About Jumbo Thornton’s chin whiskers…an expansion team in Seattle…and they’re buzzing about the Winnipeg Jets

Midweek musings on the edge of a fresh National Hockey League season…

Jumbo Joe Thornton and the here and after.

There was good news and bad news at the NHL’s roster cut-down deadline this week. The bad news is that Joe Thornton’s chin whiskers became a casualty. That’s right, the San Jose Sharks forward had his mountain-man beard hacked off. The good news is that they discovered Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart’s airplane and a golf ball that Tiger Woods lost at last summer’s U.S. Open under all that scruff.

Looks like Seattle will be awarded an expansion franchise for the 2020 NHL season. Reaction to the news in Ottawa was swift: “Can we get one, too?”

You know that tired lament about how no one notices the goings-on in Good Ol’ Hometown? About how anyone who works and plays in River City flies under the radar? About how life sucks because everyone in the eastern time zone is tucked snugly into bed by the time they drop the puck out in the colonies?

Well, you wanted recognition for the Winnipeg Jets? You’ve got it.

Les Jets de Winnipeg have been in more headlines this week than anyone not being considered for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. They’re getting buzz from one of our two national newspapers, the Globe and Mail. They’re getting buzz from Yahoo! Sports. The “insiders” at Sportsnet are buzzing about our local hockey heroes. ESPN is boffo on les Jets. NBC/NBCSN will feature les Jets five times on Wednesday nights. Online and sports books in Las Vegas are bullish on Winnipeg HC.

Cripes, man, there’s even Jets buzz on TSN, where they could be found on the main page of the website on Tuesday morning. In three different headlines.

When I saw that, I immediately called up the Weather Channel.

“Is it true?” I asked a young woman who answered the phone.

“Is what true?” she replied.

“Has Hell frozen over?”

“By Hell, do you mean Ottawa and the Senators?”

“No. I mean Hell as in Hell. You know…Satan, hissing, misery, suffering, eternal inferno. That wretched place.”

“Sounds like Ottawa and the Senators to me. But if you mean the biblical Hell, the usual warm front persists and remains parked over most of it. Why do you ask?”

“Because TSN has three mentions about the Winnipeg Jets on the main page of the website and there’s nada—bupkus!—about TSN’s favorite lousy quarterback, Johnny Manziel. They can’t possibly start a day without slobbering over Johnny Rotten, so I figure it can only be one of two things: 1) I overslept and it’s late November; 2) hell has frozen over.”

“No,” she assured me, “you didn’t sleep in and snowballs still don’t have a hope in Hell. Trust me, you and everyone else will know when Hell has frozen over.”

“How so?”

“There’ll be a Stanley Cup parade on Yonge Street in Toronto.”

Blake Wheeler

According to the pundits hither and yon, Winnipeg HC, while not everyone’s flavor of the month, figures to be a very prominent player in its eighth crusade since the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011.

Les Jets, who commence their 2018-19 journey vs. the Blues in St. Louis on Thursday night, are listed at No. 2 on the TSN power rankings, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Those ratings, by the way, are determined by five talking heads—Ray Ferraro, O’Dog Jeff O’Neill, Craig Button, Jamie McLennan and Darren Dreger.) For its part, Yahoo! Sports ranks Winnipeg HC fifth, behind Tampa Bay, Nashville Predators, San Jose and the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

Over at Sportsnet, meanwhile, 16 “insiders” are gaga for les Jets.
* 9 pick them to win Stanley Cup;
* 10 pick them to win Western Division;
* 11 pick them as the Canadian outfit with highest points total;
* 1 (Kristina Rutherford) picks Blake Wheeler to win Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player;
* 5 pick Connor Hellebuyck to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.

Connor Hellebuyck

At The Athletic, 47 scribes/editors weighed in on the upcoming season and les Jets are the second favorite to cop the Cup; Puck Finn is the overwhelming pick to win the Rocket Richard Trophy; Connor Hellebuyck is the second choice for the Vezina; and even the head coach, Paul Maurice, is feeling the love as co-favorite to be named coach of the year (with Peter DeBoer of San Jose).

Not since the World Hockey Association have we witnessed such pre-season hype for Winnipeg HC. Those WHA outfits delivered the goods. We’ll know about these Jets in about nine months.

Rink Rat Scheifele

Interesting take on les Jets from Dave Shoalts of the Globe and Mail:

“Everybody has fallen in love with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the team to break Canada’s 25-year Stanley Cup drought. But it might just be the Winnipeg Jets who accomplish that. The Maple Leafs may be the darlings of the oddsmakers, but the Jets are big, fast, skilled and better than the team that went to last spring’s Western Conference final.

“With that experience under their belts, the Jets are now poised to take the next step. Their top line of centre Mark Scheifele and wingers Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor is one of the best in the league. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck played his way into the top tier of goaltenders with his work in the playoffs. At 25 years of age he, like his teammates, is only getting better.”

A couple things to peel away here:

Bryan Little

I’m not convinced this Jets outfit is “better than the team” that lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final. The departure of Paul Stastny tells me it isn’t. Unless Bryan Little has a bounce-back season or Jack Roslovic is a revelation, Winnipeg HC is weaker at centre ice.

Hellebuyck, meantime, was terrific during a burdensome regular season and early in the playoffs. He did not, however, play admirably in the five-game ouster vs. Vegas. He was sketchy and Marc-André Fleury outperformed him by a wide margin, despite his repeated mantra that “luck” was Fleury’s greatest ally.

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About a tone deaf NHL and Kid Rock…Birchard curling with royalty…the CFL QB carousel…Aaron Rodgers’ new main squeeze…the XFL part II…an unfunny Farrell…Freddy calling ’em out in Tranna…media coaching the Maple Leafs…a “brazenly” gay figure skater…so long Red…and a few 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…

Kid Rock

Kid Rock isn’t feeling the love.

Except, of course, from Jeremy Roenick, whose unfiltered voice and scatter-gun twaddle have increased in volume and mockability, if not temperament, since the end of his days as a National Hockey League worker who once informed disgruntled fans that they can “kiss my ass.”

Kid Rock,” says Roenick, “is the most talented musician, I think ever, on the planet.”

He didn’t say which planet, but one could posit that, as a music critic, Roenick makes a swell hockey analyst, although the latter would be a matter of viewer appetite.

The point is, amidst the hurried and harsh pooh-poohing of the NHL for its hiring of rapper/rocker/rockabilly/country guy Kid Rock for the intermission gig at the Jan. 28 all-star frolic in Tampa, Roenick’s is the voice of a lone wolf howling amidst the din of dissent.

I’m a huge Kid Rock fan. I love his music,” confessed the NBC gab guy. “It’s a great get.”

Perhaps not such a “great get” if it’s about more than the music, which, based on the intense social and mainstream media screeching that his appointment has inspired, it seems to be with Robert/Bob/Bobby Ritchie.

Here’s what I know about Kid Rock:

Kid Rock and Pam Anderson

He’s filthy rich (about $80 million worth); he fancies himself as a beer-swilling, crap-kicking, womanizing American badass who’s been known to wrap himself in a Confederate flag; he likes to play with guns; he tosses out F-bombs like confetti at a wedding; he wears hats and sunglasses and is street chic scruffy; if there existed a period when he held relevance as a musician it surely ended about 10 years ago, basically the same time he and his ex-bride, Pamela Anderson, established some sort of record by exchanging wedding vows three times in one summer and filing for divorce 122 days later; he professes to have no problem with same-sex marriage but there’s a history of anti-gay/transgender diatribe that includes this nugget he once delivered to The New Yorker: “I don’t love anybody who acts like a fuckin’ faggot.” (The New York Times is “a little bit gay,” Twitter is “gay” and rap-rock is “pretty gay.”)

Much of which flies in the face of the NHL’s alliance with the You Can Play Project and the league’s Declaration of Principles, baring them both as so much window dressing.

Most of the time, our acts are passionate hockey fans,” says Steve Mayer, an NHL suit who must carry considerable corporate heft since he has an 11-word job title. “It’s all about the entertainment at the end of the day for us, and this selection was purely based on that, and the fact that Kid Rock is a hockey lover.”

That is, as many have submitted, so very tone deaf on the NHL’s part. But, hey, isn’t that what you have to be to enjoy Kid Rock’s music? Tone deaf?

Shannon Birchard

Talk about winning the lottery. Shannon Birchard didn’t even have to buy a ticket and she hit the jackpot when Jennifer Jones and her Manitoba champions sent out an SOS asking the young curler to sub for third Kaitlyn Lawes at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which slides from the hack next weekend in Penticton. We’re talking curling royalty here. Jones, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen are Canadian, world and Olympic champions. It’s like being asked to sing with Adele, Pink and Lady Gaga. Tough gig. Nerve-inducing gig. May Shannon’s butterflies flutter in perfect formation.

Darian Durant

I note that the Canadian Football League quarterbacks carousel is in full spin. For those of you keeping score at home, James Franklin has gone from Edmonton to Toronto; Zach Collaros wore out his welcome in Hamilton and made tracks for Regina; Kevin Glenn loaded up the U-haul in Regina and pointed it in the direction of Edmonton, his ninth CFL outfit; Josh Freeman, who hasn’t taken a snap since January 2016, hauled his hide off the unemployment line and skedaddled to Montreal; Darian Durant replaced Freeman on the unemployment line, then found his way to Winnipeg; and, of course, Johnny Manziel will be heading to a courtroom or rehab facility to be named later.

Let’s face it, no Winnipeg Blue Bombers loyalist wants to see Durant behind centre, because that means starter Matt Nichols is in the repair shop. Alas, few QBs get through a complete season in one piece, thus Nichols will be felled by an owie and we’ll be seeing Durant. If he can actually throw a pass to his receivers without the football bouncing two or three times, it’ll be a useful signing. Just don’t count on it.

Danica Patrick: Always in someone’s face.

On the subject of quarterbacks, an interesting social note: Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers is no longer dating actor Olivia Munn. His main squeeze now is GoDaddy’s in-your-face girl Danica Patrick, NASCAR’s departing, hot-headed diva who never knew a fender-bender that she couldn’t blame on someone else. Patrick never came close to taking a checkered flag in NASCAR, but she got into more scrapes than any of her fenders. Heaven help Rodgers if he accidentally puts a ding in the family SUV.

So, there are whispers that grappling guru Vince McMahon is toying with the idea of an XFL redux. How much fun would that be? Not much, if it’s as woeful and as blatantly sexist as the original go-round. Among other things, XFL Uno featured:

  • All eight teams were co-owned by McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment (nee Federation) fame and NBC.

  • They each dropped $35 million in the first and only season.

  • Former WWF fake fighter Jesse (The Body) Ventura was part of the broadcast crew. He also had a day job at the time—governor of Minnesota.

  • Play-by-play dude Matt Vasgersian was demoted from the main crew (after the first game) by McMahon for his reluctance to say something suggestive and sexist about cheerleaders’ outfits.

  • Another broadcast team consisted of WWF announcers Jim Ross and Jerry (The King) Lawler, who advised his partner during one game that “You’re here for the football, J.R., I’m here for the cheerleaders. Whoa! Check ’em out!”

  • McMahon once ordered a camerman to invade the Orlando Rage cheerleaders dressing room at halftime to “capture the essence of whatever it is they do” in there.

  • There was no coin toss to determine the opening kickoff. Instead, two players scrambled for the football.

  • Players received flat, per-game pay: Quarterbacks $5,000; running backs $4,500; kickers $3,500.

  • TV Guide listed the XFL as the third worst television show in history, behind only The Jerry Springer Show and My Mother the Car.

The unfunny Will Ferrell and the great Roger Federer.

Speaking of lame humor, actor Will Ferrell continues to be hopelessly unfunny. He hijacked a John McEnroe-Roger Federer courtside interview at the Australian Open tennis tournament last week, asking the following questions of the great Swiss champion:

Would you describe your game as a silky gazelle?”
“Are you a witch or a vampire?”
“There’s a rumor in the men’s locker room that you love coming to play in Melbourne and your secret to fitness is that you only eat wombat meat. Is that true?”
“I know how much this crowd means to you, they’re an amazing crowd, but does it get annoying when they just scream ‘C’mon Roger’ over and over again?”

For his part, Federer played along and provided some witty answers, but it was embarrassing.

Frederik Andersen

There was mixed reaction when Tranna Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen called out some of his mates last week, saying, “We’ve got to figure out who wants to commit to playing for the team.”

Among those tsk-tsking the under-siege goaltender was the O Dog, Jeff O’Neill of TSN.

“I wouldn’t be happy with it,” he said. “We all know who he’s talking about…he’s talking about Jake Gardiner, William Nylander or Mitch Marner because he screwed up two games in a row. So if you have a problem with one of those two (sic) guys, clear it, clear the air in the dressing room after the game instead of going to the media when nobody’s around. If you remember, when Frederik Andersen got here last year, he stunk the joint out in October. This year he was terrible in October and not one person, not Mike Babcock said, ‘You know, it’d be nice if our goaltender gave us a save once in a while.’ They always said the same thing. They protected him. They said, ‘Frederik Anderson is our guy, we believe in him.’ And now there’s a target.”

But wait. Here’s Don Cherry:

“He said what had to be said,” maintained Hockey Night in Canada’s resident blowhard. “If nobody else was saying it, he said it and I don’t blame him. I’ve been waiting for somebody to say something like that. Call them out, get the guys out there. I don’t blame Andersen at all.”

I’m on Cherry’s side of the discussion. This world needs more athletes delivering juicy lip service.

Mike Babcock

Does Leafs bench maestro Mike Babcock appreciate all the coaching help he’s been getting from media in the Republic of Tranna? I swear, reading and hearing all the coaching expertise in print  and on air makes me wonder how Babs ever won the Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, a world title, a world Junior title, a World Cup title and a college title without tapping into all that shinny brain power sitting in the press box at the Air Canada Centre.

Does anybody really believe the Ottawa Senators will move out Erik Karlsson? The Swede was the best hockey player in the world during last spring’s Stanley Cup tournament, but I wouldn’t rule out a trade, not with Scrooge McDuck (owner Eugene Melnyk) in charge of the purse strings. If Melnyk does deal Karlsson, he can fold the franchise and ship it to Quebec City.

The Seattle Kraken?

Apparently, there are 13 possible names for a Seattle NHL franchise: Totems, Seals, Cougars, Evergreens, Emeralds, Rainiers, Kraken, Sea Lions, Sockeyes, Whales, Eagles, Firebirds and Renegades. (I Googled Kraken and discovered it’s a giant, multi-armed sea monster.) I like Sockeye, as in salmon, even though it isn’t among the registered trademark names.

Openly gay figure skater Adam Rippon is off to South Korea with the U.S. Olympic team next month, which inspired this headline on the Kaplan Herald website: “Adam Rippon is U.S.’s first brazenly homosexual man to qualify for Winter Olympics.” Hmmm. One of Canada’s pairs skater, Eric Radford, is openly gay and he’ll also be in PyeongChang. No word on whether he plans to be “brazenly” gay while there or just gay.

Red Fisher

I’ve admired a number of scribes from what I like to call the golden group of Canadian sports writers, foremost among them being the great wordsmith Trent Frayne, with whom I had the privilege of working in 1980-81. Jim Coleman, Milt Dunnell, Dick Beddoes, Jack Matheson, Scott Young and John Robertson were other giants when the NHL was still a six-team outfit. As was Red Fisher, longtime detailer of all things les Canadiens for the Montreal Star and Gazette. Red was a bit quirky (he refused to interview rookies) and a grump, but no scribe did hockey so well for so long as Fisher, who began working the Habs beat in 1955 and didn’t leave the building until 2012. He died at age 91 on Friday and Michael Farber delivered a terrific tribute to him in the Gazette.

This week’s Stevie-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “Milos Raonic out in first round of Aussie Open. Lost in four sets to somebody named Lukas Lacko.” Sigh. Instead of looking up Lack’s form chart on the Association of Tennis Professionals website and advise readers that Raonic was beaten by a Slovak ranked 86th in the world, Simmons chooses to insult him. I swear, the more I read Grandpa Simmons the more I’m convinced that someone dropped him on his head when he was a kid.