Let’s take a quick trip in the time machine today, back to the spring of 2011 when people around these parts were positively giddy that the NHL was returning to town. Atlanta’s loss was Winnipeg’s gain, and the best league in the world would once again include a team in River City following a 15-year hiatus.
Naturally, talk quickly turned to what the newly adopted Thrashers were going to be called. There’s no question the overwhelming majority of fans wanted to see the Jets fly again. No matter that the actual history of the team had gone to the desert dogs in Phoenix. The heart wants what it wants, and absence had only made it grow fonder in this case.
And yet, the folks at True North weren’t exactly jumping on board the nostalgia train. Mark Chipman and company were leaning towards entirely new branding, a fresh start and a clean slate where they would begin to write their own hockey story. Polar Bears? Falcons? Blizzard? They were all under consideration.
"What Mark has said to me in the past is one of his concerns about the Jets’ name and identity is he really doesn’t own its history. Now, he hasn’t indicated that pushes him away in any material way, it’s just a point of fact," deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly told the Free Press at the time.
Sometimes, the most difficult decisions in life are actually the easiest ones. That was certainly the case here, as True North ultimately gave the people what they wanted — and avoided what would have been a massive, tone-deaf blunder.
Now, nearly a decade into the current version of Jets hockey, the very past that the organization was considering running away from has never been a bigger part of the present.
We saw that begin to surface at the start of the 2016-17 season, when the Jets took on the Edmonton Oilers at IG Field in their first Heritage Classic game. The main event was the NHL game, but in reality the biggest story was how the gap started to get bridged between Jets 1.0 and Jets. 2.0. That successful event, including the memorable alumni game, laid the foundation for more to come, including a second Heritage game last October in Regina between the Jets and Calgary Flames.
The latest example occurred Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place, where the current crop of players hit the ice wearing their stunning Heritage jerseys, a modern makeover bearing the old logo. Quick aside: can we please find a way to permanently shelve those baby-blue Aviator duds, which have definitely run their course by now, and make these beauties the official third sweater?
Prior to puck drop against the New York Rangers, Jets 1.0 legends Thomas Steen and Randy Carlyle watched their names and numbers go up into the rafters as members of the fourth class of the organization’s Hall of Fame. They join Ab McDonald and Lars-Erik Sjoberg (2019), Dale Hawerchuk (2018) and Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Bobby Hull (2017).
Plenty of alumni were on hand, and the sold-out crowd at Bell MTS Place included a mix of fans old enough to remember the good old days and those who could only rattle off the names of current players. The festivities will continue today with the team’s now-annual Hall of Fame luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel, where more than 500 people are expected to attend.
It was, just as Hawerchuk told me last week, a perfect example of how True North has recognized the importance of honouring Winnipeg’s rich hockey history and not trying to re-invent the wheel in the process. Even if, for at least a short period of time, they definitely considered doing just that.
"I find pretty much everything they do is pretty spot on. When I was there we were kind of a small-budget team. Sometimes we probably didn’t do things you think we maybe should have done. But you can’t say they don’t do that now," said Hawerchuk.
"Everything they do is pretty well thought out and they cover a lot of bases with it. I think for all us guys that played in the past there, that’s something we’re really proud of."
That was evident a couple hours prior to puck drop Tuesday, as Steen and Carlyle met the media a couple hours prior to their induction ceremony and traded a few stories, and a few playful jabs. Off to their left, out of the view of cameras, stood a beaming Chipman.
As expected, the whole evening hit all the right notes, quite literally in fact. Jets 1.0 anthem singer Jennifer Hanson was invited back to belt out O Canada, just as she did at the old Winnipeg Arena. There were plenty of great video tributes playing during breaks in play in which former teammates and colleagues spoke of Carlyle, Steen and the previous era. Even some of the in-game music was of the throwback variety.
About the only thing that was missing was the giant portrait of the Queen hanging in the north end of the arena. Maybe it’s time to break her out of storage again?
Both Steen and Carlyle spoke at length of the sense of belonging and community that Winnipeg gave them and how the long-standing relationships continue to this day.
"First time I came here, I certainly recognized the love for hockey. I’ve had that since I was really young, but I recognized that it was the same level here. So I felt really good right from the beginning. Obviously it’s just been growing on me over the years. And I spent my whole adult life here. Winnipeg means a lot, and the Jets," said Steen.
Fortunately, True North eventually recognized just how strong the bond to the Jets was in this community and have now made it a priority to ensure hockey fans can continue to experience both eras despite a unique, fractured history.
And if it wasn’t crystal clear then, it certainly is now: A team by any other name just wouldn’t have been the same.
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.
Updated on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 at 11:13 PM CST: Adds photo