Pride, Power and Passion
December 25. October 31. February 14. All holidays that millions upon millions of people recognize in an instant. Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day. Familiar, yes?
How about April 28, 1996? Where were you on that day?
Not a lot of people would recognize that date as anything significant, save for citizens of Manitoba's largest city in what they call the Heart of The Continent: Winnipeg.
On this dreadful day in 1996, the city lost much of it's pride, power, and passion as the Winnipeg Jets flew off in to the distance to arrive in Arizona and become the Phoenix Coyotes. This was a new attempt by the National Hockey League to have hockey live in the southern states. Soon to come were Nashville, Carolina and the Atlanta Thrashers expansion franchises. But would they last? We'll get to that later.
Back in Winnipeg, Manitoba, things weren't well with over a decade and a half of no NHL team in the city. The Winnipeg Arena was crumbling and later demolished - after two attempts of blowing it up with dynamite. A historical building in downtown, Eaton's, was demolished as well. More red lights were put up, and Winnipeggers seemed to be in a zombified state for the years to follow.
Still though, the Jets name continued to stay strong as a topic in Winnipeg and beyond. Winnipeggers would take off to get out of their -40 degree (Celcius) weather to Europe, Florida or Australia - all countries and states where, if a local would approach them, would say, "Winnipeg….like the Jets?"
Yes, that name would stick with the city of about 600,000 people at the time. All the while, Mark Chipman, front-runner of True North Sports and Entertainment, brought Winnipeg the International Hockey League as the Minnesota Moose franchise moved to Winnipeg, becoming the Manitoba Moose. Though the Moose never won the AHL's prized Calder Cup, there was a sense of pride in the stands, and, funny enough, a few 'go jets go' chants that would break out at random for a few comedic seconds.
Merchandise of the Winnipeg Jets would fly off shelves between 1996 and the first half of 2011 even though there seemed to be no hope in Winnipeg getting the NHL back. The arena was too small, they said. The city is too small, they said.
Yet they were wrong.
On May 31, 2011, Gary Bettman flew to Winnipeg as a pit stop on his way to Vancouver for the Stanley Cup Finals to announce that Winnipeg was once again the home to NHL hockey, as the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment was made official around 4:30am that day. Long day indeed. But what was longer was the roller coaster between that day and April 1996.
Winnipeg was getting the Coyotes! The sale wasn't going through! That is what every headline suggested. It was a topsy-turvy winding roller coaster that couldn't have been more painful to Winnipeggers. It was up and down for months. Winnipeg seemed to be close to a deal. Then, hopes were dashed: when it seemed that the Coyotes, who were on life-support for a portion of 2011 following their dismal 4-game playoff loss against the Detroit Red Wings, were saved by a Glendale, AZ city council who said they'd bleed money for another year to keep the team there.
Great. Winnipeg was seen as a looming threat. Fans of the 'Yotes despised all Winnipeggers who came to town only to chant GO JETS GO.
But none of this matter with the Coyotes mattered after it was official we had a team back. Which proves one thing: Winnipeg was a hungry hockey market. It had been all along. Whlie the Manitoba Moose of the AHL padded the gap of big-time pro hockey, it was the NHL they wanted so badly.
When the NHL said they had to sell 13,000 seasons tickets within a week or two to prove that the citizens want it, within two minutes Ticketmaster websites were frozen, packed with all the transactions of credit cards being swiped. The NHL gave Winnipeg two weeks. They proved it in less than a minute.
Capacity at MTS Centre in Winnipeg is just over 15,000, making it the league's smallest arena. But for all those who suggested the arena was too small - think again. The NHL has to have the smallest arena somewhere - in this case, its in the most hockey-crazed town that is so proud to have their team back.
Parties at the city's largest intersection, Portage and Main, broke out. Festivities at The Forks, a local tourist destination, were going on for hours upon hours.
And then the schedule was released.
Wouldn't you know it, the Jets face the Montreal Canadiens in their first game of the season. Their first road trip? Down to Phoenix to face the Coyotes.
The NHL recognizes Winnipeg's need and passion for hockey.
Winnipeg is back in the big time. That pride, power, and passion that broke the hearts of thousands in 1996 has since been renewed.
Now, let's let the puck drop and hear those words that Winnipeggers have been chanting through football games and minor-league hockey games, and randomly at parties all through the province between 1996 and 2011: GO JETS GO!