Fans the real winners when the Jets and Ice work together
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 winnipegfreepress.com
- 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.
The Winnipeg Ice are in the midst of an intriguing battle, taking on the Seattle Thunderbirds on a big junior hockey stage. The stakes are high, with the winner of the best-of-seven series heading to the Memorial Cup.
Peek behind the curtain and I suspect the action involving the local WHL squad is every bit as compelling — and likely even more significant.
The fact Game 1 and 2 were played at Canada Life Centre last weekend, and not the usual “Ice Cave” at Wayne Fleming Arena, is a real eyebrow-raiser. One that could have lasting ramifications around these parts.
For starters, it meant that more than 11,000 local fans, instead of fewer than 4,000, watched a pair of highly-entertaining games between a pair of powerhouse clubs. More eyes on the product, especially one as solid as this, is never a bad thing.
The bigger takeaway is that True North, the owner of the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose, was open to doing business with 50 Below, the owner of the Ice. That’s no small thing, considering the two entities are fierce competitors, the way Coke and Pepsi are in the soft-drink industry.
Exhibit A: The Moose averaged 4,722 fans in the 2018-19 season, when the Ice were playing their final season in British Columbia. This year? Just 3,848 over their 36 home dates. Considering the Ice offer a similar price point and also cater towards families, it’s easy to conclude adding another 34 junior hockey games around here (which drew an average of 1,649 this year) has made an impact. Throw in 41 Jets contests at the downtown rink, which averaged just over 14,000 this year (a sharp decline), and you can see how saturated this market has become.
The bigger takeaway is that True North, the owner of the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose, was open to doing business with 50 Below, the owner of the Ice.
That has led to plenty of speculation that this town simply isn’t big enough for the three of them, with the Ice being the likely casualty. No ground has been broken on a standalone facility, and rumours have heated up in recent months that the franchise could once again be on the move, perhaps as early as this summer.
That would be a shame. Junior hockey can be thrilling, as I was reminded while taking in the Ice vs Thunderbirds tilts last Friday and Saturday evening. It’s fast-paced fun, with plenty of momentum swings and chaos that keeps you invested. You also appreciate these young athletes giving it their all, and you won’t find any multi-millionaires mailing it in and going through the motions.
There’s a terrific mix of already drafted prospects such as Brad Lambert and Carson Lambos (plus a whopping 15 others in this series), and prized young players on the cusp of landing an NHL home such as the dynamic Zach Benson, who might just be worth the price of admission alone.
I suspect all who were in attendance — and that includes True North chairman Mark Chipman, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and plenty of other personnel from the big-league organization — came away impressed by what they witnessed.
Which leads me to a rather obvious question: Could there be more of that in the future? I’m not just talking about potential Games 6 and 7, which would also be held at the big barn this Sunday and Monday, if necessary.
I have it on good authority there had been preliminary, exploratory talks in the past between True North and 50 Below which didn’t get very far. The fact they’ve now formed a playoff partnership would seem to be an encouraging sign, especially with the future of the Ice very much in limbo. You’d never see one of the soda giants lending shelf space to the other, but that’s essentially what we have here.
Any doubt about whether junior hockey can draw should have been answered last weekend. I suspect Chipman and company took note of the fact the crowds of 5,531 and 5,691 exceeded what the Moose had just racked up a week earlier for their two playoff games (3,673 and 4,791).
Sure, it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. A WHL championship series versus a first-round AHL series. Considering the Ice couldn’t have sold more than about 1,900 tickets (the approximate maximum at Wayne Fleming including standing room) for each game prior to the fairly last-minute move to the big-league facility, that’s a very healthy walk-up for a beautiful May weekend.
Neither side will disclose the particulars of this current arrangement, but I suspect it was beneficial to all. For True North, additional (and unexpected) revenue from two nights where the building would have otherwise been empty after the prime tenants, the Jets and Moose, were quickly ushered out of their respective playoffs. For 50 Below, a chance to spread the wings a bit, nearly tripling the audience size had they stayed put while giving the product a much more professional look and feel.
Considering the Ice couldn’t have sold more than about 1,900 tickets (the approximate maximum at Wayne Fleming including standing room) for each game prior to the fairly last-minute move to the big-league facility, that’s a very healthy walk-up for a beautiful May weekend.
I recently wrote in this space a market correction was likely just around the corner, with the junior club likely being on the thinnest ice. Despite recent attendance issues and an aggressive season ticket campaign now underway, the Jets are still on solid ground thanks to stable ownership. Having the Moose under the same roof is good for business. They don’t need to be a huge box office draw, but rather a complementary part of the organization where development of young players under similar systems is key. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
The fact True North has made ample investments in the community, including major real estate projects such as the re-development of Portage Place, proves they’re in it for the long haul and committed to the community.
Which brings us to the Ice. It may not have been the way it was originally drawn up, but getting everyone on the same page and working together is a positive development. We’ve now experienced what it might look, sound and feel like.
Maybe the three-headed hockey monster is ultimately too much for this market to handle. It would be a shame, however, to let that slip away without exhausting every potential avenue to salvage it. At the very least, it appears a door that was slammed shut not so long ago is now wide open for discussions. If that talk can lead to tangible action, then fans around here could be the real winners.
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.