Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Great White North: Hockey Returns Home

As the sports world remains transfixed on both the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals, a relatively major sports story has been unfolding somewhat quietly. In late May, the National Hockey League announced the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers organization to the Winnipeg, Manitoba based firm True North Sports and Entertainment, who will be moving the franchise to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season. In the hockey world, there has been much backlash against Commissioner Gary Bettman in past years for moving hockey teams in warm weather markets (such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, etc.) and forsaking loyal but small market hockey towns like Winnipeg and Quebec City. The move has been highly celebrated in Winnipeg and across Canada, as hockey is finally returning to the Prairie City fifteen years after the much loved Winnipeg Jets franchise took off for Phoenix.

The move has also left many fan curious as to the team's name now that it has been relocated. The overwhelming consensus is to revive the "Jets" moniker, and this could very well happen. True North, while they do not own the franchise history of the Jets (it remains in Phoenix with the Coyotes), could buy it back from the NHL, which has owned the Phoenix franchise since it declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. This situation would be similar to the Cleveland Browns renaming their team "Browns" after the original franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996.

What has been confirmed, however, is the outright enthusiasm that fans in Winnipeg have over the new team. Season tickets sold out in less than one day, proving that despite its size, Winnipeg could be a viable hockey market. Former players from the Jets and even some current players in the NHL (including Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews) have spoken volumes about the Winnipeg fans and would also like to see the Jets name restored.

A minor setback of the move is the fact that the NHL will not realign divisions for the upcoming season, awkwardly leaving Winnipeg in the same division as Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina and Washington. However, realignment is expected in 2012, (Detroit is supposedly moving the Eastern Conference while Winnipeg will go West) along with the possible move of the Phoenix Coyotes, whose lease with the city of Glendale, AZ expires next May. Rumored sites of relocation include Quebec City, Canada (who lost their Nordiques to Colorado in 1995) and Seattle, Washington.

All in all, the move back to Winnipeg has largely been praised around the NHL. I for one support the return of hockey to its roots and would highly approve of a move back to Quebec City. Hockey is king in Canada. Fans pack the arena in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver every single night. Despite the small size of Winnipeg's MTS Centre (around 16,000 seats), there is already a ticket waiting list.

(Fans in Winnipeg celebrate the return of the NHL in late May 2011)

The final step is to name the team itself. Falcons, Moose and Polar Bears have all been tossed about as naming possibilities, but again, the overwhelming popular favorite is Jets. Regardless of what True North decides to name the team, you can be sure that on Opening Night in Winnipeg, there will be chants ringing through the crowd, for the first time in 15 years, of the iconic chant, "GO JETS GO!" Hockey is finally back where it belongs.

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