April 4, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Jets' home crowd has gone mild

Time for management to improve the game-day experience

Opinion

MINNEAPOLIS — It's a bit of a chicken and egg debate: are the Winnipeg Jets playing poorly at home this season because the atmosphere inside Bell MTS Place has taken a noticeable nosedive, or has the in-game experience suffered because the on-ice product hasn't given fans a whole lot to get excited about?

Both scenarios should be cause for concern within the organization.

Toronto Maple Leafs players celebrate a goal against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. Leafs fans in attendance had plenty to cheer for during the Leafs' 6-3 win at Bell MTS Place.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Toronto Maple Leafs players celebrate a goal against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. Leafs fans in attendance had plenty to cheer for during the Leafs' 6-3 win at Bell MTS Place.

The Jets have won just nine of 20 games in their own barn this season — a 10th "home" win came in Regina for the Heritage Classic — and they've lost five straight at home following Thursday's 6-3 setback to the Toronto Maple Leafs, getting outscored 27-13 in that span. The Jets are on pace for their second-worst season in their not-so-friendly confines since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011. The only other campaign in which they weren't above .500 was in 2015-16, when they went 18-19-4 and missed the playoffs by a mile.

Throw in the fact the Jets finished last season with six straight defeats downtown — three in the regular season and all three in their first-round playoff exit to the St. Louis Blues — and it's an even uglier recent stretch of hometown hockey. And a stark contrast from the not-so-distant past when the Jets routinely made life miserable for visitors, their boisterous boosters with the clever chants were the talk of the NHL and there was a good chance you could put two points in the bank nearly every time they dropped the puck around these parts.

All of which might explain why Bell MTS Place could be mistaken for the nearby Millennium Library many nights this year. The crowd has gone mild, and don't just take my word for it. It's a sentiment I've heard on numerous fronts, especially from people who haven't taken in a game in a while and are surprised by the lack of buzz in the building.

Here in Winnipeg, there's long been a belief that the game sells itself, that spectators are so knowledgeable about the sport that they don't need extra bells and whistles to add to their enjoyment. Just watching the best players in the world do their thing is enough.

There are exceptions of course. Thursday night, for example, might have been the loudest it's been all season, but that's almost entirely due to the fact there were several Leafs fans in attendance who had plenty to cheer for. From "Go Leafs Go," to "Freddie, Freddie" chants, I saw many Winnipeg fans up in arms over the hostile takeover.

But rather than begrudge the long-suffering local Leafs fans, I suggest it was great to finally have some life back.

The same could be said for last week, when Montreal Canadiens diehards "Ole Ole Ole'd" until they were hoarse as the bleu-blanc-rouge rolled to a 6-2 victory. Of course, it's not every night a beloved Original Six squad rolls into town, so far too often the silence has been deafening.

Montreal Canadiens' players celebrate a goal against the Jets during the first period of their game on December 23 in Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Montreal Canadiens' players celebrate a goal against the Jets during the first period of their game on December 23 in Winnipeg.

Rather than scold the fans, I'd suggest it's on the organization to take steps to shake things up. As a beat writer covering the team, I get to visit buildings around the league. I'm two away from completing my NHL bingo card, with TD Garden in Boston next week giving me 30 of 31 rinks I'll have been in. Only BB&T Center in Florida will be left.

One thing that stands out is how so many of these places go out of their way to make it a memorable experience for fans, regardless of the end result.

Here in Winnipeg, there's long been a belief that the game sells itself, that spectators are so knowledgeable about the sport that they don't need extra bells and whistles to add to their enjoyment. Just watching the best players in the world do their thing is enough.

I'm not sure that was ever true, but it's especially not now when the novelty of getting the NHL back has long since passed, expectations for the team are extremely high, prices continue to go up every year and competition for disposable income and eyes on the product is as intense as ever.

 

 

On New Year's Eve in Denver, there was an incredible on-ice laser light show as the Colorado Avalanche were introduced, a staple for games there and in many other NHL cities. There was an adorable intermission segment where some of the cutest puppies you'll ever see that are up for adoption were paraded before the people. There was a live band performing before the game and between periods, which I've seen in many other locales. There were blimps flying around and funny between-whistle contests and promotions. An eye-popping, post-game fireworks show capped it all off.

Sure, most folks in attendance wouldn’t have been happy that the Avalanche lost 7-4 to the Jets. But I suspect the majority went home feeling like they'd got their money's worth. Win or lose — and lately, it's been mostly the latter — I’m not sure you can say the same for Jets supporters these days.

Rather than take the fan base for granted, it’s time for the organization to start brainstorming ways to improve the overall experience and make the rink feel fresh and fun again.

Rather than take the fan base for granted, it’s time for the organization to start brainstorming ways to improve the overall experience and make the rink feel fresh and fun again. Jets management might want to start by paying attention to social media — and perhaps the online comments section of this column — for all kinds of helpful suggestions, rather than get their backs up.

The status quo simply won’t cut it anymore, and the end of an eight-year sellout streak earlier this season and the scattered empty seats you see during many games now should be Exhibit A.

Fortunately for the team itself, the Jets aren't going to be eating a lot of home cooking in the next few weeks. They'll play seven of their next 10 games on the road, where they've actually been very good this season, beginning this afternoon in Minnesota. That's followed by stops in Montreal, Toronto and Boston on this trip, a return to Bell MTS Place for three, and then games in Chicago, Columbus and Carolina.

At 12-7-1, the Jets are on pace to surpass their season-best of 22 road wins, which they set last season. That alone is keeping them in the playoff race in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Even just a .500 record in enemy territory, which is typically the barometer for success, would have the team well below the playoff line and in dire straits.

Until and unless they can get things sorted out at home, it’s incumbent on the Jets to continue being road warriors. Whatever the keys to success have been — not having last change, not sleeping in your own bed, hotel room service — they might want to find a way to bottle it up and bring it back to Winnipeg on the next charter.

Otherwise, these Jets are going to have plenty of time to try to get comfortable at home when the playoffs roll around in April and they're on the outside looking in.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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