Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets fans head west, south for hockey

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There doesn't seem to be any middle ground with hockey-starved Winnipeg Jets fans -- either they tune out the NHL lockout until it's over or they're getting their fix elsewhere.

If you want an indication of whether Jets fans are heading two hours west on the Trans-Canada to see the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings play, just listen to O Canada at Westman Place.

"The last couple of games, a lot of people are yelling out 'True North' during the anthem. It really stood out. I thought, 'Holy cow!' " said Danna Rudniski, a team spokeswoman.

The Wheat Kings' season-ticket base is down 300 this year to about 2,600, but its walk-up business has been "huge." The Wheat Kings don't check fans' home addresses when they visit Westman Place, but anecdotal evidence suggests a significant number are coming from Winnipeg.

"People are waiting in line for tickets when the game is already well on. We've pushed back our start times five to seven minutes because of the walk-ups. We've had people from Winnipeg call us for information on the games and saying, 'We're coming for the game. Where can we stay?' " Rudniski said.

Considering the arena is attached to a Canad Inns hotel, the answer to that one is easy. To add extra incentive, the hotel has put together a package for hockey fans, including tickets to a game, a one-night stay and a discount at the hotel's restaurant.

The Wheat Kings are considering advertising on the video board on the side of the MTS Centre, Rudniski said.

Winnipeg hockey fans are also making a run for the border. Chris Semrau, director of events and media relations at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., said he expects to see more than a few Friendly Manitoba licence plates in the parking lot for the University of North Dakota hockey team's home-opening weekend against the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves.

"We've had calls from folks north of the border about tickets every day this week. There will be some here for sure. We've always had a great following from Winnipeg," he said.

Many of the team's Canadian fans jumped on the bandwagon after watching the World Junior Hockey Championship in Grand Forks in 2005, Semrau said. He's expecting more Canadians next weekend when North Dakota plays longtime rival Boston University.

"Being only two hours away, we have a great hockey product to offer in a great environment. We hope hockey-crazed folks north of the border come down and check it out," he said.

In a completely unscientific poll last week, taken after the NHL Players Association shot down the owners' pitch to split the league's $3.3-billion revenue pie 50-50, the Free Press asked online readers if they held out any hope there will be NHL games this season. Just 10 per cent of 8,524 people voted "yes," 30 per cent voted "no," and 60 per cent, or 5,115 people, said "I don't care anymore."

The malaise has also been felt by city retailers. Gerald Haasbeek, owner of Royal Sports, said during the Jets' inaugural season, many items were sold directly out of the boxes they were delivered in because there wasn't time to get them on the store shelves.

"We've definitely noticed a decrease in sales of Jets and other NHL merchandise," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 B1

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