A Life's Story

February 27, 2021

A Jets fan like no other

Ron Bunio helped create his beloved hockey team's Booster Club in 1972; before long, he was doing game-day PR and had a seat on the franchise's board of directors

By: Geoff Kirbyson

If you were a Winnipeg Jets fan in the 1970s and ’80s, Ron Bunio may have been responsible for as much of your hockey enjoyment as Bobby Hull or Dale Hawerchuk.

Well, almost.

<p>SUPPLIED</p><p>Longtime Winnipeg Jets fan, Ron Bunio, died in December at the age of 75.</p>

SUPPLIED

Longtime Winnipeg Jets fan, Ron Bunio, died in December at the age of 75.

He didn’t score any goals or skate a single shift for the team but as one of the driving forces behind the Jets Booster Club, he arranged bus trips to see road games in Calgary, Minneapolis and Chicago, organized a wide variety of social events for fans and players and helped craft the clever signs that hung in the four corners of the Winnipeg Arena.

(Anybody remember the "Thank God it’s Friday" sign that was put up whenever referee Bill Friday worked a Jets game?)

Bunio, who battled a number of different health challenges in his final years, including dementia, died on Dec. 14 due to complications from COVID-19. He was 75.

Starting in the Jets’ first season in the fall of 1972 in the upstart WHA, Bunio joined Gary Bigwood and a team of rabid hockey enthusiasts who put in countless hours to help make the fan experience memorable.

They toiled at the old barn on off-nights, arrived several hours before the players on game days and didn’t leave until long after they were gone. It was truly a labour of love; Booster Club members didn’t walk in the pass door. They bought their own tickets to the games.

The hockey club experienced financial difficulties after its second year, prompting owner Ben Hatskin to put the team up for sale, opening up the possibility that Hull and his teammates could soon call another city home. The Booster Club sprung into action and helped collect enough money from members and more-casual Jets fans to help secure a much-needed loan, paving the way for the public to own the team. For six weeks in the summer of 1974, the downtown Marlborough Hotel was the focal point of the fundraising efforts. Broadcasters such as CJOB’s Peter Warren and Bob Irving and Winnipeg Free Press hockey writer Reyn Davis showed up to lend a hand, too.

As part of the new ownership arrangement, the Booster Club was granted several seats on the Jets’ board of directors. One of them, naturally, was given to Bunio.

Some nights he would be called upon by Pam McKechnie, who co-ordinated activities for sick and underprivileged kids, to help the children get to their seats, wheelchairs and all. One night, Bunio piggybacked a child up 20 rows to their seat. A few hours later, he carried the child back down.

During the WHA years, the club served as the team’s de facto public relations department. The annual awards banquet? Also a Booster Club production. In fact, the 1974 banquet was said to have cost $4,000, an incredible sum at the time.

"Vic Grant of the Winnipeg Tribune wrote an article half-jokingly questioning the Boosters’ sanity, but no one could question their dedication," says Jets historian Curtis Walker.

"At the 1976 banquet, the Boosters made a point to honour Ron for all the hours he had put in."

<p>SUPPLIED</p><p>Ron Bunio with Winnipeg Jets’ Bobby Hull.</p>

SUPPLIED

Ron Bunio with Winnipeg Jets’ Bobby Hull.

Bunio and his fellow Boosters showed off a keen sense of humour with their signs every night. When the Jets were hoping to be part of a proposed WHA merger with the NHL after the 1977-78 season — the proposal was kiboshed mid-year by a select few teams, including the Montreal Canadiens and their Molson Brewery owners — Jets fans were greeted by a banner that read "To Hull With NHL." (The merger with the NHL was approved the following year.)

Bunio, Bigwood and fellow club executive Rose Glesby were always visible between periods and before and after Jets games, selling pull tickets or doing lucky-number draws.

The club had a close relationship with counterparts in other WHA cities, including Minneapolis, Chicago and Indianapolis. Members would share ideas with each other and notes on the fundraising activities and promotions that worked and the ones that didn’t. Ultimately, the individual team booster clubs gave life to the WHA Booster Club.

Bunio continued to be a club mainstay — he held a number of positions, including president and treasurer — well into the NHL years. He loved to tell friends about the time he drove Teemu Selanne around Winnipeg right after the Finnish Flash first arrived in town in 1992.

When Bunio wasn’t moonlighting at the Winnipeg Arena, he spent his days in the furniture industry. He worked for many years at Elmcrest Furniture Manufacturing and Canwin Upholstery. In 1990, he hired Wendy Anderson at Elmcrest. A few months later, she was diagnosed with cancer. But because Ron knew where all the tests were being done — his father had been recently diagnosed with the disease — he took her to all of her appointments and they started spending time together.

She ended up being his best-ever hire. Two years later she became his wife. They enjoyed 28 years of marriage together.

They travelled extensively around the continent. Bunio loved to play trivia and listen to local radio stations while they were on the road.

Bunio used to collect money from Elmcrest staff who were interested in playing the lottery. He would make the purchase and put each person’s name on the back of their tickets, based on how much they spent. Then he would post them at the office and check the numbers in the newspaper the day after the draw. When somebody won, he would congratulate them and pass them their winning chit.

Family was very important to Bunio, too. He stood up for many relatives at their weddings and helped out at their socials, making countless beer runs. He also wanted to make sure to pay his respects at the far end of the life cycle, too, so he scanned the obituaries religiously and would take his parents to funerals for friends, family and neighbours from the farm. Sometimes he would ride in the hearse to help the driver find the cemetery.

geoffkirbyson@mymts.net

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