Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
A hurting Hull, no Hot Line, a crippled-up captain, and a coaching change.
None of those things stopped the 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets from capturing the Avco World Trophy (better known as the Avco Cup) in the World Hockey Association’s final season.
We are 79 days away from the start of the 2019-20 NHL season (although we’ll actually have to wait 80 days for the Jets’ season-opening game against the New York Rangers.)
Jets Soared Over Adversity
Winnipeggers would have likely forgiven the Jets if they flopped in 1978-79.
The scintillating “Hot Line” — the terrific trio of Canadian Bobby Hull and Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson that lit up opponents for 1,377 points over four seasons together — was snuffed out. Hedberg and Nilsson left the two-time WHA champions for the New York Rangers.
To compound matters, Hull, a perennial 50-goal scorer, was injured and played just four games all season. Captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, similarly, was limited to nine games due to an Achilles injury that kept him out from September to March.
61 games into the season, at 28-27-6, the Jets fired second-year coach Larry Hillman and replaced him with former Washington Capitals bench boss Tom McVie.
The Jets overcame all this to finish third in the six-team circuit with a 39-25-6 record (the seventh team, the Indianapolis Racers, folded 25 games into the season).
While they were second-last in goals allowed (306), they were second in goals scored (307). Young players carried the offensive mail: 22-year-old Swede Kent Nilsson, nicknamed “Mr. Magic” for his puck-handling skills, notched 107 points for the second-straight season to lead the team.
Hot on Nilsson’s heels was fellow 22-year-old Morris Lukowich, who tallied 99 points along with 119 penalty minutes.
Despite their overall rocky season, McVie said at a 40th-anniversary reunion earlier this year that the Jets’ squad was “the best team I coached in my life, and I coached 27 or 28 years. It was just amazing.” (from ‘Seems like only yesterday,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 05/31/2019.)
“It wasn’t until Tom McVie came as a coach that everybody snapped together and realized it’s time for everything to be set aside and we needed to come together as a team,” Morris Lukowich said earlier this year. “Larry Hillman was a good coach. He ran very good practices but somehow we just were not playing well for him.” (from ‘Four decades later, Jets final Avco Cup season still vivid for former star Lukowich,’ Winnipeg Sun, 05/10/19.)
“We had a team that seemed to be coming together pretty good under Tom McVie’s coaching and Gary Smith’s goaltending,” Lukowich continued. “We had some very talented hockey players, with Lars-Erik Sjoberg leading us on defence and Terry Ruskowksi, with just incredible energy as a forward, and Kent Nilsson. It was a good combination of players.”
Capturing the Last-Ever Avco Cup
The playoff teams knew 1979 was their last-ever chance at Avco Cup glory. In March, the WHA announced it had agreed to a merger with the much more powerful NHL that’d see four teams (the Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, and New England Whalers) absorbed into the NHL and the rest fold.
In the first round, McVie’s energized and amped-up Jets ran roughshod over the second-seeded Nordiques. The underdogs scored 30 goals in four games — nine each in Games 2 and 3 — and swept the Quebec club out of Winnipeg Arena with a 6-2 win on Apr. 29.
The Jets had a long layoff before the Avco Cup Final began on May 11. They were up against some 18-year-old rookie named Wayne Gretzky and his Oilers, which finished first with a 48-30-2 record and bested the Whalers in a dogfight of a seven-game first-round series.
The Jets captured tight 3-1 and 3-2 victories in Games 1 and 2 at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum before getting blown out 8-3 in Game 3 in Winnipeg.
They’d rebound in Game 4, winning 3-2 again to get within one game of glory. However, in Game 5 back in Edmonton, the Jets were obliterated 10-2.
The series returned to Winnipeg for Game 6 on May 20. In front of a near-capacity crowd of 10,195 (including the author’s parents, who’d been married for three-and-a-half years,) the Jets roared out of the gate took a 5-0 lead before the game was half-over thanks to a pair of goals from gritty forward Barry Long and one each from Willy Lidstrom, Paul MacKinnon, and Lyle Moffat.
The Oilers cut the lead to 5-2, but goals from Nilsson and Lidstrom in the third put the Jets up 7-2 and put the game away. The Oilers’ Dave Semenko scored the last goal in WHA history with just 12 seconds left to make the final score 7-3.
The crowd was electric as the white-jerseyed Jets spilled out of the bench in jubilation and mobbed goaltender Gary Smith in his crease. Meanwhile, fans jumped onto the ice and snagged discard sticks and other equipment as souvenirs (the author’s parents were NOT two of those fans.)
Lars-Erik Sjoberg was the first to take a spin around the ice with the gleaming trophy, with the rest of his team in tow.
A Lasting Legacy
The 1979 Avco Cup victory, despite taking place 40 years ago, is still remembered fondly by many Winnipeggers.
“It was the last season that Winnipeg celebrated a hockey championship and the last time kids got to skip school to watch their hockey heroes ride in convertibles in a parade,” organizer Geoff Kirbyson, who wrote a tremendous book about the Jets’ WHA days, said. (from ‘Party like it’s 1979, WHA Jets gather for 40th anniversary of title,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 05/28/19)
In May, a number of players — including Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Morris Lukowich, Peter Sullivan, Willy Lindstrom, Roland Eriksson, Markus Mattsson, Joe Daley, Bill Lesuk, Lyle Moffat, Kim Clackson, Scott Campbell, Glenn Hicks, Paul MacKinnon, John Gray, Mike Amodeo and Steve West — united to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their feat at a banquet.
They also paid tribute to the players that had passed away, including Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Paul Terbenche, general manager John Ferguson Sr., and assistant coach Bill Sutherland.
While that victory has left a great legacy and came back into the limelight this year, Winnipeg is long overdue for a parade down Portage Avenue.
The Jets, since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, have qualified for the playoffs three times, but have only made it as far as the Western Conference Final.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has done a great job drafting and filling an empty cupboard over the last eight seasons. The Jets are strong team these days and their window to win a Stanley Cup is still open despite their early 2018-19 playoff exit and roster uncertainty heading into 2019-20.
It won’t be easy, but the Jets have the potential to snap the 40-year drought, host a trophy, and parade down Portage before too long.