Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg Jets -- as Canadian as the maple leaf

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That Maple Leaf on the Winnipeg Jets' new logo?

Not an accident.

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It's all part of True North Sports & Entertainment's efforts to position the Jets as Canada's adopted team.

"That's become an evolution of thinking," said TNSE president and CEO Jim Ludlow. "You don't start by thinking you're going to become Canada's other favourite team. You first start in a very humble way, expanding on what you have and what you know -- brand extension in your existing world.

"The passion and fever grew to a point where we started to realize the Canadiana involved in all of this; that there were people pulling for Canada in the event that options and alternatives arrived. That pull became pretty powerful. The response was, 'Winnipeg, good for you.' We kind of represented what everyone wanted to achieve.

"We're a smaller market, we're central Canada. We're the ultimate Canadians. We're like the little engine (that could)."

Naturally, the demand for Jets merchandise has been both strong and widespread.

"It's been beyond our expectations," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's executive vice-president of marketing. "It's rivalling (sales) that you would see during the holiday period or a playoff run in a hot market. They've grabbed everything that has the Jets logo on it."

Prior to the release of the Jets jerseys this week, the team's merchandise sales were ranked No. 2 in the league, behind only the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Prominently displayed Jets gear has been a nightly top-seller at the NHL's merchandise outlet in downtown New York.

Jennings acknowledged the Maple Leaf, along with the incorporation of the Royal Canadian Air Force jet, is distinctively Canadian, and "hockey is a very powerful unifying force in the country."

Glen Hodgson, senior vice-president and chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada, believes the Jets were wise to enhance the Canadiana of their brand, playing off the symbolic move from a large U.S. southern city to a small-market hockey hotbed in the game's heartland.

"I think a lot of people in smaller communities would take pride in that," Hodgson said.

"You can make a lot of money selling sweaters," Hodgson noted. "The Saskatchewan Roughriders make as much money selling their paraphernalia as tickets to their games."

Former Winnipegger Jeff Stevenson, one of the founders of winnipegwhiteout.com, who was in Winnipeg last weekend filming a documentary, Jet Fuel, said the national and international following of a team that, up until a few months ago never existed, is real.

"There's Jets fans all over the world. We know they're out there," Stevenson said. "Our website alone gets visits from people from 93 countries. Over half of our traffic is from outside of Winnipeg.

"Winnipeg has the chance to become a team for all the cities in Canada that don't have an NHL franchise."

And that's precisely the following Ludlow and Co. are attempting to nurture.

"Even though it's a Winnipeg team, I think the story... it's a general change (in the NHL landscape in general)," Ludlow said. "There hasn't been a relocation in hockey for 16 years. After all of the debate about a seventh team coming into Canada, that became a national story and I think it's captured the passion of Canadians coast to coast."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 A11

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