On October 16 at 2 p.m. Geoff Kirbyson launches The Hot Line: How the Legendary Trio of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson Transformed Hockey and Led the Winnipeg Jets to Greatness at McNally Robinson. This free event will feature Geoff sharing his insight into how this book came to be, a reading from its pages and special guests.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2016 (1826 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Anders Hedberg glided into position and sized up his opponent just prior to the opening faceoff.
Across from his right-wing spot on Jan. 5, 1978, was Valeri Kharlamov, legendary left-winger for the Soviet national team and arguably the best player in the world at the time. At centre was Vladimir Petrov and beside him was right-winger Boris Mikhailov. Rounding out the Soviet starters on defence were Alexander Gusev and Valeri Vasiliev.
Together, they formed what was widely considered to be the best five-man unit in hockey. Behind the quintet was Alexander Sidelnikov, the backup to all-world goalie Vladislav Tretiak, but still the second-best net minder in the Soviet system.
Along with the rest of their teammates, most of whom played for the Central Red Army squad back home, the Russians had so utterly dominated international hockey over the past decade-and-a-half most of their games were like men playing boys. You know, like peewees. Gold medals from the 1972 and 1976 Olympics had been placed around their necks, along with another seven from the World Championships during the 1970s. They were, quite simply, the best. Ultimately, they would rank among the greatest in the history of the game.
None of that mattered to Hedberg, the 27-year-old Swede, that night at the Winnipeg Arena. "I thought we were going to win," he said. He was, to say the least, in a very distinct minority.
After playing three games against the same Soviet squad in Japan the previous week on the bigger international ice – losing all three by scores of 7-5, 4-2 and 5-1 – there were few, if any, indications, the result would be any different that bitterly cold evening in the Manitoba capital.
Sure, not everything was the same. This game was being played on a North American rink, which was 200 feet by 85 feet, instead of the larger international size of 200 feet by 100 feet, providing less space for the smooth-skating Soviets to curl into their vaunted five-man attack. Still, virtually all of the Soviets, especially Kharlamov, could stick handle in a phone booth, so how much did the size of the rink really matter?
Secondly, the Jets had the sellout crowd of 10,315 at the Winnipeg Arena behind them, and they were far more boisterous than the merely curious Japanese fans. Would that matter to the stone-faced Soviets, who seemed to enjoy obliterating their opponents with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for a trip to the dentist? In Siberia?
I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was — Bobby Hull
Once the puck was dropped, however, it was clear something was different this time. Hedberg and his fellow members of the Hot Line, centre Ulf Nilsson and left-winger, Bobby Hull, owned the puck. They weren’t intimidated by the Soviets, or if they were, they had a funny way of showing it.
Playing their unique blend of European and North American hockey, the trio weaved its way through the ice, hitting the head man and moving into open ice and leaving drop passes for the trailer.
It didn’t take long until they hit pay dirt. Hull, one of the most electrifying players in the history of hockey and without whom, the Jets and the World Hockey Association would almost certainly not exist, opened the scoring on the power play at 2:49 of the first period with a low slapshot that beat Sidelnikov. The assists went to the super rookie Kent Nilsson — no relation to Ulf — and fellow Swede and team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg. Hull doubled the lead before the period was halfway through on another power play, converting a pass from Lynn Powis.
Ulf Nilsson, who got the second assist on Hull’s second goal, never shot that much because he knew he’d get grief from his two wingers once they got back to the bench. He’d always joke that there were never enough pucks on the ice to keep them both satisfied. But he took two huge shots in the second period that bulged the twine behind Sidelnikov just 41 seconds apart.
Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov had seen enough and tapped Tretiak, the greatest goaltender to ever come from the Soviet Union or Russia — or anywhere else, in some people’s minds — to replace Sidelnikov with 13:03 left in the second. And the comeback was on.
Boris Alexandrov, described by Reyn Davis of the Winnipeg Free Press as a "brilliant hotdog," pulled the Soviets back to 4-2 with a pair of goals that beat Winnipeg goalie Joe Daley before the end of the second. Less than three minutes into the final frame, hard-shooting defenceman Vasily Pervukhin made it 4-3 and the party atmosphere that existed just an hour earlier had been replaced by a sense of dread. It was hard not to think it was only a matter of time until the Big Red Machine did the inevitable.
Kharlamov very nearly tied it with less than three minutes to go in regulation as he had Daley sprawled on the ice, but defenceman Barry Long stepped in behind Daley and made the save, preserving the one-goal lead.
Perhaps a sign of his overconfidence or arrogance — or both — Tikhonov did not pull Tretiak in the game’s final moments. He did, however, send the Petrov unit over the boards. Jets coach Larry Hillman decided to fight fire with fire and countered with the Hot Line. The Soviets pressed, but in the dying seconds, the Jets knocked the puck out of their zone and defenceman Dave Dunn — a man who had a grand total of 72 assists in five professional seasons — stickhandled into the corner to Tretiak’s left before sending a backhand pass to Hull in the slot, who picked the far corner for the hat trick.
When the final horn sounded, the Jets had made history, becoming the first club team to ever defeat the mighty Soviet national squad.
Hull and Nilsson each finished with four points, while Hedberg picked up two assists.
"I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was," beamed the Golden Jet afterwards. He was quick to praise the work of the Jets defence, which was down to just four skaters — Sjoberg, Dunn, Long and Ted Green, all of whom stepped up after Kim Clackson and Thommie Bergman went down with injuries.
While the victory was the first against a team from the U.S.S.R. for most of the Jets, it was old hat — well, almost — for Sjoberg, the elder statesmen among the Swedes, who had now beaten the Soviet national team three times. "And that’s counting an exhibition before the Canada Cup (in 1976) when I don’t think the Russians had their best team together," said Sjoberg, longtime captain of the Swedish national team, who had two assists in the victory, after the game.
That Soviet team, it should be noted, was the best the U.S.S.R. and Tikhonov had to offer. The Red Army squad, which had toured North America during the 1975-76 season, playing against the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, was a half-step below the national team, which was able to bolster its lineup with select players from Moscow Dynamo and other teams in the Soviet league.
Ask Winnipeggers about that game and about 500,000 hockey fans will claim to have a ticket stub lying around in an old shoebox somewhere. The sad truth is one of the greatest games in hockey history was witnessed only by those in the building and the locals who tuned in to CKND-TV’s local broadcast that night. Hockey Night in Canada, the standard bearer of broadcasting excellence for the national game, decided against showing the Jets and the Soviet national team in favour of the sad-sack St. Louis Blues and the sixth-place team in the Russian league, Spartak. It’s safe to say shoeboxes in Missouri are not full of memorabilia from that game, a 3-1 victory by Spartak.
Dunn wasn’t surprised Hockey Night in Canada opted not to show the game across the country. "That’s the hangover of the WHA-NHL relationship. The CBC was in the NHL’s back pocket. They weren’t going to do anything to promote the other league," he said.
Fifty-three weeks earlier, HNIC broadcast what is widely considered to be the greatest game of all time, the 3-3 New Year’s Eve tie between the Canadiens and the Central Red Army.
In the opinion of many in the press box in Winnipeg just over a year later, a new standard was set that night. CKY-TV’s Peter Young, like virtually all of his media colleagues, thought the Jets would fall to the mighty Soviets that night, just as they had in Japan. But right from the opening whistle, the Jets started playing a very physical game, something the Soviets weren’t used to, and it worked.
"The forechecking became so fierce. The Soviets designed breakouts that had multiple rink-wide passes. The Jets disrupted that completely. Bobby, Ulf and Anders were dominant using that same style. They scored all five goals. It might have been Ulf’s best game ever as a Winnipeg Jet," Young said. "But it largely went unnoticed. It wasn’t a televised game. Unless you read about it in the paper the next day, you wouldn’t have known. If it had been on TV it would have been legendary. Tikhonov was beside himself, he didn’t know what to do. The Kharlamov line, those guys were Top 10 players in the world, they looked like confused little peewees."
Scott Oake, a fixture on HNIC for many years, worked for CBC Winnipeg back then. He believes the victory over the Soviets speaks to what the Jets could have done against some of the best NHL teams at the time. "It was a legendary game. It was definitely a measuring stick for the Jets but particularly the Hot Line. Back then, people would say ‘this is the best line in hockey’ and compare them to Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire (of the Montreal Canadiens)," he said.
But because the WHA didn’t have a national television contract, the Jets received just a tiny fraction of the exposure the Toronto Maple Leafs and Canadiens had. "(The Hot Line’s) tremendous accomplishments and brilliance weren’t out there for all to see. It’s almost folklore now, but I saw enough of them to know it’s true," he said.
Bob Irving, who was part of radio station CJOB’s broadcast team, thinks it’s a shame the game wasn’t seen by a wider audience. "It was unbelievable. I can still see that game in my mind’s eye and when Bobby scored his third goal the roof nearly came off the building. It was incredible. That was a long time ago but that’s a lasting memory for me. These were the powerhouse Russians and Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull had their way with them," he said.
Even before that game — well before, in fact — Irving believed the Hot Line was one of the best trios in the world. "It was magical what they had. They were gifted. You always had Bobby as the measuring stick. He was a great player in the NHL, maybe the best of all time, with apologies to Bobby Orr’s fans. Here he was now playing with these two guys and he wasn’t making them look good, they were making him look good. So, there was just no doubt this was a very special group of guys. The game against the Soviets was just a moment in time where you thought this was an unforgettable game and another proving point, ‘here’s how good they are.’ We got to watch them for 80 games every year and it was there for all to see. Unfortunately, not many people did," he said.
The Winnipeg Tribune’s Vic Grant didn’t get too caught up in the victory as he thought the Jets teams of the mid-to-late ‘70s were among the best in the world on any given night, anyway. "I would like to sit down with anybody who would dispute that. They had higher hurdles to jump over compared to the NHL teams. That Russian team was a marvellous hockey team with the players they had," he said. "Nobody in Winnipeg ever questioned whether the Jets were real or not. The only places that questioned it were the hotshot cities, Toronto and Vancouver. Locally, there was no question the Winnipeg Jets were one of the best hockey teams in the world."
According to longtime hockey writer Roy MacGregor, the Hot Line was the best trio in the game during its four-year run from 1974-75 to 1977-78. Not only that, they were breaking records, dazzling fans, and turning defencemen and goalies into pretzels during an era of unprecedented hockey thuggery. This was the heyday of the Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. The Broad Street Bullies, and NHL and WHA diluting lineups to the point where there simply weren’t enough skilled players to around. "The way Winnipeg was playing and winning AVCO Cups with that style of play, boy, were they up against the odds," MacGregor said.
Sure, the talent pool in the WHA was nowhere near as deep as the NHL, but do you think any coach with the slightest sense of self-preservation would put his plumbers out against the Hot Line with any regularity? Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson often played against the likes of WHA stars such as Mark Howe, who went on to a brilliant Hall of Fame career in the NHL; Czechoslovakian national team legend, Vaclav Nedomansky; high-flying members of the Quebec Nordiques Mark Tardif and Real Cloutier; and the Houston Aeros’ Morris Lukowich, Rich Preston and Terry Ruskowski.
Sure, some nights they’d find themselves up against fourth-line rejects from the NHL, thugs on skates and no-talents who would have trouble putting the biscuit in a beer league basket. But if you’d ever seen the Cleveland Barons or California Golden Seals play, you knew the NHL had its share of bums, too.
For all its protestations of superiority, the NHL was not an exclusive club of freewheeling playmakers and snipers. For every Phil Esposito in the mid-1970s, there was a Dave Schultz, who rewrote the record book in a way no hockey parent dreams when driving their son to early-morning practices. The card-carrying member of the Broad Street Bullies racked up an incredible 472 penalty minutes during the 1974-75 season, a record that may be as untouchable as Billy Mosienko’s hat-trick in 21 seconds or Wayne Gretzky’s 215 points.
The transformative result of the creation of the Hot Line, according to Roy MacGregor, was that the three forwards married the north-south North American game with the east-west European game to create magic on ice. "When you put the best player in the North American game with the two best players in the European game, they created a new style of hockey. When the game is played at its best, that’s the way it’s played now. (The Hot Line) played east-west-north-south," he said.
"They were brilliant. You had the guy with the best shot in hockey (Hull) and combined him with the best playmaker (Nilsson) and the fastest skater (Hedberg). In Winnipeg? Not in the NHL? You tell me how a team could have those three guys on one line."