Manitoba

How the return of the Winnipeg Jets ended a 'real dark period' and helped a city get its mojo back

The original Jets left for Phoenix, Ariz., after the 1995–96 NHL season, leading to a 15-year dry spell most Winnipeggers would like to forget. But their return in 2011 has made a lasting impact on the hockey city and its feverish fans.

'The Jets have been a big thing for people’s sense of civic pride and belonging,' says former Winnipeg mayor

Winnipeg Jets fans react during a viewing party for Game 7 of the team's second-round playoff series against Nashville on May 10, 2018. Though the city went through what's described as a 'dark period' after the departure of the original Jets team, hockey fandom is still strong in the city. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The new Jets Stream podcast is the sad, happy, surprising, and downright weird tale of the Winnipeg Jets. They brought the Swedes to the NHL, made the "whiteout" famous and broke hearts. Go behind the scenes of one of hockey's wackiest clubs with host Marjorie Dowhos. 


The original Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix, Ariz., after the 1995–96 NHL season, leading to a 15-year dry spell most Winnipeggers would like to forget.

All seemed to be forgiven during the team's remarkable 2018 playoff run, though, when the second iteration of the team made it to the Western Conference Finals.

"We got our mojo back and we've now got the hottest team in Western Canada," says former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray. "And I just think that feels good."

Although it was a long time coming, it wasn't the first time a team called the Winnipeg Jets gave the Prairie city a taste of victory.

"For a number of years there in the '80s, we were one of the best teams in the league," said Geoff Kirbyson, a sports writer and author of The Hot Line: How the Legendary Trio of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson Transformed Hockey and Led the Winnipeg Jets to Greatness.

During the team's first seasons, as part of the World Hockey Association's seven-season run, the Jets made the finals six times and won the Avco Cup, the WHA's championship trophy, three times, making them the most successful team in the WHA.

Despite growing pains after the NHL absorbed the Winnipeg Jets in 1979, they regained their status as formidable opponents in the mid-to-late '80s.

In this April 28, 1996 photo, the original Jets do a last lap around the Winnipeg Arena after playing their last hockey game in the city. (Joe Bryksa/The Canadian Press)

"I maintain that they were the best team of the 1980s, in the most offensive era in NHL history, to not win the Stanley Cup," Kirbyson said. "We didn't have the parades that we had in the '70s, but we had some damn good hockey here."

But the team's financial troubles mounted and in 1996, the franchise was relocated to become the Phoenix Coyotes.

'It was heartbreaking,' says former mayor

Glen Murray was city councillor for Winnipeg's Fort Rouge ward at the time, and was elected as the city's mayor in 1998. He watched as Winnipeg's team slipped away.

"It was heartbreaking because the provincial and the municipal governments, who were subsidizing [the team], couldn't sustain it," said Murray.

"Every proposal for a new arena involved hundreds of millions of dollars, which no one in the community could raise at the time," he said.

"It was a real dark period for the city because people love their hockey team."

The closure and eventual demolition of downtown Winnipeg's Eaton's store, seen here in an archival photo from the 1960s, contributed to what former mayor Glen Murray describes as the city's 'dark period.' The former Eaton's site is now where the Jets' home arena stands. (University of Manitoba Winnipeg Building Index)

That "dark period" wasn't confined to the loss of the team, Murray says — the problem was made worse with the closure in 1999 of Eaton's, once Canada's largest department store chain. The store's closure would end up figuring into the story of the Jets' return, but at the time, it left another gap in the city's downtown.

The 130-year legacy of Eaton's store on Portage Avenue ended in the fall of 1999, when the company went bankrupt and closed its final 46 stores, including those in Winnipeg.

The building was demolished in 2002 — paving the way for what would eventually become the home arena for the second incarnation of the Jets.

'Winnipeggers showed their passion'

While the period during the late '90s and first decade of the 2000s was a tough time to be a Jets fan, hockey supporters in the city never gave up hope. Almost as soon as the Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix, people were plotting to bring them back.

"Winnipeggers showed their passion for their team, which has never stopped," said Murray.

"And I think that was the biggest legacy, is that people at the time decided that if we couldn't keep the team now, boy were we gonna do everything we could do to get it back."

In 2004, five years after the closure of Eaton's, True North Sports & Entertainment, led by Winnipeg millionaire Mark Chipman, transformed the former Eaton's site at Portage Avenue and Donald Street into the MTS Centre (now Bell MTS Place), a 440,000-square-foot indoor arena with a capacity of 15,321 — currently the smallest arena in the NHL, but it allowed for the Jets' return seven years later.

When Chipman and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the return of the then still-to-be-named team in May 2011, the excitement in the city was palpable.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, and True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman answer questions during the announcement of the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg on May 31, 2011. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

"In all my years as a reporter, I have never seen a city stop before," said Marjorie Dowhos, a CBC Manitoba reporter and host of the CBC Jets Stream podcast. She was called in on her day off to cover the historic announcement.

"Cheers immediately broke out, some people had tears in their eyes and I had shivers up my spine as I watched all of this," said the Calgary native.

Season tickets went on sale to the general public on June 4 and sold out in 17 minutes, while the waiting list attracted 8,000 people in two hours before it was shut down.

The demand cemented Winnipeg as a hockey city and Winnipeg fans as some of the most dedicated in the league.

Winnipeg whiteout

The passion and dedication were evident during the 2018 NHL Western Conference final, when thousands of white-clad fans took to the streets during games for downtown Winnipeg whiteout street parties.

But those parties were far from the first whiteout celebration.

The Winnipeg whiteout tradition started in 1987 in response to the "C of Red" created by fans of the Calgary Flames. When the Jets played the Flames in the first round of the 1987 Stanley Cup playoffs, Winnipeg fans showed up decked out in white, spurred on by a campaign designed by a communications company.

The Jets won that round and fans have kept the tradition alive ever since.

During the 17 seasons that the original Winnipeg Jets played in the NHL, they qualified for the playoffs 11 times, including the team's final 1995-96 season in Winnipeg.

Jets fans next got a taste of playoff pride when the team advanced to the first round of the playoffs in the 2014-15 season, for the first time since the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg. But the 2018 playoffs changed everything.

For the first time, the Jets made it into the third round of the playoffs and were the last Canadian team standing. Mark Spector of Sportsnet called them "Canada's best National Hockey League team" and the Winnipeg Sun's Ted Wyman coined them "Canada's team."

A downtown whiteout street party on May 15, 2018. The parties during the 2018 playoffs spanned several city blocks outside Bell MTS Place. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

It's a good feeling for many in the city, says Murray.

"We came through the loss of Eaton's," he said. "We came through the loss of our Jets. And we now have a city that is a launch pad for the next generations of Manitobans."

A real shot at the Stanley Cup rejuvenated old fans and drafted new ones.

People cheered and celebrated in the streets, wearing their whiteout sweaters and hockey jerseys as parties outside Bell MTS Place spanned several city blocks.

'The Jets love the city back'

For Winnipeggers, hockey and the Winnipeg Jets are a part of the social fabric and identity of the city.

"The Jets was one of many things we did in this community to build our civic pride and to celebrate," said Murray.

"The Jets have been a big, big thing for people's sense of civic pride and belonging. And the Jets love the city back."

Anders Hedberg was a right winger for the original Winnipeg Jets between 1974–78. He was one of the first European-born players to make an impact in North America when he arrived from Sweden in 1974. And in true "friendly Manitoba" style, he says he was welcomed with open arms.

Former Winnipeg Jets Anders Hedberg, right, and Ulf Nilsson embrace during their induction ceremony into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame in Winnipeg on Oct. 19, 2016. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"[Ulf Nilsson and I] were only there for four years and we were embraced by the fans," said Hedberg. "And after four years, in many ways, [I] felt like a Manitoban and a Canadian. It was wonderful."

In 1978, Hedberg and fellow teammate Nilsson signed with the NHL's New York Rangers. The same season, they made it to the Stanley Cup finals but ultimately lost to the Montreal Canadiens.

Despite playing for New York for seven seasons and later working as the assistant to the general manager of the team, Hedberg still looks back at his short time in Winnipeg with pride.

"The team we had in Winnipeg was better than in New York. We couldn't say that [then], but we can say it afterward," said Hedberg. "We had a more exciting team in Winnipeg than in New York."

Selanne felt at home in Winnipeg

Anders isn't alone in his love for Winnipeg. Teemu Selanne, nicknamed "The Finnish Flash," got his start in the NHL in 1992, playing four seasons with Winnipeg.

"What great people there. I'm so lucky to [have started] my career there and get to know that city and the people, because there's a reason you guys call that province 'friendly Manitoba,'" Selanne told CBC in 2016 before playing in the NHL's Heritage Classic at Winnipeg's Investors Group Field.

The Winnipeg Jets' Teemu Selanne, shown in action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto on March 6, 1993. 'I'm so lucky to [have started] my career there and get to know that city and the people,' Selanne told CBC in 2016. (Phil Snell/The Canadian Press)

"I was so happy there [in Winnipeg]. I was so happy to be part of a place where hockey is so big and the people are so nice. It really felt like a home," he said.

Patrik Laine understands. Earlier this year, the Players' Tribune published an op-ed by the 20-year-old right winger for the current Jets team called "Winnipeg Is Good," in which he voiced his love for the city.

"I love Winnipeg. This is my home. It's a great, great city," he wrote.

"Everyone who lives here really cares about one another, that's what stands out to me. We are one group, all of us. Everybody is your neighbour."

You can hear these stories and more like them on CBC's Jets Stream podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts to hear all the episodes.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story referred to Eaton's five-storey store on Portage Avenue. In fact, it was five stories when originally constructed, but had been expanded to eight stories by the time it was demolished.
    Oct 23, 2018 7:45 PM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeffrey Vallis is a writer and communications specialist. He was formerly the co-creator and editor-in-chief of Sandbox, an award-winning magazine that put a spotlight on Winnipeg’s thriving and vibrant cultural community. Though he now resides in Toronto, he will always maintain his Winnipeg cellphone number.

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