4 ways the Jets have changed Winnipeg

Can an NHL hockey team actually change the fortunes of a city? Business and civic leaders in Winnipeg generally agree the city is not the same since the team's return.
Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Jets co-owner David Thomson walk through the MTS Centre prior to announcing the NHL's return to the city on May 31, 2011. (jets.nhl.com)

The announcement on May 31, 2011, could hardly be heard over the thunderous cheering but then again, nobody really needed to hear it.

Long before True North Sports and Entertainment chair Mark Chipman and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it official, everyone already knew that Winnipeg was returning to hockey's biggest league.

Word of it began leaking early on and the surge of excitement kept building, exploding when Chipman took to the microphone at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg.

The Atlanta Thrashers franchise was to be purchased and moved to Winnipeg to begin playing in just five months, for the 2011-2012 season.

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"NHL, welcome home. It's great to have you back here. It's great to have you back here where you belong," Premier Greg Selinger then followed up from the MTS Centre.

Winnipeg had been without NHL hockey since the Jets moved to Phoenix and were renamed the Coyotes in 1996. Later it would be announced the team would be renamed the Jets to honour the former team.

Celebrations broke out around the city on May 31, 2011 — at the MTS Centre, at Portage and Main, at The Forks — where fans cheered, waved flags, played shinny and loudly welcomed back the NHL.

4 ways the Jets changed Winnipeg

Can an NHL hockey team actually change the fortunes of a city? Business and civic leaders in Winnipeg generally agree the city is not the same since the team's return.

Here are some of the changes. Some can be measured in dollars, others are less tangible but may be even more important in the long run.

  • Downtown safety

In terms of solving all the problems of the downtown, it's no panacea, says Chuck Davidson of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

"But having that NHL team has had just an enormous impact. The Jets have brought got 15,000 people downtown 41 nights of the year; they're walking the streets, they're taking part in the restaurants and bars."

On the other hand it hasn't eliminated the problem downtown crime, causing Air Canada last year to advise crews against staying in downtown hotels. Urban planners say crime will go down only when large numbers of people are actually living in the centre of the city.

  • The economy

The Jets have changed the nature of Winnipeg's downtown, says Sachit Mehra of East India Company Restaurant. In sheer numbers business is up nearly 40 per cent on game nights. Businesses feel more confident about the future of the downtown.

"There's smiles, there's people that are looking up, there's people walking around with plans in their hands," he said.

The team has obviously provided a retail boost. It's quite possible that almost every household in the city has some piece of Jets merchandise, a T-shirt, a hat or something else.

There were worries that the Jets would simply siphon entertainment dollars from other areas such as the arts, but so far there's no evidence that theatre or other arts groups have suffered because of the Jets.

  • Downtown development

A lot of the new downtown projects were already in the planning stages when the team's return was announced. That includes a 200,000 square foot hotel/retail development across Portage Avenue from the MTS Centre. However, the Jets have made the job of selling Winnipeg's downtown a lot easier.

"It was kind of the icing on the cake for a lot of the downtown development work we've being doing," said Ross McGowan, CEO of CentreVentre Development Corporation. "We've been put back on the international marketplace and the international map."

  • Our identity

It can't be measured precisely but everyone seems to agree that being back on the map on an international scale has increased instilled pride and increased confidence among Winnipeggers.

"The fact that we are back in what people consider the big leagues. You can't pick up a news paper anywhere in North America without seeing in the sports pages the Winnipeg Jets," said Davidson.

"The fact that we have the best fans in the NHL, what it's done is boosted the confidence of this community. It had already been in an upswing, but I think this has taken it to a new level."