As time ticked down on the last game in the seven-year history of the World Hockey Association (WHA), fans who packed the Winnipeg Arena that night had a lot to celebrate.
Not only were the hometown Jets about to capture the 1979 AVCO Cup with an easy 7-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers, a merger deal between the WHA and rival NHL had been struck. In a few months, the WHA champs would compete in the NHL. The Jets, and Winnipeg, were about to enter the big leagues.
The Jets were probably one of the best teams of the era, in any league. They had won three of the last four AVCO Cups. In 1978, they beat the fearsome Soviet national squad in an exhibition — the first and only club team to ever do so. As impressive as those achievements were, the Jets were untested against the NHL’s best. With Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford set to join the NHL the following season, the Jets were about to get their chance to prove themselves.
Alas, it was never to be. During the seven-year war between the WHA and the NHL, the rebel league had been able to poach some of hockey’s most talented names. With the WHA on its last legs, the NHL dictated the terms of union — and the price was steep. The NHL allowed its teams to reclaim players from the surviving WHA teams without compensation. The WHA clubs were placed at the end of the draft order and were allowed to protect only two skaters and two goaltenders. The high-flying Jets of the WHA were grounded and struggled for years during their first years in the NHL.
The 1979 dismantling of the Jets was only the first in a a long line of injustices and misfortunes foisted upon fans in Winnipeg. The team eventually got better, thanks to stars like Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne (aka the Finnish Flash), but they never made it out of their division during the playoffs because one of the greatest teams of all time, the Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers, always stood in their way. (Ironically, this article quotes legendary Oilers coach-GM Glen Sather saying he modelled his team after the WHA Jets.)
And then, 1996. Fans in Winnipeg got robbed again, when the NHL allowed the team to move to Phoenix. It’s true the Jets were playing in a small, obsolete arena in an era when the low Canadian dollar was pummelling even financial powerhouses like the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the NHL was quick to pull the plug. As we’ve seen in recent years, the original Jets — now the Arizona Coyotes — have been allowed to struggle indefinitely in their new home, with the NHL actively shielding them from relocation.
Winnipeg got its Jets back through the struggles of another American Sunbelt team, the Atlanta Thrashers, which moved to the Manitoba capital in 2011 after 12 forgettable seasons in the U.S. South. Rather than hailing this righting of a historical wrong, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was petulant while announcing the Jets’ return, threatening fans that the team would suffer the same fate as the original Jets if they didn’t sell out the arena every night.
Seven years later, the patience and loyalty of Jets fans has been rewarded with a thrilling playoff run and a berth in the conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights — a first-year franchise gifted a head start with favourable expansion terms that the Jets and others never had.
To recognize this momentous occasion and to raise a beer to the long-suffering fans of Winnipeg, I’ve chosen the Jets team checklist from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee card set, which marks the team’s entry to the NHL. May this be the year that Winnipeg no longer looks back wistfully at what was lost and what could have been.
I’ve paired the Jets card with White Raven IPA from Bench Creek Brewing. This coppery beauty bursts with orange and mango hop aroma. This is a citrus-forward IPA, for sure, but there’s some old-skool northwest IPA in it, with some pine aroma and flavour. What puts White Raven in the top tier of Alberta IPAs is its complexity and balance. Each sip brings a different combination of citric and tropical flavors that deliver the kind of bitterness you expect from an IPA, followed in perfect proportion with some caramel malt. This is a hoppy beer, not an overly bitter one — and that’s an important distinction.
White Raven is made in a brewery off the beaten track on a rural range road outside of Edson. It’s proof that size doesn’t always matter, that great things can come from small places when people have passion, pride and a commitment to quality. Kind of like a hockey team from Winnipeg.
(* For this installment, I’ve changed “Hops and Hockey Cards” to “Hopps” as a nod to my pal Brett Hopper, who, in addition to being Bench Creek’s southern Alberta sales rep, is also a Winnipeg boy and huge Jets fan. Go Jets go!)