What If … Wayne Gretzky was sold to Winnipeg Jets?

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(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today it’s Drew Mindell on the Winnipeg Jets! Enjoy!)

By Drew Mindell

The scene: Winnipeg Arena, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The date: May 26, 1988 (back before the Stanley Cup was awarded in the middle of summer).

The occasion: The dynasty of the Winnipeg Jets continuing unabated, with the franchise winning its 4th Stanley Cup in the last 5 years.

The MVP: Wayne Gretzky, the most legendary Winnipeg Jets player of all time.

Being a rabid hockey fan in Winnipeg is often an act of masochism. Never was that more true than in the 1980s, when the Jets were often used as a punching bag and stepping stone for their Smythe Division (RIP) rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.

On the occasions that the Jets were able to qualify for the playoffs, they were never able to get over the hump and defeat those legendary Edmonton Oilers teams, often falling in heart-breaking fashion. Each spring, Jets fans would be gritting their teeth and cursing under their breath, while the Oilers would be lifting Lord Stanley’s mug, and the city of Edmonton would be planning the usual parade route for their champions.

Can you blame a Winnipeg Jets fan for thinking to themselves, “what if Wayne Gretzky had been sold to the Winnipeg Jets instead of the Edmonton Oilers?”

We now know just how close Wayne Gretzky came to being a member of the Winnipeg Jets, not the Edmonton Oilers. Given the opportunity to purchase Gretzky from Nelson Skalbania (and the team he owned, the Indianapolis Racers), then Jets (part) owner Michael Gobuty passed on the acquisition, resulting in Gretzky being sold to Peter Pocklington and the Edmonton Oilers.

Had Gretzky ended up in Winnipeg, playing centre and setting up then-Jets winger Bobby Hull, they would have made as dynamic a centre-winger combo as has ever been seen in the hockey world —think of the Adam Oates and Brett Hull, combination but multiply it by 1000, lace it with black tar heroin, and inject it with the steroids from the 1970 East German Olympic teams.

With Bobby Hull and Wayne Gretzky leading the way, along with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson (no slouches in their own right), the Jets would have been poised to continue their dominance of the World Hockey Association, and make a seamless transition to the NHL.

(For the purposes of this flight-of-fancy, let’s suppose the NHL would have allowed the Jets to keep their WHA team together, which we all know, they did not permit in 1979.)

The Jets entered their inaugural NHL season in 1979-80 and having been decimated by the league powers-that-be, the team accumulated a less than impressive record of 20-49-11. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the Oilers, led by Wayne Gretzky and his 137 points, qualified for the playoffs and began to lay the groundwork for what would become the NHL’s next great dynasty. There is no reason why, had Gretzky ended up in Winnipeg, playing with (the admittedly aging) Bobby Hull and the dynamic Swedes, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson and Willy Lindstrom (some of whom were in the prime of their career), the Jets couldn’t have qualified for the playoffs themselves, and began to create the dynasty that ended up occurring 1300 kilometers to the west, in Edmonton.

It will never be known for certain if Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg Jets legend, would have resulted in similar Stanley Cup success for the Jets, as the Oilers ended up experiencing in Edmonton. However, had Gretzky played for the Jets, and continued on the same trajectory in becoming the greatest player of all time, it’s hard to believe that the Jets would have decamped Winnipeg and moved to Phoenix in 1996.

Sure, the Oilers went through their own financial difficulties and supposedly were close to leaving the Alberta capital, but it didn’t actually occur, and the Oilers have been a key component of an Edmonton winter, unabated, year in and year out. Do a role-reversal of the situation, with Winnipeg as a Stanley Cup winning city and with Gretzky as a significant member of the Jets (even if he would eventually be traded to Los Angeles), does the team end up staying in Winnipeg?

Hard to believe that the answer is anything other than an emphatic yes.

Tony Soprano, the 21st century philosopher and fictional mob boss, once said that “remember when” is the lowest form of conversation. The cousin of the “remember when” conversation, the “what if” conversation, is not terribly dissimilar.

However, for long-suffering Winnipeggers who have never seen a Stanley Cup victory (assuming no one is still around that can remember the Winnipeg Victorias cup wins in 1896, 1901 and 1902) and who have been waiting since 1990 for another Grey Cup win for their beloved Bombers, Winnipeg Jets’ fans can be forgiven for occasionally pondering the possibility and thinking to themselves, “what if Wayne Gretzky had been sold to the Winnipeg Jets instead of the Edmonton Oilers?”

Drew Mindell is the Host of The Illegal Curve Hockey Show and NHL This Week, both of which air on TSN Radio 1290 in Winnipeg. He is also a contributor to www.illegalcurve.com, your online home for Winnipeg Jets news. You can follow him on Twitter, @icdrew, but preferably not in real life because he gets kind of skittish when random people start following him around.


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