The World Hockey Association was only around for seven seasons. Founded in 1971, beginning play in the fall of 1972 and lasting until 1979 with the original Winnipeg Jets being part of the league as a charter member. The league opened with 12 clubs spread through North America and gained instant notoriety for the defection of Bobby Hull from the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks to the WHA and the Winnipeg Jets.
With Bobby Hull leading the way- who’s ten-year, $2.75 million contract was a North American record and also financed by each team in the league looking for a big name to lend the new league pro-level credibility – and then followed by additions of players from Europe (something that wasn’t really done by the NHL back in the 70’s) the Jets were pretty much an instant success on the ice and through the entire run of the WHA as they made the Avco World Trophy Finals in five of the seven WHA seasons, winning the price three of those five times. They made the playoffs in six of the seven seasons, having only missed the 1975 playoffs even though they had a better record than Cleveland which made it in over the Jets due to the WHA requiring two teams from each of it’s three divisions to qualify.
Two years after the Jets made it to (and lost) the league finals, the Jets win their first Avco Cup Trophy defeating the then defending two time champion Houston Aeros who were led by hockey legend Gordie Howe who at the age of 45 was brought out of hockey retirement to join his sons Mark and Marty.
The Jets boasted a legendary trio of their own with Bobby Hull joined by Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg up front. The defense was anchored by team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg and in goal, Joe Daley emerged as one of the league’s top netminders. The club posted a 57-27-2 record in the regular season and then absolutely blasted their way through the WHA playoffs with only one loss in the three rounds of play including a first round sweep of the Edmonton Oilers and a sweep of the Aeros in the final round. Nilsson was named playoff MVP and Winnipeg had it’s first major pro hockey championship.
The Jets found defending the Cup a bit tougher in the 1976-77 season as they ultimately fell to the Quebec Nordiques in the 77 Avco Cup Finals in a tough seven game series.
By the start of the 1977-78 season, the WHA had lost five teams since the last time the Jets had lifted the trophy and there had already been talk of merging six of the remaining eight teams into the NHL, though those plans didn’t come to fruition right away.
Instead, the Jets resumed their domination of the league, finishing first in the single division eight team league with a 50-28-2 record which also gave them a first round bye into the league semi-finals. Again, the playoffs proved to hardly be a challenge as they took care of the Birmingham Bulls in five games before meeting up with a familiar set of faces in the WHA Championship round. Gordie Howe and his two sons had moved to New England to join the Whalers for the season. Gordie was still as dominant as ever putting up 34 goals and 96 points in 76 games played as he and his boys helped turn the Whalers from a sub-.500 club to one of the league’s best.
That didn’t matter in the final however as a much deeper roster in Winnipeg, boasted with the continued dominance of the Hot Line along with the league’s best defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg and joined by WHA rookie of the year Kent Nilsson, swept the Whalers 4-0 in the league final.
The fact that the WHA was crumbling around them hardly seemed to bother the Winnipeg Jets – Houston had folded before the season had begun and Indianapolis folded during the middle of the season – and it became more apparent that they would be moving on with an agreement being made that the Jets would join the Oilers, Whalers and Nordiques in the NHL. The Jets claimed the league’s last Cup in 1979 although it was done mostly without Bobby Hull who suffered multiple injuries through the season and without Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nillsson who both went on to sign with the NHL’s New York Rangers.
The absence of those three big names was big, but Kent Nilsson, Morris Lukowich and Peter Sullivan helped fill the void and lead the Jets to a 4-2 series win over the Edmonton Oilers and a 17 year old Wayne Gretzky.
What became of the Winnipeg Jets and their entry into the NHL has been long talked about as the league stripped all four WHA clubs of their talent due to a league dispersal draft but had an especially hard effect on the Jets who lost most of the core of their WHA championship club. The Jets struggled with just a nine win NHL season in 1979-80 as they looked to rebuild from almost the ground up as an expansion team.
Those Jets eventually became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 which at the time seemingly closed the book on Winnipeg’s pro hockey history. While the team traveled south, one thing was left behind.
The Jets – who were given the final Avco Cup trophy to keep following the 1979 season – donated the trophy to the the Hockey Hall Of Fame in Toronto. There are two other “copies” of the trophy also in existence, with one of them being located at the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.