October 9, 2012
WHA Winnipeg Jets were living the dream
By QMI Agency
There were older players who were journeymen in the NHL, some career minor-leaguers, and some locals who were getting a chance to live the dream by playing on their hometown's first professional hockey team.
Most of them jumped at the chance to play for a new team called the Winnipeg Jets, in a new league called the World Hockey Association. And that was before they knew the team was about to rock the hockey world by signing one of the NHL's biggest stars.
They had no idea what they were getting into, if they would even get to the first game, how long the team or the season or the league would last. All they knew was there were suddenly a lot more jobs for professional hockey players, they were getting paid more than they were in the NHL, and they were glad to be a part of it.
"I was just happy to come home and play and in the back of my mind was "How long is this going to last and is it going to last and what happens if it doesn't?" former Jets goalie Joe Daley, a now 69-year-old lifelong Winnipegger.
Daley's concerns didn't last long. When founder Ben Hatskin somehow found a way to pony up a million bucks and get Bobby Hull's name on a contract, the Jets players knew they were part of something special.
"I signed before Bobby, but when Bobby came it was like an insurance policy," Daley recalled. "Once he committed to coming, it was a guarantee that we were going to get off the ground. It was tremendous. Thinking back to that time I don't think I really absorbed even in my own mind, what an impact that was going to have."
In the WHA draft, the team selected a lot of players who came from Manitoba, thinking they could convince them to come home and play. There were 11 Manitobans on that first team and several more from Saskatchewan.
When they first came together in Winnipeg, it was a bit of a gong show. The NHL did its best to keep Hull out of the WHA, using a court injunction to prevent him from playing for the first few weeks. Hull was also the coach and they had to conduct clandestine practices in order to get a team ready for the season.
"It was kind of tough," said Ab McDonald, the Jets first captain, who had already won four Stanley Cups by the time he returned home to play. "But Bobby was always there, telling us to keep our chin up, that the day was coming. We did OK without him. But you've always got the feeling you'll play better with him.
"We weren't a team that said, 'OK, now that Bobby's here we're going to put everything on his shoulders.'"
McDonald, now 76 and still living in Winnipeg, scored the first goal in the history of the Jets on Oct. 12, 1972 at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Jets won that game 6-4, with Hull's future linemate Chris Bordeleau scoring four goals.
When Hull eventually joined the team, he was as dynamic as expected, scoring 51 goals and 103 points in 63 games. Linemate Norm Beaudin, who was the first player ever signed by the Jets, tied him for the scoring lead, while Bordeleau had 47 goals and 101 points.
With Daley and Ernie Wakely in goal, the Jets went 43-31-4 in the first season and made it all the way to the WHA final before losing to the then Boston-based New England Whalers in five games.
Some of the local players who cracked the lineup were just thrilled to be along for the ride.
"We had a great bunch of guys but not a lot of talent in that first year," said Duke Asmundson, now 69 and originally from Vita, Man.
"We used to joke we had big names -- Asmundson, (Bob) Woytowich, (Bill) Sutherland -- but we were talking about the number of letters in the name. It was more desire not talent. When you had been in the minors, you had something to prove."
All that local flavour meant there was another contributing factor to the team's early success -- hometown pride.
"I think for me, being a Winnipegger and being able to play at home, that whole process was a little special for me," Daley said. "Being from the city and being able to carry that crest on my chest, that made me pretty proud.
"That was probably as close a group of guys on a team as I've ever played on. Maybe it was because we had something to prove as a group, especially when you are starting a new league. You want to say "Hey, we can make this thing work." We were all in the same position, trying to do the same thing. It worked out fine. We had our fun, probably more at times than we should have. In the end, when the puck was dropped, we gave a pretty good accounting of ourselves."
The WHA eventually became a major thorn in the side of the NHL and featured some of the biggest names in hockey history, including Gordie Howe, Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The Jets were the best team for most of the seven years, winning three championships and playing in five finals.
Not only were they successful on the ice, but they managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that plagued other WHA teams.
"We had our struggles, there's no doubt about it," Daley said. "Even here in Winnipeg. A lot of people don't know that for a couple of years there, there were doubts whether the payroll was going to be met. I can honestly say, I never missed a paycheque in seven years in Winnipeg and never worried about missing one and yet, after all was said and done and I had a chance to talk to (player personnel director) Billy Robinson after the fact, he said 'Joe, you don't know how close it came.' Thanks to the banks in Winnipeg and people having faith in our organization, we survived and we looked like we were the poster child for the league as far as how to operate."
Indeed by 1974, the team was out of money and in danger of folding, but was rescued by public ownership. Then came the arrival of a handful of European stars (including Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg), which made the Jets more successful than they dreamed. They won three Avco Cups and earned a reputation as one of the greatest teams in the world through international play.
"I never felt like I had taken myself out of the elite and put myself into a situation where I was going to be looked upon as being second class or second rate," Daley said. "In the end, when we can look back now at the players we had here in Winnipeg, at the type of team we had, the way we went around the world and played internationally, representing Winnipeg and our country, I can honestly say I played on the best hockey team in all the years I ever played right here in Winnipeg in the WHA."
Players like McDonald, Asmundson, Bill Sutherland and Dunc Rousseau weren't around for the greatest of the glory years. But they were there for the beginning of it all and are still proud Winnipeggers today. They've seen NHL hockey come and go and come back again, knowing all the while that it was something they started that paved the way.
Did they realize at the time they were trailblazers?
"Not at all," Asmundson said. "A lot of players that first year were from Manitoba. You were just thankful to be there and stay there.
"Everybody had the same intention and that was to make sure the league got off the ground and survived and lasted," Daley added. "Most of the guys came in with good attitudes and wanted to try to make this a viable situation."
Many of the players give credit to then player personnel director Robinson, who assembled that first team and made sure it was a good mix of veterans, rookies and local players.
"The first year, everybody took a chance and we were blackballed by the NHL and everything but everybody will say the first year was probably the best year of their hockey careers," said Rousseau, originally from Bissett, Man.
Sutherland, now 77, went on to coach the Jets in the NHL in 1980-81. He had the distinction of replacing Hull on left wing on the Jets top line for the first 15 games of the first season, while Hull's contract was before the courts. He never minded getting bumped when the star player returned.
"It was such a good life," said Sutherland, who had played several seasons in the NHL before returning home. "After travelling around with five teams in the NHL, it was like being reborn to have a team here. It was such a great team to be a part of. Everybody liked everybody.'
Daley, who runs a sports card shop on St. James St., had a group of players from that 1972-73 team over for some reminiscing and a few laughs last week. The closeness of the former players was still evident 40 years later. Each of them spoke about their time with the Jets as the highlight of their careers.
"My time in the league and my time being a Winnipeg Jet, I can look back fondly and say I enjoyed every minute of it," Daley said.
"And it did have a huge impact on hockey."
It was pretty special for the Winnipeg fans, too, Joe.
What do you remember about the WHA Jets? Challenge our quiz: