By Stu Hackel
In large part, it has been a "Woe Canada" season for the NHL's northern clubs. The Canadiens have sunk to their lowest point in many generations, and their hockey department paid the price. The Maple Leafs, very sadly, continue to be an overexposed, overrated and overhyped disaster. The young Oilers have yet to experience their promised liftoff. The Flames seem to have again burnt out in pursuit of their first playoff series victory since the lockout ended. Yes, the Canucks (who've had their ups and downs) and Senators have met and exceeded expectations respectively, but sights are set higher in Vancouver. In Ottawa, the Sens have been a joyful, if sometimes jittery, surprise.
Then there are the Jets, whose on-ice performance almost didn't matter this season. The mere fact that the NHL returned to Winnipeg 10 months ago was a massive victory for the city, the region, and for hockey.
Still, falling short of the postseason (not yet mathematically, but practically) in their first season back stings their fans, especially because the Jets had a chance. If only, the fans say, they had won that game against the Hurricanes at the end of their last homestand....
That was how it seemed to us and lots of Winnipeggers as well, according to Ben Carr. He's the Winnipeg school teacher we spoke with in October before the Jets' first home game to set the stage at the MTS Centre. He described the mood as "euphoric" and "hockey crazy" six months ago, and a season of ups and downs apparently hasn't dampened the enthusiasm.
"The dynamic of the city completely changed the moment the team came back," Carr said by phone early Friday. "Winnipeggers have been riding high since this whole deal was announced. Even before it was a headline in the newspapers that the deal (to bring the team north from Atlanta) was going to go through, people were talking about --- well, they talked about it for 15 years. But I don’t think people have really come down from it yet. I’ve said to people on many occasions -- the person next to me at a game or watching Jets TV in my living room -- that it’s amazing: The team hasn’t even been back for 10 months, and it’s as if they never went away. The city has just totally embraced the players, the culture of hockey. It gives people something to talk about other than the weather and politics. It’s been great, there’s nothing I can see negative about this."
The Jets' roller coaster campaign seems bound to end in early April. "Roller coaster" is an apt description, as Ed Tait of The Winnipeg Free Press described the season earlier this week. "If you were to draw a progress-arrow graph to mirror the Winnipeg Jets' 2011-12 season it would go something like this: It begins pointing downward in October... trending sharply upward in December... sharply down again in January... another spike upward in February/early March."
But it's been down again recently, when it mattered most. On March 18, the Jets were in ninth place, two points behind the Capitals and they had a 3-2 lead over Carolina midway through the third period. They couldn't hold it. First, Eric Staal scored to tie the game...
...and then set up Chad LaRose with less than two minutes remaining in regulation for the winner.
It was a costly defeat at the end of a homestand and the Jets then went on the road, where they don't do well, without momentum. They've dropped three of four since and fallen eight points back of the last playoff spot.
"Most people agree the Carolina game was the dagger," Carr says. "Whenever Staal is on the ice you’ve got to be careful. He may not have the skill of Crosby, Ovechkin or Malkin, but he’s as lethal when he’s on the ice. He potted two in that game. After the one he set up with about a minute and a half left, there was this collective gasp and heads falling on the shoulders of people beside you."
It's a pleasure to talk hockey with Carr, a thoughtful and articulate observer of the game. Like any fan, he's got his favorites on the team (he put captain Andrew Ladd's name and number 16 on the back of his Jets sweater, but not without seriously considering Blake Wheeler's 26 also), and isn't thrilled about every Jet (he wishes Dustin Byfuglien would get in better shape, thinks Evander Kane needs to show more maturity and joins lots of Winnipeggers in grumbling about the play of well-paid veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey). He believes the defense corps badly needs to upgrade their depth, although admires the grit of Mark Stuart. He's troubled by the inconsistent offense but was glad to see the fourth line of Tim Stapleton, Ben Maxwell and Spencer Machacek play well of late. And, like all Jets fans, has been overjoyed by the play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who is easily the team MVP.
"They aren’t even close to making the playoffs if he doesn’t play the way he does this year," Carr maintains.
Carr told us back in October that he believed the season would be one of celebration regardless of the outcome and he hasn't changed that assessment. While they enjoyed the AHL Manitoba Moose, Winnipeggers greatly appreciate the advanced skill of NHL players. Carr notes that having an NHL team in town benefits the 'Peg in other ways.
"Take the 50-50 jackpot," he says. "The total of earnings average just about $80,000 every game. So the winner is taking home 40 grand plus, and the other half is going to the True North Foundation which, if Im not mistaken, is a fund that helps with amateur sports in the province. There’s little things like that which the Moose never generated. They never generated the interest in hockey and never generated the funds to help with community things like that."
He continues to praise the True North ownership group even though he, and most fans, aren't happy about the long lines at the bathrooms between periods. That's a minor complaint when it comes to what has gone on at the MTS Centre this season.
Visiting visiting teams that came into the MTS Centre this season had problems, too, although they had nothing to do with the bathroom lines. It has become widely regarded as the league's toughest building for visiting teams, in large part because of the raucous fans, who are probably worth a goal a game to the Jets.
"Look at the discrepancy between the home and road record," Carr says, and he's right. The Jets have 50 points at home, fourth best in the Eastern Conference. They've got only 28 on the road, worst in the East. "It makes a huge difference and it's something (coach) Claude Noel and the players talk about every single postgame interview, win or loss. The fans are mentioned in one capacity or another."
It's not just that they are passionate fans; they are also knowledgable. "I was listening to the radio the other day and it was either Mark Stuart or Zach Bogosian who was asked about the fans," Carr said. "And he said they boo or scream about something before we even know what’s happened."
As for passion, the MTS Centre may pump itself full of typical arena noise and music, but Carr believes, "If there was a malfunction with the scoreboard, it would be just as loud. There have been these chants that you might have caught wind of that have started here. They chant “Go Jets Go” before the national anthem even plays, of course, and 30 seconds later during the anthem, everyone screams 'True North' with the lyric."
That gets the fans amped up before the puck even drops. But Jets fans have another rather unique habit, an early and loud standing ovation at the first big moment for their team. It could be a Jets goal, but if not, it can be a penalty kill or even a save by goalie Ondrej Pavelec. And it doesn't have to be a great save. I’ve never seen a standing ovation for a routine save in the first period of a game."
He's probably right. The fan chants have been pretty clever as well. When the Capitals come to town, Jets fans chant “Crosby’s better!” in an attempt to throw Alex Ovechkin off his game.
"In that Carolina game," Carr adds. "Everyone was so pissed off when Eric Staal scored that first goal, they started chanting 'Jordan’s better.'”
That attempt at igniting some sibling jealousy between Eric and his Penguin brother didn't quite work, unfortunately.
"Where these chants come from, I don’t know," Carr says with some wonderment. "Somewhere underneath is 15 years of pent-up emotion and that’s being unleashed every minute, every second of a game. How much of that will dissipate in the next couple of years, we’ll have to see. I think it will continue to be the loudest arena. I think it will continue to be the smartest, craziest fan base in the league."
Thanks for that video to Donald McKenzie who works at the Holy Trinity Anglican Chuch, where it was recorded. The church is located across the street from the MTS Centre.