It was April 28, 1996 and the Winnipeg Jets were shaking hands with the Detroit Red Wings after being eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The next time the Jets would take to the ice was at the America West Arena as the Phoenix Coyotes. The unthinkable was now reality.
Hockey Armageddon had come to Winnipeg.
Despite claims to the contrary, however, the sun did come up the next morning.
Winnipeg hockey fans would now be in for a new experience. The International Hockey League was in town.
Months earlier, the Shindleman brothers purchased a conditional interest in the Peoria Rivermen with the intention of moving them to Winnipeg, but then a group led by Jeff Thompson and former Jet Thomas Steen purchased a conditional interest in the Minnesota Moose and wanted to move that team to Winnipeg. Faced with competing bids, the IHL Board of Governors, in a move that would profoundly and negatively impact the long-term interests of hockey in Winnipeg, awarded relocation rights to the Minnesota Moose.
The Moose were in their second season in the Twin Cities, having started as an expansion team to fill the void of jilted fans who had recently seen the Minnesota North Stars to move to Dallas. They were about to pack up shop and attempt to fill the same void for Winnipeg fans.
The Moose played out of the St. Paul Civic Center and then the Target Center, taking up dates that were originally reserved for the Jets, who were a whisker away from moving there a year earlier. During their brief life span, the Moose failed to capture much in the way of fan support and though they made the playoffs in their first season, they were bottom-feeders in their second and final season and few were left at the end to notice the moving vans headed north.
Former Jet Dave Christian, one of the fixtures in the Moose lineup, was asked by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune during the 1995-1996 season if he wanted to make the playoffs. He said “No.” When asked why, he responded, “Ownership.”
Upon the completion of some difficult negotiations with Winnipeg Enterprises on a lease for the Winnipeg Arena, the Moose arrived in Winnipeg and were rechristened the “Manitoba Moose”. The “Thompson Group” as the ownership was then known, soon gave way to Mark Chipman, a last-minute addition to the group who would soon assert full control of every facet of the franchise. Minnesota Moose coach Frank Serratore was replaced with Jean Perron, a man with substantial NHL credentials and a Stanley Cup championship to his credit. Randy Carlyle, an assistant coach with the Jets and former Jets player, was brought in to assist Perron.
On the ice, the roster was completely remade. Former Jets players Randy Gilhen, Scott Arniel, and Russ Romaniuk were brought in among many others to supplement holdovers Stephane Morin, Jim Paek, and Andy “Schnooky” Schneider.
My first encounter with this new franchise was a package in the mail containing nothing more than a brochure and a bill. After failing to respond to this invoice, I got a call from a fast-talking salesman from the Moose trying to convince me that the mini-pack seat I had for the Jets’ last season was about to be taken by a prospective season ticket holder, but that I had the right of first refusal.
I’m not saying I’ve never been taken for a ride before, but I’m not that gullible. I called his bluff and let him sell this seat to someone else. Not that I really needed confirmation, but just out of curiosity, before the opening game, I asked at the ticket window if the seat was available. Sure enough, it was.
The Moose’s first home game took place on the night of October 11, 1996 and I was there to see them take on the Las Vegas Thunder at the reconfigured Arena. The upper decks were closed, the north end ice level section was turned into a club lounge, and a number of sections behind the north end goal were replaced by new purple club seating. I wasn’t the only one to ask, “Why didn’t they do this for the Jets?”
Skating out from underneath a pair of inflatable antlers, the Moose, sporting new uniforms that looked like they had been borrowed from the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, made their inaugural appearance at their new home. Not unexpectedly, they laid an egg that night and were shut out by Parris Duffus, who was property of the relocated Jets’ franchise.
The Moose did, however, make an indelible first impression. Fights were not in short supply, and from that night on, I would always refer to them as the “Fighting Moose”. Greg Pankewicz, one the stars on that first Moose team, showed his colors as one of the most colorful players to ever lace on a pair of skates. He would rack up more than 200 penalty minutes that year, and a good deal of those came in ten-minute increments. When the Arena was demolished a decade later, the much-abused door to the penalty box should have been rescued and bronzed for “Captain Misconduct”.
The promotions were just as colorful as some of the players. There was the forgettable “sing for your supper” promotion where candidates belted out some words and the fans voted with their applause on the winner. Between periods was “Turkey Curling” where contestants would hurl frozen poultry carcasses down the ice.
My eyebrows were raised when I saw Chipman running up and down the stands while games were going on. Having been a Jets’ season ticket holder for five seasons and attended countless number of games over the years, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I ever saw Jets’ President Barry Shenkarow, even on television. Hands-on ownership had come to Winnipeg in full force and, regrettably, it hasn’t left.
The Moose drew some decent crowds that first season, but losses piled up as fast as the fight card. The most entertaining part of some of those games was listening to Jean Perron’s post-game comments on the way home. In his broken English, I remember him saying, “When tree player go to da puck carrier, what can I do?”
Late in the season, with the team floundering, Chipman fired Perron less than one year into his three-year deal, and installed Carlyle as his replacement. The team responded better to the man who would become Chipman’s favorite crony, but it was far too late to salvage anything from what had been a lost season.
There were 19 teams in the IHL in 1996-1997 and, in a system even more inclusive than the NHL, something I never thought possible, only three missed the playoffs. The Moose were one of them. The Moose’s inaugural season in Winnipeg could be filed under the headline of “you only get one chance to make a good first impression”.
Things would go downhill from there, but that year set the stage for an appreciation of hockey at the grassroots level that I could never have imagined. For those of you that think Slap Shot is a piece of unrealistic fiction, it’s a lot closer to a documentary than people would like to believe.
Put on the foil, here come the Moose.