A Mann’s gotta do what a Mann’s gotta do

Winnipeg's first-ever NHL draft pick went from a player with promise to a pugilistic pariah on weak Jets roster


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He was the first player drafted by the Winnipeg Jets the summer before their inaugural NHL season. He is also one of the most maligned picks in club history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/08/2017 (1858 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He was the first player drafted by the Winnipeg Jets the summer before their inaugural NHL season. He is also one of the most maligned picks in club history.

“I know people say, ‘Oh, that was a bad draft pick,’ but it wouldn’t have been if they’d have played me the right way,” says Jimmy Mann, who was chosen 19th overall in the 1979 entry draft, before hall-of-famer Michel Goulet and and six-time Stanley Cup winner Kevin Lowe at Nos. 20 and 21, respectively.

Jimmy Mann (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
”I still fought for this team, I did the best for what I was given to do. People just didn’t see the whole of what I could’ve given to this team. But hey, it is what it is.”

Almost 40 years later, Mann says he has few regrets.

Rushed to the NHL as a 20-year-old right-winger after an excellent career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Mann had shown plenty of promise as a dual-threat player. He displayed a combination of toughness (260 penalty minutes) and flash (35 goals and 82 points in 65 games) in his final year of junior that put him squarely in the crosshairs of John Ferguson, the Jets’ general manager at the time. Pegged as a probable second- or third-round choice, Mann’s first pro contract included a $65,000 signing bonus and an $80,000 salary in his first year.

But there was a problem.

The Jets, who had gained acceptance into the NHL along with three other surviving franchises from the World Hockey Association, were going to begin life in the big league with one skate tied behind their back. As a condition of membership, Winnipeg, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers were forced to surrender most of their best players from their WHA rosters, and protecting the small number of skilled players who remained was left largely to the six-foot, 215-pound Mann.

Team toughness was crucial in an era still dominated by heavyweight enforcers.

“When they came out of the World Hockey (Association) and went into the National Hockey League, Winnipeg lost a lot of players and lost a lot of tough players — they didn’t have many,” says Mann, who fought an amazing 22 times during his rookie NHL season. “When I came here, I was 20 years old, coming out of junior and probably one of the toughest guys in the three (junior) leagues.

“I scored goals and everything was great and I come to Winnipeg and you know, you’re going into Philadelphia; the first game against Boston (Oct. 26, 1979), I fought (Terry) O’Reilly, (Stan) Jonathan and (Al) Secord. I think the pressure was more on that part of it.

Winnipeg Jets enforcer Jimmy Mann in the 1980s. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)
”We needed to take care of the team and there were still (Philadelphia’s) Broad Street Bullies in those times. I was really by myself when it came to that. We had Scott Campbell, but Scotty had a lot of bad headaches and stuff, he didn’t play as much. And Dave Hoyda, he was on his way out. So, basically, I was on my own.”

Mann played 72 games in his rookie season, but he was soon playing less and his development suffered.

In seven seasons following his rookie year, he never played more than 40 NHL games nor scored more than three goals in a season. But his reputation for pugilism and on-ice mayhem was firmly established.

Bouncing between the NHL and the minors in 1981-82, Mann was suspended for three games and fined $500 for shoving a linesmen, Gord Broseker, while trying to continue a fight with John Gibson of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He made it into hockey history for all the wrong reasons just over a month later, on Jan. 13, 1982 during a visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins at Winnipeg Arena.

Pens centre Paul Gardner cross-checked Winnipeg’s Doug Smail in the face, breaking his stick on impact. Before the next faceoff, Mann approached Gardner from behind and punched him twice, breaking his jaw in two places.

Jimmy Mann in action vs Pittsburg in October 1982. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It was the sucker punch heard ’round the hockey world. Mann was widely denounced and Jets head coach Tom Watt was roasted for sending him over the boards to punish Gardner.

“Doug had just come off a broken jaw. He got caught up in the whole thing and I hit him, I smacked him,” says Mann. “It’s the way it was. Today, it would’ve been a lot worse than it was…

“It happened and I don’t have any regrets about it, either. None at all.”

The NHL suspended Mann for 10 games. But the incident lives on in infamy because he was charged and convicted of assault causing bodily harm and hit with a $500 fine.

Jimmy Mann (#8) is seen after fight during a game with Colorado Rockies at the Winnipeg Arena in November 1981. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)
It was the first criminal prosecution in Manitoba stemming from violence in a hockey game. Gardner was suspended for his role in the incident but his sentence was applied to the time he missed while recuperating from his injury.

The controversy sparked plenty of fury and entire pages of letters to the editor in the Free Press. Then, on Jan. 31, the Jets arrived in Pittsburgh for a rematch with the Pens and the team bus was greeted by dozens of angry, fist-waving fans.

Hanging inside the Civic Center, a 15-metre-tall sign proclaimed: “The Assiniboine Zoo Is Missing Two Animals — Watt and Mann.”

To be sure, the episode was not a career-booster.

“It probably didn’t help it in certain ways… that’s the way it turned out,” he says. “Mr. Ferguson took care of the situation, we paid the dues for it and we kept going. I’m not the kind of guy who cries over things that happened in any part of my career. There are things I wished a could’ve changed a little, but what I have today is all because of hockey…

“Like I say, I was a proud Winnipeg Jet player and I was excited to be here. I was always a team guy and I always took care of my players, one way or the other… we didn’t have much of a choice when you’re playing against all these big, hard teams. You’ve gotta get some respect, and I was pretty well the only one there for that kind of role. It was harder to get out of that role after a while.”

Watt was frequently accused of provoking the reprisal.

Jimmy Mann (centre), Theoren Fleury (left) and Gary Leeman with a toy Stanley Cup during the Oldtimers Hockey Challenge in Victoria, B.C. March 23, 2011. (Lyle Stafford / Times Colonist)
”He didn’t really tell me to go and do it,” says Mann. “He sent me on the ice… I knew my role as a player and that’s the way it happened. I knew what the situation was. I did what I had to do.”

After five seasons with the Jets organization, Mann was shipped to the Quebec Nordiques and played three more years before a final, abbreviated season in Pittsburgh.

Now retired and living with his wife Barbara in Trois-Rivieres, Que., the 58-year-old Mann, who has two adult children, is involved with the security operations at the Shrine and Royal Canadian Circuses while also managing some apartment buildings he owns.

In his leisure time, he is an avid bow hunter and fisherman, with moose, deer, mule deer and wild turkey on the menu.

“We just love it,” he says. “I don’t hunt what I don’t eat. We’re very conscious of (wildlife) management and doing the right thing.”


Twitter: @sawa14

"When I came here, I was 20 years old, coming out of junior and probably one of the toughest guys in the three (junior) leagues," says Mann.
Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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