— excerpted from Back in the Bigs: How Winnipeg won, lost and regained its place in the NHL, available in local bookstores Oct. 3.
IT could be this simple -- that hockey hated Tom McVie.
Perhaps, somehow in the past, or in another life, the diminutive scamp who escaped the mining smelters in Trail, B.C. and served for a time as coach of the Winnipeg Jets, had wronged the game’s gods.
Maybe it was somewhere along his 17-year minor-league odyssey that included stints with such wild west outfits as the Toledo Mercurys, Seattle Totems and Portland Buckaroos.
How else could one explain the utter lack of fortune for a head coach who managed to survive the travails of the 1975-76 Washington Capitals, a collection of post-expansion misfits coming off a soul-crushing 8-67-5 debut season? It was McVie’s sorry predecessor with the Capitals, Jim Anderson, who once sighed, "I’d rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out." The Caps lost 67 games. Then Anderson got canned.
McVie arrived in Washington midway through the excruciating 1975-76 season as the Caps were in the midst of losing 25 straight en route to an ignominious 11-59-10 campaign. Players were smoking in the team dressing room. One had gained 17 pounds since training camp.
Some nights were better than others. McVie recalls taking his poor Caps into the Montreal Forum. Before the opening faceoff, he cast a glance over the Canadiens lineup card and muttered to himself, "Are you kidding me? Not one of my players could make their roster."
Eventually, McVie would be put out of his misery in the U.S. capital, where his punishment ended with his dismissal midway through the 1978-79 season.
But that didn’t make the gruff, gregarious coach any happier.
"I was five months without a job," McVie said, in a rich baritone voice that sounds like Rodney Dangerfield and Henry Kissinger had a baby. "It was making me crazy. I had nothing to do. I was standing on my doorstep yelling at the mailman. But Fergie saved me."
Well, sort of.
The Winnipeg Jets hired John Ferguson in November 1978, only four months after Ferguson, then the general manager of the Rangers, had spirited Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to New York.
The Rangers fired Ferguson in the summer — while he was in Winnipeg attending a farewell dinner for Hedberg and Nilsson, no less. Which is another thing: Ferguson was flabbergasted that Winnipeggers would actually hold a dinner for the Swedes who were leaving their team. For more money yet. "What are they, a couple of saints?" Fergie bellowed.
Yet even as Ferguson was luring the beloved Swedes out from under the Jets’ noses, Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty was openly courting the charismatic, ham-fisted former Canadiens enforcer, who was just as intimidating in a tailored suit. Gobuty wanted a place at the NHL table, and he believed Ferguson’s pedigree with the Canadiens and Rangers would give the country-mouse Jets some needed gravitas. Gobuty constantly needled the tough guy about coming to Winnipeg to "freeze his ass off."
"When we started to try to get into the NHL, the merger, we needed some credibility, so we went after Fergie," Gobuty said. "I spoke to him once a week, and he would laugh and joke."
Both men shared a love of the ponies, so there was always something to talk about. When the Rangers unceremoniously dumped Ferguson, Gobuty pounced.
Ferguson succeeded Rudy Pilous in November and inherited a WHA Jets team, the final edition, that had been bolstered by the addition of former Houston Aeros stars Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell and Rich Preston. The Swedes were gone, and Bobby Hull had announced his first retirement at almost the exact time Ferguson darkened the Jets’ door.
Almost three-quarters of the way through the season, Ferguson concluded that the Jets, the defending Avco Cup champions, needed an adrenaline shot. That came in the human form of McVie, an unconventional fitness freak with boundless energy and a bottomless pit of enthusiasm. To this day, at age 76, McVie is quick to confess, "People think I’m on something. When my feet hit the floor, I’m running."
So it looked as though McVie’s listing ship had finally come in, what with the Jets finding their groove in a 1979 playoff run that ended with a championship victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Next thing you know, the once-downtrodden head coach of the sad-sack Washington Capitals was driving in an open convertible down Portage Avenue waving to the throngs of giddy Winnipeg Jets fans celebrating their third Avco Cup parade in four years.
"The whole city turned out," is how McVie remembers the occasion.
My, what heady days. The Jets were champions, again. They were destined, finally, for their rightful place in the venerable NHL. The big leagues, at last. And Tom McVie was along for the ride in an open convertible.
It was too good to be true — no, really, it was too good to be true.
The NHL might have charged the Jets a $5-million registration fee, but the newbies hadn’t even begun to start paying the price of admission. In what might be the worst Welcome Wagon display in professional sports history, the merging WHA teams — Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford — were allowed to protect just two roster players from a scavenger draft by existing NHL teams.
Reasoned St. Louis GM Emile "The Cat" Francis: "How can I justify it to our fans if I allow a new team into the league that’s already better than we are?"
Ferguson chose to protect the offensively gifted Lukowich, who led the Jets with 65 goals in the last WHA season, and Campbell, a promising stay-at-home defenceman the GM believed had the makings of a young Larry Robinson.
The Jets were fleeced of 10 players, including their leading scorer, Swedish sniper Kent Nilsson, along with veterans Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston.
Then it got worse. Chronic asthma, compounded by Winnipeg’s bitterly cold winters, limited Campbell’s brief tenure with the Jets to two seasons and 14 games, effectively ending his NHL career.
With a decimated roster, Ferguson then used the Jets’ first-ever NHL draft pick, 19th overall in the summer of 1979, to select a heavy-fisted forward from Montreal named Jimmy Mann, who in five seasons would score nine goals.
And so it was that the Winnipeg Jets took their first tentative steps into the National Hockey League.
Of course, McVie had seen this horror movie before, and he tried screaming in the theatre before the curtain rose on the 1979-80 season.
"Let me tell you a story," he began. "They had some kind of jamboree or something (in Winnipeg). We’d just won the (Avco Cup) championship. And the fans were chanting ‘N-H-L, N-H-L!’ I said, ‘You’ve got to understand, they’re going to take all our players.’ And they said, ‘We don’t care! We don’t care!’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. The prices of tickets are probably going to triple.’ And they said, ‘We don’t care! We don’t care!’ And I said, ‘It’s going to be a long time before we can win games and get in the playoffs.’ And they were still saying, ‘We don’t care! We don’t care!’
"Well, after about five games, they were throwing stuff. They were pissed off. They sure cared after that."
It wasn’t pretty. The Jets won just 20 games in their inaugural NHL campaign. Yet out of all the lopsided losses, there was born perhaps the most humorous anecdote in franchise history.
Or as Tommy McVie calls it, "the most amazing night in hockey." The entire city was in a tizzy Dec. 15, 1979, when the Montreal Canadiens made their first visit to the Winnipeg Arena.
It was to be the first time a Jets contest would be broadcast coast to coast on Hockey Night in Canada. To mark the occasion, it was dubbed Tuxedo Night, and all the Jets staff were decked out in tuxedos, including McVie. And Ferguson. And the Zamboni driver.
The cherry on top, of course, was Bobby Hull, who had been talked out of retirement and back into a Jets jersey for the glitzy occasion. Hull was in the waning days of his career, beset by injuries, and would play just 18 games for the Jets his final season in Winnipeg. The days of Hedberg, Nilsson and the Golden Jet were a wistful memory, and early in the 1979-80 season, Hull was once paired on a line with Mann, the lumbering rookie.
Scribbled the Free Press’s Reyn Davis: "It was like watching Benny Goodman try to play cornet with the Bee Gees."
Still, one last fling was in order. For posterity’s sake.
Turns out, however, since HNIC was airing the game, it started 30 minutes earlier than usual. The opening faceoff was 7 p.m.
Someone should have told Hull, who arrived late. So McVie, the no-nonsense bench boss, advised Hull that he couldn’t dress. Those were the rules. No exceptions, not even for the Golden Jet.
"I couldn’t pull a young kid out of the lineup who wanted to play the Montreal Canadiens all his life," McVie reasoned. "That’s the only decision I could make."
Hull protested, but eventually stormed out a side door of the arena.
McVie knew full well what was going to happen next. Fergie was coming.
McVie and Ferguson were lifelong friends, having first met as teenagers in the rough-and-tumble East Side of Vancouver in the late 1950s. They were hockey brothers. As McVie noted, "It didn’t matter how much we disagreed, because John Ferguson loved me and I loved him. It’s way deeper than friendship, way deeper than that."
But there was no love to be found at the old arena on Tuxedo Night 1979.
"So down he (Ferguson) comes into my office," McVie continued. "And he says to me casually, ‘Where’s Hull?’"
"He came in late," the head coach replied, matter-of-factly, "so I told him he couldn’t play."
Ferguson was getting serious now. ‘Quit screwing around, Tommy. Where is he?’
McVie tried again. "I told you, he went out the side door."
Ferguson was getting red now, balling his big fists. "Do you know this game is going right across Canada?" the GM screamed.
"I don’t give a f**k if it’s going around the world," McVie protested. "He came in late. The team was going out on the ice."
Naturally, Ferguson, whose outbursts were the stuff of legend, lost it completely, putting the first of what would be countless holes in walls or doors of the Winnipeg Arena with his foot.
"And he’s jumping around yelling, and his face is, well, it was a scary thing," McVie said.
Before leaving McVie’s office, Ferguson bellowed, "I’m going to ask you one more thing and then you’re on your own."
"What is it?" McVie asked.
"Do you know he (Hull) is one of the owners of this team?" Demurred the coach: "Holy shit, I didn’t know that!"
But the day was saved: The Jets with their humble lineup would prevail over the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens 6-2 that night. Outshoot them 48-18, in fact.
After the game, Ferguson was elated. Cigar in hand, he turned to McVie with a priceless grin. "When we were growing up," he told his coach, "I knew you had big balls. But I didn’t think you brought them to the rink in a wheelbarrow."
It might have been the last time that year Tom McVie, as head coach of the moribund Jets, would have reason to smile. In the team’s sophomore year in the NHL, the Jets embarked on the worst season in franchise history. They won just nine games. From late fall of 1980 to the deep of winter in 1981 — two months and four days — those poor Jets went a record 30 consecutive games without a win.
Barry Long had been plucked from the Jets roster by the Detroit Red Wings in the WHA dispersal draft, only to return to Winnipeg for the unfortunate 1980-81 season.
"We tried so hard," the defenceman insisted. "And if we got a win, it was almost like the end of the playoffs. It was such a reward. We knew we were going to get beaten upon, but we didn’t give an inch. People in Winnipeg were good. They knew what we were going through. It was tough, but it wasn’t impossible."
McVie would put a brave face on for the cameras in post-game interviews then, in the words of Ferguson, "he’d go back to his office and die." Long remembered nights when the head coach slept in his office at the arena.
"It almost ruined him," Long said.
So Ferguson saved his childhood friend for the second time. He fired him, 25 games into the 30-game winless streak.
The previous summer, with second pick in the 1980 entry draft, the Jets had taken a mountainous defenceman named Dave Babych out of the Portland Winter Hawks. When Babych was first introduced to McVie and Ferguson at the Viscount Gort Hotel, he confessed he was nervous about making the 1980-81 team.
"Don’t worry, kid," McVie reassured Babych. "If you don’t make it, we’re all going to be fired."
Babych was just thrilled to wear the Jets uniform, and on nights against the Montreal Canadiens during his rookie season, he would be in awe. "You’re wondering, what am I doing here playing against these guys?" he said.
And maybe, as the losses mounted there were times Babych asked himself that same question, whoever the opposition was.
"You knew there were going to be growing pains, but... it was almost to the point where it was contagious," he recalled. "That’s tough. Once it starts going that way, especially in pro sports, it can be hard to get it going the other way."
Without question, the hapless streak was the nadir of the Winnipeg Jets franchise. What kept them going?
According to Long, it was the trust that the suffering would not be in vain, that Ferguson, the organization’s undisputed leader, would build the team up from ground zero. That’s the confidence that Ferguson inspired throughout his decade at the Jets’ helm.
"The first day he strode in there (November 1978) with that big nose and bigger mitts, there was that stare in his eyes like, ‘We’re here to win, boys’," said Long. "The fire and desire to win, we all had it as players, but he demanded it as a general manager. And there were going to be no shortcuts."
Ferguson’s commandments: Everything has to be first-class. NEVER speak ill of the team in public. Community first. And don’t trade draft picks.
"He (Ferguson) was very, very loyal," added Dave Ellett, a Jets defenceman (1984-91) during the team’s most successful seasons. "He was a very intimidating person, and people were probably initially fearful of him. But when you got to know him, he was one of the best people I’ve ever come across.
"He was so loyal and protective of his employees, whether it was people upstairs or players. And when you got there (to Winnipeg), you could just feel that if you worked hard for Fergie, he would do anything in his power to protect you. I think, when I was there, that was the reason half our team lived in Winnipeg year-round. He created a real family atmosphere."
Ferguson began to build. After misfiring with Mann in the first round of the 1979 draft, the GM selected Team USA Olympian Dave Christian in the second round, Swedish centreman Thomas Steen in the fifth and American college defenceman Tim Watters in the sixth. In 1980, after getting Babych second overall, the Jets took defenceman Moe Mantha (second round) and speedy winger Brian Mullen (seventh round).
That was Fergie’s way, a modern-day hybrid of his mentor, legendary Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock.
"He was one of the first pioneers of using his late picks to find prospects in Europe and U.S. colleges," noted John Ferguson Jr., who was raised in Winnipeg, attending St. Paul’s High School, before serving as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2003 to 2008.
Ferguson signed undrafted free agent Doug Smail out of the University of North Dakota in 1980. He traded for a plodding forward named Paul MacLean, a former Canadian Olympian, in the summer of 1981 — while at the same time plucking his old Habs teammate Serge Savard off the waiver wire.
In 1982, Ferguson used the Jets’ 75th pick overall to grab the unheralded Dave Ellett out of Bowling Green State University, then signed undrafted netminder Brian Hayward, a product of Cornell, and traded for forward Lucien DeBlois, a future Jets captain.
Late in the 1983 season, Ferguson acquired former first-round pick Laurie Boschman, a centreman, from the Edmonton Oilers, then in an uncharacteristic move surrendered a first-round pick for wily Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Randy Carlyle, who over the next decade would never play for another NHL team.
The defining moment of the franchise’s early years, however, came at the 1981 draft, in the wake of that season from hell that almost killed Tom McVie. It was that hope for a better future that kept players such as Barry Long going through the dark forest of losses.
The Jets held the No. 1 pick, and Ferguson was being inundated with tempting trade offers. His choice was between a quick-fix trade and a prodigy from the Memorial Cup champion Cornwall Royals who was being touted as the next Wayne Gretzky. The kid was both shy and cocky. His game was both unorthodox and exquisite.
On the eve of the draft, held June 10, 1981 at the Montreal Forum, the Jets’ brain trust met with the 18-year-old phenom, who looked big, bad John Ferguson straight in the eye.
"Pick me," said Dale Hawerchuk.
Back in the Bigs, How Winnipeg won, lost and regained its place in the NHL, will be in local bookstores Oct. 3.