Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The late, great original Winnipeg Jets were formed in 1972 as one of the founding teams of the World Hockey Association, which brought professional hockey to several Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, Edmonton and later Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.
The Jets would make the biggest splash in the league by luring away Bobby Hull from the NHL's Chicago Black Hawks for the unheard of sum of $1,000,000, putting the fledgling league on the map.
Their first season of 1972-73 saw them finish first in the Western Division and make it all the way to the Avco Cup Finals where they would fall to the New England Whalers. While they would fail to qualify for the playoffs the next two seasons, they would set themselves up to be one of the most exciting teams in all of hockey for the next four years by signing Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson.
The duo, paired with Hull, would electrify the franchise as they finished second, fourth and seventh in league scoring in just their first season together as Hull set a new professional record with 77 goals, although the club failed to qualify for the playoffs.
1975-76 was the season it all came together for the Jets. They tied the Houston Aeros for the most points in the league with 106 as Hull, Nilsson and Hedberg finished second, third and seventh in league scoring. Once in the playoffs they cruised through the Edmonton Oilers 4-0, the Calgary Cowboys 4-1 and swept the Aeros in the finals in four straight to capture their first WHA championship.
While Hull only played in 34 games in 1976-77, Hedberg led the league in goals with 70 as he and Nilsson came two-three in the scoring race. The Jets returned to the Avco Cup Finals but fell to the Quebec Nordiques in seven games.
Hull returned to full-time duty in 1977-78 and the dynamic trio finished with Nilsson, Hedberg and Hull 2-3-4 in scoring, with teammate Kent Nilsson eighth. The Jets finished atop the league standings and defeated the Birmingham Bulls and New England Whalers to take home the championship for the second time.
1978-79 was one of change for the Jets, as Hull would only compete in four games and Hedberg and Nilsson would defect for the bright lights of Broadway when they signed to play for the New York Rangers of the NHL.
Still, the remainder of the Jets would pull through, coming in third in the regular season standings in the final WHA season, but defeat both the Nordiques and then the Oilers to win their second consecutive Avco Cup and their third overall as they went to the league finals for the fifth time in seven seasons.
The Jets, along with New England (Hartford), Edmonton and Quebec were admitted into the NHL for the 1979-80 season, but at a steep price. The restrictive rules placed on the renegade clubs joining the NHL saw the Jets required to relinquish leading scorer Kent Nilsson, Terry Ruskowski (4th in scoring) and Rich Preston (6th). In addition, leading scorer among defensmen Barry Long was also gone from the roster. Forced to draft 18th out of 21, the Jets would finish dead last in the NHL for the next two seasons.
Acquiring Dale Hawerchuk in the 1981 draft started the Jets back on the road to respectability. Eventually the Jets would claim fourth overall in the league in 1984-85, but were doomed by finding themselves in the same division with league powerhouses Edmonton and the Calgary Flames. With the current divisional playoff format of the time, the Jets were forced to face the Oilers at the height of their dynasty no less than six times in the eight seasons between 1983 and 1990, losing each and every series while winning a total of only four games as the Oilers went on to win five Stanley Cups and the Flames one during that time period.
While the Jets playoff success in the NHL was derailed by the Oilers dynasty, one enduring memory is the "White Out", which arrived in the 1987 playoffs when the Jets asked fans to wear white to home playoff games in response to the Flames "C of Red". Following their four game sweep of Calgary that season, a tradition was born which the franchise continues to employ to this day.
While they were a competitive club on the ice, it became increasingly difficult for the Jets to compete financially, being the fourth smallest market in the NHL (pop. 675,000 and about the size as Omaha, Nebraska), and hampered by playing in the Winnipeg Arena which opened in 1955 and lacked the modern amenities such as luxury boxes and club seating required to keep pace in the modern sports landscape.
They tried to remain competitive, including trading Hawerchuk to Buffalo in 1990 for Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and a draft pick which would become Keith Tkachuk.
1992-93 saw the arrival of Russian Alexi Zhamnov, the bruising Tie Domi and the dynamic Finn Teemu Selanne, who would electrify the city with 76 goals as a rookie.
Still, playoff success eluded the Jets and they slipped in the standings, completely missing out on the playoffs in 1994 and 1995.
With the weaker Canadian dollar of the day hurting the franchise financially, eventually the push for a new arena began, which was eventually unsuccessful, making the owners of the club willing to sell the team they viewed as inviable. When it proved impossible to find a local buyer, the owners announced their intention in May of 1995 to sell the club to buyers from outside of Winnipeg, who would inevitably move the team.
The fans of Winnipeg rallied in a way never seen before or since. The "Save the Jets" rally at The Forks on May 16, 1995 drew over 35,000 people in an effort to raise funds to purchase the franchise. While an astonishing outpouring generated a reported $13 million, it fell far short of the over $110 million required and it was announced on October 18, 1995 that the team had been sold to Americans Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern, who had originally hoped to move the club to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and with the Jets eventually landing in the most unlikely of places, in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona.
Still, the Jets would play one final season in Winnipeg before any relocation was to happen. Morale among the fans only deteriorated further when Selanne, who won over the hearts of Winnipeggers with his scoring exploits and personality is sent to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in February of 1996 in a salary dump. For a city about to lose it's franchise, having it's most beloved player since Bobby Hull miss the going away party was a real kick in the stomach.
A rise in the standings in 1995-96 saw the lame duck Jets qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the season to put the moving vans on hold for as long as the team could last in the postseason. Paired against the Red Wings in the playoffs, Detroit took the first to games at home while the Jets responded by winning Game 3 at home. Detroit then won at Winnipeg to put the Jets on the brink, but they staved off elimination with a 3-1 win in Detroit to return home to Winnipeg, but the end came for the Jets with a 4-1 loss in their final game on this date in 1996.
Today's featured jersey is a 1995-96 Winnipeg Jets Keith Tkachuk jersey as worn in the final game in Jets history, a loss at home which eliminated the Jets from the playoffs for a final time. This jersey features the Cherished Memories worn during the final ten games in Jets history plus their playoff series versus Detroit. There was also a blue version worn on the road jerseys.
Tkachuk wore the captain's "C" for that game, as regular team captain that season Kris King was out of action with an injury.
Apologies in advance for more video today than you can shake a hockey stick at, but we felt it was all relevant and worth including.
Most importantly, one of our favorite hockey videos ever. At an hour long, it's a lot to ask of our readers accustomed to our usual brief videos, but ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the genius that is "Death by Popcorn - The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets".
Not recommended for those of you at work due to it's length and a couple of unfortunate rough spots in the language from the Oilers jersey wearing "man on the street" 10 and 34 minutes into the video, but it's essential viewing if only for Hawerchuk's speech on the occasion of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Next, the announcement in May, 1995 following the end of the 1994-95 season that the efforts to save the Jets have failed and the franchise will be relocated.
Now, "The Funeral", a 90 minute farewell gathering at the Winnipeg Arena to say goodbye at the conclusion of the 1994-95 season to the team and retire Thomas Steen's #25 on May 6, 1995 (in ten parts), which inspired the "Save the Jets" fundraising campaign and gathering of 35,000 fans ten days later in Winnipeg.
Here is a news report, first on the plight of the Quebec Nordiques, and then a look at public efforts to save the Jets by raising enough money to purchase the team to prevent the current ownership from moving the team, which would ultimately fail. The Nordiques would in fact move to Denver for the start of the 1995-96 season, but the Jets will remain in Winnipeg for one final lame duck season.
Now, an interview with Selanne from the "Save the Jets" rally ten days after "The Funeral", followed by the player introductions at the rally followed by John Paddock and then Randy Gilhen addressing the gathering.
Next, Tkachuk scores his 50th goal of the season in the final regular season game in Jets history on April 12, 1996 to earn the Jets a playoff berth, followed by a report on "Puck-gate", as none other than Wayne Gretzky makes off with the puck from the final game!
In this video, the Jets get help from a higher power in the effort to stay in Winnipeg.
Highly recommended viewing, the half hour documentary on the Winnipeg Jets and their financial issues from TSN - "Winnipeg Jets - For the Love of the Game", which includes an interview with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
If we haven't put enough demands on your time today, here is our final effort to cost you your job if you are viewing all this at work, here is the conclusion of the final game in Winnipeg Jets history, their 4-1 loss at home to close out their playoff series against Detroit on this day in 1996.