The Jets were officially given life on September 13, 1971, when, for a franchise fee of $25,000, Ben Hatskin and Dave Simkin partnered to purchase one of the twelve charter franchises in the fledgling World Hockey Assocation. Needing a star attraction, Hatskin doggedly pursued superstar Bobby Hull and eventually convinced him to leave the NHL's Chicago Black Hawks and join the Jets. Hull's historic signing at the corner of Portage and Main on June 27, 1972, brought instant credibility to the new league and provided the impetus for other players to make the jump to the WHA.
The Jets reached the AVCO Cup finals in their first season, but struggled in their second season. Losing money, Hatskin decided to put the team up for sale, but the team was rescued from a possible move by a grassroots campaign that placed the team under community ownership. On the ice, through Dr. Gerry Wilson in Sweden, and chief scout Bill Robinson, the Jets brought Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, and other Europeans to Winnipeg and the result would both make the Jets championship contenders and revolutionize the game. The Jets won two AVCO Cup championships and came within two periods of a third title.
Late in the 1977-78 season, the community ownership group ran out of money and the team was again rescued, this time, thanks to the efforts of Michael Gobuty and his group, who purchased the team. After Nilsson and Hedberg left for the NHL's New York Rangers, Gobuty and Barry Shenkarow engineered the purchase of the defunct Houston Aeros franchise, which gave the Jets some new players with which they won a third championship in 1979.
Though the Jets were consistent winners on the ice, the WHA, by its seventh season, was down to seven teams. Late in the 1978-79 season, a merger agreement with the rival NHL was negotiated, only to be struck down by the NHL on March 8, 1979. The vote was 12-5 in favor, but failed because a three-quarters vote was needed for approval. The 'no' votes came from Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and the Montreal Canadiens, owners of Molson Breweries. As a result, there was an immediate backlash against Molsons in the two Canadian WHA cities and one Quebec WHA city where they did business. The Jets immediately terminated their sponsorship agreement with Molsons, who subsequently backtracked and decided to reconsider after fearing a major loss of business. The Canucks and Kings had always voted against the merger deals in the past over fears of longer travel schedules and less visits from big drawing teams, but the Canucks were convinced to change their stance when they were promised a balanced schedule. This led to another vote by NHL governors on March 22, 1979, where the final result was 14-3 in favor of the merger. The Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and New England Whalers were about to join the NHL.
The price to gain entry into the NHL came at a steep price for the former WHA teams. The incoming teams would have their rosters gutted, leaving them with castoffs assembled from the other NHL teams. Nonetheless, a spirit of optimism gripped Winnipeg hockey fans as they prepared for their first NHL season. The Winnipeg Arena had been hastily expanded to seat over 15,000 fans and Winnipeg was ready for NHL hockey.
The Jets' first two seasons in the NHL were disappointing and the Jets won only nine games in 1980-81, setting an NHL record for futility. However, the loyal Winnipeg fans still supported them and were rewarded for their patronage when the Jets posted a .500 record in 1981-82 with many new players and new coach Tom Watt. The Jets earned home ice advantage against the St. Louis Blues in their first NHL playoff series, but the Jets went down three games to one in the first of many heartbreaks at playoff time. The team failed to improve going forward and turned in two mediocre seasons. Promise turned to frustration as time marched on.
The 1984-85 season was one exception. The Jets racked up 96 points and the lofty total ranked the Jets fourth overall in the 21-team NHL, giving them home ice advantage in the first round against the hated Calgary Flames. Two emotionally charged victories gave the Jets a 2-0 lead, but in Game 3 in Calgary, no Jets fan will ever forget the pain on Dale Hawerchuk's face after he was cross-checked by Jamie Macoun in Game 3. Without their leading scorer, the Jets rebounded to win Game 4 and take the series 3-1. Sadly, the Jets again rolled over for the Edmonton Oilers, going down in four straight games, including a difficult loss at the hands of referee Bryan Lewis in Game 3, whose biased work was the sole reason for the Jets' loss that night.
Once that season ended, the team's fortunes went up and down like a yo-yo. One good year was followed with one bad year. Coaches came and went with regularity. John Ferguson was eventually fired and replaced with Mike Smith, whose tenure was worse than that of his predecessor. After Smith was fired, John Paddock took over and restored some order, but the results on the ice didn't change much at all.
The Jets broke their fans' hearts time and again with excruciatingly painful losses in post-season play. Twice, they held 3-1 series leads only to lose both times. Most times, however, the Jets ended their seasons quickly and put up little resistance before picking up their golf clubs for another long off season. The Jets would win only two playoff series in their 17-season run in the NHL.
There were some fond moments to be found in the muck of the mostly not-so-eventful seasons of NHL Jets hockey. Bobby Hull's number was finally retired and Teemu Selanne's 76-goal season in 1992-93 electrified the Arena like never before. Through it all, the fans here stuck with the team, but they were never rewarded like they were during the WHA era.
The Jets' financial and on-ice losses continued to pile up and ownership put the team up for sale. On the afternoon of May 6, 1995, with the Jets presumably headed for Minneapolis, the Jets held a farewell at the Winnipeg Arena, commonly referred to as “the funeral”. Thomas Steen's #25 was raised to the rafters, CBC entertainer Don Cherry made an appearance, and all the players were introduced and each gave their own good byes to the fans that filled the Arena on that day. The first Jets captain, Ab MacDonald, along with longtime Jet Bill Lesuk, brought out the AVCO Cup and tears flowed from an emotionally charged crowd of over 15,000.
There were many factors as to why the Jets, as we knew them, left and aren't going to return. Costs continued to escalate with free agency in the NHL, the lack of money in Winnipeg needed to keep pace with the pricier NHL, and the team's ownership, led by president/co-owner Barry Shenkarow. A more competently led club on and off the ice in the years preceding the club's move could have sustained the team through the financial difficulties it faced in the 1990's that eventually forced their hand in 1995. The Spirit of Manitoba group came forward in the spring of 1995 in an attempt to build a new arena and keep the team in Winnipeg, but combined with the lack of financing in Winnipeg and Shenkarow's unwillingness to cede control of the club, the Spirit was only able to delay the Jets' departure from Winnipeg by one year. During this frantic period in which the community rallied together in one last attempt to save the team, the Winnipeg Free Press acted as Shenkarow's mouthpiece in running a series negative articles against the Spirit group, further hampering their efforts.
Little has changed with the new team in Arizona. Though the logo on the uniform is different, the franchise continues to flounder as successive ownership groups keep trying to pull the team out of the eternal mediocrity that defined the NHL years of the franchise during its time in Winnipeg.
Mark Chipman has temporarily seized control of an NHL franchise, relocated it to Winnipeg, and regrettably dubbed the team “Winnipeg Jets.” Unfortunately, due to Mr. Chipman's domineering ownership style, the franchise, so long as it remains under his control, will never be a true asset to the community. The Jets, as we knew them, are gone and gone forever. The fans, however, can still look back at the 24 seasons of Jets hockey with a combination of fondness and laughter.