You have to go back 37 years and to an entirely different professional hockey league to find the last time the Winnipeg Jets scored a major victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
Even then, the Jets had just finished runner-up to the Oilers in the bid for Wayne Gretzky when the young star was dealt away by the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. (There’s a tall tale about a lost backgammon game being the deciding factor.)
This rivalry, if you can call it that, has always been one-sided.
The two teams have grown up together. Both came kicking and screaming into existence like all World Hockey Association teams did in the 1970s. And now the alumni of both teams will skate together again, this time outdoors at the 2016 Heritage Classic.
Unlike the first Heritage Classic alumni game between Edmonton and the Montreal Canadiens in 2003, this one carries with it some extra baggage. The Jets franchise — their players and fans alike — have a score to settle. Big brother has won one too many driveway games.
That last post-season Jets victory over their more accomplished relatives to the west was the WHA’s 1979 Avco World Trophy—the last such championship before Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and New England (later Hartford) merged with the NHL. Gretzky’s bodyguard, Dave Semenko, scored the WHA’s final goal in the Oilers’ loss.
But that memory is not as strong, nor as long-lasting, as the playoff loss after loss for the Jets at the hands of the Oilers in the Smythe Division of the 1980s.
The numbers are staggering: Edmonton beat Winnipeg in the post-season six times between 1983 and 1990, their record a whopping 22-4. The first Jets playoff win versus the Oilers finally came in 1988, though Winnipeg followed it up by losing the next two games as well as the series.
The Oilers heavily outscored the Jets in the playoffs, to the tune of 114-73 over the course of six playoff series—that works out to 4.4 goals per game vs. 2.8, on average. (It’s worth noting that there were also 10 one-goal games.)
Each of the Oilers’ five Stanley Cup runs included speed-bumping the Jets along the way.
While numbers don’t lie, they also don’t tell the whole story. The Oilers, after all, modelled themselves after the WHA Jets and The Hot Line of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson.
“They showed us an awful lot about innovative hockey,” Glen Sather said of the Jets trio on May 19, 1984 — the night his Oilers won their first Stanley Cup over the New York Islanders dynasty.
“To me, that line’s still the best line I’ve seen play together. That’s really the way we tried to mould this hockey team, after their free-flow style,” he said.
Winnipeg, however, did not have the strong start in the NHL that Edmonton did.
The Jets missed the playoffs their first two seasons, but drafted a few core players in the meantime. With the second overall pick in 1980, Winnipeg selected defenceman Dave Babych, an Edmonton native.
Babych used to sneak into the Edmonton Coliseum to watch WHA games. He was small enough at the time to evade security guards and disappear into the crowd.
“In my first year, we struggled,” Babych told Sportsnet. “I think we had seven rookies in the lineup every night. After that year, Dale [Hawerchuk] came in — a legitimate superstar and a No. 1 centreman that helped glue all the pieces together. We had a very good team after that.”
With the first overall draft pick in 1981, the Jets selected Hawerchuk, who went on to play nine full seasons in Winnipeg, collecting 1409 points over his career and leading the Jets to eight playoff appearances.
Of the six post-season runs that ended in defeat at the Oilers’ hands, Babych was part of three.
When the Jets traded him in 1985, he didn’t want to leave.
“I was devastated, I didn’t know what to think,” Babych said. “I kinda mumbled, ‘Can I get my jersey?’ Fergie [GM John Ferguson] was a good guy and I don’t know if it was that they were cheap but he said, ‘I don’t know… yeah, OK.’ That jersey was pretty dear to me.”
Being labelled a “very good” team — never a “great” one — got under the skin of Jets players and fans alike. And when a team’s grip on a rival is that vice-like, the pressure is transferred directly to the fanbase. Whether it’s impatience, frustration, or even denial, the fans on the losing side almost define themselves by these franchise-defining encounters.
“They were my formative years in hockey,” three-time Olympian Sami Jo Small, a native of Winnipeg and a put-upon Jets fan, told Sportsnet. “In 1980 I was four and in 1990 I was 15 — all those years losing in the playoffs.”
Oilers fans, on the other hand, didn’t have it quite so bad.
“Like a lot of hockey fanatics, Gretz inspired me. He was my childhood hero,” retired former Oiler Ryan Smyth, who will play in the Heritage Classic alumni game for Edmonton, told Sportsnet.
The Alberta native is just one month older than Small.
“I was fortunate enough to be at the Stanley Cup Final the last year they won with Gretzky. I was a stick boy for the ’87 Canada Cup,” said Smyth. “I got to mingle with these guys. I was just in heaven.”
The winning must have felt like it would never stop.
“Gretz gave me one of his sticks and — I was just a kid, I wasn’t thinking — I cut it down and used it,” says Smyth, who would go on to play his first NHL shift against No. 99, who was well into his tenure with the Los Angeles Kings by that time.
Short of five Stanley Cups and possession of the Great One’s holy staff, Small — then an aspiring goaltender — poured herself into supporting the Jets.
She painted homemade goalie masks, interviewed players as a Junior Jets reporter, and even appeared in the newspaper wearing her tin foil Stanley Cup hat.
Despite the playoff heartbreak, Small has positive things to say about those Jets teams of decades past — including a few lines you might not expect to hear from a Winnipeg hockey fan.
Things like, “It was almost like it was OK to lose to the Oilers,” and “I certainly did not [hate Wayne Gretzky].”
Maybe it’s denial, or maybe it’s that Jets fans knew that they had a great team that was always bested by the best.
“There was a sense back in the day that whoever came out of the Smythe Division was sort of our champion,” Small said. “Even when the Flames won the Cup with Lanny McDonald, I remember a lot of Winnipeggers cheering for them.
“I was a kid, so had we won, maybe I’d have felt differently,” she reflected. “It was like, if we couldn’t win the game, we wanted to force them to be the best team that they could be.”
The Jets came close to getting past Edmonton in 1990. Winnipeg blasted goaltender Bill Ranford — who was thrust into the crease for an injured Grant Fuhr — and the Oilers to the tune of 7-5 in Game 1. A few days and another win later, Dave Ellett scored in overtime of Game 4 to give Winnipeg a 3-1 series lead.
But the 23-year-old Ranford helped the Gretzky-less Oilers storm back to win the next three and claim the series. (The Oilers, of course, won it all that year.)
Ranford, a Manitoba native and a fan of the Jets in the Bobby Hull days, would later fall victim to hockey karma in a memorable Jets milestone. On the final game of the 1992-93 season, Teemu Selanne put the puck past Ranford for the 76th goal of his rookie campaign, setting a record for most goals in a rookie season and tying him with Alex Mogilny for the overall league lead that year.
“I basically just set up on him — something I didn’t normally do — but I just didn’t want to be the guy in net when he broke the record,” said Ranford. “His teammates were feeding him [the puck] left and right.”
Selanne, who will also return to Winnipeg for Saturday’s outdoor game, took 11 shots on Ranford that night.
History aside, these alumni games don’t mean anything big-picture, right?
“That [2003 Heritage Classic] was just gonna be fun, river hockey at a very slow pace,” Dave Semenko said of the Oilers’ outdoor clash with the Montreal Canadiens in Edmonton. “It didn’t matter who won the game but once we got on the ice, it became apparent it was going to be a very tight game. Then, it became extremely important. We wanted to win it and so did they.”
Leave it to the even-keeled Sami Jo Small to bring us back to Earth.
“We’re gonna fight to the death,” she said of Heritage Classic 2.0.
“We definitely owe them,” said Babych. “They’ve had their share of triumphs.”
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