Return of Jets shows Winnipeg’s resiliency
This is how bad things got for the Winnipeg Jets the first time around.
In the spring of 1995, a group of local business people were trying to cobble together a deal to save the National Hockey League team. They were full of good intentions. But they also needed $150 million or so to buy out the team’s private owners, help build a new arena and establish an operating fund — and they were a tad short.
About $145 million short, to be precise.
The group did have a cheque for $5 million, the contribution of Gerry Gray, who’d made a small fortune in bottling soft drinks. The cheque was marched over to the offices of the lawyers for Jets owner Barry Shenkarow as down payment for the team.
Shenkarow, however, had left word that no remuneration was to be accepted for the Jets. The emissary tried to give the cheque to a lawyer. He was refused. He tried to give it to the lawyer’s secretary. He was refused. Finally, he just threw it down on the reception desk and walked out.
No one knows what became of that cheque. But it says something the Jets couldn’t give away $5 million at the time.
“No one wanted to own the team in ’95,” said Jets co-owner Mark Chipman, who was part of that campaign. “And for good reason. It didn’t work.”
And there were 100 reasons it didn’t work then which caused the team to move to Phoenix, just as there are 100 reasons it does work now. Fifteen years ago, Winnipeggers would try to devise a scenario under which the Jets could succeed, and it all seemed like an impossible dream.
But the city dared to dream. Now they have their team back, and the impossible couldn’t be more real.
“I don’t know if we could have brought a team back in the same environment that existed 15 years ago,” said Chipman. “It’s a very different league, both on and off the ice. You add it all up and it works.”
The Jets, of course, opened their season on Sunday to a sellout crowd at the MTS Centre and even a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens couldn’t dim the glow emanating from the Manitoba capital.
Their building is sold out for now and the foreseeable future. They have the core of a good young team and, more importantly, a capable operator in Chipman, who oversaw the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose for a decade-and-a-half, and a committed co-owner in David Thomson, who happens to be the wealthiest man in Canada.
In short, everything that went wrong in the mid-’90s has turned on a 180-degree axis. Back then, the NHL couldn’t wait to get out of Winnipeg and there was an impression they left a dying town.
Now? Well, they don’t really care what outsiders think, because those same Winnipeggers who had their heart ripped out 15 years ago have done this for themselves.
The Jets’ repatriation, in fact, is part of a larger Winnipeg renaissance, which is the backdrop of this story. When the Jets pulled out, there was a sense the city’s sidewalks would roll up behind them.
But Winnipeggers are nothing if not resilient. I mean, they have to be, to survive the winters.
The Jets’ departure was a body blow but, in short order, the city hosted a successful Pan Am Games in 1999 and an even more successful IIHF world junior hockey championship that same year. A new ballpark was built for minor-league baseball. And the MTS Centre was erected, along with still under construction the Human Rights museum.
“A lot of people dug in,” said Chipman.
Somewhere in there, people also got used to the idea of NHL ticket prices and NHL salaries. Again, that was a problem in ’95.
In June, the Jets sold 13,000 season tickets in the space of 17 minutes.
“We knew there would be an outpouring of support but I never calculated that,” said Chipman.
And now they’re settling into the rhythm of the season.
The Jets play in Chicago on Thursday night and — wait for it — Phoenix on Saturday night. They return home to face Pittsburgh on Monday. Soon enough, the focus will be on the games and the players and after everything that’s transpired over the last six months, that will be welcome.
“It’s been a hard question to answer and I apologize for not coming up with something better,” said Chipman, one of those Winnipeggers who dug in their heels, when asked to put things in perspective. “It’s been humbling and gratifying. People are very excited and it’s really done something for our community.”
Actually, that sums it up nicely.
© Copyright (c) The Province