By Joe Pascucci (@Pascucci015)
From Humiliation to Celebration and the Playoffs
“Part of being a young team is you’ve got to learn to have a FU attitude.” – Doug Smail
The plan was to spend another day or two in Minneapolis before continuing with their three-game road trip in Los Angeles, but those arrangements all changed in the hours following their humiliating 15-2 loss to the North Stars on November 11, 1981.
General Manager John Ferguson wanted to get his team out of town and so all flights were switched and the Jets departed to L.A. the next morning. Every player that is but one, as rookie Paul MacLean was handed a ticket back to Winnipeg. When a team loses by 13 goals as the Jets did, the GM and head coach can’t look away as if nothing happened. A message, even if just symbolic, needed to be delivered.
MacLean was being singled out because the night before he’d been penalized following the North Stars 7th goal, and that made him an easy choice for John Ferguson and Tom Watt. MacLean was assessed a delay-of-game penalty for flipping the puck over the glass and into the stands after Bobby Smith’s power-play goal.
“When those games happen something is going to happen,” MacLean, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told me “and it was my turn.”
Back at their room at the Marriott Hotel in Bloomington, Ferguson and Watt were up for hours trying to decide what to do next.
“Fergie was in a hostile mood,” recalls Watt, who admitted that a scotch or two had been consumed when Fergie picked up the phone and made an emergency call to his good friend and former Montreal Canadiens teammate Serge Savard.
Savard was in retirement and contemplating becoming a stockbroker. Having been disappointed by the Habs first-round elimination to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1981 playoffs, the 35- year-old Savard and Canadiens’ management felt the team needed to get younger. Since he was the oldest Savard retired after 14 seasons and eight Stanley Cup championships. Savard announced his decision in August, but in June had told Ferguson that he could still play another couple of seasons.
On October 5, the day before the start of the regular season, the NHL held their Waiver Draft. With the first pick of the second round, Ferguson selected Savard.
“He was the best player available in the draft when we drafted him,” Ferguson said afterwards.
The only reason Savard was available to be claimed is that the Canadiens never filed his retirement papers with the league that would have placed Savard on the voluntary retired list.
“It’s no joke,” Ferguson said afterwards. “We think he can play. I have a sweater with the No. 18 and his name on the back of it ready for him.”
Unaware of the beating the Jets had suffered Savard was awakened by Ferguson’s call.
“You have to come,” is what Savard remembers Ferguson telling him. “My team is very young and I need you. I need an experienced guy.”
Still unsure what he should do, it was Savard’s wife, Paulette, who made the final sales pitch on Ferguson’s behalf, telling her husband that if he decided to join the Jets she could be ready to move to Winnipeg in 48 hours. But it would take another month for Savard to officially join the Jets as Ferguson had to first reach a deal with Canadiens managing director Irvin Grundman who had already paid Savard $200,000 to not play the 1981-82 season.
After arriving in Los Angeles the Jets had a couple of days to regroup before their meeting with the Kings. With that much time between games, players usually would go out for dinner and then to a bar afterwards. But not these Jets, who went to an alley to take out their frustrations with the beating they’d been handed by the North Stars.
“I don’t know if we were too embarrassed to go to the bar or what it was,” said veteran defenceman Barry Legge, “but we went 10-pin bowling.”
The Kings pounced on the Jets in the opening period. Marcel Dionne scored early and Charlie Simmer late for a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Jets only managed six shots on Mario Lessard, while Ed Staniowski faced 13 and was peppered with 14 more in the second period. Staniowski turned those all away, including breakaway attempts by Dionne and Simmer. Meanwhile, Bengt Lundholm scored on one of Winnipeg’s nine shots.
In the third, the Kings looked to put the Jets away but Staniowski wouldn’t allow it. The Jets only had six shots and made them count. Doug Smail tied it just past the 10-minute mark, setting the stage for a dramatic conclusion. With time almost expired, Tim Watters knocked down a Simmer pass attempt. He passed the puck ahead to Thomas Steen, who fed it across to Morris Lukowich. Lessard came out to challenge but Lukowich, who had been battling the flu all day, found a line to the net and from the top of the right face-off circle beat Lessard low to the stick side. The winning goal came with just six seconds left.
A jubilant Jets team jumped for joy following their 3-2 win, and back in their dressing room broke out singing “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. After their butt-kicking in Minnesota, they had good cause to “Celebrate and have a Good Time.”
With 35 saves, Staniowski earned first-star honours and told the assembled media afterwards that the Jets didn’t look back after the loss to the North Stars.
“We went out the next day and didn’t cut any corners in practice, didn’t put our heads down or look for excuses,” he said. “The coach didn’t have to push anybody.”
When the Jets returned home, the North Stars were waiting for them. The highlight of this game was a fight between Lucien DeBlois and Craig Hartsburg that took place in the penalty box. Minnesota prevailed again, but this time only by a more- respectable 6-4 margin.
MacLean had returned to the lineup for a couple of games before being sat down again against the Blues in St. Louis. The Jets would be playing their next four games at Winnipeg Arena and MacLean had his dad fly into town to watch him play during the homestand. They would watch those four games side by side in the stands.
“That 15-2 loss was more significant to me because it had an impact on me in my career,” MacLean said. “Don’t let that ever happen to you again. If you’re going to be good, you got to be good every night. Don’t allow your frustration to hurt the team. Those were two things I took from it and taught in a harsh way.”
It was mid-December and Savard was officially a Jet. While he worked out on his own in Winnipeg, the rest of the Jets were wrapping up a short road trip, returning to the Met Center for the first time since that November night to forget. Not only would the Jets have to contend with the North Stars, but Minnesota fans as well. A couple of fans seated behind the bench were taunting the Jet players constantly yelling “15-2.”
In the first period, just after the North Stars had taken the lead those fans began yelling “15-2” and wouldn’t stop. Then, as Steen remembers, all heck broke loose.
“Somebody took a water bottle and sprayed the fans behind the bench. They started to get closer and there were sticks swung and there were guys punching at people and I thought ‘holy cow what is going on?’ It was a scene out of Slap Shot.”
That somebody who sprayed the fans and ended up with a hockey stick in his hand was coach Watt. The Jets would get the win on this night 4-2 with third-period goals from Lukowich and MacLean.
Back in Winnipeg, the young Jets were glad to welcome Savard to the team. “He was like an icon,” said Smail, “and to have a guy like that come into our team gave us a presence.”
Despite the wide age difference between Savard and the majority of his new teammates, the future Hall of Fame member was warmly welcomed. “I fit like a glove,” said Savard. “In Montreal, I had to go. There (Winnipeg) I had a role with the young players.
For Watt, Serge set the example. “He was always the first in the room and would put on the coffee and bring some muffins for the guys and he was always the first at practice and loved to practice,” Watt said.
Serge also loved to play jokes, and after a few days around the guys he showed them a real veteran play.
Ferguson was hanging around the team but out of sight when Savard put Vaseline on one of the phones in the dressing room. The players saw him doing it and where stunned when Savard arranged for Athletic Therapist Chuck Badcock to call the phone when Fergie was back in the room. The phone rang and Savard answered. “Fergie, for you,” he said. Ferguson took the phone and ended up with an earful of Vaseline.
“You f*#@er Savard,” Serge remembers Fergie yelling at him, “I invented that f*#@ing trick.” The players started laughing and Savard believes it was at that point he became one of them.
Savard’s first game with the Jets was the Sunday night before Christmas against the Blues. Trailing by one after 40 minutes, the Jets scored three times in the third period for the 5-4 win. The game is remembered now not for Savard’s Jets debut, but for Smail’s NHL record-setting goal scored five seconds after the opening face-off.
For trivia lovers, it took Savard to his 11th game to score his first Jets goal. Fittingly, it came against the Canadiens. His next one was vintage Savard, as he performed a ‘Savardian Spin-o-rama’ just before scoring a final minute game-winner against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The young Jets were in awe of Savard and he was in awe of them, particularly rookie Dale Hawerchuk. “I was so amazed,” Savard remembers. “He was probably the best stick-handler in hockey. What he could do with his hands were unbelievable. He lacked a little bit of speed, that was his only weakness.”
At just 18-years-old Hawerchuk was thrilling and inspiring a new generation of Jets’ fans, and led the team in goals (45) and assists (58) and points (103) by season’s end. He played in all 80 games and would claim the Calder Trophy as the outstanding NHL rookie.
Despite the efforts of Hawerchuk, Dave Christian, Lukowich, MacLean and Willy Lindstrom upfront and Savard and Dave Babych on the point, the Jets were struggling after 59 games with 20 wins, 27 losses and 12 ties. Far better than the previous season and good enough for fourth place in the weak Norris Division. Only the first-place North Stars enjoyed a winning record.
The Jets march to their first-ever NHL playoff appearance began during a 10-day, five-game homestand in late February. First they started by snapping a three-game losing streak with a tie against the Quebec Nordiques. Then rebounded with wins over the Philadelphia Flyers and Blues and a tie with the Sabres following a loss to the Washington Capitals.
They’d add a couple of road wins against the Flyers and the Blackhawks in Chicago before returning home for victories over the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks. It was a nine-game stretch that produced 14 of a possible 18 points and moved the Jets up the standings into second place in the Norris.
The North Stars were on a 12-game unbeaten run and comfortably on top of the division by 15 points when the Jets delivered a St. Patrick’s Day message on March 17, 1982. They hadn’t forgotten that 15-2 night because the score was posted in the dressing room.
“After that big loss, it created a lot of tension between the teams for a long time,” Steen said.
Hawerchuk’s second goal and 41st of the season gave the visiting Jets the lead at the 10:16 mark of the third. Soon afterwards, MacLean and the Stars Brad Maxwell were sent off for fighting. Less then a minute after that, Tim Trimper and Dino Ciccarelli dropped the gloves for round-one. Both had stepped into the penalty box after their fight when Ciccarelli challenged Trimper to round-two. Trimper obliged, both left the penalty box to fight again and both benches emptied to join in. Twelve players received game misconducts and the Jets hung on for a 3-2 triumph, and for the first time since the beginning of December they were a .500 hockey team.
According to Smail, for any team to be successful every player has to “Man Up.”
“Part of being a young team is you’ve got to learn to have a FU attitude in a hurry. Doesn’t matter who the superstars are or the great guys are on the other team or how much talent they have. You gotta have some fight in you to kick back and our organization was learning to have that kickback.”
From the start of their late-February homestand to the end of March, the Jets posted 13 wins, five losses and three ties, amassing 29 of a potential 39 points. With their 33-33-14 record, they finished second in the division with 80 points.
For the first time since becoming part of the NHL, the Jets had qualified for the playoffs. But they were still a young team with more to learn and lesson one is that you need to compete at another level in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Jets opened their first-round series against the Blues at the Arena and let leads of 2-0 and 3-2 slip away. Late in the third with overtime looming, Lindstrom would become tangled up with the Blues’ Gerry Hart. By the time referee Dave Newell turned around, all he saw was Hart face first down on the ice. Despite never seeing the incident, Newell penalized Lindstrom for tripping and the Blues’ scored on the power-play and won 4-3.
The Jets did bounce back in Game 2, but in the end, they were no match for the Blues and their veteran defence corps of Hart, Guy Lapointe and Ed Kea, losing the best-of-five series in four games.
“You can’t measure what experience means to a team in the playoffs,” Hart told the Post-Dispatch of St. Louis. “There’s a great value for senior statesmen on a team, especially at this time of year.”
Added Savard, “I really thought we were good enough to beat them. “But we were a little young and lacked experience.”
The Jets of the 1981-82 season had come a long way, erasing the tortured memories of the ’80-81 team that won only nine games. This Jets team had won 24 more games and established a new NHL record for points by a team from one season to the next with 80 from 32. An improvement of 48 points.
“The team’s big problem at the start of the year was that it had no confidence in itself,” Watt commented following the series loss to the Blues. “That took a while. Now, though we are confident, we’re not a shoo-in to hammer anyone. But we’re going to be competitive with every team.”
That would be every team but the Edmonton Oilers. Before the 1982-83 season, the NHL realigned its divisions. The Jets were moving to the Smythe Division with the Oilers and Calgary Flames. One of those teams would play in the Stanley Cup Finals for the next eight years.
Missed part one of the Jets’ Minnesota Massacre at the Met? Read it here.