Perhaps because a broad brushstroke of hockey nostalgia is about to sweep across good, Ol’ Hometown, I find myself reaching back to distant times and a shinny barn long ago reduced to rubble.
I couldn’t begin to inventory the number of days and nights I spent in the Winnipeg Arena during my three decades writing about hockey in River City, but I confess that the large majority of the games I witnessed have faded to black, lost in the foggy moors of my ever-eroding memory. Mostly, they come back to me in vignettes. A highlight here, an incident there.
There are, however, three matches that remain indelible: 1) The Winnipeg Jets’ victory over the Soviet Union National team; 2) Game 6 of the 1979 World Hockey Association championship; 3) the first Tuxedo Night.
The latter two I recall because one carried historical significance, in that it was the WHA’s final act and the local lads took permanent ownership of the Avco World Trophy, while the other was noteworthy for its marketing quirkiness and behind-the-scenes madness that brought closure to Bobby Hull’s career in Jets linen. Poor Bobby was all dressed up with no place to go on Tuxedo Night, and his clumsy exit is a humorous, oft-told chapter of folklore that I’m certain will be recited and embellished when the old boys gather for their Heritage Classic hijinks this week.
That’s strictly Sideshow Bob stuff, though, when measured against the caging of the great Russian Bear. That was the defining moment for a team and its players whose accomplishments often were pooh-poohed by the hockey establishment because of the company they kept. The WHA and its member teams, you see, were looked upon like the Canadian dollar is today—not up to par. Devalued. Or so the prevailing logic went.
But wait. Don’t talk to us about second-class citizens. The Jets beat the Soviet National side, dammit!
I can still see Ulf Nilsson delivering a short, delicate pass to Dave Dunn, a big, lumbering defenceman with a square, planter-like pot for a helmet. No one had ever mistaken Dunn for, say, the smooth-as-silk Peter Sullivan or Kent Nilsson. More to the point, his was a hunch-shouldered, laborious skating style that evoked imagery of a beast of burden pulling a milk wagon. Yet there was Dunn, suddenly with some lickety-split in his stride as he departed the neutral zone and navigated his way into enemy territory.
Looking up from the end boards, Dunn spied Hull standing at the lip of the crease, and he dished a backhand pass to the Golden Jet, who flicked the puck past Vladislav Tretiak. Game, set and match. The Jets had beaten the Soviets, 5-3.
It is the irony of Dunn’s daring, as much as Hull’s three scores and Ulf Nilsson’s four points, that revisits me when I ponder the events of Jan. 5, 1978.
I recall watching from on high, in the Arena press box, as Dunn accepted Nilsson’s feed and began his foray along the right wing boards and into a corner. I thought it totally out of character for him to be so ambitious. Dunn’s technique and skill level were directly at odds with the shock-and-awe swagger of his playmates, Nilsson, Hull and Anders Hedberg. Not to mention the three Soviet forwards on the freeze at that moment—Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. Dave Dunn belonged in that group like Donald Trump belongs at your teenage daughter’s pajama party.
“This can’t possibly end well,” I muttered to myself.
It did, though, and the Jets had their signature game, the one match we can point to after this great passage of time and say “that’s how good those guys were.”
This wasn’t a championship skirmish. It wasn’t even a regular-season assignment. It was, as soccer people are wont to say, a “friendly.” A pleasant interlude of sporting pleasure to perhaps soothe the sting of another long and dreary Winnipeg winter.
Yet any frolic with the Soviet National side during the Cold War, circa 1970s, carried political overtones, if not intrigue, plus the promotional wallop of a heavyweight tiff.
And so it was when the Jets, with their blend of smooth Swedes and good, ol’ bent-nosed Canadian boys, engaged the best of Mother Russia. None among the combatants arrived at the rink to make nice. This was a “friendly” like Donald S. Cherry was a member of the Politburo.
Few beyond the walls of the Jets’ changing quarters expected the WHA’s marquee team to topple the comrades. Even the most rabid of the rabble would have told you victory was less likely than Cherry taking a mail-order Russian bride.
I mean, this was the creme de la borscht of Soviet shinny. It was one thing to whup a club side from Mother Russia, like Wings or Dynamo or, yes, even the National team’s doppelganger, CKSA, more commonly known as the Central Red Army. A few WHA and NHL outfits already had been there and done that. But beat the communist colossus? Nyet.
To further underscore the enormity of the task, the Russkies already had given the Jets three wedgies in “friendlies” in Tokyo, Japan—7-5, 4-2, 5-1—prior to the comrades’ arrival on our shores (at which point Ivan promptly administered a 7-2 paddywhacking to the Edmonton Oilers).
So, yes, the Russian Bear was in full-throated growl.
The Jets, however, were not without bark and bite of their own.
Although appropriately respectful of a foe that collected World and Olympic championships like little boys collected bubble gum cards, the Jets delighted a gathering of 10,315 eye witnesses by laying waste to the Soviets early, building a 4-0 advantage on two goals each from Ulf Nilsson and Hull. Shortly thereafter, taskmaster Viktor Tikhonov removed Aleksandr Sidelnikov from the Soviets’ goal and replaced him with Tretiak.
As if on cue, the great Russian Bear stirred, making it 4-2 before the second period had expired, both goals coming off the stick of diminutive and unsmiling Boris Alexandrov. Vasily Pervukhin then supplied third-period drama, beating Jets goaltender Joe Daley two minutes and 43 seconds in. A collective murmur rumbled from the pews to the rafters in the old barn on Maroons Road. Fans feared the worst.
The Jets quelled the Russian uprising, though, guarding their one-goal advantage with Scrooge-like stinginess until Hull converted Dunn’s pass into his third score and the Jets’ fifth, eight seconds from time.
Never before had the Soviet National side been beaten by a club team.
Scant seconds after the fact, those of us with pens, notepads and microphones were granted access to the locals’ lair, where we discovered half the players still fully adorned in their Jets livery and the other half already baring well-sculpted chests, abs and arms. Some roamed to the four corners of their cramped quarters, smiling and slapping broad-shouldered backs and tousling the stringy, matted-down hair on sweat-soaked heads. A few sat in silent reflection, giving ponder to a job well done and nursing post-work refreshments.
They were properly pleased and proud, these Jets, also weary to the marrow.
They seemed in unspoken agreement that the early after-moments of their conquest of the CCCP was a time for softened celebration, rather than unrestrained revelry, and it is their muffled merriment and a quiet quote from Ulf Nilsson that I also remember about the goings-on of that magical night.
“The Russians are so hard to play against…I don’t think I ever beat them before tonight,” offered Nilsson, a native of Nynashamn who along with fellow Swede Hedberg and Hull combined to outscore the Soviets’ fabled forward troika of Mikhailov, Kharlamov and Petrov 10 points to zero. “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”
That sentiment worked both ways, that night and so many others for the Jets and their flock.
(Footnote: To put the Jets’ victory in perspective, the Soviets went 5-0 against five other WHA outfits on that tour, beating the Oilers (7-2), Quebec Nordiques (6-3), Cincinnati Stingers (9-2), Indianapolis Racers (8-3) and New England Whalers (8-4) for a combined score of 38-14).
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.