SUN Hockey Pool

Coach shares Arena tales

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

The Winnipeg Arena will close its doors for good next month. Until then The Sun will bring you the stories that made the Old Barn memorable. From the original construction to the final buzzer, we'll take you through the history of a building that was never spectacular but always colourful as a sports venue.

There's no better story-teller than Tommy McVie, so why not let the former Jets coach take a run at some of his favourite Winnipeg Arena memories?

McVie, still scouting for the Boston Bruins, is living near Portland, Ore., these days -- less than an hour from Mount St. Helens.

VOLCANO

Which brings us to his recollection of the time the volcano blew 24 years ago.

"When it blew in '80, I was coaching the Jets," McVie, 69, said in a recent interview. "And it went up so high, I would say about four or five days later everyone in Winnipeg in the parking lot had ash all over their cars. My car included. When it blew, I thought it was Fergie upstairs."

McVie had his share of run-ins with Jets GM John Ferguson in the old rink, the most famous of which occurred when McVie benched Bobby Hull because he showed up late for a pre-game skate on the first visit by the Montreal Canadiens -- the inaugural Tuxedo Night.

"Hull stormed out of the building, and now my ass is on the line," McVie recalled.

But after a pre-game tirade that saw Fergie put his foot through McVie's office door, the two were smiling after a 6-2 Jets victory over the four-time defending Stanley Cup champs.

"Fergie looked at me, and he said, 'Man, someone up there must like you,'" McVie said.

That was the Jets first season in the NHL, but McVie's most thrilling moment probable came at the end of the previous year, when the team closed out the WHA era with its third AVCO Cup championship.

Winnipeg hasn't won a pro hockey title since.

"It was the most electric night that I've ever been involved in," McVie said. "We didn't just beat (the Edmonton Oilers), we smoked them. And then, to top it off, bang -- we're right in the National Hockey League. That's got to be the most exciting time for hockey in that city. And I was very fortunate to be part of that."

McVie says there was nothing like coaching in the Arena, particularly before they installed glass behind the players bench.

That created all kinds of interesting scenarios for him and assistant coach Billy Sutherland.

"If we were talking over something we were going to do, the fans would agree or disagree with us," McVie said. "Like, 'You can't do that. You can't be dumpin' the puck in.' I'm going, 'What the (censored) is this?'

"The vibe would go through the section, deciding what Sudsy and I were gonna do. I said, 'What is this, the hot-stove league? Maybe we should just go sit in our office and let them run the team.' The fans are part of the coaching staff. Isn't that wonderful?"

Funny thing is, McVie says they were usually right.

From 1979-81, McVie virtually lived at the rink during the hockey season.

"Most of the buildings they were putting up down here (in the U.S.) were all-purpose buildings. They weren't really hockey arenas. You never practised there. The only time there was ice there was 40 times a year.

"I don't think we ever didn't work out in our own building, in our own dressing room. That's like a paradise for a player and a coach."

It became hell, though, the night before he was fired during that forgettable, nine-win season of 1980-81. McVie spent the night on the trainers' table, waiting to hear his fate.

"It just broke my heart to get fired," he said. "I could have been in Winnipeg a long time. As people know, I loved the city."

He still does. And why not?

Not many coaches are fired one year (by the Washington Capitals), only to take part in a championship parade the next.

"Winnipeg salvaged my career," McVie said. "I might have been out on the street, and now it's 2004 and I'm still fooling them."


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