Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jetting off to Toronto

Tomorrow night marks the return of a National Hockey League team from Winnipeg to Toronto for a tilt against the Maple Leafs.

The Winnipeg franchise made their initial appearance in Toronto on December 29, 1979. Having survived the collapse of the World Hockey Association, the Jets were welcomed into the NHL for the 1979-80 season. Their final game in Toronto was played on March 13, 1996. The Winnipeg club was transferred to Phoenix in time for the 1996-97 campaign.

On both their first and final games in Maple Leaf Gardens, the Jets took a backseat to news surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Winnipeg hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on the Friday evening prior to jetting off to Toronto for their inaugural contest versus the Leafs. The Jets were in tough against the Philadelphia as Pat Quinn and his troops were in the midst of a 31 game undefeated streak. The Jets proved to be no match for the Broad Street Bullies who skated to a 5-3 victory. A record crowd of 16,038 watched the home side fail to put a halt to the Flyers run.

Although the Maple Leafs didn't play on the Friday night, they were the number one story leading off the nightly news. When subscribers to the Toronto Star opened their newspaper on Saturday morning, they were greeted with the following headline: LANNY McDONALD TRADE HAS SITTLER IN TEARS.

For most of the season, Leaf players were in a constant battle with Punch Imlach who held the general managers portfolio. Imlach, in his second-go-round in the position, was determined to establish his authority and let the players know who held the reins of power. As far back as training camp, he identified captain Darryl Sittler and his agent Al Eagleson as his main targets.

On the eve of Toronto's first regular season encounter against their new Canadian rival from Winnipeg, Imlach made a trade he knew would send his captain over the edge. In a transaction with Colorado, the Leafs GM shipped out Sittler's best friend and line mate Lanny McDonald.

There was little doubt Imlach had gotten into Sittler's head by using McDonald as a pawn. Following the warm-up of the Leafs/Jets game, Sittler removed the captains "C" from his sweater. Fans watching on Hockey Night in Canada followed the drama as it unfolded.

Under this backdrop, the Winnipeg Jets and everything else, took a backseat. Any anticipation of this new member to the NHL taking centre stage fizzled. Any buzz of the new-kid-on-the-block never materialized.

If the Jets thought Toronto would be off their game as a result of the commotion, they had another thing coming. The game was close following forty-minutes of action. Toronto held a 2-1 advantage on goals by Walt McKechine and Rocky Saganiuk. The Jets Bill Riley sandwiched a goal in between the two Leaf markers.

Winnipeg's hope of staying close in the final frame, disappeared quicker than the "C" off Sittler's jersey. The Leafs rifled four unanswered goals past Winnipeg goalie Pierre Hamel. Getting on the score sheet in the third for Toronto were Ian Turnbull, Bob Stephenson, Saganiuk and Tiger Williams. In goal for the Leafs was Paul Harrison.

Fast forward to March 13, 1996, when Winnipeg toiled on the Gardens ice for the final time as the Jets. Their swan-song in Toronto received about as much attention as their first engagement in 1979. Once again, it was a case of the Leafs stealing all the thunder. This time, it was Cliff Fletcher working behind the scenes implementing moves to shake-up his line-up.

The Jets potential final match in Toronto was overshadowed by Fletcher's make-over. Prior to the contest, Fletcher made a huge splash when he sent Kenny Jonsson, Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty and a first-round draft choice to the New York Islanders. In exchange, Fletcher obtained the services of former Toronto fan favourite Wendel Clark, Mathieu Schneider and D.J. Smith, both defencemen.

Just in case this trade wasn't big enough to capture the headlines, Fletcher announced another move following the game. In a salary dump, the Leafs sent forward Dave Andreychuk to New Jersey for a couple of draft picks.

Like their initial visit to Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets final trip fell victim news wise to the Leafs off-ice activity. In a repeat performance from 1979, the game failed to be the lead story. In the same manner as Punch Imlach, Fletcher's wheeling and dealing made the game an after thought.

After regulation time came to a close, the two teams were unable to settle the matter in overtime. The game ended in a 3-3 draw. Toronto and Winnipeg exchanged goals in period one, with Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour connecting for the Leafs. Hitting the twine for the visitors were Keith Tkachuk and Mike Eastwood. The Leafs took the lead in the second thanks to Andreychuk's hot-hand.

The Jets would get the equalizer in the third. Their final goal in Toronto from that era would come off the stick of Mike Eastwood.

Reborn this summer, the new Winnipeg Jets make their first appearance tomorrow evening in the Air Canada Centre. Will Brian Burke step-up-to-the-plate and follow the tradition of pulling off a monster deal prior to these special visits by the Jets?

Welcome back Winnipeg!

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