In 1996, fans of the Winnipeg Jets suffered their most bitter defeat. The NHL team packed up and moved to Phoenix, part of league commissioner Gary Bettman's grand plan to sell the sport to non-traditional markets.
Phoenix was bigger, brighter and would soon have a new arena. Winnipeg was cold, dark and smack dab in the middle of the Manitoba prairie. One city was growing. One was easy to forget.
Hockey in the desert made little sense, of course. After almost a decade and a half, the team has found little more than a small, if passionate, core of fans. Not that it matters with the NHL. Bettman is always right; everyone else is always wrong.
Well, 14 years later here comes the Revenge of the Forgotten. Here comes the Return of the Forlorn. Here comes … Winnipeg?
One of the most unlikely, and certainly most satisfying, upsets in sports history is on the verge of happening after talks broke down Monday between the city of Glendale and Ice Edge, the apparent last viable ownership group that could keep the Coyotes in Arizona.
That means Winnipeg might steal its team back.
"Ice Edge is confirming reports that talks have broken down with [City of Glendale]," Ice Edge CEO Daryl Jones Tweeted Monday.
It wasn't a lack of devotion from Winnipeg fans that turned the Jets into the Coyotes. It was the spreadsheet projections of the not-as-smart-as-they-thought sports marketers. They counted on the strength of the U.S. dollar, the profits of possible luxury-box sales and the potential of a massive American national television contract.
It turns out the Coyotes have never turned a profit in Arizona, are currently insolvent and operate as a ward of the NHL, which is overseeing its sale. Meanwhile, that big-money TV deal never materialized for the league.
Despite the NHL's best efforts, including covering more than $20 million in team shortfalls this season, hockey in the Southwest could be done. The league has desperately tried to find an owner committed to Phoenix, but the prospects have been bleak. Ice Edge was demanding, among other concessions, that Glendale possibly cover all operating losses next season (an estimated $25 million).
That was a heck of a request for a 250,000-population suburb already facing a near-$15 million budget deficit. It also signified a new level in public support for sports teams: taxpayers don't just have to build the stadium, now they have to meet payroll, too.
It was apparently too much for Glendale. A day before what would've been a critical city council vote, negotiations fell apart. While there's always time to save the deal, it's not a positive development for the Coyotes.
The NHL's options are few and the best remaining one involves Winnipeg, of all places. True North Sports & Entertainment appears next in line to buy the Coyotes and it's made no secret of its interest in moving the club back to Winnipeg, where there's a modern, 15,200-seat arena and, more important, fans who actually will fill it. The move could be made in time for the 2010-11 season.
Backing the Winnipeg bid is Canadian businessman David Thomson, whose estimated personal wealth of $19 billion means he, not the public, can cover whatever shortfalls may occur.
A city with a metropolitan population of 695,000 is now poised to enact some relocation revenge on a region with 4.2 million people.
And perhaps, at last, some sanity will return to the sports world. Maybe we can go back to the day when actual fans, not the prospect of corporate sales or pie-in-the-sky revenue projections, still count for something.
Yes, there are hardcore hockey fans in Phoenix who don't deserve to lose their team any more than hardcore fans anywhere else. That's the big thing with Bettman's bumbling leadership through the years; in his endless quest to chase new markets, he keeps hurting the true fans everywhere.
The game of hockey is as thrilling as ever. It's the business of hockey that's struggling.
Even Jones, the Ice Edge CEO who was trying to keep the team in Glendale, acknowledged Winnipeg's significance.
"For me and my partners, you have to understand we would love to see more NHL franchises in Canada and that includes Winnipeg," Jones told the Winnipeg Free Press Monday, before talks broke down. "More NHL teams in Canada … would be best for the league. We're mostly [from] small-town Canada."
The NHL's ill-fated manifest destiny of the 1990s changed the league and left traditional fans disillusioned. Old, tried-and-true hockey markets were abandoned for the supposed greener grasses of (mostly) the American South. Minnesota, Quebec City, Hartford and Winnipeg all lost teams. History and tradition meant nothing. Additional expansion clubs were mostly put in warm climates. (Minnesota got a new team in 2000).
For the most part, the NHL's plan has failed. Not even a lockout that cost an entire season has assured profits. The Hockey News reports that as many as one-third of the league's teams either are "or soon will be put up for sale."
All the while, people in Winnipeg kept loving hockey. They turned their devotion to a minor-league team. They kept playing on frozen ponds. They watched with depression, and gave I-told-you-so snickers, at the empty seats (or curtained off sections) of the fledgling franchises in America.
And against all logic, some of them kept praying Winnipeg could get a team again.
Now that impossible dream is back. The NHL may have nowhere else to turn but that old city and those old fans it once left for dead.
If this goes through, there might even be hope for Hartford.
- Winnipeg Jets
- Gary Bettman