The River City Renegade

B-b-b-Benny and the Jets started with Ben Hatskin, and don’t you forget it, Winnipeg

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I thought we were perfectly clear on this, but apparently some people still believe Bobby Hull is the reason professional hockey came to River City in 1972 and exists today.

So, as much as I dislike repeating myself, let me say this for the 8,151st time: Robert Marvin Hull is not—repeat NOT (and, yes, I’m shouting)—the reason pro shinny arrived in Winnipeg. Ben Hatskin IS (yes, shouting again) the reason. Always was, always will be. Benny is the godfather, grandfather and father of pay-for-play hockey as we know it in good, ol’ Hometown.

Ben Hatskin

Ben Hatskin

Again, this is not a chicken-and-egg thing. We know who and what came first.

Benny and the original Jets arrived in 1967 as a Junior outfit in the Western Canada Hockey League. But Benny and a few of the boys had bigger fish to fry. They thought it would be a swell idea to form a rebel league and yank the National Hockey League’s chain. You know, poach some of its players and minor league properties. Pay them big bucks, much more than they would earn in the NHL. Thus, the World Hockey Association was born.

So, here’s your overall lineage to that point: Ben Hatskin, Junior Jets, World Hockey Association.

The next trick was to get NHL players whose contracts had expired and the paying public to take the rebel league seriously. No better way to do that than take the NHL’s glam guy hostage. Thus, Benny set his sights on Hull, who wasn’t feeling the love from Chicago Blackhawks ownership. Benny tossed some large numbers, like $250,000 per annum, at the Golden Jet. Hull basically scoffed. He could pry that out of tightwad Bill Wirtz in the Windy City.

Tell ’em to give me a million dollars and they’ve got themselves a hockey player,” Hull advised his agent, Harvey Weinberg.

Benny alerted his accomplices at the WHA ownership level that the sticker price for Hull’s good looks, charisma and 110-m.p.h. slapshot was $1 million. They might have winced at that figure, but Benny somehow convinced each of them to kick in to the B. Hull kitty. The deal was done.

Make no mistake, though. There would have been professional hockey in Winnipeg in ’72 with or without Hull. Hatskin was all in before signing the Golden Jet. What Hull’s presence did, however, was provide the Jets and the WHA with star power and staying power. Without him, the league’s shelf life would have been shorter than a Winnipeg summer. With him, they survived seven seasons and moved into the NHL.

I point all this out not to minimize or trivialize Hull’s contribution to shinny in good, ol’ Hometown. His role was immense, although I believe some people err when they romanticize his signing. Don’t think for a minute that Hull agreed to come to River City for altruistic reasons, like giving legs to a fledgling operation. He wasn’t sitting at home in the Toddlin’ Town saying, “You know, I think I’d like to spend the next 10 years of my life playing hockey in the middle of nowhere. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see how my skills stack up against Frankie Beaton and Bad News Bilodeau.”

Bobby Hull came to town because the WHA member teams and Ben Hatskin showed him the money. Period.

Bobby Hull

Bobby Hull

They kept calling and I kept telling everyone that would listen that I wasn’t going anywhere, least of all to Winnipeg,” is how Hull explained it to Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun on the occasion of the Jets’ 40 anniversary.

A $1-million signing bonus and a $1.75-million contract changed Hull’s thinking and the professional hockey landscape.

Who would have thought that any cowboy was worth $1 million in 1972?” Hull told Friesen. “Seabiscuit didn’t make that. No four-legged animal made that. No athlete had made a million dollars until then.”

Which is why players from back in the day still thank the Golden Jet for doubling, tripling and quadrupling their salaries. Some team owners, meanwhile, probably still curse his name.

Again, the point of this essay is not to discredit Hull. It’s to reaffirm Ben Hatskin as the starting point and the most significant figure in Winnipeg’s pro hockey lineage as we know it today. It goes like this: Ben Hatskin-Winnipeg Jets/WHA-Bobby Hull-NHL-Mark Chipman-Manitoba Moose/IHL/AHL-David Thomson-NHL/Winnipeg Jets.

It started with Ben Hatskin and there would not be an NHL franchise in River City today except for his vision and bull doggedness in the pursuit, and signing, of Bobby Hull.

(Footnote: There was pro shinny in River City pre-Jets. The Winnipeg Warriors, featuring Billy Mosienko, Ted Green, Gerry James and Fred Shero among other notables, competed in the Western Hockey League from 1955-61.)

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 

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