Fuelled by fans: 44 years of pro hockey in Winnipeg

With the Heritage Classic rolling into Winnipeg this weekend to showcase hockey in Winnipeg and the rivalry with the Edmonton Oilers, we thought it would be a great chance to look back on 44 years of professional hockey in Winnipeg.

Professional hockey landed in Winnipeg with the Jets joining the WHA in 1972

Star forward Bobby Hull was lured away from the Chicago Blackhawks in 1972 with an unprecedented $2.75-million contract with a $1-million signing bonus. (CBC )

The Winnipeg Jets slogan "fuelled by passion" can also describe its fans, who are smart and sometimes — when chanting phrases like "Laine's better" or donning track suits to mock a player who demanded to be traded — even a little cheeky.

Those fans have fuelled the team's very existence, from its WHA beginnings to its entry into the NHL and then, after a 15-year absence, the eventual return of the franchise to a new arena that some say has the best atmosphere in the league.

With the Heritage Classic rolling into Winnipeg this weekend to showcase hockey and the Jets' longstanding rivalry with the Edmonton Oilers, we thought it would be a great chance to look back at 44 years of professional hockey in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg's current fan in chief is perhaps True North Sports and Entertainment chair Mark Chipman, who was a 12-year-old lifetime hockey and Boston Bruins fan when the Winnipeg Jets joined the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972.

"You go from watching the National Hockey League to now the WHA and how it unfolded through the '70s and the phenomenal hockey that was played in that league, and then [in] '79, sort of the unthinkable: Winnipeg got to join the National Hockey League," said Chipman.

The National Hockey league had two rounds of initial expansion, adding six teams in 1967 (California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues) and two more in 1970 (Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks).

Although the NHL had added eight teams to its original six, there were still many markets and potential owners that felt they were being left out.

In 1972, the World Hockey Association launched with 12 teams, and owners signed more than 60 NHL players.

The Winnipeg Jets lured star forward Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Blackhawks with an unprecedented $2.75-million contract and a $1-million signing bonus. Hull and other big names like Bernie Parent, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe did a good job attracting audiences, and the WHA competed against the NHL for almost a decade.

The Winnipeg Jets lost in the finals the first year but went on to win three Avco Cup championships, including the last one in 1979.

In the summer of 1979, the NHL and the WHA reached a deal to merge, and the WHA's most viable franchises — the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques, the New England Whalers and the Jets — made the move to the biggest league.

The Jets went into the Symthe Division in the new 21-team NHL and faced a decade of being beat up on by one of the best hockey dynasties of all time: the Edmonton Oilers. It took the Jets three seasons to get into the playoffs, only to be swept in playoff series four times in the '80s.
CBC post game story from game 4 of 1990 division semi final 2:04

Their fans' hopes soared highest in 1990, when 68 seconds into double overtime in Game 4 of the division semifinal, Dave Ellett blasted the puck from above the circle past Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford. The Jets were up on the dreaded Oilers, three games to one, and fans finally felt like this was the year the Jets would beat the four-time champions.

The Jets were up 3-1 in Game 5 before allowing the Oilers to claw their way back. The Jets went on to lose that crucial game and the next two. The Oilers went on to beat the Boston Bruins in the final that year and captured their fifth Stanley Cup.
CBC post game story from game 5 of 1990 division semi final 2:11

A bright spot for the Jets franchise in the '90s was the addition of the Finnish flash, Teemu Selanne. In Selanne's first season in 1993, he broke the rookie scoring record with 76 goals and 132 points.

Despite the addition of the budding superstar, puck luck was not on the team's side on or off the ice. The team's struggles continued, and by 1996, the league closed the door on NHL hockey in Winnipeg and the team moved to Arizona to become the Coyotes.

That same summer, Chipman and a group of business people bought the International Hockey League's Minnesota Moose and brought them to Winnipeg to play in the then empty Winnipeg Arena. The Moose later joined the American Hockey League.

By 2011, True North Sports and Entertainment, led by Chipman, had quietly convinced commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL that the city had used the 15 years without NHL hockey to improve its management and facilities. Winnipeg was once again ready to have a team in the biggest professional hockey league.
CBC reporter Patrice Mousseau takes a look at the history of the Winnipeg Jets franchise in this 2011 report. 1:58

With nights like Wednesday, when a packed MTS Centre saw the Jets' 2016 second overall draft pick Patrik Laine notch three goals, including the overtime winner, it's not hard to imagine a new generation of Jets fuelling another round of local hockey folklore — and fans.