Many years from now, when people of a certain vintage gather to advise young’uns what it was like “back in the day,” Patrik Laine surely will occupy a place in the spinning of yarns.
The tales the elders tell will be tall and, no doubt, embellished to the point whereby Puck Finn is remembered as a larger-than-life National Hockey League player who, when not scoring goals, rescued babies from burning buildings and single-handedly dug a mile-wide trench around Duff’s Ditch to spare River City from cataclysmic spring flooding.
“I was there when he dug that trench,” they’ll swear. “Took him a week. And danged if he didn’t go out an hour after putting down his shovel and score five goals on five shots. I was there when that happened, too. Still have the ticket stub to prove it.”
And that’s okay. It’s what us old farts do. We traffic in folklore and expect whippersnappers to accept that everything “back in the day” was better than everything today.
I recall my oldest son, for example, sitting at the dinner table in the mid-1980s and pooh-poohing the notion that Gordie Howe might have been a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky.
“What did Howe ever do that was so great?” he asked with considerable adolescent cheek and a smirk that needed to be wiped from his face.
“Excuse me? What did Gordie Howe do?” I replied, almost choking on my pork chop. “You mean aside from the six scoring titles, the six MVPs, the four Stanley Cup rings, the five goal-scoring titles, the most goals and points in the history of hockey, the 20 all-star teams? You mean aside from all that? And let me tell you something else…Gretzky was spoiled as a kid. His dad built him a rink in his back yard. Mr. Hockey—that’s Gordie Howe—wasn’t spoiled. He had to trudge two miles barefoot through three feet of snow just to get to the rink and back when he was a kid. All of us kids had to do that.”
My boy bowed his head. He had been properly chastised, yet he remained unconvinced of Howe’s superiority before finishing the last of his green peas and slinking off to the living room.
“Gretzky’s better,” were his defiant, parting words, “and I don’t believe that stuff about Howe walking barefoot in the snow. I’m sure they had buses back then.”
“They did, but Howe got kicked off for elbowing all the other boys,” I replied.
Similar tall tales will be told about Patrik Laine, his five goals on five shots in Winnipeg Jets’ 8-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues last weekend destined to be included in the I-was-there-when-it-happened folklore 40-50 years hence.
And that set me to thinking…
I began watching and following River City athletes more than 60 years ago, in the mid-1950s just as Billy Mosienko was returning to Good Ol’ Hometown to join Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League. So I’ve seen some jocks. And these are the 10 I mention most when asked about the way it was “back in the day.”
Kenny Ploen: Once upon a time, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup. Repeatedly. And Ploen was usually at the forefront of those powerful 1950s-60s Canadian Football League outfits—as a quarterback, a defensive back, or both. Oh, yes, Ploen played two ways. Sometimes in the same game. And he was an all-star at both positions. He also might be the nicest man alive. I recall riding my bike, twice a day, out to Packers Field in St. Boniface during Bombers training camp. I’d ask Mr. Ploen for his autograph after each of the morning and afternoon sessions. Every day for a week. He never once declined my request for his signature.
Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Hedberg was a cheetah on skates. Nilsson had four eyes, two in the front of his head and two in the back. The Shoe was short and squat, kind of like Barney Rubble. It was as if an unseen giant had put his thumb on the top of the Shoe’s head and squashed him. But move the puck? The best. And the beatings those Swedish boys took from North American ruffians after joining the Jets in the World Hockey Association? Rented mules don’t get whacked that often.
Terry Sawchuk: The great goalie grew up in the same area of town as I did, East Kildonan. When I began playing Little NHL hockey at Melrose Park, rumor had it that a pair of goalie pads we used once belonged to Sawchuk. That set of pillows had magical, mystic powers. The kid who wrapped the Sawchuk pads around his legs always got a shutout. Honest. He did.
Donny Lalonde: I remember the first time I saw the Golden Boy working out in a firehall-turned gym, his every move in concert with the sound of Bob Dylan’s great album Infidels. He struck me as kind of scrawny for a light-heavyweight boxer. He wasn’t much of a ring technician. And he fought with his left arm tied behind his back. But his one good arm won a world championship and he became just the second man to floor the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.
Chris Walby: If it’s possible for anyone to actually be larger than life, Bluto is your man. He went from total junior hockey goon with the West Kildonan North Stars to a career as arguably the best offensive lineman in CFL history. He later became a talking head on CBC football coverage, mangling the English language while actually making sense. If you ever see Walby, check out his hands. His fingers are as gnarled and as bent as tree bark. They’ve been broken more often than a politician’s promises.
Jeff Stoughton: A curler who didn’t drink. Go figure. And I don’t recall ever hearing cuss words escape his lips. That certainly made him suitable for mixed company and, in fact, mostly forgotten is that his breakthrough on the national stage came in the mixed game, where he skipped his rink to a pair of Canadian titles before beginning his run as the most successful male curler in a curling-rich province. His spin-o-rama delivery is legendary.
Teemu Selanne: I’m not convinced that the Finnish Flash actually happened. I mean, 76 goals and 132 points as an NHL rookie? Go on. You’re making that up. That’s pure fiction. But it’s not. Teemu actually did it in real life, not PlayStation. Then—poof!—he was gone, like Col. Flagg on M*A*S*H.
Vic Peters: Like Selanne, seemingly too good to have been real. Forget that he was a champion curler. Vic was the loveliest of lads. A total people person who, when not winning curling championships or making pebbled ice, could be found at Larters or The Meadows golf courses, grooming the fairways/greens or playing a few holes while still wearing his superintendent’s galoshes. If K. Ploen isn’t the nicest man, Vic was and he left us far too soon.
Forty-seven years. That’s how long it has been, to the day, since I began a newspaper career that brought neither fame nor fortune but provided a fair bit of fun.
That’s why I still scribble about sports to this day, 17 years removed from mainstream media—it’s a hoot.
The pay as a freelancer/blogger isn’t nearly as good, mind you. It’s mice nuts. It isn’t enough to keep me well watered and fed. I mean, I can’t afford to make spaghetti and meatballs anymore. It’s one or the other. But, hey, the payoff is the giggles I get by poking the bear, tipping sacred cows or tilting at windmills (I promise, no more cliches for today).
One would think that I’d have gotten the Winnipeg Jets out of my system by now. But no. Some habits are hard to kick, if not impossible. I just can’t let the Jets go. And, to a lesser degree, the Blue Bombers.
I don’t know how many hours I spent in the old barn on Maroons Road, but I do know that Winnipeg Arena was my home away from home for a good number of years. As were various other shinny shacks throughout North America, from the story-studded Montreal Forum to Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum in Tinseltown to the rickety Corral in Calgary to frost-bitten wooden huts that passed for hockey rinks in numerous Western Canada outposts.
And that’s what I am remembering this morning…
I remember Frank McKinnon, a remarkable, special man and the person I interviewed for my first Winnipeg Tribune byline story in 1971. Frank, president of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association at the time, was one of those people I always thought I should address as “Mister,” because he commanded such respect. But he would have none of it. “I’m Frank,” he told me early in our initial conversation, “and I want you to know that you can call me any time.” Frank and I talked often, but probably not as often as I would have liked.
I remember the night in Atlanta when Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie attempted to scale the glass partition separating the two benches so he could fight his counterpart with the Flames, Al MacNeil. Tommy took off his sports coat, took off his necktie, took off his wrist watch, partially unbuttoned his shirt—then took out his teeth! “When he took his teeth out and started undressing,” said MacNeil, “I knew he was serious.”
I remember riding a bus with coach Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers during their successful 1973 Centennial Cup crusade. Muzz liked his hockey with an edge and there was nothing sissified about the way his lads played. So physical were the Terriers that Humboldt Broncos’ coach Dr. Terry Henning took his puck and went home after five games rather than finish their playoff series with Muzz’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. “Can you believe it?” Muzz asked me. “They quit. The good doctor said my guys are too dirty. He says we’re too mean and nasty. So he quit. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him doing open-heart surgery on me—he’d walk out in the middle of the operation!”
I remember interviewing Vladislav Tretiak at a house on Elm Street in River Heights. I don’t recall who owned the house or why I had to meet the great Soviet goaltender there, but he was in town to promote his book and we gabbed for about an hour at a kitchen table (rather, the interpreter and I chin-wagged for an hour). When we parted, Tretiak said something to the interpreter, who relayed to me that “Vladimir thinks you are a hockey expert.” As photographer Jon Thordarson and I walked toward our vehicle, I said, “Imagine that, Tretiak thinks I’m a hockey expert…sure fooled him, didn’t I?”
I remember being in Indianapolis with the Jets on American Thanksgiving Day and Racers coach Pat (Whitey) Stapleton inviting myself, play-by-play legend Friar Nicolson and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis to turkey dinner with his family. It was such a thoughtful gesture, but that’s the kind of relationship media and hockey people sometimes had back then, especially in the World Hockey Association.
I remember Aime Allaire and his never-ending quest to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home to Winnipeg. Alas, Aime’s St. Boniface Mohawks could never get the job done.
I remember the Jets’ first visit to New York City, to play the Rangers. Friar, Reyn, Sod Keilback and I went for a stroll of Manhattan on game-day afternoon and we ducked into magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a look-see. “I’m going to light a candle for the Jets,” I said. “They’re going to need all the help they can get against the Rangers.” Sod greeted that notion with rude laughter. The Jets beat the Rangers that night, 6-4.
I remember another trip to Manhattan. Our bus driver wanted to make a detour down a side street, but he couldn’t navigate the turn because a Volkswagen Beetle was parked too close to the corner. General manager John Ferguson and the driver stepped outside to investigate. Fergy came back on the bus and shouted, “Jimmy! You and a few other guys come with me. We’ve gotta move this car.” Fergy, Jimmy Mann and three or four other players lifted half the Volkswagen on to the sidewalk and away we went.
I remember Muzz MacPherson refusing to talk to me after a Winnipeg Clubs’ game. “I’m too upset,” the gravel-voice coach barked. “I don’t want to talk. Just make up the quotes. You know me well enough by now that you know what I’ll say.” So, for the only time in my career, I made up quotes. The following day, Muzz called me and he was frothing at the mouth. “What are you trying to do to me?” he yelped. “I wouldn’t have said all those things you said I said—I would have done a lot more swearing.”
I remember talking to Ulf Nilsson the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national team, 5-3, and the great Swedish centre saying, “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
I remember Friar Nicolson allowing me to do five minutes of play-by-play one night when Dave Keon and the New England Whalers were in town. It was a classical gas.
I remember watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes with Muzz and various hockey sorts who had assembled at the Viscount Gort for an annual chin wag. As the great Secretariat romped down the home stretch, about 30 lengths in front of the field, Muzz stared at the TV and shouted, “Don’t break a leg! Don’t break a leg!” Big Red didn’t even break stride and became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.
I remember Teddy Green’s headaches. I often wondered how a man could be in such crippling pain and still go out and perform so admirably on the Jets blueline.
I remember riding the iron lung with Gerry Brisson and his Winnipeg Clubs on a junket that took us to Brandon, Regina, Swift Current, Calgary and Kamloops and back. Kevin McCarthy was on that team. He was the most-talented Junior I ever covered.
I remember covering an MJHL that included four Winnipeg teams—the Winnipeg Monarchs, St. James Canadians, St. Boniface Saints and my alma mater, the West Kildonan North Stars. (That’s right, I played in the MJHL and covered it. I believe Doug Lunney is the only other person to do so.)
I remember taking pride in the championship work of Barry Bonni with his River East Royal Knights of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, because his team represented my old ‘hood.
I remember Morris Lukowich barking at me after the Jets’ initial NHL game, in Pittsburgh. Luke had been credited with the team’s first NHL goal, tipping in a Peter Marsh shot. “Where did that shot hit you?” I asked him. “Friar and I never saw it change direction.” He shot me with a stone-cold stare and said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. “No, Luke, I’m not calling you a liar,” I said. “I have a game story to write and I need to know where the puck hit you so I can describe the goal accurately.”
I remember being part of a media team for Schmockey Night. Ray Jauch was our coach and Eddie (Clear the Track) Shack, the clown prince of the National Hockey League, was my left winger. Jauch, head coach with the Blue Bombers at the time, wouldn’t let Shack or I come off the ice in the final five minutes because we needed a goal to tie the game. Neither of us scored.
I remember wonderful conversations with hockey lifers Bruce Cheatley, Ed Sweeney, Bill Addison, Julian Klymkiw, Aggie Kukulowicz and Billy Robinson, who, along with Dr. Gerry Wilson, was responsible for bringing the first wave of Swedes to North America and transorming the Jets into a WHA power.
I remember defenceman Tim Watters buying Friar and I beer when he came in after curfew one night in Vancouver. “You don’t have to do that, Tim,” Friar told him. “We’re not going to rat you out. You’re good people.” I never ratted out any of the Jets. Neither did Friar. What they did on their time was their business.
I remember covering the Jets rookie training camp in Sainte Agathe, Que., in 1979 for the Winnipeg Tribune, and Fergy asking me to play in the final exhibition game because Patrick Daley had pulled a groin during the morning skate. “Are you serious? You want me to play tonight?” I asked him. He did. So I did. Assisted on the first goal, too. All the players at Sainte Agathe moved on to the Jets main training camp in Winnipeg, then some were assinged to the Tulsa Oilers. I went back to the Trib with a grand total of one assist in my only pro game. And I never got paid.
I remember the Jets first visit to the Montreal Forum. Friar and I walked in with Fergy, who was still a hero in Quebec, and he directed us to the concession stands. “Troi chien chauds,” Fergy ordered. He looked at us and said, “These will be the best hot dogs you’ll ever eat.” They were. To this day.
I remember bringing beer to former Soviet referee Anatoli Segelin, who was part of the U.S.S.R. traveling party for the 1981 Canada Cup. Upon his arrival at the Viscount Gort, Anatoli, who loved Canadian journalists, begged me to bring some beer up to his room on the second floor. I asked Stew MacPherson if he could spare a couple of 12-packs from the media hospitality room for Anatoli and comrades, and he agreed. Upon seeing me at his door with 24 beer, Anatoli flashed a smile as wide as Mother Russia and said, “Canada! Come! Come! We drink!” Segelin, myself and two other comrades did just that.
I remember Willy Lindstrom’s pranksterism. Every time the Jets’ travels would take us to Quebec City, Willy would visit a joke shop not far from the Chateau Frontenac and load up on stink bombs and sneezing powder. He would then unleash them on our airplanes. Go to sleep during a flight and it was guaranteed you’d wake up in a sneezing fit, because Willy would sneak up from behind and sprinkle powder on you. And the stink bombs were absolutely paralyzing.
I remember sitting in an airport, listening to Mike Smith deliver a 10-minute oration on the methodology of the Richter Scale after an earthquake hit the West Coast. As he spoke, I thought, “Man, this guy is a different head of lettuce.” I didn’t realize exactly how different Smith was until the day he drafted Sergei Bautin.
I remember going to the draft in Montreal the year Fergy chose defenceman David Babych second overall, ahead of Denis Savard and Paul Coffey. More interesting, however, was the fact Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran were next door, prepping for the Brawl in Montreal, the first fight in their boxing trilogy.
I remember feeling sorry for Ray Neufeld, a truly nice, young man who came to the Jets from Hartford in exchange for David Babych. It was recognized as Fergy’s worst transaction and fans took out their frustrations on poor Ray. That wasn’t fair.
I remember the first time I ever saw Peter Sullivan play hockey and asking, “How is this guy not playing in the NHL?”
I remember Jimmy Mann trying to convince me that he was “not an animal” after his sucker punch had shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw into a dozen pieces. It wasn’t me Jimmy had to convince…it was everyone else in hockey.
I remember Laurie Boschman’s on- and off-ice personalities. He was such a nasty bit of business when they dropped the puck, yet so soft-spoken, sincere and genuinely nice once the final buzzer sounded.
I remember a pilot delaying takeoff from Atlanta when we realized rookie broadcaster Sod Keilback was AWOL. Turns out the big lug had gotten lost in the airport, which was larger than his hometown of Yorkton, Sask., and he heard some serious braying once Friar Nicolson had located him and brought him on board. Sod made a feeble attempt to explain his wandering ways, but we were having none of it. “You’re just a big sodbuster,” I said. The name stuck. He was known as Sod thereafter.
I remember my traveling partners in the WHA, Friar and Reyn Davis, two terrific guys. Both of them are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Sadly, both of them are also dead. I’m neither in the Hall of Fame nor dead, but it’s only a matter of time before I arrive at the Pearly Gates (I probably haven’t been good enough to get in there either).
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.