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WHA Jets inspired NHL Oilers: Gretzky

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Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky speaks at the MTS Centre on Tuesday. He said he hopes Quebec City gets an NHL team.

ROBERT LOWDON PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY OF THE WINNIPEG CHAMBER OF COMMERCE Enlarge Image

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky speaks at the MTS Centre on Tuesday. He said he hopes Quebec City gets an NHL team.

When Winnipeggers were watching a WHA dynasty unfold in the mid-1970s, little did they know it was sowing the seeds of hockey heartbreak for years to come.

Glen Sather, a journeyman forward for the Edmonton Oilers in 1976-77, witnessed first-hand the skill, speed and free-wheeling style of the many Swedes and Finns -- along with Bobby Hull -- that formed the core of those Jets teams and had no problem swiping the blueprint once he took over behind the Oilers' bench.

"The Jets that Bobby Hull had a huge influence on, with Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and (later) Kent Nilsson, really brought in a new dynamic to the sport," Wayne Gretzky told a luncheon crowd Tuesday at the MTS Centre.

"I think (Sather) idolized them, because he couldn't play that way... He wouldn't have fit in as a player, but he loved that style.

"When he brought me to Edmonton (in 1978), that was the first thing he said to all of his people and the scouts. 'We're going to build a team that they built in the '70s in Winnipeg, and that's how we're going to play.' "

Arguably hockey's greatest-ever player said the influence of Hull, Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson -- collectively, the Hot Line -- changed the game in a way few players in history have. He cited Jean Béliveau, "a big, gentle giant" who played with finesse, Bobby Orr's unprecedented offensive flair as a defenceman and the 1972 Soviet team, which pushed Team Canada to the absolute limit in the Summit Series, as the others on that rarified ice.

After compiling a lineup featuring several future Hall of Fame players but getting swept by the Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup final, Sather preached a little defensive responsibility and the Oilers rattled off four championships in five years.

"Without question, that Winnipeg Jet team had a huge influence on Glen and he passed that on to the (Oilers)," Gretzky said.

No team dominated the NHL Jets like the Oilers in the 1980s -- Edmonton knocked Winnipeg out of the playoffs five times during the decade and again in 1990.

The last time the Jets had postseason success against the Oilers was in the last year of the WHA when they clinched their third Avco Cup title. When told he was in Winnipeg 35 years earlier on May 20, Gretzky asked, "I was?" before quickly saying, "We lost Game 6, 7-3. Dave Semenko scored the last goal in WHA history. I think he has the puck."

Gretzky also weighed in on the future of today's NHL and possible expansion or relocation opportunities.

"You can never have enough teams in Canada. It's our life. No other country appreciates it as much as we do. Hopefully, we'll get a team in Quebec City. That would be wonderful," he said.

The Gretzky event was co-produced by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and TD Bank.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2014 B2

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