Looking Beyond Phoenix - What's Next for the Winnipeg Jets 1.0?

Marianne Helm

The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. Things haven't gone well, and Phoenix fans are now facing the same loss Winnipeggers felt 17 years ago. Hopefully this letter helps ease the pain and explain why some people haven't been terribly friendly towards the caretakers and fans of what were once the Winnipeg Jets.

An open letter to Phoenix Coyotes Fans,

When the original Winnipeg Jets left town, a certain gloom settled on the city. It was a stab to the psyche of the population. Suddenly, Winnipeg was off the map, we weren’t "big-time" anymore. People were, understandably, angry – at politicians who dragged their feet on an arena deal, team owners who wouldn’t put up money for an arena and took the team south, Gary Bettman for allowing all of this to happen, greedy players who were driving up salaries. There was no shortage of targets.

When the Jets were rechristened the Phoenix Coyotes, most Winnipeggers were quick to list them as their most hated team. That was "our" team, that had been snatched from us. Those were "our" players – players we’d watched for years, had watched develop, were looking forward to seeing win something. The hate came easily.

Time wore on and the wound closed for most Winnipeggers. A new (primarily privately funded) arena went up, an AHL franchise came to town – it wasn’t the NHL, but it was good hockey in a good barn, with both future and past NHL players making stops along the way.

We never really took our eyes off "our" team, though. We looked at the Jets Coyotes, and hoped. Hoped for success to mirror that of the Quebec Nordiques after their move to Colorado. To see "our" players lift the Stanley Cup and know that we, as fans, were – peripherally, at least – part of that victory.

Instead, Jets fans saw their team beaten, battered, and bruised. Playing in front of half-empty arenas, advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 2012. Bleeding money, the team parted ways with players who were fan favorites in Winnipeg – with minimal return to the team. It was depressing to watch what many had come to think of as "our team", be subjected to such treatment. Fans in Winnipeg wanted more for their team. If fans had to lose the Jets, better to have them go on to be winners, than languish as a laughingstock.

The Phoenix franchise bled money. At last report, even after the city of Glendale chipped in $25 million, losses were still in the area of $10-15 million annually. Jerry Moyes (who became the team's third owner in 2005) eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The gong show had officially begun, and is only now looking to be reaching an end point. Greg Jamison has missed his deadline to accept a sweetheart lease agreement for the Jobing.com arena. This will almost certainly spell the end of attempts to keep the team in Phoenix – barring an angel bearing sacks of cash and a willingness to lose sizable portions of it. The lease agreement is all but lost as the new council in Glendale has stated opposition to spending such sums on a team when they are facing their own budget crunch. If Greg Jamison couldn’t muster investors with that $15 million carrot dangling in front of them, what luck will anyone else have?

With a whimper, then, and not a bang, the Phoenix Coyotes will go into that dark night. For the remaining – though scarce – Coyotes fans, it will be a blow. Winnipeggers know the pain of losing a team. We know it well, and many of us sympathize with your plight. We lost our one major team once. People in Phoenix still have NBA, NFL and MLB teams to prop up their psyche. There was no such support here in 1996 when the team finished the year. Life will go on. Maybe Phoenix will rededicate themselves to getting a team back – bring in an AHL franchise, grow a fanbase, engage with a community that, though small, has been bringing the game of hockey to the desert. Show that hockey can work in Phoenix, and that the NHL needs to be in Phoenix – not simply because there are a lot of people there, but because there are enough hockey fans willing to fill an arena 41 nights a years.

I sincerely wish Coyotes fans the best in the coming months. Were I a betting man, I would say this is the last season you’ll be able to see them in Phoenix. If not this year, then certainly not past the 2013-14 season. I don’t think the NHL wants this four year old soap opera to continue any longer, and I know the fans are tired – of the derision from other fans, of hearing "two weeks", of having their dreams smashed by potential buyers, and of the cold financial reality of the situation.

***

As to where the Coyotes may end up, there are only a few viable options: Quebec City, Toronto, Seattle and Kansas City. Quebec City and Seattle are already at work on new arenas, Toronto (Markham) just voted to agree to fund an NHL-sized arena, and Kansas City already has a barn waiting for a tenant. Of the four, my money would be on Seattle, for a few reasons. One, a move to the Pacific northwest means that the team will not have to face realignment issues that currently face the Winnipeg Jets (who are still playing in the Southeast division).

Two, the market size is remarkably similar. The Seattle metropolitan area had a population of about 3.5 million people in 2010 – not much lower than the 4.2 million in Phoenix, with a higher chance of people being aware of hockey in Seattle.

Three, it keeps the team in the USA. While that might seem like a small point, it becomes a factor if you’re ever watched a US broadcast of hockey (NBC, in particular). You will see almost no Canadian teams. NBC shines its spotlight on American teams, as Hockey Night in Canada gives viewers Canadian teams. Bettman has no desire to reduce his footprint in the US further.

Fourth is that former Microsoft executive (and billionaire) Paul Allen has expressed interest in owning a hockey team. He already owns the Portland Trail blazers, Seattle Seahawks, and MLS Seattle Sounders.

Lastly, and most importantly to the NHL, is that Quebec City and Toronto still remain open as expansion destinations. This is key, given the likely price tag each will have to pay. The Coyotes will be sold for less than $200 million – and that total might be after a ‘relocation fee’ is tacked on.

No, the NHL will want Quebec City and Toronto left for expansion because $200 million will likely be a minimum fee just to get a team. Depending on how long it takes, and how well the league does following this last lockout, that number may even climb higher. Additionally, a second Toronto team will need to pay pretty significant money for stepping on Maple Leafs' turf. Expect half of that to end up in league coffers. Economically speaking, (and that seems to be a language Gary Bettman understands very well), this seems to make the most financial sense.

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