The ‘Peg is back on the map

Atlanta moves again; Canada has seven NHL teams

31.05.2011
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Super-Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson won’t return, but NHL hockey in Winnipeg is back. Photo: Mecca / Hockey Hall of Fame

WINNIPEG, Canada – Twenty-one years after the Atlanta Flames moved to Canada, history repeats itself. Now, the Atlanta Thrashers move north. Welcome back to the NHL, yooooour Winnipeg Jets!

The Flames lasted in Atlanta for eight seasons before they moved to Canada to become the Calgary Flames in 1980. The Atlanta Thrashers existed for 12 years (including the 2004-05 lockout season) before the official announcement was made on May 31 that the NHL's Atlanta franchise is moving again.

This time the move is to the place which operated an NHL franchise between 1979 and 1996, Winnipeg. The Jets were founded in 1972, but then for the World Hockey Association, the NHL's rival league where the Jets were the best team, playing in five WHA finals out of seven possible and winning titles (the Avco Cup) on three occasions.

Due to mounting financial troubles and an outdated arena, the Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes. Neither will be an issue with the “new Jets”.

The old Winnipeg Arena was torn down to make place for the 15,015-seat MTS Centre (built in 2004). The building is small by NHL standards, but the majority owner’s deep pockets will make up for it. David Thomson, who flew in to Winnipeg on Tuesday morning from Toronto to take part in the announcement, is Canada’s richest man and owner of a media empire.

The organization that brings NHL hockey back to Winnipeg, True North Sports and Entertainment, is the owner of the MTS Centre and of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. The Moose were founded in 1996 following the Jets’ relocation to Phoenix, and they have been the only sport team that has used the arena frequently.

The number of Canadian-based NHL teams is now at seven, one less than the record eight Canadian clubs which the NHL had in 1994-95.

It has not yet been announced whether the new club will re-claim the Winnipeg Jets name. The NHL Board of Governors will need to approve the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers on June 21.

This time around the NHL is moving to a place where hockey doesn't need any introduction. After 15 years without a major league team, the 'Peg is a hockey town once more. But even before the NHL, hockey was a big sport in the city.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the city was icing several amateur teams in the Manitoba Hockey Association (MHA), including the Winnipeg Victorias, who had become the class of the league with eight different appearances in a Stanley Cup series, winning the trophy three times (1896, 1901 & 1902). That was 15 years before the NHL existed. The Victorias are still the only Winnipeg team to win the Stanley Cup.

Canada's first national team which took part in official IIHF competition were the Winnipeg Falcons, the winners of the first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey, in 1920. In the late ‘60s, Winnipeg was the western home to Father David Bauer’s Canadian National Team which represented Canada in the IIHF World Championships and Olympics between 1964 and 1969.

Winnipeg, together with Montreal, was appointed host of the 1970 IIHF World Championship, but it was not to be as Canada pulled out from international competition prior to the event as a result of a dispute with the IIHF over the status of amateur players and the use of professionals in international competition.

The Winnipeg Jets had a profound impact on how the professional game changed in North America in the mid-‘70s. When the WHA was introduced in 1972, the rebel league was dominated by the New England Whalers and the Houston Aeros, who only had North American players.

In Winnipeg, general manager Rudy Pilous and coach Bobby Kromm realized that courting European talent might be the way to WHA dominance. How right they were. It started with Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson joining in 1974 and the flashy Scandinavians formed one of the most exciting lines in professional hockey teaming up with legend Bobby Hull, who was lured from the Chicago Blackhawks for a cool one million dollars and the main reason the WHA ever got off the ground.

Hedberg had 53 goals in his rookie season while Nilsson set rookie records with 94 assists and 120 points.

It was during that season that the North American hockey establishment realized that players from the other side of the pond could play dominating roles. The Jets were on their way to greatness and with nine (!) Europeans – including Swedish captain Lars-Erik Sjöberg – Winnipeg won the WHA championship the next season.

The 1974-75 season was a milestone for European migration to North America. The WHA would only live for five more seasons before it merged with the NHL, but the Euro-stocked Jets won the Avco Cup in two out of the three years.

The WHA and the Winnipeg Jets had immense influence on the future of pro hockey in Canada and the United States. Closely watching the free-wheeling style of the Jets, coach Glenn Sather in Edmonton started to build his upstart Oilers by emulating Winnipeg's European oriented approach. Not surprisingly, for instance, Sather had Finn Jari Kurri as a wingman to Wayne Gretzky, and Kurri became the all-time goalscorer for European players. As soon as the WHA folded in 1979, the NHL raided the defunct clubs for European talent.

During their 17 years in the NHL (1979-1996), the Jets were never as successful as during the pioneer WHA days. They had their best season in 1984-85 when they collected 96 points and finished second in the Smythe Division. The irony is that the Jets never could advance far in the playoffs because they couldn’t get past the Gretzky-led Oilers, the club which was molded after the Jets.

SZYMON SZEMBERG

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