The Winnipeg Jets didn't make the playoffs, didn't meet many team goals and probably won't be a contender for a while. But that won't stop Jets' fan Chuck Duboff from organizing a massive thank you on Saturday for the team's owner, True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd.
Some time after the Jets hit the ice at the MTS Centre to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final game of the season, Duboff plans to lead the 15,004-strong contingent in a "Thank You True North" chant.
Duboff said the cheer is more than just an expression of appreciation to the ownership group for bringing the Jets back to Winnipeg last year after the old franchise fled to Phoenix in 1996. "A large part of it is us sending a message to the NHL and saying 'Look what you missed out for 16 years,' " he said. "It's just showing them that this is hockey country and don't forget that."
Hockey country indeed. It's impossible to overstate the impact the Jets have had on Winnipeg this season. The team's logo is one of the first things travellers see upon arriving at the airport. It's plastered across an office tower at the city's main intersection of Portage and Main. And it adorns various pieces of clothing on just about every person walking the streets. The players are followed so closely that when forward Alexander Burmistrov showed up at an outdoor rink one Sunday just to skate around it became a major news event.
Support for the team has also cut across ethnic lines and helped break down barriers in a city that has become more culturally diverse and still grapples with racism toward aboriginals. "The Jets are the biggest thing for [the Native community]as it is for anybody else. All they are talking about is the Winnipeg Jets," said Philip Paul-Martin, who runs Native Hockey News, a Winnipeg-based website. He added that the Jets at least give Natives and non-Natives something to share. "I know it's a common passion," he said.
While the strong fan support was largely expected, the club has also done better than expected financially.
On Friday, True North co-owner Mark Chipman said Winnipeg will likely finish the season among the top 15 clubs in terms of revenue. "It has exceeded our expectations," Chipman told reporters. He added that True North modeled the franchise presuming it would be dependent on revenue sharing from other NHL teams, given the size of the market and the MTS Centre which is the smallest in the league. By extension that meant True North figured Winnipeg would be among the bottom 15 teams in terms of revenue because under the NHL's complicated revenue sharing formula only the bottom half of teams qualify. "As it turns out our revenues exceeded the point at which we are allowed to participate in revenue sharing," Chipman said. "And so we feel really good about that." Nonetheless, he added, ticket prices will go up next year because the team expects overall costs to rise.
In an interview, True North's other co-owner, billionaire businessman David Thomson, played down talk of finances and said he had other motivations for buying the club. "It's a quality-of-life decision, it was from the outset and it continues to be," said Thomson, whose company also controls The Globe and Mail. "For us we want a stable franchise, one in which we can continue to grow and prosper and deliver even more pride to the city and to the country."
Thomson said he had been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for the Jets in Winnipeg and elsewhere. "There's a real sense, particularly amongst Canadians, regardless of background or attachment to teams like Montreal or Toronto or Ottawa, there is this immense sense of a restored legacy, of a team coming back to Canada, to a rightful home and to an audience that feels as deeply about the sport as anywhere on the globe," he said. "I am so blessed. I think we all are. It has taught us an awful lot about humanity."
Chipman said he still has to almost pinch himself to believe this has all happened in one year. "As time goes on that will probably taper off but it hasn't yet," he said. "It's not lost on me on how fortunate I feel we are, and I am, to be working in the National Hockey League."
During Saturday's game there will be tributes, video presentations and a special salute by the players to the fans. And when all the hype dies down, the team's management will face plenty of challenges, such as signing pending free agents Evander Kane and Ondrej Pavelec among others. Chipman insisted the Jets will be patient, not rushing into the free-agent market this summer and following the example of teams like the Nashville Predators which has developed young talent and kept the same coach and general manager in place for more than a decade.
When asked if he had a message for Jets fans, Chipman became almost speechless. "I don't know how to put it into words," he said after a long pause. "I just, um, I mean, I don't even know how to express the depth of my gratitude. It has just been incredible."