Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Low Point in Jets History – March 1983

In the course of my research, I came across the details for the Jets’ three-game sweep at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks in March 1983.

I groaned as I poured over the gory details. They were ugly at the time when I experienced it first-hand as a fan and the passage of time has done the Jets no favors, deservedly so.

The 1981-1982 Winnipeg Jets were the most improved team in NHL history. Loaded with young, talented stars like Dale Hawerchuk, Dave Babych, and Dave Christian, the Jets looked to have a bright future ahead of them. Though they had made a quick first-round exit in the playoffs, with more experience on their side, they looked forward to the 1982-1983 season with understandable optimism as they moved from the Norris to the Smythe Division.

The accolades came pouring in during that off-season. Tom Watt was the winner of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL Coach of the Year and General Manager John Ferguson was named the Executive of the Year by both The Hockey News and The Sporting News. Hawerchuk was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. The Jets were headed in the right direction. Or so we thought.

The 1982-1983 season started well for the Jets, but they struggled as the season wore on. Nonetheless, with Hawerchuk recovering from a case of the sophomore slump, Babych developing into a dominating force on the blue line, and rookie goaltender Brian Hayward solidifying the Jets’ goaltending situation, the Jets were in reasonably good shape as they entered the month of March.

The Jets sat in third place in the Smythe Division, five points back of the Calgary Flames, and five points ahead of the fifth-place Canucks. The pressure was clearly on the Canucks as the trio of pivotal regular season games drew near.

The 1981-1982 Canucks had advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, but they went down in four straight games at the hands of the vastly superior New York Islanders. The Canucks were a mediocre team that had used a combination of hard work and outstanding goaltending from “King Richard” Brodeur to ride an improbable wave through the playoffs.

The 1982-1983 Canucks were little better than the previous year’s edition. Their roster was sprinkled with a handful of quality players, but those Canucks were much more noted for being the classic “clutch and grab” team.

To stress the importance of the series, the Jets sequestered the players at the Fort Garry Hotel in advance of the series opener on Wednesday, March 2 at the Winnipeg Arena. The Jets left the hotel and treated their fans to a stinker of epic proportions. They were shut out by a score of 3-0 by the Canucks and their backup goaltender, John Garrett.

Moving on to Vancouver for the next game on Saturday night, the Jets jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to give up the next five goals to the Canucks. The Jets rallied, but could come no closer than 5-4.

Despite dropping the first two games, all was not lost as the series wrapped up the next night at the Pacific Coliseum, but the Jets responded with lethargy and weakness in a 6-2 defeat that left their coach, their general manager, and their fans exasperated.

An opportunity to make up ground on the second-place Flames in preparation for a potential home-ice advantage in the playoffs for the second consecutive year and the chance to bury a division rival’s post-season hopes instead became a struggle for their own survival.

The Canucks emerged from the series in third place, one point ahead of the Jets. By the time the Jets took to the ice on Wednesday for their next game, they were in sole possession of the Smythe Division basement, looking up at both the Canucks and horrid Los Angeles Kings.

Ferguson reacted by bringing up three players from the minor leagues, then he traded Willy Lindstrom, the longest tenured Jet, to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Laurie Boschman. Ferguson told the Winnipeg Free Press, “I hate to see my team give up without a fight and that’s exactly we did in Vancouver. I can’t accept that.”

The Jets went on to win eight of their last 12 regular season contests to finish with a less than stellar record of 33-39-8. It was good enough for a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they fell one point short of the third-place Canucks and four points short of the second-place Flames.

If the Jets could have mustered as much as a tie in any of those three games against the Canucks, they would have drawn the Flames as their first-round opponent. Instead, they would meet the Oilers for the first time since defeating them in the AVCO Cup finals to close out the World Hockey Association in the spring of 1979.

The Oilers finished the regular season with 106 points, 32 better than the Jets. The three-game sweep that ensued, aided by the infamous Goal Post Goal awarded to Paul Coffey in Game 2, was predictable. However, this series could and should have been avoided, at least for the first round, if only the Jets could have risen above the much less skilled Canucks.

This series against the Canucks stands out as one of the low points in the Jets’ early NHL years and symbolizes their inability to establish themselves as contenders. Their path to glory was not blocked by the Oilers, but by themselves.

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