It’s almost a half-century ago and whole other defunct league distant, but with the Edmonton Oilers set to open their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight against the Winnipeg Jets, is it time to hearken back to when the teams met for the very time? It is. Yes, this is the old upstart WHA we’re talking about, which first took to the ice 49 years ago, in October of 1972, with 12 teams in two divisions, with Winnipeg’s Jets and the Alberta Oilers (as they then were) representing the north in the league’s Western Division.
It was a Sunday night, October 15, when the Jets welcomed the Oilers to the Winnipeg Arena for their home opener. A month earlier, the building had hosted Game Three of the Summit Series, wherein Canadians and Soviets tied 4-4, under the gaze of Canada’s queen. A crowd of close to 10,000 jammed the building that night; the Jets attracted a modest 7,200 for their debut. The Jets had pried Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks, but he wouldn’t actually get onto the ice for another month, concentrating on coaching the team for the first few weeks. Still, the Jets were looking good, having won their first two games of the season on the road, while the Oilers had gone 1-2 to begin their season.
Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Jack McKeag was on hand to drop the inaugural puck that night: that’s him here between Jets’ captain Ab McDonald and Oiler skipper Al Hamilton. (Hull, in civvies, is lurking behind Hamilton.)
And the game, once the puck was in play? Vic Grant from the Winnipeg Tribune was on hand to see it and write it up for Monday morning’s paper. “There was no valid reason why Jets should lose 5-2 to Alberta Oilers,” he advised, “but they did, and the only excuse they can offer is stage fright.”
Coached by Ray Kinasewich, the Oilers jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Roger Cote and Val Fonteyne. The Jets would get goals from Dan Johnson and Christian Bordeleau, but the Oilers kept scoring, too: Ron Walters, Bill Hicke, and Eddie Joyal added to their tally. Ernie Wakely was in the Winnipeg net on the net, with Ken Brown guarding the Albertan goal.
“It was great seeing all those people out,” Hull said afterwards, “it’s just too bad the boys were tight. I can’t think of anything else but saying that they were tight before their first home crowd.”
“I wasn’t concerned when it was 2-0 and then I thought we were off when we scored and it was 2-1, but then we lost a couple of fac-offs and were dragging again. There was nothing going smooth. We couldn’t get anything in motion.”
The Oilers and Jets met again two nights later at the Edmonton Gardens, with the Albertans prevailing again, 3-2, on Walters’ overtime winner in front of a crowd of 3,285 hardy fans.
The Jets did, eventually, find their stride, finishing the season atop the Western Division, and making it to the WHA’s first championship final, which they ceded to the New England Whalers in May of 1973.