Evander Kane has a lot of things going for him. He's young, he's good-looking, he's charismatic. He's also a very good hockey player, so last year when he was a member of the Thrashers, his status as a dashing professional athlete enabled him to run in some fairly lofty Hotlanta circles. "I met a lot of cool people, rappers, actors," he says. "Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Chris Tucker, T.I., Young Jeezy... ." Kane even got to go bowling with his namesake, Evander Holyfield. Not a bad life for a 19-year-old.
This is an article from the Jan. 30, 2012 issue
Flash forward to the present day. Kane is with the same organization, only now the team is called the Jets and it plays its home games about 1,500 miles to the northwest of Atlanta in Winnipeg, a city where the most notable rhymesmith is a gent named Ace Burpee. Ace is a local morning drive-time deejay. He's also a hockey fanatic who wrote the lyrics for Jet Rock Anthem, a takeoff on LMFAO's ubiquitous Party Rock Anthem. Sample lyric: "Winnipeg, back again/Holla at your boy, Evander Kane." (When rapped with an authentic Manitoba accent, it actually does rhyme quite nicely.)
Yes, Winnipeg is back again. Sixteen years after the original Jets moved to Phoenix, the NHL has returned to—and is thriving in—a city that has virtually none of the characteristics one would associate with an ideal location for a major league sports team. Put it this way: It's hard to imagine someone ever booking an hour of ESPN's time to announce, "I'm taking my talents to Manitoba." Consider the following widely aired complaints.
• It's too small.
In the four major sports, only Green Bay is a smaller market than Winnipeg, which has a metropolitan population of about 750,000—roughly the size of Knoxville.
• It's too cold.
"The corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street is known to be the coldest spot in North America," says native son Monty Hall. (Yes, that Monty Hall.) It's an oft-repeated claim, but there is something almost supernaturally frigid about the iconic downtown intersection a few blocks from the Jets' home ice at the MTS Centre. Former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice remembers his first visit. He called a friend on a pay phone from the corner but had to hang up early. "My hand was freezing to the phone," he says.
Science backs the anecdotal evidence: With an average temperature of 4.4°F in December, January and February, Winnipeg has the coldest winters of any city of its size in the world.
• It's too boring.
Last year, amid rumors that the Coyotes were going to move back to Manitoba, Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (who signed a free-agent deal with the Flyers last July) opined, "You don't want to go to Winnipeg, right? Not many people live there... . There's no excitement except the hockey. No park, no entertaining for the families, for the kids. It's going to be tough life for your family."
Mind you, this is a guy who grew up on the steppes of Soviet Russia.
Closer to home, John K. Samson, the lead singer and songwriter of the Winnipeg band The Weakerthans, tells the story of a friend who came to the 'Peg for a battle of the bands competition. On the day he was to leave town, the guy ran into Randy Bachman of Winnipeg's The Guess Who—notable for their 1970 hit American Woman—in a hotel lobby. The conversation went like this:
Samson's buddy: "I've got six hours in town before my flight. What should I do?"
Bachman: "Go to the airport."
• It's too hateable.
"It's a punching bag," concedes Samson, a lifelong Winnipegger who points to the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer visits the Great White North to stock up on prescription medication. As he enters the city, he's greeted by a sign reading: NOW ENTERING WINNIPEG. WE WERE BORN HERE, WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?
Samson himself is partly responsible for perpetuating the less-than-flattering image of his hometown. His lovely ballad One Great City is probably the most famous tune written about the city. In it, several narrators take stock of their surroundings and come to the same conclusion: "I hate Winnipeg." The song serves as the theme song for the bittersweet HBO Canada series Less Than Kind, which has won the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy for best comedy the last three seasons. In one early scene a failed actor vents to his father about his frustration at leaving Hollywood to return to the place he was born: "Winnipeg sucks. It's so ugly, boring, flat, cold... . And the people in Winnipeg suck. Look at that guy. He sucks. He's Mr. Suck."
His father defends the city as best he can: "Winnipeg has the greatest [pause] parking!"
The irony is that parking your car in Winnipeg is a dicey proposition at best. It was the auto theft capital of Canada from 2003 to '09.
• And then there's perhaps the biggest argument against giving Winnipeggers a team: They had one once, and it didn't end well.
It's the cradle of hockey," says Hall of his hometown, and he knows a thing or two about pucks. Before he hosted Let's Make a Deal, he was the New York Rangers' radio color commentator during the 1959--60 season, and he was once thrown out of the Maple Leaf Gardens press box during a junior hockey game by Conn Smythe himself for loudly cheering on Pudge Robertson, a fellow Winnipegger. Hall's father used to tell him stories about the Winnipeg Falcons, a band of Icelandic expats who won the first Olympic hockey gold medal, in 1920. "We were isolated in that prairie town," says Hall, who's 90 and can still recount the exploits of the old Junior League Winnipeg Monarchs of the '30s as if they skated last night. "You had to look inwards instead of outwards. You had to look to your neighbors. It was a community, and the hockey team that represented you was the most exciting thing."
The city was granted a franchise in the World Hockey Association in 1972, and the ensuing seven years were the glory days, with Bobby Hull skating around Winnipeg Arena as Queen Elizabeth II looked on approvingly from a 23-foot-high painting that hung from the rafters. The Jets won three WHA titles, and when the league folded in 1979, they were welcomed into the NHL.
But in the early '90s the NHL's buzzword became footprint, as the league looked to move into nontraditional markets in the Sun Belt and Southwest. When the Nordiques bolted Quebec City in the summer of 1995 for Colorado, Winnipeg was left as the smallest market in the league. The team was losing money, and the Canadian dollar was getting weaker and weaker. It was just a matter of time before the relocation talk started.
Plans were mooted to stave off the sale of the team by building a new arena, which led to rancorous debate between the Save the Jets campaign and Thin Ice, a group that argued that using so much public funding at a time when the city faced other problems was irresponsible. Thin Ice won. On Dec. 19, 1995, the announcement was made: The Jets would move to Phoenix the following season. "It was," says Hall, "like picking a family member up and sending him off to Siberia."
Except in Siberia, they actually like hockey. In 1996, Hockey Night in Canada pundit Don Cherry surveyed the new NHL landscape and said, "If you ask me, it'll be the big thing to do for about eight years or so, but after that, I want to see what happens in these places."
What happened was that some clubs struggled to leave a footprint at all. "What I learned in Atlanta is that football is Number 1," says Kane, a native of Vancouver. "NFL, college football, high school football all come before hockey. When you've got high school sports coming before the highest level of professional sports, it's tough."
"You need to win down there if you want to sell the game's appeal to fans," says Jets goalie Chris Mason. "Because if you don't, it might be a novelty, and then it'll wear off."
Their team lost, the Save the Jets group refocused its goal on simply keeping hockey alive in Winnipeg. Under the leadership of local businessman Mark Chipman, a minor league team was brought to town in 1996, and in 2003 the partnership True North Sports & Entertainment broke ground on a new downtown arena that was built largely with private funds. As the Coyotes and the Thrashers continued to struggle at the gate, Chipman turned his attention back to the NHL. Last May 31, at the corner of Portage and Main, he announced that True North had bought the Thrashers and would be moving the club to Winnipeg. Four days later season tickets went on sale. They were gone in 17 minutes.
"It's been a long, long time since Winnipeg was the center of attention in Canada for something great," says Burpee. "And it feels awesome." The move was a boon not just for Winnipeggers but for all Canadians, who see it as a repudiation of the idea that their undersized cities aren't viable markets. (Further proof that the league's vaunted footprint has been light: Nine organizations this year are drawing less than 90% capacity in their arenas. All are American teams, and seven of them moved to their current city—either as an expansion team or as a relocated franchise—within the past 20 years.)
Last month Chipman was at a rink in Milestone, Saskatchewan (pop. 562), a good eight-hour drive to the east of Winnipeg. He was bundled up, wearing a toque, and in hostile territory—there's something of a rivalry between Saskatchewan and Manitoba—but still a local recognized him, approached and said, "Hey, congratulations. And thanks."
Before the season, reports surfaced that Kane was seeking a trade to another team. Kane, who's now 20, denies the rumors, and insists he is enjoying himself. "When your sport is the Number 1 thing going, it's fun to be a part of," he says. He's no longer hanging out with rappers, but his Q Score has skyrocketed. And for every player looking for a fast-paced existence, there are two or three like winger Tanner Glass, a free agent from the plains of Saskatchewan who left the Stanley Cup finalist Canucks to sign with the Jets. "I wanted to be in another market that was going to have that same kind of passion," says Glass.
Since the Jets' move from Atlanta came together so quickly, the NHL didn't have time to devise and implement a realignment plan. Winnipeg is playing in the Southeast Division, which means that its schedule is loaded with lengthy homestands and brutal road trips. The Jets made a strong run in November and December during a 33-day stretch in which they played only two road games, but then slid out of a playoff spot during a just-completed run in which they played six of eight away from home. At week's end Winnipeg was in 10th place, three points behind the eighth-place Capitals.
The rough patch has led to some grumbling. Kane, who leads the team with 18 goals but hasn't scored since Dec. 29, recently drew the ire of first-year coach Claude Noel, who ripped him for playing passively. The winger was also the subject of rumors that he had been running out on his restaurant tabs, though an NHL investigation into the matter came up empty. "We've hit a bump in the road, but I'm fairly pleased," says Noel.
If the Jets are going to make a move it will likely have to come in mid-February, when they begin a 33-day stretch in which 12 of their 15 games are at home. The MTS Centre will be jammed with a crowd that will start roaring during the national anthem, when they scream the lyric "True North!" loud enough to startle anyone not expecting it. And while the Queen isn't there—she's in a warehouse in Ontario waiting to be auctioned off—there is a guy who holds up a mini portrait at every game. "[These people] feel the pulse of the game," says Noel. The whole episode is a declaration of love, but also a testament to a city that refused to give up hope, refused to have its spirit broken.
Now the team is back, and unlike their ill-fated forebears, these Jets have stable local ownership (including minority partner David Thomson, who is so rich he's an actual baron: the third Baron Thomson of Fleet) and a viable business model. Says Chipman, "We've got the realization that we lost something really, really meaningful—and that made bringing it back, protecting it, keeping it, that much more important."