The NHL players might be locked out and the Winnipeg Jets in a holding pattern, so perhaps there’s no better time to fill the labour strife-induced void with a behind-the-scenes look at the magical 2011-2012 season of the Jets historic return.
The following is an excerpt from The First Season, which details the second coming of the NHL and the massive undertaking by True North Sports and Entertainment brass, from co-owner Mark Chipman on down, of relocating the Atlanta Thrashers to the Canadian prairies, designing a new logo, hiring front office personnel and icing a team within a span of just 131 days.
Just how close did the team become to being named the Polar Bears? What famous rock star might have announced the NHL’s return? And what the heck is Winnipeg Jets toast?
They sat among a throng of 50,000 U2 fans sharing a bombshell secret that would have made Bono and the boys an afterthought.
The brain trust of True North Entertainment — owner Mark Chipman, president Jim Ludlow and senior vice-president of sales and marketing Norva Riddell — were sitting abreast with their significant others at Canad Inns Stadium on an unseasonably cool evening for May 29.
Looking around the screaming, joyous crowd, the trio knew one truth: A Beautiful Day awaited. And not just on U2’s set list that night, either.
"You’re thinking: ‘I’ve got something exciting to tell you,’" Riddell recalled.
It was a Sunday, and Chipman and Co. held the knowledge that as early as the next morning, the long-awaited deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers and the NHL back to Winnipeg would be finalized, unleashing a spontaneous celebration what would make even a sold-out U2 concert seem like a garage-band practice.
In fact, here’s a juicy it-almost-happened nugget: Mark Chipman toyed with the idea of having Bono himself announce the Jets’ return during the May 29 concert.
Talk about finding what you’re looking for, right?
"We kicked that around, that we might announce (the Jets return) at the U2 concert," Chipman told the Free Press. "Wouldn’t that be cool? It was not lost on us at all. I had some unique emotions that night."
One of those emotions, undoubtedly, was also trepidation. After all, it was late May, and Chipman and the inner-circle of True North hierarchy had been secretively planning for the arrival of an NHL franchise in earnest for more than a year — yet they only had about four months to execute the herculean task of acquiring a team, selling millions in tickets and sponsorships, raising even more millions in revenue, naming the team, creating the logo and making the MTS Centre NHL-ready.
To be precise, they had 131 days.
So they sat there, drinking in an atmosphere, keeping their little secret to themselves.
Bono had no idea what was coming after the encore that night.
By now, the announcement of the Jets return on May 31 is both ingrained in the consciousness of jubilant hockey fans and, conversely, understandably blurry.
Chipman, for one, hardly remembers anything from the moment the Thrashers purchase agreement was completed in the wee hours of that Tuesday morning, and NHL brass, including commissioner Gary Bettman — who had not set foot in the city since the Jets’ sombre departure 16 years before — were en route to Winnipeg.
But while that press conference might have been finalized at the last minute, little did Winnipeggers realize how much effort True North officials had invested behind the scenes — up until late into the evening of May 30 — to ensure that the return of the NHL’s seventh Canadian franchise went off without a glitch.
Remember, this was arguably one of the most watched press conference relating to the NHL and Canada since the tearful Wayne Gretzky was dealt to Bruce McNall’s Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988 — ironically, a seismic geographical shift that would a few years later become a factor in the demise of the Jets.
The hockey world would be paying attention, once again, to a small-market Canadian prairie city, and there was no room for error.
"We were working on the fact that all of this city, all of the province would watch... and a lot of people across North America," noted True North director of communications Scott Brown.
"This was a monumental event, and it was a team coming back to a market no one thought it would come back to. I said out loud, ‘This is going to be the first impression of True North Entertainment.’ We were going to be judged on that first impression."
Crucial to the announcement was the presentation of True North president Jim Ludlow, who unveiled the team’s Drive For 13,000 season ticket initiative, which involved asking both fans and sponsors for multi-year commitments — a first for an NHL team.
Again, however, what appeared to be a fast-track sale and relocation of the Thrashers — which is true — was also showcasing the True North organization that had been preparing to adopt an NHL team for at least 12 months.
In late May of 2010, in fact, True North had made preparations to hold a press conference announcing the acquisition of the Phoenix Coyotes, only to be scuttled by another cash infusion by Glendale councillors into the money-losing franchise.
True North management had spent the subsequent year constantly tweaking their presentation, price points and refining their website design.
"We couldn’t have been more ready," Ludlow said, of May 31. "In fact, if we had carried it (a delay in acquiring the Thrashers) on any further into the year, we might have lost our edge."
Ludlow practised his presentation over and over, well into the night of May 30. The production was even filmed by a camera crew that had been required to sign non-disclosure documents.
"I’ll never forget," Ludlow recalled. "We were going all night long."
There was only one problem: The agreement to purchase the Thrashers had yet to be finalized. Even as late as 4 a.m., there were still documents that needed signatures from the banks. Chipman and Ludlow agonized over whether to announce a major press conference at 11 a.m. or, if the deal hit a snag, simply update the status of negotiations.
About 6 a.m., Ludlow told Chipman, "Go with it. We’ll get those signatures."
So they went with it, at about 9:30 a.m.
True North had just bought themselves a hockey team. All they had to do now was sell the thing to Winnipeggers.
Of course, everyone knows how that story ended: The newly minted Jets sold out their ticket inventory in less time than it would take to serve a minor penalty, with three-to-five year commitments. In addition, 54 of 55 suites were purchased before they were even renovated.
For the first time, True North officials let out a collective sigh of relief.
"That was such a humongous project," Riddell said. "That it worked and the community sent such a strong message... because there’s always this little thing in the pit of your stomach that says, ‘Please!’"
"We couldn’t afford to fail," Ludlow added. "It was the most critical element to say to the NHL and the other 29 teams, that Winnipeg is a market and a force to be reckoned with."
Again, what might have seemed like an overnight success was the result of months of calculated strategizing behind closed doors. True North had spent months studying the ticket and sponsorship pricing in similar-sized Canadian-based markets such as Edmonton and Ottawa. Further, from the moment Ludlow stepped to the stage at the May 31 announcement, and spent the next several minutes unveiling the season-ticket outline on national television, the Drive for 13,000 rollout had begun.
Within minutes, Moose season ticket holders were notified by email of their options. The website was up and running, providing walk-through information on ticket purchasing to the general public.
"Those time sales were scripted to the minute," Ludlow noted. "It was bang, bang, bang."
At its headquarters in New York, the NHL heard: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
On June 21, 2011, the NHL board of governors unanimously approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment.
* * *
The birth of a franchise logo can be at least as critical as the name itself.
In the beginning, True North had neither.
The seeds of what would become the logo of the Winnipeg Jets — a fighter jet layered over a red Maple Leaf, centred inside a RCAF trademark roundel, with Polar Midnight blue as the predominant colour and Air Force wings as shoulder patches — first began in January 2010, when Mark Chipman approached longtime True North employee Dorian Morphy with a top secret mission: We need to start designing an NHL logo.
Morphy, True North senior director of marketing and brand management, was understandably giddy, not just at the prospect of the NHL’s return to his hometown, but being on the ground floor of a brand manager’s dream: developing a logo for a major professional sports team from scratch.
"I had to pinch myself," Morphy said. "To be able to be involved in creating a logo that could last 50 years, it’s a true honour."
Morphy started with the basics, first identifying the most popular colour schemes of professional teams (red and blue, 80 per cent), dissecting the number of teams that incorporated the city name into their logo, how many nicknames included animals. The options were endless.
How many names and logos involved industry (Edmonton Oilers, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Steelers), how many were geographical in nature (Colorado Avalanche, Miami Heat), how many were cultural (St. Louis Blues, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys), how many were nationalistic (Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, New England Patriots)?
Even after homing in on the Jets concept, it was agreed that the logo would be a complete departure from the original Jets design or it’s later incarnations. For True North, bent on establishing their own identity, it was a compromise to themselves: Keep the name but create an entirely distinct brand.
"We were fully aware what the Jets meant to the community," Morphy explained. "But we wanted to be thorough. Jets 2.0 is what we called it."
So despite the fact that Morphy had a one-year head start, at the time of the announced return of the NHL, True North was still wrestling over both the name and logo design. Enter Reebok, the globe athletic apparel company that is the NHL’s official outfitter. So crunched was True North for time — the NHL usually requires 18 months to develop a jersey and logo scheme — that Reebok’s entire NHL design team was thrown onto the project.
Said Chipman: "Every square inch (of Reebok’s New York studio) was covered in some sort of air force imagery."
Indeed, the ultimate design didn’t evolve so much from concrete designs as images and ideas. True North had long been associated with Winnipeg’s 17 Wing during the life span of the Manitoba Moose. There were annual Military Nights. On several occasions, the Moose wore specially designed uniforms, such as traditional camouflage and arctic black and white camo.
In 2008, the Moose military tribute jerseys were based on the 1948 RCAF Flyers uniforms, which were baby blue with a bright red roundel as a logo. That was the bestseller of all tribute Moose jerseys.
That RCAF design eventually emerged as the genesis for the existing Jets logo. But it wasn’t easy. The Reebok team pitched six versions of a new logo, but nothing stuck.
"It was like shooting in the dark," Chipman noted. "It didn’t connect."
But once the designers at Reebok, under the guidance of Morphy and Co. at True North, married the RCAF concept with silhouettes of CF-18 and F-35 fighter jets, a new logo was born.
There were some trademark issues. First, the Toronto Maple Leafs had to sign off on use of the red Maple Leaf, for obvious reasons. Next, True North had to secure approval from the Department of Defence for use of the RCAF’s patented roundel symbol.
"Once we got permission from the DND," Chipman noted, "we were off to the races."
True North president CEO Jim Ludlow described the fusion of the old and new as "a flash of brilliance. That’s absolutely historic. That drew instant pedigree to our logo."
The final leg of the process took three weeks, before three sets of home and away jerseys were sent to the True North offices, where they remained locked in Morphy’s desk drawer.
"Very few people even saw them," he said.
The same level of stealth, however, didn’t secure the premature leak of the logo design.
Chipman was originally set to unveil the logo at a press conference on July 25. But in the late afternoon of Friday, July 22, photos of what appeared to be the Jets new logo on T-shirts began to surface on the Internet.
Turns out, when the boxes of original merchandise, T-shirts and hats, not jerseys, were shipped to the Jets offices, staff noticed that the boxes had been opened. Said Morphy: "We were, like, ‘Oh-oh.’"
Morphy speculated that the delivery truck driver had taken the photos, which were being tweeted with abandon. "My text was going off like a Christmas tree."
The logo was out of the bag. Within an hour, True North scrambled together perhaps the first-ever press conference held at 5 p.m. on a Friday in July at the MTS IcePlex.
"That," Chipman remembered, "was the antithesis of May 31 in terms of preparation. We did it very quickly... and it probably came off that way."
Regardless, the Winnipeg Jets had a name and an image. And so Jets 2.0 was born.
* * *
Perhaps Winnipeg Jets president and CEO Jim Ludlow summed up Year One the best.
"The whole damn thing," he said, "was a blur."
Celebrations in the streets. The rapture of opening night. Teemu’s homecoming. That February night in Minnesota, when 4,000 Jets fans flooded into the Xcel Energy Center, leaving members of the team gawking into the crowd, as the Jets won 4-3 in a shootout, with Evander Kane scoring the winner.
Or that game in Calgary, when it appeared half the crowd was decked out in Jets jerseys, screaming for the visitors.
Not to mention the herculean task of fielding not one, but two, professional hockey teams half a continent apart in the unprecedented span of 131 days. After all, not only did True North have to transition the Atlanta Thrashers franchise from Georgia, the organization simultaneously had to relocate the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose from Winnipeg to St. John’s, where the club was renamed the IceCaps.
Memories? For Brown, the True North communications director, it was a trip to New York in September, prior to the season, for a media day with Jets captain Andrew Ladd. Sports Illustrated and ESPN were there. So was Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, casually asking the boys from Winnipeg about the mood back home.
"This was a whole new world," Brown recalled. "I remember thinking, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’"
For Chipman, it was the NHL’s Face Off celebration, held in Winnipeg during the few days before opening night against the Canadiens on Oct. 9, when the co-owner waded through the crowd of 30,000 gathered at The Forks for an outdoor concert, headlined by Randy Bachman and Fred Turner.
"If you want to talk about bombarding your senses... I thought the city looked so great," Chipman said. "It felt so good. That was a very proud moment."
For Ludlow, it was the phenomenon of fans shouting out "True North!" in unison, for games home and away, during the playing of O Canada.
"That sends shivers down your spine," Ludlow said. "That’s pride in community, pride in your city, pride in your sport. And then to see them do that whether you’re in Florida or New York, that’s pretty special."
In fact, it’s hard to believe, sometimes, that for all the history that unfolded after May 31, 2011, the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 are still just in their infancy. If they were a baby, they’d just be beginning to take their first steps.
"At times it seems like yesterday," Brown noted, when reflecting on the season, "at times it seems like the longest year of my life."
After all, regardless of what transpired on the ice at the MTS Centre, what occurred behind the scenes during the 131 days leading up to the inaugural Jets season and beyond was not just without precedent in modern-day, major-league professional sports, it arguably couldn’t have been accomplished without the infrastructure and foresight born from the True North’s Manitoba Moose organization.
Consider the logistical and structural challenges: Everything from installing a new ice plant to expanding the press box, renovating and rescaling corporate suites to scraping the Moose logos off soap dispensers in the washrooms, choreographing and executing the Drive for 13,000, selling out within minutes, then negotiating major sponsorship deals from arena naming and broadcast rights to rink board advertising.
Little wonder it was a damn blur.
"I would describe it as intense," Chipman reasoned. "But it wasn’t out of control by any stretch. It was demanding but measured, for the most part."
Remember, on May 31, the True North organization had 125 employees, more, in fact, that the Atlanta Thrashers.
"And a small group of them had a year to write a playbook," Chipman noted. "And it wasn’t like we were venturing off into a new business. It was the same business with larger numbers attached to it."
Still, with more than 300 items on the to-do list for the arena alone, there were some unusual days, to say the least.
Chipman jokes about sharing an office with head coach Claude Noel that summer, as renovations continued all around them. One man was trying to start up a brand new NHL franchise. Another was trying to put together the hockey team.
Some days the phones worked, some days they didn’t.
"We were like gypsies," Chipman said with a chuckle. "It was not uncommon to look over at each other and see our heads in our hands. I have fond memories of that."
These days, however, the impact of the Jets’ return never escapes the attention of the man who made it happen. It’s those Jets air fresheners he sees at the local gas station. Or the kid in the Jets T-shirt. The stacks of family photos in his desk drawer.
"What I never imagined was the breadth and depth of how this has affected our community," Chipman said. "Not only do you have to be a good hockey team, you don’t want to let people down."
Perhaps that’s why Chipman echoes the overriding sentiment at True North, from ownership to management to players, that, well, the time for sentiment is over. Hey, it was nice while it lasted, but...
"What I’m most proud of now is I feel we belong in this league," Chipman concluded. "When our folks go to their respective (NHL) meetings I know they’re not out of place. We’re into a sense of normalcy. We’re just now coming out of the aftermath. We’re not running on pure adrenaline and instinct."
Time to make new memories. Time to turn another page.
"I think the story starts now," Chipman concluded. "I’m really excited about the next chapter."
The First Season will be available at the Free Press office at 1355 Mountain Ave., online at winnipegfreepress.com, the Jets Team Gear stores in St. Vital Centre and the MTS Centre on Portage Avenue downtown, the MTS Iceplex on Portage Avenue near Assiniboia Downs and McNally Robinson at the Grant Park Shopping Centre. The book sells for $19.99 and a dollar from every book sold goes to the Winnipeg Jets True North Foundation.