Ignore the propaganda that news snoops in the Republic of Tranna have been spewing this week, kids.
Oh, sure, it’s true that the Tranna Jurassics have come out best in their last 15 frolics on the National Basketball Association hardwood, but…contrary to dispatches from The ROT, that does not establish a new standard for the longest run of sustained success in the history of Canadian professional sports franchises.
The Winnipeg Jets, you see, have been there and done that.
That is correct.
The Jets circa 1977-78 were a rollicking, swashbuckling outfit that used a blend of European panache and Canadian growl to lord themselves over the World Hockey Association, at one stretch winning 15 consecutive matches.
It began on Jan. 29, when Winnipeg HC toppled the Stingers in Cincinnati, 8-4, and win No. 15 was delivered on Feb. 26, with the Jets paddywhacking Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell and the Houston Aeros, 9-6, in the friendly confines of ye ol’ and decaying barn on Maroons Road.
Here are the facts, kids:
Jan. 29: Winnipeg 8 at Cincinnati 4
Jan. 31: Winnipeg 7 at Quebec 2
Feb. 4: Winnipeg 7 at Cincinnati 5
Feb. 5: Winnipeg 4 Edmonton 3
Feb. 8: Winnipeg 9 Birmingham 0
Feb. 10: Winnipeg 10, Cincinnati 2
Feb. 11: Winnipeg 5 at Indianapolis 3
Feb. 12: Winnipeg 6 at Houston 5
Feb. 15: Winnipeg 6 Edmonton 5
Feb. 16: Winnipeg 2 at New England 1 (OT)
Feb. 18: Winnipeg 4 at Cincinnati 0
Feb. 19: Winnipeg 5 Quebec 2
Feb. 22: Winnipeg 4 New England 2
Feb. 24: Winnipeg 7 New England 2
Feb. 26: Winnipeg 9 Houston 6
Totals: Winnipeg 93 Opposition 42
Oddly enough, the Jets’ streak was bookended by losses (8-5 Jan. 28, 4-3 March 1) to the Birmingham Bulls, a bottom-feeding side that featured an assortment of barbarians. Go figure.
At any rate, what the Jurassics have accomplished is totally admirable, and they can one-up the Jets with a 16th consecutive W tonight in Brooklyn, where they meet the Nets.
For now, though, they’re Johnny-come-latelies.
Footnote: There were a few other noteworthy items about those 1977-78 Jets: They also had an 11-game win streak; Kent Nilsson was the WHA’s top freshman (“He’s got more potential, more ability than any other 21-year-old hockey player I’ve ever seen,” said Bobby Hull), the Shoe, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, was the top defender; Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, the Shoe, Hull and Barry Long were all-stars; Bobby Guindon was the playoff MVP; they became the first North American club side to beat the Soviet Union national team (5-3 on Jan. 5); they won the WHA title, losing just one game in their two series.
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.
Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and don’t think for a minute that I’ve given much thought to any of this…
It was mid-June 1979 and John Bowie Ferguson had just examined the list of players available to him in the National Hockey League expansion draft.
He winced. Then scowled.
Fergy rose to his feet and trudged across the main room of his 13th-floor suite in the fabulous Queen Elizabeth Hotel. He stopped in front of a large window, stared at the splendor that is Montreal, and noted that Mary Queen of the World Cathedral was directly across the street.
“Well,” I said, “I guess you have two choices, Fergy: You can go across the street and do some serious praying, or you can jump.”
The Winnipeg Jets general manager did neither. He just grunted.
Head coach Tom McVie, sitting in a nearby chair, smiled and cracked wise: “You know,” he said, “there’s enough talent available for us to win the Allan Cup. It might be seven games, but if we get home ice in the seventh game, we could win.”
He was joking, but not far from accurate.
I don’t know what $650 million will buy the Seattle Whatsits two years hence when the new kids on the block piece together their expansion roster of rejects, but I do know what $6 million bought Fergy and the Jets in mid-June 1979—sweet petite.
The NHL’s existing 17 outfits, be advised, did not lean toward benevolence when they grudgingly agreed to accept les Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers into their shinny cartel. The plan was to first plunder the rosters of the World Hockey Association survivors—Winnipeg HC suffered the worst body count—then allow them to go on a dumpster dive for dregs.
Some interesting names were there for the choosing. Like Bobby Orr. Except the great No. 4 was crippled and retired. The Big M, Frank Mahovlich, was available, except he was 41 and, like Orr, finished. Fergy could have had former Jets head coach Larry Hillman, except Morley was 42 and hadn’t played in three years. Yvan Cournoyer? The Roadrunner was out of gas. I seem to recall there also being a dead guy on the list.
It was so bad that Fergy didn’t even bother to call out names on his final shout on draft day.
“Okay,” he muttered in a tone that suggested both protest and resignation, like a kid being force-fed one more mouthful of Brussels sprouts before dessert, “Winnipeg Jets take the last two players.”
Gene Carr and Hilliard Graves thus were added to a collection of misfits, mostly guys with marginal or diminished skills. Also some undesirable contracts. In sum, Fergy plucked 17 players that day: Peter Marsh, Lindsay Middlebrook, Bobby Hull, Al Cameron, Dave Hoyda, Jim Roberts, Lorne Stamler, Mark Heaslip, Pierre Hamel, Gord McTavish, Gord Smith, Clark Hamilton, Jim Cunningham, Dennis Abgrall, Bill Riley, Carr and Graves.
Still, combined with holdovers from the Jets 1979 WHA championship roster, that bunch easily could have won senior hockey’s Allan Cup, but they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They won 20 of 80 games, and just nine in their sophomore season.
We know the NHL has no plan to be similarly punitive with Seattle, because a $650 million sticker price demands that they get some sizzle with their steak. For the Jets, though, it was $6 million worth of beans and wieners.
The plundering of rosters and a player pool of ragged retreads weren’t the only indiginities inflicted upon the Jets and their WHA brethren. In a penalizing departure from established practice, the NHL ruled that the four expansion teams would choose last, rather than first, in the amateur draft. By the time Fergy used the No. 19 shout-out to pluck Jimmy Mann (talk about cruel and unusual punishment), guys like Ray Bourque, Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Craig Hartsburg, Paul Reinhart and Mike Foligno had already been snatched up. Ahead of the draft, Fergy had said, “Let’s face it, Ray Charles could pick the first-round drafts. We all know who they’re going to be.” So let’s all blame Ray Charles for Jimmy Mann.
Being bad had its benefits for Fergy and les Jets. Their names were Dave Babych and Dale Hawerchuk, plucked in the 1980 and ’81 entry drafts, respectively. With Babs and Ducky on board, les Jets soared from a nine-wins, 32-points season to 33 Ws and 80 points.
Nice to see Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Ab McDonald get the nod as the next inductees to the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. Sadly, both have left us, but I’m sure there’ll be a celebratory mood when some of the old boys gather to salute the two former captains on Feb. 26 at the Little Hockey House On The Prairie.
According to Forbes magazine, the Winnipeg HC franchise is now valued at $415 million, 27th among NHL clubs. Considering that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman and co-bankroll David Thomson paid $170 million for their play thing, that’s a handsome hike. Mind you, it’s expected they’ll also be required to fork over $170M to Patrik Laine by the time he’s finished.
If you missed it, here’s how Forbes lists the value of each Canadian franchise: Tranna Maple Leafs $1.35 billion, Montreal Canadiens $1.3B, Vancouver Canucks $735 million, Edmonton Oilers $540M, Calgary Flames $450M, Ottawa Senators $435M, Winnipeg HC $415M. And, yes, now that you mention it, I don’t see how in the name of Cyclone Taylor the Jets can be worth less than the dysfunctional Senators. That’s like saying a pack of smokes is a better buy than gym membership.
This from Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star: “Not to overreact, but Auston Matthews is probably the best goal-scorer in the world. This isn’t a hot take; it’s maybe a take that you left in the microwave for like 15 seconds, long enough to soften butter but not melt it.” Sorry, Bruce, but that’s a totally hot-buttered Tranna take.
Interesting to see loose cannon head coach John Tortorella adorned in a hoodie rather than a suit and tie behind the Columbus Blue Jackets bench last week. Apparently he was fit to be tied after the game, though.
When did women’s curling become more interesting and more entertaining that the men’s side? And does the curling season really begin before Vic, Cheryl and Russ are in the booth? No knock against Sportsnet’s coverage of Grand Slam events, but it just sounds right when Vic Rauter, Cheryl Bernard and Russ Howard are making the calls on TSN.
Is it just me, or does anyone else find TSN’s UFC gab guy Robin Black kind of creepy? I think he might be related to the Munsters. Maybe a distant cousin to Herman or Lily. Or separated from Eddie Munster at birth. Black might know his stuff (although anyone who picked Conor McGregor to whup Floyd Mayweather is suspect), but do we really need to see him rolling around inside the octagon? I know I don’t.
Interesting that Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice took his name from the Tranna Argonauts head-coaching hunt. Not surprising, though. I mean, working in The Republic of Tranna is the Canadian Football League equivalent of a witness protection program. The 50/50 draw is larger at a backyard barbeque in Fort Garry than at BMO Field in The ROT. I could see Coach LaPo defecting to B.C., but Tranna? Only on a dare.
And, finally, forestry and lands people have discovered a hole the size of a CFL field in a remote B.C. park. It’s believed to be the biggest opening in North America now that Ondrej Pavelec has taken his five-hole back to the Czech Republic.
I cannot survive in a 140- or 280-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
Initially, a great many folks didn’t think Daniel and Henrik Sedin could pull it off.
They were too soft. Too timid. Too unsure. Too Swedish, which, for the less enlightened—like the xenophobic gasbag who occupies the bully pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada—was North American shinny code for cowardly.
Indeed, after Braydon Coburn declined an opportunity to exchange knuckles with a rag-dolling Brandon Prust during a Tampa Bay Lightning-Montreal Canadiens 2015 playoff match, Don Cherry used his Coachless Corner soapbox to align the Swedes’ name with cowardice, saying, “I will never, ever, want one of my players acting like Coburn here. This is Sedin stuff.”
Well, okay, now that the twins have left the building, let’s try to define “Sedin stuff.”
Admittedly, I only observed them from a distance, but certainly the National Hockey League was better for having Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who took their final bow on Saturday night in Edmonton. They played the game as it’s meant to be played, the same way Jean Beliveau and Wayne Gretzky did. The same way Connor McDavid does, with an emphasis on finesse and flash over fists and felony. That’s “Sedin stuff.” Those who know them best, including news snoops tracking their every mirrored move through 18 years and 17 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, tell us they were better people than hockey players. Tall praise, given that the Sedins are Art Ross, Hart, Ted Lindsay and King Clancy Trophy recipients. That, too, is “Sedin stuff.”
What really should be celebrated is their strength, a commodity that is not one-size-fits all. Different athletes show it in different ways, some through brawn, others with their brain.
The two mentally toughest players I ever met and covered were the Winnipeg Jets most-celebrated Swedes, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. They arrived together in the mid-1970s to join les Jets when the World Hockey Association was, on a certain level, a lawless frontier. Animosity born of xenophobia ruled the day and mayhem ensued on the ice. Hedberg and Nilsson were bludgeoned fore and aft by the heavy, wooden weapons wielded by envious, ill-mannered foes with an unreasonable dislike for foreigners. Their battered bodies featured every color of the rainbow, but the bruising wasn’t rainbow pretty. Through it all, Hedberg and Nilsson, both a class act, said nothing of the savagery, at least not on public account. They soldiered on, unwilling to acquiesce to the bullies and thugs and the BS. These were no “chicken Swedes.” They championed a cause and became champions.
Similarly, the Sedin twins have had to put up with a lot of crap, although from a different pile.
The masculinity of Daniel and Henrik often has been brought into question by rivals whose level of humor is on par with schoolyard adolescents, broadcasters who ought to know better, and fans who no doubt are devotees of Adam Sandler’s buffoonish movies.
Dave Bolland, then of the Chicago Blackhawks, called them “sisters” who “probably sleep in a bunk bed” in a radio interview. Not to be outdone, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars took to the airwaves and suggested the Sedins’ relationship was incestuous. Former New York Islanders general manager and TV talking head Mike Milbury called them “Thelma and Louise.” Denis Potvin, a Hall of Fame defenceman working in the Florida Panthers tower of babble-on, labelled Daniel a “lowlife.” During one post-match dustup, Potvin said, “The Sedins are pointing fingers now. Normally they only use those fingers to lick the peanut butter off their bread.” (What the hell does that even mean?) Fans would arrive at the rink wearing t-shirts that read: SEDIN SISTERS 2 GIRLS NO CUP. A Finnish media outlet, Ilta-Sanomat, ran a tasteless piece that featured Sedin Sisters paper doll cutout figures with dresses and high heels. Etcetera, etcetera.
And how did the Sedins respond? By playing hockey. By beating foes the honest way. The Hedberg-Nilsson way. It’s the Swedish way. And that is “Sedin stuff.”
From the department of He Doesn’t Have A Freaking Clue, I give you Frank Seravalli. In an ode to the Sedins, the TSN senior hockey reporter describes the Swedes as “the faces of hockey in Western Canada for much of the 21st century.” Good grief. Quick, someone give the man a copy of Western Canada for Dummies. I mean, there is no known word to describe that level of ignorance. It’s as daft as saying Don Cherry is the voice of Russian hockey. Yes, that dumb. As far as I can tell, (from the experience of living 99.9 per cent of my 67-plus years in Winnipeg, Calgary and Victoria) there’s just one commonality between the rabble on the B.C. coast and the Prairie provinces—a healthy distrust of, and dislike toward, the Republic of Tranna. Otherwise, what happens in Vancouver stays in Vancouver, because few Prairie folk gave a rat’s patoot about the Sedins before they declared their intention to retire last week. They gave them a warm sendoff Saturday night in Edmonton, because that’s the way Prairie folk are, but make no mistake: The Sedins never were the face of the Oilers, Flames or Jets, and last time I looked each of those outfits is based in Western Canada.
If you’re wondering how a TSN reporter could make such a “D’oh!” statement, be advised Seravalli is not of us. He’s an American, born in Bucks County, Pa., just north of Philadelphia, and he was schooled there and in other eastern U.S. outposts. Clearly, he didn’t major in Canadiana. Still, that’s no excuse. I mean, the City of Brotherly Love remains his home base, and I’m guessing no Philly guy, including him, would be so dense as to suggest Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins are the faces of northeastern U.S. hockey. Seravalli’s been to Western Canada. He knows the good people of Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton identify with their own players, not two guys on the La La side of the Rocky Mountains. Get with the program, man.
This is rich. In the breezy Say What?! banter between Winnipeg Free Press sports editor Steve Lyons and columnist Paul Wiecek, the former accuses Hockey Night in Canada gab guys Jim Hughson and Scott Simpson of being “homers” and waving blue-and-white Maple Leafs pom-poms when les Jets visited the Republic of Tranna last weekend. “Come on guys, try to refrain from cheering in the press box will ya?” Lyons scribbles. Yet his own guy, Wiecek, has become guilty of shameless pom-pom waving. He writes this of the Jets as they prepare to embark on the Stanley Cup crusade: “Yeah, we want the Cup. More than most, I’d venture. But what we need first is a playoff win. And then another. And another.” He’d like the Jets’ playoff run to last “hopefully weeks.” And “for once it feels like the sporting gods are working in favor of the locals instead of against us.” Us? Us? That isn’t a good look for a sports columnist. Nor for a sports editor who condemns others for cheering in the press box even as his writer does that very thing in print.
Look, I get it. Sports writers are human. Honest, some of them are. They have their favorites and it’s a more enjoyable gig when the locals are successful. I confess now that I wanted the Jets to win the final WHA title. They were a terrific bunch of guys. But the “we” and “us” and “hopefully” stuff has to be left to the rabble and blogs like Arctic Ice Hockey. Or even this blog. Mainstream scribes covering the team, on the other hand, are expected to operate from a platform of objectivity. Well aren’t they?
Speaking of the WHA’s last act, in which the Jets delivered a championship to River City, this is what sometimes happens when people who weren’t there write history: Mike McIntyre of the Freep scribbled a lengthy piece about past Jets’ post-season activity and mentioned they received “contributions from the likes of Willy Lindstrom, Morris Lukowich and Peter Sullivan” in beating the Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Gretzkys in the spring of 1979. While true, no review of the Jets’ third WHA title can have the ring of credibility without the mention of Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston. They were the driving forces. Ruskowski, who basically played the final vs. the Gretzkys with one arm, was an emotional force and led the team with a dozen assists, while Preston, a penalty-killing demon, provided 13 points and was saluted as playoff most valuable player. McIntyre’s failure to acknowledge them is a glaring omission on what went down that spring.
I’m still liking Jets captain Blake Wheeler and his 91 points to be a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. I have, mind you, slightly revised my personal top five: Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Blake Wheeler, Taylor Hall and Sidney Crosby.
Really enjoyed a fun Twitter exchange between Damien Cox of the Toronto Star/Sportsnet and Randy Turner of the Freep.
Turner: “Personally, I’m rooting for a #NHLJets-Leafs Stanley Cup final just so Toronto fans can finally get some much-needed publicity for their hockey team.”
Cox: “Plus it’ll give Winnipeggers a chance to see what the Grey Cup looks like if they come to town for the series.”
Total burn for Cox. Brilliant. Love it, and I’m from Pegtown.
Dumbest headline and article of the week was delivered by Sportsnet: “Thinking about past, and future, Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parades.” The piece is written by former Leafs general manager and Sportsnet chin-wagger Gord Stellick, a great guy who never should have been GM of the Leafs and never should have written that article.
The best from Sportsnet came in the form of a lovely Hometown Hockey feature on same-sex couple Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette, and their baby Liv. I’d say we’re making progress when a national sports network doesn’t shy away from talking about married lesbian hockey players/coaches. It was a beautiful bit of work that dampened my eyes.
On the subject of getting teary-eyed, I thought bean counter Scott Foster playing 14 minutes of goal for the Chicago Blackhawks and shutting out the Winnipeg Jets would be the feel-good sports story of the year, but G.T. Nicklaus’s ace on No. 9 in the Masters par-3 tournament has moved to the front of my scorecard. Caddy G.T.’s ace brought grandpa Jack Nicklaus to tears. It was a magic moment.
Apparently, fighting fool Conor McGregordid something really stupid this week. In other news, dog bites man.
And, finally, this week’s Steve-ism from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: In a Twitter exchange with Heather Marginet re the NHL Hart Trophy, Simmons displayed a shocking lack of knowledge for a national sports columnist.
Marginet: “The 79-80 Oilers finished with 69 points. Significantly worse than this (current) Oilers squad. Gretzky was the Hart.”
Simmons (being sarcastic and dismissive): “They were so bad they played 13 playoff games that year—basically announcing their arrival as a team to reckon with.”
As numerous people eagerly pointed out, Simmons was totally out to lunch. The Oilers, in fact, played just three playoff games that year, not 13. All were losses to the Philadelphia Flyers.
I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…
You want to talk about a tough schedule, kids (we all know Paul Maurice does)?
Well, let me tell you about the mother of all tough schedules. Then I don’t want to hear another word about what the Winnipeg Jets have endured in the first two-plus months of their current National Hockey League crusade.
Here’s the deal…
Beginning on Jan. 1 and ending on Feb. 27 in the final World Hockey Association season (1978-79), the Jets played 30 games (17 road, 13 home). Do the math. That’s 30 assignments in 58 nights. At one point, they played five games in six nights (3-2) and eight games in 10 nights (4-4). Overall, they went 14-14-2. I don’t recall anyone bitching about the grind and unfairness of the schedule. We just spoke to its quirkiness.
During a wacky stretch in February, for example, we were in Cincinnati long enough to qualify as registered voters in the Ohio primaries. Here’s what the itinerary looked like:
Feb. 8: arrive Cincinnati
Feb. 9: play Cincinnati Stingers
Feb. 10: leave Cincinnati, play at New England Whalers
Feb. 11-13: return to Cincinnati; practice in Cincinnati
Feb. 14: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 15: leave Cincinnati
Feb. 16: play at Birmingham Bulls; return to Cincinnati
Feb. 17: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 18: leave Cincinnati, play at home vs. New England
Feb. 19: return to Cincinnati
Feb. 20: play at Cincinnati
Feb. 21: leave Cincinnati, play at home vs. New England
Feb. 22: fly to Birmingham
Feb. 23: play Birmingham Bulls
Feb. 24: fly to New England
Feb. 25: play New England
Feb. 26: fly home.
We spent more time in Cincinnati than Venus Flytrap and Dr. Johnny Fever (Google WKRP in Cincinnati, kids; it was a terrific sitcom). Our home base had become the Cincinnati Marriott. A couple of times, we weren’t required to pack our bags and check out of the hotel because we would be back in less than 24 hours.
“Maybe we should all just have our mail delivered to us at the hotel,” silky-smooth centre Peter Sullivan quipped one day.
Some of us could recite the Marriott restaurant menu from memory.
By way of comparison, here’s how often, or seldom, the six WHA outfits played during that Jan. 1-Feb. 27 time frame:
The Jets were so tuckered out from their 30-games-in-58-nights grind that they only managed to go 19-10 the rest of the way, finishing 11-8 down the regular-season stretch then 8-2 in the playoffs to win the final WHA title. That’s why I refuse to listen to any more whining about the current Jets’ tough schedule. I don’t want to hear it from Maurice, his players, his parrots in mainstream media, or fans. I’ve witnessed worse and saw it conclude with the best result possible.
I’m not into fancy stats. I like my stats like my life: simple. Thus, I look at the numbers in the W and L columns and they tell me all I need to know about a head coach. And here’s what they tell me about Paul Maurice: He has the second-worst won-lost percentage of all active NHL head coaches who have been on the job more than a month and, by the close of business next spring, the Jets bench boss will be the third-losingest head coach in the history of the NHL. At present, he has 550 career losses. Another 12 and he’ll pass Ron Wilson to slide into the No. 3 slot. That, mind you, puts him in mighty fine company, because the only two men ahead of him on the loser list will be Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour, both Hockey Hall of Famers. The difference, of course, is that Bowman and Arbour are also Nos. 1 and 3 on the all-time win list and they’ve coached nine and four Stanley Cup champions, respectively.
I was sold on Mauricewhen he worked wonders with the Jets in his first full whirl behind the bench. He got them into the Stanley Cup tournament. Two seasons later, he no longer is working wonders. Some, in fact, wonder how he’s still working. Worth considering is this: A number of the Jets young players will improve as they mature, but Maurice won’t ever be a better coach than he is today. If the head coach can’t grow with his players, when is the right time to dismiss him?
The best of jock journalism in Canada is no more. Cam Cole of Postmedia has arrived at trail’s end, after 41 years as a jock sniffer. Cam was never a ranter and raver like, say, his Postmedia colleague Steve Simmons, who believes he who squawks the loudest rules the day. Cam, a very nice man, most always wrote in reasoned, measured tones with a subtle wit, and he had a heck of a ride, showing up in time to write about both the Edmonton Eskimos and Edmonton Oilers dynasties. Cam’s retirement means the torch as our nation’s top jock columnist is passed to Bruce Arthur, who’s very socially conscious and actually injects humor into his scribblings for the Toronto Star.
The boys and girls in the toy departments of the land got it right in their salute to kid swimmer Penny Oleksiak as Canada’s athlete-of-the-year. She struck gold in the pool at the Rio Summer Olympic Games and twice at the recent world short course championships. It was a no-brainer. I did, however, find it odd that Andre De Grasse was part of the Lou Marsh Trophy discussion. Yes, I realize his bromance with Usain Bolt in Rio was a warm-and-fuzzy Olympic storyline, but De Grasse never won a race. He finished second or third. Shouldn’t you actually have to win something before you warrant consideration as the True North’s top jock? There should have been just three athletes in that conversation: Oleksiak, hockey player Sidney Crosby and golfer Brooke Henderson.
I don’t know about you, but I find the Auston Matthews-Patrik Laine debate kind of silly. Go ahead and discuss which of the two is enjoying the better freshman season if you like, but to engage in a verbal to-and-fro over who will have the better NHL career is foolish in the extreme. Discuss that amongst yourselves when Matthews and Puck Finn have some mileage behind them. Like, in about 15 years.
Once again, Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail has referred to this as the “golden age” of Canadian tennis and, once again, he has failed to explain himself. Yes, Milos Raonic is the world No. 3 on the men’s side, but he went another year without winning a tournament of significance. Genie Bouchard, meanwhile, has fallen off the grid. So, our premier men’s player can’t win the big match and our top female player can’t find her game. That’s what passes for a “golden age?”
Really enjoyed old friend Paul Friesen’s piece on the fictional Bud’s Diner in the Winnipeg Sun last week. It’s a nice, lighthearted piece that, although some might find hokey, shows imagination, creativity and a sense of humor, something that’s lacking in jock journalism. I was also pleased to see the return of my favorite Grumpets—Paul Wiecek and Steve Lyons—to the Winnipeg Free Press sports pages. Their Say What?! print chin-wag is light, breezy and often self-deprecating, with an appropriate amount of bite.
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.
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 Don Cherry belonged in the Kremlin.
“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 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 Winnipeg is New York City.
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.
There is expectation and there is hope. It is only when expectation trumps hope that culture shifts.
And so it is with the Winnipeg Jets.
Last spring’s fleeting fling with playoff hockey notwithstanding, the culture of losing is the albatross that followed the Atlanta caravan as it rolled into River City in 2011, whereupon the Thrashers morphed into the Jets. She’s still there, hanging from the neck of this woebegone National Hockey League franchise.
How do you get rid of her?
Well, you change parts, of course, but you must change the right parts. In a little more than a year, the tallest foreheads in Jets Nation have permitted one Stanley Cup champion, Michael Frolik, to skate away sans compensation, then they dispatched a two-time Stanley Cup champion, captain Andrew Ladd, to a division foe in barter for a fistful of hope.
Meanwhile, the tandem of co-bankroll Mark Chipman and his valet, Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff, have added a few parts from another losing culture, the Buffalo Sabres, they welcomed prodigal son Alexander Burmistrov back from his two-year hissy fit in Mother Russia, and they keep regrettable Thrasher holdovers Chris Thorburn, Mark Stuart and Ondrej Pavelec on payroll.
Dismissing proven winners and clinging to proven losers is not a recipe for success or a seismic cultural shift.
What about all the youth Chipman and Cheveldayoff have brought on board, you ask? Well, yes, the Jets now ice a lineup that is greener than St. Patty’s Day. But youth equals hope, not expectation. And these neophytes are being integrated into a culture of losing, on both the big club and the farm in the American Hockey League.
Who is going to teach Mark Sheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Jacob Trouba what is required to win at the NHL loft? Dustin Byfuglien has a Stanley Cup ring, but after that…nada.
As much as I greatly admire the play of Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler (they can play on my team any time), their body of work in the NHL does not include a great deal of team success. Certainly they can show the whippersnappers how to prepare and what it takes to be a professional, but winning is another matter. For the most part, all they’ve done in the NHL is lose, as has the head coach, Paul Maurice, and chronic losing can consume an entire organization and become as much a part of its brand as the team logo.
How, for example, are the Chicago Cubs viewed if not as losers? Lovable losers, to be sure, but losers just the same. That happens when a team goes more than a century without winning Major League Baseball’s World Series. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a rich, winning tradition that includes numerous Stanley Cup conquests, yet when we see the logo of the NHL’s most-ballyhooed franchise we think laughable loser due to the Leafs’ failure to win hockey’s top bauble since spring 1967.
Once upon a time, of course, there existed a healthy culture of winning in the Winnipeg Jets boudoir and front office. You didn’t join the Jets during the World Hockey Association years just to play hockey. You were expected to win. There was no option. And win they did. In the final four WHA seasons, the Jets participated in 10 playoff series. They won nine of them, including three championship frolics. Their post-season record during that stretch was 39-11. Overall, they appeared in five finals in the WHA’s seven-year run.
That culture of winning gave way to a culture of losing, initially because the championship roster was ransacked by the NHL when it absorbed the four WHA survivors—the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. In 17 seasons, the original Jets NHL franchise won just two playoff rounds and, now housed in the Arizona desert, it remains the only WHA outfit that has failed to secure the Stanley Cup.
Which brings us back to Jets 2.0 and the culture of losing that began in Atlanta and continues in River City, where the local hockey heroes have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament for the fourth time in five crusades.
Apparently, Chipman and Cheveldayoff plan to change the culture by going all-in on a youth movement. Fine. Except one need look no further than Edmonton to discover what a massive infusion of greenhorns might deliver. The Oilers have an array of glittery, young talent, most notably up front, but all Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins et al have learned is how to lose. Even with Connor McDavid inserted into the lineup, the Oilers stand 30th in a 30-team league. They don’t know how to win and there’s nobody who can show them how to win.
That’s not to say the kiddie-corps route cannot work for the Jets. But, again, when you change parts you must change the right parts. Who’s going to teach them how to win?
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 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 to her 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.