The River City Renegade


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

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

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

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

Toby Enstrom

Toby Enstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Wheeler

Blake Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

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About Blake Wheeler’s snooty attitude…the athlete-media dynamic…fake news…untouchable Winnipeg Jets…and needing 23 more wins

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

It was a simple question, one put forth in the wake of yet another failed mission in a crusade full of failed missions and an equal measure of frustration and angst.

Blake Wheeler

Blake Wheeler

Your room was closed an unusually long time tonight. Was there a meeting?” Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press inquired of Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler on Friday night at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

What do you think?” replied Wheeler, turning and fixing Wiecek with a stare that suggested he was the worst form of pond scum. “What do you think, we were just silent in here with the door shut? Obviously there was a conversation had between us, obviously I’m not gonna give you anything that was said in this room.”

Obviously Wheeler was being a dink, obviously he didn’t have to be a dink.

Wiecek didn’t ask what was said behind those doors that stayed closed for 17 minutes. He likely didn’t care. He merely wanted confirmation that the Jets were late in allowing news snoops into their changing chamber because they had held a chin-wag following the 22nd loss of their National Hockey League schedule. He didn’t pose the question in a provocative, challenging or confrontational manner. Still…

What do you think?” came the snotty reply, the words dripping with unbridled contempt. “What do you think, we were just silent in here with the door shut?”

Look, I understand these are tense times in Jets Nation. That happens when your head coach has told anyone who cares to listen that all his players are “horse shit,” your supposed No. 1 goaltender can’t stop a runny nose, and you’ve just received a pair of paddywhackings, 7-4 against the Montreal Canadiens and 4-3 vs. the gawdawful Arizona Coyotes, who win about as often as Dustin Byfuglien passes on second helpings. Given those dire circumstances, the last thing a player wants or needs is a parry-and-thrust with people holding notepads and microphones. Newspaper deadlines be damned.

Trouble is, once that ‘C’ was stitched on to his Jets jersey, Wheeler became the official voice of the workers. Dealing with news scavengers, in good times and bad, is part of the gig. And I would expect he do it with a civil tongue.

The Jets captain could have—no—he should have said something like, “Yes, we had a players’ meeting and, before you ask, I’m not prepared to share what we discussed.” That’s how a true professional would have handled it. Not Wheeler though. He had to be rude, biting and dismissive. But, hey, if the president-elect of the United States can get away with calling the great Meryl Streep a bottom-feeding thespian, surely a hockey player dissing a news snoop is small potatoes.

I’ve never met Blake Wheeler. I doubt I ever will. I admire the way he plays the game, with a favorable blend of skill and naked intensity. And, really, that’s all that should matter. But, again, he’s the team captain. If Wheeler doesn’t like the media component of the job, simply surrender the ‘C’. Then he can be just like his mime-like buddy Big Buff, who apparently only shares his five-word pearls of wisdom with the Fourth Estate when the moon is full.

fake-newsFewer professional athletes genuinely embrace the ritual of news scavengers invading their space, before or after games. It’s tolerated as a necessary evil. But I’ve got news for Blake Wheeler and those of his ilk: Most news snoops I know and worked with don’t enjoy visiting changing rooms, either. I’m guessing that Paul Wiecek would be quite content if he never saw the inside of a sports boudoir again. But, as with the players, the athlete-media dynamic is a necessary evil. And without reporters in those rooms to ask questions, you get fake news. And fake news begets rancor, distrust and a Twitter-angry president-elect who can’t keep his thumbs to himself. So play nice and just answer the damn questions, boys.

While watching the Jets gag on a late lead and lose another hockey game Saturday night, 3-2 to the Kings in Tinseltown, it occurred to me that one of them is apt to be playing in Las Vegas at this time next year. So I scanned the roster, searching for the Jets whom I consider untouchable. I came up with seven: Jacob Trouba, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Josh Morrissey and the entire Lickety-Split Line of Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and Rink Rat Scheifele. Vegas can have their pick of the rest, including Byfuglien.

It will take 90 points, minimum, to qualify for the western portion of the Stanley Cup tournament. The Jets need 46 points in 36 games to get there. In basic numbers, that’s a 23-13 record the rest of the way. Good luck with that.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.


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Madame Redneck sees it all before it happens…

madame-redneck2Through the magic that is Skype, I have been to the Rocky Mountain back woods, where the reclusive and mysterious Madame Redneck resides in a shanty with a dozen feral cats and a seemingly never-ending supply of Kokanee.

I have witnessed her gaze into her crystal ball, read her Tarot cards and use her bony, nicotine-stained fingers to sift through the tea leaves.

This is what the mysterious Madame says will unfold in the toy department in 2017…

* The Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, will also become the Pigskin Pontiff when True North Sports & Entertainment assumes control of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Asked how much he paid for the Canadian Football League club, Chipman says, “Pay? Pay? Are you kidding me? Pay? Have you not been paying attention? They haven’t won the Grey Cup since kindly Cal Murphy still had his first heart. Bless his soul.”

* Chipman’s first order of business as a Two-Sport Pontiff will be to dismiss CEO Wade Miller, GM Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea and replace them with Craig Heisinger, because he replaces everyone with Zinger.

It’s been an unbelievable ride,” Zinger gushes after accepting his new position(s). “Not many people can say they washed Teemu Selanne’s jock and now Justin Medlock’s jock. I’ve been blessed.”

* There will be a playoff game at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry after the Bombers finish second in the West Division. Alas, the 8,298 frigid folks in attendance will leave disappointed when Medlock, who Zinger trades to the B.C. Lions, kicks a 61-yard field goal on the final play of the game to give the Leos a 34-32 victory.

Aha! All the smart asses in the media said it couldn’t be done,” Mike O’Shea barks from his perch as analyst on the CFL on TSN panel. “Just goes to show all those smart asses in the media that I was right last year! It can be done!”

johnny-football

Johnny Football

* Because his predecessor, Walters, left him without a quarterback under contract, Heisinger will sign National Football League washout and all-around bad boy Johnny Manziel to a five-year contract. Asked by news snoops if there is concern about Manziel’s sordid past, Heisinger is quick to prop up his new QB.

We don’t think Johnny Football is a risk at all,” Zinger assures one and all. “Johnny Football comes to us a humble, rehabilitated man. Johnny Football could have demanded the moon from us, but Johnny Football didn’t ask us to show him the money. All he asked for is a chance and a six-pack of Labatt’s Blue as a signing bonus. Off the record, we were willing to go as high as a two-four of Blue to sign Johnny Football. Just don’t tell him.”

* The Winnipeg Jets will not qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament and, when asked to provide an overview of his club’s season, head coach Paul Maurice doesn’t mince words.

What did you expect to happen?” he mutters. “Our young men just played 82 games in less than six months. That’s a lot to ask of these young men. There’s only so much you can ask of these young men.”

Reminded that the other 29 outfits in the National Hockey League also played an 82-game schedule in six months and 16 of them will carry on to participate in as many as 28 more playoff skirmishes, Maurice snaps.

I don’t appreciate you questioning our young men,” he bleats. “I can make you f%*&ing cry.”

auston-matthews

Auston Matthews

* Jets Finnish sensation Patrik Laine will finish second behind Auston Matthews in NHL rookie-of-the-year voting, prompting GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to offer a rambling response on behalf of Puck Finn.

Clearly, this was the result of an eastern bloc bias,” Chevy says. “Does this mean the Toronto Maple Leafs are using a better draft-and-develop model than us? I don’t think so. Does this mean the Toronto Maple Leafs have a better process than us? Again, I don’t think so. Does this mean Auston Matthews is a better player than Patrik? I don’t think so, but I suppose that’s for others to argue. Sometimes these things happen and, with Patrik, it happened. We didn’t want it to happen, but I recall reading somewhere that Bobby Hull never won the rookie award, either. So it happened to Bobby as well. We like where Patrik is and where he’s going, just like we like where all our young players are and where they’re going. Sometimes there will be hiccups, but I don’t look at this as a hiccup. I look at it as confirmation that our process is working and that the playoffs are right around the corner. How far away that corner is, I can’t tell you. But, as I’ve been telling you for six years now, I know there’s a corner out there somewhere and we’ll turn it one day, hopefully with Patrik and all our young players showing us the way to that corner.”

The Two-Sport Pontiff, meanwhile, echoes his GM’s comments and adds, “I’m just glad we don’t have to pay Patrik the rookie bonus. That doesn’t mean we operate on the chintz. It just means that I can tell Chevy to spend that money more wisely. Like by re-signing Chris Thorburn.”

sun* Someone at Postmedia will finally notice that there are only three people left to buy out or force out of the Winnipeg Sun toy department, so it will attempt to hire freelancers to put some flesh on the tabloid’s bones and combat the nine bylines that appear regularly in the Winnipeg Free Press sports pages.

It’s either that or shutter all the doors and windows,” a Postmedia mouthpiece says. “Now that Kirk Penton is gone, I don’t know how Paul Friesen, Ted Wyman and Ken Wiebe can compete with the Drab Slab if we don’t give them some help. Know anyone who’ll write for free?”

Recognizing that the Sun is ripe for the picking, True North Sports & Entertainment will swoop in with an offer Postmedia can’t refuse. Postmedia agrees to let TNSE take the tabloid off its hands for $1 plus applicable tax.

Can you believe it? It cost us more to buy this two-bit rag than the Bombers,” says Puck, Pigskin & Paper Pontiff Mark Chipman, who now owns everything in River City except the Winnipeg Goldeyes and the Disraeli Bridge, “but I think it’ll be worth all 100 pennies once we brainwash the appropriate people and show them how to do things the True North way. Friesen, Wyman and Wiebe can all keep their jobs, but they’ll be house organs who write nothing but puff pieces.”

Asked what will happen if they refuse, the Triple P Pontiff says, “I’ll get Paul Maurice to make them f%*&ing cry.”

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 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.


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Swimming in a sea of Canuckleheads; Winnipeg Jets over the Disney Ducks in 6 games; and who sprinkled Ondrej Pavelec with Dominik Hasek dust?

I am already seeing it. Canuckmania.

People are wearing the jerseys with the big C-shaped, angry Orca on the chest. Flags flutter from car windows. It is all the talk in my favorite watering hole and, no doubt, most pubs on the left flank of the land. I live a short hop across the water from the B.C. mainland, and make no mistake about one thing—Victoria is Vancouver Canucks country.

One might assume that the reality that I, a member of Jets Nation, am surrounded by Canuckleheads to be discormforting. Not at all. If anything, I am quietly humored by their zeal, particularly those among their number who seldom discourse on matters of athletics but now give voice to the goings-on of the National Hockey League and the commencement of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Why is the Canucks orca such an angry whale?

Why is the Canucks orca such an angry whale?

For example, just yesterday afternoon the boys on the bar stools in Bart’s Pub were prattling on, in not-so-hushed tones, about the Canucks’ upcoming engagement with the Calgary Flames, when one of them squeezed a mention of the Winnipeg Jets into the chin-wag.

“Did you see how the Jets got in?” he asked without expecting a reply. “They lost their last game. Got shut out. And they make the playoffs!”

The inference, of course, was that the Winnipegs had exercised the very bad manners of using a back door to gain entrance to the tournament. That they had not won their way in. This while the Jets were, at that very moment, featured on a corner TV, laying a 5-1 licking on the Flames to earn their 99th point of the regular season, just two fewer than the Canucks.

My instinct was to correct this fellow. I mean, if blanking the Wild in Minny, the Blues in St. Loo and the Avalanche in mile-high Denver—three shutouts in succession, on the road, in the final week of a 6 1/2-month campaign—is his idea of backing into the playoffs, well…whatever.

I chose to sit in silence, listening as they shifted their deliberations to the Canucks’ goal crease, an area of considerable concern given that the starting goaltender, Ryan Miller, had, until Saturday night, spent seven weeks on the shelf due to a wonky right knee. The consensus: Understudy Eddie Lack should start when Team Orca opens playoff hostilities vs. the Flames on Wednesday night in Van City.

That, of course, bears no importance for me. My area of interest would be the blue paint at the Jets’ end of the rink once they face off against the Disney Ducks in the Magic Kingdom on Thursday. But no one out here wishes to discuss Ondrej Pavelec, the Jets goaler who apparently has been sprinkled with Dominic Hasek dust and whose net has been a puck-free zone for a few ticks less than 187 minutes. Do the math. That’s three-plus games.

Pavelec’s play is among the reasons why the Jets qualified for their first post-season crusade since arriving in River City in 2011, and he shall be among the reasons the Winnipegs upstage the Ducks in their opening-round skirmish.

Oh, yes. That is an early prediction. Jets over Ducks. In six games.

I say that not only because Pavelec has become inpenetrable, but because Bruce Boudreau is head coach of the Disney Ducks. Bruce Boudreau-coached teams and playoff hockey are not a favorable combination. They do not win. Ever. They implode.

Which means…the Jets shall advance to Round Two of the tournament, whereupon they shall rattle sabres with none other than the Vancouver Canucks, who shall vanquish the Flames.

80s-logo-homeThis puts me in a bit of a pickle. As mentioned, I am surrounded by Canuckleheads, a tribe of very sore losers prone to rioting whenever their universe does not unfold as it should. I have made no secret of my affections for the Jets, which positions me as the enemy in these here parts. I fear the worst. I shall not, however, be intimidated should the Jets meet the Canucks. That’s not the Paul Maurice way. I shall proudly display the Jets logo.

That, I hasten to point out, would be the Jets logo circa 1970s-80s. I still cannot embrace the current logo, which is…well, as one Canucklehead asked yesterday, “What exactly is that Jets logo supposed to be?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Just like I don’t know why that Orca whale on the Canucks logo is so angry. I guess it’s because the Canucks have been in the NHL for almost half a century and they still haven’t won the Stanley Cup. You know, just like the Maple Leafs.”

Logo wars aside, I hope the Jets and Canucks do meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup tournament for a couple of reasons: 1) It would be a one-anthem series; 2) it would guarantee one Canadian outfit a berth in the Western Conference final.

So bring it on, Canuckleheads.

 

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.