It was something that Connor Hellebuyck said during his season-closing natter with news snoops, scant hours after the Winnipeg Jets had been found wanting in another National Hockey League crusade gone wrong.
“I’m starting to run out of time and I can feel it,” Hellebuyck acknowledged. “Wheels (Blake Wheeler) talks about this all the time. It flashes by, and I’m starting to understand. You gotta make the most of your years. I’m gonna make the most of whatever my situation is and give my all and give everything I can to this spot or the team that I have.”
That, my friends, is a haunting echo from March 2017, only then it was a 29-year-old and healthy Bryan Little confirming he had begun to hear whispers from Father Time.
“It’s another year of your career that you can’t get back,” he said in the wake of the Jets failed bid to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. “Some of the best players in this room are the youngest. There’s definitely a bright future, but some guys are older and want to do something right now.”
One of the “youngest” in that 2017 Jets changing room was Hellebuyck, a fresh-scrubbed 23. Alas, there were 30 candles on his birthday cake two weeks ago, marking him among the most long-in-tooth lads in a greying group (eight guys 30 or older).
So what is Winnipeg HC to do with their tall drink of water in the blue paint?
Well, if we are to take Hellebuyck at his word (and why wouldn’t we?), his main aspiration is to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. That doesn’t make the Jets goaltender unique among the NHL’s 700-plus players, but it does make charting course an iffy bit of business for both himself and the club.
Hellebuyck and the Jets have arrived where the road forks, and what they do will tell us everything we need to know about the direction Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff plan to take their oft-dysfunctional outfit.
In the simplest of terms, they either keep their ‘keeper, or they move him out. No muss, no fuss.
Except there’s always a dab of muss and a smidgen of fuss when dealing with a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender who’s eligible for free agency 13 months hence and beginning to feel the urgency of time.
Keep Hellebuyck and the sticker price will be dear. What number will it take to make him happy and convince him to stay for the long haul? $9 million? $10 million? What term? Five years? Six years? Do that and they’re tying the team’s wagon to a 30something, just as they did with Blake Wheeler in September 2018, and we all know how well that’s worked out.
The Puck Pontiff and Chevy will have to ask themselves what their Hellebuyck-backed Jets have accomplished in the past two crusades to warrant a hefty increase in salary. And here’s their answer: Missed the playoffs and surrendered rather meekly in the first round of this spring’s Stanley Cup runoff, after crawling in as the last seed (and that was with Vezina-calibre puck-stopping).
Why, then, would the Jets entertain the notion of jacking up Hellebuyck’s annual $6.166 million pay to put him beside, or directly behind, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky at the pay window? The former has his name engraved on the Stanley Cup (twice) and Conn Smythe Trophy, the latter is in this spring’s final and a leading candidate to win the Smythe. Does a bit more of the Puck Pontiff’s spare change in Hellebuyk’s fat-cat wallet move the Jets closer to a championship parade?
Go ahead and argue that without Hellebuyck in goal the Jets, as presently constructed, would be a draft lottery outfit. No argument. On this team, he’s the scoop of ice cream in the cone. But padding fat-cat wallets doesn’t stop pucks, and the Jets won’t make a deeper dive into spring simply because they roll the Brinks truck up to the goaltender’s front door.
Hellebuyck has wedged the Puck Pontiff and Chevy between a rock, a hard place and a wrecking ball. He’s informed them he wants to win the Stanley Cup. Surely they know he can’t do it with the current supporting cast. And he’s “not interested” in a rebuild.
In short: Can’t win with him, can’t win without him, can’t surround him with neophytes.
It’s going to take the wisdom of Solomon for the Jets to sort this out, and we know they can’t cut the goaltender in half, even though half a Hellebuyck isn’t such a bad bet.
The echoes of 2017 remind them time’s a-wasting. Again.
Here’s another echo, this one from Hellebuyck in July 2018: “The tools are in this locker room to be a championship team. I love it here and I want to be here and I really believe this team has what it takes.” It doesn’t sound like he’s still feeling the love.
Here’s another echo, this one a tweet from old friend Joe Pascucci in April 2019: “Another concern, of many, I have about the Jets and the changes sure to come this off-season is that they’ll become a team that is 2 years away from being 2 years away.” Yup.
Here’s one final echo, this one from my own self in October 2020: “It seems to me that Winnipeg HC has retreated to the wait-and-hope part of the ‘process’. The Puck Pontiff and Chevy are waiting and hoping on Sami Niku. They’re waiting and hoping on Dylan Samberg. They’re waiting and hoping on Ville Heinola. They’re waiting and hoping on David Gustafsson. Hell, they’re still waiting and hoping on Jack Roslovic, and they drafted him in 2015. And, apparently, they’ll wait and hope on Logan Stanley forever.” Samberg appears to be the only keeper in the bunch. Otherwise, it reminds me of the 1960s Kinks song Tired of Waiting for You: “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you…”
This tickled my funny bone: The Toronto Maple Leafs, when measured against the Jets, were a superior side in 2022-23. The evidence… Leafs: 111 points, 2nd in division, 4th in conference, 4th in NHL, won playoff round. Jets: 95 points, 4th in division, 8th in conference, 14th in NHL, lost in first playoff round. Here’s the knee-slapper part: It’s the Jets faithful wearing rose-tinted goggles when they view their hockey heroes. We know this because of surveys conducted on the Jets by The Athletic and the Leafs by the Toronto Star. Consider: 61.1% of Leafs fans say the season was a failure. 78.4% of Jets fans say the season was a success. Either Leafs loyalists have become completely jaded, or the rabble in Good Ol’ Hometown are easier to please than kids at a carnival.
If what we hear about the Maple Leafs is accurate, president Brendan Shanahan makes all the important hockey decisions. So why hire Brad Treliving as GM?
For a guy who just two weeks ago said he had no intention to pull up stakes and leave the Republic of Tranna, defrocked Leafs GM Kyle Dubas must have set a land-speed record for dashing from The ROT to Pittsburgh, where he’s now president of hockey ops for the Penguins. Cripes, man, the door didn’t even have time to hit him on the ass. I swear, we haven’t seen anyone get out of Dodge that fast since Butch and Sundance saw the posse coming.
Mike Babcock to coach the Columbus Blue Jackets? Oh dear. Thoughts and prayers to Johnny Gaudreau. Ditto Patrick Laine.
An unidentified man recently returned a book to St. Helena Public Library in California’s Napa Valley. Nothing unusual about that, except this particular book—A History of the United States, by Benson Lossing—had been checked out in 1927! Making it scandalously overdue. You know, kind of like NHL commish Gary Bettman is overdue to finally get it right with the Arizona Coyotes.
A woman was strolling on Rio Del Mar State Beach on the California coast recently when she found a tooth which, according to Wayne Thompson of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, came from a Pacific mastodon, an extinct, elephant-like creature that dates back to the Ice Age. Well, duh. Of course it’s from the Ice Age, and Philly Flyers legendary captain Bobby Clarke wants his tooth back.
Just wondering: Will the Winnipeg Goldeyes-City Hall spat ever end? Seriously, it seems like they’ve been hissing at each other since Sammy Katz and his Local Nine set up shop at the beautiful Ball Yard By The Forks, (aka Buck A Year Ball Park) in 1999. The Harry-Meghan split from King Chucky and the Royal Family hasn’t been this messy. The club’s original lease is set to expire on July 28, but glitches over grant money, parking stalls and end time for a new lease have popped up like a .200 hitter with runners in scoring position. Come on, people, let’s get along. I’ve never been a Sammy Katz fan, but I know spending an afternoon/evening watching the Local Nine is a delightful experience, and the American Association club adds value to Good Ol’ Hometown. Get ‘er done.
So, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have punted Marc Liegghio, including the embattled kicker among their final roster cuts in advance of the 2023 Canadian Football League season. Talk about a day late and a dollar short. That decision came one convert/one field goal attempt too late, and it cost them a third successive Grey Cup title.
Longtime followers of the Bombers might get a giggle out of the pic you see here, which landed in my inbox thanks to good friend Robert Temmerman. Winnipeg Tribune paper boy Chris Walby didn’t make the cut as an electrical engineer or receiver (and who knew 12-year-old Chris was into stamp collecting?), but he was more than passable as an O-lineman in a hall-of-fame football career.
Receiving that newspaper clipping from Robert gave me pause for ponder on the passage of time, and I came to realize I’ve never watched a game in The Little Hockey House On The Prairie or at The Football Field In Fort Garry. When I put Good Ol’ Hometown in the rear view mirror, Winnipeg Arena and Winnipeg Stadium were still standing, Jennifer Jones had never won a Scotties, Valour FC didn’t exist, the Winnipeg Sea Bears (dumb name) didn’t exist, the Jets didn’t exist, the Winnipeg Ice didn’t exist, Glen Murray was mayor, Gary Filmon was premier, and I could order a delicious turkey clubhouse for lunch at the Wagon Wheel restaurant.
Things that make me go hmmm, Vol. 2,156:Season tickets to watch the Toronto Blue Jays from a seat in the Home Plate Club at Rogers Centre next year will set you back $39,500 to $68,500. But, hey, you aren’t just buying baseball. You’re getting “unique entertainment features plus private members’ entrance and in-seat dining.” Hmmm. For $68,500, I’d expect Adele to entertain me with a few tunes and dinner with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
This batting tip from broadcaster Keith Hernandez during Friday’s New York Mets-Jays game: “You want to always be erect when you make contact. Like a telephone pole!” There are no words.
So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Naomi Osaka declined a natter with news snoops at the 2021 French Open, citing “mental health” issues as the reason. For that, she was fined $15,000 and tournament officials bullied the young player, with menacing threats of scorching the earth around her if she didn’t talk. So Osaka quit. Meanwhile, last week at the French Open, Aryna Sabalenka declined a chin-wag with news snoops for “my own mental health and well-bring.” Her punishment? Nada. Threats? Bullying? Nada. There was zero talk of dire consequences, like banishment from all four tennis Grand Slam events, and she plays on. More to the point, officials gave Aryna the okie-dokie to duck out of the usual post-match gab. So what changed? Is Sabalenka’s mental health of greater value than Osaka’s, or did the French finally realize that they’re dealing with human beings, not robots with great top-spin?
The lowest. That’s where the Drab Slab sports section went with its local female coverage during May. Of its 31 editions, just four (4 of 31!) included articles/briefs exclusive to local female athletes/teams, and there was a 16-day stretch with zero (0!) content other than one pic/cutlines on high school futbol. Pathetic. Shameful. Not even close to being good enough. These are the numbers through the first five months of the year:
And, finally, it’s Pride month. Let an LGBT(etc.) person know you’re on their side.
This being Manitoba Hockey Heritage Day, it puts me in a reflective mood, pondering my former life as a rink rat.
It began as a wobbly, Bambi-legged urchin on the outdoor freezes at Melrose Park Community Club, Bronx Park and East End, then moved to shinny shacks both primitive and elegant, from Transcona to Texas, from Sargent Park to Stockholm, from the Old Barn On Maroons Road to the Forum in Montreal (best hot dogs, ever) and Maple Leaf Gardens.
It was a lengthy trip, 30 years of it scribbling for the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Sun (with a couple of brief pit stops in the Republic of Tranna and Calgary), and there were highs and lows and in-betweens. This is what’s on my mind today:
I’m thinking about Mosie and the Winnipeg Warriors. I attended my first live pro game in the mid-1950s, a Western Hockey League skirmish featuring Billy Mosienko in the twilight years of a boffo career that included a 1952 record that stands uncontested to this day in the National Hockey League—three goals in the lickety-split time of 21 seconds. Mosie left the Chicago Blackhawks to wind it down with the Warriors in Good Ol’ Hometown, and it was a treat beyond description for a six-year-old kid to observe hockey royalty in person, in a swanky, new Winnipeg Arena.
I’m thinking about Father David Bauer and our national men’s team, based in River City during the 1960s. Our amateur Nats faced insurmountable odds in a quest to wrestle global supremacy from the U.S.S. R. “amateurs.” We all knew the Soviets were “amateurs” like cherry Kool-Aid is Russian vodka.
I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin and the original Winnipeg Jets, a Junior outfit in the Western Canada Hockey League that engaged in epic battles with the Flin Flon Bombers of coach Paddy Ginnell. Come playoff time, they’d pack the joint.
I’m thinking about Bill Addison, longtime commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. As a journalist and rink rat, I can’t think of anyone with whom I enjoyed talking all things puck more than Bill, a true gentleman in an era when a fellow would wear a necktie and a fedora to the rink.
I’m thinking about Frank McKinnon, the first sports figure I ever interviewed for the Trib, and the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association was the subject matter of my first byline article on June 14, 1971. It was buried on the back pages of the sports section, surrounded by Harold Loster’s horse racing copy, and it included a ghastly error—I wrote the MAHA had elected Frank president of the “1871-72” executive. What can I say? I’m an old soul. And, hey, I was only out by 100 years.
I’m thinking about Benny Hatskin signing Bobby Hull at Portage and Main in June 1972. I was a few blocks away in the Trib building when it all went down to change the shinny landscape forever. A younger generation might suggest Mark Chipman and David Thomson bringing the National Hockey League back to Good Ol’ Hometown in 2011 was a bigger story, but no. Everything flowed from Benny getting Hull’s signature on a World Hockey Association contract.
I’m thinking about the Jets introducing Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg to the masses in May 1974. Some of us were convinced that Benny and his minions had lost the plot because Swedes, thought to be cottony soft, couldn’t possibly survive vs. the barbarians who occupied too many roster spots on WHA outfits. Well, we now know they didn’t simply survive, they excelled, and served as Pied Pipers to numerous Europeans who found their way to the Jets.
I’m thinking about Junior hockey. I remember my first road trip, a milk run from Winnipeg to Dauphin for MJHL playoffs, and there were other junkets on the iron lung with the Winnipeg Clubs and Monarchs. Kevin McCarthy was the most talented local kid I ever covered, and watching him and Doug Wilson anchor a powerplay was special. My old coach Gerry Brisson, who owned the Junior Jets/Clubs/Monarchs before whisking the WHL franchise to Calgary, was a different head of lettuce, and my favorite character was Muzz MacPherson, coach of the 1973 Centennial Cup champion Portage Terriers before moving behind Brisson’s bench with the Clubs.
I’m thinking about the many hours I spent in the company of scouts, guys like Bob Goring, Bruce Cheatley, Jimmy Walker, Bruce Southern and Dino Ball, who made the down time more enjoyable.
I’m thinking about my favorite hockey people, in no particular order: Don Baizley, Jeep Woolley, Tom McVie, Terry Hind, Earl Dawson, George Allard, Gordie Pennell, Bill Addison, Frank McKinnon, Barry Bonni, Spider Mazur, Julie Klymkiw, Rudy Pilous, Teddy Foreman, Mike Doran, Sudsy, Aime Allaire, Bill Juzda, Bones Raleigh, Ed Sweeney, Billy Robinson, Aggie Kukulowicz, Marc Cloutier, Gordie Tumilson, Bill Bozak, John Ferguson, Peter Piper, Brian Gunn, Adam Tarnowski, Andy Murray, Teddy Green, Laurie Boschman, the Swedes (all of them), Portage Terriers.
I’m thinking about covering both the Jets final skirmish in the WHA, vs. the Edmonton Oilers (a 7-3 win), and their NHL baptism, in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins (a 4-2 loss). Reyn Davis and I were the beat writers of the day for both those games, and Friar Nicolson was the play-by-play guy on radio. Sadly, Reyn and Friar left us long ago.
I’m thinking about the 1975 World Junior tourney, with a group of WCHL all-stars facing off against the elite of the Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the U.S. The lads from Mother Russia ruled the day, besting the our kids 4-3 in the final game, prompting this rather peculiar observation of the comrades from Bobby Hull: “I’d like to see those guys in the shower, I’ll bet they’re all muscle.”
I’m thinking about Aime Allaire, the hard-luck case of my time covering shinny in Good Ol’ Hometown. Aime did everything possible to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home, but his St. Boniface Mohawks always came up a day late and a dollar short. I rode the iron lung with the Mohawks one winter, and Aime once hired me to handle stats for the Central Amateur Senior Hockey League.
I’m thinking about refereeing Winnipeg Colts tryout scrimmages for Stan Bradley and Harold Loster before they departed on their annual junket to a PeeWee tournament in Goderich, Ont.
I’m thinking about the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national side, 5-3, and Ulf Nilsson telling me in a noisy changing room that he was “proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
I’m thinking about Mike Smith, the egghead scout/coach/GM of the Jets who shall long be remembered for two things: 1) his make-work-for-Russians project; 2) running Ducky Hawerchuk out of town. The man I called Mikhail had a degree in Russian studies and a maniacal obsession with every Vladimir or Igor who laced up a pair of skates, and he attempted to transform the local shinny side into the Central Red Jets. The plan was a colossal flop and Hawerchuk became a casualty, moving to Buffalo.
I’m thinking about Billy Bozak, a very nice man known as Magic Fingers. Boz was responsible for healing the lame and halting among the Jets, and there wasn’t an owie the longtime team trainer couldn’t cure. How his healing hands made Terry Ruskowski suitable for combat in the 1979 WHA final I’ll never know.
I’m thinking about the day of the long faces, which is to say the final farewell for the original Jets, who packed up and skedaddled lock, stock and jock strap to Arizona. There weren’t many dry eyes in the joint on April 28, 1996, and it had nothing to do with a 4-1 playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings. It had everything to do with a funeral. The NHL was dead in Good Ol’ Hometown. It took 15 years for many among the rabble to recover from the Jets’ departure. Many still mourn the loss.
I’m thinking about piggy banks and pucks and Peter Warren of CJOB roaming the landscape on a flatbed truck, accepting donations from the young, the old and the in-between in a bid to Save the Jets from extinction. It worked once or twice, but kids emptying their piggy banks and little, old ladies signing over pension cheques was never going to be the solution.
I’m thinking about Tuxedo Night and how snazzy all the luminaries and the Zamboni driver looked in their monkey suits. The promo was the brainchild of marketing guru Marc Cloutier, who wanted Good Ol’ Hometown to look its spiffy best for the first appearance of NHL royalty, the Montreal Canadiens. Lafleur and Savard and Robinson and Gainey and Shutt et al were greeted by a gathering of 15,723 on Dec. 15, 1979, and the Jets faithful feared the worst. But a rag-tag roster filled with hand-me-downs rag-dolled the Stanley Cup champions, winning 6-2, with Willy Lindstrom scoring three goals and Peter Sullivan collecting five points.
I’m thinking about Bobby Hull and how he was greeted with such pomp and pageantry at Portage and Main in June 1972, and how he left the building in such an undignified manner seven years later. The Golden Jet was scheduled to be in the lineup for Tuxedo Night, nationally televised on Hockey Night in Canada, but he was confused about faceoff time and arrived late. Coach Tommy McVie, not one for bending rules, informed Hull that he’d be sitting this one out. When advised of Hull’s punishment, GM John Ferguson pitched a fit, kicking a hole in a dressing room door. Didn’t matter. Hull, one of the team owners, was out. He never wore Jets linen again.
I’m thinking about Teemu Selanne’s astonishing 76-goal rookie season, in 1992-93, and GM John Paddock trading the Finnish Flash to the Disney Ducks three years later. D’oh!
I’m thinking about doing color commentary to Friar Nicolson’s play-by-play on Jets radio broadcasts, in the WHA and NHL, and I’m sure I was awful.
I’m thinking about tossing back vodka and beer with the Russians at the Viscount Gort during the Winnipeg portion of the 1981 Canada Cup tournament. They couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak Russian, but we managed to conduct an impromptu and teary-eyed wake for legendary Soviet forward Valeri Kharlamov, who was buried that day back home in Mother Russia.
I’m thinking about all the good guys no longer with us, too many to list.
I’m no longer a rink rat. I haven’t attended a live hockey game since 1999, when I put Good Ol’ Hometown in my rear view mirror after 30 years in the rag trade. But it was a rush. Some might even think of it as a bit of a charmed life, and I suppose watching hockey and writing about the game for a living was every bit of that.
The only thing missing was girls/women’s hockey, and I hope Ponytail Puck receives more ink in the local dailies once it’s back on the ice. Ditto Junior, university and high school shinny. I realize readers can’t get enough of their Jets, but they weren’t the only game in town during my time at the Trib and Sun, and they still aren’t.
Rather than the usual Sunday morning smorgas-bored, I give you the top 50-plus movers and shakers in Good Ol’ Hometown over the past half century.
This isn’t one of those hum-drum, greatest-athlete lists. We’re talking positive impact, what a sports figure did to enhance the local sporting landscape, whether that meant the wow factor of Teemu Selanne’s 76-goal rookie season or Harvey Warner keeping the ponies at a full gallop out at Assiniboia Downs.
And, while our play-for-pay jocks tend to gobble up the big headlines on a day-to-day basis, it’s often the owners and managers and coaches and administrators who make things happen when we aren’t staring at the scoreboard, and that also means our amateur playing fields, where we have a rich tradition of magnificence and the impact has been significant.
So here’s the list of the 50-plus most-impactful movers and shakers in Winnipeg sports dating back to 1970, and I should warn you that this list includes jock journos, because once upon a time before the Internet, 24-hour TV and social media, there was a gadget called the radio. Not every game was televised or live streamed. We needed our newspapers and radios to take us to the action.
One final note: Remember, this is only one person’s opinion, so don’t get your knickers in a twist if you don’t see the name of one of your faves.
1. Ben Hatskin: Well, this is the ultimate no-brainer. It’s like naming Pope Francis to an all-Catholic team. I mean, Benny didn’t just bring the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association to Good Ol’ Hometown in 1972, he hijacked Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks in a shocking coup that reshaped the shinny landscape. Without Benny’s derring-do, there would have been no National Hockey League Jets 1.0 and no Jets 2.0.
2. Mark Chipman: The Puck Pontiff filled the void left by the 1996 departure of the Jets to Arizona, but his Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League were just the appetizer. Aided by billionaire David Thomson’s bulging bankroll, there was an NHL rebirth in River City in 2011, with the Atlanta Thrashers moving north. Oh, and did I mention that along the way Chipman and Thomson built a downtown arena?
3. Bobby Hull: The Golden Jet informed Hatskin and the other WHA renegade owners that it would take $1 million dollars for him to leave the Blackhawks and pull on a Jets jersey in ’72. Done deal. The Hull signing legitimized the WHA, and other top-level players soon followed. And, remember, Robert Marvin was also part of the ownership group that took the Jets into the NHL.
4. Michael Gobuty/Barry Shenkarow: I know, I know. Michael is the guy who let Wayne Gretzky get away. Mook. But don’t hold that against him. Michael and his ownership group kept the Jets afloat in the late 1970s, allowing for one final, rewarding whirl in the WHA by purchasing the contracts of a group of Houston Aeros, including Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Rich Preston and Scott Campbell. He also recruited John Bowie Ferguson, and Michael offered a loud and influential voice in the NHL’s decision to absorb the Jets and three other WHA franchises in 1979. As for Barry, talk about shooting the messenger. By the time the whole thing went south for Jets 1.0, he was front man for the ownership group that sold the club to American buyers, who then loaded up the truck and bugged out to Arizona, lock, stock and jock. So Barry became the fall guy. But it’s a bad rap. No locals were willing to dig into their deep pockets to purchase the franchise and lose millions of dollars every year, so he/they really had no choice.
5. Cal Murphy: Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and very funny, Cal ruled the Winnipeg Blue Bombers roost with an iron fist from 1983-96, as either head coach or general manager. Along the way, there were three Grey Cup championships, one heart transplant, and one human rights kerfuffle over female news snoops in the locker room. He also brought the Grey Cup game to Good Ol’ Hometown for the first time, and became a vocal advocate for organ donations. Today there’s a pigeon perch of Kindly Cal outside Football Follies Field In Fort Garry.
6. Wade Miller: The leader of the Canadian Mafia inherited a Sad Sack, laughing stock-level Bombers team and the longest title drought in the Canadian Football League when he was anointed CEO in 2013. He was more like the CE-D’oh! in the early years, but Wade ignored the wolves howling at his door and stuck by his fellow hosers, GM Kyle Walters and sideline steward Mike O’Shea. Today the Bombers reign as Grey Cup champions, with money in the bank, and only the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Miller down.
7. Dr. Gerry Wilson/Billy Robinson/Don Baizley: No North American shinny side tapped into the European hockey market as swiftly, deeply and as eagerly as the Jets, and it was this trio of forward-thinkers that brought the first wave of Scandinavians to Good Ol’ Hometown in the mid-1970s. Dr. Wilson caught the first glimpse of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and alerted Robinson, the Jets main bird dog. Robby scampered across the big pond to Sweden and liked what he saw, signing both players pronto. Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Curt Larsson came along for the ride, and player agent Baizley took them under his wing. Championship parades ensued.
8. Anders/Ulf/the Shoe: It’s no exaggeration to suggest Anders and Ulf revolutionized the game once in partnership with Hull. They made magic with their swashbuckling, freestyle frolicking on the local freeze, but it was Sjoberg—the Shoe—who stirred the drink from the back end. Together, they dominated the WHA and—damn them!—also provided Glen Sather with the blueprint for his Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s.
9. John Ferguson: So, here’s the irony—he was the cad who lured the ultra-popular Hedberg and Nilsson away from Portage and Main to make them stars on Broadway, then the Rangers fired Fergy and he joined the Jets to oversee their final WHA title and aid the entry into the NHL. Go figure. Full of bluster and occasional rage, Fergy made certain that life around the Jets camp was never boring, which sometimes meant kicking holes in walls and dumping buckets of ice on the opposing team’s bench. As Jets GM, he assembled a string of formidable NHL outfits during the 1980s, even if he couldn’t quite get them over the hump. Stars like Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne, David Babych, Thomas Steen and Dave Christian were drafted during his watch, and we won’t talk about Jimmy Mann.
10. Clara Hughes: When they name parks, playgrounds and schools in your honor, and when they put your pic on a postage stamp, you know you’ve done something right. Clara is a two-sport Olympian—speed skating and cycling—and the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. But it’s her advocacy on behalf of mental health and children’s sports/recreation that makes Clara truly impactful. She’s a leading voice in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and she’s donated/raised many thousands of dollars for various causes.
11. Cindy Klassen: She has as many shiny Olympic trinkets as Clara Hughes (six), including one gold medal, so Clara’s two-sport bona fides is all that separates the two world champion speed skaters.
12. Chris Walby: If ever there’s been a larger-than-life athlete, it was Bluto—all 6-feet, 7-inches and 300-plus pounds of him (give or take a Big Mac and a six pack). Bluto grabbed grass and growled for the Bombers from 1981-96, collecting three Grey Cup rings, nine CFL all-star nods, two top O-lineman awards, and a bust in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. But it wasn’t just what he did on the field and his size that made Bluto stand out. He was among the great characters in Rouge Football, a good-time Charlie and a deliverer of delicious quotes. No surprise he became a talking head on CBC’s football coverage, even if English sometimes seemed to be his second language.
13. Dale Hawerchuk: He came to the Jets as a freshly scrubbed 18-year-old from Cornwall, and much was expected of Ducky. He delivered. Winnipeg HC went from the free space on the NHL’s bingo card to the best shinny outfit this side of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and Ducky was the centrepiece.
14. Jennifer Jones: The only thing Jennifer hasn’t won is the Brier, and that’s only because the boys won’t let her play. There’s never been a finer female curler in our country, even if some in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia might want to point to Sandra Schmirler and Colleen Jones and debate the issue. Well, let ’em hash it out. We know they’re wrong.
15. Jill Officer: It will be interesting to monitor how Jennifer gets along without Jill throwing second stones. They were together almost as long as Mick and Keith, but Officer retreated from competitive curling in 2018. Jill’s haul is the same as Jen’s: An Olympic gold, two world championships and six Scotties titles in her trophy case. Also one park named in her honor.
16. Teemu Selanne: Like Anders and Ulf, the Finnish Flash wasn’t in Good Ol’ Hometown for a long time, but it sure was a good time. Those 76 goals in his freshman NHL crusade had the burg in a buzz, and it’s a record that will stand as long as there are frozen ponds for kids to skate on. Teemu might have been the most popular Jet ever, give or take Ducky.
17. Don Duguid: The Digit toddled off to two world curling championships as a skip and never lost a game. Yup, 17-0. Dugie then thought it would be a swell idea to go on TV and tell the rest of us how to curl, which he did for 29 years until someone at the CBC had a brain fart and let him go. And just the other day he was made a member of the Order of Canada for his wonderful work as a curler and teacher of the game.
18. Ray Turnbull: His friends called him Moosie, and he had scads of friends in and beyond the curling community. A true visionary, Moosie’s impact began at the Mother Club on Granite Way, but his influence spread across the globe when he buddied up with Don Duguid for instructional clinics to curling curious nations beginning in the 1970s. So he’s largely to blame for the rest of the world catching up to us on pebbled ice. A broadcasting icon with TSN from 1984 to 2010, Moosie coached no fewer than 17 world champions.
19. Frank McKinnon: Those who knew him best would probably tell us that Frank never slept, because he didn’t have time for zzzzzzs. How busy was he? Let me count the ways: Five years president and 20 years on the executive board of Hockey Manitoba; 10 years commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League; founding father of the Centennial Cup tournament and the inaugural World Junior championship; first chairman of the board of Hockey Canada; two years director Sports Federation of Canada; four years vice-president Canadian Olympic Association; founding member of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association. Frank was based in Carman, but he spent enough time in Good Ol’ Hometown to qualify for this list.
20. Donny Lalonde: The Golden Boy was in the ring with Sugar Ray. Yes, that Sugar Ray, as in Leonard. He even put the boxing legend on the canvas—one of only two men to do so—scoring a fourth-round knockdown in their 1988 bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Alas, Sugar Ray ruled the day, battering Lalonde about the ears in the ninth round and scoring a TKO. But it’s enough that the Golden Boy went from working out in the old firehall gym on Talbot Avenue in Elmwood to champion of the boxing world’s light heavyweights.
21.Jeff Stoughton: It’s easier to break out of jail than win the Manitoba men’s curling championship, but Jeff wore the Buffalo on his back 11 times. Crazy, man. A two-time world champion and three times the best at the Brier, Jeff also has two Canadian Mixed titles on his resume. Once he retired his tuck delivery and his spinorama showtime shtick, he took to coaching and administration, first helping Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris strike gold in Mixed Doubles at the Seoul Olympics, and he’s now coach and program manager for the national men’s team.
22. Coleen Dufresne: When you spend 17 years coaching and another 15 as athletic director at the University of Manitoba, you’ve had an impact on more young people than you can count. Coleen, who wore the Maple Leaf as a player at the 1976 Olympic Games, coached U of M Bisons women’s basketball teams to three national championships and five Great Plains Athletic Conference titles. She is a member of the Basketball Manitoba Hall of Fame in three categories—builder, coach and player—and the Canada West Hall of Fame.
23. Garth Pischke: Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball in the movies, but Garth made people talk volleyball in real life. Nobody put the W in the word “win” like Garth. He won a staggering 1,353 games in his 38 seasons as mastermind of the U of M Bisons men’s volleyball team, losing just 414 times. Chew on that and digest it—1,353-414. Who does that? Only Pischke, the winningest coach in collegiate V-ball history, on either side of the border. A two-time Olympian and six-time MVP at the Nationals as a player, Garth coached the Bisons to nine national titles and was named the Manitoba amateur athlete of the 20th century.
24. Brian Dobie: If this was just about being a nice guy, the U of M Bisons football coach would be at, or near, the top of the heap. Lovely man. He’s been sideline steward of the Herd since 1996, a gig that came on the heels of a 21-year watch with Churchill Bulldogs in high school grid. Do the math. Coach Dobie has been impacting the lives of teenagers and young men for close to half a century. Oh, and he’s also a five-time Canada West coach-of-the-year and a USports coach-of-the-year, plus he brought the Vanier Cup to the Fort Garry campus in 2007.
25. Vic Pruden: There was no women’s or men’s intercollegiate basketball program at the University of Winnipeg (nee United College) until Vic came along, so all the hoops glory stems from there. The annual Wesmen Classic was Vic’s brain child, ditto the Fort Garry Invitational. The Wesmen Classic became such a landmark event that it had to be shuffled from Riddell Hall to the Winnipeg Arena, and was televised nationally. Vic was also founder and first president of the Manitoba Basketball Coaches’ Association.
26. Coach Tom Kendall/University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen: Few took notice of women’s hoops back in the day, but then along came coach Kendall and his fabulous University of Winnipeg Lady Wesmen who, from October 1992 to November 1994, never lost a game. Eighty-eight teams tried to topple them, and 88 teams failed. Even fabled UCLA coach John Wooden was talking about the Lady Wesmen. Under Kendall’s watch, the Lady Ws went 101-2, with three national titles.
27. Coach Mike Burchuk/U of W Lady Wesmen volleyball team: The U of W women’s hoopsters received the 250-point newspaper headlines for their 88-game winning streak, but the women on the volleyball court trumped them with 123 consecutive Ws from January 1987 to January 1989. That included a 58-0 record in 1987-88 and, along the way, the ladies won six consecutive national titles and beat the NCAA champion Texas Longhors and a pro team, the Minnesota Monarchs.
28. Jennifer Botterill: It should be enough to say that Jennifer is the only female player ever inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, but we’ll also mention that she’s a three-time Olympic champion, five times a world champion, two times the Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the top player in U.S. women’s college hockey, twice the MVP at the world championship, and she once had an 80-game scoring streak (beat that, Connor McDavid!). If young girls are looking for a role model, Jen’s it.
29. Paul Robson: Can a sports list be complete without a guy named Mad Dog on it? We think not. So come on down, Mad Dog Robson, architect of the Winnipeg Football Club’s return to glory in the 1980s, a Lazarus-like rebirth that included the 1984 Grey Cup championship crusade, the first in 22 years. His handiwork as assistant GM/GM included going stealth to lure Chris Walby out of Montreal, hiring Cal Murphy as sideline steward, and engineering the Dieter Brock-for-Tom Clements trade. Paul was also once publisher of the Winnipeg Sun, but we won’t penalize him for that.
30. Harvey Warner: It’s probably safe to say the ponies wouldn’t be galloping at Assiniboia Downs if not for Harvey and his Manitoba Jockey Club. Harvey is a founding father and current president of the MJC, which took possession of the Downs in 1993. It’s never been an easy ride for Harvey and cohorts like Darren Dunn and Sharon Gulyas out at the racing oval on the western edge of Good Ol’ Hometown, but they’ve managed to keep the barns open and the horses fed and watered. So, yes, the reins have been in the right man’s hands for 27 years.
31. Mike Riley: When Leo Durocher coined the phrase “nice guys finish last,” he certainly wasn’t thinking of a guy like Mike Riley. Aside from bringing the Grey Cup home twice in his four years as sideline steward of the Bombers, Mike might be the most decent man to ever coach a pro team in Good Ol’ Hometown (John Paddock would be second in line), and that counts for something on my scorecard.
32. Milt Stegall: The Turtle Man would be higher on this list, except for one thing—every time I look at his hands, I don’t see any Grey Cup rings. For all his personal accomplishments—all-time TD leader in CFL history with 147 and a Most Outstanding Player award—the Bombers had just four winning seasons in his 14 crusades. No player ever looked better while mostly losing, though, and he’d be the first to tell you that. Milt continues to be a Bombers booster as one of the gab guys on TSN’s CFL coverage, and that’s always a good thing.
33. Sam Katz: Full disclosure—I’m not fond of Sammy. I think him to be a snake oil salesman. If he told me today is Sunday, I’d double check the calendar. But he brought professional baseball back to Good Ol’ Hometown, and the Winnipeg Goldeyes frolic in a beautiful, downtown ballyard thanks to Sammy.
34. Andy Van Hellemond: Whistleblowers don’t always get respect, but Andy Van did. The kid weaned on the frozen ponds of Isaac Brock was, arguably, the best man to ever pull on a striped shirt, and he was also a trend-setter, becoming the first on-ice official to wear a helmet, in 1984. The NHL made lids mandatory for the zebras four years later (a grandfather clause allowed some to officiate sans head protection until 2006-07). Andy Van refereed 1,475 regular season games, 227 in the playoffs and 19 Stanley Cup finals, all records. He was named Manitoba’s referee-of-the-century.
35. Sylvia Burka: Before Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen and Susan Auch, there was Sylvia Burka, three times a world speed skating champion. She has held over 40 Canadian speedskating records, and once set a world indoor cycling mark at one kilometer. She won 12 national cycling titles. But her true legacy can be found in the skate marks she left for others to follow.
36. Dawn McEwen: I suppose you could say Dawn is to Team Jennifer Jones what Ringo Starr was to the Beatles. She seems content in the background while Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Cathy Overton-Clapham attracted most of the attention, but without her lead stones and robust sweeping they wouldn’t have become the finest female outfit in Canadian curling history. Dawn has an Olympic gold medal, two world titles and five Scotties crowns in her trophy case, so don’t even think of her as a spare part.
37. Kaitlyn Lawes: She branched out from throwing third stones for Jennifer Jones to strike Olympic gold with John Morris in the debut of mixed doubles at the Winter Olympic Games. So she has a nice collection of two gold trinkets, a world championship and a Scotties title.
38. Susan Auch: Although never making it to the top level of the Olympic podium, Susan made speed skating front page news in Good Ol’ Hometown with two silver medals and a bronze in the Winter Games, three gold in World Cup racing in 1995, three Manitoba athlete-of-the-year honors and a Canadian athlete-of-the-year salute. There’s a Susan Auch Oval out at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex and a Susan Auch Park in Transcona, and she’s now CEO of Speed Skating Canada.
39. Troy Westwood/David Asper: Board member Asper came up with the concept and gave the Banjo Bowl it’s name, but it was the spinoff of a quote from Ol’ Lefty, the former Bombers place-kicker who, in an interview prior to a 2003 playoff skirmish, called Saskatchewan Roughriders fans “a bunch of banjo-picking inbreds.” Much caterwauling from the Flattest of Lands ensued, and the Banjo Bowl was born in 2004. It’s the most-anticipated event on the local sports calendar every year, and it’s been strictly SRO since 2005. When he wasn’t trash talking Flatlanders, Ol’ Lefty was hoofing more field goals (617) and more points (2,745) than anyone in Bombers history.
40. Connie Laliberte: They called her the Ice Queen, but underneath that cucumber-cool exterior burned a competitive bonfire. Connie gave every female curler in Manitoba something to aim for when she became the first Buffalo Girl to win the world crown, in 1984. She also won three Scotties titles and today is the high performance director for Curl Manitoba.
41. Sandy Riley: The former sailor (1976 Olympic Games) and former president of the Manitoba Sports Federation served as chair of Winnipeg’s 1999 Pan American Games, an event that helped revive the sagging spirit of a city that had lost its NHL franchise only three years earlier. As a bonus, it attracted the attention of Ol’ Cigar Breath, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who used his Revolution Day address to go on a mini-rant about mysterious “traps and tricks and schemes and filth” that encouraged his athletes to clamber over the wall to freedom. Cuban defectors aside, the Pan Ams were an artistic and financial success. More latterly, the Riley family donated $500,000 toward construction of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
42. Dayna Spiring: It doesn’t matter that Dayna wasn’t on the receiving end of any passes, nor did she hoof any field goals or tackle any running backs. The lady was a champ in her first year as Chair of the Blue Bombers board of directors, and she became the first woman to have her name engraved on the Grey Cup. For young girls and women, that makes her Dayna Inspiring.
43. Desiree Scott: A former star and coach with the U of M Bisons, the lady they call The Destroyer joined our national women’s soccer side in 2010, and she’s now just one of five to have earned 150 caps. Along the way, she’s collected two Olympic bronze medals and participated in three World Cup tournaments. Away from the competitive pitch, Desiree is heavily involved with soccer camps for KidSport and she’s an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup.
44. Bill Wedlake: A head coach for 32 years, first at St. John’s High where he won two provincial titles, then 16 years at the U of W, Bill was also athletic director at the downtown campus for eight years. A co-founder of the Winnipeg Invitational tournament, he’s written three books on coaching and is a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
45. Mo Glimcher: If you think it’s tough dealing with teenagers these days, consider Mo Glimcher’s gig—he had 30,000-40,000 kids under foot every year between 1975 and 2016. Mo retired after 41 years as Executive Director of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association, and I’d say he’s earned a master’s degree in babysitting.
46. Bob Picken: There are three major sports operatives in Good Ol’ Hometown—the Jets, the Blue Bombers, and curling. Yes, curling. Our Pebble People don’t make the big bucks like the Jets and Bombers, but they don’t want for media exposure, due in large part to jock journos like Pick. Pebble People have never known a better media friend than Pick, whose magnificent pipes blessed the airwaves of CJOB, CKY and the CBC for half a century. He played the game, served as president of the Manitoba Curling Association, worked with both the Canadian Curling Association and the World Curling Federation, and there’s a bonspiel at the Thistle named in his honor. Pick made certain that curling was never back-page news or filler at the end of a sportscast.
47. Jack Matheson: Admittedly, there’s bias in this choice, because Matty gave me my start at the Winnipeg Tribune, but his sassy and brassy sports column was the only absolute must-read in town during the 1970s. And when Furnaceman fired him up for his daily rants on CJOB, it was must-listening. Matty set an incredibly high bar as a sports scribe, and no one has come close to reaching it since the Trib folded.
48. Friar Nicolson: There’s no way of knowing how many young men and women went into broadcasting because of the curmudgeonly Friar, but I’d suggest the number is closer to 50 than one. The longtime play-by-play voice of the Jets, Friar is the man who lured Knuckles Irving to CJOB in 1973, and he also gave one-time do-everything CKY/CTV voice Peter Young his start in the gab game. That’s serious impact.
49. Bob Irving: When Knuckles became the voice of the Blue Bombers, Don Jonas and Chuck Ealey were the starting QBs and Dieter Brock was a little-known rookie who answered to the name Ralph. Bud Riley was the head coach, and there have been 14 more since Knuckles moved in behind the mic. So he goes back some, and he’s still going. At least he was until COVID-19 interrupted regularly schedule play-by-play. We assume (hope) the well-liked and highly respected Knuckles will be back for a 46th season once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror.
50. Don Wittman: How versatile was Witt? Well, we know he covered the CFL and the NHL and tennis and the Olympics and world-class track and top-flight curling during close to half a century with the CBC, but he also broadcast cricket. Ya, cricket. Witt traveled the globe and was on site to call the Ben Johnson race in Seoul and Donovan Bailey in Atlanta, but home base was always Winnipeg.
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.
Plenty to unpack this morning, kids, so let’s get right down to business…
Well, the boys at TSN almost got it right, the operative word being “almost.”
I mean, they pieced together their all-time Winnipeg Jets roster and they’re trying to tell us that The Shoe, Larks-Erik Sjoberg, is not—repeat, is not—one of the top six blueliners to wear the local shinny side’s livery? Instead, they name him the “foundational” player?
Good gawd. That’s like giving Jesus Christ a participation badge for showing up at the Last Supper.
Speaking of Christians…it’s about Dave Christian. Fabulous guy. Part of the Miracle On Ice. Saw him score his first goal, seven seconds into his first shift in his first National Hockey League game. Crowd at the Old Barn On Maroons Road went bonkers. Led the team in scoring one winter. But no. He isn’t an all-timer.
And on what planet known to man is Rink Rat Scheifele superior to Alexei Zhamnov? Only Planet TSN.
Andrew freaking Ladd? Talk about losing the plot. Freddy Olausson? Great kid, scattershot game. Paul Maurice? Are they spoofing us now?
Look, I realize this exercise by TSN was meant to generate chatter at a time when there isn’t a whole lot of sports to chatter about and, on that score, I suppose it’s mission accomplished. And, as mentioned, they struck most of the right notes. But their gaffes were as big as Ondrej Pavelec’s five-hole.
Start with The Shoe.
I don’t know the makeup of the TSN selection panel, but apparently none of them saw Sjoberg play. Here’s how I described him in a recent essay: “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.”
And this from Ron Chipperfield of the Edmonton Oilers: “I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the (World Hockey Association) five years.”
Here are some of Sjoberg’s bona fides: Team captain in both the WHA and NHL; three WHA titles; most outstanding defenceman in WHA (1977-78); first team all-star (’77-78); member of WHA Hall of Fame; member of Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame; member of Jets Hall of Fame.
Apparently all that escaped the notice of the boys at TSN, who slotted Olausson into the starting six instead. Hey, Freddy was a treat. Always quick with a smile. But if he was a better defenceman than The Shoe, then a bowl of Cheerios is a cure for COVID-19. We won’t see the day when Freddy’s name and number are raised to the rafters at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie beside The Shoe’s banner.
Now let’s move on to Scheifele v. Zhamnov. No comparison.
Zhamnov was slick, inventive, clever and did things with the puck that Rink Rat can only pull off with a PlayStation or Xbox joystick in his hand. The Russian finished third in NHL scoring one season, behind Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros, and he averaged 1.14 points per game with the Jets. Scheifele’s PPG is .855. Zhamnov also knew his way around the defensive end of the freeze, something that is too often a concept foreign to Scheifele.
Meanwhile, it’s about Paul Maurice.
Coach Potty Mouth is TSN’s choice as bench puppeteer, even though he’s accomplished squat. They trumpet his longevity and a .579 win/loss percentage, but ignore the reality that his Jets had their noses pressed to the window looking in at the Stanley Cup tournament three times in his first six crusades. When they did qualify for the spring runoff, his win/loss percentage is .407. That’s beyond lame.
Bobby Kromm should be the coach. Regular season record: .621; playoff record, .697; WHA titles, 1.
Finally, part of the TSN all-time team criteria was a checking unit. So, you remove Ladd and Christian from their lineup and insert Bill Lesuk, and Willy Lindstrom, who flank Thomas Steen.
The most talented of all Jets was Kent Nilsson, but the Swedish maestro wasn’t eligible due to a lack of games played. Kenta wore Jets linen for just two seasons before being taken hostage by the Atlanta Flames, and they were memorable. Both ended in WHA championships, he produced 107 points in each, and he was a two-time award winner (top rookie, most gentlemanly player).
Some might be surprised that I included Lesuk on my all-time team. Don’t be. When it came to dogging opposing forwards, no Jet did it better than the Tractor. He was like an extra layer of skin on foes, and also one of the nicest men in hockey.
Quick sidebar on Lesuk: After a particularly harsh critique in which I suggested the Jets had been wearing Pampers in a lopsided loss, the Tractor pulled me aside for a quiet chat the following day. “I don’t mind you being critical when we deserve it, but is it really necessary to write that we’re wearing diapers? I’m sure you can do better than that.” No screaming, no ranting, no confrontation. Just a reasoned comment. I’d never received such a polite dressing down. And, of course, he was correct.
By the way, I’m not alone in my rejection of TSN’s all-time Jets team. Old friend and longtime broadcaster Joe Pascucci and Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun took to Twitter to provide their choices. I’ll let you decide if they’re flawed. (Hint: They are.)
Canadian Football League commish Randy Ambrosie made his pitch for great gobs of cash ($30 million-$150 million) to the feds the other day, and he leaned heavily on syrupy sentiment, telling members of Parliament that private owners in our three-downs game aren’t in it for fame and certainly not fortune. “Sports philanthropists,” is how he described people like David Braley in B.C. and Bob Young in the Hammer, while Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment purchased the Tranna Argos out of “love,” don’t you know. There was also the predictable mention of “Canadian culture” and how much the CFL means to the masses. Except, according to a recent Angus Reid poll, the rabble doesn’t appear to be all-in on our quirky game. Asked if they would be “disappointed” should the 2020 CFL season be scuttled, here are the numbers:
Manitoba: 63 per cent
Saskatchewan: 61 per cent
Alberta: 45 per cent
B.C.: 34 per cent
Quebec: 31 per cent
Ontario: 28 per cent
Atlantic Canada: 17 per cent
As you can see, a huge majority of folks in Eastern Canada really don’t give a damn about the CFL and, in fact, they’ll be more disappointed if the National Football League season is trashed.
No COVID-19 vaccine, no herd immunity, no large gatherings in B.C. Which means no pro football. “The B.C. Lions need to have bums in the seats. I don’t see that happening,” Premier John Horgan said last week. So it won’t happen. The Leos’ bankroll, David Braley, isn’t going to pay his players to perform in front of empty pews at B.C. Place Stadium without cash flowing his way. Which begs the question: Will the Lions ever return, given the indifference that already exists on the Left Flank?
Just a thought: If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers don’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic, how long will it take for David Asper to hop on a white steed and rescue the franchise?
Now that Brendan Leipsic has been used as a pinata the past three days (justified) and the Washington Capitals have washed their hands of the fringe forward (also justified) for his dreadful, callous comments about women, let me just say this about that: I hope he enjoys hockey in Russia. The KHL, of course, is a haven for those with a sordid past. For evidence, see: Voynov, Slava. See: Peters, Bill. Hey, perhaps the Peters-coached Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg can provide a soft landing for Leipsic. Mind you, can there be anything “soft” about a place called Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast. Sounds like 200 square miles of hard labor.
Not all young, testosterone-fueled hockey players think of women as nothing more than meat on the hoof, but no one should be surprised that Leipsic and buddies harbor a mindset that belongs in another century. Their vulgar, body-shaming natter simply underscores the reality that misogyny and sexism in male sports remains as commonplace as chin whiskers at playoff time. And don’t run off with the notion that it’s limited to the locker room. It exists in the pews, or have you forgotten about the “Sedin sisters” and “Cindy” Crosby?
Former player Brett Hull has weighed in on Leipsic and pals, offering these thoughts: “We did the same things, we said the same things, but there was no way to get caught. We can go out after games, we can go to strip clubs, we can go to bars, and we could do whatever we wanted, and it would all be hearsay. The fun is gone. The game is not fun anymore to me.” Yes, hockey was so much more fun when the lads could spend their down time on the QT, hooting and hollering at a woman while she peeled off her clothing. Sigh.
Although the intimate details re locale and principals are sketchy, I recall standing on the fringe of a circle of Winnipeg Jets one winter, all of us loitering in an airport boarding area while awaiting a connecting flight. The topic du jour was trash talk. Although not a lengthy natter, it produced one nugget of insight: Players can rag on each other about anything—“Except wives, girlfriends and kids; they’re off limits.” I’m thinking it was Peter Sullivan who said it, but, as stated, my memory is iffy. It might have been Lyle Moffat or Kim Clackson. Doesn’t matter. Leipsic called Vancouver Canuck forward Tanner Pearson’s bride Meaghan “fat,” and that’s breaking an unwritten code.
My favorite tweet re L’Affaire Leipsic was delivered by Melissa Martin of the Drab Slab: “To be honest, I’m super burned out on writing about shitty men in sports. So I wrote about some awesome women instead.” Melissa’s column is top drawer, and hers is one of the few mainstream media female voices heard in the discussion. Which is most unfortunate. Only women can speak to the very heart of this issue, given that they’ve spent a lifetime listening to such bile, so we need more of them in jock journalism. Not just on the print side, understand. On air, too. As it is, it was left for Jeff O’Dog, Jamie McLennan, Ray Ferraro and Bryan Hayes to do the blah, blah, blah thing on TSN Overdrive. And what did they discuss? Leipsic not being welcomed back into the Capitals locker room and privacy issues/social media. There was very little mention of misogyny. Hayes feels “horrible for Tanner Pearson and his wife,” but he and the others expressed scant concern for the other woman trashed by Leipsic and fellow cads.
Worst take had to be a Twitter exchange between Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab and a reader/follower. The latter called the former “a fat looking nerd” and the former responded by calling the latter “a garbage human being.” Good grief. Are we back in Grade 5, boys?
There’s talk of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson returning to the ring at age 53 to fight Kiwi boxer-turned-rugby star Sonny Bill Williams. But apparently Williams began to have second thoughts when Tyson looked at him and said, “My, what big ears you have.”
Is it just me, or does anyone else look at TSN’s UFC guy Robin Black and see an aging Eddie Munster? I swear, Eddie and Robin were separated at birth, and Herman and Lily Munster probably don’t even know about it.
And, finally, how big a star was Little Richard, who died on Saturday? Well, the Beatles and Rolling Stones once were his opening acts. Yup, that big. My favorite Little Richard tune is Long Tall Sally, and rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t get much better than the Beatles’ version. Paul McCartney really gets after it on vocals and Ringo gives his Ludwig drum kit a fearsome thrashing. The lads recorded Long Tall Sally in one take, and it’s the last song they ever performed on tour.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and great Caesar’s ghost, does anything good ever happen on the Ides of March?
My most-distant recollection of sports dates back to the mid-1950s, either ’55 or ’56, when I sat in the nose-bleed pews of Winnipeg Arena, which was rather spiffy in its newness.
Below on the freeze whirled Billy Mosienko and Eric Nesterenko and Spider Mazur and others adorned in the gold-and-black livery of the Winnipeg Warriors, a freshly minted outfit in a nine-team Western Hockey League that stretched from Good Ol’ Hometown to Victoria and dipped south into Seattle.
I would have been five or six years old at the time, my eyes as wide as the centre-ice faceoff circle, and although I don’t recall the Warriors’ foe—nor the final score or whether I had a hot dog, a box of popcorn or both to go with my Coke—I can report that none of us in attendance gave consideration to “social distancing.” We were scrunched into the barn, somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 of us cheek-to-jowl, each delighted to be eye witnesses to a real, live professional hockey match.
That night represents Ground Zero for me in a lifetime of observing the kid’s games that grown men play for what once was a working-man’s wage but now makes them instant millionaires.
I’m now four months into my 70th spin around the sun and I’ve not known a world without sports since my Winnipeg Arena baptism in ’55 or ’56, even if I have sometimes wondered what a world without sports would be like.
I played sports. I watched sports. I harbored a voracious appetite for sports reading. Had I spent as much time with my nose stuck in school text books as I did jock journals and the sports section of the daily newspapers, I might have achieved higher loft than a C student. And bringing my report card home might not have been done with such paralyzing dread.
That enchantment with all things jock led to a career in sports journalism, not by design so much as circumstance and a favorable nod from Dame Fortune.
But I divorced myself from sports on a professional level 20-plus years ago, three decades after walking into the fifth-floor toy department at the Winnipeg Tribune for the first time. I’d like to say it was a full, never-look-back split, but that would be a mistruth. There have been numerous freelance gigs. There was a brief and self-aborted return to the rag trade. There have been contributions to various websites. And, of course, every time I’m struck with the notion to shut down this River City Renegade blog, something or someone (e.g. my doctor) reels me back in.
“You have to keep your mind active,” has been his repeated reminder, always accompanied by a caution that a rousing game of bingo does nothing to activate my grey matter.
Thus, I have discovered there is no world without sports.
Sports is over. It’s been dark since last Thursday.
They won’t flip the switch back on until intelligent women and men in lab coats and with microscopes and test tubes discover a vaccine to corral the coronavirus, then give health authorities the okie-dokie for athletes and the rabble to return to the playground.
So while the squints stare at germs under glass and sports remains in limbo, will it change my life? A smidgen.
I’ll still make my twice-a-week pilgrimage to my favorite watering hole, Bart’s Pub, and the pints Jack the Bartender pours will still be wet and cold. I just won’t be able to sneak a peek at the flatscreen in the corner to see how the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Jets or Manitoba’s curlers are getting on, and I’m okay with that.
Frankly, the suspension/pause/cancellation of sports might be my cue to exit. Finally. I mean, I’ve had my innings. Like, more than 50 years worth of innings scribbling about the jocks in Good Ol’ Hometown.
It’s been a trip. A bloody good trip.
Truthfully, I’m concerned about today’s jock journos, print division. They had no desire to quit sports, but sports has quit them. And now they’ll begin to run on fumes. I mean, they’ve already exhausted their main talking point—shutting down was “the right thing to do; life is bigger than sports”—so there’s nothing left for them to wax on about until the squints have their say, and that will be many, many months from now. Their only hope is for the Olympic Games to proceed, which is a faint and delusional expectation, and I’m sure it’s a shuddering reality for some. I really wonder how many of them will still be there when sports breaks through to the other side.
You think I’m kidding about the ink-stained wretches running on fumes? Consider this: The sports front in the Drab Slab this very day is a full-page pic of a Chinese badminton player and, inside, you can read all about vasectomies and dog sled racing. Meanwhile, columnist Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna was tweeting about women’s Olympic wrestling on Saturday. He cares as much about women’s grappling, and ponytail sports in general, as Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros care about getting caught stealing signs. It’s anything to justify one’s existence, I suppose.
Come to think of it, why were women wrestling in Ottawa when every other sports activity known to man has gone dark (except the UFC, where Dana White insists on showcasing grown women and men beating each other to a bloody pulp)? What, wrestlers don’t touch each other’s face with dirty hands while rolling around on a dirty floor? Odd bit of business, that.
It’s not my business to tell Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman or David Thomson how to spend their millions and billions of dollars, but I wonder if the Jets co-bankrolls know how chintzy they look by leaving their 1,050 event workers at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie high, dry and out of pocket now that the National Hockey League has hit the pause button. “They work when we work,” the Puck Pontiff informed news snoops last week, his tone as cold and callous as a jury foreman reading a guilty verdict at a murder trial. So the minions don’t get paid, but the millionaire players continue to fatten their wallets, and that’s something Cheech and Chintzy might want to reconsider. It’s a dreadful optic. Just because you don’t have to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
This just in: Cheech and Chintzy now say they’ll pay their casual and part-time workers for postponed events until the end of the month. As I was saying, just because you don’t have to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. But True North Sports+Entertainment took a massive PR hit nonetheless.
Kudos to Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun for calling out Chipman on the no-pay for arena part-timers issue. It had to be written. Scott Billeck of the tabloid, meanwhile, shamed the Jets co-bankrolls on social media. Unless I missed it, opinionists at the Drab Slab have been mum on the matter, but I suppose they were too busy digging up those compelling vasectomy and dog sled stories.
Some seriously strange scribbling out of the Republic of Tranna last week, starting with Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail. In reference to COVID-19 shutting down 99.9 per cent of the sports world, he offered this:
“When I think of the very best of sports in the city I live in, I remember that night last May when the Toronto Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks for the NBA’s Eastern Conference title. A lot of Canadians hadn’t cared until that moment. Suddenly, every single one of us did.”
We did? My friends and I must have missed that memo.
Kelly then added, “Whatever comes next is not going to be good, but I believe the spirit of that night will hold in this city, and every other one in Canada.”
Oh, good gawd. Only someone from The ROT would believe that those of us who live in the colonies are clinging to the memory of a distant basketball game to get us through the coronavirus crisis. I guess we can all stop stocking up on toilet paper now.
Similarly silly was Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star calling Rudy Gobert “a hero.” I don’t know about you, but my idea of a hero is a war veteran, a firefighter, a cop, a first-responder, a doctor, a nurse, not a basketball player who thought the coronavirus was a big joke and likely infected people because he acted like a complete doofus.
Then there was Steve Simmons, whose weak attempt at humor re pro teams performing in front of empty facilities fell flat. “Anyone who attended Atlanta Thrashers games back in the day knows what it’s like to have a pro sporting event without fans,” he tweeted. That’s rich. A guy from The ROT trashing another burg because of poor attendance. The Tranna Argonauts, with their sub-10,000 head counts at BMO Field, are an embarrassment to the Canadian Football League, and the Blue Jays have led Major League Baseball in lost customers two years in a row. Fact is, the Argos attracted an average of 12,493 last season, and we all know the actual head count was considerably lower than that. In their final whirl in Atlanta, the Thrashers attracted an average of 13,469, and that included audiences of 16,000-plus five times down the stretch. But, hey, let’s ignore the facts and take cheap shots Atlanta. What a d’oh boy.
Hey, turns out there’s an easy fix for the deadly coronavirus—gather all 7.5 billion of us together and squeeze us into the Church of Maggie, otherwise known as the Victory Life Church, a temple in Perth, Australia, created by tennis legend and raging homophobe Margaret Court. Seems Pastor Maggie sent out a communiqué last week claiming: “We are in agreement that this Convid-19 (sic) will not come near our dwelling or our church family. We are praying daily for you, knowing that we are all protected by the Blood of Jesus.” Hmmm. If only Tom Hanks and his bride Rita Wilson knew.
Pastor Maggie’s statement included this ‘oh, by the way’: “For your convenience, hand sanitiser readily available at all of our sites.” Meaning what? The “Blood of Jesus” isn’t enough?
So Rachel Homan and her gal pals have fired lead Lisa Weagle from their fab curling team, and apparently Homan, Emma Miskew and Joanne Courtney did the dirty deed behind Lisa’s back. Just wondering, will Homan now be crapped on from high heights, or is that treatment still reserved for Jennifer Jones? If you recall, Jones fired Cathy Overton-Clapham from her championship team back in 2010, and it was as if she’d tied a large rock to a little, warm puppy and dropped her in the middle of Lake Winnipeg. It will be interesting to see if there’s similar fallout for Homan, but somehow I doubt it.
And, finally, I’m down to my last pack of toilet paper, so why do I feel guilty about going to the market and buying another dozen rolls?
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and if you’re old enough to vote today, you’re old enough to do the right thing…
Okay, it’s agreed. Chris Streveler is one tough dude.
I mean, someone could huck a live grenade down the guy’s pants and he might miss a play or two while medics re-attached both his legs with a tube of Gorilla Glue and some Scotch Tape. But he’d be back in the fray pronto.
We know this because Streveler, when last seen, was walking like a man who’d just let a Rottweiler use his right ankle for a chew toy. While a dingo gnawed on his right wrist.
The Calgary Stampeders didn’t just chew him up and spit him out on Saturday night in the Alberta foothills. They turned him into a blue-and-gold pinata. I haven’t seen one man take that bad a beating since Mel Gibson let the Romans thrash Jesus Christ for two hours.
Somebody should have called a cop. And arrest Mike O’Shea.
Apparently Coach Grunge was the only person who didn’t notice that his starting quarterback’s body parts were strewn all over the field at McMahon Stadium. Wrist at the 40-yard stripe. Ribs at the 52. Ankle at the 35.
Instead of turning over control of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offence to understudy Sean McGuire or newby Zach Collaros in the last-gasp moments of a Canadian Football League game that was every bit the barroom brawl, Coach Grunge instructed the much-mangled Streveler to finish what he had started, even though he belonged in ICU rather than a mosh pit of large, angry men. It was like telling Custer to have another go at Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and their braves.
The result was predictable, of course. Streveler, try as he might, was unable to muster another score and the Bombers were left wanting in a 37-33 loss that exhausted their aspirations of a first-place finish.
But never mind regular-season bragging rights. It’s about O’Shea’s refusal to sit Streveler down when there’s another weighty dosey doe with the Stampeders on Friday night, not to mention November football when there are no more excuses or tomorrows.
Streveler is O’Shea’s guy, we know that, so why did Coach Grunge jeopardize his health and Winnipeg FC’s playoff aspirations?
“You trust your players,” he told news snoops after the fact. “If he says he can go, he can go. At this time of year all these guys are nicked up, but obviously Strev got a little nicked up in that game.”
A little nicked up? Ya, like Evander Holyfield’s ear was just a “little nicked up” after Mike Tyson had it for a late-night snack.
It was reckless coaching, the sort of thing I thought O’Shea had gotten past. But no. Apparently, someone will have to saw off one of Streveler’s legs at the hip and hand the limb to Coach Grunge before he considers an alternative course of action at the most important position on the field.
And it isn’t good enough that Streveler wanted to re-enter the skirmish due to some warrior code.
“When guys do that they just, they’re putting it on the line for teammates,” said O’Shea. “They wanna be out there for ’em, they just love working for their teammates.”
Look, we all know professional athletes are wired differently than us mere mortals. Broken ankle? No biggie. It’s a long way from the heart, kid. Walk it off. Sometimes, however, they need to be protected from themselves. This was one of those times, and O’Shea ignored the risks because that’s the way he played the game. Balls to the wall, baby.
That’s what Coach Grunge knows best. That’s what got him into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. And Streveler has that same linebacker mentality. It’s admirable. But dumb for a QB.
Just not as dumb as a head coach allowing it to happen.
So who do you like for the Most Outsanding Player Award in the CFL? I’ve got Speedy B of the Hamilton Tabbies, but Reggie Begelton of the Stampeders is closing fast on the inside. And, yes, even though the B.C. Leos have been a bust, Bryan Burnham warrants consideration because he’s a human highlight reel and the trinket goes to the most outstanding player, not most valuable.
I fully expect the Winnipeg chapter of the football writers to nominate Andrew Harris as the local MOP candidate, but I’d vote for Willie Jefferson. Sorry, but Harris is a tainted tailback.
On the subject of head coaches, a tip of the bonnet to Paul Maurice, whose Winnipeg Jets outlasted the Edmonton McDavids, 1-nada in a shootout, on Sunday night at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie. If you’re scoring at home—and aren’t we all?—that gives Coach Potty Mouth 700 Ws as a National Hockey League bench puppeteer, and I say that deserves something more than the sound of one hand clapping.
Got a kick out of Blake Wheeler’s reaction to Coach PottyMo’s milestone. “What an accomplishment,” said the Jets captain, who also happens to be teacher’s pet. “Obviously, been in the game a long time, he’s turned into an old man on us and, you know, I think the biggest quality of Paul is his ability to adapt to different seasons and different teams. Throughout his tenure as a coach, I think that’s why he’s had such great longevity. Players never tune him out, never get sick of his message, ’cause he’s able to keep it fresh and refreshing, and I think when you see teams really fall off and really struggling big time it’s ’cause the players stop buying into the coach’s message. Not even close to what’s happening here.” No, they only tuned out Coach PottyMo in Carolina (twice), Toronto, and Russia.
Hey, I’m not here to scoff at or trivialize Coach PottyMo’s accomplishment. Just to prove it, I won’t even mention that his 624 losses put him No. 1 on the NHL all-time loser list.
I don’t know about you, but the Jets are exactly what I figured them to be this crusade, which is to say all over the map. Really, nobody should be surprised by their herky-jerky start, and I suspect it’ll be like this for the long haul. Question is, will .500 hockey be good enough to get them to Beard Season?
Oh, dear, is there a controversy—indeed, a scandal—brewing in the Republic of Tranna? I ask that, because Mitch Marner says he wants to skate alongside his good buddy Auston Matthews. “Hopefully,” he told news snoops on Sunday, “we do play together a little more often.” Does this mean young Mitch’s feathers are ruffled? Is he calling his coach, Mike Babcock, a bit of a bozo? Is he saying he considers John Tavares a slug? Of course not. And nobody’s nose appears to be out of joint in The ROT. It’s strictly meh stuff, unlike in Good Ol’ Hometown after Patrik Laine expressed similar sentiments about his role with the Jets. Puck Finn told a Finnish reporter that he wanted to play with the big dogs, Rink Rat Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and that was interpreted as a mortal slap at Coach PottyMo and centre Bryan Little. A tempest ensued. Big headlines. Puck Finn texted an apology to Little. Didn’t matter. Many among the rabble wanted him on the first stage out of town. Some jock journos suggested he zip his lips. I’d never thought of local news snoops as bigger drama queens than the mob in The ROT, but apparently they are.
As a folo to my Sunday post, whereby I mentioned something about a beer and a hot dog costing more at a Jets game today than an admission ticket in 1974, this was the going rate back in the day at Winnipeg Arena: Reds $7, Blues $6, Nosebleed $4. There was also a promo that allowed a parent to purchase a seat in the greys at the old barn on Maroons Road for the regular $4 fare, plus a second seat for their son or daughter for $2. Buy the kid a hot dog and Coke, and you were still under a 10-dollar bill for the night. Now the hot dog alone is $10.
Came across this interesting tidbit from my first boss at the Winnipeg Tribune, legendary scribe Jack Matheson: “You Read It Here First Dept.: The Jets will be long gone by 1976 because too many big business people in this town are big four-flushers,” he wrote in October 1974. Matty was out by 20 years, but his prediction came true, nonetheless. And he was spot-on in reasoning why the Jets would disappear. As he forecast, they split for Phoenix because none of the high rollers in town were interested in losing money.
Our guy Denis Shapovalov has finally won an ATP tournament, besting Filip Krajinovic of Serbia, 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday, and let’s not quibble about the Stockholm Open having less glitz and glam than in the past. A win is a win is a win, and anytime you can put your name in the same grouping as tennis legends Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Roger Federer you’ve done alright for yourself. They’re all past champions in Stockholm, so I’d say Shapo is keeping good company.
I must say, I’d be more interested in the World Series if the New York Yankees were involved. Not that I like the Yankees. Can’t stand the Yankees, because I was weaned on the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and the damn Yankees always seemed to have our number. So I like to see them lose in the annual Fall Classic. As it is, neither the Houston Astros or Washington Nationals do it for me. Should be boffo pitching, though.
And, finally, this tweet from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “The autumn colors are spectacular this time of the year.” What, as opposed to the autumn colors in winter, spring and summer?
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I understood some of what Don Cherry said on Saturday night, so I’ve made an appointment with my shrink…
Okay, kids, time to bust open the piggy banks and empty the coin jars.
And, hey, is it too soon to send an S.O.S. to Peter Warren, asking him to fire up the flatbed Ford and start tooting around town to prod senior citizens into turning over their pension cheques?
I know. Sounds crazy.
I mean, just because our hockey heroes recently performed in front of (unsold) empty seats for the first time (officially) since 2011, there’s no cause to declare a state of emergency. The Winnipeg Jets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so let’s have no talk of Houston or Cleveland or San Diego or Ville de Quebec.
Still, for those of us who recall dire times and more than one Save The Jets campaign that really did include kids and piggy banks—and Warren turning his CJOB Action Line into a Jerry Lewis-style telethon—it feels like deja vu all over again.
We remember Warren’s pleas from the lobby of the Marlborough Hotel in June 1974, and on downtown streets in May 1995. The legendary broadcaster who always got “right down to business” did more groveling than a dude whose wife found the wrong shade of lipstick on his collar.
It worked in ’74. Not so much 21 years later.
Benny Hatskin, noticing too many empty seats in the Winnipeg Arena and weary of writing cheques in red ink in 1974, turned his then-World Hockey Association franchise over—lock, stock and Bobby Hull’s hairpiece—to civic leaders with all the right intentions, but only after the rabble had ponied up in excess of $600,000 in nickels, dimes and cashier’s cheques not made of rubber.
One of the many who helped save the Jets that year was Margaret-Ann Farr, a 76-year-old who had earmarked $500 in savings for a trip to her homeland in Scotland. Instead, she gave it to the Jets, even though she had never seen them play. No, I can’t tell you if Maggie eventually found her way home to the ol’ sod, but I can tell you that your favorite hockey team was once owned by a dog, because one guy donated $25 on behalf of his pooch, Lady Jet.
And so it went.
It was much the same in 1995—not enough customers in the old barn on Maroons Road, amped-up salaries ($13 million player payroll), lousy Canadian dollar and, most important, no one with deep pockets interested in frittering away what remained in their deep pockets. Again, they went hat in hand to the people and raised more than $13 million in a bid to preserve their National Hockey League outfit. Trouble was, they needed $32 million, thus the Jets swanned off to Arizona.
And now we’re noticing reminders of the way it was.
The Jets were 561 people short of a sellout at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie last Tuesday with the Arizona Coyotes in town. Two nights later, they were 262 shy of a full barn for a visit from the New York Islanders. The Jets payroll is now $75 million, with gusts up to $83 million depending on Dustin Byfuglien’s mood du jour, the dollar is about as strong as the Jets penalty-kill, True North is charging more for a beer and a hot dog than what a ticket cost back in the day, and some folks are taking out second mortgages to pay for their season packages.
The difference, of course, is in ownership.
This time around, the dude with the deepest pockets in the country, David Thomson, is part of the package, and you’re never going to see him standing at the corner of Portage and Main asking little, old ladies to nix a trip to Scotland so he and Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman can keep Blake Wheeler and Rick Rat Scheifele in champagne and caviar.
A 4,000-person waiting list for season subscriptions suggests there’s plenty of shelf life left in these Winnipeg Jets, but I’m guessing some of you would probably feel a lot better if you were hearing that from Chipman instead of me.
Bottom line: You can tell your kids to keep what’s in their piggy banks. Once they’ve grown up, they can use it for college tuition or a mortgage on a nice house.
They just won’t be able to afford Jets season tickets.
Both main columnists with the daily rags weighed in on the head counts at last week’s Jets jousts, with Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab pointing to Good Ol’ Hometown’s “saturated” sports/shinny market as one possible reason for the non-sellouts. He added, “While there’s no sign a divorce is on the horizon, it seems the (fan/team) relationship is a lot more complicated than it used to be.” It isn’t complicated at all. As Paul Friesen pointed out in the Winnipeg Sun, it’s all about costs. The Jets, according to numerous folks who contacted Friesen, are pricing themselves out of their own market. As for a “saturated” market, what, they don’t have sports entertainment options in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver? As if.
If you’re wondering, the highest average head count for Jets 1.0 was 13,620 in 1985-96. That’s only 1,144 customers fewer than last week with the Coyotes in town, and they weren’t paying anyone $8.25 million per annum (hello, Blake Wheeler). In their final whirl at the old barn on Maroons Road, Jets 1.0 attracted an average of 11,316.
Tiger Woods has taken up the quill and will write a memoir to tell the “definitive story” of his life as a golf prodigy and icon. So we’ll finally get the answer to that burning question: “When Elin found out about all the blonde cocktail waitresses and escorts that Tiger was shagging, did she attack him with a nine-iron or a pitching wedge?”
HarperCollins Publishers considered several titles for Tiger’s tell-all tome before settling on Back, and it’s believed these were among the rejected suggestions:
1) Birdies, Bogeys, Bunkers & Bimbos.
2) That’s Not A Putter In My Pants…I’m Just Happy To See You.
3) T&A at the R&A (Tits & Ass at the Royal & Ancient).
4) Pin High & Horny.
5) Tiger Woods: My Pants Were Always Lower Than My Score.
News item: The NHL tells Valentin Zykov of the Vegas Golden Knights to get lost for 20 games because he either stuck a needle in his butt or swallowed a PED. Imagine that, a Russian using illegal drugs. Who would have thought?
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that young Ville Heinola has become the darling of the local media. The Finnish kid can do no wrong with news snoops, even when he’s doing something wrong on the Jets blueline. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just saying.
The more I watch the NHL, with its limited fisticuffs and greatly reduced body belting, the more I think of former Jets centre Peter Sullivan. Today’s game was made for the man we called Silky.
Stupid headline of the week No. 1, from Sportsnet: “Why the Maple Leafs need a statement game against struggling Wild.” Oh, c’mon man. No one makes a statement game against the Minnesota Wild, the worst team in the NHL. Beating a team with a pulse, like the Boston Bruins, is a statement game.
Stupid headline of the week No. 2, from the Drab Slab: “Pionk steadies young D.” Good grief, Charlie Brown. Two days earlier, the Jets surrendered seven—count ’em seven!—goals v. Sid and his Pittsburgh pals. Then they gave up a four-spot v. Arizona. Then three v. the Islanders. Fourteen goals in three games. That’s steady like the back of a garbage truck is a salad bar. The accompanying Taylor Allen article was no better. It read like a puff piece hot off the True North propaganda printing press. Look, it’s time the Drab Slab told the truth, which is this: Neal Pionk is a top pairing defenceman for one reason—everyone who can skate and chew gum at the same time left Dodge long ago, Josh Morrissey being the exception.
Oh, wait, now I’m really confused. Just four days after Allen’s puff piece on Pionk and the “steady” blueline, along comes Mad Mike McIntyre to tell us this about the Jets: “The needs are many, with two major areas of concern—the blue-line and the penalty kill.” I see. The steady defence actually sucks. Methinks the boys on the beat might want to exchange notes before hitting the send button.
Los Angeles Kings fans decided that Taylor Swift had a curse on their team, so a banner saluting the pop singer’s record number of sellouts at Staples Center is now blotted out by a large black cloth at each game. It’s the most talked-about coverup in Tinseltown since the O.J. Trial.
Stupid tweet of the week, from Kristina Rutherford of Sportsnet: “The NHL season is underway and MLB playoffs are happening and the #1 article on @sportsnet yesterday was about the @nwhl and pro women’s hockey. So I guess all y’all that say ‘nobody cares!’ about women’s hockey can go fly a kite.” That smacks of Grade 5 schoolyard na, na, na, na, na-ism. Yes, it’s juvenile. The placement of Rutherford’s article at the top of the main page on the Sportsnet website means just one thing—they did something dumb again. You know, like on Saturday morning after a Major League Baseball playoff game, numerous NHL games including the Edmonton McDavids, two CFL games, Brooke Henderson firing a hole-in-one and leading an LPGA tournament, Sportsnet’s main story was an exhibition basketball game. Like I said, dumb.
On the matter of Pontytail Puck, I wonder why it is that the National Women’s Hockey League refuses to include attendance figures in its game summaries. I asked but didn’t receive a reply. So I can only assume they’re embarrassed by the modest head counts.
I also find myself wondering why no one in mainstream media is challenging the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association on their true mission, which is to put the NWHL out of business. They can talk all they like about building a better future for little girls, but I’ll believe that fairy tale the day they actually sit down with NWHL commish Dani Rylan and look for ways to make the women’s game work. As it is, the PWHPA refuses to engage in meaningful dialogue, instead serving up a sham called the Dream Gap Tour.
Interesting take from Cathal Kelly on the St. Louis Blues’ visit to the Trump household last week. The Globe and Mail columnist had no problem with the Stanley Cup champions’ Tour de Oval Office, and he managed to squeeze in a swipe at National Basketball Association stars. “NBA players often make a bit of a deal announcing they will not set one foot in the White House while Trump remains in office, always to great cheers,” he wrote. “These are occasionally the same players who don’t know anything about China, won’t take questions about China and couldn’t find China on a map, all while they are in China.” Here’s my question: Why would NBA players need to find China on a map when they’re already in China?
Got a kick out of a couple tweets from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. Apparently, he’s “still walking on air” after being elected to the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and he’s “still walking on air” about the Tranna Jurassics hoops title. I know the air is thick in the Republic of Tranna, but unless Steve has dropped a few pounds since I last saw him, it ain’t that thick.
And, finally, the Drab Slab devoted an entire page to curling in its Saturday edition. Nice. The three-part package included a sidebar from Taylor Allen on new mom Rachel Homan’s balancing act of mother-curler. Good stuff.
Back in the day, when I was cheeky and totally irreverent, I would refer to Mike Smith as Mikhail due to his fondness and fascination for Russian hockey players.
Actually, it was more of an obsession for comrade Mikhail.
Considered something of an egghead in National Hockey League circles because he held a doctorate in Russian studies and wrote books (as if that’s a bad thing), Smith collected two things: Native American art and comrades. Under his watch as the mad scientist general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, he turned the town into Little Moscow. It was here an Igor, there an Ivan, everywhere a Vladimir. Trouble was, he didn’t always recruit the best of Mother Russia (hello, Sergei Bautin).
That didn’t prevent Smith from pumping their tires, though, and so it was one night in early October 1992 when the comrade and I were standing at the back of the Winnipeg Arena press box, in whispered conversation about two of the five rookies in his lineup.
“Selanne is a good one,” I submitted. “You guys didn’t make a mistake with him.”
“If you think Teemu is good,” Smith responded, “wait until you see what Alexei can do. He’s better than Teemu. He’ll win the scoring championship in this league one day.”
There’s no argument that Alexei Zhamnov was among the most skilled players to ever pull Jets linen over his head and shoulders. He was an artist and a wizard, a sometimes breath-taking magician of the Kent Nilsson ilk. But better than Teemu Selanne? Not so much.
The numbers tell the tale of the two players. Longevity tells the tale. One Stanley Cup ring tells the tale. Induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame tells the tale.
But it isn’t the goals, the dashing and daring, the trinkets that are what I remember most about Teemu Selanne. It’s the joy—unbridled, pure and wide-eyed—that he took from the ice to the people.
Selanne was seldom the biggest player in the room, but he was always the biggest kid in the room. Any room. That’s why we still hear stories about how he’d step outside and join the neighborhood kids in Winnipeg for a rousing game of road hockey. Imagine that. An NHL all-star goofing around on snowy streets and shouting “Car!” whenever they’d catch sight of a Buick, Chevy or Ford rumbling down the road toward goal posts made of the white stuff.
That was Teemu.
We called him the Finnish Flash because of the lickety-split in his stride and the electricity he brought to NHL rinks, especially the Jets’ old barn on Maroons Road, but we should have been talking about his smile. That was the real Finnish flash.
Selanne arrived in River City in 1992, 22 years old and with an innocence that I don’t think he ever lost. He took Jets Nation on a magic carpet ride that winter, scoring a mind-popping 76 goals to remove Mike Bossy’s name from the record book, a freshman achievement that has not been challenged, nor is it likely to be. His rookie points total, 132, is second to only one other first-year player. That guy’s name is Gretzky, Wayne. But, in the eyes of the NHL, No. 99 was an unrookie because he had spent one season getting his feet wet in the World Hockey Association. Thus, the frosh records belong to Selanne.
Now that he has earned entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’ll be mentioned that the Finnish Flash was but a passing comet in Winnipeg. Here for a good time, not a long time. And, yes, hockey fans down Disneyland way have every right to claim Selanne as their own, because he spent 15 of his 21 NHL crusades with the Anaheim Ducks compared to parts of four in Jets colors. They even had a special night in his honour, raising his No. 8 to the rafters during a 90-minute salute at the Honda Center.
But we know different. He was loaner. Teemu is ours.
That’s just how it is when a guy lights up all those cold, dreary nights on the frozen tundra with Herculean performances, and when he steps outside to play road hockey with a bunch of urchins who have posters of him taped to their bedroom walls. All the while flashing that smile.
Just like he did on Monday when he took a phone and received the glad tidings from Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald.
“I owe you big time beers, boys,” a beaming Selanne told McDonald.
Yup, that’s our guy Teemu. An absolute joy.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.
Perhaps because a broad brushstroke of hockey nostalgia is about to sweep across Good, Ol’ Hometown, I find myself reaching back to distant times and a shinny barn long ago reduced to rubble.
I couldn’t begin to inventory the number of days and nights I spent in the Winnipeg Arena during my three decades writing about hockey in River City, but I confess that the large majority of the games I witnessed have faded to black, lost in the foggy moors of my ever-eroding memory. Mostly, they come back to me in vignettes. A highlight here, an incident there.
There are, however, three matches that remain indelible: 1) The Winnipeg Jets’ victory over the Soviet Union National team; 2) Game 6 of the 1979 World Hockey Association championship; 3) the first Tuxedo Night.
The latter two I recall because one carried historical significance, in that it was the WHA’s final act and the local lads took permanent ownership of the Avco World Trophy, while the other was noteworthy for its marketing quirkiness and behind-the-scenes madness that brought closure to Bobby Hull’s career in Jets linen. Poor Bobby was all dressed up with no place to go on Tuxedo Night, and his clumsy exit is a humorous, oft-told chapter of folklore that I’m certain will be recited and embellished when the old boys gather for their Heritage Classic hijinks this week.
That’s strictly Sideshow Bob stuff, though, when measured against the caging of the great Russian Bear. That was the defining moment for a team and its players whose accomplishments often were pooh-poohed by the hockey establishment because of the company they kept. The WHA and its member teams, you see, were looked upon like the Canadian dollar is today—not up to par. Devalued. Or so the prevailing logic went.
But wait. Don’t talk to us about second-class citizens. The Jets beat the Soviet National side, dammit!
I can still see Ulf Nilsson delivering a short, delicate pass to Dave Dunn, a big, lumbering defenceman with a square, planter-like pot for a helmet. No one had ever mistaken Dunn for, say, the smooth-as-silk Peter Sullivan or Kent Nilsson. More to the point, his was a hunch-shouldered, laborious skating style that evoked imagery of a beast of burden pulling a milk wagon. Yet there was Dunn, suddenly with some lickety-split in his stride as he departed the neutral zone and navigated his way into enemy territory.
Looking up from the end boards, Dunn spied Hull standing at the lip of the crease, and he dished a backhand pass to the Golden Jet, who flicked the puck past Vladislav Tretiak. Game, set and match. The Jets had beaten the Soviets, 5-3.
It is the irony of Dunn’s daring, as much as Hull’s three scores and Ulf Nilsson’s four points, that revisits me when I ponder the events of Jan. 5, 1978.
I recall watching from on high, in the Arena press box, as Dunn accepted Nilsson’s feed and began his foray along the right wing boards and into a corner. I thought it totally out of character for him to be so ambitious. Dunn’s technique and skill level were directly at odds with the shock-and-awe swagger of his playmates, Nilsson, Hull and Anders Hedberg. Not to mention the three Soviet forwards on the freeze at that moment—Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. Dave Dunn belonged in that group like Don Cherry belonged in the Kremlin.
“This can’t possibly end well,” I muttered to myself.
It did, though, and the Jets had their signature game, the one match we can point to after this great passage of time and say “that’s how good those guys were.”
This wasn’t a championship skirmish. It was, as soccer people are wont to say, a “friendly.” A pleasant interlude of sporting pleasure to perhaps soothe the sting of another long and dreary Winnipeg winter.
Yet any frolic with the Soviet National side during the Cold War, circa 1970s, carried political overtones, if not intrigue, plus the promotional wallop of a heavyweight tiff.
And so it was when the Jets, with their blend of smooth Swedes and good, ol’ bent-nosed Canadian boys, engaged the best of Mother Russia. None among the combatants arrived at the rink to make nice. This was a “friendly” like Winnipeg is New York City.
Few beyond the walls of the Jets’ changing quarters expected the WHA’s marquee team to topple the comrades. Even the most rabid of the rabble would have told you victory was less likely than Cherry taking a mail-order Russian bride.
I mean, this was the creme de la borscht of Soviet shinny. It was one thing to whup a club side from Mother Russia, like Wings or Dynamo or, yes, even the National team’s doppelganger, CKSA, more commonly known as the Central Red Army. A few WHA and NHL outfits already had been there and done that. But beat the communist colossus? Nyet.
To further underscore the enormity of the task, the Russkies already had given the Jets three wedgies in “friendlies” in Tokyo, Japan—7-5, 4-2, 5-1—prior to the comrades’ arrival on our shores (at which point Ivan promptly administered a 7-2 paddywhacking to the Edmonton Oilers).
So, yes, the Russian Bear was in full-throated growl.
The Jets, however, were not without bark and bite of their own.
Although appropriately respectful of a foe that collected World and Olympic championships like little boys collected bubble gum cards, the Jets delighted a gathering of 10,315 eye witnesses by laying waste to the Soviets early, building a 4-0 advantage on two goals each from Ulf Nilsson and Hull. Shortly thereafter, taskmaster Viktor Tikhonov removed Aleksandr Sidelnikov from the Soviets’ goal and replaced him with Tretiak.
As if on cue, the great Russian Bear stirred, making it 4-2 before the second period had expired, both goals coming off the stick of diminutive and unsmiling Boris Alexandrov. Vasily Pervukhin then supplied third-period drama, beating Jets goaltender Joe Daley two minutes and 43 seconds in. A collective murmur rumbled from the pews to the rafters in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fans feared the worst.
The Jets quelled the Russian uprising, though, guarding their one-goal advantage with Scrooge-like stinginess until Hull converted Dunn’s pass into his third score and the Jets’ fifth, eight seconds from time.
Never before had the Soviet National side been beaten by a club team.
Scant seconds after the fact, those of us with pens, notepads and microphones were granted access to the locals’ lair, where we discovered half the players still fully adorned in their Jets livery and the other half already baring well-sculpted chests, abs and arms. Some roamed to the four corners of their cramped quarters, smiling and slapping broad-shouldered backs and tousling the stringy, matted-down hair on sweat-soaked heads. A few sat in silent reflection, giving ponder to a job well done and nursing post-work refreshments.
They were properly pleased and proud, these Jets, also weary to the marrow.
They seemed in unspoken agreement that the early after-moments of their conquest of the CCCP was a time for softened celebration, rather than unrestrained revelry, and it is their muffled merriment and a quiet quote from Ulf Nilsson that I also remember about the goings-on of that magical night.
“The Russians are so hard to play against…I don’t think I ever beat them before tonight,” offered Nilsson, a native of Nynashamn who along with fellow Swede Hedberg and Hull combined to outscore the Soviets’ fabled forward troika of Mikhailov, Kharlamov and Petrov 10 points to zero. “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
That sentiment worked both ways, that night and so many others for the Jets and their flock.
(Footnote: To put the Jets’ victory in perspective, the Soviets went 5-0 against five other WHA outfits on that tour, beating the Oilers (7-2), Quebec Nordiques (6-3), Cincinnati Stingers (9-2), Indianapolis Racers (8-3) and New England Whalers (8-4) for a combined score of 38-14).
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.