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The History of Professional Hockey in Winnipeg, Part II

A family friend got the entire 1986-87 team to sign this pennant for me.  Best gift ever!
A family friend got the entire 1986-87 team to sign this pennant for me. Best gift ever!

I'll come back to Part I at a later date - for now, Part II is much more interesting and much more instructive.

It's hard to overstate how little the NHL has wanted professional hockey in any of Canada's small markets, Winnipeg included. In early 1979, the league was in disarray:

  • Kansas City averaged 8,000 fans per night and moved to Denver in 1976 as the Colorado Rockies after just two seasons; the Rockies had petitioned to move to New Jersey in 1978 and finally made the move in 1982
  • Oakland had failed to secure a new arena in San Francisco. They moved to Cleveland in 1976, saw their attendance plummet and merged with the Minnesota North Stars - who were beset by their own financial problems - in 1978
  • Atlanta was having its own financial difficulties and the team would move to Calgary in 1980
  • Though they managed to stay put, Pittsburgh declared bankruptcy in 1975 and St. Louis nearly did

There are arguably six failing teams in the NHL today, and they represent a massive drag on the other 24 teams. When the NHL was just an 18-team league in the 1970s, six failing franchises were an absolute disaster, particularly with an ascendant WHA poaching the NHL's superstars and its fans. And yet, the NHL still resisted expansion into Canada beyond Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

The WHA's implosion gave the NHL an opportunity to both enter markets where hockey had already proved successful and place onerous conditions on the new teams. I've heard complaints about the relocation fee that Winnipeg's new owners will have to pay the league to move the Atlanta Thrashers, but the 1979 expansion draft allowed the NHL's four new teams to protect just two skaters and one or two goalies, forced them to draft at the end of the first round in the entry draft, and kept them from getting Hockey Night in Canada revenues for five seasons.

It should come as no surprise that not one of the new expansion teams had a winning season in either 1979-80 or 1980-81. The 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets team that won the final Avco Cup in the WHA featured some quality players who were scooped up by other teams - Kent Nilsson had 93 points in his first season back in the NHL; Terry Ruskowski had 72; and Rich Preston had 61. The new NHL Jets were unspeakably bad, finishing 2nd-last in their first season with a -100 goal differential, and dead-last in 1980-81 with just nine wins, a -154 goal differential, twelve wins behind the 20th-place Detroit Red Wings.

Luckily, the Jets weren't prevented from drafting first overall, because the draft would be their savior, with both early picks and longshots working out well:

  • 1979-80: Dave Christian, #40 pick; Thomas Steen, #103 pick; Tim Watters, #124 pick
  • 1980-81: Dave Babych #2 pick; Moe Mantha #23 pick; Brian Mullen, #128 pick
  • 1981-82: Dale Hawerchuk, #1 pick; Scott Arniel #22 pick
  • 1982-83: Dave Ellett, #75 pick

The Jets supplemented this deep crop of players with college free agents Doug Smail, Don Spring and Wade Campbell, and trades for Paul MacLean (an absolute steal from St. Louis), their captain, Lucien DeBlois, their assistant captain, Randy Carlyle and perhaps the best historical comp for Milan Lucic, Laurie Boschman. A handful of WHA holdovers with great names - Willy Lindstrom, Morris Lukowich and Bengt Lundholm - rounded out a team that would make the playoffs in 1982. You may not remember any of these guys, but trust me when I tell you that they were legends in Winnipeg in the early 1980s. (I even had a Dale Hawerchuk silver dollar that was legal tender until some time in 1984.)

The Jets played in the Smythe Division - the NHL's toughest - and typically found themselves behind the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. But in 1984-85, the Jets had six thirty goal scorers and finally broke through into second place. That would represent the peak of their success: in game three of the first round of the playoffs, Calgary's Jamie Macoun cross-checked Dale Hawerchuk, knocking him out of the playoffs with broken ribs. Winnipeg would eliminate Calgary but would get swept by an Edmonton team that cruised to a 15-3 record on its way to the Stanley Cup.

It's important at this point to introduce a character who loomed large over everything in the Winnipeg Jets organization this entire time: General Manager John Ferguson. Ferguson finished in the top five in the NHL in penalty minutes in half of the seasons he played and applied the same strategy to many of his acquisitions as general manager. He fired six coaches in nine seasons. His 1979 and 1982 first round draft picks - Jimmy Mann and Jim Kyte - were punch-first hockey players who combined for 27 points in 333 games during the NHL's peak offensive era. But the worst decision of his career - as obvious then as it is in retrospect - was trading All-Star defenseman Dave Babych to the Hartford Whalers for Ray Neufeld. Ray Friggin' Neufeld. It was like a five-year-old smashing his best toy. As Ferguson said on November 21, 1985:

"I have a great fondness for Dave Babych, but we wanted a big, tough right winger and Neufeld was the one we were after. As well as playing well lately, he's very tough in front of the net."

Forget that Babych played for 10 years after Neufeld retired - the key is that Ferguson gave away his best or second-best player for next to nothing, all in the pursuit of a grinder, as though the 6-2, 215-lb Babych was some kind of shrinking violet. That season, Ferguson would also tire of his coach, Barry Long, and take over behind the bench himself. I still remember the local newscasters pointing out that Ferguson sweated through the armpits of his suit jackets on the bench - how that's even possible, I cannot say. The Jets were eliminated in three straight games by the Flames in the 1985-86, but not before a frustrated Ferguson plucked 20-year-old (and 5'5) Daniel Berthiaume out of the QMJHL to backstop the Jets in the deciding game of the series.

The Jets had a +26 goal differential in 1984-85 - that was the best in their history. They never surpassed +8 during the rest of their time in Winnipeg, and won just one playoff series over the next 11 years. John Ferguson would get fired after the 1987-88 season, paving the way for Mike Smith's tenure as General Manager, an era that I'll explore in Part III of this series.

The new Atlanta Thrashers won't have quite as tough a road as those early Jets teams did. But the lessons the Jets learned back then should still apply today - apologies to Rick Dudley, but new ownership should avoid the temptation to let a former NHL player who racked up a lot of penalty minutes run their team. And they should keep in mind that building a winning team is a long-term proposition - they will have to accept that the Atlanta team they've inherited is decidedly in the bottom half of the league. The first incarnation of NHL hockey in Winnipeg took six years to make it out of the first round of the playoffs; it would be nice if the new team did that in half the time, but nobody should harbor visions of Stanley Cup rings in the next few years.