Monday, April 14, 2014

Thank you Winnipeg Jets

"The Jets were lousy anyway." The Weakerthans

Third year out of the play-offs but undeniably the Winnipeg Jets are the must see and must talk about item in the city. They are the water cooler talk of the town.

Winnipeg has had quite a few hard knocks over the last decades but losing the Jets in 1996 was one of the most heartbreaking. It bespoke of a place that was not just down on its luck but in unspeakable decline. The fans who rallied at The Forks emptied their piggy banks only to hear the powers that be say: No.

The 1990s were a bad time not just for Winnipeg but across Canada. The dollar was at the lowest point ever, the deficit was being cut everywhere, interest rates were out of control, taxes were up, inflation high and unemployment rising.

Winnipeg had barely emerged out of the 1980s recession when we ran smack into a wall in the 1990s. The city became a war zone of crime, declining home prices and high taxes combined with poor economic growth.

The Winnipeg Jets remained a passion for the people of the city but the Winnipeg Arena was owned by the city through Winnipeg Enterprises. The worst kept secret in the city was that some people who were most likely to afford season tickets got in through side doors not controlled by the team organization. Even when the product on the ice was excellent, the team had problems selling out the building.

The attitude in the city in the 1990s was defeat. So much bad news piled atop bad news. And then there was the Winnipeg Jets question. Will they stay, will they go? Do we get a new arena? And in the last year we trade Teemu Selanne for a bag of hockey pucks. It was awful. Heartbreaking.

The refrain of: "Will the last person to leave Winnipeg turn off the lights" was heard frequently.

The arrival of the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg seemed like the booby prize.

It took a while for the Moose to win us over and for the new ownership group of the Chipman family to convince us there was a plan and that the plan was good. On the back of a paper napkin, a downtown arena plan was hatched and a long game of building on success in hockey management and entertainment was forged.

The MTS Centre was a controversial yet important step in overcoming the knocks the city had been taking. Sad as people were to see the Eaton's building come down, it was unlikely that the site would ever see as many people on a day to day basis as it gets now were it not an arena.

The long plan for hockey and entertainment has meant a certain amount of patience has been 15 years patience. It wasn't just one thing Winnipeg had to wait for, it was a lot of things. We needed someone interested in running a hockey team first. We needed private and government investment in a new arena. We needed the economy to improve. We needed a good salary cap and revenue sharing for any team we had in the city. We needed a building that was run by the team owners and revenues from concessions and merchandise staying with the ownership group. We needed non-hockey events to come to city whether they were monster trucks or curling or Juno Awards.

After the MTS Centre was built, Winnipeg started getting all those things. And it started to be part of the conversation in regards to a possible NHL franchise. Inevitably, whenever a NHL franchise elsewhere in the league was in trouble, Winnipeg became the hammer to use against cities who didn't buckle down and give the owners/league what they wanted.

It seemed we would always be a bridesmaid and never a bride. But the plan, the plan continued and when the Atlanta Thrashers needed a home, the NHL came calling. And the Chipman's were ready, hockey was ready, the arena was ready and the city was so ever ready.

People might have forgotten already how important it was to sell out the MTS Centre not for one, not for two but five seasons in a row. This is turn ensured the success of TSN Jets, the dedicated channel for Jets games. The hottest ticket in town was now available to those who couldn't go on TV...every game. The mostly ESPN programmed 1290 sports radio became one of the most heavily local stations as a result of the Jets.

Quite literally the Winnipeg Jets became the joyous talk of the town. We followed every announcement from general manager to coach assignments. But what wasn't certain was the name of the team until the draft and then we swooned when indeed the name was going to be the Winnipeg Jets.

The uniform design came later. We hemmed and hawed a bit. Debated it but ultimately fell in love...all over again. We were even prepared to buy counterfeit designs of it before it was officially released.

We got to know our team and they got to know us. On everyone's Christmas list was something with the new Jets logo on. Even if you couldn't get into a game, you could show your love.

Training camp was everyone's chance to learn how to pronounce player names and see what they were all about. Heck, we got excited just to hear who would be calling the games and doing colour!

Those pre-season games gave everyone a hint of what was to come and when that first game came...even the new Winnipeg Jets players could only look up and wonder who on earth these insanely joyous fans were. It was heaven.

It seems anticlimactic to point out we didn't make the play-offs in the first year. We didn't expect to. That was part of the plan too...tell people the plan. Winnipeggers were told to expect a slow build over five years. And how much could we expect of a team that first year that really only had a few months to gel in a new home, with new owners, new management, new coach and new fans?

That first year we did make a good go of it.

Second year, league-wide issues came up in the form of a lock-out. It was amazing we even had a season. However, when we did start playing, oh boy! It was a fast pace all the way through and for a while...we touched first place in our division. It was not to last as injuries and inconsistencies and lack of depth had us on the outside looking in when it came to play-offs.

There were many promising signs, not the least of which was the players we drafted. Some looked like they might join the line up in the third year of the re-constituted Jets. And we would need it as change was happening once again for the team in a move to the powerful western conference.

For the first time, training camp really was able to bring in all, and I do mean all, prospects, and have everyone in the organization get to know what we had in talent and prospects.

Third season...this season...the Winnipeg Jets were better. But so was out conference. Our new rookies played like champions but both were stung by injuries. In fact, the last several games looked like the farm club had all been promoted. They played like champs regardless.

This year the Jets showed they could beat the best in the league only to lose to the worst in the league. Consistency is still not there. But what a ride.

The joy is not gone. It is still there every time we shout True North! Where once the old Winnipeg Arena was sometimes filled with more Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys or Edmonton Oilers ones, it is a pretty solid Jets crowd in the audience. And not just in Winnipeg. It seems over many decades we may have exported citizens but the one thing they refused to give up was love of Jets.

So thank you Jets. Thanks for the fun, the excitement....the sense that we are together again, the possibilities you represent...not just for hockey but for entertainment beyond the arena. We have bought into the plan. And the plan is good.

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