Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I really wish that young woman on TSN Sportscentre would stop yelling at us…
The notion that Matt Nichols and his wonky throwing wing might be in the repair shop until there’s frost on the pumpkin isn’t what scares me.
Kevin Glenn scares me.
Brandon Bridge scares me.
Drew Willy (definitely) scares me.
And Kyle Walters scares me, because he might be enough of a nitwit to recruit one of the above to play quarterback, just as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are set to embark on the nitty-gritty segment of a promising Canadian Football League crusade that now is in peril.
Actually, check that: Walters is daft enough.
The Winnipeg FC general manager jerked his knee and attempted to pry the 40-year-old Glenn off his comfy sofa in Detroit this weekend, but the former Bomber/Ticat/Eskimo/Rider/Stampeder/Lion/Lark/Argo/RedBlack had the good sense to decline the come-hither overture, and I believe the blue-and-gold rabble can be thankful for that.
I mean, Glenn manufactured an admirable career at mostly being second best, but a journey in the way-back machine isn’t what the Bombers need going forward.
Chris Streveler is, of course, the logical choice to sub for Nichols, laid low late in a 32-16 victory over the B.C. Leos on Thursday night at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. Streveler has been a useful second-in-command for the past year and a half, although I must confess that even the high-octane sophomore scares me. To a point. He’s done some good things. He’s done some not so good things. But, sure, give him the ball and let’s all cross our fingers, our toes and any other crossable body parts while we ride out the storm.
How long will that be? We await word on Nichols’ wounded wing from Winnipeg FC medics, but anytime your starting QB walks off the field and he’s unable to lift his hand high enough to scratch behind his ear we’re probably talking long term before he’s flinging footballs again.
Which means Walters likely has developed blisters on his dialing thumb in the past few days, because we have to assume he has numbers other than Glenn’s on his contact list.
But I see this as a Streveler-or-bust situation, which means you can put Nichols’ owie in the ‘be careful what you wish for’ file.
I think most of us will agree that losing Nichols is a significant setback for Winnipeg FC.
I say “most of us” because I acknowledge there exists a constituency that has never been sold on the most-maligned 7-2 quarterback in the history of our quirky, three-down game.
The anti-Matt sector of the rabble is considerable and often loud. They figure Nichols for a false bill of goods, and they’re wholly convinced that a championship drought that began in another century cannot end with No. 15 behind centre.
While others certainly have absorbed their portion of tsk-tsking for almost 29 years of the Bombers never failing to fail, blame often comes down to the quarterback, and Nichols has the lash marks to prove it. He’s been damned if he did, damned if he didn’t in a ‘what have you done for us lately?’ world, and if there was a sudden outbreak of rump rot in River City, I’m sure he’d take the rap for that too.
It matters not to the naysayers that recent history confirms Nichols, not Streveler, to be Winnipeg FC’s best bet for a W. They want their young stud behind centre, damnit, and they’ve been panting in anticipation of this moment, almost to the point of hyperventilating.
The question is: Will Streveler take their breath away with his play?
I’ve liked Streveler ever since he subbed for Nichols during the first three skirmishes of the 2018 crusade, and I believe he can keep the boat afloat. But it’s worth noting that Winnipeg FC is 1-3 with him behind centre in the past season and a half. Nichols is 17-8 in the same time frame. Just saying.
Here’s something we know for certain: No one in the Alberta Foothills or on the Flattest of Lands is spilling crocodile tears because the Bombers have hit a bump in the road. The Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders have learned to live without their starting QBs for most of the season, so they’ll see the Nichols departure as a leveling of the playing field. Ditto the folks in the Hammer, where the TabbyCats lost Jeremiah Masoli for the duration. Can’t say I disagree with them.
You’ll have to excuse Trevor Harris and Mike Reilly if they’ve begun to glance nervously over their shoulders like two guys who just pulled a dine-and-dash. They’re the only original starting QBs yet to miss a beat in 2019, you see. No surprise with Harris, because the large lads on the E-Town Eskimos O-line don’t let angry defenders get close enough to their QB to know if he had garlic bread with lunch. But it’s incredible that Reilly is still standing. He’s been hit more often than Ringo Starr’s drum kit.
Big tip of the bonnet to Andrew Harris, a local guy who’s now covered more real estate than any CFL player carrying a Canadian passport. The Bombers tailback will, of course, add to his 13,377 yards running/pass catching total before he’s done lugging the football, and we might be talking all-time best homebrew if not for guys named Russ Jackson, Gerry James and Chris Walby. But wherever Harris falls on the final pecking order, he’s already had a hall of fame career.
Does Glen Suitor take us for a bunch of rubes who just woke up from a month-long nap? Seriously. The TSN natterbug became Nichols’ unofficial apologist during Thursday’s telecast, excusing Matt Meh’s inclination to dump off the football to Harris rather than feed his downfield guys in Winnipeg FC’s two most recent matches prior to the Leos visit. Nichols “doesn’t check down,” Suitor told us. I assume he said it with a straight face, but it might have registered a new high on the ignorant scale, which is really saying something when you consider the amount of tripe that has escaped his gob during the past two dozen years. Every QB from Pop Warner to pro checks down, and Suitor knows it. Really, really dumb. Him not us.
It’s about the Walby Burger, the 5½-pound Gastronomical Goliath selling at Football Follies Field: I’m not sure which would be harder to stomach, the six meat patties, six chicken strips, six hot dogs, six hunks of bacon, cheese, French fries, pickles, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and special secret sauce stuffed between two buns the size of circus tent, or the $45 price tag. Mind you, it supposedly feeds a family of four, so when you look at it that way it’s only $11.25 per heart attack.
Old friend Troy Westwood did a bit of myth-busting about Chris Walby, the inspiration behind the Gastronomical Goliath. “All this noise about the Walby Burger. Truth is, Walby doesn’t eat a whole bunch,” the former Bombers kicker and current TSN 1290 gab guy tweets. Ya, sure. What’s ol’ Lefty going to tell us next? That Trump doesn’t fib much. Sorry, Lefty, but you don’t grow to Walby’s proportions without strapping the feed bag on your head and refusing to come up for air until the last pork chop is gone. Bluto doesn’t just dine at all-you-can-eat buffets. He puts them out of business.
Some harsh stuff in Kirk Penton’s latest edition of natter from CFL coaches, managers and execs in The Athletic, with one taking aim at former QB and now TSN talking head Smilin’ Hank Burris. “I coached Henry Burris. Saw him choke in a bunch of big games. But they give him a microphone, and he has all the answers now. Calling out Paul LaPolice the week his mom died was classless. Henry should come by our place and let me put some old film on. Remind him how many times he fucked up and cost us games. Him. Henry. Not the offensive co-ordinator.” Ouch.
In a far, faraway land, Patrik Laine spoke and the earth moved in Good Ol’ Hometown. “You never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything,” Puck Finn told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, who tracked down the Winnipeg Jets winger in Lahti, Finland. Does “anything” include re-upping with les Jets? “Well, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg, you know?” Puck Finn answered. “It’s been good so far, but you never know.” If I hadn’t seen Laine’s lips move, I’d have sworn it was Evander Kane talking.
Exactly what are we to make of Puck Finn’s remarks? Does he want out of Pegtown? Was it his way of getting his agent, Mike Liut, and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in the same room to nail down a new contract? Or was the restricted free agent merely yanking Johnston’s chain? I really don’t think there’s anything to see here. If Puck Finn is still home in Finland when the lads assemble for training exercises next month, then we’ll talk.
I don’t get it. Why is Kyle Connor competing in the Players Cup a front-page sports story? That’s what hockey players do during the summer. They golf. Poorly. Connor’s gimmicky presence in the field at Southwood wasn’t newsworthy, and he proved it by taking 94 swings his first day and another 90 before leaving the southside course to the real golfers.
I’m uncertain what kind of cred Corey Pronman of The Athletic has, but he ranks the Jets farm system at No. 27 among the 31 National Hockey League teams, better than only Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Calgary. The good news, I suppose, is that’s one spot better than in 2018.
Hey, look who’s a pitchman for Direct Auto Insurance. Why, it’s TSN’s favorite lousy former quarterback Johnny Manziel and equally disgraced former fancy skater Tonya Harding. I assume they both work in the Train Wreck division.
Speaking of train wrecks, maybe Johnny Rotten and Terrible Tonya can help ESPN baseball analyst and former Major League Baseball drug cheat Alex Rodriguez, a recent victim of auto theft in San Francisco. The bad guys broke into A-Rod’s parked rental and made off with a reported $500,000 in plunder, which apparently included items of a personal, sentimental nature. So far cops haven’t recovered any of the drug cheat’s belongings, but they say it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Diva receiver Antonio Brown had a hissy fit and stayed away from Oakland Raiders training camp because the NFL wouldn’t allow him to wear his old helmet, which does not meet current safety standards. Similarly, the NHL has informed Boston Bruins ancient defenceman Zdeno Chara that he no longer can wear his old Eatons catalogs for shin pads.
And, finally, the Winnipeg Sun will be bringing Scott Billeck on board next month to write the good stuff about the Jets and Bombers. I’m told there were more than 30 applicants for the position, four of them women, and it’s nice to see some young people still believe scribbling sports for a newspaper remains a worthy pursuit.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and life is a pitch sometimes, especially when our soccer ladies are playing…
One Canadian. The Cherry-ites must be choking on their maple syrup.
But should the rest of us care that Kevin Cheveldayoff and his Winnipeg Jets bird dogs basically ignored their own back yard during the weekend grab bag of teen hockey talent in Vancouver?
I mean, it’s not exactly a throwback to the days of Mikhail Smith, who attempted to morph the late-1980s/early-1990s Winnipeg HC into the Central Red Jets with his failed make-work-for-Russians project.
If you weren’t around to scratch your head over Comrade Mikhail’s handiwork, be advised that he fancied Russkies the way a farmer likes good weather. A rumpled man with a Doctorate in Russian Studies, the Jets general manager surrounded himself with more Ivans, Viktors, Vladimirs and Sergeis than Leonid Brezhnev. If your last name ended with the letters ‘ov’, there was a very good chance he’d stand up at the National Hockey League entry draft and give you a shout-out.
Oh, it began innocently enough, and some of us thought it mildly amusing when Mikhail commenced to collecting comrades the way some kids collect bubble gum cards. First he grabbed two. Then two more. Then four. But in 1992, he went completely coocoo, using his one dozen shout-outs to land half the Russian politburo. He took nine of them—count ’em, nine! When he snatched up five more in ’93, we wondered if the team’s marketing department would add the hammer and sickle to the logo. Russian was about to become the official language of the changing room.
Alas, Mikhail’s master plan crumbled like both the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union when he was asked to leave in January 1994, freeing les Jets bird dogs from Red Square and allowing them to return home to the Red River Valley.
In sum, Mikhail recruited 22 Russkies in his five years as overlord of les Jets’ draft table, and only six of them played more than 100 NHL games.
So now we have Kevin Cheveldayoff in the GM’s chair, and you might be asking yourself is he and his scouts have developed a fondness for Finns, Swedes and Americans. Or, more to the point, do they harbor an aversion to good Canadian boys?
In Chevy’s first three summers at the wheel, 15 of his 23 shout-outs at the NHL entry draft were homebrews. Since then, it’s 12 of 40.
Chevy returns home from this weekend’s fun in Vancouver with a pair of Finns (Ville Heinola, Henri Nikkanen), a Swede (Simon Lundmark), an American (Logan Neaton) and a kid born in Britain but raised in Regina (Harrison Blaisdell). Not since 2013 has he claimed more than three homebrews at the garage sale of freshly scrubbed teens. That was also the last time he used his No. 1 shout-out to claim a hoser, Josh Morrissey.
Add to that his last two free-agent signings—a Finn, Joona Luoto, and a Russkie, Andrei Chibisov—and I think we can see a trend.
Do you have a problem with that?
The Cherry-ites, of course, bellow about the necessity of good, bent-nosed Canadian boys. Can’t win without them. That’s true and the St. Louis Blues would be Exhibit A in that argument. The St. Loo roster that just won the Stanley Cup had more Canadian passports than any one of our overseas embassies.
But…the Boston Bruins reached the final with just a handful of Canucks. When the Washington Capitals copped the Cup a year ago, their top six scorers were Euros and Americans.
So, no, I don’t think Chevy and his bid dogs have gone off their nut and adopted an anti-Canadian bias like the aforementioned Comrade Mikhail Smith. You need a happy mixture and, in case you haven’t noticed, the Finns are bloody good at hockey.
River City is the last place I’d expect to hear yelps of protest about an abundance of Finnish and/or Swedish players. Anyone who was around in the 1970s will tell you that les Jets’ rise to shinny prominence was the product of a Scandinavian invasion, with Anders and Ulf and the Shoe and Veli-Pekka and Hexi and Willy and Kenta, among others, coming on board to claim three World Hockey Association titles. That winning legacy should be enough to silence the most leather-lunged of critics.
A quick aside to the anti-Jacob Trouba element among the rabble: Give it a rest. Trouba didn’t do anything to warrant the high level of hostility that accompanied him on his way out of town. Asking for a trade? Happens all the time (see Zaitsev, Nikita; Puljujarvi, Jesse; Kane, Evander). His holdout three years ago? He was exercising his rights. Signing a bridge deal? Again, his right. Going to arbitration? Yup, his legally bargained-for right. Did he ever say anything nasty about Good Ol’ Hometown, like the zoo sucks. Not that I heard or read. Did he lie about his reasons for wanting out of Dodge? Perhaps. But everybody in hockey lies. Trouba served les Jets well, so the anger is misplaced.
One of the many knows-everything natterbugs on TSN, Dave Poulin, continues to confound and confuse. Last year, he left NHL scoring champion Connor McDavid off his all-star ballot. This year, when McDavid didn’t win the scoring title, he voted him the all-star centre. Go figure. Poulin also told us in February that “there’s not going to be eight-year deals anymore.” Mark Stone, Jeff Skinner and Erik Karlsson have since inked eight-year deals, with William Karlsson on the way. I believe it’s time to remove the ear buds whenever Dave Poulin begins to talk.
The Professional Hockey Writers Association mostly gets it right in balloting for various NHL trinkets and all-star honors, but some among the rank and file lose the plot along the way. The news snoops listed below were the most heinous of offenders this year, and all are accused of the same crime: ‘Abuse of Voting Privilege’:
* Bill Hoppe, Olean Times Herald (New York): Apparently, the name should be Rip Van Hoppe, because he slept through the entire season. How else to explain voting for Patrick Kane as the all-star right winger instead of Nikita Kucherov, who performed well enough to win the Ted Lindsey Award (most outstanding player), the Hart Trophy (most valuable player) and the Art Ross Trophy (scoring leader)? Hoppe doubled and tripled down on his sleep-induced voting by giving Johnny Gaudreau the nod as league MVP and Rasmus Dahlin as top rookie. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Voting privilege revoked. * Arthur Staple, The Athletic: He voted Rink Rat Scheifele of les Jets as the all-star centre. Yup. Staple reckons our guy Rink Rat had a better season than McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nathan McKinnon et al. Staple also voted Miro Heiskanen the top rookie. No surprise, though. Last year, Staple left McDavid completely off his all-star centre ballot. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: As a repeat offender, his voting privilege is revoked. For-freaking-ever.
* John Vogl, The Athletic Buffalo: Nick Bonino the best defensive forward in the NHL? Seriously? Ya, and Looch Lucic is Barbara Ann Scott. Verdict: Guilty as charged.Sentence: Vogl can keep his voting privilege. Living and working in Buffalo is punishment enough.
* Lance Lysowski, Buffalo News: Voted Patrick Kane the all-star left winger. Kane is a right winger. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Must attend a summer-long series of lectures on right wingers and left wing pinkos delivered by Don Cherry.
* Seth Rorabaugh, The Athletic: Voted Johnny Gaudreau as MVP and Marc-Andre Fleury the all-star goaltender. Wrong, just wrong. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Must undergo thorough eye examination. * Iain MacIntyre, Sportsnet Vancouver: Gave Roberto Luongo a vote for Lady Byng Trophy. Luongo is a goaltender. Voting for a goalie in this category isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Must spend a year at hard labor—covering the Canucks.
* Russ Cohen, Sportsology: He must have been drinking the Kool-Aid they were serving in the Republic of Tranna, because his first-team all-star centre was John Tavares of les Leafs. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Must wear Tavares’ Maple Leafs pajamas in public.
* Eric Engels, Sportsnet Montreal: He voted Carey Price as first-team all-star goalie, even though les Canadiens keeper was outside the top 10 in save percentage and goals-against average and 10th in shutouts. Verdict: Guilty as charged. Sentence: Must take mandatory course in Journalism 101—No Cheering In the Press Box.
On the subject of D’oh! Boys, it’s about the Tranna Argonauts. Here’s what the Canadian Football League club served up in an effort to wins friends and influence people at their home opener on the weekend: 7,000 Derel Walker bobblehead dolls, $5 beer and $3 hot dogs. Then they trundled onto BMO Field and promptly soiled the sheets, dropping a 64-14 squeaker to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Won’t that make for boffo box office in the future. The head count was 16,734 on Saturday, so I’m thinking the over-under for their next home date should be 10,000. And I’ll take the under.
The Argos want to sell more tickets? Simple. Have a Kawhi Leonard bobblehead doll night. And have the man himself attend the game.
And, finally, if the Tranna Jurassics truly are “Canada’s team,” why would the hoops champions even contemplate the notion of a visit to the Trump household at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? The only connection Canada has to the White House is the torch job the British did on it in 1814.
Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.
It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.
Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.
“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”
I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.
So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)
The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.
To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.
This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.
The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”
“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.
There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.
Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”
It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.
“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”
Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.
“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”
“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”
Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.
“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.
Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.
The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.
It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.
It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.
It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.
It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.
Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.
It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.
“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).
“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”
Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.
“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”
Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.
“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”
Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”
There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.
Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.
Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.
“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”
Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.
“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”
It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.
More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.
I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.
“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”
I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.
“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”
There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.
By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.
He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.
“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”
Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.
Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.
We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”
Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.
Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.
On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”
Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”
After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”
More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.
The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.
Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.
“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”
It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.
Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.
The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.
“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”
“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”
“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.
Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.
This was a WHA title that almost never happened.
The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.
There was a money dispute, you see.
The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.
So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?
“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”
The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.
“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”
The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.
As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.
Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.
Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.
“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”
Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”
Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.
“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”
That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.
Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.
If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.
“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”
After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.
Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.
“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”
I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.
Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.
They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.
“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”
No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.
“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”
Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:
Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.
The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.
Fergy hired Tom McVie.
The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.
The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.
Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and we’ll have fun, fun, fun until daddy takes the T-Bird away…
Contrary to popular belief, if you look up the word ‘fun’ in the dictionary, you won’t find a team photo of the Carolina Hurricanes.
No, the Bunch of Jerks and their “front-running fans” didn’t invent merriment and crazy hijinks, but we’re led to believe that they’ve cornered the market on mirth, what with their Storm Surge and their admirable, albeit stalled, push in the current Stanley Cup tournament.
I mean, consider these headlines I stumbled upon during a Google surf on the weekend:
The Guardian: “How the Carolina Hurricanes hit back on the NHL’s war on fun.”
YouTube: “Carolina Hurricanes/The Importance of Fun.”
Boston Globe: “Are Carolina Hurricanes jerks or just having fun?”
I imagine the Boston Bruins (especially), the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks are also having themselves a royal hoot since they, along with the Hurricanes, remain standing in the National Hockey League spring runoff. It’s just that, unlike the Bunch of Jerks, none of those outfits spent the entire winter playing post-match parlor games like Duck, Duck Goose, so we don’t really know for certain that they’re having fun.
More to the point, would they even know how to be good time Charlies?
Fun, after all, is not historically an NHL thing. Except, of course, when the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup and Alexander Ovechkin goes swimming in a public fountain. But even Ovie and the Caps stopped short of playing Duck, Duck Goose in the fountain, perhaps owing to the fact they were too tipsy with gusts up to flat-out legless
At any rate, the NHL has never been known as a knee-slapping, belly-laughs enterprise, something an opinionist at The Guardian felt obliged to emphasize in an ode to Carolina Cornball:
“The NHL can’t really take a joke. Which is maybe all the more reason to laugh at it sometimes, like a bunch of jerks.”
Certainly the Hurricanes’ marketing department is having fun, also generating scads of American greenbacks with its Bunch of Jerks and Bunch of Front Running Jerks t-shirts. It’s a merchandising windfall and, yes, now that you mention it, Donald S. Cherry likely deserves royalties on sales, since it was the Hockey Night in Canada curmudgeon who inserted the phrase(s) into the hockey lexicon.
Here’s the thing, though: Sixteen outfits qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament. Fifteen of them did not play post-match parlor games during the regular season. We are now down to the NHL final four, and even the Hurricanes long ago abandoned the Storm Surge and its accompanying shenanigans.
So are we still having fun?
Perhaps the Canes will re-introduce Carolina Cornball now that they’re down 2-nada and heading home for the next two skirmishes in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final vs. the Bruins. Whatever works, right?
I doubt they’ll resort to parlor games, though, because there’s a time and place for everything and Ring Around the Rosie won’t help them out of their hole. Mind you, they could try Pin the Tail On the Donkey—seeing someone stick it to Brad Marchand is always fun.
This whole Hurricanes-and-fun thing has inspired considerable pro-and-con dialogue, and my favorite line was delivered by the Charlotte Observer editorial board. Noting that it was Cherry who fanned the flames by describing the Canes as a “bunch of jerks” and Carolina fans as “front runners,” the Observer wrote: “Front-runners, if you haven’t figured it out, is Canadian for bandwagon fans. Don Cherry is Canadian for ‘get off my lawn.’” That, kids, is a classic burn. Also true.
Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab dipped his pen into the Carolina Cornball discussion, offering this: “At their practice Monday in Raleigh, players gathered at centre ice in a big circle and took turns sharing their weekend activities, which included a couple of well-deserved days away from the rink. From Storm Surges, the team’s cheeky Twitter account and merchandise, it’s obvious they’ve got a good thing going on, which is translating to their spirited play on the ice, and in a copycat league, perhaps the (Winnipeg) Jets might want to try and emulate some of the good vibes going forward. Maybe they can start by sitting everyone in the circle at the start of training camp and talking about how they spent their off-season.” Oh, for sure. And maybe they can bring snacks, too. Blake Wheeler is in charge of the crab cakes, Rink Rat Scheifele the nutribars, Jacob Trouba the beef stew, Big Buff the catfish, and Twig Ehlers the Danish for dessert. Sorry, but if there was anything to Carolina Cornball, all 31 NHL clubs would be playing Pictionary and Parcheesi between periods.
Nice to see Paul Friesenand Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun do some day tripping down memory lane, revisiting the last of les Jets World Hockey Association glory days. Paul had a chin-wag with funnyman coach Tom McVie, while Ted checked in with lickety-split left winger Morris Lukowich, and it’s all good stuff. Next Monday marks the 40th anniversary of Winnipeg HC’s third and final WHA championship run, and I’m glad the two Sun boys are reminding youngsters in the audience that there was a time when victory parades were routine in Good Ol’ Hometown.
Yes, now that you ask, I think it’s boffothat Chris Matthews is back where it all started for him in the Canadian Football League, which is to say as part of the pass-catching ensemble with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I just wish I could be confident he’ll have a league to play in for his second go-round in blue-and-gold.
Apparently, negotiations between the CFL and the CFL Players Association has been reduced to an exchange of notes on cocktail napkins. That’s not to say the two sides aren’t working in good faith on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but with training exercises due to begin in less than a week it’s awful close to last call. And I’m getting a tad antsy.
On the subject of work stoppages, next time you hear someone say women who play pro shinny “deserve” a living wage, remind them that the average head count across the National Women’s Hockey League last season was 954. Sorry, but no one— expect perhaps founder/commish Dani Rylan and her second in command, Hayley Moore—makes a living wage based on those numbers.
It’s important to note that the 200 women who say they won’t be playing hockey next winter have limited their boycott to North America. There’s nothing to stop some of them from suiting up with an outfit in either Finland’s Naisten Liiga or the SDHL in Sweden. Trouble is, no one watches distaff shinny on that side of the pond, either, so they still wouldn’t be earning a living wage.
So, John Daly has been given the okie-dokie to ride a cart in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black Course on Long Island this week. Hmmm. I thought every golf course in America already had a beer cart.
Russian dictator Vlad the Bad Putin scored eight goals in an exhibition hockey match last week. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump claims to have scored eight holes-in-one on the weekend and has already declared himself winner of the PGA Championship. A victory lap in John Daly’s beer cart is scheduled for the White House rose garden next week.
Trump’s paid Pinocchio, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, hopes to be remembered as “transparent and honest” once she’s no longer telling lies for the president. Ya, and I hope to be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
Is it game, set and match for the Big Three in men’s tennis? Might be that it’s been reduced to the Big One, Novak Djokovic. The Joker laid claim to the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and he won the Madrid Open on Sunday, beating upstart Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. But the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, hasn’t won on his favorite surface this year and Roger Federer couldn’t get past the quarterfinals in Madrid. Still, I’ll reserve judgment until Rafa is beaten at Roland Garros and Roger falls on Centre Court Wimbledon.
Interesting take on baseball by Mad Mike McIntyre. He reckons the rounders game is losing traction among the rabble because sitting through three hours of sputtering action is “asking a lot of spectators to endure, especially when you factor in time to travel to and from the stadium.” (I’m not convinced travel time to the ball park is greater than to any other sports venue, so that’s a silly comment.) Mad Mike cites statistics from the Wall Street Journal to support his theory, but does a ball game actually take longer to complete than other sports? Nope. It’s middle of the pack. Here are some event times:
And, finally, the dreaded Grip Reaper has come to collect another old friend and colleague, Marten Falcon. A good man, Marten and I started in the rag trade together, working as copy runners at the Winnipeg Tribune, and he spent his newspaper career as one of those necessary behind-the-scenes people who put the sheet together at both the Trib and Sun. Lost contact with Marten after I left the tabloid, and that’s going on 20 years, but I won’t forget him.
A mid-week smorgas-bored…and I might wear white tonight but I won’t be anywhere near downtown Pegtown…
So, how do you like the Winnipeg Jets now, kids?
More to the point, do you see an outfit still standing in the Stanley Cup tournament that the local hockey heroes should fear? I don’t either.
Oh, sure, the Vegas Golden Knights are an imposing group. Big, strong, swift, superb in goal. Washington? No, you wouldn’t want to wager a large wad of paper money against the Capitals successfully defending their championship and spending another summer engaged in liquor-fueled hijinks. Boston? Tranna? Calgary? Columbus? Colorado? The Islanders? Nashville? Meh.
Naturally, the St. Louis Blues still have something to say about les Jets’ shelf life in the National Hockey League annual spring runoff, and we wouldn’t want to get ahead of ourselves. However, after what we witnessed in two skirmishes in the Show Me State, it should be apparent that the lads from St. Loo can match Winnipeg HC’s work ethic but not its skill.
And that includes the boys in the blue paint, now that Connor Hellebuyck is turning away pucks as adeptly as he rejects objectionable questions and any suggestion that his stuff stinks.
In leveling their best-of-seven playoff series with a 2-1 W—on the strength of Kyle Connor’s OT tally and Hellebuyck’s gaffe-free goaltending on Tuesday night at the Enterprise Center—les Jets absorbed the best of the Blues and didn’t flinch. They just kind of shrugged and went about their business. And they now return to the Little Hockey House On The Prairie for tonight’s Game 5, confident that they’ve found their stride and convinced that Jordan Binnington is no longer the boogyman everyone made him out to be.
But, yes, it’s fair to wonder where these guys have been all year, and to ask if the phantom turn-off, turn-on switch that we keep hearing about really does exist.
I mean, going into this fray, les Jets had more skeptics than Christ in his heyday and, after dropping the first two jousts vs. the Blues, the bandwagon was emptying faster than a classroom on the last day of school.
Craig Button of TSN, for example, described Winnipeg HC as “the weakest team going into the playoffs.”
Over at Sportsnet, 10 of 16 “experts” in a preseason poll predicted a Western Conference crown for les Jets, but that number was reduced to just one—Gord Stellick—when 22 “experts” sifted through the tea leaves in a playoff poll.
Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab, meanwhile, cited “multiple sources” to inform us that les Jets were “rotten to the core,” with discontent spreading through the changing room like a flesh-eating malignancy.
Yet here we are today with this “rotten” and “weakest” and “dysfunctional” team coming home with swagger after imposing its will on the Blues in St. Loo.
Shows you what the “experts” know.
Exactly what do the “experts” really know? No more than you and I or most lumps on bar stools. In the Sportsnet playoff poll, here’s how 22 “experts” saw the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament:
Tampa Bay vs. Columbus: 22-0 for TB. D’oh!
Pittsburgh vs. Islanders: 16-6 for Pitt. D’oh!
Boston vs. Tranna: 16-6 for the Bs.
Washington vs. Carolina: 21-1 for the Caps.
Calgary vs. Colorado: 22-0 for Cowtown.
Vegas vs. San Jose: 16-6 for Glitter Gulch.
Nashville vs. Dallas: 13-9 for Twang Town.
St. Loo vs. Winnipeg: 14-8 for the U.S. gateway.
Meanwhile, 21 of 22 had Tampa Bay winning the Eastern Conference and 18 of 22 predicted the Stanley Cup being paraded through the streets of Tampa in June. Only Kristina Rutherford (Boston), Stellick (Winnipeg), David Amber (Calgary) and Nick Kypreos (St. Louis) chose other outfits.
In short, they know squat.
Interesting that Drab Slab “expert” McIntyre is singing from a different songbook today, suggesting les Jets now are one big happy family.
Here’s what he told us on April 5: “Things appear to be rotten to the core with this team in a way that goes beyond the often lethargic, uninspired play we’ve seen on the ice far too many nights lately.” Mike M added that “multiple sources” informed him and fellow beat writer Jason Bell that “things are anything but rosy” and “there’s no joy to be found.”
Here’s what he’s telling us now: “Another positive to emerge for the Jets is the increased talk of unity among teammates, both in the room and on the ice. Having been around this team all season, you get a pretty good sense of where the mood is at on a daily basis. Without question, players are as laser focused and locked in as they’ve been all season.”
Imagine that. All that alleged friction (“chaos”), all that alleged animosity (“infighting”), all that alleged rot (“dysfunction”) vanished faster than summer wages. Team Bicker has morphed into Team Good Ship Lollipop. Why, it’s a tap water-into-Molson Canadian miracle. Which one of the guys in that room wears sandals and walks on water? Blake Wheeler? Rink Rat Scheifele? Big Buff? Josh Morrissey?
It’ll make for a boffo story if les Jets pull this thing off. Except former cops-and-robbers reporter McIntyre apparently has the innuendo but not the facts, ma’am.
Quickie question 1: Does the regular season bore Patrik Laine? I mean, the Puck Finn I’ve been watching in Beard Season isn’t the same Puck Finn I watched from October to April. Maybe the mystery Miracle Worker in les Jets changing room sprinkled him with happy dust. Or threatened to huck his track suit into the ice tub.
Just for the record, I’m not wearing a pair of Hindsight Goggles when I say les Jets will get by the Blues. I remind you of something I scribbled on Feb. 26, one day after the NHL shop-and-swap deadline: “What about the St. Louis Blues, you ask? What about them? Don’t be fooled by their run of good fortune. Once the puck stops hitting Jordan Binnington, they’ll be back to run-of-the-mill.” I also mentioned something about a Nashville-Winnipeg skirmish in the second round. And, as recently as last week, I wrote that the local lads were not “a writeoff” even though they were in a 0-2 hole vs. the Blues at the time. But, hey, what do I know? I mean, I’ve never seen the inside of of their changing room to monitor the “mood” and I don’t have “multiple sources” like Mike M at the Drab Slab. I do it the old-fashioned way. I examine the rosters, watch the games, listen to some of the players wag their chins, then call it as I see it. The difference between the “experts” and me? They get paid to be wrong, I don’t.
Quickie question 2: If Nazem Kadri is made available by the Tranna Maple Leafs once this Stanley Cup business is out of the way, should les Jets put in a bid on the loose cannon? No. Too much of a wingnut.
Check out the top three point-producers in the Stanley Cup tournament: Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, all added to the Vegas Golden Knights roster by general manager George McPhee in the past 10 months. Can you say GM of the year, kids?
Quickie question 3: When the time comes to talk turkey, how can les Leafs possibly argue that Mitch Marner doesn’t deserve as much coin as Auston Matthews? Unless they pay by the chin whisker, there’s no measure by which Matthews is worth more than Marner.
Headline in the Globe and Mail after Game 3 of Leafs-Bruins series: “Auston Matthews grabs the playoff spotlight for Maple Leafs.” Good grief. Marner and John Tavares were les Leafs best players, not Matthews.
And, finally, rumor has it that there’ll be a gathering in late May to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of les Jets third and final World Hockey Association championship. Will the current Jets still be in business by then? Yes. Absolutely. But remember, I’m no expert.
Another Sunday smorags-bored…and it’s a couch potato day to watch the Masters then les Jets…
Two games into Beard Season, I’d say Connor Hellebuyck and news snoops are even—he doesn’t like their questions and they don’t like his goaltending.
The thing is, the questions aren’t going to get any easier or tamer, not as long as Hellebuyck has his head up his butt and refuses to accept the reality that the Stanley Cup playoff skirmish between his Winnipeg Jets and the St. Loo Blues is being determined in the blue paint, and he’s running a distant second in a two-man race.
Rather than suck it up and concede that he let the side down in a 4-3 Game 2 loss on Friday night at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie, Hellebuyck went all snot-nose when confronted post-joust by those pesky newsies.
He harrumphed that one query was “loaded” and he fielded another with this gem: “I really don’t like that question.”
Boo freaking hoo. You want jock journos to lob softballs? Try stopping the damn puck.
Look, Hellebuyck didn’t play poorly in the first act of this best-of-seven National Hockey League playoff series. He was solid. Can’t lay the blame for the 2-1 loss on him, not after Kevin Hayes, Mathieu Perreault and Dmitry Kulikov made out like the Three Stooges on Tyler Bozak’s decisive score. And, of course, the guy in the blue paint at the other end of the freeze, Jordan Binnington, was better. Lights out better.
As for what went down on Friday, though, that’s totally on Hellebuyck. He was atrocious. Someone should be ripping him a new one.
What I find disturbing—other than Hellebuyck waving at the puck like a guy trying to flag down a cab—is his my-stuff-don’t-stink attitude, which is a haunting echo from last spring. A year ago, I remind you, he was out-tended by Marc-André Fleury in the Western Conference final vs. the Vegas Golden Knights, but he refused to accept that he had to step up his game.
After Game 3: “(Fleury’s) obviously a big part of that team and playing very well, but I like my game, I like it a lot more. I like my details and I’m gonna keep chugging away.”
After Game 4: “I see a lot of posts at the other end. I don’t know if I want to call it luck, but things have gotta switch, it’s gonna come our way, I know that. I think it’s bad luck. Their goal is just the product of the puck bouncing the wrong way. The stars are aligning for them.”
After the series: “Maybe it was just the luck. I look back and I can honestly say I was playing the best hockey of my career in that series. I was very in tuned to the game. I felt the game a lot better than I have, and they got some lucky bounces on me. And that’s the truth.”
Right. The Golden Knights took les Jets out in five games because of four-leaf clovers and rabbit’s feet taped to the goal posts. It had nothing to do with Fleury outplaying Hellebuyck by a considerable margin. As if.
So what we have now, kids, is deja vu all over again.
Binnington, a rookie, is outplaying Hellebuyck, but les Jets goaltender doesn’t see it that way. He only hears objectionable questions.
“Our details are right,” he insists. “We’re right there. It’s only a matter of time. Sooner or later it’s gonna go our way.”
Sure it will. Just like it did last spring vs. Vegas.
I’m not suggesting les Jets are a writeoff, down 2-nada as they move the series to St. Loo, but it doesn’t take a Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk or Marty Brodeur to understand that their only hope is better play between the iron. They were outgoalied in Game 1 (hey, that’s going to happen) and Binnington only had to be meh in Game 2 because Hellebuyck was waving at whiffle balls.
If les Jets goaler doesn’t show us his A-game in the Show Me State, I’d say Paul Maurice would be wise to call on Laurent Brossoit at the first hint of trouble. Is Coach Potty Mouth ballsy enough to turn to his backup? I doubt it, but he might have no choice.
Wonder how Hellebuyck will like the questions then.
I thought by now that Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab would have filled us in on what’s “rotten” about les Jets. But no. He just tosses out lines like Winnipeg HC is “rotten to the core” and he cites “multiple sources” then leaves us to guess what his “multiple sources” are telling him about the undoing of the local hockey heroes. “Myself and fellow Free Press hockey writer Jason Bell have heard from multiple sources that things are anything but rosy with this group,” he wrote slightly more than a week ago. He later added that les Jets were “appearing to come apart at the seams.” There can be just two reasons why Mike Mac refuses to give us the poop on any in-house bickering: 1) It’s fiction; 2) he’s afraid to rattle cages. In either case, that reporting is as shabby as Hellebuyck’s Game 2 goaltending.
Interesting that McIntyre also has chosen his scapegoat if les Jets don’t fix what’s wrong vs. St. Loo—Kevin Hayes. He tells us that Hayes isn’t contributing enough offensively, with points in just seven of 20 matches to close the season and zero in the playoffs. That’s a fair critique. It’s evident that he’s no Paul Stastny. But the Jets aren’t down 2-nada because of Hayes’ failings. It’s about goaltending. If anybody needs to be fitted for a pair of goat’s horns, it’s Hellebuyck.
Jim Matheson of Postmedia Edmonton proposes that the Oilers send their first-round pick (eighth overall) in the 2019 NHL entry draft and forward Jesse Puljujarvi to the Jets in barter for Twig Ehlers. Sorry, Matty. Never going to happen. The Jets don’t need another under-performing Finn and I don’t need another player whose name I can’t spell.
This from Craig Button of TSN: “I believe the NHL officials are the best on the planet, I think they rarely make mistakes.” Earth to Craig! Earth to Craig! You might want to watch film from Game 2 of the Boston-Tranna playoff series. You might also want to check out the replay of Micheal Ferland’s hit on Nic Dowd in the Carolina-Washington skirmish. A bum to the body got Ferland booted. Sorry, man, but the skunk shirts are making more mistakes than your local meteorologist.
At least the zebras did the right thing and sent Nazem Kadri of the Tranna Maple Leafs to his room for a crosscheck to Jake DeBrusk’s melon. Brian Burke called Kadri’s hatchet job a “selfish, senseless act.” Yup. Now we’ll see if Sheriff George of the player safety department will do the right thing and ground the Leafs centre for the remainder of the series.
Pet Peeve: Whose idea is it to drape our international shinny sides in black unis with red trim? That’s just wrong. Planet Puckhead is red and white. Those are the colors on our flag, and that’s what our women should have been wearing in their World Hockey Championship semifinal skirmish vs. Finland on Saturday. The regrettable color scheme wasn’t the reason for our ladies losing 4-2 (Suomi goaltender Noora Raty gets credit for that), but they looked unCanadian. Donate those threads to a thrift shop and get back to red and white.
Perhaps we should have seen the Canadian ouster at the worlds coming. I mean, the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League had to prey on our players’ minds, and how do you keep your focus fully on the task at hand when you don’t know what you’ll be coming home to once the final buzzer sounds? Hey, I’m just spitballing here, but the fall of the CWHL had to be a weighty distraction in the Canadian camp over there in Finland.
Well now, look who’s suddenly passing himself off as a friend of women’s hockey—Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. Suggesting that the Finnish victory over Canada is a positive development for the distaff game (I agree, it is), he wrote: “For far too long, we’ve wanted to see the game and the sport expand.” What a complete phony. This is the same dude who once delivered this commentary: “Women’s hockey is the least competitive, least interesting, least Olympic of all sports in the Winter Games. There should be a cry to end this charade of imbalance.” That’s right, Simmons has wanted women’s hockey to be abolished, not expanded. So I say Postmedia has let him write his rubbish “for far too long.”
Got a giggle out of a Winnipeg Free Press editorial under the headline “Women’s hockey deserves NHL support” last week. Among other things, the opinionist submits that the “cash-rich NHL has a moral obligation to do more than simply collect outlandish ticket revenues from its ravenous fan base. It has a vested interest in growing the game, regardless of the gender of its players. It’s time for the NHL to step up in a more materially significant fashion. When our best female hockey players return home from Finland, the NHL should be waiting to greet them with news of a brighter future rising from the ashes of a troubled past.” I don’t know about you, but I find it laughable that a for-profit business like the Drab Slab advocates government subsidies for media outlets and, indeed, hopes to feed at the welfare trough, yet it’s telling another business, the NHL, how to spend its profits. That’s rich.
The mooks who do the voting for Canada’s athlete of the year will never anoint a curler as our top jock, because too many news snoops see Pebble People as a bunch of hubbies, brides and kids getting together for a family frolic at the local club on a Wednesday night. But they get it right in my home province. The very likable Kaitlyn Lawes has been named the best female athlete in Manitoba, and it had to be your basic no-brainer. Kaitlyn copped Olympic and world titles in 2018, and she did it while being an absolute delight.
And, finally, I think perhaps Donald S. Cherry was sampling a bit too much of the sponsor’s product prior to his Curmudgeon’s Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada last week. After a promo for Budweiser’s new Copper Lager, Grapes had this to say: “I’m tellin’ ya, I went out and bought some, and it is terrific. I love the horses, I love the bar we drink in…the color I’m not too crazy, but…I’ll tell ya one thing, it sure goes down PRETTY GOOD. Aaaaaand, don’t forget the stubby bottles. Stubby bottles. Canadian. Cana…that’s us. Canadians. Stubby bottles.”
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I don’t see my name on TSN’s Trade Bait Board, so I guess I’m not going anywhere…
How can you tell that Hockey Day on Planet Puckhead is a big deal?
Because it isn’t every weekend that Sportsnet dispatches octogenarian gasbag Donald S. Cherry and his setup man, punster Ron MacLean, to the frigid flatlands.
Normally, of course, the Yin and Yang of Saturday shinny are confined to quarters, which is to say they’re tucked away in a cozy, modest Hockey Night in Canada studio in the Republic of Tranna, far removed from the frost-bitten colonies.
But there they were Saturday on location in Speedy Creek, which, according to the tiny town’s tourism spin meisters, is “where life makes sense.”
It certainly made sense that Saskatchewan and, specifically, Speedy Creek would serve as the centrepiece for Hockey Day, because it doesn’t get much more Canadiana than pucks, prairie and a wind chill reading of minus-30.
Speedy Creek is Prairie-speak for the wonderfully named Swift Current, a welcoming, convenient stopping-off point just a hop, skip and a slapshot west of Pile O’ Bones (that’s Prairie-speak for Regina) and east of the wonderfully named Medicine Hat. It has been the breeding ground for numerous National Hockey League luminaries, such as Patrick Marleau, Adam Lowry, Bryan Trottier, Tiger Williams, Joe Sakic, Terry Ruskowski, Sheldon Kennedy, Geoff Sanderson and Dave (The Hammer) Schultz.
So, ya, it was a great fit and Hockey Day seemingly had it all, including the on-site star power of Don and Ron, Canadian television’s longest-running bromance since Wayne and Shuster.
There was, however, one notable exception—the package did not include our best women in action. And that made no sense on a show from a town “where life makes sense.”
Oh, sure, there were numerous references and interviews about the distaff side of our great game during the 12-hours marathon on CBC and Sportsnet, and they parachuted Olympian Cassie Campbell-Pascall into Speedy Creek for some glad-handing and chin-wagging during the four-day festival. But that carried the waft of forced tokenism and nothing more.
Hockey Day is supposed to be our annual celebration of all things puck, and the women’s game is supposed to be a happening “thing,” especially given the upbeat chatter since Kendall Coyne Schofield’s jaw-dropping skedaddle a fortnight ago at the NHL all-star showcase. So how could they leave the Canadian Women’s Hockey League out in the cold, figuratively if not literally?
It was a glaring, inexcusable omission. Kind of like organizers of the Grammy Awards telling female singers they’re welcome to attend the show but they can’t perform. Stay in your lane, ladies.
I don’t know what, if any, obstacles prevented Sportsnet from including the Tranna Furies-Montreal Canadiennes afternoon skirmish, but I do know they should have moved mountains to get that game on air.
That snub aside, Hockey Day delivered some truly wonderful, Kleenex-worthy stories, and it reminded us how good Ron MacLean is. I’m quite uncertain how he isn’t anointed our country’s top broadcaster every year, because nobody does it better. Not even James Duthie. It was also nice to hear the legendary Dick Irvin’s voice. I’ll go to my urn convinced that Irvin and Danny Gallivan were the best hockey broadcasting tandem ever.
Tough viewing choice for the afternoon game, Habs vs. Leafs or Connor McDavid flying solo vs. the San Jose Sharks. I started with McDavid, but quickly switched to Montreal-Toronto because the Edmonton Oilers are a total fire drill.
The Great Wall of China has been a work in progress for more than 2,000 years, only a week or two longer than the Oilers rebuild.
There’s nothing wrong with the Oil that someone like David Poile or the Winnipeg Jets’ scouting staff couldn’t cure. Trouble is, Poile already has a job. Ditto les Jets bird dogs. So the Oilers are stuck with Bob Nicholson and Keith Gretzky. Good luck with that.
With so many NHL outfits about to enter salary cap hell, I’m inclined to suggest they ought to scrap the thing. I mean, why should a club like les Jets be penalized just because they have better talent snoops than most? Alas, there’d be no franchise in Good Ol’ Hometown without a salary ceiling, so it stays.
Bytown Senators bankroll Eugene Melnyk vows to spend close to the cap between 2021 and ’25. Until then, he’ll continue to squeeze nickels, tell fibs and order his players to stay away from Uber.
Anyone still believe there’s a goaltending controversy with Winnipeg HC? Didn’t think so. After watching Laurent Brossoit give the royal wave at pucks with his left hand in les Jets’ 5-2 loss to the bottom-feeding Senators in Bytown, I’m convinced he has a hole in his catching mitt. Apparently the Senators are, too.
There’s no danger of les Jets missing the Stanley Cup runoff, but there is a danger of them failing to secure home-ice advantage. And I don’t see them going the distance without an extra game at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie in every playoff series.
Mike McIntyre and the Drab Slab’s obsession with Patrik Laine continues without any signs of a retreat. In the past two weeks, Mike M. and Jason Bell have combined to scribble seven stories on the Jets bewitched, bothered and bewildered winger, none of which told us anything we don’t already know. Yo! Boys! It’s no longer news that Puck Finn isn’t scoring. It’s only news the next time he makes the red light flash.
Mike M. described Puck Finn’s playmaking skills vs. the Senators as “impressive.” I must have nodded off when that happened. I mean, other than a nifty pass to set up Bryan Little for a score, Laine handled the biscuit like it had cooties.
Some deep, penetrating analysis (not!) on Laine’s struggles from Donald S. Cherry and Mike Johnson. The Lord of Loud used his HNIC pulpit on Saturday to tell us this: “Somebody better give Laine a smack. This is his contract year. Get going kid! I know ya got 25 goals, but he’s done nothing. Give him a smack.” Earlier in the week, TSN’s Johnson advised us that Puck Finn has to start “moving his feet.” Oh, please. “Moving his feet” has become the worst cliché since “our backs are against the wall.” Phil Esposito scored 76 goals one season without moving his feet. Difference is, Espo was willing to go into the dirty area in front of the net and gobble up Bobby Orr’s leftovers. Laine, meanwhile, plays on the periphery and Dustin Byfuglien is no Bobby Orr.
Alexander Ovechkin is now the highest-scoring Russian in NHL history with 1,182 points, which works out to a 1.119 per-game average for the Washington Capitals captain. Coincidentally, 1.119 was also Ovie’s blood-alcohol reading during his summer-long Stanley Cup celebration.
I don’t know if Mike Reilly is an adventurous guy, but if he’s looking for a challenge—and if he doesn’t mind playing in front of empty seats—he’ll sign with the Tranna Argonauts when the Canadian Football League livestock auction begins on Tuesday. But word from the left flank of the nation suggests the Edmonton Eskimos quarterback is heading for Lotus Land and all those empty seats in B.C. Place Stadium. If true, it isn’t surprising on a number of levels, not the least of which is Vancouver’s proximity to Reilly’s offseason home in Seattle. It is, however, shocking that GM Ed Hervey has convinced Leos skinflint bankroll David Braley to part with $700,000. It must have taken the jaws of life to pry Braley’s wallet that wide open.
Will Reilly’s return to B.C. translate into ticket sales in the Great Wet West? I have my doubts. I live in Leos Land and I hear more chatter about the Seattle Seahawks than three-down football.
Another busy week of global hobnobbing for CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who now has signed more treaties than the Sioux Nation. For those of you scoring at home, Commish Randy has crawled into bed with Mexico, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France and Finland, and it’s believed his menage-a-gridiron will soon include Dutch Holland and the gang that organizes the annual New Year’s Day Toilet Bowl at Blossom Park in River Heights. Those boys are in their 80s now, but Commish Randy expects them to attend the Foreign Flag Combine in March.
So what do we call three-down football now? The CMGASND2FFL? And if gay guy Michael Sam makes a comeback with the Gentille Alouettes, does it become the CMGASND2FLGBTQFL?
I don’t know about you, but I’d feel a whole lot better about Commish Randy’s off-season handiwork if it included the letters CBA, as in Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Old friend Mike Riley is coaching San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football, and Dan Barnes tells us all about the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers sideline steward in an excellent piece for Postmedia. Mikey says he “loved” Good Ol’ Hometown, but that didn’t stop him from abandoning the Bombers after their most-recent Grey Cup conquest (if you can call more than a quarter of a century ago “recent”). Those 29 years without a CFL title? I blame it all on Mikey for getting out of Dodge.
And, finally, I note that the jersey toss is once again in vogue in Edmonton Oilers country. Wouldn’t white towels be more appropriate?