While Winnipeg Jets’ ownership/management fiddles, careers of older players waste away

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc.

That’s the unstoppable sound of the clock rapidly and relentlessly ticking down on the National Hockey League careers of certain able-bodied players whose bodies soon will begin to betray them, if that isn’t happening already.

Toby Enstrom will be 33 at this time next year. Dustin Byfuglien 32. Captain Blake Wheeler 31. Bryan Little 30. They were in, or about to enter, their prime playing years when the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011 and the Thrashers morphed into the Winnipeg Jets. Since then, each has swallowed the Kool-Aid and put his signature on a long-term contract, convinced that the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, and his obedient servant, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, would deliver on a promise of better days.

Toby Enstrom
Toby Enstrom

Well, those four men are still waiting for deliverance. Their biological clocks are still ticking. And they have every right to ask: When is when?

Except the Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff won’t, or can’t, provide a definitive answer. Unlike Enstrom, Byfuglien, Little and Wheeler, they aren’t on the clock, so they simply recite the draft-and-develop mantra and add more pimples than puck sense to their roster, all the while allowing four careers to waste away.

There is no urgency in ownership/management. The Little Hockey House on the Prairie is sold out every night. There’s a waiting list for season subscriptions numbering in the thousands. Many among the rabble remain in swoon, still giddy to have an NHL outfit to call their own, no matter how inferior the product. The Secret Society that is True North Sports & Entertainment can’t sell enough $10 Jumbo Jet hot dogs, $10 pints of beer and $300 jerseys. That isn’t a hockey rink tucked between Hargrave and Donald in downtown Winnipeg. It’s a cash register.

Much of that money is, of course, funneled into player wages and, to be sure, the Jets’ on-ice workers are handsomely compensated. They draw enough pay to purchase every $10 Jumbo Jet dog ever put on the grill. But once the contracts are signed, sealed and delivered, it’s no longer about the number of zeroes behind the dollar sign. It’s about winning. Period.

Do you think Blake Wheeler is interested in a draft-and-development plan that won’t bear any fruit for another, say, four-five years? Indeed, head coach Paul Maurice spoke to that very issue last April, when he began sifting through the charred leavings of another dumpster fire that put the Jets on the outside when the real fun began in the Stanley Cup tournament.

If we put a really, really young lineup again in the Central (Division) and have a couple of tough nights, as long as those are the best guys we have then I’m all for it,” coach Potty-Mo told news snoops.

Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler

At the end of the day, I don’t care who’s in that lineup, we’re going to try and figure out a way to win with that group. We’re going to put that expectation in our room, instead of saying, ‘Hey, just come out and try hard and follow us and then in five years we’re going to…’ Blake Wheeler doesn’t want to hear that, he doesn’t want to play like that.

Our expectations have to be higher. The players have to be under that pressure because I think they develop faster.”

But, as in the case of when is when, how fast is fast?

I mean, the Jets commenced their current crusade with two goaltenders still on training wheels. The tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson has crashed and burned. What’s old is new again, with Ondrej Pavelec back in the blue paint. And if he doesn’t return as the second coming of Dominik Hasek, what then? Back to Hellebuyck and Hutchinson?

I doubt that rate of development is fast enough for Wheeler and the others.

It is said today that 70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, but it doesn’t work that way in hockey. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, 31 wasn’t considered old in the NHL. Today, 30 is the old 35 and 35 is the old 40. (No, that doesn’t explain Jaromir Jagr, but some things defy logic.) The point is, Wheeler cannot afford many more failed experiments and wasted seasons before rot sets in. None of the ‘old’ boys can. Their clocks keep ticking while ownership/management keeps talking. The Puck Pontiff and Cheveldayoff have failed them. Miserably.

Little wonder Wheeler seems to be owly much of the time.

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.

Bottom Feeders ‘R’ Us…hope in Edmonton…media whining about the zebras…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…

chipman and chevy
Is this how it works with Mark Chipman and Kevin Cheveldayoff?

Winnipeg Jets, last place in the National Hockey League. Manitoba Moose, last place in the American Hockey League. So, how’s that draft-and-develop thing working out for you so far, Mark Chipman?

Look at it on the chipper side, though, Mark. This rare daily double of yours provides True North Sports & Entertainment with a catchy slogan for next season’s marketing campaign—Bottom Feeders ‘R’ Us. That ought to lure prime NHL free agent beef to River City come summertime.

Cheap shots aside, accusing fingers are being pointed in the direction of Kevin Cheveldayoff, general manager of the Jets (at least on paper) who’s bound to be the fall guy for an NHL crusade that has gone horribly wrong and has two principles, captain Andrew Ladd and backliner Dustin Byfuglien, skating in shinny limbo.

I cannot, however, let go of the notion that Chevy is merely playing Pinocchio to owner Chipman’s Geppetto.

Saint Mark already has advised a national television audience that he sticks his thin, pointy beak into Chevy’s business, which is to say the co-bankroll imposes his whims and wishes on trade and contract negotiations. To what degree, we are uncertain. So, what exactly do we have here? Humpty Harold Ballard without the bluster?

Chipman’s involvement/interference, to me, is the X factor in the Jets’ operation and, should we discover that he’s hamstrung his paper GM, then we must refrain from flinging poison arrows in Cheveldayoff’s direction and aim them toward meddling Mark.

connor mcdavid
In Edmonton, hope is named Connor McDavid.

Here’s the difference between the Jets and Edmonton Oilers: In Winnipeg, they’re hoping; in Edmonton, they have hope. Hope is named Connor McDavid and, if you bore witness to his return from sick bay against the Columbus Blue Jackets this week, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Oilers management, of course, have been the poster boys for faceplants since 2006, but it appears that a decade of pratfalls is finally about to pay dividends.

Here’s what should be unsettling, if not frightening, for the faithful in Jets Nation: The Winnipegs aren’t pretending to be this bad in order to land the next whiz kid, Auston Matthews, in the 2016 NHL entry draft. They are this bad.

This from Tim Campbell of the Winnipeg Free Press in his gamer on the Jets-Carolina Hurricanes joust Friday night at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie: “The Jets continue to have a hard time getting away from their reputation for taking penalties. In the first 40 minutes, the tally was Winnipeg, four infractions; Hurricanes, benefit of the doubt every time.” Oh, please. Would you like some cheese with that whine, Tim? It’s one thing for fans to infer the zebras are out to screw the Jets, but it’s lame when a member of the mainstream media does it. Campbell goes on to say, “The calls and non-calls had no bearing on the outcome (a 5-3 ‘Canes win).” So why even mention it?

newspapers2So this is how it works in the new world of Postmedia, which does not believe in competition between newspapers: Terry Jones of the Edmonton Joursun goes to Las Vegas to cover curling; Ed Willes of the Vancouver Provsun is dispatched to Charlotte, N.C., to file copy on the National Football Conference championship match; Toronto-based scribes Michael Traikos and Mike Zeisberger are sent to Nashville for the John Scott Testimonial, otherwise known as NHL all-star hijinks; Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sunprov and Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun are lodged in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50, and Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun is…well, he’s told to stay home and write an advancer for the men’s provincial curling event next week. I realize that Paul is a ginger-haired lad, but does Postmedia really have to treat him like the ginger-haired cousin who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the kids?

First Jets rookie Nikolaj Ehlers is $2,000 out of pocket for flopping all over the ice, and now the NHL has dipped into prodigal son Alexander Burmistrov’s pay envelope to the tune of $2,000, also for bad acting. The Jets aren’t very good at hockey, but they’re assembling a crack synchronized diving outfit for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

I note that Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters plans to be an active participant in this year’s livestock auction of Canadian Football League free agents. “Overall, organizationally, we just need better players,” he says. “Simple as that.” Geez, what was your first clue, Sherlock? Last season’s 5-13 record or a quarter of a century without a Grey Cup championship? And shouldn’t you have recognized that two years ago?

If there is a worse website than that which the Winnipeg Free Press delivers, it is that which the NHL offers. What a tire fire. Someone in the NHL has turned a silk purse into a sow’s ear.

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.

 

What are the Winnipeg Jets afraid of…Big Buff a man of many words…no Sun in Twang Town…and a non-diving Dane

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

It’s almost Groundhog Day. Does that mean Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff is about to poke his head out of his hiding hole and do something? Or say something?

chevy
Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff

That would be refreshing, since the man who does Saint Mark Chipman’s bidding hasn’t done or said much of anything since shuffling Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian off to Buffalo. For those of you keeping score at home, that was almost 365 days ago.

Chevy is the Howard Hughes of National Hockey League general managers. A recluse. He is the anti-John Ferguson.

When Fergy was at the wheel during the Winnipeg Jets’ initial whirl in the NHL, he took ownership of his deeds. Good (hello, Dale Hawerchuk) or bad (hello, Jimmy Mann). He didn’t hide from the faithful or news scavengers. From the moment he arrived in River City from Gotham until the day he was asked to leave, Fergy was up front and loud. His was the face and voice of the franchise.

What we now have with Cheveldayoff and the present-day Jets is complete non-accountability.

If there is a face and/or voice to this franchise, I can’t see it or hear it. No one can. Cheveldayoff says less than a street mime. The Winnipeg Sun recently requested an audience with the Grand Master for its three-part, state-of-the-union series on the Jets and was told, “Sorry, no can do. Chevy’s too busy doing stuff that is none of your business or anybody else’s business.”

That is so lame.

What I find myself wondering is this: Is Cheveldayoff standoffish by nature, or is he under some sort of gag order issued by team co-bankroll Saint Mark? I mean, it’s one thing for Chipman to operate a secretive society that suckles at the public teat in the form of tax advantages/subsidies and gaming revenue, but this isn’t about True North Sports & Entertainment profits. It’s about a hockey team, one in which the community has invested deeply, whether through ticket/merchadise sales or emotions. What is he afraid of?

If Chipman hasn’t instructed Cheveldayoff to keep his lips zipped, what is the GM afraid of?

Answering a few questions in advance of a looming NHL trade deadline ought not be an option. It ought to be an obligation.

big buff
Big Buff

On a similar theme, it was interesting to read dispatches from this weekend’s NHL all-star hijinks in Twang Town, Tennessee, because we discovered a side of Dustin Byfuglien seldom, if ever, seen in Winnipeg. Turns out Big Buff is humorous, witty, glib and an all-round nice guy who seemingly enjoyed his 25-minute parry-and-thrust with hockey scribes on media day. That Nashville scene, of course, would never take place in River City, because the Jets are so freakish about controlling the message that they shield their players from prying eyes and ears. News scavengers aren’t granted the opportunity or time to get to know players like Byfuglien as people and, by extension, Joe and Josephine Phan are also left out of the loop. Shame, that.

Not surprisingly, the Big Buff chin wag referenced his contract negotiations with the Jets. The all-star rearguard and pending free agent was asked point blank if his desire was to remain in Winnipeg, and, while he had some favorable comments about good, ol’ Hometown, part of his reply likely left a few in Jets Nation a tad uneasy. “I just want to put on a jersey, to be honest with you.” He didn’t say a Jets jersey. Apparently, any NHL jersey will do. He later said, “I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, but business is business.” Reminds me of the answer Evander Kane delivered in July 2014 when Team 1040 Radio in Vancouver quizzed him on his status with the Jets: “Well, I think, um, I’m a Winnipeg Jet right now and, um, you know there’s been speculation and rumors for the three years since I got there. You know, we’ll see what happens, and we’ll carry on as if I’m a Winnipeg Jet.” We all know how that ended.

Sad, but not surprising, that there’s no Winnipeg Sun presence in Nashville. The tabloid was served by the Toronto-based Michael Traikos of Postmedia and Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun. Get used to it, people. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Free Press has its own man, Tim Campbell, on site. Score one for the Freep.

Best reads this week were delivered by the Freep’s Paul Wiecek, whose piece on Saint Mark Chipman is superb. It’s Wiecek at his best and a prime example that the Free Press is well-served with him in the columnist’s seat. Meanwhile, the much-maligned John Scott told it like it is in a Players Tribune article that offers insight and humanizes one of the NHL’s dying breed—the enforcer.

Tell me if this is coincidence or an attitude adjustment: On Jan. 7, the NHL dinged Nikolaj Ehlers $2,000 for diving/embellishment. It meant he was a repeat offender. To that point in time, the diving Dane had scored six goals and 13 points in 40 games. Since the NHL dipped into his pay envelope, the Jets freshman winger has scored six goals and collected nine points in nine games. Apparently, Ehlers has concluded that staying on his feet is more productive than flopping around like a European soccer player. Skating alongside linemates not named Chris Thorburn likely helps, too.

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.

 

About raw sewage and Paul Maurice…the Freep recruiting Shakey Johnson…a herd of Buffalo Girls at the Scotties…and idiocy in print

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

I see where the city of Winnipeg allowed five million litres of raw sewage to pour into the Red River earlier this month. That’s nothing compared to what Paul Maurice keeps pouring over the boards.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Maurice has lost the plot. Totally. Or he’s gone into tank-for-Auston mode.

Coach-Maurice-post-game-Dec-29-609x291
Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice

I mean, really. The Jets are down two goals vs. the New Jersey Devils, Maurice instructs his goaltender to vacate the net in favor of a sixth attacker in a final, frantic push to get a puck past Cory Schneider at the far end of the freeze, and one of his half-dozen wannabe heroes is Chris flipping Thorburn?

What am I missing here?

The last time Thorburn scored, the Prime Minister of Canada was a guy named Trudeau. Pierre, not Justin. Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Thorburn actually has five snipes this winter. Trouble is, that’s his average over eight National Hockey League crusades. His career high is nine goals. He lights the lamp about as often as Adam Sandler makes a good movie. Thus, expecting Thorburn to come up with a big goal is like expecting Caitlyn Jenner to win a war of wits with Ricky Gervais.

So what is it that Maurice sees that the rest of us don’t?

Understand something here. I have no problem with Chris Thorburn being Chris Thorburn. The guy’s a gamer. Does whatever is asked of him.

My issue is with Maurice not recognizing that Chris Thorburn is Chris Thorburn.

So, after spending a few days to digest the ouster of old friend George (Shakey) Johnson as sports columnist at the Calgary Herald, here’s what I’m thinking: Why isn’t Winnipeg Free Press sports poobah Steve Lyons on the phone, making a pitch to bring Shakey home? The Freep hasn’t replaced Gary (La La) Lawless, who defected to TSN not so long ago. Since La La took his leave, columnist duties have been shared by the very capable Ed Tait and Paul Wiecek in something of a good cop, bad cop tandem. They’ve been cranking out boffo stuff. But Shakey Johnson is only the best sports writer in Canada (newspaper division). He got his start in River City, at the Winnipeg Tribune in the 1970s. It would be nice if he could finish it off in Pegtown.

chelsea carey
Alberta champ Chelsea Carey.

Can you say Buffalo Girls, kids? There will be a heavy Manitoba flavor to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts next month in Grand Prairie, Alta. Kerri Einarson and friends, of course, will have the Buffalo on their backs when the Canadian women’s curling championship slides from the hacks Feb. 20, but Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones and gal pals (Team Canada) will join the freshly minted Manitoba queens in the annual rock fest. There’s more. Chelsea Carey of the famed Carey curling clan and a former Manitoba champion is also headed for Grande Prairie as the rep from Wild Rose Country. Chelsea knocked off defending Alberta champion Val Sweeting on Sunday. We’re talking three of the morning-line favorites, all from the Keystone province.

How do you write a story about the provincial women’s curling championship without telling readers that you’re writing about the provincial women’s curling championship? That’s a good question to ask Jim Bender of the Winnipeg Sun, because he managed to report on Sunday’s Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts final between Kerri Einarson and Kristy McDonald in Beausejour without once mentioning the sport of curling. Tsk, tsk Big Jim.

I have long harbored great admiration for a number of sports scribes in our home and native land. I think of wordsmiths like Jack Matheson, John Robertson, Jim Taylor, Jim Coleman, Milt Dunnell, Dick Beddoes and current-day jock journalists Cam Cole and Bruce Arthur. Giants, each of them. But, in terms of pure writing talent, there are precious few about whom I have said, “I wish I could write as well as him/her.” Atop that list would be the legendary Trent Frayne, whose way with words was unequalled. There has not been a better sports scribe in the True North. Ever. After Trent, my personal fab four includes Allen Abel, Stephen Brunt and Shakey Johnson.

Nothing to admire in this quip from Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun: “The idiocy of social media: Fans arguing online who was the better Leaf, (Dave) Keon or Wendel Clark.” Apparently, no one is allowed an opinion unless it jives with Little Stevie Blunder’s. If he says Keon is the greatest of the Toronto Maple Leafs, cased closed. As if, Stevie. Talk about idiocy.

This from my very own self just 15 days ago: “Prediction: By the end of this month, the Jets will be in a playoff position.” D’oh! What a mook.

I miss Citizen Kane…$1 million should make Big Buff a fan of 3-on-3 hockey…a swan-diving Dane…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…

Top o’ the morning to you, Evander Kane.

Evander Kane
Evander Kane

I must say, it’s been awful quiet in these here parts ever since you packed your track suit and shuffled off to Buffalo. The boys you left behind are quite the bland lot. I mean, the surviving members of the Winnipeg Jets all pay their restaurant and bar tabs. They pay their parking tickets. They don’t swan off to Las Vegas and tweet selfies featuring great gobs of American greenbacks. They don’t buy billboards on Sunset Strip in Tinseltown to woo back their model girlfriends. All they do is kiss Saint Mark Chipman’s ring finger and play hockey. Bor-ring.

I was kind of hoping that your return to Pegtown for the Buffalo Sabres-Jets joust this afternoon at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie would liven things up. You know, get our motors running. But you didn’t play along. Your chin-wag with news scavengers upon your return to River City was as ho-hum as your offensive output this National Hockey League season. Just another game, you said. Business as usual, you said.

Balls!

It’s never “just another” anything when you and Winnipeg are in the mix, Evander. You had a love-hate relationship with us. Sans the love. You wanted out of River City the moment your eyes made acquaintances with Portage and Main. But you lied to us about that, didn’t you, Evander? You said everything was cool. You even signed a long-term contract that, as we have since learned, was window dressing and not an indication that you liked us, you really liked us.

It’s not quite a year since the trade that sent you from one NHL backwater burg to another and, other than a wardrobe adjustment from Jets to Sabres linen, not much has changed for you, Evander—eight goals and five assists in 30 games, pauperish returns for princely pay.

Still, I miss you and your underachieving ways, Evander. You were interesting. Fun. A walking, talking, 72-point headline.

That’s why you’re in for a rough ride this afternoon. The rabble in River City prefers their sporting heroes to be humble. Modest. Feet on the ground, not nose in the air. You made too much noise, Evander. The wrong kind of noise. And now you’ll be hearing a different kind of noise at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie. It won’t be pleasant and it won’t be polite. But I suppose it will be befitting.

Welcome back, Evander.

Big Buff is no fan of three-on-three shinny.
No. 33 is no fan of 3-on-3 shinny.

So, the successful side in this month’s NHL all-star hijinks in Twang Town, Tennessee, divvies up a $1-million pot of gold. That would be one million U.S. dollars, or about one million, 400,000 loonies. Something tells me that Dustin Byfuglien suddenly is a fan of three-on-three hockey. Big Buff, of course, harrumphed mightily earlier this season after he and the Jets had been beaten in a three-on-three overtime session. It’s not hockey. It’s terrible. It’s stupid. Fine, Buff. Remind us of that when you and your Central Division colleagues are counting the cash in Nashville.

Speaking of cash, I note that Jets’ freshman Nikolaj Ehlers is a bit lighter in the wallet these days. The NHL dinged the not-yet-great Dane to the tune of $2,000 for diving/embellishment, which means he’s a repeat offender. Somebody tell the swan-diving Dane that the pond is frozen. You want to embellishment something, kid? Try your scoring numbers. You had four goals before we carved our Halloween pumpkins. Then you turned into a pumpkin. You’ve scored two since, one into a empty net. Stay on your feet and play the game, Swanny.

Why all the angst over the Jets getting an early first-round pick in June’s NHL entry draft? If grand master Kevin Cheveldayoff is such a wizard on the draft floor, it shouldn’t matter whether he gets his initial call in the top 10, middle 10, or bottom 10 of the first round.

Who is Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun trying to fool? Following the Jets’ 4-1 faceplant against the Disney Ducks in Anaheim, he wrote, “Faced with a back-to-back situation, the Jets were unable to find their skating legs against a well-rested Ducks team.” Really? Well-rested? Wiebe surely is not letting the facts get in the way of his reporting, because the Ducks were playing their fourth game in six nights. Same as the Jets. Up to and including that game, the Ducks played nine matches from Dec. 17-Jan. 3. The Jets played eight. The Jets played five road games during that stretch. The Ducks played seven, including four on the opposite side of the continent. It was the Jets’ fifth post-Christmas game. Ditto the Ducks. So, exactly when did the Ducks have time to rest? Wiebe’s comment smacked of homerism.

Local sports scribes who wrote articles this week that did not include the sport and/or league they were writing about: Ed Tait, Tim Campbell, Melissa Martin, Scott Billeck, Jeff Hamilton, Doug Brown, Ken Wiebe, Paul Friesen.

Prediction: By the end of this month, the Jets will be in a playoff position. Seriously. The Nashville Predators have gone into free fall and the Colorado St. Patricks are legitimate like Jaromir Jagr is a rookie. About the only thing I can see screwing up the Jets this month is the return of Ondrej Pavelec.

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.

 

The Drab Slab recruits Scott Campbell…nothing new at the Sun…still a hate-on for Shane Doan…and why not Anthony Peluso in the NHL all-star game?

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

So, how does one improve upon the toy department of a daily newspaper? Why, you recruit a non-writer to write, don’t you know? That, at least, is the thinking of the madcap minds at the Winnipeg Free Press, which now has more sports scribes than Donald Trump has critics.

Scott Campbell
Scott Campbell

Latest to join the Drab Slab’s stable of thousands is old friend Scott Campbell, who, when last seen, was helping the Winnipeg Jets wrestle the final World Hockey Association championship away from the Edmonton Gretzkys, then, sadly, he fought a losing battle with asthma that ended his National Hockey League career at the tender age of 25.

Scotty was one of the good guys, one of my all-time fave Jets. A raw-boned rearguard, he was friendly, witty and quick with a laugh. He took his game seriously but not himself.

And what will he bring to the Freep sports pages commencing Friday? Honesty. Bluntness. I hope.

I say that based on Scotty’s scribblings at Mitch Kasprick’s pride and joy, Winnipeg Hockey Talk. He doesn’t write with the smoothest pen (copy editors, please take note: punctuation is not Scotty’s strength), but he offers unvarnished critique, fair analysis and the voice of someone who has been there, done that.

My main concern is this: Given that the Freep is in bed with the Jets (official newspaper and all that rot), will Scotty be writing in a harness or given free rein? If he’s expected to be a True North Toady, it shall become a wasted exercise. If allowed to ruffle feathers, it’s game on.

Go get ’em, Scotty. I’m root, root, rooting for you.

So now the Drab Slab has one ex-jock, Campbell, scribbling hockey, and another former play-for-pay guy, Doug Brown, prattling on about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and all things Canadian Football League. How do they compare as writers? Scotty is meat-and-potatoes. Brown is…well, let’s just say the former defensive lineman is from a school that preaches, “Why use just three words when three dozen are so much better?” Basically, just one thing separates the two—a thesaurus.

In advising readers that the Freep toy department is “upping its game” by bringing a novice on board, sports editor Steve Lyons also invited feedback. Or input, if you will. “How are we doing?” he asks. “Is there something you would like to see more regularly? Is there something you would prefer to not see at all?” Well, now that you ask, Steve…is it too much to expect from your scribes (also copy editors) that they adhere to the basics of writing? You know, the who, what, when, where and why of a story. It’s disgraceful and shameful that Freep writers repeatedly fail to mention the league or sport they’re writing about. It’s an every-day occurrence. This is a pet peeve of mine and I’m not going to let it go until I see them spell it out—every day, in every article.

I keep waiting for the Winnipeg Sun to add a fresh voice to its sports pages, but it remains same old, same old—Paul Friesen, Kirk Penton, Ken Wiebe and cameo appearances by Ted Wyman. Those boys do boffo work, but even following the Freep’s lead and finding someone to do a once-a-week gig would give the Sun a bit of a jolt. As it is, they continue to trot out the weekly Toronto-centric, three-dot ramblings of Steve Simmons each Sunday. Do people in River City really care about the goings-on in the Republic of Tranna? I think not. I enjoy reading quick-hit journalism, but I’d rather it be about good, ol’ Hometown rather than big, bloated Hogtown.

Shane Doan as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets.
Shane Doan as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets.

It occurs to me that there remains a pocket of people in Pegtown still harboring a fierce hate-on for Shane Doan. Why is that? I mean, it wasn’t his fault that a bunch of carpetbaggers took Winnipeg Jets 1.0 and hightailed it south to the Arizona desert in 1996. Doan went along for the ride, simply because he had no choice, and the fact the Arizona Coyotes’ captain broke Dale Hawerchuk’s franchise goal-scoring record last week ought to be saluted, not scorned. I mean, are we really still bitter about the NHL allowing the Jets to skulk out of town and morph into the Desert Dogs? Are the Jets 2.0 not a suitable consolation prize? Get over it, people.

I can think of a few things that would put my nose out of joint, but John Scott appearing in the NHL all-star game isn’t among them. Sure it’s farcical that the Arizona Coyotes’ resident rottweiler will be part of the glittersome gathering in Twang Town, Tennessee, at the end of the month, but what is the NHL all-star skirmish if not farce? Seriously. A hockey game with a football score is not a purist’s idea of quality shinny, which is why it’s no longer a single farce but a series of little farces. So why not let the goons in on the fun? What the hey, had Jets loyalists been on the ball, they would have stuffed the ballot box and sent Anthony Peluso to Nashville, whereupon both he and Scott could lay a hurtin’ song on the real hockey players.

Unless there is a dramatic change in fortune, we soon shall hear much talk of tanking in Jets Nation. For the record, I don’t believe that team co-bankroll Mark Chipman will instruct grand master Kevin Cheveldayoff to deliberately tank in order to better position the Jets to win the right to bark out the name Auston Matthews at the 2016 NHL entry draft. If the Jets get first shout at the June garage sale of freshly scrubbed teenagers, they’ll do it the old-fashioned way—bad management.

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.

About cantankerous columnists…best burgers ever…lumberjacks…Eskimos…and a commish with his head up his something or other

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

waldorf and statler
Waldorf and Statler or Terry Jones and Steve Simmons?

The boys on the beat are not impressed with Pegtown’s pigskin party. Not by a long shot.

“My report card of Grey Cup Week in Winnipeg: Just so-so,” is how Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun describes the hijinks in River City leading up to Sunday’s argument over Canadian Football League bragging rights. “Not as much fun as Winnipeg usually is at Grey Cup time. A touch disappointing.”

Sounds like Little Stevie Blunder is as bored as some of his readers.

But, hey, perhaps the Edmonton Sun‘s been-there, done-everything wordsmith Terry Jones has a different, more favorable take on the preamble to the CFL championship skirmish between the Edmonton Don’t Call Them Eskimos and the Ottawa RougeNoir.

Nope.

“It was a Grey Cup Week that didn’t quite make it,” he harrumphs. “Maybe it was just because this is Winterpeg and folks are still thawing out from the Grey Cup here in 1991, the all-time record for ridiculous, the coldest Grey Cup ever played with a minus 16 degree game time temperature.”

And here I thought Statler and Waldorf were a couple of cantankerous, grumpy Muppet characters, not two flowers of Canadian sports prose.

vj'sActually, I hasten to point out that Grey Cup week was not a colossal waste of time for old friend Steve Simmons. During his stay, he stumbled upon a River City treasure—V.J.’s Drive Inn, a greasy spoon on south Main Street that serves up “great, I mean great, cheap lunches,” he tweets. Oh, yes, the way to a sports scribe’s heart is through his wallet (even when he has an expense account), and how convenient that V.J.’s is located no more than a Henry Burris Hail Mary pass from the Fort Garry Hotel, where you’ll find the official CFL media hospitality suite. What better way to wash down those greasy double cheeseburgers and fatty fries than with an endless supply of free booze? Party on, boys.

I worked Grey Cup games in every CFL city and, in terms of hoopla, the worst host towns were, by far, Toronto and Vancouver. In 1994, when American interlopers from Baltimore arrived on the West Coast with the single-minded purpose of taking the three-down game’s holy grail south of the border, colleague Ed Tait and myself were caught off guard by the indifference of locals, especially given the fact their B.C. Lions were to meet the Stallions from Maryland. One morning as we stepped outside the Westin Bayshore, an elderly gent noticed a gathering of out-of-towners in the lobby and asked, “Is there something important going on this week?” To which Tait replied, “Yes, the Grey Cup.” The old fellow then asked, “The Greek what?”

loggersportsSo, Football Follies Field in Fort Garry has been declared a chainsaw-free zone when the Don’t Call Them Eskimos and les RougeNoir grab grass and growl in the 103rd Grey Cup game. That is to say, the Ottawa tradition of punctuating a touchdown by lumberjacks/jills sawing a log has been forbidden by the CFL. Loyalists of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers simply cannot understand this directive. I mean, Big Blue fans are usually seen sawing logs by halftime at every home game.

If the deep-thinkers in Edmonton wanted to do something positive, they would worry a lot less about lumberjacks and listen a lot more to Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Obed is the mouthpiece for Canada’s 60,000 Inuit, and he’s of the opinion that the name Eskimos is both outdated and offensive. What would a renamed Edmonton CFL outfit be called? Well, I suppose we can rule out Lumberjacks. So, what is Edmonton best known for, other than trading away the greatest scoring machine in National Hockey League history? A big mall and not much else, really. Tough call when the best the locals can say about their own burg is “at least it isn’t Winnipeg.”

Apparently, CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge has been doing his grand poobahing with his head up the part of his anatomy that he sits on. Not until his inaugural Grey Cup chin-wag with the country’s football media the other day did the commish realize that there exists a barrier between the wants and needs of news scavengers and the control-freak messaging of the league’s nine member outfits. He vowed to address the matter of limited media access “if that’s an issue.” If? If? If? Yo! Commish! You have a head coach in Winnipeg, Mike O’Shea, who cannot answer a question without first watching the film, and he duct tapes his assistant coaches like they’re part of a Flashpoint hostage-taking. What part of that do you not understand?

No surprise that old friend Ed Tait would serve up the best read during Grey Cup week in Pegtown. His piece on the Blue Bombers circa 1980s-early1990s in the Winnipeg Free Press is boffo stuff. It is to Grey Cup coverage what V.J.’s is to the double cheeseburgers and fries. Worth every cent.

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 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.

 

Alexander Burmistrov: Is born-again Burmi the Winnipeg Jets new Fro Lite or Kane Lite?

Quiz yourself this, kids: Would you trade Michael Frolik for Alexander Burmistrov? Even up?

Didn’t think so.

That, however, is essentially what Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff did last week. For reasons yet to be clearly defined, the man who generally manages the Winnipeg Jets was unable to convince his most useful forward to remain in River City, thus Frolik shall continue his Jack-of-all-trades career while wearing Calgary Flames adornments.

To compensate for the Fro defection, the Grand Master prepared the fatted calf and welcomed home the prodigal player, Burmistrov, who, when last seen prior to resurfacing at the National Hockey League club’s development camp this past weekend, was acting every bit the petulant, pouting punk and skulking off to Mother Russia.

So that’s your exchange: Frolik out, Burmistrov in.

I have heard it suggested that Burmistrov is Frolik Lite, in that he delivers all those special niceties that the Czech forward provided. He just doesn’t do them as well. I believe that to be an accurate assessment.

But, is Burmistrov actually Fro Lite or is he Kane Lite?

The dearly departed Evander Kane was, of course, a skilled (much of it wasted) player with attitude issues. He played cat-and-mouse with defrocked head coach Claude Noel, challenging his authority on more than one occasion. Although never putting it on public record that he wanted out of Winnipeg, we know he liked Pegtown about as much as Phil Kessel likes media scrums. Eventually, he was shuffled off to Buffalo.

Similarly, Burmistrov and Noel were singing from different sheets in the songbook, thus he skedaddled home for a two-season gig with Ak-Bars of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Now he’s back and what the born-again Burmi brings to the party come October will be among the main storylines as the Winnipegs commence their 2015-16 crusade. If he’s Frolik Lite, it’s all good. If he’s Kane Lite, not so much.

As it is, the former teenage prospect is now a 23-year-old prospect with plenty of upside but a past that fuels skepticism, and the Jets surely harbor a morsel of uncertainty about this migrant young man, otherwise they would have welcomed Burmistrov back to the flock with something more than a two-year contract.

The hope, of course, is that he’s finally got his shite together, meaning he knows head coach Paul Maurice is the boss.

Desperate Hockey Wives: Okay, money aside, we still don’t know the intimate details of Michael Frolik’s defection to the Calgary Flames, thus rumors abound.

One such trickle of gossip suggests his girlfriend, Diana, pulled a Lauren Pronger and forced Frolik to sign anywhere but Winnipeg. The way it is whispered, she developed a considerable distaste for all things River City and, much like Lauren Pronger with hubby Chris and the Edmonton Oilers, she held veto power on where they set up house with daughter Ella.

I have neither heard nor read anything to lend credence to that rumor but, if true, I ask this: So what? Should a wife/girlfriend not have a voice in where she lives?

It seems to me she should have a loud voice.

Sam’s Story a Non-Story? Once upon a time, a lot of football people were strictly Xs, Os and bite-the-head-off-a-live-chicken kind of guys. It would seem that at least one of those dinosaurs still walks among us.

I say that because of a snippet in a Kirk Penton piece last week.

It seems an unidentified Canadian Football League coach or manager pooh-poohs the considerable copy and air time devoted to Michael Sam, whose on-again, off-again career appears to be on again, although it’s expected that the Montreal Alouettes will arrrive in River City for their date with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this Friday sans the only openly gay man to sign a CFL contract.

Michael Sam hasn’t played a down of football north of the border and he has gotten a thousand times more recognition than Randy Chevrier, who won the Tom Pate Award (for oustanding sportsmanship and someone who has made a significant contribution to his team, his community and the CFLPA),” Coach/Manager No Name said. “That’s pathetic. You guys (in the media) should be embarrassed.”

Well, no. Here’s what’s pathetic and here’s who should be embarrassed: A football lifer who doesn’t recognize or appreciate the social significance of Sam’s story.

It should never be just about Xs, Os and quarterback sacks. Sam is man-bites-dog copy. Can an openly gay man not only survive but, indeed, succeed in the macho world that is professional football? Is major professional sports in North America still a homophobic hinterland in a day and age when same-sex marriage is legal in Canada and the U.S.? Will Sam pave the way for more gay athletes to come out? That’s why noted sheets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail in the U.K. and so many others track the trials and tribulations of the Alouettes would-be rush end.

But what do those papers know about news? They’re pathetic, right coach?

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 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.

Winnipeg Jets: Kevin Cheveldayoff is the life of this post-season party

Let’s make something abundantly clear: This is down to Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Yes, the much maligned man who generally managed the Winnipeg Jets from the fetal position for the first 3 1/2 years of his stewardship is the main reason there shall be meaningful matches played post-April 11 at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie.

If not for Cheveldayoff’s sleight-of-hand prior to the National Hockey League trade deadline, you see, fans would not have flocked to the intersection of Portage and Main on Thursday night for an impromptu whoop-it-up in celebration of the Jets securing the Western Conference second wild-card position and a ticket to the Stanley Cup tournament. They would have been drowning their sorrows. Again.

Other explanations will, of course, be advanced in any analysis of the Jets transformation from perennial Sad Sack to playoff participant. You will find, for example, head coach Paul Maurice’s finger prints all over the product. Ondrej Pavelec, the oft-scorned, ridiculed and overpaid goaltender who spent much of the season serving as upstart Michael Hutchinson’s caddy, magically morphed into an all-world puck-stopper in the past two weeks and is earning his handsome stipend. Dustin Byfuglien emerged as a hybrid force. Evander Kane had the bad manners to wear a track suit to work one day in Vancouver.

All valid points.

But no. As I said, this one is down to Cheveldayoff, who, until two months ago, gave little indication that he actually had a pulse. The Jets GM has had more critics than Phil Kessel. He has been tsk-tsked for being reclusive. For being gun shy. For saying a whole lot of nothing whenever he actually pulled his head out of the sand. For doing diddley, other than stockpiling draft choices and preaching patience. He’s taken more of a beating than a rented mule.

Then along came the Kane Mutiny and we discovered exactly how daring and decisive Cheveldayoff can be.

We still don’t know all the gory details of L’Affaire Kane. Perhaps we never will. It’s one of those “what happens in the room, stays in the room” things. Suffice to say, Evander Kane screwed up at a team gathering in Vancouver, his mates were unamused, one or more of them thought it would be a swell idea to administer a dose of frontier justice, and the flamboyant, mercurial winger never wore Jets linen again.

In an era when the salary cap makes it difficult to trade bubble gum cards, never mind live bodies, Cheveldayoff managed to take his damaged goods (Kane) and shuffle him off to Buffalo, along with Zach Bogosian, in barter for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford and an assortment of intriguing add-ons that include one of the Sabres’ first-round selections in this summer’s NHL entry draft.

To say Myers and Stafford have been useful is to say Jets team co-bankroll David Thomson has a few bucks in the bank. Both ex-Sabres have been impactful, gobbling up considerable minutes each night and delivering timely offence.

The deal with Buffalo was a master stroke. And Cheveldayoff didn’t stop there. He later added Jiri Tlusty. Then Lee Stempniak.

Subtract Stafford, Stempniak, Tlusty and Myers from the lineup and ask yourself if the Jets would be positioned to face off vs. either the St. Louis Blues or Disney Ducks in the opening skirmish of the NHL’s second season next week. Would we be talking about celebrations at Portage and Main and whiteouts and turning the Little Hockey House on the Prairie into the Den of Din on Donald?

The answer is an emphatic “No, no, no. A thousand times no.”

Yet here we are, discussing those very topics.

Here’s something else for you to chew on: Given a favorable set of circumstances, the Jets, although the eighth seed in the western portion of the tournament, could be in for a deep run in their first post-season crusade since the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011. If, for example, the locals were to meet the very beatable Ducks in the first round and survive, they would then hook up with the winner of the Vancouver Canucks-Calgary Flames series.

Can you say conference final, kids? I knew you could.

So, it’s hats and bonnets off to Kevin Cheveldayoff, master manipulator. Who knew?

 

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 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.

MY WINNIPEG: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

Keep in mind that many of our adopted jocks are not in Winnipeg by choice. The sports system forced them to drop anchor in Pegtown, so it could be that they feel the system is holding them hostage, which could lend itself to no small level of bitterness about a burg.

Does Winnipeg get a bad rap, or are the good citizens of River City a tad too touchy? Lord knows we have a fragile psyche, because we get our knickers in a knot at the mere suggestion that our burg is not fit for man, beast nor professional athlete. Well, here’s one person’s four-part take on what makes Pegtown tick.

PART ONE: It’s okay if you don’t like us (but we aren’t anybody’s arm pit)

PART TWO: Snub us and we won’t drink your beer (and it’s all Harold Ballard’s fault)

PART THREE: Some athletes we love, some athletes we loath (but we’ll love you more and loath you less if you win)

PART FOUR: Everybody knows this is nowhere (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave)

 

PART ONE: It’s okay if you don’t like us (but we aren’t anybody’s arm pit)

It was the winter of 1998 and I was standing beside Ross McLennan in the Winnipeg Sun newsroom.

We peered out the window as an angry winter storm began to bare its fangs and growl, and we both knew that if we didn’t leave the building in the next half hour, or so, there existed a very real probability that we were hunkered in for the night.

“Ross,” I said to him as I stared at the white stuff swirling about outside, “why do we live here?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

There was a pause for silence. We just stared at the snow.

“You know something,” I finally said, turning to my right and looking up at Ross. “We don’t have to live here. No. We don’t have to live here.”

So I don’t. Live there. But I do. Live there.

I have come to realize, you see, that I don’t live where I live. I live where I used to live. Where I’ve always lived. Where I always will live.

It’s just that I’m now approximately 2,300 kilometres to the left of Portage and Main. I have an ocean view. And a mountain view. There are palm trees, 365 days of golf, a wet rather than a white winter, nobody plugs in their car, and I’ve discovered uses for my arms other than swatting at mosquitos 24/7.

I hang my bonnet in Victoria, but, trust me, I live in Winnipeg.

I mean, I’m ashamed to admit this (and probably shouldn’t admit it), but I can’t tell you the name of Victoria’s mayor. I believe it’s Dean Fortin, but I’m not positive. Yes, I agree, shame on me.

The thing is, I not only can name the (soon-to-be former) mayor of Winnipeg, I know him. Personally. Mind you, I never was particularly fond of Sammy Katz, nor his smarmy smile. Always thought he was a bit like a soccer injury. You know, phony.

I figure Sammy for one of those soccer players who has been mortally wounded by a kick to the left shin bone, yet, as play continues to swirl about him as he lay clutching at his face, he’s peeking through his fingers to determine if the referee will go to his pocket and produce a red card.

The red card is, of course, the miracle cure of futbol. It has the healing powers of Jesus’s hands. The moment a mortally wounded lad is secure in the knowledge that his assailant has been shown a red card—and thereby banished from proceedings—he makes a Lourdes-like recovery and springs back into the fray with renewed vigor and an exaggerated limp that vanishes the very second play is whistled in. To me, that’s Sammy.

But I digress…

My point was/is, I know Sammy Katz is mayor in River City and I even know the names of some of those who would be mayor come October. Like Gord Steeves, who claims to know how many pot holes it takes to fill the streets of Winnipeg, because, by gosh, he’s going to fill ’em all.

I know these things because I left good, ol’ Hometown 15 years ago, but I never left.

I mean, when I make reference to the “local” paper, I’m talking about the Winnipeg Sun or Winnipeg Free Press, not the Victoria Times Colonist or Victoria News. My first order of business each morning is to call up both the Sun and Freep. I need to know what’s happening. Where it’s happening. When it’s happening. Why it’s happening. I need to know who’s happening and who isn’t happening.

I read it all. News, entertainment, sports, arts, Miss Lonelyhearts. Everything. I even stop by Mr. Sinclair Jr.’s neighborhood in the Freep on occasion, just to check out Gordo’s most recent exercise in name-dropping self-indulgence. (Quick question: Does Gordo ever eat at home with his bride, or does he always eat out with somebody who’s a somebody?)

At any rate, I care about Winnipeg. I care about its people. I am, after all, of them. Born and raised. Spent the largest segment of a 30-year career in jock journalism there.

That, however, doesn’t mean I’m under obligation to do the rah-rah, siss-boom-bah thing about all that is River City, and neither are the professional athletes we adopt.

Keep in mind that many of our adopted jocks are not in Winnipeg by choice. The sports system forced them to drop anchor in Pegtown, so it could be that they feel the system is holding them hostage, which could lend itself to no small level of bitterness about a burg.

None of us wishes to be where we don’t want to be, and there are hundreds—correction: thousands—of people living and working in Pegtown who don’t wish to live and work in Pegtown. Some of those people edit copy at a newspaper. Some flip cheese nips at The Sals. Some serve tables in pubs. Some are university profs. Some collect your garbage. And, yes, some are in the employ of the Winnipeg Jets and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

There is mounting suspicion that Evander Kane is among those people. That he wants to hop on the next stagecoach out of Dodge. Well, the Jets left winger should know that it’s okay if he doesn’t like us. It’s okay if he wants out of Winnipeg. That doesn’t make him O.J. or Willie Pickton or Paul Bernardo any more than it makes me Karla Homolka because I dialed up a new area code in 1999.

And it doesn’t make our burg Toronto’s, Montreal’s, Calgary’s or Vancouver’s arm pit, either. So who gives two dumps if an athlete doesn’t like us?

 

PART TWO: Snub us and we won’t drink your beer (and it’s all Harold Ballard’s fault)

Winnipeg has many favorable qualities to offer. A self-deprecating sense of humor is not one of them.

Winnipeg is…it’s…well, it has Napolean Complex. Small man syndrome, if you will. Its skin is thinner than the margin of error on an Angus Reid poll.

A space cadet like Ilya Bryzgalov makes a flippant statement about our burg’s parks, the frigid climes and no Russian playmates for his kids and it’s as if he’s climbed atop the Legislature building and gelded the Golden Boy. Or replaced it with a bronze statue of Joseph Stalin.

Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull
Ben Hatskin and Bobby Hull

Shane Doan is tarred and feathered (figuratively) for saying he doesn’t wish to uproot his family from Phoenix when the possibility exists that the Coyotes are about to become buzzard bait in the Arizona desert. Not once does Doan utter a disparaging remark about Winnipeg, though. Nary a discouraging word. He says he doesn’t wish to move his family anywhere. Not to Vancouver. Not to Calgary or Edmonton. Not to New York or Chicago. Yet many in Thin Skin City get their knickers in a knot, in part because of a jingoistic media that includes at least one prominent True North Toady who misrepresents Doan’s feelings in a column that falsely accuses the Coyotes captain of slander.

Dieter Brock cracks wise about the Assiniboine Park Zoo three decades ago and, to this day, there are many among the rabble who would lock him in a cage with the rest of the skunks.

We get our frozen noses out of joint at the slightest suggestion we aren’t where it’s at, don’t we? How dare these filthy rich, pampered ingrates not like us. The nerve. Don’t they know we have The Forks, Folklorama, the French Quarter, Festival du Voyageur, a thriving arts and entertainment community that includes a world-renowned ballet and symphony orchestra, the Museum of Asper, affordable real estate, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda?

And, hey, it’s the Slurpee capital of the planet. No place sucks like Winnipeg. Literally. So if you slag our city, no Slurpees for you!

I can’t say with absolute certainty when we developed our Napolean Complex, but I do believe we should point an accusing finger at Humpty Harold Ballard. And the Molson family.

When I was a kid, you see, Winnipeg didn’t have an inferiority complex, even though we didn’t have a National Hockey League team to call our own. Only Toronto and Montreal did. No big deal. Besides, there was no need to feel like the ginger-haired stepchild because we had a football club that could kick big-city butt. And that’s what the Blue Bombers did. Every year.

So everything was cool.

It even got better when Ben Hatskin hijacked Robert Marvin Hull. We still didn’t have an NHL franchise, but we had the Jets and the World Hockey Association. More significant, we had Bobby Hull. The Golden Jet. The most dynamic player north, south, east and west of Boston was ours. We could turn in any direction and go “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

Our smugness rapidly turned to anger, though, because the hockey establishment refused to play nice. First, they went to court to prevent our Bobby from joining the Jets. Next, they refused to include our Bobby on the Team Canada side that faced off against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. They spent the next seven years pooh-poohing our product as paperweight, even as the Jets iced an outfit that could lay a licking on 90 per cent of teams in the NHL. Eventually, most parties realized there had to be a ceasefire between the NHL and WHA, for financial sanity. There were merger talks. And a show of hands on the NHL inviting Winnipeg, Quebec City, Edmonton and New England to the party. The tally was 12-5 in favor, with Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which landed an NHL franchise in 1970, Boston and Los Angeles on the nay side of the vote. That was enough to defeat the merger.

8-harold-ballard-worst-moments-in-maple-leafs-history
Humpty Harold Ballard

The loudest anti-acceptance voice, that with the most huff, puff and bluster, belonged to Humpty Harold Ballard, resident felon and bankroll of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I feel so elated,” Ballard brayed in celebration. “It’s like the North beating the South in the Civil War.”

“As far as Harold was concerned, Winnipeg didn’t exist,” Jets part-owner and governor Barry Shenkarow recalls in the Ed Willes book, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association.

So, Ballard and his buddies in Montreal and Vancouver were telling us we weren’t big enough. We weren’t classy enough. We weren’t sexy enough. We weren’t sophisticated enough for the NHL.

Well, we were big enough and old enough to drink beer.

The WHA teams needed one NHL outfit to change its vote. Just one. Ballard, ever the curmudgeon, never would be swayed from his position, not as long as it meant receiving a smaller slice of the Hockey Night in Canada pie. So the Molson family, owner of Club du Hockey Canadien, became the target. We stopped swilling their beer. Not just in River City. In Edmonton. In Quebec City. In Calgary. In Vancouver.

The power of the pint won the day and Humpty Harold’s happiness was replaced with a harrumph when Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec City and New England were absorbed by the NHL.

I’m convinced, however, that residue remains from that 1970s scenario. It’s why we get our backs up and go all bantam rooster at the mere hint that we can’t run with the big dogs. And, of course, our fragile psyche took a massive wallop when the original Jets loaded up the truck, lock stock and jock strap, and departed hockey’s high country for the Arizona desert in 1996.

But Winnipeg shouldn’t give a damn what anyone thinks or says of us. We can, and should, feel good about what we see when we look in the mirror.

We shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at ourselves, either. We’ve got our quirks. I mean, we want people to love us. To experience us. Yet we build a perimeter highway around our city just so people can avoid us as they make their way across the country. Go figure.

 

PART THREE: Some athletes we love, some athletes we loath (but we’ll love you more and loath you less if you win)

Carbon dating confirms that I am a relic. A fossil. I am a drawing on a cave-dweller’s wall. The amateurish sketch depicts me sitting in the old barn on Maroons Road in the 1950s, watching Billy Mosienko and the Winnipeg Warriors.

bowlingWe all loved Mosie. He authored an admirable career in Chicago, where he played on the Blackhawks’ famed Pony Line with the Bentley brothers, Doug and Max, and the highlight for Mosie arrived on the final night of the 1951-52 NHL season when he tallied three goals in the lickety-split time of 21 seconds. It remains an unassailable feat of scoring fury.

It wasn’t just his time in the NHL, nor his name in the record book, that endeared us to Mosie, though. He was a local boy who made good, then came home to us in 1955 to lead the Warriors to a Western Hockey League title. And he never left.

There’s now a hockey rink that bears his name. Also a tournament. And, of course, Mosienko Lanes continues to thrive at the corner of Redwood and Main in the gritty North End.

Ken Ploen is another former athlete we love. Unlike Mosie, he’s an adopted son, coming to us from tiny Lost Nation, Iowa, in the late 1950s to play an unparalled role in the golden years of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Grey Cup parades became commonplace once Ploen arrived to play defensive back and quarterback, and there isn’t a River City athlete, past or present, more revered than No. 11. He is our humble hero. He is to Winnipeg football what Jean Beliveau is to Montreal hockey. His affection for us is genuine. Real. It is not pasted on to gain sway. Once here, he, like Mosie, never left.

“I think when you look back at things, you say do you second guess yourself. I think it was a great decision I made back then and I certainly don’t ever regret that,” is what he said when inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. “It’s been a great place to live. One of the reasons I stayed in Winnipeg was warm people.”

He echoed those sentiments when the great Bombers squads of 1959 and ’62 were celebrated by the MSHOF.

“I thought about it a lot today and I said how fortunate we were to play in a city like Winnipeg, with the fans that we had. It was always a great feeling to represent the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg. I think a number of times because of that support we were able to pull off victories that maybe we wouldn’t have pulled off in another circumstance. It was a thrill representing the Blue and Gold, it was an honor wearing their uniforms and we look back at it with nothing but fond memories.”

Young people unfamiliar with Ploen would be shocked to learn that the great QB actually snubbed the National Football League to ply his trade on the lonesome prairie, in part because the Bombers offered him more money than the Cleveland Browns. I know, that’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. The Browns were willing to give Ploen a $500 signing bonus and a $5,000 yearly stipend to play DB. The Bombers went all-in with $3,000 and $9,000 as a DB/QB.

Ken_PloenAs an added bonus, Ploen heard that the “hunting and fishing was pretty good up here.”

Winnipeg prefers its sporting heroes to be a product of the Mosienko or Ploen template. Feet firmly on the ground. Genuine. Blue collar work ethic. Confident, not cocky. Community awareness. Little, if any, bling.

And we don’t care about their roots.

For example, Winnipeg probably holds European hockey players closer to the heart than any market in North America, although Mikhail Smith soured us ever so slightly on Soviets/Russians with his ill-concieved and failed attempt to transform Portage and Main into Red Square. We love Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, two of the many Scandinavians who brought titles to River City before departing for Gotham. The super Swedes have not forgotten us, nor we them. Ditto Teemu Selanne, the fab Finn who took us on a magic carpet ride in his NHL rookie season.

It helps to win, of course. Mosie won. Ploen won. Chris Walby won. Bob Cameron won. Hedberg and Nilsson won. Had Dieter Brock brought the Grey Cup home, we’d talk more about what he did on the football field than what he said about the zoo. Hell, we’d let him pull a Kramer and hurl banana peels at the zoo monkeys.

Win and there’s a chance that some will forgive, or look beyond, your trespasses.

Bobby Hull’s name has been, and still is, linked to spousal abuse, which is a most loathsome bit of business. His ex-wife, Joanne, was granted a divorce on grounds of physical cruelty, mental cruelty and adultery. She has spoken of him beating and bloodying her head with the steel heel of her shoe. He has been convicted of assaulting a Chicago police officer. He had a DUI arrest. He drank excessively. But, hey, Robert Marvin Hull put Winnipeg on the pro hockey map. There would be no NHL franchise if not for the him. Thus, many eyes look beyond, or are blind to, his violent, off-ice nastiness.

Personally, I acknowledge what the Golden Jet did for good, ol’ Hometown as a hockey player. Only Ben Hatskin has done more. But Hull the man was a cad.

I don’t harbor any warm and fuzzies for him, but a great many in River City do. And always will.

 

PART FOUR: Everybody knows this is nowhere (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave)

This isn’t a news bulletin to anyone who’s spent more than a month in the Manitoba capital, but it must be mentioned: Winnipeg is not Shangri-La.

Let’s ignore the usual suspects of winter, mosquitos, crime, spring flooding, middle-of-nowhere location, etc., because every city has acne (have you ever been to Buffalo?). Let us, instead, focus on sports. Explain to me, in 25 words or less, why a free agent hockey or football player would want to pitch his tent in Pegtown, or why those currently under contract would wish to stay? And, no, a lifetime supply of Slurpees is not enticement enough to lure prime jock stock to the Little Hockey House on the Prairie or Football Follies Field in Fort Garry.

Above all, athletes want to win. Well, a championship parade in River City is as rare as a green winter. Our burg has been a Grey Cup-free zone since Wade Miller was knee high to Buzz and Boomer (come to think of it, Wade’s still only knee high to Buzz and Boomer). Meanwhile, the management-by-paralysis stylings of Jets GM Kevin The Possum means our hockey heroes are always first to the tee box each April.

When a number of the Jets core players (Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane) inked long-term deals, they expressed a fondness for the city, the True North organization and confidence that the club was headed in the right direction.

I do not, however, think they anticipated the general manager going completely comatose.

Winning is not part of the hockey equation in Winnipeg. That, alone, makes the acquisition of Grade A free agents remote, if not impossible. At best, our city and the Jets will land a Grade B player, but the likelihood is that River City is the preferred destination of Grade C and D players. Like Mathieu Perreault, who stands as The Possum’s sole free-agent signing to date this off-season.

Many are geeked up about the arrival of Perreault, who replaces Olli Jokinen. But ask yourself this: Why would Perreault rather be the No. 3 centre on a non-playoff team than the No. 3 centre on a Stanley Cup contender?

Whatever, I don’t think Perreault makes the Jets better. Just younger.

So, again, why would someone like Kane wish to remain in Winnipeg? If he’s going to be a much-maligned man, why not go where he’ll cash a playoff cheque for his trouble?

At any rate, the fact that top-quality players steer clear of Pegtown does not make our city unique. John Elway wanted no part of Baltimore. Eli Manning didn’t dig San Diego. Eric Lindros snubbed Quebec City, which, in my experience, is the most beautiful burg in North America. Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo wanted out of Vancouver. Josh Gorges turned his nose up at Toronto. James Reimer wants out of Toronto. Ryan Suter left Nashville. Patrick Roy forced his way out of Montreal. Jason Spezza spurned an entire country.

The reasons, of course, vary, but the sentiment is the same: Nobody wants to be where they don’t want to be.

This all reminds me of the title of a song written by one of our favorite sons, Neil Young: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. That’s what the outside world thinks of River City. But we know better, don’t we? River City is more like the Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

I wonder if Evander Kane knows that.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg hockey and the Jets for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of hockey 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 literary contributions to the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.