4 ways the Winnipeg Jets changed hockey forever
From unprecedented salaries to international recruits, the Jets revolutionized the good ol’ hockey game
The new Jets Stream podcast is the sad, happy, surprising, and downright weird tale of the Winnipeg Jets. They brought the Swedes to the NHL, made the "whiteout" famous and broke hearts. Go behind the scenes of one of hockey's wackiest clubs with host Marjorie Dowhos.
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Long before the NHL Jets were Stanley Cup hopefuls in the 2018 Western Conference Final, the earlier Jets were three-time Avco Cup champions in the World Hockey Association.
The WHA launched as a professional North American major league in 1972. It competed with the NHL by creating teams in underserved major American cities and mid-level Canadian cities and by paying higher salaries for top-tier talent.
Though it folded in 1979, the WHA made waves in the industry and changed the face of hockey forever, with the best team in the league at the helm — the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets' first big move was signing Bobby Hull in their inaugural season.
With 15 years in the NHL and a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks under his belt, Hull was one of hockey's biggest stars, but he felt underpaid for his record-breaking performance.
The average NHL annual salary in 1972 was $25,000 — just slightly more than the average income among the general population at the time, which was $18,000 per year. (Hull, as one of the league's biggest stars, had been earning six figures since the 1968-69 season.)
When the Jets offered Hull a record $1 million signing bonus, the 32-year-old jumped ship, opening the door for other stars to join the WHA. In total, 67 players switched from the NHL to the WHA in the first year.
"If Bobby Hull hadn't jumped to the WHA, the salaries wouldn't have gone up nearly as quick as they did," said Geoff Kirbyson, sports writer and author of The Hot Line: How the Legendary Trio of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson Transformed Hockey and Led the Winnipeg Jets to Greatness.
Today, the average player salary in the NHL is $2.96 million, with the league's highest earner, Toronto Maple Leaf John Tavares, earning $15.9 million this year.
Revolutionized the game
The Winnipeg Jets also took a risk by recruiting talent from Europe, and it paid off.
Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson were among the first European-born players to make an impact in North America when they arrived from Sweden in 1974.
They were instant sensations in the WHA.
Kirbyson says the Jets had the best player and hardest slapshot in the world (Hull), combined with the best playmaker in the world (Nilsson) and the fastest skater in the world (Hedberg) forming one of the best forward lines of the decade — "The Hot Line."
Match that with fellow Swede Lars-Erik Sjoberg, named the best defenceman at the 1974 World Ice Hockey Championships, and the team was almost unstoppable.
'Today, you'd get suspended'
As European players began to infiltrate the North American market, they came in for rough treatment in a sport with a well-established tradition of fighting.
"Guys would slash them and stick them and hit them from behind. They were threatened," said Kirbyson. "They thought that these Europeans were going to come over and take their jobs and, in some cases, they did."
Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the "Broad Street Bullies," and the Birmingham Bulls, the most penalized team in the WHA for their extremely rough play, led the era of physical and aggressive play.
"It was a time where the rough stuff and the fighting were important, much more important than it's supposed to be," said Anders Hedberg. "I had never been involved in a fight on the ice or off the ice prior, so obviously I couldn't fight. I was just trying to defend myself."
The European players had to adjust to this style of play because in Europe, players are routinely ejected from the game and sometimes suspended for fighting.
"These guys were able to blend the two styles of play," said Kirbyson. "They revolutionized how the game was played."
No one knew what to do to stop them, he said.
"And so when you can't adapt to it properly, you lash out," he said.
The NHL has since established new rules around fighting, which has curtailed the number and the scope of fights.
"No player in the history of hockey has taken the amount of abuse Ulf Nilsson did and no one ever will again," said Kirbyson. "The kind of stuff that they did back then, if you did that today, you'd get suspended."
'Build the team that Winnipeg had'
Despite the abuse the players took on the ice, the Jets were the most successful team in the WHA and other teams took note.
Glen Sather was a left-winger in the NHL for 10 seasons before moving over to the WHA as a player-coach for the Edmonton Oilers. Sather watched the Jets closely and was impressed by their plays.
"When he became a player-coach, he said, 'We're going to build the team that Winnipeg had,'" said Kirbyson. "So he got Gretzky from Indianapolis and started drafting guys like Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri and guys who could handle the puck and guys who could play with speed."
Sather retired as a player after the first season but remained as head coach and, later, president and general manager after the NHL absorbed the team. The Oilers won four of their five Stanley Cups under his leadership from 1983-89.
Kirbyson said Sather used the Jets teams as a blueprint for the 1984-85 Oilers team, which was voted the No. 1 Greatest NHL Team by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration.
"I think every team now likes to play a game like that, in mixing those elements of speed and skill," said Kirbyson. "What they did is they played a possession game in an era of dump and chase and bang and crash. You see a lot more teams playing that possession-style game right now."
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