21 Oct

Happy Halloween, John Ferguson

It’s that time of year once again.

When kids of all ages look forward to dressing up like ghosts and goblins and going door to door to fill up their bags with free candy, hard core Jets fans look back to 1988.

It was the night before Halloween. The Jets were winding up a back-to-back weekend series with the Los Angeles Kings and their newest acquisition, Wayne Gretzky. Before the largest crowd of the season at the Winnipeg Arena, the sleepwalking Jets roared back from a 4-1 deficit to post an 8-4 victory.

With only two winning seasons to show for nine years as the Jets’ General Manager, John Ferguson was surprisingly shocked by the news of his dismissal.

The post-game enthusiasm in the dressing room, however, was quieted when Jets’ President Barry Shenkarow announced that Vice President and General Manager John Ferguson had been relieved of his duties.

It was one of those classic “where were you when you heard the news” moments. I was leaving the Arena walking along the east side of Polo Park shopping center towards the bus stop on Portage Avenue listening to my portable radio when I heard Curt Keilback’s voice tell me that Ferguson was about to be fired.

I think there’s still a grin on my face.

It was Michael Gobuty who originally brought Ferguson to Winnipeg in November 1978. Ferguson, the man who helped pry beloved Swedish stars Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg out of Winnipeg, took the Jets’ job and assumed control of struggling club. He made a few moves, hired coach Tom McVie, and the Jets went on to capture their third AVCO Cup championship the following spring.

Upon their entry into the NHL, Ferguson continued to build up what had been a bare-bones operation off the ice up to major league standards. He also had the unenviable task of having to rebuild the roster after the NHL took its pound of flesh from the Jets and the other surviving WHA teams. He took a lot of heat for protecting Scott Campbell and letting Kent Nilsson get away, but neither player was going to save those expansion-era Jets.

Ferguson carried a reputation as a man with a fiery temper, who lived and died with every game, but he remained astonishingly patient and stuck with his “Master Plan” of stockpiling draft choices.

It didn’t take long before the Jets again became competitive. They became the most improved team in NHL history in 1981-1982 and the future looked bright.

Sadly, that was about as good as it would ever get.

As fans are painfully aware, Ferguson never delivered the Stanley Cup contender that he bombastically promised so often. Though he put his heart and soul into the job, during his nine full seasons at the helm of the Jets, the team had produced a winning record on only two occasions.

Fans, including me, were growing frustrated and angry. The calls for Ferguson’s dismissal grew even louder when the Jets got off to a slow start in 1988-1989. Finally, on that fateful Sunday evening, Shenkarow delivered the news that shocked Ferguson and delighted the faithful.

Ferguson’s successors would fare little better in the coming years. I felt insulted by the choice of Mike Smith, Ferguson’s right hand man, as his successor. It was not inappropriate to simply promote from within an organization that had not delivered any significant results over the past decade.

Nonetheless, Shenkarow’s decision to fire Ferguson at that time was entirely correct. Eternal mediocrity was not acceptable.

And that is why when I pass a house fully decked out in Halloween decor, I see John Ferguson’s face staring back at me in the jack-o-lanterns.

Happy Halloween, John Ferguson, wherever you are.
15 Oct

McFadyen Awarded Honorary NDP Membership

Yesterday, Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen was awarded honorary membership in the party he’s unsuccessfully tried to defeat in the last two provincial elections.
At the ceremony held in front of the Grand Staircase at the Legislative Building, Manitoba Premier and New Democratic Party leader Greg Selinger presented McFadyen with a certificate bearing his name, making him an honorary member of the NDP.
Hugh McFadyen and Greg Selinger pose for the cameras.
“I’m very honored, Mr. Premier,” said McFadyen. “Despite the differences between us that I’m sure exist, I’m very pleased to accept this certificate on behalf of my entire campaign team. I will never forget this gesture. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“We were disappointed to learn that Mr. McFadyen was stepping down as the Conservative leader,” said Selinger. “We decided that we should do something to honor his years of helping us stay in power. It’s because of the work of Mr. McFadyen and his campaign team, not to mention the gullible Manitoba voters that we are embarking on a historic fourth straight term in office. This was the least we could do for Mr. McFadyen and we only hope he decides to reconsider, stay on as the Conservative leader, and keep his campaign team fully intact.”
“I learned the hard way that trying to outspend Mr. Selinger is like trying to pray better than the Pope,” added McFadyen. “I gave it my best and now it’s time to step aside and let someone else take the ball and run with it.”
After the ceremony, McFadyen received a warm round of applause from Selinger and his entire team of elected and appointed members. Some admitted to shedding tears upon hearing that McFadyen was stepping down.
“I owe my entire political career to him,” said an emotional Erin Selby, the MLA for Southdale. “I thought that the Conservatives could run a rhinoceros as their candidate and win in Southdale. But it was Hugh who finally convinced me that I could win.”
“Without Hugh and his fabulous campaign team, I’d be sweeping the floors at Global,” added Selby, a former television reporter with A-Channel in Winnipeg. “Just look at me now!”
“The Premier flagrantly broke election law, our MLAs insulted flood victims this summer and McFadyen didn’t say a word. We’ve been ripe for the picking for over a decade and yet here we are with a fourth term,” said one senior party official. “We’ve pretty much had the province to ourselves. We can’t thank McFadyen and his team enough.”
The Conservatives have yet to announce a successor to McFadyen.
07 Oct

Blue Faces in Blueland

In the understatement of the decade, the Atlanta Thrashers will not be remembered as one of the best hockey clubs ever to have claimed membership in the NHL.

The tombstone bearing the Thrashers’ logo will be laid in a patch of parched, sun-baked soil with a loose covering of dry, brown grass somewhere in a desolate country cemetery. If you manage to find the place, you’ll also find the graves of the California Golden Seals, Kansas City Scouts, Colorado Rockies, and Cleveland Barons nearby.

You might also stumble on the grave of the Winnipeg Jets, only to find the coffin dug up and the cadaver removed. In typical Winnipeg fashion, the tombstone would also be vandalized. Rumor has it that the cadaver is currently on display in downtown Winnipeg where mourners are being fleeced for the privilege of seeing the remains of their long, lost loved one before it is returned to its plot once again to enjoy its eternal rest.

The Seals, Rockies, and Scouts may have long since been forgotten, but the tears moistening the soil near the Thrashers’ grave are fresh and very real.

No joy in Blueland today

The Thrashers made the playoffs only once during their 11-season life span and they didn’t even win a single game during their one-season fling with post-season play in 2007. The franchise is probably best known outside of Georgia for the tragic incident in which Dan Snyder was killed in October 2003. The Thrashers led a tortured life, abused for so long by the Atlanta Spirit Group, who treated it and its fans so badly during its final years of life, not unlike what Winnipeggers experienced with the Jets years ago and what they’re about to experience in the years to follow.

Nonetheless, there were fans who cared for the deceased Thrashers and cared deeply. Any Winnipeggers who went through the Save the Jets campaign in the spring and summer and 1995 knows all too well the deep emotional pain that comes with losing a hockey team.

Sadly, far too many Winnipeggers have chosen to tuck those memories away in a cardboard box and wag their fingers in the faces of Thrashers fans whose pain is no less real than their own.

We cried as we remembered watching Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, and Teemu Selanne. No doubt, Thrashers fans will feel the same way when they think back and remember watching Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Kari Lehtonen, Dany Heatley, and the late Dan Snyder at Philips Arena.

The short-lived merriment of Winnipeg hockey fans and the team’s domineering owner comes at the expense of hockey fans just like themselves. Are there as many of them? Maybe. Maybe not. But they are there in significant numbers, far more than they’re being given credit for.

The classier fans among the revelers this weekend will keep them in their thoughts while they look upon the dawning of a new and very uncertain era in Winnipeg hockey history. This era is likely to produce no more success on the ice than the last NHL team to call Winnipeg home enjoyed and could end up becoming very costly to both fans and Manitoba taxpayers alike.
02 Oct

Low Moment in Jets History – December 1982: The Stench Still Lingers

The 14-13-3 Jets came home from a two-game road trip in the middle of December 1982 for a weekend series against the woeful 9-17-4 Hartford Whalers and the even more putrid 6-22-7 New Jersey Devils.

Yes, I was there.

Looking back, this was a perfect setup for an epic disaster, but, at the time, I still believed that the Jets were poised to take that next step and establish themselves as the elite team they were when they ruled the WHA. With memories of their three AVCO Cup championships still fresh in my mind, I was convinced that the Jets were soon to make hockey history and become the first team to win an AVCO Cup and a Stanley Cup.

The Jets were blown out by a score of 10-3 in Chicago on Wednesday night, but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for the coming weekend. My parents had bought me tickets for both games and I was going to see the Jets in action as they brushed aside the league’s bottom-feeders on their way to greatness. They still have a picture of me grinning as I gazed upon those tickets lying on our kitchen table.

The innocence of youth was about to be abused.

Friday night’s game against the Whalers was a stinker, to be kind. The meeting between the two franchises that met head-to-head on two separate occasions to decide a major pro championship looked like a couple of teams wearing heavy parkas and rubber boots playing ball hockey on the street. The 10,000 or so spectators who were allegedly there were less than pleased with the performance and did not hesitate to express their disapproval.

The boos kept echoing off the Arena walls, but the Jets kept sinking into the melting white quicksand we were all watching so intently. They couldn’t even score a goal against one of the NHL’s worst teams. In the understatement of the decade, the 2-0 defeat was, well, disappointing.

Where the Jets were concerned, however, my level of optimism knew no bounds. To that end, I understand the feelings of so many of those prospective Chipman Jets fans around Winnipeg today. They wonder why I’m not on the bandwagon and why I don’t have the same blind allegiance to Mark Chipman the way you do. It took me a while, but I figured it out. They will too.

Back to the topic at hand, I figured that the Whalers game was an off night, and I was supremely confident that they would rebound against the Devils. Tom Watt and/or John Ferguson would read them the Riot Act, and even if they didn’t, it was just the Devils, a team the junior Warriors might have been able to beat.

Those Devils bore no resemblance to the well-run organization they’ve been since Lou Lamoriello’s arrival in the Meadowlands many years ago. At the time, it had been one of pro hockey’s worst-run franchises during its time in Denver and Kansas City and life for the recently-relocated Devils would be no better in their first few seasons in New Jersey. Wayne Gretzky would later call them a “Mickey Mouse organization”. He took a lot of heat for the remark, but he was right.

While the Jets were slogging through the 2-0 defeat against the Whalers, the Devils were in Edmonton having their rear ends handed to them by the tune of 10-4 at the Northlands Coliseum. Anything that the evil Edmonton Oilers could do, the Jets could do better. Victory was assured.

Or not.

Come Sunday, the Jets weren’t any better than they were on Friday night, but they still entered the third period with a 2-1 lead. Unlike Friday night, they actually scored a goal. Two, in fact.

Then the roof caved in.

Don Lever scored 22 seconds into the third period, then, later in the period, Hector Marini was left alone in front of Doug Soetaert and he banked a weak shot off Dave Babych, or “Stupid Babych” as I was so fond of calling him, into the net for what would prove to be the winning goal.

Devils 3, Jets 2.

I can still smell the stench from that pair of stinkers to this day.

The Stanley Cup parade would have to wait.