The Winnipeg Jets set the hockey world on its ear in 1972 when they signed Bobby Hull to a contract at the corner of Portage and Main.
Armed with pro hockey's biggest superstar and a collection of quality veterans, the Jets were a force to be reckoned with all the way through the WHA's inaugural season. After a first-place finish in the Western Division, the Jets marched through the playoffs, meeting the New England Whalers in the AVCO Cup finals. Though the Jets went down in five games, they still had an outstanding season and drew large crowds wherever they went.
Sadly, not a lot of those crowds were at the Winnipeg Arena.
The Jets drew well that year, but they were not the instant success at the box office that they were on the ice. A crowd of only 1,721 was on hand to see the Jets' first exhibition game and though the numbers were a lot better when the puck dropped for real, the Arena did not see one sellout crowd all year long.
Neither the first regular season game, Bobby Hull's first appearance, nor the Jets' appearance in the AVCO Cup finals were enough to draw a sellout crowd to the Arena that year.
Most fans today would be shocked by what did draw the Jets' first sellout crowd.
The Jets hosted the Houston Aeros on the night of September 30, 1973. Over the summer, Gordie Howe had come out of retirement after a long career with the Detroit Red Wings to play with his sons, Mark and Marty, and fans lined up at the ticket windows to see the elder Howe's first appearance at the Arena in that exhibition game.
“I've waited a year to see this,” said Hull to the Winnipeg Free Press at the time.
The Jets dropped a 4-1 decision to the Aeros in front of a packed house at the 10,077-seat Arena, but Hull would be kept waiting even longer for Winnipeggers to fill the rink to see someone other than Gordie Howe.
Throughout the 1973-1974 season, Howe and the Aeros played before nothing but sellout crowds at the Arena, while the Jets struggled at the gate and on the ice without “Mr. Hockey” in attendance. It was not until November 17, 1974 that the Jets drew their first sellout crowd to see the Jets and not Howe and the Aeros.
It was the Jets' inability to draw larger crowds that forced owner Ben Hatskin to put the club up for sale in 1974. Were it not for a successful “Save the Jets” campaign in which the public came up with $600,000 for the down payment, enabling the community ownership group to purchase the team, the Winnipeg Jets would be little more than a footnote in hockey history.
The magnetism of Bobby Hull stills draws adoring crowds to this day and crowds flocked to the corner of Portage and Main in droves on June 27, 1972, but they didn't flock to the box office to see him. Instead, it took Gordie Howe to come out of retirement to pack the Arena for the first time.