A hurting Hull, no Hot Line, a crippled captain, and a coaching change.
The Winnipeg Jets entered the 1978-79 World Hockey Association season with a heap of adversity, weathered plenty throughout it, and exited it with the Avco Cup. It was nearly 41 years ago, but that squad is the last Winnipeg-based pro hockey franchise to hoist a championship trophy.
With the sports world at a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the perfect time to look back on past hockey heroes and the legacy they’ve left.
It was a season that began without two superb Swedes who played key roles in the Jets’ Avco Cup wins in 1976 and 1978: Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson.
Hedberg and Nilsson, who played with Bobby Hull on the Hot Line, had lit up opponents in the seasons preceding the 1978-79 campaign. Together with the Golden Jet, they piled up a combined 573 goals and 1,377 points in 855 games.
"Of the 12 season totals among them, only one — a shortened season by Hull in 1976-77 — had a point total less than 100. Now that is domination," wrote Jon Waldman in his book 100 Things Jets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.
A quick survey of some videogame numbers — 131 for Hedberg in 1976-77 and 122 the following season, and 124 and 126 for Nilsson in those same two campaigns — lays bare exactly the calibre of players the Jets lost to the NHL’s New York Rangers.
"Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson have been given their skating papers in lieu of $2,700, 953.76. That’s what the two Swedish stars will be paid to play for New York Rangers for the next two seasons," Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter Reyn Davis wrote in a March article entitled U.S. or Canadian funds, the price is out of sight.
"When I saw their contracts I almost died," Jets’ team president Michael Gobuty was quoted as saying in the same article. "We simply could not match it."
If the Jets wanted to defend their championship, they would have to do it with much different personnel. The Jets were "weakened considerably" offensively with Hedberg and Nilsson’s departure and had also lost seven other players in the offseason.
Compounding matters further, captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg — a defenceman who posted 50 points the year prior — tore his Achilles tendon in their first pre-season game.
Despite the losses, Davis predicted success for the Jets. He noted they signed four former Houston Aeros — a team that folded in the off-season — including promising youngsters Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich and Rich Preston. The trio made up a line and recorded 50-plus points each for the Aeros in their final season in the Lone Star State.
"Winnipeg appears destined to finish in third place this season, just ahead of Edmonton but considerably far behind two front-runners, New England and Quebec, who’ll finish 1-2," he prognosticated on Oct. 13, two days prior to the Jets’ season-opener against the Cincinnati Stingers at Winnipeg Arena.
Jets fans had high hopes, too: Free Press sports editor Hal Sigurdson noted in September that season ticket sales surpassed the previous high-water mark of 7,096.
"The moral of the story, it seems here, is Winnipeg wants major professional hockey and they’re willing to pay for it," Sigurdson wrote. This was despite the fact the WHA was struggling and featured an all-time low seven teams (one team, the Indianapolis Racers, folded 25 games into the season, making it a six-team circuit.)
One big question was who Hull’s new linemates were going to be. Davis predicted they would be Kent Nilsson (no relation to Ulf) and Willy Lindstrom, two talented players in their own right.
No one ended up playing with Hull much, as the then 39-year-old only played four games all season.
Kent Nilsson, however, played and excelled. Nicknamed "Magic Man" for his puck-handling prowess, the 22-year-old led the team by notching 107 points for the second straight season. His linemate, the former Aero Lukowich, led the team in goals with 65.
"Lukowich has been great every night," head coach Larry Hillman said after the left-winger reached the 50-goal plateau in a Feb. 25 matchup against the New England Whalers. "He never seems to have an off night."
Hillman, however, wouldn’t be long for the club. General manager John Ferguson Sr. canned the second-year coach three days later after a loss to the Birmingham Bulls.
"Larry Hillman, a man who proved that nice guys could finish first, was an unwitting victim of his own kindness," Davis wrote.
"(Ferguson) didn’t expect Hillman to take the Jets to the head of the pack and keep them there… all he wanted Larry to do was keep the players working and the fans entertained," sports columnist John Robertson wrote a few days later in a piece headlined ‘The players left Ferguson no choice.’
"But Hillman couldn’t do it, and when the players dogged it on him and the fans began to walk out in disgust, a move had to be made…"
Hillman was replaced by former Washington Capitals’ coach Tom McVie, who was widely known as a hard-ass and for running players through what Davis called "rigid conditioning practices."
"The potential here is just terrific," McVie said after coming aboard. "It’s a hockey atmosphere. The players seem enthusiastic. They are happy to be here and that’s good."
The team sat at 28-27-6 when McVie took over and came together down the stretch. They went 11-8 over the rest of the regular season and finished third, just as Davis predicted.
The bench boss told the Free Press at a 40th-anniversary reunion last year that it was "the best team I coached in my life, and I coached 27 or 28 years. It was just amazing."
By the time the playoffs rolled around, all the teams knew it was their last shot at Avco Cup glory. The WHA and NHL announced in late March they’d agreed to a merger, with the latter agreeing to absorb the franchises in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford (New England) and Quebec City.
In the first round of the last WHA playoffs, the Jets ran roughshod over the second-seeded Quebec Nordiques, sweeping them in four straight and potting 30 goals in the process.
"Driven by a belief that the man behind their bench has welded them into one strong and disciplined unit, the Jets overwhelmed the Quebec Nordiques in a 50-shot barrage Sunday night as they recorded a 6-2 victory that put them in the Avco Cup final for the fourth year in a row," Davis wrote.
"These were the best four games I’ve ever been involved in in all my days as a player or a coach," McVie was quoted as saying.
The amped-up squad had to wait all the way until May 11 — nearly two weeks after the sweep — before facing 18-year-old rookie Wayne Gretzky and a fearsome Oilers’ squad that finished first with a 48-30-2 record.
The series was a back-and-forth one. The Jets captured tight 3-1 and 3-2 victories at Northlands Coliseum in Games 1 and 2 before getting blown out 8-2 in Game 3 in Winnipeg.
The Jets won Game 4 at home to take a 3-1 series lead, but the Oilers’ destroyed them 10-2 in Game 5 to make the series 3-2.
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Back in Winnipeg for Game 6 on May 20, in front of a near-capacity crowd of 10,195 (the author’s parents included) the Jets built up a commanding 5-0 lead before the game was half-over thanks to a pair of goals by Barry Long and one each by Lindstrom, Paul MacKinnon, and Lyle Moffat. The Oilers later cut the lead to 5-2 but it was too little, too late, as the Jets rolled to a 7-3 win.
It’s hard to believe — in an era where one has to pass through airport-style security at sporting events — that fans jumped onto the ice to celebrate with the jubilant Jets, but they did just that, grabbing discarded sticks and other equipment as souvenirs. (The author’s parents confirmed they stayed in the stands.)
Sjoberg, who returned from injury just before the regular season ended, took the first spin with the gleaming trophy, the rest of his team in tow. He was praised by the Oilers’ centre Ron Chipperfield as the difference in the series.
"I don’t think I’ve ever beaten him one-on-one," Chipperfield said. "I don’t think anybody has beaten him one-on-one in the five years he’s been in the league.
"The league that survived amid grave doubts was lowered into one Sunday night," Davis wrote in the May 22 Free Press, the front page of which featured a frankly outrageous photograph of Terry Ruskowski hoisting the Cup while perched on Scott Campbell’s shoulders.
"But the air was one of jubilation as Winnipeg Jets, the scourges of the World Hockey Association, made off with the Avco Cup with no intentions of giving it back."
Ready for takeoff
Despite taking place more than four decades ago, the 1979 Avco Cup-winning team has a lasting legacy in the city. Banners commemorating the three championships — and those bearing the names and numbers of “The Hot Line” members Anders Hedberg, Bobby Hull, and Ulf Nilsson — hang from the rafters of Bell MTS Place.
“It was the last season that Winnipeg celebrated a hockey championship and the last time kids got to skip school to watch their hockey heroes ride in convertibles in a parade,” Geoff Kirbyson, who organized festivities last May to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the win, told the Free Press.
One such event was a banquet attended by a number of players, including Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Roland Eriksson, Markus Mattsson, Joe Daley, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Kim Clackson, Scott Campbell, Glenn Hicks, Paul MacKinnon, John Gray, Mike Amodeo and Steve West.
Playoff success largely eluded the Jets 1.0 in their 16 NHL seasons between 1979-96. The 2.0 version has qualified for the post season three times since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, but have only made it as far as the Western Conference Final.
While the 2019-20 season was a challenge for the Jets as they dealt with a depleted D-corp, the Dustin Byfuglien leave-of-absence situation, and injury after injury to key personnel, they admirably stayed in the fight and sat in a Western Conference wild card spot on the day the NHL was shut down indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Stanley Cup may not get awarded at all this season, the Jets have a strong core with players such as Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler locked up long-term.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will also have approximately US$22 million at his disposal this offseason; that’s plenty of money to make some significant additions.
While nothing’s certain in the coronavirus era, it doesn’t seem like Winnipeggers will have to wait 40 more years for another parade down Portage Avenue.