The return of Winnipeg
FORT FRANCES, CANADA
The nature of the emotional state of those on the streets of Winnipeg these days is tough to pinpoint, but I’ll try: it seems to be made up of equal parts relief, excitement, pride, and a sense of justice served, as though that mighty wrong has been righted. The state reflects the frenzy of a city undergoing a fundamental change, the end of decade-and-a-half-long, city-wide depression.
A lot of good has happened in Winnipeg since the Jets flew south in 1996. The economy has taken off: Winnipeg was the third-fastest growing economy in Canada in 2009. Crime and poverty, though still a problem, are on the decline. By 2012, Winnipeg will be the first city outside of Ottawa to be home to a national museum, with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights currently under construction. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will move into a new football stadium at the University of Manitoba next year. The James A. Richardson International Airport has a beautiful new terminal, and the Centreport Canada project promises to create hundreds of new jobs in Manitoba’s capital. In short, things are going well.
By many accounts, Winnipeg is a first-rate city. But when the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Jets moved to Phoenix and were replaced by the Manitoba Moose – a team in the International Hockey League (IHL) – Winnipeg became a second-rate city in the eyes of many. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Winnipeg understands that the city never gives itself enough credit. Take an afternoon stroll through the Exchange District and you’ll see a city that is at once architecturally stunning and uncomfortable with its own beauty. How else can the boarded up windows plastered over with posters on buildings of both architectural and historical significance be explained?
It is a city that has grown in all the right ways, but remains the butt of jokes about the cold, the wind, and the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes. Where it once challenged Chicago as a continental transportation hub, it is now better known as the car-theft capital of Canada. Winnipeggers, like all Canadians, have a good sense of humour about such things, but some digs sting more than others. Take The Weakerthans, for example: a fantastic band from Winnipeg best known for a song called “One Great City.” The title refers to the former city slogan that was emblazoned across its welcome signs back in the 80s and 90s. “One Great City” is the band’s seminal work and an ode to their hometown, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of all that is supposedly wrong with Winnipeg. But one line – “The Guess Who suck/the Jets were lousy anyway” – hits too close to home, and not solely because of the poke at Winnipeg’s all-time greatest band.
In the post-NHL years, Winnipeg became a picked-on-schoolboy who always pretended that the ribbing didn’t hurt so that the cool kids would finally accept him. Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg,” ostensibly a semi-autobiographical film about trying to escape the city, is really about Winnipeg after the Jets. As Maddin says, that Winnipeg is a city where everyone sleepwalks through life.
A short history of the Jets
When Eaton’s went out business, the company’s landmark location on Portage Avenue became available, just blocks from where Bobby Hull signed pro hockey’s first million dollar contract in the middle of Canada’s most famous intersection. That lot, long one of the iconic locales of the city, became home to what is now called the MTS Centre. At just over 15,000 seats, it was too small for the NHL, but even as recently as when it opened in 2004, no one really thought of the return of the NHL as a real possibility.
No one that mattered, anyway – with the notable exception of Mark Chipman. In 1995, he was part of a group of Winnipeg businessmen who tried to put together an eleventh-hour deal to save the original Jets. They failed, while a crowd 35,000 strong marched down Portage in support of the NHL.
The original Jets never really had a chance. A championship-calibre team in the World Hockey Association, the merger that brought them into the NHL gutted their roster. They were allowed to protect just two goalies and two skaters from their AVCO Cup winning team. Their first pick at their inaugural NHL draft was number 17. They started out in worse shape than an expansion team, and it showed on the ice.
The NHL was not kind to the Jets. Though they made the playoffs in eleven of their seventeen seasons, they had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. During the 1980s there was a stretch of eight straight seasons where one or the other Alberta team played in the Stanley Cup final. Between them they won six Stanley Cups. The Jets were like the Toronto Blue Jays – decent, but not good enough to best the Yankees or Red Sox.
At first the Jets’ demise was widely blamed on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and former owner Barry Shenkarow. But as time marched on, it became clear that in 1996, no one wanted to own an NHL franchise in Winnipeg. There wasn’t a business model that could work. After failing to save the team, Chipman set to work to bring professional hockey back to Winnipeg.
Through True North Sports and Entertainment, Chipman controlled the Moose, a team he had helped bring to the city, and the third busiest arena in Canada. In the 1990s, the old Winnipeg Arena – owned by the city – was so dilapidated that many top acts simply skipped over Winnipeg. MTS attracted the Elton John and Rihanna tours, and that money all went back into True North’s pockets. The old Jets never got a penny from beer sales, parking, or non-hockey events. Chipman built a company that gets it all, and in the process secured himself the financial backing of David Thompson, the richest man in Canada. From there, a surging Canadian dollar and an improved economy in Manitoba made Winnipeg a viable market again.
Made whole again
In the United States, the recession hit marginal hockey markets hard. That Atlanta fell first, before bankrupt Phoenix or hopeless Florida, was only marginally surprising, and it is hard to imagine that the Thrashers will be missed by anyone but their few thousand season tickets holders.
The Jets, by comparison, transformed their city, whose citizens rushed to prepare Winnipeg for the team’s return. Merchandise sales for the new Jets look – borrowing heavily from the Royal Canadian Air Force roundel – have been strong across Canada, and pre-season games at the MTS Centre were played before raucous sellout crowds, even when a ticket in the last row has a face value of almost $50. At the same time, when the Phoenix Coyotes played their home opener against the Jets on October 15th, tickets went for as little as $16 as they tried to get at least one sellout for the season.
Maybe it seems shallow that it takes a professional sports franchise to bring about a city’s confidence, but the symbolism is important. It makes a difference that Winnipeg has a team in the top league of our country’s most important sport. It makes a difference that the visiting teams are from Toronto and New York as opposed to Peoria, IL, or Hershey, PA. Winnipeg is back in the show, and it matters.
Sports is one of only a few tangible, visible outlets for civic pride. Where the games themselves are a rough simile for war, they offer individuals the ability to revert back to a type of tribalism that civilized society otherwise eschews. Even non-sports fans succumb to the feeling at times, because teams become a part of the city’s identity.
In Winnipeg, the loss of the Jets was akin to a loss of the city’s soul. Now, the city is made whole, and it shows in the t-shirts and hats and car flags and crowded sports stores. It shows in selling 13,000 season tickets in two days. It shows in the two weeks of speculation over how much star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (inexplicably pronounced Buff-lin) truly weighs, and in national coverage of the unveiling of a logo and jerseys. It shows in demand so high that extra tickets are denied to the likes of Stephen Harper and Neil Young. It shows in the fact that despite Chipman’s wish for a new team with a new identity, the public outcry for a return of the Jets forced his hand. Wisely, he acquiesced to the demands of the city.
How good the Jets are on the ice this year doesn’t even matter. What’s important is that the Jets are back. And, for that matter, so is Winnipeg.