This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
My beloved Winnipeg Jets. Two years removed from winning the very last WHA Championships, the Jets had sunk to rock bottom. Yet they were adored by the fans. If any group should be called loveable losers, the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets fit the bill.
The Jets were dominant in the old World Hockey Association, winning 3 Avco Cups in the last 4 years of the league. The final championship in 1979, was especially sweet, as the Jets defeated a young Edmonton Oilers team, led by Wayne Gretzky in the final. When the season was over, the WHA folded and 4 teams, the Jets, Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers were admitted into the NHL. The price the Jets had to pay was they could only protect 4 players, 2 goalies and 2 skaters in the dispersal draft, while having to select castoffs from the 17 established franchises of the NHL. A raw deal indeed. The Jets didn’t help themselves with the players they kept.
Morris Lukowich was the wisest choice to keep. Lukowich was the team’s leading goal getter in 78-79, tallying 65 goals for the Jets. Goalie Markus Mattsson was also protected, as veteran keeper Joe Daley decided to retire. Daley was protected, but chose not to return.
The most controversial choice for protection was defenceman Scott Campbell. GM John Ferguson loved Campbell’s size, as Campbell stood a hulking 6’3 and weighed 205 pounds. However, Campbell suffered from chronic asthma, and found it very difficult to acclimatize to Winnipeg’s harsh winters. It also didn’t help that Campbell couldn’t skate if his life depended on it. The Jets chose to let forwards Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston and Kent Nilsson go to their NHL clubs, who had their rights. Ruskowski and Preston went to the Chicago Blackhawks. Nilsson joined the Atlanta Flames. The loss Nilsson was taken particularly hard by Jets fans, who saw Nilsson as a budding superstar with the team. His absence was felt big time when the Jets joined the NHL.
So when the Jets arrived in the NHL in 1979, they were essentially, an expansion team, and they played like one. The Jets won only 20 games, while losing 49 and tying 11. Only the Colorado Rockies had a worse record.
In 80-81, the Jets reached brand new lows. On October 17, the Jets defeated the Blackhawks 6-2 for their first win of the season. They wouldn’t win their second game until December 23. Jets fans had to wait 2 months for their second win of the season, a 5-4 decision over the Rockies, the only team that was worse than the Jets the previous season. In between those wins, the Jets set an NHL record, by going winless in 30 consecutive games. The Jets went 0-23-7 during that stretch, playing some awful hockey to say the least.
During that streak of futility, the Jets fired head coach Tom McVie, who was actually happy to be let go by the club. McVie went 1-20-7 to start the season. He was replaced by assistant coach Bill Sutherland who didn’t fare much better, going 6-20-3 before he was canned, and replaced by another assistant coach Mike Smith. Smith also fared poorly behind the bench, going 2-17-4 in his stint as coach. Smith was kicked upstairs to become assistant GM by season’s end.
Overall the Jets finished with 9 wins, 57 losses, and 14 ties for a grand total of 32 points. By far the worst record in the NHL. The Rockies, who finished with the second worst record, were 25 points ahead of the Jets when the season ended.
So where did it go wrong with the Jets? The most telling stat, besides the 30 game winless streak, was the Jets were the only team to give 400 goals against in the NHL. Their goaltending was simply horrific. The Jets used 5 goalies that season, and none of them performed well. Mattsson did have his moments. He recorded the only shutout the Jets had all year, a 2-0 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs. However Mattsson, did lack consistency and help throughout the season. The Finnish netminder appeared in 31 games, winning only 3, while piling up a 4.50 goals against average. Nowadays, a 4.50 GAA wouldn’t get you anywhere close to an NHL team, but that average was the lowest on the Jets in 80-81.
Michel Dion, who came over in a midseason trade from Quebec, didn’t fare much better. In his 14 games with the Jets, Dion recorded a 4.83 GAA while also winning only 3 games. Dion was shipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason.
Pierre Hamel proved he was never any good. In his 29 appearance, Hamel also won 3 games while accumulating a 4.73 GAA. Hamel never played another game in the NHL after 80-81, and Jets fans are thankful for that.
The worst was quite possibly Lindsay Middlebrook. The diminutive second year goalie appeared in 14 games, none of them were victories, while compiling a 5.97 GAA. Middlebrook was the NHL’s answer to a two dollar hooker in Vegas. Anyone can score on him.
But perhaps, no player exemplified the Jets season like goalie Ron Loustel. A young prospect from the Saskatoon Blades, Loustel only appeared in one game for the Jets. On March 27, the Jets hosted the Vancouver Canucks. Ferguson was desperate to find a goalie and Loustel, was thought to be the goalie of the future. So Ferguson and Smith decided to go with the 19-year-old prospect from Gilbert Plains, Manitoba. It worked out as well as the Hindenburg. In what turned out to be his only NHL appearance, Loustel and the Jets were destroyed 10-2 by the Canucks. The game fractured Loustel’s confidence to the point that when he returned to junior hockey, his play sunk, and he never recovered his previous form. I remember this game well, as I was in attendance for this massacre of epic proportions. And believe me, it was a massacre!
The Jets did have some bright spots. Rookie centre Dave Christian, who joined the Jets following his gold medal triumph for the Miracle on Ice US Olympic team, was a solid addition for the Jets, leading the team in assists with 43, and points with 71. Lukowich found the net 33 times to lead the sad-sack Jets. First round draft pick Dave Babych showed poise and maturity beyond his years.
But the best thing about the Jets finishing last overall, was the fact they got to pick first overall in the 1981 entry draft. The Jets found a franchise player in that draft in centre Dale Hawerchuk, who had a Hall of Fame career.
The Jets did improve the following season by a whopping 48 points, and earning their first playoff berth since joining the NHL. However hardcore fans, like myself will never forget the horror of the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets season.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973