Scouting for a younger Jets fan Eleven years after Winnipeg won back an NHL team, True North facing off against inflation, lack of options and fear of crime

There was a time when a seat at a Winnipeg Jets game may have rivalled any night out at a pub or bar for some of the city’s younger fans.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.

There was a time when a seat at a Winnipeg Jets game may have rivalled any night out at a pub or bar for some of the city’s younger fans.

With the NHL’s return to Manitoba’s capital after 15 years away, even those too young to appreciate the 1.0 version of the club were eager to make the most of a night in downtown Winnipeg. That often meant cutting out of work as early as possible and racing to a restaurant for food, a few adult beverages and other pregame festivities.

It’s been 11 years since that time, however, and it’s becoming easier to see the novelty has worn off among that demographic.

Such is evident on a Thursday evening, mere hours before the Jets are set to host the Nashville Predators at Canada Life Centre — an inner-division clash between a pair of rivals that have been at the centre of some dramatic bouts in the last decade.


Eleven years after Winnipeg won back an NHL team, True North is facing off against inflation, lack of options and fear of crime.

The marquee matchup has historically garnered sell-out crowds, with the downtown area buzzing hours before puck drop.

That’s hardly the case this time around.

Sure, the incessant flurries that left sidewalks impassable over the previous 48 hours likely made the trek to the city’s epicentre less enticing. But is that an excuse in Winnipeg, where residents are battle-tested by yearly bouts with some of the worst winters in North America?

Despite the Jets sitting near the top of the Western Conference standings, the club has seen an 11.5 per cent decrease in attendance this year compared to the last “normal” season in 2019. Winnipeg’s 1,815 fewer seats is the fifth-worst decrease in the league and far and away the worst among all Canadian teams, as of Dec. 7.

It’s a growing concern when recalling NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s saying, “It isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night,” shortly after the Jets’ return was announced.

One large reason for the lack of fans is certainly the post-pandemic recession that skyrocketed the price of everyday living, making a night out on the town even less feasible for students and other younger fans trying to establish financial stability. However, another glaring concern has surfaced in recent years: the experience outside of Canada Life Centre isn’t enticing enough for young fans.

Winnipeg’s 1,815 fewer seats is the fifth-worst decrease in the league and far and away the worst among all Canadian teams, as of Dec. 7.

One 27-year-old fan, who gets his season tickets through work, said it’s consistently been a hassle to find food options over the past two seasons.

“If I didn’t get them through work, I wouldn’t be going to 10 games, like zero chance,” said the fan, who asked not to be identified. “The value you’re getting for what it’s costing is not there.

“The thing I have an issue with is, unless you’re coming three hours before, it’s really hard to find a (restaurant). At that point, I just kind of give up.”

He detailed one night where he and his girlfriend were turned away from three different restaurants that were already at capacity before finding a small restaurant about an hour before the game started.

“I kind of like what they’re doing with (True North Square), but again, the problem is I don’t think it’s big enough,” the fan said. “The pregame events last year … it kind of had a little bit of a tailgating vibe to it. That’s cool. But it’s the same problem, you walk up and it’s full already. It’s like, ‘What am I even doing down here?’ It’s easier to just grab a drink with a buddy at somebody’s house beforehand and then Uber to a Jets game.

“I get it, it’s the NHL, but I don’t know what the alternative is. I think there are lots of things they could do to entice more people to come, it just seems like they’re not even trying.”

It’s no secret the pandemic ravaged downtown Winnipeg. Businesses of all types, including restaurants, were shuttered as customers stayed home. The Sports Hospitality Entertainment District (SHED) provided a vision that included 11 blocks of residential and commercial development to revitalize the city’s core. The Free Press reached out to Stantec for an update on SHED going forward, but did not hear back.

Two restaurants that survived the pandemic are Browns Socialhouse and Shark Club, still pregame mainstays. By 5:30 p.m. on this game day, both spaces are at capacity, with lines starting to form outside Browns.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Justin Guest, manager at Brown’s Social House.

“It takes two per cent of the arena’s capacity to fill me,” said Justin Guest, general manager of Browns Socialhouse. “I will always be busy when there’s a Jets game because of that. You don’t see the same fans as often. You see the diehards, you see the season ticket holders but some season ticket holders aren’t here anymore. Things have changed since the pandemic. Ultimately, I think everyone is reflecting on how much we should be spending.

“Everyone kind of sees, ‘Well, I’ve heard ticket sales are down, it wasn’t a thing in the past,’” Guest continued. “The reality is, we’ve never had a post-pandemic like this with this team, so who does know?”

Jon Dueck, general manager of Shark Club, added he thinks the biggest thing that’s holding back the growth of downtown is the “security element.”

“Speaking with a lot of guests … a lot of people don’t come downtown because they don’t feel safe,” he said.

Dueck mentioned the safety issue just days following a fatal stabbing in the lobby of the Millennium Library that put much of the city on high alert once again about safety issues in the city’s core.

Of the concerns most commonly brought up, the cost of food, parking, and safety issues topped the list.

The Free Press polled 66 fans ahead of puck-drop against the Predators, asking them to rate their Jets’ gameday experience when considering safety, parking, food options, the cost of the entire night, and their time inside Canada Life Centre.

Aligning with the Jets’ primary demographic, 57 of those polled were 30 years of age or older. They expressed admiration for their experience, giving it an 8.65 out of 10 rating, on average, with several rating it a perfect score.

“There’s always somewhere to go, something to do,” said Barrett W., 34, who attends about 10 games a year. “You kind of have to plan ahead a little bit. Attendance seems to be really good at the arena, most of the seats are full, the crowd is pretty loud. It’s a pretty good experience all around. … Prices are reasonable, fans are reasonable.”

Of the concerns most commonly brought up, the cost of food, parking, and safety issues topped the list.

Ratings dropped among younger respondents. Those 29 years old and under gave their night downtown an average of 7.11 out of 10.


Winnipeg Jets' Adam Lowry (17) celebrates as Kyle Connor's (not shown) shot sneaks through the pads of Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) for the winning goal on Dec. 15.

“I love the games and I love going with the people and getting beers, but the gameday experience, I always felt is a little lacklustre in terms of what they were doing with their audience and engagement,” said one 20-year-old, who got his tickets from his father. “Watching the game is fun and the fans are fun. It’s more the ‘making a night of it’ — there is a night of it but I feel there could be a lot more.”

If there’s an organization in the NHL that can’t afford to not sell out, it’s the Jets, according to Philippe Cyrenne, professor of economics at the University of Winnipeg.

“I think part of the problem the Jets have is they’re competing with other teams that have larger markets,” Cyrenne said. “Fielding an NHL team is very expensive. In some sense, their ticket prices are constrained by their need to generate revenues, and explains why (True North) is trying to capture every dollar that’s available in the area. In other words, they want everybody to spend all their money in the arena.”

Even then, the Jets remain a middling franchise when it comes to the cost of attending a game. According to an American fan-cost index, Winnipeg is the 19th most expensive city in which to attend an NHL game, running a family US$418.39.

Among Canadian clubs, the cost of attending a game in Winnipeg ranks fifth, more expensive than in Calgary and Ottawa. Toronto and Montreal rank first and seventh most expensive, respectively, yet continue to see near-sellout numbers every game.

I don’t want to be pessimistic but the only option for people who don’t have the income is really to look at cheaper types of hockey.”–Philippe Cyrenne, University of Winnipeg economics professor

Cyrenne, who held Jets season tickets for three seasons, explained one of the challenges that separate Winnipeg from other cities is our comparatively lower average incomes.

“I also think part of what’s happened, in the city, is that you’ve seen other hockey teams develop, like the Moose and the Winnipeg Ice, which provide hockey at a lower price. I don’t want to be pessimistic but the only option for people who don’t have the income is really to look at cheaper types of hockey.”

The Edmonton Oilers are the third most expensive Canadian team on the fan-cost index (US$456.90), yet are one of the clubs with a minimal drop in attendance since the pandemic struck.

In 2008 after Daryl Katz purchased the Edmonton Oilers, the Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) started the idea for the Ice District, a 25-acre plot of land that would connect the arena to the rest of the downtown area.

The District, which sits directly east of Rogers Place arena in the heart of Edmonton’s downtown, is home to two hotels, three outdoor skating rinks and a large sports bar. It’s added a snow maze, ice slides, another sizeable food and beverage site with fire pits and a massive 2,000-stall underground parkade.

Tim Shipton, executive VP of corporate affairs for OEG, said the space is being programmed to house events year-round, using the rinks for ball hockey, youth basketball and soccer.

“Fast forward to the 2022 playoff run, where we made it to the conference finals — that was the first time we were able to fully activate the plaza,” he said. “It was all ages but definitely there was a youth-oriented element of people who wanted to come down and really it became the cool place to be for younger fans. It was Daryl Katz’ vision come to life.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES / JOHN WOODS Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) and Kyle Connor (81) celebrate Connor's game winning goal against Nashville Predators on Dec. 15.

The Jets have made some efforts to connect with its younger demographic and compromise on the inflated cost of living.

True North has dropped the three-year requirement for full season memberships, providing smaller game packages. The promotion that’s possibly had the biggest draw is a Tuesday-night special for upper bowl tickets. For $49, a fan gets a seat in the 300 section and a drink ticket.

Those tickets, for games from Nov. 29 to the Jan. 3 match against the Calgary Flames, sold out.

“When it comes to the makeup of who’s in our building, they do skew a little older,” said Christina Litz, chief brand and commercial officer for True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE).

Available to fans of all ages, Litz noted those cheap seats have garnered the most attention from younger fans.

“It’s exactly why in order to have a healthy and vibrant NHL team in a smaller market like Winnipeg, it does dictate, for example, the pricing of what a season membership looks like. However, we also recognize that it’s important for us to constantly be thinking about getting that next generation of fan into the game.

“When we were all back in the offices, it was quiet here but every staffer was here … with recognition that if we were inviting people to come back downtown, we need to put our money where our mouths are and be back engaging with the downtown core.”

Litz said TNSE will be launching an online fan forum and survey tool in the near future to gain feedback on how to improve the Jets gameday experience — a tool that could make a Jets game the place to be for a young fan once again.

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.


Updated on Friday, December 30, 2022 8:44 PM CST: Fixes typo.

Updated on Friday, December 30, 2022 10:31 PM CST: Adds related posts.

Report Error Submit a Tip