Dog: “I’m going to pick Alex Ovechkin due to the fact I’ve never seen Messi play one second of a competitive soccer match…is that what they call it, the match?”

McKenzie: “I will go with Ovechkin. I’ve gotta go with the hockey answer simply because, as O said, I don’t have the context to provide for soccer. Don’t follow it close enough, so, I realize how great Messi is, but…”

Duthie: “You’re basically saying that you’re both ignorant to soccer.”

McKenzie: “That’s correct.”

O’Dog: “Don’t care about it either.”

Only Poulin got it right.

Six hundred goals in soccer is like two million goals in hockey,” he advised the two blockheads sitting to his left.

Poulin’s point is well taken, even if his math is suspect. The difference between soccer snipes and hockey goals is probably more like dog years to human years—seven to one. Thus, Messi’s 600 is the equivalent of 4,200 hockey goals. You’d think someone named O’Dog would know about dog years.

Pierre McGuire

There must be some Arctic air flowing into hell, because I’m going to agree with Damien Cox. The Toronto Star scribe is calling out the Hockey Hall of Fame for appointing “another older, white male” to replace legendary coach Scotty Bowman on its selection committee. “What was the hall thinking?” he asks. “What was (chairman Lanny) McDonald thinking?” They “blew it.” Cox figures the HHOF would be more in tune to the times had it chosen a woman or “person of color” to fill the vacancy, rather than broadcaster Pierre McGuire. He believes diversity and gender equality are “critical issues.” Hard to disagree. It is, mind you, odd to hear a Canadian sports scribe calling for “diversity” when his own business is largely old, white, male and exclusively heterosexual.

In acknowledgement of International Women’s Day, Donnovan Bennett of Sportsnet had a panel chin-wag with three female jock journalists—Laura Armstrong of the Toronto Star, Rachel Brady of the Globe and Mail, and Christine Simpson of Sportsnet. I’d like to report that the women provided considerable anecdotal insight about the challenges they face in what remains very much a man’s world, but it wasn’t much more than bland generalities. That to-and-fro came on the heels of Bennett’s gab fest with David Amber, Morgan Campbell, Eric Thomas and Rosey Edeh in recognition of Black History Month. It leaves me to wonder if he’ll gather together three or four gay sports writers during Pride Month in June. Oh wait. Scratch that thought. There are no gay sports scribes in Canada.

John Epping

I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been had John Epping and his Ontario team won the Canadian men’s curling championship on Sunday. Epping is the only openly gay man to skip in the Brier, and many kudos to TSN for acknowledging his husband, Thomas Shipton, during Ontario’s semifinal loss to Brendan Bottcher of Alberta. That recognition might seem trivial to most, but it carries considerable significant to many in the LGBT community.

Interesting gimmick the Southern Professional Hockey League is adopting for its playoffs this year. The first-, second- and third-place teams get to choose their opening-round foes. Yup. Disregard the standings. The top dog decides if it wants to face off against team No. 5, 6, 7 or 8. Then the next two outfits sift through the leftovers and choose. Seems to me that it’s a risky bit of business for the teams making the call. Totally insulting and the ultimate bulletin board material. Can’t see that ever working in the NHL. But, then, I never thought I’d see the day when an NHL player would be given a minor penalty for scoring a goal (hello Brian Dumoulin). So all bets are off.

So, Tiger Woods didn’t win another golf tournament. Same old, same old. Except, this time, Woods only missed it by that much. One less swing and he’d have been in a playoff with eventual winner Paul Casey at the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., on Sunday. Both Woods’ game and his body appear to be in fine fettle as we near the first tee at Augusta National. Ditto his attitude. I mean, is it my imagination or is Tiger smiling more? Is he interacting with his playing companions and the rabble more? It’s as if he’s adopted a “just happy to be here” mindset. He certainly seems less angry. It’s a good look.

Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard

And, finally, our Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. This week we find our man Steve wondering where Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin fit in among the NHL’s all-time best middlemen combos.

Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier have been the gold standard for 1-2 punches playing centre for the same NHL team,” he writes.

Oh, there have been other great combinations down the middle over the years. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in Colorado. Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis in Pittsburgh. Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in Detroit. Stan Mikita and Phil Esposito in Chicago. Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard in Montreal.

Gretzky and Messier won four (Stanley) Cups together in Edmonton. Should Crosby and Malkin pick up a fourth Cup—and maybe more than that—they will slide neatly right behind Gretzky and Messier in a very special place in hockey history.”

Excuse me? Gretzky and Messier are the “gold standard” because they helped the Oilers win the Stanley Cup four times? As if. Believeau and Richard hoisted hockey’s holy grail 10 times together. They were winning the thing before Simmons was in his mother’s womb. They’d won it five times before he was out of diapers. The “gold standard” is 10, not freaking four.

About jocks jumping the MRI queue…those “coddled” millionaire Winnipeg Jets…a dude named Dart Guy…it isn’t The Forsberg…giving the Soviets the finger…Centre of the Universe snobbery…and Gomer Pyle sings the anthem

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

Okay, hands up anyone who is genuinely shocked that professional athletes pulling in great gobs of American greenbacks have been allowed to jump the MRI queue in Canada?

Seriously. If word that play-for-pay jocks receive “preferential treatment” is a revelation to you, then you’d probably be interested in knowing that a guy named Trudeau is prime minister in the True North but his first name isn’t Pierre. I mean, hellooooo. How long have you been napping?

Pro athletes and “preferential treatment” have been hand-in-glove since David threw down on Goliath. You think David ever had to buy his own pints and chow after scoring that upset?

But, hey, what’s happening in Manitoba isn’t about free bar or restaurant tabs, is it? It’s about health care and the deified, millionaire members of the Winnipeg Jets and the regular Joe-salaried workers with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. According to the provincial auditor general, 59 jocks were allowed to jump the MRI queue for 149 scans in an eight-year period (2008-2016). Allow me to do the math: That averages to less than one athlete and 1.5 scans per month.

Frankly, I’m surprised the numbers are so low.

Look, I don’t blame anyone for being PO’d if they’ve been on a wait list for four months only to see Jacob Trouba or Matt Nichols limp in and go directly to the scanner. It isn’t fair. But in Winnipeg, that’s the way it has to be if you want a National Hockey League and Canadian Football League franchise.

In the interests of full disclosure, I had an MRI scan done on my brain slightly more than a year ago. The good news is, they found a brain. The bad news is, results showed soft tissue in my grey matter, the result of the combined nuisances of multiple concussions (10) and aging. Hopefully, that explains a lot of things, if not everything.

This whole MRI thing has really gotten up Paul Wiecek’s nose. His pallor surely must be as ashen as his hair, because the Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist has called out Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman for the Winnipeg Jets owner’s silence on the issue, and he describes the local hockey heroes as a “tiny cadre of coddled millionaires.” Coddled? Coddled? You want to talk about coddled? During my time in the media we received free beer, free food, free books, free music, free tickets, free clothing, free merchandise, free access to back-stage gatherings, free access to doors that were closed to the regular rabble, free everything. And, hey, some might even have been pushed to the front of the queue at the doctor’s office. I can’t say what, if anything, has changed, but it’s my guess that the media Gravy Train is still chugging along.

Unlike Wiecek, I’m not interested in what Puck Pontiff Chipman has to say about MRI scans. I’m more interested in what he thinks about his general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, not being able to accomplish in six years what Peter Chiarelli of the Edmonton McDavids and Lou Lamoriello of the Toronto Maple Leafs have done in two years.

Dart Guy

This spring’s Stanley Cup skirmishing has been strange. How strange? Well, let’s put it this way: The Chicago Blackhawks are out of the playoffs after only four games and Dart Guy is still in them.

I don’t know what to make of this Dart Guy dude. I mean, he has a Maple Leafs logo painted on his face, he sticks an unlit cigarette between his lips and he becomes some kind of cult figure in the Republic of Tranna? Sometimes I wish Andy Warhol hadn’t been right about those 15 minutes of fame.

Why do broadcasters and writers insist on describing a goal with a one-handed deke “the Forsberg?” I know for certain that I saw Alexei Zhamnov of the Jets perform that very move, more than once, before I ever saw Peter Forsberg do it. I also saw Kent Nilsson do it before Forsberg.

This from Don Cherry during one of his Coachless Corner segments on Hockey Night in Canada last week: “The last Coach’s Corner, I said to you kids, ‘Don’t taunt or laugh when you’re winning.’ I said, ‘Never do that, kids.’ Kids, it’s not the Canadian way. You never laugh or taunt your opponent.” Grapes is right. The Canadian way is to give them the middle-finger salute, like Alan Eagleson and Frosty Forristall did to the Soviets in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. We don’t taunt them when we’re losing, either. We break their ankles (hello, Bobby Clarke).

Guaranteed to happen in life: 1) Donald Trump will tweet; 2) Adam Sandler will make bad movies; 3) a Bruce Boudreau-coached team will be eliminated from the Stanley Cup tournament.

P.K. Subban is still playing hockey (suprise, surprise). Shea Weber isn’t. Does that mean the Nashville Predators got the better of the Montreal Canadiens in their exchange of all-world defenceman? No. It isn’t Weber’s fault the Habs’ forwards score less often than the Pope swears.

Postmedia scribe Steve Simmons, whose work often appears on the sports pages of the Winnipeg Sun, has provided us with a tweet that serves as a shining example of the self-absorbed, Centre of the Universe mentality that exists in the Republic of Tranna: “An absolutely stacked Canadian Sports Hall of Fame class is introduced on the wrong day. Not their fault. Toronto is Leafs consumed today.” In other words, the rest of the country be damned. Stevie says any national news of significance must be put on hold whenever Auston Matthews and pals are playing a hockey game in the 416 area code. All you good people in Winnipeg, you can wait a day to learn that your speedskating golden girl, Cindy Klassen, is among the 2017 CSHofF inductees. Ditto for you fine folks in Hanna, Alta. We’ll fill you in on native son Lanny McDonald after Auston and pals have had their fun. I must say, for a guy who once called Calgary home and ought to know better, the ego-fuelled Simmons has developed into a first-class Tranna snob.

In the week’s social news, Serena Williams announced she’s preggers and Ronda Rousey announced she’s engaged. The nerve of those women. I mean, don’t they realize the Maple Leafs are still playing hockey? Nobody wants to hear about a mommy bump or a diamond ring unless Auston Matthews happens to be the father or fiance, right Stevie?

Barney, Andy and Luke Bryan.

Well, golleeee and shezam! I finally figured out who country guy Luke Bryan sounds like when he tries to sing—Gomer Pyle. I swear, when I heard Bryan perform the American anthem prior to a Nashville Predators-Blackhawks skirmish, the first thing I thought of was good, ol’ Gomer Pyle pumping gas and visiting Andy and Barney at the sheriff’s office in Mayberry. How Bryan became one of the giants of the country music industry is as much a mystery as how Donald Trump got the keys to the White House.

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

 

About hockey greats…self-indulgent, unnecessary sports writing…Lebron James’s legacy…Kerry Fraser’s gaffe…Jimmy Hoffa…and other things on my mind

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

No. 4, Bobby Orr
No. 4, Bobby Orr

I witnessed my first live professional hockey game in the mid-1950s at the old barn on Maroons Road in Winnipeg, which was razed to rubble five decades later.

I watched my first televised hockey game in the 1950s, when our TVs had rabbit ears (sometimes with tin foil wrapping on the tips to enhance the quality of our black-and-white reception) and we would join a game originating from Toronto or Montreal already in progress (most often in the second period). That’s when I learned to truly dislike Rocket Richard.

I covered my first hockey game for a newspaper in 1970 and my byline first appeared on a hockey article in June 1971.

I wrote about, and commented on, hockey in mainstream media for 30 years and have written freelance articles and blogged on hockey for the past 17 years.

Do the math: I have been watching hockey for 60 of my 65 years and writing about it going on 47 years, long enough to draw conclusions.

So, were I to start a National Hockey League franchise, drawing from players I have witnessed—either in person or from my living room floor/sofa—which player would I choose to build around? No. 4, Bobby Orr.

Orr is the best hockey player I’ve ever seen. Still. Probably always.

Here’s my all-time dream team…

GOAL: Glenn Hall, Dominik Hasek

DEFENCE: Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Viacheslav Fetisov, Ray Bourque, Valery Vasiliev.

FORWARDS: Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Peter Forsberg, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux, Alexander Maltsev, Valeri Kharlamov, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Anatoli Firsov, Sergei Makarov.

Interesting take from Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press on the death of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. “You’re going to be reading lots of ‘Here’s what Gordie Howe means to me’ stories over the next week,” he writes. “Most will be self-indulgent and unnecessary.” Let’s face it, much of what sports scribes scribble is self-indulgent and unnecessary, but the storytelling is neither. When someone of Howe’s or Muhammad Ali’s loft goes to the other side, the storytelling is essential to the narrative, otherwise all we’d have are lists of statistics to describe and define them. Without the storytelling, we know the athlete but not the person. Wiecek spun a terrific yarn about Howe that was far more interesting and insightful than spewing career scoring numbers.

Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe
Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe

Speaking of self-indulgent, one of the first columns I wrote for the Calgary Sun was about Gordie Howe. He was in town for a minor hockey promotion, the details of which now escape me, and we met at the CTV studios and spent the better part of an hour wagging our chins about all things shinny. The following morning, our editor-in-chief, Lester Pyette, approached me in the newsroom and said, “Great piece on Gordie Howe. Loved it. I’m a big Gordie Howe fan. But the publisher didn’t like it. He wants me to tell you that we brought you here to write about the Flames and Stampeders, not kids hockey and retired players.” I was gobsmacked. “Lester,” I told him, “if I find out that Mr. Hockey is in town, I’m writing about Mr. Hockey.” So I did. As mean and as ruthless as he was on the ice, Gordie Howe was as gracious and down-to-earth off the freeze. Wonderful man.

The notion that Lebron James needs to add a third National Basketball Association title to his resume before being granted all-time-great status is beyond absurd. How many World Series championships did Major League Baseball legend Ted Williams win? Or Carl Yastrzemski? Zero. Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in National Football League history, was 1-2 in championship games. How many times has the name Bobby Hull been inscribed on the Stanley Cup? Once. The great hoopster Jerry West was 1-8 in NBA championship series. James doesn’t need to set foot on the hardwood ever again. He’s already and all-timer.

Okay, Kerry Fraser has ‘fessed up. The former National Hockey League referee admits in The Players’ Tribune that he blew the call when he failed to banish Wayne Gretzky to the brig for slicing and dicing Doug Gilmour’s chinny-chin-chin in Game 6 of the 1993 Western Conference final between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings. It should have been a major penalty. “It was missed. Period,” is how Fraser puts it. Now, can Leafs Nation finally stop whining about something that happened 23 years ago?

If Connor McDavid’s name isn’t called when the NHL announces its top rookie for the 2015-16 season, he shouldn’t lose any sleep. Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman, Borje Salming, Stan Mikita and Patrick Roy weren’t at the head of their respective freshman classes, and each is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Is Jimmy Hoffa hiding in one of those beards?
Is Jimmy Hoffa hiding in one of those beards?

So, legendary flying Frenchman Guy Lafleur isn’t fond of facial foliage. He looks at the unruly shrubs sprouting from the cheeks and chins of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks and declares them “a disgrace for hockey.” This from a guy who went through two packs of cigarettes a day and actually smoked in the dressing room between periods when he played for the Montreal Canadiens.

Just wondering, when the Stanley Cup tournament concludes and Thornton and Burns finally reach for the razors, what are the chances of Jimmy Hoffa falling out of one of those beards?

Aside to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun: You’ve cranked out some quality copy re the deaths of Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe, but do yourself a favor—stop writing about Phil Kessel. We get it already. You weren’t a fan of his game or his eating habits during his tour of duty in the Republic of Tranna. Let it go, man. Move along.

Just for the record, this entire article has been self-indulgent and unnecessary. But I had nothing better to do when I awoke at 2:30 this ayem, so I started typing.

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

 

Don Baizley belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame

“I don’t know if I can put into words what Don (Baizley) meant to the game. I don’t know if there’s any one individual I’ve met in my life who’s had a more meaningful, more profound impact on the modern game of professional hockey.”

—Mark Chipman, co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets

 

Don Baizley is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, nor the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.

He should be in both. As a builder.

I bring this to your attention today because the HHofF class of 2014 is to be inducted on Monday and none of the select six is named Don Baizley, the Winnipeg-based lawyer whose 71 years of being an honest-to-gosh good guy gave way to non-smoker’s lung cancer in July 2013.

As many of you know, Baizley maintained a small stable of clients that represented a who’s who in the National Hockey League and on shinny ponds on the other side of the ocean—Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Kent Nilsson, Paul Kariya, Theo Fleury, among others. But to brand him as merely a player agent to the stars is insufficient. Baizley was a trail blazer. He helped redefine the game in the mid-1970s, prior to which both the NHL and World Hockey Association were parochial in scope. That is to say, if you weren’t Canadian or American by birth you need not apply.

Oh, sure, there were a handful of Europeans pre-1974. Pentti Lund, born in Finland but raised in Canada from the age of six, was NHL rookie-of-the-year in 1949. Slovak-born Stanislav Guoth, better known as Stan Mikita, was a much-decorated centre with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ulf Sterner played four games with the New York Rangers in 1965. Thommie Bergman was in the employ of the Detroit Red Wings in the early ’70s. Borje Salming was wearing Toronto Maple Leafs linen. Ditto Inge Hammarstrom.

Basically, however, Euros were as rare as buck teeth on a super model. The prevailing logic insisted Euros weren’t equipped with adequate-sized gonads to be successful in the NHL, where ruffians often ruled the day (see: Big Bad Bruins, Broad Street Bullies).

Then along came the 1974 Winnipeg Jets. And Dr. Gerry Wilson. And Billy Robinson. And Don Baizley.

Dr. Wilson, a surgeon whose specialty was sports-related owies, was doing a post-grad gig in Sweden in 1973 when a fleet right winger caught his attention. The name was Anders Hedberg. The good doctor also liked what he saw in a kid named Ulf Nilsson. And, hey, this guy Lars-Erik Sjoberg was none too shabby on defence. So Doc Wilson put in a call to the Jets, then the flagship franchise in the WHA, and they, in turn, dispatched bird dog Billy Robinson to Tre Kroner country for a look-see at these hot-shot Swedes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and goaltender Curt Larsson represented the first wave of Europeans to arrive on North American shores and, in due course, they proved beyond all reasonable doubt that their junk was plenty big enough to not only succeed, but to excel on the frozen ponds of North America.

Hedberg and Nilsson, in particular, were ceaselessly assailed by extremely disagreeable sorts such as Bad News Bilodeau and Frankie Beaton of the Birmingham Bulls, plus a boatload of barbarians employed by other WHA outfits. These “chicken Swedes,” after all, were taking jobs away from good Canadian boys. The nerve. So they were whacked, hacked and brow beaten to unparalleled levels. Their bodies were bruised as blue as the Jets jerseys they wore. Talk about culture shock. But they endured, in large part due to the guidance of Don Baizley.

Baiz’s influence on the game cannot be under-valued. He didn’t just get big bucks for his clients. He took them under his wing. He was their confidante. Their mentor. He provided them a comfort zone, a place where they could grow as hockey players and, more important, people.

His handling of the fabulous Swedes did not escape the notice of other Scandinavians. Soon Veli-Pekka Ketola was with the Jets. Heikki Riihiranta, the aforementioned Bergman, Willy Lindstrom, Mats Lindh, Dan Labraaten, Kent Nilsson were to follow. Those Euro-flavored WHA Jets played a dazzling, free-wheeling brand of hockey. Brute force gave way to beauty, which translated into titles and provided Glen Sather a blueprint in constructing his remarkable Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s.

So, you see, Baizley was at the forefront in the reshaping of the professional hockey landscape. He was there for close to 40 years, yet this man who helped change the face of shinny preferred to operate in the background. It was never about him. He was, if you will, the anti-Eagle.

I refer, of course, to Alan Eagleson, the notorious player agent who landed in lockup after playing fast and loose with his clients’ money. The Eagle was self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. If the Eagle was involved, everything else was background noise.

That wasn’t how Don Baizley rolled.

Baiz wanted to talk about himself like Gary Bettman wants to live in the north end of Winnipeg. He was more interested in others. He placed value on who you were and what you did. He always made you feel better about yourself and your work.

During my 30 years in sports journalism, I never met a better person than Don Baizley. Not one. So when the giants of the game gathered in July 2013 to salute another giant of the game, you had to believe them when they told you that Baiz was an honest, humble, trustworthy, humorous, generous, loving man. It’s all true.

The guy was an honest-to-gosh hall of fame person.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to 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.