By Tania Moffat
The air buzzes with excitement. Every last seat is filled. Jerseys, baseball caps, scarves and other Jets memorabilia proudly decorate the majority of fans as they take their seats in a sea of blue and white. This is no ordinary hockey game, it is a Winnipeg Jets game in their home arena. Hold on because it is sure to be a wild ride.
Eighteen years ago, an aging arena combined with rising operating costs and salaries due to free agency rules led to the eventual downfall of the Winnipeg Jets. Despite a devoted fan base and the efforts of Spirit of Manitoba comprised of several local business people, including Mark Chipman the last ditch effort was for naught. Our boys eventually packed up their skates and retired their jerseys. The team’s move to Phoenix left a great hole in the heart of the city. Hockey fans were devastated to have to part with such an integral part of the city’s sense of self.
After it was obvious that their efforts had failed, Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns the current Winnipeg Jets franchise of the National Hockey League (NHL) and the MTS Centre put all of his efforts into the bringing the next highest level of hockey to the city. The International Hockey League team, the Minnesota Moose, renamed the Manitoba Moose, moved to Winnipeg in the year following the departure of the Jets. They were our team for 15 years.
“Part of why the Jets left was because the arena was inadequate. We knew that if we ever wanted to open talks of having the NHL return to Winnipeg we needed to build a proper arena,” Mark explains. But it was more than an effort to fulfill a distant dream; a new arena would be a boon to the city. A vibrant gathering centre to host concerts and cheer on the Manitoba Moose was desperately needed. Through his travels Mark saw successful downtown arena projects and realizing their viability he pushed to develop the new MTS Centre, a move that would lead to further development in downtown Winnipeg.
“Once the MTS Centre was built we did contemplate the idea that someday the NHL might return to Winnipeg, that it was a possibility, but the arena was never built to do that (to bring the NHL back). The arena opened in 2004 and in 2007 the league invited us to make a presentation to see if we could support an NHL team. I felt that, given another chance, the Winnipeg community would welcome the opportunity and support an NHL team,” he explains. And supporting the return of the NHL was forefront in the hearts of Winnipeggers as they watched with trepidation, fingers crossed and breath held every time a new opportunity arose.
Mark explains the lengthy process. “We faced some opposition along the way. We looked at Phoenix a couple of times, and in 2010 we were very close to acquiring the team, but we were also realistic and knew that there was a good chance that Glendale would do what they could to try and keep the team in Phoenix. And, they did.” That final loss was felt deeply in the city. Fans were on the edge of their seats and devastated when the deal fell through.
Persistence eventually paid off. Nine months later another opportunity arose. The Atlanta Thrashers were in financial difficulty and True North was able to acquire the team in the spring of 2011, making the official announcement in late May.
Everyone in the city remembers where they were and what they were doing at the time of the announcement. Offices turned on radios, TVs or streamed the live feed as Mark stepped to the podium announcing the return of the NHL.
That was when total pandemonium broke out in the city.
It was all anyone could talk about and a celebration of epic proportions spontaneously erupted. People partied in the streets, Portage and Main were closed. Fans laughed, cried, praised True North and speculated on the name of the team. When it was revealed that the Winnipeg Jets name would be resurrected, Winnipeg pride spilled out onto the streets once again. People were overjoyed.
“Yes, I was surprised at the overwhelming response of Winnipeg,” says Mark. “It wasn’t really something we were thinking about, the response, because we were focused on our goal. It’s not that we weren’t surprised people were happy, but we were surprised at how emotional people were.”
So, how did True North hold fast to their vision? “We were driven because of the potential outcome and approached getting the team back the same way we approached building the MTS Centre. We felt people wanted it and therefore it was worth the time and capital investment involved. If people embraced a new facility then surely they would embrace a new NHL team.” And embrace it whole heartedly Winnipeggers did. Fans proved their commitment and season tickets immediately sold out.
If you have never been to a Winnipeg Jets game, you are in for a sporting experience like no other. As the Canadian anthem is sung, the entire arena shouts “TRUE NORTH” in honour of the company who believed, the company and the man behind it, who had the fortitude to bring back our team.
“It is a very humbling experience that never gets old for me,” says Mark of the chant. “I feel the honour comes with a great responsibility. We have passionate fans and as an organization we feel an increased level of responsibility to give our loyal fans a product that they are proud of. We are making strides. Winnipeggers are educated hockey fans; they have been patient, and hopefully feel rewarded. Our objective now is to have a team that competes every year, and has a chance to advance every year. We aim to be an integral asset to the community for the long term and a source of pride.”
So come out to a game. Take it from Mark. “The energy in the building is second to none!” And that hockey fans is the absolute truth!