For the past decade, win or lose, the Winnipeg Jets have been the hottest ticket in town. From 13,000 season seats being gobbled up in 17 minutes, a huge wait list that could have filled a second rink or the inflated prices on the secondary market, the NHL practically sold itself in this hockey-mad market.
But times have certainly changed. And a packed house at the downtown barn is no longer an empty-net tap-in.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has assembled a roster that, for my money, is the deepest and most talented we've seen. The blue line has been bolstered by two big off-season trades, the skilled forward core is still intact and the starting goaltender remains among the best in the world. The Jets would appear to have all the pieces in place to hang with heavyweights such as Colorado, Vegas, Tampa Bay and Toronto and challenge for a Stanley Cup championship.
There should be plenty of excitement in the air these days, especially with the 2021-22 campaign unofficially beginning this week with pro minicamp at Bell MTS Iceplex, training camp next week and the first pre-season tilt on home ice just 10 days away. And yet, it would appear the crowd has gone mild, rather than wild.
Just because you build a contender doesn't mean the fans will automatically come. That has become crystal clear in recent weeks, with the organization pushing things such as mini-packs and ample single-game availabilities the likes of which we've never seen in the Jets 2.0 era.
So what gives?
Before anyone goes and pushes the panic button, it should be noted this is hardly just a Jets problem, or even a Winnipeg thing. The Grey Cup champion Blue Bombers have only sold out one of their first four home games at IG Field, thanks to an influx of visitors from Saskatchewan for the Banjo Bowl last weekend. After coming up nearly 3,000 short of capacity for their long-awaited season opener, the stadium was nearly one-third empty for visits last month from Toronto and Calgary.
The hottest team in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays, only drew 12,119 on Monday night for a pivotal game against the Tampa Bay Rays, well short of the reduced 15,000 capacity. That's their smallest crowd since getting cleared to resume playing in Canada, despite the fact they began the night having won 14 of their past 16 to move into a playoff spot.
As strange as it may be, empty seats at the newly-renamed Canada Life Place are likely going to become a common scene for the foreseeable future, the way sanitizing our hands and wearing masks in public are now an accepted practice. Such is the reality of life in a global pandemic, which has no doubt impacted the sports world in a variety of ways.
There's no question a disconnect exists between the team and its supporters. Some of that is beyond their control, for sure. Excluding the 500 front-line health-care workers who got to watch a handful of playoff games last spring, the Jets have played in completely empty buildings since March 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago.
There have been no community events, no meet-and-greets or autograph sessions with players. Even this week's pro minicamp involving 21 prospects and young players, and next week's start of training camp, will occur in relative obscurity. Due to current NHL protocols, fans will not be allowed inside any of the rinks at Bell MTS Iceplex to watch in person, as they always have in the past. There will be no fan-fest, either. Anyone who wishes to catch an in-person glimpse will be forced to do so from the lobby, but space will obviously be limited.
But some of that gulf is self-inflicted, as well. There's a real sense the organization took its fans for granted for the longest time. Co-owner Mark Chipman has been mostly silent, save for having to walk-back their original tone-deaf position that part-time workers wouldn't be paid for lost shifts when COVID-19 abruptly ended the 2019-20 regular-season. His off-the-cuff "they work when we work" comment certainly didn't help matters, and he has turned down multiple media requests including ones from the Free Press.
Sometimes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it can also mean people find other things to do with their time, and their disposable income. Which brings us to another issue. Many folks, especially small and medium-business owners which are key cogs in a pro sports operation, have been hit hard. As much as it may pain them, supporting a hockey club has moved well down the priority list.
There's also the fact we're hardly out of the woods yet, despite impressive vaccination rates in Manitoba and the requirement that all sports spectators have all their shots. Some are clearly still leery of being in big crowds, especially with breakthrough cases and the more-potent delta variant still very much in play. Watching on television from the comfort and safety of home may seem like the better option right now.
Add it all up and the folks in sales and marketing at True North are going to have to be on their game this year. They're certainly trying, including the long-awaited addition of on-ice projection to give a souped-up experience at the rink, and several announcements that struck all the right notes including a statue honouring Dale Hawerchuk and bringing in the sweet heritage sweaters as the alternate jersey. No doubt they're hoping Paul Maurice's crew helps their cause as well, as a strong start to the new season might get some folks off the fence and back into the rink.
The first litmus test will happen on Sept. 26, when the Jets welcome the Ottawa Senators to town for the first of three dress rehearsals on home ice. You'd think the first game open to fans in 18 months — even one that doesn't count in the standings — would be an easy sell, but plenty of good seats remain available. A quick Ticketmaster search on Wednesday afternoon revealed at least 2,000, and that doesn't even include those on the resale market.
Single-game tickets for regular-season games go on sale to the general public on Thursday.
Unlike Jets 1.0, there shouldn't be any concern about the moving trucks showing up here in Winnipeg any time soon. With the richest man in Canada, David Thomson, as a co-owner, the organization is well-positioned to weather the current storm, while also being in the same boat as most other pro sports outfits across North America.
But as life slowly starts to return to some semblance of normal, it remains to be seen whether a club that appears to have a very bright future on the ice can quickly return to its sunny ways off it.
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.