About Puck Finn and the Magic man…Burkie telling it like it is again…more numbers from Pie Chart Boy in the Freep…Mike Mac gets the columnist gig…what goalie controversy?…the Winnipeg Blue Bombers meal ticket…pregnant Pebble People…and a nice tribute to Joe Daley

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and, as Cactus Jack used to say, it turned out nice again…

There are two things I really like about Patrik Laine: 1) his shot; 2) his age.

I’d probably like him as a person, too, because he strikes me as a nice young man with wry humor and a blunt honesty that’s uncommon among play-for-pay jocks. He seems like a cool kid.

Puck Finn

But I’m here today more to discuss Puck Finn the hockey player, not the cool kid and his passion for PlayStation and whatever other techno gizmos and gadgets that have caught his fancy and keep the Winnipeg Jets winger occupied when he isn’t lighting lamps at one end of the freeze and handing out free pizzas at the other.

I recognize some Kent Nilsson in Laine, on and off the ice.

Kenta was as laid back as a Sunday afternoon in a one-horse town. He was also blessed with a wicked sense of humor. (Nilsson once sneaked up behind a scribe tapping away at his computer keyboard in the Calgary Saddledome press box and said, “How could so much shit come out of such a little machine.”)

In terms of pure skill, though, there’s no comparison between Laine and Nilsson. I maintain to this day that no one who’s worn Jets linen was, or is, more gifted than the slick Swede. Not the Golden Jet, Ulf or Anders. Not Ducky. Not the Finnish Flash. If you’d like to debate the issue, consider that Wayne Gretzky once said Nilsson “might have been the most skilled hockey player I ever saw in my career.” That’s good enough for me.

Kent Nilsson

In the mood, Magic Man Nilsson was a maestro. The game was played at his tempo. On his terms. It was best to toss a second puck onto the ice so the other 11 guys had something to play with.

Trouble is, Kenta was an enigma. That is, engaged one minute, disinterested the next. And the rabble recognized both his other wordly talent and his indifference.

When Nilsson scored 131 points for the Calgary Flames in 1980-81 (fewer than only Gretzky and Marcel Dionne), expectations became heightened to the point of delusional. The faithful assumed there would be more of the same. There wasn’t. The best Nilsson could do for an encore was 104 points, ninth in National Hockey League scoring, and that just wasn’t up to snuff for the Flames faithful. Those 104 points would have/could have/should have been 134.

“If only he applied himself all the time like Gretzky,” they would moan.

In that sense, Puck Finn is a Nilsson doppelganger. He introduced himself with 36- and 44-goal seasons, so he’s boxed himself in at those numbers. Anything less and frustration and much braying ensues.

At present, Laine’s sitting on 25 snipes, best among les Jets. But you’d swear he’s stuck on 10 goals.

Trade him! Ship him to the farm! Stick him with the fourth-line sluggos! Get him a skating coach! Take his Fortnite game away! Oh, yes, the lunatic fringe is in full throat.

Let’s call a timeout on that, though.

Wayne Gretzky

I mean, it’s fair to be critical of Laine. Been there, done that. But give the kid a new postal code? Send him down the hall at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie and tell him to suit up with the Manitoba Moose? Sure, and maybe we should think about bringing Pokey and the Bandit back to stand in the blue paint.

Let’s get a grip here, people.

Yes, Laine is seriously lacking in certain essentials. There’s very little lickety-split in his stride, he’s prone to boneheaded blunders, and he’s been known to zone out mentally. And, like Nilsson, he’s maddeningly frustrating because there isn’t a fire burning in his belly at all times. Those flaws are easy to overlook or forgive when he’s scoring. When not, the rabble feels cheated.

But repeat after me: Puck Finn is 20 years old. That isn’t an excuse. It’s a fact.

Nilsson produced his benchmark season at age 24. Teemu Selanne delivered his at age 22. Mario Lemieux had his most productive year at age 23. Gretzky topped out at age 25.

I say we give Laine a chance to grow his game before heaving him onto the dung heap.

Brian Burke

I found Brian Burke’s take on Puck Finn’s game interesting. In a chin-wag about Laine’s earning potential once he becomes a restricted free agent, Burke had this to say on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central at Noon: “I’m not as big on Patrik Laine as a lot of people are. I don’t like his 5-on-5 game. Wonderful goal scorer and I’d have him on my team in a heartbeat, but there’s some holes in his game, too. Now, we know we pay goal scorers. We can find guys to offset those deficiencies. I can find a winger to play with Patrik Laine, to do the backchecking, do some of the things he’s not proficient at. But it’s gonna be north of ($9 million), it’s gonna start with a one. We have always paid snipers. We have always paid snipers. I can bitch all I want about certain deficiencies in his game…he can play on my team tomorrow. I do think he’s a good kid…I do feel when he’s not scoring he’s a liability.” I’d say that’s spot on.

Andrew Berkshire doesn’t share my thoughts on Burke’s assessment of Laine. In the Drab Slab, he writes: “Former NHL executive and current Hockey Night In Canada/Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke has said Laine gives you goals, but nothing else. Goals are pretty significant in the NHL, and I would say that statement is remarkably harsh.” Harsh? You want harsh? The headline on Berkshire’s piece labeled Laine “a D-zone disaster” and the stats geek described Puck Finn’s work in the defensive zone as “disastrous.” Now that’s “remarkably harsh.” Again, why the Winnipeg Free Press runs Pie Chart Boy’s graphics is a mystery to me. He simply uses them to confirm what a lot of us already know. Bring back Scotty Campbell.

Speaking of the Drab Slab and its stable of scribes, I guess it’s official that Mike McIntyre is the new sports columnist. I wish him well, because it’s a tough gig and the rabble is never shy about reminding you that you’re a total moron.

For those of you scoring at home, McIntyre is the fifth sports columnist at the Freep this century, the others being Scott Taylor, Randy Turner, Gary Lawless and Paul Wiecek. Over at the Winnipeg Sun, meanwhile, they’ve had one—Paul Friesen. You might not find the turnover rate at the Drab Slab interesting, but I do.

Connor Hellebuyck

Is there a goaltending controversy with les Jets? Well, yes, in the stands, in watering holes and among news snoops. But until I hear it from the inner sanctum (read: head coach Paul Maurice, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman), it doesn’t exist. Connor Hellebuyck is their guy, and Laurent Brossoit is the other guy.

So, there won’t be a World Cup of Hockey in 2020. Such a shame. I was really looking forward to ignoring it.

Interesting to note that Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols has cut cheeseburgers and other greasy grub from his diet. Does that mean the Calgary Stampeders will continue to eat his lunch? Is he still the Bombers’ meal ticket? Is he going to lay another egg? Whatever the case, it’s food for thought and gives us something to chew on. OMG! I just overdosed on really bad, cornball clichés/puns. Someone slap me silly so I’ll stop.

Rachel Homan

If Rachel Homan isn’t the best female curler on the planet, she’s definitely the best pregnant curler. Rachel’s down there in Glitter Gulch today, helping the North American side attempt to subdue the World group in the Continental Cup, and she’s very preggers. Her due date is June 14 and here’s what I’m wondering: If Rachel wins the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the world championship while pregnant, will news snoops give her the same over-the-top, “mother of all mothers” glorification that they heaped upon tennis player Serena Williams? I very much doubt it. After all, most news snoops ignore the Pebble People until an Olympic year arrives. A real shame that.

And, finally, it’s a big day for one of the truly good guys in Good Ol’ Hometown—Joe Daley. He’ll be honored this afternoon at my old stomping grounds, Bronx Park Community Centre, when mucky-mucks unveil a mural featuring the former Jets goaltender. Such a nice tribute to a nice man. Really pleased for him.

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

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

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

Puck Finn

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe

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

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

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

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

And that set me to thinking…

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

  • Ken Ploen

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

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

  • Terry Sawchuk

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

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

  • Bluto

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

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

  • The Finnish Flash

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

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

Two Hens in the Hockey House: All about Sir Paul, the Rink Rat, Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and how much the Winnipeg Jets will miss Paul Stastny

Let the games begin!

The Winnipeg Jets open their 2018-19 National Hockey League crusade tonight against the Blues in St. Louis, and they have a tough act to follow. After advancing to the Western Conference final last spring, it has to be Stanley Cup final or bust for the locals.

Do they have it in them to take that next step? The Two Hens in the Hockey House have the answer. Take it away, ladies…

Question Lady: Well, the quest is about to begin and I haven’t been this jacked up about anything since Paul McCartney stepped back on stage for a rousing encore the other night at the local hockey palace. How about you?

Answer Lady: You went to see Sir Paul in concert?

Question Lady: You bet your Beatles bubble gum cards I did. He’s been my main man since the lads first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The guy’s a rock ‘n’ roll legend and can still get after it at 76 years of age. You don’t like Macca?

Answer Lady: Meh. His best post-Beatles work was Band On the Run. That was released in 1973. He’s been in a slump ever since. You know, kind of like the Jets since the World Hockey Association days.

WHA champion Jets, circa 1978-79.

Question Lady: Will you old farts ever let go of that Jets/WHA nonsense?

Answer Lady: Nonsense? You call it nonsense? Wash your mouth out with granny’s lye soap, girlfriend! Those were the glory days—three championships, five trips to the final in seven seasons, kicked the Russian Bear’s butt, best forward line in all of hockey…neither version of the NHL Jets has accomplished anything to compare. It’ll be 40 years next spring since the last victory parade rolled down Portage Avenue, and we haven’t had a whiff of glory since.

Question Lady: Which brings us to the current edition of the Jets. Plenty of buzz about these boys. They’re among the morning-line favorites to win le Coupe Stanley. Do you think the hype is warranted?

Answer Lady: Absolutely. All the ingredients seem to be in place. I believe they’ll romp through the regular season, maybe even win the President’s Trophy, and then, hopefully, they’ll borrow on the experience gained and lessons learned from last spring and get the job done next April, May and June.

Question Lady: Any chance of the Jets doing a face plant like the Edmonton McDavids performed last season?

Answer Lady: Sir Paul will be back in town with Ringo, John and George in tow before that happens, and since two of the Fab Four are pushing up daisies it ain’t gonna happen. There’s too much depth, too much talent. There aren’t any Looch’s in the Jets’ lineup to drag everybody else down. There’s no one like that anchor Milan Lucic in E-Town.

Question Lady: So this season will be a cake walk?

Answer Lady: Not at all. It’s not like the other outfits on this side of the continent have been twiddling their thumbs. The St. Louis Blues ought to be better. Ditto the Dallas Stars. San Jose Sharks upped their game with Erik Karlsson. The Nashville Predators are still nasty. But, ya, the Jets are the best of the bunch.

Bryan Little

Question Lady: Any weaknesses?

Answer Lady: Yup. Down the middle. Maybe. Rink Rat Scheifele is a legit No. 1 centre, but it’s iffy after that. I’ve long been a Bryan Little fan and I believe he’ll suitably fill the second slot. But what if his best-before date has already passed? Is Jack Roslovic a ready-for-prime-time centre? We don’t know. We can only guess. It could be a repeat of last season when general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff felt obliged to seek help from beyond. We might be looking at another Paul Stastny scenario.

Paul Stastny

Question Lady: What you’re saying is that this Jets team isn’t as good as the one that reached the Western Conference final last May?

Answer Lady: Do the math. Stastny gave the Jets 13 points in 19 regular-season games and, more significant, 15 points in the Stanley Cup tournament. Can either Little or Roslovic deliver that kind of production? From October through March? Sure. April-May-June I’m not convinced. And remember, it isn’t about the regular season for the Jets anymore. It’s about what goes down in the tournament. The playoffs, that’s their measuring stick. Everything else is window dressing.

Twig Ehlers

Question Lady: Any other misgivings?

Answer Lady: Twig Ehlers. The guy’s dynamic, but he’s a 35/40-goal scorer dressed up as a 25/29-goal scorer. His retreats into the twilight zone are mysterious and frustrating. Maybe it’s that whole PlayStation thing. Maybe the Vancouver Canucks are on to something by banning PlayStation and Fortnite on road trips.

Question Lady: Are you serious? You think Ehlers’ trips to la la land are linked to an obsession with video games? That’s crazy talk, girlfriend. Patrik Laine is one of those PlayStation goomers and he scored 44 goals last season.

Answer Lady: I’m just spitballing, girlfriend. If Puck Finn scores 44 goals every winter they’ll let him play Fortnite until his thumbs fall off. But there must be a reason why Twig vamooses for chunks of time. I mean, four goals after March? Zero in 15 playoff games? And people thought Howard Hughes disappeared. Maybe that’s what I should call Ehlers instead of Twig—Howard.

Blake Wheeler

Question Lady: You’re being kind of hard on the kid, don’t you think?

Answer Lady: All I’m saying is he has 35-goal talent (or more) and his Invisible Man routine is beginning to wear thin. On the plus side, he’s young and can learn about the mental side of the game from a guy like captain Blake Wheeler.

Question Lady: Speaking of Wheeler, do you see another 91-point crusade out of him?

Answer Lady: I don’t see why not. Playing with Rink Rat Scheifele and Kyle Connor, he ought to get a point a game by accident. The guy’s a stud.

Question Lady: Any bold predictions?

Patrik Laine

Answer Lady: Yup. Puck Finn will win the Rocket Richard Trophy with 57 goals. The Rink Rat will reach the 100-point plateau and finish second to Connor McDavid in scoring. Connor Hellebuyck will win the Vezina Trophy. Paul Maurice will be a finalist for coach of the year.

Question Lady: What about the playoffs?

Answer Lady: Can’t say. Too much can change by then, and I expect it will. Chevy will do something at, or just before, the trade deadline. It’ll involve centres and defencemen.

Question Lady: Okay, gotta go. I’d say let’s do lunch, but I’m going home for a soak and to listen to the latest McCartney album. How about you?

Answer Lady: I think I’ll just watch old film of the Jets’ last WHA championship.