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This article was published 15/4/2016 (1857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With the conclusion of their 2015-16 regular season last weekend, the Winnipeg Jets reached the five-year mark since the historic 2011 NHL relocation.
Friday in his downtown office, Jets co-owner Mark Chipman, the executive chairman of the board of True North Sports & Entertainment, sat down with Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell for a conversation about the time that has passed and the direction the franchise is headed.
Free Press: Do you agree there’s been a honeymoon period with your team and is it over?
Mark Chipman: I suspect there is. I don’t know how long it lasts. We don’t focus on that. We’re trying to do the right things in all respects. We don’t always get it right, clearly. But we’re trying. That’s all we can do. How people perceive what we’re doing or accept what we’re doing, that’s for those folks to decide. So we don’t focus on the outcome. We focus on inputs, on what it is we can do. We’re trying to create something — that’s very much part of our purpose — the people are proud of. Our organization, how we play and how we conduct ourselves, is a source of pride. Not just for us, but to our community. We’re very, very mindful of the importance people place on being a member of the NHL in our community. So we try and do the right things. The outcome, I can’t control. How people judge us editorially, I can’t control. All we control is what we’re trying to do and how we’re doing it."
FP: The third year of your rolling season-ticket renewals gave you another high percentage, we understand. Can you update us?
MC: We’re very encouraged by it. It’s the third year in a row we’ve renewed at that level, 95 per cent or higher. This was the first year our five-year contracts came up and it represents a big chunk of the overall season-ticket base. I would say we’re really encouraged by the results again this year.
FP: Is this one more meaningful than the other years because these are your highest-priced tickets?
MC: No, I don’t think so. There is more revenue associated with it but it’s more what it represents that’s encouraging. It’s a cross-section of our fans now, from the 300 level down through the 100 level that have all renewed at the same rate.
FP: This season there appeared to be more tickets available on a game-to-game basis and we’ve seen you even advertise those tickets. What does that mean?
MC: Those are single-game tickets that we hold back that I suppose we could sell on a season-ticket basis if we wanted to. But we’ve chosen to keep tickets available on a game-to-game basis. There aren’t a lot of them, a few hundred typically. And blended in that are the game holds we hold for visiting teams. We’re required to hold those and you can’t release them until the day of game, until you know what the visiting team will require, and that can be a meaningful quantity on a given day. A lot of those tickets are often singles, which are tricky to sell. We’ve talked about the idea of just offering those on a season-ticket basis but I don’t think there’s any desire for us to do that. I think it’s still important for us to offer tickets on a walk-up basis. The team struggled this year and there were a large cluster of games in certain months. Some were weekday games against opponents that aren’t that attractive and that can happen. But it’s not the least bit concerning because we could sell those tickets on a season-ticket basis but we choose not to.
FP: The suggestion is out there that available tickets indicates declining business or interest in your team.
MC: That’s hard to respond to. I think that’s inaccurate. Ninety-five per cent of our season-ticket customers renewed three years in a row. We have a very small number of single-game tickets we sell. Some are single seats. It’s not an indication there’s a declining interest in our team. And I would point to broadcast numbers, which have spiked, we’re told. They’re up significantly this year.
FP: Your cap payroll was at or near the bottom of the NHL this season and the suggestion is your team went cheap this season, that you wouldn’t spend the money on players. Comment?
MC: I don’t know where that suggestion has come from but the fact of the matter is most of our players are on multi-year contracts, so most of the payroll was established going into last year. There were a few spots open and I guess we could have chosen to fill those spots with more veteran players and sent Nik (Nikolaj Ehlers) back to Halifax and not played Andrew Copp, but even if we’d have done that, the type of players who would have perhaps signed to fill those roles wouldn’t have cost much more money than those entry-level contracts. Use Lee Stempniak as an example. Lee’s a fine hockey player and probably would have been an asset to us this year, but his contract didn’t really exceed the value of those two young players we played. What I’m trying to say is that we’re at a certain part in the cycle of our team that wouldn’t have been possible to change even if we wanted to in a dramatic way. And we thought it better our young players have a chance to play and develop. Now that’s going to change, as everyone knows, with the number of RFAs we have maturing this summer. It’ll be a materially different payroll going into next year. Exactly where it will land I’m not sure, but I suspect it won’t be anywhere near the bottom.
FP: The direction of the team is clearly young and we’ve heard your GM and coach talk in recent days that the team could get even younger in the short term. Do you endorse this hockey direction that caused you some pain this season?
MC: Very much so. Everyone’s getting a year older but there may be more younger players. It looks to me like there will be some strong competition to make our team within our existing group. That’s made up of a lot of young players. Whether or not we augment that this summer with some form of free agency remains to be seen. I think what you’re seeing now and what I’m very pleased with is the ascension of a lot of these young players we’ve drafted over the last five years. And now it’s a matter of carefully deciding which ones are ready and when. That’s the path we’ve been on for five years and I don’t see us deviating from it. What exact shape or form that will take (next season) I don’t know. One thing about our fans is that they’re a very informed group. There’s been a benefit to our fans in having the AHL here, so they see some of those young players in their development process and they would know that there are more bodies than there are spots. That’s the world you want to be in, ultimately, that we haven’t been in in previous years and now that’s starting to materialize.
FP: What’s your level of patience to have a consistently winning team? Your team has been inconsistent that way in the first five years.
MC: It’s very high. I don’t think anybody would like to see us succeed more than I would. I don’t know that anybody, except for our coaches and Chevy, feels the losses to the same extent. It’s not easy. It really isn’t. Having said that, I feel like I’ve been around this business and have developed an understanding of how it works. It’s been 20 years of either observation or working with or actually operating at this level. I can cite lots of examples, but I think our fans know what the examples are as well. There’s no shortcut. Lots of teams have tried and failed. I believe the path we’re on is the correct one. It’s difficult but I’m more than happy to be patient."
FP: How has the return of the Manitoba Moose to Winnipeg gone in its first year?
MC: It’s gone very well. It’s challenged by loading that team with a whole bunch of young players and early on, they struggled. But I attended a lot of those games and was able to see some players really advance. Towards the end of the season the team was playing well. From that perspective, it was difficult because we had run it so differently in the past. When we partnered with Vancouver, we would only take 10 prospects and we would load it up with our own guys and try to win the Calder Cup. This was a very different model so it was difficult to adjust to, but Kevin’s philosophy on it is the correct one. What was really gratifying was the fan support. Our ticket sales were terrific and the support was really, really good. It was nice that the 15 years of previous investment in that brand still had some value. I’ve talked to lots of people who really enjoyed going to the games and taking their families. Then from a hockey perspective, from a logistical perspective, Kevin and (Craig Heisinger) would be better speaking about this, but it was so much better on them and on our players, the wear-and-tear. Having our players here, we benefitted from that in so many ways.
FP: Do you deal with any dissatisfied fans? How?
MC: It comes to me directly. Some of it comes indirectly. Certainly there are some people who like to voice their view. I accept that. That’s part of what we do, part of my responsibility. Every now and again somebody will say something to me. It could be while I’m putting gas in my car. That’s fine. Honestly, the vast majority of what I hear is really positive stuff. I suppose that’s human nature, when you interact, most people want to be friendly. But I’m still overwhelmed by the amount of positive energy and support that comes our way, not just to me but our organization. Look, we’ve stumbled on things. We haven’t got it all right. But most people I talk to, I’m really encouraged by A), their understanding of what it is we’re trying to do and B) their support of it. You take the good with the bad and that’s the nature of the business.
FP: On the radio at 1290 this week, you were questioned about not getting on board with occasions like the "Helmet Pardy" and "Track Suit Night."
MC: I don’t apologize for those kinds of decisions. I say, with all due respect, this is the National Hockey League and this isn’t single-A baseball somewhere in the south. That’s my paradigm and it comes from the reverence I have for the league and the game growing up and watching it. It ought to operate at a certain level. Those kinds of things, I think, diminish the value of the brand of the NHL and our team. I suppose I’m a little stiff on that stuff but that’s who I am.