About sports and social issues…women in the Hockey Hall of Fame…sad days in America…that left-wing kook Babs…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…

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

I have often wondered why more sports scribes don’t tackle societal issues, yet, when they do, I wonder why they bothered.

Consider Michael Grange of Sportsnet, as an e.g.

Grange penned a piece in the wake of last week’s United States presidential election that sends Donald Trump to the White House, and it included this comment: “Sports have generally been perceived as being ahead of the general population on many social issues. While not always elegantly, the major U.S. sports leagues have pushed ahead on inclusivity and tolerance.”

I assume Grange wrote that with a straight face, which is ironic because it’s so laughable.

I mean, hands up anyone who actually believes that major professional sports has been “ahead” of the curve in areas such as domestic violence, gay rights, gender equality, drug abuse, drunk driving, etc. Hmmm, I don’t see any hands. No surprise.

Our major professional sports leagues, all of which are for and about men, have been a leader on these issues like Lady Gaga is a middle linebacker.

Let’s use sexual orientation as an example. Openly gay men can be found in every segment of society, from our military to our music, from our law courts to our classrooms, from our newspapers and our TV networks to our amateur playing fields and arenas. Yet how many openly gay men play in the National Hockey League? The National Football League? The National Basketball Association? Major League Baseball? Zero.

Julia Lemigova and tennis great Martina Navratilova on their wedding day.
Julia Lemigova and tennis great Martina Navratilova on their wedding day.

Meantime, there are out lesbians performing in the Women’s NBA—Elena Delle Donne, Janel McCarville, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus, etc. Professional women’s tennis has featured many out lesbians, including legendary players such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, as well as Grand Slam champions Amelie Mauresmo and Hana Mandlikova. And that’s not to forget transgender pioneer Renee Richards. The Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour included openly gay Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan, Karrie Webb, Jane Geddes, Rosie Jones, etc. Canada’s national women’s hockey team has included lesbians Angela James, Sarah Vaillancourt, Charline Labonte and Jayna Hefford. The rosters in women’s soccer, here and abroad, are pockmarked with open lesbians.

Major men’s professional sports leagues and peripheral affiliates like tennis and golf are, in fact, decades behind society and women’s pro and amateur sports in the acceptance of gays. I doubt they will catch up in my lifetime. So much for inclusivity.

Tolerance? Yes, the NFL exercises tolerance, but in an ass-backwards manner. That is, it tolerates the use of a racist nickname for one of its member teams, the Washington Redskins. MLB tolerates the use of Chief Wahoo, a red-skinned, clownish, crazed-looking Indian as a logo for one of its member teams, Cleveland.

Grange failed to provide examples of how sports has been “ahead of the general population on many social issues,” which leads me to assume he was lazy or couldn’t think of any. And his use of the word “tolerance” shows a lack of understanding of marginalized groups. My gay friends don’t seek tolerance, they seek acceptance.

On the matter of minorities, Damien Cox has used his Toronto Star soapbox to deliver a lament about the lack of female presence in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s a wellborn thought, to be sure, but Cox misses the mark when he implies it was a stretch for this year’s selection committee to induct Sergei Makarov ahead of women like Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Manon Rheaume. The committee “showed some genuine creativity in bending over backwards to honour men over women, dusting off the portfolios of former goaltender Rogatien Vachon and one-time Calgary Flames winger Sergei Makarov,” is how Cox put it. Nonsense. Makarov is a two-time Olympic champion, an eight-time world champion, a two-time world junior champion, and he was named to the International Ice Hockey Federation centennial all-star team, along with Wayne Gretzky, Valeri Kharlamov, Borje Salming, Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak. Campbell-Pascall had a commendable international career, but that was largley in a two-country competition. As for Rheaume, she was Phil Esposito’s public relations sideshow in Tampa. Yes, that experiment certainly raised the profile of women’s hockey, but that was of Espo’s doing mostly.

Cox also points out that 28 men and two women have been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the past six years. “So much for even a semblance of equality,” he writes. Cox just doesn’t get it. It isn’t about gender equality or a female quota. It’s about performance and contribution. And, given the female game’s relative newness on a global scale and its overall lack of competitive depth, the pool of possibility is quite shallow for the women. Certainly someone like Fran Rider qualifies for the Hockey Hall of Fame for her contribution to the women’s game. She’ll get in. But not before Teemu Selanne, and it won’t be because he’s a he and she’s a she.

At least one sports writer believes Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election is sadder than the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
At least one sports writer believes Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election was a more mournful day than Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

From the department of “Does He Actually Think Before He Writes?” I give you anti-Trumpster Steve Simmons of Postmedia. On the night our neighbors to the south elected Donald Trump as their 45th president, the Toronto Sun sports scribe tweeted this gem: “The saddest night in American history.” Sigh. Let’s play that Sesame Street game: Pearl Harbor. JFK. 9/11. Katrina. Challenger. Kent State. Trump elected president…which one of these doesn’t belong?

Speaking of speaking without thinking, Hockey Night in Canada blowhard Don Cherry also used his Twitter account to weigh in on the presidential election: “The left wing kook entertainers and the left wing weirdo’s (sic) in the media in the U.S. have said if Trump wins the presidency they will move to Canada. Please, we have enough of these type here now.” Yes, by all means Grapes, let’s keep “kook entertainers” like Barbra Streisand out of Canada. She might do something radical. Like teach Justin Bieber how to sing, act and behave properly in mixed company.

Why are so many Canadians feeling misguidedly smug about the American election? Wasn’t it so long ago when they voted a man many consider to be a xenophobe, a racist, a protectionist, a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe as the seventh greatest Canadian in history? Yup. That man is Don Cherry.

Yes, now that you mention it, this is an interesting world in which we live. I mean, unvarnished, unscripted, misogynist “locker room talk” gets Billy Bush fired from a TV show and it gets Donald Trump a room in the White House. Go figure.

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 Jets: Their victory over the Soviets was the signature moment for an undervalued team

Perhaps because a broad brushstroke of hockey nostalgia is about to sweep across Good, Ol’ Hometown, I find myself reaching back to distant times and a shinny barn long ago reduced to rubble.

I couldn’t begin to inventory the number of days and nights I spent in the Winnipeg Arena during my three decades writing about hockey in River City, but I confess that the large majority of the games I witnessed have faded to black, lost in the foggy moors of my ever-eroding memory. Mostly, they come back to me in vignettes. A highlight here, an incident there.

There are, however, three matches that remain indelible: 1) The Winnipeg Jets’ victory over the Soviet Union National team; 2) Game 6 of the 1979 World Hockey Association championship; 3) the first Tuxedo Night.

jets-sovietsThe latter two I recall because one carried historical significance, in that it was the WHA’s final act and the local lads took permanent ownership of the Avco World Trophy, while the other was noteworthy for its marketing quirkiness and behind-the-scenes madness that brought closure to Bobby Hull’s career in Jets linen. Poor Bobby was all dressed up with no place to go on Tuxedo Night, and his clumsy exit is a humorous, oft-told chapter of folklore that I’m certain will be recited and embellished when the old boys gather for their Heritage Classic hijinks this week.

That’s strictly Sideshow Bob stuff, though, when measured against the caging of the great Russian Bear. That was the defining moment for a team and its players whose accomplishments often were pooh-poohed by the hockey establishment because of the company they kept. The WHA and its member teams, you see, were looked upon like the Canadian dollar is today—not up to par. Devalued. Or so the prevailing logic went.

But wait. Don’t talk to us about second-class citizens. The Jets beat the Soviet National side, dammit!

I can still see Ulf Nilsson delivering a short, delicate pass to Dave Dunn, a big, lumbering defenceman with a square, planter-like pot for a helmet. No one had ever mistaken Dunn for, say, the smooth-as-silk Peter Sullivan or Kent Nilsson. More to the point, his was a hunch-shouldered, laborious skating style that evoked imagery of a beast of burden pulling a milk wagon. Yet there was Dunn, suddenly with some lickety-split in his stride as he departed the neutral zone and navigated his way into enemy territory.

Looking up from the end boards, Dunn spied Hull standing at the lip of the crease, and he dished a backhand pass to the Golden Jet, who flicked the puck past Vladislav Tretiak. Game, set and match. The Jets had beaten the Soviets, 5-3.

It is the irony of Dunn’s daring, as much as Hull’s three scores and Ulf Nilsson’s four points, that revisits me when I ponder the events of Jan. 5, 1978.

I recall watching from on high, in the Arena press box, as Dunn accepted Nilsson’s feed and began his foray along the right wing boards and into a corner. I thought it totally out of character for him to be so ambitious. Dunn’s technique and skill level were directly at odds with the shock-and-awe swagger of his playmates, Nilsson, Hull and Anders Hedberg. Not to mention the three Soviet forwards on the freeze at that moment—Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. Dave Dunn belonged in that group like Don Cherry belonged in the Kremlin.

This can’t possibly end well,” I muttered to myself.

It did, though, and the Jets had their signature game, the one match we can point to after this great passage of time and say “that’s how good those guys were.”

***

This wasn’t a championship skirmish. It was, as soccer people are wont to say, a “friendly.” A pleasant interlude of sporting pleasure to perhaps soothe the sting of another long and dreary Winnipeg winter.

Yet any frolic with the Soviet National side during the Cold War, circa 1970s, carried political overtones, if not intrigue, plus the promotional wallop of a heavyweight tiff.

Dave Dunn
Dave Dunn

And so it was when the Jets, with their blend of smooth Swedes and good, ol’ bent-nosed Canadian boys, engaged the best of Mother Russia. None among the combatants arrived at the rink to make nice. This was a “friendly” like Winnipeg is New York City.

Few beyond the walls of the Jets’ changing quarters expected the WHA’s marquee team to topple the comrades. Even the most rabid of the rabble would have told you victory was less likely than Cherry taking a mail-order Russian bride.

I mean, this was the creme de la borscht of Soviet shinny. It was one thing to whup a club side from Mother Russia, like Wings or Dynamo or, yes, even the National team’s doppelganger, CKSA, more commonly known as the Central Red Army. A few WHA and NHL outfits already had been there and done that. But beat the communist colossus? Nyet.

To further underscore the enormity of the task, the Russkies already had given the Jets three wedgies in “friendlies” in Tokyo, Japan—7-5, 4-2, 5-1—prior to the comrades’ arrival on our shores (at which point Ivan promptly administered a 7-2 paddywhacking to the Edmonton Oilers).

So, yes, the Russian Bear was in full-throated growl.

The Jets, however, were not without bark and bite of their own.

Although appropriately respectful of a foe that collected World and Olympic championships like little boys collected bubble gum cards, the Jets delighted a gathering of 10,315 eye witnesses by laying waste to the Soviets early, building a 4-0 advantage on two goals each from Ulf Nilsson and Hull. Shortly thereafter, taskmaster Viktor Tikhonov removed Aleksandr Sidelnikov from the Soviets’ goal and replaced him with Tretiak.

As if on cue, the great Russian Bear stirred, making it 4-2 before the second period had expired, both goals coming off the stick of diminutive and unsmiling Boris Alexandrov. Vasily Pervukhin then supplied third-period drama, beating Jets goaltender Joe Daley two minutes and 43 seconds in. A collective murmur rumbled from the pews to the rafters in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fans feared the worst.

The Jets quelled the Russian uprising, though, guarding their one-goal advantage with Scrooge-like stinginess until Hull converted Dunn’s pass into his third score and the Jets’ fifth, eight seconds from time.

Never before had the Soviet National side been beaten by a club team.

***

Scant seconds after the fact, those of us with pens, notepads and microphones were granted access to the locals’ lair, where we discovered half the players still fully adorned in their Jets livery and the other half already baring well-sculpted chests, abs and arms. Some roamed to the four corners of their cramped quarters, smiling and slapping broad-shouldered backs and tousling the stringy, matted-down hair on sweat-soaked heads. A few sat in silent reflection, giving ponder to a job well done and nursing post-work refreshments.

Ulf Nilsson
Ulf Nilsson

They were properly pleased and proud, these Jets, also weary to the marrow.

They seemed in unspoken agreement that the early after-moments of their conquest of the CCCP was a time for softened celebration, rather than unrestrained revelry, and it is their muffled merriment and a quiet quote from Ulf Nilsson that I also remember about the goings-on of that magical night.

“The Russians are so hard to play against…I don’t think I ever beat them before tonight,” offered Nilsson, a native of Nynashamn who along with fellow Swede Hedberg and Hull combined to outscore the Soviets’ fabled forward troika of Mikhailov, Kharlamov and Petrov 10 points to zero. “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

That sentiment worked both ways, that night and so many others for the Jets and their flock.

(Footnote: To put the Jets’ victory in perspective, the Soviets went 5-0 against five other WHA outfits on that tour, beating the Oilers (7-2), Quebec Nordiques (6-3), Cincinnati Stingers (9-2), Indianapolis Racers (8-3) and New England Whalers (8-4) for a combined score of 38-14).

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.

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.