SUN Hockey Pool

It was a golden age for hockey

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

Pink Floyd's The Wall was huge, the Sony Walkman was the latest gadget and bungee jumping was becoming all the rage.

That's how long it's been since Winnipeg celebrated any kind of pro hockey championship.

With the Manitoba Moose four wins away from the Calder Cup, it's time to take a look back at the 1979 Winnipeg Jets, who captured the Avco Cup on home ice in the final year of the old World Hockey Association.

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Three leagues, three decades and an arena have come and gone since this city had a reason to hold a puck parade.

If you'd told Winnipeg Jets goaltender Joe Daley that would happen, back on May 20, 1979, when he was sipping champagne (OK, it was probably beer) from the Avco Cup, he would have thought you were crazy.

Winning championships is just what the Jets did in those days, three in seven years, to be exact.

To go the next 30 years without?

"I would have found that hard to believe," Daley said. "We had some pretty good hockey teams during the days of the NHL Jets. The unfortunate thing was Edmonton was in the division, and when it wasn't Edmonton it was Calgary, and when it wasn't Calgary it was Vancouver.

"It just seemed there was always somebody who was a little bit luckier or a little bit better."

Most years, there were teams a lot better than the Jets during their 17-year NHL run.

But nobody did it better than the Jets during the WHA adventure, a turbulent yet memorable period that produced one of the most exciting teams the game had ever seen.

The renegade league that stole stars like Bobby Hull and Bernie Parent from the NHL was the breeding ground for hockey's European invasion, discovering wonders like Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and creating the blueprint for the wide-open style adopted by the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the mid-to-late 1980s.

But as the 1978-79 season unfolded, it didn't look to be Winnipeg's year.

Playing without the two super-Swedes, who'd bolted to the NHL's New York Rangers in the off-season, the Jets were a modest 39-35-6 that season, good for third place in the loop, behind Edmonton and Quebec.

Theoretically, the Jets had been bolstered by the addition of players from the Houston Aeros, which had folded.

But in reality, adding the likes of Terry Ruskowski, Morris Lukowich, Rich Preston and Scott Campbell to the roster of the defending league champ simply messed with its chemistry.

"These guys are our teammates -- and we've been pounding the heck out of them for the last couple of years," Daley explained. "So there was a little bit of an adjustment to make."

Daley himself had a running feud with Lukowich that almost led to them exchanging blows. Apparently, Lukowich had a habit of firing pucks a little too close to the Holy Goalie's head in practice.

"Me and Lukowich had it out a number of times," Daley said. "I was moody. He thought I was nuts. I'd chase him around the ice in practice. He kept a wide berth from me."

The mediocre results led to a late-season coaching change, from Larry Hillman to Tommy McVie.

It wasn't a banner season for Daley, either.

The starter for the Jets' first two championships, the Winnipeg native fell out of favour with Jets GM John Ferguson, and was the backup to Gary "Suitcase" Smith in the playoffs.

But he had a front-row seat to what would be a historic WHA finale.

The Jets went into the playoffs anything but an Avco Cup favourite. That perch was left for the Oilers and their teenaged phenom, Wayne Gretzky.

"If they had a year or two more seasoning, they probably would have beat us," Bill Lesuk, a forward on the team, admitted.

Different team

Under McVie, though, something happened when the puck dropped for the playoffs. Sweeping Quebec in four straight games, the Jets reached the final a different team, cohesive and brimming with confidence.

"He had us playing the best of our lives at the end," Daley said. "When I look at that Oiler team, I'm not so sure I would stand back and say we were better than them. It just all fell into place."

Opening the final series on the road, the Jets shocked the Edmonton faithful with 3-1 and 3-2 victories.

The Oilers wiped the smiles off their faces pretty quickly, winning the next one, 8-3, at the Winnipeg Arena.

But, led by the red-hot Willy Lindstrom (10 playoff goals), Lukowich and Preston (eight goals each) and the Magic Man, Kent Nilsson (14 playoff points), the Jets got back to business with a 3-2 win in Game 4, taking a 3-1 series lead.

After a Game 5 hiccup in Edmonton, Winnipeg returned home for a 7-3 win before a sellout crowd of some 10,000 -- the Arena hadn't been expanded, yet -- putting the finishing touch to a golden era in the city's hockey history.

This was the storybook way for the WHA to disband, with its model franchise, the one that had the audacity to lure the Golden Jet from the NHL, claiming its third championship in four years.

And while the city was giddy with the prospect of joining the NHL the following season, there was time for one last parade -- and a good, long drink from what was officially called the Avco World Trophy.

"It was a pretty big deal," radio broadcaster Bob Irving recalled. "That team had won the hearts of the fans here."

The Jets of the WHA drew similar numbers to what the Moose attract today, averaging between 8,000 and 9,000 fans that last season.

Come playoff time, the Arena was often packed. Businesses would put signs in their windows. There was even a Jets song on the radio.

The Whiteout hadn't yet been invented, but the atmosphere at playoff games was electric.

"They got so up for games, you had to kind of temper it down a little bit," Lesuk said. "They became so boisterous. And I was a hyped-up guy to begin with. They can wind you up pretty quick."

The feeling in the dressing room, though, is what players remember the most.

There's no satisfaction in sports like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with knowing you're the best.

As he celebrated what would be the city's final victory for a long, long time, Daley looked around and saw something he hadn't seen early in the season.

A real team.

"You feel good about everybody who's in that room," he said. "Any animosity you may have had during the season towards any one member of the team, that's all forgotten about."

Seems Daley even shared a hug with Lukowich that day.

"If you accomplish something together that you're striving for, you kind of say, 'Hey, that's my partner.' When it's all said and done you're one big, happy family.

"You feel like, wow, we are the best. It doesn't matter what league it is. We are the best."

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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