Let’s talk about the Uproar Over the Rodent…Chevy’s smarts and the Winnipeg Jets jail break…Ben Chiarot hearing boo birds en francais…Aho’s contract and other RFAs…the Yankee Doodle Damsels go Dutch…macho Matt Nichols’ head games…Pencil Neck Paul…and dining with Matt Dunigan

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on out here on the Left Coast… 

I try not to obsess on things, other than breathing which, at my age, is a worthy obsession.

I mean, the way I have it figured, the longer I can keep breathing, the longer I can continue to draw enjoyment from the obsessions of sports fans whose every breath is linked to their favorite clubs. And, depending on the locale in our vast land, those obsessions greatly differ.

Old Gainer, new Gainer.

In Good Ol’ Hometown, for example, it’s Chevy and all things Jets

In the Republic of Tranna, it’s been Kawhi Leonard 24/7 and now it’ll be Mitch Marner 24/7 until he puts pen to paper.

In Montreal, it’s Marc Bergevin and his silly offer sheet.

In Bytown, it’s whatever toxic goop that spews from Eugene Melnyk’s mouth.

In Calgary, it’s Bo Levi Mitchell’s wonky throwing wing.

In E-Town, it’s the never-ending search for someone to skate alongside Connor McWasted.

On the West Coast, it’s…well, I live on the Left Flank and the rabble doesn’t obsess over anything but the weather and annoying tourists. (There is, mind you, a strong constituency that frets over every breath that Jim Benning takes, because it usually means another lousy player has been given a Canucks jersey.)

Meanwhile, on the Flattest of Lands, it’s the Uproar Over the Rodent.

Oh, yes, a rodent.

Summer swathing and happy banjo plucking came to a halt on the Flattest of Lands last week, after Gainer the Gopher went missing and was feared to be lost in a corn maze or abducted by body-snatching aliens. Left behind was a hairball that looked like Chucky’s pet rodent.

The new Gainer was introduced to Flatlanders on Canada Day, and he definitely was not their grandmother’s gopher. The beloved fuzzball of the Saskatchewan Roughriders had been given the most abrupt makeover since Bruce became Caitlyn. I don’t know who Gainer’s plastic surgeon is, but I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock. Or the guy who played nip-tuck-and-yank with Joan Rivers’ face seven or eight times. And what of Gainer’s Kardashian-sized caboose? Has the once-pleasantly plump rodent been sharing Nutrisystem shakes with Marie Osmond? We haven’t seen that big a weight loss since Angie dumped Brad. 

As for his peepers, we’re talking psycho rodent (seriously, Hitchcock had a hand in this). Clearly Gainer was off his meds, and there was a chainsaw and a massacre in his future.

Not surprisingly, up went a hue, also a cry. Free the real Rodent! There hadn’t been that much commotion on the Flattest of Lands since someone discovered a crop circle near Langenburg in 1974. Everyone from radio gab guys to former premiers weighed in on the maniacal-looking muppet, while Mothers shielded their children’s eyes to spare the urchins nightmares and many years of costly psychiatric treatment for gopheraphobia.

Alas, the story has a happy ending. Plow jockeys can climb back aboard their swathers and combines, folks can break out the banjos, and it’s safe to let the kiddies out of the house again—Gainer has had yet another facelift. Gone are the psycho, green eyes. He no longer looks like the neighborhood peeping Tom. Life on the Flattest of Lands is good. 

Meanwhile, on the field, the rabble’s favorite football team lost another game on Saturday night, and hardly anyone noticed.

Chevy

Let me see if I’ve got this straight: Because Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t swallow a stupid pill, many among the rabble—and a few news snoops—are showering him with hosannas. It doesn’t matter that we’ve witnessed the equivalent of a jail break since the close of business in April, with Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev, Kevin Hayes and Par Lindholm going over the wall to chase dreams and fortune, if not fame. The Chevy fan boys and girls instead point to all the coin the Winnipeg Jets GM hasn’t spent since the National Hockey League free agent market opened.

He didn’t spend $50 million on Hayes. Bravo!
He didn’t spend $30 million on Myers. Atta boy, Chevy!
He didn’t spend $21 million on Tanev. Pure genius!
He didn’t spend $10.5 million on Chariot. Smooth move!
He didn’t spend $1.7 million on Lindholm. Beauty, eh!

Add it up and Chevy didn’t spend $113.2 million, or an AAV of $20,992,857, for next season and, apparently, that’s a feather in his cap. Never before has doing nothing been so widely applauded. Why, our man is the Einstein of Puck. Well, spare me.

There was nothing clever or intelligent in Chevy’s (in)activity during the initial week of the NHL free agent frolic. He didn’t shell out all those big bucks for one basic reason: Whatever loose change he has left is earmarked for bank accounts belonging to Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk. Even a mathematical midget, and some sports scribes, could see that. So why the serenade to his genius?

The measure of Chevy’s smarts comes this summer as he attempts to rebuild a back end that has lost Trouba, Myers and Chiarot. That will take savvy. He pulls it off, let the hosannas rain down.

Noodles McLennan

I looked long and hard in search of someone beyond the boundary of River City who endorses Chevy’s handiwork, but I’m afraid that person doesn’t exist. Pierre McGuire of TSN/NBC cited the Jets as the biggest “loser” on Day 1 of free agency. Noodles McLennan, another TSN natterbug, chimed in with this: “Winnipeg Jets, I can’t give them a grade because they haven’t done anything yet. Incomplete work so far. Now, that’s Kevin Cheveldayoff. He works methodically, at his own pace. Now they got Nathan Beaulieu, brought him back, other than that did nothing.” Scott Burnside of The Athletic gave Chevy a C-plus: “This is a deep, well-built team that just happens to be a little bit less than what it was.” If I discover an outrider who actually embraces what Chevy has done, you’ll be the first to know.

Ben Chiarot

I don’t know about you, but I found some of Ben Chiarot’s comments interesting, also curious, after he checked in with les Habitants, at $10.5 million for three years. “The opportunity to play for the Montreal Canadiens and be in a city like that on a team that is up-and-coming like the Canadiens was hard to turn down,” the useful blueliner said. So what’s big Ben telling us? That Good Ol’ Hometown isn’t “a city like that?” That he doesn’t view Winnipeg HC as an up-and-coming outfit? The nerve. I mean, Pegtown’s streets can match les rues de Montreal pothole-for-pothole, and les Jets can match les Habs prospect-for-prospect. He added: “The Bell Centre has been my favorite place to play since I came into the NHL. To me, it’s not like playing in any other building in the league. In Montreal on a Saturday night is something special. There’s nothing better in hockey. So to get to experience that every week now is a dream come true.” C’mon, Benny. What does the Bell Centre have that the Little Hockey House On The Prairie doesn’t? Oh, that’s right—24 Stanley Cup banners and 15 retired jersey numbers in the rafters. Ya, I guess that trumps a Winnipeg Whiteout.

The arrival of Chiarot did not meet with unanimous approval among the rabble in Montreal. It was, in fact, quite bitter and did not escape the notice of Postmedia columnist Jack Todd. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the appalling reaction to the Ben Chiarot signing. It’s Montreal, it’s Marc Bergevin—so of course they hate it. Why do a silly thing like wait and see how it goes when you can start with the hate NOW?” he tweeted. Sounds like our boy Benny already has a bull’s-eye on his back. Wonder how much he’ll enjoy getting the raspberry in both official languages. Les oiseaux boo can be very loud en francais.

Puck Finn

So, how will the Sebastian Aho contract ($8.454 million AAV/five years) impact on the way Winnipeg HC conducts business with blue-chip restricted free agents Laine and Connor? It won’t. Prevailing wisdom suggests it was dumb of Montreal to tender such a faint-hearted offer sheet to the Carolina Hurricanes centre, so agents won’t use it as a guideline. Frankly, I’ll be shocked if Puck Finn gets Blake Wheeler money ($8.25 million), or even if he’s in the Rink Rat Scheifele neighborhood (($6.125M). As for Connor, he won’t make as much as Scheifele. He can’t. He won’t get a penny more than Twig Ehlers ($6M).

Happy American soccer players.

I find myself wondering if the Netherlands will actually attempt to score in their winner-take-all skirmish v. the Yankee Doodle Damsels today in France, or will they play for a stalemate and take their chances on penalty kicks to determine a champion in the women’s World Cup? I’m guessing the Dutch will play 11 back. Final score: U.S.A. 4, Netherlands nil, Alex Morgan 4 (fake injuries/dives).

Alex Morgan: A spot of tea before a dive.

I’ve watched a lot of the World Cup and truly enjoyed the mostly dive-free soccer. But Morgan cranked the theatrics up a notch in the Americans’ semifinal victory over England, and I’m not talking about her mockish, tea-sipping goal celebration. That was cute, even if cocky. But she came across as a graduate of the Neymar Academy of Faux Faceplants, and it wasn’t her most charming look. With global supremacy at issue today, I’m thinking as little as a menacing stare from one of the Dutch will have her twitching and writhing in make-believe distress and adding to fake injury time. Too bad. The Yankee Doodle Damsels are better than that.

Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird.

If it’s a different kind of read you’re looking for, check out Sue Bird’s piece in The Players’ Tribune. Sue, for those of you who haven’t been formally introduced, is the main squeeze of Donald Trump’s favorite Yankee Doodle Damsel (not!), Megan Rapinoe. After the Trumpster had a little hissy fit over Megan’s (apparent) bad manners, girlfriend Sue sprung to the nearest keyboard and assailed the Rude Man on Twitter. “O.K. I’ll answer The Question. The one that’s probably most on your mind,” she scribbled. “And by that I mean: What’s it like to have the literal President of the literal United States (of literal America) go Full Adolescent Boy on your girlfriend? Hmm. Well…it’s WEIRD. And I’d say I actually had a pretty standard reaction to it: which was to freak out a little.” Sue has an interesting writing style, but she gets her point across: She loves her soccer star girlfriend, and a menage-a-president is out of the question.

Matt Nichols

Memo to Matt Nichols: You don’t have to prove to us that you’re a tough guy. We’ll take your word for it. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback didn’t finish what he started on Friday night in Bytown because, well, he did the macho thing instead of the smart thing. As a result, the Canadian Football League lost its fifth starting QB in four weeks. Observing him in civvies on the sideline while Chris Streveler mopped up in a 29-14 W over the RedBlacks, Nichols seemed fine. He said he felt “great.” But blows to the head have a way of their own. He might find himself in a room with the drapes closed tight and all the lights turned out in a day or two. Next time you see the whites of a linebacker’s eyes, Matt, make like Neymar—dive, dive, dive.

So, the Bombers are 3-nada on the season, the CFL’s only unbeaten outfit. Richie Hall’s defensive dozen has surrendered 12 field goals and exactly one touchdown in those three skirmishes. Any more complaints? Didn’t think so.

Just wondering: Did TSN place its cameras for the Winnipeg-Bytown skirmish on the Quebec side of the border? I shouldn’t need the Hubble Telescope to watch a football game on a flatscreen 10 feet away in my living room.

Did TSN newboy panelist Mike Benevides really call Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun “some pencil neck” during the pregame natter? As a matter of fact he did, without naming him. Well, just who does Benevides think he is? A journalist? You just talk football, Benny, and leave the cheap shots to the experts.

Speaking of experts, no surprise that Paul would have the perfect comeback: “My ears are burning. You know, the ones above my pencil neck.” So we add Pencil Neck to some of the all-time nicknames in River City jock journalism: Cactus Jack, Coconut Willie, Friar, Knuckles, Knobby, Doc, Sod, etc. 

And, finally, I don’t know if TSN squawker Matt Dunigan has an endorsement deal with Fatboys Southern Smokehouse in Bytown, but I have to think anything he eats and drinks is on the house next time he’s in the nation’s capital. How many free plugs did he give Fatboys during the Bombers-RedBlacks broadcast? Four? Five? Made me want to pick up the phone and order a side of beef and some fries, except I doubt they could have delivered in 30 minutes or less.

What the hell is wrong with Steve Simmons?

Either Postmedia needs to get Steve Simmons some help, or they need to get rid of him. Immediately.

I mean, only someone struggling with serious inner demons would be so callous and cruel as to recklessly attack a man whose hockey career ended abruptly at age 33 due to blunt force trauma to the head. A man whose many years of post-concussion symptoms included headaches, memory loss, sight impairment, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness and exhaustion. A man who was required to live what he calls a “reverse lifestyle,” sleeping during the day and awakening in the small hours of the night to watch TV alone. A man who was diagnosed by one psychologist as suicidal.

That man is Marc Savard, last seen in the National Hockey League on the night of Jan. 22, 2011, concussed for a sixth time and being gently escorted from the ice surface by teammates after Matt Hunwick of the Colorado Avalanche had layered him into the corner boards with a clean hit.

Only in the last year has Savard begun to see the light again. Literally and figuratively.

Yet, his descent down the deep, lonely, seemingly bottomless rabbit hole didn’t prevent Simmons from making the former Boston Bruins forward the target of a vicious, repugnant attack in a Sunday column that appeared in Postmedia online newspapers nationwide.

“Marc Savard basically disappeared when his career ended in Boston,” Simmons wrote. “Media called. Nobody answered. Now suddenly Savard is a media guy. My advice: If he calls, don’t answer.”

Marc Savard

Imagine being so bitter and vindictive simply because someone living on the dark side of life failed to pick up the phone when you called. But, then, drive-by shootings have become Simmons’s sick shtick. I might suggest that it must be bloody awful going through life spewing such undisguised loathing, but it strikes me that it’s his perverted pleasure, something only a woman or man with a PhD in psychology or psychiatry can correct.

He’s also a hypocrite.

In January of this year, on Bell Let’s Talk Day, this is what Simmons tweeted: “Everyone I know has been faced with a problem. His problem. Her problem. A friend. A relative. A colleague. No reason to hide anymore #BellLetsTalk please RT this and keep RTing all day long.”

We now know that sentiment to be as sincere as a politician’s election promise, because here he is skewering a man who was laid low with mental health issues for close to seven years.

I’m uncertain if Simmons has suffered blunt force trauma to the head (it’s a safe bet that he’s been dropped on his head, many times), but I know concussions. I’ve suffered 10 of them. I can relate to every symptom with which Savard has dealt. But I’ll allow him to tell you about it.

“I had these terrible headaches, and any loud noise or bright light was…I mean, it’s almost indescribable,” Savard wrote in a revealing article for The Players’ Tribune in May last year. “If you’ve never had a concussion, I don’t know if words can do the feeling justice. Every little noise is like nails on a chalkboard, and you feel this dread so deep down inside your body.

“So I pretty much lived a reverse lifestyle. I was in bed all day with the blinds closed, in total darkness, in total silence. Then I would get up at 11 p.m. and watch TV on mute, with the brightness turned way down. If somebody called to check on me, I didn’t want to talk. I can’t really explain it, but everything seemed so…what’s the word?

“I guess the word is daunting. Just the thought of talking to a friend on the phone seemed like a huge mental and almost physical effort. I was so irritable because of my symptoms that it was hard to be around people—even the people I loved.”

In a November 2016 interview with the Boston Globe, Savard had said much the same: “There was a couple of years there where I kind of went off the radar, but it was only because I wanted to get my health back and get everything straightened out.”

Yet Simmons’s massive ego is bruised because Savard doesn’t have him on speed dial. Boo freaking hoo.

Simmons is a disgrace and should be an embarrassment to Postmedia and TSN. He glorifies a convicted woman-beater—former boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.—and he eagerly advocates the signing of a confessed woman-beater—Johnny Manziel—to a Canadian Football League contract, yet he discredits Canada’s medal-winning Olympic curlers and figure skaters in the most-dismissive and derisive of terms. And now this, bullying a man once laid low by mental health challenges who’s finally finding his way back and doing the odd gig on Sportsnet.

Simmons often crosses the line of fair comment, but the Savard attack is so far out of bounds, so repulsive and gasp-inducing that it suggests he needs to be saved from himself.

If so, get him the help he requires. If not, how in hell does he keep his job?

About hockey greats…self-indulgent, unnecessary sports writing…Lebron James’s legacy…Kerry Fraser’s gaffe…Jimmy Hoffa…and other things on my mind

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

No. 4, Bobby Orr
No. 4, Bobby Orr

I witnessed my first live professional hockey game in the mid-1950s at the old barn on Maroons Road in Winnipeg, which was razed to rubble five decades later.

I watched my first televised hockey game in the 1950s, when our TVs had rabbit ears (sometimes with tin foil wrapping on the tips to enhance the quality of our black-and-white reception) and we would join a game originating from Toronto or Montreal already in progress (most often in the second period). That’s when I learned to truly dislike Rocket Richard.

I covered my first hockey game for a newspaper in 1970 and my byline first appeared on a hockey article in June 1971.

I wrote about, and commented on, hockey in mainstream media for 30 years and have written freelance articles and blogged on hockey for the past 17 years.

Do the math: I have been watching hockey for 60 of my 65 years and writing about it going on 47 years, long enough to draw conclusions.

So, were I to start a National Hockey League franchise, drawing from players I have witnessed—either in person or from my living room floor/sofa—which player would I choose to build around? No. 4, Bobby Orr.

Orr is the best hockey player I’ve ever seen. Still. Probably always.

Here’s my all-time dream team…

GOAL: Glenn Hall, Dominik Hasek

DEFENCE: Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Viacheslav Fetisov, Ray Bourque, Valery Vasiliev.

FORWARDS: Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Peter Forsberg, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux, Alexander Maltsev, Valeri Kharlamov, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Anatoli Firsov, Sergei Makarov.

Interesting take from Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press on the death of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. “You’re going to be reading lots of ‘Here’s what Gordie Howe means to me’ stories over the next week,” he writes. “Most will be self-indulgent and unnecessary.” Let’s face it, much of what sports scribes scribble is self-indulgent and unnecessary, but the storytelling is neither. When someone of Howe’s or Muhammad Ali’s loft goes to the other side, the storytelling is essential to the narrative, otherwise all we’d have are lists of statistics to describe and define them. Without the storytelling, we know the athlete but not the person. Wiecek spun a terrific yarn about Howe that was far more interesting and insightful than spewing career scoring numbers.

Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe
Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe

Speaking of self-indulgent, one of the first columns I wrote for the Calgary Sun was about Gordie Howe. He was in town for a minor hockey promotion, the details of which now escape me, and we met at the CTV studios and spent the better part of an hour wagging our chins about all things shinny. The following morning, our editor-in-chief, Lester Pyette, approached me in the newsroom and said, “Great piece on Gordie Howe. Loved it. I’m a big Gordie Howe fan. But the publisher didn’t like it. He wants me to tell you that we brought you here to write about the Flames and Stampeders, not kids hockey and retired players.” I was gobsmacked. “Lester,” I told him, “if I find out that Mr. Hockey is in town, I’m writing about Mr. Hockey.” So I did. As mean and as ruthless as he was on the ice, Gordie Howe was as gracious and down-to-earth off the freeze. Wonderful man.

The notion that Lebron James needs to add a third National Basketball Association title to his resume before being granted all-time-great status is beyond absurd. How many World Series championships did Major League Baseball legend Ted Williams win? Or Carl Yastrzemski? Zero. Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in National Football League history, was 1-2 in championship games. How many times has the name Bobby Hull been inscribed on the Stanley Cup? Once. The great hoopster Jerry West was 1-8 in NBA championship series. James doesn’t need to set foot on the hardwood ever again. He’s already and all-timer.

Okay, Kerry Fraser has ‘fessed up. The former National Hockey League referee admits in The Players’ Tribune that he blew the call when he failed to banish Wayne Gretzky to the brig for slicing and dicing Doug Gilmour’s chinny-chin-chin in Game 6 of the 1993 Western Conference final between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings. It should have been a major penalty. “It was missed. Period,” is how Fraser puts it. Now, can Leafs Nation finally stop whining about something that happened 23 years ago?

If Connor McDavid’s name isn’t called when the NHL announces its top rookie for the 2015-16 season, he shouldn’t lose any sleep. Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman, Borje Salming, Stan Mikita and Patrick Roy weren’t at the head of their respective freshman classes, and each is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Is Jimmy Hoffa hiding in one of those beards?
Is Jimmy Hoffa hiding in one of those beards?

So, legendary flying Frenchman Guy Lafleur isn’t fond of facial foliage. He looks at the unruly shrubs sprouting from the cheeks and chins of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks and declares them “a disgrace for hockey.” This from a guy who went through two packs of cigarettes a day and actually smoked in the dressing room between periods when he played for the Montreal Canadiens.

Just wondering, when the Stanley Cup tournament concludes and Thornton and Burns finally reach for the razors, what are the chances of Jimmy Hoffa falling out of one of those beards?

Aside to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun: You’ve cranked out some quality copy re the deaths of Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe, but do yourself a favor—stop writing about Phil Kessel. We get it already. You weren’t a fan of his game or his eating habits during his tour of duty in the Republic of Tranna. Let it go, man. Move along.

Just for the record, this entire article has been self-indulgent and unnecessary. But I had nothing better to do when I awoke at 2:30 this ayem, so I started typing.

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