Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The big 4-0

Winnipeg, current team owe much to original Jets of 1972

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‘MCDONALD has scored for Winnipeg!"

The call signalling the first-ever goal for the inaugural version of the Winnipeg Jets in 1972 will never be confused with Paul Henderson's famous marker just a couple of weeks earlier.

Defeating the powerful Soviets in the Summit Series has gone down in hockey lore as one of this country's greatest sporting accomplishments, despite the fact that most of the team -- and country, for that matter -- thought the eight-game series would be a cakewalk for Phil Esposito and the rest of Team Canada.

But in Winnipeg, Ab McDonald's goal against the New York Raiders on Oct. 12 in Madison Square Garden signalled the beginning of a emotional roller-coaster ride that took local fans to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and back again.

Without Ben Hatskin, the owner who wouldn't take "no" for an answer, Bobby Hull, the superstar he signed away from the Chicago Blackhawks, and the rest of the 1972 Jets, it's hard to imagine Winnipeggers standing around watercoolers discussing Mark Chipman, Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane.

Joe Daley, the only Jet to play all seven seasons in the WHA, said he first entertained thoughts of jumping to the rebel league while playing for the Detroit Red Wings in 1971-72.

"I had struggled with management in Detroit in the second half of the year. We had discussions amongst ourselves about the possibility of some league opening up, but we didn't have a lot of information. Once I was contacted by Winnipeg and asked if I would be interested in coming home to play, I didn't think twice. This was a great opportunity for me to do something that I didn't think I'd be able to do in my lifetime, which was play professional hockey in my hometown," he said.

Daley's leap of faith is even more remarkable when you consider he signed before Hull, the league's marquee name and face.

"When Bobby signed, that was my insurance policy. I'd signed a three-year deal, so I thought there was a good chance we'd get through those three years," he said.

"I came in fully confident we were going to get (the league) off the ground. The more guys that signed, the more I thought this wasn't something that somebody had written down on the back of a napkin, although that is how it got started."

The other big name on the team was Ab McDonald, who won four Stanley Cups in the late 1950s and early '60s with the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks and was named the Jets first captain. Born and bred in Winnipeg, the Jets represented a chance to come home and extend his playing days for another couple of years.

"It was great for me. I was 36 years old and it was the end of my career. I probably would have said that was it (if the Jets hadn't come along)," he said.

The original Jets are well aware of their significance in Winnipeg's hockey history. Without them, the chances of Winnipeg gaining entry into the NHL in 1979 and then re-entry in 2012 would have been slim at best.

The one thing that hasn't changed over the years, the first captain said, is Winnipeg's status as a hockey town.

"If it wasn't for the guys coming here in '72, they might not have built the MTS Centre or they might have started something different," he said. "It's about having pro hockey in Winnipeg. We're a hockey town. We should have pro hockey here. Look how (Jets fans) are supporting (the new team)."

Dunc Rousseau, a left-winger who scored 16 goals in that inaugural campaign, said it's nice that the trailblazers are being remembered, although it may be a little overdue.

"Here are the guys that took a pretty giant leap in their careers back in 1972 and they haven't really been recognized for it. It's so long ago, but it's still part of what has come about (with the return of the NHL to Winnipeg)," he said.

Aside from Hull, however, that first Jets team didn't have any superstars. For the most part, the supporting cast was made up of journeymen, minor leaguers and past-their-prime players looking for one last paycheque before starting real life.

Duke Asmundson, who spent the previous five seasons in the IHL, saw the WHA as a step up from where he'd been and an opportunity to see how he matched up with some of the best -- not to mention toughest -- in the game.

"It was an advancement chance. It worked out for a few years. Bobby coming gave Winnipeg instant credibility and I always had a lot of respect for Ab. He played the game when there were only six teams (in the NHL)."

There was also the not insignificant matter of earning a larger paycheque. Asmundson's first contract with the Jets paid him a whopping sum of $18,000 annually. It was supplemented by a $10,000 bonus when the Jets made it to the first AVCO Cup final, losing to the New England Whalers.

"The pay was better playing hockey than working for a living. In the minors, you made half of that, maybe even a little less," he said.

The billion-dollar game that has evolved in the intervening years is enough to make Asmundson's head spin.

"I went to the Jets' opening game against Montreal last year. When I see $200 per ticket, with all due respect to the players and owners, it's a little ridiculous. When I played in the WHA, if you were benched, the fan sitting next to you (in the front row next to the end of the bench) was paying $25 per game," he said.

Darren Ford, who oversaw the jetsowner.com website for years to keep alive the fans' dream of the NHL returning to Winnipeg after the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, feels Winnipeggers owe a debt of gratitude to the original Jets squad. He singled out Hatskin for his all-important role.

"He was the visionary. I've always felt he's a forgotten hero in the city. Guys with those kinds of guts don't exist very often. The first millionaire athlete came from Winnipeg, which nobody would have ever suspected," he said, referring to Hull's groundbreaking contract.

"We don't get into the NHL without that WHA team. We may have had a team in the WHA with a different owner, but we wouldn't have gained the notoriety that we did with the team (Hatskin) put together."

And without that inaugural group, there wouldn't have been the powerhouses -- featuring Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Kent Nilsson, Morris Lukowich and Willy Lindstrom -- that followed, winning three AVCO cups in the league's final four years.

"(Former Edmonton Oilers' general manager) Glen Sather has said many times that he fashioned the mid-'80s Oilers after the Jets. Maybe that team wouldn't have occurred without the Jets," Ford said.

The members of that first squad aren't planning any formal get-togethers to commemorate their home opener. McDonald said he runs into Asmundson and Rousseau from time to time.

"I see Joe (Daley) once a month because I go down into that area (near Polo Park Shopping Centre, where Daley has a memorabilia shop) and get a haircut," he said.

But there's no question that those first Jets were close. How could you not be when you got dressed in some dressing rooms that were so cramped you bumped heads with another player if you both bent down to tie up your skates at the same time?

In other rinks, mesh wire took the place of Plexiglas, so it wasn't uncommon for a Jet to go into the corner looking for the puck and leave with a face full of beer.

The common comeback was "that's not my brand," Rousseau said.

The team's coaches were pretty lax with curfews and it wasn't uncommon for singalongs to break out on the road or at a player's home after games.

"I think it was (centre) Garth Rizzuto who brought out a guitar. He was quite a character. There's a picture of him standing on his head one game while the national anthem is being played," Rousseau said.

"I wasn't a very good singer but some of the guys probably thought they were. It probably depended on how many beers they had."

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 C9

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