By Stu Hackel
Everything about the new Winnipeg Jets, it seems, is going to cause a fuss, whether it's their name, their roster, their history or their logo. Yes, their logo is now causing some quarreling up north. Can't wait to see what happens when their sweaters and unis debut. These guys haven't even played a game yet.
This latest dispute began with a post for the online literary magazine, The Winnipeg Review, by John Samson, a genuine hockey fan and not someone who merely objects to the new Jets logo because he has a political agenda. Samson is a singer/songwriter for the Winnipeg indie-rock band the Weakerthans and composer of an exceptional and melancholy song/poem about Gump Worsley, the Hall of Fame goalie, that appeared on the group's 2007 album The Reunion Tour. I spoke with him about the song for a story in The Hockey News back then (which sadly isn't online) and learned Samson has real hockey cred. He can speak with intelligence about the sport, grew up playing goal himself on the frozen streets of the 'Peg and watching lots of hockey on TV like most good Canadian boys.
Samson contended in his Winnipeg Review post that he was hoping the new Jets would provide a unifying experience for "our awesomely varied city." Instead the logo is a point of division.
The old Jets logo, (one which he "would draw ... practically every day, on every surface I could find") contained a commercial airliner, representing what Samson called "the flowering of exploration and internationalism in the burgeoning age of affordable air travel, and the players that wore its jersey were part of an exciting, fast-skating, multi-national team that played a beautiful, tough, and creative brand of hockey."
But he found the new one, which borrows much of the logo of the Royal Canadian Air Force, alienating. "It attempts to tie our professional hockey team directly to the Canadian Forces base here in Winnipeg, a link that was invented in the boardroom of the new team owners, True North Sports and Entertainment."
Now, in announcing their new logo, Mark Chipman, Chairman and Governor of True North, acknowledged linking the team to the military, saying on the team's website, “We felt it was important to authenticate the name Jets and we believe the new logo does that through its connection to our country’s remarkable Air Force heritage, including the rich history and relationship that our city and province have enjoyed with the Canadian Forces.” The team's statement also quoted Dorian Murphy, True North's marketing and brand management director, discussing the long relationship between True North (which previously owned the AHL Manitoba team) and the local armed forces base, 17 Wing, and it thanked the Department of National Defense "for their assistance in the process."
So Samson has a valid point, and this connection between the team and the military extends beyond mere symbolism; the Jets are donating $1 million over 10 years to a trio of military charities, most likely as compensation for use of the logo. For a team whose margins are probably going to be thin, considering it will play in the smallest building and smallest market in the NHL, that's quite generous. It didn't have to be that way; there certainly were other options for the logo out there (I found the logos designed by Griswald Creative and SyPhi Creations appealing, and I'm sure there were more) that would have saved the Jets $1 million. So the connection with the Air Force appears conscious and deliberate.
Samson wrote that he understands that sports teams often have military implications to their names and logos, "but I can’t think of another team anywhere that has attempted to attach itself as blatantly and directly to an existing, contemporary arm of the military." He noted that the CFL Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Oakland Raiders have vague militaristic connotations, but "the Jets new roundel is a recruiting device for a specific branch of the Canadian military. There is an obvious and massive difference there."
In fact, the San Diego Padres wear those hideous camouflage jerseys each Sunday at home, although the "camo" look is also some folks' idea of fashion. The OHL Brampton Batallion logo and jersey are cartoonish, but army-themed nevertheless.
Still, neither is as connected to the military in the way the Jets are. The Padres have forged strong links to the huge military community in Southern California, but that seems less about team identity than selling tickets. And the closest the Batallion comes to a charitable connection with the military is distributing tickets to those who volunteer for the Salvation Army. The only closer connection would be teams actually made up of servicemen and women, and as many observers pointed out (including Joe Pelettier on his always wonderful Greatest Hockey Legends blog), the inspiration for the Jets logo may have come at least partly from the RCAF Flyers team that won the 1948 Olympic Gold Medal for Canada (and the RCAF Flyers also won the 1942 Allen Cup and featured some prominent names, like wartime recruits Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt and Bobby Bauer, the entire Boston Bruins high-scoring Kraut Line).
To Samson, the use of the RCAF logo and a fighter jet implies that "whoever wears it supports both the actions of the Canadian military and the politicians who deploy them. Where does that leave those hockey fans that feel varying degrees of otherwise?"
The idea that whoever wears the Jets new logo is, even unintentionally, a supporter of certain foreign policies might be a stretch, and Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck articulates that in a column he wrote, saying that one can still not support certain military or political decisions but still be a fan of the team and wear the Jets jersey.
But what Samson writes afterwards has much truth and is something to ponder.
"Hockey should be one of those rare and valuable activities we can all share and communicate through, no matter our beliefs or backgrounds. The overt militarization of our game by commentators, politicians, and now companies like True North, prevents many people from fully engaging with the sport. We should all be able to participate in hockey, both as players, and as admirers of players who are so many times better than most of us will ever be -- those professionals who have dedicated their labors to fulfilling the beautiful potential of the game we know better than any other. The new Jets logo will tell some of us that we simply aren’t welcome at the rink."
Not surprisingly, Samson is not alone in his critique. His post and similar thoughts expressed by others have sparked much discussion. Jets spokesman Scott Brown told Jason Halstead of The Winnipeg Sun, “There has been a lot of positive reaction to the fact we have overtly made a connection to the military, but we understand that there will be negative reaction, and there has been. We’ve had a lot of people call us and express that negative opinion, and we understand that.” Perhaps the team's execs didn't anticipate the opposition to the logo, although they are a pretty savvy group and its hard to think they didn't consider there might be some backlash.
Regardless, the logo is what it is for now and the Jets organization obviously desired a close association with the military. Samson writes he's still going to cheer for the team, but he bought an Atlanta Thrashers Dustin Byfuglien T-shirt -- on closeout -- as his show of support rather than a new Jets logo shirt.
We are a culture that far too often treats war like sports and sports like war, too frequently investing our emotions perversely, grossly exaggerating the significance of competitive entertainment while minimizing the real life horrors and consequences of deadly combat. We've frequently lost a sense of proportion in being fans of what is, after all, just a game that is run as a business. You have to wonder if building a brand and an identity around the military pushes that proportion a little more out of focus.