Remembering the WHA – The Winnipeg Jets Win The Last Avco Cup

Jets goaltender Joe Daley portrait courtesy of Sebastien Chabauty

A long forgotten league of renegades to some. The best hockey hockey league that seemingly few noticed to others. The World Hockey Association, (WHA), is now a distant memory. But it’s legacy still remains.

The impact of the WHA is still felt in the NHL to this day. Through style of play on the ice currently in the league, to drafting strategies by general managers, to the pay scale of players today, a lot of it can be credited to, (or blamed), on the WHA.

It’s a legacy worth recalling. Especially to “newer” fans that never got to experience it. Some of the names may even sound familiar. I’ll be working on a continuous series of WHA stories over the next while, so where better place to start than the end I figure?

Making their fifth Avco Cup appearance and seeking their third title, the Winnipeg Jets defeated a very young Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers team four games to two. It would end up being the last ever Avco Cup final.

By the end of the final season, only six teams remained. Facing financial difficulty and unable to meet payrolls, the WHA finally came to an agreement with the NHL in early 1979. Under the deal, four WHA clubs – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets – joined the NHL.

The other two WHA teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were paid $1.5 million apiece in compensation. The agreement was very tilted in the NHL’s favour. The older league treated the new clubs’ arrival as an expansion, not a merger, so the four WHA refugees thus had to pay a $6 million franchise fee.

The NHL also refused to recognize any WHA records. While the new clubs were allowed to stock their rosters with an expansion draft, NHL teams were allowed to reclaim players who had jumped to the WHA.

The Jets finished third in the league that year with a record of 39-35-6. Coach Larry Hillman, who had guided the team to the 1978 Avco Cup championship, was fired and replaced with Tom McVie. McVie coached the final 19 games and managed a third place finish, one point ahead of the New England Whalers, thus clinching a first round bye. Bobby Hull was limited to only four games that season, and the Jets were led by Kent Nilsson, (107 points) and Morris Lukowich, (99 ponts).

The Jets would sweep the Quebec Nordiques to meet the Edmonton Oilers in the finals. An 18 year old Wayne Gretzky, who tallied 43 goals and 61 assists in 72 games played, was also joined by future NHL teammate and enforcer Dave Semenko on the Oilers. The Jets and Oilers had split the season series 7-7. Edmonton had finished first in the WHA with 98 points.

Willy Lindstrom and Morris Lukowich would lead the Jets in playoff scoring, (with 15 points each). Peter Sulliuvan and Kent Nilsson would add 14 points each as well. Gary Smith would be the goaltender of note in the playoffs, earning an 8-2 record with a 3.73 GAA.

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