By Nick Craddock
The Jets are back.
In the past month, the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, an NHL franchise-less city since 1996, a new general manager was named, a new coach was appointed, and before the relocated franchise began its first draft on Friday, it was announced that the team would once again be referred to as the “Winnipeg Jets” (jerseys and logos will follow at a later date).
Bringing back the old “Jets” moniker is not only nostalgic, but this link to the past symbolizes the professional hockey hiatus in Winnipeg that never should’ve happened.
In the mid-1990s, the Hartford Whalers relocated to Carolina and the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques paced up and moved to Phoenix and Colorado, respectively. Winnipeg and Quebec City, the two smallest markets in the league, were unfortunate victims of the weak Canadian dollar at the time and simply couldn’t compete dollars and cents wise with American markets.
However, the NHL didn’t put forth a good faith effort to save these Canadian teams from departing for seemingly greener pastures. In the early 1990s, the NHL began to expand the league to markets that didn’t necessarily conjure up images of kids playing hockey in a snow bank, such as San Jose, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, and Sunrise, Florida.
It was the infinite wisdom of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (note sarcasm), who was adamant in expansion and relocation efforts intended to increase the NHL’s footprint in Southern markets.
And, cue the mind-boggling addition of the Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers to the NHL in the late 1990s (Bettman was aware that Atlanta previously had a failed stint as a hockey team that eventually moved to Calgary, right? I’ll assume he did. He went to Cornell, so he’s an Ivy-leaguer. They’re really smart you know).
Here we are, a little more than a decade later, and hockey hasn’t been the talk of the town in most of these Southern markets. Go figure. If Tampa and Anaheim, which have won a Stanley Cup in the past 10 years still endure a fickle fan base, was there any surprise as to why Atlanta had a hard time filling the arena after one playoff appearance in 11 years?
Understandably, hockey is a business and having teams in bigger markets should equate to larger revenues, but Bettman’s business plan seemed to overlook the simple supply-and-demand principle of economics.
No matter how large a market Atlanta is, or how crunk rapper Lil Jon got in support of his Thrashers, hockey is not a sport that attracts a large enough fan base in cities without any connection to the game.
Conversely, Winnipeg, which immediately reached its goal of selling 13,000 season tickets within a matter of minutes when it was confirmed NHL hockey would be played in the MTS Centre next season, is home to about 700,000 people. I’d say about 600,000 of these people would entertain going to see a Jets game.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that sports, a multi-billion dollar industry, can transcend the bottom line. It’s also about the passion and bond of a community.
The Jets are the perfect representation of a small-market team that can succeed in the NHL given the proper support and backing from its peers. After all, the Jets never lost the support of their community, which most importantly, loves its hockey.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.