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With the announcement from True North Sports and Entertainment today, the "Thrashers/Jets/Moose" (or whatever they will be called) have landed in a Canadian city steeped in hockey history. This is great news for Winnipeg, an ultimate reward to the loyal hockey fans there, city administrators and new NHL ownership in the "Peg", and ultimately good for the game. Score one for Canada, eh!
A moment of silence and respect first needs to be extended to the Atlanta faithful who valiantly attempted to support an NHL franchise in that southern market for the second time. The NHL's return to Winnipeg now allows that hockey market a second opportunity for success as well. I believe they are ready for the challenge.
Before looking ahead with much anticipation and excitement to future Jets' successes, I want to reflect on just a couple of past memories I have from that city and of the great teams and players that I encountered. I hope that you can also share some of your own memories as well.
My first visit to Winnipeg in 1973 was after signing an NHL contract to work in their minor professional and affiliated leagues to learn my new profession as a referee. I was 21-years old, had just finished playing Jr. A hockey in Ontario and was now assigned to work a swing through the WCHL. Even though I had a driver's license in my wallet, I wasn't yet old enough to rent a car. I didn't have a license to referee and knew much less about it than driving. I was learning game by game and quite frankly, didn't have a clue what I was doing.
I started that trip in the mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba. Aside from the wooden sidewalks on the main street that greeted my arrival, Flin Flon was also the home of Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach, located a few hundred miles north of Winnipeg. As a result, my next stop in the "big city" of Winnipeg, that ultimately became too small to support an NHL team, was overwhelming to me as 21-year old.
Standing on Portage and Main Streets (the windiest corner in Canada), I was practically blown off the sidewalk. That night in the Winnipeg Arena, I was blown away by a young rookie defenceman for the hometown Winnipeg Clubs by the name of Kevin McCarthy. Now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, I still remember how impressed I was with the young player's skills.
When the Winnipeg Jets and I both arrived in the NHL through different paths, I experienced the passion fans felt for their team. They had watched the greatness of Bobby Hull team up with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to form one of the best lines in all of hockey, and bring two WHA Avco Cup Championships to that city.
The early NHL Jets had a rather dismal start but built an exciting team through the draft with acquisitions such as Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Teemu Selanne and Shane Doan to mention a few. I had the privilege of watching all these Jet stars as rookie players in the NHL.
I'm sure we can all remember the big picture of Queen Elizabeth, whose image we honoured during the National Anthem or recall games and players that brought everyone to their feet. One game stands out in my mind, not for any of the above but, for the circumstance preceding it and the fashion in which we dealt with a single fight that broke out between Jets' tough defenseman Bryan Maxwell and his opponent.
In my second year in the NHL, there was growing concern that player violence and disrespect against on-ice officials had reached epidemic proportions and beyond anything the NHL Officials Association members could tolerate. Referee Andy VanHellemond, a Winnipeg native, was the most high profile target of player abuse at the time, having been crosschecked by Barclay Plager and punched by Paul Holmgren.
NHLOA President Dave Newell, VanHellemond and legal counsel Jim Beatty pulled NHL President John Ziegler away from the annual office Christmas party in Montreal on Dec. 23, 1981 in an attempt to convey how serious our concerns were. It was felt that if stronger suspensions were imposed, players would refrain from this sort of abuse toward the officials. The league seemed to prefer the status quo.
Beatty then wrote a letter to the NHL (also released to the media) advising that, because the officials feared that our safety was not adequately being provided for, we would "work to rule" on a predetermined date. This edict was further clarified to say that if a fight broke out, the referee would blow his whistle to stop play and he and the two linesmen would move to the safety of the referee crease at the penalty box. When the combatants were finished fighting, they would break themselves up, pick up their gloves and sticks and skate to the penalty box where the referee would assess the appropriate penalties.
On the weekend this was scheduled to take place, I was assigned a game in Winnipeg. Maxwell and a visiting player got into a slugfest behind the Jets goal. On cue, I blew the whistle and the linesmen and I watched from the ref's crease as punches were traded. Both combatants started to look for the men in stripes to step in but, when they eventually saw us no closer than 100 feet away, punches slowed, then stopped as the bewildered fighters picked up their gloves and sticks and skated to the penalty box under their own power. It looked like a "beer league" fight without officials on the ice.
The weekend ended with similar incidents in other venues and meetings were hastily called to address the Officials concerns. The end result was the formulation of Rule 67 (at that time) -Abuse of Officials - which resulted in a 20-game suspension to Tom Lysiak of the Blackhawks in 1983 for tripping linesman Ron Foyt. For me, the rule began that cold night in Winnipeg in 1982.
Congratulations Winnipeg. You have acquired a good young Thrashers team with an excellent coach in Craig Ramsay, along with a hardworking and skilled judge of hockey talent in general manager Rick Dudley. It would appear "Moose" season is now open.