Bettman takes umbrage at scribe’s column


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CALGARY — Struck a bit of a nerve, did we?

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CALGARY — Struck a bit of a nerve, did we?

A week ago in this space, I weighed in on the touchy topic of Winnipeg Jets attendance, after a marquee matchup with the Montreal Canadiens in which nearly 1,600 seats went unsold.

The No. 1 reason, I opined, is that the ever-increasing price of taking in an NHL game has simply become too high for many fans, especially with the cost of living seemingly climbing on a daily basis. It was based on my own observations, combined with plenty of feedback I’d received from folks in the community.

To say that piece unleashed a flood of debate around here would be an understatement. My email inbox has been sounding like a Vegas slot machine, with no shortage of takes coming my way — plenty of them of the piping-hot variety.

Heck, even the league’s big boss, Gary Bettman, sounded off when he popped into town this past week and held court with the media.

“I read your recent article,” the NHL commissioner said in response to a question I tossed his way.


“What concerned me about it, and this isn’t intended to be critical about it, just observational, my reaction to it was you seemed to either be suggesting or inferring that you believe somehow Winnipeg can’t support the Jets, and I don’t buy that for a minute,” he continued.

First of all, thanks for supporting local news and being a faithful reader, Gary! We appreciate it.

Secondly, that actually does sound kind of critical.

Thirdly, and with all due respect, but you’ve twisted my words. Winnipeg can absolutely support the Jets. This is one of the best hockey markets in the world, one which currently has not only an NHL team, but also the AHL, WHL, MJHL, MMJHL, Junior B, high school and everything else from AAA right down to Timbits.

We eat, breathe and sleep the sport around here. Problem is, I’m just not sure how healthy the support for the Jets is going to be at the current price point. And the proof, I’d suggest, is in the pudding.

Winnipeg has had just one full house since the pandemic, and that was thanks to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their hardcore local supporters coming out for their annual visit last month. Last Saturday afternoon, with hometown boy Jonathan Toews and the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks in town, only 13,210 showed up in a rink that holds 15,325.

Overall, the Jets are 28th in the NHL with an average of 14,100 through six home dates, and 17th overall if you use capacity percentage as the metric. Yes, empty seats are an issue around the league. But given Bettman’s comments in 2011 that Winnipeg needs frequent sell-outs in order to be viable, the issue is magnified.

No, the sky isn’t falling. But storm clouds have gathered at the very least, and I believe they’re going to stick around for a while if something doesn’t change. The NHL’s salary cap is expected to take a major jump as early as next year, but owners may have no choice but to consider a market correction due to the current state-of-the-world.

Many of the replies to my piece last week agreed that price is a giant hurdle, especially with everything else in life going up, up, up. Tough decisions often have to be made.

But, to be fair, there were plenty of other issues raised as well. All of these speak to another point I raised, which is that True North would be wise to pick the brains of people who aren’t coming to games, rather than just current season ticket holders selected for their advisory council.

Here’s just a small sampling of some of the feedback.

1) Downtown crime/public safety concerns are keeping people away:

“I would not go to a Jets game downtown even if Mr. Chipman provided me with a free ticket and promised to pick me up in a limo.”

2) COVID continues to have an impact:

“After having visited family at St. Boniface, then Seven Oaks, and talking casually to patients and their families about the COVID outbreaks at St.B., HSC, Grace and several nursing homes, I feel that another elephant in the room may be the number of devoted fans no longer with us, currently having COVID, or still not wanting to mingle cheek to cheek, or face to non-masked face.”

3) The arena itself is an issue:

“A bigger building seating 18,000 plus would have meant more seats at way more affordable prices. Let’s face it whose going to shell out 300 dollars for a night to sit up in the nosebleed section needing binoculars to see the action at the other end of the rink. For sure not me, and I like the Jets.”

4) The game-day experience needs to be improved:

“It is not an enjoyable experience! From the moment I take my seat, I am yelled at by some radio personality to get loud and bombarded by music at an uncomfortably loud level. I am artificially put into a state of frenzy the whole 3 hours. I am physically and emotionally exhausted and usually come away with a big headache. No one wants to go see a movie, play, concert, etc. where it’s at max intensity for the entire show. Even the hardest rocking band throws in a ballad, now and then. Quiet and pacing are good!”

5) People like me are to blame:

“My feeling is that another contributing factor to the decline in attendance is the continual negative press the team has received from yourself and most of your colleagues in the media. Whine, complain and constantly bash the Jets organization and players.”

No, that last one wasn’t written by Bettman.

Ever the optimist, Bettman went on to predict Canada Life Centre “can be and will be full again” while also taking issue with my claim that cost is the major hang-up.

“I believe of the seven Canadian teams the Jets have either the second lowest or third lowest ticket price. So it’s not about pricing anybody out. The best seats seem to sell. I think we’re just going through a period of adjustment,” he said.

I hope he’s right. Contrary to what some may think, I want the Jets to thrive. I happen to enjoy my line of work, which involves covering the team on a daily basis, and I’d love to continue doing that for years to come. Preferably while working inside a packed, raucous building, which is a ton more fun.

As a born and raised Winnipegger, who started attending Jets 1.0 games with my father back in 1981 at the age of six, who played minor hockey for a decade, then later coached my own two kids for 11 years, I know how important they are to the community.

But to simply ignore what’s going on, to try and pretend there aren’t legitimate concerns, benefits no one.

The on-ice product looks to be in great shape, with the Jets flying high right now after a franchise-best 8-3-1 start. Hopefully there are brighter days ahead off the ice, too.

One thing became very apparent to me over this past week. Attendance may be down, but the passion for hockey in this market is as strong as ever.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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