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Sunday Long Read

Former Oilers, Jets tell of storied rivalry

Recall famous moments on, off ice with teams playing in Heritage Classic on Sunday

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- The players at the center of the rivalry are legendary. The games that spanned the World Hockey Association and NHL were intense and memorable. The behind-the-scenes stories, including one of an alleged backgammon game that resulted in Wayne Gretzky going to the Edmonton Oilers instead of the Winnipeg Jets, are extraordinary.

But what made the rivalry between the Oilers and the Jets, one that featured Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Bobby Hull, Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk, so great was the desire of each team to win championships and the impact that drive had on each other.

"Any time you were playing the Edmonton Oilers you had to be on your toes," said Hawerchuk, who played his first nine seasons for the Jets. "It's one of the reasons you play the game, to challenge yourself against the best."

Sunday, the current-day Jets and Oilers will play the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic (3 p.m. ET, SN, TVA Sports 2, NHLN, NHL.TV) at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg.

It will be the first of four NHL regular-season games this season to be played outdoors.

But the old players who starred in the great rivalry were on the ice Saturday at the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game at the same venue. It was as intense as it could be considering most of the players on the ice were north of 50 years old, and more importantly, it was a flashback to a time when the two franchises seemingly battled it out each season for hockey supremacy.

Sure, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times in from 1984-1990, but the Jets reigned in the WHA and actually created the model Edmonton would use to build its dynasty. 

But long before the world had heard of Gretzky, another all-time great helped escalate the budding rivalry. On June 27, 1972, Bobby Hull signed a 10-year, $2.75 million contract with the Jets in a ceremony at Winnipeg's famous intersection of Portage and Main.

The contract for Hull, who was 33 at the time and had played the first 15 seasons of his career with the Chicago Black Hawks (as they were then known), was funded by each of the new league's owners in a clear shot across the bow to the established NHL. It was also a response to Edmonton, which had signed NHL players Eddie Joyal, Al Hamilton, Bill Hicke and Jim Harrison.

"I thought the WHA was needed in certain areas where professional hockey was long overdue," Hull said. "I felt the people in the prairies and in certain areas deserved professional hockey."

The signing spawned a rivalry that would set a standard of excellence as it moved from the WHA to the NHL, featured the emergence of dominant European players in the NHL and introduced Gretzky to the world.

The one-upmanship between the teams at the start of the rivalry went to the highest levels in short order as the Oilers and Jets combined for eight league championships in a 15-year period that spanned the WHA era and the migration of each to the NHL.

Edmonton won the Stanley Cup five times (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990) in seven years while Winnipeg won the Avco World Trophy three times (1976, 1978, 1979) in four years.

There was a rivalry in place before the first puck dropped for the seven-season run of the WHA.

The respective owners, Bill Hunter in Edmonton and Ben Hatskin in Winnipeg, had already faced off in the Western Canada Hockey League, a junior league based in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Hunter owned the Edmonton Oil Kings and Hatskin the Winnipeg Jets.

The first meeting between the Oilers (known then as the Alberta Oilers) and the Jets was on Oct. 15, 1972, a 5-2 Alberta win in Winnipeg. Through the WHA's existence, though, the Jets emerged with better results.

In 75 head-to-head games in the regular season, Winnipeg was 41-31-3 and, more importantly, won the only two playoff series between the teams.

The first was in 1976, when the Jets swept the Oilers in four games on the way to winning the Avco World Trophy for the first time, going 12-1 in the playoffs that season.

On May 20, 1979, the Jets won the last WHA game, a 7-3 win against Edmonton in Game 6 of the championship series.

Against all WHA teams, Winnipeg went 302-227-26, finishing first three times and winning three championships. The Jets were 11-3 in 14 playoff series.

The Oilers were 259-273-24 from 1972-1979, finishing first once and going 1-6 in playoff series, including a lost play-in game in 1973.

The WHA, down to six teams by the end of that final season, folded and four of its members -- the Jets, Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques -- joined the NHL for the 1979-80 season.


The European influence

The difference between Winnipeg and Edmonton in those WHA years turned out not to be which side could lure away the best talent from the NHL, but the quality European players that the Jets acquired. The additions of forwards Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg and defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg from Sweden and forward Veli-Pekka Ketola from Finland, all for the 1974-75 season, set Winnipeg onto a winning course.

How good where they?

"It would be as if two Connor McDavids came to the Jets today," Joe Daley, the Jets' No. 1 goalie of that era, said, referring to Edmonton's first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

"It didn't take long for us to realize something better was going to happen," Daley said. "Adding that many Europeans to our North American style was a shock to all of us, and there was some abuse from fans and other players, but once they learned how to battle through that, it was a great thing to watch. I'm sure glad I was able to hang around and be part of that."

Nilsson had 120 points, second on the Jets to Hull's 142. Hedberg had 53 goals and 100 points. Sjoberg (60 points) and Ketola (51) finished fourth and fifth, respectively, on Winnipeg in scoring.

Daley, 73, played in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings, but finished his career by playing all seven WHA seasons in his hometown. He said the 1979 championship series is what moved the needle again on the rivalry.;

"They were a solid team from the beginning," Daley said. "But when we beat them the last year, things fell into place for us in that series. If I go man for man, as much as I like my teammates, I thought they were a better team and should have beat us.

"They had [Wayne] Gretzky, [Ron] Chipperfield, [Paul] Shmyr, so many good players but they didn't utilize them properly.

"They never really capitalized on Gretzky's talent even though he was a young pup at the time. We put our nose to the grindstone and beat them. It started from there.

"Once Edmonton got a good team in the NHL, the hard facts are that Winnipeg was a good team but unfortunate to be in the same division. I always said the toughest games Edmonton had in those early NHL years were against Winnipeg and once they were past Winnipeg, it was clear sailing for them."


The NHL chapter

The admission of both Winnipeg and Edmonton to the NHL in 1979 was a clear turning point in the rivalry.

Two of the most dominant Jets players of the earlier era, Hedberg and Nilsson, had moved on, signing with the NHL's New York Rangers in 1978, and a wave of new talent continued to influence the head-to-head competition.

Glen Sather, a workmanlike forward who played 658 games in the NHL, joined the WHA's Oilers in 1976-77 season. He replaced Bep Guidolin, becoming player-coach with 18 games left in the regular season and going behind the bench full time the next season.

Sather, who was named Oilers GM in 1980, pointed to what he saw happening in Winnipeg as one of the great influences on Edmonton in the NHL.

"I liked the way they played," he said. "It was a program that was infused with all the young guys like the ones we had in Edmonton, and that took a little time. Those things don't happen overnight. I think they set the table to see how you can play that way and how you can be successful.

"I mean, they had some great talent there, too, so that always helps."

As with those stellar European players joining the Jets, it was the introduction of a new character to the story that also helped shift the balance of power.


Seventeen years old at the time, he was acquired Nov. 2, 1978, by the Oilers from the soon-to-fold Indianapolis Racers. It would turn out to be a monumental move for the Oilers and the NHL and a massive miss for Winnipeg.

With his franchise in financial difficulty, Racers owner Nelson Skalbania had decided to cash in the seven-year personal-services contract Gretzky had signed less than five months earlier, on June 12. He offered Gretzky to both the Oilers and Jets.

The new Winnipeg ownership group had just come up with $500,000 to purchase the contracts of 13 players from the folded Houston Aeros.

New partners Michael Gobuty and Barry Shenkarow decided to offer Skalbania $250,000 and one-sixth of their franchise for Gretzky, and flew to Indianapolis to meet him, according to "The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association," by Ed Willes.

Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was offering as much as $850,000, and Skalbania took the money.

One famous story surrounding the Gretzky move had Skalbania challenging Gobuty to a game of backgammon, with the franchise and Gretzky as the stakes.

"I just said, 'Uh, no'," Shenkarow told Willes. "Obviously it wasn't the right decision, but at the time it made sense. We had no idea about the NHL. Paying that kind of money for a player in the WHA was illogical. We had just spent all this money on the Houston players. Gretzky represented a big gamble for us."

Outgoing general manager Rudy Pilous didn't think Gretzky was big enough or a good enough skater. Incoming GM John Ferguson, who didn't take over until a month after the Gretzky trade, reportedly liked The Great One quite a lot.

And Skalbania apparently liked backgammon. He reportedly played Pocklington, who would get to trade for Gretzky if he won, with the Oilers owner putting up part of an art collection. Pocklington won, and Gretzky, goalie Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll were traded to Edmonton in the cash deal.

"I knew from the very beginning that with Wayne, we'd have a great opportunity," Sather said. "The unusual thing was that Wayne was offered to Winnipeg instead of Edmonton and I think Rudy Pilous was the one running the team at the time and he just didn't think that Wayne was ever going to amount to anything because Wayne was small. But he forgot about one thing: talent. And intelligence. And Wayne had an abundance of all that stuff."

Through some fancy wheeling and dealing, including agreeing to take the last pick in each round of their first NHL Draft, the Oilers managed to hang on to Gretzky as a priority selection in the transition to the NHL.

Gretzky said that Sather was highly focused on the way to proceed in the NHL.

"Glen's vision or goal in building the Oilers was patterned after Bobby Hull and Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and Kent Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg in Winnipeg," Gretzky said. "That's the kind of team Glen wanted and that was the kind of team that he built in the NHL when nobody had a team like that. He really believed in puck control and puck-handling and skating."

Again, building and succeeding didn't happen overnight.

"We went through the expansion draft to go from the WHA to the NHL and we were fortunate enough to be blessed with Gretzky," Sather said. "And then we needed to have certain kinds of players to put around him to make everything work together.

"Things began to happen and then it was a matter of getting everyone to play under the same system and it wasn't the old skate up and down your wing and dump the puck in and dump the puck out and try to kick the hell out of everybody.

"That certainly wasn't the way the Jets played in the WHA. They were a very strong, finesse-type hockey team. I liked that style of play.

"I think you see the NHL is starting to play more like that today. It's a good way to play."

When the teams joined the NHL, the results of the rivalry skewed heavily toward Edmonton.

Beginning in 1983, the Oilers and Jets faced each other six times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Edmonton winning all six series. It began with two Oilers sweeps, in best-of-five Smythe Division first-round series in 1983 and 1984.

The Oilers were swept by the New York Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, but in 1984, they won it all. Gretzky was awarded the Hart Trophy as League MVP for the fifth time in his run of eight straight, and also won the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion for the fourth straight season (he would also win it the next three seasons).

Edmonton swept the Jets in the second round in 1985 and 1987. In a 1988 first-round series with Winnipeg, the Oilers won the first two games to make it 16 straight playoff victories against the Jets.

"Early in my times, we were a little bit ahead for sure," former Oilers forward Jari Kurri said. "We scored a lot of goals and won a lot of games. But I think they started catching up, like Calgary did. Same story. They really almost tried to build a team against us, so they could beat us. They always got stuck with us in the playoffs. They had a lot of great players, like [Dale] Hawerchuk."

The streak was snapped with Winnipeg's home victory in Game 3, but Edmonton won the series 4-1, making it an 18-1 run against the Jets since the teams entered the NHL.

The Jets appeared to catch a huge break when the Oilers shocked the hockey world and traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 8, 1988.

When the teams met in the first round of the 1990 playoffs, Winnipeg, spurred on by its white-shirt wearing crowd, took a 3-1 series lead. But the Oilers, minus Gretzky, got a game-winning goal from Messier in Game 5, Kurri in Game 6 and Mark Lamb in Game 7 to advance. They would win the Stanley Cup for the fifth time in seven seasons.

"I really credited them [the Jets] for us winning [the Cup] in 1990 because they were such a formidable opponent early on that it forced us to get good or be eliminated," former Oilers forward Craig MacTavish said. "You're only as a good as your competition and they forced us to find a much higher level than we played at all year.

"I loved to play in that building," he said of Winnipeg Arena, the Jets' home then. "The crowd was so close to you. And we knew those players so well. We played so many times against them."

That Game 7 loss was the last with Winnipeg for Hawerchuk, who requested a trade and was sent to the Buffalo Sabres on June 16, 1990, at the NHL Draft.

"The challenge was to play against them," Hawerchuk said. "When you look back now, how many teams can say they've had that many Hall of Famers in less than a decade? They were just so dominant.

"We were the one team that could skate with them. We kind of gave them a challenge that way, but in the end, with hindsight being 20/20, their skill set was pretty good."

The Oilers at their best tilted the scales in a history-making way -- including Gretzky's rise to the NHL's all-time scoring lead --- though they are frequently gracious years after their record-setting performances.

"I've said this before but people don't realize how close the Jets were," former Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe said. "It's bittersweet, I'm sure for the fans and history, but I played those series and they were one goal here or there, especially in 1990, and it changes history. They were tough series and they had great teams.

"There's a long history of the two teams playing one another and they are similar cities in a lot of ways."

Gretzky said goaltender Grant Fuhr was a major difference in outcomes.

"We had a Hall of Fame goaltender," Gretzky said. "Grant Fuhr was that good and was the difference every time we met them in the playoffs. Had they got past us, they probably could have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, but Grant Fuhr was the difference.

"We didn't really crush them. Each and every game was probably closer than numbers would dictate. Grant was the difference."

Video: Gretzky on upcoming Heritage Classic alumni game

The numbers say that the Oilers, in addition to their 6-0 series record against the Jets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, were the better team in the regular season by a good margin.

Edmonton went 64-39-8 against Winnipeg in the regular season between 1979 and 1996, when the Jets franchise moved to Phoenix.

And in that era, before he was traded, Gretzky was superhuman against the Jets, with 57 goals and 87 assists for 144 points in 56 regular-season games.


The present day

The gracious words of today have certainly taken some of the edge off for the losing side.

Daley said that Sather's remarks about modeling the building of the Oilers after the WHA Jets are meaningful.

"Coming from Glen, and I played with him a bit and everyone knows his successes, he's a pretty astute hockey guy," Daley said. "I always took it to heart, that he was enamored with the way our team played the game, and you need skill players to do that and he had those in aces.

"I think it was awful nice of Glen to pay that compliment to our style because it was so different. I don't want to say we were responsible for the game opening up, but it opened up, last-shot wins many nights, and it was entertaining.

"Certainly there was no greater rivalry than with Edmonton in the NHL."

Video: EDM@CGY: McDavid shows speed on great breakaway goal

That led Daley to build the bridge from the past to the future.

"I think the rivalry is about to be resurrected," he said. "Both teams are getting better. If we (in Winnipeg) want to be good, we'll have to beat them because of McDavid."

McDavid, the Edmonton captain at 19, has drawn comparisons to Gretzky and other NHL legends.

The potential for a future rivalry does indeed look brighter.

Both the Oilers and Jets have added sharp, young players through the NHL Draft, skaters like McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Jesse Puljujarvi in Edmonton and Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine in Winnipeg.

Video: Patrik Laine scores three goals including OT winner

But there's a ways to go.

Since the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011, starting what's commonly called the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 era, there have been no playoff meetings and one postseason appearance -- in 2015 by the Jets -- by either team.

In head-to-head games since 2011, it's been nearly even. Winnipeg is 6-4-0 against Edmonton.

The Heritage Classic game on Sunday will be the 219th between the teams, including regular season and playoffs, since it all began in the WHA in 1972.

In terms of rivalry, it's a great place to start again.

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