The USRT Visit to Winnipeg: Promises Kept
by Andrew Kulyk - posted 2:58 pm, January 26, 2012
Last week my Artvoice and Ultimate Sports Road Trip partner Peter Farrell and I fulfilled a promised that was made way back in January of 2005: We then predicted that Winnipeg would return to the NHL, that their team would again be named the Jets, and when that happens, we would be back to toast their good fortune when our Buffalo Sabres make their way to that city.
Here is how our relationship with Winnipeg all came about – in 2004 the Province of Manitoba opened their new downtown hockey arena in Winnipeg, dubbed the MTS Centre, and welcome their new American Hockey League team, the Manitoba Moose. Mind you, the US dollar still commanded somewhere about $1.35 in Canadian at the time, their old Winnipeg Arena was in the process of being mothballed and torn down, and the NHL, sitting in the middle of a lockout and no hockey, was still in the mindset of looking for American markets to expand the league’s footprint. Las Vegas and Kansas City were gleams in Commissioner Gary Bettman’s eye, not Winnipeg or Quebec City or Hamilton.
We did a trip there in January of 2005 (We signed on as Artvoice’s hockey columnists in September of that year, once the lockout ended and NHL play resumed). What we found was a gleaming and sparkling new arena, a city that so revered the sport of hockey, and a populace still smarting from the brutal way that their beloved Winnipeg Jets were taken away from them.
We also connected with a local fan and pot stirrer named Darren Ford. He was one of the flash points of fan organization to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. He launched a web site, Return of the Jets, a community billboard which continually updated fans and supporters of the progress being made to land an NHL team once again.
The fight took years. The NHL stubbornly resisted Winnipeg’s attempts to get their team. Instead, millions of dollars were poured (and continue to be poured) into propping up Phoenix’s failing team. Other franchises around the NHL were teetering. Yet in Winnipeg, a wealthy owner named Mark Chapman made the dream come true, and made the investment. Winnipegans responded, snapping up every available season ticket just hours after they were released for sale, tickets that came at eye popping prices and a 3-5 year license commitment. And this past summer, it became official. The struggling Atlanta Thrashers bolted for Winnipeg, the Jets name rechristened, a new logo, and their city had their team back.
One can best describe the smallish (15,015 seat capacity) MTS Centre as “a modern-day Boston Garden”. With two decks, the building is small, intimate, concourses tight and congested. Yet the building is colorful and inviting. Skybridges connect to the arena to other buildings and locations downtown, allowing fans to escape the cold during this region’s most frigid periods (the high was -6 degrees fahrenheit on last week’s game day). Since the AHL days, the team has added or expanded onto premium venues, such as an end zone lounge as well as an event level sports themed restaurant. The one element that is missing here is that large and gaudy portrait of Queen Elizabeth II which hung high on the end zone wall at the old Winnipeg Arena. Along with the “white outs”, that was the signature element for what Winnipeg hockey was known for, and it is hoped they will bring it back.
We were also pleased to finally connect with Darren Ford on our visit to the MTS Centre. We had promised Ford in 2005 that we would join him for a beer and toast the Winnipeg Jets on the first Sabres visit to their city, and that promise was kept. We joined Ford and his buddy Jim in the arena’s lounge, and shared hockey stories, our mutual passions hating the Maple Leafs, and what a ride its been these past few years. Ford admits that he still gets goosebumps when they roll out the shot of Winnipeg skyline on the intro to Saturday night’s Hockey Night In Canada telecasts. He described the emotion of the fan rallies to bring the team back to the city, the frenzy of ticket buyers who logged in that first day to be able to get into the building, and the passion that Winnipegans have for their team. Like our dreams here in Buffalo for the Sabres, his dream now is for the Winnipeg Jets to win the Stanley Cup, and what it would be like for the entire province of Manitoba to pack Portage Avenue for that celebration and parade.
Yes, Winnipeg is very much like Buffalo. Similar population size, they too have suffered through decline and a downturn in manufacturing. The difference between our two cities pretty much lie in infrastructure – their population footprint is far more compact. They do not have the sprawl of metro Buffalo, their downtown is the retail, entertainment, business and cultural epicenter of the region, and their road system is such that street deadening urban expressways don’t slice into the heart of the city. A divided highway rings the outermost part of the city, and from there its city driving into the urban core, along with stop lights and congestion. Portage Avenue around the MTS Centre is busy, bustling, plenty of shopping, hotels and restaurants.
We have been shameless Winnipeg fans, at least, of the city’s efforts to have the NHL once again. So our visit there was a true feel good story. While we hope to see the Stanley Cup parade down Delaware Avenue in Buffalo well before the one in downtown Winnipeg, we were proud to play our part when we ran this piece in Artvoice in 2007, titled “Why Not Winnipeg?” Why not, indeed!