Year of the
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Road To The 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs
By Chris Oakley
One doesn’t generally think of southern Florida as a hockey hotbed. And in fact, when in February of 1966 the National Hockey League named Jacksonville as one of a dozen cities that would be awarded expansion franchises for the 1967-68 hockey season, the initial reaction to the news in most quarters was that the league’s top executives had lost their individual and collective minds. Many sportswriters predicted the new team-- soon to be dubbed the Jaguars1 --would fold within a year, two at the most, and the resulting financial losses would have a serious negative impact on the NHL. But as it turned out, the league’s execs were simply ahead of the curve; Florida, like many other states in the southern US, was poised for a surge of economic and population growth and that surge would provide much of the fan base and revenue that would enable the new franchise to survive its tumultuous first decade.
Up until 1975 Jacksonville hardly even got within shouting distance of the .500 mark, let alone playoff contention. In fact, during the 1976-77 NHL season the Jaguars got off to a hideous 0-17-4 start and stumbled to a dismal last-place finish in the Patrick Division; that Chinese water torture of a season sparked rumors the team might either be sold or disbanded. It didn’t do anything to ease fans’ fears on this matter when the Jags registered an equally atrocious record in the 1977-78 NHL season-- or when a New York Post NHL columnist wrote an article which quoted an anonymous league insider as predicting that the franchise was just one losing season away from bankruptcy.
And the start of the 1978-79 season didn’t offer many signs for hope that things would get better-- in fact, the consensus among fans ten games into that particular campaign was things were getting even worse. But during the eleventh game, the franchise’s fortunes would be dramatically altered...
By all rights the Montreal Canadiens’ mid-afternoon showdown with the Jaguars at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum on November 2nd, 1978 should have been a walk in the park for Les Habitants-- they were a bona fide NHL superpower, after all, while Jacksonville had largely been cannon fodder for the rest of the league throughout its short existence. Furthermore the Jags’ starting goaltender, Doug Favell, was widely felt to be getting a bit long in the tooth after having been with the organization since its inaugural season in 1967-68 and had already given up fifteen goals in Jacksonville’s previous ten games.
But during the first period of that eleventh game, Jaguars right winger Serge Bernier scored twice in the space of four minutes to give Jacksonville a 2-0 lead over Montreal and Favell, whose goaltending had in recent seasons been considered suspect at best, transformed seemingly in the blink of an eye into a human Berlin Wall, blocking shots like his life depended on it. On the Montreal bench, Canadiens head coach Scotty Bowman and his players gaped at each other in utter disbelief; they’d handled Jacksonville with ease in the past, so how could they be having trouble with the Jaguars now?
That disbelief turned into outright shock after Jags defenseman Denis Potvin snagged a Bernier rebound and fired it into the Montreal net to stretch the lead to 3-0 early in the second period. The Jaguars were now playing David to Montreal’s Goliath, and the Jacksonville fans loved it. Bowman, on the other hand, was spitting nails at his players, NHL officials, and himself over this turn of events; losing to the Jags at all was bad enough, but to lose to them in a shutout would be intolerable.
The rest of the second period would do nothing to improve Bowman’s emotional state: a crucial Canadiens power play was halted dead in its tracks when a Montreal defenseman was assessed a game misconduct and Bernier recorded a hat trick to put Jacksonville ahead 4-0. The next sound heard in many Quebec homes and bars was the crunch of breaking glass as outraged Canadiens fans kicked in their TV screens; in other parts of Canada, those watching the game telecast simply sat in open- mouthed amazement at the spectacle of this ill-starred second division club from a relatively small Florida city manhandling one of the NHL’s elite franchises.
Jacksonville wasn’t done humiliating Montreal yet, however; in the third period Potvin registered his own hat trick to put the Jags ahead 6-0. In desperation, Bowman pulled his goalie from the net and put a sixth skater on the ice in hopes his team could get at least one goal in the Jacksonville net to avoid the indignity of the shutout.
Doug Favell slammed the door on that hope in the final minute of the third period; when he cleared a shot out of his crease, the puck slid all the way across the JMC ice and straight into Montreal’s empty net to make the final score 7-0 Jacksonville. It was only the Jags’ second win of the 1978-79 season, but the JMC crowd roared an ovation so loud one would have thought that the Jaguars had just clinched the Stanley Cup. As Favell’s teammates mobbed him in celebration at center ice, a disgusted Scotty Bowman trudged back to the visitors’ locker room practically unnoticed. What Bowman said to his own team behind closed doors is best left to the imagination.
Following their surprising blowout victory over the Canadiens, Jacksonville went on a tear, winning 12 of their next 15 games and tying two others. And these were hardly creampuffs the Jaguars were racking up those wins against; during this 15-game span the Jags notched overtime victories on the road against the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins, both serious NHL playoff contenders. The rest of the league was starting to take notice that Jacksonville might be finally starting to shed its status as a league doormat.
A popular if unkind joke that circulated about the Jaguars back in the franchise’s early years was that their yellow-and-maroon home uniforms were bright enough to be used as substitute lighthouses on Florida’s coast. For the 1978-79 season, however, the team had decided to experiment with more subdued blue-and-silver jerseys, and after a while team morale noticeably improved as the Jags continued to rack up victories in their new uniforms. By Christmas Eve, Jacksonville was tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in the Patrick Division standings and for the first time in franchise history Jags fans actually dared to hope their team might make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
No one wanted that more than Sid Abel, the Jaguars’ head coach since 1973. While Abel had reached the mountaintop several times in his playing days with the Detroit Red Wings, the Cup had eluded him as a coach; he was well aware that Jacksonville represented what might be his last chance to grab the brass ring before his coaching career came to an end. He’d almost left the NHL after the Jags’ horrendous 1977-78 season, but his assistants had convinced him to stay one more season-- and with Jacksonville turning the league upside down thanks in part to its surprising November surge, it was becoming more and more apparent that Abel had made the right choice.
In late January of 1979 the Jaguars began a crucial eight-game home stand that promised to either make or break their playoff hopes for the 1978-79 NHL season. If they could win at least three of those games, they’d be assured of finishing no worse than third place in the Patrick Division for the regular season; if they managed to win all eight games, they’d secure not only an NHL playoff spot but also home ice advantage for the first round. With that kind of motivation, it wasn’t surprising Abel’s players went all out against their opponents during those eight games.
The eight-game string got underway with a 5-4 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings on January 26th, followed by a 2-2 tie with the Buffalo Sabres the next day; so far, so good, it seemed. But in the third game of the home stand, when the Jaguars were hosting the Los Angeles Kings, disaster struck; Jacksonville blew a 2-1 lead late in the third period and lost to the Kings 4-3. Adding insult to injury in the literal sense, Denis Potvin suffered a sprained right hand in the second period and would be sidelined for the rest of the series while he was recuperating from the sprain.
After a one-day break, the Jags resumed their home stand with a matchup against the New York Islanders; by the skin of their teeth Jacksonville eked out a two-goal shutout victory, but the win felt more like an escape from prison than anything else. With their eight- game run halfway finished, the Jaguars were still looking for that elusive third win, and they were doing so with their top defenseman on the sidelines.
On January 31st the Jaguars faced the St. Louis Blues, a team that had been one of their most dangerous nemeses during their early years in the NHL; although of late Jacksonville had gotten the upper hand in that particular rivalry, the Blues still represented a major roadblock to the Jags’ efforts to secure home ice advantage for the Stanley Cup playoffs....
To Be Continued
1Contrary to popular belief, the franchise’s name refers not to the jaguars which once roamed the Florida interior but to the Jaguar XKE sports car, which was the favorite car of the club’s original principal owner.