Let’s talk about The Big Reveal on Matt Nichols in tweets…Kyle Walters’ ‘smart phone’…the over/under with Chris Streveler at QB…hey, Kyle, what about Aaron Rodgers?…CFL head counts…Puck Finn’s ‘hard feelings’…beef jerky and Mitch Marner…and Bianca’s coming out party

Tuesday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and any CFL team that hasn’t lost a starting quarterback isn’t trying hard enough…

This Matt Nichols thing has had chins wagging and thumbs jerking since last Thursday, and I really can’t recall there ever being so much ballyhoo about a right arm in River City.

The Golden Boy tosses a right haymaker at Sugar Ray.

At least not since Golden Boy Donny Lalonde sent a shiver into Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him to the canvas in their 1988 title tiff.

At any rate, after keeping the severity of Nichols’ owie on the QT for three days, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers came clean with The Big Reveal on Monday, and I found it interesting how the boys on the beat in Good Ol’ Hometown spread the tidings via their twitchy Twitter thumbs.

10:19 a.m. (Jeff Hamilton): “Bridge, Willy could figure in Blue Bombers’ plans—update on Matt Nichols later today.”

11:48 (Ted Wyman): “He’s not in a practice jersey but Matt Nichols just walked into Bombers practice. No sling or anything like that on his throwing arm.”

11:53 (Bob Irving): “Matt Nichols is on the field watching practice. Arm hanging loose at his side. Which does not mean the injury is any less serious. O’Shea will share more after practice.”

Matt Nichols as observed by Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun.

11:55 (Ted Wyman): “Here is Bombers QB Matt Nichols walking to practice field. Was keeping his right arm at his side but have seen him moving it around a bit. Hands on hips etc.”

1:10 p.m. (Jeff Hamilton): “Matt Nichols is looking at weeks before he is back playing. Bombers are looking for various options for rehab, with hope of return asap. He’s played through serious injury before but with plenty of season left, and with/team 7-2, want to be sure he’ll be ready down the stretch.”

1:27: (Ted Wyman): “Matt Nichols will go on the 6-game injured list and be evaluated over that period. Mike O’Shea expects him to be ready to play in 4-6 weeks.”

1:28 (Jeff Hamilton): “Bombers HC Mike O’Shea says 4-6 weeks he hopes to see Nichols play.”

1:28 (Ted Wyman): “No surgery necessary for upper body injury for Nichols. Bombers will look to bring in another QB in next couple weeks. Chris Streveler will be starter in Edmonton on Friday and for the foreseeable future.”

1:30 (Jeff Hamilton): “Bombers HC Mike O’Shea says 4-6 weeks before Nichols is re-evaluated. So 6 weeks minimum before he plays.”

Chris Streveler at the controls.

So now that we know the arm “hanging loose at his side” limits Nichols to tasks no more strenuous than putting “hands on hips etc.” until at least the end of September, we direct our attention to Chris Streveler and wonder and speculate what might become of a 7-2 Winnipeg FC outfit that, at present, looks down on all it surveys in the West Division of the Canadian Football League.

Streveler is a blood-and-guts QB, built from the I-think-I’m-a-middle-linebacker, Matt Dunigan mold. Only he’s about a foot taller. Matty never saw a brick wall he didn’t want to take on, and I don’t imagine we’ll see Streveler performing with a safety net too often. Even if instructed to do so. He’s already had more head-on collisions than a crash-test dummy and actually seems to enjoy running into immovable objects with arms, legs and a bad attitude.

But, as Doug Brown outlines in an excellent piece in the Drab Slab, Streveler will require more than his hell-bent-for-leather tendencies to keep the Bombers in the first-place discussion. This is, after all, a passing league and he’ll be required to fling the football as often as not. Oh, and stay in one piece while doing it.

I don’t have to remind you that Nichols is the latest starting QB added to a body count that now numbers seven, and if Streveler gets too reckless the next option is greenhorn Sean McGuire.

Mind you, GM Kyle Walters has been working the phone in search of a QB with some savvy.

That’s good to know, but if old friend Drew Willy is the best he can dredge up we’ll know it isn’t a “smart” phone.

Drew Willy and Matt Nichols.

When last seen in River City, Willy had a tendency to bounce the ball to his receivers, which, as it happened, worked out well for Winnipeg FC because it forced head coach Mike O’Shea’s hand. He turned the ball over to Nichols, who went about the business of beating the Eskimos in E-Town in his first whirl behind centre. In a nifty bit of irony, that’s also Streveler’s starting point on Friday night.

So what’s the over/under on Ws with Streveler behind centre in the next 5/6 skirmishes? Three? Sounds about right. Play .500 football while Nichols is in the repair shop and it’s still game on. Anything less and a crossover playoff spot comes into play. I’m all about the glass half full right now, though. As Dunigan might say, I believe Streveler can “get ‘er done, young man.”

Aaron Rodgers: Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play.

Hey, come to think of it, there’ll be a fair country QB in town this week. Maybe GM Walters can convince Aaron Rodgers to stick around after the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders have conducted business at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. Now that would be a “smart” phone.

The Pack and Raiders go through the motions on Thursday night, and if the over/under on the head count for the NFL dress rehearsal is 20,000, I’ll take the under. At the prices they’re charging, I really don’t think there are more than 20,000 danged fools in Good Ol’ Hometown.

The boys and Kate Beirness on TSN did some tall talking about “close to a sellout” at BMO Field in the Republic of Tranna for last Thursday’s skirmish between the Argos and E-Town Eskimos. Official head count: 16,490. Number of empty seats: 8,510. Only in The ROT (and on TSN) would a nearly half-empty stadium be considered “close to a sellout.”

There is, mind you, glad tidings drifting out of The ROT. As unlikely as it might seem, the Argos are the only CFL outfit showing an increase in attendance over 2018. Go figure.

Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab just won’t let it go. He insists on beating the Winnipeg Jets’ “fractured changing room” drum, this time as it relates to Patrik Laine. The young winger and restricted free agent recently made some empty remarks about his National Hockey League future, saying, “You never know where you’re going to play next year. I’m just prepared for anything.” Puck Finn added that he’s “got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg” and offered a few more benign tidbits that didn’t total a mole hill of substance. Yet here’s Mad Mike on the matter: “No doubt there’s also some lingering hard feelings over how last season played out, both on the ice and within the dressing room.” My goodness. Instead of reading between the lines, fly to Finland like Chris Johnston of Sportsnet did. Or pick up a phone and dial Laine’s number. Ask him directly if he’s PO’d about anything that went on in the Winnipeg HC boudoir. Then report the facts. Otherwise, shut the hell up about it.

The overrated(?) Mitch Marner.

You’ll have to excuse Mitch Marner if he feels a sudden urge to piddle on Andrew Berkshire’s Corn Flakes. I mean, to hear the numbers nerd talk about the Tranna Maple Leafs winger on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, you’d swear that young Mitch is to hockey what beef jerky is to fine dining. Marner “might be the most overrated player in the NHL.” Marner is “not the guy driving the bus on that line. It’s John Tavares.” And “Is Mitch Marner better than Timo Meier? I think most people in Toronto would say yes but data says no. Meier’s actually significantly more productive.” Well, I haven’t held a slide rule in my hands since struggling mightily with high school math at Miles Macdonell Collegiate, but no amount of nerd-produced numbers from Pie Chart Boy will convince me that a 66-point man (Meier) is “significantly more productive” than a guy (Marner) whose 94 points were bettered by only 10 players last season. Marner had more assists than Meier had points, for cripes sake. Berkshire, whose fancy stats, graphs and pie charts also clutter up the Drab Slab sports pages, can cherry pick all he likes and put greater value on one number over another, but I’ll take 94 over 66 every time. At the rink or in math class at Miles Mac.

I think the most telling comment Pie Chart Boy made re Marner and other unsigned NHL restricted free agents was this: “I don’t know how NHL executives view these guys.” Exactly. He doesn’t know.

Bianca Andreescu at her Indian Wells coming out party.

And, finally, here’s something that’s just stone…cold…stupid: Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna writes about our girl Bianca Andreescu’s chances at next week’s U.S. Open in Gotham, suggesting, “This could well be the young Canadian’s coming out party as a professional.” Good grief. What was Indian Wells? What was the Rogers Cup? A couple of meh moments that no one noticed? Look, after you’ve won a tournament that includes the elite 75 female players on the planet (Indian Wells), then re-up with a win at the Rogers Cup in The ROT, there’s no longer any need for introductions. They know who you are. Our teen sensation won’t catch the field, the media, or the rowdies at Flushing Meadows by surprise. Bianca had her coming out party five months ago at Indian Wells, so either Simmons educates himself or he has to stop scribbling about women’s sports.

About Puck Finn and sports folklore from “back in the day” in Good Ol’ Hometown

Many years from now, when people of a certain vintage gather to advise young’uns what it was like “back in the day,” Patrik Laine surely will occupy a place in the spinning of yarns.

The tales the elders tell will be tall and, no doubt, embellished to the point whereby Puck Finn is remembered as a larger-than-life National Hockey League player who, when not scoring goals, rescued babies from burning buildings and single-handedly dug a mile-wide trench around Duff’s Ditch to spare River City from cataclysmic spring flooding.

Puck Finn

“I was there when he dug that trench,” they’ll swear. “Took him a week. And danged if he didn’t go out an hour after putting down his shovel and score five goals on five shots. I was there when that happened, too. Still have the ticket stub to prove it.”

And that’s okay. It’s what us old farts do. We traffic in folklore and expect whippersnappers to accept that everything “back in the day” was better than everything today.

I recall my oldest son, for example, sitting at the dinner table in the mid-1980s and pooh-poohing the notion that Gordie Howe might have been a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky.

“What did Howe ever do that was so great?” he asked with considerable adolescent cheek and a smirk that needed to be wiped from his face.

“Excuse me? What did Gordie Howe do?” I replied, almost choking on my pork chop. “You mean aside from the six scoring titles, the six MVPs, the four Stanley Cup rings, the five goal-scoring titles, the most goals and points in the history of hockey, the 20 all-star teams? You mean aside from all that? And let me tell you something else…Gretzky was spoiled as a kid. His dad built him a rink in his back yard. Mr. Hockey—that’s Gordie Howe—wasn’t spoiled. He had to trudge two miles barefoot through three feet of snow just to get to the rink and back when he was a kid. All of us kids had to do that.”

Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe

My boy bowed his head. He had been properly chastised, yet he remained unconvinced of Howe’s superiority before finishing the last of his green peas and slinking off to the living room.

“Gretzky’s better,” were his defiant, parting words, “and I don’t believe that stuff about Howe walking barefoot in the snow. I’m sure they had buses back then.”

“They did, but Howe got kicked off for elbowing all the other boys,” I replied.

Similar tall tales will be told about Patrik Laine, his five goals on five shots in Winnipeg Jets’ 8-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues last weekend destined to be included in the I-was-there-when-it-happened folklore 40-50 years hence.

And that set me to thinking…

I began watching and following River City athletes more than 60 years ago, in the mid-1950s just as Billy Mosienko was returning to Good Ol’ Hometown to join Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League. So I’ve seen some jocks. And these are the 10 I mention most when asked about the way it was “back in the day.”

  • Ken Ploen

    Kenny Ploen: Once upon a time, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup. Repeatedly. And Ploen was usually at the forefront of those powerful 1950s-60s Canadian Football League outfits—as a quarterback, a defensive back, or both. Oh, yes, Ploen played two ways. Sometimes in the same game. And he was an all-star at both positions. He also might be the nicest man alive. I recall riding my bike, twice a day, out to Packers Field in St. Boniface during Bombers training camp. I’d ask Mr. Ploen for his autograph after each of the morning and afternoon sessions. Every day for a week. He never once declined my request for his signature.

  • Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Hedberg was a cheetah on skates. Nilsson had four eyes, two in the front of his head and two in the back. The Shoe was short and squat, kind of like Barney Rubble. It was as if an unseen giant had put his thumb on the top of the Shoe’s head and squashed him. But move the puck? The best. And the beatings those Swedish boys took from North American ruffians after joining the Jets in the World Hockey Association? Rented mules don’t get whacked that often.

  • Terry Sawchuk

    Terry Sawchuk: The great goalie grew up in the same area of town as I did, East Kildonan. When I began playing Little NHL hockey at Melrose Park, rumor had it that a pair of goalie pads we used once belonged to Sawchuk. That set of pillows had magical, mystic powers. The kid who wrapped the Sawchuk pads around his legs always got a shutout. Honest. He did.

  • Donny Lalonde: I remember the first time I saw the Golden Boy working out in a firehall-turned gym, his every move in concert with the sound of Bob Dylan’s great album Infidels. He struck me as kind of scrawny for a light-heavyweight boxer. He wasn’t much of a ring technician. And he fought with his left arm tied behind his back. But his one good arm won a world championship and he became just the second man to floor the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.

  • Bluto

    Chris Walby: If it’s possible for anyone to actually be larger than life, Bluto is your man. He went from total junior hockey goon with the West Kildonan North Stars to a career as arguably the best offensive lineman in CFL history. He later became a talking head on CBC football coverage, mangling the English language while actually making sense. If you ever see Walby, check out his hands. His fingers are as gnarled and as bent as tree bark. They’ve been broken more often than a politician’s promises.

  • Jeff Stoughton: A curler who didn’t drink. Go figure. And I don’t recall ever hearing cuss words escape his lips. That certainly made him suitable for mixed company and, in fact, mostly forgotten is that his breakthrough on the national stage came in the mixed game, where he skipped his rink to a pair of Canadian titles before beginning his run as the most successful male curler in a curling-rich province. His spin-o-rama delivery is legendary.

  • The Finnish Flash

    Teemu Selanne: I’m not convinced that the Finnish Flash actually happened. I mean, 76 goals and 132 points as an NHL rookie? Go on. You’re making that up. That’s pure fiction. But it’s not. Teemu actually did it in real life, not PlayStation. Then—poof!—he was gone, like Col. Flagg on M*A*S*H.

  • Vic Peters: Like Selanne, seemingly too good to have been real. Forget that he was a champion curler. Vic was the loveliest of lads. A total people person who, when not winning curling championships or making pebbled ice, could be found at Larters or The Meadows golf courses, grooming the fairways/greens or playing a few holes while still wearing his superintendent’s galoshes. If K. Ploen isn’t the nicest man, Vic was and he left us far too soon.

About three Sundays in November…the CFL playoff format…the Prairie Football League…news snoops snubbing Mike Reilly…the Gott Guzzle…the Golden Boy and Sugar Ray…the high price of Looch’s one goal…passing on $300 million…and bravo to Paul Edmonds

The usual Sunday smorgas-bored…with an extra-large helping of three-down football…

Okay, right off the top, let’s read the tea leaves and see how it’s all going to shake down when the large lads grab grass and growl in today’s two Canadian Football League playoff skirmishes.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Saskatchewan Roughriders: Gang Green will require at least two touchdowns from its defence and/or return teams, plus five field goals to have any hope of beating Winnipeg FC. That isn’t going to happen. The rout is on. Blue Bombers by 17 (or more).

B.C. Lions at Hamilton Tiger-Cats: The better quarterback wins, and that’s Jeremiah Masoli, even if he won’t be playing catch with Speedy B. Travis Lulay will start for the Leos, but he won’t finish. Tabbies by 14.

Is there anything more compelling in Canadian sports than three-down football’s fall frolic? I think not. Fifteen days, five sudden-death games. It doesn’t get any better than what the CFL delivers for three successive Sundays in November.

As if on cue, Messrs. Hue & Cry have been in full voice since the close of the CFL’s regular-season business, demanding a dismantling of the current playoff format in favor of something more equitable.

They note, correctly, that the 8-10 Tiger-Cats have been rewarded with a home game at Timbits Field in the Hammer, even though the Lions were 9-9. The Edmonton Eskimos, meanwhile, also finished the regular session with a 9-9 record, yet there they are with their noses pressed against the window, peeking in at all the fun that’s about to begin in the runoff to the Grey Cup.

They’re right. It doesn’t seem fair.

One of the pundits, Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun, suggests the CFL toss the West-East division structure onto the scrap heap. Lump all nine outfits into one group, top six advance to the playoffs. Well, okay, let’s do that. Here’s how it looked at the finish of the 2018 season:

Calgary 13-5
Saskatchewan 12-6
Ottawa 11-7
Winnipeg 10-8
B.C. 9-9
Edmonton 9-9

So, the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders would earn first-round byes, leaving these two games: Edmonton vs. Ottawa; B.C. vs. Winnipeg.

Let’s take it one step further and say the Eskimos were to eliminate the Bytown RedBlacks. That would leave Calgary, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Edmonton. Welcome to the Prairie Football League.

You think anyone in the Republic of Tranna would be watching? Anyone in Bytown or Steeltown? Anyone in Quebec? Anyone east of the Manitoba-Ontario boundary?

Alienation of Eastern Canada, most notably the large Southern Ontario TV market, is the risk the CFL takes if it eliminates its traditional geographic makeup. Two consecutive November Sundays of football played only on the frozen tundra of the Prairies would be a ratings doomsday.

If the game isn’t already dead in The ROT, that would surely kill it.

The CFL has featured two all-Prairie Grey Cup games in the past 17 years—Winnipeg and Calgary in 2001, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan in 2007. Where do those two matches rank for TV ratings this century? You guessed it—at the bottom of the heap. Here are the gory details.

2009 Montreal-Saskatchewan 6.1 million average (English and French TV)
2010 Montreal-Saskatchewan 6M
2012 Calgary-Toronto 5.8M
2002 Montreal-Edmonton 5.2M
2011 B.C.-Winnipeg 4.6M
2013 Hamilton-Saskatchewan 4.5M
2003 Edmonton-Montreal 4.4M
2015 Ottawa-Edmonton 4.3M
2017 Toronto-Calgary 4.3M
2014 Hamilton-Calgary 4.1M
2006 B.C.-Montreal 4M
2005 Edmonton-Montreal 4M
2004 Toronto-B.C. 4M
2016 Calgary-Ottawa 3.9M
2008 Calgary-Montreal 3.65M
2007 Winnipeg-Saskatchewan 3.5M
2018 Calgary-Ottawa 3.1M
2001 Calgary-Winnipeg 2.7M

(Note: The 2012 game had a 5.5 million average audience on TSN, making it the most-watched Grey Cup ever on English TV.)

The most-compelling argument against a revision of the playoff format is, of course, the end result. Supposedly inferior outfits from the East Division have won the large game the past two Novembers, so let’s not talk about it until a western club actually proves it’s best when it really matters.

Mike Reilly

Question in Double Jeopardy: In whose universe does the guy with the best numbers not rate as the most outstanding player in the CFL? Answer: What is the Football Reporters of Canada, Alex?

Oh, yes, the boys and girls on the beat snubbed Mike Reilly, instead giving the West-East MOP nominations to quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell of the Stampeders and Jeremiah Masoli of the Ticats. That despite the fact the most basic of stats indicate the news snoops are misguided.

Head-to-head-to-head, here’s how the three QBs stack up:

If you were to base that on a 3-2-1 point system, the final scorecard would read: Reilly 16, Mitchell 11, Masoli 10.

I don’t know about you, but I’d say the news snoops have some explaining to do.

So, O-lineman Jon Gott of the Bytown RedBlacks turned a football game into a tailgate party by chug-a-lugging a tall can of beer after a touchdown, and now the CFL has banned booze from TD celebrations. The new get-tough, anti-debauchery policy also includes drugs. Players are not permitted to light up a joint and pass it around in the end zone. Apparently that would be one toke over the line.

Sugar Ray and the Golden Boy

Has it really been 30 years since Donny Lalonde and Sugar Ray Leonard exchanged haymakers at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas? Yup. Sugar Ray scored a ninth-round KO over Winnipeg’s Golden Boy on Nov. 7, 1988, but our guy got in some good licks before biting canvas. Lalonde floored Leonard in the fourth round and was actually ahead on one judge’s scorecard when they got off their stools to begin the ninth. I covered that tiff for the Winnipeg Sun alongside my favorite boxing scribe, Tom Brennan, and my most vivid recollection is of Sylvester Stallone’s annoying voice rising above 13,000 others. “First Vinnie! First Vinnie!” was his ringside plea/instruction to Vinny Pazienza every time Roger Mayweather boxed one of his ears in a bout on the undercard. Alas, Rocky Balboa’s pleas went unrewarded. His guy Vinny lost on a decision. Bob Dylan was also on site, but I never heard or saw him. I sometimes wonder if he saw me.

Just wondering: When are the New York Islanders supposed to start missing John Tavares? Do they even notice that he’s gone?

The Looch

Also wondering how that Milan Lucic thing is working out for the Edmonton McDavids. Isn’t $6 million a season supposed to buy you more than one goal and four points in 16 games? The lumbering Looch’s contract is by far the worst in the National Hockey League.

So this is the world we now live in: A guy who plays a kid’s game for a living feels comfortable turning down $300 million and no one bats an eyelash. I don’t know what’s worse, Bryce Harper snubbing his nose at the $300 million the Washington Nationals had put on the table, or the fact another Major League Baseball outfit will offer him more money.

Good guy Paul Edmonds

And, finally, a big tip of the bonnet to good guy Paul Edmonds, among the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame inductees for 2019. The radio play-by-play voice of the Winnipeg Jets on TSN 1290, Paul earned his chops by trudging across the tundra with baseball’s Winnipeg Goldeyes for 19 years. That’s a lot of lonely hours on the lonely road. Now he flies hither and yon with les Jets. So, yes, he’s definitely earned his wings.

Forty-seven years of Winnipeg hockey memories from a former rink rat

Forty-seven years. That’s how long it has been, to the day, since I began a newspaper career that brought neither fame nor fortune but provided a fair bit of fun.

That’s why I still scribble about sports to this day, 17 years removed from mainstream media—it’s a hoot.

Winnipeg Arena

The pay as a freelancer/blogger isn’t nearly as good, mind you. It’s mice nuts. It isn’t enough to keep me well watered and fed. I mean, I can’t afford to make spaghetti and meatballs anymore. It’s one or the other. But, hey, the payoff is the giggles I get by poking the bear, tipping sacred cows or tilting at windmills (I promise, no more cliches for today).

One would think that I’d have gotten the Winnipeg Jets out of my system by now. But no. Some habits are hard to kick, if not impossible. I just can’t let the Jets go. And, to a lesser degree, the Blue Bombers.

I don’t know how many hours I spent in the old barn on Maroons Road, but I do know that Winnipeg Arena was my home away from home for a good number of years. As were various other shinny shacks throughout North America, from the story-studded Montreal Forum to Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum in Tinseltown to the rickety Corral in Calgary to frost-bitten wooden huts that passed for hockey rinks in numerous Western Canada outposts.

And that’s what I am remembering this morning…

I remember Frank McKinnon, a remarkable, special man and the person I interviewed for my first Winnipeg Tribune byline story in 1971. Frank, president of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association at the time, was one of those people I always thought I should address as “Mister,” because he commanded such respect. But he would have none of it. “I’m Frank,” he told me early in our initial conversation, “and I want you to know that you can call me any time.” Frank and I talked often, but probably not as often as I would have liked.

I remember the night in Atlanta when Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie attempted to scale the glass partition separating the two benches so he could fight his counterpart with the Flames, Al MacNeil. Tommy took off his sports coat, took off his necktie, took off his wrist watch, partially unbuttoned his shirt—then took out his teeth! “When he took his teeth out and started undressing,” said MacNeil, “I knew he was serious.”

Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers.
Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers.

I remember riding a bus with coach Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers during their successful 1973 Centennial Cup crusade. Muzz liked his hockey with an edge and there was nothing sissified about the way his lads played. So physical were the Terriers that Humboldt Broncos’ coach Dr. Terry Henning took his puck and went home after five games rather than finish their playoff series with Muzz’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. “Can you believe it?” Muzz asked me. “They quit. The good doctor said my guys are too dirty. He says we’re too mean and nasty. So he quit. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him doing open-heart surgery on me—he’d walk out in the middle of the operation!”

I remember interviewing Vladislav Tretiak at a house on Elm Street in River Heights. I don’t recall who owned the house or why I had to meet the great Soviet goaltender there, but he was in town to promote his book and we gabbed for about an hour at a kitchen table (rather, the interpreter and I chin-wagged for an hour). When we parted, Tretiak said something to the interpreter, who relayed to me that “Vladimir thinks you are a hockey expert.” As photographer Jon Thordarson and I walked toward our vehicle, I said, “Imagine that, Tretiak thinks I’m a hockey expert…sure fooled him, didn’t I?”

I remember being in Indianapolis with the Jets on American Thanksgiving Day and Racers coach Pat (Whitey) Stapleton inviting myself, play-by-play legend Friar Nicolson and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis to turkey dinner with his family. It was such a thoughtful gesture, but that’s the kind of relationship media and hockey people sometimes had back then, especially in the World Hockey Association.

I remember Aime Allaire and his never-ending quest to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home to Winnipeg. Alas, Aime’s St. Boniface Mohawks could never get the job done.

I remember the Jets’ first visit to New York City, to play the Rangers. Friar, Reyn, Sod Keilback and I went for a stroll of Manhattan on game-day afternoon and we ducked into magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a look-see. “I’m going to light a candle for the Jets,” I said. “They’re going to need all the help they can get against the Rangers.” Sod greeted that notion with rude laughter. The Jets beat the Rangers that night, 6-4.

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

I remember another trip to Manhattan. Our bus driver wanted to make a detour down a side street, but he couldn’t navigate the turn because a Volkswagen Beetle was parked too close to the corner. General manager John Ferguson and the driver stepped outside to investigate. Fergy came back on the bus and shouted, “Jimmy! You and a few other guys come with me. We’ve gotta move this car.” Fergy, Jimmy Mann and three or four other players lifted half the Volkswagen on to the sidewalk and away we went.

I remember Muzz MacPherson refusing to talk to me after a Winnipeg Clubs’ game. “I’m too upset,” the gravel-voice coach barked. “I don’t want to talk. Just make up the quotes. You know me well enough by now that you know what I’ll say.” So, for the only time in my career, I made up quotes. The following day, Muzz called me and he was frothing at the mouth. “What are you trying to do to me?” he yelped. “I wouldn’t have said all those things you said I said—I would have done a lot more swearing.”

I remember talking to Ulf Nilsson the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national team, 5-3, and the great Swedish centre saying, “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

I remember Friar Nicolson allowing me to do five minutes of play-by-play one night when Dave Keon and the New England Whalers were in town. It was a classical gas.

I remember watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes with Muzz and various hockey sorts who had assembled at the Viscount Gort for an annual chin wag. As the great Secretariat romped down the home stretch, about 30 lengths in front of the field, Muzz stared at the TV and shouted, “Don’t break a leg! Don’t break a leg!” Big Red didn’t even break stride and became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.

I remember Teddy Green’s headaches. I often wondered how a man could be in such crippling pain and still go out and perform so admirably on the Jets blueline.

I remember riding the iron lung with Gerry Brisson and his Winnipeg Clubs on a junket that took us to Brandon, Regina, Swift Current, Calgary and Kamloops and back. Kevin McCarthy was on that team. He was the most-talented Junior I ever covered.

I remember covering an MJHL that included four Winnipeg teams—the Winnipeg Monarchs, St. James Canadians, St. Boniface Saints and my alma mater, the West Kildonan North Stars. (That’s right, I played in the MJHL and covered it. I believe Doug Lunney is the only other person to do so.)

I remember taking pride in the championship work of Barry Bonni with his River East Royal Knights of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, because his team represented my old ‘hood.

Morris Lukowich
Morris Lukowich

I remember Morris Lukowich barking at me after the Jets’ initial NHL game, in Pittsburgh. Luke had been credited with the team’s first NHL goal, tipping in a Peter Marsh shot. “Where did that shot hit you?” I asked him. “Friar and I never saw it change direction.” He shot me with a stone-cold stare and said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. “No, Luke, I’m not calling you a liar,” I said. “I have a game story to write and I need to know where the puck hit you so I can describe the goal accurately.”

I remember being part of a media team for Schmockey Night. Ray Jauch was our coach and Eddie (Clear the Track) Shack, the clown prince of the National Hockey League, was my left winger. Jauch, head coach with the Blue Bombers at the time, wouldn’t let Shack or I come off the ice in the final five minutes because we needed a goal to tie the game. Neither of us scored.

I remember wonderful conversations with hockey lifers Bruce Cheatley, Ed Sweeney, Bill Addison, Julian Klymkiw, Aggie Kukulowicz and Billy Robinson, who, along with Dr. Gerry Wilson, was responsible for bringing the first wave of Swedes to North America and transorming the Jets into a WHA power.

I remember defenceman Tim Watters buying Friar and I beer when he came in after curfew one night in Vancouver. “You don’t have to do that, Tim,” Friar told him. “We’re not going to rat you out. You’re good people.” I never ratted out any of the Jets. Neither did Friar. What they did on their time was their business.

I remember covering the Jets rookie training camp in Sainte Agathe, Que., in 1979 for the Winnipeg Tribune, and Fergy asking me to play in the final exhibition game because Patrick Daley had pulled a groin during the morning skate. “Are you serious? You want me to play tonight?” I asked him. He did. So I did. Assisted on the first goal, too. All the players at Sainte Agathe moved on to the Jets main training camp in Winnipeg, then some were assinged to the Tulsa Oilers. I went back to the Trib with a grand total of one assist in my only pro game. And I never got paid.

I remember the Jets first visit to the Montreal Forum. Friar and I walked in with Fergy, who was still a hero in Quebec, and he directed us to the concession stands. “Troi chien chauds,” Fergy ordered. He looked at us and said, “These will be the best hot dogs you’ll ever eat.” They were. To this day.

I remember bringing beer to former Soviet referee Anatoli Segelin, who was part of the U.S.S.R. traveling party for the 1981 Canada Cup. Upon his arrival at the Viscount Gort, Anatoli, who loved Canadian journalists, begged me to bring some beer up to his room on the second floor. I asked Stew MacPherson if he could spare a couple of 12-packs from the media hospitality room for Anatoli and comrades, and he agreed. Upon seeing me at his door with 24 beer, Anatoli flashed a smile as wide as Mother Russia and said, “Canada! Come! Come! We drink!” Segelin, myself and two other comrades did just that.

Willy Lindstrom
Willy Lindstrom

I remember Willy Lindstrom’s pranksterism. Every time the Jets’ travels would take us to Quebec City, Willy would visit a joke shop not far from the Chateau Frontenac and load up on stink bombs and sneezing powder. He would then unleash them on our airplanes. Go to sleep during a flight and it was guaranteed you’d wake up in a sneezing fit, because Willy would sneak up from behind and sprinkle powder on you. And the stink bombs were absolutely paralyzing.

I remember sitting in an airport, listening to Mike Smith deliver a 10-minute oration on the methodology of the Richter Scale after an earthquake hit the West Coast. As he spoke, I thought, “Man, this guy is a different head of lettuce.” I didn’t realize exactly how different Smith was until the day he drafted Sergei Bautin.

I remember going to the draft in Montreal the year Fergy chose defenceman David Babych second overall, ahead of Denis Savard and Paul Coffey. More interesting, however, was the fact Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran were next door, prepping for the Brawl in Montreal, the first fight in their boxing trilogy.

I remember feeling sorry for Ray Neufeld, a truly nice, young man who came to the Jets from Hartford in exchange for David Babych. It was recognized as Fergy’s worst transaction and fans took out their frustrations on poor Ray. That wasn’t fair.

I remember the first time I ever saw Peter Sullivan play hockey and asking, “How is this guy not playing in the NHL?”

I remember Jimmy Mann trying to convince me that he was “not an animal” after his sucker punch had shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw into a dozen pieces. It wasn’t me Jimmy had to convince…it was everyone else in hockey.

I remember Laurie Boschman’s on- and off-ice personalities. He was such a nasty bit of business when they dropped the puck, yet so soft-spoken, sincere and genuinely nice once the final buzzer sounded.

friarI remember a pilot delaying takeoff from Atlanta when we realized rookie broadcaster Sod Keilback was AWOL. Turns out the big lug had gotten lost in the airport, which was larger than his hometown of Yorkton, Sask., and he heard some serious braying once Friar Nicolson had located him and brought him on board. Sod made a feeble attempt to explain his wandering ways, but we were having none of it. “You’re just a big sodbuster,” I said. The name stuck. He was known as Sod thereafter.

I remember my traveling partners in the WHA, Friar and Reyn Davis, two terrific guys. Both of them are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Sadly, both of them are also dead. I’m neither in the Hall of Fame nor dead, but it’s only a matter of time before I arrive at the Pearly Gates (I probably haven’t been good enough to get in there either).

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 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.

Winnipeg sports: 45 years later, a look in the rear view mirror

It was 45 years ago this week when I first walked into a newsroom. It was 15 years ago when I last walked out of a newsroom.

Those who noticed the former were few. Those who noticed the latter were even fewer.

Somehow, though, I managed to sandwich a 30-year career in jock journalism between those two moments. I know I wasn’t the greatest sports scribe. Cripes, man, to this day I’m convinced I pulled a fast one on a whole lot of people because, with zero journalistic schooling and nothing but blind ambition as an ally, I managed to land gigs at the Winnipeg Tribune, the Toronto Sun, the Calgary Sun, the Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Sun. My copy appeared in every major daily in Canada, a handful in the United States and numerous magazines.

I worked as a color commentator on Winnipeg Jets radio and even hosted my own sports talk show on CJOB. Mind you, that only lasted about seven weeks. I quickly discovered that many of the people who call in to gab on jock radio need a life, which convinced me that I needed a life. So, shortly thereafter, I escaped from mainstream media. Full stop.

I point this out today for one reason: I have a regret.

I left quietly. Too quietly. It’s not that I desired fanfare and pomp and pagentry to accompany my exit, stage west. Quite frankly, I preferred my flee to freedom to be on the down low. That’s why I got behind the wheel of my 1991 Le Baron convertible one morning in early September 1999 and pointed her in the direction of the Pacific Ocean without alerting a soul.

I now, however, glance in the rear view mirror and regard that to have been an error in judgement. It would have been nice to clink some pint glasses together and perhaps shoot a game of pool with comrades while comparing battle scars.

So that’s what I’ll do today, 45 and 15 years after the start and finish lines.

(I should point out that I wasn’t a byline scribe from Day One. I began as the mail kid in the Winnipeg Tribune business office, then moved up to the fifth floor to run copy for the various departments in the newsroom. At the same time, I’d scribble non-byline pieces and rewrites for the boys in the sports department, just to get an early feel for the gig. It wasn’t until 1971 that my byline first appeared in print.)

These are my highs and my lows from 30 years of jock sniffing in Pegtown, plus another 15 as a freelancer/blogger on all matters of sports in River City. (I do believe that 45-year stretch means I have been scribbling about good, ol’ Hometown sports longer than any living creature.)

Matty
Matty

Best writer: Jack Matheson. Not even close. We all wanted to write like Matty. None of us ever did.

Best broadcaster: Don Wittman. Witt was more versatile than anyone in his biz. And very good at every sport he covered. On a personal note, while in high school I sent Witt a letter asking for advice on how to pursue a career in sports media. Imagine my shock when I answered the phone at home one afternoon and it was Don Wittman on the line, offering to meet me for coffee and a chin-wag. Those are the things you never forget.

Favorite broadcaster: Scott Oake. Scott is knowledgeable, glib and witty. He has fun. I like that.

Best pipes: Bob Picken. If Pick were in a room full of cackling hens, laughing hyhenas and braying jackasses, you’d still hear him above all else. His voice carried further than a telegraph wire.

Best play-by-play man: Friar Nicolson and Knuckles Irving. It’s sometimes hard for me to believe Knuckles is still broadcasting Bombers games. But he continues to do so with style, grace and know-how. And I understand his fear of flying is as intense as ever. As for Friar…I worked and travelled with him during the Jets final two World Hockey Association seasons and their first whirl in the National Hockey League. I was forever amazed how a man could lace his conversation with unvarnished profanity, yet never utter a four-letter word on air. I believe the closest he ever came to cursing on air was the night he called Peter Pospisil of Czechoslovakia “Peter Piss Pot.”

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

Most colorful person: John Bowie Fergsuon. Any guy who punches a hole in the wall of his press box bunker and hurls a bucket of ice on the visitors’ bench is either a nutbar or colorful. I choose the latter. Fergy and I had our battles, but I believe there was mutual respect.

Biggest blunder: I was instructed by Gus Collins to write a two-column brite to advise Trib readers that the Major League Baseball all-star game would be played the following evening. I referred to this mid-summer fixture as the “annual Fall Classic.” D’oh!

My favorite moment as sports editor at the Winnipeg Sun: Watching Judy Owen’s reaction when I assigned her the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat. She was, as they say, over the moon. Some people believed I had lost my entire bag of marbles for putting a sports neophyte on a major beat, but Judy never let me down. I rate it as my most satisfying decision during two whirls as SE at the Sun.

Favorite beat: Local tennis. I covered every tournament at the Winnipeg Canoe Club and Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club for the better part of a decade and grew very fond of the tennis crowd. Fun people. Obliging people. Appreciative people.

Favorite athletes: Chris Walby, Troy Westwood, Bob Cameron, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Terry Ruskowski, Vic Peters, Pierre LaMarche.

Least favorite athlete: Mario Marois of the Jets. Just a miserable, miserable man.

Tommy McVie
Tommy McVie

Favorite coaches: Tommy McVie, Mike Riley, Cal Murphy, Muzz MacPherson.

Tommy provided the finest moment of slapstick when, during the Jets initial season in the NHL, he attempted to attack Al MacNeil, his coaching counterpart with the Atlanta Flames. Livid that his players were being bullied by the Flames’ ruffians, the Jets coach assailed MacNeil verbally, then decided he would get physical. Before attempting to scale the glass partition between the team benches, however, he removed his wrist watch and tucked it in a jacket pocket. He then removed the false teeth from his mouth—yes, he took out his tusks—and tucked the faux fangs in a jacket pocket. He then removed his neck tie. He then removed his jacket and made an aborted bid to scale the glass barrier. Alas, his feet kept slipping down the glass. He looked like one of those cartoon characters whose feet move 100 mph but go nowhere.

Free Press writer I most respected: Reyn Davis, who worked the Jets beat. I admired his way with words.

Most talented scribes with whom I worked (excluding Matty): Ed Willes and George (Shakey) Johnson.

Most enjoyable place to spend a summer Sunday afternoon: Assiniboia Downs or the Ballyard by the Forks.

Favorite non-athlete: Lawyer/player advisor Don Baizley, a gentleman.

Seediest promotions guy: Boxing gasbag Tom Burns. I actually liked Tom, but didn’t trust him as far as I could toss Don Lalonde. Tom also wore the worst hair piece on earth.

Least favorite team owner: Sam Katz of the Goldeyes. Sammy spoke out of both sides of his mouth when dealing with the two newspapers. He would tell our beat writer one thing, then tell the people at the Freep the real thing. What a donut.

Favorite moment: The night the Jets beat the Soviet national side.

Favorite quote I: After the local hockey heroes had toppled the mighty comrades, Ulf Nilsson, a Swede who had absorbed so much abuse at the hands, sticks and elbows of Canadians in his first season with the Jets, told me: “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

Best player to ever wear a Jets jersey: Kent Nilsson. He was in River City for a good time, not a long time, but nobody could match his skill set.

Best player to ever wear a Bombers jersey: Chris Walby. If someone asked me to describe what a Blue Bomber is supposed to play like, act like and talk like, I would point to Walby and say, “Like that big man over there.” It was rather odd that Bluto was a great quote, yet he seemed to speak a foreign language when doing color commentary on CBC. That aside, the big man was unparalleled.

Cal Murphy
Cal Murphy

Best chin-wags: Gab sessions in Cal Murphy’s office were special. The late Bombers coach/GM could be every bit the curmudgeon, but he was a funny, funny, dear man.

Worst moment I: Collapsing on an airplane while returning from Toronto with the Jets. It’s rather unsettling to be carted off a plane on a stretcher and whisked away to the hospital. The diagnosis was extreme fatigue. I survived to write another day, although many wish I hadn’t.

Most unusual reaction to a piece I’d written: After I had scribbled something about Winnipeg shinny fans showing extremely poor manners in booing the singing of O Canada en francais, a man called my home later that day and threatened to “bomb” my house. Yup, the kook was going to “blow it up” real good.

Worst day: When the Trib shut down. I cried and got drunk. But that’s all I have to say about that.

Favorite desker: Dave Connors, aka Homer. I would tell him how I wanted the sports front or a feature spread to look and he’d make it so much better than I had imagined.

Top story: The Bobby Hull signing at Portage and Main.

Top story maker: Ben Hatskin for signing Robert Marvin Hull.

Vic Peters
Vic Peters

Favorite group of athletes: Curlers, by far. I wish I had discovered curlers earlier in my career, but I spent enough time with them in the final decade to truly appreciate they’re a special bunch. Vic Peters was the best and Don Duguid was a close second.

Favorite event: The Brier. It’s a load of work, but a load of fun because of the people. It’s the only sports event I’ve covered since I left the every-day grind of journalism, and I did it twice as a freelancer.

Guys I cheered for (but not out loud): The boys from the Houston Aeros who joined the Jets for the final World Hockey Association season.

Worst moment II: Being at the L.A. airport with the Jets in the 1980s when a 6.something earthquake hit. There was serious panic in our terminal. Supposed tough guy John Ferguson was the first man out the door. Big sissy. Our flight to Vancouver was delayed, but not cancelled. If I remember correctly, it was the final flight out for the rest of the day.

Best quote II: I was sitting with Tom McVie during a Jets pre-season workout when Morris Lukowich burst in from the left wing and snapped a laser-like shot into the top corner.

“Watching that,” coach McVie told me, “is better than having sex.”

“Geez, Tom,” I responded, “that doesn’t say much for your wife.”

“Ya, but she didn’t score 60 goals last season.”

Oddball of oddballs: Mikhail Smith, general manager of the Central Red Jets. Mike was a hockey egghead, an intelligent, book wormish guy who had a different way of looking at, and doing, things. As GM of the Winnipeg Jets, he put in place a make-work-for-Russians project, whereby he seemingly sought to build a team comprised of nothing but comrades. It was an interesting time, but the Red Scare went unrewarded.

Most surreal event: The title fight between Don Lalonde and Sugar Ray Leonard at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. It didn’t seem real that Lalonde, a local kid, was actually in the ring with a legend like Sugar Ray Leonard. It actually happened, though. Lalonde even put Leonard to the canvas before losing by knockout.

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