Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's your move, Jets fans

Much depends on whether the faithful forgive or hold a grudge

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Mark Chipman now has the means to make his team matter on the global hockey scene. Whether it matters again in his hometown, however, remains to be seen.

Moving forward as a franchise, the Winnipeg Jets will benefit greatly from the new collective bargaining agreement, but this fiscal certainty and competitive equality comes at a price. How expensive is up to you.

Just last year there was nothing but love for the Jets as a moment in time unfolded steeped in nostalgia and hope. Man, it was glorious. However, one must now wonder if Camelot is already over. Over and forever gone.

Will there be a backlash of mistrust, disinterest and anger from Winnipeg's hockey fans?

A 15-year absence from the NHL followed by last year's happy resurrection led up to this winter's bloodless and soulless conflict over cash.

Will some in this community step back, simply mutter, "Enough," and forever park their emotional interest in professional hockey?

The Jets, the feel-good story of last season, are now poised with this CBA to leap forward from NHL member to contender. Will fans come along for the ride if the Jets prove capable of leading a charge? We'll soon see.

Chipman was involved in negotiations with the players back in early December as a group of owners took centre stage in New York City to try and broker a deal. A story recounted to me by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly underscores what improvements from the lockout could mean to Chipman's organization.

According to Daly, the Jets owner and Winnipeg native looked across the table at the players in the room and gave them his pitch.

"I'm looking to level the playing field so my team can compete. Any gains we get from this will be re-invested into our organization, whether it be in player compensation, building improvements or enhancement of the fan experience," said Chipman. "I just want the chance to compete for a championship."

It appears the Jets will now have that opportunity. They'll need to take advantage of the equalization effect of this agreement but at the very least they'll have a chance. Something which could not unequivocally be said under the old deal.

The Jets turned a profit last season under the previous split, which saw 57 per cent of HRR (hockey related revenue) turned over to the players.

Winnipeg spent in the bottom third of the league on player salaries and would have run a deficit had they spent to the cap.

With the split now reduced to 50-50, the Winnipeg franchise can dedicate more revenue to player salary and franchise improvements. They won't hit the cap this season but they'll almost certainly be at it or just below in the 2013-14 season.

Imagine. The Winnipeg Jets spending as much as the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs on player salaries. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff having the money to compete with counterparts Glen Sather and Brian Burke when a free agent hits the market. The Jets won't just be in the league. They'll potentially be players.

The Jets' organizational goal has been to entrench the team as a viable and profitable franchise. This change in league economics opens a path to making organizational stability a reality.

Being a profitable but constant loser won't work. Sooner or later the Jets need to reward their fans with playoff games or revenue will fade. It takes money, and spending that money, to break that cycle.

If Jets management was forced to spend far less than over half the clubs in the NHL, being a true contender was going to be difficult, if not impossible.

That impediment/excuse is now removed. Jets management has the means. Now it must show the will and the skill.

Salaries are not the only factor in winning, but the best players earn the most money. Winnipeg will now be able to pursue the game's elite and not avoid the fight because the stakes are too high.

The system has now been retracted with drags built in to slow the process of escalating team costs.

None of this matters if fans are no longer interested in the Jets and NHL hockey. I'd suggest no one, not even the fans, can be sure at this point of their own reaction.

Maybe you go back to the games and they're exciting and breathe life back into your passion.

Or maybe the action doesn't have that old zest and your zeal proves to be forever faded.

What a shame for the Jets if the NHL finally found a formula that works for Winnipeg but spent too much emotional currency for the achievement to be relevant.

The tickets have been sold. But will the seats be filled with disinterested zombies or crazed zealots?

Time will tell. The team you go to watch will still be the Winnipeg Jets. But whether they'll still be Winnipeg's Jets is yet to be seen.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

'A lot of the guys are in different situations. Some of them haven't played, some played a lot of games, some played a few. It's just a matter of getting the guys back together, getting on the same page and getting off to a good start and staying healthy and taking care of your body'

 

-- Jets defenceman Mark Stuart

'The fans here are great and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't come back and support our team. We hope they do because they are a big part of this city and this team and we love playing in front of them'

 

-- Jets centre Jim Slater

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2013 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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