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Oilers and Jets: A rivalry revisited

The Oilers and Jets of old have plenty of history, and it is remembered with an alumni game at the Heritage Classic

by Chris Wescott @TheChrisWescott / Head Writer

Video: THE PANEL | Heritage Classic Preview

WINNIPEG, MB - Ryan Smyth was a massive Oilers fan growing up. The Banff, AB native watched and idolized Wayne Gretzky and his flashy Oilers as they beat up on the Smythe Division. It seemed as if the road to the Stanley Cup led through Edmonton, and rivalries came with that.

"I think the big rivalry back in the day was the Oilers and the Flames but next closest was Winnipeg," said Smyth, who will be suiting up for the Oilers alumni in their game against the Jets alumni today at the 2016 Heritage Classic.

All six times the Oilers made the Stanley Cup Final, in the eight-year span they did, they had to go through the Winnipeg Jets to do so. Playing against the Jets made the Oilers a more refined, resillient squad. 

"I always said that the games and series were closer than the scores would indicate," said Gretzky. "I mean this with no disrespect to anybody, but we had a Hall of Fame goaltender and an almost Hall of Fame goaltender. But the teams were evenly matched. 

"I always respected Calgary and thought Calgary was a really good team but Winnipeg beat them twice in the playoffs. They were a team that could play at a high level."

The 1984-85 Jets notched a franchise-best 96 points and their first-ever playoff series win but they were still swept by the Oilers in round two.

"Unfortunately, 84-85 was maybe one of our best (seasons) ever. Unfortunately for them, they hit a hot team."

In addition to battling against each other in the early days of the NHL, these two teams will be forever linked. They came into the League together after the Jets beat the Oilers in the last ever WHA Avco Cup, four games to two. 

The Oilers dominated the series against the Jets after that, beating them in the post-season six times between 1983 and 1990. 

"The whole 80s, against them. What a powerhouse they were, right? The challenge to beat the Edmonton Oilers was incredible," said Jets great Dale Hawerchuk.Now we look back on it, you see all the star power and Hall of Famers. We got to play against them quite often in the Smythe Division. That rivalry in itself, you've got Gretzky leading the charge, Messier, Coffey, all those guys. The list goes on and on. Anderson. We knew we were in for a challenge every night."

"I loved to play here in the old building," said Oilers great Jari Kurri. "We met many times in the playoffs and regular season. They suffered a little bit because they had to face us in the playoffs. They would have had a shot at the Stanley Cup because they had a good team in those days."

Even after the early years, the Oilers-Jets rivalry had a timeless feel to it to the players.

"I kind of came after the playoffs series and what-have-you but the one thing I will say is I always felt that any time we played the Oilers, there was always that added adrenalin and excitement of playing them because of what had happened in the past," said Eddie Olczyk. "Anytime Montreal and Toronto were here it was always out of control but it always seemed like when Edmonton was in, it was we know what happened in the past. 

"We knew the history and we knew the guys that were always over on the other side that had the ability to make it three or four real quick if you let 'em," Olczyk added. "They were a model franchise for the longest time. Four Cups in the mid-80s and then another in the early 90s. You just knew when the Oilers came to town everybody was pretty jacked."

One of the memories of this particular rivalry that comes up a few times around the Oilers alumni locker room at the Heritage Classic is the 1990 series between the two teams. The Jets had the Oilers on the ropes, and down 3-1 after a goal by Dave Ellett buried a double-overtime winner in game four.

"The biggest one (for me) would be in 1990 when they had us down three games to one and we came back and won," said former Oilers Captain Kelly Buchberger. "That's probably one of my biggest memories against the Jets. The old Arena was a smaller venue but the fans were great. They always made sure the place was rocking."

Video: HERITAGE CLASSIC | Bill Ranford 1-on-1

"I was part of a couple playoff runs against them," said former Oilers goalie Bill Ranford. "It used to be a five-game series when I first got here then the big one in '90 that went the full seven games. We were down three games to one but were able to come back. That kind of got us going on the playoff run."

The Oilers went on to win the Cup that year. Their road to it led through the Jets.

Ranford, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as Most Valuable Player of that post-season has another Jets memory that sticks out. Teemu Selanne capped off a remarkable 76-goal rookie season with his 76th tally coming against the Oil, and Ranford.

"I remember not giving up the 77th," said Ranford. "I've never cheated in a game before and that night they got a power play late in the game and I was just moving on it. I didn't want to be completely in the record books."

The Jets franchise moved to Arizona in 1996, seemingly closing the book on the rivalry for good. But when a franchise returned to the Manitoba city, moving from Atlanta in 2011, it brought back memories of the past.

In some ways, the Oilers can thank the Jets for not just their rivalry but their influence on what became a dynasty. It's often said that Glen Sather wanted his team to play like the Jets of the 70s.

"I always think of Bobby Hull first. And then the big line (The Hot Line with Hull, Nilsson, Hedberg)," said Gretzky. "That big line was so influential in the success of the Oilers because Glen (Sather) wanted to build his team around Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull. He wanted an entire team like that.

"In '79, people thought he was crazy and couldn't win a Stanley Cup like that. (Jets GM) John Ferguson put together a very good organization. Unfortunately for the Jets, they had to go through the Oilers to get to the Finals. But we always had a great deal of respect for their team. A lot of our success came from the fact Glenn emulated the Winnipeg Jets of the mid-70s."

The Oilers and Jets of days past revisit a historic rivalry. On Sunday, the current rosters look to continue it when they take part in an event that traces its roots back to Edmonton, and the first Heritage Classic back in 2003.

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