Johnston on NHL: Don’t bet against the Jets

Winnipeg Jets players raise their sticks as they are introduced to the crowd prior to their inaugural game in October 2011.
March 12, 2013, 9:05 AM

WINNIPEG — Every now and again, Mark Chipman will be watching a NHL game on television and forget what has happened in his hometown.

He’ll see Sidney Crosby make a terrific pass or Steven Stamkos score a breathtaking goal and it won’t quite register that those players will soon be making a stop at MTS Centre — the arena he built at Portage and Donald to house the reborn Winnipeg Jets team he co-owns with David Thomson.

“It’s like I haven’t quite fully made the connection in my brain sometimes,” Chipman told sportsnet.ca during a recent interview.

Even after almost two years there is a slightly surreal feeling to the entire notion of the NHL being back in the Manitoba capital. It’s a don’t-pinch-me-or-I-might-wake-up kind of charm that could only exist in a place that has loved and lost and learned to love again.

Time has whizzed past since NHL commissioner Gary Bettman signed off on the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers in May 2011 and sent thousands of Winnipeggers into the streets in celebration.

The decision has brought about change in this city of almost 700,000 people. It can be seen by a visitor in the construction developments that have sprung up downtown over the past year. For those who have lived here for a long time like Chipman, the change is something that is felt.

“When I was a kid this was the fourth largest city in the country and there was some sort of pride we took in that,” he explained. “It was Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Other cities have gone roaring past us in population and appeal to young people, particularly in Alberta.

“In Winnipeg, I think people feel like it got left behind to a certain extent. When we had the NHL in the first place it was a great source of pride and then when it was taken away it was devastating for a lot of people on a few different levels. …

Chipman paused briefly and collected his thoughts.

“So coming back, really what I think it has done, it’s just a source of pride or a badge of honour or whatever for people who stuck it out here, who’ve committed to living here their whole lives or whose families have been here for generations,” he added. “I think it makes people feel good about their decision to live here.”

And what can sum up this place better than that?

There simply isn’t another stop on the NHL circuit like it. Edmonton is probably the closest thing — a cold small-market Canadian city that burns hot for its hockey team — but the comparison really doesn’t extend much deeper than that.

The departure of the original Jets in 1996 is tied directly to the unique atmosphere found around the current team. In Chipman’s words, the experience of waving goodbye to the NHL was “seared into our consciousness.”

As a result, the MTS Centre is one of the best (and most boisterous) places in the league to watch a game.

The 15,004-seat arena — the smallest in the NHL — was even rocking during a midweek matchup against the Florida Panthers in February, undoubtedly one of the least-hyped games on the schedule this season.

By any measure, the decision to return here has been a success. The Jets generated so much revenue last season that they didn’t collect from the league’s revenue sharing pool and they currently have 8,000 people on a waiting list for season’s tickets.

“The return of the Jets to Winnipeg has been great,” Bettman told sportsnet.ca. “It is a spectacular success, which is a testament to the fans, the city and Mark Chipman and David Thomson.”

Chipman is omnipresent around the organization.

He has yet to miss a home game — he’ll attend his 51st in a row when Toronto visits the Jets on Tuesday night — and is probably the only owner in the league willing to stand in the buffet line along with reporters and scouts during the pre-game meal.

There is a real community feel around the Jets, something that has been popular among the players.

Olli Jokinen got his first taste of it immediately after signing as a free agent in July. The Finn was a veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games but had never seen anything like the package that arrived the following day with information on neighbourhoods, schools, restaurants and just about everything else a newcomer would want to know about Winnipeg.

It also came with a list of people who could be contacted for additional help.

“With Mark Chipman here, the ownership, it’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Jokinen. “There’s no questions asked here — you play hockey here and everything else is in place. You don’t have to worry about anything. If you need help, you ask and it’s done.

“There’s no waiting. Anything you can even imagine.”

It’s not a coincidence.

Winnipeg will never have the lure of metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago. It can’t offer players the chance to spend off days on the beach like they can in Los Angeles, Florida or Tampa. Heck it won’t even be able to sell history like Detroit or Boston or Montreal.

However, that isn’t to suggest the city is without an upside. There’s no reason this team couldn’t develop into the NHL’s version of Green Bay — it’s just going to take some time and continued effort to circulate the message.

“You’ve got unbelievable ownership, great management, a great rink — everything is first-class,” said Jokinen. “As a player, what else are you going to ask for? The city is great too. You’ve got everything you need.

“The people who have been living here in the past, they’ve got all great things to say. The people who have never been here have their own opinion.”

Ultimately, the best sales pitch will be success, which is a fact not lost on Chipman.

He has a reputation for being extremely competitive and is quick to note that he didn’t buy the team to simply “put up the white flag.”

“I got into this business because I really like the game and I feel very, very fortunate to be in this situation,” said Chipman. “In the end, it’s about winning and losing. It’s always been that for me. I didn’t get into the business to sell season tickets and rink boards.

“I mean that’s a necessary part in it and I think we deliver value in all of those things, but I got into the business because I’m competitive by nature and you’re trying to compete and ultimately win.”

While no one will confuse the Jets as a powerhouse, they’ve found ways to win recently and sat ninth in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday morning. Qualifying for the playoffs would rank as a major achievement and it is one that is well within reach.

However, there will be no taking an eye off the long-term plan for the chance at quick success.

The Jets are an organization that needs to operate under a budget and build from within. Chipman envisions a day when the team will be bidding for a big-time free agent, but in the meantime there needs to be patience as young players come along.

A great example of that is forward Mark Schiefele, the team’s 2011 first-round pick who was sent back to junior last month. The organization saw no need to rush his development.

“You’re always trying to win now, but in the same token you’re not going to win at all costs,” said general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “I think that you’re not going to throw the future out the window here for the sake of just trying to do something short term. We’ve talked about it at length.”

After waiting 15 years to get a team back, there won’t be mass panic in the front office if the Jets miss the playoffs for a second straight season.

Chipman spent a lot of time studying the industry before buying the Jets and would like to see the organization mirror what Nashville has achieved. The Preds have done an excellent job of drafting and developing players, which has allowed them to qualify for the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons — a prolonged run of success that is unusual nowadays.

“You can (build a team) a couple different ways, but what you’re trying to do is overcome down cycles so that you’re there all the time at least with a chance,” said Chipman. “I think to do that you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to build the core of your team from the draft and develop it.”

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