Hockey and 'The Peg'

Should the Atlanta Thrashers relocate to Manitoba, CBCSports.ca columnist Martin O'Malley, a Winnipeg native, has some advice every new player should know about their new city.

An ex-pat offers some hometown tips for incoming Thrashers

Hockey fans celebrate at Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg on May 19 after news broke that the Atlanta Thrashers may relocate to the Manitoba capital for the 2011-12 NHL season. Should the move happen, columnist Martin O'Malley, a Winnipeg native, has some advice for new kids in town. ((John Woods/Canadian Press))

Nobody moves to Winnipeg because of the weather. No, let's amend that - nobody willingly moves to Winnipeg because of the weather. Nope, best to say nobody willingly moves to Winnipeg because of the winter. The summers are wonderful, better than Atlanta summers, perhaps the best weather in all of Canada from about, oh, June 17 to August 28, which Winnipeggers like to call the season of poor skating.

I mention Atlanta because its NHL hockey team — in Atlanta they call it "ice hockey" — is close to relocating to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season. Years ago Atlanta had another NHL ice hockey team called the Flames, but nobody was much interested in them so the Flames moved to Calgary where they called themselves, uh, the Flames. 

The difference between Atlanta and Winnipeg is that metropolitan Atlanta has a population of some 5.7 million and metropolitan Winnipeg has a population of some 670,000. Another difference is that ice hockey fans in Atlanta number about 17,000 and hockey fans in Winnipeg number about 650,000. Another difference between Atlanta and Winnipeg is that the ice hockey players aren't recognized on the street in Atlanta. If someone ever asked one of them what they do and he said he was a left-winger he'd likely be told, "Why don't you bastards go back to Russia!"

When the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg and one of them goes to a Salisbury House restaurant for a couple of nips — they're small so you usually order two — he'd be mobbed for autographs and marriage proposals. Oh yes, I should explain: a nip is a hamburger. When I lived in Winnipeg many years ago and we'd drive down to Grand Forks or Fargo and go to a restaurant and order a nip we'd usually be asked, "A nip of what?"

Now's a good time to tell you that the famous Salisbury House chain was saved from extinction a few years ago by none other than Burton Cummings. Cummings and his band, later called The Guess Who, used to meet at a Salisbury House in The North End — that's what you call it, "The, North, End" — and he felt a strong loyalty to the place so he forked over a few of his millions so fellow Winnipeggers could keep eating nips.

Billy Mosienko's hat trick

Is Winnipeg a hockey city? Hello. Is the Pope Catholic? Ever heard of Terry Sawchuk? Terrible Ted Green? I could go on and on with a litany of Manitoba-born hockey names but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't mention Billy Mosienko. He was a little guy — five-foot-eight, 160 pounds — who played for the Chicago Blackhawks and still holds the NHL record for the fastest hat trick ever: three goals in 21 seconds in a 1952 game against the New York Rangers. He died at the age of 72 in 1994 after building a string of bowling alleys around the city.

Giant payday! Bobby Hull holds his famous $1-million cheque as his wife Joanne looks on in this June 27, 1972, photo after Hull signed with the World Hockey Association. ((Canadian Press))

When The Globe and Mail used to send me all over the country to write about farmers and stevedores and hookers — the real stuff of journalism — I was asked to visit the old Winnipeg Arena and interview Bobby Hull. That was back in the 1970s when Hull, then appropriately called "The Golden Jet," played for a team called the Winnipeg Jets of the old World Hockey Association, a rival of the NHL. The WHL lured Hull to Winnipeg for $1 million, the most money any hockey player had ever been paid. He was presented an oversized cheque for a million at the corner of Portage and Main.

I found Hull in the Jets locker-room. He wore a tattered sleeveless shirt, showing his mighty farmer arms, as he burned a perfect warp to his hockey sticks. He kept flashing me toothy grins as he fed me cliches for the next 40 minutes. Can't remember if I wrote anything about him because there was nothing to say except he was Bobby Hull.

If the travelling Thrashers want to enjoy Winnipeg here are some tips:

  • If an ex-Winnipeger asks you where you're from never just say Winnipeg. They'll want to know where in Winnipeg - East Kildonan, St. James, The North End, Stafford & Corydon, Tuxedo, Crescentwood, River Heights, Riverdale, Elmwood, St. Boniface, St. Vital. 
  • When you're asked how you like the winters, and you will be, tell them it's a dry cold. And it's "invigorating." 
  • When asked who's your favourite Winnipeg-born ice hockey player say it's Billy Mosienko because once upon a time he scored three goals in 21 seconds.

Random, fun things about Winnipeg

When I was growing up in Winnipeg and had nothing better to do, my friends and I would drive to The North End and park along Main St. to watch the fights. That's where policemen in monstrous buffalo coats patrolled the sidewalks in groups of three, their breath forming white doilies on the furry lapels of their coats. There were fights most of the evening but the main event came when the beer parlours closed and mobs of boisterous drunks smashed faces, broke arms and legs, spit, screamed and hollered. We'd watch and laugh as we bit into our nips.

If they still do this be sure to keep your car doors locked. Maybe some of you tough guys might want to join in and pick up some fighting tips.

Winnipeg has always felt like a much bigger city. The downtown, especially the famous intersection of Portage and Main, looks like it was designed for millions, not hundreds of thousands. That's because it was. Back in the 1920s Winnipeg was billed as "The Chicago of the North." With its elaborate railway terminals it was the transportation hub of Canada and expected to become the transportation hub of North America. Then somebody built the Panama Canal and Winnipeg had to settle for just being Winnipeg.

Rod Bruinooge, the newly elected Conservative MP in Winnipeg, wrote an article for the Ottawa Citizen this month saying of the arrival of the Thrashers: "Winnipeg's greatest moment is happening now and everyone in friendly Manitoba is ready to welcome you with open arms."

As for the name, I don't mind "Jets," but I'm rather fond of "Manitoba Moose." If I had a choice, I'd love to call the new team an even more all-encompassing and innovative name: The Prairie Wind.

About the author: At least one generation of Canadians knows the line, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." Pierre Elliott Trudeau made it famous, but the line belongs to veteran Canadian journalist Martin O'Malley, who wrote it when he was with the Globe and Mail. He's written eight books, on topics such as the Canadian North, medicine, murder, media literacy and baseball. He's also a keen observer of the rituals of sport.