The Missing Ring
A look at the 1976-1977 Jets
The NFL Network has put out a series entitled “Missing Rings” in which teams that just fell short of winning a championship are featured.
If they were to turn their attention to hockey, such a series would not be complete without including the 1976-1977 Jets.
Riding high after capturing their first AVCO Cup championship in May 1976, the Jets added Swedish star Dan Labraaten, veteran NHL defenseman Dave Dunn, and Canadian college standout Kent Ruhnke to their roster. All signs pointed to another championship run.
Cracks in the foundation, however, began to show early.
During the summer, coach Bobby Kromm, still with a year to go on his Jets' contract, signed a deal to join the NHL's Detroit Red Wings beginning in 1977-1978. During the Canada Cup tournament in which Kromm was coaching, Labraaten and Thommie Bergman were injured while playing for their native Sweden.
Labraaten's injury would leave him unable to join the Jets for a few weeks, but Bergman's injury was much more severe. Bergman had injured his shoulder during the last game of the AVCO Cup finals and, by his own admission, should not have exposed his tender shoulder so soon. He and the Jets paid the price and, as a result, Bergman's 1976-1977 season was effectively a complete write-off.
After returning from the Canada Cup, superstar Bobby Hull suited up for the Jets in an exhibition game against the NHL's St. Louis Blues. Blues' enforcer Bob Gassoff, in one of the biggest acts of goonery that the Winnipeg Arena had ever seen, made a beeline for Hull and slashed him on the wrist, breaking it and putting him on the shelf for a couple of months. It was said later that, even after coming back, that Hull's wrist was never the same again.
Early in the year, the Jets added stalwart defenseman Barry Long from the Edmonton Oilers, but Long's acquisition was tempered by the news that they would have to go to Moscow in December to compete in the Izvestia Tournament.
The Quebec Nordiques had originally agreed to represent the WHA and become the first professional club team to compete in the prestigious tournament, but they backed out at the last minute. The Soviets and Czechs responded by threatening to cancel their upcoming tour of WHA cities, so the Jets stepped up to honor the WHA's commitment.
Meanwhile, Dunn went down with a broken jaw, then, before leaving for Moscow, the Jets were hit by another injury when captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg went down with torn knee ligaments. The Jets asked for a few players from their WHA brethren when they went overseas, but no help would be forthcoming.
Dunn returned in time to join the team in Moscow, and the Jets held their own against the national teams of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Finland. Joe Daley was named the tournament's top goaltender. Unfortunately, there would be no time to rest, as the Jets were scheduled for a Boxing Day matchup against the Nordiques at the Arena. The tired and weary Jets were blown out by a score of 12-3 by the team who forced them on their globetrotting adventure.
The Jets' fortunes were not about to improve any time soon.
Ruhnke came down with mononucleosis, Long was playing with a painful cracked shoulder blade, and Hull suffered his second major injury of the year when the tendon above his right ankle was cut and he would be lost to the Jets for another month.
Behind the bench, Kromm continued to honor his commitment in the second and final season of his Jets' contract, but he had been so publicly critical of his players that he spent one game in the press box as an informal suspension by management.
As the year went on, the Jets kept their heads above water, but they found themselves so short on healthy bodies at one point that they were forced to turn to local senior hockey leagues for replacements Morris Mott and Jim Cole.
Anders Hedberg was tearing up the WHA, but he, too, fell victim to the injury bug the night he scored his 51st goal in his 47th game. He suffered a serious knee injury and scored his 50th and 51st goals effectively on one leg. He would miss the next two weeks on account of the injury.
The Jets made a trade with the Calgary Cowboys to add some much-needed depth when they reacquired defenseman Mike Ford and added high-scoring Danny Lawson and the Jets finished the regular season in second place in the Western Division behind the Houston Aeros.
The Jets opened the defense of their AVCO Cup championship against the San Diego Mariners. The best-of-seven series went the distance with each team holding serve at home, but the Jets escaped the epic series thanks to earning home-ice advantage against the pesky Mariners. Next up was the Aeros and the Jets survived another grueling series, disposing of the former two-time defending champions in six games.
The Nordiques were the Jets' last obstacle of the season as the AVCO Cup finals opened in Quebec. Wounded and tired, the Jets battled the Nordiques tooth and nail. The series again went the distance, where the Jets, two periods away from repeating as champions, succumbed to their adversary. As Hedberg would tell me, the Jets simply ran out of gas and had nothing left to overcome an excellent Nordiques team.
In retrospect, making it to the AVCO Cup finals and coming so close in spite of all they had been through that year may have been the single greatest accomplishment in the history of the franchise. Only a series of disastrous injuries and an unscheduled mid-season trip to Moscow prevented the Jets from becoming a four-time AVCO Cup champion and further recognition as one of the best teams to ever play in either of North America's major professional leagues.