Hops and Hockey Cards

Hopps* and Hockey Cards #2: Winnipeg Jets

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 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 area 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!)

 

Hops and Hockey Cards #1: Patrick Roy

It seems unnecessary to say Hops and Hockey Cards is a new feature here at Original Levity, considering just about everything around here is new. It’s maybe more apropos to introduce this as the first installment in what I hope will be a running series bringing together two of my favourite things: beer and hockey.

Although my love of hockey has endured through the years, I don’t have the same affection for today’s game as the old-time hockey I grew up with. While today’s athletes are literally and metaphorically head and shoulders above the players I watched as a kid, I have a hard time bonding emotionally with an NHL that has teams in the desert but none in Quebec City or Hartford. It’s probably not all that unusual for people to draw some of their fondest memories from childhood. In my case, thinking about hockey, that means helmetless players, Fu Manchu moustaches, brown leather goalie pads, Cold War matchups, fly-by-night franchises and blue pucks.

I can remember Saturday nights during my early childhood gathered with my family around the basement TV (an old Zenith model in a wooden cabinet) watching the hockey game. As I got a bit older, I began collecting hockey cards — the old-school kind, printed on low-grade cardboard with a stick of gum in the pack. I’ve held onto my hockey cards, and over the years I’ve replaced dog-eared and wrinkled ones with specimens I’ve bought at collector shows or hunted down on eBay — though the majority of my collection survived childhood in good condition. I never played games with them or put them in my bicycle spokes.

Is bringing together two of my interests, craft beer and vintage hockey cards, a self-indulgent nostalgia trip? Sure, a bit. (But it’s my blog, and I can be self-indulgent if I damn well want to.) But I think there’s a logical connection there, too. Craft beer and hockey cards are art forms in their own right. Both, when done well, are worthy of consideration.

Hops and Hockey Cards, as I see it going forward, could be a reminiscence about a player depicted on a card, an appreciation of a particularly cool card, or both. I realize this may be a obscure concept, so I’ve picked a rather obvious pairing to start the series: Patrick Roy and Arrogant Bastard Ale.

Patrick Roy, the hall of fame goalie and four-time Stanley Cup winner, is an arrogant bastard. His playing days with the Montreal Canadiens ended with a public tantrum after being left between the pipes during a nine-goal run by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995. Then-coach Mario Tremblay did it to humiliate Roy and put his outsize ego in its place, but the goalie’s reaction was unprecedented for a team as rooted in honour and tradition as the Canadiens. When he finally got pulled, Roy mouthed off to club president Ronald Corey, who sat behind the players’ bench, as 18,000 fans in the Montreal Forum and a national TV audience looked on. While walking to his seat at the end of the bench, he stopped and said, “I’ve just played my last game with the Canadiens,” as he went past Corey. The Habs traded Roy to the Colorado Avalanche a few days later, and he went on to win two more cups in Denver. In retirement, Roy had some success as the Avalanche’s coach and VP of hockey operations, but left in a huff with a surprise resignation in 2016. He’s also been accused of domestic violence — though the charges were dropped — and as coach of the junior Quebec Remparts in 2008, he incited his son Jonathan, the team’s goalie, to pummel the opposing netminder during a line brawl.

Roy is a thoroughly unlikable character, but his success is undeniable. As a lifelong Habs fan who bleeds bleu, blanc et rouge, I’m grateful for his role in Montreal’s Stanley Cup victories in 1986 and 1993 — neither of which would have happened without him. But he’s a jerk. That’s why I choose his rookie card for this feature: I prefer to remember him as the shy, gangly rookie who came out of nowhere to help the Habs win the cup in 1986.

Like Roy, Arrogant Bastard is a success story — but not necessarily easy to like. When Stone Brewing debuted the beer in 1997, its 7.2 per cent alcohol content and bitterness made it pretty “out there” by the standards of the day. Brewers today are making bigger and weirder beers, but Arrogant Bastard still deserves a place in the annals of craft beer greatness. It’s a complex mix of big caramel malts, a hint of dark chocolate and a drying, bitter finish that grows as you go. There’s no denying it’s a well put together beer, but I’m partial to red and amber ales that are maltier and sweeter as opposed to hoppy ones. I guess you could say I’m caught between acknowledging Arrogant Bastard’s greatness while not necessarily being a fan — a sentiment not unlike my feelings toward “Saint” Patrick Roy.