Stephen Brunt is reporting that the Atlanta Thrashers are coming to Winnipeg. The usual denials are in place, but the fact that it’s Brunt reporting it leads me to believe there’s something there. Brunt has credibility.
I thought I’d be happier. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to remember what it felt like when the Jets left, but it was an unbelieveable kick in the teeth and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the rest of the Canadian teams not called Maple Leafs or Canadiens would be following suit. Calgary was in trouble, Edmonton was in trouble, Vancouver was a little better off but not dead certain. We were being shoved out of the league we’d created and hockey wasn’t going to be our domain anymore.
Some people on the radio are euphoric. I’m not. I find that the whole process has been so drawn out that this announcement (not really an annoucement yet) is anticlimactic. Part of it is that even if this team is called the Jets again, we all know that the Jets are really in Phoenix, playing as the Coyotes. It would have meant more to see the Jets come home.
I also feel bad for the fans in Atlanta. I’m not sure how many there are, but there’s always a die-hard core and they’ve hung in there through thick and thin for a team that’s never given them a thing in return. This is the second team they’ll have lost, both to Canada, which must be the only situation of that sort in sports.
The biggest thing, I guess, is that while it hurt to see the Jets leave, it was really more about what it meant to hockey in this country. As a team, I was never particularly fond of them. They were a mostly nondescript bunch that had one or two terrific players, but never enough at the same time to rise above mediocrity. Plus, they were stuck in a division with a dynasty team in Edmonton and a challenger in Calgary and this meant they were never going anywhere come playoff time. They were sort of the Blue Jays of the NHL. (I say that as a Jays fan, too.)
It’s kind of hard to imagine now, but the Jets at one time were one of the more important franchises on the continent. As the flagship team of the WHA, it was the Jets that lured Bobby Hull and made the league a factor. It was the Jets that really made a go of European players. The line of Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson could have gone toe-to-toe with any NHL line and outplayed most of them. (The Leafs had the first significant Swede in the NHL, but the Jets had half their lineup from Europe, it seemed.) They won a bunch of championships in the WHA and when they’d go up against NHL competition in exhibiton games, they handled themselves pretty well.
When the NHL and WHA merged in 1979, the four strongest WHA markets – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hartford and Quebec – joined the NHL, but under extrememly punitive conditions. Their rosters were gutted. Each team was only permitted to protect a couple of players and iced lineups in ’79-80 that would have made most expansion teams cringe.
Edmonton lucked out – protecting a kid named Gretzky, somehow holding on to a rough-edged rookie named Mark Messier and then having three of the best drafts in history. By 1984 they were the best team in hockey. Quebec managed to hang on to a couple of good scorers and then landed the three Stastny brothers. They were a force for years. Hartford sort of stumbled around.
The Jets were simply destroyed.
I look at the ’79-80 Jets and can’t even figure out who they protected. They were awful. They went 32 games without a win in ’80-81. In 1982 they drafted Dale Hawerchuk, who was fantastic, if largely unrecognized. Dale had the misfortune of playing at the same time as Gretzky, Lemieux and Trottier and with a team that didn’t win. He was an outstanding player, though he rarely had wingers that complimented him. He was eventually traded for Phil Housley, a very good offensive defenseman who might have been great had he had anyone to pass the puck to – someone like Hawerchuk, for example. That was the Jets, though. Good players, but never enough and never together.
I hope that this time around, they can make a go of it. The dollar is strong, the city is pumped – they should sell out. The people there loved that team. Their prospective owner is loaded, he’s not going anywhere. They should be stable and at least revenue neutral, if not a big moneymaker.
As for Atlanta, well, the NHL has a habit of going back to markets they like (especially American markets), particularly if the failure of a team is due to bad luck or bad ownership. Philadelphia (Quakers/Flyers), St. Louis (Eagles/Blues), Pittsburgh (Priates/Penguins) and Ottawa are all on their second teams, having lost their first in the Depression. The second New York team (NY Americans) was replaced (Islanders), as was a team in the Bay Area (Seals/Sharks), in Minnesota (North Stars/Wild) and Colorado (Rockies/Avalanche). Even Quebec has been represented twice (Bulldogs/Nordiques), though the circumstances there are a bit different. (note to those who say, “Winnipeg had its chance and blew it” – see the list above)
The only places that haven’t had a second go? Hamilton, KC (though they’ve been rumoured), Cleveland (though Columbus got a team), the second Montreal team and Hartford.
Atlanta has had two teams so far and I wouldn’t be shocked at a third if they can get owners they like. It’s too big a city to ignore. No fun for their fans at the moment, though.
Good luck, Winnipeg. I probably won’t like your team this time, either, but I’m hoping for you as a city.