Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Jets Have Landed

In a previous posting this week, I chronicled the original Winnipeg Jets first and last games in Toronto.

Prior to the reborn Jets visiting the Air Canada Centre last night, I heard an interesting discussion on the radio. The debate seemed to focus on one question - how much of a relationship is there between the WHA/NHL Jets and the current edition of the club?

As we all know, the 2011-12 Winnipeg Jets have only two things in common with their predecessor - their name and the fact they are based in the city of Winnipeg. Any statistical references must be associated with the Atlanta Thrashers. Not the 1979 to 1996 Winnipeg Jets.

I last witnessed a live game featuring an NHL club from Winnipeg on New Year's Eve 1986. Spending the final hours of 1986 in Maple Leaf Gardens, watching the Leafs, seemed to be a terrific way to close out the year. Besides, there was plenty of time following the game to ring 1987.

Like their first and last trips to Toronto, a buzz surrounded the contest on December 31, 1986. Once again, the Leafs were front and centre. In this case, there were no player transactions, but a former Leaf coach, Dan Maloney, was making his return as bench boss of the Jets. At the end of his run with the Leafs, Maloney encountered difficulties with several players. As an example. Miroslav Ihnacak experienced a rough go under Maloney.

While all parties involved tried to put their slant on the situation, Leafs forward Russ Courtnall put the matter into perspective. "He was our coach, for what that was worth. So we wanted to win. But in the back of our minds were the two points. The two points were more important than beating our old coach," Courtnall explained to the media in his post-game scrum.

And that is exactly what Courtnall and his teammates did. The New Year's celebrations started early with the Leafs 6-1 victory over the Jets.

With all of this in mind, I trekked down to the Air Canada Centre last night to watch Winnipeg's new entry into the National Hockey League.

Making the rounds prior to entering the rink, I chatted briefly with former Leaf Mark Osborne on the set of Leafs TV. He played for the Jets following a trade from Toronto in 1990-91. The next year, after 43 contests in Winnipeg, he was traded back to Toronto.

Mark Osborne on the set of Leafs TV

Taking my seat in time for the warm-up, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the Jets new uniform. My first thought was those players skating around in circles aren't the Winnipeg Jets I remember. An immediate disconnect to the original Jets occurred in my thought process.

The warm-up
In the time following the warm-up and opening face-off, I inspected the Winnipeg Jets line-up in the program. As I read the names, I couldn't help but think back to the 1986-87 Jets. The club I watched play in late 1986. Missing were guys like Dale Hawerchuck and Thomas Steen. In a way, it really didn't matter. I couldn't picture Hawerchuk or Steen in the 2011-12 style of jersey.

When the action got underway, my entire focus turned to the game at hand. Watching Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood, two former Leafs, brought back memories of their time in Toronto. The young players on Winnipeg, Zach Bogosian, Alex Burmistrov and Evander Kane are a joy to watch. Rookie Mark Scheifele appears to possess the skills to stick with the team. Both Burmistrov and Scheifele scored their first NHL goals last night. Then, there is the top-flight talent who are expected to soar each and every game. This includes captain Andrew Ladd, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

Opening face-off
The first forty-minutes of play belonged to the Jets who took a 3-1 lead.

Adding a touch of class to the festivities, the Maple Leafs organization acknowledged Winnipeg's return to big-time hockey. With 11:56 remaining in the first period, public address announcer Andy Frost made note of the Jets last appearance in Toronto on March 13, 1996. He welcomed them back to the NHL fold and the large ACC crowd gave the Jets a standing ovation.

The Jets bench during their welcome back salute from the Leafs organization
Stretching my legs in the first intermission, I ventured up to the Leafs Alumni Box. A large group of ex-Leafs were on hand to watch the proceedings. One of them being Bill Derlago, another player who performed for the Winnipeg Jets. He suited-up for 57 regular season games in 1985-86 and 1986-87.

Toronto dominated the final frame and tied the score at three goals apiece. Both teams failed to score in the overtime, but Toronto earned the extra-point in the shootout with Joffrey Lupul bagging the winner.

On a stormy evening outside the Air Canada Centre,  it was the Maple Leafs who created all the thunder and lightning inside. The Jets were grounded after two periods of play and couldn't get clearance for lift-off.

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