March 30, 2020

Winnipeg
-2° C, Mainly clear

Full Forecast

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Forever champions

It's been more than 40 years since 1979 Winnipeg Jets beat the odds to capture the final WHA championship

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg carries the Avco Cup around the rink at the Winnipeg Arena after the Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers 7-3, May 20, 1979, to capture the final WHA championship.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg carries the Avco Cup around the rink at the Winnipeg Arena after the Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers 7-3, May 20, 1979, to capture the final WHA championship.

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.

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Elated fans invade the ice surface to join their hockey heroes in celebrating the Jets’ 1979 Avco Cup triumph.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Elated fans invade the ice surface to join their hockey heroes in celebrating the Jets’ 1979 Avco Cup triumph.

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."

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Terry Ruskowski hugs the Avco Cup while sitting on the shoulders of Scott Campbell, teammate Lyle Moffat joins the celebration while sitting on the shoulders of rugged defenceman Kim Clackson.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Terry Ruskowski hugs the Avco Cup while sitting on the shoulders of Scott Campbell, teammate Lyle Moffat joins the celebration while sitting on the shoulders of rugged defenceman Kim Clackson.

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.

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets goalie Joe Daley was a stalwart between the pipes throughout the team’s seven-year WHA history, which included three league championships.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets goalie Joe Daley was a stalwart between the pipes throughout the team’s seven-year WHA history, which included three league championships.

"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."

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Fans applaud as the Winnipeg Jets celebrate after the final whistle of the 1979 WHA final that saw the Jets vanquish the Edmonton Oilers and establish WHA supremacy.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Fans applaud as the Winnipeg Jets celebrate after the final whistle of the 1979 WHA final that saw the Jets vanquish the Edmonton Oilers and establish WHA supremacy.

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."

PAUL DELESKE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Jets coach Tom McVie, who stepped behind the bench late in the season, celebrates the Jets championship with defenceman Kim Clackson.</p>

PAUL DELESKE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Jets coach Tom McVie, who stepped behind the bench late in the season, celebrates the Jets championship with defenceman Kim Clackson.

"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.

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Kent Nilsson (left), Joe Daley and Peter Sullivan celebrate the Jets 1979 Avco Cup victory.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Kent Nilsson (left), Joe Daley and Peter Sullivan celebrate the Jets 1979 Avco Cup victory.

"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.

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Jets players and management celebrate the club’s 1979 Avco Cup championship at city hall following a victory parade May 22, 1979.</p>

JON THORDARSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Jets players and management celebrate the club’s 1979 Avco Cup championship at city hall following a victory parade May 22, 1979.

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."

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

The Free Press would like to thank our readers for their patience while comments were not available on our site. We're continuing to work with our commenting software provider on issues with the platform. In the meantime, if you're not able to see comments after logging in to our site, please try refreshing the page.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us