Recently, writer Ryan Batty posted an interesting article on www.coppernblue.com that argued the merit of the rivalry between the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers. It’s well founded and I have to agree with most of the information he put forward. That being said, I disagree with his conclusion, there was a rivalry and perhaps there will be again.
The story can be found here and you should check it out, it’s a great read.
The last ever game played in the seven-year history of the WHA was played between the Jets and the Oilers. The Jets prevailed 7-3, lead by Kent Nilsson, Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, and Gary “Suitcase” Smith. Winnipeg had a wonderful team, not as good as the one they had before Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson left for New York, but very good. (Many say that the Jets of 1977 would have been a challenge for the Montreal Canadiens, who were the Stanley Cup champs) Edmonton was lead by a very young Wayne Gretzky who clearly had run out of steam and admits he was in way over his head. The fact that those two teams played the last ever game for the rival league means they will walk forever together in history.
The Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Wailers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Edmonton Oilers all reached an agreement to join the NHL in the fall of 1979. That made them brothers in arms to a point, well at least until the Oilers turned their backs on the other three and in a critical vote, joined with the NHL clubs and moved them to the bottom of the first round of the NHL entry draft. Their reward selling out their partners was Dave Semenko from Minnesota. (Source: Thunder and Lightning by John Ferguson. Great read, you should try to find a copy) Because of that maneuver, the Jets were forced near the bottom of the first round where they picked Jimmy Mann. Now forever known for a vicious sucker punch and the only player in that first round who wasn’t an impact player. The Jets had their eyes originally on Ray Bourque… You can’t make this stuff up! Needless to say the rivalry in the front office had already started.
Another reason for a good rivalry is proximity. The closest NHL city to Winnipeg is Minnesota, 700 km away. I can tell you with good authority that Minnesota never was and never will be a heated rival to the Jets. There was never a playoff series, nothing stands out. I can’t think of once instance of anything of substance between the two teams. I was however in attendance when Freddie Olausson almost tore one of their goalies head off with a sick one timer. Both Edmonton and Calgary are roughly 1350 km away from Winnipeg. Chicago is slightly more. I’m going to discount Chicago for a moment, although I remember Chris Chelios and Temmu Selanne tried to kill each other for the better part of two seasons. Back to Calgary for a moment, who is the only team Winnipeg ever beat in a playoff series in the NHL? That’s right, the Flames…twice. There is also the Jamie Macoun/Dale Hawerchuk incident that can still raise the blood pressure of many people in the Peg. This is a better fit than Minnesota. Two Canadian teams, some playoff history, bad blood. All the things you need for a rival to exist. This has potential going forward.
Back to Chicago for a moment. There actually is some merit to this argument. Both can be called the windy city, and if you have never been to Portage and Main then you have no idea how true that statement is. Bobby Hull left Chicago for the WHA and ended up in Winnipeg. That did not sit well with the NHL. They never faced each other in the playoffs but they did have some heated games when they briefly played in the same division back in the early 80’s. There has also been some internet chatter that suggests the Jets will join the Central Division next year when they move to the Western Conference. This will be one to keep an eye on.
Then there is the mighty Edmonton Oilers of the early 80’s. The team the god himself built. Two historic drafts that netted five Hall of Famers, Kevin Lowe, and they protected the “other guy” when they joined the NHL. Simply unbeatable. Five times these two teams played in the playoffs. Five times in SIX years they faced each other. The first four times were a cakewalk. Usually it was in the first round and usually it was a sweep. The odd time the Jets would win a game. Then came 1990, which was supposed to be the year. The year the Jets killed the demon, the year the Jets fans would FINALLY be able to hold their head high. It looked good for a while; the Jets had a three games to one lead and had momentum on their side. Dave Ellett scored the goal of a lifetime in overtime and they looked unbeatable. That was until someone talked – Alpo Suhonen. Lesson number one Alpo, when you have a championship team down, keep your mouth shut. Don’t spout off in the press about how bad they are playing. Another good idea is not to rotate your goalies in the playoffs but that is a story for another day Bob Murdoch. Everyone knows what happened after that. Another Stanley for the Oil, more heartbreak and “what could have been” for the Jets. Interesting note, in the five years the Oilers won the Stanley Cup, they beat the Jets. In the two years they lost in the final, they did not have to play the Jets in the opening rounds.
Now I get the argument that if one team always wins, it’s not a rivalry. I understand that point and agree with it somewhat. That being said, many people consider the Oilers and Dallas Stars rivals and the Stars pretty much took the Oilers lunch money every year. Yes the Oilers did win once, and created a whole new legion of fans when they did. After that it was lights out with no chance for the Oilers. Also, consider the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. The Bruins went years against the Habs and couldn’t beat them. It was and still remains a great rivalry but in the late 70’s it was very one sided. Even in the early 70’s when the Bruins had Bobby Orr those pesky Habs found a way to steal a couple of cups away from Boston.
The final question is this: find any Jets fan that is 35 years old or older and ask them which NHL team they hated the most during the 80’s and 90’s. I guarantee the answer more times than not is the Edmonton Oilers.
That my friend is a rivalry.