Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Return of the Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets logoAfter 15 years, the NHL returns to Winnipeg.


Only a few years ago, this seemed unlikely. But thanks to the insistence of Gary Bettman to encourage and authorize franchises in the most absurd locations possible, a good number of teams in the past few years have been ripe for relocation. And of course, let's not forget the hard work of Winnipegers and the new ownership group in securing the team.

Having served up a team for Calgary in 1980, Atlanta has once again provided a franchise for a city in western Canada.

But now that the team is in Winnipeg, the dynamics will instantly change and will continue changing as the years pass. When you're desperately chasing a goal, you often convince yourself that everything will be all right if you just make it happen. But after you reach the goal, familiarity is right behind and almost as fast you start to take for granted that which you once thought was so important.

Numerous conditions seemed to stand in the way of Winnipeg ever seeing a return of the NHL. The relatively inadequate old Winnipeg arena and its limited seating capacity of 15 393, together with the size of the city and the population from which ticket buyers could be drawn were always pointed to as obstacles.

But the new arena where the Jets will play has only 15 015 seats for hockey. And the population of Winnipeg has essentially remained static since the first Jets team scarpered to Phoenix.

Yet, we are assured by those who wanted the team back in Winnipeg the most that things have changed enough to make an NHL franchise viable over the long term. More luxury boxes in the new arena and more head offices in Winnipeg (hence, all those new, well-paid employees are going to spend their disposable income on hockey tickets?) are two reasons commonly mentioned.

Back then, with some tickets costing as little as 10 dollars each, many games were not sold out. In some post-seasons, you could walk up on game night and buy a ticket. Now the cheapest ticket will be much more—about 39 dollars. And Jets tickets overall currently rank as the second most expensive of NHL teams in Canada.

The city from which Winnipeg purchased the current Jets team is a two-time loser in the NHL department. And it is safe to say that if the Jets ever skipped town again, there would be no third chance. Beyond the honeymoon period of three to five seasons, what is the likelihood that the new Jets will be in Winnipeg for the long term? A few important factors will decide their fate.

Win


The most obvious way to assure a long and happy stay in Winnipeg is to put together a winning team. A long standing lament of fans of the old Jets team was that it was tough to have any post-season success in the Smythe division with the great Oilers teams around. But today's NHL with 30 teams can be even more difficult. In the 21-team league, a team rarely missed the playoffs for multiple years in a row. Now, teams with 5, 6 or as many as 10 years out of the playoffs are not uncommon.

Ride out the Tough Times


The new owners have deep pockets and have expressed the desire to keep the team in Winnipeg as long as possible. Talk is cheap. If the time comes when the team is hemorrhaging cash on a yearly basis and the novelty of having a team is long gone, will the new owners take multi-million dollar losses on an annual basis without considering moving or selling? Who knows?

The Economy


Closely related is the economy. In the late 1980s and early 90s, it was difficult for most NHL teams in Canada. The weak Canadian dollar and the fact that many players had contracts that paid them in US dollars always made things tough. While economic times are relatively good in Canada at the moment, and the dollar is a lot stronger, there is no guarantee that will continue over the long haul.

Fans


Having lost one NHL team and knowing that a second team leaving town would likely spell the end for many decades to come, will fans be willing to support the team through thick and thin? And by support, I mean coughing up the money for tickets if the team goes through a period of horrid play and seasons out of the playoffs.

I hope to see the Jets in Winnipeg for many years to come. The new Jets need to establish themselves as a consistently competitive team within the next three to four seasons to help make that a reality.

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