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Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg leads a parade down Portage Avenue on May 5, 1976, after the team won its first Avco Cup.

Anders Hedberg holds Jets second Avco Cup trophy.

He was revered by his photographers, respected for his low-key bravery during a long cancer battle and not above some competitive mischief in his day.

Longtime Winnipeg Free Press photo editor Jon Thordarson died Saturday at the age of 59.

"Not many people know that five years ago, Jon's doctors told him he had three months to live. Good thing he didn't listen. He fought for each and every day, and did it without complaining," said Free Press humour columnist Doug Speirs, a very close friend. "Whenever I started whining too much, he'd look at me and say, 'You're not made of sugar!' "

Thordarson began his newspaper career as a copyboy at the Winnipeg Tribune in the early 1970s, quickly becoming one of that paper's photojournalists..

He took many of the iconic photos of the Winnipeg Jets, then with the World Hockey Association.

In the late 1970s, when the Jets won the Avco Cup, Thordarson snapped THE photo of famous hockey duo Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg hoisting the trophy over their heads in victory. Then, he plucked the cup out of their hands so no other media could replicate the shot.

"Photographers can be divided up into shooters and thinkers, the shooter being instinctive, aware, deciding instantaneously, and the thinker being deliberate and planning," said photographer Ken Gigliotti. "Most are one or the other. The great ones are both. Jon was both."

When the Tribune folded in 1980, Thordarson worked briefly at the Hamilton Spectator before the Winnipeg Sun offered him a job.

The Free Press poached Thordarson from the Sun in 1989, making him photo editor.

Thordarson was known for nurturing local talent and offering breaks to Winnipeg shooters vying with hundreds of others across Canada for a rare staff job. He coached some of the country's best photographers.

During his nearly 40 years in newspapers, Thordarson also navigated tremendous technical changes -- from the days of rolling film and developing it on metal reels in a darkroom to the modern digital era.

"That's a lot of stuff to have on your shoulders," said photographer Joe Bryksa. "Jon always grasped the technology. Never was he scared of that."

Thordarson was known for always pushing to get the best picture published and supporting his photographers, but he also never let them get away with saying they couldn't make a picture work.

"He used to call us all the time and he had this phrase -- 'I've got a page oner for you,' " laughed Bryksa. "We'd just cringe because it was always a terrible assignment."

Friends say he adored his two old Labrador dogs and was obsessed with cycling -- he competed in a mountain bike race to Lake Winnipeg two summers ago with only one lung. And, any event remotely related to Thordarson's beloved Iceland always earned a photo assignment.

And he was a prankster, especially in his early days at the Trib. Pat Flynn, who started his career with Thordarson at the Tribune, was once awakened on a Saturday morning by a gaggle of people on his front lawn wanting to buy a fictional black Camero on sale for cheap. Thordarson had put a fake ad in the classifieds section, to get revenge on Flynn for sending him out to a fake four-alarm fire at 4 a.m.

"I'd look out the back door and people would be standing around looking for the car," said Flynn. "All weekend."

Thordarson leaves behind his wife Janice and his five children -- Erik, Lara, Elin, Karl and Kryn.

Plans for a celebration of Thordarson's life are underway.

Words of tribute

Jon was a man of great honour and integrity. He was generous to a fault; kind, stubborn, smart and above all, much loved. He will be sorely missed.
-- Margo Goodhand, Winnipeg Free Press editor

Knowingly or not, he taught me about more than just photography in the newspaper business. Through conversations ranging from his love for cycling to stepping in dog poop in the middle of the night, he taught me how to balance work and personal life and keep a sense of humour through it all.
-- Mike Aporius, Free Press photographer

He was a great guy to go on an assignment with, always aware of what was going on around him. He'd pick up on stuff you might have missed.
-- Pat Flynn, former Free Press deputy editor and longtime friend

I greatly admired him. There was a quality about him that made him a good friend. He was honest and earnest and you knew when you spoke to him that he understood you.
-- Atli Asmundsson, Consul General for Iceland and longtime friend

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2010 A4

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