NHL franchise hopes give Winnipeg its groove back

Winnipeggers who watched the retiring of the Jets logo 15 years ago are beginning to feel a renewed sense of pride now that the prospect of an NHL team returning to the city for the first time since 1996 seems increasingly likely, writes the CBC's Cameron MacIntosh.

Ex-Winnipegger Cameron MacIntosh writes about likely move of Atlanta Thrashers to Manitoba capital

Cameron MacIntosh is a national reporter for CBC TV and radio based in Regina but is a former Winnipegger and loyal Jets fan. ((CBC))
I freely admit it: on May 6, 1995, I cried. It was in front of thousands of people. I didn't even mind doing it; 15,000 people around me were all doing the same thing.

We were standing in the Winnipeg Arena watching one of the hardest moments in the city's living memory: the sombre and hasty retirement of the colours and logo of the Winnipeg Jets hockey team.

It was a bitter afternoon, full of sadness, regret and anger. It left an indelible mark on me as I watched the Jets logo raised to the rafters and thought, "What kind of city lets this happen?"

Of course, the reasons for the NHL team leaving the city were complex, and several things conspired to make it happen: the Canadian dollar was down; no one wanted to own the team; the debate over a new arena had dragged on for years.

Worst of all, the NHL, hell-bent on expanding its presence in the southern U.S., didn't seem particularly bothered by it.

Workers hang a Winnipeg Jets banner from the rafters of the now defunct Winnipeg Arena in 2001. Jets banners were taken down when the NHL team moved to Phoenix in 1996. It now looks like the city might get a new NHL franchise. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

The whole thing became such an emotional and political lightning rod, it is hard to see how it could have been resolved any other way.

Maybe it was denial, or probably just anger, but I remember saying to a friend who stood next to me at the arena, "They'll be back in 15 years." I can't honestly say I believed it.

In the end, we got one more season of NHL hockey before the Jets moved to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season. The damage was done; our hearts were broken. 

Jets took edge off 'Peg bashing

Let's face it, growing up in and around the 'Peg, you get a lot of flak from other parts of the country about your little berg on the Prairie with the winter that never ends. Having a hockey team that could consistently beat the Leafs took the edge off. 

Winnipeg Jets player Teemu Selanne during a game in Toronto on March 6, 1993. Selanne and other world-class players like Bobby Hull gave Winnipeggers a sense of city pride in the years the NHL team was based in the Manitoba capital. ((Phil Snell/Canadian Press))

We had Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne. They were world class, so, so were we.

Like many young Manitobans at the time, losing that was a clear signal that maybe our small and oft-ridiculed city was, indeed, second-rate, that it was falling behind as thousands of people my age looked to places like Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto, which just seemed to have so much more opportunity.

At the time, I was a journalism student at Red River College in Winnipeg. That spring, we spent a lot of time covering the ins and outs of the Jets debate that had consumed the city and the province.

It's where I learned the complexities of balance and impartiality as I tried to write stories weaving the raw emotion of fans and those opposed to using public money to prop up the team "just a little longer" around the hard economic realities of keeping an NHL team with little chance of success. (Some journalism student is learning to do the same thing in Phoenix today.)

To this day, I've seen few stories that packed as much emotion as the Jets debate.

That retirement ceremony was broadcast live by CBC; I could see the cameras clearly from my seat. 

Little did I know that in a few years, I would be pursuing a CBC career that would take me out of Manitoba. My first posting outside of Winnipeg was Calgary. When I arrived, I had more friends there from high school than I did back home.

One of the last stories I did for the CBC in Winnipeg was about a plan to build a new downtown arena. It just felt like it was years too late.

City has new vision

Years would pass, and I would often cross paths with other expat 'tobans; the loss of the Jets would always come up. 

We all had our own reasons for leaving, and while the loss of the Jets wasn't one of them, it always seemed to come up as one of the symbolic moments that prompted people to look beyond Manitoba.

Many of us felt we were personally better off for leaving. Still, it was rare to find someone from home that wasn't still pulling for something great to happen in Winnipeg.

That's what makes this moment so fascinating and gratifying: 15 years after the last Winnipeg White Out, it appears the  NHL is on the verge of returning.

Over the years, I've noticed a few things change in Winnipeg when I've returned to the city. The economy is better; there is new construction, a sign of confident investment; and, most importantly, there's some vision for the city.

A good example is the arena. When the MTS Centre was announced in 2002, I remember someone asking Premier Gary Doer about the "NHL pipedream." He smiled and said, "Anything is possible."

Quietly, the owners of the rink, True North Sports and Entertainment, have made it one of the most profitable in North America.

With the NHL's southern ambitions going, well... south, the company also made it possible for Winnipeg to throw its hat in the ring in terms of vying to be the new home base for the Atlanta Thrashers.  

True North would own the new team. The company has already pulled off two feats few could have foreseen back in 1996: getting an arena built and now, apparently, getting a team back. Making the NHL's Second Coming successful would be the hat trick. I'm not betting against it.

No, a hockey team doesn't define a city, but it certainly can be a powerful symbol.

If Winnipeggers saw a strong message in the Jets leaving, there is surely an equally powerful one in an NHL team coming back.  

If a team does land at Winnipeg's new airport this fall, it remains to be seen whether it will be named the Jets or something else.

Either way, I know I'll be cheering for it.