Myers: Jets resurrection means renewal of the northern hockey rivalry
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In a speech at the American Legion Club in Warroad, in about 1984, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich joked to the friendly audience that he had to come visit the state's northernmost counties every now and then, "to remind folks in the Cities that Minnesota doesn't end at Highway 2."
In all of the rejoicing about the NHL's new conference alignment plan that kicks in next season, the focus for most fans in the Twin Cities has (justifiably) been on the renewal of old Norris Division rivalries with the likes of the Blackhawks, Blues, Red Wings and the always-hated Dallas Stars.
But for a large chunk of Minnesota that happens to lie north of Highway 2 (and generally west of the Iron Range) there's another old geographical rivalry that renews within the next week and will be a conference rivalry next season. With a nod to those who love to rain boos on the likes of Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Dallas, the Minnesota Wild will visit some new/old northern neighbors on Tuesday, and a brand new, and decades old rivalry, is about to be reborn.
The strange story of the Winnipeg Jets has taken many, many turns, but none quite as strange and unexpected as their resurrection from extinction over the summer. It was 15 years ago that the Jets, after more than two decades of play first in the World Hockey Association (1972-79, where they won the league title three times) and later in the NHL (1979-96), packed up and left town.
In the WHA days the Jets, led by superstar Bobby Hull, played in the 10,000-seat Winnipeg Arena, which was the right size for the league and the market. But the NHL demanded more seats, so the arena was expended (shoddily) by a third in 1979, but at 15,500 seats was still the smallest in the league. Long-time Jets owner Barry Shenkarow had pleaded for years for a new downtown arena, before giving up in 1995 and selling to Americans Steven Gluckstern (a New York investor) and Richard Burke (a healthcare exec from Medina).
As soon as the sale was finalized it was widely known that the Jets were headed south, literally, we just didn't know how far. Burke and Gluckstern had every intention, initially, to move the team to the recently-vacated Twin Cities market (the North Stars had moved to Dallas just two years earlier). But there was only one suitable building in town, Target Center, and not enough revenue streams left there to accommodate a second winter sports team in downtown Minneapolis. Plan B for the Jets was Phoenix, where they became the Coyotes and have played, and often struggled on the ice and at the gate, since then.
While there was never much question that, with a new arena, the Twin Cities could and would again be a thriving NHL market, Winnipeg (even with a new arena) was considered too small and too poor to ever be considered a viable NHL market again. But strange things happened in the past five years. And when a storm more perfect than any of the blizzards that rage across the Manitoba prairie had settled, there was NHL hockey back near the corner of Portage and Main, in a new arena, with a new logo, but the name, and the colors, and the deafening passion of the fans, remains the same.
The Canadian economy improved while the American economy tanked, meaning a stronger Canadian dollar and a dissipation of the fiscal disparities that doomed Canadian franchises in the 1990s (when Winnipeg and Quebec City lost teams to the U.S., and the Edmonton Oilers flirted with a move too). The MTS Centre was built to house pro hockey (albeit of the minor league variety) in downtown Winnipeg. And a NHL expansion team floundered in Atlanta, leaving the league wide open for a northern renaissance. In the spring, the Thrashers (after 11 seasons and zero playoff games won) were sold to Winnipeg-based True North Sports & Entertainment, which immediately announced that the NHL was headed back to Manitoba. A few weeks later, at the NHL Draft in St. Paul, a few thousand vocal Manitoba hockey fans in attendance roared when, for the first time, team owners confirmed that the new franchise would have a familiar name: the Winnipeg Jets.
For a northern Minnesota kid in the late '70s and early '80s, there were some tough choices to be made when it came to your hockey fandom. The North Stars were named for the state where you lived, but for years they'd been an on-ice joke, suffering through that goofy merger with the Cleveland Barons, and routinely getting pummeled (literally) by the Boston Bruins. Plus, for a Warroad kid, the Twin Cities were nearly seven hours ride, in the back of a station wagon, away, and while you could occasionally get a North Stars game on TV, it was spotty, and radio coverage was practically non-existent.
By contrast, Winnipeg was just a little over two hours away. The Jets games were on TV (complete with that awesome "Hockey Night in Canada" theme song) and radio. And a few days after the Miracle on Ice was complete, they signed Warroad's Dave Christian to a contract at center ice inside a packed Memorial Arena in Warroad, then put him on a line where he scored a goal just seven seconds into his first pro shift. They were an easy team to support for many hockey-loving kids in that region, at that time.
When the Jets made the switch to the NHL, they took a massive step backward from their title-winning ways in the WHA. In 1980-81, the same year that the North Stars made their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Jets were an embarrassingly bad 9-57-14. But hope arrived the next season when Dale Hawerchuk was drafted by Winnipeg first overall, and within three years the Jets were topping the 40-win mark and were legitimately the second-best team in the NHL. Sadly, that distinction didn't even get them out of their own division, where the Glenn Anderson-Paul Coffey-Grant Fuhr-Mark Messier-Jari Kurri-Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers had a stranglehold on round three of the playoffs.
They never faced the North Stars in the playoffs, but the games between the two were usually intense, as neighborhood rivalries should be. The two teams would play on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) every year, alternating between Met Center and Winnipeg Arena. When the Jets would come to Bloomington, there was generally a good crop of Manitobans who would make the trek to Minnesota to shop and root for their team. Likewise, when the North Stars went to Winnipeg there would always be a stream of cars headed for the U.S. customs crossings afterward, as fans from the hockey-mad towns near the border (Hallock, Thief River Falls, Roseau, Warroad, etc.) knew a cheaper and closer NHL hockey alternative.
There's a new, and very good, team in Minnesota these days. The North Stars name is gone, although one could argue that more North Stars logo merchandise is seen in the Twin Cities today than was ever seen when they team played here. On Tuesday an old rivalry will be renewed, and it will spill over into the new conference next season.
For Wild fans, there will be plenty of nights when a conference game against the Stars, Blues, Blackhawks and Red Wings will be a hot ticket. And for another group of Minnesota hockey fans, there will be nights when the Jets come to visit St. Paul, and many old passions will be re-stirred.
There are several great NHL rivalries ready to be re-awakened in Minnesota. And they don't end at Highway 2.