By Geoff Kirbyson
The following is an excerpt from “Broken Ribs & Popcorn,” the story of the 1980s Winnipeg Jets, the best team in the NHL’s most offensive era to not win the Stanley Cup. It can be purchased at McNally Robinson, Chapters, Whodunit Bookstore and directly from the author.
When the Winnipeg Jets were in the midst of a soul-crushing winless streak in late 1980, coach Tom McVie would brave callers on his weekly radio show.
He’d even reward the trivia question winners. First prize was a pair of Jets tickets. Second prize? Four tickets.
“One guy called in, and he sounded like my kid,” McVie recalls. “He said, ‘my mom and dad are getting a divorce.’ The judge said, ‘I’ll send the young boy to live with his father’ but the boy said, ‘don’t send me with my father, he beats me!’ The judge said, ‘okay, you’re going to live with your mother, then.’ And the boy said, ‘well, she beats me, too.’
So, the judge asked ‘who do you want to live with?’ The kid said, ‘I want to go live with the Winnipeg Jets. They don’t beat anybody.’”
Try the veal and tip your servers, please.
Since winning their third game of the season, a 6-2 shellacking of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Jets found every way possible to steal defeat from the jaws of victory (and ties) and even invented a few of their own.
How bad was it? They gave up a two-goal lead late in the third period when their opponent pulled their goalie. Twice. In one week.
Even though the Jets were competitive in nearly every game, the losses and the occasional tie kept piling up. It was wearing on McVie, a hockey lifer, and general manager John Ferguson, who was used to winning the Stanley Cup virtually every year as a player with the Montreal Canadiens.
After an 8-5 loss to the Hartford Whalers on Dec. 10, which dropped the Jets’ record to 1-20-7 and upped the winless streak to 25, Ferguson finally fired his good friend McVie.
“I gave my soul to the hockey club,” the coach said.
(Today, McVie is able to look back at his tenure behind the Jets’ NHL bench and laugh. Well, almost.)
“Humour — it’s miserable things that happen, plus time. At the time you thought your world had ended. At banquets, people are on the floor. It kills them,” McVie said.
Many Jets fans figured if they were going to endure this much pain, their team might as well break the record of 27 games, set by the Kansas City Scouts, in 1975-76.
The Jets then lost to the Minnesota North Stars on the road and the New York Islanders at home in the first of a back-to-back to tie the Scouts.
They set the record two nights later against the Islanders with a 6-2 loss.
Then, just to show going without a win for 28 games wasn’t a fluke, they dropped two more on the road to the New York Rangers (8-2) and St. Louis Blues (5-2), their 10th consecutive loss.
But if there was ever a chance for the streak to end, it was now upon them.
The Jets were scheduled to play the second-worst (Colorado Rockies) and third-worst (Detroit Red Wings) teams in their next three games.
The Jets once again teased their fans on Dec. 23rd, building a 3-0 lead late in the second period against the Rockies. Then they gave up two goals in 11 seconds before the horn went. Winger Tim Trimper restored a two-goal lead early in the third but the Rockies came back with two more, tying it when captain Lanny McDonald’s shot beat Pierre Hamel.
Nobody ever said stopping history would be easy.
Time ticked down on what appeared to be a 31st consecutive game without a win but then came a gift from the heavens — a power play. With less than two minutes remaining, Willy Lindstrom took a pass from centre Anders Steen and with goalie Al Smith horribly out of position, scored the game-winner into a largely empty net and 11,587 fans at the Winnipeg Arena went bananas.
Of course, there were still 110 seconds left so those same fans — and every Jets players and employee — held their breath as the Rockies pulled their goalie in a last-ditch attempt to avoid being a part of history.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Jets fans who had been wearing paper bags for the previous month threw their headgear on the ice in celebration.
“If I missed that one, I would retire from hockey. I would never play the game again,” Lindstrom said afterwards.
ABC Sports, which had sent a crew to Winnipeg to cover the losing streak, reported “Wally” Lindstrom had scored the winner.
Reflecting back many years later, “Wally” said, “It was like winning the AVCO Cup or the Stanley Cup at the rink with all of the people screaming.”