November 22, 2019

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Jets should make visiting teams as miserable on ice as survey suggests they are off it

Opinion

They dislike us. They really, really dislike us.

An ESPN poll of NHL players has revealed that Winnipeg is the No. 1 most dreaded destination in the league (42 per cent), citing a host of factors including how cold, dirty, boring and depressing we apparently are. Bunch of sweet talkers, aren't they? Although, kudos to the one anonymous player who praised Winnipeg for "always having TSN on," which I suppose could be a new licence-plate slogan going forward. Bless his boring heart.

Naturally, this overall negativity making headlines across North America has plenty of locals frothing at the mouth, ready to defend River City against any and all critics. I mean, we couldn't even beat Buffalo (34 per cent)? Really?

Quick side story: The best part about my last trip to Buffalo while covering the Jets was the fact it was an afternoon game, which allowed me to drive in from Toronto in the morning, cover the game and then get the hell out of there before nightfall. The best part about this year's trip to Buffalo? The fact that colleague Jason Bell is on it.

The best part about McIntyre's last trip to Buffalo while covering the Jets was the fact it was an afternoon game. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press files)

The best part about McIntyre's last trip to Buffalo while covering the Jets was the fact it was an afternoon game. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press files)

But I digress. How dare some rich, entitled athletes diss our hometown? Don't they know that when it comes to bashing Winnipeg, only those of us who have spent our entire lives here are allowed to do that? Seriously, we like to pride ourselves on being thick-skinned, and in many ways we are. But as soon as some outsider says a few unkind words, we seemingly turn into a puddle.

The fact is, Winnipeg is not for everyone. Think of it as an acquired taste, one that's likely not going to resonate with hockey players who are flying in and flying out, usually in the grip of a typical Prairie winter, going from the airport to their downtown hotel to the rink and then back to the airport.

But spend a bit of time here and the story often changes, as we've seen with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck. Those eight players — the first three came over from Atlanta in 2011, the last five were all Jets draft picks — all decided to sign long-term contracts to keep Winnipeg as their hockey home.

Blake Wheeler signed a long-term contract to keep Winnipeg as his hockey home. (Liam Richards / Canadian Press files)

Blake Wheeler signed a long-term contract to keep Winnipeg as his hockey home. (Liam Richards / Canadian Press files)

Sure, they were paid handsomely. But they would have been, no matter which market they signed to play in; eventually, all eight could have opted to play elsewhere when they hit unrestricted free-agent status. That tells me a lot more than some survey of 50 anonymous players does.

We've seen a similar outcome with members of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Winnipeg Goldeyes, typically American players who eventually fall in love with the city, some settling here once their playing days are done.

That's not to say we should entirely dismiss the findings. Winnipeg can, and should, do better, and there's no question we have our fair share of flaws which need to be addressed. But that doesn't mean folks should get all bent out of shape, even if the reaction is entirely predictable and downright humorous, including Tourism Winnipeg saying they'll find a way to distribute some informational material to out-of-town players in the future.

We saw it last year when some snide comments from a few San Jose Sharks about Winnipeg being a dark city with spotty Internet service blew up and became an international incident, including followup apologies from the players. And now comes this latest salvo.

Fact is, if there's one area Winnipeggers — and specifically Jets fans — should really be concerned about, it's that this city has become far too comfortable a place for hockey visitors these days.

Give the Jets some credit; they've been doing a great job lately of rolling out the welcome mat and giving opponents the VIP experience, ensuring they get the most out of their short stay. The Penguins, Coyotes, Islanders, Kings and Devils have all come to town this season and left with two points in their pockets.

The New Jersey Devils came to town and left with two points in their pockets. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

The New Jersey Devils came to town and left with two points in their pockets. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

You'll note that none of those teams are considered current NHL powerhouses, but they all felt a bit mightier as their charter took off from James Richardson International Airport after the final buzzer.

Overall, the Jets are just 2-4-1 so far at Bell MTS Place, and 2-10-1 dating back to last season, when they lost their last three regular-season games on home ice, followed by all three playoff home games against St. Louis. They've been outscored 43-27 in that ugly 13-game stretch.

There was a time, not long ago, that playing at the downtown barn was usually a nightmare for visitors. But things have changed, and what once was typically the loudest building in the league has gone quiet on many nights.

No doubt a big part of that is the on-ice product, as two home wins dating back to mid-March is hardly reason to stand up and shout. Fans have already sounded off, in this space and others, about the recent end of the sellout streak and other factors that could be involved, with increasingly pricey tickets and concessions being cited.

Winnipeg has just two Saturday-night home games all year, which is absurd. They also have yet to play a Friday-night contest, with this week's match with Vancouver the first of eight to come. Those are nights, for obvious reasons, when fans might feel like letting loose a bit more than a mid-week affair. And the Jets have plenty of those, including an equally absurd 13 Tuesday-night home dates.

I also throw some blame towards the NHL schedule makers this year, who haven't exactly done the Jets any favours. Winnipeg has just two Saturday-night home games all year, which is absurd. They also have yet to play a Friday-night contest, with this week's match with Vancouver the first of eight to come. Those are nights, for obvious reasons, when fans might feel like letting loose a bit more than a mid-week affair. And the Jets have plenty of those, including an equally absurd 13 Tuesday-night home dates.

Add it all up and Winnipeg isn't such a scary place anymore, at least not in the way the Jets would like it to be. Fortunately, there may be a much quicker fix to their game than there is to the city they play in.

The Jets look much more relaxed on the road lately, as a 6-3-0 record away from Bell MTS Place suggests (one of those was a neutral-site game in Regina against Calgary). Finding a way to bring that style of play back home would go a long way to improving their fortunes this season, not to mention reinvigorating a fan base that hasn't been given much to cheer about lately.

Otherwise, NHL players might soon start picking Winnipeg as one of their favourite cities to visit — for all the wrong reasons.

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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