Troubles before Triumph: An Ode to the 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets on the 40th anniversary of their final WHA championship

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.

Morris Lukowich

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.

Kim Clackson

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.

Larry Hillman

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.”

Sudsy Sutherland

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.

Fergy

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.

Suitcase Smitty

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.”

Tom McVie

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.

Examples…

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.”

Tom McVie in the champions’ changing room.

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 Shoe

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.

Jacques Demers

“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.”

Roscoe and Clacker

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.

Bill (Magic Fingers) Bozak and four of the boys—Scotty Campbell, the Shoe, Luke and Roland Eriksson.

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.”

***

Michael Gobuty

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:

  1. 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.

  2. The Gobuty Group hired John Ferguson and handed him the keys to the shop.

  3. Fergy hired Tom McVie.

  4. The return of Lars-Erik Sjoberg.

  5. 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.

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Winnipeg Jets: A personal ‘best of this and best of that’

I’m not fond of all-time greatest lists because they’re too often compiled by people who are not all-seeing.

Take, for example, the recent anointing of Dave Keon as creme de la Toronto Maple Leafs. As someone who witnessed the wonder that was Keon, initially on the family’s black-and-white TV with rabbit ears and then live and in living color with the New England/Hartford Whalers, I offer no quarrel with the salute to the diminutive, balletic centre-ice man. More to the point, I endorse it. Fully.

ducky3I wonder, though: How many among the 30 “experts” and 300,000 fans who gave voice to the Keon coronation actually saw him perform? How many can say they watched Syl Apps or Teeder Kennedy, who finished second and third, respectively, in balloting to select the greatest of the greats who have worn Maple Leafs linen in the past 100 years?

Syl Apps retired in 1948, two years before I was born. Teeder Kennedy hung ’em up in ’57. I don’t have the vaguest memory of him.

Time passed is the flaw in the all-time-greatest ointment, and it explains how a thug like Tie Domi can find himself on the same list as Dave Keon. I mean, seriously? Tie Domi belongs in the same company as Dave Keon? Ya, like I belong in the same ballet as Sophia Lee.

All of which brings me to the Winnipeg Jets. (Yes, I agree, the mention of Domi and ballet in the same breath serves as a rather odd, if not odious, segue to a discussion about the local hockey heroes, but work with me, kids.)

The creaky, old boys and the not-so-creaky Teemu Selanne will be back in town this week to participate in True North Sports & Entertainment’s genuflection to the Jets’ gloried past in the World Hockey Association and its limited achievements during the first go-round in the National Hockey League. Many of them, no doubt, shall arrive in River City greater of girth and with hairlines in rapid retreat, but hopefully old habits kick in when they take time away from the mirth and merriment of their reunion to play some pond hockey with the creaky, old Edmonton Oilers.

Slow-motion cameras won’t be a requirement, of course, because the actual-time speed is apt to be in super slo-mo—save for Selanne—but I’m guessing the Alumni Game on Saturday has as much appeal power as the Heritage Classic featuring the present-day Jets and Oilers on Sunday. (For those of you inclined to place a friendly wager on Team Hawerchuk in the old boys’ skirmish, be certain you get favorable odds because Team Gretzky has them out-Hall of Famed, 5-1, with one inductee-in-waiting.)

Anyway, this gathering of the clan puts me in mind of the best of the best, Jets version.

Many of my vintage can say we’ve seen them all, from the original Jet, Norm Beaudin, to today’s current flavor of the month, Patrik Laine, and some of us can say we saw more than most because we had the good fortune of an insider’s view home and away. That doesn’t make me an expert. It simply means I saw the Jets from a different vantage point.

It’s with that in mind that I submit some personal “best of” Jets lists…

peter-sullivan2My Favorites to Watch

1. Kent Nilsson: Pure magic. The most-talented player to wear a Jets jersey. Bar none.
2. Peter Sullivan: Silky smooth. I don’t care if he was defensively deficient. He was dazzling with the puck on his stick.
3. Anders Hedberg: The Swedish Express. His acceleration off the right wing was unparalleled.
4. Teemu Selanne: Ditto what I said about Hedberg.
5. Alexei Zhamnov: Spectacularly subtle. Perhaps that’s a contradiction in terms, but he was supremely skilled without a shred of flamboyance.

Most Grit

1. Ulf Nilsson: The punishment he absorbed and endured in the WHA was barbaric and criminal.
1a. Anders Hedberg: See above.
1b. Lars-Erik Sjoberg: See above.
1c. Ted Green: How he played so well in so much head pain is a mystery. I used to cringe watching the Seed hobbling on and off buses and airplanes, knowing he was in crippling pain.
3. Terry Ruskowski: He finished the 1979 WHA final with one arm.

Most Fun

Tom McVie: He’d always spice his interviews with comments like, “I’ve been fired more times than Al Capone’s machine gun” or “If life made sense, it would be men who rode sidesaddle. Think about it.”
Willy Lindstrom: The great prankster. He always made a pit stop at a joke store on our visits to Quebec City, then would toss stink bombs and sprinkle sneezing powder on our flight out of town.
Gary (Suitcase) Smith: Smitty seemed to take life with a wink and a nod.

jimmy-mann2Moments of Madness

1: Mike Smith: Comrade Mikhail, as I called the Jets GM, sold Kris Draper to the Detroit Red Wings for $1 (U.S. currency, one presumes) and used nine of his 12 selections at the 1992 NHL entry draft to claim Russians, the first of whom was the legendary Sergei Bautin. Smith’s make-work-for-Russians project fell flat. Little wonder Dale Hawerchuk got out of Dodge a couple years earlier.
2. Jimmy Mann: The sucker punch that shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw was every bit as bad as Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore.
3. Tom McVie: Taking his teeth out and trying to fight coach Al MacNeil of the Atlanta Flames was comedy gold.
4. John Ferguson: Punching a hole in the wall of his bunker at Winnipeg Arena? Check. Dumping a bucket of ice on to the Buffalo Sabres bench? Check. Kicking a hole in a dressing room door? Check.

Most Frustrating

1. Andrew McBain: We called him “Fergy’s son” or “Fergy’s kid” because we couldn’t think of any reason he was on the team, except that he must have been GM John Ferguson’s illigitimate kid. Beaner fooled us, though, with 32- and 37-goal seasons before leaving the Jets.
2. Scott Campbell: Asthma did poor Scotty in. His was never able to tap his full potential.
3. Ray Neufeld: Not because he underachieved, but because I silently cheered for him to succeed more than any other Jet. He became a fan whipping boy due to the Dave Babych trade, and I wanted Neuf to be a star. Never happened.

Best Quote

1. Dave Babych: Always gave thoughtful answers.
2. Terry Ruskowski: Honest, emotional, passionate.
3. Dale Hawerchuk: Ducky was the face of the franchise for so many years and he always delivered the goods.
4. Andrew McBain: No matter how hard the media rode him, Beaner didn’t balk on interviews.
5. Eddie Olczyk: I didn’t talk to Eddie O a great deal, but I could tell he had a future in talking.
5b. Barry Melrose: Friar Nicolson and I called him Kelvington after his home town in Saskatchewan. He loved talking into a microphone or tape recorder.

He’s Got Gonads

1. Tom McVie: Anyone who would bench Bobby Hull, one of the team owners, for arriving at the rink late has size XXXL gonads.
2. Morris Lukowich: A bantam rooster with a tiger in his tank. Luke never picked on anyone his own size, because they were all bigger than him.
3. Lars-Erik Sjoberg: Built like Barney Rubble, the Little General shied away from no man, not even Bad News Bilodeau and the rest of the cement heads who would run him through the boards in the WHA.

laurie-boschman2Good Guys

1. Laurie Boschman: So belligerent on the ice, so soft-spoken and genuinely nice off it.
2. Dave Babych: A big, friendly bear of a man.
3. Terry Ruskowski: A good Canadian Prairie boy.
4. Barry Melrose: Fun guy, always joking with Friar and I.
5. Jude Drouin/Pierre Hamel: They took care of me after I collapsed on a flight home from Toronto.

Curmudgeons Before Their Time

1. Randy Carlyle: Mostly it was an act (I think), but Kitty played the role of the two old farts on The Muppets.
2. Mario Marois: Forever bitching about the heat on the bus.

Most Underrated

1. Teppo Numminen: I think he was only appreciated in Winnipeg. Had he played in Toronto or Montreal, they’d still be talking about him.
2. Ron Wilson: Dawg: Subtly efficient.

What Were They Thinking?
(When they Drafted this Guy)

1. Sergei Bautin: Still hard to believe that comrade Mikhail Smith squandered a first-round pick on this pylon.
2. Jimmy Mann: Strike one against Fergy.
3. Hannu Jarvenpaa: Scored four goals in an exhibition game. Scored 11 the rest of his career.
4. Evgeny Davydov: Mikhail was kidding, right?
5. Ryan Stewart: Three games, one goal. Say no more.

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.

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

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

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

Ben Hatskin
Ben Hatskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Hull
Bobby Hull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Forty-seven years of Winnipeg hockey memories from a former rink rat

Forty-seven years. That’s how long it has been, to the day, since I began a newspaper career that brought neither fame nor fortune but provided a fair bit of fun.

That’s why I still scribble about sports to this day, 17 years removed from mainstream media—it’s a hoot.

Winnipeg Arena

The pay as a freelancer/blogger isn’t nearly as good, mind you. It’s mice nuts. It isn’t enough to keep me well watered and fed. I mean, I can’t afford to make spaghetti and meatballs anymore. It’s one or the other. But, hey, the payoff is the giggles I get by poking the bear, tipping sacred cows or tilting at windmills (I promise, no more cliches for today).

One would think that I’d have gotten the Winnipeg Jets out of my system by now. But no. Some habits are hard to kick, if not impossible. I just can’t let the Jets go. And, to a lesser degree, the Blue Bombers.

I don’t know how many hours I spent in the old barn on Maroons Road, but I do know that Winnipeg Arena was my home away from home for a good number of years. As were various other shinny shacks throughout North America, from the story-studded Montreal Forum to Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum in Tinseltown to the rickety Corral in Calgary to frost-bitten wooden huts that passed for hockey rinks in numerous Western Canada outposts.

And that’s what I am remembering this morning…

I remember Frank McKinnon, a remarkable, special man and the person I interviewed for my first Winnipeg Tribune byline story in 1971. Frank, president of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association at the time, was one of those people I always thought I should address as “Mister,” because he commanded such respect. But he would have none of it. “I’m Frank,” he told me early in our initial conversation, “and I want you to know that you can call me any time.” Frank and I talked often, but probably not as often as I would have liked.

I remember the night in Atlanta when Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie attempted to scale the glass partition separating the two benches so he could fight his counterpart with the Flames, Al MacNeil. Tommy took off his sports coat, took off his necktie, took off his wrist watch, partially unbuttoned his shirt—then took out his teeth! “When he took his teeth out and started undressing,” said MacNeil, “I knew he was serious.”

Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers.
Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers.

I remember riding a bus with coach Muzz MacPherson and his Portage Terriers during their successful 1973 Centennial Cup crusade. Muzz liked his hockey with an edge and there was nothing sissified about the way his lads played. So physical were the Terriers that Humboldt Broncos’ coach Dr. Terry Henning took his puck and went home after five games rather than finish their playoff series with Muzz’s Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. “Can you believe it?” Muzz asked me. “They quit. The good doctor said my guys are too dirty. He says we’re too mean and nasty. So he quit. I sure as hell wouldn’t want him doing open-heart surgery on me—he’d walk out in the middle of the operation!”

I remember interviewing Vladislav Tretiak at a house on Elm Street in River Heights. I don’t recall who owned the house or why I had to meet the great Soviet goaltender there, but he was in town to promote his book and we gabbed for about an hour at a kitchen table (rather, the interpreter and I chin-wagged for an hour). When we parted, Tretiak said something to the interpreter, who relayed to me that “Vladimir thinks you are a hockey expert.” As photographer Jon Thordarson and I walked toward our vehicle, I said, “Imagine that, Tretiak thinks I’m a hockey expert…sure fooled him, didn’t I?”

I remember being in Indianapolis with the Jets on American Thanksgiving Day and Racers coach Pat (Whitey) Stapleton inviting myself, play-by-play legend Friar Nicolson and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis to turkey dinner with his family. It was such a thoughtful gesture, but that’s the kind of relationship media and hockey people sometimes had back then, especially in the World Hockey Association.

I remember Aime Allaire and his never-ending quest to bring Senior hockey’s Allan Cup home to Winnipeg. Alas, Aime’s St. Boniface Mohawks could never get the job done.

I remember the Jets’ first visit to New York City, to play the Rangers. Friar, Reyn, Sod Keilback and I went for a stroll of Manhattan on game-day afternoon and we ducked into magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a look-see. “I’m going to light a candle for the Jets,” I said. “They’re going to need all the help they can get against the Rangers.” Sod greeted that notion with rude laughter. The Jets beat the Rangers that night, 6-4.

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

I remember another trip to Manhattan. Our bus driver wanted to make a detour down a side street, but he couldn’t navigate the turn because a Volkswagen Beetle was parked too close to the corner. General manager John Ferguson and the driver stepped outside to investigate. Fergy came back on the bus and shouted, “Jimmy! You and a few other guys come with me. We’ve gotta move this car.” Fergy, Jimmy Mann and three or four other players lifted half the Volkswagen on to the sidewalk and away we went.

I remember Muzz MacPherson refusing to talk to me after a Winnipeg Clubs’ game. “I’m too upset,” the gravel-voice coach barked. “I don’t want to talk. Just make up the quotes. You know me well enough by now that you know what I’ll say.” So, for the only time in my career, I made up quotes. The following day, Muzz called me and he was frothing at the mouth. “What are you trying to do to me?” he yelped. “I wouldn’t have said all those things you said I said—I would have done a lot more swearing.”

I remember talking to Ulf Nilsson the night the Jets whupped the Soviet national team, 5-3, and the great Swedish centre saying, “I’m proud to be a Canadian tonight.”

I remember Friar Nicolson allowing me to do five minutes of play-by-play one night when Dave Keon and the New England Whalers were in town. It was a classical gas.

I remember watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes with Muzz and various hockey sorts who had assembled at the Viscount Gort for an annual chin wag. As the great Secretariat romped down the home stretch, about 30 lengths in front of the field, Muzz stared at the TV and shouted, “Don’t break a leg! Don’t break a leg!” Big Red didn’t even break stride and became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.

I remember Teddy Green’s headaches. I often wondered how a man could be in such crippling pain and still go out and perform so admirably on the Jets blueline.

I remember riding the iron lung with Gerry Brisson and his Winnipeg Clubs on a junket that took us to Brandon, Regina, Swift Current, Calgary and Kamloops and back. Kevin McCarthy was on that team. He was the most-talented Junior I ever covered.

I remember covering an MJHL that included four Winnipeg teams—the Winnipeg Monarchs, St. James Canadians, St. Boniface Saints and my alma mater, the West Kildonan North Stars. (That’s right, I played in the MJHL and covered it. I believe Doug Lunney is the only other person to do so.)

I remember taking pride in the championship work of Barry Bonni with his River East Royal Knights of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, because his team represented my old ‘hood.

Morris Lukowich
Morris Lukowich

I remember Morris Lukowich barking at me after the Jets’ initial NHL game, in Pittsburgh. Luke had been credited with the team’s first NHL goal, tipping in a Peter Marsh shot. “Where did that shot hit you?” I asked him. “Friar and I never saw it change direction.” He shot me with a stone-cold stare and said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. “No, Luke, I’m not calling you a liar,” I said. “I have a game story to write and I need to know where the puck hit you so I can describe the goal accurately.”

I remember being part of a media team for Schmockey Night. Ray Jauch was our coach and Eddie (Clear the Track) Shack, the clown prince of the National Hockey League, was my left winger. Jauch, head coach with the Blue Bombers at the time, wouldn’t let Shack or I come off the ice in the final five minutes because we needed a goal to tie the game. Neither of us scored.

I remember wonderful conversations with hockey lifers Bruce Cheatley, Ed Sweeney, Bill Addison, Julian Klymkiw, Aggie Kukulowicz and Billy Robinson, who, along with Dr. Gerry Wilson, was responsible for bringing the first wave of Swedes to North America and transorming the Jets into a WHA power.

I remember defenceman Tim Watters buying Friar and I beer when he came in after curfew one night in Vancouver. “You don’t have to do that, Tim,” Friar told him. “We’re not going to rat you out. You’re good people.” I never ratted out any of the Jets. Neither did Friar. What they did on their time was their business.

I remember covering the Jets rookie training camp in Sainte Agathe, Que., in 1979 for the Winnipeg Tribune, and Fergy asking me to play in the final exhibition game because Patrick Daley had pulled a groin during the morning skate. “Are you serious? You want me to play tonight?” I asked him. He did. So I did. Assisted on the first goal, too. All the players at Sainte Agathe moved on to the Jets main training camp in Winnipeg, then some were assinged to the Tulsa Oilers. I went back to the Trib with a grand total of one assist in my only pro game. And I never got paid.

I remember the Jets first visit to the Montreal Forum. Friar and I walked in with Fergy, who was still a hero in Quebec, and he directed us to the concession stands. “Troi chien chauds,” Fergy ordered. He looked at us and said, “These will be the best hot dogs you’ll ever eat.” They were. To this day.

I remember bringing beer to former Soviet referee Anatoli Segelin, who was part of the U.S.S.R. traveling party for the 1981 Canada Cup. Upon his arrival at the Viscount Gort, Anatoli, who loved Canadian journalists, begged me to bring some beer up to his room on the second floor. I asked Stew MacPherson if he could spare a couple of 12-packs from the media hospitality room for Anatoli and comrades, and he agreed. Upon seeing me at his door with 24 beer, Anatoli flashed a smile as wide as Mother Russia and said, “Canada! Come! Come! We drink!” Segelin, myself and two other comrades did just that.

Willy Lindstrom
Willy Lindstrom

I remember Willy Lindstrom’s pranksterism. Every time the Jets’ travels would take us to Quebec City, Willy would visit a joke shop not far from the Chateau Frontenac and load up on stink bombs and sneezing powder. He would then unleash them on our airplanes. Go to sleep during a flight and it was guaranteed you’d wake up in a sneezing fit, because Willy would sneak up from behind and sprinkle powder on you. And the stink bombs were absolutely paralyzing.

I remember sitting in an airport, listening to Mike Smith deliver a 10-minute oration on the methodology of the Richter Scale after an earthquake hit the West Coast. As he spoke, I thought, “Man, this guy is a different head of lettuce.” I didn’t realize exactly how different Smith was until the day he drafted Sergei Bautin.

I remember going to the draft in Montreal the year Fergy chose defenceman David Babych second overall, ahead of Denis Savard and Paul Coffey. More interesting, however, was the fact Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran were next door, prepping for the Brawl in Montreal, the first fight in their boxing trilogy.

I remember feeling sorry for Ray Neufeld, a truly nice, young man who came to the Jets from Hartford in exchange for David Babych. It was recognized as Fergy’s worst transaction and fans took out their frustrations on poor Ray. That wasn’t fair.

I remember the first time I ever saw Peter Sullivan play hockey and asking, “How is this guy not playing in the NHL?”

I remember Jimmy Mann trying to convince me that he was “not an animal” after his sucker punch had shattered Paul Gardner’s jaw into a dozen pieces. It wasn’t me Jimmy had to convince…it was everyone else in hockey.

I remember Laurie Boschman’s on- and off-ice personalities. He was such a nasty bit of business when they dropped the puck, yet so soft-spoken, sincere and genuinely nice once the final buzzer sounded.

friarI remember a pilot delaying takeoff from Atlanta when we realized rookie broadcaster Sod Keilback was AWOL. Turns out the big lug had gotten lost in the airport, which was larger than his hometown of Yorkton, Sask., and he heard some serious braying once Friar Nicolson had located him and brought him on board. Sod made a feeble attempt to explain his wandering ways, but we were having none of it. “You’re just a big sodbuster,” I said. The name stuck. He was known as Sod thereafter.

I remember my traveling partners in the WHA, Friar and Reyn Davis, two terrific guys. Both of them are in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Sadly, both of them are also dead. I’m neither in the Hall of Fame nor dead, but it’s only a matter of time before I arrive at the Pearly Gates (I probably haven’t been good enough to get in there either).

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.