On April 14, 24 years ago, the original Winnipeg Jets played their last-ever regular season game, just a few months prior to their relocation to Phoenix, Arizona.
It did not go well, and was the last big missed opportunity for a franchise that missed many.
The Final Game of a Season-Long Funeral
The date was April 14, 1996. The scene was the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. The Jets entered the Sunday contest against the Mighty Ducks with a 36-39-6 record and a playoff berth in hand.
They were gearing up for one last hurrah, one last playoff push to the bitter end of the up-and-down, 17-season road they’d hoed since joining the NHL in 1980. They’d punched their ticket to the postseason two days prior with a 5-3 Friday-night win over the Los Angeles Kings at Winnipeg Arena.
It was an arena Shane Doan, captain Kris King, Teppo Numminen, 50-goal scorer Keith Tkachuk, and the rest wouldn’t be returning to come fall. On Jan. 19, after many months of speculation that a sale was imminent, Jets’ ownership had agreed to sell the team to American investor Steven Gluckstern and Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who wanted to relocate the team to the Sun Belt. Watching that Jets’ season, while knowing there wouldn’t be another one, must have been surreal.
“Before the Jets had even played their final regular-season home game, the Phoenix group announced that the team would be known as the Coyotes and would have a kachina-inspired logo, along with a palate of colours that included dark green, brick, purple, sand, and black…” wrote Mike Commito in a 2017 Vice article. “The runner up was the Scorpions, a moniker that Winnipeg fans could certainly relate to as they undoubtedly felt the sting of seeing their club rebranded before it even played its last NHL contest.
However, there was still much at stake for the dead team walking, done in by a combination of a poor Canadian dollar, crumbling rink with no luxury boxes, and the lack of a local buyer willing to invest in the team and stop it from haemorrhaging cash.
With a win over the Mighty Ducks, they had the chance to jump as high as fourth place in the log-jammed Western Conference and have home-ice advantage in the first round.
Jets Offer Up Embarrassing Effort, Miss Huge Opportunity
Perhaps they’d already used all the gas in their tank against the Kings, because the game didn’t go well at all. As Winnipeg Free Press reporter Tim Campbell put it the next day, “The Winnipeg Jets, who have written many pages in the book of how not to do things, made yet another entry last night.” (from “Jets take nasty dunkin’ in Pond,’ Winnipeg Free Press, April 15, 1996.)
Columnist Scott Taylor expanded on his colleague’s thoughts, writing “In what could very well have been considered a playoff game last night, the Jets were as bad as they’ve been all season… Oh what a wonderful opportunity the Jets squandered last night.” (from ‘From Kingpins to Duck soup,’ Winnipeg Free Press, April 15, 1996.)
The opportunity missed was to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round rather than the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings, who had gone a ridiculous 62-13-7 and featured Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Chris Osgood, amongst others.
The reason the Jets had to tangle with those formidable foes was because they fell 5-2 in Anaheim on that fateful Sunday.
USSR born right-winger Roman Oksiuta opened the scoring at 5:18 of the first period off a turnover from Keith Tkachuk, with assists going to Anatoli Semenov and Teemu Selanne. The Jets had traded the Finnish Flash — inarguably their best first-round pick of all time — for pennies on the dollar to the Mighty Ducks a few months before.
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The home side pulled away in the second. They scored three straight, with the third coming with just seven seconds left in the frame off the stick of speedy left-winger Paul Kariya.
Kariya Marks a Milestone
At 5:36 of the third, Kariya notched his second goal of the game and 50th of the campaign to push the lead to 5-0. His milestone marker chased starter Nikolaj Khabibulin from the blue paint and was the first time a Mighty Duck reached the 50-goal plateau.
Ed Olczyk broke Mighty Ducks’ goaltender Guy Hebert’s bid for a fifth shutout by lighting the lamp with 1:29 left, and left-winger Darrin Shannon scored with 12 seconds remaining, but those goals were little more than statistical.
“We didn’t create anything and turned the puck over too many times,” Jets’ head coach Terry Simpson said. “We didn’t finish checks and it appeared as if we were the team that didn’t have anything to play for… Friday’s game was a big win to get us in and we couldn’t get going again. I was afraid of that right from Friday night.”
Would knows how far the Jets would have gone if they’d have faced the Maple Leafs, who they’d gone 3-2-1 against in the regular season? A Stanley Cup perhaps wasn’t in the cards, but the Jets may have given their fans at least a few more games to enjoy.
In the playoff series between the Jets and Red Wings, the underdogs gave the class of the Western Conference more of a fight than they were expected to. They pushed the series to six games but fell 4-1 on April 28 to lose the series 4 games to 2.
A Long Wait for Another Big-League Regular Season Game
The sale to Gluckstern and Colangelo’s group was finalized on July 1 and many of the players who’d cut their teeth in frigid Winnipeg undoubtedly enjoyed the warmer locale. However, the Coyotes did not — and still have not — enjoyed much success.
While the IHL, and later the AHL’s, Manitoba Moose served Winnipeggers’ hockey desires with aplomb in the decade and a half that followed and carved out a winning tradition, for many in and around the city, it was “big-league or bust.”
Those fans had to wait a total of 5656 days between the Jets 1.0’s last regular season games and the Jets 2.0’s first. On Oct. 9, 2011, the new squad, purchased by True North Sports & Entertainment from the Atlanta Spirit LLC in May, took to the MTS Centre ice for their inaugural regular season game against the Montreal Canadiens.
History shows the visitors took the contest 5-1, but the score was secondary to the fact a new era of hockey had just begun.
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