With the Habs set to meet Winnipeg Jets 2.0 tonight, here's a look back at a post I did when word broke that the Atlanta Thrashers were moving north.
Being the nostalgic and hockey historian that I am, I thought it was worth looking back at the first meeting between the Montreal Canadiens and the first NHL franchise out of Manitoba.
At the time it could be seen as a "Clash of the Champions," with the Jets having won the last Avco Cup in the WHA and the Canadiens defending their four straight Stanley Cups. The end result of their first meeting, in Montreal on November 22, 1979, was far from that.
The Canadiens had seen an exiting of former greats (Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer) over the summer and Bernie Goeffrion had replaced Scotty Bowman behind the bench.
The Jets had few stars on their roster in their NHL debut. Kent Nillson, their top scorer in their swan song WHA season had been reclaimed by the Atlanta Flames, who owned his NHL rights. Likewise for Terry Ruskowski, who was reclaimed by the Chicago Blackhawks.
That only left Morris Lukowich and Peter Sullivan as their only point a game scorers.
But for nostalgic supporters of the Winnipeg Jets, the name Bobby Hull went hand in hand, At forty years of age, The Golden Jet took to the Forum ice to a standing ovation.The last time he had played at the Forum was for Team Canada during the 1976 Canada Cup.
Hull had put the Jets, and Winnipeg for that matter, on the pro hockey map worldwide when he jumped to the "rebel league' fo a reported 10-year, $1,000,000 deal.
Though the NHL was furious of the move, the fans never forgot what he brought to the game of hockey in his days with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Hull had already planned to retire, after injuries and contract disputes with Jets GM, and former Canadiens tough guy John Ferguson, in the summer of 1979. But with the NHL/WHA merger he felt he had a bit of gas left in the tank. He played just 18 games for Winnipeg that year, before being traded to the Hartford Whalers.
Lukowich, and the legacy of Hull aside, the Jets didn't have much else to offer that season. The Canadiens however, even with their future Hall of Fame absentees, were still a dominant force in the league. They were 11-5-3 and holding first place in the Norris Division, when the two teams met on that Thursday night. Winnipeg was on a 2-7-0 run.
The Habs put Michel "Bunny" Larocque, who had inherited the starting job from Dryden, in goal after returning from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for a few games. At the opposite end was Pierre Hamel, who had been claimed in the June Expansion Draft from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hamel was a career minor leaguer, who had played in just 5 career NHL games prior to that season. He would start 35 for the Jets in their NHL debut, and lose 19. This would be one of those nights.
In recent memory, a Montreal-born goalie returning to play the hometown team would be something special. In Hamel's case it certainly wasn't.
The Canadiens popped seven goals past him, on 43 shots, en route to a 7-0 victory. "We played well for the first ten minutes," Hull said after the game. "We were facing a good Montreal club."
Pierre Larouche had three goals on the night, to go with two assists, for his second hat trick of the season and was on his way to a 50-goal year. Rejean Houle scored a pair and Steve Shutt's two power play goals put him ahead of Dickie Moore for second place for goals by a left winger in Canadiens history. It would be a matter if time before Shutt passed then all-time leader Aurel Joliat.
Larocque's shutout came on a 26-save performance, with 11 of those coming in the second period.
"They've got some pretty good skaters out there," Habs coach Geoffrion said of his opponent. "They're going to cause problems for some teams." Whether that was the case is debatable, but they did manage to avenge their loss with a 6-2 home win three weeks later.
The Canadiens would take the season series with two more wins, including another shutout. The Jets would only win 19 games on the season, and finish out of the playoffs.