Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets brand is golden... why tarnish its storied lustre?

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I was in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod (the former Soviet city of Gorky) several years ago in the company of a gaggle of editorial writers, all Americans.

We went to some sort of health research institute to discuss health care post-collapse. I remember only two things about that visit.

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I remember that I was the only one from our side who could actually discuss Russian health issues because I was the only one familiar with socialized health care.

But the thing I remember most clearly is standing on the sidewalk at the entrance to the institute and being greeted by our host, a short man in a blue sports coat, who asked me to introduce myself.

"My name is Gerald Flood. I'm from Winnipeg, Canada."

"AHA!" exclaimed our host. "JETS!"

We had already lost the team. He knew that as well. It made the connection more poignant, he suggested.

Every Winnipegger abroad at some point has had such an AHA! moment with complete strangers. They likely don't know -- or care -- where Winnipeg is and their eyes will glaze if you try to tell them. But they always know, especially in hockey-playing places, that Winnipeg is the home of the Jets, always was, always will be in the popular imagination.

Why the team is so storied is difficult to say. Certainly Bobby Hull caught the world's attention when he moved here to become the million-dollar-man. Maybe Elton John played a part -- Bennie (Hatskin) and the Jets was a big hit. And without doubt, as that Nizhny Novgorodian health expert knew, the Save The Jets campaign of 16 years ago said something unique about the character of Winnipeggers that has defined us ever since.

On Tuesday, when it was announced that True North had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and that the NHL was retuning to Winnipeg this fall, thousands of Winnipeggers turned out downtown dressed in Jets jerseys, sporting Jets caps and all manner of Jets paraphernalia. I saw a guy riding a motorcycle with a Santa beard flattened against a Jets jersey. I saw a woman in heels and business dress with a chic, fitted Jets jersey under her jacket.

Many of the folks chanting Go Jets Go were too young to have seen the Jets play except perhaps on YouTube, and yet they KNEW in their DNA that the Jets are Winnipeg's team.

What True North will call the team will not be known until after 13,000 fans slap down significant money for season tickets. And as we wait for the announcement, the story line is that True North has already chosen a name other than Jets in hopes of selling millions worth of new team paraphernalia. That, I suppose, makes good business sense, at least in the short term. But a friend who concerns himself with such things is adamant that it's a mistake to change the name.

"Every brand person will tell you the Winnipeg Jets brand is golden," he argues. "It's known around the world and has a nostalgic element to it that just can't be beat when it comes to sports stuff (see Ottawa Senators)."

It's impossible to argue that it makes sense to kill a dream -- The Return of Jets -- in order to flog a few jerseys. It's impossible to believe that a new name for a struggling, pretty-much unknown team, will ever garner as much world attention as will these six words: "The Jets are back in Winnipeg."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 A19

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