January 18, 2018

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Hot Line member Ulf Nilsson still fired up about time in Winnipeg

It's been over 40 years since Ulf Nilsson played on a line with Bobby Hull — and it still leaves him speechless.

"To have the opportunity to play on the same line and being a centre for Bobby Hull was amazing. It was just so awesome. I can't find words for it," Nilsson said in a recent interview from his home in Sweden.

Nilsson still remembers the first time he skated alongside Hull and fellow Swede Anders Hedberg as members of the Winnipeg Jets. It was the team's first practice prior to the 1974-75 season and the team was scrimmaging with a university team at the St. James Arena. It didn't take Nilsson long to realize that Hull, Hedberg and himself were going to be something special.

"It was classical music from Day 1," said Nilsson on his immediate chemistry with Hedberg and Hull, who would go on to play four seasons together as the famous Hot Line.

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It's been over 40 years since Ulf Nilsson played on a line with Bobby Hull — and it still leaves him speechless.

"To have the opportunity to play on the same line and being a centre for Bobby Hull was amazing. It was just so awesome. I can't find words for it," Nilsson said in a recent interview from his home in Sweden.

Ulf  Nilssoprior to the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame luncheon in 2016. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ulf Nilssoprior to the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame luncheon in 2016. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Nilsson still remembers the first time he skated alongside Hull and fellow Swede Anders Hedberg as members of the Winnipeg Jets. It was the team's first practice prior to the 1974-75 season and the team was scrimmaging with a university team at the St. James Arena. It didn't take Nilsson long to realize that Hull, Hedberg and himself were going to be something special.

"It was classical music from Day 1," said Nilsson on his immediate chemistry with Hedberg and Hull, who would go on to play four seasons together as the famous Hot Line.

Nilsson, who was 24 years old in his rookie season with the Jets, was part of an influx of European talent that signed with Winnipeg prior to the '74-75 season. Fellow Swedish players Hedberg, Lars-Erik Sjöberg and Curt Larsson, as well as Heikki Riihiranta and Veli-Pekka Ketola of Finland, also made the jump. It was the beginning of a new era in professional hockey and many people struggled to accept it.

"I think a lot of the teammates in the first year looked upon it in a strange way," said Nilsson. "'OK, here comes four Swedes and two Finns and our friends are losing their jobs.' I think they saw that we played pretty well and maybe they said 'Are we going to lose our job next year, too?'"

But Nilsson said when you look at the big picture, the European players made more jobs available for hockey players.

"We didn’t come over and take jobs away. I think we helped a lot of jobs stay in business because I think the WHA maybe wouldn’t have survived as long as it did (without us)," he said.

Ulf Nilsson, Bobby Hull, and Anders Hedberg in 1978.  (Paul Deleske / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ulf Nilsson, Bobby Hull, and Anders Hedberg in 1978. (Paul Deleske / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The new experiment of combining the European and North America style didn't pay off right away. Despite all the new talent brought in from overseas, the Jets missed the playoffs with a 38-35-5 record in '74-75.

"I still can't figure out how we didn't make the playoffs in the first year," Nilsson, who finished the season with an incredible 120 points, said with a laugh.

But the Jets more than made up for it the next season, as they steamrolled through with league with a 52-27-2 record en route to winning the Avco Cup for the first time in franchise history. Nilsson lead the charge for the Jets, as he scored 26 points in 13 games and was named Playoff MVP.

"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to celebrate with the team because at the end of the second period (in Game 4 of the finals) I got a stick in the eye. I had to take it easy in the hospital with a patch over my eye," said Nilsson on having to miss out on the Avco Cup celebration after Winnipeg's 9-1 victory over the Houston Aeros.

Ulf Nilsson with the Avco Cup, the team's second World Hockey Association Championship, at the Winnipeg Arena. (Jon Thordarson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ulf Nilsson with the Avco Cup, the team's second World Hockey Association Championship, at the Winnipeg Arena. (Jon Thordarson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Luckily for Nilsson, he got a chance to make up for missing out on raising that first Cup on the ice with his teammates, as two years later the team won the league title again.

Battling through injuries was something Nilsson had to learn to live with in order to survive the WHA. Nilsson and his European teammates, especially Hedberg, would take a beating every night from the oppositon. Nilsson had the war wounds to show after each game to prove it. In the book The Hot Line written by Geoff Kirbyson, fellow Swede and former Jet Thommie Bergman said, "To me, Ulf was probably the toughest guy I ever played with."

That's some high praise for a guy who stood at 5-foot-10 and had weighed around 170 pounds during his career.

"But I'm paying for it today," said Nilsson. "Both my shoulders are pretty sore. I replaced my right hip in 1994 and I replaced both my knees in 2012."

But despite all the bruises and black eyes he suffered, Nilsson has no regrets about signing with the Jets and he is honoured to have his No. 14 jersey hanging in the rafters at Bell MTS Place today.

"My four years in Winnipeg was amazing," said Nilsson, "That was probably the best decision I ever made."

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