High in the rafters of the Winnipeg Arena hangs a giant portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. She's not just smiling, she's grinning. It really is the darndest expression. Anyway, she started it. At 10:32 on Dec. 23, the night the Winnipeg Jets beat the Colorado Rockies 5-4, that portrait burst out laughing, and an entire city began celebrating Christmas a few hours early.
It was as if the Jets had won the Stanley Cup. Fans rose to their feet and cheered. Those who had worn bags over their heads tore them off. Players danced about the ice and hollered. They hugged Pierre Hamel, their goalkeeper, and pounded Willy Lindstrom, the forward who had scored the winning goal. Afterward, they stood around the locker room grinning, spraying each other with water. Life was fun again. After 66 days, after 23 losses and seven ties, the Winnipeg Jets had won a hockey game.
Thirty games without a win is a record for a professional team in a major league. The previous record of 27 winless games was also held by a hockey team; it was set in 1976 by a miserable club called the Kansas City Scouts, who became the Rockies in 1977. But the Winnipeg Jets are not a miserable team. They are not really even bad. They are inexperienced (average age: 23.7, youngest in the NHL) and are somewhat deficient in leadership, but the real problem is that they discovered how to lose—rather, how not to win. It took them a long time to get over it. As Forward Danny Geoffrion put it in his French-Canadian-accented English after The Streak mercifully came to an end, "We finally got dat cat out of de bag. I hope he never gets in dere again."
The cat got into the bag on Oct. 19. The Jets were on a one-game winning streak and led Quebec 4-2. With 51 seconds to play, Quebec made it 4-3. The Nordiques then pulled their goalie, and for some reason the young Jets started collapsing. When Quebec scored the tying goal with seven seconds to play, one observer swears that no fewer than four of the Jets were on the seat of their pants, staring forlornly upward at Queen Elizabeth's grin, which now had macabre overtones. Ha ha ha, you think this is bad, just wait!
That collapse was followed by four successive cave-ins on home ice, the Jets turning apparent victories into a loss and three ties. No lead ever again would be safe. Said Geoffrion, "I'll tell you, dey better not let us win one, because when we do, we won't lose again for a long, long time."
Well, they didn't—win, that is. For the next 22 games opponents let the Jets play rough, let them play clean, let them score first, let them score last, let them work and curse and skate, and let them hold on to a lead for a while—but they never let them win.
The Jets always played just well enough to lose. Night after night they'd go out and scare the daylights out of some team for about two periods, then they'd gracefully give the game away. It wasn't that they quit—that was just it, they wouldn't quit—it was just that they were never very comfortable with a lead. Heck, you wouldn't be either if you'd blown five leads in five games in front of your home fans. Who wants to be known as a choke artist?
Morris Lukowich, the Jets' acting captain, would lie awake till 6 a.m. after a loss, then he'd wake up a wreck and play lousy the next game. He had always been a favorite of the Winnipeg fans, always been cheered for his bustling, gutty style. Suddenly he was heckled in a game. Choke artist! The Jets lost again, and afterward Lukowich told the hecklers that if it was so easy, maybe they should come out and try it. One thing led to another, and Lukowich was ready to climb the boards after his own fans. Two women were so upset by Lukowich's language that they threatened to cancel their season tickets. And it didn't end there. Lukowich started thinking about it, started wondering why he was losing sleep over fans. "All right." he decided, "I'll show them exactly how bad I can play." And for three or four games he went into a sleepwalk.
By and large, however, the Winnipeg fans were terrific. Really special. When General Manager John Ferguson spoke on the Jets' radio talk show—call letters CJOB, as in The Trials of—one man phoned in to say that at this time last year, with the Jets 8-7-3 at home, he had already walked out of three games. Boring. This year he had walked out of none. So he figured that despite the abysmal record, the value of his entertainment dollar had increased. Good job, Fergie. Another woman called to say, "I'd like to congratulate John Ferguson for the job he's doing." Fergie waited for the sarcastic punch line. None came. She was grateful to him for not trading away draft choices, for sticking with the kids. That's the way the New York Islanders had done it. Keep it up! Fergie sighed and thanked her.
One night Jet fans came to the game—which turned out to be a 4-2 loss to Buffalo—armed with noisemakers and sirens. They screamed their fool heads off throughout, and once went so far as to give the Jets a five-minute standing ovation for an especially action-packed shift in which they had nearly scored. "That was the best shift I've-seen all year," said Coach Tommy McVie, "even on television." The Jets hadn't scored, but a man's got to look on the bright side.
As the Jets approached the record of 27, their fans began to covet it. Anything but anonymity. One man wrote the local paper: "The Jets have agonized the fans for 25 games without a win. Well, I haven't suffered this long just to fall two games short of the record. I believe the Jets can give us the record."
It was after that 25th game, a humiliating 8-5 loss to Hartford, that Ferguson fired McVie. It was a hard moment, an emotional moment, but a change had to be made. McVie, who was liked and respected by the players, couldn't face them the night he got the news. Two days later he went to the airport to see them off on their next road trip. There were tears in his eyes as he shook their hands.
The firing had no immediate effect. Under the new coach, Bill Sutherland, the Jets lost at Minnesota 4-3, then tied the record on their home ice with a 5-4 loss to the Stanley Cup champion Islanders. The record-setter—No. 28—came on Long Island, where the Islanders whipped them again, 6-2. The Jets lost twice more before coming back home to Winnipeg for last week's game with Colorado. It was their final chance to end The Streak before Christmas.
The first period was scoreless, but in the second the Jets took 18 shots on Colorado Goalie Al Smith and ran up a 3-0 lead. It was the first time they had been ahead in 10 games. Still, nothing has come easily for the Jets, and with 15 seconds left in the period Colorado scored to make it 3-1. Darn. Eleven seconds later the Rockies scored again. 3-2. The Jets had been here before.
But all things must pass. Late in the third period, with the game tied 4-4, Winnipeg's Lindstrom scored on a power play. There was 1:50 left to play, plenty of time, given the Jets' past performances, for Colorado to score a couple or three quick ones. Except this time the Jets hung on. They didn't blow it. With 40 seconds left, Hamel dropped to his knees in the goal and prayed, and the organist began playing "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" The crowd of 11,587 screamed, the Queen beamed from on high, and finally the buzzer sounded—ending the longest, most futile stretch in professional sports history.
Leaving the arena, Geoffrion recognized one of the Colorado defensemen and went over to shake his hand. Then he did a nice thing. Having been humbled by defeat, by 10 weeks of baffling frustration, Geoffrion wasn't about to take full credit in victory. That, too, had been out of his hands. "Danks for giving us dis one," he said to his opponent. "It's a nice Christmas present."