TSN 25: Jets, Nordiques, Expos, Grizzlies left their mark

Barry Riz,

7/21/2009 2:52:00 PM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, the departure of the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Montreal Expos, and Vancouver Grizzlies from Canada.

Expansion in pro sports has been a common sight in the last 25 years, and Canadian fans have benefitted as new teams have been introduced north of the border. The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Raptors have established solid fan bases in their respective cities, and each has produced superstars and enjoyed moments of success. But between 1984 and 2009, Canada lost several more teams than it gained.

The Montreal Expos, who became the first major league baseball team to play in Canada when they debuted in 1969, were moved to Washington, D.C., and became the Nationals after the 2004 season. The NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies, who came into league as expansion cousins with the Raptors for the 1995-96 campaign, were moved to Memphis after only six seasons.

But in a country where hockey is as much a part of the culture and identity of the nation as anything, the losses of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques well over a decade ago both represent wounds still fresh among the residents of those cities, and of Canadian hockey fans in general.

The Jets and Nordiques, both holdovers when the World Hockey Association folded, were well established in their cities when they were integrated into the NHL together and debuted for the 1979-80 season. Real Cloutier led the Nordiques with 42 goals that year on a club that also featured a 19-year-old Michel Goulet. In Winnipeg, a fading Bobby Hull played only a handful of games as he neared retirement, and Morris Lukowich led the team with 35 goals.

Though neither team ever came close to making a Stanley Cup final, the star players who came to define the teams represented a who's who of the stars of the era. Dale Hawerchuk was the heart and soul of the Jets, and future stars Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk played their first games with the club. Quebec produced Goulet, the Stastny brothers ( Peter, Anton, and Marion), and later, franchise icon Joe Sakic. Eric Lindros infamously refused to join the Nordiques after being drafted first overall in 1991, but his subsequent trade to the Philadelphia Flyers netted Quebec Peter Forsberg and the building blocks that would make the team a contender. Quebec moved to Denver after the 1994-95 season, and won the first of two Stanley Cups just one year later as the Colorado Avalanche.

The reasons for the Nordiques' failure to remain in Quebec City were summed up by team president Marcel Aubut during the press conference announcing the club's move to Denver. "The new realities of the hockey industry, the size of the Quebec City market and the absence of adequate government help sounded the knell of the Nordiques," said Aubut. Quebec's group of owners sold the team to Denver for $103 million (US).

For their part, Winnipeg might have experienced more success if not for their division rivals. The Jets had the misfortune of frequent encounters with the Oilers during Edmonton's dynasty years. Winnipeg was knocked out of the playoffs six times by teams led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier between 1983 and 1990.

The results on the ice weren't great, but the Winnipeg playoff "Whiteout" was pioneered by Jets fans in a ritual that has since been copied in rinks around the NHL.

One year after the Nordiques left Canada, the Jets followed suit and moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. The memorable "Save Our Jets" campaign, and the local efforts that raised $13 million (CDN) to support the team only managed to delay the inevitable. The size of the Winnipeg market (the smallest in the NHL after Quebec moved), and poor exchange rate between Canadian and American dollars made sustaining the team impossible.

Financial issues and stability, or lack thereof, were at the core of the problems that ultimately did in the Montreal Expos in the province of Quebec as well.

The Expos franchise experienced limited success, but like their hockey cousins in Quebec, produced many memorable stars. Rusty Staub, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, and Tim Raines were icons of the 1970's and '80's, and by the early '90's, the Expos became a powerhouse. The 1994 team that included Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Ken Hill, and a young Pedro Martinez put up a record of 74-40 and were the best team in baseball by mid-August. They led the National League East by six games and were well on pace for a playoff appearance with a very good shot at advancing to their first World Series. But then the players' strike hit and wiped out the remainder of the season and the playoffs. Montreal fans still rue the fact that the most successful squad that the Expos ever produced was denied a chance to compete for a title.

As a new decade approached at the end of the 1990's, the sustainability of the small-market Expos became a big issue in the baseball world. Owner Jeffrey Loria was unable to secure funding for a new stadium, and pulled the team off television and English speaking radio in an effort to draw more fans to the ballpark. The actions failed miserably, and fan apathy for the club became widespread.

The team began to suffer a slow, painful death. Average crowds were only 6,000 per game in 2001. Loria abandoned the sinking ship and purchased the Florida Marlins, leaving the Expos without an owner. To make things worse, Loria took Montreal's management and front office staff along with him to Miami.

Unable to find a new owner for the team, Major League Baseball was forced to take over operations of the Expos in 2002, and prior to the 2003 season the team was nearly contracted along with the Minnesota Twins. When those plans fell through, the team played 22 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2003 while MLB pursued a new owner for the team. Late in the 2004 season MLB was finally able to secure ownership in Washington, and the Expos were promptly moved to D.C. in time for the 2005 campaign. The Expos played their final game on the same field in which they played their first 35 years earlier - Shea Stadium, against the New York Mets.

In comparison to the long and relatively storied histories of the Jets, Nordiques, and Expos, fans in Vancouver barely got to know their NBA Grizzlies. The team made Bryant "Big Country" Reeves its first-ever draft pick in 1995, and after escaping their division basement just once in six seasons, departed for Memphis after the 2000-01 campaign. The Grizzlies sported a record of 101-359 during their tenure in B.C.

"It seemed like all the stars completely aligned against the NBA in Vancouver," said TSN reporter Farhan Lalji, who covered the club. "They had a horrible team featuring a slug like Reeves, a terrible Canadian dollar, and spoiled, uneducated, American players who didn't want to come play in the world's greatest city because it doesn't include an "inner-city".

Also contributing to the Grizzlies' woes was a league condition that prohibited the expansion teams from being able to win the first overall pick for their first three seasons. As a result, Vancouver missed out on the chance to draft Tim Duncan from Wake Forest in 1998. Reeves never developed as a star, and despite the leadership of Shareef Abdur-Raheem, the team never enjoyed much success on the court. Season ticket subscriptions plunged from over 12,000 in the first season to less than 5,000 in the final campaign, and eventually a lack of financial support from the corporate community put the team into heavy debt.

By the fall of 2000, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley applied to the league to begin the process of relocating the team. Team president of basketball operations Dick Versace stated that "what's happening here is a business that's not working, it's failing. The reality of this whole thing is it's a financial disaster".

"By the time the team moved it seemed like there was very little emotion left," said Lalji. "The battle had been lost and the vast majority of fans were happy they were gone. 'If they don't want to be here then who needs them' seemed to be the mood."

The team was sold to interests in Memphis early in 2001, and the team moved the following season.

The Jets, Nordiques, Expos, and Grizzlies may be gone, but they left behind legions of fans and are fondly remembered in their former cities, as well as across the country.

So, which of these teams brings back memories for you?  Post your thoughts about Canada's former teams and have your say using the Your Call feature.