Yay! NHL hockey is returning to Winnipeg. Yes, after a decade and a half without the long suffering fans of Winnipeg get to cheer an NHL franchise again. True, technically it isn’t the same Jets team that departed for Phoenix back in the mid-90s. The Coyotes remain in the desert (for now). Instead the Winnipeg faithful will be cheering madly for the former Atlanta Thrashers – a team that probably wasn’t on the radar of too many Manitobans until rumors began to circulate that the club might be Winnipeg bound.
Today’s Winnipeg Jets don’t boast much in the way of star power. Names like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd aren’t exactly household names (unless you’re a Blackhawks or Vancouver Canucks fan). The franchise’s three biggest stars (to date) – Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa – have all moved on to greener pastures.
Still, as the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. Jets fans are over the moon to have an NHL team to cheer for. The lack of superstar power on the roster isn’t much of a concern (for now).
However, though the current club doesn’t have anyone likely to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, that wasn’t always the case. The former incarnation of the Jets had plenty of superstars that thrilled fans, and not just in their NHL existence, but dating back to their WHA days. Read on as I count down the top 10 best Winnipeg Jets of all time:
10 – Bob Essensa
I really wanted to include a goalie on this list, and, truth be told, there really weren’t a lot of great candidates. Sure, characters like Daniel Berthiaume, Eldon “Pokey” Reddick (Pokey and the Bandit), Rick Tabaracci, Tim Cheveldae and Nikolai Khabibulin all made their mark with the team, but none were really there long enough to earn a spot on this list.
The only man with the statistics to justify his inclusion was Bob Essensa. Late in his career Essensa would be given the nickname, “Backup Bob”, but during his prime with the Jets he was their number one man. Essensa was enormously popular with the fans and is the franchise’s all time leader in games played and games won. He even once led the league in shutouts, and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy that same season.
9 – Keith Tkachuk
Though he made a lot of stops throughout the NHL during his career, Keith Tkachuk’s NHL days started as a Winnipeg Jet, and he arguably enjoyed his most productive time as a pro in the province of Manitoba.
Tkachuk was one of the best power forwards in the game during the early 1990s, scoring goals and punishing opponents physically in equal measure. In 1993-94 he racked up a massive 255 penalty minutes, but all that time in the “Sin Bin” didn’t hurt his offensive production as he netted 41 goals and netted 40 assists for good measure.
His best season as a Jet came in 1995-96 when he scored 50 goals and 98 points. That was the final season for the team in Winnipeg as they would move to Phoenix to start the next season. Tkachuk would remain with the franchise as a Coyote for five additional seasons before moving on to join the St. Louis Blues.
8 – Anders Hedberg
Anders Hedberg never played a single NHL game as a member of the Winnipeg Jets, but he did spend four seasons with the club during their days in the World Hockey Association.
During those years Hedberg was an incredibly prolific goal scorer, netting at least 50 in each season, including a 70 goal, 131 point campaign in 68 games in 1976-77.
I don’t want to forget the blueline on this list of top 10 Winnipeg Jets of all time. I gave strong consideration to Phil Housley, but ultimately it was Babych (and his legendary mustache) that got the nod.
Babych spent five full seasons (and part of a sixth) with the club in the early 1980s. During that span he not only put up a pile of points (including a career high 74 in the 1982-83 season) but he was an imposing physical force as well with a penchant for delivering punishing body checks. Yes, he did have a horrendous -61 rating in 1980-81 (his rookie year), but the Jets were staggeringly bad that year, so I’m just going to disregard that glaring statistic for this particular list 🙂
6 – Paul MacLean
Speaking of legendary mustaches, they don’t get much better than this guy’s lady tickler. Still, it takes a lot more than a magnificent duster to earn entry onto this list, but MacLean has the stats to back it up.
He spent the first seven of his ten NHL seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, averaging just under a point a game during that span. Three times he scored 40+ goals, and in 1984-85 he had his best pro season, tallying 101 points despite racking up 119 PIMs.
5 – Ulf Nilsson
Another throwback to the WHA days of the Jets, Ulf Nilsson averaged more points per game during his tenure with the team than any other player in club history. Nilsson was an assist machine, playing between wingers Anders Hedberg and Bobby Hull. He never had less than 76 helpers in a single season, and his lowest point total was 114.
4 – Thomas Steen
It seems almost criminal putting this career Winnipeg Jet so low on the list. The fact that he only earns the number four spot speaks to just how many truly great players have graced the Jets’ roster over the years.
Steen was a model of consistency during his tenure with the Jets. The slick Swedish center averaged close to a point a game during his NHL career (817 in 950 games) with his best offensive season coming in 1988-89 when he notched 61 assists and 88 points.
3 – Teemu Selanne
No, the Finnish Flash didn’t labor in a Jets uniform for nearly as long as Steen did but what he accomplished in his four short seasons there are enough (in my opinion) to give him the nod as the third greatest Winnipeg Jets player of all time.
Selanne absolutely obliterated the NHL record book in his first NHL season. That 1992-93 season he shattered the record for goals as a rookie. Mike Bossy’s mark of 53 had stood for 15 years, but the 76 Selanne potted that year has already lasted longer, and it is hard to imagine in today’s NHL any freshman coming in and eclipsing it.
Selanne not only demolished the record for goals, but that for points as well. His 132 beat the mark of 109 set by another European hockey legend: Peter Stastny. Like the goal record, Selanne’s record for points still stand today.
Selanne went on to record 147 goals and 306 points in just 231 games with the team, and though he has done many remarkable things since during his long NHL career that rookie season in Winnipeg is undoubtedly the greatest of his accomplishments.
2 – Bobby Hull
Not only one of the most legendary Jets of all time, but one of hockey’s most legendary players, period, Bobby Hull was a no-brainer for a high spot on the list of the best Jets of all time.
Like Hedberg and Nilsson, Hull earned his spot on this list due to his accomplishments in the WHA. Yes, he did play 18 NHL games for the Jets, but the bulk of his Jets career came in the World Hockey Association.
The Jets scored a major coup when they signed Hull to a princely $1 million contract, and the speedy sniper payed them back over several seasons, prowling the left wing as the most feared player in the WHA.
Hull went on to net 648 points with the Jets, and scored an astounding 77 goals in the 1974-75 season. Most importantly, he helped the team win three Avco World Cups during his time there, more than any other WHA franchise.
1 – Dale Hawerchuk
As great as every other player was on this list picking number one was an easy task for me. Hawerchuk’s impact on the franchise cannot be overstated. In his first season with the club he became the youngest player to ever score 100 points in a season (103) and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. Even more significant was the impact his arrival in the league had on his team. The club rebounded from a horrific 32 point season the year before to finish with an 80 point campaign in Hawerchuk’s first season. Not too shabby!
Hawerchuk went on to become the leading scorer in franchise history and his 53 goals and 130 points in the 1984-85 were team records until Teemu Selanne’s remarkable 1992-93 season.
Hawerchuk would eventually move on to greener pasture, but he will always be remembered first and foremost as a Winnipeg Jet.