Let’s talk about the Winnipeg Jets keeping the boys at home…a 1960s-style love-in…Evander’s being Evander again…Ponytail Puck…champagne and caviar in baseball…those Yankee Doodle Damsels…and old fried Dugie is a street person

A Monday smorgas-bored…and farewell to September; we hardly knew ye…

There’s a ring of truth to the insulting mantra “no one wants to go to Winnipeg,” although it has nothing to do with wonky wifi and it doesn’t exactly make Good Ol’ Hometown unique.

I mean, I haven’t noticed a squadron of high-profile free agent jocks galloping to Edmonton or Ottawa, and the mighty Republic of Tranna is such a desired destination that Kawhi Leonard hopped on the first stagecoach out of Dodge, despite the deity status bestowed upon him by the rabble and his rapper groupie.

Blanket Boy John Tavares

Oh, sure, the Tranna Maple Leafs landed John Tavares last year, and that was a good get. But it was more about pajamas and bed linen than The ROT being hockey heaven, and I’m guessing that if little Johnny had tucked himself under a San Jose blankie as a sprig he’d be a Shark today.

So, there are a myriad of reasons why jocks do and don’t want to work in specific locales and, as much as River City is often cited as a no-play zone, it’s important to remember that the most significant free-agent signing in hockey history occurred at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street. That’s where Robert Marvin Hull became Clarence Campbell’s worst nightmare, by fleeing the Chicago Blackhawks and the National Hockey League for an upstart operation flying by the seat of its pants and propped up by overextended credit cards.

I’ve often wondered what Hull truly felt about Good Ol’ Hometown, because he was slick in front of microphones and notepads and always gave the rabble what they wanted to hear. Fact is, though, the Winnipeg Jets lured the NHL’s main glam guy (give or take Bobby Orr) to the World Hockey Association in 1972, and he stuck around for six of our cold, harsh winters, only leaving because he had heavy off-ice issues and he didn’t appreciate John Ferguson’s bedside manner.

It’s dreaming in technicolor to think that the present-day Jets would ever land a fish the size of Hull (fresh from his fifth 50-goal season when he arrived at Portage and Main) because an armpit-of-the-NHL stigma exists.

But is Good Ol’ Hometown really an armpit?

Evander Kane

Well, Evander Kane certainly thought so. He began looking for an escape route the moment he arrived with the Atlanta caravan in 2011 and, over time, he decided that any hostility he felt from the rabble was all about the color of his skin and not his inability to produce 30-goal seasons.

We all know Jacob Trouba wanted out, and it doesn’t matter if you buy his reasons or not. He’s gone.

Even the great Dale Hawerchuk got itchy feet, although it had nothing to do with locale. He simply grew weary of GM Mikhail Smith’s hair-brained, make-work-for-Russians scheme, also the naysaying of news snoops, so Ducky begged for a new postal/zip code.

Jacob Trouba

Basically, though, once the lads spend a proper amount of time in the city, Good Ol’ Hometown becomes much like Sally Field at the Oscars: “You like me. Right now, you like me.”

Evidence of that can be found in the recent signings of Josh Morrissey and Kyle Connor. If Winnipeg is such a hellhole, why would they choose to lock in for eight and seven years, respectively, rather than vamoose at the earliest opportunity?

Why would any of the Jets? But they do. Here’s what they’ve reupped for:

Josh Morrissey:              8 years.
Rink Rat Scheifele:        8 years.
Kyle Connor:                 7 years.
Twig Ehlers:                  7 years.
Connor Hellebuyck:      6 years.
Blake Wheeler:              5 years.
Bryan Little:                  5 years.
Dustin Byfuglien:          5 years.

Really, the only core players Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff haven’t locked down for the long haul are Patrik Laine, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, but that appears to be more about salary cap restraints than River City.

So, like I said, there’s a ring of truth to the “no one wants to go to Winnipeg” mantra, but it’s also true that those who land on the frozen tundra tend to like the lay of the land.

Kyle Connor

Now that all the boys are back on board, perhaps someone at the Drab Slab can tell us once again how the Jets dressing room was/is “rotten to the core.” As if. Chevy, Connor and Puck Finn had gab sessions with news snoops Monday morning, and it was a 1960s love-in:

Chevy: “Signing (Connor, Laine) is a high point, and signing Josh to the contract he did really shows the commitments that these players have and the belief that they have in this room.”

Connor: “I couldn’t be more excited to join this team. Long term was definitely my preference, wanted to be here, love this team.”

Laine: “Super excited and happy to be here. My summer’s way too long.”

Patrik Laine

Asked if someone had to squirt a bit of air freshener in the dressing room, Laine added, “I don’t think so. I’m happy to be here and I think everybody seems to be happy that I’m here, so that’s it. New season…it’s awesome to be here, see my teammates, coaches, staff, everybody, you guys…ya, right.”

And this is what Morrissey had to say after agreeing to his new contract at the start of training sessions: “I love playing here. The term excited me. To be here and playing in Winnipeg from day one is kinda what I’ve always said I wanted to do.”

Ya, that’s a team in turmoil, and I pranced down the Yellow Brick Road with Judy Garland.

Speaking of the Drab Slab and its fiction writers, here’s a Sunday tweet from Mad Mike McIntyre: “Question for #NHLJets fans: Does the Jacob Trouba trade, which seemed to be instantly panned by many as terrible for Winnipeg, look different now that you’ve seen Neal Pionk and Ville Heinola (the return) play and what Trouba ultimately signed for (7 years, $56-million)? He cannot be serious. He’s asking that based on a handful of dress rehearsals against AHL-quality foes? The mind boggles.

Good grief. Will the Maple Leafs put a ‘C’ on someone’s sweater already? Not since E.J. Smith rammed his big boat into an iceberg has so much been said and written about a captaincy.

I see old friend Evander Kane is acting out again, shoving a linesman and getting punted from a San Jose-Vegas Golden Knights skirmish. Anyone in River City miss him at all? Didn’t think so.

This isn’t good: In a recent match, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers paddywhacked Minnesota Whitecaps of the National Women’s Hockey League 5-1, and they outshot the pros—wait for it—57-12. Allegedly, that is not a typo. As much as I hesitate to put a negative spin on women’s shinny, it isn’t exactly a selling point for Ponytail Puck when the defending NWHL champions are rag-dolled by a bunch of college kids. It doesn’t do much, if anything, to attract fans or sponsors in their quest to earn a “living wage.”

Remember how a lot of us tsk-tsked the Yankee Doodle Damsels for their excessive celebrating in a 13-0 romp over Thailand at the women’s World Cup in June? Well, that wasn’t nearly as odious as Major League Baseball outfits busting out the bubbly to celebrate a wild-card playoff berth. Seriously, champagne and caviar because you’re the fourth or fifth qualifier in a bloated post-season structure? Will the survivors of the wild-card games have another champagne shower? Honestly, I can’t think of anything dumber in sports. Well, okay, most everything that falls out of Don Cherry’s gob is dumber, but that’s about it. Put a cork in it, boys. Literally.

Now that I’ve mentioned the Yankee Doodle Damsels, if you’re wondering what they’re up to, they’re still scoring goals, celebrating and doing boffo business at the box office. Not that anyone would notice. Like most female sports, they’re out of sight, out of mind for mainstream media, but the American women have been attracting large numbers for their Victory Tour kick-abouts. Here are the head counts:
37,040 v. Ireland at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (3-0 win);
49,504 v. Portugal at Lincoln Field in Philly (4-0 win);
19,600 (sellout) v. Portugal at Allianz Field in St. Paul (3-0 win).

Dugie, the legend.

And, finally, look who’s become a street person—the Digit, Don Duguid. Dugie’s always been one of my favorite people, and it’s nice to know that folks in high places haven’t forgotten the guy who brought two world curling championships home to roost at the Mother Club at One Granite Way. A portion of the road will be known as Honorary Don Duguid Way for the next five years, and I only hope city workers in Good Ol’ Hometown fill all and any potholes before the official unveiling. I’d hate like heck for the little guy to get lost in one of them.

Kenny Ploen: Not always the star, but always the straw that stirred the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ drink

The first time I saw Kenny Ploen, he was one of two dozen tiny figures scurrying about on the tiny black-and-white screen of a living room TV set with rabbit ears (ask your grandparents about that, kids).

Ken_PloenI don’t recall if I was watching the 1957, ’58 or ’59 Grey Cup game. I just know that Ploen was in the lineup that afternoon, running the ball, catching the ball, flinging the ball or hauling down foes with the ball as he and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers conspired to deliver the Canadian Football League championship to a town that was to grow accustomed to gridiron glory during his watch.

Jungle Jim Trimble, the big-lunged blowhard who coached the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, warned that his large lads would “waffle” the Winnipegs, but bragging rights belonged to the Bombers, who four times bettered Trimble’s Tabbies in their five Grey Cup arguments between 1957 and ’62.

Ploen wasn’t always the star, but he was always the straw that stirred the Blue-and-Gold drink.

That’s why it was Ploen’s signature that my friend Chester and I most sought when we’d hop on our bikes during the late 1950s and make a twice-daily pilgrimage to Canada Packers Field in St. Boniface, where coach Bud Grant would put our football heroes through their training camp exercises in the morning and again in the afternoon. We seldom missed a shift at that sun-scorched patch of earth, and Ploen never refused an autograph, no matter how often we reached out to him with pen and paper.

How many of these do you have?” he once asked as he signed my small, white football.

I don’t know, Mr. Ploen,” I answered. “I hope we aren’t pestering you by asking for your autograph every day.”

Not at all. I’m glad to do it.”

Kenny Ploen rocked. He still does.

Ken_PloenWhen they add the old quarterback/defensive back/safety/receiver/kick returner’s name to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Ring of Honour on Thursday night at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry, I’m hoping that those of my vintage will speak to younger generations not merely of Ploen as a gridiron great but as a wonderful person.

Ploen came to us as an American college hot shot, fresh from success in the Rose Bowl game where his Iowa Hawkeyes took the measure of the Oregon State Beavers, 35-19. He was saluted as the game’s most valuable performer. Yet he never acted like an American college hot shot MVP. He didn’t have a flashy nickname like the Rocket and he didn’t brand himself The Ordinary Superstar. He didn’t come to River City to take the money and run home to Iowa, either. He did his running on the field, like during the overtime session in the 1961 Grey Cup game, when he fled the grasp of ill-intentioned Tiger-Cats and skedaddled 18 yards down the right sidelines to deliver the decisive points.

Given two words to describe Kenny Ploen, I would use “aw, shucks.” He’s as humble and modest as a Winnipeg winter is cold and gnarly.

Born 81 years ago in Lost Nation, a town of fewer than 500 folks surrounded by corn fields in eastern Iowa, and raised in Clinton on the western shore of the Mississippi River, Ploen could have given the National Football League a go. The Cleveland Browns wanted him in their defensive backfield and were willing to compensate him to the tune of $500 as a signing bonus and a $5,000 salary. He came north instead, accepting a $3,000 bonus and an annual stipend of $9,000 from the Bombers.

It wasn’t the money that lured Ploen here, though. He never spent a penny of his $3,000 bonus. He handed it to his father, who operated a motel in Fulton, Ill.

I feel like I played at a time when sports were sports,” he said upon the occasion of his induction into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. “I think I had a lot more fun playing when I did than what guys do today. People weren’t chasing dollar bills the way they do now. It was a game.”

Ken_Ploen (1)The real draw for Ploen to Winnipeg was the opportunity to play quarterback for the Blue Bombers, plus he’d caught wind that “the hunting and fishing was pretty good up here.”

So Ploen, who raised three children with his bride Janet, was in River City for a good time and a long time.

Over the years, Kenny Ploen has become our Jean Beliveau. He is to the Bombers and Winnipeg what big Beliveau was to les Canadiens and Montreal, a favorable blend of style and substance, class and dignity, grace and gridiron gallantry, and the athletic bona fides of a champion.

There are none, nor have there been any, so admired as Kenny Ploen.

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