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Blasts from the Past

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The long hard struggle
By Reyn Davis
Winnipeg Free Press

As long as hockey sticks have blades, pucks stay flat and players are missing teeth, there will be fascination about the summer of '72.
For Winnipeg Jets, it was the end of the beginning. In a day of programmed living, the 8-to-4 shift with two 10-minute coffee breaks and an hour of lunch, three weeks holidays and 12 sick days a year whether you need them or now, the people behind the Jets were a refreshing exception as they eagerly built a major league hockey franchise in the summer heat.
Against odds that defy imagination, a franchise was built to give this city the kind of hockey team it has needed and deserved in the sport that is virtually a birthright for every Canadian.
This was the long, hard struggle of men whose keen desire to be part of a magical dream could not be dampened by threats, skepticism or mockery as they committed themselves to the total effort of making Winnipeg one of the franchises most likely to succeed in the new World Hockey Association.
For Ben Hatskin, the drive comes from a fierce will to succeed. "I'm gonna get you," he told Bobby Hull last winter as the hockey world guffawed at the guy's nerve.
In June, they paid tribute as Hull signed a $2.7 million contract that erased any doubt about the sincerity of the WHA or the fibre of its owners.
Though a sportsman all his life - playing centre for the Bombers (his top salary was $260 a season!), coaching St. John's high school team, owning a 15-horse stable of thoroughbreds - he accidentally found himself in hockey only six years ago when Denis Ball and Bill Cracklin invited him as a partner to the formation meeting of the Western Canada Hockey League.
When the WCHL determined to go "outlaw", Ball and Cracklin went one way, leaving Hatskin behind as the sole owner of the Winnipeg franchise he later christened the Jets.
Hatskin became totally captivated by the hockey crowd and players, all the while disclaiming any real attachment for the kids who called him Ben and considered him more as a friend than owner.
Consistently, Hatskin expressed a desire to someday bring big-time hockey to Winnipeg. He recognized a potential and he thoroughly believed Winnipeg could afford the luxury of major league hockey, especially if the $6 million franchise fee levied by the National Hockey League could be circumvented.
The WHA was an answer to his dreams and each day for over a year now the Winnipeg millionaire has spent every working hour working and worrying about the Jets.
To see this dream come true Hatskin surrounded himself with people he trusted to the cause.
From Vancouver, he hired Annis Stukus, hungry for a fight against the establishment of hockey that had coldly excused him as general manager of the Canucks after their finest years in the Western League.
Stukus arrived in November. It was a cold, windy day and Grey Cup fever was a running nose and two aspirins before bed.
Big Stuke needed about a week to unwind, then he hit every banquet in Manitoba, preaching the word that major league hockey was coming in all its glory. At times, he had 20 speaking engagements on his calendar, and he missed precious few. In short, they loved him.
And never far away was Terry Hind, the toupeed humanist who knocked on doors spreading the message. Always near the action, Terry could see a bundle of good happening to his city and he carried the word into corners where others could not reach.
A fondness grew ... a fondness of Hatskin as one of the most memorable men Terry had ever met.
"I admit I was discouraged at times," said Hind. "We didn't have a hockey player signed, all the Hull publicity looked as if it would backfire. There were problems I just couldn't see us overcoming.
"But that man, Ben. Believe me, he's the energy and strength of this organization. I've seen him sense when we were down and he would do something, anything, and soon we would be back up there flying high again.
"We've come this far now and I don't think there's anything that can stop us now."
Delicately picking his people, Hatskin went to the junior league to hire a man whose history had been one long list of successes.
And so, he introduced Ron Lyon, a bundle of energy whose aptitude for putting together the more sundry features of the franchise was something to behold.
Eager to the point that Hatskin actually ordered him to rest on occasion for fear of damaging his health, Lyon sold this program to Winnipeg with such universal zeal that the contents and revenue will match any program in hockey today.
His gambit included novelties - trinkets, such as charms, key chains, pens and banners - and all of them bear the precision of detail demanded by Lyon since day one.
A most pleasant task was organizing the Jetettes, the bevy of usherettes who wear the uniforms he personally selected for the maximum in comfort and attractiveness.
Not bad at all for the guy who set WCHL records for business in Estevan, Calgary and New Westminster before the chance to step into the select pro company of the Jets.
And then there is the guy who wouldn't get caught with one hair out of place, even with the slightest sign of crease in the wardrobe of sports-coats he wears and certainly never to be seen with soup stain on his tie.
The man is Billy Robinson, the friendly host at Assiniboia Downs for a number of years before he seized the opportunity to play a role in the building of the pro Jets.
For Robinson, the old school had its merits - wearing your brother's skates on Oman's Creek, following the street sweepers for pieces of bamboo to use as shin guards and playing the game as if nothing in this whole, wide world really mattered.
He admits it's tough, signing and wooing a player who might have lesser ability than himself in his heyday for the kind of money he never dreamed of making.
But signing players is his business and teaming with Stukus, the pair did a job most people would readily agree is beyond the expectations of a year ago.
The effort was great. Robinson spent the winter criss-crossing the leagues in North America, introducing himself to the players the Jets hoped to sign.
He brought back valuable information, always cataloged, always neat. He is as organized as a private library, and his monument to that cause is the Jets' dressing room complex, described by some as a veritable pent-house for the players.
Because of the Jets, it is satisfying to see the talents and the energies of these people working in close harmony for the benefit and pleasure of all Manitobans.
This is a franchise that is first-class in every respect. The price in time, effort and money was high and, hopefully, it's catching for the players concerned.