Troubles before Triumph: An Ode to the 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets on the 40th anniversary of their final WHA championship

Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.

***

It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.

Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.

“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”

I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.

So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)

The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.

***

To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.

Morris Lukowich

This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.

The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”

“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.

There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.

Kim Clackson

Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.

“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”

It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.

“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”

Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.

“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”

“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”

Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.

“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”

That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.

***

Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.

The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.

It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.

Larry Hillman

It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.

It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.

It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.

Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.

It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.

“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).

“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”

Sudsy Sutherland

Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.

“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”

Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.

“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”

Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”

***

There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.

Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.

Fergy

Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.

“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”

Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.

“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”

***

It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.

More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.

I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.

“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”

I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.

“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”

***

There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.

Suitcase Smitty

By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.

He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.

“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”

Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.

***

Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.

We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”

Tom McVie

Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.

Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.

Examples…

On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”

Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”

After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”

Tom McVie in the champions’ changing room.

More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.

The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.

Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.

“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”

***

It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.

Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.

The Shoe

The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.

“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”

“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”

“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.

Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.

***

This was a WHA title that almost never happened.

The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.

There was a money dispute, you see.

The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.

So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?

“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”

The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.

“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”

The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.

As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.

***

Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.

Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.

Jacques Demers

“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”

Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”

Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.

“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”

That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.

***

Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.

If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.

“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”

Roscoe and Clacker

After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.

Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.

“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”

***

I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.

Bill (Magic Fingers) Bozak and four of the boys—Scotty Campbell, the Shoe, Luke and Roland Eriksson.

Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.

They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.

“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”

No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.

“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”

***

Michael Gobuty

Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:

  1. Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.

  2. The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.

  3. Fergy hired Tom McVie.

  4. The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.

  5. Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.

The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.

Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.

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About those “rotten to the core” Winnipeg Jets…cranking up the gossip mill…putting Wheeler and others on ignore…parting gifts instead of banners for the Habs…nothing but bridesmaids in Canada?…talking about Ponytail Puck…and lady golfers at Augusta

Another Sunday smorags-bored…and you are under no obligation to grow a beard during the Winnipeg Jets playoff run…

Apparently, the local hockey heroes have issues.

They might be Dr. Phil-level issues. They might be let’s-drag-Oprah’s-couch-out-of-storage-and-give-everyone-in-the-audience-a-gift issues. They might be order-another-pint-and-vent-to-a-bartender issues. Whatever the case, after a week of stick-shattering hissy fits, an airing of grievances behind closed doors, giving news snoops the cold shoulder, and canceled practices for the airing of additional grievances, we’re advised that the Winnipeg Jets are not right in the head.

It’s nothing specific, understand. No details. Just a strong suggestion from the boys on the beat at the Drab Slab that les Jets have come undone like a school kid’s shoelace.

And we all know what happens with kids and undone shoelaces, don’t we. That’s right. Face plants.

So I suppose Jets Nation should fear the worst as Winnipeg HC preps for its opening salvo of Beard Season vs. the St. Louis Blues. I mean, it can’t be very comforting for the rabble to learn that the behind-the-scenes situation with their favorite National Hockey League club is “rotten to the core” and “anything but rosy” as they enter the Stanley Cup runoff.

That, at least, is the picture painted by Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press, and you can choose to believe him or pooh-pooh his take on the local lads. I mean, he ought to have some insider intel because he’s been dogging the local lads across North America since October, but, at the same time, Double M fell short of providing anecdotal evidence of squabbling in the inner sanctum. He merely referenced Multiple Sources who, along with Reliable Sources, is every reporter’s go-to informant when no one is willing to say what needs to be said out loud.

Let’s accept that he’s accurate, though, and Winnipeg HC is a house divided. Does that mean les Jets best-of-seven playoff assignment vs. St. Louis beginning Wednesday at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie is a no-hoper? Not at all.

Allow me to direct your attention to the Winnipeg Jets circa 1978-79.

Rich Preston and Terry Ruskowski

Those of a certain vintage will recall the unique makeup of that outfit, in that it was actually two teams in one. On the heels of their second World Hockey Association title, les Jets were scuttled by a number of defections, most notably Ander Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to Gotham. To shore up a depleted roster, management purchased the nucleus of a Houston Aeros franchise that had gone belly up, with Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich and Scotty Campbell among the recruits.

It was a stroke of genius. Except for one thing: To say the Houston guys and the Winnipeg holdovers got along is to say hard-core Beatles fans were giddy when the dreaded Yoko Ono showed up on John’s arm one day. Some, myself included, still think of that as the day the music died, but I digress.

The Aeros-Jets had been fierce rivals on the freeze, and the residue of bitterly contested battles won and lost still existed when they began to share a changing room. Larry Hillman, the head coach of the day, could do nothing to achieve détente, in part because the Houston portion of the amalgamated roster was doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

“You don’t think the rest of the players in this league don’t know that?” Robbie Ftorek said one night after he and the Cincinnati Stingers had laid a licking on les Jets.

Tom McVie

It wasn’t until Tom McVie arrived in River City, bull whip in hand behind the bench, that the boys clued in and began working in concert, a collaboration that resulted in an unlikely third WHA championship.

“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich told me the night the Jets put away the Edmonton Gretzkys to gain permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”

“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski confirmed.

So, when they drop the puck for the Jets and Blues skirmish, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the “rotten to the core” home side. Even squabbling outfits can get the job done.

Mind you, it would help if these Jets had Ruskowski, Lukowich, Preston and Campbell on board.

Coach Potty Mouth

You can dismiss McIntyre’s essay as nothing more than click-bait sensationalism, if you like, but my only issue with him is this snippet: “I’m not about to start feeding the rumor mill…” Good gawd, man, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Use the terms “rotten to the core” and “anything but rosy”—especially without supporting quotes and/or facts—and you’ve got rumor and innuendo running faster than a scalded dog. Are the players PO’d because Patrik Laine spends more time playing Fortnite than backchecking? Has coach Potty Mouth lost the dressing room? Whose track suit is Dustin Byfuglien dunking in the ice tub? Gossip, gossip, gossip. And if les Jets don’t get past the Blues, it’ll really crank up.

Craig Button of TSN had this to say about les Jets in advance of the Stanley Cup tournament: “They’re a weak team giving up a lot of goals. They’re the weakest (Western Conference) team going into the playoffs.” Ouch. That’s “anything but rosy.”

Blake Wheeler

After all the pomp, the praise, the worship, the Sportsnet headlines, the tributes, the mattress commercials, and the blah, blah, blah about John Tavares, he finished with three fewer points than Blake Wheeler’s 91. Now, I don’t buy the pre-fab bunk that players in Good Ol’ Hometown fly under the radar, because people around the league know what Wheeler has done. But I will submit that les Jets captain gets ignored. But, then, so do other elite performers with Canadian-based outfits. Five of them—Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner and Wheeler—outscored Tavares this season, yet all but McDavid received less than half the ink devoted to the Tranna Maple Leafs centre by national media. Just saying.

If you’re keeping score at home, another of the over-ballyhooed Leafs, Auston Matthews, scored at a clip of 1.07 points per game. Twenty players were as good or better. Again, just saying.

Just wondering: Can Dave Poulin of TSN talk without holding a pen in his hand?

Sam Pollock

I keep hearing pundits say this was a successful season for the Montreal Canadiens. I’m sorry, but I don’t follow. I mean, the Habs will be on the outside with their noses pressed to the window when the playoff fun commences this week. When did parting gifts replace championship banners as a suitable reward for the most storied franchise in NHL history? It’s like Tom Hanks being happy about losing an Oscar to Adam Sandler. I swear, ol’ Sammy Pollock must be spinning like a lathe in his grave.

Really strange headline No. 1: “Jets’ Patrik Laine evolves from sublime scorer to all-around player.” Ya, Puck Finn is an all-around player like a box of Timbits is a seven-course meal.

Really strange headline No. 2: “Even Oilers not stupid enough to trade Connor McDavid.” No, the Edmonton Oilers would never be so dumb as to deal away Connor McDavid. You know, just like they would never be so dumb as to trade away Wayne Gretzky.

Felix Auger-Aliassime

I think Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail is a terrific wordsmith. A truly gifted writer. It’s just that sometimes he totally loses the plot. Like his take on the rise of Canadian tennis teens Bianca Andreescu, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov: “Our tennis was becoming like everything else this country does on the international stage—a strong second.” Right. We’re always the bridesmaid in sports like hockey and curling. As if. And Brooke Henderson, Penny Oleksiak, Clara Hughes, Donovan Bailey, Mike Weir, Virtue and Moir, Mikael Kingsbury, Percy Williams, Daniel Nestor, Lennox Lewis, Barbara Ann Scott, Nancy Greene, the Crazy Canucks, Cindy Klassen, Susan Nattrass, Jim Elder, Northern Dancer, Steve Nash, Larry Walker, Jacques Villeneuve, etc….I guess they all finished second best, too. Come on, man, give your head a shake.

So nice of mainstream media to finally notice women’s hockey in a non-Olympics year. Too bad it took the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League to grab their attention. I think their newly discovered interest in Ponytail Puck was best summed up in a tweet from Diana Matheson, a member of our women’s national soccer side: “Speaks volumes to the problem that my initial response to a discussion about women’s hockey on the radio, is to be surprised they are talking about it.” Now we’ll see if the MSM attention span lasts long enough to actually cover whatever teams emerge from the ashes of the CWHL.

And, finally, scientists say Canada is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world. In other weather news, women golfed at Augusta National this weekend, so hell just froze over.

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 an eastern bum and creep invading River City…Champions ‘R’ Us…No. 4 Bobby Orr…Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and the puck…goaltender shrinkage?…hype from The ROT…going to pot…and other things on my mind

Monday morning coming down in three, two, one…

Every now and then, a news snoop from the Republic of Tranna gets distracted or lost and mistakenly wanders into the colonies, whereupon he feels obliged to remind the locals that they suck.

Damien Cox is one such news snoop.

Jennifer Jones and gal pals won Olympic gold, but didn’t get a parade.

Apparently, Cox took a wrong turn on the way to another Auston Matthews revival meeting last week, and he found himself in the Little Hockey House on the Prairie on the occasion of the Winnipeg Jets commencing the home-ice portion of their National Hockey League crusade.

This, be advised, is known in his trade as “slumming it,” because no one from The ROT considers a trip to the frozen tundra a plum assignment, even if the tundra has not yet frozen over. So the Sportsnet scribe/gab guy must have lost a bet or wet the bed in order to draw such an odious chore. In either case, he made a whistlestop in River City, no doubt holding his nose while going about the business of informing the nation that Peggers have been root, root, rooting for a batch of Sad Sack athletic outfits lo these many years.

“There’s a thirst for a championship here,” he advised his vast audience.

That simply isn’t true. How can Winnipeg “thirst” for anything when it’s the Slurpee Capital of the World? Nineteen years running, no less! That, my friends, is literally the ultimate in thirst-quenching titles.

Alas, like so many before him, Cox ignored our 19-year world domination in sucking up sugary slush, focusing instead on how our football and hockey heroes suck. He noted that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have come up empty every year since their Grey Cup-winning crusade of 1990, while les Jets are oh-fer-the NHL.

“It’s been a while since they held a parade in these parts,” he added.

Well, excuuuuuuse us all to hell just because we don’t bust out the floats and marching bands every time one of our jocks or teams brings a title home. If we did that, we’d have no time to shovel the sidewalks or swat mosquitoes.

Winnipeg Goldeyes: More proof of a championship team from River City.

But Cox wants championships? I’ll give him championships:

Olympic curling: 2
World curling: 5
Canadian curling: 13
Olympic speed skating: 2
World speed skating: 6
CIS football: 1
CIS basketball: 5
CIS hockey: 1
Professional baseball: 4
Slurpee Capital of the World: Nine-freaking-teen!

All that since the Bombers last ruled the Canadian Football League.

But, hey, no parades. And if a championship isn’t parade-worthy apparently it’s like that tree falling in the forest—it doesn’t really happen if no one is there to suck down a Slurpee at the same time.

The 1979 WHA champion Winnipeg Jets. Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull are nowhere to be seen.

Having outriders come to town and point out flaws is bad enough, but they really get up my nose when they don’t do their homework. For example, Cox included this in the first of two dispatches from Winnipeg: “Not since the Avco Cup days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson have the Jets been as serious a contender for a championship as they are now.” Totally wrong. Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull weren’t in the vicinity when les Jets won their third, and final, World Hockey Association title in 1979. The Swedes were in Gotham and Hull had retreated to a cattle ranch. Thus, les Jets haven’t been a “serious contender” since the Avco World Trophy days of Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Kent Nilsson, Morris Lukowich, Willy Lindstrom, Peter Sullivan, Scott Campbell, Suitcase Smith et al.

Cox also suggests that June 2019 would be the “perfect time” to hold the next championship parade in River City. Wrong again. Late next month would be the perfect time. That would mean the Bombers have won la Coupe Grey. A Stanley Cup parade in June would be the cherry on the sundae.

Loved the Hometown Hockey feature on No. 4 Bobby Orr on Sunday night. You can have Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or Gordie Howe, but I’ll start my team with Bobby Orr every time. I still get goosebumps watching film of that man skate and sift through foes like they’re pylons.

Fashion note: My goodness but that Jets third jersey is a dreadful garment. Winnipeg HC broke out the new threads vs. the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night, and they actually look worse than I had imagined. Seriously, is it too late for a do-over?

What exactly does Puck Finn of les Jets do when he doesn’t have the puck? Not a whole lot, it would appear. What does Twig Ehlers do when he has the puck? Again, a whole lot of nada. And these guys play on the same line?

If goaltender equipment is supposedly getting smaller, why does Laurent Brossoit of les Jets look like he has a sofa bed stuffed under his uniform?

If you listen to Greg Millen long enough, you’ll become convinced that everything that happens in a hockey game is “unbelievable!” It’s kind of “unbelievable” that he’s still on the air.

Can you hear the hype about Auston Matthews.

Yes, the hype machine in the Republic of Tranna is operating at peak volume now that the Maple Leafs are playing hockey like it’s the 1980s.

Auston Matthews has scored 10 goals in the first two weeks of the NHL season, so surely he’s better than Connor McDavid. And, hey, while we’re at it let’s mention him in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky (yikes!). Then there’s defenceman Morgan Rielly, mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Orr (double yikes!) because he has 13 points half a dozen games in.

I agree, the east media’s rush-to-greatness for the Leafs and their star performers is a tad over the top.

If nothing else, though, the silliness spawned a giggle-worthy, east-west Twitter to-and-fro between two longtime shinny scribes—the aforementioned Cox of Sportsnet/Toronto Star and Jim Matheson of Postmedia E-Town.

Matheson: “Typical Toronto bias that anybody would think Matthews is as good as McDavid. Did I miss the two scoring titles that Matthews has won? Can we just put a halt on the hysteria surrounding Matthews and Rielly here, besting Gretzky and Orr feats. We’ve played two weeks of the schedule folks. If Matthews gets 216 pts in a season call me. If Rielly gets 47 goals in a season call me.”

Cox (being smarmy, of course): “Now if they played for Edmonton, hysteria would be understandable and sensible.”

Debating the best in shinny is nothing new. When I was a kid, the argument centred on Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. It became a Gretzky-Mario Lemieux discussion for the next generation. Then Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Some pundits still believe that Denis Potvin was better than Orr (as if).

Best lip service of the week was delivered by Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals, who had this take on les Leafs. “We were just playing against (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, so everything kind of drops off from there,” he told the Washington Post following a loss to Tranna. “It’s not that special, to be honest. It’s a good team, like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I would think.”

Bravo to Bob Irving of CJOB. The broadcasting legend called his 800th Bombers game on Saturday when the local lads gave the Saskatchewan Roughriders a 31-zip wedgie. I don’t think I’ve done anything 800 times, except maybe go for pints.

This week’s CFL power rankings…

1. Calgary (12-3): Cracks beginning to show.
2. Winnipeg (9-7): From the dregs to the playoffs?
3. Saskatchewan (10-6): Have to do it on D or won’t get it done.
4. Edmonton (8-8): Finally righted the ship.
5. B.C. (8-7): Hard to believe they’re still alive.
6. Hamilton (8-7): Team to beat in the East.
7. Ottawa (8-7): Still can’t get a handle on them.
8. Toronto (3-12): Blah, blah, blah.
9. Montreal (3-12): Worst starting QB in the league.

And, finally, pot becomes legal in Canada this week. Might try some of that whacky tobbacky to dull the noise the next time TSN broadcasts a Johnny Manziel game. Actually, no. Didn’t do weed in the 1960s, not going to go there now.

About crunch time for Winnipeg FC…no witness protection program for Matt Nichols…Johnny Meh-ziel and Glen Suitor’s groupie-like gushing…the Puck Pontiff speaks…numbers crunching at the Drab Slab…Son of Cement Head…Tyrannosaurus Kipper stuck in the 1970s…lesbians in the owners suite of baseball…and other things on my mind

A smorgasbord on the first Sunday in autumn

And, so, the serious heave-ho of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ crusade is about to commence, and not much of what transpired on Friday night is apt to convince many among the rabble that their football heroes are up for the task.

More to the point, the fourth-quarter iffiness of the Bombers’ 31-14 victory over the inept Montreal Alouettes at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry perhaps confirms that this will not be the year the local lads win the final three-down game in November for the first time since Bill Norrie wore the chain of office at City Hall in Good Ol’ Hometown.

I mean, these were the now 3-10 Alouettes with their now 0-3, all hat-no cattle quarterback and his unearned sense of entitlement.

The Als are Charlie Brown in shoulder pads. Their night normally ends with an oomph and a thud as Lucy yanks the ball away yet again. Three months ago, the Bombers whupped the lowly Larks by 46 points. With a QB as green as St. Patty’s Day. So defeat at the mitts of these Sad Sacks was not an option Friday. Yet the end result remained in question until Marcus Sayles plucked an ill-thrown Johnny Manziel pass a minute and 57 ticks from time, thus halting a four-game skid that had taken Winnipeg FC to the bottom of the Canadian Football League’s West Division mosh pit.

The Bombers remain there today, because the B.C. Lions are proving to be an unco-operative bunch, even as they function without their starting quarterback. (The Leos found a rabbit in a hat on Saturday night, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in overtime and, at 6-6, have played one game less than 6-7 Winnipeg.)

The sketchiness of the Bombers’ latest skirmish is unnerving if you count yourself among the faithful who do not wear rose-tinted glasses. That is, Winnipeg FC was tooth-and-toenail to best the lowly Larks, so what horrors await them with the Edmonton Eskimos (twice), Calgary Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Bytown RedBlacks lying in wait to close out the crusade?

As I said at the top, the serious heave-ho is at hand, and the Bombers will require better play and coaching if they’re to wrestle third place or a crossover playoff spot from the Lions or Eskimos.

Buckle up, kids.

Matt Nichols

Okay, that was the jar-half-full take on the events of Friday night. The positive? Matt Nichols won’t be entering a witness protection program this week. The Bombers starting quarterback played a mistake-free, boo-free game. When I say mistake-free, I mean major gaffes that go the other way for six points. None of us knows where Nichols’ head has been the past few weeks, but I’m guessing he could see his pancreas from there. Nothing but brain farts. He kept his wits about him vs. les Larks, though, and that ought to silence the blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda about changing QBs for a few days.

TSN’s favorite lousy quarterback, J. Manziel, wasn’t awful vs. the Bombers. He was Johnny Meh-ziel. Fact is, he’s done nothing extraordinary in his three starts, unless you consider four interceptions in one half special. He has yet to win a game. He has yet to hurl a touchdown pass. He has yet to score a TD. Still, Glen Suitor and others at TSN talk as if he’s turned the water he walks on into wine. Manziel’s apologists are swift to point accusing fingers at the Larks woeful offensive line and receivers who couldn’t catch a cold standing naked in a meat cooler. Well, if Johnny Meh is as mobile as they say, he wouldn’t have been sacked five times Friday (a sixth was overturned by penalty), and every QB in the CFL has pass-catchers who drop the football. Fact is, Antonio Pipkin had better numbers than Manziel in three of his four starts.

Glen Suitor: Gush, gush, gush.

Just wondering: Did Suitor ask Manziel for a date after the game? Seriously. It’s quite clear that Suitor has replaced Kate Beirness as the No. 1 groupie in TSN’s Cult of Johnny, and his game-long gushing about the Als quarterback was totally teeny-bopper stuff. And kind of creepy. Early in the skirmish, after Johnny Meh had scrambled for a first down, Suitor gasped, “There’s the magic!” It was as if Johnny Rotten was the first QB to ever escape a pass rush. Suitor also made an asinine comparison between Manziel and Doug Flutie. I don’t know if Suitor reviews his work, but he should be embarrassed by his celebrity-crush natterings on Friday.

I keep hearing that Manziel sells tickets. Ya, and I’ll be selling acorns to squirrels this month. The Bombers and Als performed in front of the smallest audience of 2018 at Football Follies Field, with only 24,349 in the pews. Compare that to the 25,931 head count when the Johnny Rotten-less Als visited last season, and it’s a dip of 1,582 customers. Mind you, the Bombers aren’t much of a sell this year. Through seven home dates, the body count is down 6,981.

I’m sorry, but every time I see a guy wearing a Manziel jersey, I see someone who supports a man who beat up a woman. And when I see a woman with that guy, I wonder about her. Like, why would she keep company with someone who supports a man who beat up a woman? Seems to me that would be a deal breaker. Just saying.

Terry Jones of Postmedia Edmonton will be a marshal for this year’s Grey Cup parade in E-Town. I’ve often wondered what a parade marshal does. Other than sit in a car and wave, that is. Whatever his duties, I’m sure Large will be a boffo parade marshal.

Mark Chipman

Well, this is interesting: Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman talks to local news snoops on the record about as often as it snows in August, yet he found time for a recent chin-wag with Calgary scribe Eric Francis. Nothing the Winnipeg Jets co-bankroll told Francis was enlightening, but the fact he granted an out-of-towner an audience says something. I don’t know if it says Chipman has a low regard for jock journos in River City, or if they’d rather not talk to him, but I strongly suspect it’s the former.

So now we know why the Winnipeg Free Press dumped Scott Campbell as its freelance columnist on all things Jets—to make room for Andrew Berkshire. And that means advanced stats, charts and graphics up the ying-yang. Spare me. I mean, my eyes glaze over when I attempt to read a Murat Ates offering in The Athletic. He crunches more numbers than a nerdy kid with a slide rule. So, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on Berkshire in the Drab Slab. I don’t want to make my brain hurt and my eyes bleed any more than necessary. But I wish him well.

Max Domi

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: Max (Son of Cement Head) Domi of the Montreal Canadiens shakes the hockey glove off his right hand, he forms a fist with that hand, he punches Florida Panthers defender Aaron Ekblad flush on the nose, then says, “By no means did I want to hurt him. Obviously, I was not trying to hurt him.” In whose universe are you not trying to wound someone when you punch him in the beak? Talk about a slab of concrete not falling far from the cement mixer.

The National Hockey League suspended Domi for the remainder of the Habs pre-season exercises. Is that supposed to be punishment or a reward?

Nick Kyrpeos

If Domi acting like a cement head doesn’t take the prize for stupidity, surely Nick Kypeos’s take on the incident does. Speaking on 590 The Fan in the Republic of Tranna, Tyrannosaurus Kipper basically blamed the victim, saying Ekblad chose “not to protect himself.” Wrong. Ekblad chose not to fight. Someone at Sportsnet ought to inform Kypreos that it’s safe to leave the 1970s behind.

There’s only one way to describe the new look on the Sportsnet website: Dog’s breakfast.

Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss

Well, I now have a reason to once again root, root, root for the Los Angeles Dodgers: Billie Jean King and longtime partner Ilana Kloss have become minority owners. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s now three lesbians in the owners suite of Major League Baseball, the other being Laura Ricketts of the Chicago Cubs.

And, finally, Tiger Woods won a golf tournament Sunday afternoon. Who knew that to be possible? Not me.

About Johnny Four Picks and Vince Ferragamo…what they’re saying about Johnny…a good read in the Freep…Daren Millard pulls the pin on Sportsnet…the Drab Slab dumps Scotty…how did all that Tranna copy get in my Winnipeg Sun?…the Houston Astros ninth-inning tolerance on domestic violence…and other things on my mind

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

To say Johnny Manziel’s debut as a starting quarterback in three-down, 12-man football was a disaster is to say the Hindenburg had a bumpy landing.

Seriously. This was bad. Hermann Goering had a better day at Nurenburg.

As first impressions go, this was your daughter’s high school prom date showing up at the door with a six-pack and hitting on her mom.

Forrest Gump

Johnny Football came, he saw, he did not conquer. He became Johnny Four Picks. He spent much of the night in flight, frantically trying to escape the clutches of large, angry men. I swear, we haven’t seen a man run this much since Forrest Gump decided to skedaddle across America.

Those expecting, or hoping, to see the second coming of Joe Theismann or Doug Flutie instead saw ample evidence that Manziel might be Vince Ferragamo the Sequel.

Ferragamo, in his brief fling with the Montreal Alouettes in 1981, never could quite figure out the 12th man on defence in the Canadian Football League, that guy who kept popping up like an uninvited house guest. That 12th man pilfered 25 of Vince’s passes. Manziel might toss that many picks by Labor Day.

Vince Ferragamo and Johnny Manziel

None of this is to suggest that Johnny Four Picks was solely responsible for the 50-11 paddywhacking the Als absorbed at the hands of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday night at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal, but let’s not sugar-coat what went down in his CFL baptism: He was gawdawful. Here’s the bottom line for the National Football League washout and former Heisman Trophy winner with Texas A&M: 20 tosses, 11 completions, 104 yards, 0 touchdowns, four interceptions.

Manziel finished the game where he should have started it—on the sideline. He was as unpolished as an old hobo’s shoes.

Apparently, this all escaped the notice of one TSN gum-flapper. Davis Sanchez, who loses credibility each time he parts his lips to allow unfiltered thought to become words, actually gave Manziel a passing grade in three of four categories.

“We’ll have to equate it to an SAT without really studying,” Sanchez said before handing out a report card that included a B (composure), a C+ (creativity), a C- (arm strength/accuracy), and one F (decision-making).

That’s like giving Neymar a gold star for staying on his feet for more than five seconds. Don’t we all wish we had Sanchez to grade our exams in school?

Jock Climie

Sanchez wasn’t the only talking head at TSN to fluff up Manziel’s face plant on Friday. Jock Climie and Glen Suitor both tried to apply lipstick to that pig.

Here’s Suitor: “We have to temper our analysis. There were flashes. We saw him escape, we saw him create, we saw him improvise.”

Here’s Climie: “Is there a positive in this? It looked to me like Manziel was just going out there and learning. It looked to me like he stopped keeping score, which is the right thing to do. It didn’t matter, one, two, three interceptions…he just kept slinging it, because he’s learning the game. If he can keep that mentality, I think this could be a growing process. I think he will learn more from doing what he’s doing here than he will learn from sitting on the bench. I’m just saying, there could be a positive to this, and we did see some positives. Some of his flashes of brilliance, some of his scrambling around, I thought was impressive.”

It was left for two former quarterbacks, Matt Dunigan and Henry Burris, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the unvarnished truth.

“After four practices, this is what you expect,” Dunigan growled when it was all over. “It’s a process that’s painfully long and it takes a lot of effort, more than four practices. This was fully expected. I don’t think they got anywhere down the road by starting him tonight.”

“You can’t speed up that process,” Burris sang in concert. “That was a bad decision by (Montreal). Vernon Adams should have been the starting quarterback.”

Rod Black

Most shameful comment about Manziel was delivered by old friend Rod Black, who, in his post-match analysis, said, “He’s faced a lot of adversity, let’s face it, in his life.” Oh, FFS, Blackie. Most of Manziel’s wounds have been self-inflicted, the product of booze, drugs, barroom brawling and leading a frat boy lifestyle. You want to talk about adversity? Talk about Colleen Crawley. That’s the woman Manziel beat up and threatened to kill.

Terrific piece in the Winnipeg Free Press by Mike Sawatzky about the night the Winnipeg Blue Bombers blew the doors off the aforementioned Ferragamo and a talent-laded Alouettes outfit, 58-2, in 1981. It’s a lengthy read but worth the time, because Sawatzky talked to all the key players and they provide delicious anecdotal insight.

I note that former defensive tackle Bryant Turner signed a one-day contract so he could retire as a Blue Bomber. Hmmm. I can think of plenty of guys I wish had only signed with Winnipeg FC for one day then got lost, starting with Jeff Reinebold. Actually, Jeff was a fun guy. He just wasn’t cut out to be a head coach.

Not sure what to make of Daren Millard’s departure from Sportsnet after 20 years. I remember him as a freshly scrubbed kid broadcaster in Winnipeg, and I believe it was Joe Pascucci who had the smarts to bring him from Brandon to River City. Daren is one of the truly good guys, and there were days when his voice of reason was the only thing that made Hockey Central at Noon bearable. Having said that, there were times last winter when I didn’t think his heart was in it. Perhaps having Damien Cox as a guest once too often sours a guy.

Also leaving his gig is Scott Campbell, who, for the past couple of National Hockey League seasons, has been scribbling good stuff about the Jets for the Free Press. Apparently Scotty is the victim of budget cuts, or the Drab Slab plans to spend its freelance coin in other areas. Perhaps they’ll use it to cover local sports other than the pro outfits in town.

A week ago, I detailed how both the Freep and Winnipeg Sun had abandoned their own community, vis-a-vis local amateur athletes. Well, Exhibit A would be the July 31 edition of the Sun, which had 16 sports pages (including cover). Here’s the damning evidence of neglect:

* 5-page feature (including cover) on Tranna Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who’s with the Triple A Buffalo Bisons.
* 1 page on the trade that sent Tranna Blue Jays relief pitcher Roberto Osuna to the Houston Astros.
* 1 page on pro golfer Brooke Henderson (with a small sidebar on Rink Rat Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets joining the field for the Players Cup tournament, which tees off at Southwood later this month).
* 2-page feature on now-retired Jarome Iginla, the face of the Calgary Flames for so many years.
* 1 page on Johnny Manziel.
* 1 page on the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
* 1 page on the Tranna Argonauts.
* 1 page on the Ottawa RedBlacks.
* 2 pages of agate.
* 1 page on the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

Do the math and it adds up to seven of 16 pages devoted to athletes and outfits from the Republic of Tranna—in a Winnipeg newspaper!

Roberto Osuna

Boffo stuff from John Lott of The Athletic Tranna on the Blue Jays unloading relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, who still faces a domestic violence charge: “Good riddance. Whatever their motives—and the tea leaves present murky messages—the Blue Jays did a good thing. Not because of the return they received in the trade, but because they rubbed out an unsightly stain on an organization looking for model citizens to lead their impending youth movement.”

The Houston Astros, who accepted Osuna in barter with the Blue Jays, claim to have a “zero tolerance” policy on domestic violence. As if. What the Astros have is “ninth-inning tolerance.” That is to say, as long as Osuna can get batters out in the ninth inning and help them win another World Series title, they don’t care if he hits women.

Jerry Jones, right, gabbing and yukking it up.

This is rich: Jerry Jones has threatened to fire any of his Dallas Cowboys who stay in the lockerroom or take a knee during the playing of the American national anthem prior to NFL games, yet he’s been observed talking and yukking it up, also wearing a Cowboys ball cap, while the Star Spangled Banner played at practice. Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen called out the Cowboys owner for his hypocrisy.

And, finally, best quote of the week came from former Calgary Flames radio play-by-play guy Peter Maher, a very nice man who had this to say about now-retired forward Jarome Iginla’s 60-plus fights in the NHL: “I think he won them all. At least he did on the radio.”

Winnipeg Jets movin’ on up to the second round of Stanley Cup tournament

Notes, quotes and totally irreverent observations during Game 5 of the National Hockey League playoff skirmish between the Minnesota Wild and les Jets de Winnipeg on Friday night…

Pregame blah, blah, blah: At the outset, I wrote: “No way this series goes past five games if the Jets are going to pour 40 shots on goal every game. It might even be a sweep.” Well, I was wrong about the sweep, but here we are at Game 5 and there’s no Ryan Suter, no Zach Parise and no hope for the Wild…I note that good guy Scott Campbell is also writing off the Wild. “The Wild can make it interesting when they play their best game—when they’re not, you’re just counting down the time until the next Jets goal,” the former Jets defenceman scribbles in his Winnipeg Free Press column. “With their season on the line and a hurting Jets blue line, I expect we’ll see everything they’ve got Friday night. I just don’t think it’s enough.”…Jets, of course, enter the fray sans one defender who was in his work clothing when the best-of-seven skirmish commenced—the suspended Josh Morrissey. Also still unavailable are blueliners Toby Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov. Tyler Myers returns, though, so it isn’t as bleak as it might have been. Good thing. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps les Jets would have to send out an SOS to Perry Miller. Last time I saw Percy, he was still in game shape. Mind you, that was in the 1990s and the game was mixed slo-pitch…Winnipeg and its indoor/outdoor Whiteouts continue to get considerable play from national media outlets. Wonder if anyone at the Free Press has noticed, or are they still whinging about River City being ignored beyond the borders of the Keystone province?…Breaking News: Twig Ehlers has been lost to les Jets due to a mystery owie. So who’ll skate in pretty circles? Certainly not Matt Hendricks, who replaces Twig in the locals’ lineup. He’s more of a north-south guy…We’ve got Stacey Nattrass to sing the anthems at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie, so I’m wondering what country crooners they’ll trot out in Twang Town when the Jets and Nashville Predators hook up in the next round of this Stanley Cup tournament. Mike Fisher’s bride, Carrie Underwood, has her groove back, so perhaps we’ll hear her Star Spangled Bannering.

David Thomson

First Period: I really like seeing those vintage Jets jerseys in the stands. Classic. Wish they were still on the players’ backs, too…Jacob Trouba scores 31 seconds into the joust. Jets 1, Wild 0. Stop this senseless slaughter!…Now Bryan Little scores on a Dustin Byfuglien missile. Jets 2, Wild 0. This is going to be an embarrassment for the Wild…Hey, moneybags David Thomson is in the house. And why not? Without his bankroll, the Little Hockey House On The Prairie wouldn’t exist. Neither would les Jets…Geez, Louise, is it the Minnesota Wild or the Keystone Kops? The Minny players are tripping over each other and they’re almost scoring own goals. Total disarray…Now Brandon Tanev scores on a Minny turnover. Devan Dubnyk whiffed on it. Jets 3, Wild 0…And now Joel Armia gets in the way of a Big Buff shot and it goes past Dubnyk. Once again, the Evander Kane trade pays off for the home side. Jets 4, Wild 0…Head coach Bruce Boudreau is a compassionate man. He gives Dubie, Dubie Dubnyk the rest of the night off.

Second Period: What are the odds of les Jets keeping the pedal to the metal? Zero. It’s going to be a boring 20 minutes…Armia is gone with an upper back owie. No biggie…Yup, this is boring. Les Jets have decided to take the period off, except for the keeper, Connor Hellebuyck…Most exciting discovery is that A&W teenburgers are on sale for $3.50 until April 29. Those are my fave burgers, but only because there’s no Harvey’s in downtown Victoria…Actually, I could go for a Sals cheese nip right about now. Drat. We don’t have the Sals in Victoria either…When did the Wild last score a goal? Seems to me it was sometime in March. Still 4-zip Jets.

The Little Hockey House On The Prairie

Third Period: Rink Rat Scheifele scores on the powerplay, just to rub salt into the wound, I guess. Jets 5, Wild done like dinner…Like I said, no more than five games. Good call…My memory isn’t shot, but there are some significant gaps and, try as I might, I can’t recall the 1987 series when les Jets took out the Calgary Flames. Don’t remember a thing, but the boys in the booth and between the benches assure me that it was the last time les Jets won a playoff series…Here’s the good news for the home side (aside from advancing to the second round): A bunch of guys named Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Fuhr, Anderson et al aren’t laying in wait…Garry Galley asks, “Do these fans deserve this?” Yup, they do. Have to be happy for Good Ol’ Hometown. When I make my once-a-week visit to my favorite watering hole Saturday, people will talk about les Jets instead of “Winterpeg.” Nice.