The Heritage Classic is at hand and TNSE in its infinite wisdom has decided to crank up the nostalgia engine, shed it's indifference to the past and embrace all things Jets 1.0. Players from the original Jets are now being referred to as "alumni", numbers are going into the rafters and retro jerseys are flying off the shelves as we all warm ourselves on a bonfire of rose coloured memories. There is however, one thing that makes those alumni players from the 80's just slightly squeamish when trying scour their brains for the appropriate sports cliche; expalining the Oiler vs. Jets rivalry. So now on the eve of the last Gretzky vs. Hawerchuck dust up please allow this humble old timer to transport you back to a time when things were just a little bit darker, and just a little bit tougher for Winnipeg and the Jets.
I have a late birthday so for most of 1990 I was 19 years old, fresh out of Red River Community College and riding the pumpkin (what we used to call Winnipeg Transit) to a crappy dead end warehouse job. I was on my own in the big city living out out the Gen X stereotype of a bad job, no prospects and no money. The cities economy was stagnate, efforts to rejuvenate the Winnipegs downtown core were failing and the Jets were playing out of a building built for minor league hockey and haphazardly renovated to accommodate NHL crowds. If there was ever an NHL building that could be called a barn it was the Winnipeg Arena. Yet for all the shortcomings, obstacles and setbacks, the Winnipeg Jets were an island of hope that many could cling to as proof that their town could at least participate in the big leagues.
The Jets of the 80's were perpetually behind the eight ball. They came into an NHL that wanted to punish the partisans of the failed rebellion known as the WHA, and the board of governors was never especially eager to put Winnipeg on the marquee outside Madison Square Garden or the Boston Garden. The Jets were stripped of talent in the expansion draft and left to swing in the wind with a league that really didn't want them to succeed. As always Winnipeg had to push a boulder up the mountain, and in every sense of the word the Jets were the boys from the wrong side of the tracks. After a disastrous opening season the Jets drafted a bonified superstar in Dale Hawerchuck and proceeded to build a solid workman like team around him. In the 80s the Jets made made the playoffs every second season and they did it on the back of their captain along with the sheer will of their fans. Despite working with almost no money and limited talent the Jets still managed through hard work and clever game plans to put a good hockey product on the ice. In any other time this should have produced the dividend of at least a couple of deep playoff runs, however this was the era of the Edmonton Oilers.
If the Jets were the blue collar kids from the other side of the tracks, the Oilers where the rich frat boys. Unlike the Jets, the Oilers entered the NHL with a wealthy owner, a skilled general manager and the best player ever to put on skates. With the help of his chief scout Barry Fraser, Glenn Sather, GM of the new Oilers managed to stock his team with future hall of famers to compliment his young superstar. The group lead by Sather put together the last and most successful Stanley Cup dynasty in the history of the NHL. While the NHL owners never looked forward to trying to sell seats for a Winnipeg match up, the young Wayne Gretzky drew crowds and more importantly for the league TV revenue. The Edmonton Oilers where the most talented team ever assembled in the NHL, brimming with arrogant swagger and loved by all, except fans of the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets always faced long odds, however almost every second year the Jets would scratch and claw their way into a playoff spot and every time almost without fail they would meet their Smythe division rivals the Edmonton Oilers. If Dale Hawerchuck was a blue collar captain that carried the team on his back, Gretzky was the premadona that required a tough guy body guard. Gretzky was undoubtedly the most talented player ever to grace the game but he was also the antithesis of the self reliant, hard nosed Winnipeg attitude. Gretzky was to many Jets fans not a hero but a villain that stood in the way and sneered at their underdog dreams.
Back to 1990 now and on game day I'd dig change out of the couch, check my pockets and borrow a couple of bucks from my roommates for one specific task. With cash in hand I'd walk past the drug dealers in Central Park and make my way up the street to the 7-11 on Sargent St. There I'd buy the famous 7-11 seat for exactly eleven dollars. This bought me a single seat in the precarious upper deck of the Winnipeg Arena, where I'd watch my hard luck crew grind out more wins than losses. It was yet another playoff year and as usual the Jets where facing the hated Oilers. This year however was different, the Oilers were without Gretzky and maybe just maybe this would be the year we'd do what was previously impossible
As the series progressed the Jets took a 2-1 series lead with game three to be played at the Winnipeg Arena. My roommates and friends convinced me to part with $30.00 (Grocery money) to buy seats with them in the upper deck. Little did I know that the game would be a pinnacle for myself and for many Jets fans. We took our seats in the infamous 75 degree upper deck of the old Winnipeg Arena and what we witnessed was a war. It was the culmination of all the frustration that had built up throughout the years, now it was displayed on the ice and felt in the crowd. Regulation time ended in a knot and a period of overtime solved nothing. The noise vibrated through the old steel of the rink and the angst of the crowd was like a bent bow waiting to snap.
And then it happened...
Dave Ellett scored the game winning goal in the second overtime. To this day I have never heard or felt such a rapture of noise and emotion. The initial cheer circled the building like a shock wave and the resulting realization of what had just happened created and even louder wall of sound as the entire white clad crowd literally shook the concrete and steel of the old Winnipeg Arena. A sea of white undulated and screamed into the night, this was it, this was the peak moment for me as a fan of Jets 1.0. As I rode the pumpkin home that night I thought to myself that this was finally going to be it, this was finally the year we would break through the great Oil barrier.
Of course with all things Jets 1.0 my dream was a hard luck dream. The Jets went on to spectacularly lose three games straight and the Oilers of course went on to win yet another Stanley Cup.
Eventually I went on to better things and grew out of the shadow of 1990 Winnipeg. The Jets also left 90's Winnipeg and then returned to a better Winnipeg, one with hope, pride and a better foundation from which to build an NHL franchise. From all the hard luck and underdog dreams came a new and better NHL future in a new and revitalized community.
You will however excuse me if as I watch the Heritage Classic on Saturday and Sunday that I cheer for a spectacular Oiler loss. For me that moment in 1990 and the disappointment that followed are still emblazoned on my hockey soul and I still hate the Edmonton Oilers with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. For me the Jets will always be the underdogs and the boys from the wrong side of the tracks.