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How a long-time non-Western Leaf guy looks back at the old Winnipeg Jets

What springs to mind when I, as a non-Westerner but someone who loves the history of our game, think back to the Winnipeg Jets?

Well, the first obvious thing is the World Hockey Association.  (I know there is a much older and longer minor pro history in the market, but I have precious little knowledge about local Winnipeg hockey history in that regard.)  They were one of the first franchises in the fledgling major league and few thought they- or the league itself- would “make it”.

But they did.  And they did in large part because of the first owner of the Winnipeg Jets.  I’m trying to remember the guy who brought the Jets to the WHA.  What was his name—Ben Hatskin, was it?  (Someone will let me know, I’m sure, but it sounds close...)

Of course, maybe more than anything else, what gave the old WHA—and the Jets—instant and lasting credibility was the fact that they signed Chicago superstar Bobby Hull when he was still in the prime of his NHL career after the 1972 season.  How often does that kind of thing happen?  (Hull played until the 1979-’80 season, so he had a lot of juice left in the tank when he signed with the Jets and the WHA…)

Hull changed the financial landscape for all professional hockey players because of his well-publicized million dollar contract—and probably not enough guys have thanked him over the years.

Interestingly, it wasn’t because of the Players Association or an agent.  It was almost all about Hull.  He was the guy.  The individual who drew the crowds.  The straw that stirred the drink in the new league. 

Long before he jumped leagues, Hull was that rare athlete (I’ve written about this in the past, click here to see the earlier story) who had always, and I mean virtually always, stopped to sign autographs for kids and fans of all ages.  He knew what was important—touching the fans who directly or indirectly paid his salary and kept the NHL alive.

Other NHL stars soon followed suit to the new league (oh yes, as I’ve often posted here, the Leafs got hammered and lost some fine young talent to the WHA because of then owner Harold Ballard) and the WHA was so successful—despite some missteps and lost franchises—that the NHL eventually had to agree to a merger of sorts. The old league brought in the Jets, Hartford, Quebec City and Edmonton prior to the 1979-’80 season.

But in terms of Winnipeg itself, Hull was followed soon afterwards by those two wonderfully talented Swedes, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.  (Wasn’t defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg there too?  I can look it up but it’s more fun just going from memory…).  This was right around the time that the Leafs signed future Hall-of-Famer Borje Salming and the shifty fellow Swede Inge Hammarstrom, who actually weren't the "first" Swedish players to come across the pond to the NHL.

Because I’m not a Westerner and I didn’t follow the WHA as closely as I perhaps should have in the 1970s, I don’t remember a lot of Jet-related details.  Winnipegers and people from across Manitoba and the West would have far better memories to draw on, for sure. But those were the names that stand out the most.  The Jets won some Avco Cups as WHA champs in the '70s and I know they had more talent than just the players I mentioned above- other role-players who helped make the team strong and successful.  (Send some names along that you remember…)

But as the team joined the NHL, a new breed was on hand.  I remember John Ferguson, the great old Montreal forward, the best policeman of his era, as the GM (didn’t he coach the Jets for a while as well?) for many years.  Fergy had earlier been the GM of the New York Rangers.

Dale Hawerchuk was Ferguson's pride and joy, a first overall draft choice in 1980 or thereabouts out of the old Cornwall junior team—the same team Doug Gilmour played on, I think.  We all know Dale had an outstanding career, a smart, skilled center.  He is a Hall-of-Famer and deservedly so. 

Tom Watt, the excellent and long-time coach at the University of Toronto with the Varsity Blues was the coach in Winnipeg for a time.  Teemu Selanne started his career there, and scored, what was it, 76 goals in his first or second season?

A serious leg injury slowed him temporarily, but the guy has had a stunningly great career and may play another season.  Wouldn’t it be something to see him back in Winnipeg for his career finale?

Tomas Steen (his son Alex recently played for the Leafs, as current Leaf fans know) was an excellent two-way forward and became a fixture in the '80s and '90s. 

Ex-Leaf tough guy and head coach Dan Maloney (click on his name to see an earlier post on Maloney)coached there for a while as well in the later ‘80s, when he couldn’t get a fair contract from cranky old Harold Ballard, who always seemed to think pretty much anybody could coach the Leafs and let Dan walk away.

I wasn’t “out there” so didn’t live and breathe those playoff series with Edmonton and other Western Conference teams in the ‘80s and '90s.  I never fully understood why the team had to move 15 years ago (especially, no offense to Coyotes hockey fans, to a warm-weather market like Phoenix).  I know the Canadian dollar was struggling and there were ownership issues, but it never felt right that the franchise had to go.

While I’m sad for Atlanta (who has had two shots at an NHL franchise) I can’t help but feel elated for the city of Winnipeg and the hockey fans who care deeply about the old Jets.

As an “Eastern” guy, no, I can’t appreciate the full history of the Jets, and don’t pretend I can compete with those of you who lived it.  But though my own memories are relatively few, I know it’s a great city, with faithful sports fans who deserve a franchise.

Here’s hoping a lot of new memories are created that we can all share in, at least a bit—even those of us here in the “East”.

1 comment:

  1. The only live Leafs game I've ever seen was vs. the Jets when, you guessed it, Domi was skating for the opposition. I think we lost the game too, so screw Winnipeg. ;)