oilers > jets, 1972: there was nothing going smooth

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 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.

suitcase and his socks

Luggage On The Left Coast: Gary Smith guarded Vancouver nets from 1973 through 1976.

Born in Ottawa on a Friday of this date in 1944, goaltender Gary Smith is 77 today. The nicknames he acquired during his career don’t really need a whole lot of explication, but here goes: Suitcase referenced his travels around the NHL, WHA, and minor leagues, wherein he played for 13 teams in 16 seasons during the 1960s and ’70s; Axe underscored his propensity for swinging sticks at passing opponents. His father, Des Smith, played defence starting in the late 1930s for four NHL teams, including Boston; brother Brian was a left winger for Los Angeles and Minnesota in the latter ’60s. Gary shared a Vézina Trophy with Tony Esposito for their work in the Chicago Black Hawks’ crease in 1972, and Smith backstopped the WHA Winnipeg Jets to the 1979 Avco Cup.

The following year was Smith’s last in hockey; it happened to be Winnipeg’s first in the NHL. Defenceman Barry Melrose was a teammate that season, and it’s to him we go for this news of Smith’s in-game rituals.

“He wore 13 pairs of socks in his goalie skates,” Melrose recollected in 2009, “because he hated pucks hitting his feet. He also wore long underwear and after every period, he took off all his gar and had a cold shower. Can you imagine the laundry the trainers had to do? It was 50-some socks per game plus four sets of underwear. The Axe was a weird dude.”

dale hawerchuk, 1963—2020

Heavy news today: Dale Hawerchuk has died, of cancer, at the age of 57. A son of Oshawa, Ontario, he was a sublime centreman whose 16-year NHL career flourished most memorably in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Jets. It was with Winnipeg that he  won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1982. He went on to play for Buffalo, St. Louis, and Philadelphia before a hip injury ended his on-ice career in 1997. With the 1,409 regular-season points he racked up over the course of his career, he stands 20th in the all-time NHL register, just behind Doug Gilmour, a little ahead of Jari Kurri. Hawerchuk was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

portage & avco & main

We Are The Champions: At the end of May of 1976, to finish up the WHA’s fourth season on ice, the Avco World Trophy landed in Winnipeg as the Jets won the first of their three league championships, capsizing Gordie Howe’s Houston Aeros in four straight games. The deciding game was no contest, with Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Bobby Hull, and company deluging the defending champions by a score of 9-1. “Those guys could have played the Montreal Canadiens tonight and beat them,” said a dispirited Houston coach Bill Dineen. The next day, a Friday of this date, with a band of bagpipers leading the way, the Jets paraded their cup through downtown Winnipeg and a crowd estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. That’s Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg here, hoisting the hardware at Portage and Main. (Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC18, A84-09)

 

 

whalers won, but the cup was a no-show

No Show: The New England Whalers eventually got to see the Avco World Trophy in all its Lucite and Britannia silver glory, but on the May day they won it in 1973, the winners of the first WHA championship had to make do with a stand-in.

Ted Green won a Stanley Cup in 1972, his second as an unforgiving defenceman on the Boston Bruins’ blueline, but by all accounts it was a forlorn experience for the 32 veteran of 11 seasons. “The man nobody seems to care about anymore,” a columnist called him a couple of May days before the Bruins claimed the Cup with a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “The only time Green ever gets on the ice is when [Bobby] Orr needs a quick ice pack on his sore knee.”

He’d slowed down, lost his edge, his grit. “The fans at Boston Garden were tolerant of him for a long time,” Dwayne Netland wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They cheered his good plays and ignored his mistakes, but finally they turned on him and now they roast him for every bad pass, every missed check.” Bruins’ coach Tom Johnson’s merciful solution: “He just doesn’t put Green on the ice unless he has to.” Game five at the Boston Garden, with Orr playing every shift, Green took none: he never left the bench. “He had not felt part of the team, part of the victory,” Fran Rosa later recalled in the local Globe. When the Bruins returned to Boston with the Cup, Green slipped away from his teammates and the crowds awaiting them at Logan Airport to hitchhike into the city on his own.

That sad story got a happy ending: a year later, almost to the day, Green was back at Boston Garden captaining his new team to a championship, the very first in WHA history. Forty-seven years ago today, on a Sunday of this date in 1973, Green’s New England Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to claim the inaugural Avco World Trophy in five games.

“I can’t say I was thinking about last year,” Green said in the aftermath. “When they gave me the cup and told me to skate around with it, I might have thought a little about Johnny Bucyk skating around with the Stanley Cup last year.”

In The Moment: Ted Green and (not the Avco) cup on the ice at Boston Garden on May 6, 1973.

Green’s joyful teammates that day included Larry Pleau, Tom Webster, Rick Ley, and goaltender Al Smith. Together they paraded their cup and kissed it, filled it with Gold Seal champagne, which they drank and also dumped on one another.

But if the feeling was right, the cup was (as Fran Rosa put it) wrong: instead of the Avco World Trophy, the silverware that WHA president Gary Davidson handed to Green was a stand-in. The next day’s Boston Globe identified it as “the Division Cup” — i.e. the Whalers’ reward for topping the WHA’s Eastern bracket.

Whalers’ owner Harold Baldwin told Ed Willes a different tale for the latter’s 2004 history, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. While the league had sold naming rights for the cup to Avco Financial Services before the season started, it occurred to Baldwin ahead of game five that he had yet to see an actual trophy.

“Everyone’s going, ‘Where’s the Cup? We don’t have a Cup,’” he told Willes. “I sent my PR guy out, and he came back with this huge trophy he bought from a sporting-goods store. I think it cost $1.99, but it looked good on television. It kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy.”

With Steve Milton assisting on the writing, Baldwin published his own memoir in 2014, and in Slim To None: My Wild Ride From The WHA To The NHL All The Way to Hollywood, he refines the story a little. “Right before the game I had this vague feeling I’d never seen the league championship trophy,” he writes. This time it’s his co-owner, Bill Barnes, who dispatches an unnamed PR guy to a local sporting goods store. “He comes back with this large trophy that cost 20 bucks. It was cheap but big, and it was shiny, so it looked good on 1973 television.”

No word on what became of that temporary trophy after its brief fling with the limelight. Let me know if you have it, or know where it ended up.

The real thing was designed in Toronto by Donald Murphy, creative director of the ad firm Vickers and Benson, and rendered, in all its Lucite and Britannia-silver’d glory, by Birks jewelers at a cost of $8,000 (about $50,500 in 2020 money).

The first public sighting Boston seems to have had of the Avco World Trophy, as far as I can discern, came in September of ’73, at an event at a new restaurant on the city’s waterfront. I don’t know if there was a formal presentation. Accounts of the Whalers’ 1973-74 home opener that October don’t mention it.

Back in May, while Ted Green still had the faux Avco in his clutches back at the Boston Garden, Howard Baldwin was quick to issue a Stanley Cup challenge. The Montreal Canadiens were still a few days away from beating the Chicago Black Hawks for their 18th Cup as Baldwin offered to play the winner in a one-game, neutral-site playoff for all the toys.

He meant no disrespect, he said, “to either of those two fine teams or the National Hockey League.”

“This is a challenge intended only to restore to the people to see a true champion decided in this, the world’s fastest sport.”

The Boston Globe duly reported all this, amid the coverage of Ted Green’s redemption, while also noting this: “No reply was expected from the National Hockey League.”

Whaler King: “Kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy,” Harold Baldwin said of the trophy that Ted Green held close on May 6, 1973.

who’s that hedberg?

Hot Liner: Anders Hedberg celebrates a momentous goal, his 50th in 49 games, on the night of Sunday, February 6, 1977, at the Winnipeg Arena. The dejected Calgary Cowboys are goaltender Gary Bromley, alternate captain Chris Evans, and (possibly) Jacques Locas. (Image: University of Manitoba Archives)

Born in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden on this date in 1951, when it was a Sunday, Anders Hedberg made his original North American mark as a right winger playing for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets in the mid-1970s before he and linemate Ulf Nilsson migrated to the NHL’s New York Rangers. Nicknamed the Swedish Express, Hedberg won the Lou Kaplan Trophy as the WHA’s top rookie in 1975. Teamed with Nilsson and Bobby Hull on Winnipeg’s Hot Line, he helped the Jets win a pair of Avco championship trophies.

Deserving of more hoopla than it’s ever received is Hedberg’s record from the winter of 1977 when, at the age of 25, he became the first player in major-league hockey history to score 50 goals in fewer than 50 games. A 23-year-old Maurice Richard, of course, scored 50 in 50 for the Montreal Canadiens in 1945, and Hull did it at age 36 for the Jets during their 1974-75 campaign. Going into Winnipeg’s February 6, 1977, game against the Calgary Cowboys at the Winnipeg Arena, Hedberg had 48 goals. It was Winnipeg’s 49th game of the season, and the 47th that Hedberg had played in. Hedberg, who’d finish the year with 70 goals, scored two that night on Calgary goaltender Gary Bromley — that’s the second one he’s celebrating, above — and another into an empty net, sealing Winnipeg’s 6-4 win. “They’ll see Richard,” the winger said later, “they’ll see Hull in the record books, but they’ll still ask, who’s that Hedberg?”

Another Lou Kaplan Trophy-winner would subsequently surpass Hedberg’s mark, of course: in 1981, aged 20, Wayne Gretzky of the NHL Edmonton Oilers scored his 50th in 39 games.

ab mcdonald, 1936—2018

Later on, in 1972, Ab McDonald would captain the original WHA Winnipeg Jets, but he was a distinguished veteran by then, with a 15-year NHL career behind him. He got his start in 1957 in Montreal, winning three straight Stanley Cups with the juggernaut Canadiens before a trade took him to Chicago in 1960.

Born in Winnipeg in 1936, McDonald died there on Tuesday. He was 82.

The Stanley Cup followed him to Chicago in 1961, when the Black Hawks surpassed Montreal in the semi-finals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for the championship. Rudy Pilous was the Chicago coach that year, as he was in the fall of 1962, which is when he posed here, above, with McDonald ahead of the Black Hawks’ home opener. By then, McDonald was a member of the Scooter Line, skating the left wing alongside centre Stan Mikita and right wing Kenny Wharram. McDonald made subsequent NHL stops in Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis before taking his talents back home to Winnipeg. Bobby Hull was the big noise then and there, of course, though a court challenge kept the Gilded Jet out of the Jets’ first game in New York on October 12, 1972. With Hull benched (he was also the Winnipeg coach that year), McDonald took it upon his 36-year-old self to poke Jean-Guy Gratton’s pass by goaltender Gary Kurt to open the scoring in the Jets’ 6-4 win over the hometown Raiders, and register the first goal in franchise history.

jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)