If Tom McVie said it once, he said it a dozen times: “We’re going to beat the Montreal Canadiens,” the Winnipeg Jets’ head coach would vow during the first two and a half months of his club’s National Hockey League existence. “I just don’t know when.”
Those of us who tracked the daily home-and-away tribulations of the Jets during their 1979–80 crusade resisted the urge to greet McVie’s mantra with rude laughter, because we were genuinely fond of the hockey lifer/funny man who would regale us with knee-slapping yarns of yore. Still, as much as his belief in his watered-down lineup was laudable, the notion that the Jets could topple the reigning Stanley Cup champion Habs was laughable.
Seriously, Les Glorieux’s roster was a who’s who of hockey. The Jets group was a “who’s he?” of hockey. Anyone who knew a puck from a bowl of pasta could tell you that, even on their worst day, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe et al would lay a bleu, blanc, et rouge licking on Jets stalwarts like Lorne Stamler, Barry Melrose, Jimmy Mann, Mike Amodeo, or Ross Cory.
Lest there be any doubt, les Canadiens fortified their superiority in November by administering a 7-0 paddy-whacking to the Jets at the Forum in Montreal. Coach McVie, however, held firm in the wake of that humiliation and again delivered his incantation: “We’re going to beat the Montreal Canadiens,” he insisted, as if saying so would magically make it so. “I just don’t know when.”
Fast-forward to December 15, 1979, a Saturday night that brought Hockey Night in Canada cameras inside the Winnipeg Arena for the first time. There was much ballyhoo, bordering on Habs hysteria. Marketing wizards determined it would be a boffo idea to promote the occasion as “tuxedo night.” Patrons were encouraged to wear monkey suits. Staff at Mallabar, a local outfit specializing in the sale and rental of formal attire, watched 1,500 tuxes disappear from their racks faster than you could say “Giorgio Armani.”
Jets brass, coaches, and support workers, the Zamboni driver, and many among the 15,723 customers were dressed to the nines.
The Jets, though, were very much a ragtag outfit.
Due to punitive measures imposed as part of the settlement by which the NHL absorbed the Jets and three other teams from the defunct World Hockey Association, the group that confronted the Habs on December 15 was a pale resemblance of the roster that had captured the final WHA title the previous spring.
Gone were key components Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, Barry Long, tough guy Kim Clackson, and the supremely skilled Kent Nilsson.
Also conspicuous by his absence was Jets sniper Bobby Hull, who, due to confusion about the starting time, was at home sipping a cup of tea when he ought to have been on the ice for pre-game limbering-up exercises.
After an urgent call to Hull’s residence, he arrived at the rink, but his tardiness resulted in McVie removing him from the lineup, a development that so enraged general manager John Ferguson that he kicked a hole in the door of the coach’s office.
McVie refused to budge. A rule was a rule was a rule. Thus Hull, the legendary left winger, left the building and was never again seen in Jets livery.
As it happened, Winnipeg got along just fine without him that night.
The Jets rag-dolled the Flying Frenchmen. Willy Lindstrom scored three times. Peter Sullivan had a goal and four assists.
Ron Wilson and Morris Lukowich had a goal apiece.The Jets outscored the Canadiens 6–2 and outshot them 48–19 (including 22–4 in the second period).
At the end, I trundled to the basement of the old barn on Winnipeg’s Maroons Road to collect nuggets from McVie. “I told you we would beat the Montreal Canadiens,” he said, smiling. “Yes, Tom, you did,” I replied. “By the way, you look great in a monkey suit.”
“Pretty sharp, eh?,” McVie quipped. “But I promised I’d have the tux back by midnight or they’re gonna charge me extra. I can’t afford that, and Fergy’s too cheap to pay the fine.”
The moral of the story? Beating the Canadiens was priceless, but apparently not at any cost.