While the city of Winnipeg can take pride in the fact that NHL hockey is finally returning to Manitoba, there may be a very small, bittersweet undertone in the sense that it's not the beloved Jets/Coyotes franchise that will be back.
Gone for good, but never forgotten, Winnipegers always had a special place in their hearts for the pro team that stood proud in the city for 25 years.
The birth of the Jets began in 1971, when the World Hockey Association welcomed them as one of a dozen charter franchises. The cost to start up the Jets was $25,000. And they made a huge splash prior to the start of their campaign in the fall of 1972, luring sniper Bobby Hull away from the National Hockey League with a $1 million paycheque.
In October 1972, the Jets played their first ever game, beating the New York Raiders 6-4 at Madison Square Garden. And the franchise was off and running. They would enjoy a successful inaugural campaign, making it to the AVCO Cup final where they fell to the New England Whalers in five games.
The best line combination in team history was formed shortly into the Jets' career, as Winnipeg was one of the first franchises to seek out and land European talent. In May of 1974, the team acquired Ulf Nilsson and Andres Hedberg. The two Swedes would pair with Hull to form the infamous Hot Line. Still, the cornerstone of that unit was the former Blackhawks' standout Hull. In the 1974-75 season, Hull scored his 50th goal in his 50th game of the season - an impressive feat in the new league. That season would mark the only campaign the Jets would miss the WHA's postseason. However, Hull would score his 77th goal of the year, which bested the single season mark set by Phil Esposito in the rival NHL.
Their fortunes, however, would change the next season, as the Jets beat the Aeros with a resounding 9-1 score to clinch their first AVCO Cup Championship.
There would be no repeat the following year as the Jets dropped their second AVCO Cup final, this time to the Quebec Nordiques.
A year later, Hedberg broke his own linemate's scoring record, scoring 51 goals in 47 games to the start the year. And this year would also end in success, as Winnipeg captured its second AVCO Championship. They would go back-to-back, beating the Edmonton Oilers in what would be the final WHA season.
The WHA folded in 1979 and four clubs - the Jets, Nordiques, Oilers and Whalers - were absorbed into the National Hockey League.
During the seven seasons that the WHA existed, the Jets were very successful - making the AVCO Cup final five times and winning three of them.
But by contrast, the price to join the NHL came at a steep cost. The Jets lost three of their top six scorers in a reclamation draft. The reigning WHA champions went from first to worst, finishing dead last in the NHL for the next two seasons and suffering a franchise-worst nine-win season in 1980-81.
The silver lining from that campaign was getting the first pick in the NHL draft, which they used to select Dale Hawerchuk. The Ontario native would go on to have a Hall of Fame career and will always be remembered as their most beloved player during their NHL days.
With a cornerstone like Hawerchuk in place, the Jets built a very successful team that also featured Thomas Steen, Paul MacLean, Dave Babych, Randy Carlyle, Laurie Boschman, Doug Smail and David Ellett. But their success in the regular season would never truly reach the same levels in the postseason.
With the NHL's playoff format, the Jets were virtually assured of having to beat either the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames to get to the Campbell Conference final. And it was their fellow WHA alumni from Edmonton that did much of the damage. Winnipeg and Edmonton met in the playoffs six times between 1983 and 1990. Not only did the Oilers win every series, but they limited the Jets to just four total wins. Winnipeg was seemingly a footnote in the Oilers' championship dynasty. In five of their six series wins over Winnipeg, the Oilers would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Winnipeg's last true star finally made his Jets debut in the 1992-93 season, as Teemu Selanne took the NHL by storm. The Jets' 10th overall pick in 1988, the Finnish Flash went on to score an all-time rookie record of 76 goals - 23 more than the previous mark set by Mike Bossy. He was a runaway winner for rookie of the year and still currently holds the most points by a rookie in a season with 132.
The Jets would make the postseason for the next two years, but with no success as they were dropped in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks.
It was also at this time that the economics of the game took their toll on Canadian teams. Winnipeg was already the league's second-smallest market and quickly became the smallest when the Nordiques relocated from Quebec to Denver. With no salary cap or financial structure in place to protect small-market clubs, the Jets were financially unable to retain their best players or realistically remain competitive with the sagging Canadian dollar.
During the 1994-95 season, the first seeds of doubt were planted about a possible move. During the four-month lockout that season, the Manitoba Entertainment Complex (MEC) said that they would not exercise their option to purchase the team from owner Barry Shenkarow and keep them in Winnipeg.
Shenkarow failed to sell the team to an ownership group in Minnesota and announced that the team would remain in Winnipeg for one more season. During a press conference to announce the imminent departure of the Jets, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon summed up the economics of the situation by saying, "The continuing escalation of salary costs and the lack of a firm commitment to revenue sharing in the NHL does not allow NHL hockey to be viable in Winnipeg."
Gary Bettman, then in his third year as NHL commissioner, followed up with the statement, "We regret that the Jets appear to be leaving Winnipeg. The fans of the Winnipeg Jets have been loyal throughout the team's 16 seasons in the NHL. We have exhausted every avenue in the hopes that the Jets could remain, but it appears that no one in the private sector believes, after extensive analysis, that a team in Winnipeg is economically viable."
Still, "Operation Grassroots" was launched by the Winnipeg community in an effort to save the team. On May 16, 1995, over 35,000 fans held a rally to gather support for a new arena and to encourage local ownership groups to step up and buy the team. More than $250,000 was raised at the gathering.
In 1996, the team was sold to Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern, who announced that they would move the team to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season. The team played its final game on Apr. 28 at the old Winnipeg Arena - a 4-1 playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
Gone, but never forgotten.