On This Date: A snowball from Denver becomes an avalanche

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 9.16.55 PMIt was on this date in 1982 that the NHL board of governors tipped a domino in Denver, when the cash-strapped Colorado Rockies, said to be losing more than $2 million annually, were granted transfer to East Rutherford, N.J.

The move had become something of a mundane inevitability at the time, but the ensuing chain reaction makes it worth more than a mere footnote in pro hockey history. The repercussions are still apparent today, especially in the NHL’s Pacific and Central Divisions, which were, to some degree, shaped by the events of May 27, 1982.

Problems on the Prairie

Before any New Jersey-bound moving trucks could leave Denver, the NHL needed to solve an alignment conundrum. The Rockies’ transfer had put too many teams east of the Mississippi River. Winnipeg became the league’s solution. The Jets, fresh off a second-place finish in the Norris Division, agreed to migrate back to the Smythe Division, assuming certain terms were met. Those stipulations included a promise of financial aid and scheduling concessions.

In The New York Times, Winnipeg general manager John Ferguson described the financial aid package as “appropriate” in size. As for the scheduling scheme, it allowed earlier starting times for Winnipeg’s Smythe Division road games, along with several back-to-back meetings when the Jets traveled west.

But while Winnipeg may have eased itself of some misalignment burdens, it gained a whole different kind of pain, wrought mostly by Edmonton.

Spinning their Wheels

In GOAL, the NHL’s publicity magazine, former league president Clarence Campbell tried to emphasize the positives – namely that Winnipeg would now match its young star, Dale Hawerchuk, against Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky eight times during the regular season.

“It’s been a long time since we had something this exciting to look forward to,” said Campbell. “I’d have to go back to the late 1950s and the great Rocket Richard-Bobby Hull matchups to recall anything comparable.”

Unfortunately, the league’s American national cable television partner, USA Network, was focused on south-of-the-border teams and didn’t beam a single Winnipeg-Edmonton game from its satellites during the season’s first four months. But audiences would eventually see plenty of Hawerchuk-Gretzky meetings in the playoffs, much to the chagrin of Winnipeg, which became the dynastic Oilers’ punching bag for the next several years. The regular beatings, combined with the strain of travel and time zone, eroded Winnipeg’s goodwill cache as a former WHA front-runner. Fans began staying away, both in Winnipeg and on the road, and soon the Jets were yearning for a return to the more manageable Norris Division. Their pleas echoed into the next decade.

In December 1991, as the NHL eyed a wave of expansion, then-Winnipeg general manager Mike Smith told the Chicago Tribune that the league had promised relief “as soon as they put a new team west of the Mississippi,” if they wanted it. But San Jose had already arrived and still Winnipeg was in the Smythe. Not until 1993 did the Jets finally return to a geographic equilibrium, moving into the newly formed Central Division. But success proved just as illusive there as it was in the Smythe, and by 1996, the Jets had moved to Phoenix in a shift that would eventually reunite them with many of the same western rivals who contributed to the franchise’s malaise in Manitoba a decade prior.

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