By Joe Pascucci (@Pascucci015)
Winnipeg Jets head coach Tom Watt called it an “avalanche.” For Thomas Steen, playing in only his 14th NHL game “it was one of those nights where a young team didn’t realize what was coming.” Paul MacLean was more succinct. “It was a debacle. Everything they shot went into the net.” Doug Smail’s memories are few. “I don’t remember a ton about it because I choose not to.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Bobby Smith was in a jubilant mood after the game and had no regrets. “I don’t feel sorry for them. This is the big leagues.”
Big is too small of a word to describe what took place on the night of November 11, 1981 in the game between the visiting Jets and the North Stars. No one could have predicted the carnage they were about to witness and experience at the ‘MET Center’ in Bloomington. Not the players, coaches, training staff, officials, media or the 14,244 who got their money’s worth when it came to goals scored. Unimaginable, shocking, hilarious, devastating, record-setting and not entirely forgotten nearly 40 years later.
It was very early in the 1981-82 NHL campaign and the two geographical rivals were both part of the Norris Division. However, they had contrasting objectives for the season. The North Stars confident they’d be making another run at a Western Conference Championship and a 2nd straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance after a disappointing five-game loss to the New York Islanders in the ’81 Cup Final.
Compared to the Jets roster, the North Stars were stacked with the likes of forwards Bobby Smith, Dino Ciccarelli, Steve Payne, and rookie Neal Broten. Defensively they were led by Craig Hartsburg, Curt Giles, and Gordie Roberts with solid goaltending from veteran Gilles Meloche and Don Beaupre. “They had a lot of skill and they could explode at any time,” says Smail. “Our team was trying to find itself’
The Jets had no illusions of being Cup contenders. They were rebuilding and looking to 18-year-old Dale Hawerchuk to lead the franchise back to their winning ways of the World Hockey Association. Back then the Jets didn’t have to win a lottery to get the 1st overall pick of the NHL Draft. They earned that privilege by not winning with only nine victories in the 1980-81 season as they finished dead last 24 points behind the closest team ahead of them in the standings.
After 14 games Hawerchuk was delivering on the promise and praise general manager John Ferguson had heaped on him since the draft. He was leading the team in goals with nine but this was just the start of his Hall of Fame career and the North Stars kept him in check. It was Veterans Day in the U.S. and Hawerchuk was one of five rookies in Tom Watt’s lineup with five more in just their 2nd full season. The average age of the 17 skaters in Watt’s lineup was 22.
Twenty-three was the average of the North Stars lineup that evening. Just slightly older than the Jets. The difference is most drastic when you compare the number of games played. Not counting playoffs, Minnesota’s 18 players had 3,337 games of NHL experience. The Jets slightly more than half that with 1,562. That is almost a hundred games more per player.
Making matters worse for the young Jets was that they were playing without their most senior mentor, captain Barry Long, since mid-October. A day earlier it was announced that the 32-year-old 10-year WHA/NHL veteran defenceman was gone for the season. Long would be undergoing surgery on a finger on his right hand to correct a circulation problem and he would never play again. A couple of years later Long would have another chance to lead the Jets, as their head coach.
So the oldest player on the Jets’ blue line facing the North Stars was 27-year-old journeyman and Winnipeg native Barry Legge. A former ‘Junior Jet’ Legge was in his 8th professional season and he was Watt’s 6th defenseman and the head coach usually only played 5 in games.
The only Jets still remaining from their last Avco Cup team were Long, Willy Lindstrom and Morris Lukowich. ‘Willy The Wisp’ was ill and not available. In the previous season, Lukowich led the Jets with 33 goals. This season, he was already up to seven. Lukowich, at 25-years-old, was only 19 days younger than Ron Wilson, who was the oldest of the Jets’ 11 forwards. But Lukowich had five seasons and 430 WHA/NHL games to his resume compared to 260 for Wilson. All together, rookies Hawerchuk, Steen, MacLean, and Bengt Lundholm totalled 47 games.
In goal was Doug Soetaert as Ed Staniowski had played against the Islanders the night before. Soetaert was in his 2nd month with the Jets after 6 seasons with the New York Rangers. Acquired by Ferguson for future considerations, this was Soetaert’s 96th NHL game, while at the other end it was the 517th for North Stars starting goaltender Gilles Meloche.
This was the 15th game of the season for both teams and the North Stars topped the Norris Division with nine wins and two ties. Surprisingly the Jets were only four points back of Minnesota with seven wins and two ties. It took the 1980-81 Jets till their 57th game to pick up their 7th win. So there was a reason for optimism.
If you only looked at the final score then you would believe that the North Stars dominated the Jets from the opening face-off to the final buzzer. But the better team for almost all of the first 20 minutes was the Jets. “We were definitely outplayed in the first period,” Minnesota North Stars head coach Glen Sonmor said. He described their play as “impressive,” adding “if it wasn’t for Gilles [Meloche], we would have been in trouble.”
In the opening minute, Meloche turned aside a couple of scoring chances by Thomas Steen who tried unsuccessfully to stuff the puck by the North Stars netminder. Then the Jets failed to grab the lead on an early power-play. With Dave Babych off for hooking the North Stars took advantage. Steve Payne, standing all alone in front of Soetaert, deflected a Brad Maxwell blast from the right point at the 15:50 mark. 1-0 Minnesota.
Teams were playing four skaters per side when Bobby Smith set up behind the Jets net and waited for Curt Giles to move in from the point. Giles took Smith’s pass and pounded the puck past Soetaert. 2-0 Minnesota. Give the Jets credit, they responded quickly. As only 14 seconds later Lukowich scored his 8th, from Babych and Bryan Maxwell. 2 – 1 Minnesota.
They may have been behind by a goal but overall it was a good 20 minutes for the road team. Even up a goal, the home side was fuming. They’d yet to lose at the ‘Met’ and spent the intermission angry at themselves for how they played and surrendering the late goal. According to Bobby Smith, “We had a fire lit under us after.”
Whatever fire was smouldering in the North Stars’ dressing room, it raged when the team took the ice for the 2nd period and escalated to an inferno. The North Stars torched the young Jets in the most dominant period in their franchise history. The North Stars were relentless and outworked the Jets. As would the goal judge behind Soetaert and the scorekeepers writing down the goals and assists on the game sheet. It would be the worst 20 minutes in Jets’ franchise history.
The North Stars top line of Smith, Dino Ciccarelli and Ken-Erik Andersson padded their scoring stats combining for 15 points. At the 4:05 mark an Andersson shot was saved by a diving Soetaert, but Anderson put away the rebound with Soetaert down and out. 3 – 1 Minnesota.
Fifty-one seconds later, the Jets were on their 2nd power-play when Neal Broten broke up the rush at centre ice and with a clear path to the net went to his backhand before cutting left and lifting the puck over Soetaert for the shorthanded goal. This was the backbreaker according to Meloche. “That brought a look of despair to the Jets’ faces,” he would say. Minnesota 4 – 1. The Jets may have been despondent but they still were battling and responded quickly, needing just 6 seconds after Broten’s goal to score as Bengt Lundholm converted a pass from Lukowich. 4 – 2 Minnesota.
They were most likely still announcing the Broten and Lundholm goals to the ‘Met’ crowd when Mike Eaves finished off a pass from Al MacAdam at the 5:16 mark. 5 – 2 Minnesota. That was three goals in :20 seconds and 4 goals in :71. The Jets were trying but the puck wasn’t bouncing their way. “The more you’re in a game like that you’re trying to get the discipline, you’re trying to be responsible, you’re trying to get back to basics,” said Doug Smail. “And the more you’re trying to do things so simply the other guys are generating more and more hunger. When that starts happening against you, it’s ‘Holy Crap we can do nothing right and they can do nothing wrong.’”
For nearly four minutes the Jet stopped the goal fest and kept the North Stars’ fans in their seats. After that those fans were back on their feet again and again and again and again and again. Minnesota was back on the power play when Brad Palmer scored at 9:06. 6 – 2 Minnesota.
The bloodbath was officially on at the 10:24 mark when Bobby Smith scored his 1st and picked up his 3rd point, finding the loose puck after another Soetaert save. 7 – 2 Minnesota. It was following Smith’s goal that a frustrated Paul MacLean flipped the puck over the glass and that earned him a delay of game penalty from referee Greg Madill. The next day and in the coming weeks MacLean paid for that momentary error in judgement. MacLean had served his time when Kevin Maxwell scored. 8 – 2 Minnesota.
Late in the 2nd period with the teams again four skaters per side, Smith lured both Tim Watters and Don Spring over his way and left the puck for Ciccarelli who quickly ripped it past Soetaert with a wrist shot low to the glove side. 9 – 2 Minnesota.
Before the Jets could head back to their dressing room to regroup they’d surrendered another goal to Bobby Smith on another Stars power-play. Smith’s 2nd goal and 5th point and still more to come from the North Stars #15. 10 – 2 Minnesota. “It practically turned into a night of pickup hockey,” said Cicceralli, who had a goal and 4 assists in the first 40 minutes. “Everyone was having so much fun that they gave 200 percent out there.”
Meantime the Jets were in stunned disbelief after the eight-goal blitz by the North Stars on 27 shots. Lukowich recalls that hardly a word was spoken during intermission except by Watt. “I remember him [Watt] saying let’s try and win the 3rd period and we didn’t do a good job of that”
Not satisfied with 10 goals and leading by 8, the North Stars attitude was not to stop and cruise through the final 20 minutes to an easy win. “We were extremely conscious about scoring big,” Smith told reporters afterwards. “We were intent and intent and intent about it, just obsessed. We’ve never really had that feeling before, at least not as a whole team.”
Looking back, that obsession for more goals does not upset or surprise Paul MacLean, who is now an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “If we were on the other side we’d be doing the same thing,” MacLean said. “We’d be trying to get our points too. You can’t take that away from a team when they’ve got her going.”
The 3rd period began with the Jets on the power-play but it would be the North Stars Anders Hakansson scoring their 2nd SHG at 1:06. 11 – 2 Minnesota. A 4th power-play goal would follow as Bobby Smith completed his hat-trick thanks to the misfortune of the Jets’ Bryan Maxwell who tried to clear the puck away with his glove and batted it into his own net instead past a beleaguered Soetaert who was in this game till the bitter end. 12 – 2 Minnesota. “The only thing that did bother me,” Tom Watt said post-game, “is that in the third period, with the score in the teens, they still had Bobby Smith out there on the power play.”
Meanwhile, there was a brief conversation between Lukowich and Hartsburg prior to a face-off in the Minnesota zone with Hartsburg recalling that Lukowich came up to him and said, “Haven’t you guys had enough?” I said, “Hell I’m not even trying to score. It was embarrassing for them, and it was embarrassing for us.”
The North Stars weren’t embarrassed enough to stop as Steve Christoff and Brad Palmer broke in 2-on-1 with Christoff scoring. 13 – 2 Minnesota. Then Christoff added a 2nd goal beating Soetaert with a wrist shot from the top of the face-off circle. 14 – 2 Minnesota.
Normally in a game that is so far out of reach, a referee will usually start looking the other way when it comes to penalties. Especially to a team just trying to get off the ice as quickly as the Jets were. This was not the case for referee Greg Madill. With less than five minutes to go, he whistled the Jets Tim Trimper off for tripping. As if that wasn’t bad enough Madill tacked on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Trimper. We don’t have to wonder what Trimper must have said to get those extra 2 minutes.
No need to guess what the North Stars did next. They scored a 5th power-play goal and it was by Bobby Smith who slipped past Spring and Watters, sliding the puck on his backhand by Soetaert. A career-best 4th goal and 7th point for Smith who would never have a better scoring game then this one. 15 – 2 Minnesota.
Just like on the Shopping Channel and those late-night infomercials, “wait there’s more” because there was still 3:43 left on the clock and time enough for the North Stars to add another 1 or 2 goals as the NHL Record of 16 Goals by One Team in a game was only one good shot away. The Montreal Canadiens of March 3, 1920 reached that lofty number in a 16-3 romp over the Quebec Bulldogs.
Anders Hakansson came oh so close to putting the North Stars alongside the Canadiens and into the record book. First Hakansson would ring the puck off the post and then with Soetaert out of position Hakansson fired wide of the open net. “First I hit the pipe and then I missed,” a disappointed Hakansson joked to reporters. “Somebody up there doesn’t like me.”
Mercifully for the Jets, the game ended without another goal as they suffered the worst loss ever by a Winnipeg NHL team, humiliated 15 – 2 by the North Stars. Maclean summed up the game this way: “You’re always going to run into someone who’s going to feed you your lunch if you’re not ready to go.”
Fifteen goals against on 51 shots and the question many of the Jet players I interviewed for this piece wondered was why didn’t Watt take Soetaert out of the game? “I was never a big guy for pulling goalies,” Watt, now a Pro Scout for the Maple Leafs told me. “I felt badly for him [Soetaert] and after the game, I remember talking to him and saying ‘Soapy’ I’m sorry you had to be in for that and he [Soetaert] took me right off the hook. He said, “Tom I started the mess, I should finish it.” Lukowich, who wanted no part of NHL history praised Soetaert. “Thank goodness Dougie stopped one along the way.”
Lukowich does have a beef with the game officials that counted 42 shots by the Jets on Meloche. “Bull***t. I don’t think that’s possible because we spent so much time in our end.”
There was no reason for any of the Jets to be pleased, but in the era when your plus-minus stat was an indicator of your performance somehow Ron Wilson, Tim Trimper and Barry Legge were even. Legge still doesn’t believe how that could have happened. “I don’t know how much I played, I was the 6th defenseman in those days” Legge said. “Where was the mercy rule in that game?”
While the North Stars didn’t break any NHL records they did establish a number of franchise marks that still stand to this day, though the team is long gone from Minnesota to Dallas. ‘Game Records’ of Most Goals (15), Largest Margin of Victory (13), Power Play Goals (5) and Most Assists (24). ‘Period Records’ of Most Goals For (8) and a Scoring Record of 7 Points for Smith are still franchise records for the Dallas Stars. The Jets were moved to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season and the Arizona Coyotes franchise records still include Most Goals Against (15), Power-Play Goals Against (5), Largest Margin of Defeat (13), Most Goals Against in a Period (8), and Most Shots Against in a Period (27) from that game.
According to Thomas Steen, this historic loss didn’t define the 1981-82 Jets. In fact it was a small factor in the way the team performed the rest of the season as they went on to set an NHL record for the most improved team. “We were really successful for a young team,” Steen now boasts. “Whatever we did was friggin good. That was one night when we just got caught.”
Next Week: Part Two of “The Minnesota Massacre at the Met” From the Bottom to the Playoffs