Many historians will mark October 14, 1979 as the date that NHL hockey arrived in Winnipeg. That night, the Jets played host to Don Cherry and the Colorado Rockies, and won by a score of 4-2 before a crowd of 12,619.
However, the first NHL opponent to meet the Jets was not the Rockies, but the Atlanta Flames, who came in five years earlier to play the Jets, then members of the WHA.
As part of the settlement of the antitrust lawsuit filed by the WHA against the NHL, the NHL agreed to play WHA teams in exhibition games and discuss possibilities of meeting during the regular season. The first matchups between the rival leagues took place in September 1974 and the Flames took part, coming to Winnipeg to meet the Jets on September 29.
A crowd of 6,616 showed up at the Winnipeg Arena to see the Flames hand the Jets a 3-1 defeat. The Jets, at the time, were coming off a tumultuous summer in which they were rescued from relocation by the community ownership group. They were led by their new influx of European talent, who had signed on even before a single dollar of the down payment to buy the club had been raised.
Ron “Bam Bam” Ashton had the honor of scoring the first and only goal for the Jets that night, tipping Larry Hornung's shot to break Dan Bouchard's shutout bid midway through the third period. Ashton's career as a Jet was short-lived, but he did end up as an answer to a significant trivia question few people know the answer to.
The star of the game was Winnipeg native Bob Leiter, who scored two goals in the first period to pace the Flames' attack. Leiter, an original Flame, coming off back-to-back 26-goal seasons, would later finish his career in the WHA as a member of the Calgary Cowboys in 1976. Leiter's last game took place against the Jets, who dispatched the Cowboys in five games to capture the O'Keefe Cup as champions of the Canadian Divison on their way to their first AVCO Cup championship three weeks later.
There was much more irony in this game than Winnipeggers could have possibly envisioned.
Flames' goaltender Dan Bouchard, who turned aside 34 shots to record the victory, would finish his long and distinguished NHL career as a Jet. Bouchard's last NHL game came on April 9, 1986, when he and his teammates were beaten by a score of 5-1 at the hands of the relocated Flames in Calgary.
Daniel Geffrion, son of Flames' coach Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, would go on to play for the Jets and record a 20-goal season in 1980-1981, one of the few bright spots in a season in which the Jets won only nine games.
Upon their entry into the NHL, the Jets would only face the Atlanta Flames four times, but the first of those meetings featured a brawl in which Jets' coach Tom McVie challenged Flames' coach Al MacNeil to a fight. McVie would later be suspended for three games for this incident at the Omni in Atlanta.
The Flames themselves, following their relocation to Calgary, would become the Jets' biggest rival, albeit a one-way rivalry. The Flames would regard the Jets as little more than unwanted pests, but the Jets gave all they had in the pursuit of beating the Flames and the Flames were the only team the Jets were able to beat in a playoff series. A playoff matchup with the Flames in 1985 was the genesis of the “White Out”, a tradition that Winnipeggers cherish to this day.
Finally, the Atlanta Thrashers, an expansion team to replace the relocated Flames, would eventually be purchased by Mark Chipman, moved to his personal arena in downtown Winnipeg, and regrettably dubbed the “Winnipeg Jets,” tarnishing the good name of the original franchise that bore the moniker from 1972 to 1996.
A lackluster exhibition game in 1974 would prove to be a memorable affair, indeed, decades later.