These are joyous days for the city of Winnipeg: the weather is finally warming up, potholes are retreating into hibernation until next February and camping stores rejoice as their insect repellent profits soar.
Oh, and the Jets are back too.
Thanks to the approval of the NHL’s board of governors, Winnipeg will become home to the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers. It’s a dream come true for many a Winnipegger who saw their beloved Jets fly south almost 15 years ago.
It’s also a coup for Canadian hockey in general. For almost twenty years now the NHL, under the all-knowing leadership of Gary Bettman, has done its damnedest to ignore our country in favour of sure-fire bets like aggressively expanding into markets where ice hockey ranks somewhere behind bowling in popularity.
Admittedly, a number of the southern teams have enjoyed some competitive success. It’s doubly damning then that Stanley Cup-winning organizations remain financial flops, barely able, if at all, to fill an arena even in the midst of a playoff tear.
But southern expansion was what Bettman promised, and until now neither he, nor the board of governors that hired him on that mandate, have had the stones to back down and admit that they were wrong. As recently as two years ago there was talk of an expansion team in Las Vegas, that well-known desert bastion of fiery hockey passion.
Now of course we’re living in a different world, where the recession has wiped out seed money that might fertilize an ice rink in 45 degree temperatures, and all of a sudden failing franchises are much more difficult to prop up, and even more difficult to move, excepting to a place where a real potential for commercial success exists.
For years, it was the standard NHL line that cities like Winnipeg and Quebec could not support the modern model for a professional sports franchise, which is heavily focused on corporate and season tickets. The cities were considered too poor and their business cultures too small.
Boy, were they wrong. After Manitoba Moose ticket holders ate up the first 7,000 or so season tickets, the remaining 8,000 disappeared in under 17 minutes. I myself was part of a three-person operation involving three laptops, each of us refreshing the website every 10 seconds in order to get our hands on tickets. In spite of getting into the site within seconds of the sale’s start, we still failed to secure a single one. I’m sure similar scenes played out simultaneously, tragically, all across Winnipeg that fateful afternoon.
So, in spite of having what will be the smallest arena in the league, there is no doubt that the ’Peg is fully capable — thanks in part to some pretty intense fans — of holding its own in the new paradigm. There’s little doubt that the MTS Centre will be packed for every game.
Some questions remain, though. Firstly, the Thrashers, to be delicate, suck. Changing cities surely won’t have an effect on this, so we’d better saddle up for a rough ride next season. More importantly, it will be interesting to see what changes, if any, True North makes to the team’s management and scouting. We’re much closer to a wealth of hockey talent than Atlanta was and we should get pretty decent draft picks, so hopefully those advantages will be maximized early on by the organization.
Finally, there’s the name. Why this is even an issue is completely beyond me. I’m not a native Winnipegger and even I have a soft spot for the name “Jets.” Honoring the new team with that badge, replete with the rich history that goes with it, seems like a no-brainer to me.
In fact, I can imagine a pretty significant backlash against the team if they’re not called the Jets. A friend has suggested that if the team gets another name, fans will just show up in Jets jerseys anyway. So I don’t know if this is just some sadistic joke on the part of True North, but there’s only one right answer here, and it’s right in front of their faces.
All that aside, we can all be thankful that professional hockey is back in Winnipeg. The ticket sale alone should convince the board of governors to approve the sale. And hopefully, as more southern franchises continue to choke, this move can be used as an argument and a model for bringing the NHL to more cities across Canada.
Greg Sacks is a second-year law student.