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Winnipeg Jets 1.0 - The Golden Years

The corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg the day Bobby Hull signed his million dollar contract

The other day a friend of mine from Winnipeg called. We hadn't talked in a while even though at one point in our lives we were nearly inseparable. We worked long hours together, travelled a lot. Talked hockey day and night. Played golf in the summer. Talked hockey all the way around the course. All winter, it was hockey, hockey, hockey. We never talked about golf. We never played hockey and we never talked golf. He works in a different sport now and we never talk about that one, either.

We were sitting in my office in late 1995, having just been told that the Winnipeg Jets were not going to stay in Winnipeg. They were going to ... of all places ... Phoenix. We cried. Really, actually cried. Then we donned our brand new sponsor provided "Season to Remember" t-shirts and went to the game that night, determined that we would wring out every last ounce of hockey joy from our collapsing world while we still could.

My dad called me later that night.

He said, "Jesus Christ."

I said, "Mmhh."

For context, he did that one other time. Called with a single word commentary that summed it all up. The day Johnny Cash died. He said the same thing. He wasn't a big communicator, my dad. Hockey and country music, those were his things.

My friend was calling the other day about another little piece from that long ago time. It's like a puzzle that is slowing undoing itself until all you have is a vague memory of what it looked like when it was whole.

"Joe Daley is moving," he said and paused.

"From St. James street?" I asked, a little hitch in my voice.

"Yep," he replied and we were silent a moment. It was he who spoke first.

"Remember that time we went to Chicago and Chris Chelios tossed his water bottle at someone and hit you instead? Remember the girls chasing Teemu, when we had to sneak up the service elevator. Was that Chicago?"

"Yeah, that was Chicago. We were at the Drake. You lost your wallet at that club and I had to come down and pay for the taxi. I was SO pissed," I said, "Joe's really moving?"

"Yeah. Arena's gone. Joe's gone. Jets are ... well, they're back. But they're not our Jets."

"Joe called me once," I said and laughed, "My kid was in there trying to sell a Lemieux rookie card. I told him to give her $50 and put it in a drawer. I went and got it later. We laughed our asses off when she was all grown up and I gave it back to her."

"Reminds me of Bobby," he said softly.

"Hull?" I asked, a little surprise creeping into my voice. Even I didn't remember that Bobby. My friend has fifteen years on me, so he does. He used to get drunk (my friend, not Bobby) and regale us for hours on end with Bobby stories.

"No, our Bobby. Bobby and Joe were such great friends."

I remembered, of course. Our Bobby was the guy who made sure the jerseys were cleaned ... and accounted for. One of the few "civilians" allowed into the Jets dressing room, he personally took every one and brought every one back, all neat and clean. He used to bring me coffees from Robins, extra large, extra white and extra sweet. If he saw my light on late at night, as it usually was, he'd come up and sit in my office and tell me stories about the good old days when the other Bobby was around. When Joe Daley was still playing, when it was the WHA. He could tell you what the crowd smelled like on the day Bobby signed his million dollar contract and got his million dollar cheque. The golden days, that's what everyone called them. Our Bobby was rotund and polite, vivacious and hard working. Honest and kind. He loved hockey. And the Jets. He took two weeks off after the announcement. Said he needed to catch some fish and yell at the world where no one would hear him.

My friend used to call him "Roly Poly" which made Bobby laugh.

"Geesh. Bobby," I said, all the memories flooding back, "Man, he was like a Nazi with those uniforms, wasn't he?"

We both laughed in that sad way you do when you're talking about a dear friend who has passed.

"Never lost track of one," my friend said, the nostalgia giving the phrase a little poetic edge.

"Well, there was that one," I said pointedly. In the end, one did go missing. Although I should have and I was supposed to, I never gave it any attention except a momentary rise of my eyebrows when I was told. Frankly, I always assumed Bobby took it and gave it to my friend, the one I was talking to on the phone.

"Mmm," he said and I knew he was smiling.

"Ha ha. Whatever happened to that?" I asked. Almost twenty years later, I finally asked.

"I wore it to the first Jets 2.0 game," he said firmly. Three and a half thousand miles separate us, I am no longer his boss and the team from whom the Jersey was "borrowed" moved from Winnipeg in 1996.

"Ah," I said after a pause, "Did it make you sad or happy?"

"Yes," he said.

"We're old now, aren't we?" I asked as if it had just occurred to me.

"Oh yeah," he said, "Oh yeah. Old. Old, old."

I have since moved from Winnipeg, but this makes the third major league hockey team my friend has rooted for. He's a little afraid to get attached to the new team. He refuses to call them anything but "The Jets 2.0" even though, technically, they are the "The Jets 3.0". It's like we're erasing them, he said once. I knew who he meant.

"We invented the white out, you know," he said out of nowhere, a little bitterness in his voice.

"Yeah, I know, I was there," I said and lit a cigarette, I knew where this was going.

"And they just took it. They stole it, really."

"Uh huh," I said. He meant the Coyotes, of course. My friend does not like the Coyotes. My friend does not like the Coyotes at all. Not one teeny tiny little bit.

"And every other fucking thing of importance. The banners. The sweaters. Everything."

"Bastards," I said, because that's how this dialogue always plays out.

"Yep," he said and then chuckled, "Except this one."

"You have it on now," I asked incredulously. It was practically dawn in my world, middle of the dark in his.

"I put it on to call you," he said a little sheepishly.

"You're drunk, aren't you?"

"Oh yeah," and then a little pause, "Joe's moving."

"Are you going to cry?" I asked, rolling my eyes. We're very good friends and in the same way I knew he was sitting there drinking single malt and thinking about the good old days with a tear waiting somewhere in his sentimental old soul, he would have known I was rolling my eyes.

"No," he said indignantly. And then a few seconds later, "Maybe."

Oh, Those Were The Days

I started out to write a piece on the catalyst that propelled the NHL into the "big leagues" in terms of salaries. Namely, the signing of Bobby Hull by the WHA's Winnipeg Jets, making Bobby hockey's first million dollar man. I was going to riff off of Kovalchuk's departure and what his signing by the KHL means - probably something similar in terms of "game changers". I was going to find a way to sneak in the fact that when the WHA folded into the NHL the Oilers were allowed to keep the WHA's shining star, Wayne Gretzky, but had to take (x number, I would have looked this up) last draft picks as a penalty (Gretzky had a personal services contract, not a WHA player contract) because I thought it was an interesting fact about the whole WHA/NHL thing and I thought maybe a comparison could be made between the KHL and the WHA in terms of possible impact on the NHL.

I was going to talk about how that signing, done on Portage and Main in Winnipeg, the "coldest, windiest corner in the world", brought hockey to a city that instantly and completely fell in love with it and was devastated when it left. It was before the salary cap, after the first strike, after the first lockout. When the whole NHL was tenuous and shaky. Gary Bettman, newish in his job, became the most hated man in Winnipeg over night. He made my friend cry. He's still doing it. I feel about Bettman a little like my friend feels about the Coyotes.

I was going to talk about how terrible it was to lose our beloved team.

And then my friend called. And he said it all for me.

Who DOES History Belong To?

Is a hockey team a business entity or does it live in the hearts of the fans who loved it. When a new owner buys a team are they really just buying a ready-made roster, some bags full of pucks and a few staff members to manage it all or they buying the heart and soul of the thing? And what IS the heart and soul? Who can really own its history?

The Winnipeg Jets are a very unique example of the sort of conundrums that occur when you're playing with people's loyalties. The Winnipeg Jets, a WHA team that folded into the NHL in the seventies, operated as a Winnipeg based NHL team until 1995-1996. In December of 1995 the franchise, the legal entity that owned the player contracts and the rights to the trademark, was sold to someone who moved those assets to Phoenix, Arizona. They decided to call their newly purchased NHL franchise the Coyotes and began playing in Arizona in the 1996-1997 year.

In 2011 a NHL franchise based in Atlanta which operated under the name Thrashers was sold to an investor group that moved those franchise's assets to Winnipeg. That group revived the city's NHL name, the Winnipeg Jets, and gave it back to their newly purchased franchise. For clarity, this franchise is hereafter referred to as Winnipeg Jets 2.0.

The Coyotes "own" the history of the Jets 1.0 and the Jets 2.0 "own" the history of the Thrashers. That's messed up.

First of all, you can't own history. Memories are not transferable. Teemu Selanne did not get 52 goals in his rookie season in Phoenix, he got them in Winnipeg. I know, because I was there. Thomas Steen, Dale Hawerchuk and the Golden Jet himself, Bobby Hull, never played in Phoenix. I don't remember Hull, but I remember Steen and Duckie. I was there for them, too. They played in Winnipeg. Their retired number banners hang, nonetheless, in the arena of a team that is neither in the same city, nor named the same thing. The Phoenix Coyotes call amongt their phantom alumni some of the most revered names in hockey despite the fact that not a single human being in that city remembers any of them or, perhaps, reveres them, in the way the people of Winnipeg do. Bobby Hull did not sign his million dollar contract on the corner of 7th and Bell, he signed it on the corner of Portage and Main. You can't sell that stuff. That stuff is not transferable.

So, you can remember Selanne's famous shoot the puck moment, because you sat in the stands at the Winnipeg Arena on Arena Road, right between St. James and Route 90, and watched it happen, but the people of Phoenix, Arizona get to "own" it? I repeat, that's messed up. Even when everyone who did remember is long dead, the city will still exist and those memories are part of its history whether the NHL says they belong there or not.

I think the players on the current roster, the prospects on the books and the bag of pucks belong to the new owner and the new city. All the tangible assets belong to whoever bought the franchise. That makes perfect sense. But the history belongs to the city where it was made. If no NHL team ever exists in that city again, the city where it was made, that city still owns it. If a new roster (and the bag of pucks it travels with) can be brought in, they will add to the history and not bring any of their own. If a city who has never had an NHL franchise gets a bought roster (plus pucks), it starts from scratch, with that roster. A team is more than the legal entity that owns the rights to the players. Or it should be.

The NHL should, when an NHL team is moved, retire that history and hold in "in trust" for the people of the city in which it was lived out. If that city ever gets another NHL franchise, either new or by buying the assets of another, they should be able to use that "in trust" history, which they earned by living it, whatever name(s) the team(s) operates under. The city who was home to the franchise whose assets were bought would, likewise, own their own history, held in trust by the NHL. In this case Winnipeg owns their NHL history, even when they had no team. And Atlanta still owns theirs.

The Phoenix Coyotes' history begins in the 1996-1997 season. Keith Tkachuk was their first Captain. Their current captain, Shane Doan, was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets and now plays for the Phoenix Coyotes. Teemu Selanne, Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, and so on, do not have any place in the history of the Coyotes in the same way Kovalchuk, Heatly and Savard have no place in the Winnipeg Jets history.

It's insult to injury in the most grievous of all ways. Losing the franchise, the asset, was one thing. A terrible blow to the city. An injury. Taking away the history that city earned is an insult. In the same way Winnipeg should not have had theirs stripped away, Atlanta is entitled to keep the history they earned. Kovalchuk never once played in the city of Winnipeg as a member of their team.

This is not the fault, in any way, of the people of either Winnipeg or Phoenix or Atlanta. They're all just the hapless bystandsers. It's not a reason for Jets fans to hate Phoenix fans. But it is a reason for people to look to the NHL and say "WTF, man, WTF?"

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