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Blasts from the Past

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Winnipeg Jets History
by Pat Yankoski

The Winnipeg Arena looks like a cement block deposited on open ground. It's not a spectacular arena, but its hosted numerous hockey games, circuses, rock concerts, and car and boat shows. But hockey has usually been the main attraction at the arena, and its even more so now the Jets are here.

Today is a game day. Last-minute fans are lined up at the box office trying for a seat. It's only two in the afternoon, but already the smell of warm popcorn fills the air as empty boxes are filled in anticipation of the night's crowd.

Ramp 5 leads out to centre ice area. Right now the ice is shiny, waiting for cold steel under leather boots. Rows of seats march up to the ceiling. The caretakers have cleaned up the aisles of debris so the fans can have a fresh start.

At one end of the rink, a picture of the Queen looks down over it all. And there is silence. Silence that in a few short hours will be interrupted with cheers of "Go Jets, Go", "in the corner, in the corner", "shoot, shoot, what're you waitin' for?" After the echoes of the game die away, and the last player has left the dressing room, there'll be silence again.

Everything is ready, but a glance at the clock shows an old score. It reads: Home 5, Visitors 3. That means a Jets win. What will it be tonight?

When the World Hockey Association was formed, it created a war with the NHL, brought skeptics to their knees, and eventually robbed many NHL teams of players. But to the hockey fans of Winnipeg, there was something else the WHA did - it brought professional hockey to Winnipeg - a city that had been scoffed at by Clarence Campbell and told that a professional team could not exist here.

The opening of the NHL's 1971-1972 season was marred with stories about the new league. Although the WHA wasn't operating fully yet, it was already stealing headlines. The NHL fathers laughed, and their supporters laughed even louder. But Winnipeg and Ben Hatskin hadn't yet pulled their rabbit out the hat, and when they did, Bennie had the last laugh.

In spite of all the publicity, one thing the new league didn't have was credibility. Maybe they had financial backers, but what they needed was credibility in the eyes of the hockey fans - because fans don't go to the game to see bank accounts, they go to see talent and good hockey.

Hatskin went to the NHL for his big coup - Bobby Hull. Hull is one of the superstars of the game, and Hatskin knew if he could sign Hull, he could give the league some much needed credibility. If Hull signed, then other players in the NHL would also jump.

Apparently the rest of the teams in the new league felt the same way, because they each threw in $100,000 to make up the initial $1,000,000 which would be given Hull just to sign.

The city of Winnipeg found itself in the middle of a heat wave on June 27, 1972, but that didn't stop the thousands of people who came to watch Hull put his Golden Jet signature on the contract that would make him a Winnipeg Jet.

The crowds started to gather early in the afternoon at the corner of Portage and Main where Bobby was to do the deed at 5:00 P.M. - the height of rush hour. And the people stayed and waited. When Bobby finally arrived in a 1934 Rolls Royce, the crowds cheered and clapped. Winnipeg was ready to accept the ex-Chicago Black Hawk with open arms.

With Hull tucked firmly away, Ben began recruiting more talent for the Jets. He wanted to concentrate mainly on players from Winnipeg and Manitoba. Thus when the WHA held its first player draft in February of 1972, such names as Ted Green, Joe Daley, Ernie Wakely, Bob Woytowich, Wayne Chernecki, Ab McDonald, Milt Black and Freeman (Duke) Asmundson were on the Jets' draft list. All were native sons of Manitoba.

By September of 1972 the Jets had a team ready to start the season. But, as everyone suspected, the Chicago Black Hawks weren't going to let their best box office draw be spirited away. Legal action kept Hull from playing the first month of the initial season for the Winnipeg Jets.

By November, Hull joined his linemates of Beaudin and Bordeleau. By the end of the season, this unit, which was dubbed the "Luxury Line", was the highest scoring line in the WHA with each member getting 100 points or more.

The original Jet line-up went as follows: Joe Daley, Ernie Wakely, goal; Bob Woytowich, Bob Ash, Joe Zanussi, Larry Hornung, Steve Cuddie, defense; Chris Bordeleau, Wally Boyer, Bill Sutherland, Danny Johnson, Cal Swenson, Brian Cadle, centre; Bobby Hull, Dunc Rousseau, Ab McDonald, left wing; Norm Beaudin, Garth Rizzuto, Jean Guy Gratton, Milt Black, Duke Asmundson, right wing.

For the first season, the WHA was divided into two divisions - east and west. The Jets, playing in the West, easily wrapped up first place. They made it to the finals of the Avco Cup play-offs, but were beaten by the New England Whalers in five games.

For the start of the 1973-'74 season, the Jets took their training camp to Kenora. The season progressed with more humdrum than the first, and Winnipeg fans were not filling the arena quite as Hatskin wanted them to be.

This time, the Jets finished in fourth place, and were then wiped out in the play-offs by the Houston Aeros in four straight. The Jets were in trouble, but more was to come. Ben Hatskin decided to sell the Jets.

The price tag was around $4 million, and possibly buyers were located in Milwaukee, Detroit and San Diego. But Winnipeg decided it wasn't going to give up the ghost so fast. Perhaps visions of another Winnipeg Whips disaster made people think twice. It was one thing to lose a baseball club, but for Winnipeg to lose a hockey team - unheard of, especially when one man was certain Winnipeg wanted her team to stay.

Bob Graham, president of Inter-City Gas Ltd., decided to launch a "Save the Jets" campaign to raise $1 million for a down payment on the team. The full price had now come down to $2.3 million.

During the campaign, people were asked to buy memberships at $25.00 a piece or make founders' loans. The campaign worked beautifully. The money was raised, with 4,158 Winnipeggers coming up with $133,912.50. An additional $625,974.67 was brought in from 249 individuals and businesses who made founders' loans. With this money and the $300,000 from the city, the down payment was reached. The Winnipeg Jets became the only publicly owned professional hockey team in the world.

In the meantime, overseas connections were coming up with interesting new players for the coming 1974-75 season. Dr. Gerry Wilson had interested the Jets in some former members of the Swedish Nationals. By May 4, a release came through stating the Jets had signed two young Swedes - Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. Two more Swedes - Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Curt Larsson along with Finnish players Heikki Riihiranta and Veli Pekka-Ketola rounded out the international scope.

The European players nicely complemented the Canadian guys on the team. The line of Hull, Nilsson and Hedberg became especially successful and popular. Each member scored at least 100 points.

A significant change came over Winnipeg fans during this last season. In spite of finishing out of the play-offs, the Jets had given some good and entertaining hockey to their fans. People began to realize that perhaps this wasn't "bush hockey" after all, especially when you have a record breaker like Bobby Hull on the team.

By the latter half of the season, the Jets were selling out their home games. What a glorious sight - no longer did Houston draw the only crowds to fill the building. It was a noticeable change. One which called for Bobby Hull to "pull in his horns" as he says, and give Winnipeg credibility as being a city able to support its own professional hockey club.