By Reyn Davis, Winnipeg Free Press
Fairytales can come true . . . it can happen to you . . . when you're young at heart.
Frank Sinatra sang the song and made millions. Ben Hatskin is spending as much trying to show it really does work. Providing, of course, he has a little help from his friends, the people of Winnipeg.
This was a homespun miracle, founded and funded by people who resolutely believed that Winnipeg was prime, unbroken territory for major league hockey.
It began with a charter membership in the World Hockey Association. Even the crusty president of the National Hockey League, long the dominant force in the sport, said he would welcome the new league.
Clarence Campbell cited the birth of the WHA as a welcome source of employment for “seniors and semi-pro players.”
But the WHA had other plans . . . plans which spoke more of the hope than face. They were after professionals and they wouldn't stop short of the NHL.
Yet who really believed in Winnipeg that enough nerve, let alone money, could be generated out of that little hole in the wall in the Arena, to launch the tremendously touchy business of attempting to stock a team with players off the rosters of the hallowed NHL?
It was a moving experience on the rainy morning of Wednesday, May 24 when the Jets proudly announced the signing of their first National Leaguer -- goaltender Ernie Wakely.
Two days, it was windy but sunny when a nattily-garbed Joe Daley announced that he too, had signed. Now the Jets had two excellent goalies.
The days that followed brought more names into the picture. Larry Hornung, a defenceman, signed. Then Bob Woytowich, Danny Johnson and Ab McDonald.
Others had their signings announced less triumphantly than the board room press conferences in the Arena. But the aura of excitement continued through the summer heat as the Jets, every 10 days or so, added new names to their roster.
Norm Beaudin . . . Bob Ash . . . Milt Black . . . Wally Boyer . . . Cal Swenson . . . Joe Zanussi . . . Garth Rizzuto . . . Dunc Rousseau . . . Bill Sutherland . . . Jean-Guy Gratton . . . Steve Cuddie.
But the man everybody was watching was Bobby Hull, the highest active scorer in the NHL and the man Associated Press hailed as the player of the decade.
Many thought it was a publicity trick, Hatskin chasing Hull to all corners of the continent for their “coincidental” meetings.
Then Hull responded one day when he told Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune that, yes, he was thinking about leaving the Black Hawks if Winnipeg met his price.
Hull came to Winnipeg for a few days on a Cross-Canada promotions tour. Unlike other cities he visited, he spent his free time in Winnipeg touring the city and the country-side, looking for a home.
Finally, after miles of tapes and newsprint, the $2.75 million contract was agreed upon in a roadside motel on the outskirts of Denver, Colo., high in the mountains. Hatskin came back to Winnipeg saying he was “99.99 per cent sure” Hull would sign.
The day was June 27 and it began early. Hull flew into Winnipeg from Edmonton in the cover of the night, caught a couple of hours sleep at the International Inn, then shuffled back to the Airport at 6:30 a.m. where 40 newsmen from all parts of Canada were waiting for the first leg of the most spectacular signing ceremony ever held in hockey.
The morning was still young in the Twin Cities when Hull stepped out of the Trans-Air turbo-jet to embrace his wife, Joanne, and three of their five children -- Bobby Jr., Blake and Brett -- who had arrived only minutes earlier on a flight from Chicago.
A 1938 Rolls-Royce was waiting to lead a cavalcade to the proud old Minnesota Club, where the biggest press conference in the state's history was poised and ready to rush the news to two countries.
Hull signed a cheque for $1 million -- the down payment on behalf of the league. He used 11 pens, each one representing one of the other teams other than the Jets.
Then it was back to Winnipeg for another parade, another press conference and finally a public ceremony at the corner of Portage and Main. There, he was accorded a hero's welcome by more than 5,000 cherring bystanders.
Weeks later, he became a national issue when he was blackballed from playing for Team Canada.
And there would be the entanglements of the courts attempting to determine if Chicago Black Hawks had any claim to hold him. He missed the first 15 games of the schedule but the team charged into an early lead in the Western Division with the Golden Jet perched beside the bench.
Strangely enough, the club leader was Chris Bordeleau, a slick little centre who also bolted the Black Hawks to play for the Jets.
Bordeleau signed almost too late to grasp the full attention he deserved. He waited for a better time . . . on the ice in full view of the paying customers.
Three amateurs were turned pro to round out the roster. Brian Cadle, possibly the most popular junior who ever played for the Jets, made the club on guts alone. Then there was the big Duke Asmundson, who instantly won a job playing the point on the power-play, and finally Gordie Tumilson, the 148-pound package of fiery desire who made the team as a third-string goalie.
But most important of all, the team and the league got off the ground.
Really, it was a vertiable fairy-tale come true.