Thursday, September 20, 2007

Let's Stay in Touch...

NHL logoYotes logoJets logoThe Toronto Maple Leafs and the Phoenix Coyotes played a pre-season game in Winnipeg yesterday, with the Leafs coming out on top 3-2.

The Jets slumped out of town in 1996 never to...oops, they do keep returning in their Coyotes incarnation for exhibition games and I believe they even played a regular season game there a couple of years back.

I doubt there is any other example of an NHL team that departed a city and then kept coming back for the sake of nostalgia. It's great for hockey fans in Winnipeg and decent of the Yotes owners to oblige them (of course the dollars have to be there to make it happen , but still) but I've got to believe at some point Phoenix will decide to bypass any further match-ups in the Peg.

For any Phoenix fans who are really passionate about their team, such games have got to have a slightly less than appealing odour to them. Kind of like former girlfriends who want to "keep in touch" if only for the possibility it provides to keep having a good sniff around to confirm that they made the right decision to leave in the first place.

With each subsequent return of the team formerly known as the perennial Smythe division chumps, the lobby for bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg gets a bit hornier than usual and starts rolling out what they consider are their undeniably sound arguments. These have been bolstered recently by what they believe is their new trump card...the salary cap and the apparent boon this is for small market teams. It definitely would be an added help to whatever pro team may eventually get a shot back in Manitoba's capital city but it would be no guarantee of long-term success.

Even the apparently pro-return columnists in Winnipeg, who have got to add at least a bit of nuance to their arguments compared to the core of rabid fans, aren't overly enthusiastic. Here is the less than blinding endorsement from a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press: "modest stability may be more financially attractive than sinking another drill into unfamiliar territory only to discover more dirt."

One argument against such a return is the impossible to deny fact that the Jets never enjoyed consistent fan support in terms of sell-outs, both in the regular season and playoffs. I went to many a game that was not sold out and never had problems getting tickets for playoff games. Often those regular season tickets were bought for 10 dollars each through a promotion at 7-elevens (hey, I was a university student) and even the seats in those sections were often not full. Remember too that there were some very good Jets teams during those years.

Winnipeg is a medium sized city of about 700, 000 people whose population has been almost stagnant for the past 25 years. There just aren't that many people who can be tapped to become new fans. I know, I know...there are thousands of people who are huge fans and likely many saw every Jets game ever played in Winnipeg. But it's more about money than ever before and to keep the beast fed there must be a wide swath of people who can slurp up tickets, blow money on merchandise and make advertisers and media outlets salivate.

It's also important to note that the city is notorious for producing some of the tightest bastards around. There was an urban myth that used to circulate in town. Usually delivered with a knowing sneer, it was said that market research companies regularly tested products in Winnipeg under the premise that if they could flog something there, they could sell it anywhere.

The price at which tickets would have to be sold to sustain a team compared to how much they cost when the Jets were around, would be far greater than the rate of inflation over that time span (7-eleven 40 dollar student tickets somehow don't seem likely.)

I would be the first one to cheer on such a move and would hope for their success. However, while the people of Winnipeg have been conditioned to deal with nasty soul-destroying winters, it would still be a bitter wind that would blow through town if they ever became two-time NHL losers.

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