Opinion

At the risk of piling on and kicking them when they're down — and the Winnipeg Jets are certainly in the dumps these days — I dare say the most alarming thing to happen at the downtown rink Tuesday night wasn't the team's lethargic performance against the lowly Buffalo Sabres.

At the risk of piling on and kicking them when they're down — and the Winnipeg Jets are certainly in the dumps these days — I dare say the most alarming thing to happen at the downtown rink Tuesday night wasn't the team's lethargic performance against the lowly Buffalo Sabres.

That there were nearly 2,000 empty seats at puck drop, and thousands more before the final buzzer, should be the real takeaway. As was the fact many of those who didn't try to beat the traffic early booed the home team off the ice after a 4-2 loss. As the old saying goes, the customer is always right. And it's clear those who took in the action felt like they got ripped off.

For an organization struggling to sell tickets, that's a proverbial canary in the coal mine. And if it continues much longer, it may be what ultimately spurs an extremely loyal ownership group to do something drastic.

Buffalo Sabres' Jeff Skinner (53) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the third period Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

Buffalo Sabres' Jeff Skinner (53) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during the third period Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

Sure, the 13-10-5 Jets are only one point behind free-falling Edmonton (six straight losses) for the final Western Conference playoff spot, with 54 regular-season games still left to play. There's plenty of runway left. But this was a team that began the year with big expectations, expected to soar among the NHL heavyweights with a roster that didn't appear to have many holes. And yet, their play, especially of late, has been mostly mediocre.

It's been especially troubling at Canada Life Centre, where Tuesday's stinker was just the latest in a string of uninspiring performances. Winnipeg has won just two of the last six in their own barn, and the four most recent losses have been nothing to write home about. A 3-1 snoozer against Pittsburgh. A 1-0 insomnia-crusher against Arizona. A 4-2 sleepwalker against Carolina. And now the Buffalo boondoggle. Throw in a 2-0 loss to the struggling New York Islanders in early November, and it's little wonder the locals are getting restless.

One frustrated fan reached out to me Wednesday, noting the last three games she's bought tickets for were against the Islanders, Coyotes and Sabres, who happen to be three of the worst teams in the NHL. Winnipeg went 0-3-0, scoring a grand total of two goals. Woof. Forget fuelled by passion. More like filled with regrets.

There were nearly 2,000 empty seats at puck drop Tuesday, and thousands more before the final buzzer(JESSICA LEE/FREE PRESS FILES)

There were nearly 2,000 empty seats at puck drop Tuesday, and thousands more before the final buzzer(JESSICA LEE/FREE PRESS FILES)

On the bright side, no jerseys have been tossed from the stands. That appeared to be the final straw in Vancouver a couple weeks ago, one that triggered a major housecleaning. And hey, don't look now but the Canucks have won five straight games under new head coach Bruce Boudreau, who happens to be a guy I thought might get a long look from True North should they decide to move on from veteran bench boss Paul Maurice.

And therein lies the rub. For all those calling for a change, I'm not sure there's a can't-miss candidate waiting in the wings who would turn things around. But Maurice, who is the second longest-tenured coach in the league behind two-time champion Jon Cooper of Tampa Bay, seems to have few answers for what ails his club, repeating many of the same talking points this week about not playing fast enough or hard enough. That's a troubling sign, for sure.

We're also hearing a parade of expected explanations that border on excuses. Which, as the old saying goes, are for losers. Fatigued from too many trips outside the central time zone. Back-to-backs. Too much rest. Injuries and illnesses. No-name goaltenders turning into Hall-of-Famers. It's true the Jets have a tougher schedule than many teams, especially those out east. But none of this is new. It's been that way since the NHL returned in 2011, and will continue to be that way until the end of time. Deal with it.

No, I don't believe Maurice has lost the room, or that the players are tuning him out. Several were quick to jump to his defence over the past few days, pointing the finger of blame at themselves. But every coach has a shelf life, and every organization eventually reaches a point where a fresh voice is needed. There have been times in recent years where I wondered in this space if we were getting close to that point. The Jets, to their credit, always seemed to pull out of the tailspin. And maybe they will again. But what's happening at the box office, and in the stands, may ultimately trump what's occurring on the ice.

(FRED GREENSLADE/CANADIAN PRESS)</p>
Maurice, who is the second longest-tenured coach in the league behind two-time champion Jon Cooper of Tampa Bay, seems to have few answers for what ails his club, repeating many of the same talking points this week about not playing fast enough or hard enough.

(FRED GREENSLADE/CANADIAN PRESS)

Maurice, who is the second longest-tenured coach in the league behind two-time champion Jon Cooper of Tampa Bay, seems to have few answers for what ails his club, repeating many of the same talking points this week about not playing fast enough or hard enough.

The Jets have played 15 home games this year, and 10 of those have seen crowds of less than 14,000 in a facility that holds 15,321 and was perpetually sold-old during the first decade of the 2.0 era. That includes six of the last eight games, and two in a row.

There are many reasons for this, including several that have nothing to do with wins or losses or entertainment value. The continued scourge of COVID-19 including dangerous variants, vaccination requirements, mask mandates and financial hardships suffered by many citizens have all played a role. Nearly every sports team in North American has seen smaller crowds this season compared to pre-pandemic levels, and I'll repeat a point I made in a recent column and say owners must consider a market adjustment and lower prices significantly.

Performances like we saw Tuesday are also damaging, doing nothing to entice would-be spectators to get off their comfy couches at home and open their wallets, or prompt those who did fork out the cash to consider coming back for more. It's one thing to lose a hard-fought, exciting game. This is a tremendous hockey market, and most around here will appreciate the good effort and not hold it against anyone. But it's another to do it in ugly, uninspired fashion, which has happened far too often lately.

Money talks, and the Jets haven't exactly given their fans much bang for their hard-earned buck lately. That can't continue.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

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.