The 14-13-3 Jets came home from a two-game road trip in the middle of December 1982 for a weekend series against the woeful 9-17-4 Hartford Whalers and the even more putrid 6-22-7 New Jersey Devils.
Looking back, this was a perfect setup for an epic disaster, but, at the time, I still believed that the Jets were poised to take that next step and establish themselves as the elite team they were when they ruled the WHA. With memories of their three AVCO Cup championships still fresh in my mind, I was convinced that the Jets were soon to make hockey history and become the first team to win an AVCO Cup and a Stanley Cup.
The Jets were blown out by a score of 10-3 in Chicago on Wednesday night, but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for the coming weekend. My parents had bought me tickets for both games and I was going to see the Jets in action as they brushed aside the league’s bottom-feeders on their way to greatness. They still have a picture of me grinning as I gazed upon those tickets lying on our kitchen table.
The innocence of youth was about to be abused.
Friday night’s game against the Whalers was a stinker, to be kind. The meeting between the two franchises that met head-to-head on two separate occasions to decide a major pro championship looked like a couple of teams wearing heavy parkas and rubber boots playing ball hockey on the street. The 10,000 or so spectators who were allegedly there were less than pleased with the performance and did not hesitate to express their disapproval.
The boos kept echoing off the Arena walls, but the Jets kept sinking into the melting white quicksand we were all watching so intently. They couldn’t even score a goal against one of the NHL’s worst teams. In the understatement of the decade, the 2-0 defeat was, well, disappointing.
Where the Jets were concerned, however, my level of optimism knew no bounds. To that end, I understand the feelings of so many of those prospective Chipman Jets fans around Winnipeg today. They wonder why I’m not on the bandwagon and why I don’t have the same blind allegiance to Mark Chipman the way you do. It took me a while, but I figured it out. They will too.
Back to the topic at hand, I figured that the Whalers game was an off night, and I was supremely confident that they would rebound against the Devils. Tom Watt and/or John Ferguson would read them the Riot Act, and even if they didn’t, it was just the Devils, a team the junior Warriors might have been able to beat.
Those Devils bore no resemblance to the well-run organization they’ve been since Lou Lamoriello’s arrival in the Meadowlands many years ago. At the time, it had been one of pro hockey’s worst-run franchises during its time in Denver and Kansas City and life for the recently-relocated Devils would be no better in their first few seasons in New Jersey. Wayne Gretzky would later call them a “Mickey Mouse organization”. He took a lot of heat for the remark, but he was right.
While the Jets were slogging through the 2-0 defeat against the Whalers, the Devils were in Edmonton having their rear ends handed to them by the tune of 10-4 at the Northlands Coliseum. Anything that the evil Edmonton Oilers could do, the Jets could do better. Victory was assured.
Come Sunday, the Jets weren’t any better than they were on Friday night, but they still entered the third period with a 2-1 lead. Unlike Friday night, they actually scored a goal. Two, in fact.
Then the roof caved in.
Don Lever scored 22 seconds into the third period, then, later in the period, Hector Marini was left alone in front of Doug Soetaert and he banked a weak shot off Dave Babych, or “Stupid Babych” as I was so fond of calling him, into the net for what would prove to be the winning goal.
Devils 3, Jets 2.
I can still smell the stench from that pair of stinkers to this day.
The Stanley Cup parade would have to wait.