Gary Bettman dismisses any talk about relocation for Jets

Gary Bettman speaks to the media to clear the air about the recent public speculation surrounding the Jets' future, stating his confidence that Winnipeg is a strong NHL market.

In the wake of comments from Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman that spurred a familiar wave of worry from fans who lost their NHL club once before, commissioner Gary Bettman arrived in town this week and made a point to dispel any confusion about the league’s position on the Canadian franchise.

“This is a place where hockey matters,” Bettman said at a press conference in the city Tuesday, while in town for his annual visit. “I believe that this is a strong NHL market. I believe that ownership has made extraordinary commitments to the Jets, to this arena, to the downtown area, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and I’m not sure why people are now speculating that somehow they’re not going to be here.”

The speculation in question stemmed from comments made by Chipman in a recent interview with The Athletic, wherein the Jets owner voiced his concern about the state of the club’s attendance and season-ticket sales.

“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to get back to 13,000 (season tickets),'” Chipman said in the piece. “This place we find ourselves in right now, it’s not going to work over the long haul. It just isn’t.”

On Tuesday, Bettman suggested Chipman’s comments were more about the club’s ability to compete as best it can as an NHL franchise rather than the viability of remaining in Winnipeg.

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“What I believe Mark means by that … [is] he doesn’t want to just be a member of the NHL, he wants a team that has the foundation for success,” Bettman said. “He wants to be competitive every year. He wants to bring the Stanley Cup to Winnipeg. 

“If the team is going to have the resources and the ability to compete at the highest level, and spend to the cap, as they have, it’s important for the building to be full.”

The Jets rank second-worst in the league this season when it comes to their attendance numbers, with their average of 13,306 fans besting only the Arizona Coyotes, who are currently playing out of a much smaller college rink. Taking into account the fact that the Jets play in a smaller building than every other club in the league aside from the Coyotes, the attendance numbers are still worrisome, as the team is drawing just 87.4 per cent of Canada Life Centre’s 15,225 capacity, the third-worst mark league-wide. As well, according to Chipman, the club’s season-ticket base has fallen from 13,000 back when it first returned to Winnipeg, down to roughly 9,500.

Still, according to Bettman, the league views that decline not as a sign of a franchise in trouble, but rather, simply part of the growing pains clubs endure from time to time.

“At the end of the day, we could go through a litany of reasons, that either are true or are speculated to be true, as to how the attendance situation got to where it is — it kind of doesn’t really matter,” the commissioner said. “Because teams go through different ups and downs. I believe that the season-ticket base and the attendance will evolve back to where it was.

“I share Mark’s view. But Mark isn’t issuing any deadlines — he’s focused on what he can do to make sure the fanbase is maximally engaged, and I applaud the effort. We’re not operating under the Sword of Damocles, or on a razor’s edge — this is part of the evolution of what franchises sometimes go through. I remember a number of other Canadian franchises, for example — some of them considered to be small-market — where the season-ticket base aged out, and they had to go rebuild it with younger fans. It happens. 

“Let’s be clear about something: I believe that this is a strong NHL market, and it will adjust.”

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Bettman also pushed back against the notion that his arrival in Winnipeg was due to any concern from the league about the state of the Jets franchise, and called the suggestion that the club’s ownership is focused on anything other than Winnipeg “silly.”

“Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve invested in the team, in the building, in the building that they’ve built around here, and what they’re going to be doing on the north side of Portage. I mean, that’s why I’m kind of mystified at the tension that seems to have developed here,” he said. “If they make the playoffs this year — which, it looks like they’re going to — it would be six out of the last seven years. They’re a cap team. The star players, who had an opportunity to go elsewhere decided to stay here. Those are the substantive things that deliver the message that everybody seems to be focused on.”

“This is a team that’s widely regarded around the league as a model franchise,” added deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “Well-run from top to bottom, has a competitive hockey team, puts a competitive hockey team on the ice, spends to the cap, but also invests in the community. 

“We wish we had 32 of these.”

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Since returning to the NHL in 2011, the Jets have qualified for the post-season in six of 12 seasons, and five of the past six, highlighted by a Conference Final run in 2018. After finishing as a wild-card club last season, the team’s enjoyed a resurgent 2023-24 campaign that has them sitting second in the Central Division, third in the Western Conference overall, and sixth-best league-wide.

And while enthusiasm off the ice in Winnipeg hasn’t quite matched the success on it as of late, the league’s brass made clear Tuesday they have no intention of moving on from the city any time soon.

“Hockey matters here, and that’s important to us,” Daly said. “So, Winnipeg matters to us.”

“Obviously the attendance needs to improve. But it will,” added Bettman. “I have confidence in the organization, and, as importantly, I have confidence in this community.”

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