Winnipeg hockey fans, whose hearts were ripped out when their beloved Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes over a decade ago, are crossing their fingers in hopes the financially strapped NHL franchise could be returning to Canada.
They’re hoping a Coyotes move may pave the way for other cash-crunched U.S. sunbelt franchises to run for the border, which could be good news for them.
“I think this may start a house of cards,” said Darren Ford, who oversees the long-running “Return of the Jets” grassroots campaign to return NHL hockey to the Manitoba capital.
“The numbers are there. Winnipeg is a hockey hot bed. The fan base is here, the corporate support is here, the new arena is here. It’s only a matter of time.”
The Coyotes could be headed to southern Ontario if Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie gets his way.
On Tuesday, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion made a US$212.5-million offer to buy the Coyotes. The deal is conditional on moving the team to southern Ontario.
Winnipeg hasn’t seen NHL hockey since the Jets – hemorrhaging money and failing to find a new owner – moved to the desert in 1996.
They took with them almost a quarter-century of hockey memories from a team that was the flagship of the fledgling World Hockey Association in the 1970s, but failed miserably after joining the NHL in 1979.
Ford, whose pride and joy is an autographed rookie Teemu Selanne Jets jersey, says he has had more than two million hits in six years on his www.jetsowner.com website.
Fans log on in to discuss the latest relocation news or gnash their teeth over cities like Miami hosting NHL games where the empty seats outnumber fans two to one.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has never ruled out a return to Winnipeg, but has never given the idea any impetus either.
The league is now locked in a legal battle over the Coyotes, who had been losing money all season and needed cash infusions from the league. On Tuesday the team filed for bankruptcy protection and took steps to sell the team to Balsillie, bypassing normal league approval procedures.
Balsillie has been rebuffed in earlier attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators with an eye to moving them to a market such as Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo.
The moves have angered the league’s upper echelon, and Ford says Balsillie may not be a good fit.
“He seems to be ticking the league off too much. I’m not sure I’d want a Jim Balsillie in Winnipeg’s corner,” he said.
Jets supporter Lauren Robb says Balsillie or not, he doesn’t want the franchise back. They were dogs, he says, long before they became desert dogs. In 17 seasons the team rarely made it out of the first round of the NHL playoffs.
“The whole franchise has been a failing non-event ever since it came into the league,” said Robb, who has chronicled the history of the Jets on www.winnipegjetsonline.com.
“But just coming up north (to Canada) is a good idea, to show if one team from the southern region fails and they’re able to move up north, that gives the idea to other failing southern teams.”
Robb, 32, says his fondest Jet memories are the “White Outs” – when fans jammed Winnipeg Arena in the playoffs, all dressed in white, blowing horns and waving flags.
“That was one of the loudest things I ever experienced,” said Robb. “We could be losing and we were still loud.”
As an 11-year-old, he was rinkside when Jets goalie Daniel Berthiaume broke a stick in pre-game warm-up, skated over and handed it to him.
“I held this thing like you wouldn’t believe through the entire game making sure no one took it from me. It was one of the greatest things.”
The stick hangs on the wall today by his computer, next to his replica white Bob Essensa jersey.
He and Ford say they don’t buy the argument that the league’s 15,015-seat MTS Centre – currently home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League – isn’t up to NHL size or standards.
“Per capita, we have more hockey fans than possibly anybody in North America,” said Ford.
“It doesn’t matter how many people you have in your city – it’s how many people will buy hockey tickets.”
It appears their dream will have to wait a little longer.
Bettman, who saw the Jets leave for Phoenix on his watch, said Wednesday he sees the Coyotes staying put in Arizona.
“We fix the problems,” Bettman told reporters. “We don’t run out on cities.”