Winnipeg's hockey history

The news that the Atlanta Thrashers are relocating to Winnipeg, ending a 15-year local drought for NHL hockey, has proven that the 'Peg is an enthusiastic hockey town, but it's also a historic one.
Winnipeg Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg carries the Avco World Trophy after the team won the 1979 WHA championship. (Canadian Press)

Winnipeg's love of hockey isn't surprising to anyone who's spent a winter there — there's no better distraction from the cruelties of nature than the Fall-to-Spring drama of a professional hockey team.

The news that the Atlanta Thrashers are relocating to Winnipeg, ending a 15-year local drought for NHL hockey, has proven that the 'Peg is an enthusiastic hockey town. But it's also a historic one.

People have been playing variations of hockey since at least the 1700s, and the "modern" version of the sport was established in Montreal in the 1870s, but rink rats in Winnipeg have made indelible contributions to the contemporary game. In 1893, for example, a team from Winnipeg did an exhibition tour, introducing some of its innovations to eastern hockey markets. In the 1890s, net-minders in the 'Peg began using cricket pads to protect their knees and shins, giving rise to the iconic regalia of the modern hockey goaltender. Around the same time, some enterprising Winnipeggers invented the wrist shot.

The Stanley Cup has become the holy grail of professional hockey, but there was a time when amateur teams vied for the trophy. One of those estimable squads was the Winnipeg Victorias, who took the prize in 1896 (against the Montreal Victorias, no less), 1901, 1902 and 1903. Being a non-pro team, the Victorias were no longer eligible to play for the cup after 1908, but they continued to dominate Manitoba hockey, winning the provincial Allan Cup in 1911 and ’12.

While Canadian hockey fans have a deep emotional connection to the Jets, arguably the most famous team to emanate from Winnipeg — the Falcons — was established in 1911. At first, the Winnipeg Falcons were a rather inauspicious crew made up entirely of Icelandic descendents who had been barred from playing on any other Winnipeg team because of their ethnicity. The Falcons spent the 1911-12 season in the basement of the Manitoba Independent League. But with the acquisition of two dynamic players — Konnie Johannesson and Frank Frederickson — the Falcons began to build the foundation for a world-beating franchise.

The Falcons climbed steadily in the city's hockey ranks, and after a layoff during the First World War, a reconstituted, ferocious Falcons squad won the prestigious Allan Cup in 1919-20.

The team's most prestigious outing was at the 1920 Olympic Winter Games in Antwerp, Belgium, where the Falcons thrashed all comers to capture Canada's first-ever Olympic gold medal in hockey.

Enter the Jets

In the decades to follow, Winnipeg remained a thriving hockey town — the city spawned a number of robust senior teams, including the Winnipeg Monarchs, who won gold for Canada at the World Hockey Championships in 1935. But the city didn’t earn a professional team until 1972, with the arrival of the World Hockey Association, an upstart competitor to the reigning National Hockey League. The WHA team was called the Winnipeg Jets, having taken the nickname from a squad in the Western Canada Hockey League.

The Jets' most famous and gifted player was Bobby Hull, the Chicago Black Hawk legend who was signed for an unprecedented $2.75 million for 10 years. Hull's presence gave the WHA immediate credibility, and alongside Swedish prodigies Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, "the Golden Jet" spearheaded arguably the most fearsome line in the WHA's history. The Jets went to the WHA finals five times and won the coveted AVCO trophy three times.

Despite its exciting on-ice product, the WHA was financially unstable, and it folded after the 1978-79 season.

The NHL, having taken notice of the Jets' success, brought the team into the fold for the 1979-80 season (along with the Quebec Nordiques, the Edmonton Oilers and the New England Whalers).

Unfortunately, the league stipulated that each of the expansion teams had to give up their best players in order to spread the talent around the NHL. As a result of this distinct disadvantage, the Jets' first two seasons in the NHL were abysmal — the team finished second-last in 1979-80 and dead last in 1980-81.

On the plus side, the team nabbed exceptional draft picks. In 1981, it chose a youngster named Dale Hawerchuk, who would become a future Hall of Famer. Over the years, the Jets also scored Thomas Steen, Dave Babych and Dave Ellett, all of whom ended up representing, at one point or another, the Western Conference in the All-Star game.

As an NHL team, the Winnipeg Jets were never as formidable as the Edmonton Oilers in the '80s or the Detroit Red Wings in the '90s, but Jets fans were undeniably ardent. The opening round of the 1987 playoffs saw the introduction of the "Winnipeg White-Out," in which fans wore all white to home games in order to intimidate the opposing Calgary Flames. The Jets beat the Flames in four straight games, but lost to the Oilers in the subsequent round.

But the white-out tradition was born, and even moved to Arizona when the Jets later became the Phoenix Coyotes.

Financial woes

Due to rising operating costs, ballooning player salaries and an adverse U.S. exchange rate, the Jets were in deep financial straits by the mid-'90s.

Amid popular outrage — and despite a public fundraising drive that generated $500,000 — the league decided to relocate the Jets to an American market. In 1996, the Jets were reborn as the Phoenix Coyotes, which has been a perpetually middling performer for 15 years.

After the Jets' departure from Winnipeg, despondent hockey fans put their energy behind the Manitoba Moose, a minor-league team in the International Hockey League that had moved from Minnesota to inhabit the vacated Winnipeg Arena. When the IHL folded, the Moose joined the American Hockey League and became the farm team of the Vancouver Canucks.

The Moose have been consistently good performers, reaching the AHL finals in 2009, only to lose to the Hershey Bears. For a decade and a half the Moose have been able to feed the hunger of this hockey-mad town, but the desire for an NHL-calibre team remained insatiable.