WINNIPEG – Winnipeg is a city holding its breath.
In bars, around water coolers and over coffee, one subject has overtaken the weather as a favoured topic of conversation—the return of the National Hockey League to Winnipeg.
Fans who, in the face of mounting cynicism and ridicule, held sit-ins year after year or set up websites calling for the return of the Winnipeg Jets are on the cusp of sweet vindication.
Virtually everyone agrees a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to the Manitoba capital is all but done as talks between True North Sports and Entertainment and the Thrashers quietly continue. The only question now is when will it be made official so celebrations can begin in earnest.
Since reports of a deal began to circulate almost a week ago, hockey fans have filled the vacuum left by a lack of concrete news with intense speculation and gossip. Sightings of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in Winnipeg have been tweeted, along with rumours that hockey commentator Don Cherry will be on hand for the official announcement.
But Bettman is throwing cold water on such fevered anticipation. He told a Tampa, Fla., radio station that it’s “presumptuous” to assume moving the Thrashers to Winnipeg is a done deal.
“Nobody’s announced anything and frankly if there is something going on, nothing is going to happen until it actually happens, which means it may not happen,” he said on WDAE Wednesday morning.
“So I think people need to take a deep breath and pause. There are probably half a dozen places in North America that are interested in NHL hockey. We try to avoid relocation to the extent we can . . . We only move clubs if we find we have no alternative.”
Premier Greg Selinger is also urging caution. While saying he is “totally excited” about the prospect of hosting an NHL team once again, Selinger said everyone needs to be patient.
“We know there is a lot of excitement about it in Manitoba,” he said Wednesday. “We know that we’re very well positioned in terms of the growth of our economy and our ability to support hockey. But we have to put our confidence in Mark Chipman and True North and have the patience to let them do their job.”
But patience is in short supply for fans who have waited 15 years to see NHL hockey played on Winnipeg ice once more.
The city lost its beloved Jets in 1996 when they moved to Phoenix because of financial problems. Since then, Winnipeg has built a new arena—the MTS Centre—and has argued it can support an NHL franchise again.
Darren Ford, who started a website eight years ago calling for the return of the Jets, has already declared the mission accomplished. Denying that a deal is done just seems a “bit silly now,” Ford said.
“It’s kind of getting anti-climactic. Everyone wants to hear the official word,” he said. “I’m tired of crossing my fingers. They’re going to stay there permanently soon.”
Some fans rallied at Winnipeg’s Portage and Main intersection last Thursday, waving jerseys and chanting “Go, Jets, Go,” after reports that the Thrashers deal was done. But that gathering will pale in comparison to the throng that will congregate when the deal is made official, Ford said.
“You can’t keep people away from that intersection,” he said. “It’s too sentimental. It’s too historical. People are just going to head there no matter what.”
Along with celebration, talk has already turned to how soon fans can buy tickets and whether Winnipeg rocker Randy Bachman should play at the home opener.
The most hotly debated issue? Whether the team should be called the Winnipeg Jets.
“As much as I, and I’m sure thousands of other fans, appreciate everything … (True North has) done to return the NHL to Winnipeg, it has been Jets fans keeping the hope and interest alive,” wrote Jer Massey on a Facebook page devoted to the Jets.
“In the last 15 years I have yet to see any TV footage, website or promotion of any kind pushing for the return of the ‘NHL’ to Winnipeg. It has always been ‘Go Jets Go!!!!’ or ‘Bring home the Jets!’
“The effort … was wholeheartedly done by no other than the ‘Jets’ fans—not Moose, Polar Bears, Thrashers or any other names being thrown around as a name for the team,” added Tony Young. “(True North) would be total idiots not to maintain the name ‘Winnipeg Jets.’ “