Today the Winnipeg Jets are hosting the Edmonton Oilers in the Heritage Classic Outdoor Game.
The game celebrates the heritage of hockey in Canada, and especially the competition between the Jets and the Oilers.
Much has changed in the 44 years since the first game between the teams. For one thing, the game was played in the World Hockey Association as both teams were charter members of the WHA. They would not enter the NHL until 1979.
The Winnipeg Jets of that era made a big splah by signing super-star Bobby Hull.
Long unhappy because of his relatively poor salary in the period when he was hockey’s preeminent superstar, Hull responded to overtures from the upstart WHA by jesting that he’d jump to them for a million dollars, a sum then considered absurd. Gathering the other league owners together to contribute to the unprecedented amount on the grounds that inking such a major star would give instant credibility to the new rival league that was competing directly against the entrenched NHL, Jets’ owner Ben Hatskin agreed to the sum and signed Hull for a contract worth $1,000,000 over ten years. Although his debut with Winnipeg was held up in litigation by the NHL, Hull instantly became the WHA’s greatest star. Other NHL stars would soon follow, changing the game both on and off the ice.
When the Jets played their first game on October 12 in New York against the Raiders, the Jets were without Bobby Hull. He was in court battling his former team, the Chicago Black Hawks over his new contract. The Jets would still win that first game 6–4. Bobby Hull won his court battle and joined the Jets 15 games into the season. Bobby Hull captured the WHA’s first MVP award, by scoring 51 goals. The Jets won the Western Division with a 43–31–4 record.
As for the Oilers, that earliest edition of the team was based in Edmonton but called the Alberta Oilers. They included the likes of Al Hamilton (captain), Val Fontayne, Doug Barrie and Jim Harrison, who that year would lead the team in scoring. Moreover, on January 30, 1973, Harrison set a major professional hockey record with 10 points (3G, 7A) in a single game in a 11-3 win over the New York Raiders (That feat was later matched by Darryl Sittler on February 7, 1976 in an NHL game).
The Alberta Oilers would finish the regular season with a winning (38 wins, 37 losses and 3 ties) before bowing out in a fourth place West Division tie breaker to the Minnesota Fighting Saints in a game played in a then neutral site Calgary .
But let’s not get sidetracked. Back to their first game. That first meeting between the teams occurred on October 15, 1972 at the Winnipeg Arena – the visitors winning 5-2 in a game where the Jets had to play without Hull, who was also their coach. Two days later the two teams met again – this time in Edmonton – and again the Oilers won – 3-2 in overtime (overtime would not come back to the NHL until years later).
These days both teams are in modern hockey/entertainment facilities, and the business aspects of hockey reward the clubs and their players handsomely.
Fans, especially in Canada, have not been treated as well. It is now 23 years since a Canadian team won a Stanley Cup. The original Jets abandoned Winnipeg, and it took a long time for Edmonton to get over the trade of Wayne Gretzky.
But today all that will be overlooked as the Jets, the Oilers and the heritage of the game will be cheered.