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Go, Winnipeg Go!

With the return of the Jets, our city got a lot more than a hockey team

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T was the mid-1970s, and John Vrooman and his college buddies were sitting around watching television deep in the heart of Texas, when something strange and "mystical" appeared on the screen.

It was a Winnipeg Blue Bombers football game. Vrooman and his football-mad cohorts were entranced.

Images of this place called Manitoba began to ferment in their heads.

"We thought there was something mystical about Manitoba," Vrooman recounted. "The big lakes. The native heritage. The plains. It was almost like we were called."

On nothing more than a whim and thirst for adventure (which perhaps explained the stockpile of beer), the Texans piled into a BMW and drove straight from Dallas to the Great White North.

They wheeled into Winnipeg, attended a Bombers game -- "I think they played the Argonauts?" -- bought some Bombers T-shirts and then drove further north just to dip their toes in a frigid Lake Winnipeg. You know, just to say they were there.

Today, Vrooman teaches sports economics at Vanderbilt University, based in Nashville, and he has fond, albeit hazy, memories of his long-ago journey to Manitoba. But as one of the leading experts in his field in the United States, Vrooman has an understanding of the potential tangible and intangible benefits of the return of the National Hockey league to a small, Canadian Prairie city.

"It kind of puts a small to mid-market city like Winnipeg on the map," said Vrooman, from his office in Tennessee.

"It's a unifying force. There's a networking effect. It gives you something to argue about. That's what the Jets were in the past. That's what the Bombers are. They kind of bond the community together."

Make no mistake: Of the handful of sports economists interviewed by the Free Press regarding the return of the NHL, the overwhelming consensus was that the financial spinoffs of the Jets' return will at best be difficult to quantify. There is only so much discretionary spending among residents.

If $80 million is spent on Jets tickets annually, that will mean a similar amount will not be spent somewhere else. And if more money flows downtown to the MTS Centre and surrounding businesses, chances are less will be spent on entertainment or in malls in the suburbs.

 

"They (hockey fans) don't spend more money than they have over the long run on entertainment," offered Dr. James Cochran, an associate professor of marketing and analysis at Louisiana Tech University. "If they want to go to a hockey game, they will. But that means they'll be going to fewer concerts."

However, even though the net financial value of the Jets' return to Winnipeg is almost impossible to measure, or even define, even serious number-crunchers are unanimous in agreement that the intangible upside of a major professional hockey team returning to the bosom of a passionate fan base -- even if it's the smallest in the NHL -- will have an impact money can't buy.

This is perhaps true even more so in a market that lost the NHL in a community-wrenching experience 15 years before. In fact, Cochran likens the return of the Jets to the hypothetical scenario of the mythical Dodgers returning to Brooklyn. Of course, the Dodgers never came back after leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957. At the time, baseball fans in the close-knit New York borough were heartbroken. Many were angry and disillusioned at having their beloved team leave for warmer pastures.

"We're talking in both instances about fairly small markets that psychologically took ownership of the team," Cochran said. "They really associated their identity quite a bit with their particular team. So when the team leaves, it causes quite a lot of pain. It hurts.

"Given the psychic damage of what losing an NHL franchise appears to have caused Winnipeg, getting the franchise back is a pretty important step."

 

Still, what does it mean, exactly, that the Jets have flown home? Does having "Winnipeg 3, Chicago 1" scrolling across the bottom of the screen on ESPN broadcasts translate into a single tourism dollar? Does the presence of Andrew Ladd and his teammates create one net job outside of the Jets organization?

"There's some intrinsic value," said Cochran, a native of Columbus who closely followed the NHL's expansion to the Ohio capital in 2000. "When I was 10 years old, I was curious about Winnipeg just because it was part of the NHL. There's a certain awareness that comes with membership in major sports leagues. So there is some benefit there.

"Having the NHL might encourage people in organizations and business entities who are thriving in Winnipeg, it may encourage them to stay," he said. "It also may encourage other businesses to move to Winnipeg. When corporations are moving, they do look at what's available to their employees. Employee satisfaction is important. Do I move to a city where there is an NHL franchise or do I move to a city where there isn't an NHL franchise? Will that affect my employees' happiness? There has been the suggestion that those decisions are made at least on the margins.

"People think, 'Wow, this city must be growing. It must be thriving.' It makes people at least think about who you are and what you have to offer in a way that they might not have thought of otherwise."

It's all about branding, offered Richard Powers, professor of business, law and ethics at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"When another NHL club comes to Winnipeg to play, their fans are going to learn about Winnipeg. It helps you market the city. From a tourism point of view, convention point of view, business point of view, Winnipeg becomes a destination. It must be a nice city because they have an NHL team."

Perhaps, but again impossible to measure, according to Brad R. Humphreys, professor of economics at the University of Alberta, where Humphreys holds a chair in the Economics of Gaming.

"It's a nice story," the professor said of the idea that major league teams attract business, "but I haven't seen any evidence of it. There's certainly no tangible economic benefit generated by the NHL coming back to Winnipeg. But I don't dispute it's important. Professional sports teams have a tremendous value to a community. It's just hard to put a dollar value on that.

"There's a sense of community and local pride. It's something where people from different socio-economic backgrounds can have something in common. It signals vibrancy in the community. (But) when you look at the contribution of a hockey team to a city the size of Winnipeg, it's pretty small. It's not employing as many people as a hospital or a factory even."

Indeed, any discussion of the economic impact of the NHL's return should be rooted in the Armageddon-like atmosphere that prevailed in 1995-96, when the commonly held consensus of grief-stricken hockey fans was that the community would shrivel up and die upon the departure of the Jets.

Such dire predictions, which were nurtured in an emotionally charged environment, turned out to be sky-is-falling overreactions. Look around: Real estate prices are at record highs. Economic development, relatively speaking, is booming -- including major projects such as the new football stadium, the Richardson International Airport makeover, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Manitoba Hydro's downtown office -- not to mention multimillion-dollar expansions downtown for both the University of Winnipeg and Red River Community College.

"When the teams leave, the catastrophic, scorched-earth scenarios are exaggerated," Vrooman said. "Although a lot of people thought that to rip hockey out of that town is like ripping a Canadian's heart out, the town is a lot stronger than that. There's a lot more to it (the community). What happens is people find other... economic alternatives and other economic activity that probably has more linkages to the real world than hockey does.

"Economically, when you get a team, it's not the economic boom everybody thinks it is, and when you lose a team it's not the disaster everybody thinks it is."

Fair enough. Or perhaps, in the case of Winnipeg, the psychological trauma experienced by the collective was a visceral wake-up call to a chastened community.

"What it did was kick-start a real urban revitalization in Winnipeg," said Powers. "The city planners and councillors did an excellent job. But without the Jets they had to. The city was going to die. It lost part of its soul when the Jets left. They were able to reinvigorate community around Winnipeg as opposed to a team. This is all positive."

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray first took office in 1998 after serving several years on council, and one of his first initiatives was to convene a meeting of the city's top 30 business operators. That's where Izzy Asper first approached Murray about the idea of a human rights museum.

It was Murray, in fact, who at the turn of the last century introduced then-Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman -- who wanted to build a state-of-the-art arena downtown -- to company officials from Osmington Inc., which had recently purchased the old Eaton's building. The Toronto-based Osmington just happened to be owned by Chipman's future True North partner David Thomson, the richest man in Canada and 16th richest man in the world (Forbes, 2011).

"People started to realize what a global economy we were in," said Murray, now the minister of research and innovation for the Liberal provincial government in Ontario. "The private sector had to play a different role, and the public sector had to play a different role.

"That's one thing that Mark Chipman and Izzy Asper taught me," added Murray, who currently lives in Toronto, where he held on to his Toronto Centre seat in the Oct. 6 provincial election, "that the public and private sector working together can do amazing things that the private sector and public sector can't do on their own."

It could have been part desperation, part opportunity. But both politicians and business had a new-found impetus to forge ahead with developments that had been stalled, opposed and mired in controversy for years.

Shortly after Gary Doer was sworn in as Manitoba's premier in 1999, Chipman approached him about the possibility of a new arena.

"I've tried this before and gotten nowhere," Chipman told Doer. "Am I wasting my time with this?"

Replied Doer: "No, you're not."

Some suggest there was an evolution of attitudes in Winnipeg after the Jets left. Murray believes the spiritual rebirth began with two sporting events: the 1999 Pan Am Games and the 1999 World Junior hockey championships, both of which helped rekindle a sense of community pride.

The funk that had hung over a city stung by the Jets demise began to lift.

"It was awful to lose them, but you go on. It was a blow, but it wasn't fatal," said Doer, who now serves as the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. "The opening of the arena itself -- without the NHL -- represented three major accomplishments. We took a boarded-up building and replaced it with a beautiful downtown arena that's used over 200 nights a year. Critics will say, 'Well, it's not the silver bullet for downtown Winnipeg.' Of course it wasn't. But it was a major dramatic step in growing in that area instead of declining.

"We moved on and in my view the community moved up in the next decade," Doer added.

"The celebration of the team coming back is also a celebration of the community going from a can't-do to a can-do community. It's not just the arena. It's the (Canadian) Museum for Human Rights. It's the IKEA operation. It's the Millennium Library project. Now it's the Bomber stadium. It's the Assiniboine Zoo (expansion). It's just a can-do attitude."

Yet both the MTS Centre and the museum project, in particular, were highly controversial, since they each involved a level of public funding. In a province where taxpayers had to cover tens of millions of dollars in Jets losses in the mid-1990s -- only to be asked to fund a new arena primarily with tax dollars in the midst of an economy where nurses and teachers were facing layoffs and pay cuts -- such opposition was unforgiving.

Chipman had to fight -- all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada -- opposition to tearing down the Eaton's building. The $133.5-million facility, which called for about $40 million in funding from three levels of government, raised no shortage of outrage in some quarters.

Doer was getting hammered on a daily basis in question period, prompting him to warn Chipman and Co.: "We're in the rapids now."

Murray recalled a public debate over the arena so vitriolic that "there's people who were friends with me for 10 to 15 years who still don't talk to me. They were so angry about that deal and thought it was ridiculous."

Current Mayor Sam Katz had no less of a struggle to build his baseball stadium -- again, the major opposition was the use of public funds for the park, which was part of the Pan Am Games legacy. Murray said the initial reaction to the museum was that it would be a "laughingstock."

"All of those things that we did that were so controversial at the time are the things that Winnipeggers are most proud of now," he said.

Doer, meanwhile, would poke his old legislative foes after the MTS Centre was opened in 2004. "I enjoyed seeing you at the Van Morrison concert last night," he would chide.

 

How times have changed. In fact, the question could be posed: What did the loss of the NHL mean to Winnipeg?

For example, the old Jets never sold out, not even in the WHA glory years with Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. They didn't sell out after winning three Avco Cups in four years. When the NHL came, the Jets could never muster more than 5,000 to 6,000 season-ticket holders, even at their peak in the late 1980s when Dale Hawerchuk was an NHL superstar.

When Jets phenom Teemu Selanne was chasing history as a rookie with 76 goals in the 1992-93 season, the average crowds at the old arena were 12,500 or less.

Yet the new Jets sold out like a U2 concert -- and for terms of between three to five years at prices (up to $25,000 total for the most expensive season tickets for five seasons) that would have been seen as obscene in 1995.

What gives?

True North CEO and president Jim Ludlow said the brand development of the NHL, especially in Canada, has exploded over the last decade. The media following and exposure of NHL teams have increased dramatically. The Internet was an infant when the Jets left. And the economic fortunes of Canadian-based NHL teams have reversed, meaning Winnipeg hockey fans could only live vicariously through, say, the playoff runs of the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and, most recently, the Vancouver Canucks.

"We have all those forces behind us and a new building. A new community. A chance to be back in the NHL," Ludlow reasoned. "This is an element of Winnipeg continuing to move forward."

What does self-worth mean in the sense of a community?

"It creates a psychology that we can get it done, that the nitpicker convention that's opposed to things... there has to be a counterweight," Doer said. "That's a community where people want to live and raise their families. How do you measure excitement? I think it's infectious."

Infectious might explain, in part, the box office success of the 2011 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who experienced five straight sellouts leading into their Sept. 30 date with the Montreal Alouettes at Canad Inns Stadium. Undoubtedly, the Bombers' surprising 7-1 start, following back-to-back dreadful seasons, contributed to the rise of Swaggerville.

Glen Hodgson, the chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada (and graduate of Winnipeg's Silver Heights Collegiate), still has concerns about the Jets return on the long-term economic viability of the Bombers. But those initial fears have been allayed by the CFL team's resurgence at the gate.

"Instead of diversion, it may have actually increased the demand for more pro sports," noted Hodgson from his Ottawa office. "It's in more people's heads. It's something they want to do. That's real-time evidence that people are feeling good about the Jets coming back and changing their behaviour a little bit."

Hodgson agrees the Jets' net economic impact on the Winnipeg economy has yet to manifest itself. But, he added: "The team is irreplaceable in making people feel good about where they live, having your own NHL home team. It can change attitudes. They may be more industrious, they may be more creative. Who knows? Hard to measure, but clearly there's an upside benefit there."

"The real effects are psychological. People are happier. They feel better. And that's ultimately what life's about, right?"

That upbeat attitude is palpable, according to Winnipeg-based sports psychologist Cal Botterill.

"You get the sense that our ego is back, that this is a major league city," said Botterill, who has worked for several NHL teams and counselled many Olympic athletes.

"We had that privilege for quite a few years and it's being restored. They (sports fans) are tired of being Loserpeg. They like what they see."

Heck, maybe Winnipeg's reputation as being, well, cheap -- the Wholesale City -- is changing, too.

"The whole thing looks like it's got momentum and nobody seems to be worried about money," Botterill said. "There's a new stadium going up. We're all going to pay for that (if the Bombers can't), and nobody seems to be complaining."

And there's another ethereal aspect of the Jets' return that can't be measured with economical analysis, either: Emotion.

Anyone who witnessed the frenzy surrounding the official announcement on May 31 -- when thousands of Manitobans flocked almost instinctively to celebrations at The Forks and Portage and Main -- can't deny the bond between Winnipeg hockey fans and the Jets that stretches back at least three generations.

When the Jets played their first exhibition game at the MTS Centre on Sept. 20, it was a reunion 15 years in the making. Memories flooded the arena like a Zamboni.

Former Bombers kicker Troy Westwood, who now co-hosts a morning talk show on Sports 1290, couldn't hold back the waterworks when the Jets first touched down on home ice.

"I vividly remember sitting in the old arena with my dad during the WHA days, and when the Jets went in the NHL... to come back here I wasn't sure how I was going to feel emotionally," Westwood said. "But when they first hit the ice for warm-ups, I was like a five-year-old kid trying to fight back tears. It's like an impossible dream that's happened."

That sentiment was echoed in a hockey rink where 15,004 fans rose as one to chant "Go, Jets, Go!"

"It's one of the most powerful ways, to me, that sports exists in our society is the connection with the community and the far-reaching effects of the memories it evokes for families, friends," Westwood said. "It's related to spirit, when we have something as a province and a city that can help galvanize us and instil a pride in us. We have the Bombers that create that feeling, and now we have the Jets. I think that just makes us stronger as a community. And anything in this day and age that can bring us closer together and help us feel like we're one is a wonderful thing."

 

What does the NHL's return mean to Winnipeg? Westwood will tell you it's not unlike the professional athlete -- or team -- that experienced a devastating loss. The beauty of sport, the old kicker said, is whether that same athlete or team can rebound in the face of adversity and even defeat.

Perhaps it's the beauty of life, too.

"That analogy, there's a parallel (to the Jets rebirth)," Westwood concluded. "Sports is a microcosm of life. That exact lesson that we learned as a community, how you can dust yourself off and get back up, that's exactly what athletes have to do on a daily basis, game in and game out. When we watch sport, it's a little piece of our lives day to day."

Ultimately, as Murray suggests, what the NHL's return will mean is whatever Winnipeggers make of their new-found place in the hockey universe. And the new attitudes that reality may create.

"From the late 1990s... we went through a period of great hope and expansion and excitement," Murray said.

"I think we had one of the most exciting decades in the history of the city. And I think for the next decade to be just as exciting as the last one, we need to get back to another series of significant (projects). Every city has to keep reinventing itself. We should make another shopping list like we did 10 years ago.

"What's the next thing that Winnipeg is going to build?"

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 A9

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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