On the brink

Jets of the 1980s always fell short of clinching Stanley Cup


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Watching National Hockey League games without your own team is like eating a chocolate bar with the wrapper on: it’s still the real thing, but a lot less satisfying.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/04/2021 (535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Watching National Hockey League games without your own team is like eating a chocolate bar with the wrapper on: it’s still the real thing, but a lot less satisfying.

Winnipeg knows both jubilation and heartbreak in the emotional merry-go-round of acquiring an NHL team, losing it, then getting it again. So does author and superfan Geoff Kirbyson.

Jets hockey, as Winnipegger Kirbyson well knows, is a whirlwind, hazardous, super-speed dogfight as quick as ping pong. And his book Broken Ribs and Popcorn should engage diehard Jets fans just as rapidly.

Jim Wiley / Winnipeg Free Press files On Aug. 13, 1981, Dale Hawerchuk signed with the Winnipeg Jets at Portage and Main.

Kirbyson’s well-told tale is of the birth of the NHL Jets of long ago and how, in the 1980s, they became the best team in the league to not win the Stanley Cup. It gently returns us to a colourful era in an old arena at Polo Park where, says Kirbyson, the nosebleed seats were $12 for the playoffs and, given the number of examples he provides, the ice was both boxing ring and hockey rink.

Kirbyson is a journalist who, among other things, spent more than 20 years with the Free Press. This is his second Jets book.

The title refers to two fateful on-ice incidents in the 1980s that were heart-stopping for the Jets, and probably incited some frustrated fans to swap their lucky charms for prayer books.

One event involved their baby-faced superstar Dale Hawerchuk, the other a notorious unidentified fan and his flying confection. Both are fully explained by Kirbyson, and are well worth the read.

The Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association became the Jets of the NHL in 1979. The NHL gutted the team of its best players when they joined the league so the Jets had to start rebuilding. This is where Kirbyson’s story begins.

Broken Ribs and Popcorn is the saga of a hook-nosed and irascible powerhouse general manager named John Ferguson. It’s also the story of the fans who, when losing streaks mounted, wore paper bags over their heads at the games.

It describes all kinds of minutiae superfans devour — practical jokes, hijinks away from the rink, inside turmoil, speculation, gossip — and accusations that their civic landlord at the Winnipeg Arena was perennially unhelpful, cheap and heartless.

Winnipeg Enterprises took all the revenue generated by its arena — concessions, parking, etc. They insisted that if the Jets wanted arena upgrades, they should pay for them, while demanding that if such improvements generated new revenue, it would go not to the Jets but Winnipeg Enterprises. (They ran the place for the city.) Jets president Barry Shenkarow said working with them was impossible.

The Jets’ first NHL coach, Tom McVie, was not only witness to a bench-clearing brawl between the (now-defunct) Atlanta Flames and Winnipeg, but tried to participate in it. He removed his jacket, tie and front teeth and tried to climb up the 12-foot-high glass that separated him from Atlanta coach Al MacNeil so, presumably, he could take him on. He failed.

Atlanta won 8-0, and the teams were assessed 128 minutes in penalties. McVie (who penned the foreword for Broken Ribs and Popcorn), meanwhile, was escorted out by a ref.

Winnipeg Free Press files In this 1980 photo, Winnipeg Jets coach Tom McVie (left) and general manager John Ferguson watch the Colorado Rockies with a critical eye from the stands of the Winnipeg Arena.

In another incident, McVie was trying to barge into the penalty box to get at Minnesota North Stars’ Brad Maxwell and was ejected from the game.

Serge Savard, the tough Canadiens defenceman who was scooped up by the Jets as a player just as he was about to retire in 1981, later said Hawerchuk, who died in 2020, “was the best thing after Gretzky” that ever put on skates. Like the great Bobby Hull with the WHA Jets nine years earlier, Hawerchuk was signed up at Portage and Main.

Kirbyson explains the origin of the “White Out” branding campaign was the result of a passing remark made in a brainstorming session: “I couldn’t see the front of my car in a Manitoba whiteout,” someone said. The meeting went silent, and a legend was born.

Some players used to smoke between periods in the dressing room, a player who dated Ferguson’s daughter was told by Fergie when he found out about it that if he dated her again he’d be playing hockey in Afghanistan.

A rumour, says Kirbyson, was that Savard got the snowplow operator clearing the Winnipeg Enterprises parking lot to bury player Morris Lukowich’s car. It disappeared under the snow.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files In this 1987 photo, Dale Hawerchuk takes a shot past Jamie MacCoun of the Calgary Flames in a playoff game. The Jets often ran up against red-hot Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames teams in their efforts to win the Stanley Cup.

Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames remembers the gigantic portrait of Queen Elizabeth that hung in the Winnipeg Arena. He would tell U.S. rookies she was the lady who started Winnipeg or, sometimes, that she was the owner of the Winnipeg Jets.

“We were the best team of the 1980s that never won a Stanley Cup. I think we were on the edge three times. To build a Stanley Cup contender that’s that close on the lowest budget in the NHL, that’s a tribute to the management of that era,” says Jet Doug Smail in Broken Ribs and Popcorn.

With mounting financial troubles, the Jets moved to Arizona in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2011 the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, and the Jets were reborn.

Today we get to see Jets captain Blake Wheeler’s passes as emphatic as Picasso’s brush strokes, Nikolaj Ehlers’ up-ice assaults like the frenetic dance of a runaway propeller, Adam Lowry hovering like a bird of prey, a rookie defender, Logan Stanley, so big the blind would think they are talking to a high rise, and a coach named Paul Maurice whose fluency could sell socialism to Brain Pallister.

Today’s Winnipeg Jets have a yesterday, and this is an easy-read recollection of it.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files In this 1981 photo, Winnipeg right winger Paul MacLean (left) is held back by a referee after a fight during a game with the Colorado Rockies at the Winnipeg Arena.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist.


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