Sports Story of Year: Rebirth of Winnipeg Jets

Our Canadian sports story of the year is the rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets, a team remembered as a footnote in NHL history until the Atlanta Thrashers resurfaced in Winnipeg as the Jets.

Year-end reviews are governed by passions. That is why there is rarely consensus — and why they can be so much fun.

Most year-enders tend to celebrate the triumphant. Take a bow Patrick Chan. You too Dylan Armstrong, Dwayne De Rosario, Erik Guay, Brett Lawrie, Christine Nesbitt, Milos Raonic … and those are just the Canadians.

Typically newsy reviews pinpoint salacious stories like corruption in soccer governance, spot fixing in cricket, sex scandals in collegiate football, hockey riots in the streets of Vancouver or Paulina Gretzky's racy Twitter pics.

Some simply mourn the loss of loved ones: Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, Joe Frazier, Hickstead, Rick Rypien, Dan Wheldon and the members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in that tragic plane crash.

Others focus on contentious issues confronting the sports world, be it labour strife in the NBA and NFL or the complexity of Sidney Crosby's recovery from a concussion.

The latter might well have been our top story, were we guided by our heads. But fans of sport tend to be a vocal lot with often heartfelt allegiances, leading unabashedly with our hearts rather than our heads. 

Which brings us to the Canadian sports story of 2011 — the rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets, a feel-good success story more than 15 years in the making.

That's the time span between the relocation of the original Jets to Phoenix and the subsequent relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.

In Atlanta, the former home of Calgary's Flames, the NHL figured it had a proven and sizeable hockey market of five-plus million. But the Thrashers struggled to make ends meet. Problems abounded — and snowballed. A dearth of on-ice success (just one winning season and one post-season appearance) and excess inner turmoil created such fan indifference that attendance declined and team debt increased to an unmanageable $130 million.  

Already bearing the financial burden of operating the owner-less Coyotes in Phoenix,  the league board of governors rather swiftly — and unanimously — approved the sale and relocation of the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg for $170 million US, including a reported $60-million relocation fee.

It was True North chairman Mark Chipman, in partnership with Toronto billionaire David Thomson, who sold the NHL on Winnipeg — an admittedly small and challenging hockey market. But a resilient and supportive one.

How supportive you ask? Winnipeggers pledging to stand behind True North snapped up all 13,000 season tickets in mere minutes.

The Thrashers could only dream of such support.

When news broke of the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg, flocks of fans congregated at the iconic intersection of Portage and Main and partied loud and proud at The Forks, the marketplace promenade where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet.

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper was impelled to commemorate the occasion, ordering the Royal Canadian mint to produce 15,000 limited-edition Jets coins — or roughly one per fan at a sold-out MTS Centre.

Chipman and Thomson were hailed as conquering heroes and their celebrity cemented when they later confirmed at the NHL draft that the franchise would be nicknamed the Jets.

Not that it was ever in doubt.

"Our fans clearly indicated to us the passion they hold for the name," Chipman said.

Pre-season games played out like playoff festivals with tailgate parties and spillover crowds on their feet, cheering and chanting "Go Jets Go!" before a single puck was dropped and bellowing the Canadian national anthem as if an ode to the NHL's magnificent seventh.    "It's almost like 15 years of vented emotion — I don't know if it's anger or whatever," Jets head coach Claude Noel told reporters following the first exhibition game at the MTS Centre.

"As soon as the anthem started, everybody sang. It just gave you goose bumps, like everybody was singing.

"It almost brought tears to your eyes. It was beautiful."

Winnipeg's lingering sense of loss had been replaced by such unbridled joy that the Oct. 9 season opener was transformed into a surreal homecoming. Who would have believed the same fans who spewed vitriol at NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for letting the original Jets bolt would be heard thanking him for bringing them back?

"Winnipeg people live and die with the Jets," noted Tom McVie, who served as head coach in their first two NHL seasons (1979-80).

Winnipeg's reverence for its hockey team and the emotional impact of its return resonated with the players too, as the Jets, reborn in brilliant double-blue uniforms emblazoned with a militaristic logo — "to draw a connection to the rich history that our city has enjoyed with the Air Force," Chipman explained — took to Manitoban ice for the first time since April 23, 1996. 

"It makes you feel pretty special to be a part of it," Jets forward Blake Wheeler said.

"There was a lot of tears," Don Cherry told the more than 1.8-million Canadians watching on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada.

"I was here the last game [in 1996] and there was a lot of tears that night. It was really emotional."

Winnipeggers rejoiced. And the nation along with them. 

Such was Canada’s passion for NHL hockey this year. And every year.


Questions persist about the long-term viability of Winnipeg as an NHL market. But for the most part, the resurrection of the Jets is viewed as a success in all aspects:

1. The Fans

Hard-core fans revel in the fact that, unlike with the original Jets, they have inherited an existing NHL team, not the carcass of a WHA leftover picked clean by rivals in a reclamation draft in which players’ rights reverted to their previous NHL teams.

2. The Front Office

The modern coupling of a league-wide salary cap with a strong Canadian dollar — it stood at a meagre 62 cents when the original Jets were forced to move — puts Winnipeg on an equal footing when it comes to assembling a roster and competing for high-priced free-agents.

3. The NHL 

Winnipeg’s rabid fan base has committed to keeping the seats filled and the provincial government's willingness to  pay for upgrades to the MTS Centre has helped to alleviate any concerns about housing a team in the undersized facility.

4. The Owners 

True North prospers because it owns both the team and the facility. In addition to revenues from ticket and merchandise sales, it stands to reap the hefty financial rewards of arena naming rights, suites and concessions, in-house sponsorships and broadcasting rights.

5. The City 

Local developers calculate the NHL's return to Winnipeg will result in as much as $600 million in development in the downtown core over the next three to five years, with new building projects promising enhanced lighting, better policing and a more appealing urban esthetic.

With files from The Canadian Press