I’m a Winnipegger. Born there, raised there, and, until recently, had lived there my entire life. The only live NHL game I have ever been to was around Christmas in 1996 — the visiting Chicago Blackhawks losing to the Jets. I was, and still am, a Blackhawks fan and when the first brand of Jets went south to Phoenix, it didn’t hit me that hard. I was seven-years-old, far more concerned with figuring out mathematics and when I could bring out the toboggan. With fifteen years of support for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose after the Jets departed, I grew up knowing that Winnipeg is a hockey city — not by being told, but from experiencing it first hand.
I’ve written about this before on this blog, but I woke up late the day they came back. In a move that is very uncharacteristic of myself, I called in sick to work — a lie — and headed down to the Portage and Main, followed by a walk to the Forks. The NHL was back. The city was absolutely buzzing; it still is. It was something I had never experienced in Winnipeg.
Lost within the buzz was the reality of what was coming to Winnipeg.
The Atlanta Thrashers had what one could best describe as a history of mediocrity. In all honesty, that’s even a generous evaluation of their history.
In 11 seasons in Atlanta, the Thrashers made the playoffs only once, a season in which they won the Southeast Division giving them an automatic berth. The Southeast was, at that time, dubbed the Southleast, a name that more than described the futility to the teams within the division. That one campaign in 2006-07, one of only three that would end with the Thrashers being above .500, was the product of Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and a healthy Kari Lehtonen. Everything clicked and for one season, there was magic in Atlanta.
Just like it does in every struggling market, that magic faded and the team came back to earth. The back-to-back above .500 years, the high hopes, the signs of things to come, it all ended. Marian Hossa was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kari Lehtonen’s body continued to betray the young netminder, and a contract dispute with Ilya Kovalchuk would result in his eventual trade to the New Jersey Devils.
On top of everything that the team and its fans had to deal with on-ice, the off-ice stories of ownership struggles and possible relocation began to take their toll. It was this summer that the axe fell. A sale of the Thrashers and all its parts to Winnipeg based True North Sports and Entertainment, headed up by Mark Chipman and David Thomson, and the sad tale of the Thrashers came to a head.
Through all the jubilation, raucous partying, and chants of “Go Jets, Go!” was lost that this team was what it was — a sub-par team that showed its true colours in the back half of last season.
I am not anti-Jets, I am far from it. I am pro-realist, though.
The Winnipeg Jets are the Atlanta Thrashers. A name does not make a team. It seems to have been lost in all the excitement that they need to play the games — and play well in a division that is far from the Southleast the Thrashers once won. For the fans in Winnipeg, the expectations placed upon this team were high. Too high, in fact.
As excitement is wont to do to a fan base, the illusions were of a championship team. Certainly, one day, that could be a possibility. The ownership is strong, the hockey minds within the organization are in place, but the Jets are several years away.
The Thrashers didn’t exactly leave the cupboards stocked. It will be the job of Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger to put the pieces in place. A few are there — young guns Evander Kane, Alexander Burmistrov, and Tobias Enstrom — but it’s going to be a learning experience this year for the two first-time NHL GMs. They’ll need a full off-season, something that wasn’t afforded to them this time around, to scout, draft, and work on development.
None of this is to say that the Jets are destined to fail forever. It is not an attempt to wish ill upon the reborn franchise. It is an attempt to temper the expectations of those supporting the new-look Winnipeg Jets. Be realistic, be glad they’re back, but do not be naive.
“The city of Winnipeg is full of knowledgeable fans. They know the game,” is a common sentiment amongst puck pundits visiting the market for the first time in fifteen long years. It’s the truth. I am proud to call Winnipeg home for many reasons and I believe that living there made me a more knowledgeable hockey fan. Talking with people about the game, having sixty-minute friends a handful of times a year watching the Moose play, and all the things attached to being in and around a real living and breathing hockey “town,” it’s part of my Winnipeg pride.
I, just like all the Jets fans out there, want to see them succeed. I want it for those back home who waited so long for this and for those who didn’t stop believing that it would be back. I want it for every single person who randomly began a Jets chant twelve years after they had left the city in a random bar. I want it for those who joined it. For the people who supported the Moose, went to the games, and knows that one of Winnipeg’s adopted sons is Jimmy Roy.
It will come. Wait for it. Be patient. But, in the mean time, let’s watch the team grow and let’s not get up in arms about their losses and their shortcomings. It was not a Stanley Cup contender coming to Winnipeg, it was a team building towards a goal. Give them your hearts, give them your chants and cheers, and give them a break. I promise you that in time the team will give you what you want. Good things come to those who wait.
Just ask those who waited fifteen years.