Winnipeg Gets Its Hockey Team Back
After Winnipeg won the World Hockey Assn.'s Avco Cup in the spring of 1979, things went pretty much downhill—for the Jets in general and Winnipeg in particular. Once the center of western Canada's economy, the prairie capital stalled through the '80s and '90s as grain prices fell, the loonie plunged, and manufacturing declined. Fed up with lost opportunities, brutally cold winters, and summers plagued by giant mosquitoes, workers fled to Calgary and Toronto. Historic buildings were abandoned, and Portage Avenue—considered by some the coldest stretch of pavement on Earth—became Canada's largest skid row. "Nobody built a damn thing in Winnipeg in the 1990s," says Martin Cash, a Jets fan and business writer for the Winnipeg Free Press. "I mean, it was grim."
Meanwhile, in the fall of '79, the Jets joined the National Hockey League. Then the league expanded and Winnipeg contracted. In 1996, after no one wanted to buy the struggling franchise from a local investor, the Jets relocated to Phoenix as part of a larger trend in which teams in places where people like hockey (Minnesota, Québec, Hartford) moved to places where people had never heard of hockey (Dallas, Tampa, North Carolina). Former concert promoter Sam Katz remains haunted by images of children emptying their piggy banks at "Save the Jets" rallies: "It felt like someone put their fist through your rib cage and pulled out your heart."
Since becoming mayor of Winnipeg in 2004, Katz has overseen a Manitoban renaissance. Buoyed by high commodity prices and booming core industries such as agribusiness, biotech, aerospace, and insurance, the city boasts one of Canada's most diverse economies and lowest unemployment rates. Yet the resurgence wasn't complete until May 31. That's when a group of investors purchased the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers for $110 million—not including a fee of at least $60 million to move the franchise to Winnipeg. "Watching that press conference was one of the best moments of my life," recalls Claude Ouimet, who celebrated by wearing a signed Bobby Hull jersey and watching old Jets games at 4Play Sports Bar in downtown Winnipeg. Fighting back tears, he continues: "It was like seeing the Rolling Stones." On June 21 the NHL's board of governors made the move official.
The team's new owner, True North Sports & Entertainment, is already capitalizing on the enthusiasm. The company—which is run by Mark Chipman, a car dealership magnate, and David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters (TRI) and Canada's richest person—is already off-loading its minor league hockey team, the Manitoba Moose, to investors in Newfoundland and making room for the Jets at the 15,000-seat MTS Centre. Shortly after the announcement, the company sold out 13,000 season tickets in less than three days, an NHL record. "We do not expect to be covering losses here," says True North President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Ludlow. Although he admits: "It's largely plug-and-play. It's not like we're bringing in a cricket team." At press time, the organization hadn't officially named the team. The faithful have already cast their vote.
The rest of the city hopes to benefit from trickle- down puckonomics. Dave Angus, CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, thinks "a major-league city translates into business"—namely, much hoped-for retail, condo, and office development around the MTS Centre. Real estate agent Karen Tereck already has several mansions in verdant River Heights in mind for the city's 20-odd newest millionaires, as well as an 1,800-square-foot, $2,600-per-month downtown loft that's "perfect for a young, single player" because of its proximity to the nightclub Alive in the District, a haven for "puck bunnies."
Service businesses, such as Alive, are the most likely to reap immediate benefits, says Angus. Oreanna Cheater, who opened 4Play across from the MTS Centre in 2010, expects business to double next season as fans return for televised curling tournaments. Craig Evans, CEO of Granny's Poultry Cooperative, the U.S. Steel of the Manitoba chicken wing business, suggests "a doubling of wing volume in the city is not unrealistic." Granny's expects sales of the company's signature boneless Wingstix—now Jetstix—to jump from 4,000 lb. a year to 20,000 lb. And while Jets management attends the NHL draft in Minneapolis on June 24, Jacques Lavergne, director of sales and marketing at the Fairmont Winnipeg, will be in a nearby convention center pitching his property to NHL travel managers at the league's "hotel draft." Becoming the official visitor's hotel could translate into 4,000 room-nights a year, he says, with increased spending by players and groupies at on-site restaurants. Tourism Winnipeg is also leveraging game nights into destination packages—along with snowmobiling and fishing—tailored to Manitoban males. These so-called Mancations may result in trips to Solid Gold, a gentleman's club near the MTS Centre. "You're bringing 15,000 people downtown twice a week—it'll be a huge advantage," says Solid Gold manager Aldo Grancich, who plans to offer free entry to Jets ticket holders. "With the Moose," Grancich adds, "we served the players, administrators, trainers, and even the referees." With a pro team, he expects revenues to soar.
The economic benefits aren't merely for the sordid. Belinda Bigold, the owner of High Tea Bakery, is taking a record number of orders for her signature Jets jersey cookies. She expects to sell thousands of the $2.50 confections this year, up from 600 during the between-times. "Winnipeggers will go berserk for the next couple years," says Bigold. "Every corporation involved will order something special with the logo on it." That includes Kelly Hughes, owner of the culture haven Aqua Books and Eat! Bistro, two blocks from the MTS Centre. "Our restaurant clientele is 75 percent women," says Hughes. "We do well with Leonard Cohen and the ballet." Regardless, Aqua Books just released a series of T-shirts featuring the shop's name in the old Jets logo. It's their best-selling shirt.
This being Canada, enthusiasm has its limits. "We need to be careful not to overstate what the NHL will do for the economy," says Ryan A. Compton, a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba. "It won't turn Winnipeg into Calgary." Still, Derek Holt, a vice-president at Toronto-based Scotia Capital, is optimistic. "More fundamentally," he says, "there's not a Canadian who doesn't relish the thought of hockey being played back in a city where the guy sitting beside you doesn't smell like suntan lotion."
One such Canadian is Curt Keilback, who called Jets games from 1979 to '96. Keilback initially followed the team to Phoenix but has since returned to Winnipeg to sell real estate, broadcast minor league games, and establish himself in the Canadian film industry. (He is currently portraying an announcer in a biopic sequel about legendary Canadian hockey announcer, Don Cherry, Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story Part 2.) And he'd do anything for a shot at a comeback. "I've let it be known I'd like to be involved," says Keilback. "It would mean everything to me."
WINNIPEG: 1996 VS. 2011
Highest paid player:
— Then: Keith Tkachuk, $6 million
— Now: Ron Hainsey, $5 million
— Then: "One Great City"
— Now: "Heart of the Continent"
Unofficial Canadian Ambassador:
— Then: Bryan Adams
— Now: The Biebs
— Then: -39.4C
— Now: -34.7C
— Then: 629,300
— Now: 684,100 (2010)