Sunday, April 11, 2021

Bobby Schmautz was a real beauty

Seemingly little noticed in their current COVID crisis, the Canucks lost an all-timer two weeks ago. Bobby Schmautz was acquired by the Canucks during their first year in the NHL because they well understood from their WHL days how good the Schmautzes were. Bobby had scored 27 the year before for Seattle. Cliff, who was six years older, had 40 that year for Portland, for whom he had 46 a few years earlier. Arnie, who was six years older yet, retired in 1968 after 13 WHL seasons with Portland, Victoria, and New Westminster. He was listed at 5-7, 140. Cliff was 5-9, 170 and played one year in the NHL after being claimed from Portland by Buffalo during its maiden season in something called the intraleague draft. 

Bobby, who was only 5-9, 155, already had a dozen NHL goals, having played 76 games for Chicago from 1967-69. He started the 1970-71 season with Seattle, but is listed as having been traded to the Canucks for Jim Wiste and Ed "Sock" Hatoum. WTF? I thought Seattle was Vancouver's farm team, but for their first two years in the NHL it was Rochester of the AHL, where Don Cherry took over the reins in mid-season 1971-72. Seattle was our farm team by the next year, as I recall beetling down there in my old VW to watch them play for Phil Maloney in the Seattle Center Coliseum, which is the same place where the Kraken will soon play. Well, after a few renovations. That's how futuristic it was when it was built in 1962 for the World's Fair. But I digress.

Within a few years, Schmautzie was flinging the puck into the net with great regularity for the Canucks, scoring 38 goals in 1973-74, including seven in a two-game span. He could also chuck the knuckles adroitly despite his slender size, picking up 137 PiMs in 1972-73. It helped that he was fearless, and even a little bit psycho. The Canucks flipped him to the Bruins the next season for Mike “Shaky” Walton, Chris Oddleifson, and the rights to Fred O'Donnell, who stayed in Boston to play for the New England Whalers of the WHA rather than move to Vancouver. It was the biggest favour the Canucks could have done for Schmautz, who broke the 20-goal mark five straight seasons for the Bruins and played in two All-Star games. He also scored 26 goals for them in 70 playoff games, equaling the career total of the great Bobby Orr. The Canucks played 10 playoff games over the same period, winning one. The most famous goal Schmautz scored was the OT winner in 1978 against Montreal in Game Four of the 1978 Stanley Cup final, which evened the series at 2-2. Schmautz even turned into an accomplished checker under Cherry.

Many Canucks fans forget that Schmautz rejoined the team for one last season at age 35 in 1980-81. He was second in goals that year, with 27 in 73 games. He also racked up 137 PiMs, matching his career high. I remember that season well, as I briefly had an NHL press pass then as a writer for Hockey magazine. One game in particular stands out to me – February 18 against his old Bruins. The bad guys were leading 6-1 when a bench-clearing brawl erupted early in the third period, out of which 70 minutes in penalties were issued. Ah, those were the days! Schmautzie then led a furious comeback, scoring twice on Rogie Vachon in a span of 3:42, sandwiching a goal by Curt Fraser. That made it 6-4, after which unpleasantries broke out several more times, with Tiger Williams fighting Brad Park and Stan Smyl mixing it up with Stan Jonathan. Fraser and Terry O'Rielly went at it twice. Unfortunately the comeback fell a bit short, but I swear that was one of the best games I ever watched. I recall fairly glowing as I walked out of the Coliseum.

The Canucks declined to offer Schmautz a contract the following season. No other team did, either, so he returned to Portland and went into roofing, later retiring to Arizona. He died on March 28, which  coincidentally was his 76th birthday.

Cheers, Schmautzie!

Friday, April 9, 2021

Benning bashing hits a dishonest new low

As an old newspaper reporter, I can assure you that it’s easy to make someone look bad just by the way you order the facts in a story. What you leave in, and particularly what you leave out, can paint a picture of reality that might be factual but is definitely not accurate. Leaving in facts that reflect poorly on someone and leaving out facts that reflect well on them will result in quite a different picture than if you did the opposite. Of course, you’re supposed to leave your own opinions out of the story, but that doesn’t stop you from putting in other people’s opinions that get your message across. Did I ever do it? Of course not! Well, maybe a few times.

As a professor of journalism and now a media critic, I can assure you that news media often slant their coverage in such a way as to promote an agreed-on narrative. Sometimes it’s as innocent as follow-the-leader, and whoever reports the story first gets to frame it. Sometimes it’s not. Too often I have overheard a group of reporters discussing how they should cover something. Agreeing on “what’s the story here?” can save some second-guessing from your editor or news director. Especially in this era of non-stop sports talk, some in the media also now need to stir up enough controversy to keep listeners tuned in. Criticism, no matter how forced or manufactured, works a lot better for that than praise.

As a Canucks fan, I seem to see things a little bit differently than others. Maybe it’s a result of my background in and study of media. The story that gets reported and the way that it gets reported are often quite different from the way I see it. Never was this more true than when news leaked out yesterday that the Canucks had locked up one of their Top 6 forwards for the next three years. It was predictable that the blogosphere and the twitterverse would lose their shit over anything Benning does, and that they would be led by the badass band of bloggers that passes for sports reporters in this town. But the coverage was almost incompetent in its rush to offer opinion over reporting facts.

The worst example of this was Daniel Wagner, a former Bulis blogger who now writes for a newspaper actually called Vancouver is Awesome. The headline atop his online article  was damning.

Canucks can’t stop making the same mistake,

re-sign Pearson to 3-year, $9.75 million deal

The Canucks could quickly regret prioritizing

a new contract for Tanner Pearson

Wagner’s article was what we call in academia a “polemic,” which by one definition is “something that stirs up controversy by having a negative opinion.” He was not content to report the facts and let readers make up their own minds about them. He wanted to make up their minds for them. In doing so, however, he left out something very important – facts that provide needed context. He neglected to mention, for example, that Pearson’s annual salary of $3.25 million will be below the league average of $3.55 million. (Divide the $81.5 million salary cap by a roster of 23.) Even more egregiously, he neglected to mention that Pearson was actually taking a $½ million annual pay cut to remain with the Canucks. If I had filed a story lacking these kinds of facts, I would have had it spiked back at me by a crusty editor. 

Wagner mentions that Pearson “only has 6 goals in 33 games this season while playing prime minutes in the top-six and on the power play” without mentioning his career-high 45 points last year in only 69 games before the regular season was called off and 8 more in the post-season. His argument that signing Pearson was a misteak is basically that Benning has made misteaks in signing other players. Carrying that to its logical conclusion, he should never sign another player again. Which of course is exactly what the bawling bloggers want – Benning gone. 

Unfortunately, Pearson’s new contract bears a striking resemblance to past mistakes by Benning. There’s the three-year deal he gave Sam Gagner worth $3.15 million per year. After just one year, Benning buried Gagner in the minors. Then there’s Sven Baertschi, given a three-year deal worth $3.37 million per year after finding a home on the Canucks’ second line. A year later, Baertschi was buried in the minors too.

Then he pretends to even give us the truth. “The truth is that Pearson is unlikely to be a second-line calibre forward during his three-year contract. His play has declined over the past few seasons and he will be 29 before the start of his contract.” Erm . . . career high in a shortened season? Like, last season? “Even more troubling is the cap space that Pearson takes up, particularly since the Canucks still need to re-sign Pettersson and Hughes.” At least Wagner doesn’t promote the line that the Canucks may be unable to re-sign their young stars, like some fearmongering bloggers do. “The issue is how much cap space will the Canucks have left to upgrade in other areas to improve for the future.”

The Canucks have just two NHL defencemen signed for next season, as well as Hughes when he gets his new contract. Defence is the area where the Canucks need the most improvement. Where will that improvement come from when they have no cap space to work with?

He doesn’t mention that the team has a lineup of prime prospects breaking down the door to play defence for less than $1 million a year. It has a big, friendly giant just chomping at the bit to return from Russia for rubles on the dollar. It might be able to get another Western Canada discount from Travis Hamonic, and even Alex Edler might take a pay cut rather than have to play elsewhere. So Wagner’s arguments suffer from grotesque sins of omission. I couldn’t help pointing some of this out on Twitter last night, which soon brought his defensive response. 

The fact is that Benning traded for Pearson and sees him as the type of player who can help win a Cup, which he’s already done in L.A. Benning has a firm grasp on his cap situation and the opportunity to re-sign a key member of the team at a reducton in salary was too good to pass up. This was actually pointed out by Thomas Drance of The Unathletic, who apparently had a chat with Uncle Jim. 

The real key in this deal from Vancouver’s perspective is that it permits the club to move forward with more stability than they enjoyed after the bubble, when every single unrestricted free agent walked. . . .  Benning had no appetite to recreate that dynamic next season, which is why a Pearson extension was prioritized with diligent focus and trade options never explored at significant length or depth.

Drancer even got in his article the part about Pearson's current contract paying him $3.75 million a season. Perhaps we can make a journalist out of him yet. Wagner may require more work.

ADDENDUM: I see that minutes before I posted this, Wagner doubled down on his criticism in a blog entry titled "Jim Benning paid full price for Tanner Pearson when he needed a bargain." Still no mention of him taking a pay cut.