A PRIMER ON WINNIPEG
Akron, Ohio and Winnipeg, Manitoba have roughly the same metropolitan population. Winnipeg, however, is the capital of its province, is a cultural oasis amid a sea of grain and has a hockey-ravenous fan base. Like so many other commercial centers, it is located at the confluence of major rivers and has been inhabited since ancient times. One of their slogans is “Gateway to the West” and they are very close to the longitudinal center of the continent. Manitoba is a vast flat plain dotted by lakes and relies heavily on agriculture during their short summers.
Incidentally, one of the reasons you notice so many hockey players with names that end with –chuk is for that very reason. The dry farming techniques used on the Ukrainian steppes translates very well to the arid prairies of the north. Eastern European immigrants settled in Canada throughout the last century and Canada boasts the third highest population of peoples of Ukrainian descent, behind only Russia and the Ukraine itself. Names that used to end in –cek or –cik became Anglicized to –chuk. But I digress.
The Jets have a history of hockey excellence. They began their existence as part of the World Hockey Association in 1972. The NHL had been expanding in places like Los Angeles and Oakland and that didn’t sit well with small-market Canadian cities. Winnipeg , Alberta (Edmonton) and Quebec all received teams and some memorable American teams such as the Houston Aeros and New England (Hartford) Whalers appeared.
An early victory for the league and the Jets was signing NHL star Bobby Hull. In the midst of a contract dispute with the Chicago Blackhawks, Hull signed on as a player-coach. This lent an air of legitimacy to the fledgling organization that was sorely needed. Other franchises were folding and relocating left and right. By the time the league merged with the NHL in 1980 the Jets had won the Avco World Trophy three of the seven years it had been played for. This success led to Winnipeg being chosen as one of the four teams allowed into the flock, along with the Edmonton Oilers (with Wayne Gretzky, naturally), the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.
The 1980’s were tough for the Jets. They were put in the same division as their WHA rival Oilers. Some of you may recall a dynasty beginning right about this time. Even though the Jets had defeated Edmonton in the finals of the last WHA championship, they were woefully ill-equipped to take on the Oilers juggernaut. To make matters worse, a team from Atlanta had just relocated to a small market Canadian city and was rapidly improving. Talk about history repeating itself.
That team became the Calgary Flames and was also a powerful team in their division, winning the Cup in the '88-'89 season. That means from 1984 through 1990 there was only one season where a team in the Smythe Division didn’t win it all. But things weren’t all gloom and doom. They drafted Dale Hawerchuk first overall in the 1981 draft. He played with the team through the end of the 1990 season, scoring a career franchise record 929 points. In his tenure there he made the NHL All-Star team five times and he is the only player to have played in 1000 games before turning 31. After finishing his career with stints in Buffalo and Philadelphia, he entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.
Swedish winger Thomas Steen ('81-'95), who played his entire NHL career in Winnipeg, is close behind Hawerchuk in all-time points at 817 during 237 more games played in the red, white and blue sweater. His number 25 jersey was retired in 1995 and he is currently a Winnipeg City Councilor.
In the early nineties there was an offensive explosion in the league. Alexander Mogilny caught fire in Buffalo (76 goals and 51 assists in '92-'93), Pavel Bure erupted in Vancouver (60 goals and 50 assists in '92-'93) and Sergei Fedorov lit it up in Detroit (56 goals and 64 assists in '93-'94).
The Soviet Union had fallen apart and former Red Army players were enjoying the benefits of a free market economy. The Jets found their answer with Teemu Selanne. Picked 10th overall in the 1988 draft, he joined in the goal scoring party that was the '92-'93 season, adding 76 of his own. He holds the rookie scoring record for the NHL, netting 132 points in the same season.
Unfortunately, his time in Winnipeg was brief. The next season was shortened by an achilles injury and the following season was abbreviated due to the lockout. In what was purely an economic move, he was traded to Anaheim in 1996 for woefully little value. There was no way they could have offered him a contract after his initial signing ran out. At the time the U.S. dollar was so much stronger than the Canadian equivalent that management made some hard decisions. Even with young talent like Keith Tkachuk, the Jets couldn’t afford to stay in Winnipeg.
They weren’t alone: of the four WHA teams let into the NHL only the Edmonton Oilers did not eventually relocate to a larger American market.
But now they’re back! And I wish all good things for the people of Winnipeg. To any of you who would tell me that the Coyotes own all of the history I just spoke off, I say baloney. Technically, yes, the Phoenix franchise retains all of those records. But when the boys in red, white and blue lace ‘em up and go to war on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, everyone in the stands is going to recall the Golden Jet, Dale Hawerchuk, the Finnish Flash and every night they spent cheering on their Jets. Someone call the thought police!