Forty years ago this weekend, the Winnipeg Jets put an exclamation mark on an incredible, unlikely run to the final World Hockey Association championship, their third title during the rebel league’s seven-year history. I was fortunate enough to go along for the ride in that winning 1978-79 season—as the main Jets beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune—and I share the following recollections while thinking of Fergy, Sudsy, the Shoe, my two media traveling companions, Friar Nicolson and Reyn Davis, and that wonderful photog with both the Trib and Winnipeg Free Press, Jon Thordarson, all of whom have left us.
It was early March 1979 and the Winnipeg Jets were back in Birmingham, the scene of their most heinous crime.
Only 11 days earlier, the defending World Hockey Association champions had absorbed a shameful and shocking 9-1 paddywhacking at the neophyte hands of Alabama’s Baby Bulls, and the pungent residue of that humiliation remained. The bus carrying the workforce turned into a parking lot and lurched haltingly (much like the Jets’ on-ice product) toward the team hotel, and one of the players observed two Birmingham cop cars parked in front of the main entrance.
“They must have been at our last game here,” muttered a wise-cracking John Gray. “They’ve come to arrest us for impersonating a hockey team.”
I don’t recall if everyone laughed, but I did. Ditto Tom McVie, the freshly minted head coach who could not be implicated in the 9-1, scorched-earth debacle. He had an-air tight alibi for that night—he’d been sitting at home in Washington, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it would be someone (anyone) in hockey calling to offer him a job behind their bench.
So McVie was off the hook, as were Terry Ruskowski, Kim Clackson and Gary Smith. (A nasty rib owie had limited Roscoe to four shifts that night; Clacker, in head coach Larry Hillman’s doghouse as usual, had been left behind in Winnipeg; recently arrived goaler Suitcase Smitty had yet to unpack his bags.)
The other boys on the bus, however…they wore the stink of 9-1, all complicit in what had been to that point in the Jets final WHA crusade the most damning evidence that this was Team Dysfunction.
To truly appreciate what went down that season, you must consider the nuances of a nine-month journey full of barking headlines, baffling sideshows, bitching, firings, hirings, disappearances and scoldings. Or, as I like to call it: Troubles Before Triumph.
This, understand, was not an outfit that fed off the warm-and-fuzzy remains of the previous campaign, a successful frolic that produced a second victory parade down the two main drags of River City. Gone to Gotham were Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, while other prominent performers such as Thommie Bergman and Dan Labraaten also took leave. In their stead skated Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray and Paul Terbenche, all refugees from an abandoned Houston Aeros franchise.
The remnants of the Jets championship outfit and the orphaned Aeros were confirmed enemies. They buddied-up like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
“At the start, the Houston players hung around together and the Winnipeg players hung around together,” Lukowich confirmed at the close of business on May 20, 1979, the night les Jets gained permanent possession of the Avco World Trophy with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Gretzkys. “There was a time when it got so bad that I phoned my agent and told him to get me the hell out of here. I hated being a Jet.”
“They called us the New York Yankees because there were bad vibes on the team,” Ruskowski agreed.
There were other fractures, most notably between fan favorite/resident ruffian Kim Clackson and the head coach, Larry Hillman.
Clacker was a work in progress, a young guy whose game was more fury and fists than finesse, and his style seldom found favor with bench jockey Hillman, who did not fancy the blueline bully’s perceived lack of puck-moving skills. So, like Lukowich, the frustrated Clacker was anxious to acquire a new postal code.
“I can’t play for that guy anymore,” he barked in early November. “I’m tired of all the bull. I was brought here to play hockey and take care of some of the guys. But it’s never worked out that way. I want to go somewhere else so I can play. I just want to play and be appreciated.”
It didn’t help that foes like Edmonton Oilers smug puppet master Glen Sather took delight in giving that particular pot a vigorous stirring.
“If (Hillman) ever wants to get rid of him, we’ll gladly take him,” Sather snickered rather cheekily one night after his Oilers had taken their measure of the Jets. “He’d fit right in with us.”
Others around the league also saw merit in Clackson’s presence.
“There’s no question that we prefer to play Winnipeg when he’s not in the lineup,” confessed Rick Adduono of the Bulls. “When Clackson’s out there and you come down on a three-on-two, you know you’re going to get a good two-hander when you skate in front of the net.”
“Leaving Clackson at home only helps us,” agreed Bulls coach John Brophy. “Every team needs a policeman, especially on the road.”
Jets team president and co-bankroll Michael Gobuty was unamused by the discordant notes being struck and, two weeks later, he took the extraordinary measure of entering the players’ lair to, among other things, instruct Clackson and any other malcontents to put an end to their pity party and play hockey.
“Michael came in and let us know he was the boss around here,” said Lukowich. “He told us where we stand, kind of put our minds at ease. I think we needed somebody to come in and show some authority. Nobody wants to get smart with Mr. Gobuty.”
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillman.
Larry Hillman was a nice man. A very nice man. And he owned a WHA championship ring that provided proof he was no pooch as a coach.
The man some of us called Morley had pushed all the right buttons six months earlier when the Jets secured the World Avco Trophy for a second time, yet Hillman fell prey to the whims of fate as unsteady dominoes began to tumble.
It wasn’t his fault, for example, that Hedberg and Nilsson defected to the New York Rangers.
It wasn’t his fault that the Achilles tendon in Lars-Erik Sjoberg’s right heel exploded during a late-September exhibition skirmish vs. the St. Louis Blues, and the captain was lost until the butt end of March.
It wasn’t his fault that Robert Marvin Hull suited up for four games then disappeared to battle his bride, Joanne, in a divorce court.
It wasn’t his fault that Teddy Green followed Hull into retirement.
Nor was he the mastermind behind the stroke of brilliance that brought the Houston cartel to River City.
It was, however, Hillman’s duty to make the Jets-Aeros alliance work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of blending this hybrid outfit of fierce foes into a unified force.
“We didn’t please each other at the start and still haven’t come to great harmony,” Hillman allowed during the rough patch of mid-November. “Maybe it’s because I mentioned (the Houston guys) more frequently than others in discussing this team. You know, the owners, the public and even the media expected a lot from the one line (Ruskowski-Lukowich-Preston), and maybe I expected too much, like everybody else. I can’t keep relating the Houston guys to the big line (Hedberg-Nilsson-Hull).
“This isn’t a give-up situation, it’s something that we’ll have to overcome. But if something isn’t done soon, there are two objectives—either the coach has to be fired or some changes have to be made on the playing roster. Hopefully we’re all mature enough to realize we have the same objective.”
Hillman survived until Feb. 27, four days and another loss (to the Baby Bulls) after the infamous 9-1 blitz in Birmingham.
“I don’t know how he controls himself,” Hillman’s second-in-command, assistant coach Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, said on the day of the dismissal. “If I was in his position, I would have had some of those guys by the throat. His biggest fault is that he was too good to the guys…he took the blame for everything.”
Only 24 hours earlier, general manager John Ferguson had granted Hillman a stay of execution, saying, “I was seriously considering making a change. But there won’t be any at this time.” A 5-2, home-ice loss to Birmingham, however, sealed the coach’s fate.
“I did not give him a vote of confidence,” Fergy explained of his abrupt about-face. “I said I would leave it up to the players.”
Apparently, the players said it all in that 5-2 defeat, a performance Ferguson described as “horrendous.”
There was delicious irony in the hiring of John Bowie Ferguson as GM of the Jets on Nov. 22 of the final season.
Fergy, you see, was the cad who had lured Hedberg and Nilsson away from River City, where they were looked upon by the rabble with deity-like reverence. Turns out the two Swedes were his parting gift to Gotham and the Rangers, because the National Hockey League club relieved him of his GM duties three days before officially introducing the former Jets to Times Square and the masses in the city that never sleeps.
Gobuty tossed Fergy a lifeline six months later, and it was goodbye Broadway and hello boondocks.
“We are, in effect, handing Ferguson the key to the club,” said Gobuty. “My partners and I plan to take a much less active role in the running of the club. It’ll take time, but we’re confident that he’ll mold the people he wants into the organization.”
Fergy accepted the job sight unseen, and he joined the lads in Quebec City for a first-hand look and a speech from the throne four days later.
“I don’t know how I should put this,” defenceman Scott Campbell said after a 2-2 stalemate with les Nordiques. “Let’s just say it’s nice to know who the boss is around here. Now we know who we have to answer to.”
It’s not like Fergy came in, waved a magic wand and—poof!—the Jets were rid of the toxins that had tainted the water through the first two months of the grind.
More to the point, Winnipeg HC continued to sputter like an old jalopy and, along the way, they were forced to do without Teddy Green, the legendary, tough-as-a-tire iron defenceman who stepped away from the game on Jan. 22 after 19 1/2 seasons and a near-fatal head injury.
I often wondered how Teddy repeatedly returned to the fray. I would watch him hobble onto the team bus or airplane, then observe him sitting in a stony, seemingly catatonic silence, paralyzed from the pain in his knees and, more significantly, his head. He had been on the losing end of a vicious stick-swinging duel with Wayne Maki in 1969, a confrontation that put him in a hospital bed and near death. After the passage of much time, he still had “never fully recovered” from that blow to the head.
“I’ve got no feeling at all in my left hand,” he said at his farewell presser. “Some nights I couldn’t even get my glove on before the game. I’d be putting four fingers in the same hole.”
I marveled at, and admired, Teddy’s courage, but he pooh-poohed any pity hurled his way.
“I remember a guy who used to play on the Million Dollar Line before he came to Boston,” he said. “He went out and busted his butt every game and then would sit at the end of the bench spitting out blood. Murray Balfour was dying of cancer. I’d like to think I fashioned some of my courage from Murray Balfour.”
There are differing stories on what brought these Jets together as a true team, but I favor the one about Gary Smith, known to some as Suitcase and to others as Axe.
By any name, he was not a goaltender of gaudy credentials upon his arrival in River City in mid-February. He had begun the season guarding the Indianapolis Racers goal, but that franchise went belly up 10 days before Christmas, leaving Smitty and his 0-10-1 record and his 5.51 goals-against average wanting for work.
He called Fergy asking for employment, and here’s how Ruskowski remembers the Axe’s introduction to the lads.
“He came walking into the locker room,” Roscoe told Hockey Digest in 2001. “He was pretty much overweight. He sat down and he said, ‘Half you guys don’t know me, but my name is Gary The Axe Smith because I’ve been around 15 teams in the past two years. My goals against is about 5.33 and I won one game and lost 13. But don’t let that fool you: I’m not that good.’ Everyone just cracked up. But you could see we were coming together as a team.”
Not yet, they weren’t. Not until Tom McVie came aboard.
Tommy and Fergy had been childhood chums in Vancouver and, hockey being very much a buddy network, it was reasonable for the latter to reach out to his out-of-work pal to fill the Jets’ coaching vacancy.
We knew little about Tommy, except that he’d been deep-sixed by the worst outfit in NHL history, the Washington Capitals. His reputation as a hard-ass taskmaster preceded him, and he said/did everything to confirm he was a bit off his nut, even telling a vomiting Scott Campbell at practice to “get sick on your own time.”
Although fitness-freak Tommy’s preachings and rigid, nutbar demands failed to translate into Ws at the get-go, we saw evidence that they soon would deliver favorable results. There was renewed vigor. More purpose in their play. Superior conditioning began to take grip, most noticeably in the third period of games.
Better yet—at least for us news snoops—Tommy was a quote machine. A funny quote machine.
On teams in a slump: “You know what happens when you get into a rut like that? People start talking behind your back. When I was with Washington, I remember standing in the Los Angeles airport and I could see a couple of guys talking. As soon as I walked near them, they stopped. I’d walk up to a couple more and they’d stop talking too. Hell, it got so bad in Washington, that one night I was at a football game and the Redskins went into their huddle…I thought THEY were talking about me too.”
Upon arrival in Quebec City, he heard players whinging about their tiny rooms in Le Chateau Frontenac: “I don’t know what you guys are bitching about. The last time I was here, my room was so small that when I put my key in the door I broke a window.”
After the Jets had swept les Nordiques in their first-round playoff series, Gobuty gave Tommy a huge thank-you hug: “The last guy who did that to me was Abe Pollin (chairman of the board for the Washington Capitals). He hugged me and told me he should give me a 20-year contract…then he fired me 19 years too soon.”
More than anything, though, McVie proved to be the right man at the right time for that team.
The Jets had somehow maneuvered their way into top spot on Feb. 15, but they finished the month in third place, five points in arrears of the Edmonton Gretzkys, and every other outfit in the league had at least three games in hand. They lost six of eight, then eight of 10.
Gradually, however, whatever flavor of Kool-Aid McVie was selling kicked in. It was balls to the wind. The Jets came down the stretch like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes, winning 11 of 17 and four of their final five matches, and only once after March 6 did they absorb back-to-back losses.
“It took them a while before they started winning,” observed Jacques Demers, head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. “Now every one of those guys is proud to wear a Jets sweater…you can see that Winnipeg has togetherness, that pride just by looking at their bench. I think now the Jets may be a better team than they’ve ever been. They’ve got so many leaders.”
It was convenient and a blessing that one of those leaders, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, returned from the repair shop for the finishing strokes of the regular season.
Squat like a fire hydrant, the Shoe was equal parts wizard and hockey Einstein, a smooth, puck-moving rearguard who always saw what others failed to see. Everything he did was accomplished with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the subtle skill of a heart surgeon.
The Jets were unsuccessful in his comeback game, dropping a 2-nada decision to les Nordiques, but the Shoe was magnificent in his understated manner.
“I told Fergy after the game that he should cut Shoe’s wages,” McVie joked. “He makes the game look so easy. Any guy having that good a time out there shouldn’t get paid.”
“Now I know why I always had to chop him in Houston,” added Lukowich, the feisty 65-goal winger. “The only way to stop him is to put the lumber to him.”
“I’m still waiting for somebody, anybody, to beat him one-on-one, and I’ve been in the league five years,” Edmonton Oilers centre Ron Chipperfield said of the Shoe.
Let the record show that the Jets went 13-6 with Sjoberg orchestrating the show from the back end and, although his point total was modest, it’s unlikely they would have gone on their successful 8-2 playoff run without him.
This was a WHA title that almost never happened.
The Jets had finished in third place, a whopping 14 points in back of Edmonton and three behind Quebec, and when they departed River City to open a best-of-seven skirmish vs. Quebec there were no assurances that les Nordiques would be waiting for them at the other end.
There was a money dispute, you see.
The WHA’s agreement with the WHA Players Association called for a payout of no less than $10,000 to each member of the championship side. The league was offering between $6,000 and $7,000 and the players insisted they receive no less than $8,000. Les Nordiques and Cincinnati Stingers voted to cancel the playoffs, while the Oilers and New England Whalers were in favor of proceeding as scheduled.
So was there a possibility of the WHA collapsing before its final act?
“Sure there is,” said Peter Sullivan, the silky-smooth centre who served as the Jets player rep. “Even if we vote in favor, Quebec and Cincinnati still might not come over and agree with the other three clubs. I just hope for the league’s sake it doesn’t happen.”
The Jets never took a formal vote, but at least one player, Clackson, was against a work stoppage.
“Don’t write me down as one of the malcontents,” he said. “I’ll take $7,000 anytime. We shouldn’t be concerned about anything right now except winning this series of ours.”
The Jets touched down in Quebec City on a Friday (first game was scheduled for Monday), and the club withheld the players’ per diem ($24), with a further caution: If there was a cancellation of the post-season, the players would be returning home on their own dime.
As it happened, the WHA and WHAPA agreed to put the dispute on hold until after the playoffs, so it was game on.
Much was made of the impact the threatened boycott had on les Nordiques, who became a house divided over the issue.
Reports of fights involving Curt Brackenbury, Serge Bernier and Marc Tardiff came out of the Quebec camp, although defenceman Paul Baxter insisted it was nothing more than mountains-out-of-molehills nattering from news snoops.
“We haven’t played for a week now,” Baxter said with a dismissive shrug, “that sort of thing happens.”
Brackenbury chirped in, saying, “I can’t remember anything about them.”
Whatever the case, the Jets took out les Nordiques in a romp, sweeping the series with 6-3, 9-2, 9-5 and 6-2 wins and outshooting Quebec 50-14 in Game 4.
“There are players on this team who will never wear a Quebec Nordiques uniform again,” vowed the vanquished Quebec coach Demers. “They were unprofessional. They didn’t try at all…all of this because of money. The Jets went through the same thing as my players, but they still wanted to play hockey. What hurts most is when you stand behind the bench and see your players laughing.”
That’s what the semifinal series was…a laugher.
Like many others, I often wondered how the Jets would function without Terry Ruskowski.
If Clackson provided the team with its spine (in the figurative realm), Roscoe was its heartbeat, and that’s not to discredit the Shoe and Barry Long, who wore the ‘C’ while Sjoberg was in the repair shop. It’s just that Ruskowski had that special ingredient you couldn’t reach out and touch. Call it the ‘it’ factor.
“He’s a very talented hockey player, but it’s more than that,” winger Lyle Moffat suggested during the final vs. the Oilers. “I don’t know what it is that the man has, but he has to have something magic about him. He’s just a great leader.”
After 3-1 and 3-2 victories on Edmonton ice to open the championship series, the Jets lost Roscoe to a serious shoulder owie in Game 3, and they were promptly outscored 4-zip in the third period of an 8-3 loss. They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game 4, then received a royal rag-dolling by the Oilers, 10-2. So, let’s do the math: In seven periods sans Roscoe, the Jets were outscored 16-5. Ouch.
Chances are there wouldn’t have been a happily-ever-after ending to this story except for trainer Billy Bozak. The nicest of men, Boz used his magic fingers and perhaps some voodoo on Roscoe’s shoulder, and he was good to go for Game 6, even though the hard-boiled centre couldn’t raise his left arm and truthfully had no business being on the ice. All he did was set up four goals in a 7-3 victory that brought the curtain down on the WHA, on May 20, 1979.
“I just love the man,” gushed McVie. “I’ve never met a man in my life like Terry Rukowski (Tommy often dropped the first ‘s’ when he spoke Ruskowski’s name).”
I was happiest for the Houston players, who hadn’t been warmly embraced initially and were handed a very tough act to follow.
Thus I wandered down to the Jets changing room in the bowels of a decaying Winnipeg Arena and sought to engage in chin-wags with four of them—Roscoe, Luke, Rich Preston (the playoff MVP) and Scotty Campbell. I don’t recall ever seeing four happier, more contented men. They wore that victory well.
They all did, of course, from Suitcase Smitty to shutdown forwards Lyle Moffat-Bill (Tractor) Lesuk-Roland Eriksson-Bobby Guindon, to fancy-schmancy offensive wizards Silky Sullivan and Magic Man Kent Nilsson, to gut-check guys like Clackson and Long, to greenhorns Glenn Hicks and Paul MacKinnon, to the guy who scored the final goal in Jets WHA history 40 years ago tomorrow—Willy Lindstrom.
“I had a bad season, so I had to have a good playoff,” said Willy, who contributed 10 goals and five assists in the 10 games that mattered most. “I wanted to show that I was a better player than Larry Hillman thought I was. When he was coach, I used to get only five or six shifts a game. I was thinking this would be my last season in North America, and I was thinking of playing over in Germany or Switzerland next year. But now things are different. Tom McVie gave me chance to play and I wanted to make good on that chance.”
No one in that changing room was happier than McVie.
“Three months ago I didn’t have a job in hockey and now they’re measuring me for a championship ring,” Tommy gushed. “This is better than sex…well, maybe.”
Often I have taken pause for ponder on that 1978-79 season and how the events unfolded. Was there one decision that served as the catalyst? Actually, yes. Here’s how I rate the five most-significant developments in that championship crusade:
Michael Gobuty and his 8 Hockey Ventures Inc. partners purchased the contracts of a dozen Houston Aeros, bringing Ruskowski, Preston, Lukowich, Campbell, West, Gray and Terbenche to Winnipeg.
The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.
Fergy hired Tom McVie.
The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
Suitcase Smitty put in a phone call to Fergy and asked for a job.
The 1978-79 Jets, playoff team: Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell, Steve West, John Gray, Paul Terbenche, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Bobby Guindon, Roland Eriksson, Paul MacKinnon, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Glenn Hicks, Kim Clackson, Gary Smith, Joe Daley, Barry Long. Coaches Tom McVie, Bill Sutherland. General manager John Ferguson.
Also playing during the regular season: Markus Mattsson, Rich Gosselin, John Gibson, Ted Green, Bobby Hull, Bill Davis, Mike Amodeo, Dale Yakiwchuk. Coach Larry Hillman. Executive Director of Hockey Operations/assistant GM Rudy Pilous.