It sounds like bullshit, butAnd with that song - chosen, no doubt, because The Watchmen was a Winnipeg band - the CBC welcomed the Jets "back" into the NHL.
You ever notice
This old town of ice and snow
Gets you runnin'
To chasing somethin'
What it is, I'll never know
Just hope one day that it shows
--The Watchmen, "Any Day Now"
Quite a way to set a tone, really.
When the collection of dickslappers known as Atlanta Spirit Group finally got their wish, and stopped suing each other long enough to divest themselves of a hockey team they never wanted in the first place, there was cautious optimism that, maybe, the now-former Atlanta Thrashers could finally achieve some sort of success. Sure, the market was tiny, and so was the venue, but the owners had genuine passion, legitimate money, and had long demonstrated the ability to run a top-notch organization in the minors. Gary Bettman was welcomed as a liberator, even though he was handing over the keys to the Thrashers on the condition that the team sell 13,000 season tickets - for three whole seasons - before a single NHL puck dropped. Fans met that target in about fifteen minutes, pretty much guaranteeing the team would be a bigger success at the gate than they had been in Atlanta the three years prior.
Those three seasons have come and gone. The new Jets are every bit the joke the old ones were before hauling ass to Phoenix in 1996. Barring a sudden cholera outbreak in Denver (completely plausible under Patrick Roy), the Jets are a sure bet to be battling the rebooting Predators for not-dead-last in Conference III. This team should be on the upswing. The better days should be just around the corner. Why aren't they? The questionable roster management been documented well, including the stunner that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has never traded an NHL player for an NHL player. That sort of approach makes on-ice success unusually difficult, and unduly hinders a team from making quick improvements at needed positions, like, I don't know, let's just say goaltender for example. But why would this sort of laissez-faire approach to roster building be permitted in such a fervent hockey market?
For me, the real eye-opener came Monday, when Ryan Lambert linked to this roster breakdown on Arctic Ice Hockey. Yes, the Jets, who have sold out every one of their 106 home games, probably won't see an empty seat for a game any time soon, and seem to have sold at least one jersey to every single resident of Manitoba, prefer to stay frugal. In fact, the Jets are at 27th for the upcoming season on CapGeek, ahead of only Calgary (praying for a draft lottery win), Columbus (still crawling out from a solid decade in the dumpster), and Ottawa (owned by a man selling plasma - not necessarily just his own - to stay solvent). This public admission of financial self-handicapping, combined with the team's personnel strategy, sets a perpetual failure machine in motion. The team won't pay for supporting talent for its star players. The stars, most on relative value contracts, depart for better money elsewhere, from teams willing to spend to the actual salary cap to compete. The young talent doesn't effectively replace the departed stars, because the team has traded away a sizable chunk of its draft picks. That younger talent bails ASAP to earn market value and get a shot at contending. Occasionally, the team acquires a name, but has to overpay for him, because everyone knows the talent is thin and the money to build a proper roster will never be there, and that does a lot more to make a city an "undesirable destination" than, say, a lack of parks. That overpayment cuts deeper than it would on a team without a self-imposed cap, which means there's even less opportunity to bring more talent in, and one day you look up, and realize your daughter's all grown up and getting married and your team is still seeking its first playoff win in franchise history while entering its fourth consecutive five-year plan.
What makes the Jets' penny-pinching all the more baffling is that they possibly have the richest ownership in all of North American pro sports. When you hear about "Jets ownership" in the media, you'll almost always see the name Mark Chipman, who has served as the face of the front office since the Moose days, when the True North group was trying to reclaim the Coyotes. But the big money owning the Jets belongs to David Thomson, as in Thomson Reuters, as in The Right Honourable Lord Thomson of Fleet, as in here's a guy worth Twenty-Four Billion Damn Dollars. He could probably spare $10 million or so to bring the Jets into the competitive section of NHL payrolls. A Canadian NHL team, run by a multi-billionaire, and more or less printing money for him, decides to keep things on the cheap while also pissing away its future prospects. This should be inexcusable, right?
Of course, a guy doesn't become worth eleven figures by by flippantly tossing away money. (He becomes worth eleven figures via inheritance, but that's a story for another blog.) David Thomson knows that he doesn't have to pay to put a winner together, because he has a far more valuable asset for an owner than on-ice success:
The fear was established as soon as Bettman conditionally approved the sale of the Thrashers: Sell 13,000 season tickets for three full years up-front, or else. Or else what? Or else they stay in Atlanta? Or else they move to Glendale, so the league can own and operate two teams out of one market? Or else they go to Kansas City, Seattle, Hamilton, Quebec City, or any of the other relocation/expansion markets subject to eternal speculation? It didn't matter; the implication was enough when combined with an immense passion for NHL hockey, and the fans dutifully forked over the cash for three years of their team, even if it meant doing to Atlanta what had been done to them 15 years prior. The fear is reinforced with mentions of the small, but loud arena, and the small, but devoted, market. Look at this crowd, this town of underdogs doing the unthinkable, bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg, supporting the team at an incredible level, and offering fealty to their corporate overlord by shouting its name in the middle of the national anthem. Also, Ondrej Pavelec just gave up three goals on four shots. GO JETS GO!
And so, the fear of losing the Jets a second time keeps the house full, no matter the caliber of play on ice. And the MTS Centre will stay full for years upon years. You can't buy a single ticket to a Jets game this season, but you can enter a random drawing, in case someone gives up their seats, and the fates deem you worthy of giving this team your money. You can get season tickets, but you'll have to commit to at least a half-season plan, and you'll have to pay for three seasons up-front again, and that's a level of commitment only good enough for the ends of the upper deck; if you were a real fan, you'd pony up for four or five full seasons right now. But if you grow tired of the losing, if you don't keep supporting this team supposedly walking a tightrope to survive in a 15,000-seat arena in a metro area of only 730,000, it will go, and it will go fast, and you will never, ever, get another one. In a country where hockey rules all, and in a city that spent a generation desperately trying to claw its way back into the show, that's an unthinkable nightmare of a scenario. The Jets are Winnipeg, the unthinkable second chance is a reality, and to turn one's back on that risks losing the team, a boatload of civic pride, and a chunk of one's identity. The fans might complain, but it ultimately doesn't matter that the team is bad, because it matters far more that the team is there.
So, to the fans of Quebec City and Hartford, who long for the return of the teams they loved, and still loved: Be careful what you wish for. The people of Winnipeg got it, and now they're stuck with it.