Tributes to legendary Winnipeg Jets captain Dale Hawerchuk, who died Tuesday at 57, have been coming from all over the hockey world, but a new book — written prior to Hawerchuk’s battle with cancer — places a 1985 incident involving No. 10 as a pivotal moment in Jets history.
Sportswriter Geoff Kirbyson told 680 CJOB his soon-to-be-released book, Broken Ribs & Popcorn, talks about the first incarnation of the Jets as the best team to never win a Stanley Cup during the NHL’s highest-scoring era — and how an ill-timed hit by Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames kept the team from reaching hockey’s ultimate prize.
“The ’84-85 team was a fantastic team, for starters. If you remember, they had six 30-goal scorers, which I don’t think has happened before or since,” Kirbyson said.
“They went into the playoffs on a 13-game winning streak, which was unheard of… and then they won the first two games against Calgary.
“Then Jamie Macoun got involved and became the most hated man in Winnipeg for all time by breaking Dale Hawerchuk’s ribs.”
Kirbyson said he talked about the incident with Macoun — still persona non grata in the Manitoba capital — for the book and got a play-by-play of the unintentional injury from the opposing point of view.
The hit, though, proved to be fatal for the Jets’ Stanley Cup hopes, as they faced an Edmonton Oilers team in the next round that has since been named the best team of all-time. Without Hawerchuk, beating Wayne Gretzky and co. was a tall order.
The Jets and Flames met up again during the play-in round of the 2020 NHL post-season — a series in which Jets star Mark Scheifele, who was mentored by Hawerchuk as a junior player, was injured on a hit from Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.
Prior to that series, Flames alumni, including Macoun, talked to Global Calgary about the rivalry between prairie teams.
“Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg were tough games,” he said.
“You knew that everybody had to be pulling on that rope in the same direction or you weren’t going to win.”
The second incident that shaped the team’s fortunes — the ‘popcorn’ part of the book’s title — was in a 1990 playoff series, also against the Oilers, when the Jets were down 3-0.
The team came back from an intermission, Kirbyson said, and tied the game up — in no small part thanks to Hawerchuk’s role on the power play.
“The ice had tilted and the arena was going crazy… and you just felt that fourth go-ahead goal to put the team away was coming.
“Then there was a close play at the blue line and some fan threw his popcorn on the ice.”
While the players waited for a janitor to come onto the ice and sweep up each individual kernel, he said, the buzz in the arena wore off, the momentum shifted, and so did the Jets’ fortunes.
The popcorn-thrower remains unnamed.
“I put out the call a few years ago trying to find this guy and no one could remember who it was,” said Kirbyson.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s just folklore,’ but it’s not. I talked to (former Jets owner) Barry Shenkarow about it and he talks about it as if it happened yesterday.
“He said it had far-reaching consequences, too… If that guy doesn’t throw the popcorn on the ice, we score the next goal, we beat the Oilers… we win the Stanley Cup. If we win the Stanley Cup, we get a new building. If we get a new building, the Jets don’t leave Winnipeg.”
Of course, that’s not how things turned out. With an aging arena and financial struggles, the Jets relocated to Phoenix in 1996, and Winnipeg was without an NHL team until the Jets’ second incarnation (itself relocated from Atlanta) in 2011.
“One little thing can lead to another and it’s heartbreaking when you think about the Save the Jets campaigns, and this one idiot taking out his frustration in that way could have had a result that impacted all of us immensely for a number of years.”
Broken Ribs & Popcorn will be out soon, likely in early September, Kirbyson said. The release has been delayed due to Hawerchuk’s death.