Impact – ”Having a strong effect on someone or something.”
The Winnipeg Jets have a history like no other. They were dominant in the WHA, struggled to make the jump to the NHL and as soon as they began to pick up steam – POOF! they were gone. As fans, we are only privy to certain aspects of team chemistry. We may occasionally hear rumours about players’ behaviours in locker rooms, hotels, team busses and on the bench, but, for the most part, fans are silent observers. 2020 has forced us all into a state of reflection, remembering how things were and how they got to where they are now. That’s why it felt important to look at which players impacted the Jets franchise, for the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Bad – Bob Essensa
The goalie. The only way to gain a true appreciation for a netminder is to have been one yourself or to have a loved one that plays between the pipes. This is because nobody remembers the 34 saves you made, just the one you didn’t – and it hurts to watch. Rather than thinking about the defender who gave the puck away and put the goalie in that situation, fans, including myself, only remember the goalie’s gaff. Goalies shoulder the blame and reap little praise. But, they know that’s the job they signed up for. Bob Essensa suited up in the Manitoba capital for 6 seasons, posting a 3.38 GAA average. Essensa was a phenom in Michigan State University and was the lynchpin in their NCAA championship but, while his impact in Michigan was for the good, his impact in Winnipeg was not. Essensa struggled with the jump to the NHL and in the 1990 season, everything changed for the Jets and their netminder.
The Jets had their rival Edmonton Oilers’ backs against the wall in the 1989-1990 season. After taking a commanding 3-1 lead at home, which included a sea of white towels and a crowd refusing to leave after a thrilling double overtime victory, the wheels came off the train. In game 5, Stephane Beauregard got the start and the Oilers made the series 3-2. Game 6 was Essensa’s, where he made his biggest, most unfortunate impact on the Jets. On April 14, 1990, the Winnipeg Arena was absolute rocking. The Jets had the chance to knock out their nemesis in front of a sea of white and for a sold-out crowd. The atmosphere was deafening but, letting in 3 first period goals, when Bob Essensa and the Jets went down 3-0 heading into the 1st intermission, the crowd was quickly deflated. While the Jets rallied behind two goals from Doug Evans that tied the game up in the middle of the third, Bob Essensa forever impacted the Jets when Jari Kurri, streaking down the right side, fired a slap shot over Essensa’s shoulder and forced a game 7. It may not be fair to blame the goalie, but it happens, and in this instance, Essensa caught the blame. The rest is history. Essensa sat on the bench for game 7 and, with Jets fans, watched the Edmonton Oilers win 4-1, take the series and raise the Stanley Cup. The next season Hawerchuk was traded. The Jets missed their chance at the playoffs and were left with a what if feeling that resonated around Winnipeg Arena… what if Essensa had saved that Kurri shot.
While the accomplishments of Essensa should not be overshadowed by one game, to some Jets fans they are. With 116 wins during his 6 seasons in the capital and boasting the franchise’s most shutouts with 14, Essensa is the Jets all-time winningest goalie. With those accolades, it may be callous and unjust to label Essensa’s impact as for the bad – but that’s hockey. The goalie who makes the biggest save during key times separates themself from the others. Bill Ranford made those saves in game 6 – Essensa did not. In 1994, The Toronto native was traded with Sergei Bautin to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Tim Cheveldae and Dallas Drake. Essensa would play 7 more NHL seasons with a brief hiatus in the minors and would win the Stanley Cup as the Boston Bruins goalie coach in 2011. The most difficult position in any sport is the goalie and in hockey, it’s a special kind of pressure. Essensa was a great goalie for the Winnipeg Jets but unfortunately, his impact will always be game 6… and we know how that turned out.