At first blush, the inclination was to suggest that Khari Jones had it all wrong. That he was misremembering.
I mean, death threats? To the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback? Naw. Can’t be.
Look, I realize the football faithful in Good Ol’ Hometown can be a demanding lot. They’ll turn on a starting QB faster than Judas on Jesus (hello Dieter Brock, Matt Nichols, etc.), and they’ll get louder and more ornery as the beer snakes grow longer and longer in the fourth quarter of a losing skirmish.
But threaten to snuff him out? That’s something you’d rather not believe.
Except as Jones told the tale the other day, his nose wasn’t growing and his pants weren’t on fire.
He delivered his revelation in a calm, matter-of-fact cadence, like he was telling us what he had for lunch or what his kids ordered the last time at a McDonald’s drive-thru. He even smiled, almost as if he recognized that some among the rabble might suggest there was a tich of far-fetchedness to the disturbing narrative of his 2002 Canadian Football League crusade.
“In Winnipeg,” Jones began, “I received death threats, you know, because my wife is a different color than me. We had police officers staying at our house, kinda patrolling our house while I was at away games. There was a series of letters, and I still have those letters.”
I don’t know about you, but those words produce chilling imagery for me:
A woman—Jones’ bride Justine—home alone with her newborn, Jaelyn, while hubby and dad is flinging footballs hundreds of miles away, unable to protect his family from a wingnut lurking in the shadows of a darkening night. The stalker might have a gun. Or a knife. Maybe both. Stealth, slow-moving cop cars appear in the haze of dimly lit lamp posts, then disappear into the same darkness that protects the unseen scoundrel, prepared to pounce. It’s positively Hitchcockian.
It was just one person, we’re told, a racist who believes black and white belong together on piano keyboards, salt-and-pepper shakers and Oreo cookies, but not in the skin hue of a married couple. He penned a dozen letters to Jones, each peppered with vulgar language and threats. He was never caught.
Eighteen years later, Jones is finally talking about it because racism is the topic du jour in North America and he recognizes that his is a story people need to hear, even if they’d prefer not to hear it.
It’s the kind of stuff that gives pause for ponder, and you try to convince yourself that such a level of hate can’t possibly exist in Good Ol’ Hometown.
I was born, raised and spent most of my working life in Winnipeg and, sure, I recognize that racists, bigots, homophobes, etc. walk among the throng, but death threats because a quarterback is black and his bride is white? Come on, man, isn’t that supposed to be a 1960s Alabama thing? If only.
Truth is, I had my own close encounter with one of the wackos back in the day.
It was late March of 1979 and, with the Parti Québécois beating the separatist drums with gusto, the political climate was a tinderbox. Anti-Québec sentiment flowed freely in Western Canada and peaked in full, ugly voice the night the Finnish National B shinny side was in town for a friendly with the Winnipeg Jets, then still the World Hockey Association’s flagship franchise but soon to be a charter member of the National Hockey League.
Because the skirmish was televised locally on the CBC’s English and French channels, public address announcements were delivered in both our official languages. That didn’t work so well.
Each time PA announcer Germain Massicotte would parlez vous, the audience of 10,113 filled the Old Barn On Maroons Road with a robust chorus of boos, which ramped up in volume with each word he uttered en francais. By the time Morris Lukowich scored in overtime, Massicotte’s voice had totally disappeared beneath the might of the anti-Québec outpouring.
“It was kind of rude,” said young Rich Gosselin, a product of nearby St. Malo and one of two francophones wearing Jets linen that night.
“I just consider the source,” muttered Bobby Guindon, the veteran forward who, a year ealier, had been anointed most valuable player in the Jets championship crusade.
Like Gosselin and Guindon, I was unamused, so I scribbled as essay in the Winnipeg Tribune, giving the booing, bigoted boors a stern tsk-tsking.
“Winnipeg, if this is how you’re going to act next season when you’re in the National Hockey League, then you don’t deserve to see the Montreal Canadiens,” is how I signed off.
The following morning, the ringing of my kitchen telephone stirred me from slumber. It was a man. An angry man. He didn’t appreciate the tone of my column and volunteered to provide me with one-way passage to the Great Beyond. Yup, he’d bomb my house. Blow it up, me and my family with it. Apparently, that’s what you do with a “frog lover.”
Unlike Khari Jones, I didn’t call the cops. I told the boys at work about the bomb threat and we had a giggle, although I must confess mine was a bit of a nervous chuckle and there was some skittishness to my step for a few days.
But, hey, that house on Leighton Avenue in East Kildonan is still standing, a block away from the Red River, and I’m still ticking, so I guess the guy had a bad batch of dynamite or he was a graduate of the Wile E. Coyote School of Mayhem.
I don’t know if you’ve been following Paul Friesen’s work on the Khari Jones file for the Winnipeg Sun, but it’s boffo stuff. Top drawer in every way. Makes me proud that I played a part in poaching Paul from CJOB all those many years ago, and it all began with a chance meeting in a checkout line at the Safeway on Roslyn Road in Osborne Village. So, if you like Paul’s work, kudos to him. If you don’t like it, blame me.
Really hard to believe the boys at the Drab Slab basically ignored the Jones death-threat narrative, except to run one Canadian Press piece. That’s shoddy. Or lazy. Maybe both.
Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are supposed to be bright guys. They aren’t allowed to be the dullest knife in the drawer, although Terry Bradshaw tests that theory every time he opens his squawkbox on Fox Sports NFL coverage. So what’s Drew Brees’ excuse for being such a D’Oh Boy? I mean, seriously, he thought Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was about the American flag and not social injustice and police brutality? That’s like believing the Bible is porn. But wait. The New Orleans Saints QB experienced an awakening, as if he’d shared a bodhi tree with the Buddha, and a couple of days after dumbing down he was schooling Donald Trump, advising the Commander-in-Chaos that kneeling protests have “never” been about the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. I swear, we haven’t seen a retreat that rapid since Tiger Woods’ wife came at him with a 9-iron. Makes you wonder how Buddha Brees ever mastered the Saints playbook.
Every time I hear someone like Brees rage against Kaepernick and other National Football League kneelers, branding them as disrespectful ingrates, I am reminded of this excerpt from baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s book, I Never Had It Made: “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only the principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.” So there.
The other night on TSN SportsCentre, anchor Jennifer Hedger said racism is an “uncomfortable” conversation. Why? And who’s uncomfortable? Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down social gatherings, my friends and I discussed racism, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, etc. on numerous occasions, with zero discomfort.
Big shakeup in the Tower of Babble On, with Chris Cuthbert defecting from TSN football to Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada. Initial reaction: Geez, can he take Glen Suitor with him?
Apparently Suitor was unavailable for comment on his longtime sidekick’s departure. “He’s still in rehab after having his nose surgically removed from Keith Urban’s butt,” a TSN spokesperson familiar with the situation confirmed.
Seriously, this is an opportunity for TSN to bring a new, fresh sound to its Canadian Football League broadcasts. Surely there’s a vibrant, young voice out there who can slide behind Cuthbert’s play-by-play mic and, at the same time, they can spare us another season of groupie Glen’s gushing over Urban. If they insist on going with the old guard, I say give the job to Gord Miller, who’s solid whenever he calls Rouge Football. And, for gawd’s sake, keep Kate Beirness away from the CFL on TSN panel.
Oh, dear, the body count continues to grow in the toy department, and Ken Wiebe is among the latest casualties. The Athletic slashed salary and scribes the other day, handing out 46 pink slips, and that leaves Murat Ates to fly solo on the Jets beat. I never met Ken, but I’m told he’s one of the good guys, and we can only wonder when this carnage will end and who’ll be left standing.
The Winnipeg Sun made it through the week without anyone heading to the pogey line, but the overlords at Postmedia have decided to eliminate one day of the week—Monday. Commencing June 22, the tabloid will become a six-days-a-week print publication (Tuesday-Sunday), which means they’ll be a day late and a dollar short whenever something big breaks on the Sabbath. You know, like the Bombers winning the Grey Cup. Or—dare to dream—the Jets hoisting the Stanley Cup on a Sunday.
And, finally, news that the Sun is becoming a six-pack provided reflection on my time with the tabloid.
Now in its 40th year (the official anniversary date is Nov. 5), the Sun wasn’t supposed to have a shelf life longer than four months, never mind four decades, but a three-days-a-week sheet bulked up to a seven-day production in 1992, and they’ve been going toe-to-toe with the Goliath on Mountain Avenue every morning since.
You don’t survive that long unless you deliver something the rabble is looking for and, in the case of the tabloid, that’s meant a heavy emphasis on cops and robbers, entertainment and, of course, sports scribbling served with sizable portions of sass, irreverence and 200-point headlines.
Oops. Almost forgot Page 3 (or was it Page 2?), which once featured a damsel in her scantilly-clads and heels as high as a giraffe’s forehead.
The Sunshine Girl was just one of the oddball things we did at the Sun. I also recall management’s curious fascination for Panda bears, and there was a cheeky promo during the 1999 Pan American Games that attracted the attention of El Presidenté, Fidel Castro.
Seems ol’ Cigar Breath was so distraught over Cuban defectors prior to/during the Games that it became the focal point of his annual Revolution Day natter, with the Bearded One barking about “traps and tricks” and “schemes” and “filth.”
We ran a “guess the number of Cuban defectors” contest, offering airfare and a one-week vacation in Havana, cigars not included.
“If this is a goodwill gesture, it is a perverse one,” noted José Fernandez, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee.
I don’t recall if it was eight or 10 Cubans who went over the wall during the Pan Ams, but that was us—the perverse paper.
How about 300 million of them? Do I hear 1,500,000,000?
Apparently Randy Ambrosie doesn’t think that’s too much of an ask, because he’s panhandling on Parliament Hill these days, hoping that Prime Minister Trudeau the Younger is a fan of three-downs football and has a spare $30 million to $150 million stashed in his couch at Rideau Cottage.
If not…well, that’s the part of the big beg that Ambrosie has yet to spell out, but it suggests the end could be nigh for the Canadian Football League. Final score: COVID-19, CFL-0.
And, no, now that you’ve asked, I don’t think that’s being alarmist or extremist.
Look, I realize the CFL already has had more sticks of Acme dynamite blow up in its face than Wile E. Coyote, but the COVID-19 pandemic is a different kind of beast. The sports world will be harder to put together than a broken egg, and our quirky game requires a special kind of fix.
Rouge Football, you see, isn’t doable without fannies in the pews, even if the Argonauts and the dismissive citizenry in the Republic of Tranna do their best to prove otherwise. It can’t work. Not in The ROT, not in Good Ol’ Hometown, not on the Left Flank, where the locals won’t even come in from the rain to watch the Lions.
Thus, if turnstiles aren’t turning, it’s folly to discuss a Coles Notes version of a 2020 CFL crusade commencing on the Labor Day weekend.
Which means, yes, short of Trudeau the Younger morphing into PM Pigskin and tossing $30M into Commish Randy’s begging cap immediately (and another $120M if this season is a no-go), the CFL as we know it is likely a done deal.
“What would happen if that $30 million assistance was denied?” TSN’s Dave Naylor asked Randy the Panhandler the other day.
“I’m not indulging in the question what happens if it doesn’t work because I believe we’re going to find a way to make it work,” came the answer.
No surprise that Commish Randy would decline to engage in doomsday talk. He’s one of those dudes who’ll tell you his watch can’t possibly be broken because it shows the correct time twice a day. He’s never seen a half-empty stadium. Not even BMO Field in The ROT. Always half full. He knows what an empty piggy bank looks like, though, and he recognizes that saving the CFL will take more than a GoFundMe page.
And that’s a very grim reckoning for many of my vintage.
I remember when the CFL was the big dog in town, because we didn’t have National Hockey League outfits to call our own out in the colonies. But we had Kenny Ploen, the Lincoln Locomotive, Bud Grant and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Saskatchewan had the Little General, George, Gluey Huey and the Roughriders. Calgary had Eagle Day, Earl the Earthquake, Ham Hands and the Stampeders. Edmonton had Spaghetti Legs, the China Clipper, Johnny Bright and the Eskimos. B.C. had Peanut Butter Joe, Willie the Wisp, Nub and the Lions.
So a Canada without Rouge Football? Sorry, that’s not my Canada.
It would be like a pub without pints. A church without prayer. The McKenzie Brothers without brown pops, toques, earmuffs and a “beauty day, eh.”
But that’s my take, owing to the fact I was weaned on the game when single-bar face masks were still in vogue, and east was east and west was west and never the twain did meet until the Grey Grail was up for grabs.
Others, however, won’t be swayed by notions of nostalgia and Canadiana culture. They don’t want their tax dollars used to pay Mike Reilly’s and Bo Levi Mitchells’ $700,000 salaries, and certainly not Commish Randy’s reported annual stipend of half a million loonies. That’s an impossible sell when many thousands among the rabble are forced to feed at the public trough due to COVID-19, and going-out-of-business signs are popping up like dandelions.
I’ve heard the CFL described as a mom-and-pop operation and, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose it is. It’s dwarfed by the goliath that is the National Football League, and robust broadcasting contracts allow the other main players (National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer) to re-enter the fray sans customers. At least temporarily.
Not so Rouge Football.
Pundits suggest Commish Randy’s beg is a Hail Mary pass, and I’m inclined to agree. But, hey, Trudeau the Younger is a good Catholic boy, so he probably owns a rosary and might have an “in” when it comes to answered prayers.
If not, I fear there’s a very real possibility the CFL will run out of downs.
I don’t want to pay Bo Levi Mitchell’s wage anymore than the next person but, for the record, I have no problem with the CFL panhandling on Parliament Hill. I’d do the same thing. That doesn’t make it the right thing, but it doesn’t make it wrong, either.
The hardest part of Commish Randy’s sales pitch? Convincing the feds that people hither and yon actually give a damn about Rouge Football. He can wax poetic about the beauty of the three-downs game, how it’s a significant and historic thread in the country’s fabric, but he can’t sugar coat the head counts in our three largest markets—the Republic of Tranna, Montreal, Vancouver. I’ve seen more people at a neighborhood flea market than the Argos attract to BMO Field. The Lions are a rumor in B.C. Montreal showed a pulse late last season, but it was faint. So never mind the odious notion of bailing out millionaire and billionaire owners, how does Commish Randy sell the feds on a product that most of the rabble is meh about?
No matter how this all shakes down, I’m convinced we’ll see someone ride a horse into a big-city hotel lobby on the final Sunday in November once again. But not this year. A post-pandemic CFL won’t look the same, at least not initially. I see reduced rosters, more Canadians and fewer imports on game-day rosters, wage shrinkage (on and off the field), and two leagues under the CFL banner: The Western Football League and the Eastern Football Union. No more interlocking play. Just West v. West/East v. East until the Grey Cup game. You know, like it was in the 1950s and into the ’60s. And road trips on the bus (except to B.C.) to lower costs. That’s what the tea leaves are telling me, so remember where you read it first. Or not.
What a surprise—the CFL asks for money from the feds and we hear squawking from other athletes, notably Liz Knox, one of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association mouthpieces. “We’re asking for peanuts compared to a $150-million ask,” she bleated, recalling the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League last spring. “When the CWHL was folding, we were talking in the hundreds of thousands to get us in the clear so the league didn’t have to fold. We’re talking two or three CFL salaries. That would (have) made the difference of us literally surviving or not. Women’s sport is often seen as a charity, but that’s not the narrative that we’re hearing about the CFL and their situation right now.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what many among the rabble are calling the CFL these days—a charity case. Liz might want to try a different narrative.
Why is it that members of the PWHPA seem to be caught in a never-ending pity party, constantly griping about the sorry lot in life that they’ve created for themselves and demanding what they “deserve,” yet we never hear similar grumbling from the National Women’s Hockey League? NWHL leaders simply go about their business, adding an expansion franchise in the Republic of Tranna, conducting a player draft, and prepping for the 2020 crusade. At last report, 26 women are already on board for the NWHL’s sixth season, and none of them are bitching about “deserving” a living wage. That’s what they’re building toward—a better tomorrow for Ponytail Puck—and I’d say they’re going about it the right way.
In the winter of 2015, I was having a discussion with friend/former colleague Judy Owen about sports scribes at Winnipeg’s two dailies, and I directed her attention to a young writer still trying to find her way in the rag trade. “I really like Melissa Martin’s stuff,” I told Jude. “She doesn’t cover things the same old, same old way. She has a different style, and I like different. She’s the best pure writer they have at the Freep.” Jude didn’t disagree, but she seemed genuinely surprised, if not mildly amused, that I harbored such high regard for Melissa. Well, fast forward to spring 2020: Melissa won her second National Newspaper Award the other night, as top columnist in the country. Like I was saying five years ago, she’s the best they’ve got at the Drab Slab. Still. Too bad she only makes cameo appearances in the toy department.
The week in jock journalism…
Really nice read from Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab on Ralph Wild, a 101-year-old who’s been root, root, rooting for the Blue Bombers since Buddy Tinsley almost drowned during the Mud Bowl at Varsity Stadium in the Republic of Tranna. If you’re scoring at home, that was in 1950, so Ralph has seen some football…Shrinkage alert: The Winnipeg Sun sports section was reduced to just four pages three days last week. And, get this: They managed to fill those pages mostly with local copy. Imagine that. Running local copy by local scribes instead of all the usual flapdoodle from the Republic of Tranna. What a concept…Mind you, it was back to normal for today’s edition, with a Toronto-centric piece on the sports front and more on the inside…Made a point of watching the Her Mark show on TSN, but I’m afraid it totally missed the mark. The guest list included Christine Sinclair, Tessa Virtue, Marie-Philip Poulin, Kia Nurse, Natalie Spooner and Hayley Wickenheiser, and host Kate Beirness said, “I hope the stories they share will be as uplifting to viewers as they have been to me.” Excuse me? What stories? It was a series of public service announcements. So let’s just call it an opportunity lost for female athletes…Why does TSN, or anyone for that matter, think Will Ferrell is funny? He isn’t. Ferrell pranked the Seattle Seahawks on a Zoom gathering the other day, expressing his “love” for quarterback Russell Wilson and saying “let’s make a baby.” Beirness described the bit as “fantastic.” No. It was totally lame, just like Ferrell’s gig in the TSN curling booth…Sad news out of Calgary: Longtime broadcaster Russ Peake died at age 80. You’d have to look long and hard to find a nicer man than Russ.
If you have a spare 50 minutes in your day (and who doesn’t?), grab a beer or a glass of vino and check out Road to the Grey Cup, a documentary on the Bombers’ journey to their three-downs title last November. It’s the handiwork of Rheanne Marcoux (creative director), Riley Marra (producer, editor, videographer), Jeremy Derochers and Sam Calvert (videographers) and it’s boffo stuff.
There was considerable ballyhoo on Saturday when an extremely large Icelandic lad named Hafthor Bjornsson established a world record for dead-lifting 1,104 pounds. What’s the big deal? The Cleveland Browns have been carrying that much dead weight since the 1960s.
There’s also been much natter about the incomparable Secretariat winning NBC’s virtual running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Big Red out-galloped a field that included 12 other Triple Crown champions, including 1919 winner Sir Barton, who finished last by about 15 lengths. Talk about flogging a dead horse.
The talented Murat Ates of The Athletic has scanned the Winnipeg Jets roster and determined that there are five untouchables: Connor Hellebuyck, Rink Rat Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk. That’s right, he’ll trade away Twig Ehlers, Kyle Connor or Puck Finn, but not Neal Pionk, whose only a top-pairing defenceman by default. I admire Murat’s way with words, but I’m not hiring him as GM of my hockey team.
And, finally, if the last month and a half has seemed more like an entire year, and if you can’t tell one day from the next, you’ve got an idea what life is like for a lot of seniors. Isolation can be very numbing, physically and mentally.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and you won’t find any aces in here but there are plenty of double faults…
So, Brian Bowman wants the City of Winnipeg to wash its hands of the Blue Bombers.
Was it something they said? Is it that 28-year, no Grey Cup parade thing? Someone at City Hall doesn’t like Mike O’Shea’s sideline look? Whatever the case, surely we can work this out, even if it means convincing Coach Mikey to shop at Mr. Big & Tall instead of finding his game-day attire on the racks at Sally Ann’s.
Personally, Coach Mikey’s t-shirt-and-shorts chic has never bothered me. I look at him as Coach Grunge. You know, the way Neil Young is the Godfather of Grunge.
Come to think of it, perhaps Neil Young will be Mayor Bowman’s next target. No more official bragging about the Sugar Mountain kid skipping school at Kelvin High to earn his musical chops hither and yon with the Squires, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY and Crazy Horse. Who wants to be bragging on a high school dropout as a homeboy? Let the Republic of Tranna claim him.
And, hey, while he’s at it, maybe Mayor BB can order favorite citizen Kenny Ploen deported back to Lost Nation, Iowa. After all, it’s been more than half a century since K.P. had a hand in bringing the Grey Cup to Good Ol’ Hometown.
Mind you, Mayor BB wouldn’t know much about that. He wasn’t around in the late-1950s and early-1960s, when Ploen, the Lincoln Locomotive, Choo Choo Shepard, Zazu, Kid Dynamite and the large lads in Blue and Gold won championships like kids collected bubble gum cards of their Canadian Football League heroes.
By the time Mayor BB squeezed out of the womb, those legends were long gone and so were the Bombers’ glory days.
But I’ll tell you who could have filled him in on those “best of times”—Steve Juba, one of his predecessors in the mayor’s office. Trouble is, Steve left us in 1993, so he isn’t available for a fireside chat with the present-day Hizzoner. If he were, no doubt Mayor Steve would regale Mayor BB in what it was like back in the day. You know, when the mayor of all the people actually embraced the connection between city and Winnipeg FC.
Once upon a time, the Bombers held a Blue and Gold intersquad game during training exercises. It was a huge deal. Anywhere from 17,000 to 19,500 locals would make their way to the real-grass football field on Maroons Road to take in the annual frolic, and I was among the east-side rabble on the night of July 21, 1960.
The opening kickoff tumbled near the Gold goalline, whereupon a return man scooped it up and began to skedaddle toward the right sideline. He had the awkward gait of peg-leg pirate and the giddyup of a sloth, but admirable escapeability. Would-be tacklers flung themselves at him in desperation without success, and he made it untouched to the far 35-yard stripe before an unknowing skunk shirt ruled him out of bounds.
I describe the game official as “unknowing” because the fix was in. The return man, you see, was Mayor Juba and the pre-arranged script had him lugging the kickoff back for a touchdown. Alas, someone forgot to clue in the sideline official. Didn’t really matter, though. Mayor Steve had punked the audience.
Three years later, a Blue and Gold game official ejected Kenny Ploen and receiver Farrell Funston when they connected for a TD. On the first play from scrimmage. The rabble howled in protest, demanding that Ploen and Funston be reinserted to the fray. They hadn’t paid $2 a pop to see some clown in a striped shirt turf two of their heroes. Upon closer inspection, however, it was discovered that the man in stripes was…you guessed it, Steve Juba. Yup, once again, Mayor Prankster had pulled one over on the Big Blue masses.
It was fun stuff. And a charming, folksy chapter in the historic bond between city and football club.
Yet, given his druthers, Mayor BB is inclined to bail on the burg’s beloved (well, aren’t they?) Blue Bombers. He’s not interested in the City of Winnipeg occupying a seat on the board.
Mayor Steve must be spinning like a lathe in his cold, Blue and Gold grave.
One thing to keep in mind about Winnipeg FC: It isn’t a community-owned operation. No one owns the football club. It’s community-run.
A couple of words on TSN’s innovative(?) split screen/live mic thingy during the Bytown RedBlacks-Montreal Alouettes skirmish on Saturday: The worst. We were forced to watch Antoine Pruneau and Henoc Muamba do absolutely nothing on the left side of our flatscreens for a dozen or more plays, while squinting at the right side of the screen to see what the other 22 players were doing. I’m all for new-fangled gadgetry, but this was a colossal failure. And, since I can’t afford a 70-inch TV, I hope this experiment goes the way of the Indian head test pattern (Google it, kids).
Kirk Penton, as always, delivered the good stuff in his CFL column for The Athletic last week, and it included this gem from a former coach: “It was great to see one of us (coaches) on TSN. Benny (Mike Benevides) sounded like what he is—a solid football guy. He understands our game. He picks up the keys to the game and explains them. Without him, the rest of that group is no different than watching Entertainment Tonight Canada. A lot of expensive clothes and a lot of talk about nothing.” Burn! Personally, I find Benevides uppity, if not flat-out arrogant. He doesn’t talk as much as he lectures, as if the former players on the TSN panel are still in film study. Benny could spend a bit more time in wardrobe, too. He’s not smoooooth like Milt Stegall. But, then, who is?
Anyone have a clue what’s going on in Montreal? Or maybe this is a better question: Does anyone in Montreal have a clue, period? I mean, the Alouettes are a welfare case (read: no owner); they play in a half-empty house; they fired head coach Mike Sherman on the eve of the CFL season; now they punt GM Kavis Reed after twin Ws leveled their record at 2-2. Strange bit of business. But here’s where it gets Rod Serling/Twilight Zone weird (cue the creepy music)—they’ve handed the keys to the shop to Joe Mack. That’s like giving Wile E. Coyote another stick of dynamite. Nothing good will come of it.
Blue Bombers loyalists can tell the Larks all about Sleepy Joe and how he believed a brittle Buck Pierce was a better option at quarterback than Mike Reilly in 2013. It took present-day GM Kyle Walters more than three years to find his way out of the rubble that Sleepy Joe left behind, but we still feel an after-shock every now and then.
Sorry to report that attendance across the CFL is not on the rebound. The numbers continue to plummet everywhere but Calgary, and it’s gotten so bad in the Republic of Tranna that they don’t bother to take a head count. I agree. That’s unacceptable. After all, how long does it take to count to 100? Maybe they can bring in the Army to do it for them.
Sports theatre doesn’t get much better than what played out on Centre Court Wimbledon on Sunday, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer knocking the fuzz off tennis balls at the All-England Club. Five sets, tiebreaker in the fifth, three ‘breakers total…bloody brilliant. And dare I say, the loser in this historic 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12 tussle was the better player most of the afternoon. It’s just that Djokovic won the points that mattered most in claiming his 16th Grand Slam title, and that included fighting off two match points against Federer’s serve.
I must confess, while watching the very likable Simona Halep give bully Serena Williams a good and proper rag-dolling in the women’s final on Saturday, I kept wondering if tournament officials would be required to dial 911 and call for a SWAT team to restore law and order. That is, I expected Williams to dig into her bag of angry theatrics and take the event hostage, much like she did in losing last year’s U.S. Open to Naomi Osaka. Thankfully, she brought her prim and proper manners to the English party. But she’s still a bully.
Halep worked a mere 56 minutes in winning her title. Djokovic needed four hours and 57 minutes to get the job done v. Federer. Each champion received a winner’s purse of $2.95 million. Any complaints about pay equity? I hope not.
Since Federer claimed his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, it’s been same old, same old on the men’s tour. Only 10 men have won a major. That’s it, just 10 in 17 years. Between Swiss maestro Federer, Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, they’ve collected 54 of the 65 majors, which is insane. Meanwhile, on the women’s side, there have been 24 Grand Slam champions in the same time frame.
I’m partial to tennis because it was my favorite beat at the Winnipeg Tribune. I spent countless enjoyable hours courtside at both the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club and the Canoe Club through most of the 1970s, and I have fond memories of people like Rick Borland, Judy Peake, Jo and Jack Brown, Eleanor O’Gorman, the Campbell sisters, Glen Booth, Jim Matthews, Al Skaletar, George Kylar, and so many others. So it pains me that the Winnipeg Sun would choose to ignore the National Bank Challenger tournament, which wrapped up at the WLTC on Sunday. The Drab Slab, meanwhile, did it right with young Taylor Allen’s feet on the ground through the entirety of the event.
And, finally, here’s something for the Winnipeg Jets rabble to chew on, and I’m guessing some might not like the taste:
Jordan Binnington salary: $4.4 million.
Connor Hellebuyck salary: $6.166,666 million.
Stanley Cup rings: Binnington 1; Hellebuyck 0.
Feel free to discuss among yourselves.
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.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and it’s baseball season, so I believe I’ll enjoy the ceremonial first hot dog today…
Let’s play Jeopardy!
Contestant: “I’ll take ‘NOT THE SHARPEST KNIFE IN THE DRAWER’ for $2,000, please Alex.”
Alex Trebek: “Okay, here’s your clue: This is the only group of people on earth known to be dumber than a doorknob, dumber than a sack of hammers, and dumber than Fox News.”
Contestant: “Who are the people sitting in the front row at a Donald Trump rally?”
Alex Trebek: “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s incorrect. While those folks definitely aren’t very bright, the correct answer is: Who are National Hockey League players?”
Yes, kids, let’s face it, your hockey heroes are D’oh! boys. The biggest D’oh! boys in all of jockdom. I mean, we’re talking Homer Simpson dumb.
I say that because they believe they’re obliged to fight, and nowhere else in professional team sports do you find athletes so easily duped.
Look at football. Very physical sport. Dirty, gnarly sport. On a play-by-play basis, it’s far more violent than hockey. Blind-sided quarterbacks are cold-cocked constantly. Ditto defenceless receivers. But they rarely come up chucking knuckles. If fists do fly, the combatants are dismissed pronto because fisticuffs is taboo.
Basketball? It can get right nasty under the bucket, with elbows and forearms crunching into jaws, cheekbones and bent noses. Knees dig into groins. But the tall lads seldom feel obliged to throw down. When they do, they’re gone.
Baseball? You hit my batter with a thrown ball, I’ll hit your batter with a thrown ball. Then the benches clear, the boys slap and push one another (unless it’s Nolan Ryan delivering serious noogies to Robin Ventura), and the men in blue give the offending parties the rest of the day off.
But in the NHL, there’s a “code.” The “code” is as old as Gordie Howe’s first jock, and it’s misguided vigilantism on blades.
You hit me with a cheap shot—or hit me legally but too hard for my liking—and I now must knock your block off. If not me, one of my guard dogs will take care of business. Might not do it immediately. Might not do it that same night. Might have to wait a year. But someone is coming after you and you better not turn tail when challenged. You want the respect of friend, foe and fan? Only way is to “man up.” That’s the “code.”
Well, the “code” is stupid and so are hockey players for following it.
The “code” has ended careers (hello, Steve Moore) and it took Paul Byron out of the Montreal Canadiens lineup last week because he felt obliged to accept MacKenzie Weegar’s invitation to go dukes up. It doesn’t matter that Byron weighs a buck 60—about 40 pounds less than the Florida Panthers defender—and gives away four inches in height. Nor did it matter that he’d already served a three-game sentence and taken a sizable wallop to his wallet for an illegal hit on Weegar in January. There’s league-mandated accountability, then there’s law-of-the-jungle accountability.
So, ya, Byron dropped his mitts…then swallowed the knuckles on Weegar’s left fist and wobbled off the freeze, presumably to a very quiet room with no windows and all the lights turned off. Post-concussion, he was unavailable to les Canadiens on Thursday night in Columbus, where they lost to the Blue Jackets in a skirmish that carried considerable playoff significance, and there was no sign of him at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie on Saturday night when the Habs tried their luck vs. the Winnipeg Jets.
All that because Byron has been duped into believing he had no choice but to “man up” to the “code.”
“It’s been in the game forever,” one of his teammates, Andrew Shaw, said matter-of-factly.
Ya, and Wile E. Coyote has been chasing the Roadrunner forever, no matter how many sticks of dynamite blow up in his face or how many Acme anvils fall on his head. He just keeps coming back for more. Because Wile E. is really, really dumb.
So what does the Byron-Weegar scenario tell us about hockey players? Just that they’re as dumb as the most pathetic cartoon character ever created.
Naturally, the Dinosaurs 3—Don Cherry, Brian Burke, Nick Kypreos—weighed in on Byron-Weegar, and it was no surprise to hear their knuckles scraping the floor as they spoke.
Here’s Cherry: “I know it’s hard for people to, you know, it’s a code and all that stuff and everythink, he had to do it, he had to stand up, and I know the players respect him more. I know you people put down the code, it’s a code and it’ll always BE THERE.”
Here’s Burke: “(Byron) wasn’t compelled to take this fight. He took it, and I respect him for doing it. He does not have to take the fight. He does not have to take this fight. But keep in mind, in our league, historically, we have allowed the players to use self help, we have allowed the players to regulate, extensively, the level of violence that occurs on the ice. This is a good tradition, the code works, the injury’s unfortunate.”
Here’s Kypreos: “I had a lot of respect for Paul Byron, I have more for him today because of that.”
Well, isn’t that comforting for Byron to know. I’m sure he’ll sleep more soundly at night now that he’s earned a higher level of respect from a former thug who, when last seen on an NHL freeze, was lying face down and unconscious as blood oozed from his mouth. How did Kypreos get there? He lost an argument with Ryan VandenBussche’s left fist, whereupon a neurosurgeon suggested he get on with life, one that didn’t include disputes settled with bare knuckles. Yet here he is, 22 years later, faithfully clinging to and preaching the “code.” Also praising the latest victim.
Like I said, dumb.
I agree, it’s illogical that a guy whose career ended in a pool of his own blood would use his Sportsnet pulpit to repeatedly and, without apology, advocate violence. It’s like the victim of a drunk driver promoting “one more for the road.” But here’s where Kypreos confirms he has truly lost the plot.
“Two things I wanna tell people,” he said on Hockey Central At Noon, as if delivering a sermon. “When you step on the ice to play the game of hockey, two things a player always remembers: That you’re either trying to earn respect, or you’re trying to maintain respect. Okay? People don’t understand that, that aren’t there, and they never will because you gotta be there to understand that.”
How arrogant. Because 99.99999 per cent of us never laced ’em up in the NHL we know nothing about earning or maintaining respect? Perhaps Kypreos can tell that to any female news snoop who’s been assigned to cover men’s sports. Earning respect is an every-day, never-ending challenge for them. Same goes for female fire fighters and cops. Ditto openly gay athletes. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, actors, singers, artists, writers, parents—women and men—we all strive for respect. The difference, of course, is that we don’t feel the need to punch anyone in the face to achieve it.
Kypreos is either delusional or a damn fool, and I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.
Offering an anti-goon voice in the discussion was J.P. Barry, who represents Byron and called out the “code” for what it is: A sham. Bogus. “I’m sure you will hear from many others who see things much differently than me and will say ‘look at Paul Byron, what a warrior, he answered the bell.’” Barry said. “These are the people that believe in the old ‘code.’ It’s time for Player Safety to be the new ‘code.’ What really matters is eliminating avoidable concussions wherever we can in our player safety rules going forward.” Imagine that, a voice of reason. To which Burke responded: “J.P. should have kept his mouth shut.” That’s rich. A guy who now makes his living as a squawk box is telling others to zip their lips. What freaking ever.
Astonishing headline on the Sportsnet website last week: “Tavares’ excellent season with the Maple Leafs flying under the radar?” They were kidding, right? Nope. On the Tim & Sid chin-wag, the boys discussed John Tavares being “overlooked.” Said Sid: “I can’t believe I’m about to say this—there’s been so much other stuff—he has been overlooked to a certain extent.” Oh, pu-leeze. The leading goal-scorer with the Tranna Maple Leafs has been “overlooked” like the moon landing and the JFK assassination. His name has been in more headlines than Robert Mueller’s. Cripes, man, how often have we seen that pic of J.T. in his PJs? A dozen? Two dozen? Until I see Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby in a onesy, no player in the Republic of Tranna is “overlooked.” Ever. And certainly not by Leafsnet.
What’s this? The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are in discussions to bring the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders to Good Ol’ Hometown for a National Football League preseason skirmish? Please, say it ain’t so. I mean, what if the Raiders refuse to leave?
Interesting tweet from Winnipeg FCvoice Knuckles Irving on the Packers-Raiders invading three-down country: “Any CFL team that offers to host an NFL pre season (sic) game should have their franchise revoked. And I might not just be kidding.” I agree with Knuckles. But only if we get to keep Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
And, finally, now that the Major League Baseball season is upon us, shouldn’t the curling season be over? Will anyone actually be watching the men’s world championship from Lethbridge? I can’t imagine that it’s must-see TV for many folks, not even hard-core Pebble People on the Prairies.
Welcome to the River City Shrink Wrap, the world-renowned sports psychology clinic. If you can’t wrap your head around something, Dr. Pigskin or her twin sister Dr. Puck will do it for you. Today, Dr. Pigskin is on duty and has just one patient, Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea…
DR. PIGSKIN: Good morning, Coach O’Shea. I must say, I was surprised when you called to book an appointment, because everything I read and hear about you and your Bombers these days is positive. Nobody’s talking about your goofy shorts and smirk anymore. Seems to me that you’ve become the flavor of the month in the Canadian Football League.
COACH O’SHEA: Ya, they like me today—at least some of them do—but what about tomorrow?
DR. PIGSKIN: Well, beat the Saskatchewan Roughriders tomorrow in Regina and the love-in continues. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. It’s really quite simple, Coach.
COACH O’SHEA: That’s easy for you to say, Doc. That’s a very hostile environment we’re walking into. You should see those sodbusters. They’re big and hairy, they’ve all got beer bellies, and half of them don’t have more than three teeth in their head. Then there’s the men. They’re even uglier. And thick between the ears. Really, what kind of a guy dates a woman who wears a watermelon on her head?
DR. PIGSKIN: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Coach.
COACH O’SHEA: Trust me, Doc, there ain’t nothing beautiful about what comes out of their mouths. You should hear some of the things they call me and my players, especially after they’ve got a few cans of wobbly pop in them.
DR. PIGSKIN: Give me an example.
COACH O’SHEA: I can’t do that, Doc. You’re a lady and I’d never repeat those things in the company of a lady. Let’s just say that the fans in Regina mention my mother a lot, and it’s usually as an adjective in front of a word that rhymes with trucker.
DR. PIGSKIN: Oh my, that is nasty.
COACH O’SHEA: Nasty ain’t the word for it, Doc. You think there’s a lot of raw sewage pouring into the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Winnipeg? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve been to Mosaic Stadium. I ain’t saying Regina is the crotch of the country like another Bombers coach once did, but I need to get hosed down every time I leave the place.
DR. PIGSKIN: Well, okay, so you won’t be playing in friendly confines on Sunday. Boo freaking hoo. And you were expecting what for a playoff football game in enemy territory? The Welcome Wagon? A rose-petal pathway to your changing room? Man up, Mikey!
COACH O’SHEA: You’re right, Doc. I guess I sound kinda lame.
DR. PIGSKIN: Lame doesn’t begin to describe it. Look, I don’t believe for a minute that you’ve come to see me just because football fans in Regina have bad manners. Why don’t you tell me the real reason you’re here, Coach.
COACH O’SHEA: Well, the Toronto Argonauts just fired Marc Trestman. He’s won the Grey Cup three times, including last November. I’ve had this Bombers gig for five years and I’m still looking for my first playoff win. I’m Coach O-Fer. If I don’t get off the schneid in Regina, I’m thinking I’ll be saying one of two things at this time next week: 1) “Welcome to Wallmart;” 2) “Would you like fries with your order?” I mean, if a coach like Marc Trestman can’t hold on to his job, what hope do the rest of us slugs have?
DR. PIGSKIN: Oh, come on, Coach. Again, man up. Every one of us has an expiry date. Especially you professional coaches. It comes with the territory. So let’s try this one more time…why are you here talking to a shrink? Give me the straight goods.
COACH O’SHEA: Okay! Okay! I’m a compulsive gambler! There. I said it. Happy now?
DR. PIGSKIN: This isn’t about my happiness, Coach. It’s about you being comfortable in your own skin heading into your playoff game against Gang Green. Now, tell me about this compulsive gambling of yours. Do you bet on the ponies, the NFL, the NHL, dog racing, if Donald Trump will be impeached? What is it?
COACH O’SHEA: Naw, it ain’t that kind of gambling, Doc. They don’t pay me enough to waste my money like that. I gamble on strategy. Just when everything is going great for the team and it’s looking like we’re gonna win, I’ll make some dumb-ass decision and—kaflooey!—it blows up in my face like one of those exploding gadgets that Wile E. Coyote gets from ACME. Instead of punting on third down, I gamble. Even when the ball’s deep in our own end, I gamble. Ka-oom! Wrong again! Other times, like a couple of years ago in B.C. when I should have gone for it on third down, I gambled that my kicker could hoof a 61-yard field goal indoors where the air is deader than Jimmy Hoffa. Ask me how that worked out.
DR. PIGSKIN: Life is a gamble, Coach.
COACH O’SHEA: Ya, but I don’t know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. I keep thinking I can fool ’em with trick plays, like Wile E. Coyote trying to fool the Roadrunner. Sometimes I do fool ’em. That’s when you’ll see me smirk. But I can’t get the timing right for my gambling.
DR. PIGSKIN: Life is timing, Coach.
COACH O’SHEA: Is that the best you’ve got, Doc? Life is timing? I could have gone for a beer and the bartender could have told me that. I need you to tell me what to do about my compulsive gambling before I have another “D’oh!” moment that costs us another playoff game. Help me out here!
DR. PIGSKIN: First, there’s something you need to remember…every football coach makes bone-headed decisions. They’ve been doing it ever since someone thought a ball with pointy ends would be a cool thing to kick and toss around. The exception, of course, would be Bud Grant, a flawless coach who’s so respected in these parts that the pigeons refuse to poop on his statue outside Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. So here’s what you do next time you’re looking at third-and-one or more, especially on your half of the field—ask yourself this question: What do I want the pigeons to do?
COACH O’SHEA: That’s pretty deep, Doc. Kinda zenish. But can you spell it out for me in layman’s terms?
DR. PIGSKIN: If you want to be remembered as a royal screw-up, grasshopper, you’ll gamble. If you want to be remembered as the head coach who brought the Grey Cup home to Winnipeg after 27 years of failure, you’ll kick the ball away and rely on your defence.
COACH O’SHEA: You make it sound so simple, Doc.
DR. PIGSKIN: As legendary football coach Siddhartha Gautama said to his grasshoppers during a film session: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Now, head to Mosaic Stadium and kick some Roughrider butt.