Inside of the last two weeks, as the Winnipeg Jets annual elimination from playoff contention roughly coincided with the first-ever season ticket renewals, my Toronto-based boss shot me an email: “How about giving us a piece on Winnipeg? Folks must be getting restless there?”
It was a legitimate question about a team that entered our consciousness as Canada’s seventh team and has not really succeeded in climbing any rungs nationally, even though they are wildly successful in the Manitoba capital. In hindsight, maybe my response should have been something like, “Why would the bloom be off the rose after three years in Winnipeg, when hockey fans still come out like trained pigs after decades of futility in Toronto?”
But I like my boss — and my job — so I told him, “Sure,” and committed some journalism.
Remember when the Jets first came to Winnipeg, and they sold all 13,000 season tickets inside of three days, in three-, four- and five-year subscriptions? Canadians marvelled at Winnipeggers’ devotion to the game that day, as we did the 8000-ticket waiting list that was borne of that process and still exists today.
Meanwhile, the least expensive ticket packages that were sold in 2011 came due for renewal in March. Jets fans re-upped at a rate of 96 percent.
“It just confirms what we know here, that our fans are passionate about the game,” GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told us over the phone. “It doesn’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated.”
It was the final word spoken by Cheveldayoff, a GM of the draft-and-develop model, which caught our attention: “Appreciated.” There really is only one way to show the fan that their business is “appreciated,” and does it not come with a playoff gate?
“I feel for them,” Cheveldayoff said after a third year with no post-season play in Winnipeg. “If I wasn’t sitting in the chair I’m sitting in, I’d be (saying), ‘Well, go and do something.’ But the chairs we sit in every day … you call your counterpart and they just don’t easily say ‘Ya, I’m willing to do that.’”
And so the Jets fall in line with so many of the ongoing projects across this country. They are erecting their barn alongside Edmonton and Calgary, using the same blueprint as an Ottawa, and not nearly as aggressive as Toronto. You could argue their veteran assets rival the Vancouver Canucks’, having inherited the core group of Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little from Atlanta.
The cap system has moved the goalposts on all of these rebuilds. It’s not the same process that Pittsburgh and Chicago faced, or the Los Angeles Kings. The erosion of the free agent market alone has elongated the time frame.
“Thirty teams are looking at the same free agent market, and 30 teams are trying to do the same thing. The market doesn’t have the depth, the quantity of players that it used to,” Cheveldayoff says.
Drafting is the surest way. It is also the slowest, though the Jets have, in each of their initial two drafts since returning to Winnipeg, placed a potential star into their lineup in Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. Evander Kane however, is getting further away, as the problems that plagued he and former coach Claude Noel creep into his relationship with today’s coach, Paul Maurice.
If you’re married to the draft-and-develop model, and a talent of Kane’s pedigree goes south, that’s a big problem. Even if when asked after being made a healthy scratch, “Do you want out (of Winnipeg)?” And his noncommittal answer is, “I’m here to answer hockey questions.”
Kane’s a fine player, but he may never have the patience for Winnipeg that, say, Taylor Hall has for Edmonton. And that may shift Cheveldayoff to a place that Oilers GM Craig MacTavish may also be approaching: That crossroads where the trade market meets a young asset, and the roster gets padded for the other young assets who remain.
That might lead to quicker success, but it depends who you ask.
“Making the playoffs is certainly something this market is craving," says Cheveldayoff. "But, in a draft-and-develop model, which essentially we’ve said from the beginning that’s what we are … we’ve got two young players in our lineups from our first two drafts. To me, that’s successful.”
Watching a GM draft isn’t going to keep those renewals coming in however. Eventually, only winning will. That analogy leads Cheveldayoff, who won three championships as GM of the minor league Chicago Wolves before working for the Blackhawks, to tell this story:
“I was a Chicago resident when the Blackhawks were on their downside for many, many, many years. Then I was fortunate to be part of the Chicago group who succeeded. The ‘now’ is very good in Chicago. The ‘now’ back in the days when they were drafting first, second and third? It wasn’t very good.
“But the core of fans that stuck with them, if you asked them now, I betcha they’d say it was worth it.”
They’ll say that somewhere in Canada one day. Why couldn’t it be in Winnipeg?