So, how about those Phoenix Coyotes? That was some series, wasn't it? Tense, always in doubt, ultimately won by the favourites but that's sports for you. For a neutral it was terrific viewing, and of course a lot of us Oilers fans were less than neutral. They were the Coyotes! Against the Red Wings? Oiler fans, as a bloc, love underdogs, which makes sense since this season we're the ultimate underdog. So a lot of us cheered on the Coyotes and urged them to throw the snake and generally had a good time of it.
Heck, did you see Travis Hair's letter to Oilers fans urging them to adopt the Coyotes? That almost swung me around and I have a heart made of the same cold brick as Patrick O'Sullivan's hands.
But I am a blogger, and my second duty is to the truth (my first duty is to Patrick O'Sullivan jokes). So, with all due respect to the Coyotes, who earned my respect and the respect of a lot of others this April, I must regretfully ask that they condemn themselves to the dustbin of history. It may be insensitive for me to say this now, so soon after their hard-fought elimination, but the truth has no sense of appropriate timing.
You see, the Coyotes are but a mockery of what is good and true. We Oiler fans - all of us - ought to be cheering for the return of the Winnipeg Jets.
No, this is not simple patriotism, not the blathering drool of the "make it seven!" crowd waving towels over their heads like drunken orangutans. The Oilers faithful have their own very specific reasons to want the Jets back and, because I'm only too happy to tell you all about how clever I am, I shall be specific after the jump.
Perhaps you're younger than I am and don't know what the Jets mean - or at least ought to mean - to the Oilers history. Heck, even I was only nine when the Jets were spirited away to the desert. But I also spent my formative years ignoring school and reading more about hockey than was really good for me, so I shall appropriate for myself the title of historian.
The Jets and the Oilers have a lot in common. They were formed in the same year (1972) in the same division (the Western) of the same league (the World Hockey Association). Of course, their 1972-73 seasons went pretty differently apart from that. The Jets wound up as Western finalists, running out a lineup guys you've actually heard of like centre Bill Sutherland, goaltenders Joe Daley and Ernie Wakely, and some little-known over-the-hill winger named Bobby Hull. The Oilers ran out even more recognizable names, or at least recognizable to fans like us, such as Rusty Patenaude, Bill Hicke, and small-town Saskatchewan's bravest goaltending son Jack Norris. But those Oilers finished a game below .500 and lost a single-game playoff to the Minnesota Fighting Saints, or at least the first incarnation of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, who would wind up coming back like crabgrass.
The Jets and Oilers were, however, united in mediocrity in the coming seasons. Both teams were eliminated in the first round of the 1974 playoffs and neither team qualified in 1975, with the Oilers going two games below .500 despite having Jacques Frickin' Plante in goal for forty games (by the way, Plante was 46 at the end of that season). But, with teams moving madly and folding like Steve Tambellini at the poker table, the Jets and Oilers were developing into one of the few geographical rivalries the erratic Association had.
Today, to the extent that the Jets are remembered at all by us Oiler fans, we remember them as our old Smythe Division whipping boys, basement dwellers whose only role in life was losing to the Oilers in the playoffs and occasionally picking up an improbably appealing Canadian boy to be a lone star on a lousy team. In the World Hockey Association years, things were quite the reverse: the Jets won the 1976 Avco World Trophy after sweeping the Oilers in the second round, were the losing finalists in 1977 while the Oilers went down in the first round to Houston, and another Avco World Trophy came to Winnipeg in 1978 as the Oilers put up another first-round exit. Only in 1979 could the Oilers rival the Jets; under head coach Glen Sather and boasting a young centre named Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers won the regular season title by eleven points, cruised through most of the playoffs, and lost only in the championship final to... the Winnipeg Jets.
The rivalry went south in a hurry after the WHA - NHL merger of 1979, however. It was less "merger" and more "screwjob": The four WHA teams joining the NHL paid $6 million each for the privilege of having their rosters stripped from them and players whose rights were owned by NHL teams reverted to those NHL rosters without compensation. The Oilers kept Wayne Gretzky, Eddie Mio, and Dave Dryden, as well as picking up some decent pieces like Pat Price, Lee Fogolin, and Dave Hunter in the expansion draft. The Jets held onto Scott Campbell, Morris Lukowich, and Markus Mattsson. The highlight of their expansion draft was getting 40-year-old Bobby Hull back. The actual best player they picked up was probably Gord McTavish, which is a condemnation in and of itself.
And that's all she wrote for that rivalry.
But the Jets brought us so much more than their World Hockey Association legacy. They gave the world the Winnipeg White-Out, which makes waving a towel look positively puerile. They brought us Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, and Teemu Selanne - each a certain type of stereotypical undersized player so common to underachieving teams of the era but each also talented enough to ascend to superstardom, as well as possessing an élan that only the Gretzky-era Oilers and the Lafleur-era Canadiens could hope to match. In latter years they gifted the NHL with Keith Tkachuk, Shane Doan, and a personal favourite by the name of Stu Barnes. They pulled the infamous Bob Essensa out of Michigan State when grabbing NCAA goaltenders was by no means a fashionable thing to do and somehow moulded him into a starting goaltender in the last years of the wild puck. The team, while never the most talented, was always one of the most entertaining and the most unabashed fun to cheer for.
Finally, there was their legendary playoff record. In their NHL history they won only two playoff series, both Smythe semifinals against the Calgary Flames which ought to endear them to us on that basis alone. They met the Oilers in six playoff series and lost each and every one. On the last five of those occasions, the Oilers went on to take the Stanley Cup.
Let me put that in perspective. The Oilers have never won a Stanley Cup without beating the Winnipeg Jets first.
The last of these occasions in 1990 was perhaps the most famous. The Jets opened the series with a rare win, beating Edmonton 7-5 at their own run-and-gun game in a stunned Northlands Coliseum. But the Oilers clawed back with an overtime win in Game Two, only to head to Winnipeg and lose the next two in a row in a raucous building sensing an upset at last.
But the Oilers reasserted themselves. A tight 4-3 victory at Northlands and then, finally, a precious win over the Jets in their own rink by an identical 4-3 score. The poor Jets had shot their bolt and when they slunk back to Edmonton for Game Seven it was as a beaten team: the final score was 4-1 Oilers, and the Oilers had survived their greatest scare of what would be another successful playoff run.
So that, alone, should be one compelling reason to bring back the Jets. They are the Muttley to our Dick Dasterdly, the Porthos to our d'Artagnan, the yin to our yang. The Oilers without the Jets is an incomplete system, and it has gone on far too long.