Q&A: Arniel on Winnipeg's 2nd shot at NHL

One-time Winnipeg Jets left-winger Scott Arniel expects the city's new NHL team to succeed financially, fans to embrace the club and wonders if the former Atlanta Thrashers players will make like the Jets of the 1980s and become a closer-knit group.

Former Jets forward, Moose player/coach says pieces are in place to succeed

Scott Arniel expects Winnipeg's new NHL team to succeed financially, fans to embrace the club and wonders if the former Atlanta Thrashers players will make like the Jets of the 1980s and become a closer-knit group.

So how does the current head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets become the voice for gauging the pulse of the Winnipeg hockey community, you may ask?

Well, before joining the NHL head coaching ranks, the 48-year-old was head coach of the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose, an assistant coach with the team before that and one of its former captains.

In 1981, then-Jets general manager John Ferguson Sr. selected Arniel 22nd overall in the NHL entry draft. The left-winger went on to play five-plus seasons in two stints with the team, culminating in the 1990-91 campaign.

"We were so close as a team. Maybe it's because we were indoors because of the cold [winters]," Arniel said recently. "We used to get together at one of the older players' houses with our families, wives and girlfriends and have a few beers after games. It was just a sense of family.

"Even when I left [in '91] I heard guys talk about being together all the time. I guess if you get yourself in a big city guys spread out and you disappear, other than being at the rink together."

One thing is for certain this time around. The incoming players will arrive to a better economic situation in the city.

"This is an area that's really taken off," said Arniel, who has lived in Winnipeg for much of the past 30 years. "The housing market is great, a lot of businesses have moved here … and the train industry, it's big here. If the team is successful, that's going to make things even more excting. I do believe it will work here."

During a break in his search for coaches — the Blue Jackets hired former Vancouver Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark on June 6 — Arniel talked to about life as a Jet in the '80s, the new ownership group and memories of a jam-packed MTS Centre for the 2009 Calder Cup final. The Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix in 1996. Did you think you would see the Jets again or another NHL team in the city some day?

SA: Not so much right away. I think when it all changed is when True North [Sports & Entertainment] built the new arena downtown [in 2004]. It got everybody thinking about NHL hockey again. Certainly the landscape had changed an awful lot in the NHL with the lockout [having wiped out the 2004-05 season]. With the salary being in place it made it viable for teams in small markets to have success. The NHL had only been in Winnipeg two years when the Jets drafted you 22nd overall in 1981. At that time, had the city, media and fans embraced the NHL and what kind of attention did the team receive?

SA: [General manager] John Ferguson [Sr.] had to start from scratch putting a team here [because you were only able to protect two players coming over from the WHA]. John made a lot of trades that summer. Dale [Hawerchuk] was a first overall pick [in '81] but I think he made eight or 10 roster changes and brought in Lucien DeBlois, Paul MacLean, Thomas Steen, Doug Soetaert, Ed Staniowski, Bryan Maxwell. Our whole team changed. We made the playoffs and the hockey really took off. All of a sudden expectations are raised and [there's] excitement of being a better hockey team that competes every year to get into the playoffs. In the early 1980s, what did Jets ownership/management do effectively that the new Winnipeg ownership group, True North Sports and Entertainment, will have to be mindful of?

SA: The biggest advantage True North is going to have [compared to the '80s] is the fact there's a salary cap. Back then, the rich got richer and it was hard to compete. And it wasn't like Winnipeg was on the top of every free agent's list. It was hard to move from team to team other than letting your contract run out, so back then you made the most with the team you had. The landscape has changed a lot that way and I think True North is going to have a better opportunity to step in and mould their team the way they need to. Some people are quick to say players don't want to go to Winnipeg because of the extreme cold in the winters. A native of Kingston, Ont., you have made the city your home for the better part of 30 years. What is it about Winnipeg and Manitoba that quickly made it feel like home for you?

SA: The people are extremely friendly. I have so many friends away from the game. People work hard here and they live with what the seasons are. They have unbelievable summers. Obviously we have big mosquitoes but we have great summers in the sense that the sun doesn't go down until about 11 p.m.

Everybody knows that the winters are cold but I've been in a lot of different parts of Canada where it's cold and you put up with those couple of months when it's real cold. … Winnipeg also has the arts, the Winnipeg symphony, and all kinds of shows. There are great schools, too. It's one area that I think has been good for us [as a family] and good for [my two kids]. You understand what hockey means to the people of Winnipeg and Manitoba from your ties with the Jets and American Hockey League Moose over the years. How do they know the game, understand it and appreciate it compared to those in your previous hockey stops in Buffalo, Boston, San Diego and Houston, and presently in Columbus?

SA: It's like anywhere in Canada, hockey is huge here. Most of your fan base has either played the game or grew up around the game. They know good hockey, so they're not going to be cheated. They're going to be so fired-up getting a second chance [with an NHL team] it'll be loud and boisterous all the time. Here in Winnipeg is where the whiteout started I believe in '84 or '85 [with all fans wearing white shirts in the stands during the playoffs]. It's just something that shows the passion.

They're true fans here. Obviously, everybody wants to win, but this group probably has so much emotion pent up inside that it's gonna be exciting. They're going to want to make sure what happened 15 years ago never happens again. Fans in Winnipeg will shell out an average $82 for a ticket next season, considerably higher than the league average of about $65. True North Sports & Entertainment chair Mark Chipman, a man with whom you've worked closely, seems confident he's not asking Winnipeggers to dig too deep in their pockets. Are you equally confident people can meet the price?

SA: Without a doubt. At the end of the day there's going to be a lot of upset people because they're not going to get tickets. I believe it'll be jam-packed every night. But it has to be something that happens continually, not just for three years. I have all the faith in Mark and Zinger [Moose GM Craig Heisinger] that they're going to put a good hockey club here and that'll help sell things as well. How active do you feel Mark Chipman and partner David Thomson will be in bringing ideas to the league on how to make the game better?

SA: They'll really be watching this situation. There's an arena with 15,000 people. It's not an 18, 19 or 20,000-seat arena. They're going to watch how they do their business. Mark Chipman and David Thomson didn't get into this business thinking it wasn't going to work. They have a plan here. These are two smart businessmen.

It's been tough in a lot of markets, specifically in the south, and they have ideas. They made that Manitoba Moose franchise work and it's one of the top teams in the American Hockey League every year in attendance and growth. If they do the same thing here [with the NHL franchise] it'll be a good example for the other teams. Anybody that can sell their product in a small market and they do it on a consistent basis usually gains the attention of some of these other bigger markets. What did Mark, David and Moose general manager Craig Heisinger show you during your time with the AHL team that gives you confidence they will quickly endear themselves to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the 29 other team owners?

SA: The one thing that they did in their first year is do everything first class. The way they treat people, the way they handle their business, the way they treat others around the [American] league. They just do everything the right way. If they can sell out and do the right things in a smaller rink in a small market that's something that may go towards maybe helping the other big markets do their job. You had a good team during the four years you spent behind the Moose bench as head coach (record of 181-105-10-19). Describe the buzz around town and support of the team as you guys got closer to the Calder Cup final in 2009 against Hershey?

SA: We played Toronto in the first round and I think we had 8,000 or 9,000 people for that series. For Grand Rapids it grew a little bit bigger to 10,000 or 11,000. And then we got in against Houston and we're up around 13,000. Game 6 coming back here against Houston I think we had close to a sellout. We won the series there to go to the finals and then the big [final] series against Hershey.

It was packed, and around town here you started to see the excitement. Everybody was wearing their jerseys and the radio stations [and] TV were really getting behind us. It was just too bad we couldn't have got it to Game 7 because that would have been just an outstanding situation. … Everybody was hoping. It's been an awful long time here since a Winnipeg professional team has won a championship, not just hockey, so it was something everybody was getting behind. How vividly do you remember Game 1 of the final when 15,003 fans — at the time the largest in Game 1 AHL final history — packed the MTS Centre? Was it the type of atmosphere you remember from being with the Jets in the early '80s and something that made you wonder what this city might do if it had the NHL back in town?

SA: The Moose jersey is a black jersey and I think we wore our blacks in the playoffs and everybody was talking about a whiteout and other people wanted Moose colours. It was funny. A bunch of people came in Jets stuff, so it was a mix of everything but extremely loud. That's kind of what you're hoping you're going to see for 41 regular-season games moving forward, and then for playoffs.

The MTS Centre is a tight building. The people are on top of you, it's very loud. The guys from Atlanta, they're really going to notice how loud and how excited that place will be. There is talk True North should keep the Jets name, logo and colours. Do you share that feeling or is it time for a fresh start?

SA: I have mixed emotions. I side with the one area where they should start new — new logo, new colours, whatever that may be.

Then the other side of me is [thinking] I wore the original Jets jersey and then I wore the jersey that came out in the '90s. They changed the colours, spiced it up a bit. Maybe they go down that road where they have an all new look to it and the jet is in there somehow, some way.

At the end of the day I just hope, if they don't go Jets, that people recognize they've got a team and whatever that name is just support it. But I do know one thing. Even if they're not the Jets, there's still going to be people wearing their Jets jersey in the stands that first game.