"Are you kidding me?"
Pat McDonald has just been asked if she remembers the first-ever goal scored by the Winnipeg Jets.
It was the fall of 1972 and the launch of the upstart World Hockey Association. The new league – with its blue pucks and that million-dollar signing bonus they gave Bobby "The Golden Jet" Hull to go play for Winnipeg – had the Jets in New York to play the Raiders on Oct. 12.
It seemed only right that the Winnipeg Jets' first captain, four-time Stanley Cup winner Ab McDonald, would score the team's very first goal. "Nothing fancy about it," the 79-year-old says, sitting in the same unpretentious bungalow the McDonalds have lived in for 48 years. "I just banged it in."
"I was busy," says his wife. She was indeed. Pat McDonald was in the St. Boniface hospital, having been driven there by a neighbour. In the same evening her husband was making hockey history, she was giving birth to Kristina, the last of their five children. "They used to say every time he won a Stanley Cup I shot out a baby," Pat says with a laugh about the previous four McDonald children.
The WHA Jets would soon win the Avco Cup, led by Mr. Hull and his Swedish linemates, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, but there would be no Stanley Cup chance until 1979, when the NHL absorbed the WHA, by which time Ab McDonald was long retired from professional hockey.
The Jets' first captain had a remarkable career, beginning right here on the outdoor rinks of a now-rough neighbourhood in Winnipeg. He left to play junior in St. Catharines, Ont., then spent years trying to crack the lineup of the mighty Montreal Canadiens. He finally did in 1958, winning three straight Cups with the Habs, and then was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks where the 6-foot-3 forward won his fourth straight Cup playing with a young Mr. Hull and Mr. McDonald's best friend for life, Stan Mikita, centre for the famous "Scooter Line" that included Mr. McDonald and Kenny Wharram.
When the NHL expanded in 1967, Mr. McDonald became the first pick and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, later playing for the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings before being lured home to Winnipeg to captain the Jets.
"They told me they were pretty sure they had Bobby [Hull] coming," Mr. McDonald recalls. "So I figured this thing is going to go."
He remembers Jets founder Benny Hatskin presenting Mr. Hull with that million-dollar cheque at the corner of Portage and Main, the Hull children – including future Hall-of-Famer Brett, then eight – in attendance.
It was a pivotal moment in professional hockey, virtually doubling salaries and giving players more control over their lives. Mr. Mikita used to joke he got down on his knees every morning to give thanks to Mr. Hull. Mr. McDonald and Mr. Hull also remain close friends: "Two weeks ago in Chicago, we closed down Kitty O'Sheas [pub]."
The arrival of the Jets also dramatically changed Winnipeg. Mr. McDonald believes it put the notion into Winnipeggers' heads that they could be big-time, could support pro sports.
Mr. Nilsson and Mr. Hedberg arrived in 1974. The Jets were already known for embracing European players, but it was "The Hot Line" of Messrs. Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson – a line deserving of Hall-of-Fame honours – that brought massive attention to the Jets.
"Hockey is more than a sport in places like Winnipeg," Mr. Nilsson says from Stockholm, where he now lives. "I loved my four years in the city – and to be able to play with Robert Marvin Hull was better than a dream. It was amazing!"
Brett Hull says the greatest memory he has of those WHA years was the evening his father and Mr. Nilsson loaded up the Hull car with Brett and a couple of Brett's buddies and took them to an outdoor rink near Mr. Nilsson's home in the suburb of Tuxedo. It grew dark and Mr. Hull and Mr. Nilsson were able to pry boards off the rink and drive the car right up to the ice surface, high beams on, so the shinny game could continue.
"I remember it well," Mr. Nilsson says.
In 1978, Mr. Nilsson and Mr. Hedberg left the WHA for the New York Rangers and spent several more years starring in the NHL. But there was never another time like that in Winnipeg, when with Mr. Hull they formed the fastest and most dangerous line in all of hockey.
Joe Daley was a goaltender on those early Jets teams. Today he runs Joe Daley's Sports Card and Framing Shop with his son Travis. He once played for the Johnstown Jets – the model for the minor-league team featured in Slap Shot – and was the first draft pick of both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres in two separate NHL expansion drafts.
"My dad, the ultimate trivia question," says Travis Daley.
Joe Daley says he was struggling in the Detroit organization in 1972 when he got a call asking, "Would you like to come home to play?" He would love to – and when he heard Mr. Hull was coming he began to believe it just might work.
"If somebody had told me as a first-year pro, 'You'll end up playing professional hockey in Winnipeg,'" Mr. Daley says, "I'd have said you were nuts."
It worked right up until 1996 and then, with the city in need of a new arena, the Canadian dollar low and the team owner unpopular, the Jets were suddenly gone – off to Phoenix to become the Coyotes.
It took 15 years to get a team back, and that only happened with True North Sports and Entertainment quietly able to convince the NHL that Winnipeg, with a new rink downtown, might be a soft landing for the falling Atlanta Thrashers franchise. Season tickets were grabbed so fast the organization's computers crashed. And three years later, the team is in the playoffs.
"It was so sad when they left," says Mr. McDonald. "That last game at the old Winnipeg Arena was so very emotional. People said, 'They're never going to come back.' I said, 'Oh, they will, they will. This is too good a hockey town.' When they came back, people went absolutely crazy. And it's been great ever since. Since the Jets came back, it's changed everything about this city."
"We get knocked for our weather," Mr. Daley says. "We get knocked for our mosquitoes. We got knocked for a lot of things, but we're loved for our hockey team. It's sort of like we've been adopted by the rest of the country."
"I'm not surprised to see the Jets in the playoffs," says Mr. Hedberg from his home in Sweden. "Patience among the fans allowed this team to grow and mature from the inside. They're knowledgeable fans. And this is only the beginning of the rewards. My dream scenario would be a final between the Rangers and the Jets. I'm coming across the Atlantic, if needed by boat, if I can get hold of a game ticket.
"A parade down Broadway in New York might be with more people, but a Stanley Cup trip along Portage would be [with] almost as many – and crazier."