The 2023-24 NHL campaign is already off and running, but the San Jose Sharks certainly wish they could have a do-over after their 11-game winless streak flirted with being the worst in league history. Once they brought it to a close with a win over the Philadelphia Flyers and another over the Edmonton Oilers, the pressure was alleviated – but it pales in comparison to the 30-game winless streak that lives on in the nightmares of those that played for the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets.
Rough Start in Winnipeg
The Jets, along with their fellow WHA refugees, were given a raw deal from the NHL establishment with some brutal restrictions as part of the admission price. Only able to protect a handful of players from the AVCO Cup-winning squad, there was a hard road ahead. Some legal wrangling allowed them to keep an aging Bobby Hull and they retained scoring star Morris Lukowich, promising defender Scott Campbell, and goaltender Markus Mattsson heading into the 1979-80 campaign.
The death by 1,000 cuts came as the existing NHL squads reclaimed some of the best names from the lineup that would have certainly made them playoff contenders. Disappearing were Rich Preston and Terry Ruskowski (to Chicago), blueliner Barry Long (to Detroit), and emerging superstar Kent Nilsson (to the Atlanta Flames). Luckily, they did keep veterans like Willy Lindstrom and Peter Sullivan in addition to veterans on their last legs like veteran Swedish defender Lars-Erik Sjoberg and goaltender Gary “Suitcase” Smith.
The 1979-80 Winnipeg aimed to add additional depth via the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft, but none of the players chosen stayed with the team for long. The best of the bunch was occasional Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Pierre Hamel, who had spent most of his career in the minors to this point.
The first-year NHL Jets mustered a meager 20-49-11 – the second-worst record in the league. There was some hope after the arrival of Dave Christian, who had won a gold medal with the United States at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but conflict between Hull and management resulted in a late-season trade to the Hartford Whalers. Out of the playoff picture, there was some cause for optimism heading into 1980-81 as they chose highly-touted defender Dave Babych second overall on draft day and added more blueline talent with their next choice, Moe Mantha.
Slow Descent in Oblivion
In addition Babych and Mantha, the Jets welcomed several new names to the lineup for 1980-81. Winnipeg brought in Rick Bowness and the previously-departed Long plus Venezuelan-born and former Canadian Olympian Don Spring for an almost-entirely new back end corps. Up front, Danny Geoffrion (son of Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion) and Norm Dupont were happy to be out of a high-pressure situation in Montreal while another 1980 Canadian National Team member, Doug Smail, cracked the lineup.
Other returning Jets were Ron Wilson (not the one who went on to a solid coaching career), Sullivan, Lukowich (arguably the club’s most marketable star), Kris Manery, Peter Marsh, Jimmy Mann, and Barry Melrose.
The Jets began 1980-81 with a pair of road losses to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before surprising Chicago with a 6-2 during their home opener on Oct. 17, 1980. Lukowich had a hat trick that night, with his first tally serving as the winner while rookie, and future All-Star, Murray Bannerman made his Black Hawks debut. All of the excitement of that first victory went away quickly, though, as Winnipeg embarked on what proved to be a league-record 30-game winless streak.
Defeat after defeat piled up as the schedule wore on and coach Tom McVie was canned after going 1-20-7 thanks to an 8-5 loss to the Hartford Whalers. Former WHA Jet Bill Sutherland took over the reins, but lost five straight before the Colorado Rockies came to town on Dec. 23. Looking for a holiday miracle, Winnipeg jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Babych, Smail, and new acquisition Doug Lecuyer. The Rockies did not make it easy, as Lucien DeBlois and Rob Ramage made it 3-2 by scoring 11 seconds apart just before the second period siren rang out. The final 20:00 of the game saw the Jets get a quick one from Tim Trimper (who came along in the same trade with Chicago as Lecuyer), but Ed Cooper and Lanny McDonald forced a tie. At 16:26, Merlin Malinowski was called for tripping and the Jets went on the power play. With some hard work, Lindstrom scored at 18:10 and the streak came to an end minutes later.
In the aftermath, the Jets lost their next three games before orchestrating a surprising upset against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 1, 1981. It was around this time that the 1980-81 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards were hitting store shelves and kids across Canada with the exception of those in Manitoba were trying to pawn off Jets cards to their peers unless they were trying to make the set, that is! While the Topps version of this set releases stateside a couple months earlier with the waxy black substance covering up player names as part of a “Who Am I?” feature, this collection knew it didn’t need a gimmick to sell in droves.
Cards and Collectibles for 1980-81
The Winnipeg Jets team set that year was a small one in both sets O-Pee-Chee and Topps both featured Sullivan, Lukowich, Lindstrom, Christian, and Hamel along with a Team Leader checklist with Lukowich. Additionally, Mann can be spotted on the Penalty Minutes Leaders card as he paced the NHL as a rookie the previous year. The cards of Wilson, Christian, and Hamel are also their freshman issues.
Where O-Pee-Chee differs outside of added French text is Long’s Topps card was updated to list him as “Now With Jets” and five additional player cards. For some strange reason, Jude Drouin is shown as member of the New York Islanders even though he had not played there since 1977-78. Peter Marsh, who had been part of the deal for Lecuyer and Trimper, had left on Dec. 1, so there was no time to update his card before going to press. Rounding out the group is Dave Hoyda along with rookie cards of both Mann and Mattsson.
Lukowich was also featured in the 1980-81 O-Pee-Chee Supers, which are rather plain 5″ x 7″ cards much like the ones Topps would issue for baseball collectors a few months later.
Several members of the 1980-81 Jets were part of the 1980-81 Pepsi-Cola Caps promotion, which included all seven Canadian clubs at the time.Looking back at the 140-cap checklist, it is missing three players that were part of a 7-Up marketing campaign in Lukowich, Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky, and Montreal’s Michel “Bunny” Larocque. The rest of the Jets that could be found upon cracking open a bottle of Pepsi boasted some names that never got a conventional NHL card in the form of defenders Campbell and Barry Legge plus Swedish import Anders Steen.
A set of team-issued postcards was also made available, but they cut costs for the 1980-81 campaign and they are black and white instead of being in color like the previous year.
Another Jets win came on Jan. 7, 1981 and Hamel gave an impressive 38-save performance against his former Maple Leafs teammates while Winnipeg exploded offensively in an 8-2 decision. It took another two weeks for another triumph, and this one came at the expense of the New York Rangers as Mattson let in only one goal from the opposition.
The Finnish import was impressive once again as the month drew to a close and turned in a shutout in Toronto to bring the club’s record to 6-35-10. During this period, veteran Rick Dudley was claimed via waivers and he would wear number 99 during his time with Winnipeg – the second-last player to do that in NHL history besides Wayne Gretzky and Wilf Paiment (then with Toronto).
With less than 30 games to go, the playoffs were hardly under consideration – but the Jets weren’t taking advantage of being a spoiler, either. Dropping their next five outings, they did make an important cash deal with the Quebec Nordiques on Feb. 10, 1981. Earlier in the year, Michel Dion had walked off the team following a tough loss to the Boston Bruins and Quebec went out to get Dan Bouchard from Calgary to start over veterans Ron Grahame and Michel Plasse.
Picking up Dion, who temporarily abandoned his unique fiberglass mask for a helmet and cage combo, allowed the Jets to send the struggling Hamel to the minors and he delivered a win in his first start – which came against his old Nordiques teammates five days later. Even after the victory, Sutherland was replaced behind the bench by Mike Smith, who lasted until the end of the year. Eventually, he would become the club’s General Manager – replacing John Ferguson in 1988.
On March 4, Dion was back in La Belle Province to battle the Montreal Canadiens and was abandoned defensively in a 9-3 loss which saw Guy Lafleur record his 1,000th career point. In the audience that night and sitting behind the Habs’ bench was a 14-year-old junior player named Mario Lemieux, who would become a teammate of Dion’s in a little over three years!
While the Jets got blown out again 10-1 by the Flyers the next night, Dion and company had a big task on March 7 as the Canadiens came to Winnipeg. Thanks to a pair of third period goals by Rick Bowness, the home crowd went home. Despite the potential for momentum, the Jets sputtered the rest of the way and went 1-10-2. The only victory in this stretch came against Colorado and there was an embarrassing 10-2 loss to Vancouver which saw goalie Ron Loustel make his only NHL appearance. Left out to dry by his teammates, the 19-year-old that had been protecting the crease for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades was peppered with 51 shots!
On April 5, 1981, the most miserable season for the Jets/Coyotes franchise came to an end as the St. Louis Blues came to town. With their opponents firmly entrenched as the second-best team in the league that year, most expected a loss. However, the Jets managed to slip five pucks past future teammate Ed Staniowski and Dion made 24 stops in a 5-5 tie.
Thanks to finishing at the bottom of the NHL heap, the Jets secured the right to choose first overall at the 1981 NHL Amateur Draft. There was little doubt that General Manager John Ferguson was taking Dale Hawerchuk from the back-to-back Memorial Cup champion Cornwall Royals and the 18-year-old was instantly regarded as the new face of the franchise.
The roster went under some other major changes at every position thanks to some off-season trades starting with a big swap with the St. Louis Blues which sent the oft-injured Campbell and little-used John Markell southward for Staniowski, defender Bryan Maxwell, and prospect Paul MacLean – who turned out to be a strong scorer for years to come.
A rare three-way deal took place in mid-July due to some confusion over the rights to Czechoslovakian star Ivan Hlinka, who had been claimed in a special draft. The Vancouver Canucks had signed him and Jiri Bubla as free agents, ignoring the respective claims of Winnipeg and Colorado. Instead, the Jets received Brent Ashton from the Canucks and shipped him to Denver for Lucien DeBlois. Another big pre-season trade had great results as goalie Doug Soetaert came over from the New York Rangers for a third round pick in 1983. Dion was a free agent as well, and he moved on to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Embracing his previous style of mask, he gave it an iconic paint job and appeared in the 1982 NHL All-Star Game.
The new-look Jets also added a pairs of Swedish imports in Bengt Lundholm and Thomas Steen – the latter becoming a franchise icon that later had his number retired. Defenders Craig Levie and Tim Watters joined the roster as well, and the club’s fortunes improved dramatically at both ends of the ice. By the end of November, they had already recorded their 10th win of the season. Around this time, O-Pee-Chee had issued its first hockey sticker album as a test release in Ontario and Quebec, but none of the new faces would show up there.
The 1981-82 Topps set gave American kids a total of four Jets players, with a Babych rookie card and two cards of Christian (regular and Team Leaders) getting full national distribution. The other card was of new pickup DeBlois and he was in packs for the West market since and featured a Rockies photo that was airbrushed.
As the 1981-82 campaign rolled along, the Winnipeg Jets were finally soaring high. The release of the 1981-82 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards included players that had been part of the previous season’s on-ice attrocites instead of the many new talents. Still, we are treated to rookie cards of Babych, Mantha, Dupont, Geoffrion, Lecuyer, Glenn Hicks (pictured with Detroit), and Spring. The Hicks card is interesting as he had played with the Jets in the WHA, but he never played in the NHL after the 1980-81 season. In addition to the two Christian cards that carry over from the Topps set, there is a Super Action card of him. The rest of the players on the checklist include DeBlois, Bowness, Dudley, Hamel, Hoyda (an uncorrected error where Lecuyer is pictured), Lindstrom, Long, Lukowich, Manery, Mann, Mattsson, Trimper, and Wilson. New Jets goalie Soetaert did not have a card in the set, but you could find him front and center on the box for both O-Pee-Chee and Topps that year.
Another card-related item that had wide distribution in Canada was the 1981-82 Post NHL Stars in Action collection. Available in boxes of Alpha-Bits, Honeycomb, and Sugar Crisp, these pop-up cards opened to have a die-cut silhouette of a player. Representing the Jets were Babych and Lukowich.
As a personal anecdote, the first hockey-related collectible I recall owning was the Lukowich pop-up. While working for In The Game back in 2004, I had to call the former NHL star to be a part of the 2004-05 In The Game NHL Franchises Canadian set and relayed the fact to him. Skeptical for a moment, he then asked me “did Wayne McBean put you up to this?” Having never spoken to the former Los Angeles Kings player, I assured him that it was not a prank and he thankfully agreed to sign some cards for the product.
Whenever there is a team embarking on a long losing streak, hockey fans will always be reminded of the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets. While their turnaround was ultimately swift as they demonstrated the greatest single-season improvement the game has ever seen, it’s hard to ignore a 30-game winless streak and a 9-57-14 record. Moving to the Norris Division for a single year, they finished second behind the Minnesota North Stars by hitting .500 for the first time and made their first of seven straight postseason appearances.
In the end, the original Jets relocated to Arizona prior to the 1996-97 season and the Coyotes have had their fair share of struggles. In recent years, the team had suffered through a pair of 11-game winless streaks to start the season – but there have been many other trials for the hard-luck franchise over time. Fans in Winnipeg may have the 2.0 version of their Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers), but they still have a soft spot for the original club, too.