Memories of how they were treated by hockey fans in Winnipeg had some former Jets feeling satisfaction at reports the NHL’s return to the Manitoba capital is imminent.
“I’m happy for Manitobans and the city,” former Jets captain Dale Hawerchuk said Friday from Toronto. “Let’s hope everybody appreciates that it’s back, takes care of it, supports it and everybody gets positive and on the right page with it.
“That’s the great things about Manitobans. You deal with winter, you deal with floods, you deal with mosquitoes, but they’re the most positive people in the world and let’s hope they’re that way with a new NHL team.”
Former Jets have heard rumour and speculation for years about the NHL returning to the city where they once played. The NHL left Winnipeg 15 years ago to become the Phoenix Coyotes.
Those reports have foundation now as True North Sports&Entertainment and the owner of the Atlanta Thrashers are in negotiations for the sale and transfer of that team to Winnipeg.
“I was actually part of the move with the Jets to Phoenix and I felt very sorry for Winnipeg,” defenceman Dave Manson said from Prince Albert, Sask. “I was fortunate to play in a few Canadian cities and it was tough being a part of that, to watch a team move from Canada to the States.
“I couldn’t be happier for the City of Winnipeg.”
Hawerchuk is a Hockey Hall of Famer who now coaches the OHL’s Barrie Colts.
He, Manson and former Jets defenceman Dean Kennedy all point to a number of factors Winnipeg didn’t have in 1996 that now seem to be working in its favour: an ownership group that wants a team in the city; a new arena; a salary cap; and a strong Canadian dollar.
“I think the biggest thing is a strong ownership group,” said Kennedy. “The ownership in Winnipeg when I played was not interested in keeping that team there.
“They were actively trying to sell that team for a few years before it got sold. That combined with a poor building, the Jets had to leave I believe. Things have kind of levelled themselves off since then and the correction has happened.”
What’s been constant is Winnipeg’s love for their Jets and insistence of wearing their team’s colours long after their team had left town. On a trip to Afghanistan with other ex-NHL players last year, Kennedy wore his Jets jersey and was amazed at the number of military personnel who identified with it.
If anything, absence in Winnipeg has made hearts grow fonder.
“I don’t think the attitude of the people has changed,” Kennedy said. “Fans always appreciated the Jets, but I don’t think the people knew what they had until that NHL team left.
“When you lose that NHL team, I think it took some of that air out of the city with regard to being a world-class city.”
Kennedy, who now runs a cattle ranch near Pincher Creek, Alta., played three of his 12 NHL seasons with the Jets. He and Hawerchuk don’t think the 15,500-seat MTS Centre is too small for an NHL team.
“People think it’s small, but I think it’s great,” said Hawerchuk. “To me, you should be sold out, you should have a waiting list for season tickets and you’ve created a demand.”
True North runs the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, which is the Vancouver Canucks affiliate. Discussion is already underway whether the new Winnipeg NHL team should be called the Moose or the Jets.
Manson is adamant about sticking with the Jets name, while Hawerchuk and Kennedy are less committed to the former moniker.
“They were the Jets and they should remain the Jets,” said Manson, who runs a sporting goods store in Prince Albert.
The Jets weren’t the only Canadian franchise struggling with rising salaries and having to pay their players in U.S. dollars when the Canadian dollar was worth 70 cents.
It’s the Canadian loonie that is the stronger of the two now. There is also a salary cap in existence, although at almost $60 million last season it’s about four times the Jets payroll of 1995-96.
“In my day, we really weren’t on an even playing field because there was no salary cap,” Hawerchuk said. “That’s a big help for sure. Now they’re on an even playing field for sure.”
Kennedy is still disappointed over how it ended for the Jets and for that reason, he tempers his enthusiasm about the return of the NHL to Winnipeg.
“I hope the fans keep their interest,” he said. “After two or three or five years and those tickets are ‘x’ amount of dollars, is the euphoria and excitement going to wear off? That’s where I get back tothat strong ownership group.”
What’s changed in 15 years is the mentality of the NHL player. Much is being made of how willing Atlanta Thrashers players will be to move to Winnipeg, where the winters are fierce and the wind bone-chilling.
Hawerchuk said he and several Jets teammates made Winnipeg their year-round home. They had no trouble rounding up players for charity softball tournaments in the summer.
“The attitude of the players has changed a great deal,” Kennedy acknowledged. “When I was playing, when a shift came off the ice in training camp, everybody to a man went to the same place to have lunch. There’s very little of that.
“When I was younger, I went back to the farm and farmed in the summer time because that had always been a priority. Hockey was secondary. Now, these players from the time they’ve been 10 years old, that’s all they’ve ever done. A lot of them don’t know how to change the oil in their car.”
The players who move to Winnipeg will have to adjust to being a big fish in a small pond after the opposite experience in Atlanta, according to Hawerchuk.
“Atlanta Thrasher players, when they walk around Atlanta nobody knows them,” he said. “They walk around anywhere in Manitoba or Winnipeg and everyone is going to know them.
“That changes the dynamics of your job. Accountability starts to rise with that.”