Before I go down this path, let me provide some context.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Edmonton Oilers head-to-head Stanley Cup Playoffs results, 1983-88:
1983: Oilers win Division Semi-Finals 3-0
1984: Oilers win Division Semi-Finals 3-0
1985: Oilers win Division Finals 4-0
1987: Oilers win Division Finals 4-0
1988: Oilers win Division Semi-Finals 4-1
Five playoff series defeats in six years and just one win against 18 losses in the process.
That, on it’s own, is awful. Then consider the unimaginable. Each of those series losses and the Stanley Cup dream-shattering handshakes that came with them were at the hands of the same group of slick, cocky, talented men: the Edmonton Oilers
Our Winnipeg Jets entered the National Hockey League with the Oilers in 1979-80 out of the ashes of the World Hockey Association.
The Jets had dominated the WHA, winning three Avco Cup titles in the late 1970s. In the WHA, the Jets didn’t just compete with the Oilers, the Jets were a league power. But thanks to Wayne Gretzky, the power shifted when they both entered the NHL.
Edmonton made it’s mark early in the NHL, but the Jets struggled.
We were bad.
It took a few years, some good fortune and the arrival of Dale Hawerchuk, Dave Babych, and Thomas Steen, but the Jets eventually became competitive and a perennial Smythe division playoff team. But once there, the Jets were like ushers at a movie theatre leading Edmonton to the Stanley Cup seats.
That may sound harsh with a heaping of bitterness, but it’s how I felt at the time.
By the end of the ‘80s, Hawerchuk’s star was fading. The team had missed the playoffs in 1989 and the goaltending was a mess. All indicators suggested the Jets had missed their window to compete for a Cup, a feeling made worse after the Calgary Flames claimed it’s own title that year.
Nobody really knew what to expect as the 1989-90 season arrived.
That season, Winnipeg surprised many by staying in the playoff picture, finishing third in the Smythe, fourth in the West and just five points behind Edmonton, setting up yet another postseason encounter.
The 1990 series marked a new era for the rivalry. Gretzky was now in Los Angeles, Fuhr was no longer the dominating force in goal for Edmonton and Glen Sather had handed the Oilers coaching duties to John Muckler.
The Oilers were facing doubts they could win without the game’s greatest player, and now captained by Mark Messier. Both clubs were past their primes but in a way, I thought that favoured the Jets.
Winnipeg walked into Edmonton and scored seven times in Game 1 to open the series with a 7-5 victory. Need I remind you how much of an accomplishment this was given their head-to-head playoff history? The Oilers earned a split in Game 2 but it required OT, sending a clear message this series would be different.
When the series shifted to Winnipeg the teams were met by sea of white towels and a wave of optimism. The Jets won Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. The momentum was clearly with our Jets. Hey, in this series, we had now won twice as many games than we had won in the previous five series combined.
I am not about to write that the Oilers were worried. Looking back, we in the Jets fanbase seemed to be trying to convince ourselves we should be in this position, while Edmonton’s supporters were just waiting for history to take it’s proper course.
Game 4 was another edge of your seat thrill ride. I was just freshly out of broadcasting college and interning at CJVR in Melfort, SK. I was living with the agriculture reporter and the assistant sports announcer, so hockey was automatic on our TV. Living closer to Edmonton than Winnipeg at the time I felt the responsibility to be extra enthusiastic. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best way to turn the position into a full time job.
I won’t go into detail on the game because you can watch all you need to know about it here:
You just need to know it went to OT for a second time in four games. Bill Ranford was brilliant and Stephane Beauregard was great picking up a rising Bob Essensa in goal. Don Wittman and John Garrett called the game for CBC.
In the second OT, Thomas Steen got loose on a breakaway before being hauled down. I vividly recall screaming for a penalty shot. As I look at it now with a more objective eye, I lean to Steen drawing his own minor for falling a little too easy.
The ensuing power play setup to the left of Ranford, who could only watch as Steen kicked the puck back to Dave Ellett. After taking two strides to the middle, Ellett’s slap shot easily beat Ranford and the Jets won.
The Jets didn’t just win. The Jets were handing it to the Oilers in a first round series, now leading it 3-1. I jumped, screamed, and watched as the crowd at the Winnipeg Arena refused to leave. All those years of losses to Edmonton and now we were up 3-1. Dave Ellett became an instant hero. I will never forget watching the players celebrate that goal.
It just hurts too much to go through what happened over the next three games. I’m not lazy, just aware most of you are also aware that Edmonton rallied to win the series en route to steamrolling the league on its way to its fifth Stanley Cup.
Two years later, this time against the Vancouver Canucks, the Jets blew another 3-1 playoff series lead in another postseason marked by uncertain goaltending.
The Winnipeg Jets of the mid 1980s were arguably among the Top 5 teams in the NHL, yet they never managed to claim a Smythe division title or advance past the second round. In what has become a calling card for Jets fans is that the greatest, singular moment in franchise history occurred during a first round series that they didn’t even win.
The spring of 1990 is responsible for a major piece of the chip on Winnipeg’s shoulder. How can it be that the franchise’s peak came during an eventual series loss?
Of course, the greatest defeat came years later when the Jets were relocated to Phoenix. I was working in Winnipeg by then and was there for the tears. The city did an amazing job embracing the AHL’s Moose and when the NHL officially moved back, I was lucky enough to be in the building for the announcement.
The 1990 series was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time while 1996 just tore the soul out of us.
I always thought I would remember those playoff defeats to the Oilers with bitterness, yet now that the NHL is back in Winnipeg and I am fortunate to consider the Oilers rivalry alive and well.
Sure, they have another superstar, but we are in the game and again building a challenge.
I can’t wait for the next time we meet again.
(Of course it wouldn’t hurt Gretzky and Co. to give us one in the alumni game)