The commotion emanating from the Winnipeg Jets' dressing room signaled that it was time for one of hockey's oldest rituals—the hazing of a rookie. And now, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of long blue underwear, a glum Eldon (Pokey) Reddick answered the summons from within and stepped toward his fate. Mario Marois, the Jets' veteran defenseman, stood waiting with a hard and knowing look in his eyes and a pair of scissors in his hands.
Fifteen hours earlier, with the Jets clinging to a 5-4 lead over Minnesota and five seconds left in the game, the same Marois had stood by helplessly as Reddick took his place in the net to face the North Stars' Kent Nilsson on a penalty shot. The shot had been called after Marois stopped play by blatantly hoisting the net off its moorings as the North Stars swarmed around the Jets' goal. Cool as a Winnipeg winter, Reddick refused to commit himself too quickly and Nilsson's shot bounced off the stacked pads of the sprawling goalie.
Little wonder that Marois showed some mercy in return and merely snipped off a couple of the Michael Jackson-like Jerri curls that tumbled down Reddick's forehead. "Well, he did save my life last night, didn't he?" Marois said with a grin.
The bottom line is that the loose and happy scene says a great deal about the 1986-87 Jets, who last year were a doleful and inept lot who finished with just 26 wins and 59 points, but this year rank No. 3 overall in the NHL with a 33-22-6 record for 72 points.
Indeed, the emergence of Winnipeg is perhaps this season's biggest surprise. In 32 of their 33 victories—including Sunday's 5-2 defeat of Edmonton—the Jets have gone with one of two rookie goal-tenders, Reddick, 22, or Daniel Berthiaume, 21. Pokey and the Bandit, as the diminutive netminders are called, have given the Jets a security that they sorely missed in 1985-86, when the team gave up 372 goals, 131 more than league-leading Philadelphia.
In addition to the play of Reddick and Berthiaume, the Jets' improvement can be attributed to time healing a wound. General manager John Ferguson left coach Barry Long and many Jets players demoralized in November 1985 when he traded seemingly untouchable defenseman Dave Babych to Hartford for right wing Ray Neufeld. Four months after that, Ferguson pushed Long upstairs and took over behind the bench himself. Because of all the resentment and confusion at the top, the Jets, who had had an encouraging 43-27-10 record in 1984-85, were labeled as single-season wonders and consigned in most preseason polls to serve once again as confidence builders for Smythe Division rivals Edmonton and Calgary.
But now Dan Maloney, who became available at the end of last season when Toronto refused to give him a multiyear contract, is the Winnipeg coach, and the resentment has dissipated. In addition, Ferguson's trade is looking better and better. With 14 goals and 11 assists Neufeld is a valued rightwinger, while the sore-hipped Babych has spent much of this season sidelined in Hartford.
Meanwhile, the Jets are flying high. Since a 6-1 loss in Toronto on New Year's Eve they have gone 16-6-2, and in a reversal of defensive form, their 3.33 goals-against average is the sixth-best in the NHL. "This is the best team we have ever had," says Ferguson, reflecting on the previous clubs he has had in Winnipeg, including the 1978-79 WHA champions.
The feisty Maloney, under whom the Maple Leafs reached the Norris Division finals last year for the first time since 1979, is a veritable clone of Ferguson. Both once reigned as the league's heavyweight boxing champions. Maloney played for four teams over 11 seasons, collecting 1,533 penalty minutes. Ferguson's eight-season total at Montreal was 1,204 minutes.
With that sort of management, it's easy to guess the style of play that Winnipeg is employing in its resurgence. Not so fast. Fact is, the Jets are the NHL's most infrequent fighters—and least penalized team. If Maloney is embarrassed by his club's lack of pugnacity, he isn't saying so. "I've never coached players as talented as these." he says. One such player is All-Star center Dale Hawerchuk, 23, who almost certainly will get more than 100 points for the fourth season in a row. Not only is Hawerchuk the Jets' principal offensive threat—at week's end he had 77 points on 38 goals and 39 assists—but he also is remarkably durable. In six seasons he has missed only one game.