Rod Palson still remembers his walk from the parking lot to the stands of the old Winnipeg Arena on April 16, 1987. He wore white, just like everyone else. The sun shone as he locked his car and strode through the concourse, and as he settled into his place in the rink — Section 126, Row 12, Seat 10 — he was overtaken by a roar louder than any he’d ever heard before.
Palson’s specific vantage point comes to mind so easily because the actual seat is currently in his basement, a parting gift he salvaged from the barn that once housed Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne before it was demolished in 2006. The memory of the night has never left him, for he calls it the undisputed greatest moment in the history of the original Winnipeg Jets — the lasting contribution he and his city made to the game of hockey.
“Prior to the Whiteout, (Winnipeg Arena) was a typical Western Canadian NHL arena. The fans were passionate about their team,” Palson says. “But when the Whiteout happened, it became a totally different environment, unlike anything I’d ever seen and probably unlike anything any hockey arena had ever witnessed before.
“It was just awe-inspiring,” he says. “It was shocking for the fans to walk in and see their collective self, and what a statement they were making together.”
Palson, at the time, was a founding partner at the Jets’ go-to advertising agency, a dream gig for someone “who lived and breathed hockey,” and the idea for the statement was his: encourage more than 15,000 locals to dress in unison for Game 6 of a first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames. When Winnipeg won 6-1 to cinch the Flames’ elimination, the grand gesture of solidarity became a tradition, one that survived the franchise’s departure for Phoenix little under a decade later.
As the new incarnation of the Jets prepares for a playoff campaign of its own, April 16, 1987 is a day worth recalling, and not only because the Whiteout is bound to return this week when the Minnesota Wild visit in the first round. It was the last time a Winnipeg team was strong enough to contend for the Stanley Cup — until this season.
Toiling away in the NHL’s smallest market, the Jets rather quietly made the jump from middling to elite in the course of the past six months. Led by 44-goal scorer Patrik Laine and point-a-game forwards Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, they rocketed to second place in the Western Conference and second overall in the league, finally validating the patient draft-and-develop approach their general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, has followed since he and the team arrived in town in 2011.
Ten Cheveldayoff draft picks are now regulars in Winnipeg’s lineup, and four of his first-rounders — Laine, Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor — were among the Jets’ top five scorers in the regular season. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck quelled doubts about his potential by playing like a Vezina Trophy candidate. The Jets were second in the NHL in goals scored (273) and fifth in goals allowed (216), and judging by goal differential and strength of schedule, the factors that comprise Hockey Reference’s Simple Rating System, they’re the very best team in hockey.
“We came into the season with high expectations and high hopes,” Cheveldayoff says. ”With a young group of guys we’ve assembled and year-over-year experience we’ve afforded them, it’s certainly nice to see when some fruits of the labour start to flourish.”
Based on how well they played this season and given that the Toronto Maple Leafs share a division with the powerful Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Jets are entering the playoffs as Canada’s likeliest hope to win the Cup this year. It’s a rare distinction in Winnipeg, a city accustomed to producing brilliant hockey players — from Andy Bathgate and Bill Mosienko to Jonathan Toews and Mark Stone — but whose pro franchises have for the most part never been that good.
The original Jets won three World Hockey Association championships, including the last two, but between their escape from the crumbling upstart league in 1979 and their relocation to Arizona in 1996, the team only won two NHL playoff series: they beat Calgary in the 1985 and 1987 Smythe Division semifinals before being swept by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. The Anaheim Ducks swept the current Jets in 2015, their only playoff appearance to date in Winnipeg, just as the New York Rangers swept them in 2007, their only playoff appearance as the Atlanta Thrashers.
That’s an 0-8 record over the franchise’s first 17 seasons, meaning the prospect of a deep run and a cheery spring has been a long time in the making.
“When you’re in a situation like ours here, unfortunately, you probably don’t get to sit back and think about what the significance of where you’re at is,” Cheveldayoff says. “Here in our minds, until you achieve your ultimate goal, you have done — I don’t want to say done nothing, (but) until you achieve your ultimate goal, there’s still a lot of work ahead of you.
“You do know when you wake up in the morning and go to the grocery store or the coffee shop or wherever you go,” he adds, “chances are the people of Winnipeg are having a better morning if you can come off a win the night before.”
In the spring of 1987, as Palson wracked his brain for a rebuttal to Calgary’s innovative “C of Red” — another colourful display of harmony that much of the league now imitates in the playoffs — the player the Jets looked to for leadership on the ice was Hawerchuk, then a 24-year-old future Hall of Fame centre with five 100-point years to his name. His sidekick on the wing was Paul MacLean, a perennial 30-goal scorer who spent seven of his 10 NHL seasons in Winnipeg before going into coaching.
MacLean, who coached the Ottawa Senators from 2011-15 and spent the next two years as an assistant with Anaheim, is experiencing his first season out of hockey since the early 1990s. He has blogged for NHL.com, contributed analysis to TSN and found himself heartened by the revived Jets’ ascent in the standings, the product of an enduring soft spot he has for the city. He says he never forgot the energy of the first Whiteout, when Winnipeg Arena was packed for the start of warmup and the Jets led 4-0 by the end of the first period. (MacLean assisted on the third goal by springing Hawerchuk for a breakaway.)
“Winnipeg is a hockey town,” MacLean says. “At one time, (people) thought it was the place nobody wanted to go. But at the end of the day, everyone who played there loved it and had a great time. I think the fans in Winnipeg deserve to have an opportunity to cheer for a long time.”
The Jets were never very consistent in MacLean’s heyday, but they were capable of dominating at either end of the ice at different times: they scored the third-most goals in the league under head coach Barry Long in 1984-85 and allowed the fourth-fewest under Dan Maloney in 1986-87. Come playoff time, it was enough to beat two quality Flames teams, but not even the Whiteout could help them curtail the Oilers, a dynasty on the march.
“I don’t think we ever even won a game against Edmonton, which made it even more disappointing and then at the same time more daunting every time you played them,” MacLean said. “They were an incredible, incredible team at the time, and you knew that you were watching history. But at the same time we were losing out on some opportunities we could have had.”
If there’s reason to be pessimistic about Winnipeg’s Cup chances this season, it’s that the current Jets are facing the same impediment: a divisional playoff bracket that will likely pair them with one of the NHL’s other truly excellent teams in Round 2. The Nashville Predators aren’t Gretzky’s Oilers, but they did win the Central Division and the Presidents’ Trophy. Last year, they became the darling of the playoffs by surging all the way to the final as a wild-card entrant — buoyed by nightly performances from country music’s biggest stars and marketing gimmicks such as letting fans swing sledgehammers at cars painted in the colours of the opposition outside Bridgestone Arena.
Even beyond the Predators, the western side of this year’s playoffs won’t lack for compelling stories. If the Jets can reach the conference final, their opponent could be the Vegas Golden Knights, the best expansion team in league history by a long shot. It’s a matchup that would hit close to home for Shane Hnidy, the retired NHL defenceman from Manitoba who now works as a colour commentator on Vegas’ TV broadcasts.
Hnidy grew up an Oilers fan in Neepawa, Man., in the 1980s, but he welcomed the chance to watch Hawerchuk whenever he’d travel a couple hours east for games at Winnipeg Arena. In his playing days he made the city his off-season home. In May 2011, when True North Sports & Entertainment announced their intention to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg, he saw how the news invigorated many of his friends and relatives, along with all the fans who clustered at the intersection of Portage Ave. and Main St. to celebrate.
Hnidy won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins that spring, a midseason depth signing watching the end of his career play out from the press box. By the fall, he had signed on with TSN to become their first Jets colour analyst, a job he held until he left for Las Vegas last year. The first season was joyous, he says, and nothing beat the rush of the first trip to the playoffs in 2015, which prompted him to go out and buy a white suit.
“It’s a real identity the city connects with, having their Jets,” Hnidy said. “The city needed a team, and the guys who play there understand how important it is for the people of Winnipeg, for Manitoba.”
Back in April 1987, on the day of the deciding game with Calgary, Rod Palson was afraid his appeal to the fans to coordinate their choice of clothing might fall flat. The team had commissioned newspaper ads, sent a promotional song to local radio stations and hoped word would spread organically on a couple days’ notice. “Good guys wear white” was their slogan. Surely every ticket holder had a white shirt tucked away in a drawer.
Before he and his family drove to the arena for the game, Palson eyed their attire and said he hoped they wouldn’t be in the minority. But as they got on the road and glanced into the windows of other cars, he was relieved to see a good number of people had heeded his word. He knew the worry was unfounded by the time he got to his seat, the one he’d eventually get to bring home.
At age 66, Palson is a half season-ticket holder and gets out to most of the Jets’ home contests at Bell MTS Place. The day he spoke about his memories of the original franchise, the Jets had a game against Los Angeles, which he planned to attend with his nine-year-old grandson. The boy is a third-generation fan, as devoted to the team — and ready for the thrill of the playoffs — as anyone.
“The kids in school and the kids on his hockey team are talking about the Whiteout already,” Palson said.
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