Gretzky and Kurri and Messier, oh my: Classic Oilers bring heritage of fear for '80s Jets fans

To Winnipeggers of a certain age — Generation Xers who can relate a little too well to the kids riding around on bikes in the 1980s-set Netflix series Stranger Things — today's rematch between the vintage NHL Jets and old-time Edmonton Oilers stirs up powerful, even primal, emotions.

To Winnipeg hockey fans of a certain age, the 1980s Edmonton Oilers were the stuff of nightmares

Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky: Two faces that inspired fear in the hearts of Jets fans during the 1980s.

To Winnipeggers of a certain age — Generation Xers who can relate a little too well to the kids riding around on bikes in the 1980s-set Netflix series Stranger Things — today's rematch between the vintage NHL Jets and old-time Edmonton Oilers stirs up powerful, even primal, emotions.

The feelings have little to do with a late-October outdoor hockey game at a four-year-old Canadian Football League stadium on a 10 C weekend when rain poses a far greater threat than ice and snow and wind.

Rather, they emanate from persistent memories of a decade of unfulfilled hopes, scuttled dreams and exasperating frustrations involving the original Jets, whose inability to defeat the Oilers during the epoch of New Coke, Ronald Reagan and seemingly imminent nuclear armageddon was an immense facet of the collective mindset in the very insecure 1980s version of Winnipeg.

For those of you too young to have experienced the blow-dried, hairsprayed and pastel-coloured wonders of the '80s firsthand, that Winnipeg bore little resemblance to its much more accomplished modern self, which is comfortable existing within its medium-sized-city skin.

No longer the big city

The Winnipeg of the '80s was a city in decline, psychologically if not physically. Its older residents regaled children with tales about a storied past when the Manitoba capital was not just Canada's third-largest city, but the most important economic centre in the West.

By the 1980s, it had been eclipsed by Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, both in size and in vitality. The 1980s oil boom transformed Edmonton, in particular, to become an unlikely powerhouse on the northwestern Prairies.

The successful 1980s Oilers essentially personified an Edmontonian cockiness that made Winnipeggers neurotic all the way from the death of disco to the dawn of grunge.

Winnipeg Jets captain Dale Hawerchuk tries to score on Edmonton Oilers goalie Bill Ranford during NHL playoff action in Edmonton in 1990. The Jets went up three games to one in that series, but the Oilers clawed back. (Ray Giguere/Canadian Press)
The Jets were led during that decade by Dale Hawerchuk, one of the most gifted centres to ever play professional hockey. But the Oilers were led by Wayne Gretzky, easily the greatest player to ever hold a hockey stick.

In 1984-85, Hawerchuk finished the season with 130 points, which was a huge achievement, even during the high-scoring '80s. Gretzky finished that season with 208.

Strong supporting rosters on the 1980s Jets, featuring high-scoring forwards like Thomas Steen and Paul MacLean, could not keep pace with Oilers like Jari Kurri and Mark Messier. Puck-moving Jets defenceman Freddie Olausson was eclipsed by even smoother Oilers offensive D-man Paul Coffey.  

Oilers were an impassable object

Even worse, the Jets had no answer in goal to the Oilers' stingy Grant Fuhr and no physical threat to counter the brutish Hulk-like creature known as Dave Semenko.

As a result, every time the talented Jets faced the even-more-talented Oilers in a playoff series, Winnipeg went down in flames like Donald Trump in a debate. A pair of opening-round victories versus the Calgary Flames were just consolation prizes in a decade when Edmonton was an impassable object standing between Winnipeg and … no, not playoff glory, but playoff adequacy.

Some Gen Xers may claim to hold fond memories of those Jets versus Oilers series, but they're either lying or senile.

They forget the aggravating manner in which Esa Tikkanen could skate around the Winnipeg Arena with impunity. They forget the ease with which Glenn Anderson could change the momentum of a hockey game.

They forget the sense of foreboding and dread that preceded every Jets contest versus the Oilers in an ancient hockey arena with awkward right angles in the corners where there should have been a bowl, Soviet Union-cafeteria concessions and the persistent stink of general manager John Ferguson's stale cigar smoke.

When the Oilers entered the old arena, the conquering visitors would be greeted by a giant hanging portrait of a benevolent, smiling Queen Elizabeth instead of intimidating playoff banners. They would toy with the Jets and their fans the way house cats play with their half-dead rodent quarry, allowing them to scurry about for the better part of an hour before moving in for the kill.

After the games ended, forlorn Jets fans would trudge out of the arena and head into the open expanse of the Winnipeg Stadium parking lot, a void as empty and forsaken as the city itself during the 1980s. Before the era of Command Start, they would huddle in their freezing Chrysler LeBarons and Buick Skylarks, waiting for their sputtering engines to warm up while Curt Keilback explained over the radio once again what went wrong on the ice.

When Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington (left) traded Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings, many Canadians wept. Some Jets fans saw an opportunity. (Ray Giguere/Canadian Press)
There was a brief glimmer of joy in Winnipeg when the Oilers traded Gretzky to Los Angeles in a deal designed to place cash in the pocket of owner Peter Pocklington. As Edmonton fans wept, Winnipeggers could not contain their schadenfreude and dreamt of victory at last.

1990 hopes dashed

Revenge finally seemed imminent in 1990, when a double-overtime Game 4 goal by Dave Ellett allowed the Jets to go up three games to one over the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs. But then came the infamous "Death by Popcorn" event in Game 6, when a stall in play to clean popcorn off the ice killed the Jets' momentum and allowed the Oilers to tie the series.

The Oilers crushed the Jets in Game 7, played in Edmonton. Winnipeg's sole chance to defeat the Oilers in the playoffs slipped away.

Today, the new Winnipeg Jets are not encumbered by this history. Even the presence of so-called generational player Connor McDavid on the modern Oilers doesn't seem scary when the Jets have a talent like Patrik Laine on their roster.

In fact, the modern Oilers are a futile franchise that owns the longest active streak of missing the playoffs in the NHL. That's bound to change, but the new Edmonton squad is merely a team to be respected.

The old Oilers were something to fear. The mere presence of names like Kurri, Messier and Gretzky on their alumni roster is capable of bringing back the old nightmares.

It's OK to hold your head below the covers today, if you must. The bogeymen are only in Winnipeg for a single afternoon. 

Come tomorrow, the dread and doom and foreboding will dissipate, along with the memory of a neurotic 1980s Winnipeg that bore the sickly sweet ketosis smell of decay.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.