There was disappointment across the country last Sunday when the Winnipeg Jets – briefly anointed “Canada’s team” by the media – were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In these times, when phoney populists named Trump and Ford make rooting for the little guy code for ignorance, bitterness and bigotry, along came the Jets. In the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup playoffs as the only Canadian team still standing, the Jets were a shining example of the underdog worth cheering for almost without reservation.
No less an authority than the Globe and Mail, Canada’s self-appointed national newspaper (but no longer circulating in print down here) said it well in an editorial a few days before a team from Las Vegas knocked the favoured Jets out of the semi-finals in five games. Quoth the Globe:
“The Winnipeg Jets are the perfect team for all Canadians to root for, and we should do so with abandon. Their home is in the quintessential hockey heartland – the Prairies – and they are run by Canadians with deep ties to community and country.”
The Globe went on to disclose that one of the Jets’ owners also happens to be the paper’s proprietor. That would be David Thomson, head of the richest family in Canada – net worth of $41 billion according to Canadian Business. But that shouldn’t be held against the Jets. The Thomsons are mainly in the non-polluting facts business, which is a plus for them. And the Jets’ revival – and indeed the team’s very existence – owes more to local enterprise than to any corporate business plan.
Not only did the Jets’ defeat by the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights disappoint long-time fans like me as well as more recent passengers on the bandwagon, it also wrecked a great redemption story. By winning, the Jets would have brought the Stanley Cup back to Canada after 25 years. Moreover, their success would atone for decades of disdain by the NHL powers-that-be toward the smaller places in Canada that sustain the game’s place in our culture. The Jets, from an unassuming city in a modest province were the real deal, the apotheosis of the “Hometown Hockey” myth celebrated weekly on Hockey Night in Canada.
On top of that, the Jets had travelled a long and often daunting road to become – if ever so briefly – Canada’s team. They needed to overcome many obstacles along the way, not least of which was the reluctance of Canada’s long-established NHL teams to acknowledge Winnipeg’s deeply imbedded hockey culture by supporting a team in the city.
Winnipeg has earned its hockey heartland reputation. Organized hockey began in eastern Canada in the late 1800s and soon joined the country’s westward expansion. Between the introduction of the Stanley Cup in 1892 and 1926, there was frequently an east-west contest for that symbol of North American hockey supremacy. Three times – in 1896, 1901 and 1902 – the Cup was won by the Winnipeg Victorias.
But western economic expansion petered out, and by the late 1920s the NHL had appropriated the Stanley Cup and consolidated major league hockey in eastern Canada and several large U.S. cities. Winnipeg, like other hockey hotbeds in the west, now had to watch from afar as its most talented players – nurtured on countless outdoor rinks and community clubs – travelled east and south to entertain fans in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, Detroit or Chicago.
That pattern prevailed for decades until the NHL extended it even further in 1967– doubling the number of teams in the league from the so-called Original Six, but putting all those six new franchises in the States, including Los Angeles and Oakland in sunny California. The league did respond to Canadians’ outrage over the exclusion of Vancouver by putting a team there (as well as one in Buffalo, of all places) in 1970. But that’s likely where matters would have remained for many years had it not been for the emergence of the Jets and the World Hockey Association (WHA).
As a citizen of Winnipeg for 15 years I was there in 1972 when the Jets and the WHA announced their arrival with a brazen bit of showmanship. At a time when sports salaries still made sense, thousands of hockey fans showed up at the corner of Portage and Main as a raffish local entrepreneur from a down-at-the-heels city in a have-not province handed a mock-up of a million dollar cheque to sign Bobby Hull, perennial NHL all-star.
That event, more than anything else, shook up professional hockey. The Jets and the WHA provided much-needed competition to the monopolistic, U.S. and big city dominated NHL. The emergence of the WHA drove up salaries, spurred an influx of European players to North America and, most important, led to a doubling of the number of teams playing “our game” at the major league level in Canadian cities. When the WHA upstart merged with the established NHL in 1979 there would be six teams – with Winnipeg, Quebec City and the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers joining the long-established Maple Leafs and Canadians and the newly-arrived Canucks of Vancouver.
Sun belt strategy
Given the city’s hockey history, it was right and proper that the merger enabled the Jets to finally enter the top league. But access was granted grudgingly and the Jets – WHA champions in the league’s final season – were stripped of three of their top scorers, whose rights were deemed to belong to established NHL teams. As a result, early Jets’ teams were awful and later editions merely mediocre. The Jets made the playoffs most years but advanced past the first round only once.
By 1996, that chapter of the Jets story ended in tears with relocation of the franchise in the Arizona desert, near Phoenix. That setback was the result of several factors, including Winnipeg’s sub-standard arena and a low Canadian dollar. But it was also symptomatic of the chronic disdain of NHL bosses for smaller Canadian cities like Winnipeg and their lust for further expansion into the U.S., especially the sun belt.
Between 1979 and 1996, league expansion and relocations had added one team in Canada (Calgary) and seven in the U.S. -all but one in the American south or California.In the bizarre logic of the NHL, Phoenix, with an average winter temperature of 15 C. was clearly wild for ice hockey. And after abandoning Winnipeg in 1996 the league added franchises in Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio and St. Paul, Minnesota before hitting the jackpot this season with another team in the hot, dry southwest, in Sin City.
The dismal irony is that Canadian franchises and U.S.-based members of the Original Six, whose owners reluctantly accepted more Canadian teams, have been subsidizing most of the new teams they’ve planted in barren soil to the south. For example, broadcasting revenues are shared equally such that in excess of 75 per cent of the $5.2 billion Canadian telecomm giant Rogers is paying for NHL broadcast rights is ending up in the bank accounts of U.S. teams. As the Globe’s Tony Keller put it a while back: “That means Hockey Night in Canada revenues are almost entirely dedicated to subsidizing hockey nights in America.”
Further cruel ironies abound. Consider that fans in places like Alberta who may chafe at subsidies to poorer provinces through our federal government’s equalization program, are either unaware or unconcerned that a portion of their ticket price is going to subsidize unprofitable teams in the U.S. markets. That’s because the NHL has its own equalization scheme with the most profitable teams (which in 2016-7 would have included Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and perhaps Edmonton and Vancouver) sharing some of the cash from their inflated ticket prices with the fiscal bottom feeders (nine out of ten of which were in U.S. cities in 2016-7).
And then there’s the frustrating fact that some of those ERTs (Equalization Receiving Teams) have been winning Stanley Cups while Canadian teams have been also-rans for a quarter of a century. Since the Montreal Canadians won back in 1993, handout-receiving Anaheim, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Colorado have won cups. The latter is particularly galling, considering that the nucleus of the Colorado teams that won championships in 1996 and 2001 was formed in Quebec City, before the team was relocated to Denver in 1995.
Refuge for failures
Like Winnipeg, Quebec wants back in but has so far been rebuffed by the NHL. The city has a new publicly financed arena and is hoping to have it occupied by an NHL team. But with the NHL now determined to locate its next franchise in Seattle, Quebec’s best hope is to offer refuge to one of the fiscal basket cases from south of the border, which is how Winnipeg reclaimed the Jets. Fifteen years ago, after the city and province kicked in about 30 per cent of the cost, the Jets’ ownership built a new downtown arena and waited, figuratively, for the other skate to drop.
The Phoenix relocation quickly turned out to be a dud and Winnipeg entertained hopes of reclaiming the franchise from Arizona. Phoenix remains a mess, kept alive with public financing, but an even bigger lemon came along in the meantime from Georgia. The NHL first put a franchise in Atlanta in 1972. When that team – the Flames – burned out after eight years it was moved to Calgary. The league tried Atlanta again in 1999 with similar results.
In 2011, with the failure of that second attempt to sustain a team in Georgia, the Winnipeg group was able to buy the Atlanta Thrashers for a reported $170 million – about 30 times the six original expansion teams paid for a franchise in 1967. That demonstrated one more paradox in the twisted world of the NHL – aside from adding a team in Ottawa for the 1992-3 season, the league has made clear that the only time it will put another franchise in Canada is after it fails miserably in the U.S.
If the feel good story of the Jets had a happier ending it would be easier to continue overlooking the way the NHL takes Canadian fans for granted. But with the Jets loss to yet another team from down south it is now more than a quarter of a century since a team from a Canadian city has been able to win the Stanley Cup, a trophy originally donated to recognize this country’s hockey champion. Perhaps even worse for the league’s Canadian credibility, in the last decade only one Canadian-based team (the Canucks in 2011) have even made it into the final round.
As Las Vegas prepares to play Washington in that final round, there’s a temptation to label it as a contest between Sodom and Gomorrah. Fans in this region who follow local heroes and the Quebec junior league may find something to cheer about from the Las Vegas crew. Their coach is Gerard Gallant, a guy from PEI. Their brilliant goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, played junior for Cape Breton. The Knights actually have more Canadians on their roster then the Jets, and as an expansion team are even more the underdogs than the Winnipegs. And then there is the opportunity to root against Putin’s pal, Alex Ovechkin, who along with his Washington teammates is finally getting to a Stanley Cup final after years of playoff failure. But overall, the Stanley Cup playoffs will once again be remote from many Canadians, the ones that pay most of the NHL’s bills and provide most of its human capital.
 That would be worth about $6 million today, the going rate for a second line forward?