This article was published 9/5/2018 (1139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Anders Hedberg wouldn’t have breathed a word of it for fear of reprisal — like a blistering "errant" slapshot to his rear end during practice from an offended teammate — but had no problem stating his opinion decades later.
"We went to the finals in New York and I couldn’t say it at the time, but I can say it now: "I thought we had a better team in Winnipeg than with the Rangers," he said earlier this week. "We had a unique team because we played different than anyone else."
Speaking by phone from Sweden, Hedberg wasn’t denigrating the highly talented Rangers squad he was a part of during the 1979 Stanley Cup final, ultimately won by the Montreal Canadiens.
He was simply stating what he firmly believes is fact: the 1977-78 Avco Cup-winning Winnipeg Jets would have dominated the NHL in a manner not unlike how they ran roughshod over the rest of the World Hockey Association in the mid- to late-'70s.
"First of all, we had real talent. And when I’m saying real talent, I’m talking about skill, speed, dimensions of top-notch goaltending, the dimension — and it was absolutely needed at the time, but less today — of genuine toughness, including fighting, and we had the very earliest-possible multicultural mix," said Hedberg. "We became a real team from different backgrounds, nationalities, and it worked.
"We had one more thing, which was very unique for Winnipeg. Today, every team is playing it, but back then we had puck possession, which no other teams had. We were switching positions, the defence was part of the offence, and I played right wing but I was all over the ice, as the forwards are today. That was very unique at the time."
“People will say, ‘Well, it wasn’t the Stanley Cup.’ Well, you know what? Our team could have beaten most of the teams in the NHL at the time, and we knew it. And we beat some good teams along the way, so it was a privilege to win it" – former Jets forward Peter Sullivan
That fast, freewheeling style was unrivalled during the ’77-'78 WHA campaign, and the Jets, led by The Hot Line — right-winger Hedberg, centre Ulf Nilsson and left-winger Bobby Hull — captured the Avco Cup that season. They swept the the New England Whalers with Gordie Howe and sons Mark and Marty, four straight in the best-of-seven final series.
Four decades later, most of the players on the team will return to Winnipeg this weekend for a three-day reunion to celebrate the milestone anniversary of that remarkable championship.
Former players expected to attend include Hedberg and his cerebral, playmaking centre Ulf Nilsson, Willy Lindstrom, Thommie Bergmann, Peter Sullivan, Joe Daley, Markus Mattson, Kim Clackson, Bobby Guindon, Garry Bromley, Bill Lesuk, Bill Davis and Mike Ford.
"It’s going to be terrific, it’s going to be fun — lots of bad stories, I’ll tell you that," joked Hedberg, now 67. He spent many years in management with the Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators but is now retired from hockey life. "The stories become better over time. Not as true, but better.
"I’ve been in hockey all my life, so I get back to Winnipeg when I can. But this is going to be special. In my case, as a player, I was only there for four years (1974-78), but those were very important years in my life. The relationship between players and the fans, or whoever worked in the arena or, really, wherever you went in Winnipeg, it was just so warm that it stays with you — or at least it stayed with me."
The Jets posted a 50-28-2 record that season and then dropped just a single playoff game on the road to the title.
Hedberg finished with 63 goals and 122 points during the regular season, but Nilsson edged him by four points (37G, 89A). Hull, meanwhile, supplied 46 goals and 117 points.
“Big days in Winnipeg right now, isn’t it? I’m coming to Winnipeg so I have to get a white sweater, for sure. I don’t have one, but I’ll get one!” – former Jets forward Anders Hedberg
The trio is considered among the greatest in hockey history, yet Hedberg credits the supporting cast for pulling out all the stops during the run to the WHA crown.
"Kim Clackson was an unsung hero. He wasn’t the smoothest skater or had finely tuned hands, but he balanced every physical battle that was going on, and there were lots of them," he said, lauding the Jets’ renowned resident enforcer. "He was very much included in the team, he embraced that. He hung around with all the Swedes all the time. He was a very special player for us."
He also spoke glowingly of second-line centre Kent Nilsson, who was still a few months shy of his 22nd birthday when he hoisted the Avco Cup at Winnipeg Arena.
"We had maybe the most talented Swede, Kent Nilsson, but he was still young. How (the Jets) missed protecting him (in 1979), nobody could understand. He had almost 100 points the next year with Atlanta, who picked him up," said Hedberg.
Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson departed for the Big Apple following the season. Winnipeg repeated as champion the next year, seizing the final WHA title before the league disbanded and the Jets, Whalers, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL. In doing so, however, the squads were stripped down by an expansion draft, and Jets’ brass chose to protect Scott Campbell and Morris Lukowich.
Kent Nilsson played eight sensational NHL seasons, amassing 264 goals and 686 points in just 553 games.
"We got a lot of compliments after the fact that teams were so worried about the Hot Line but they couldn’t touch our second or third lines. We always had good balance. Fundamentally, we were superior to just about everyone," said Sullivan, now 66 and living in Regina. He’s a senior scout for NHL Central Scouting.
Moments from that championship game at the old Winnipeg Arena are engrained in the memory of the shifty player nicknamed "Silky."
"You think about it once in a while when you see other trophies being raised by players. It was very special to have had that moment, celebrating on the ice with that group. Shoe (legendary Jets captain, the late Lars-Erik Sjoberg) getting the Cup for us and passing it around. We all got to carry it," said Sullivan.
"People will say, ‘Well, it wasn’t the Stanley Cup.’ Well, you know what? Our team could have beaten most of the teams in the NHL at the time, and we knew it. And we beat some good teams along the way, so it was a privilege to win it."
One of the stacked team’s most revered triumphs came months before — Jan. 5, 1978, to be exact — when it upended the powerful Soviet national team 5-3, a first for any North American pro hockey team.
The weekend reunion includes a reception for players and their families on Thursday night, a tour of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and sponsors reception Friday and a gala dinner at the Fort Garry Hotel Saturday evening featuring a question-and-answer period and memorabilia auction.
Individual tickets are $160, and tables of 10 are $1,500. Tickets are available through the Jets 1978 Reunion Facebook page or by calling 204-771-0973.
If the current crop of Jets defeat the Nashville Predators Thursday and then host a third-round playoff game Saturday night, the dinner changes to a 1 p.m. lunch.
Hedberg desperately wants to be in the downtown rink to watch the Stanley Cup-chasing Jets fly.
"Big days in Winnipeg right now, isn’t it?" he said. "I’m coming to Winnipeg so I have to get a white sweater, for sure. I don’t have one, but I’ll get one!"
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).