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How True North put Jets brand on Winnipeg

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My mother knows as much about hockey as any middle-aged Canadian woman -- enough to follow along and cheer at a game. When she called me the morning after attending a Winnipeg Jets game, she was choked up with tears of joy.

My mother, 57, a retired civil servant who enjoys cooking and Mexican vacations, has become an integral part of the story of the new Jets. She is not alone.

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The loss of Winnipeg's NHL team in 1996 became a giant bruise on the hearts of many Winnipeggers. But the Jets' return became the fairy tale of the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Many Canadians rallied behind the team -- but nowhere was the enthusiasm and support more steadfast than in the vindicated Manitoba capital.

When the news came a year ago today, on May 31, 2011, that True North Sports and Entertainment had acquired the Atlanta Thrashers and was moving the club to Winnipeg, the city erupted in a giant collective "hurray." Three weeks later, True North unveiled the new Jets logo -- inspired by the Royal Canadian Air Force, particularly Winnipeg's 17 Wing.

"Our desire was to authenticate the name and make it as meaningful as we possibly could," CEO Mark Chipman said. "In my view, the best way to do that was to draw a connection to the rich history that our city has enjoyed with the air force."

By presenting a visual partnership with the air force, True North started building a brand based on a symbol of unity, "good versus evil," and national -- or more specifically -- civic pride. They sought to incorporate the new Jets into each Winnipegger's sense of self.

Contingent upon the purchase was the NHL's requirement that a significant block of season tickets be sold -- the Drive to 13,000. For a city that once lost its team, selling out three years' worth of season tickets in advance wasn't likely to pose a challenge.

Winnipeg was no longer going to be considered the cheap armpit of Canada, unable to hold onto its team.

In order to shine a light on this important part of the acquisition process, True North showcased the Jets not as a franchise fuelled by mega-corporate sponsors or wealthy private investors, but as a team driven by the fans, or "Fuelled by Passion." Thus, wearing the Jets logo, buying tickets and attending games soon became symbolic of how far the city had come since 1996.

All things Jets -- jerseys, hats, T-shirts, mugs and licence plates -- immediately became part of the city's newly crowned culture of confidence, and the brand took its throne as a top cultural accessory.

The next challenge was to keep up fan enthusiasm and loyalty for a team with a less-than-optimistic record.

To do that, True North needed its players to begin to connect with fans.

It's what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, called "emotional labour."

"This labour requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others," she wrote.

In Winnipeg, that meant players had to appear pleased to leave Atlanta, full of music stars and good weather, to make "Winterpeg" their new home.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, hot-shot forward Evander Kane admitted meeting the likes of music producer Jermaine Dupri, and his namesake, boxer Evander Holyfield, were highlights of his time in Atlanta, but that "football is No. 1 ... NFL, college football, high school football all come before hockey."

Unlike Winnipeg, where Kane would become a well-known celebrity, photographed at nightclubs and given his own blog in the Free Press (titled Citizen Kane), in Atlanta, "When you've got high school sports coming before the highest level of professional sports, it's tough," he remarked.

Others made similar statements to the delight of little old Winnipeg.

Eventually, Winnipeg gained the reputation as the "Green Bay of hockey" -- a small city with incredible fans making players want to play there.

With the season set up for success, win or lose, the Jets players had become mercenaries, fighters in a war to defend the city of Winnipeg.

For Kane, just 20, and so many other players, this might at times have been a heavy load to bear.

The Jets ended their first season in Winnipeg with a record of 37-35-10, 11th place in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot. "Although they didn't fare well enough to make the playoffs," noted "they fared well enough to give hope for the future -- maybe for the first time in a long time."

The consensus today is that the Jets thrived at injecting passion into a city in need of it. "If you were to talk to Winnipeggers" my mother says, "we know that it was True North who brought the team back, but we have all really personalized it, and strongly believe it was us fans that really made it happen."

Undoubtedly, True North wouldn't have residents of Winnipeg believe it happened any other way. True North was able to utilize emotional branding, and the valuable commodity of emotional labour, to sell their new team.

The Jets' first season was not much better than that of the late Thrashers, yet fans offered the team standing ovations for 90 seconds of their final game, an overtime loss to Tampa Bay.

When asked why she so enjoyed attending Jets games, my mother replied: "Because knowing that a little place like Winnipeg had such a big hockey heart... that we made this happen."

Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer, originally from Winnipeg and now splitting her time between Montreal and Europe. She is the wife of former Manitoba Moose forward Brandon Reid.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2012 A13

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