As the NHL prepares to begin the 2017/18 season, every team has their hopes and aspirations going into it. For some, they feel they are bona-fide cup contenders. For others, just making the play-offs would be considered a successful season. Then for others, not getting embarrassed on a nightly basis would be a plus.
For hockey fans, most of us have seen our own teams have their ups and downs. Even Pittsburgh Penguin fans likely remember the pre-Mario days when things were bleak. And then the post Mario days were just as bad until Sydney Crosby fell into their laps at the draft lottery. And Chicago Blackhawk fans surely remember the decades of decline they saw until the Patrick Kane-Johnathon Toews era kicked in. And let’s not forget the Edmonton Oilers who somehow managed to receive a top draft pick seemingly every year but couldn’t put anything together until Connor McDavid landed there.
But none of them in their darkest days ever experienced a 30 game winless streak.
Which brings us to the Winnipeg Jets.
Not the current roster which features such young stars as Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele or Jacob Trouba. But the original Jets franchise, way back in 1980.
Historians, (a slang term for me that I use for referring to “Old-Timers”), remember the 1980/81 season all too well. And not fondly.
Much has been said and written about the old World Hockey Association, (WHA), the old misfit league that challenged the NHL in the 1970’s for players and an audience. The WHA boated some big name talent including Gordie Howe, Andy Bathgate, Mike Gartner, a very young Wayne Gretzky and hockey’s first million dollar player, Bobby Hull.
Hull’s decision to leave the Chicago Blackhawks and take the money Winnipeg was offering to become the face of this renegade league, started a flow of NHL players making the transition to the WHA to find new opportunities. The Jets would end up becoming the premier team in the WHA, winning three AVCO Cup World Championships, including the last two before the WHA merged with the NHL.
The Jets in the 1970’s may have arguably been as good as many dominant NHL teams . But by the time of the merger between the two league’s happened in 1979, the NHL wasn’t interested in a WHA team having a legitimate shot at winning a Stanley Cup.
The WHA had experienced serious financial hardship. Despite there being some quality hockey being played, in the end, they just couldn’t compete with the NHL. So when an agreement on a merger came along, the WHA was not in a position of power when it came to negotiating the terms.
With the merger, the NHL agreed to accept in the Jets, Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers in, with all the other WHA franchises disbanding. And there was another condition, a tough one. Only four players, (two skaters and two goaltenders) could be protected. Effectively breaking up a strong Jets team.
The Jets didn’t do themselves any favors either. Then General Manager John Ferguson made the choice to keep Morris Lukowich, (an easy choice as Lukowich was the teams top goal scorer the previous season, hitting the back of the net 65 times). But it went sideways from there as Fergie chose to retain goalies Markus Mattsson and Joe Daley. Except Daley chose to retire instead. So it was a too bad, so sad situation for the Jets.
And the Jets chose to retain defenseman Scott Campbell. Although he was a big, young blue-liner, Campbell was a lousy skater and suffered from severe asthma.
In their first season in the NHL, the rag-tag Jets would finish with a 20-49-11 record, second worst in the league. Surely the next season would hold more promise.
The Jets would begin to restock on talent. The draft brought them Dave Babych, a steady defenseman. And rookie center Dave Christian would also join the team after being a part of the US Miracle On Ice Team after the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
But what soon seemed promising, soon went south faster than goose migration in the fall.
The Jets would begin the 1980/81 season with a 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on October 17th. Which was great. Except they didn’t win another game until December 23rd against the Colorado Rockies, who were the only team to finish with a worse record than the Jets the season before.
In that stretch between wins, the Winnipeg Jets went on an astonishing 30 game skid without a win, going 0-23-7. To this day an NHL record that may never be broken.
The Jets would finish the season at 9-57-14. Head coach Tom McVie was fired during the season, making way for assistant coach Bill Sutherland to take over head coaching duties. He would later be fired, to be replaced by another assistant by Mike Smith. At the end of the season, Smith was also out as head coach but was moved into the Assistant General Manager role. A role that eventually led to Smith replacing Ferguson as Jets GM years later. A managerial gong show in itself.
That season would end up being the second worse in NHL history, with only the inaugural season by the 1974/75 Washington Capitals being worse, (8-67-5). But even they didn’t go on a 30 game winless streak.
During that Season From Hell, the Jets simply couldn’t stop a puck to save their lives. They would go through five goalies that season. None of them could help the team with a combined GAA of 4.60! (That’s not a typo by the way.) And the Jets would give up an incredible 400 goals that season.
After the dust had settled on that season, the team did start to rebound. Saddled with the #1 pick in the 1981 draft, the Jets would select future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk. And the Jets would improve enough in the 81/82 season to qualify for the playoffs.
With the eventual loss of the original Jets to Arizona in 1996, many of the ghosts of those Jets went with them. It’s a new era now in Winnipeg for hockey. But nonetheless, there will always be a part of NHL infamy that will always reside there.