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OTH: High-flying WHA Jets stripped down for parts upon landing in the NHL

One of the 1970s best teams gets a rude awakening when joins the senior league

Winnipeg Jets v Toronto Maple Leafs

The Winnipeg Jets were coming off back-to-back Avco Cup Championships when they entered the NHL along with the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques in June, 1979. Winnipeg had appeared in four straight WHA finals, winning three of them.

While merger talks between the two leagues were still ongoing, after the Jets easily swept aside the Howe family and the New England Whalers in 1978, they were dealt a huge blow by the New York Rangers, who signed two thirds of Winnipeg’s “Hot Line” in skilled Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg on March 20, 1978. Nilsson, a center, and Hedberg, a right wing, had combined with Bobby Hull to form the WHA’s highest‐scoring line during the Jets four-year run of dominance.

Bolstered by a collection of players from the Houston Aeros, who folded after the 1977-78 season, the Jets managed to edge out rookie Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers to win the WHA’s final crown in six games during the spring of 1979.

A couple weeks prior to the NHL Expansion Draft, in which the 17 existing NHL teams would be able reclaim the rights of its players who defected to the WHA before the four “new” teams would make its selections, the Rebel League held a Dispersal Draft for players who had previously belonged to the Indianapolis Racers, Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers. The Racers didn’t make it through the final WHA season, while the Bulls and Stingers were not included in the 1979 Expansion and were paid to disband as major league teams and join the Central Hockey League.

In the WHA dispersal draft, which took place on June 1, 1979, the Jets claimed Jamie Hislop, Barry Legge, Peter Marsh and Craig Norwich, all former Stingers, to help offset the upcoming losses to the NHL teams, who were eager to inflict revenge on its four new clubs for the seven years the WHA had spent plundering their rosters and prospect pools. A couple weeks after the expansion draft, the Jets would move Hislop and Legge to the Nordiques for defenseman Barry Melrose in the first trade in history for the NHL version for the franchise, while Marsh would be reclaimed by the Montreal Canadiens.

As part of the June 9, 1979 reclamation phase of the expansion draft, the Jets, Oilers, Nordiques and Whalers were able to keep up to four players (two goaltenders and two skaters) from their WHA rosters as “priority selections” - protecting those players from the existing teams who held their NHL rights.

Winnipeg made three priority selections. They were goaltender Markus Mattsson, forward Morris Lukowich, who would lead the first edition of the NHL Jets in scoring with 35 goals and 74 points during the 1979-80 season, and defenseman Scott Campbell.

The “Original 17” then laid waste to a significant chunk of Winnipeg’s existing championship core. The Chicago Black Hawks, who had already signed playoff MVP Rich Preston away from the Jets as a free agent, reclaimed Bobby Hull (who was retired at the time) and Terry Ruskowski. The 24-year-old Ruskowski was, like Preston, an effective young player and former Aero Jets GM John Ferguson was heartbroken to lose. Ferguson thought he had an agreement worked out with Chicago GM Bob Pulford to leave Ruskowski alone, but Pulford reneged on the deal. Ferguson would later retake Hull in the expansion draft to get back at Pulford. The Atlanta Flames pulled back Swedish scoring ace Kent Nilsson. In 1980-81, Nilsson would pile up 130 points for the Flames, a franchise record that still stands today. Barry Long and Glenn Hicks were reclaimed to the Detroit Red Wings. The St. Louis Blues reclaimed Kim Clackson and the Washington Capitals took back Paul MacKinnon.

On June 13, the Jets participated in the expansion draft proper and selected a total of 17 players from the existing teams, who were able to protect 15 skaters and two goalies. A far cry from the relative riches of what recent expansion teams the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken got to choose from.

The Jets took Marsh right back from the Canadiens and Hull back from the Black Hawks. They also selected forwards Dave Hoyda and Jim Cunningham (Philadelphia Flyers), Jim Roberts (Minnesota North Stars), Lorne Stamler (Toronto Maple Leafs), Mark Heaslip and Dennis Abgrall (Los Angeles Kings), Gord McTavish (St. Louis Blues), Clark Hamilton (Detroit Red WIngs), Bill Riley (Washington Capitals), Gene Carr (Atlanta Flames) and Hilliard Graves (Vancouver Canucks).

To fortify the back end, Winnipeg took defensemen Al Cameron (Red Wings) and Gord Smith (Capitals) and goaltenders Lindsay Middlebrooke (New York Rangers) and Pierre Hamel (Maple Leafs).

Unfortunately for Jets fans, Ferguson’s performance at the expansion was not one to rival that of Florida Panthers GM Bobby Clarke in 1993. To be fair, Ferguson was competing with three other teams while Clarke only had to face off against Mighty Ducks of Anaheim counterpart Jack Ferreira.

While there was plenty of addition and subtraction going on among the NHL’s newest teams as they changed leagues, the departure of forwards Nilsson, Ruskowski and Preston deprived the Jets of three of its top six scorers from the previous season. With Lars-Erik Sjoberg missing most of the ‘78-79 campaign, Long led the team’s defensemen in scoring and was seventh on the club in points. The additional loss of Clackson and MacKinnon dealt a further blow to the franchise’s defensive depth. This, coupled with the Rangers’ prior pilfering of Hedberg and Nilsson in 1978, seriously depleted the talent base on hand for Winnipeg’s first season in the NHL. The expansion draft did little to replenish the former level after the existing clubs took back their property.

Out of the 15 skaters selected by Ferguson in the expansion draft only Marsh, Stamler and Cameron became regulars in 1979-80.

In goal, former Maple Leafs prospect Hamel did beat out incumbent Mattsson to become the team’s number one keeper, while Middlebrooke made a total of ten appearances. Hamel would see action in 29 games for Winnipeg during the disastrous 1980-81 season before dropping out of the NHL for good. Middlebrooke played 14 more games for the Jets before he was traded to the North Stars on July 31, 1981. Compared to the familiar Clarke selections of John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick that’s pretty jaw-dropping.

The venerable Golden Jet returned to play 18 more games for Winnipeg before he was traded to the Whalers on February 27, 1980 for future considerations. Graves (35 games), Hoyda (18 games), Smith (13 games) and McTavish (10 games) were other expansion draft picks who played part-time roles during the inaugural season.

Roberts, Heaslip, Hamilton, Cunningham, Riley, Carr and Abgrall never played for the Jets. Most of the group was quickly done with professional hockey.

Ferguson did do well with the four Stingers he selected in the WHA Dispersal Draft, as mentioned above, he flipped Hislop and Legge for Melrose, who appeared in 74 games. Legge was reacquired from the Nordiques after the season. Marsh, clawed back from the Habs at expansion draft, produced 38 points in 57 games, and Norwich led the team’s defensemen in scoring with 10 goals and 45 points.

Tough defenseman Jimmy Mann was Winnipeg’s first round pick (19th overall) in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. He did make the roster as a rookie and went on to play 293 career NHL games, but with future Hall of Famers like Mark Messier, Michel Goulet, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson and Guy Carbonneau still on the board, the pick was a miss. Ferguson did hit big on Thomas Steen in the fifth round. Another solid preseason pick-up was center Ron Wilson, who was acquired from Montreal for cash on October 4, 1979, and produced 57 points, which was the third-highest total on the team.

After winning back-to-back titles in the WHA, the first edition of the NHL Jets went 20-49-11, good for fifth place in the six-team Smythe Division. They missed the playoffs, as did the Nordiques, while the Whalers and Oilers managed to make it to the postseason. The stripped down team was even worse in its second season, finishing with a mere 9 wins and 32 points.

It would’ve been really interesting to see what would've happened if the NHL had been more forward thinking at the time and let the WHA refugees enter the league with their rosters fully, or even largely, intact. The Jets were clearly the class of the “other” league and would’ve easily been a playoff team and may have even been capable of making a deep playoff run.

Instead, the old guard inflicted punitive measures on its four new clubs, including placing them at back of the draft order - something unthinkable today, that seriously hampered the early development of all but one of them, which quickly drafted a stable of stars around its lynchpin Wayne Gretzky. The Jets, who were one of the 1970s best teams, deserved better.