WINNIPEG – It appears the honeymoon is over between the Winnipeg Jets and their fans.
Once rare game tickets at the MTS Centre are available, and those who attend have booed their 16-18-5 team for inconsistent play that has the club sitting at or near the bottom of their new, tough Central Division.
Armchair general managers have also called for roster changes to the transplanted ex-Atlanta Thrashers team, while likeable head coach Claude Noel has had his job security questioned.
And the fans aren’t the only ones voicing their frustration. Players are fed up with looking for the positives in each loss.
“It’s what you do out on the ice. You can blow smoke as much as you want in the media,” right-winger Blake Wheeler told reporters after the Jets lost a sixth straight game at home on Dec. 14.
“We’ve been blowing smoke for three years–everyone, myself. Everyone that’s stood in front of a microphone for the last three years, we’ve said the same (expletive).”
The airing out of frustrations in Winnipeg is something new. When the Jets were resurrected in 2011, fans enthusiastically embraced the return of the NHL after a 15-year absence.
Thirteen thousand season tickets with a minimum three-year commitment were snapped up, and unlucky fans paid $50 to join a wait list.
The team was loudly cheered by 15,000 grateful admirers at home games, and were even given a standing ovation when the inaugural season ended with an overtime loss and no playoff berth.
After last season’s NHL lockout ended, fans were just happy to head back to the rink and their adoration continued despite another campaign without post-season action.
But in this third season, cracks are starting to show.
When the home winless streak finally ended with a 5-2 victory over Florida on Dec. 20, there was relief, but no fist pumping as the team headed out on the road for what ended up being losses to Vancouver and Edmonton before its three-day Christmas holiday.
Before boarding the plane for the road trip, Wheeler was asked if he senses the marriage with fans is hitting rocky times.
“I think the expectations have risen every year,” he said. “We took a step last year and we just missed the playoffs. I think a lot of us felt we were a playoff team.
“And now, I think this is the best group we’ve had since we’ve been here so I think the expectations have risen pretty linearly since we’ve been here.
“(The scrutiny) comes with the territory. It’s a market that cares about the product on the ice and they’re very passionate. They’re very enthusiastic when you’re winning and very enthusiastic when you’re losing, it’s just a different kind.”
Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian got a different view of fans when he recently missed 15 games with a groin injury.
Did he feel the winds of change while sitting in the press box?
“It’s a touchy subject,” Bogosian said. “They’re usually pretty loud, but sometimes if the team is not playing as well as we should, some people get unhappy.”
Behind his mask, goalie Ondrej Pavelec hasn’t noticed more unforgiving fans this season.
“They cheer for us every time,” he said. “Sometimes we play bad, we don’t deserve it and they’re still there. I don’t see any difference.”
He and Wheeler haven’t been sought out by fault-finding fans.
“The people are all very respectful,” Wheeler said. “When people see us out and about, they’re happy to see us out in the community.
“The wins and losses are obviously very important, but at the same time we’re still people. There’s nobody that wants it more than we do in this locker-room. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”
Noel acknowledged fans have higher expectations this season.
“I think we’ve had that sense for a while,” he said. “After the first year, we had that sense that they would like more performance and the honeymoon is over.
“We don’t sit here and take our fan base for granted. They expect us to work, and they should, and perform.”
Prior to Winnipeg’s loss to the lowly Sabres in Buffalo earlier this month, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff revealed he’s felt heat from critics.
“If you’re able to find a way to improve, then you try to act on it,” he said. “But change doesn’t always equate to improvement.
“Change can certainly placate phone calls, emails on the different venues out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the proper direction to go.”
Cheveldayoff, who extended Noel’s contract earlier this year through the 2014-15 season, was also asked if Noel is doing a good job.
“Coaching in this league is a tough job,” Cheveldayoff said. “There’s lots of second-guessing that goes on everywhere.
“And that’s the nature of it when you’re in the public eye like this. Everyone’s got their own interpretation of whether someone’s doing a good job, not doing a good job. At the end of the day, I know that (all the coaches are) working hard and doing all they can.”